August 22, 2013 · Print This Article
Introduction: Laying the Floor
This July, I participated in the gloATL Summer Intensive. gloATL is an Atlanta-based dance company that creates physical installations for the public. During the Intensive, there were six of these installations that focused on the concept of utopia for a series of “utopia stations” that was part of its series Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective that had occurred during the summer for the past few years; this summer was the last of these installations. Lauri Stallings, the choreographer and founder of gloATL, considers these performances installations – physical and public installations; the series is described as “physical installations [that] are unveiled as public utopia stations for arriving, leaving, and staying for awhile.” 
During the first weeks of the Intensive, Stallings described to us her interest in utopia, referencing Thomas More’s book Utopia (Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia (De optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia)), published in 1516. What seemed to be impelling Stallings to the notion of utopia is that the word utopia has multiple and somewhat contradictory meanings. The statement for this summer’s series of utopia stations describes that “[t]here is a double-meaning in the term “utopia,” being both a good place (eutopia) and a no place (outopia).”  The perplexing concepts of “good” and “no” together propelled me to enter the work. During this discussion with Stallings, the company, and fellow intensive participants, I mentioned that it seemed that “no place” had to be impossible. Wherever there is being, there is movement. Even between two atoms, there is an ever-so-slight vibratory motion. Animate form, or life, is exactly that, animate. It moves.  If “no place” cannot possibly exist, then what of the “good place”?
All of the installations involved swings, swing sets, and the encouragement of public engagement with the swings. For Stallings, this is a gesture of ultimate freedom; the ability to partake in the childlike joy of swinging within public space. Each installation also had blue astro turf designating a stage of sorts that at most times separated the dancers from the public. However, Stallings said that even this space should not be maintained as an eternal divider. She keeps in mind that a member of the public could always step over the edge of the floor and enter the space of the stage.
In looking back on this Intensive experience and observing the installations while reading Plato’s Republic for my PhD comprehensive exams, I find myself in a rather perplexing state of body-mind. Both Thomas More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic describe a space where all would be good – proper governance, happiness, order, common property. Both of these spaces are fictional, however, and cannot possibly exist in the real world; a confluence of the double-meaning – a good place that is no place. In encountering a work that attempts through dance to create a utopian space in the current world we live in, the troubling passages in Republic become more clear instances of the perceived dangers of artistic freedom.  However, maybe the utopian installations illuminate these same passages in terms of a Platonic sarcasm; since the idea has been so pushed to the edge, it has become ridiculous.
As a participant in the making of the work and also as a viewer, my experience of the series of installations straddles multiple spheres of engagement, perception, and bodily recognition. I have to admit that those three weeks of July were among the hardest I have lived yet. The physical exertion of dancing for hours six days a week was taxing. The emotional investment was more than I had expected. The mental exercising was beyond what I had encountered before. Being in a PhD program at Emory, I don’t often have the opportunity to use my body as the material of my thought and production of work, so putting myself in the mode of bodily “thought” was an exercise in mental gymnastics.
Inhabiting another’s work was something I had not experienced before. Taking on someone else’s idea as my own and incorporating it into my own body was more of a challenge than I could have imagined. The ability to fully take on the choreographer’s concept as inspiration for one’s own bodily experience is a skill that I fully respect. It amazes me to see gloATL dancers express these concepts with their whole bodies; each finger is doing something special; each facial twitch is a culmination of an entirety of being. As Stallings says, “the movement is in your fingers.”
Stallings process is an incredible one to witness. Starting with an idea, it traverses into often unexpected territory, blossoming into full body expression. This part of the process, called “Process” by gloATL, usually came after a warm-up led by Stallings or other gloATL dancers. This wasn’t any sort of warm-up though. Called “Tools,” it was an exploration of internal bodily connections that make movement manifest externally. All movement generates from the inside and radiates towards an external form that can be witnessed. Coming out of a Gaga tradition, a dance technique and vocabulary formulated by Israel choreographer Ohad Naharin, “Tools” is a way to connect to the pleasure of movement. Even when difficult, the ability to move is a pleasure in and of itself. One of the goals is to constantly search for the unexpected places in the body that initiate movement. Stallings often said that if you feel you are comfortable with a particular movement, it’s time to move towards something previously undone, unthought, un/not-moved.
After finishing the intensive and going back into my usually more stationary world of reading books and writing words on a screen, I feel that the world of movement has infiltrated my world of stationary contemplation. I realize that the movement was there all along and that it’s just that I have begun to accept it more fully into the life I am living.
During the last installation I participated in with gloATL, I felt something inside come up into my throat. Maybe a purely physical experience, but something tells me that it was more. At the end of the installation, we invited the audience into the middle of the blue astro turf floor by leading them using our elbows as the anchor for them to hold onto. There, after looking into each other’s eyes, we decided as a group to speak: “You have only to say yes.” With childlike wonderment and excitement, about the beautiful swing sets, about the blue of the astro turf, about being there moving, the group performing in the installation let go with screams, laughter, and every other kind of expression that erupted from the core. At this point, something inside my body crept up to the top of my throat, something was attempting to escape through my mouth. I stopped still. If I moved anymore, that thing would exit my body onto the astro turf. I couldn’t fathom that happening. It was a purging that I couldn’t handle happening at that time.
I went home that night after the installation and tried to process what had happened to me. The next morning during process, we went over that moment. The same thing kept happening. Whatever was in there wanted to be let go, but, for some reason, I couldn’t let it. I sat down in the hall outside the studio. My body couldn’t accept what it was saying. The connections between my body, my mind, and my internal emotional existence were confused with each other. It seemed that my mental thoughts couldn’t keep up with the internal movements of my emotions and body. I couldn’t keep it together. I couldn’t participate in the last installation. Of this, I am deeply regretful. I wish I could have made it through, but something, I’m not sure what exactly, kept me back.
Maybe it was the thought of utopia, a freedom I couldn’t comprehend. That feeling deep in my belly that rose to my throat threatened me simultaneously with the “good place” and the “no place.” Something in my unconscious body-mind didn’t understand what that even could mean. How could I occupy that position of “good place” and “no place” at all, let alone at the same time? Maybe this is what Plato was warning against: a radical disorder. If the body, mind, and soul cannot be easily divided and categorized, what happens to that being and the rest of the world she inhabits? Music and gymnastic together as dance brought be to that precipice of disorder that was begging to erupt. This eruption of bodily order holds within it the potential for ultimate freedom from restraint, but also ultimate devastation of a creeping chaos.
This is the experience that Stallings created – for me, for the public, maybe for the other dancers themselves. Though these installations are meant for public interaction, it is rare that you see an audience member claim the space as her own. The dance floor remains a dance floor for most of the time until glo explicitly invites the public to join them. There is a timidity to dance and art viewing even with the explosion of socially-engaged and participant-driven art. However, during one of the performances at The Goat Farm Arts Center, one of the participants decided to take control of the space. He took on one of the swings hanging from the rafters as his own. He did not want to get off the swing, even when approached by glo dancers that needed the swing to perform the choreography. Eventually, with some silent, eye coaxing he got up and off the swing. In the public sphere, it is impossible to claim a particular space as purely your own. Part of the freedom the series of installations points to is the freedom to not grasp so tightly.
During the ending section performed at The Goat Farm Arts Center and The Woodruff Arts Center, we played a game of switching and racing for swings. It was so satisfying to attain the glory of the swing, but at a certain point, while swinging with pride, watching the other dancers in the middle of the floor fidget with anticipation and wide eyes, I decided to jump off the swing, give it over to another to enjoy. That might be the space of utopian contradiction – both the “good place” and the “no place” together; the space suspended in air where you joyfully float, exiting the swing in order for another to occupy it.
For more images of the installations, check out BURNAWAY’s flickr sets for gloATL’s Liquid Culture installations at Historic Old Fourth Ward, Goodson Yard at The Goat Farm Arts Center, and Woodruff Arts Center.
For a great review/write-up of the 2013 Liquid Culture series, check out Cynthia Bond Perry’s article “gloATL’s “Liquid Culture” series finds breath, simplicity, and freedom” published on Arts ATL.
 Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)
 Statement for Liquid Culture: a collection of gestures and sensations from an asphalt perspective, gloATL, http://gloatl.org/upcoming/whats-next/ (accessed 8.21.2013)
 Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, The Primacy of Movement, 2nd edition (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011).
 See for example Plato’s treatment of music and gymnastic as the best tools for educating the body and soul to be temperate, courageous, and good. However, there are stipulations attached to these training methods; no innovation is allowed. Since music is claimed to be the most mimetic art, it comes with a certain power that must be controlled. I don’t think it is surprising that this art form is paired with an art of the body, gymnastic. (Plato, Republic, Book II, 376; Book III, 410; Book IV, 424; and etc.) Also consider the discussion of music and gymnastic in relation to the proper form of narrative in poetry, pure third person narration, which does not inhabit the person of a character and speak through him or her. In Book II, section 377, Plato asks whether music also includes literature, and further, whether this literature is true or false. This leads the members of the dialogue to a discussion of what stories should be allowed to be told and which ones are dangerous to the ears – too influential.
I keep trying to trace emergent themes at Open Engagement. Our organizers have done a good job of marking three umbrella categories, under which each panel, presentation or discussion resides. These headings, Publics, Contexts, and Institutions, feel like hubs through which a larger, interconnected current runs. One conversation bleeds into the next. Institution could be one example of a context, for instance. An institution could also be populated by a public, but neither “Contexts” nor “Publics” rely exclusively on “Institutions.” The project of this particular conference, one might say, is to investigate the way socially engaged art practice runs through (or negotiates) those headers.
That said, I am hunting around for additional trends, for theoretical concerns that crop up continually in the subtext of various presentations, reflecting perhaps on a collective undertow that Social Practice artists are preoccupied with. There is something problematic about my efforts. It’s an artificial exercise in a way, especially when the subject of presentations — not to mention the styles of address — are so broad. My insights are additionally subjective, stemming from what panels I’ve seen and how the concerns therein stick to my ribs.
Still, I persist. Obviously this is a post that I deliberately published. Obviously I am interested in failing a little bit. I’m emboldened by the fact that failure, as a topic, is one of those recurring themes. Failure and the equally nebulous question about ethics. These subjects bubble to the surface not only in talks themselves, but also in audience questions. For instance, “I feel there is a danger that the projet you described could waste someone’s time. Someone in your intended audience for instance. How can you be sure you’re not doing that? What can you guarantee your public?” It suggests the artist ought to deliver something, and ideally that whatever is delivered is good, or worthy of (in this instance) one’s time. Ethics and failure are linked up with responsibility in this regard — conveying a feeling that something in works of art that rely on audience participation ought to offer or fulfill something.
First let me make a case for the #EthicsTrend. In an account of Friday’s panel, “Sociology (of and) for Socially Engaged Practice, Institute for Art Scene Studies” I was told Pablo Helguera, Barbara Adams, David Peppas, and Adeola Enigbokan staged a kind of reductio proof of what not to do as a social practice artist. I missed it, unfortunately, but heard that someone posed as an artist, presenting a series of ill-advised projects to the panel, pretending to be an artist. (For instance, the acting artist claimed to have done a project where s/he gave up all possessions in order to see what it was like to live under the poverty line.) The panel then critiqued these projects, highlighting what exactly was ill-advised about them. (Using the same example, the panel pointed out that the artist was able at any time to reenter her/his life of material stability). This was relayed to me by a rather horrified member of the audience who, at the end of her account, leaned in conspiratorially and whispered “And it was all a hoax! The ‘artist’” (she used scare quotes) “was making it all up!” seeming at once relieved and frustrated that she had been duped. In a later panel that same day, “What’s the Harm of Community Arts and Social Practice? The Ethics of Engagement and Negative Value,” Marnie Badham, Amy Spiers, Claude Schryer, and Dr. Kathleen Irwin wrestled with questions of how and when artists intrude on a public. In her opening remarks, Badham noted first, “this turn to community is rarely explored critically,” and then asked “is social change always good?” An ethical approach is often taken for granted in socially engaged art. There is an implied use or service tends to go hand in hand with these social experiments. A desire to save the world, or at least some very small piece of it.
Here the idea of failure comes in — because, in a way it is impossible to save the world. However in articulating an attempt, I would argue, the art project sets out to “do” something. As such it becomes easier to measure and assess. Rakowitz rebuffed this point yesterday when he suggested that art didn’t necessarily have to do anything. But if that’s the case, one’s ability to measure success and failure becomes more difficult. And, perhaps, more interesting. For instance, this morning at “Craft + Social Practice: A Roundtable Conversation” at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, a group of panelists (Gabriel Craig, Ayumi Horie, Stacy Jo Scott, Michael J. Strand, moderated and organized by Sarah Margolis-Pineo) described their relationship to failure. Many suggested that failures provided new opportunities for insight — Gabriel Craig talked about “Slow Gold,” a project based on ethical metal sourcing, where he and four collaborators went to the Black Mountains in South Dakota to find gold for a couples’ wedding bands. (The betrothed couple participated in this project.) They could only find .4 grains. His conclusion, “Mining, no matter what scale it’s on is absolutely catastrophic for the environment.” On that same panel, Stacy Jo Scott of the Craft Mystery Cult confessed, “Occult is always dealing with failure. That’s because we have this desire to speak of ideals, in terms of an ideal poetic space, but also in terms of utopic vision. Knowing the failures of past utopias, but still desiring Utopia. What results is the absurd: optimism in the face of futility.”
Keep this idea of ethics in one hand. Hold in your other hand the idea of failure. Now imagine yourself in the Shattuck Annex, sitting (like I was) in chair with a small desk attached. It is the sort of desk students often use. The sort of desk I haven’t sat in for years. Keep in mind it is raining outside and the opening bars of Woody Guthries’ “This Land is Your Land” is playing on a loop. People shuffle in slowly. Some are ushered to an overflow room when the room is at capacity. In that room this afternoon, Claire Doherty gave a fantastic keynote, opening with an observation that keynote speakers have the ability to highlight and anchor conversations in a conference. The keynote provides a kind of watering hole – a central point in the middle of the day during which most conference-goers sit in the same room, sharing the same experience, after scattering out again to different panels, rendez-vous, and performances. Doherty hastened to remind everyone about the underbelly of social practice — that many projects, while on the one hand providing photographs of an engaged and happy public digging ditches and/or eating ice cream often come out of duress or protest. These works have the ability to engage a collective, public imagination because they tend to address points of tension. She went on to discuss Nowhere Island, a project by Alex Hartley produced by Situations — the organization Doherty directs. As a travelling landmass, self-designated as a site belonging to no-country, Nowhere Island became another version of Utopia. Pulled by a tug boat through international waters, it visited many ports, acquiring 23,003 citizens over the course of a single year. There is much more to the story, of course, but I like situating this island in this post because the land mass in an of itself is what Doherty might call a “charismatic object,” a physical object both engaging and alluring to a public imagination. This object was capable of, again in Doherty’s words, “Nourishing the capacity for creative illusion, [such that a public was able] to act and think as though things were different.” In and of itself the island is not ethical, but it enables a public to explore their own Utopian expectations thereby exploring the problems that such ideals might subsequently create.
Now, open your hand.
In Tim Etchells words, “A Utopia of dispute might be better:”
Dear Citizens of Nowhereisland
as we stop in the shelter of a doorway in the thunderstorm
S. holds out his hand to check the rain.
The hand. The flatness of it. The open-ness. The question of it. The directness. The simplicity. The pragmatism. The straightforwardness. The sunshine.
And maybe just the repetition of this gesture, which must be as old as the hills, as old as the co-presence of hands and rain.
As I mentioned yesterday, there is a great performance festival taking place called IN>TIME. Organized by artist Mark Jeffrey, IN>TIME features both international and local artists exhibiting in 14 diverse venues across the city between the months of January and March. Bad at Sports will be posting a mini-series of interviews and essays about this festival, including an upcoming interview with Mark Jeffrey himself. This particular post is dedicated to two concurrent exhibits at threewalls that are also part of Jeffrey’s festival. On January 11th, Mary Patten’s performance/sound/video installation, Panel opened in the main space. Mathew Jinks’ began screening his new 73 minute, single-channel HD video, The Unreliable Narrator, in the project space. While these artists are distinct from one another, exhibiting independent projects, I was interested in facilitating a conversation between them, particularly as both negotiate film, performance, history and collaboration. These exhibits will be on view until February 23rd, with an artist talk from Jinks on January 31st at 7pm, as well as a performance, SCHIZO CULTURE: A Collaborative Reading, and publication release of the catalogue associated with PANEL. On February 9th, there will be another performance, SCHIZO PANEL, at 7 PM.
Caroline Picard: You both call on speculative fiction in your respective projects. What does it mean for each of you to employ the fantastic?
Mathew Jinks: The idea of alternate histories is very resonant for me, not necessarily in the reconstruction of various alternative spaces, but aiding in imagining that sense of an ‘other’ space that can be inhabited by a narrative. Fictive narratives do not interest me. They seem too comfortable as a source of abstract invention in some way, which I see as an escape from reality and a dead end street; a more complex and evocative device for me is to sow seeds of doubt, to introduce situations and characters with a set of dynamics which have been loaded from the start and see how they play out. The origination in my practice was at the point of departure from personal histories and the evolution of expansive political histories.
Mary Patten: Mathew’s articulation of alternate histories, his desire to “sow seeds of doubt,” the leaking or trespassing of “personal” histories into the territory of “the political” are all-compelling to me… and describe sensibilities or impulses that have shaped my own work for many years. It’s very difficult, maybe even pointless, to draw an easy divide between “fact” and “fiction,” despite persistent claims of “objective journalism” or “scientific truth.” This is well-trodden territory: what “we” (in the most capacious sense) collectively and cumulatively “know” is subject to constant revision and reconstruction. We understand that “facticity” doesn’t equal truth, and that what passes as fiction is not a series of falsehoods. One of the oldest cultural practices, the oral tradition — often taking the form of what we call fables or myths — has been a crucial element in constructing “history.” And yet “telling stories” is still a euphemism for telling lies.
“Speculative” introduces the possibility of wonder, a wandering imagination, the work of invention to heal or bridge inescapable gaps in any historical record. It is a kind of affective, archaeological process to make empirically un-provable connections between obscure, unknown or little-known histories. “Speculative” need not connote the fantastical, however — at least not in the “spectacular” sense. These words are funny… so interconnected, but full of paradoxes.
In the case of Panel, I was drawn to an obscure transcript, photocopied many-times over, given to me by the only participant still living, my friend Judith Clark, herself a survivor of a barely-remembered radical history, serving a 75-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills prison in New York State. (Judy’s story deserves its own independent telling; I would ask readers to please check out judithclark.org.)
Judy’s memory of the “panel on prisons and asylums” at Schizo Culture is that the three men – Foucault, Harp, and Laing – did most of the talking. That’s contradicted by the transcript, which is itself very odd, characterized by breaks and ellipses. We know from Sylvère Lotringer’s accounts that the entire Schizo Culture conference was rife with outbursts and interruptions, including this panel discussion, although that’s not evident in the transcription.
In attempting to re-stage a little-known but somewhat exotic event, I wanted to resist any impulse to reconstruct or “narrativize” the episode in any kind of “realistic” way. I didn’t want a performance designed to dissolve the distance between the “original” event and its contents, both very marked by that moment of the mid 1970s, and yet eerily (and depressingly) prescient of our current traumas of the “societies of control”: diagnosis, punishment, imprisonment, and torture. I didn’t want to blend or unify these four amazing characters and social actors, two of whom (Foucault and Laing) possess an iconicity shimmering with all kinds of aura, with the people reading and inhabiting their words now. I am compelled by both the “connects” and “disconnects.”
CP: You share an interest in collaboration, but also work independently. How do you negotiate the role of an author who is also dedicated to fostering relationships in your work?
MJ: I have always felt uncomfortable in a lonely practice, with the idea of the studio Artist who appears after years of hermetic work with a portfolio under the arm. I began working for other artists in Chicago because I had always been a part of a DIY scene which to me was about skill sharing and enabling others to achieve their goals whilst you achieved yours, doing this I witnessed the evolution of a work through multiple creative minds first hand and this stayed with me. I introduce performers and artists into my works to have them re-interpret my ideas, for them to take the work in directions unknown to myself or to the work. It is quite stressful in many ways to work with others, although I am not precious about my projects I do have creative demands and I like to try to keep the overall affect of the work under my thumb. In return I try hard to become a tool for them to use, whether I am recording sound as I did for Mary’s Piece, working as a Cameraman for Kirsten Leenars, or doing sound for Melika Bass. I simply try to gel with the process at hand.
The most important elements of my practice that I feel need to be under my control I will do myself, The Unreliable Narrator was shot, edited and mixed by myself, with voiceover recordings, studio shoots, post image production all done in my studio. I decided to use a colorist to step up my game a little and he really did a great job, I wanted some animation work for the chapter titles and again I used a great animator Han Han Li — the big key for this work was to employ a Producer, Parveer Singh Sohal. Without Parveer’s connections in India the work would not exist, so that was an integral decision. I needed access. But Parveer is not a Producer, he is a Graphic Designer and so there were many discussions about what I needed and what he was bringing to the project.
MP: Mathew’s discomfort with the notion of a lonely, hermetic studio practice and artistic identity is of course very much in sync with my own ideas, feelings, and history… although not without risks — losing oneself in the collective, for example. A good friend who shares a similar collaborative history once commented that it’s possible that no one will know or remember that her labor and creativity helped form some of these projects, since individual authorship is so often dissolved… I’m obviously not talking here about the art world’s current embrace of “relational practices” and the career building that goes along with that. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I continue to be drawn to collaborative ways of working, such as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project, because it’s urgently needed, and impossible to realize by a single or even a handful of authors. Most importantly, collaborations embody the kind of collective labor and passion necessary to any project that’s trying to make change.
As you, Caroline, and Mathew make very clear, the project of film and videomaking, like so many art forms, is necessarily collaborative… Chris Marker makes this point beautifully during the ending credits of “Grin without a cat” which he dedicates to the anonymous and unnamed artists and technicians without whose clips, shots, sequences, and documents that epic film would have never been realized, seen, or distributed. To that point, I would like to acknowledge the thoughtful labor, participation, and support of performers Darrell Moore, Mikal Shapiro, Matthias Regan, and Mark Jeffery; Directors of Photography Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke; Mathew for such great sound engineering; Alex Brown for assisting with camera; Ilan Gutin for helping with the large prints; and the lovely, hardworking, and brilliant Joey Carr who has worked as producer, compositor, and hardware/software engineer.
CP: You call on various histories, whether philosophical or psychological traditions, fortune telling traditions, — is it possible to collaborate with disciplines? Or do you think about the way you engage those traditions differently?
MJ: This is a wonderful question; tradition by nature is a stubborn legacy and confronting it head on is an antagonistic strategy. If you lay the threads down together: personal history and its discipline of remembrance, familial oral history, musical traditions as in Jazz, Cheiromancy, Homeopathy, Metallurgy, then these lines will touch and intersect like magnets picking up each other. It is a naïve want to reshape these lines to any sort of permanence. I think of Francis Alys work, The Collector — with the magnet on wheels that he pulls behind him collecting metal from the street as he goes — the street will fill up once again with shards and paperclips. Francis creates a moment of being present, and it’s this re-presenting and laying down with traditions in new almost aleatoric ways.
MP: I consider myself a visitor, a curious student, an interloper or trespasser in many disciplines, an auto-didact, or rather someone who has learned from many teachers and texts, “negative” as well as exemplary…
CP: How do you all think of beginnings and endings? Are those narrative touchstones useful to you?
MJ: No, I instinctively move away from creating narrative structure, arcs and so forth. I find the idea of conclusion quite arrogant in non-fiction. The episodic device is interesting because it introduces the idea of the ‘false start’, or the hidden track at the end of an album, or the prologue as in Bergman’s Persona, or ‘rewind’ in Jamaican dance hall, the stutter. This is why gallery installations are so useful: people enter and leave as they wish; this is a very considered position for my work, the ideal position.
MP: There are no real beginnings. We’re always starting in the middle, picking up someone else’s traces and tracks… For me, in the realm of ideas, relationships, as well as many projects over the years, there are so many interruptions and breaks… things are “left for now” and unfinished or deferred. I find it much more habitual to abandon something, rather than “end” it. Like Mathew, I am drawn to the episodic, to “false starts” and “stutters”… but when Mathew talks about resisting narrative arcs, I think he is perhaps referring to “mainstream” or what we used to call “Hollywood narrative cinema”… for me, there are so many wonderful, rich and complicated examples of “narrative fiction” that escape these constraints – the films of Robert Bresson and Chantal Akerman, for example, but also so many more – in cinema and literature, in expanded forms of the essay, in experimental non-fiction and media forms…
CP: How do you conceive of utopia? Is such a thing possible? Is it a condition of being? Or a place?
MJ: More than a construct, a Modernist ideal, pathological, LSD induced? I never conceive of utopia. Utopia and dystopia to me are devices, but they are not very interesting devices. They suggest spaces of utter happiness or utter sadness and isn’t that a psychological state? Bi-Polar? There is no tension in these extreme spaces and it is too easy to create heroics from such static dynamics. This is exactly what popular culture thrives on. The fine-line-in-betweens, and the slippage that occurs within those minimal gradations is what art production responds to. The entertainment industry responds to those other extremes. Even in a spiritual sense — in Buddhism, for instance, elements are in a balance, whereas in cults, the utopian ideals are offset by the leader sexually prowling its herd for ultimate control. Conceiving of utopia maybe undermines an art making practice? Desire is a more interesting space to work from for me. It has the same goal as utopia — the perfect space — but it is much more psychologically complex. Desire is fixated on process, and the moment. There is presence in desire without conclusion.
MP: Unlike Mathew, I don’t think that utopian impulses can be reduced to mere devices, or that they are necessarily tied to dangerous heroic narratives… maybe this is just a difference of language, because I find that his conception of desire as a transformative force is very akin to what I would call utopian longings.
Until fairly recently, it’s been fashionable to dismiss “utopia” because of its attachment to so many terrible and failed agendas that promised brave new worlds and then delivered totalitarianisms. We know now that we should dislike and mistrust master narratives, totalities of certainty, and teleological schemes. However, I am drawn to utopian impulses not just because I was formed through my engagement with them – to the point of political lunacy, perhaps – but also perversely because they have been a despised or at best suspect category for so long.
Contemporary social movements and revolts against globalized capital, the fleeting “occupys,” the movements of the squares, the queer utopias of so many interesting artists today, all embody what people call “prefigurative politics”: “Be the change you want to make.” The emphasis is on the here and now, against telos, embracing not only possibility, but doubt. Recognizing that we, and all matter, is/are in a constant state of becoming, that small and invisible shifts and changes are always (potentially) occurring, whether or not they are seen or recognized… this is what intrigues and provokes me. Brian Massumi is an extremely useful thinker and writer here.
Paradoxically, there’s a lot of interest in reclaiming utopian thinking now because of how hopeless and scary the world has become, how reduced and flattened to information, to bits and bytes everything seems… and all the ways that capitalism forecloses the imagination and desire, except as an instrument of and for the commodity, no pleasure outside of consumption… or the deadliness of an actuarial life, with its endless assessment debits and credits…
CP: What does it mean to come from somewhere? What role does memory play in that reality?
MJ: The transition is interesting, to come from somewhere to go to somewhere else, and the translation from one meaning to another. There is a great deal of nostalgia and longing for previous inhabited spaces, especially if you have been formed by them in some way; that complicates memory. A new space can act as a lens from which to view the previous space and this is truly a unique position. You no longer belong to that place but the memories are attached to you, somehow the filtration from one’s current position gives a sober screen. I think it is essential but painful, and again that tension of knowing you need separation while at the same time being in touch with a sense of longing is the drive for this ‘other’ space to be imagined in my work.
MP: Again, we return to the problem of origins…Years ago, I made a piece provoked by Courbet’s “The Origin of the World.” I was very influenced by Linda Nochlin’s pivotal essay on that infamous painting, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of locating an originary point — whether in relationship to that picture, which existed in several versions, disappeared, and re-surfaced over a long stretch of time… as well as the funny ridiculousness of imagining the universal vulva-cunt as the origin of us all, the Great Mother… how much better to use the term “beaver”? or just ordinary women’s names: a succession of beavers…
A more recent project was instigated by the notes, translated from Arabic into English, allegedly written by Mohammed Atta in preparation for the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001. When I read these, all sorts of problems immediately presented themselves. Was this an actual document? Were the notes, in fact, “found”? or were they a fiction, invented to “prove” a rationale as incomprehensible as the acts that followed? Was this a reliable translation?
The idea that translation is often slippery and inexact, and sometimes impossible, is widely acknowledged. Yet we like to pretend that complete transparency is within our reach, that vast differences of culture, language, and history can be breached, if only the right tools, technologies, and “mindsets” are available. And translation, like everything else, has undergone a renewed politicization in this ever-encapsulated world.
In a lot of my work, I explore spaces and distances between a “here” and a “there,” a presumed “center” and its “periphery,” to work off the grid to the point of falling off a map completely. I work with images drawn from public, although possibly ephemeral archives – things like newspapers, outtakes, margins of the margins – to fictionalize them, at the same time as undermining the authority of “authentic” or alleged autobiography. Like Mathew, I’m preoccupied with the instability of memory, very enamored of the idea, the necessity of the unreliable narrator… or the mute, opaque, or invisible one.
This week: Brian and Patricia talk to Artist Natasha Wheat.
As part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad At Sports and Art Practical, as well as the summer series exploring social practice, this week Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney sit down with Natasha Wheat as she prepares for her upcoming exhibition and temporary restaurant “Self Contained,” which opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago on July 13.
Currently based in San Francisco, Wheat is an American artist whose work attempts to understand and interrupt the way that human beings exist together. She is interested in the social hierarchy of space, utopian attempts, and the tension between exclusivity and inclusion. Wheat founded Project Grow, a Portland Oregon based Art Studio and Urban Farming Project that includes people with mental diversity. Her recent work examines agriculture in relationship to human culture, distribution, and control. She received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008.
Wheat has exhibited collaboratively and individually at The UC Berkeley Art Museum; The Pete and Susan Barrett Gallery, Santa Monica; Rogaland Kunstsenter, Stavanger, Norway; G2, Mess Hall, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Check out the text version of this interview, starting July 1, in Issue 18 of Art Practical.