“NO MEDIA is an open [sign up] improvisational realtime/performance media art event. Participating artists are randomly matched in sets of 3 && given 10mins to perform w/&& in re:to each other. Poets + experimental dancers + free jazzers +
No Media At The End!
[NO documentation allowed. It happens once && in realtime.]
NO MEDIA happened March 16, 2013 at TRITRIANGLE, the art space that formerly held Enemy Sound, in Chicago, IL. Developed out of a GLI.TC/H Working Group, the first NO MEDIA happened at GLI.TC/H 2112 on Friday, December 7, 2012 at TRITRIANGLE. Described in the schedule as “Proposed by Jason Soliday on the Working Groups: NO_MEDIA is a performance framework that goes from zero to zero! Participating performers will start with blank slates, build sets from scratch. No preparation allowed. Zeroed out knobs. No strings on your guitar. No presets. Everything done in realtime from beginning to end. Everything that happens exists only in and during the performance :: “Raw Real Time.” After ~ 10 minutes you will delete all assets. It happens … and … then it’s gone …”
On March 16, 2013, I participated in it, but that’s the only detail of the night I’ll give. For, there is no documentation allowed. After the event, I sat down with [dis]organizers Jason Soliday, Nick Briz, and Jeff Kolar via electronic-mail. I wanted to ask them: Why a NO MEDIA new media performance event? What is considered documentation? What does it all mean??
And then, here I am, writing for the “media” about NO MEDIA.
MEREDITH KOOI: And, of course, no documentation of the night, though as Jason brought up on Saturday, is this [the writing of the article] considered documentation too? Discuss.
JASON SOLIDAY: I think questions are allowed.. I would say that if were going to stick to this no documentation thing, that we can talk about what could happen, or impressions of how the night went as a whole, just not specifics of what actually happened… so no “———————————————————————————.”
The whole First-rule-of-NO-MEDIA-is-no-one-talks-about-NO-MEDIA-thing is something we could maybe talk about too. I think Nick and I at least have somewhat overlapping, but different interpretations of the why of that…
JEFF KOLAR: I’m right on with Jason on this one. Particularly from the perspective of us [dis]organizers, it might be best for us to specifically address the format of the event instead of the specific performances. Plus, I am personally less interested in which performances were good or bad, and more interested in the arc of the evening; the organism it creates.
That said, I think talking about NO MEDIA is okay. It’s interesting how flexible and relative the “no documentation” rule ends up being, particularly from an audience perspective. It places an interesting constraint on the attendees of the event and activates their participation to a certain extent.
NICK BRIZ: echo above sentiments
xcited for chatz
MK: Well, first of all, I’m wondering what you all consider to be actual documentation. First-person accounts? A photo of the —————————————- from the evening? Dreams? Collaborative work that grew out of the session? And, what was the motivation behind choosing to not document the sessions?
NB: Great place to start
Quick disclaimer, as Jason mentioned before, I think the three of us have overlapping (but not identical) motivations going into this, so I’m speaking for myself here (and only partially for Jason && Jeff ^_^)
The day before the show someone posted on TRITRIANGLE’s page asking if it would be broadcast online, to which I responded:
“Hey ———, it won’t be broadcast online. Myself && Jason && Jeff are all involved in organizing different events/initiatives which we broadcast online + generally prefer to stream stuff, but the impetus behind NO MEDIA is a bit different/specific. We want to create a localized space for experimentation which is low-pressure. For this reason we purposefully don’t broadcast, in fact one of the ‘rules’ (listed above) is no documentation of any kind.
We’ve noticed sometimes the pressure of documentation can compromise some of the risk taking involved in improvisational performances. We’ve also noticed that (sometimes) folks perform specifically for the documentation and not so much the live setting. This isn’t specifically good or bad, we just want NO MEDIA to be a space specifically for in-the-moment happenings where folks can take risks without worrying about the comments it’ll get on Facebook the next day.”
So this is more or less where I’m coming from w/re:to the ‘no documentation’ rule,  remove the pressure/distraction that often comes with documentation  emphasis in-the-moment focus: w/your collaborators in that space/time.
I’m also very interested (romantically) in community + most of the events/organizing I do is motivated by this, so I’d actually be very xcited if collaborative work grew out of one of these sessions. So no, I wouldn’t really consider that documentation Nor would I really consider bruises, first person accounts, etc. To be honest, for me the rules are similar to the Dogma95 rules, in that I’ll try my best to enforce it (for the reasons stated above) but in the end I’m less interested in being dogmatic about it. There’s something fun about the idea of a photo that sneaked out or a shady vine vid (again, so long as the in-the-moment ethos isn’t compromised).
JK: Echo that disclaimer…
And jumping off Nick’s statement:
> remove the pressure/distraction that often comes with documentation  emphasis in-the-moment focus: w/your collaborators in that space/time.
I would like to add:  give agency to the audience.
One of my motivating interests behind the “No Documentation” rule is also to think about roles the audience plays in concerts/performances/events. I’m with Nick on this one, very interested in a rule that is clear yet flexible enough for performers and audience members to follow/break in [un]expected ways. If we were really strict about the “No Documentation” rule, we could ban use of all media (i.e. collect cell phones pre-entrance, radio-wave body scanner, destroy writing utensils, etc.). Jason, Nick, and I often take these “what ifs” to extreme/absurd levels; perhaps that’s how we came up with some of the rules for NO MEDIA in the first place. How far is too far? Why is it too far? I’m more interested in what audience folks consider “Documentation” of an event in this digital-device era, as it seems to get slipperier and slipperier as more [media] tools become available.
Also, one thing that seems special with NO MEDIA is that the audience/community really helps shape the performances. Laughter certainly seems to impact the performers. Audience chitchat often becomes the “intro” for group’s sets. I view the audience an active agent in NO MEDIA events.
And also interested in how the “No Documentation” rule/constraint actually creates awareness rather than preventing it.
JS: >And, what was the motivation behind choosing to not document the sessions?
A while back I remember my friend Witch Beam posting something along the lines of why does everyone feel the need to post everything to the internet? Why can’t somethings just happen and then be over, stay secret? So, it was partly in response to that, and a reaction against New Media/Internet/Noise culture’s common tendency to release ever last thing it creates out into the world, that glut of stuff we all keep making and posting to Tumblr, Vimeo, Soundcloud, and the rest.. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as much a part of it as every other “new media” artist, but I really wanted NO MEDIA to be about the moment, be here right now, it’s happening, then it’s gone. Telling everyone to put their phones away and stop recording and taking pictures was just one way to make that explicit.
I think what people do with that experience afterwards will be the interesting part.. Hopefully new, unexpected ongoing collaborations that wouldn’t have happened if people had not been thrown together during a NO MEDIA event will start appearing! Or perhaps someone sets off on some new direction with their work because of something at one of these events. I hope we’re setting up a space with NO MEDIA that provokes that sort of thing. That’s a thousand times more interesting to me than yet another cell phone video on YouTube.
That being said, I’m guilty of thinking “I wish someone was recording this, I’d like to hear it again” a few times during the two NO MEDIA events we’ve done so far.. but then that just means it was good, right? Hopefully the people that were performing at those points were thinking the same thing too, and are now hard at work on something new inspired by it!
MK: In thinking further about documentation and the space/site/time of performance, does NO MEDIA have any particular kind of performance it’s focusing on? Is it geared towards particular ways of working or does what you all are saying about the site of performance apply to all different ways and mediums of performance? I know Jeff has mentioned interest in hosting NO MEDIA in different venues thus drawing different artists and crowds – is this ideal for the interests of NO MEDIA? Do you foresee particular audiences and artists working in various other mediums responding to the rules in vastly different ways? If so, why do you think that might be? Would that signal some sort of success (I guess if that’s an appropriate word here at all) of what the rules are doing? Does this at all matter? Is there any particular goal that the rules are trying to achieve for art-making as a whole? Is this particular to Chicago?
(That’s a lot, I know, so, run with what ya like.)
JS: I would hope so. At its core, NO MEDIA is just an improv lotto, which really isn’t anything terribly new in the sound world. One of my early introductions to playing, well… free, weird, experimental, you know, the “hated” music as some will joke… was performing at the Myopic Books Improvised Music Series where the rule is that you are required to play with some one you’ve never played with before, and that series has been going on for something like 15-20 years now. With NO MEDIA one of the things I wanted to accomplish was to bring that to a New Media context, and add in artists that work in mediums and genres that might not normally approach their work that way, hence opening it up to video, performance, and everything else..
The site of the performance, I think that plays into the whole NO MEDIA being about the now, being in the moment.. and how one deals with that in making art. That would certainly include the space one is in at that moment… Rotating venues… that’s always been in the plan for NO MEDIA, at least since we decided to turn it into an ongoing series. Having it happen at the same place every time would I think impose unwritten rules that I’d like to avoid… nobody should expect anything really to be a given at a NO MEDIA event except for the couple of basic rules for the events that we’ve posted. What happens if there’s no PA next time? Or if the next one happens outside and the only thing to project video on is the bushes? [aside to Jeff and Nick here... I think I just came up with a new "rule".. cue nefarious laughter]
I think a “success” for me with NO MEDIA would be seeing interesting new work inspired by something that happened at one of the Events, something that wouldn’t have come together otherwise..
JK: >I know Jeff has mentioned interest in hosting NO MEDIA in different venues thus drawing different artists and crowds – is this ideal for the interests of NO MEDIA?
Yes, absolutely. Our goal is to host each NO MEDIA event at a different venue with the hope that the change of location will increase diversity in participants. We are really pushing for different media[ums] to sign up for the events in order to keep the events fresh. My hope is that NO MEDIA has the possibility of providing collaborations with folks outside of an artist’s normal social/art circle. To that extent, anyone can sign up for NO MEDIA: it’s open sign up, low pressure, and the format openly accepts failure. Plus, diversity in performers usually creates more unexpected realtime results, which is really fun to watch/listen/experience.
>Do you foresee particular audiences and artists working in various other mediums responding to the rules in vastly different ways? If so, why do you think that might be?
I would certainly hope so. When drafting the rules for NO MEDIA, we certainly were aware of the multi-media flexibility. Particularly the first rule:
NO preparation is allowed. Bring your tools, devices, instruments, props, etc., but you’ve got to start with a blank slate. NO time will be allotted for ‘setup’.]
We are definitely interested in overlapping the rules with performance practices that may not have thought about these types of constraints in their practice before. How does one approach the same rule using different media? What if you’ve never considered your practice media-based? Then, how would one approach these generalized rules? Part of what makes the NO MEDIA event so indeterminate is that performers from different disciplines have to react to these questions in realtime with three other artists without (hopefully) any prior consideration. NO MEDIA builds this exploration of “finding something” in realtime with other artists you’ve potentially never met before. It’s a really exciting moment.
MK: In re-reading some of the questions and answers from this past week, I wanted to revisit something:
>Jeff: And also interested in how the “No Documentation” rule/constraint actually creates awareness rather than preventing it.
Is there any way that the rules are a response to a perceived lack of awareness that many in the media and artworld talk/comment on? There seems to be a new article everyday either proving/disproving the use of media in the classroom or the breakdown of American literacy because of the 140-character tweet. Since NO MEDIA also focuses on the audience and the audience’s experience, do any of you have any thoughts on watching/engaging in performance and its greater/broader relationship to our experience of the world? Is this a consideration you’ve had?
Also, do you see any affinities between the series you’ve created and the goals you’ve set for it and early performance work and happenings? There are major differences obviously in the types of constraints from those early days, but it seems that the principle is rather similar – it’s about being there and witnessing what could happen in the space. Is NO MEDIA trying to recapture in some way this emphasis on first-hand experience? Does this is some way react against a lot of work that is made about the unnecessity of actually experiencing work in person (I’m thinking particularly of Brad Troemel here)
NB: echo’n && reiterate’n on this…
>I know Jeff has mentioned interest in hosting NO MEDIA in different venues thus drawing different artists and crowds – is this ideal for the interests of NO MEDIA? Do you foresee particular audiences and artists working in various other mediums responding to the rules in vastly different ways?
+ connecting that with this:
>Is there any way that the rules are a response to a perceived lack of awareness that many in the media and artworld talk/comment on?
re:lack of awareness and/or lack of perspective, >> its tuff to gain perspective on your context when you’re on the inside looking out. Once in a conversation with Jason, he mentioned that he notices how at improvisational noise shows the artists often fall back on the same tropes/conventions. This doesn’t mean the artists aren’t being spontaneous, but rather that they’re doing so within a set of conventions. This isn’t inherently a problem, after all it’s these conventions that define the context (i.e. there are particular rhythms bossa nova musicians improvise on, these structures can be seen as limits/restrains but also help identify what’s happening as bossa nova). For me this only becomes a problem when the artist doesn’t realize they’re restraining their work to fit w/in these conventions (because it’s become such an invisible norm). I think this is where mashing up improvisational performers from different disciplines becomes interesting, when different sets of tropes/conventions are forced to reconcile w/each other in realtime… you can’t ignore ‘em.
>Also, do you see any affinities between the series you’ve created and the goals you’ve set for it and early performance work and happenings?
Oh yea absolutely, I think this is obvious ^_^ while it may not have been a direct reference at first I think there are lots of parallels, namely the interdisciplinary nature and the interest in (the alternative) value of ephemeral/uncommodifiable art situations.
MK: Thank you Jason, Nick, and Jeff for taking the time to talk with me about NO MEDIA!
JK: NO MEDIA is in the works for May, so keep an eye out on our tumblr for event and date specifics!
With certain currents in the contemporary art world pulling out of the gallery and museum box and into the spaces of everyday life, social relationships have come into focus as the site of many artistic projects. Increasingly, self-organized creative types pick up with simple materials, a group of friends, and an idea to enact change in their various communities by participating in and with them. Between Chicago (Bad at Sports’ hometown) and New York City (my hometown) there are two similar projects – with varying regard to an art world dialog – that center on a waste-not-want-not brand of idealism. Encouraging inventive approaches to everyday repair problems, Community Glue Workshop (Chicago, IL) and Fixers Collective (Brooklyn, NY) have each been building community by tinkering with and fixing things. All kinds of things. I recently had the good fortune of sitting down with Ally Brisbin and Carla Bruni of Community Glue Workshop, and Vincent Lai of Fixers Collective to discuss their respective work.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
Juliana Driever: Can you describe, generally, what you do and how you each got started?
Ally Brisbin: I think it was probably in May or June of 2012, when Carla posted a link to a New York Times article about the repair café movement in the Netherlands on Facebook, wanting to start something similar. I saw it and responded immediately. I own a coffee shop, called Kitchen Sink – which is how I know Carla, she comes into the shop. It seemed like Community Glue Workshop would be a natural thing that we could start, so we began reaching out to folks in our network who could help us. We found a designer, found people who could donate their time and tinkering abilities, made a WordPress site and a Facebook page and launched it within two months. It took off and got a great response right away. We have a crew of about six fixers who have been with us since the beginning. We have been doing one fix per month at my cafe in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. But next month, in April, we’ll be doing our first fix at a new location, StoryStudio Chicago, so we can reach a new audience and hopefully get new faces in the door.
Community Glue Workshop organizers Ally Brisbin (left) and Carla Bruni (right) at a repair clinic on November 18, 2012 at Brisbin’s coffee shop Kitchen Sink.
Vincent Lai: Fixers Collective started in the 2008-09 season when Proteus Gowanus, the gallery in Brooklyn that hosts us, organized its annual thematic exhibition schedule around the idea of “mend.” I started up with Fixers Collective in 2010, after a friend of mine who was interested in fixing umbrella fabric told me about it. I came on board because I wanted to fix. Period. I do it for the sake of being very hand-sy, working with my hands, and to repair things that probably would go in a landfill, or would be shredded. There’s a lot of value that can be re-captured with a little tinkering. I’ve been active with the Facebook page, outreach to the community, we’ve been at the Maker Faire the past few years in New York, and there are a lot of other things that are developing on the horizon, too.
JD: Was Fixers Collective something that came together because of the show at Proteus Gowanus? Or was it something that was starting up already?
VL: During that season, there were workshops, and people would come and sit around and fix things. And actually, part of the exhibit was not only the things they were fixing, but also the tools used. At the end of the night, when you put your things down, a large Plexiglas shield would be placed over the table, so the next day you saw the work in progress.
Carla Bruni: So, it’s like a performance.
VL: Yes, exactly. It’s part performance. So, after the season ended, People still wanted to fix, and we’ve been getting together on a regular basis since then.
JD: So, would you say that you started fixing things from an art context?
VL: Yes, we did start from an art/gallery context, and we would still like to keep the art context as much as possible. I think without it, we would just become just a repair shop. We try to discourage that concept, where people may come in and ask, “Can I just drop this off?” We tell people that they really need to be there to participate in a performance.
CB: We don’t come from a performance perspective – it’s more of an environmental perspective – and the community focus is just as important. Just to do repair is not enough. We do get people like that, but most of the time we get a lot of people coming back to participate again – because we figure things out together. For us, it’s not really an art angle, it’s a community angle. But we are also intuitively aware that to do it just as a straight-on repair shop would not be as rich of an experience.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
JD: What’s a popular fix?
CB: Good Lord, are there a lot of lamps! People bring in three at a time. It’s outrageous.
VL: I know that we can count on having at least one lamp for each session, unless it’s specifically geared to something else. Other things we get on a regular basis are small kitchen appliances. We do see toasters, blenders, food processors, coffee grinders and a lot of issues with motors or switches.
AB: We get clothes a lot, too. We have a little rotating stable of seamstresses, so we always have one sewing machine. One time I had the shirt I was wearing repaired, my friend had the skirt she was wearing repaired, all during the the event …So you just go and hide in the bathroom while they’re stitching up the holes, and then throw it back on. We get a lot of broken ceramics, too. I think because our name is Community Glue…
CB: Right, because some people think the fixes would be limited to that. At least one fix every workshop requires gluing things, and it’s usually me who ends up gluing things back together. Oh, and bikes, too. We have a guy who comes in and repairs bikes, and more so when the weather gets warmer. It’s huge because it’s so expensive.
VL: We don’t get a lot of bike repairs because there’s an organization in NYC that has done a lot with reuse and repair called Recycle-A-Bicycle. They do a lot of community outreach, so we may see a bike repair once a quarter.
Community Glue Workshop fixer Paul Bassett (left) helps Jorge Sanchez get a floor lamp back into working order at a repair clinic.
JD: There is an aspect of folk pedagogy in what you each do – where learning is happening in more social, participatory and informal ways. I think of a gathering like quilting circles, where community knowledge was passed down through talking and interacting and the simple fact of being there and being hands-on. Have you observed this? What are the effects of this more personal exchange of knowledge?
CB: I think it’s been a really important part of what we’re doing. One thing that’s especially great is when kids come in and they’re blown away when they understand that you can “look under the hood,” so-to-speak, and actually see how things connect. I used to do this when I was a kid, but you don’t really see that anymore. In general, the issue of why we don’t use our hands is a big part of why, philosophically, this project is so interesting to us.
VL: I find myself using the phrase, “Project-Based Learning Initiative” partly because I heard that phrase used by Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari. I was attending the Games for Change conference, and he made a wonderful case for project-based learning for an educational model in schools. He listed a bunch of roles that teachers play right now – being an entertainer, a clerk, a disciplinarian. But, you can remove all of those roles if you’re engaged in a project-based learning model. So, I think it’s important to have people come over and hang around and idle. The more people around you, the more valuable the experience. Of particular interest are the slice-of-life observations that are made when all sorts of people come in with their stories. We’ll hear stories about manual fixes and what people would call “ghetto fixes,” and I think so much of this wouldn’t be possible if you were just doing it by yourself in your garage.
CB: You do get to hear a lot about the things other people are working on. There was a guy at the last workshop who works with a group that takes stuff out of alleys and makes franken-machines. It’s a bit different from our mission, but it’s obviously related, and we get to know a lot of people like that who are super handy and help out.
JD: Do you also think about how your work might take on outcomes that are less practical, perhaps in the way it might address larger social issues? What are the large-scale implications in working toward these smaller-scale “fixes?”
AB: For me, it’s to draw attention to the fact that our culture is so obsessed with the disposable. We’re so far removed from nature and even from trades. Everybody’s job is digital – and it’s not real, it’s not tangible – so even objects become these things that you can just delete. But, you can’t really. It goes somewhere. Someone made it, and probably in a sweatshop. So, I think about how we need to stop feeding the beast, and reduce what we’re using.
CB: I come from a historic preservation background, where we re-use entire buildings. In terms of green building rating systems, you’re rewarded for replacing everything, not for keeping things and repairing them. Even in system that was designed to make us more environmentally friendly, it’s a totally throw-away culture, it’s all about consumption still…which is of course why were in this problem in the first place. I was feeling frustrated by this for years, so that’s a large part of the thrust for me. But, it also it makes me sad that kids, and people in general, don’t know how to fix anything anymore. We’re losing a lot of our ability to solve problems creatively. Plus, it’s fun! People don’t come here to be on an assembly line, they come for the challenge of problem solving.
VL: What I think about the most is computer electronic recycling. I was a first-hand witness to all of the stuff that got turned in for recycling – or the phrase that I would rather use: “wrapping and shredding.” People mistake certain recycling for reuse, and they think that when they turn it in for recycling, it’s going to get reused. However, a lot of what gets turned in gets wrapped up, and sent to a shredder and chopped up for scrap metal. I’ve seen MacBooks that didn’t need to go to recycling, they just needed to a $20 replacement chip. So, in this town, the throw-away culture is strongly evident with computers and electronics, and the people who recycle it don’t reuse enough. Recycling is a first line of defense instead of last resort. So, that’s where I want the fixers to intercede, to bring one more line of defense before the recyclable shredding happens. Also, there’s another term that iFixit is throwing around: “product as appliance.” It explains the idea that when something is broken, we can just get a new one. Apple will treat a broken iPad or iPhone in the same way another company will approach a broken blender or toaster: by throwing it away and replacing it. So, that’s what we try to fight, too.
CB: Even when something is being recycled as we are told it is going to be, is very energy intensive. Additionally, with downcycling, it’s really grating to me when someone wants to take an item – say a really nice guitar – that is a bit warped and make it into a flowerpot. Anything can be a flowerpot! You’re taking a $500 guitar that needs a little TLC and a small part and downcylcing it. That drives me nuts — taking these really complex appliances that can last so much longer and essentially turning them into a concrete bowl. Give it another life! Instead of just downcycling everything that way, get as much as you can out of objects that are superior products or built for certain functions, that took a lot of energy to create. It’s hard to describe our mission to people because they think we’re tying to repurpose things since that’s what’s so hip now. I do that stuff too, but I’m also very mindful of that fact that this whole piece is missing: don’t repair things as they were. I think there needs to be that faction, too.
It was a full house at Kitchen Sink, host to Community Glue Workshop repair clinic, on November 18, 2012.
JD: When as a culture, we’re so taken with the disposable and the new, I’d imagine that you might have bumped up against the perception that your projects hold a kind of old-school, greatest generation mentality. Do you see the idea of re-use strike a chord again in recent years, during our economic downturn?
AB: I hope so, and it might be that I’m surrounded by more progressive folks, but I’m praying for a return to our roots. I like what’s happening with the recent return to community gardening projects, and how people want to produce their own food with a real interest and concern over where it comes from. It’s becoming hip to shun processed, terrible, chemical-laden food, and I think it goes hand-in-hand, with the idea that increasingly people want to get into their possessions and know how they work. I think that an interest in food can turn into a privileged passion, but the repair movement is certainly not a privileged endeavor. It’s extremely accessible and it makes sense for those who can’t afford to buy organic, or shop at Whole Foods. But, I think we’ve got a ways to go before we affect Middle America.
CB: I think people also miss working on things. Someone will pay a silly amount of money to go to a workshop, and put a couple of screws in a couple pieces of wood to make a bench, just because they want so badly to know they made a bench. So, they’ll pay $50 for someone to hand them a piece of wood and give them permission to make something. It’s great that this is happening, but I feel like it’s a sign of how removed people are from real things and how desperate we are to feel like we can make something again and be involved with our environment.
VL: The Mend exhibit, and in turn Fixers Collective, happened in part because of the financial collapse, so I would speculate that a lot of people came in on the defensive to just say, “Oh my God, I need this thing fixed.” So, then we just guided their hands through the process as they fixed it up. But, I’m hoping that these same people would come back later and want to sit down and fix things and be with others. We see that greatest generation mentality come in, and we have a fun time putting that up against a MacBook or an iPod that need fixing.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
JD: How have you observed gender roles coming into play in these gatherings? Are the women doing sewing, and the men doing electrical work?
CB: It does kind of break out that way.
AB: We mostly have men as volunteers, the only women who volunteer are doing sewing, and it just so happens that the men do everything else.
VL: If you look at recent Facebook pictures of our one of our patching sessions, you’ll see one of our Master Fixers, Tony, working the sewing machine to seam back up his jeans. Some of us make a really active effort to jump and cross those gender role gaps. It’s there, but we do also see instances where you would expect it, but then expectations are thwarted. There was a news article that surfaced recently about a bridge in Brooklyn that is going to be reconstructed, and the Department of Transportation is actively seeking women to work on the reconstruction. The organization working on this project is called Nontraditional Employment for Women, and we had one of their members to come in and fix our power saw. It’s there, we’re aware of it, and because we’re aware of it we make an effort to go outside of those expectations.
AB: What are we going to call a guy who brings in his sewing machine one day? A “seamster?” A tailor? I tried to call them “sew-ers” one time in a Facebook update, and someone wrote in, “Hey, it looks like you wrote ‘sewers.’”
Hackney in East London is an area which could easily be compared to Brooklyn: it is also London’s poorest borough and has become a breeding nest for artist.
I get off the bus and the wind almost knocks me off my feet. Sophie Adams, an artist whom I’d pitched tonight’s event is following. The streets are silent; everyone is wrapped in heavy winter jackets since a five day blizzard has been sweeping away any hope of summer.
Our destination is an old Inn I thought closed for a long time. The Islam green paint is peeling off and scaffoldings are plugged onto the pub’s façade like a fixation ring on a triple fracture. Through the window, there are no more chairs, no tables, the juke box is burst open; panels have been ripped off the wall and the paper is shredded; what was once a warm public house has been lynched and hurled in a corner left in shock. As the door opens Sophie hides behind me.
We are here for Black Metal Chicken an event organised by the band Corporate Psychosis, an apocalyptic noise band funded by Henrik Heinonen with Oscar Gaynor and Matthew Peers. At first it looks like the building is being squatted and these events are not common in London. Since squatting was made a criminal offence in the wake of the 2012 Olympics as part of a right-wing “clean-up”, it is tough: facing a maximum imprisonment of 6 months and a hefty £5.000 ($7600) fine, most places would avoid promoting their cultural stand unless acting for the community. But this is not a squat, it’s a rented space that will be knocked down in a month and turned into flats.
It is colder inside than outside but at least we’re off the freezing wind; booze will be de riguer. Two sofas, a large wooden table and a huge brown chrysalid mounted on the wheeling stem of an office chair are what makes the furniture. An empty television with a mannequin’s face in it is lit by red spotlights; wrapped in the leg of a woman’s tight, little hooks are stringed to tiny engines pulling on the fabric; the face swells. It’s repelling, edgy and bleak.
“Mutation and identity is what’s center to my work, it is noisey, a kind of kitsch overload,” tells me Victor Ivanov a tall and broad bleached blond man. “What’s the plan tonight? What are we meant to see?” I bluff. “We don’t know…yet,” he answers secretly. “We have been asked to be here but we don’t know what we are meant to do. Although we have ideas but we are just waiting for them to be called into action.”
For the next 20 minutes I will be talking with Ivanov and Andie Macario – another of the artist who wears a luxurious violet wig she combs with her fingers. We discuss London and how much we all struggle to afford a living. Sophie comes back from the corner shop with a bottle of vodka and a mango juice carton.
People slowly arrive and I can tell looking at their faces that I am the only one who knows what is going to happen: risky masochistic performance, violent creative clashes mocking humanity, Noise – but in what order?… The lights are dimmed and candles are lit up. There is no music but the constant hubbub of people conversation as the place is filling up.
It’s nine pm and it seems that nothing is in the way to start. Artists have mixed with the crowd, and they don’t know what is meant to happen. They seem to be waiting for the curator, Heinonen running around hectically, like a Gerbil in a small cage. In fact it’s all in the role play he’ll later tell me. “Are you the ceremony master?” I ask him. “I got Ivanov and Macario to be present here tonight because I trust what they do and I like the way they work, they are very serious.”
“Tonight there is a collection of people who are concerned about what is happening to us. But I wouldn’t call myself a curator. I hate the word curator; my work is more like “organising exhibition”. It starts with a space, place, site and it always has some particularly meaning, narrative, its history and also ideological connotations that comes with the space, which you have to take into account. I don’t work in a studio, I am not into this tradition of gallery space and so on. I think we have to figure out something else, something different from art with a big “A”.”
Suddenly, we’re told it’s time to eat and that “black food” will be served. On the table are smoking breaded lamb hearts, fried calves liver, haggis, roasted aubergine and black bread, all free of charge. It feels like a feast of vanity. “Why Black Metal Chicken?” I ask Ivanov. “Because we wanted to stuff speakers into that cooked chicken and play Black Metal through it.”
Then there’s a move. As about fifteen of us are sat around the table, the Benny Hill tune is hurled out of the speakers from the back of the pub and I see Ivanov wrapping his hands around Macario’s neck, strangling her. Macario’s face has turned a reddish mauve; she coughs, a touch of white foam forming at the corner of her mouth, gasping for air like a fish out of water. It doesn’t feel real but I can tell by the sombre air behind Ivanov’s mask that he is choking her. Everyone has left the table, and stand around the performing couple. Should it be stopped?
“Why are we watching that? Are you all right?” erupts Sophie. Macario is about to pass out.
And release. The music stops and a long silence floats thick in the air. It was somewhere sexy but very grotesque and we watched. Till the end. He could have left her dead. We wouldn’t have moved…
But it was meant to be a performance; something shocking that was played to aggress. Adrenaline had kicked in and it was hard to go back to the food. We wanted more. Suddenly, the whole place roared with discussions.I hear that it was the first time they’d performed in front of other people. Ivanov is shaking, speaks very fast and occasionally stutters. “It was a good feeling but there were dangers. It was good because nobody knew what was going to happen, then this girl asks “are all right darling?” It was quite something.”
He seems hard for him to stay focus. Sophie appears on my back: “I thought the timing was good,” she says. “Just as the audience were eating, helping themselves to food. If I didn’t know it was a performance, I would have been concerned, it relied heavily on our knowledge and trust that this was a performance. I think, they were trying to communicate the uncanny, notions of sadism, the erotic. Perhaps, too, how vulnerable we are to another person’s decision to harm us?”
“It was nerve racking,” says Macario very slowly. “I didn’t know when it was coming. We decided not have control when it was actually done so the curator put on the Benny Hill theme tune and we got cued in.” The anticipation as well was quite…But I have quite a high tolerance. I am in the fetish theme and I have this character that has a name, she is a performer and she likes to be looked at…it’s kind of pieced to my art practice; it is a separate theme but I like to do things in public. Throughout my whole life I have been fed this idea that women are baby making machines and need to serve their man; I like to play with the idea of over-performing feminine identity through the use of drag and creating various characters for myself.”
“Is it artistic?” I ask.
“I am an artist first and it is part of the world of the artist to perform a character as well; or a caricature from themselves. Because that’s only the way you are able to be free and to be truly yourself. Because it’s okay for an artist to be crazy; it’s acceptable.”
“You are quite limited, you have quite a lot of boundaries as a person. When you’re an artist, or a performer it gives you this elevated freedom that perhaps you wouldn’t have normally.”
The second act starts. Heinonen puts on his baby mask and follows destructive sound performance with made up guitar, keg drumming and screams and shouts.
At that point I just wandered where I’d walked into. I was baffled and very much wandering whether this had any aesthetic sense or any meaning really. It felt as if we’d come to a point of transition, that moment when genre mutates and it’s dirty and we put everything together and, chew, eat and digest; aesthetic was being stretched beyond rupture point to find its limits and ours. Theory and beauty mixed with the bloody guts of feminism, artifice and hyperreality. I saw rituals, erotico-porno art; hazy narratives and no reliable truths.
However, I felt the whole a bit too clumsy. As if playing too much with the shock factor in a way that “this shouldn’t be shown, so here it comes.” I saw their approach as a sort of unfocused radiating violence; they don’t speak; they shout. They don’t cuddle; they choke. They recycle the streets, they “attack” morals, social behavior and contracts, all at once and from every direction. A bit like a campaign without program.
Heinonen would later tell me that it started as a joke during a video show of Raymond Petitbon until it evolved into Black Metal Chicken.
The group believes that we are all “un-dead corpses” or “human being without a subject” since we live in a world preconditioned for social performance. Comparing liberal democracy to a totalitarian regime like Soviet Communism, Fascism or National Socialism, they engage the crowd to discuss and react within their own socio-political “trauma” in order to redefine themselves.
In a very Adorno-istic way, the group concentrates on cultural criticism and it’s modernity: machine, violence, hyper reality and Post modernism exclusion: we have wandered too far out of the cave and lost our sense of humanity and the best way to re-identify as human beings is to test our morals; our emotions; our senses and nerves, all of what makes us humans.
“I am little bit more optimistic,” Heinonen cuts. “This is what I try to express, I don’t know if I succeed but our identity, ourselves is passed on to us by our parents and family and our identity is a form of power, limitation and control. Out of this we have to go “too far” if we are seriously gonna have some form understanding of ourselves. Seeing shocking images on the internet, where people are almost abusing themselves, as hard as I can, I try to see humanity in there. I try to see something beautiful or touching, or something that tells about this person, what is inside him or her. See, I take Harmony Korine (Gummo, Spring Breakers) work very seriously, I think he manages to do something good out of this crazy jumble of stories, It’s grotesque but it’s beautiful.
In my previous post, I have presented a series of scenes which highlight the enmeshment of humans and nonhumans both on theatrical stages and in the world at large. I have also suggested that such interconnectedness calls into question the pursuit of autonomy and emancipation as it was set up by discourses on modernity and modernism. Today, I will start to expand on that topic by trying to show, in a very concise way, how the modern pursuit of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” ended up surrounding humans with mirror-images of themselves, eventually making narcissism a condition for modernity.
According to Kant, the Age of Enlightenment was the moment in history when humankind realised that autonomy from nature and free use of reason were its ultimate destiny. However, because thought had limits, Enlightenment was not only a programme aimed at the progressive liberation of reason but also, because of that, a project of critique, of recognising the barriers which thought mustn’t cross if it is to produce valid knowledge. As a result, Kant eventually claimed that, because things in themselves are outside the mind and are only able to be judged once they have been converted into thoughts, thought is only ever able to think thought and never the things outside thought to which thought itself refers.
Following that, it is possible to identify the formation of a double separation of humans from “Nature” in Kant’s project for Enlightenment: not only are humans separated from “Nature” once through the development of their exclusive mental faculties, but those mental faculties themselves, due to the conditions that must be in place for their correct operability, end up producing a second separation, this time a separation of through from world in itself.
It is this twice-enforced divide between human and world that can still be seen today as the epistemological paradigm grounding a great amount of work falling under the academic banner of ‘critical thought’ in the Arts and Humanities, a dominant methodology of scholarly work perhaps better represented by Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge. However, a crucial difference separates Kant from Foucault: whereas the former wanted to map the absolute limits of thought, the latter aimed to demonstrate how knowledge is always indissociable from power in order to then consider the possibility of future epistemological transgressions.
From Feminism to Queer Theory, from Deconstruction to Postcolonial Theory, the critical ethos of the Humanities, much indebted to Foucault’s work, has taken as its job to reflect upon the limits of human knowledge in order to understand how what is taken for granted is in fact produced at the level of discourse through complex articulations of power and knowledge. By focusing on the performative nature of knowledge—how knowledge does rather than is—the critical project seeks to separate the arbitrary from the necessary in order to reveal how realities previously assumed to be universal are instead historically contingent. However, by falling victim to an uncontrollable suspicion of knowledge, contemporary critique ends up betraying itself as the only certainty it allows, the only truth claim it leaves unturned, is the one upon which critique itself depends for its own survival, i.e. the one that posits the historical contingency and performative nature of all knowledge.
The problem is that whereas the critical enterprise had, following the dawn of Modernity, been rightly concerned with calling into question beliefs such as those advanced by various religious doctrines and replacing them with scientifically validated facts, at the start of the 21st century and there being no beliefs left to disprove, criticality has now started targeting objective facts themselves, often by negating their existence or by turning them into a mere product of their dialectical counterpart, the observing human subject and its usage of language. Today, after the so-called ‘objective reality’ was found to always be the result of power-knowledge formations, human discourse has become the true cause of the world itself.
The unfortunate outcome of that phenomenon is clear: while scholars spend their time trying to expose the true conditions of (human) knowledge, the arbitrary nature of everything we know, very real phenomena are having rather real consequences: global warming is happening, the Arctic ice cap is melting, natural resources are diminishing, sea levels are rising, and old and new pandemics are still killing millions (unless you can pay to survive). In short, widespread critique has contributed for society’s inability to act upon issues as pressing as persisting social inequalities or climate change. Furthermore, whereas, in Foucault’s case, for instance, it was a tool of progressive left wing politics, today it has been taken up by right wing conservatives who use it to deny the reality of ongoing ecological disaster and even by fascists like those who insist Auschwitz never happened. In the 21st century, the only thing humanity seems to be able to do is to argue while hoping that one day the cows will eventually come home by themselves.
What we have ended up with is a species obsessed with itself, unable to grasp anything other than its own reality. In good ‘ol Kantian fashion, thought is the only certainty; everything outside of it is just a muddy grey area. And so we are left able to look at nothing other than ourselves: our qualities, our capacities, our politics, our beauty (this latter, I hope to develop in my next post). Like Narcissus stuck by the lake or—better—like Narcissus drown in the lake, drown in itself breathing the water of his own reflection (happily ever after), we keep going until the day comes when, to misquote British poet Peter Reading, after heat waves and after heats deaths we reach absolute zero.
March 25, 2013 · Print This Article
Culture’s a funny thing; so many of us accept it as a ubiquitous and powerful force, yet we tend to undervalue the level to which it influences our choices. Cognitive dissonance of the highest magnitude.
I’ve seen this in high-relief over the last 18 months, commuting between Wisconsin and Brooklyn. From television to cuisine to high-art, culture seems bent on sanding us down even as we strut about thinking of ourselves as unique splinters in the side of society. And me too, flying back-and-forth, literally feeling above the fray in mind and distance. But with my family settled safely in Wisconsin, all that commuting ends soon. At which point I’ll be back on the ground, in the fray, trying to protect my nose and exposed fingers from the ever-normalizing orbital sander of prevailing culture.
April 8 will by my last Thoughts from the Cultural Divide from the trenches.
Speaking of rugged individuals and sandpaper, today I showed my class the famous photo of ‘The Irascibles’ along with segments of Hans Namuth’s videos of Jackson Pollock in East Hampton. The imagery seemed especially dated this time around. So musty and conservative. I had to work harder than usual to remind myself that the New York School once represented a viable avant-garde. One woman. All white and self-satisfied. All in suits and clean-shaven, though Theodoros Stamos has a mustache in the photograph that would humble the most pretentious Brooklyn bartender.
As mothballed as the New York School seemed this morning, the contemporary alternative as described in Randy Kennedy’s New York Times article about contemporary social practice didn’t seem any more promising when I read it tonight.
The piece, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture” describes a movement of art centered on affecting social change rather than making objects for the marketplace. All fine; fighting for a good cause is hardly something to root against. But the quick rise of this approach to art feels somewhat overt to me. My suspicion is that social practices, like much art throughout history will end up sacrificing content on the altar of self-conscious form. Form that will become apparent only after the initial seduction of the movement has evaporated. Or to paraphrase Roland Barthes from Mythologies, “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot of it brings one back to it.”
Even more to the point, and to my skepticism, Michael Kimmelman from a piece called “DIY Culture”, in the New York Times a few years back:
“The myth of an avant-garde serves the same market forces avant-gardism pretends to overthrow. Art may challenge authority; and popular culture (this includes clownish demagogues like Glen Beck) sometimes makes trouble for those in charge, the way Thomas Nast’s cartoons did for Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall. But art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has, not in 19th-century France or 20th-century Russia or 21st-century China or Iran. Even when it manages to tilt popular thinking, it still ends up within the bounds of existing authority, and there has never been a true “outside” that really stayed outside: public consumption, by definition, adapts to the change, co-opts and normalizes all culture.”
The pop analogy I often use to explain this phenomenon is the life cycle of a fashionable name. Take, “Jennifer” over the last 50 years. Not biblical and of obscure origin, the name just kind of tipped over into the popular consciousness in the 20th century. It went from the 20th most popular name in 1965, to 10th in 1966. It was the single most popular baby name from 1970 through 1984, but by 2000 it had fallen out of the 25, usurped by all the Abigails, Brianas and Madisons. While one can’t determine which mothers were channeling popular consciousness and which were drawing from their own independent creative sources, the numbers suggest most are a case of the former.
Like Jennifers, art come in waves that build, crest and crash. This might all sound a bit cynical, but it shouldn’t. It’s not the name “Jennifer,” nor that my neighbor here has a Green Bay Packers flag mounted to his house, nor making art as social practice that pricks me, it’s that the numbers, the movements and the waves all suggest that culture is shaping us while we think we are in control. That we picked ‘Jennifer’, and the handlebar mustache, and the social practice, and the DIY collective gallery space in Ridgewood, when in fact, they probably picked us. And, who knows, maybe you were inspired, but we should have some humility because the numbers show that you and I aren’t as fiercely independent as we might think.
I’ve also gleaned via crude armchair sociology over the past year-and-a-half that, yes, it’s probably true that Brooklyn gets bartenders with handlebar mustaches a year or two earlier than Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but being the first to start a wave of pretentious affection is a dubious distinction, and simply more proof of cultural homogenization, not individuality. And we should make doubly sure that our art doesn’t follow the same trend psychology that our facial hair does.
So I suggest we leave the handlebar mustaches to Theodoros Stamos and try to avoid being battered and worn down by the relentless waves of culture.