Guest post by Jacob Wick.
A current exhibition at theÂ Hammer MuseumÂ in Los Angeles,Â Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology, is a deft rebuttal of Institutional Critique.Â Take It or Leave ItÂ mashes together a variety of well-known works by well-known IC artists, creating a confused jumble of brands intelligible only if viewed in the same spirit as one views a shoe rack at a department store. The message, delivered through the cunning mess organized by curators Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum, and Johanna Burton, Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum, seems to be: Institutional Critique, and by extension most current critical art, is irrelevant. Take it or leave it. I am tempted to agree.
Upon walking into the exhibition, on the second floor of the newly-free Hammer Museum, one encounters, first, and fittingly first, Andrea Fraser. She beams from a bulky television screen, leading aÂ Gallery TalkÂ (1989),Â a repeatable performance for which she is widely identified. As she primly leads us through a series of quotations lifted from museum brochures, reviews, and so on, highlighting an institutional language that has only intensified and become more isolated from everyday language in the last twenty to thirty years since Fraser led these toursâ€”leading of course to that awfulÂ Institutional Art EnglishÂ article I hate so much, because honestly the everyday language of cricket fans orÂ teenage YouTube enthusiastsÂ is as unintelligible to me as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh might be to them, and you know, if you want to learn a sociolect, learn it, itâ€™s really not that hardâ€”we glance to the right and are accosted by RenÃ©e Green’s garish (but quite beautiful)Â Mise-en-ScÃ¨ne: Commemorative ToileÂ (1992-1994), and a pair of bits of Mark Dion pieces,Â The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division)Â (1992) andÂ New York State Bureau of Tropical ConservationÂ (1992). This all in a roomâ€”a foyer, reallyâ€”perhaps 8 ft x 20 ft. The trend continues throughout the rest of the show, with a bewildering oversaturation of work by easily recognizable IC artists organized room-by-room according to big dumb categories like THE MUSEUM or POLITICS. The POLITICS room, for instance, has two works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, two works by Robert Gober, and three works each by Jenny Holzer and Fred Wilson! Wow! Oh, and a Glenn Ligon piece, if I remember right.
The aural confusion rivals the visual confusion, with sound bleeding from Andrea in front, a relatively innocuous guitar piece with very nice furniture by the only name I didn’t recognize in the show (and which I didn’t write down, but I probably should have laid down on the furniture, I have to admit I was a little tired while viewing, or attempting to view, this show), the arabesque from Dana Birnbaum’s three-channel video installation Arabesque, and several other voices speaking from several other video installations. One can really only walk through the show saying, “oh, Andrea Fraser! oh, Alan McCollum! oh, Felix Gonzalez-Torres! oh, Adrian Piper!” and so on. Each work, regardless of its individual merit or its potentially radical past effect on the institutionalized art world of the 1980s and 1990s, becomes a calling card, a simple brand identifier, a shoe. The effect is to suggest a feeling that Institutional Critique should be, or has already been, laid to rest, that it has suffered the same fate as its preceding movements and morphed into a series of innocuous and critically irrelevant calling cards.
While Institutional Critique was certainly relevantâ€”often many other things, including beautiful, shocking, and a variety of other adjectives, many of which are vinyled to the already-crammed walls of the show in the form of various historical derogatory reviews of IC artistsâ€”during its heyday, in the Internet age, where anyone looking at art or working in the art world probably has a smartphone and enjoys, or pretends to enjoy, a variety of privileges vis a vis the rest of the world, including the ability to very easily and quickly assemble a tawdry list of dirt surrounding any institution, from Hammer to the dollar, the opacity that once enshrouded institutions with a veneer of acceptability and inevitability has been replaced with an ironic remove that ensures the same effect. This ironic remove serves a very useful purpose insofar as it allows us to continue living lives of privilege without the persistent nag of horror at how and where our clothes were made, where the materials in our smartphones were mined and in what conditions (not to mention the conditions in which they were made), and the total unraveling of the environment that has recently become apparent. There is, almost without doubt, a legacy of horror in at least one object within 50 ft of you; there is, almost without doubt, a weather event without precedent that is currently occurring or has recently occurred in the region where in which you live. A lightly sneering ironic remove allow us to, in the words of a WWII propaganda designed by British intelligence in the event of catastrophic air attacks that tellingly became a meme so successful that it adorns dorm rooms everywhere, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This ironic remove is necessary to live life without succumbing to a deep and unshakeable sense of doom and should be embraced, unabashedly, as such. This selfsame remove, however, is what renders work like IC, that attempts to call us out on things that we are very likely already aware of but are making a decision to ignore to retain a certain degree of sanity, irrelevant, for being reminded of the knowledge we are trying to ignore strengthens, rather than weakens, our barriers against it.
Let us, like Paul Bettanyâ€™s character in Dogville, consider an illustration. I am in a social situation with a friend. A party, perhaps, someone’s house or apartment, a someone that neither of us know particularly well, but who has invited us, for whatever reason, over. The party is relatively low-key. At some point, my friend goes to the bathroom. When my friend returns, I notice their fly is unzipped and mention that hundreds of people recently died in a factory fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, a fire that is having relatively little effect on the efforts of anyone to regulate garment factories in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, where conditions are widely known to be unacceptable. I conclude by pointing out our partyâ€”our drinks, our clothes, our phones on which we take pictures and look up things on Wikipedia (or whatever), the iPad or iPod the music is playing off of, perhaps even the building we sit in, perhaps it is a house that was purchased and flipped after a predatory loan forced its foreclosureâ€”is only possible because we are the privileged beneficiaries of a vicious and exploitative economic system so deeply pervasive that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine its alternatives. Have I performed Institutional Critique?
Insofar as a party is an institutionâ€”any party, regardless of its particular circumstances, contains both a normative protocol and an accompanying normative horizon of possible outcomes, just as any institution doesâ€”yes, I have. Formerly, institutions maintained credibility by disguising, with varying degrees of force, the aspects of their makeup that might damage that credibility. Institutional Critique directed its gaze, or rather our gaze, at these aspects. I can only assume that the effect was shocking and/or confusing, since I am too young to have experienced Institutional Critique during its era of relevance. In any case, were I to point out that to my friend that their pants were made in horrific conditions, etc, I would be highlighting an aspect of the institution that most parties try to leave out, namely that the objects that make the party fun were very likely produced in dire circumstances and as a result of great suffering.
While it is certainly possible that such a proclamation would have had an effect on a party pre-smartphone, it is almost impossible that such a proclamation, made now, would not be immediately dismissed or laughed off, or said, in the first place, with a degree of irony so as to neutralize its contents. Most people at the party, most people at any party of people that enjoy a certain level of privilege, likely already have heard about the Dhaka fire, or have heard the phrase “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” or something like it, and all of those peopleâ€”those people who read Twitter or listen to NPR or the BBC or read the Guardian or whatever, who cares reallyâ€”okay, us or we, not those peopleâ€”choose to ignore these concrete facts of our own existences. We live in a constant state of dramatic irony, or something very close to the old Greek eirÅneia.
Had we all been alive thousands of years ago, located in a relatively small area of the Mediterranean, and had the luck or circumstance to be a free or free-ish citizen of an antiquity-era Greek city-state, we might have, at some point, gone to a play. Regardless of whether or not this play was a tragedy or comedy, there would probably, at some point, be a character speaking from beneath us, down the stairs of the amphitheater onto the stage, a character who was speaking of something that we, the audience, knew was false. We would know it was false because of something else we had learned during the play, in another scene, a scene in which the character now speaking did not appear. We would know and the actor would know, probably, having been in rehearsals, spoken to other actors, and been aware of the general arc of the play. Everybody would know besides the character speaking, the character who has temporarily taken the place of the actor, who weâ€”the audience and perhaps the actor, I don’t really know about actingâ€”temporarily identify with, moreso than our identification with what is real.
We are now, at this point, the actors and audience in our own scenes, which are not in amphitheaters, but instead are in living rooms, museums, concert halls, book fairs, art fairs, galleries, restaurants, bars, whatever.Â Â At all of these times, in all of these places, we are ourselves, but we are different versions of ourselves: we are our house-party self, our museum self, our concert hall self, our book fair self, gallery self. Pablo Helguera, with droll precision, has highlighted this in his book Art Scenes: The Social Scripts of the Art World; Alex Galloway, much less drolly but no less precise, has highlighted this in his book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Both authors point out that we act not in regard to dictates from sovereign powerâ€”the King, the state, whateverâ€”but rather in regard to the protocols (for Helguera, scripts) we assume to be inherent and inevitable in a given situation. When briefly employed at a Hollywood gallery for which I was asked to write a press release for a show of paintings I found tedious and boring, I did not, for instance, write â€œthis show is tedious and boring, but would probably look great above your designer furniture and that’s why it’s being shown here,â€ but rather wrote a press release in the style of blue-chip gallery press releases (“We are pleased to present…”). I’m not sure if that’s a particularly good example, but who cares? All saltwater fish will die off in 35 years.
For the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Andrea Fraser contributed a pair of essays: “There’s No Place Like Home,” in which she eloquently considers (and doubts) her own relevance; and “L’1% C’est Moi,” a beautifully-researched, well-written account of the current art market and its inextricable ties with the very people many critical artists, whose livelihoods depend on the art market, love to hate. The latter, while very informative, is very clearly Institutional Critique, a highlighting of an institutional issue that was very likely already known, and if unknown certainly intuited, by whoever might have read it. The former, on the other hand, is an investigation into the nature of critique, in which Fraser wonders if
… by interpreting negations as critique, by responding to judgments of attribution with judgments of attribution, by aggressively attempting to expose conflicts and to strip away defenses in critiques of critiques and negations of negations, critical practices and discourses may often collude in the distancing of affect and the dissimulation of our immediate and active investments in our field.
Does critique, of the sort that pervaded Institutional Critique and that pervades critical art following IC, aid us in our collective pushing away of actual, real problems? Does it aid us in ignoring that the Whitney is funding by the financial institutions and executives who are responsible for the slow bleed-out of the world’s environment, of global socio-economic mobility? Does it help us “Keep Calm and Carry On?” Sure it does, because we already know all that shit and we’re ignoring it because we’re alive and what else are we going to do!
In a conversation I had recently with Renzo Martens about the Institute for Human Activities, for which he is the Creative Director, while he was in town for a solo show at The BOX, he mentioned both that he is interested in redirecting critical art’s “mandate” and that his work with the IHA is decidedly non-revolutionary. “We’re just going to do what art does,” he said. “Which is, like, create a really tiny alternative economy which rich people really like to have around, and see how it goes.” The IHA is an institution that quite earnestly touts art as a means for revitalizing a town outside of Kinshasa in the war-torn, globally-exploited DRC and which operates off of the already well-established model of the global arts residency. The IHA will, and has already attempted to begin to, teach drawing and other arts-related classes to palm-oil plantation workers; a few of these workers will be particularly talented; the IHA will, with the local artists’ permission, sell their drawings in the international art market; the proceeds from these sales will lift those few lucky artists out of poverty; other palm-oil workers may become more interested in art and work harder on drawings than on manufacturing palm oil; and so on. The settlement will offer an artists’ residency for artists to engage with the local arts scene and teach classes to locals. Meanwhile, rich people, who love to be around the creature comforts that artists surround themselves withâ€”nice bars, cappuccinos, good food, artistsâ€”will stay in an onsite hotel, increasing the settlements’ real-estate value and general quality of life. Perhaps these people will buy or build houses near or on the settlement, as they have in places like Marfa, TX, raising the value of the property and ostensibly improving quality of life for everybody. In short, aside from the occasional swipe on its website, there is no critical component to the IHA at all. That said, the logical conclusion of the IHAâ€”or one possible or believable conclusion, given that institutions function almost entirely on belief, as Adam Overton pointed out in my interview with him, not on logicâ€”is that the palm-oil workers will stop working in the palm-oil plantation and start drawing, thereby robbing Unilever of the exploited underclass that it, like all capitalist enterprises, needs to survive.
If Martens is redirecting art’s critical mandate, as he says he wishes to do, he is redirecting it towards creating art that is not critical at all, but that rather simply does what art does, or what capitalism does, or what whatever does. Perhaps what we need now, he is sayingâ€”and, again, I can’t help but agreeâ€”is engagement, whether naÃ¯ve or not,Â rather than negation, for only in our engagement can we, and whosoever has the (mis)fortune to surround our work, truly experience the absurd, hideous, exploitive nature of the institutions that structure our lives. As Danh Vo says in this hilariously uncomfortable YouTube interview with Bartholomew Ryan of the Walker Art Center: it is “very important to…exercise the bureaucracy.”
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info.Â Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, IdeologyÂ is on view until May 18, 2014, at the Hammer Museum.Â Renzo Martens: Episode IIIÂ is on view until March 1st, 2014, at the BOX Gallery.
Work by Elizabeth Allen-Cannon, Rachel Mesplay Helm, Matt Roche, Pat Egger, and Danni Parelman.
Roots & Culture is located at 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday from 6-9pm.
Work by Lisa Walcott, Sarah Mendelsohn and Fred Schmidt-Arenales.
ACRE Projects is located at 1913 W. 17th St. Reception Sunday from 4-8pm.
Work by Elizabeth Atterbury, Scott Cowan, Owen Kydd, Phillip Maisel and Erin Jane Nelson.
Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. 2nd Fl. Reception Friday from 7-11pm.
Work by Anish Kapoor, Jacob Lawrence, Mary Brogers, and Kerry James Marshall.
The Chicago Cultural Center is located at 78 E. Washington St. Reception from 5:30-7:30pm.
Work by Chris Uphues.
Linda Warren Projects is located at 327 N. Aberdeen St. Reception Friday from 6-9pm.
I received Polpo as a gift. When I first held it in my hands, I wasnâ€™t quite sure what it was. I thought it was an artbook about, I donâ€™t know, octopuses or something. The cover is a pale sand-colored hardboard with gold embossing. The spine is naked to reveal the smyth sewn pages. It appears to be a hybrid of manufactured and hand made. The overall result is an object lovely on its own. The surprising thing was it wasnâ€™t an artbook, it was a cookbook. But a cookbook this beautiful, well how good could it really be?
Before receiving this book, I had never heard of chef Russell Norman nor his restaurant called Polpo. And while this book is subtitled A Venetian Cook Book (of Sorts), the actual restaurant isnâ€™t in Venice at all, itâ€™s in London. The introduction takes the reader through Normanâ€™s process of deciding to open a Venetian restaurant. It becomes a little travel porn-y as we accompany Norman from one little restaurant to another tiny wine bar. Sometimes this kind of thing bothers me, but the general good-naturedness of the text makes it a pleasure. As you page through, the photographs of Venice are as enticing and illustrative as any travel book, but the subject is always ultimately the same, fine quality, regional food.
Venetian food is not something I am familiar with, but if Polpo is indeed accurate, I would describe it as simple, fresh Italian, with few ingredients, and often a seafood component. Despite its fancy exterior, the food within this book is quite simple. Iâ€™ve made many recipes from it. Every one turned out spectacular and definitely more than the sum of its parts. Much of the food is small plate, and if we are to believe the chef, what constitutes bar food in Venice. I made the â€œBresaola, Rocket and Parmesan Wrapâ€ for dinner one night. I served it with a salad and a bottle of wine. It was a huge hit and took about ten minutes. Seriously, it was impressive. Tonight I am making as a side dish, â€œGrilled Fennel and White Anchovy Skewers.â€
Polpo is successful on three fronts. First, it is an excellent introduction to Venetian cuisine. Honestly, I didnâ€™t know. Secondly, this is a well-written, well-tested cookbook. So far, everything I have made is just as tasty as the photo implies. And the photos are astounding. Check them out on Jenny Zarin’s website. She changes the meaning of food photography. Lastly, while this clearly falls into the aspirational cookbook genre, it is successful in this, leading me to both make the recipes in book and to lie dreamily on the sofa dreaming about a trip to Venice.
Polpo: A Venetian Cook Book (of Sorts)
by Autumn Hays
Considered to be one of the most renowned performance artists, Ron Athey began his works in the 80s. They are notorious for including aspects of S&M culture and itâ€™s relation to the AIDS crisis. Atheyâ€™s iconic pieces focus on a wide range of subjects including sexuality, religiosity, trauma, gay identity, loss, illness and ritualism. Raised with the expectation that he would become a Pentecostal minister, and after running away to L.A. and coming of age in the milieu of the punk rock underground, Atheyâ€™s work grew out of a complex performativity that still informs his art practice today. In 2013 Ronâ€™s first book dedicated to his work was published entitled Â Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey,Â edited by Dominic Johnson. The book includes writings by peers and scholars such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena,Â Antony Hegarty,Â Robert Wilson,Â Lydia Lunch,Â Bruce LaBruce,Â Amelia Jones,Â Jennifer Doyle,Â Homi K. BhabhaÂ and others. At the start of February, Chicago was host a legendary performance artist, Ron Athey visited Chicago. I was lucky enough to attend his performances, lectures and snag him for an interview. Here are some excerpts from our discussion.
AH: How it feels to be back in Chicago?
RA: I think I had more pre-anxiety about coming here, memories of staying here with Lawrence Steger and doing things with him. I was shocked and went into the shivers from the cold when got off the plane, not wearing long underwear. Itâ€™s not like London is warm, itâ€™s moderate and miserable there. Where as here needing many layers, I dig it.
AH: Tell us about he last time you were here and the last performance you did.
RA: I had to look at my own notes, I was here twice in â€™99 doing Solar Anus so at Hot House and at Chris Kellnerâ€™s gallery Hook Torture and I hadnâ€™t realized I havenâ€™t been here since then.
AH: Yeah itâ€™s been a while
RA:Yeah, I mean climates change. Randolph Street Gallery closed and all those places I would have went back to.
AH: Iâ€™ve actually been through the Randolph street archives and have seen videos of your work there and you really could feel its loss once it was gone here. I amÂ interestedÂ as you are here working with Defibrillator a newer performance space what are the correlation and difference between these kinds of spaces in this new kind of art climate?
RA: I think it just takes energy to make things happen. Itâ€™s not really that the climate is any different. A lot of spaces with the same history as Randolph Street that go back to NEA funded times, but really even before that these are artist run spaces and they donâ€™t, move with the times. So there was this gap and it takes someone high energy like Joseph (Ravens) to get people to work together. I mean even for these pieces I am doing this week and that he realized that Defibrillator itself would be a crunch and he found the right place off site, this is another way of working the art space because the space is so important. Some pieces I feel like I donâ€™t want to be in a place that shows work, like you know this site specific thing becomes a more neutral space than that black box or white wall hygiene kind of space.
AH: Your work is very versatile where you can perform in a lot of different kinds of spaces. I mean you can do that black box theater, the white-walled gallery, you can do performance art spaces or even S&M clubs so you have a versatility in where you can perform and also a little bit in your performativity, you engage various kinds of performance. Whatâ€™s the difference in working in these spaces? Is there a benefit to being flexible?
RA: Well, I wish I could still perform in clubs still, but I did evolve out of that scene. That allowed me to workshop before even any idea of funding to make the gig possible came up. For some pieces I think I might be precious about it being there. I tend, since I started doing the self-obliterations, I like being in with the audience. For the most controlling side of me, a perfect black box with the floors freshly painted and super duper lights, because youâ€™re not fighting the white wall sucking the light out from one minimal light that happens to be shining. Itâ€™s a more controlled situation and I do work in lighting illusions and those sorts of things. So thatâ€™s if Iâ€™m being precious but itâ€™s not necessarily the best feeling, the way I feel interactive with the audience or the space. But I think to get away from those white gallery walls I did start staging pieces in the middle of the room so that the people are the frontdrop and backdrop. You know I donâ€™t come out of this tradition of thinking of live art as an extension of gallery, my work doesnâ€™t come from there, I fully understand work that does but Iâ€™m not so keen on thisâ€¦ of course I love the perfect image, the perfect photograph but thatâ€™s not the work. Iâ€™m always concerned with how many cameramen are in there. I thought we were watching a work.
AH: Especially nowadays with camera phones itâ€™s interesting to have that camera lens constantly there.
RA: I think you have to think about what you are not experiencing while looking for that shot and also, do you care about the work, or are you just documenting your own life?
AH: So we touched on your definitions of live art and performance art. There are always different definitions. What are your thoughts on that?
RA: I think you get this polarization. This is the gallery school, and this is the theater school, but actually my background was through the Pentecostal church, particularly woman evangelists who did illustrated sermons starting in the 20s with Amy Semple McPherson, who built Angelus Temple in Echo Park and later Miss Velma (Jaggers) who built the jeweled altar from the Book of Revelations and who would appear as the whore of Babylon swinging in on a crescent moon using all the 70s technology, like the echo box, strobe lights and fog machines. So, performance art is this other type of sacred theater without the belief system in it. In abstract terms I might still use a thing like the audience is the witness, and its not about second guessing what their boundaries are, what they will experience, what they come in the door with. Itâ€™s impossible to know. Itâ€™s a mix of things, which is what it should be.Â Also itâ€™s about what mode you are in. Itâ€™s obviously not acting, so itâ€™s just full of these triggers to go into, not an altered state where you look like your fitting or asleep but some heightened state. I like art that rides a line between art and not art at all.
AH: I was wondering if you could tell us more about your book, â€œPleading in the Bloodâ€, and your process of making it.
RA: To start out with the book, you have to open archives that you didnâ€™t even know existed. And here is where I have to give some kudos to social media. I am very linked in to people in LA, people from the late 70s and early 80s Goth and Punk scenes. So I was able to come up with materials, confirm dates, and stories through there, and then track down the photographers. All I ever had was the newspaper, the tabloids, the rough printed images, Xeroxed and scanned, you know that kind of thing. And then I started getting closer to the source of the original image. It felt like I was perusing someone from a David Lynch movie, youâ€™re in a hotel room with seven 5by7s in a brief case. So you track that down and try to flesh out some of those stories, which is a harder period for me to flesh out. And working with Dominic Johnson who is a young academic at Queen Mary University, London. He was clear about what heavy academics who we liked in common, but I was clear that I didnâ€™t want it to be one of those artist books with three academic essays in it and lots of pictures so that no one ever, except for people in school, ever read the writing because its inaccessible outside the bubble. I wanted to give it a testimonial voice not just an academic one.
AH: Do you have any advice for younger artists attempting to learn the craft of making performance art?
RA: The key element of making work is immersion. Rather than doing research as a strong guide, let it be something you soak up. There is nothing sane about making performance art.
Defibrillator, Hook Torture, and Mana Contemporary pooled their efforts to showcase Ron in Chicago this month. Each night was filled with a wide mix of viewers, from pierced punks and goths, old school Chicago underground, art students, and art academics, many eager to see Ronâ€™s work in person. He performed two works on two separate nights, â€œIncorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remainsâ€ and â€œSebastianâ€ featuring Jon John and Sage Charles.
Messianic Remains is part of Atheyâ€™s Incorruptible Flesh series. The series started in 96â€™ and references the dark reality of living with AIDS. Athey talks about the piece saying it stems from â€œstill living but not living bodiesâ€. 10 years later in Glasgow, Athey did a solo individual piece, 6 hours long. The third part focused on the Mythological. Now this 4th and final chapter, was performed in Chicago at Mana Contemporary on January 31st. The work reveled in a religious grandiosity and explored Ron Atheyâ€™s body as a post-AIDS entity: a survivor. The work also looks at Atheyâ€™s own bodies ageing, and seems to shake hands with notions of death. The choreography is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s short film, Lucifer Rising.Â
The audience came in on to Ron laying down on ladder sitting on two wooden sawhorses with a baseball bat, swollen glands, and his head latched to a series of hooks in a crown of thorns style lining, his head connected to the wall. Though the preparationsÂ for this performance were not part of the audiencesâ€™ viewing, many felt the preparations, though unseen, were a large part of the work. Clear gloves were handed out and the audience dipped their hands in a pale Vaseline before taking turns touching Atheyâ€™s body as he laid on display. The offering of his flesh was both a gift and an obligation as viewers chose to experience the tension and pain up close. Ron than rises for a mythical, almost Egyptian dressing ceremony and moves to a new part of the gallery where he begins to read text from Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet, specifically â€œDivineâ€™s Funeral.â€
The very next day Ron Athey, Jon John and Sage Charles preformed â€œSebastian.â€ While interviewing Ron I had asked him about Working with Jon John and Sage.
â€œWe have this great chemistry where we trust each other, we donâ€™t have to plot out everything. Youâ€™re going to do what you need to do with the goal of making this action happen. Easy directions within a choreographed frame. What is Sebastian? I donâ€™t know. I think thatâ€™s where live work can be surprising. If you know what you want to prove rather than explore something youâ€™re just strong-arming a result. The potential of live experience is so beyond that outlined vision that Iâ€™m doing. It took me a long time to understand that.â€
In this work Athey is taking on the role of St. Sebastian, a saint that has also become a homoerotic icon. The event starts with Sage and Jon John making their way through the crowd in a procession towards Ron, who is already hung up on a ladder, tied with red rope. As Sage drums, Jon John climbs a second ladder to meet Athey and begins piercing him with arrows. Ron begins to scream and chant in performanceâ€™s best ritualistic shamanism. Jon John then fills the role of St Irene and begins to heal Athey, spreading lotion on Atheyâ€™s body, eventually removing the arrows and as Athey bleeds he helps him depose down from ladder and onto a table where they cover him in a white cloth. For the final and perhaps most touching part of the performance, one that had echoes of the NEA controversy, Jon John cuts sections of cloth-covered in Athey’s blood and places them in tiny frames handing them to random audience members.
Ron Atheyâ€™s work certainly isnâ€™t for the squeamish, but despite the inclusion of blood and body modification I didnâ€™t find the shock value of the work to be any kind of crutch or sympathetic tool. Rather is was a means of performativity that outwardly engaged Atheyâ€™s body as a gay, post-AIDS, religicized, performative body. When looking at his work, the dense symbolism and actions, the controversy and the intense metaphoric value, I feel like ending this with one of my favorite quotes from my interview with Ron Athey that I feel addresses his work, process, and in a way the very practice of performance art.
â€œIâ€™m actually at this place in performance art where I think everything is just an entry point. You can say this is about your mother, this is about this accident, this is about AIDS, but itâ€™s actually not what itâ€™s about. You donâ€™t know what itâ€™s about till you do it live, thatâ€™s why itâ€™s live work. I have to bring something to life to make work. There has to be uncertain things within the framework of the piece that allow it to go as it will.â€
When I first came to Chicago in January of 2011, my girlfriend and I met in the large, empty luggage area of Midway that, even as a place designed for waiting, Â seems hilariously ill-suited for the purpose. And then, after a brief train ride, we arrived–slightly out of breath and heaving large suitcases–at my brotherâ€™s front door, where we would stay for a month to look after a pair of cats and introduce ourselves to the brand new grid we would call home. A month later, we moved into our new apartment; a day after that marked the first day of the massive blizzard called snowpocalypse, snowmageddon, or blizzaster depending on what terrible local blog was on-screen at the time.
Here we are, three years later, in what feels like another long and dreary winter in the same vein as all the long and dreary winters before it, and after it, and etc. I always associate winter with a certain kind of loneliness, and especially that one three years ago, living in a new city without any real way to even figure out how to best navigate a massive snowstorm, when our plans to hit up IKEA were blocked and we ending up spreading peanut butter and jelly with chopsticks while sitting on the floor.
In a lot of ways, I think winter and videogames can be kind of comparable in that loneliness, for better or for worse. At the time of experienceâ€”either treading through a deep snow alone or deep into the fantasy narrative of an outrageous dragon-adventureâ€”theyâ€™re both intensely personal. Itâ€™s only really until after the fact that people begin to talk about the shared experience they had, be it shoveling out their car, or falling into a snowbank, or conquering some foe on what ended up being a very similar adventure. In a similar way, games and winters begin in the individual, personal realm, and only later transform into the social, shareable experience after the fact, via discussion.
It can be difficult to get new players or people unfamiliar with the personal commitment necessary to play a sprawling, multi-hour epic, and truth be told, even as a fan, I find it daunting myself. After all, if youâ€™re more comfortable with books, or filmsâ€”you have the necessary foundations to understand those mediums, prevalent as they have been in our cultureâ€”it makes more sense to dive into one of those, just as it makes more sense to stay on the west coast, or in Texas, away from the feet of snow that always finds a way to creep into your boots.
I bring this all up because during that 2011 winter, with a lack of anything inside our outside our apartment (aside from snow), I discovered a game by Terry Cavanagh called At a Distance. I had first encountered Cavanaghâ€™s work in the small flash game Donâ€™t Look Back, which turns the myth of Orpheus and Eurydiceâ€™s ascent from the underworld into a bit of puzzle-platforming, and is its own obvious meditation on love and loneliness. At a Distance is something quite different, though, because, unlike Donâ€™t Look Back or those other single-player monoliths, it requires not only two players, but two screens, two computers, positioned side by side. The game, however, is just as much about loneliness as it is togetherness, a kind of blending of that initial personal and secondary social experienced that can occur through gaming.
Though it took a bit of work to get it setupâ€”for which Cavanagh offers a handy guideâ€”once we got At a Distance working, and played through it, it became one of the most memorable gaming experiences I had ever encountered. The art of the game is enchanting; thereâ€™s a sort of lo-fi blurriness to the gameâ€™s monochromatic worlds that wouldnâ€™t be out of place on a 90â€™s screensaver. But the play is just as engaging, mostly because the way it treats shared space, physically, as different than the individual space, which is entirely cooped up in the digital form of your computer.
Like a lot of the press which came out about the game at the time, Iâ€™m reluctant to give too much away. But what essentially happens is that Cavanagh plays very successfully with a physical aspect of the game via screen-sharing. Maybe youâ€™ve played or seen others play a split-screen adversarial game such as Goldeneye on the N64, where each playerâ€™s location, though broadcast openly through the nature of a shared screen, is a closely guarded secret. In short, screen-looking (as it is often called) is looked down upon, akin to cheating, as it could easily provide an edge against an opponent.
Cavanaghâ€™s At a Distance, on the other hand, flips this premise in two ways: first, screen looking is naturally encouraged via his setup suggestions (side-by-side). Since itâ€™s meant to be played on two systems, the natural assumption by omission would be a head-to-head setup, computers and people facing each other, Thunderdome-style. Second, as players progress through the game, the digital space they find themselves in is not exactly shared, but intrinsically linked in a way that really only comes to light through screen-sharing, through conversational awareness, and social discovery between two players. Even though each player finds themselves in a solitary digital realm, the game is anything but lonely, because that social aspectâ€”normally confronted after the fact through identical shared experienceâ€”is combined willingly into that personal, individual experience of playing a game on the lonesome.
Above all, what I mean to say is that, if, like me, you look outside at the grey canopy of snow/cloud/doom and feel the urge to crawl back into the warmth of a recently-vacated bed, give At a Distance a try. Just like hot chocolate is the perfect companion for a cold February day, so is At a Distance, if you and a partner are willing to give it a shot and stretch the boundaries of a sometimes solitary, occasionally-wintry medium.