Sunday, February 04, 2007

Homeboy's Participation Art

Digressions within digressions within digressions ...

... that's what blogs are made of ...

One of my favorite galleries in London, located a mere 10 minute walk from my London base on the East end, is the Whitechapel Art Gallery. They are going through a major 10 million pound renovation/expansion and are closed until June 2008. Their Back to Black - Art, Cinema and the Racial Imaginary during the summer of 2005 was one of the best shows I saw in London that year (or anywhere else for that matter). Presenting "a major survey of the Black Arts Movement in the US, Jamaica and Britain in the 1960s and 70s," the exhibition tweaked me from all sides, exposing the provocative forces of influence that crept into my own awakening political consciousness during that time. As a teenager hanging out in Miami, I tooled around town in my Chevy Nova (known for its three-on-the-tree) proudly showing off my totally whacked out Afro hairdo, carrying around my Afro pick which I would hold by the handle shaped like a raised fist in solidarity with the Black Power movement that was still strong in Miami at the time. Most of my friends, girls and boys, were black (and Cuban, Jewish, or hybridized Juban), and although we were not politically sophisticated and did not know jack about art except for whatever music we were digging at the time, the show in London some thirty years later, including work by David Hammons, Horace Ove, and Llewellyn Xavier, reminded me just how much how Black culture overwrote so much of my experience during those formative, experimental years as an independent teenager running amok in South Florida.

The time was 1974-1977. I was working overtime (50 hours + per week) at the greyhound racetrack and missing some high school classes due to total exhaustion (don't forget that this was Miami in the '70s, lots of "trafficking," Bees Gees and K.C. and the Sunshine Band-styled disco, and mucho "free love" floating in the air). Who could make it to homeroom class at 7 AM (!) after having hung out with the older hipsters until 2 AM? That's when and where my crucial developmental phase as an experimental artist focused on politics (and satire) began to take shape. In case you forgot, this historical time period I am speaking of takes place exactly during and after the political upheavals associated with the Watergate scandal (you could say that I found my "satirical persona" thanks to the idiocy of Nixon and his gang of crooks).

What a time to begin forming ones artistic life. If only I would have learned how to write properly! But who had time? The experiences were too good to let go of and besides, my paycheck was desperately needed to put food on the table for our family of five. Some of these wild times are being slowly leaked into my computer as I continue to write my pseudo-autobiographical novel (working title: "My Oblivion"). It's pseudo-autobiographical the same way Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is, or Kathy Acker's Blood and Guts in High School -- both of whom continue to influence my nomadic net art practice and who I am forever indebted to for helping me break open my head.

Meanwhile, back here on Planet Oblivion, I just received a copy of a new book co-produced by Whitechapel and MIT Press, entitled Participation. I'm enjoying the mix and quick-fix hits of illumination from Allan Kaprow on happenings, Guy Debord on constructed situations and drifting, and Umberto Eco's Poetics of the Open Work which, as I read it 45 years after its original release, I see prophesizes a lot of the "open content" and "open source lifestyle" movement we have seen develop in the net arts scene:
These poetic systems recognize "openness" as the fundamental possibility of the contemporary artist or consumer. The aesthetic theoretician, in his turn, will see a confirmation of his own intuitions in these practical manifestations: they constitute the ultimate realization of a receptive mode which can function at many different levels of intensity.

Certainly this new receptive mode vis-à-vis the work of art opens up a much vaster phase in culture and in this sense is not intellectually confined to the problems of aesthetics. The poetics of the "work in movement" (and partly that of the "open" work) sets in motion a new cycle of relations between the artist and his audience, a new mechanics of aesthetic perception, a different status for the artistic product in contemporary society. It opens a new page in sociology and in pedagogy, as well as a new chapter in the history of art. It poses new practical problems by organizing new communicative situations. In short, it installs a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art.

Seen in these terms and against the background of historical influences and cultural interplay which links art by analogy to widely diversified aspects of the contemporary worldview, the situation of art has now become a situation in the process of
development. Far from being fully accounted for and catalogued, it deploys and poses problems in several dimensions. In short, it is an "open" situation, in movement. A work in progress.
In fact, a lot of Participation reads like a pre-history to the more gadget-driven, interactive, open source lifestyles we seem inextricably linked to today.

Perhaps what's noticeably missing from the contemporary versions of participatory art are the higher levels of political awareness needed to change the curve of culture. Activating a politically motivated artistic practice that shuns the gallery scene is one thing. Buying into (i.e. consuming) an alternative (DJ, hip-hop, street, online social networking) culture is another. It's true that buying into (i.e. paying for) something is a way to participate in that cultural experience. It's easy: put it on your credit card, then you'll really feel indebted to that fleeting cultural experience that you want to be a part of NOW so that you can continue to distract yourself from the necessity of saving the planet from its running-roughshod inhabitants! I guess you could call that kind of cultural experience a "commodity happening" (I like how that phrase plays with Kaprow's notion of the art happening but also plays with the idea of active consumption as an art form; for example, instead of a bumper sticker that says SHIT HAPPENS, how about one that simply makes it more personalized and verbal, as in COMMODITY HAPPENING).

But let me continue going all intellectual on you and share another snippet from the Participation book, this time from Jean-Luc Nancy on "The Inoperative Community" where he cautions against "the retrospective consciousness of the lost community":
[...]whether this consciousness conceives of itself as effectively retrospective or whether, disregarding the realities of the past, it constructs images of this past for the sake of an ideal or prospective vision. We should be suspicious of this consciousness first of all because it seems to have accompanied the Western world from its very beginnings: at every moment in history, the Occident has rendered itself to the nostalgia for a more archaic community that has disappeared, and to deploring a loss of familiarity, fraternity and conviviality [...]
What we have come to realize, is that this nostalgic harkening back to some kind of original community is fueled by a myth-making apparatus that plays to our sentimental need for something "real" that totally holds together for us. As if some kind of originary "real" were ever there for us to feel nostalgic about in the first place. Very modern in practice and philosophy, but not very useful. Instead, we forge ahead and innovate new ways to participate in the culture we are part of (here's a new title for an artwork or conference paper: "Paypal and the Coming Community?").

For me, the next instance of artistic output/outcome in the participatory economy will evolve around a trip next month to South Beach, the very place I was born (yes, South Beach). No doubt I'll have plenty of opportunities to buy into contemporary multi-culture like never before. It will no longer be the world of Saturday Night Fever, gambling, 100% Columbian Gold, and symbolically purchased Black Power Afro Picks. It will be something else altogether new, and all of it, memories of the past, remixed with experiences of the present as well as sci-fi projections into the immediate future becoming something unreal as if it were happening now, will just be more source material for the live-wire remixologist to concoct into some fresh spin on the scene he is definitely a part of.

Hey -- guess what? It must be Super Bowl Sunday, and all the world is gorging on images of Miami.

The Mother-City giving birth to yet more meta-history on the horizon ...

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