The following interview with Mary Jane Jacob continues from the Art21 blog; you can read that here. Our conversation is filtered through the lens of two books, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art and Learning Mind: Experience into Art that Jacob co-edited with Jacquelynn Baas. Those books were published by the University of California Press in 2004 and 2009 respectively. The third title in the series, Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Shaped Society, is due out through the University of Chicago Press this summer.
CP: One of the things that especially intrigues me about this connection (between Buddhism and contemporary art practice) is how it encourages a kind of anti-egotism, something that goes directly against the grain of our larger society. When so much about cultural production feels contingent on the legitimacy provided by recognition, monetary reward and public acclaim, it is difficult to comprehend an art practice that functions outside those expectations. I am particularly interested in what kinds of conversations arise between you and your students as you wrestle with this subject. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MJJ: It’s true that egotism, the get-all-you-can-help-yourself-ism of which you speak, is a prevailing strain of our society; we see it played out right now in the Republican primaries. But I would not like to call it “the grain of larger society” because, at the same time, there is a lot of desire for change. It’s expressed in a rising consciousness for the need to care for the earth, for community well-being. Not everything points to self-serving-ness. This other strain possesses a sense of necessity and a lot of optimism. Many understand that this selflessness today is urgent to take into action. It also has something to say about why art? I trust art in the social equation.
Among students it is in part a factor of their generation (young people embracing aspects of ‘70s counterculture) and in part a value of art, and notably in the modern era. While modernism brought us the solo, superstar artist, there was another side. This is the story of modernism we are telling in upcoming book Chicago Makes Modern: the role of art that is beyond self for the benefit of the greater good, for the common cause. The severing of art and spirituality is a much-mistaken myth about modernism; take for instance the convictions of Malevich, Moholy-Nagy, Newman, Reinhardt….
So for students who have their careers and lives ahead of them—who have chosen art, not just because they possess skills and interests, but because they often share certain social values, and who have a desire to probe and create meaning, to realize themselves and to communicate to others through art—the work that came through the “Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness” program and which they can access through the Buddha Mind book speaks to them. I have found students ready, really hungry, for this. And many Asian students at SAIC have conveyed to me how this has given them a new way to look at their culture, at something they took to be tradition and not modern; they have felt a sense of integration.
CP: Additionally there is a way in which you tackle the idea of consciousness (and of course philosophy) — ideas which are not often (as far as I can tell) discussed in tandem with artmaking. It reminds me of a very early essay in Learning Mind: Experience Into Art, where Danto describes Modernism as a movement to separate and parse painting from sculpture (p.20).
MJJ: It seems like you could also say the same of philosophy and art and religion and science — of course, these subjects bleed into art making, but they seem to me to be generally reserved for a kind of personal artist-talk expose. More often than not, I feel like there is an emphasis on the social implications of art work, how it can function politically, but here there is a suggestion that it can function philosophically as well, as kind of tenant of meaning…is that a fair understanding?
It’s great you bring up Arthur Danto because he is a writer and a friend who was very important to me in the early ‘90s when I was trying to retool and find my way back to art and out of museums. What I love about Arthur is that he can write eruditely (he can cite and use so aptly references from all of Western culture) and at the same time bring it right down to street level (quoting an immigrant cab driver). He uses philosophy to understand our life now, and isn’t that what philosophy was intended to be. He also sees art as a valuable, fundamental part of life; not all philosophers do. But one who did, John Dewey, we might say had an art philosophy of life.
Considering the respect these thinkers had for art, I think they’d agree that artists have a lot to say—in their art and in their words, through their works and lives—that speaks to a larger realm of being. So I don’t know that I’d see “personal artist-talk” as “expose”; I’d hope with the best of them offer insights. At least that’s how I look at it. Maybe that’s why I align more with artists than other arts-related professionals.
CP: There seems to be a natural progression between the extensive work you’ve done discussing art that takes place in the public sphere — the way that such projects challenge conventional hierarchical expectations about art’s place in society. This examination of Buddhism seems to access a different aspect of that same conversation, though one no less political. I am very curious about whether you feel like you address and incorporate Buddhism as a religion, with it’s varied and immense associative/historical past, or if it is more like a kind of philosophical metaphor. I feel like Buddhism somehow becomes a corollary example that, grafted onto an artistic practice would lend new (and iconoclastic) insight. Insight that is not *necessarily* contingent on one’s becoming a monk….
MJJ: Thanks for recognizing that the subject of Buddhism and art has something to do with my work in the expanded public art arena. I said at the beginning of this interview that some program officers in foundations criticized negatively my “organic” process of curating. However, during the early days of the “Awake” program a foundation president, who had greatly help find the program, came up to me at a session break and said, “I see how the Buddhism project relates to your work with the Spoleto Festival.” [I have worked for two decades on site-specific and community projects in Charleston South Carolina, starting with the exhibition “Places with a Past” in 1991.] I was astounded; I had been trying to come to terms with what , at that point, I felt more in my gut than my head. So it was amazing to hear these words, this perception from another.
With the Buddhism project we always made clear this was not about religion, not a cultural study either. It was to see what this wisdom tradition can tell us about the art experience in making and in viewing. This was a level of primary research for us as artists, curators, and educators. Some of what I took away was generosity (we see this as a mode of art practice today as well as in general in the way art is offered to others, including the notion of the gift), interdependence (and here I think of the intrinsic relationship of artists and audience, object and viewer), interconnection (this has a lot to say about our relationship to others and to the world), potentiality and the concept of “not-empty” (the unknown, the creative space), non-attachment (the way art is a generative process), and the beginner’s mind (that something doesn’t have to be wholly new and, in recognizing what came before us, we should neither possess the hubris that we are the first and unique, nor be deflated that everything has already been done; rather to possess the beginner’s mind is to take something into yourself, revitalize it by having it live within you, and with this, innovation is always possible).
So Buddhism is not “grafted” onto artistic practice. Instead, as I feel you mean when you say it can lead to “insight,” Buddhism offers things consistent with the art process, and for some artists it can aid that process. So the next book in a couple of years from now (tentatively titled Artway of Living) will continue this thread. On the one hand, it will deal with socially engaged artists, so the public art aspect remains. On the other, through artists’ firsthand narratives and, yes, their insights, it will dwell on questions at-once philosophical and practical: How can you sustain your art practice? How can you sustain your life as an artist? What is it to live the life of an artist? What is it to live your life as a work of art?
This week: Patricia Maloney rocks Kansas and interviews Plug Projects. PLUG PROJECTS is a curatorial collaboration by five Kansas City artists who share the mission of bringing fresh perspectives and conversation to the local art community.
Our goal is to energize artists and the public at large by exhibiting challenging new work, initiating critical dialogue, and expanding connections of artists in Kansas City as part of a wider, national network of artists.
Three Art Review Haiku’s for three of the artists at The Hole Gallery in NYC.
Solar pleixs edge
Sneezed stars with tomb resonance
Square held universe
Pretend depth via,
skimmed surface deconstructed
Each hole dripped with sharp
A tape worm home kit is good
Food removed with glee
The exhibition they participated in was called “…”
To tell you the truth, I was late to the whole 3-D movie thing. I’m not philosophically opposed as some of my filmmaking friends are. It’s just that until very recently there were no 3-D movies that seemed interesting to me. Much of what is being produced appears to be fantasy children’s stories, filled with magical characters and inanimate objects imbued with supernatural powers, or mindless special-effect heavy action flicks. Now, don’t infer that I’m action adverse. I mean how cool would Die Hard have been in 3-D? Luckily for me and maybe for you things on the three-dimensional front seem to be changing.
I’ve been kicking myself for more than a year since I missed my chance to see Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In a rare instance, Herzog is permitted to take his team and 3-D cameras into the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France. By virtue of an avalanche, this cave was sealed from both the grubby hands of humankind and the grievous effects of time until it was discovered in 1994. For 30 thousand years dozens of beautiful cave paintings were preserved just as they were when the artist created them. Herzog believed that 3-D was a way to bring a sort of tactile reality to a marvel that is closed to the public. Did he succeed? I couldn’t tell you, because I didn’t get to see it in 3-D.
Last weekend I saw my first 3-D movie, Wim Wender’s documentary Pina. Pina Bausch was a German choreographer most known for her modern dance works. Sadly, she died right before filming began. Instead of being a tribute, Pina became a memorial. But of course I didn’t know this when I walked into the theater. I just knew I was going to see a 3-D modern dance film by Wenders, and that was enough. The film was everything I could have hoped it would be. Pina presents non-contiguously four works by Bausch. Within the film, the works don’t exist as discrete pieces unto themselves. Instead, Wenders edits these works into a sort of narrative that becomes surprisingly emotional by the end. Although the film contains traditional elements of a biographical documentary (history, interviews, old film footage) Pina doesn’t feel like a documentary at all. Instead the film itself feels vibrant and alive as if the members of Tanztheater Wuppertal were performing the pieces right in front of me.
On the train ride home, I thought about what I’d just seen. I felt as if I’d seen something completely new, perhaps even a new medium. High-end theaters no longer show just films. They host live group meetings. Last year A Prairie Home Companion lured its listeners away from the dulcet voices of NPR and into movie houses across the country, where the show was broadcast live into theaters. The Century 12 Evanston/CinéArts 6 is currently hosting the Metropolitan Opera in High Definition, live! Imagine what that might be like in 3-D. It could be like being there. Maybe even better. It would mean that any town with a mall could also have an opera or a symphony, or an experimental German modern dance troupe. Of course, it wouldn’t really be a live performance, I know that. Wenders toyed with the idea of filming Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 3-D but it fell through. Too bad, perhaps that would have been the perfect marriage of art, action, and magic.
February 22, 2012 · Print This Article
I met João Florêncio over the summer by accident. I was a tourist at a SEPFEP, a philosophy conference in York. My boyfriend was presenting a paper and I happened to tag along — using up some free miles that must have accumulated with my parents’ help. While there, I wasn’t planning to visit any panels but nevertheless, I did. It was great. I had one of those brain infusions that sits with you for months and years, as your consciousness tries to digest what it has consumed. In particular, I got a crash course on feminism and learned more about Object Oriented Ontology — the subject of João’s presentation. He gave a paper about performance and how it might be considered as an object, a thing possessing its own autonomous being, a being not contingent on humanity. I wanted to ask him more questions on the subject and this seemed like a good opportunity. João is a Portuguese scholar currently based in London and researching on Contemporary European Philosophy and Performance Art. He is also an associated researcher of ‘Performance Matters.’
Caroline Picard: How do you think about performance?
João Florêncio: What first drove me to think about performance was my interest in what is generally known as ‘Performance Art’ (or its more British term ‘Live Art’). Despite having been both trained as a classical musician from an young age in a junior conservatoire and received my first degree in musicology, it was not until I discovered performance art that I started thinking about what it means to perform.
Anyhow, after a change of academic focus during my MA, I found myself enrolling on the PhD programme in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, in order to carry out what would turn out to be a research project on a new ontology of performance. The reasons for that are varied but they can be summed up by an increased awareness on my part that ‘performance’ is a term that is increasingly used to describe the behaviour of various beings, from humans to computer networks, from national economies and stock markets to higher education institutions. Nevertheless, and despite some exceptions (here I’m thinking of theorist Jon McKenzie), Performance Studies, the academic field within which I’m working, hasn’t spent enough time trying to theorise those occasions of nonhuman performance; it suffers, in my view, from a certain humanist or anthropocentric malaise for reasons that I can point out, if you want.
The question I faced then was how to think of nonhuman performance, how to try to write a new general theory of performance that is able to account for occasions of both human and nonhuman performativity, when Performance Studies doesn’t seem to be offering me any kind of useful theoretical tools to do so? After a couple of years of research, I think I have finally found the medicine I was looking for, and I found it in a cocktail of Information Theory, Cybernetics, Actor-Network-Theory and the fairly recent branch of Continental Philosophy known as Object-Oriented Ontology. These bodies of work, along with a few dashes of Quantum Theory and Philosophy of Mind (for good measure), have helped me take Performance Studies to a place where it had hitherto dared not to go and find a new vibrancy in the world of objects.
Thus, and to finally kind of answer your question, I currently see performance in a very simple (yet useful) way: performance is nothing other than the process through which an object is translated into a version of itself able to be experienced by another object. By translatable object I don’t only mean a musical score, a theatre play, an idea, or even a person; rather, an object (like Graham Harman demonstrates) is anything that has an autonomous existence: from a person to a rock, from a shot of electricity fired by a neuron to a bankrupt financial institution, from a debt-ridden national economy to a melting iceberg. Performance is, in my view, that which allows for an object to manifest itself in the experience of another object by performing a double of itself. So yes, a performance is always performance and object at once. Because all objects that are given to us (or to any other objects) in experience are performances of other objects. Think about it as the whole world being a stage (isn’t that what ‘they’ say?). If the whole world is a stage, then everything in it is playing some role at some point and the only thing we (and everything else) have access to are the characters, the roles played and not the real actors playing them. Suddenly the whole world is full of life, packed with mysteries and hidden places I’d like to visit. What about you?
CP: Of course! That sounds amazing — in so far as suddenly the objects one encounters (including oneself, I assume) possess something autonomous and dynamic. One thing that makes me curious, though, is the kind of priviledge that we have traditionally built into art objects. We want to distinguish them from everyday objects, like rocks for instance. But the way you talk about performance makes me imagine little to no distinction between a Marina Abramović piece and an everyday encounter with a light post. Does art need to maintain its hierarchical plinth to be art?
JF: I’d say there are at least two different kinds of performance: the performance that brings forth an object’s double onto another object’s experience (the kind of performance I mentioned earlier) and then there is a particular second kind of performance, a performance that starts by being like the first one but that then becomes something else. It begins by translating an object into the phenomenological realm of experience but then, for reasons that, in my view, have to do with a change on the way objects engage with each other as audiences, it goes beyond the experience of the given sensual object to suddenly denounce the presence of the real object hidden behind it (even if it never really makes it known). I see it like the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, the defamiliarisation effect through which audiences realise the play they’re watching isn’t reality itself: they become aware of the fiction of theatre; the presence of the actor behind the character is denounced. If the first kind of performance gives us the experience of what graham Harman has called ‘time’ (by allowing us to perceive sensual objects and changes in their sensual qualities), then this second kind of performance gives us ‘space’, the sudden realisation that the real is much deeper than we had hitherto known. It is also this second kind of performance that is usually associated with the art object. However, in my view, it has nothing to do with the nature of the object being experienced but with the nature of the experience itself. If we are to truly support a flat and democratic object-oriented ontology, then we cannot divide the world into ‘normal objects ‘and ‘art objects.’ Art objects don’t exist ontologically. What exists is a particular kind of relation between objects, the aesthetic relation. The aesthetic relation can in principle exist between any two objects. If we think about it, that has already been the case since the first avant-garde. just think of Duchamp’s ready-mades: they are objects like all others; the only thing that changed was that they were placed in a context that triggered an aesthetic engagement on the part of the audience, that context being the so-called ‘art exhibition’. However we do not need art galleries to tell us when to engage with other objects aesthetically: I can be enchanted by anything around me as long as I allow it to myself. It’s almost like my teenage LSD tree-hugging trips. Didn’t ‘they’ say something about opening the doors of perception? Perhaps we are the new hippies but without their terrible sense of fashion. Anyway, I digress here. Let’s just say that in a world made of equal objects and ridden of anthropocentrism, there is no privileged ontological space for ‘art objects.’ Because if we allow the art object to be in any way privileged, then we are a step closer to getting back to anthropocentrism because if art is special, then so must be its creator (the human genius). There is no art; there is only aesthetic experience. And, yes, sometimes the light post is also present; presence is not a quality that only Marina Abramovic has.
CP: That’s what I was going to ask, actually…are there certain objects that are not vehicles of aesthetic experience?
JF: I’m not sure if I understood your question but I think all objects are capable of some kind of aesthetic experience even if perhaps we won’t ever be able to fully know how that operates. We can only speculate that, if an object can never really access another object but only relate to its sensual double, then we can call that a basic form of aesthesis, understood in its original Greek meaning of ‘perception.’ Hence, I believe that Graham Harman called aesthetics the first philosophy because the nature of all relationality between all objects is aesthetic. In what regards Abramovic’s reenactments of her own works, I’m not sure if each reenactment of the work counts as a new real object or, rather — and this is what I’m inclined to believe — as a new sensual version of a same object. We can understand reenactment very simply as a new performance (or a new translation) of the same real object, very much like every time the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays Shubert’s Symphony No. 9, we are not listening to a new symphony but to a new ‘reading’ of it, a new interpretation, in this case Ricardo Muti’s translation of the original object. What different translations give us is a different point of view of an object without ever giving us the totality of that object (as the object will always withdraw or be protected from our full access via some sort of firewall). So, yes, Abramovic’s reenactments can give us different aspects of the original, to use your words. And those can be aspects that not even Abramovic herself is aware of as the original work as real object that it is, withdraws even from Abramovic’s full access.
CP: How you describe objects’ exchange with one another as audiences…what does that mean? Or, maybe more to the point: how does that work? Do objects have congnisance of one another?
JF: The answer to your second question comes from this previous answer: When I say objects operate as audiences when relating to sensual versions of another object, I mean that objects witness performance or translation, the reenactment of each other. This is not the same as saying that all objects are sentient and conscious of each other (humans and animals might be but I’m not sure about rocks and tree trunks). They are, however, changed by entering into relation with sensual objects just as audiences are changed when witnessing a performance. (I must note here that the relationship between performance and transformation of audiences and performers has been one of the core ideas surrounding Performance Studies since its inception as a field of academic enquiry). We can easily see that being the case: a tree enters into relation with an axe and, like an audience, it is transformed by it – gets cut, gets the shape of the axe’s blade imprinted in its own trunk – without ever having full access to the axe – it doesn’t know anything about the texture of the axe’s handle, its temperature, or its colour, for instance. Or a rock is shaped by the ocean’s waves, gets transformed, but still is not able to access the size of the ocean, the flora and fauna living in it, its saltiness, its reflection of the sunlight, or even the size of the oil spill covering it a few miles away in the Golf of Mexico. In that same way some of us sat in front of Marina Abramovic at MoMA and were transformed by it – some cried, some smiled, some felt reassurance – but nobody was able to fully access Abramovic’s ‘substance’ or, if you want, the totality of her being – her feelings, the sensations on her skin, her own sense of space, our image formed in her retina and being fired at the speed of light all the way up to her visual cortex, etc. As I see it, all relations in the world involve something or someone performing and something or something witnessing the performance, an audience.
CP: In closing, I am almost inclined to ask a sort of sentimental question; how has your day-to-day perception of the world shifted with the incorporation of this philosophy? I can’t help feeling like it might change the undercurrent of your most banal experiences…
JF: I like your last question. There’s nothing wrong with being sentimental. I’m Mediterranean, after all. I think the way I look at things has changed after having read all this object-oriented philosophers and after having been working for a while on the intersection of performance studies and object-oriented philosophy. I think I started looking at things in a different way… I think perhaps to try to ‘catch them’, to try to have a glimpse of what they’ve been hiding. It’s actually hilarious when I find myself sneakingly looking at things like if they came from another planet. It can be a sign of madness but I like to think it is a sign of a rediscovered fascination with everything around me, with the enchanting side of everyday objects. It makes the world suddenly full of stuff waiting to be rediscovered and experienced in different manners. Like every stone hides a treasure or something like that. Call me a romantic, it’s OK.