Monday, June 25, 2012

Pleasing the Crowd

...Therefore, art-amusement must be simple, amusing, upretentious, concerned with insignificances, require no skill or countless rehersals, have no commodity or institutional value.
The value of art-amusement must be lowered by making it unlimited, massproduced, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all. 
-Manifesto on Art / Fluxus Art Amusement by George Maciunas, 1965

Alison Knowles, Proposition #2, 1962

In 1965, George Maciunas penned Fluxus-Art-Amusement, a counter to what he saw as the alienating and elite nature of art in the 1960s. He called for a breaking down of the barriers between art and life with the utopian goal that eventually art would be made by and consumed by everyone. Fluxus artists generated works using simple materials and everyday experiences to short-circuit the complexity and pretentious nature of high art. For instance, Alison Knowles’ Proposition #2 (1962) engages everyday props of the kitchen as she performs a common cooking ritual: “Make a salad.” Proposition #2 could be performed for a small audience or for hundreds and always ends with the communal act of sharing food.

While Fluxus artists did call for “play” in art, they still maintained a rigor and dedication to conceptual and creative goals. Their work is accessible, but not “dumbed-down” for a mass audience. Years ago I encountered the friction between art and entertainment while discussing the performance of a John Cage piano work with a group of undergraduate students. It was a lengthy work and we all struggled with how to speak about it. One thing that kept coming to the surface was the issue of pleasure. In the process of our discussion, it became clear to me that the difference between art and entertainment is the level of the audience’s engagement. In entertainment, the audience can remain passive as the work washes over them. Art requires committed engagement, in the case of a Cage work, active listening.

My students chafed against anything that wasn’t immediately “entertaining” and I realized as a teacher, it was my duty to help them learn to experience and think about challenging works of art outside of their comfort zone. I lament that hasn’t been the goal of many recent museum exhibitions. Carsten Höller’s 2011 show, Experience, transformed the New Museum into a fun house, complete with a giant slide, mirrored carousel and over-sized mushrooms. This notice on the museum’s website echoes the amusement park nature of the exhibit:
Please note: Visitors must be a minimum height of 48 inches to use Untitled (Slide) or Mirror Carousel. Visitors under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Due to increased attendance, after 4:30 PM, we cannot guarantee that visitors will have time to use Untitled (Slide) or Giant Psycho Tank. No refunds or return tickets will be issued.

 New Museum installation of Carsten Höller’s Mirror Carousel

While the exhibit promised “experience” it seemed the most pervasive audience action was that of waiting in line. There was the long waiver-signing queue before one even got to wait in the extensive line for each “ride” (just like a regular amusement park). There were also patrons stumbling around the museum wearing Upside-Down Goggles. Being trapped in the elevator with a group of them felt like being the only person at the party who wasn’t stoned, as the space echoed with gasps of “whoa man, everything is upside down.”

patron's experiencing upside-downness

The Höller exhibit was the most well attended show in the New Museum’s history. The same is true of Art in the Streets, MOCA’s 2011 show on street art, which attracted 201,352 visitors. MOCA’s very recent Transmission LA: AV Clubfeatured a multi-media food and arts extravaganza “curated” by Beastie Boy, Mike D and sponsored by Mercedes Benz. In a video interview on Nowness, Mike D says he wants the show to be a “grown up theme park, a six flags for adults.” His “curatorial” vision hinges on what he likes, what would make for cool home décor if you could get all of your art and music buddies together to reinvent your space.

While I like the Beastie Boys as much as the next person, it’s shocking and embarrassing that MOCA's Director Jeffrey Deitch turned the Geffen space over to a completely inexperience curator. It’s an obvious attempt to put on a crowd pleaser with the added bonus of music celebrities and a car show (Benz premiered it’s new Concept Style Coupe at the show).

It is important to get people into art museums, but content shouldn’t be sacrificed for the immediacy of entertainment. We already have lots of escapist distractions in theme parks, movies, malls and the like. Museums need to maintain their role in preserving works of cultural significance and should be investing in education, in finding ways to make challenging works accessible to a wider audience.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Punching the Clock

Dawn Kasper, This Could Be Something if I Let It

Much attention has been paid to Dawn Kaspers’s recent Whitney Biennial project This Could be Something if I Let It. I was curious about the work after having seen Kasper perform countless times in Los Angeles. I’ve always found her work to be a bit self-indulgent and ambling, as was the case with Meditations for a Fucked Up Emergency. For this work, Kasper moved all the objects from a storage room into the main gallery space as she and her collaborators broke into operatic vocalizations or recited banal diatribes. While it may have made for a nice conceptual gesture, it was excruciatingly tedious to watch Kasper carry and drag objects for nearly an hour. To complicate matters, Kasper was second in the performance line-up, so all of the “stuff” had to be put back into the storage room before the third performer could present her work.

While Meditations for a Fucked Up Emergency certainly could be called a durational performance, it is a stretch to call This Could Be Something if I Let It a durational work. For the project, Kapser moved the contents of her studio and domestic life into the Whitney. The work is an extension of a project she began in LA called Nomadic Studio Practice Experiment, where she inhabited an art space and turned it into her temporary studio.

According to the Whitney website:
Regarding the 2012 Biennial as a full-time job, Kasper is spending every day of its three-month run making new work, holding studio visits, and playing music while the Museum is open to the public.

There are many precedents for art as life as work projects Hsieh, Abramovic, Ukeles and countless others have executed durational performances in the realm of real-life. What these artists’ works all have in common is a structure, a focused dedication to the frame and action that is ritualized through containment.  As a durational performer, the first rule is commitment to your own plan of action. If Kasper is working “full-time” at the Whitney is it ok for her to “take personal days” or arrive late? The day I visited the Whitney, Kasper was absent from her work. While the video interview on the Whiney site shows Kasper interacting with patrons in a bustling open space, I was met with a cordoned off studio piled full of boxes, containers and supplies.

  Dawn Kasper, This Could Be Something if I Let It

It turns out her absence was not an anomaly as can be evidenced by this bit from Marissa Perel who penned a two-part interview with Kasper for the Art 21 Blog:

 3:00 pm: I show up and wait. I spend time observing the piles of artwork, stacks of DVDs, CDs, VHS tapes, shelves of books and equipment, photographs on the walls, videos playing on monitors, a drum set. 
…I start to panic; could she just not show up to her own show? Impossible, if she’s here, she is going to have to come up eventually.

Is it enough for an artist to name and claim a distinction for their work? Is Kasper’s work durational if she says it is? Does any one question the validity of the work outside of that distinction? There is a real crisis all over the genre of performance as an “anything goes” attitude replaces a sincere engagement with the power of the body and ritual. Far too often the only critical discourse on an artists' work is lifted directly from the artists' own statement. In contemporary performance, there needs to be a much deeper critical questioning about both form and content. 

Sweating Blood

Ana Mendieta, Sweating Blood, Super-8 color, 1973 is not a matter of the text remembering the body; it is rather the body that doubles itself in the text--it makes the ink bleed, in-corp-orates words. Moreover, the flowing that occurs here does not move in one direction, neither from the body to language nor from language to the body. Rather words and blood move across the seam that cuts origin from destination, inside from outside, literal from metaphoric, life from death, oblivion from memory; they move back and forth across the body's boundary. They go in; they go out. They tear and wound. They slip and run. It is in that seam and what plays across it, and not in the archive and what it saves, that the body is remembered.
--Jane Blocker, What the Body Cost

The name of this blog is borrowed from a 1973 work by Ana Mendieta. In the work, Mendieta sits silently as blood from a large cow's heart drips slowly over the surface of her face. The blood marks and becomes the language of the work as Mendieta's mouth remains mute. She is inside ritual and we bear witness to her solemn and sacred action. Body based performance evokes a powerful link to primal and primitive body knowledge. With this blog, I hope to address works that engage the body, language, and ritual. After years of bemoaning the lack of critical inquiry in contemporary art, I'm finally taking the leap to bring my voice to the subject. More soon...