Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Jenny Holzer - The Meaning of Everything

There once was a man who wanted to discover the meaning of everything.
He wandered across the world, searching for someone wise enough to explain to him what all this was about, what was the meaning of everything.
After many years, in a distant land, he was told there is one Sage who knows the secret, the meaning of everything.
So he traveled to the huge house where the old Sage lived. He knocked at the door, but there was no answer. He tried opening the large wooden door. It was not locked. The traveler entered the house, to find himself in an enormous hall with walls covered in shelves with books. He walked further in and entered a large room also filled with books. He moved to the adjacent room - and discovered that there, too, shelves were everywhere, and on them - only books. He approached one of the shelves and picked up a random volume. He opened it, and inside it, he saw the letter N, filling the pages. The pages of the book were all but rows of NNNNNN...
He picked up another book, opened it - the book was filled with TTTTTTT.... He tried another one, and another, and each of them was filled with but one letter.
Flabbergasted, the traveler wanted to sit down, when the Sage came in. He was an old, grey-bearded man, just as the fairy-tales have it.
"Sir, said the traveler, I don't understand, there is... I don't understand!"
The Sage smiled, and replied, "Now all you need to do is connect the letters."

Although text is at the heart of her work, Jenny Holzer is not really a writer. She is rather a reader. Her work is not so much about text, as it is about giving body to text. But, as the authorship becomes blundered (Holzer signs the work, but none of the texts that compose it), writing is always re-writing, and thus, it is fundamentally about the embodyment reading.

Somewhat following the path suggested by the likes of Barthes, Baudrillard or Foucault, Holzer is a semiotic DJ, reconfiguring and re-shaping the meaning that seems to have been there long ago. If her own words appear in the works, they seem to remain transparent, undistinguishable from external sources. (Remember the famous line, "Protect Me From What I Want"? Can you say if it was Holzer's own sentence, or an appropriation of someone else's?).

In one of her recent projects included in the Protect Protect exhibition (read an insightful review here), Holzer takes on Iraq and the question of torture. In a work showcased at the TimeOut NY site, she reproduces original, recently declassified documents of the US Army. What is the artist's role? How different is it from strictly political work?

Yes, this is Warholesque. And yes, it is somewhat controversial to have an artist of Holzer's renown decide that this was the right approach and means for this specific subject.
One excellent and cruel review puts it bluntly: if it is about raising our awareness, Warhol's works were good proof that in terms of political awareness this can hardly be a success.
But we can see it from another angle: contrary to Warhol, Holzer gained her reputation on working on questions of morality, and contrary to what she herself claims, values have always been a crucial issue in her work. Thus, as her work can already be seen from this engaged perspective, can't we interpret the careful selection of documents as a sort of curatorial answer precisely to warholian esthetic relativism?

Yet the question remains: do we really need this reader? Do we not see the same documents elsewhere? Our performativity-sensitive eyes are accustomed to seeing the terrific game of language that, say, the map of the Iraq invasion represents. What does purple paint and canvas change in this reading, for us, today?
(image on top from here)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Answering myself

Writing a post is often like making a test. The etimology of essay comes to mind: an attempt. A blog is a great place for such attempts - yet at times it also gives space to texts I would rather not have written, ideas that were still premature or ungrounded, preconceived...
Yet this, I think, is the perfect space for such struggles, for discovering possible points of view one might feel tempted to adopt.
In my last post, I wrote about the move from product-based thinking about art to research-based thinking. The idea of a cultural universe that looks like a big lab is quite appealing to the artist (discovering is so exciting!), and often problematic for the public.
This is also related to the issue of funding: public money for such a private culture seems absurd. Why give money to people who don't want to reach out to the society that supports them?
The excellent writer Alessandro Baricco recently wrote a very polemic article (here is a poor google-translation) criticizing the elitist dynamics of supporting culture, in which he suggested that public funding should be taken away from the likes of theater and opera, and instead moved to TV and education to create very ambitious programs and actually reach out to the masses and create a true evolving dialogue.
It's a very strong and shocking article.
I went back to it after having written the previous post.
There was something about it that seemed profoundly wrong and unjust.
I think the film Il n´y a pas de Colin dans poisson, by Isabelle Taveneau, Zoé Liénard, and Odile Magniez, tells it wonderfully well:

In all the discourse about elitist art, we often forget that the consumers (yes, consumers) of this art are very often people and communities quite distant from what our stereotipical eyes seem to notice. Culture, when supported in a wise, and smart, way, is an ever-evolving process of education. Open-source, open-ended, and potentially surprizingly democratic. Having been teaching contemporary performance to groups of very varied milieus, I feel it all the time.

PS (22.03.09): I am now in Coimbra, Portugal. Today I discovered the charming and thoughtfuly renovated Museum of Science. It is a unique venue situated in an 18th-century laboratory, on the very top of the highest hill in the city. It was completely empty. Later, I went to the riverside, and discovered to my astonishment that it had crowds of people, mainly families with kids running around and adults drinking coffee. If we were to follow Baricco's ideas, we should shut down the museum (with its great program for kids and parents with kids...), as it seems to be appreciate by an irrelevant minority. Instead, we should invest more in events at the riverside, where the people are. Why, I ask, can't we try and bring these crowds to a higher level? Why are we to forget the centuries of culture we could profit from, replacing them by an «ambitious TV programming» and «education», and allowing product-based thinking to take over?
All this having said, it truly is a shame that the museum was empty. And a little product-based thinking, just a little, couldn't do much harm, could it?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Good, Honest and Effective

The above excerpt (and pic) was taken from The Cost of Living, a film (and performance) by the British physical theatre company DV8.

I think art is something that makes us look at our lives and to think about them in a way that is more rich. I think there's a big argument for poetry and for the construction of elements. When somebody writes a great essay, they have taken the words and placed them in a certain way to make you think more deeply about that subject. That is for me the very function of art. You get together, you get a group of people, you place things very carefully in order, and the placement is artificial, but if the integrity and the focus is clear, then hopefully it makes people see their roles more clearly. And think about them. And that's what I would like to do.
- Lloyd Newson, DV8 director, in a great interview.
Being honest, good and effective is a rare combination in arts. Most contemporary artists avoid at least one of these concepts: honesty is considered by many as a ridiculous idea from art's perspective, others consider art as being beyond moral issues. But the favorite scapegoat has in the recent years been effectiveness. Many associate it with a commercial, product-based approach that an artist should never accept. Effective, for them, is a synonym for McDonald's. Effectiveness is about price/quality ratio and looking for the best buy. It goes against the spirit of experimental research we are encouraged to follow. Work-in-progress, work-in-process, open art forms and new modes of production are all back. In some milieus it seems impolite to speak of a finished work. This is a twist of the modernist idea of the "independent" artist, and a curious travesty of the fin-de-siècle artist enclosed in his universe and refusing to give in to the evil, ignorant and lost society. In this updated version, the artist retains the independent status, while accepting a parallel funding of his work. If no form of effectiveness is allowed, we can only rely on a funding that is based on some other form of quality. But what is this quality? How far from the spectacular (the show, the product, the work, the to-be-seen) can it go? It is no coincidence that somewhat similarly to the Grotowskis and Allan Kaprows of the 70s, several contemporary artists decided recently to stop showing their work (or creating any sort of showable work, which amounts to the same). The difference seems to be in how one sees one's position in the world. While Grotowski and Kaprow moved away to work in relative seclusion from the art milieu (Kaprow concentrated on academic work, but stopped creating public performances). Today, the very shift from product-to-project-to-research is what the milieu is all about.
What is left for the spectator?
The spectator can certainly join the ride and follow each artist's struggle.
Or wait and see what happens.
Or appreciate the DV8s that go on believing art can be good, and honest - and effective.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How to show performance on the internet?

The new Performa site is attractive and frustrating at the same time. The fragments of the Performa07 New York biennal are great, they give us an insight into the feel of the festival that was doomed to be famous (and to some extent, doomed to fail to meet the incredibly high expectations).
(My favorite of the excerpts is Stage Matrix 1 by Markus Schinwald and Oleg Soulimenko, which seems like a deliciously elegant and disciplined play with space and contingency. The picture above is from that performance.)
The thing I find frustrating about Performa's site is the way the videos are displayed - one can only move forward (by pressing the space tab), there are no other controls, no notion of what is there in store for us...
Yes, this might come close to the experience of watching a performance. But doesn't it seem a little silly? Isn't it moving us back to the sort of hierarchy the internet has been freeing us from? It does make sense in the historic context of performance, where the utmost respect for the work is frequently an unspoken condition of appreciating the work, and often flirts with the sanctification of the aesthetic. And although there have been exceptions, it won't be an exaggeration to say performance art audiences are usually surprizingly well-behaved and develop a tolerance for time-stretching experiences...
However, the internet has developed a set of rules of its own. One of them is a certain predictability of content. And a non-linear approach to video-watching. The possibility of scrolling forward, or checking several things at the same time, is today as "natural" as reading a book and listening to music, or being able to read the last page of a novel first. The sort of proposal Performa makes goes against this. And gives stage to a difficult exercice of disciplined watching - with no pauses, no repeats, no selection. Take it or leave it.
It is an interesting exercise to perform (pardon the pun).
And yet, in practical terms, doesn't it limit the actual audience of the performances (virtual, and later, real) to the viewers already accustomed to be the well-behaved time-stretched spectators of contemporary art?
The step from live performance to showcasing it on the internet is huge and very tricky. It requires feeling the dynamics of the "aesthetic experience of the net", and that is still a very fresh ground. The trick is, if one of the greatest motors of performance art has been the idea of the avantgarde, entering a new platform will eventually (and once again) have to mean redefining what this idea(l) means.

ps.: For more info on the Performa 2009 biennal and many other events happening now in NY, see their blog here.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Andy Warhol the computer geek

This video, and the interview re-published at artnode, seem like more proof that the brilliance of the artist is often quite distant from the brilliance of the onlooker. Surrounded by "modern technology", he might, in retrospect, appear like a child enjoying his toys. Especially in the interview, it seems like it's the journalist who has all these great ideas, and Warhol just happily agrees with what he hears...
The enthusiasm for new technologies, when watched twenty years later, has something funny, but also something eery about it.
But if you read carefuly, there is one remarkable moment: when the journalist suggests that Andy (and the other artists) can now do everything by themselves - music, video, editing, etc., the artist agrees. But when asked if he has been doing it, he answers he hasn't had time because he is still exploring the visual art side of the computer.
So beyond this enthusiasm for all that is new, lies an aproach that is at once pragmatic and somehow... healthily conservative?



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