For over two decades now Judith Brotmanâ€™s practice has hinged on relationships built between people. This has taken several forms over the years, and hopefully youâ€™ve had the opportunity of seeing some of her recent work at Bike Room in â€œI Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed (reviewed here by Bad at Sportsâ€™s own Caroline Picard); at Slow Gallery with â€œNew Wordâ€; or at Gallery 400 in â€œWhisper Down the Lane.â€
For the exhibition â€œNew Word,â€ Brotman used the Jewish Kabbalistic prompt of finding a word to follow for the rest of your life as an impetuous to generate 1000 new words, including some of the following examples:
Brotman relinquished some control over the pieceâ€™s manifestation by â€œnot touching the work,â€ tasking the organizer of the exhibition to fabricate the piece by inscribing the words on the wall for her. Although many of the words are humorous sounding, and the project on the whole involves a certain amount of playfulness, it forces a certain obligation and responsibility on the viewer as well.
In her piece â€œ93 Dreams of Summerâ€ from â€œWhisper Down the Laneâ€ she generated several texts, related to koans in both their brevity and enigmatic nature, and created a sound recording of her reading them which viewers were invited to listen to over headphones. The phrases, while often absurd, are also witty and poetic, reflecting the skill and comfort with which Brotman writes:
Dream 6. You invent a machine that can play the violin, devein shrimp, and shred documents all at the same time.
Dream 27. You live in a world where there are restrictions to saying â€œGood job,â€ to your children. Saying it too often leads first to fines, then imprisonment, and ultimately the death penalty. You breathe a sigh of relief.
Dream 55. You are twelve years old, and God comes to visit dressed as a lawn chair. You say hello and sit down.
Dream 87. You legally change your name to â€œTater.â€
In both these exhibitions, Brotman engages languageâ€” either via the written word, or words read aloudâ€” and they also both feature words or texts generated by her. Although she has stated sheâ€™s as influenced by visual phenomena as she is by literature, Brotman also views both works as engaging with that same, singular, overarching concern that continues to occupy her regardless of the medium she is experimenting withâ€” relationships.
Her interest in relationships has translated into a focus on narratives, especially love stories. Brotmanâ€™s tastes run the gamut from day time soap operas to tales of unrequited love, or unconventional, odd ball works that, while theyâ€™re well known pieces of literature, may not typically be thought of as love stories (take Frankenstein for example, one of her favorites).
The pivotal moments, or moments of drama that these stories often hinge on, draw Brotman to them, and while she can appreciate the tension and theatricality that arise from their seemingly unending series of climaxes, sheâ€™s as equally taken with â€œthe possibility that things will go wrongâ€¦â€
In a cruel example of life imitating art, Brotman had just such a pivotal moment this past summer, in the form of a hand injury; â€œâ€¦(I) lost the use of my wrist and I couldnâ€™t make anything and I didnâ€™t know if it was going to come back, and it was very depressingâ€¦ and people were saying to me, this is going to be an opportunity, and Iâ€¦ wanted to punch them, with the good hand (of course).â€
This did lead to an opportunity however, and it took the form of a long-term project that, although she claims to have no idea how it may develop over time, imagines it going on, â€œfor the rest of (her) life.â€
The parameters of the project involve Brotman visiting the homes of friends and near strangers alike. She asks them to read to her aloud for forty-five minutes to an hour while she audio records them and takes some still photographs. Thereâ€™s a certain amount of latitude in what they may choose to read, but Brotman requests that it be a text of meaning.
â€œCareful what you say, becauseâ€¦ when I started at the School of the Art Institute in the late eighties I said there is one thing I will never, ever do, and that is performance,â€ jokes Brotman. And while her artistic overture is somewhat fluid in this project, she is still interested in the same kinds of dramatic tensions and relationship cultivation.
Generosity seems inherent in the act of inviting someone into your domestic space, thoughtfully selecting a text of meaning, and then sharing both your time and energy in reading it aloud, but the work is complicated by some of the quieter, darker reasons for Brotmanâ€™s impetus for the projectâ€” a cultural critic of a fast paced, compartmentalized, multi-tasking society that listens to books on tape, reads off a tablet, and texts or emails instead of making face time.
Although the project is only newly underway, Brotman has noticed that it asks a lot of her as a listener as well, and requires a heightened level of â€œfocus and presence.â€ The project seems to repay careful, thoughtful and active listening, but Brotman is honest about stating that, â€œâ€¦pivotal moments may or may not happen.â€ Although the action of being read to is repetitive, thereâ€™s so much variation within each discrete event that itâ€™s difficult to generalize. She does go on to say that, â€œâ€¦many of the readings have been exquisite and some have not been. Sometimes I canâ€™t wait for it to endâ€” and thatâ€™s usually when the reader canâ€™t wait for it to endâ€”â€¦. And then sometimes it really is like a little love storyâ€¦ I have this feeling of being carried away, thereâ€™s this falling in love moment, that, I donâ€™t know what else to call it, Iâ€™m inspired, Iâ€™m excited, Iâ€™m curious, I leave feeling like I have 300 times more energy then when I came in.â€
The act of reading aloud to someone is usually an intimate affair, but Brotman is experimenting with performing the readings publicly, and recently had the opportunity of being read to for part of â€œThe American Dream: (W)holy Grailâ€ in Edgewater. And although previously her site-responsive installations constructed largely from objects crafted from paper were exceedingly fragile and ephemeral, she is deriving a certain amount of pleasure from Â the act ofÂ archiving, cataloguing and retaining these readings. It’s clear that the performance itself, rather then it’s mere accumulation, is still what’s most compelling to her though; â€œit has stripped down to the core what I care about most.â€ Perhaps as the project marches on, she will find herself generating love stories instead of merely listening in on them.
Interview conducted in October 2013.
The author would like to thank Judith Brotman for her assistance.
All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.