Monday, August 30, 2010

Creating A Scene: Art as Life Performance

From a conversation between Tania Bruguera and Marina Abramovic:
MA: ... performance has never been accepted as a real form of art because it is so ephemeral. But maybe almost not being material lends to its strength and vitality.

TB: I think in my case, the only way to deal with this is through the approach to documentation as the tangible trace in the aftermath of the experience -- but not as a given. It's always a requirement to think about ways of transferring information, about transferring the experience as part of the tangible side of performance, even if it doesn't manifest as an object.

MA: To me, a part of doing the workshops and trying to make the students great performance artists is to give them advice about how they can live from their own work. They can't live from their performances, but they can live from the products out of the performance [...]

TB: [...] When I teach about documentation, I want to them to problematize documentation -- not only to assume the traditional ways of documenting with photo and video but to try to see how they can problematize ways of transmitting the experience. Because the idea of having a photo taken from a performance is almost like making that performance an icon, meaning making the lived thing dead and taking away the most important part, which is the experience.

MA: But there is one possibility if you don't have the public. If you just have the camera, and the camera is this imaginary public. So the product is different; then actually the flm or the photo becomes the artwork.

TB: [...] A performance is not like an object, and it shouldn't be forced to follow the rules that come with making objects. Performance should bring with it new ways to conceive old solutions; it should keep its revolutionary and evolutionary qualities [...]
The conversation goes deeper with Bruguera at one point saying, in relation to the role of so-called art school in the developmental process of making new art projects:
[...] I want the members of the project to learn how to work within limitations -- either the limitations society puts on them or the ones they have to create for themselves. I don't know, maybe it's not that you have to have a school. It's maybe about creating a moment, like opening a space where people can go in, interact, get stimulated, and get out of there with something to be developed later. The challenge is to rethink continuity and collectivity.
This got me thinking about how contemporary artists who also happen to be professors can best serve our more advanced graduate and undergraduate students. Whether it's "creating a moment" or developing an ongoing situation for the participating students to curate events that enable their creative energies to collide and mix, the thing that must happen is that these emerging student-artists need to begin imagining themselves as role-playing artist-performers who are part of a group who, by way of structured and/or ad hoc collaboration, are able to prove themselves capable of moving beyond all of these preconceived notions of discipline that corrupt contemporary higher arts education. More generally, an open and experientially improvised collaborative environment needs to evolve so that the students can then participate in the activation of a potential scene that is so in sync with the future perfect that it literally makes history.

This is not as easy as it sounds because it demands that the emerging student-artists conceive of themselves as role-playing performers, albeit ones who are not "acting like" emerging student-artists but who are simply finding alternative ways of "playing themselves." As Ambrovic says earlier in the same conversation:
[...] in performance, acting is such a big obstacle. If a performer was a dancer before, we must reprogram them. If they were actors, we must make them forget what they learned in order to be able to deal with a real performance attitude. We have to de-dance them, de-act them, somehow take it away.
The reason why most art schools are predictable, mediocre, or even just downright suck is because many of the faculty are not able to "somehow take it away" and, in fact, through the rigid compartmentalization of space and other resources, work hard to find ways to keep the old programming structures firmly in place. How can we expect to de-act / de-program a student artist performing the role of painter, printmaker, darkroom photographer, sculptor, installation artist, etc., when the division of space within most art school architecture dams up these potential interdisciplinary movements? Unfortunately for many art students today, the micro-disciplinary dictatorships that rule over these territorial domains have become so comfortable in their time-worn studio art practices that they themselves have very rarely sought out ways to de- and re-program their own research methods in relation to the increasingly networked relationship between art, technology, and life performance. The network society may be leading contemporary Conceptual practice into a more fluid, post-studio environment, but don't tell that to most senior art school faculty or even most junior faculty who are hired in their own (i.e. their senior colleague's) image of themselves well into the future. This is an issue staring in the face of art school administrators across the country. Will most of them look the other way?

It's not just an issue with a lot of disciplinary-driven faculty either. Art students across the country today seem pretty passive and accept these divisions at face value. You might even say that many if not most of them embrace it since they are able to stay within their disciplinary comfort zone. Are there ways to experiment beyond these embedded programmatic blockages? What about investigating the way that networked media technologies reveal how our digital culture is now blurring the difference between expert professionals and expert amateurs? For example, could the seemingly professional faculty stand to learn something from creating a scene with their emerging yet still amateur artist-students? For what it's worth, I do not consider the term "amateur" a condescending word at all, and in fact quote from my late colleague Stan Brakhage's essay "In Defense of Amateur" all of the time. In this essay, Brakhage reminds us that "an amateur works according to his own necessity" and "is at home anywhere he works." In my recent work, Immobilité, one of the main experiments I was running looked at how a "professional" artist, in this case a self-proclaimed "auteur," might mash-up their art-house narrative style with some of the more amateurish styles we associate with mobile phone video capturing and the anything-goes flood of content found in YouTube culture. Besides presenting this intense challenge to myself, i.e. creating a feature-length art-house narrative modeled after the great works of European cinema but filtered through a very amateurish or DIY mobile phone lens, I wanted to also experiment with and am in fact still experimenting with its distribution into both the network and art world cultures.

Part of the problem in developing a post-studio practice lies in the way art schools and the art world it helps sustain buy into the standard measurements of "success," most notably the dreaded gallery exhibition. To remix Marianne Moore's famous quote about modern poetry, "I, too, dislike it." She is right to suggest that "there are things more important beyond all this fiddle." But fiddle we do as we pursue our recognizable outcomes. Not that I myself never show in galleries or would poo-poo my national and international colleagues who do. For some, it's a sheer survival tactic that plays in nicely with every artist's need for the occasional ego-boost. It's definitely part of the art world culture whether mainstream/commercial or alternative/non-profit, and as Ambrovic says in the interview quoted above, it's important to teach young artists the art of the deal (her word is "negotiate"). But there are all kinds of potential deals out there that have nothing to do with commercial gallery culture. I guess the problem is you can't teach what you yourself don't know from experience.

Are there any alternative forms of art research and development that are moving beyond commercial gallery / art world culture and that are looking to invent other approaches to contemporary Conceptual practice that experiment with digital media in the field of distribution? Besides the TECHNE practice-based research initiative currently staged at the University of Colorado where, in addition to serving as faculty director for the initiative I am also a Professor in the Department of Art and Art History, the folks at Artereality located at Stanford University write in their introduction for Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century):
The following is both a report on an ongoing experiment and a speculative application of that very experiment to the future of advanced-level arts education. It seeks to rethink some of the most productive institutions and moments from the modern past—the Arts and Crafts workshop, the Bauhaus, the laboratory of Constructivism, among them—in terms of the altered cultural and economic circumstances of the late industrial era. It assumes that art’s autonomy, one of the decisive conquests of the modern(ist) era, has led not only to an extraordinary proliferation of artistic forms and freedoms, but also to the current impasse which places arts education in the service of up-market commodity culture and at arm’s length from other forms of knowledge production and, in particular, from the very technology and media transformations that are reshaping the cultural norms of the present era. (emphasis mine)
What if art school ceased to position itself as the programmatic gateway to commercial gallery success? Art history is littered with forgettable artists who bought into the readymade art school -> commercial gallery -> mainstream art magazine -> musuem culture trajectory that creates a predictable situation where the role of the art school is to continually position itself as yet another professional program forever in the service of up-market commodity culture.

Are there other options? What kind of post-studio arts curriculum could emerge that would call into question the role of art schools still modeling themselves on 19th century studio arts practices? How could this post-studio curriculum that by its very nature would require a much more fluid interdisciplinary approach to experiential research, enable the emerging artist-students to create their own art scene as expert amateurs playfully engaged in the field of distribution? Would we risk steering these students in the wrong direction, i.e. somehow take away their right to create art in the service of up-market commodity culture? Would their artwork lend itself to more commercial exploitation as they found themselves becoming on-the-fly digital media entrepreneurs changing the curve of contemporary culture? These are questions that we need to be addressing now but that university cultures in general prefer to side-step or only pay lip service to (how about another new committee on "The Effects of Digital Media on Higher Education" to suck up our time while we explore our limited / limiting options?).

Along these lines, my university is in the process of discontinuing its School of Journalism and Mass Communication in an attempt to not only save money but to also begin rethinking its mission given the impact digital media is having on all aspects of contemporary life. Journalism, of course, is easy pickin's. All one has to do is read the latest on USA Today for a further indication of where that profession is heading. This makes me wonder: can art schools whose programmatic structures rely on older studio arts practices that demand a rigid distribution of space and resources to maintain the individual-artist-as-genius studio model really assume that they will never face a similar fate of gradual but sooner than expected discontinuance and extreme makeover? Am I the only higher arts educator wondering these things aloud?

If change is to happen sooner rather than later, then I am convinced it will have to come from and be demanded by the students themselves. This will most likely require emerging artist-students to begin performing the kind of "de-actified" performance that Abramovic points to indirectly in her discussion with Bruguera excerpted above. I realize that to some this may all seem very pie in the sky, or the worst kind of abstract wishful thinking, especially when matched against the entrenched forces of production bound by 19th century models of studio arts practice. So be it.

Still, from my own very biased perspective, as far as I can tell, the best way to develop a post-studio, networked media arts practice, is to experiment with ones conceptual performance in the field of distribution, and to do it in such a way that you collectively and collaboratively create a scene. But who can teach that? Probably someone who has spent a lot of time out of art school.

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