Chicago, we be Microbroadcasting!

January 30, 2014 · Print This Article

Hey Chicago,

We are embarking upon a new little project. Over the next 80 or so weeks we are going to do a series of micro broadcast studio interviews with the local heros that we have some how forgotten or over sited in our slapdash and ramshackle scheduling.

That’s right, I said we are going to be live on the radio – boom – step back. Minds blown. But sadly, only for the few blocks around the interviewed artists studio. How it will work is, a few days before the broadcast we will let you know roughly where and roughly when we are going to do the chat. Then we will rock it out, if you are interested show up in the neighborhood with a radio and find us. We will, of course, archive the conversation and release it at our leisure some time in the near-ish future.

We are going to get started Monday around 8:30 pm in Albany Park near Lawrence and Kimball with Carl Baratta and Oli Watt. I’m pretty sure we are going to rock 91.1 fm. (#neverforget) It is going to be magic.

As we move forward with micro broad casting chicago art or the MBCCA project we need a little help from you. Here is how…

We need to figure out our initial list of the people whose contributions to our art history or the Chicago arting life have been so big that it is embarrassing that we have not already had them on the show.  We have been compiling a list (which I have carved into my studio wall) but it doesn’t feel complete.

We have a lot of the obvious people Jessica Stockholder, Michael Rakowitz, Jeanne Dunning, Dan Peterman, Barbara Rossi, Phil Hanson, David Hartt, Karl Wirsum, John Sparagana, Susanne Doremus, Gladys Nilsson, Doug Ischar, Kay Rosen, Phyllis Bramson, Jim Nutt… I could go on, possibly forever, but what we would like to know is, who do you think it is important to get on the record? Who do you think that it is tragic and disappointing that we have not already rocked the mic with? To that end, I am enabling comments again, but just for this specific post, in the hopes that we collectively can produce a list which reflects the gaps in Bad at Sports audio production and archive.  That being said, I’m reserving the right to delete any comment I want for any minor infraction upon human decency.

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Top 5 Weekend Picks! (1/31-2/2)

January 30, 2014 · Print This Article

1. Time Traveler at Johalla Projects

Untitled (Sunspot)

Curated by Tyler Blackwell, with work by Thomson Dryjanski, Ethan Gill, Nina Hartmann, Sean Lamoureux, Laura Hart Newlon, Lauren Payne, Joseph Rynkiewicz and Erin Washington.

Johalla Projects is located at 1821 W. Hubbard St. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.

2. Tableware and Some Pictures at Paris London Hong Kong

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Work by Laura Letinsky.

Paris London Hong Kong is located at 845 W. Washington Ave. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.

3. Single Use at Aspect/Ratio

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Work by Nick Albertson.

Aspect/Ratio is located at 119 N. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.

4 & 5. 2nd Floor Rear at multiple locations in Logan Square and Bucktown

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A 24 hour festival of art in alternative and temporary spaces.

Receptions and events from 12pm Saturday to 3pm Sunday.

Bovary Blues: Dispatch from the Virtual Site of (Post) Feminism’s Fourth Wave

January 30, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Virginia Konchan

 

“Feminism is  . . . just a gimmick to attract some voters who place gender above any other issue. Respecting the rules of the Money Power during a campaign means toeing the line of oligarchy while in power.   Neither men nor women benefit from this.  [Hilary] Clinton and her neoliberal allies are hijacking feminism and the rhetoric of diversity.”

 

—Pierre Guerlain, Truthout

 

“There is no liberation that only knows how to say ‘I.’   There is no collective movement that speaks for each of us all the way through.”

—Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location”

 

The lampooning of Mitt Romney’s quip in defense to sexist accusations (“I have binders full of women”), aside, the fact remains:  the social status of women as “placeholders” or sex objects in the commodity market is subtended linguistically, and historically:   for a woman to define herself as a subject, not relationally as a wife, daughter, or mother, is to demand a changing of the guards in patriarchal lineage, wherein women are permitted to enter discourse only under the name of the father, or husband, as gatekeepers to signification as well as social recognition.  This antagonism is explained away by Slavoj Žižek as a means of condemning women so as to control the flow of “feminine excess,” threatening to destroy the masculine’s economy of lack (a woman’s performance of these roles for the male gaze or its representative prostheses—camera, video, canvas—the very source of phallic jouissance).

The prohibition against the a priori existence of women as volitional subjects (reproductive femininity as metaphysical and medical “problems”):  a black comedy, indeed.  The inadmissibility of female self-representation unless patrolled by a state-sponsored or private guardianship (marriage) is the subject of Lindy West’s hilarious riposte in Jezebel to the box-office film “Love, Actually”:  in West’s reading, the film accords a “27-word allotment” of speech to women, which character Emma Thompson exceeds.  “Hugh Grant falls instantly in love with Natalie, which is understandable, because she hasn’t yet exceeded her Love Actually attractiveness word quota (Twenty-seven. The quota is 27 words before you become Emma Thompson and must be destroyed.)”

 

Love, Actually

 

The 27-word allotment quip, along with Romney’s “binders” comment, however funny, provide an important metacommentary to post-feminism:  from gaslighting to statistical disproportions in the workplace and economy (documented at VIDA’S The Count), the gag rule of enforced silence is predicated on the objectification of women (dolls don’t talk, unless manufactured to do so):  all representations of female subjectivity not in service of the neoliberal male imaginary are aberrant misfires, and their authors must either be conscripted into un- and underpaid care work within the service economy, or (in First, Second, and Third Worlds), literally punished.

Rebecca Walker coined the term “third-wave feminism” in a 1992 essay:  since then, the Third Wave’s focus on inclusivity has steered second-wave feminism’s struggle against racism, sexism, and classism, toward an active embrace of pop culture and performance, embodied in Eve Ensler’s play and book The Vagina Monologues; the punk rock’s riot grrrls movement; the Guerrilla Girls; singers Madonna, Queen Latifah, and Mary J. Blige, among others, and the women depicted in television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Sex and the City (1998–2004), and Girlfriends (2000–08).  Third Wave cyberfeminists communicate largely through e-zines, blogs, and social media, online feeds proliferating alongside books attempting structural treatments of extant “feminist” aims.   “By about 2000, questions of sexualized behaviour raised debate on whether such things as revealing clothing, designer-label stiletto heels, and amateur pole dancing represented true sexual liberation and gender equality or old oppressions in disguise . . .  [The Third Wave’s] greatest strength, multivocality, was attacked . . . Third-wavers countered this criticism by stating that the creation of a unified agenda or philosophy . . . was a goal that was not only unrealistic but undesirable.”     [1]

The vision of the Third Wave lay not in economic analysis, or activism, per se, but identity politics:   a privileging of diversity, statistical accounting, and aesthetic hybridity.  This rejection of hegemonic culture, however, considering that to divide and conquer is a militaristic strategy imposed from without, the absence of a cohesive vision or praxis, like the Occupy Movement, can potentially weaken a movement, returning us to the question of governance (long abandoned as desirable in a pluralistic democracy ruled instead, ironically, not by a free, self-sufficient citizenry but by mass media and neocon war machines).  Opinions vary on the demarcation between the third and fourth waves of feminism, and what constitutes the “fourth wave,” internationally:  the fourth wave, like the second, focuses on legislative rights, and statistical tracking (e.g. The Counting Dead Women campaign) but also online misogyny, economic parity, and, during the years after the 2008 financial crash and the coalition government, activism against loan predation (education, housing, credit cards), unemployment and under-employment, zero-hours contracts, bedroom taxes, damaging rhetoric against immigrants, the disabled and those who need support from the state. This new generation of feminists are tech-savvy and gender-sophisticated, in part due to trans-health initiatives (e.g. the Feminist Women’s Health Centers in Atlanta) and trans-inclusive organizations like Third Wave Foundation (helmed by feminists in their twenties and thirties).  “Reproductive justice” is an oft-bandied term by fourth-wave feminists, as transgenderism, male feminists, sex work, and complex relationships with the media, spectacle culture, and identity politics structures this aporetic movement.

 

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Anti-essentialism (the recognition that women’s condition is always at odds with women’s differences from one another, as well as their social and economic power), has become the backbone of postmodern feminism:  an academic discipline wherein the idea that subjects (genders, races, and cultures) share intrinsic qualities was exchanged for the “neither/nor” flux of postmodernity’s memes (multiplicity, catachresis).  Anti-essentialist feminism acknowledges difference, yet, the ontological disciplines contextualizing personhood (biology, psychology) have become increasingly irrelevant in post-humanist discourse.  Without the language to mark the difference of one’s body from other bodies, and the subtle conditions (social and epistemological) governing entry into discourse communities, it becomes impossible to articulate the “difference” between human branding and consumer choice, amid a glut of media blitzes offering opportunities for self-fashioning through purchasing power (the diet, fitness, salon, cosmetic, and retail industries).  The cults of personality, hipster cool, and “original” ideas:   priced (commodified), shelved, and sold.

 

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In 2006, and 2008, Toril Moi published two consecutive essays in PMLA, and Feminist Theory, respectively:  entitled ““I Am Not a Feminist, But . . .”:  How Feminism Became the F-Word,” and ‘I am not a woman writer’:  About women, literature and feminist theory today.”  According to Moi, postfeminist culture gradually arose after the debates between Peggy Kamuf and Nancy Miller in the early 80s dismantled a coalitional feminism, and women’s writing and sexual difference as legitimized categories of scholarship and cultural practice.

Poststructuralism also worked to invalidate categories of difference, according to some:  in the 1981 essays by Kamuf and Miller, and their correspondence in 1989, Kamuf objects to the feminist “reduction of the literary work to the signature,” claiming an interest in women’s writing to be simply a feminist version of the liberal humanism Foucault had upended.  Miller believed that regardless of what Kamuf might consider to be theoretically correct, feminists still needed to work on behalf of women writers, otherwise these women would “soon be forgotten, lost to history.”  [2]   By the late 80s, Kamuf (a Derridean translator) had disavowed the word “feminist,” as referencing a closed system which inevitably would end up deconstructing itself.  Miller, conversely, still thought that feminism was politically necessary, but that identity politics had passed.  The path forward was unclear, and critical theory has since been marked by what Alice Jardine calls “non-knowledge”:  asignificatory terms (“non-narration,” “anti-lyric”), also in critical race theory and Lacanian philosophy (woman as “pas tout”), rather than an appositive definition of otherness (however unhelpful, as Judith Butler has argued, such resignifications can be, reentering as they do the undertow of negative dialectics).

Liberal and conservative feminists alike have been accused of essentializing the category of women, just as, in race theory, the accusation of “conceptual blackness” counters that of “conceptual whiteness.”  Neither Kamuf nor Miller exchanged gender-based politics for a class- or race-based feminism, and Marxist feminism dropped off sharply during this decade, though echoes of sociologist Christine Delphy’s manifesto (“women are a class”) reappear today, as women writers move beyond biological and gender essentialism, static genre definitions, and the high theory of écriture féminine, seeking new access points to postmodern socio-political discourse.  “I am interested here in new thought,” says poet Lisa Robertson.  “I am standing dressed in the skin of a sheep or a cow in the occidental forest. My name shall be she to them. It is a shame. It is velvety, voluptuous, and odorous . . . each thing’s hunger is my fate, is universe of the undiscussed.   My name shall be she to them, in grotesque, monstrous, most ancient mixture.   This is a class.”  [3]

Signifiying a movement, in language, or attempting to name a problem, may be recondite, but the struggles for equality, safety and civil rights persist:  complicity in pop culture through the desensitizations of post-ironic media (parodic and slapstick humor), can discharge tension, grief, paranoia, and shame, but perpetuate the underreporting of gender-based violence (a Daily Beast article states only seven percent of these crimes are reported):  the moral relativization of crime coupled with the literality of suffering.  The perpetuation of rape culture will continue for as long as the conversation is one-sided, with rape apologists such as James Taranto, Richard Mourdock, or George Galloway behind the mike (referencing Julian Assange’s sexual assault charges, Galloway argued that if the victim is asleep, it can’t be considered rape:  “This is something which can happen . . . not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.”)

If women are only considered as moving parts (domestic workers, mothers, sex commodities) in a post-industrial assembly line, how can they experience themselves, or other women, as agents of their life, bodies, and vocations, unless precedents are set and laws upheld?   Because rape culture, like every cycle of violence, is perpetuated by silence, victim-blaming, and a lack of solidarity, support for women by women can be difficult to find in a culture where the consequences (from social stigmatization to murder) can result from speaking out against rape, misogyny, or hate speech, in, for example, the U.S. Military, where an increase of females in positions of authority has been countered, according to statistics released by the Pentagon, with a sharp increase in sexual assault.

 

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If the most powerful word in childhood and adult development is “no” (determining what one doesn’t want before developing preferential desires), how useful is an arsenal of “safe words” in sado-masochistic sexual relations, for a woman who hasn’t internalized her right to negotiate the social contract, see its terms as fluid and not compulsory, or decline to participate, at all?   Conscription into sexual and domestic slavery, as well as non-consensual sex, without language, isn’t, then, a question of complacency or complicity.  According to Catharine MacKinnon, Noam Chomsky’s “manufacturing of choice” is the sid pro quo of a woman’s initiation into capitalist relations of gender dominance (“more than one-third of all girls experience sex . . . under conditions that even this society recognizes are forced or at least unequal”):  the manufacturing not just of choice, but desire.  Robin West agrees, questioning how “liberated” is the seeming assent of 21st century women in coerced embraces of, say, domesticity (kitchen, child-rearing), when there doesn’t seem to exist viable alternatives, an outside to capitalism, or another opportunity for labor.   [4]

The culture industry makes a killing marketing sadomasochistic violence (from revenge porn to snuff films) as “sexy,” pumping out images of men as sexual aggressors tasked with “bagging” “having” “shagging” or “nailing” women to maintain social clout, and women, with demurring until the right suitor arrives, initiating only to risk the stigma of promiscuity were the date or relationship to become violent or abusive beyond her ability to identify (name) or control.  Celebrities and pop stars also deliver the message not only of consent, but enjoyment in playing the role of the subjugated:  Brittany Spears’ “I’m a Slave for you,” and Gaga’s “Do What you Want” (with my body), as stylized marketing ploys advertising the woman as penitent whore, as in Sade’s Justine:  a willed, even campy, prostitution of body and self.

 

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The link between the erotic and the pornographic, performed or actual subjection, and pain and pleasure, is not a postmodern perversion, of course:  George Bataille, more than any other modernist, mourned the impossibility of thinking the un-representable (the “holy terror” as Jacques Rancière put it) except by recourse to images of torture and the erotic; Batailles’ Tears of Eros is a paean to Todestriebe (death drive), the “supreme atrocity of nonbeing,” and its transcendence, through art.

If a return to signifying terms (coalitional feminism, eco-feminism, eco-socialism, conscious/creative/cognitive/Bolshivek capitalism) isn’t the answer in resurrecting subject-object relations of mutual acknowledgment and reciprocity, rather than mutually assured destruction or annihilation, can it help?   The democratic dream of rule by the people or moral majority is myopic, to say the least:  as Alexis de Toqueville pointed out in Democracy in America, representational democracy can easily devolve into mob rule:  control by the moneyed elite, reducing the “other” to a wage-laborer, or tokenistic fetish.  Angela Davis argues for the creation and circulation of micronarratives, crucial to providing a dialogic structure for the survival of self, other, and community in protest against historical erasure:  heterogeneous “forms” of representation toppling the vacuous clichés and rhetorics (boosterism, aesthetic volunteerism) of free market capitalism.  [5]

 

Finding new forms of self-articulation outside of these donnés (necessary evils?) are key to exiting the maze:

 

“I love [Zaha Hadid’s] little manifesto ‘Randomness vs. Arbitrariness’ . . . “Randomness in architecture is a visual translation of pure mathematical order and thinking which is guided by logic, whereas arbitrariness has no underlying conceptual logic. . . . A catalogue exists from which they freely copy anything and apply it with little relevance to any situation. But in architecture our responsibilities are far greater: we must create a new dynamics of architecture in which the land is partially occupied. We must understand the basic principles of liberation’ (1982).”  [6]

Questioning the utility of a materialist theory of language, and an aleatory “aesthetic” as emancipatory, Robertson asks if we could differentiate, though writing, beginning with recognizing the difference between intentional, or intentioned (purposed for an other) forms.  How else, in other words, to transition from being an occupied “site” or essentialized collective to a signifying subject, then to recognize chance operations as a means (revolutionary and freeing) yet not a reified end-game in itself?   “Could we recognize that arbitrariness is not in itself liberatory? [ . . . ] How could a text partially occupy a site?”

The actual making of art defies the history of female as muse or amanuensis, whose goal is to accurately translate a male speaker (e.g. Vera Nabakov).  Mimesis, however, since Homer, can also be seen as a procedural stage or apprenticeship:   Mary Wollstonecraft was inspired by the male-dominated the French Revolution, Simone de Beauvoir adopted Sartre’s phallocentric categories, and John Stuart Mill attempted to provide a structural critique of women’s oppression.  “The point is not the origins of an idea (no provenance is pure), but the use to which it is put and the effects it can produce,” says Moi.  [7]

Alicia Ostriker’s Stealing the Language, Prosperpine (1820), by Mary and Percy Byshe Shelley, The Speed of Darkness by Muriel Rukeyser (1960), Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich (1963), Plath and Sexton’s archaeo-mythologies, and works by Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Chris Krauss, Eileen Myles, Ariana Reines, Alice Notely, and many others, are powerful revisionist texts.  In theory, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray have reapproriated Derrida’s writings, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the literary theory of Harold Bloom, and Helene Cixous, the consequences of what she calls “death-dealing binary thought.”

 

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Shock can be used as political tool to anesthetize subjects, so as to smoothly “rewrite” narratives of place, origin, and criminal history:  or erase them all-together.   During a period of post-9/11 cultural paralysis, this subterfuge began, argues Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, with the reappropriation of language, perpetuating the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically.   Neoliberal aesthetics hasn’t helped, decontextualizing the subject from a frame, leaving said “subject” vulnerable to packaging and branding, as an vehicle consumption and cooptation in the legacy of Marx (claimed by Stalinist and Maoist régimes), Orwell, by neocons, and “feminism” by the Bush administration to justify its wars of choice.

Along with textual revisionism, erasure poetics can also provide a necessary ground clearing for the recovery of place (beginning with, as Adrienne Rich noted, a reclamation of the gendered, racial, scarred, female body by differentiating between “the body” and “my body” as a particularized, specific site) and post-colonial, post-imperialist history.  Collier Nogues sets her erasure poems in sites of recollection (her childhood spent at military bases in Japan):  poet Lynn Xu has spoken about her writing as shaped by her childhood in Shanghi.   Erasure poetics (the whiting-out rather than inscribing of the “trace”), unlike silence, acknowledges context:  the self as conceived, stabilized, through mirroring, then made, through overwriting, erasing, or succeeding a precursor’s frame.   (Derrida rightly cites writing as a “pernicious” pharmakon, both remedy and poison:  as an externalization of experience, writing requires citationality to shore up ethos, and any attempts at inscription, in the technocratic age, prompt issues of intellectual property and copyright, parasitism and plagarism.)

However we choose to reconcile with the paradoxical power and vulnerability of language, speaking cogently (or deliriously, as declared by the censors) is crucial to combat non-economic (sexual violence, sex trafficking, reproductive rights) and economic realities for women in an era of contingent labor (decreased wages and job security, declining living standards, unpaid overtime, exacerbation of the double/triple/quadruple shift – and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households).   Uncritical consumption of neoliberal cant (brand yourself, or be branded, and buy, or die), using the rhetoric of female empowerment to justify exploitation, feeds, rather than helps dismantle, capital proliferative anti-logic:  Homo economius’ dog-eat-dog (Darwinian) “laws,” relegating exiled representations to the margins of the canon as minor or, simple inadmissible, as  “literature,” both in form (realpoetik vs. corporatespeak), publication, and distribution.  F@*$ the Bauhaus, in the words of Isa Genzken, German multimedia artist whose works explode notions of scale and perception (the word “no,” in its most eloquent form).

 

darwin

 

 

 

Notes


[1] Encylopedia Brittanica entry on Feminism, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/724633/feminism

[2] Toril Moi, ‘I am not a woman writer’:  About women, literature and feminist theory today,” Feminist Theory, vol. 9(3): 259–271, 2008, pg.

[3] Don Share, reposting of Lisa Robertson’s “Dispatch from Jouhet!,” Harriet, November 11, 2009.

[4] Robin West, “The Difference in Women’s Hedonic Lives:  A Phenomenological Critique of Feminist Legal Theory,” Wisconsin Women’s Law Journal 3 (1987):  94.

[5] Angela Davis, Truthout, May 6, 2013, “Recognizing Racism in the Era of Neoliberalism.”

[6] Share.

[7] Feminist, Female, Feminine, The Feminist Reader:  Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism, Eds. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (London:  Blackwell, 1997), p. 4.

 

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Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace:  A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places.  Co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary, regular contributor to The Conversant and, in 2014, Jacket2, she lives in Chicago.  

Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality: The Operature

January 29, 2014 · Print This Article

Last year I was invited by performance company ATOM-r (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality) to sit in on several rehearsals while they worked on their latest piece together, The Operature. Since that time, the work has had a showing in York, they have produced a book with Pinups Magazine, recently opened a two person exhibition at Julius Caesar in Chicago, and continue to work towards the Chicago premiere of The Operature at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (175 w Washington, Chicago IL) March 21st, 22nd, and 28th 2014. A collection of notes from their rehearsals follows.

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1. Chris’ Back and Thigh

The theater holds between 200 and 300 spectators in six concentric galleries of narrow rows that provide standing room only. The bodies of the recently deceased are laid out as actors, like the dancer to the choreographer, the corpse submits itself to the movements of the doctor. The body following the request of the scalpel, as eager to articulate the interior secrets of the body as the doctor is to discover them.

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2: Justin’s Kidney and Chest

From where I sit in rehearsal I can easily make out the performers as they move about the table. Even as they tower above me, dancing from corner to corner. I need only lift my head slightly to keep them in my full view. The table is to my left. I am thinking about watching, about the pleasures of looking at bodies, and of the duets that emerge from my gaze. The duet between these men, their fingers nimbly grazing their partners torso, weight shared across thighs, every movement mirroring the duet of scalpel and chest, doctor to corpse, witness to theater, and beyond to the dimly lit corners of the farthest circle, where the excitement of discovering the interior of oneself is imagined with each brushing shoulder.

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3: Sam’s Ankle and Neck

Professor, tattoo artist, writer, and sexual misfit Samuel Steward kept a deeply coded and painstakingly noted account of his sexual encounters. Penile measurements sit alongside anecdotes and the occasional picture. A box of approximately 900 cards, the stud file is an archive of sexual experience and an attempt at exerting ownership over one’s body. Stewards thirst is that of the anatomical doctor, both delighting in the bodily pursuit, in the ecstasy that comes from leaning against the submitted frame.

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4: Blake’s Pubic Bone and Shoulder

In rehearsal, at the moment, we are oscillating between the record of Samuel Steward and the technology of the anatomical theater. Movements are derived equally from sexual and surgical acts, both having striking similarities conceptually and visually. Through each week and each iteration of the work, I am left to ponder the watching of bodies as they are laid out before eager spectators, however they might be displayed in private or public exhibitions and however large or small the audience might be. This is how I understand the performance to function: as a technology of looking. The way a photograph captures a submitted partner or the way a surgical table in the center of an audience can amplify the form.

*Images courtesy of Christopher Schulz, Christa Holka, and Stephanie Acosta

Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality (ATOM-r) is a provisional collective exploring forensics, anatomy, and 21st century embodiment through performance, language and emerging technologies. Participants include Mark Jeffery (choreography), Judd Morrissey (technology & dramaturgical systems), Justin Deschamps, Sam Hertz, Christopher Knowlton, and Blake Russell (collaborators/performers).  

Everything simple is false

January 28, 2014 · Print This Article



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Guest post by Teresa Albor

Jeremy Deller said last month that art is useless.  He said this in front of an audience of artists and no one batted an eyelash, no one objected, no one was offended.  The event was an all day/all night performance piece, involving dozens of artists led by Bob and Roberta Smith, who gathered at the rundown seaside resort of Scarborough on the east coast of England.  “The Art Party” brought a spot of bright colour to the grey landscape, and approached the serious issue of cuts to government spending on the arts in a way only artists would: by breaking rules, being witty and irreverent. Perhaps, because it wasn’t seeking to be “useful” the event was thought-provoking sans the righteousness of more serious affairs.

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Having spent October in the village of Toffia working on a piece called “Everything simple is false,” Bob and Roberta Smith’s project resonated.  My month in Italy occurred at the end of three years in Chicago and before a move back to London.  Although the village became home and the Association that sponsored me an instant community, I was very much an outsider, embedded for all too short a time to make a piece of art for/with an essentially captive audience. Arriving in Toffia was surprisingly reminiscent of my arrival to do development work as a US Peace Corps Volunteer on a tiny Philippine island thirty years ago. One big difference: This time there was no intention of “doing good”.  This time I was not concerned with the “usefulness” of my work.

When working in a process-based way, the intention can be to confer agency to people, but if this doesn’t happen it’s no big deal.  And without going down the rabbit hole of trying to ascertain the criteria by which one critiques a relational project (if this is what this type of work might be called), my experience, at the very least, reinforced the importance of avoiding the pitfalls of trying to “do good ” and its close corollary, to “be useful.”

It also served to shed more light on other aspects/limitations of this way of working: that all relational work is political because it involves people; the tensions between maintaining the integrity of a piece when provocation ensues; the fact that you leave and others stay behind; and feeling as if you are inflicting your work on an audience that hasn’t asked for it.

What happened was expected and unexpected at the same time.

The title of the piece is a reference to “Bonini’s paradox”: when complex systems are simplified so we can understand them, they become less true.  A completely accurate map, for example, would need to be 1:1 to capture the detail of the territory it is meant to represent, but would be completely impractical.  So we simplify it, modify it to suit our needs, until it becomes false, but perhaps, useful.  (The London Tube Map is a good example.) This project was about discovering the complexity of a seemingly idyllic hill top village outside of Rome, to understand the “more true” version vs. an outsider’s perception of its picture postcard perfectness. The idea was to listen to the people who lived there and reflect back to them what they were saying about themselves. Beyond that, the strategy was left to evolve based on living and working in the community.

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This was not intended as a piece of political art.  But in this case, as the village was in the process of selecting candidates for next year’s mayoral elections, everything that impacted the daily lives of the village was perceived as political.  And as the artist Tanya Bruguera has said, art is not political art, unless it has consequences.  Using the low-tech bulletin board system of the village, flyers with quotes gathered though interviews with several villagers were posted.  The first called for affinity despite the perfections and imperfections of the village. A local SMS number was displayed along with the phrase: “What do you think?” Forms were also distributed after cultural events and we used the Associations’ Facebook page to solicit content, which, interestingly, generated the most direct comments. The second flyer said: “Toffia is divided. Toffia is united.  What do you think?”  By now the posters were the talk of the town, some were torn down, and it was rumored the mayor’s office didn’t want any more posters to go up.

three-flyers

One woman said: “You’ve put your finger in a wound.” She was, as were most people, quietly supportive. The consensus seemed to be that this “outsider” was saying what no one else would say, that only an ‘outsider’ would say.  In fact, all of the words, phrases, quotes came from people living in the village. Clearly, the work was going to be provocative, but what was unexpected was how easy it would be to provoke.  Meanwhile, the Association was being put under pressure.  It has taken years of hard work for the group to set up and operate a cultural programme on a tiny budget.  To their credit they engaged in nuanced discussions about how to proceed—essentially encouraging and supporting the project.  It was left to me to decide how far to push, knowing that if I pushed too hard, I could damage the very organization sponsoring me.

My methodology afforded me an observer’s vantage point. At least six international artists a year stay in this village, and many of us do relational pieces.  Wanting to avoid directly approaching too many of the residents here was, in part, to avoid what a fellow artist described as treating the audience like a “vending machine” for “responses to art projects”.  Locating so much experimentation in such a small place has its limitations.

Bookcover

In the end, responses—including those that were flattering as well as those that were provocative—were collated into a book with black and white line drawing illustrations of the village, alluding to one’s ability to layer their own perceptions over a neutral reality.  One hundred copies were given away for free on market day.  The following day, an event/open studio was held and the Association led discussions of the work.  To my surprise, the aspect of the poster campaign that was considered political was the phrase: “What do you think?” and several people at the event proposed continuing with more editions of a free periodical called: “What do you think?”  Whether this initiative takes off or not, at least the possibility of taking action, always there, sometimes acted upon, was considered.

openstudio2

As an artist assessing my own work, the strength of this project was the attempt to engage vs. entertain an audience and an openness to many different outcomes.  It would not have been possible to achieve this if the work had as its intention an overt usefulness.  And whilst flawed, and imperfect, too short, too simplistic, this project is certainly one that was worth doing and from which more, and better projects will emerge.

In a critical Robinsonian[1] sense of utility or usefulness – that utility is a circular concept in that an entity’s utility is what makes it desirable, whilst the fact that individuals desire something shows that it has utility—art could be considered both useless and useful, in a world where we accept that art provides a deeper quality of life, even strongly desire art to be part of our lives.  However, as artists, by accepting that what we make or do does not necessarily align itself with conventional definitions of usefulness we are enabled to move even further away from the trap of “production” within a capitalist social economy.  This represents real freedom (and a good starting point for another essay).

 

Teresa Albor is a multidisciplinary artist currently based in London and interested in site specific projects and working with/within communities. Current investigations revolve around what art is, who it is for, how and where it is made, and where it is shown. A Midwesterner, with an MFA from the University of Arts London and an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, she recently spent three years in Chicago. 

 


[1] Joan Robinson, 1962. Economic Philosophy. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.  “Utility is the quality in commodities that makes individuals want to buy them, and the fact that individuals want to buy commodities shows that they have utility”.  I like the fact that Amartya Sen described her as “totally brilliant but vigorously intolerant” and another of her students, Joseph Stiglitz, described his relationship with her as “tumultuous”.