Last month, on January 6th, I published in this blog a column entitled, “Chilling Me Softly.” The topic, generally, was about censorship, about the intentional cultivation of censorship as a promotional strategy, and about the the subsequent chilling effect that occurs. I was writing specifically in context of the film The Interview. One paragraph read:
From Joseph Ravens’ penis to the assassination of a baby-faced tyrant, anal fisting to a crucifix in urine, and let’s not forget Our Lady of the Jiggling Butt Cheeks, creative expression invariably steps on some toes. All the sensation created by controversy may bring with it some small benefits in terms of publicity. But if we forget the chilling effect it is to our peril. Even if you don’t care for the current comedy/painting/photograph of a dictator/buttfucking/saint, tolerating its censorship (even soft censorship such as a private donor threatening to withdraw funds) shrinks the envelope of exploration. The next time someone pitches a movie making fun of a dictator, the studios, remembering The Interview, may balk, even if the new movie has more potential than its predecessor did.
I was concerned that, despite all the publicity (generally interpreted as a good thing) generated by the censorship of The Interview, that the long-term consequence would be a chilling effect: that is, a reluctance on the part of cultural producers to tread on certain lines (in this case, the mocking of a dictator) for fear that their lives would be threatened, their work not shown, their investment of time and money lost. I was tired. I finished the article, make a quick top page feature image in Photoshop, and published it.
And the next day, the Charlie Hebdo shootings occurred.
The events of the day have been widely reported. On Wednesday, January 7th, two Islamic extremist militants of Algerian descent attacked the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper. Their motive was plainly offense at the newspaper’s publication of unflattering characitures of Muhammed, the prophet of the Islamic faith. They killed 11 people and wounded 11 others. They fled the scene after killing a French police officer and running over a pedestrian. The two were ultimately killed in a shootout with French police.
One question that media outlets faced in covering this story was whether or not to show the images, published in Charlie Hebdo, that had provoked the attack in the first place. Some feared that by doing so, they would face the same kind of attack. They censored themselves out of fear. Others phrased their self-censorship as being a form of “respect,” which some called cowardice by another name. In particular, some news outlets that had published Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (which I discussed, image included, in last month’s article) were called hypocrites for refusing to show the Muhammed cartoons. Why would one show an image potentially offenseive to Christians, they asked, but not one potentially offensive to Muslims? The implication is that the publication either felt more sympathetic to Muslims, or felt more threatened by them.
I, myself, have never been shy about making potentially offensive artworks. As I discussed in last month’s “Chilling Me Softly,” I have had my work removed from exhibitions, several times, always for sexual content. At other times I’ve made work critical of religion. One piece, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, tread the line neatly: my atheist friends chuckle at how silly it is, while I have also had creationists use the piece to illustrate a presentation on the teachings of Genesis! This was precisely what I wanted: a self-authorizing code, that Creationists would feel was a fair representation of their beliefs, while my secular audience would feel was biting satire at the expense of religion. (Personally, I just liked painting dinosaurs, and thought it was funny to not put belly buttons on Adam and Eve.)
In December, Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport hosted a Krampus-themed art exhibition, for which Stephanie Burke and I created a pair of murals. In one, Krampus sodomized Santa Claus. In the other, Krampus forced Jesus to fellate him. This second image, I could see, might be offensive to some Christians, but I never felt any fear that I’d lose friends (even from among my Christian friends) over it, to say nothing of an actual physical attack. As Dan Savage said in his excellent article on the topic, this tolerance of criticism is something modern Christians should be proud of. To this I would add that it is something modern Muslims should emulate if they truly wish to integrate (even if “salad bowl” style rather than “melting pot”) into contemporary, global society.
I have previously defended Muslims and Islam, mostly in Facebook discussions with my more conservative, anti-Islamist (as opposed to anti-Islamic) friends. I have argued that Islam isn’t necessarily a violent religion; that’s just how a few extremists interpret it. I’ve argued that in the text of the Koran itself, there’s neither more nor less violence than in the Christian Bible. (Especially the Old Testament. That thing reads like a Wes Craven screenplay.) And I still believe this. It’s meaningless to say, “Islam is a religion of peace” as though that is a simple statement of fact. It’s not a fact, either true or false. Rather, it’s a goal, an ideal, that we can work to bring about, by embracing and welcoming peaceful, moderate Muslims into global society, while dealing with Islamists the same way we deal with any other violent extremists.
Radical Islam poses an existential threat to the rest of the world, in just the same way that Soviet Socialism did in the latter half of the 20th Century, or that fascism did in the first half. Among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, 23% of the world’s population, representing the world’s fastest growing and second-largest (behind Christianity taken as a whole) religion, a relatively small minority could be classified as Islamists, believing that Islam should govern political and social, as well as personal, life. Just how small a minority depends on where you look, and on what issue: even Islamists are not a monolithic block. In some places, 10-15% seems to be a good estimate for the number of radicals within the Muslim population…but in Pakistan, for example, 82% of Muslims believe in stoning (to death) those who commit adultery (I wonder whether they would apply this to men as well as women), and 76% believe in the death penalty for those who leave Islam. These figures are similar in Egypt and Jordan, but much lower elsewhere.
The depictions of Muhammed in Charlie Hebdo were intentionally and specifically disrespectful (as are the the publication’s depictions of the prophets and practicioners of other faiths), but depictions of Muhammed have not always been so. There is nothing in the Quran that explicitly prohibits depictions of Muhammed; the prohibition is based on interpretations of the hadith, or collected sayings and actions of Muhammed. At times, some Islamic sects have allowed or produced images of Muhammed, with Shia and mystical sects typically doing so more often, with Sunni Islam being more consistently aniconic and iconoclastic. (Depictions of Allah or God are uniformly prohibtied, as they are in Judaism, in contrast to Christianity which has a long history of direct and venerated representations of the deity.)
The question of how consistently Islam has been opposed to depictions of Muhammed, though, may be a distraction from the issue of whether non-Muslims should feel obliged to follow a prohibition within Islam. This compliance is optional, voluntary, and based on respect for the beliefs of that faith, or fear (often disguised as respect) of the consequences of offending some of the violent, radical members of that faith. Even if violent radicals are a small minority of Muslims, it only takes one.
One of the objections to satirical depictions of Mohammed is that it’s a form of “punching down,” in that (in Europe) Muslims represent a “repressed minority.” But as the fastest-growing, and second-largest, religion in the world, the fact that for the time being Muslims are in the minority may be less significant than it seems. Many have compared characitures of Muslims to anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews, and I could see cases where a similar sort of racism could be at play. Which would not, of course, justify any sort of violence directed at those responsible.
But, in light of the growing role of radical Islam in many parts of the world, satire at the expense of the faith seems, to me at least, to be less of a “keep ’em down” sort of repression like the caracitures of Jews coming out of Germany in the 1930s, and more like the political cartoons criticising appeasement in the face of facism.
Muslims deserve the same respect as do members of any other religion: no more, no less. This means non-Muslims respecting their beliefs, not following them, any more so than respecting Catholics means going to mass, or respecting Hindus means giving up beef. Muslims have ever right to hold on to their own identities, religious as well as national and ethnic, as they integrate into global society. Indeed, the loss of their traditions would be tragic, as far too many indiginous peoples have found their cultures, their languages, and their religions extirpated by “progress” and Westernization. But becoming a part of a world that, for better or for worse, is becoming smaller and smaller, requires learning to get along, and that means learning, like any other religion, to take criticism and satire at the expense of one’s prophet, text, and beliefs.
We are all, I am sure, familiar with the concept of “the chilling effect,” by which legitimate forms of expression are discouraged by fear of consequences such as censorship, lawsuit, or arrest. The chilling effect is one of, if the the most, dangerous consequences of censorship in any field, and particularly in regard to art, because it shrinks the area in which our ideas compete for recognition, slowing intellectual progress. Here it is important to recognize most emphatically that it does not matter if an individual, censored idea was meritorious; you’ve got to get through a lot of bad ideas to get to a good one.
It had seemed that the culture wars were largely over. Mapplethorpe, the leader of the pack, has been safely canonized, and Serrano wasn’t far behind. Round two was the Chris Ofili dust up, but by that point, the war was over, and Rudy Giuliani was left looking like a senile old man telling the art world to get off his lawn.
If these names all seem familiar to you, you (or perhaps the artists) have the culture wars to thank. There is something of a silver lining to the cloud of censorship, what I’m inclined to term a “micro-privilege.” To censor you, they have to say your name. In a world where everybody’s fighting for attention, to have someone pay enough attention to you to bother censoring your work, or attempting to do so, is in itself a sort of miniature victory. We could debate how well Mapplethorpe, Serrano, and Ofili would be known if not for their roles in the culture wars, but without a doubt it has only contributed to their reputations.
It mustn’t have been long after the first act of censorship that people started thinking that making one’s self a target for censorship could be an effective strategy for self-promotion. The generation that grew up in the 1980s must remember hearing, in hushed tones on the schoolyard, of a film called, “Faces of Death.” Like so many schoolyard rumors, it was the taboo nature of the film that formed the heart of its appeal. It was at times implied that it was illegal to possess, that it contained “snuff” footage of murders committed specifically to make the film, etc. These were untrue, but the film itself was promoted as being “Banned in 40+ Countries.” The effort at censorship was exaggerated, then recruited as an advertising slogan.
Back in 2010, Chicago-based performance artist Joseph Ravens was the center of a minor, local controversty (http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/this-guys-penis-is-a-work-of-art/Content?oid=1981925), pertaining to an issue of nudity in a storefront pop-up gallery. It was the kind of silly footnote that distracts from the work itself, as Joseph himself, I’m sure, would agree. Joseph and I have become friends and have worked together, and I take him at his word when he says that he never intended to create any controversy.
However, in the comments of the above-linked Reader article, one commenter posted a link to a film in which Ravens had appeared, entitled “Penis Demilo” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm0Tbyig1NA). While the film was uploaded in 2010, and the copyright notice in the credits is to that year, it appears much older, perhaps late 1990s. The film was produced by the group Joy Farm, with whom Ravens has been working since 1993.
Ravens portrays an artist named Ennui, who has created a sculpture called Penis Demilo. The artwork was scheduled to be unveiled at the opening of Municipal Gallery. Protestors arrive (“I’m protesting about that filthy penis in there!”) and the decision is made to remove the piece. The protests, however, draw publicity, crowds of viewers arrive, and the gallery prepares to unveil the piece. A bomb threat is phoned in, and as the building is being evacuated, Ennui announces that, “If I cannot share my art with you, no one will ever see it” He topples the still-draped sculpture, which shatters into pieces and dust. Reporter Floss Mulligan reports, “Well, it looks as though he’s made the bold step into performance art.” The film concludes with a scene of Ennui paying the leader of the protestors and contracting them to protest again next month for his new piece, “Protein Smile.”
Cynics were quick to take Ravens’ participation in this film as evidence in support of the theory that the 2010 “dick in a window” controversy was itself a publicity stunt. Ravens himself told me that he had totally forgotten about the film, and I believe him. Instead, it seems to me the sort of coincidence that happens from time to time.
Perhaps I am sympathetic in this case because I have run into issues of censorship myself from time to time. In graduate school, one of my pieces was to be displayed in a window of the college’s gallery. A complaint followed, and the issue was put to the director of my graduate program, Grace Hartigan. I wasn’t present for the conversation, but according to several people present, she immediately agreed to remove the work. One of these friends called me, and so I was able to act pre-emptively. I dashed off a quick announcement, written in the voice of the college, announcing the need to censor the work. I covered the painting with a black sheet and hung the notice in front of it. Of course this made the college look bad, and the decision was made to remove the covering and allow the piece to be shown (accompanied by a denial of any attempt to censor the piece in the first place).
In an earlier incident, in undergrad at Humboldt State, an arguably more obscene piece was censored; my effort to drape the piece was in this case denied. Immediately upon my removing the piece, a friend purchased it, in part because of the controversy. The “Penis Demilo effect” was in play here. (My first experience with censorship occurred early in elemenary school; officials took my drawing of a man urinating as evidence that I was being molested by my parents, a totally false conclusion, and I had to spend a week in a foster home while the whole thing was sorted out.)
These issues, and in particular the Penis Demilo film, were on my mind as I watched the recent drama over The Interview play out. This was, apparently, a different case than the earlier fine art culture wars. Here, rather than alleged that a law was being broken or funds misused, Sony Pictures claimed to have been hacked, and then a threat was made that 9/11-type attacks would be directed at any theater showing the film. Major theater chains refused to show the film, a few indie theaters promised to show it as planned, then Sony pulled the release. Some theaters (the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX, for example) planned to show Team America in its place, then Paramount refused to license the showings of that film. Obama chimed in, telling Americans to “go to the movies,” echoing Bush’s 9/11 admonition that Americans “go shopping.”
Ultimately, The Interview was shown as video-on-demand. I got together with my wife, my sister, and a few friends, and we paid our three bucks or whatever and watched the thing. It was exactly what it had appeared to be in the initial, pre-scandal previews: a lackluster bromance against a backdrop of North Korea’s tragically comical flaws. It wasn’t particularly funny, but it had its moments. It was no Team America, but it was no Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, either.
I’ve heard cynicism similar to that around Ravens’ performance scandal in regard to The Interview. Was it all a publicity stunt? North Korea itself denied involvement in the hacking, though the FBI concluded that they had been at least partially behind it (a conclusion widely debated by other experts), resulting in US sanctions against North Korean interests. North Korea’s denial is itself puzzling, considering their threats as long ago as June of last year, promising to treat the film’s release as “an act of war.”
Regardless of who was responsible for the cyber attack and theater threats (which may have been by the same party, or perhaps others), a lot of people seem (on Facebook, at least) to consider it now to be their patriotic duty to see The Interview. I certainly felt compelled to watch it. Would I have, otherwise? Probably. I go to the movies a lot, and I mean this as distinctly opposed to “looking at film.” I enjoy a good two-nour nepenthe pretty regularly. But I certainly felt more compelled to see The Interview after being told that there were people who didn’t want me to see it.
The cynics probably go too far, though, in suggesting that Sony, themselves, may have fabricated the threats in order to drum up publicity for the film. It doesn’t seem to make economic sense. Sure, they managed some $15 million in streaming profits in the first four days (plus just under $3 million from the few independent theaters which showed the film), but with a $44 million budget, Sony is far from breaking even. They would have done far better had they allowed the theatrical release to go ahead, and there’s no evidence that there was any reason, other than the threats, to cancel the release.
From Joseph Ravens’ penis to the assassination of a baby-faced tyrant, anal fisting to a crucifix in urine, and let’s not forget Our Lady of the Jiggling Butt Cheeks, creative expression invariably steps on some toes. All the sensation created by controversy may bring with it some small benefits in terms of publicity. But if we forget the chilling effect it is to our peril. Even if you don’t care for the current comedy/painting/photograph of a dictator/buttfucking/saint, tolerating its censorship (even soft censorship such as a private donor threatening to withdraw funds) shrinks the envelope of exploration. The next time someone pitches a movie making fun of a dictator, the studios, remembering The Interview, make balk, even if the new movie has more potential than its predecessor did.
The same is true in the art world. If faculty, fearing for their jobs, refuse to support students in the face of threatened censorship by the University, those students will learn the lesson that some subjects cannot be discussed, some media can not be used, some ideas can not be expressed. This extends at every level of the scene, from a museum pulling a show due to criticism, or a coffee shop with a “no nudes” policy for the community artwork it allows on its walls. None of this is to say that only dirty work is worthwhile; indeed, shock is a well-worn strategy and much “offensive” work is in fact merely boring. But if we are to maintain an open forum for conversation, such works must be allowed to succeed or fail on their own merits, or lack thereof, rather than being preemptively excluded from discussion for failing to meet a lowest-common-denominator standard of decency.
December 2, 2014 · Print This Article
One of my duties as a Lecturer of Foundations at Northern Arizona University is to provide give tours to prospective students. In an email follow-up to one of these tours, I was asked about the viability of a career following an art degree, and how one might explain this career choice to one’s parents. Specifically, I was asked to elaborate on a conversation I had mentioned having with my father, who had been skeptical to say the least regarding my career prospects after graduate school, for which I was asking to borrow some money from him. The following is taken largely from the text of the email I sent in response.
There are a few viable strategies to making a living with an art degree. I certainly have friends doing the “move to New York and try to be an art star” thing, a few of them successfully. Most support themselves with jobs as waiters or gallery assistants etc. With even a BA, one can get work as a security guard or administrative assistant at a museum, gallery, or in an artist’s studio as an assistant helping to make the work. These are entry level jobs from which one can work their way up to a career.
The strategy that I know most intimately is teaching. This is a challenging but viable path, if you have the right temperament for it. Not everyone is well suited for teaching, and it is important to be sure it’s right for you, rather than treating it as the default answer to the question of “I’ve got my MFA; now what?”
Speaking of the MFA…The question of whether or not to go to grad school is debated within the art world, but it is an absolute necessity if you want to teach art at the college level. It’s also a big asset if you teach K-12 or at private institutions. Applying to grad schools is itself a big process, and scary. You may not get into your top choice, and you may not get into any school at all your first time applying. Some grad schools are expensive; others are fully funded and therefore free. This is of course a question for down the road, but I mention it because it was when I was making the decision to attend grad school that this issue came up.
The specific conversation came up with my father when I was applying to graduate school. I needed to borrow money from him, and he was basically not at all supportive of my decision to go to graduate school and pursue a career teaching art. He said, basically, “I’ll loan you the money because I’m your father, but I think it’s a bad investment, I don’t think you’ll be able to find work, and I don’t think you’ll be able to repay me, but I need you to, somehow.” He asked me to specifically ask my faculty how long it had taken them to find a teaching job, and what was a normal starting salary. I asked my painting instructor, Leslie Kenneth Price at Humboldt State University, and he told me that after graduating from his MFA, he found adjunct work within a year, and it took him five years of adjunct work to get a full time job. He said that starting salaries at the full-time level were around $40K.
I ended up borrowing $37,000 from my father, in addition to $73,000 in student loans, to attend the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I graduated in May of 2007. I started teaching part time in 2008, and in 2013 I was hired at NAU…five years after my first adjunct gig began, at a rate of $42,000 a year. Obviously everyone’s experience is different, but Leslie definitely called it in my case. Five years as an adjunct, then a full time job starting at $40K, sounds about average.
Bear in mind that some people do land full time teaching jobs straight out of graduate school. Benjamin Duke was a year ahead of mine in grad school; he was doing a kind of work that really leant itself to a particular program’s needs, and so he was offered a full time teaching job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor before he had even finished his MFA. He also shows at Ann Nathan, an excellent gallery in Chicago. He is a.) very, very good, b.) very, very lucky, and c.) very, very smart. I wouldn’t count on getting a full time job right away; even if you’re good and smart you may not be lucky. But, it could happen.
On the other side of things, it is certainly possible that you won’t end up teaching. Some people just aren’t well-suited to it, and find other lines of work. I have several friends who earned MFAs and then were offered technical or administrative positions at the institutions from which they graduated. These are certainly viable careers, and should be considered as good alternatives to teaching. Others work for museums or galleries, or in other creative fields.
For me, though, teaching has been a great fit. The pay isn’t going to make me rich by any means, but it is definitely enough to live on, what I’d call “grown up money.” And there are other benefits as well. Great medical and life insurance, for example, and a great work environment. Yes, we work hard and have to do a lot of off-the-clock research, but our schedules tend to be very flexible, vacation time is impressive, and we get to work doing something we love. Oh, and another benefit: if you do take out student loans, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Act means that, under certain conditions, if you work for a public service institution (a college, university, or museum, or a non-profit, but not a commercial gallery), and your income is under a certain amount, you can pay on an Income-Based basis and after 10 years, 120 on time monthly payments, any remaining loan balance can be forgiven.
Also, look at the College Art Association website and go through the job listings as though you’re looking for a job. That will give you some idea of what’s out there. Also NYFA, HigherEd Jobs, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Academic Keys.
In one way, my father had been correct. I never did repay him a cent of what I had borrowed, despite the fact that Professor Price’s predictions about the time it would take to find full time work, and my starting salary. My father died, from complications of alcoholism, a few weeks before I was offered the job that would have allowed me to repay him what he had loaned me.
Well I’m traveling down the road
And I’m carrying that heavy load
I walk around in a stupor
Sleazy, I cant do the show
Last April, Dave Brockie, better known as Oderus Urungus, lead singer of the band GWAR, died of a heroin overdose. I wrote about his death in a previous article: http://badatsports.com/2014/i-hope-theres-drugs-in-heaven-rest-in-peace-dave-brockie/
Hanging out backstage
I’m in a homicidal rage
I signed a million dollar contract
I puked on every page
Slaughtered half the crew
Caused they ate the deli-tray
Oh Baby hey
Said I’d do the show but I canceled anyway
Many feared that the band would die with Brockie, but happily, this doesn’t seem to be the case. GWAR has endured, with a tour beginning at Riotfest in Chicago. After the initial performance, GWAR was reported to have a new, female lead singer by the name of Vulvatron. This was of course welcomed and hailed as a progressive step by the feminist (or at least pro-equality) press (and Internet chatter), but this early reports were quickly amended. A new character called Blóthar, a self-described berserker, performed many of the vocals formerly performed by Oderus, and was credited in subsequent reports as GWAR’s new lead singer, with Vulvatron’s role being amended to being “more mysterious.”
You were road kill baby
Til I scraped you in my arms
Just another wattle flapping
On the old turkey farm
I was of course still saddened by the loss of Brockie, but also intrigued and excited by the new lineup. Would GWAR still be GWAR without Oderus? I hoped so, and it was in this spirit of hope that I bought tickets to the Albuquerque performance on the so-called “Eternal Tour.” (They were also performing in Tempe, much closer to my new home of Flagstaff, but some friends were in Albuquerque, so we made a road trip of it.) I’d seen photos of Blóthar and Vulvatron, and heard some interviews, but I needed to see and hear them performing, with my own eyes and ears. So we headed out for Albuquerque, and arrived at the venue (Sunshine Theather) just in time to catch the last couple of songs by the second opening act, Decapitated. (They were excellent, by the way.)
And while the wheels keep rolling
And another milepost gone
All along the road behind
Oh can’t you hear me calling
Just like the sad whale song
I’m on the road behind
The show centered around a narrative that Oderus Urungus was missing. The band attempted to rescue him using a time machine, going into the past (before he went missing, presumably with Brockie’s death) to bring him into the present. After initially accidentally capturing a pizza delivery dude, who was suitably dismembered, this resulted in the band acquiring only Oderus’ penis, the “Cuttlefish of Cthulhu.” At first confused by this development, the band concluded that Oderus had mistaken the door-like “time portal” for a glory hole, and had stuck his dick through in hope that it would get sucked. (The band then complained (I’m paraphrasing), “What? This thing doesn’t suck your dick? You can get pizza, but you can’t get your dick sucked? Fuck the future!”)
Well there you have it baby I’m just a sensitive guy
Y’know I snuffed a million planets
But I still find time to cry
Because there’s more to life
Then making other people die
Like a little bloody tear baby
Running out my dirty little eye
The set list of this tour has been well described by previous reviews (http://www.heyreverb.com/blog/2014/11/02/gwar-summit-music-hall-denver-halloween-photos-review/96481/). A weird, turtle-like hobgoblin named Bonesnapper delivered a hip hop sort of track (I didn’t recognize it, but looking it up, it’s apparently called “I, Bonesnapper”) the way Sleazy P Martini, the band’s manager, formerly performed Think You Oughta Know This and Slaughterama. He was subsequently ridiculed by the rest of the band for his efforts.
And some things baby
They don’t make no sense
Does it really matter if it bugs your parents?
Beefcake the Mighty and Vulvatron performed a duet of Hate Love Songs. The band did a few other GWAR classics: Saddam a Go-Go, and Horror of Yig. The band did prove that they could perform the standard repertoire. It was by any standard a good show. Throughout, the narrative of the absence of Oderus served as a memorial to Brockie. The show hit its climax with a battle with Mr. Perfect, a giant, Dr. Manhattan-like being from the future, with a cracked lava skin texture and, after sustaining some battle damage, tentacles for arms. This was all standard GWAR fare, and certainly the band showed that, for all the sadnass at Brockie’s death, the show would go on.
You were road kill baby
Til I scraped you in my arms
Just another wattle flapping
On the old turkey farm
The concert had, from its beginning, acted as a memorial for Dave Brockie. Towards its conclusion, this element was brought to the forefront. A metal rendition of Danny Boy accompanied a funeral procession in which the band carried Oderus’ giant, two-handed sword, Unt Lick. The sword was propped up as a monument, and the band proceeded to perform GWAR’s one classic sad song: The Road Behind. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UyqDIaFCos
Now baby quit yer crying
Put those clown britches on
Blóthar sang these lyrics in the third person: “You know he snuffed a million planets, but he still found time to cry,” and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about whom they were singing. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house; each and every one of us sported “a bloody little tear, baby, running out my dirty little eye.” It felt and sounded like the entire audience was singing along with every word; I know I was. And then, without skipping a beat, they refused to descend too far into the maudlin, and instead performed a rendition of the Pet Shop Boys (whom they decried as “the worst band of all time”) song West End Girls, mashed up with Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.”
Well the wheels keep rolling
And another signpost gone
Baby can’t you hear me calling
Like a sad whale song
Sad whale baby
There was no encore. They played what they came to play, following a set plan, an when they were done, they cleared the stage. The night was over. (Well, actually we went to a burlesque show at a bar afterwards, but the band was done.) And we were left to reflect on the night’s performance. The absence of Dave Brockie, a.k.a. Oderus Urungus, was not merely felt, but central to the show. In every moment was a tribute, whether overt or unspoken, to his contributions to the band. The question of his legacy, of who would take the place as lead singer of GWAR, was similarly central. While Blóthar sang most of the vocals that Oderus would have performed, he deftly avoided the role of Brockie’s replacement. In small moments, the idea that Brockie was irreplaceable ran as a consistent thread throughtout the show. The suggestion, “What do you think, Bonesnapper for lead singer of GWAR?” rang not merely as a throwaway line, but as a reminder, that GWAR’s lead singer was and would always be Oderus Urungus, a.k.a. Dave Brockie. The singing of “The Road Behind” in the third person underscored his absence. Vulvatron asserted herself even more powerfully than Sylmensta Hymen, GWAR’s most recent female member, had done, which was no mean feat. Sawborg Destructo struggled against Bonesnapper but neither was a serious contender.
The concert was the perfect tribute to Brockie. It showed two things: firstly, that Oderus was irreplaceable, and nobody would be stupid enough to try to take his place. Secondly, we saw that despite this, the band could and would continue to perform without him. GWAR has seen other members come and go, and if they can survive, as it seems, the loss of their lead singer, then the band could in theory endure indefinitely. However, the concert-as-wake was such a memorial, the late Brockie and missing Oderus so central that the performance, it left one question lingering in the air. As we spilled out into the night, I wondered what their next tour would look like. What would GWAR look like once Oderus’ shade no longer hung over the stage in absentia?
But, as Blóthar put it, that’s enough sad shit, enough feeling sorry for ourselves. Here’s the Pet Shop Boys cover.
By the title of this essay I imply not that I am providing an introduction to this topic, for the uninitiated, from the perspective of experience. Rather, I intend to share the experience of my own introduction to this topic, in preparation for a course I will be teaching next semester. Prior to beginning my research, I posed the following question to my Facebook friends; their responses follow.
Explain “relational aesthetics/social practice,” using only common language (no artspeak), and without bringing up Thai food. Go.
Jay Gallegos: Practical collaborative participation. It’s more like Ethiopian food.
Casey McGonagle: Do regular stuff, only it’s art.
Randall Szott: Art for artists inspired by Martha Stewart.
Chloë Rayson: One mans trash is understood by another man to be treasure
Richard Holland: Sometimes people make shit up.
Jennifer Reeder: Block party fantasy camp.
Albert Stabler: Making a blog about an ethically-motivated garage sale.
Randall Szott: Wait, that cuts a little too close to home there buddy.
Sherelle Castro: The kind that comes with cats and batteries.
Anne Harris: I have no idea. And I’m actually about to eat Thai food. Imagine that.
Kevin Freitas: Bullshit
Meg Duguid: The composition of moments and actions that shed light on a concept. You should be able to talk about this work like one might a painting or a composed photo, composition, movement, content. There should be a broad exposure to multiple practices from Mierle Ukeles, Mary Miss, Maya Linn, to Gordon Marta Clark and Rick Lowe. There should be a range of politically overt and implicit politic. I actually think that you could leave politics out all together and look at some of the work of the Judson Dance Group and some of Kaprow’s late performance work. I would liken some of it to the idea of found object as it is found motion.
Robert C. Anderson: Verbal self-abuse.
Mike Malorin: Peanut sauce… Dammit!
Kevin Freitas: Soup kitchen
Sarah Kaiser: compare visual stuff to the rest of the world
Michael Mlekowski: Stuff you look at and if it’s any good you get to take a free sample home!
Diana Dorwin: The importance of the object or action isn’t determined by the artist, or the individual viewing the artwork, but the viewing community as a whole.
Grub Fay: some young art student goes to a party where everyone is having a good time, and starts yelling, “look at us, we’re all art!” and of course makes the party less good, and ruins the art.
From this hyper-informal survey, it seemed that among my friends, many were not disposed to take the topic seriously: not only in the humorous, playful responses to my question, but in their attitudes towards relational aesthetics as a serious practice. Others recognized its legitimacy, and a few (e.g. Meg Duguid) spoke from firsthand experience working in this genre.
I’ll admit some past skepticism towards relational aesthetics; my perspective (thought not so eloquently phrased) echoed Casey McGonagle’s: “Do regular stuff, only it’s art.” I decided that I owed it to myself to learn more about the topic, to at least add some nuance to my skepticism and hopefully gain a greater appreciation for it. To this end, I volunteered to teach a course on Relational Aesthetics next semester (Spring 2015), and began research in preparation for this. The following essay is a summary of my initial readings.
The phrases “relational aesthetics,” “relational art,” and “social practice” have becoming increasingly common in the art world since the late 1990s, while their exact meaning continues to elude many of those not directly involved in this field. In order to study this aspect of art, we need to understand exactly what it is that we are talking about.
French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud defined the approach in 1998 in his book Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics), calling it “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” He had coined the phrase two years earlier in the catalogue for the exhibition Traffic, curated by Bourriaud, at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux.
Relational aesthetics, then, can be understood as a way of looking at things, as a guiding principle, and as an approach to artmaking. An artwork can be considered “relational art” if it is essentially based on social interaction. In this way relational aesthetics is very different from traditional art forms such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography, which are defined by the physical materials and tools used in their production. Relational aesthetics may be more similar to a movement, such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, etc. Writer and director Ben Lewis finds many similarities between relational art and earlier “ism”s at their beginnings: relational art is often not considered art at all because it redefines the concept of art, many artists considered “relational” deny that they are such and relational art had a “founding” exhibition.
Since relational aesthetics is not defined by a single medium, it follows that relational art can be made in any media. And certainly, examples of relational art can be found in a wide range of media. However, certain media lend themselves to relational aesthetics. In particular, the best-known examples of relational art often exist as a subset of performance art. The poster child for relational aesthetics has always been Rirkit Tiravanija, and his best-known series bears a close resemblance to performance. Beginning with Pad Thai (1990) at the Paula Allen Gallery in New York, Tiravanija cooked and served the exhibition’s eponymous food for gallery visitors. The difference between this form of relational art and other types of performance is that in most performance art, the artist’s actions are the essence of the work; in relational art of this type, the essence of the work lies in the interaction between the audience and the artist. Cooking Thai food could be a performance; serving it to visitors moves it into the realm of relational aesthetics.
Other forms of relational art more closely resemble sculptures or installations. Some of Tiravanija’s works resemble installations, albeit installations inviting viewer interaction. One example, from Traffic (relational aesthetic’s seminal exhibition) was described in Frieze magazine: “‘Traffic’ predictably included the model practitioner of this kind of art – Rirkrit Tiravanija. Around the second floor viewing gallery he provided simple, user-friendly arrangements of tables and chairs made from brown packaging cardboard, each with a free mini-bar of red wine and mineral water.”
However, the clearest example of the sculpture/installation model of relational art is Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Nearly all of his work consists in some way of objects arranged in a space. Some, such as his stacks of printed posters and his piles of candy, invite viewers to take one of the component pieces home with them. In Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud describes the problem posed by these takeaways:
“One is allowed to take one of the posters away with him/her. But what happens if lots of visitors walk off in turn with these sheets of paper offered to an abstract public? What process would cause the piece to change and then vanish? For this work did not involve a “Performance”, or a poster hand-out, but a work endowed with a defined form and a certain density, a work not displaying its construction (or dismantlement) process, but the form of its presence amid an audience [italics original].”
This problem is more a theoretical one than a practical issue; the medium of the work itself is described in this case as “Offset print on paper, endless copies.” The museum, gallery, or collector would simply order more copies of the poster made, and replenish the stack. Similarly, the piles of candy are replenished from commercial sources. The issue is not one of logistics, but rather of the interaction, via the artwork, between the artist and the viewer, who becomes a complicit participant in its creation. This is what places the work within the realm of relational art.
Gift-giving is only one possible mode of social interaction of course, and yet relational aesthetics often carries with it a presumption of generosity. Another mode is communication, often the transmission of information or the teaching of a skill. I think now of Hui-Min Tsen’s walking tour of Chicago’s Pedway. [http://chicagopedwaytour.com/Home.html] Tsen guides participants on a walking tour of this underground route through the city, a form of casual urban exploration, a better way of getting to know the place.
My wife Stephanie Burke and I created several artworks which, though we didn’t necessarily use the term at the time, are in hindsight relational in nature. In one series, called Shooting With Artists, we took Chicago-based artists to a shooting range in Indiana to shoot guns. For many, this was their first time shooting a gun, and their first exposure to “gun culture.” We thought this was interesting because art culture and gun culture generally never meet; they are seen as polar opposites politically and socially. The exceptions to these, where these cultures overlap, become nuanced and unexpected. These trips were documented with video and still photos, but the works themselves were essentially relational.
Another project, which was Stephanie’s concept, was called “Snow Coffee.” In our neighborhood (as in much of Chicago), people would claim “dibs” on a parking space that they had (ostensibly) shoveled clear of snow, marking it as their own private parking space with various items, most often patio furniture. Playfully interacting with this contentious practice, we would put on our bathrobes and take a carafe of coffee to enjoy while sitting in these impromptu cafes, consisting of no more than a pair of lawn chairs in a snow-free parking space on the side of the street. Eventually, following the epic snowstorm remembered as “Snowmageddon,” Stephanie spent the better part of a day digging our Jeep out of the snow. When we left the parking space thus created, we “claimed” it with two chairs and a card table, complete with tablecloth and a vase of flowers.
This essay documents the beginning stages of my research into relational art and social practice, in preparation for a course I am teaching next semester at Northern Arizona University. This research will continue until and throughout the Spring 2015 semester. Feedback is welcome; contact me through Facebook (Jeriah Hildine) or at jeriah (dot) hildwine (at) gmail (dot) com.