Collaboration and Happenings: Kaprow’s Control

The reason that the performance worked in one sense was that it was very controlled. A reason that it did not work, in aother sense, was that it was too controlled, and people do not like to be controlled in that way. 

–Allan Kaprow on collaboration in Happenings in conversation with Richard Kostelanetz

Studying modes of shared work in Creative Collaboration, Vera Johns-Steiner makes the point that group work “liberate[s the members], for a time, from the prison of the self … [and] taking risks, buoyed by collaborative support, contributes to a developing, changing self” (188). The double function, indicated by Johns-Steiner, of collective creative practice to, on one hand, interfere with the limitations of the self-identified subject, and on the other hand to contribute to reformative growth that fulfills the progress of the dialectic, is a strangely complicated one. This double function encourages flexibility in exchange that challenges fixed ideas of the self at the same time that it promotes the ongoing concern with developing that contained self within a dialectics of collective or social progress. This is in some ways a strange paradox that informs much of what is problematic about collaboration. At once we seek to destroy the individual subject and at the same time insist that he produce a better version of himself. But perhaps destruction and improvement can be rethought in terms of permeation and distribution. If collaboration has any serious value it lies not in its instrumental worth, how it helps us work harder, faster, or more creatively, Rather its worth lies in its capacity to serve as a process that unfolds self-awareness in the individual as an actor whose roles and functions, both constructive and disruptive, are deeply implicated in many and varied commingled, distributed networks of association and action.

To consider these complex, associations, I begin with a discussion of work that has historically been called collaborative, whether intentionally or otherwise; that is I offer an analysis of early “Happenings” by Allan Kaprow. The next post will discuss the practice of producing multi-media works and experimental musical compositions by Meredith Monk. I will round out the discussion in a third post that turns to early dance experiments by Anna Halprin and her collaborators to comparatively develop a geneology of collaborative process that considers its value beyond the instrumentalizing purposes to which it has been deployed in business, academic institutions, and art-making practices on the whole.

Allan Kaprow, Happenings, and the Non-Object

As part of a larger concern in the 1950s and 60s with resisting the way capitalism generates subjectivity through its spectacle exemplified in work by Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, and others, Allan Kaprow began in the late 1950s to stage what he and his colleagues called “Happenings.”[1] These were highly orchestrated but spontaneous-appearing installations and performances that appropriated the objects and actions of everyday life to make excessive gestures toward disrupting the political and formal austerity of the New York gallery system of the time.

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Figure 1.2. Performance still from Allan Kaprow, Yard (1967), Martha Jackson Gallery, New York. Photo copyright Julian Wasser/Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

Often situating these projects in non-traditional exhibition spaces, like a chicken ranch, a department store, or the unused storage yard of an Upper East Side gallery (Figure 1.2), Kaprow sought to open unlikely spaces in which his audience could participate as part of the artwork, rather than as a passive receiver of objects, as a way to activate everyday life through aesthetic practice. Much has been written about the ways in which Happenings disrupted expectations for art viewing and thus affected the viewer in unexpected ways. Rather than contribute to this particular critical direction, this study focuses on the development of the formal structures Kaprow employed to initiate and present the works in order to understand what might be thought as collaboration in this work.

Formally, Kaprow did not consider Happenings best executed through spontaneity. Rather, as they progressed, Happenings became minutely staged affairs, determined to the last chime of a bell. Kaprow’s statement in Michael Kirby’s Happenings specifically criticized assumptions by the media and an uninformed public that the term “Happening” reflected the growing cultural informality of his time; he was not encouraging “dropping out” but increasing attention, even though the focus of that attention was directed toward what might be determined the banal or quotidian. He states that “people … suspect every authored Happening of being no more than a casual and indifferent event, or … at best … a ‘performance’ to release inhibitions…I try to impress everyone with the fact that I really direct a Happening inside out” (Kirby 47). Rather than proliferate an air of cultural negligence as a way to resist bourgeois manners and concerns, Kaprow crafted conversations by employing elaborate scores to orchestrate irony, chance, and dissonance as resistance to the way capitalism controls the creation of subjectivity and to invite moments when this control might be skirted.

In his graduate thesis work on Mondrian and then in his later article on Jackson Pollack, Kaprow theorizes the way that “a non-aesthetical point of view [or almost ritual loss of self in the creation of the artwork], … is essentially self-transforming, rather than [a] pictorial” or representational presentation of ideas (Kostelanetz 104). This self-transformation was important to social movements, like the Situationist International in France, that following Marx saw industrialized society as capable of changing the very basis of human nature and therefore of human endeavor. In his painting and collage practice, Kaprow sought to “…fill in the area around the spectator – [to] … surround you — … very much like Pollock in the middle of his painting…” (108), and then to extend that experience beyond the limits of the painted canvas, beyond the limits of the metaphor, to “keep that relationship [between viewer and art object/practice] real and constant.” In this way, the aesthetic and the quotidian become intermingled such that they are constantly affecting one another and actively developing experiences that inform subjectivity beyond the instrumentalizing needs of capital labor. In visionary style, Kaprow extended this transformative experience evoked by the artwork and by the art making practice beyond himself as artist in order to include anyone who might experience the work.

Even though his intention was to liberate the production of subjectivity from the controls of capital by activating the passive position of the viewer as an active participant in the meaning-making processes of aesthetic practice, Kaprow’s detailed control over the aspects of the artwork points to a practice that engages the viewer as material medium more than agential contributor. The viewer is an active object, the irony of which serves to strengthen the critique of capitalism but does not provide indicate a careful consideration of the activity of collaboration, which implies a certain kind of muddling of hierarchic relations via exchange. To better illustrate this, I offer an extended description of viewer involvement in 18 Happenings in Six Parts, installed and performed at the Reuben Gallery in New York in 1959.

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Figure 1.3. Installation view from Allan Kaprow, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959), Ruben Gallery, New York. Photo copyright Fred W. McDarrah.

Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts was Kaprow’s most developed attempt to involve all aspects of human creative activity without merely recreating one form of practice in an unlikely place. That is to say, many previous experiments with installation that included sound and people moving through a space had been unsatisfactory to Kaprow because they seemed too close to some other form of practice, like theatre and he wanted to disrupt all categories more intensely. 18 Happenings included collaged dimensional “paintings” and pseudo-sculptures that, along with plastic sheeting and folding chairs (Figure 1.3), created a strange environment that was part art gallery, part theatre, part construction zone. The performance involved banal activities, structured movement, and noise making at designated periods. Significantly, the work was designed to include the audience through the invitation to attend, seating arrangements, and prescribed moments for moving and verbal expression. Curator Paul Schimmel said of the piece that it “manipulated the audience to a degree virtually unprecedented in 20th century art” (Schimmel 22). The choice of the term “manipulated” is key to understanding how the audience became another material element in the complex composition Kaprow contrived in this work.

A detailed written script was composed that included noise, gesture, and configuration of elements in the space of the gallery. This including diagrams of movement that appear like schematics for assembling an air conditioning unit (Figure 1.4). Kaprow issued invitations to specific viewers, gallerists, other artists, and collectors, all important actors in the New York City art world of the day. He also ordered strict seating arrangements, which included dictating when viewers could speak or move during the course of the event. At times his instructions specifically separated friends and forced known rivals together. While the works appeared at the time deconstructed and casual, especially in comparison to the stultifying formality of traditional painting and sculpture exhibitions, they were, according to Kelley, “as planned as any New York social event” (Kelley 34).

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Figure 1.4. Script for 18 Happenings in Six Parts.

Kaprow and other artists or actors executed most of the piece, with the audience participating in specific ways as directed by the artist. In one room, a group of actors would play instruments, while in another a woman would squeeze orange juice (Figure 1.5). As Kelley reports, “… On note cards given to audience members [all specifically invited to the event], Kaprow wrote: ‘The performance is divided into six parts. Each part contains three happenings which occur at once. The beginning and the end of each will be signaled by a bell. At the end of the performance two strokes of the bell will be heard…You have been given three cards. Be seated as they instruct you” (30). Following Kaprow’s instructions was key to the successful completion of the work; the viewer had been transformed from a passive receiver or consumer to a passive actor or material. He assigned groups that would then be moved around and reapportioned as the work continued; “…that is to say, group A would not just move to another spot, but it would get mixed up with segments of group B and C and so on” (110). The cards they received at the beginning instructed them to move seats or speak or exercise a gesture at a predetermined time but they were to do these things “without their comprehension of the reasons.”

1.5a kaprow 18

 

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Figure 1.5. Performance stills. 18 Happenings in Six Parts. (1959), Ruben Gallery, New York. Photo copyright Fred W. McDarrah.

The audience involvement, important to the overall function of the work as an “active field whose outlines are very, very uncertain so that they blend in and out of daily life” (Kostelanetz 109) was clearly extraordinarily controlled, or at least Kaprow intended it to be. He recognized that the viewers were part of the work, “whether they considered it or not” and although “some of them didn’t like it,” he insisted that they be understood, in the overall meaning of the work, as intentional components like the actors, instruments, and assemblages constructed by Kaprow in the studio. Regardless of his engagement with theories of chance, he did not make room in his composition for the arbitrary elements the audience might introduce as collaborators. He worried “how can I keep these people still?” and “if one of them has a red coat and that doesn’t work in the composition, can I get rid of it?” While noise was carefully explored as a way to extend the painted surface in time and space, he asked “if during the sound performance someone [from the audience] says something that I don’t like, should I shut him up?” These are clearly concerns that seem in opposition to the engagement with the randomness and complexity of everyday life important to Kaprow, where indiscriminate colors, sounds, and movement are never subject to the control of a single mover, unless everyday life occurs under totalitarian edict.

The strict formal composition of the work carried with it a judgment that had to do with Kaprow’s reception of the audience member’s input. One participant in 18 Happenings made noise that was perceived by Kaprow as antagonistic. It was “not so much the sounds but the attitude of the person that I didn’t like. It was aggressive.” Due to the strict control of the score, “freedoms were carefully limited … [and] random sound of any kind, even well-intentioned, wasn’t really appropriate” (108-109) in Kaprow’s conception of the work. If they agreed to attend the piece, the audience members needed to follow Kaprow’s rules and not to question the reasons or to express an affective reaction to either the acts themselves or to the control imposed by the artist.

While Happenings have been called collaborative since the beginning due to the way they include the viewer as part of the work, the nature of the involvement is clearly problematic. In a 1993 article in Art Journal, Johanna Drucker, indicates that “…Happenings were a form of collaboration without object, that is, without either a preconceived goal or a resulting product” (51). She goes on to say that “as collaborations…[the Happenings] were activities, artworks, in themselves, which were most distinctly defined as relations among individuals” (51 emphasis in original). She foregrounds the shift from emphasis on objects made by a single artist that represent relations among people, to events that feature interactions among players which “displace the singular authority of the artist” (53), emphasize sociability, and engender a situation of cooperative interaction. But the nature of relations that occur in the strict confines of preordained, inflexible rules is not one of exchange, but one of either use-value or tyranny. Further, if the intention included no desire to achieve a preconceived goal, then unanticipated contributions from human actors (or non-human ones for that matter, if say a machine broke or a lightbulb burned out) seemingly could occur without destroying the work and without requiring the moral qualification of that contribution as disruptive in a way the artist “didn’t like?”

Granted, Drucker’s emphasis is on the “non-object, non-product orientation of these events,” but still it is curious that she insists on collaboration as the process involved in this dissolution of the traditional object. The grounds she provides for calling Kaprow’s work collaborative is that it features “simultaneity of actions, a certain mildly destructive impulse, a random quality to the relatedness of events, and collective activity” (53). Clearly Kaprow did not accommodate random relations in 18 Happenings, and the mildly destructive impulse may have been unidirectional, with Kaprow being the only one permitted to act upon this impulse. By collective activity, Drucker indicates the immediacy of the interaction among invited participants and Kaprow’s scripted performances, which a close reading of the script and Kaprow’s intention reveals to be anything but immediate. While he most certainly activated the audience within the artwork, this is not the same as creating an environment of exchange where the process of interaction is as important as the object or event itself. I do not take issue with Kaprow turning his viewers into a material element in his artwork, but I insist that collaboration involves a certain level of two-way exchange, where the unpredictable input of all participants must be accommodated; otherwise, the input becomes inert and the materiality of each element, from toy rattle to shouting human, is ignored.

Drucker strongly argues that Kaprow’s Happenings, and those of other artists’ from the same period, manifest a truly dematerialized non-object that was entirely about the collaborative interaction in the moment. Her description of collaboration, however, accepts the common assumption that any kind of interaction is an experience of shared work, regardless of the nature of the exchange and without accounting for the retention of authorial importance on the part of the initiating artist. Kaprow’s insistence on the following of a precise course of events, developed entirely by him, severely restricts the kind of interaction he allowed in the work.

Failure and Collaboration: Noise in the Barn and Other Ways to Play

Kaprow’s ongoing dissatisfaction with the way the audience resisted his control, a problem that resulted in his abandonment of this style of working, points to the problems inherent to this particular approach to collaboration. Exchange implies that both parties can both give and receive input; immediacy in interaction involves a certain level of acceptance that scores can only provide guidelines and then “everyday life” intervenes. Perhaps the ways in which this work fails for Kaprow is the starting point for a more productive consideration of how collaboration begins to shift subjectivity in spite of and beyond authorial control.

In the 1950s, Kaprow was teaching at Rutgers and living in the New Jersey countryside, not far from his friend and fellow artist, George Segal, who owned a chicken farm. In the spring of 1958, they invited a group of their art colleagues to Segal’s farm for a picnic. Without informing anyone, Kaprow had planned a participatory event, Pastorale, which turned out to be less pastoral than he anticipated.

To create an environment that would combine Kaprow’s earlier three-dimensional collage pieces with a sort of country idyll/casual picnic setting, he and Segal constructed an improvised set from “eight-foot-high poles decorated with satin banners intended to catch the afternoon light, with plastic sheeting stretched between them. Kaprow’s plan was to ask the picnickers to jump through the plastic sheeting, sit in the chicken coops rattling noisemakers, paint a canvas together, and engage in a series of slow, ritualistic movements” (Kelley 25). The artists, drunk and hot from sitting in the spring sun, were uninterested in leaving their spots on the grass when invited to participate in Pastorale; so they refused. They also “felt they were being pressed into service for the benefit of another artist’s work,” and found Kaprow’s directions and expectations “fascistic” (27). Kelley states that finally “the event fell apart, its formal structure disintegrating into a comedy of catcalls and antics.”

We might venture that the other artists’ failure to engage in Kaprow’s prescribed spontaneity was the real success of the work, in terms of collaboration. There is little material difference between spontaneous catcalls and scripted noisemakers in the chicken coop: both are jarring and absurd; both disrupt the potential for a “pastorale” environment. If breaking plastic is intended as a way to challenge or invigorate the figurative “surface” of the canvas, then perhaps failing to break it or only drunkenly mocking the suggestion is a deviation that involves a more intense engagement with the concept by the invited artists than even Kaprow’s proposal could provide.

In the end, Kaprow thought this work, and all the Happenings in a way, a failure because people didn’t respond the way he desired. But it is possible to say that this piece succeeded on a much more elemental level because of its perceived failures. The artists participated in Kaprow’s initial invitation to join in the picnic, but they played in a complex way that layered the affects of heat and alcohol consumption, the desire for rest and the kind of boring but seductive conversations that often occur under such circumstances, the environmental differences between urban and rural milieux, and the ways in which the invited artists perceived, defined, and executed spontaneity in expression. Kaprow’s reflection afterward led him to decide upon more “adequately informing” his participants and securely setting the stage to evoke the kind of participation he scripted. While this decision did not help him achieve his goals ultimately, his choice to focus on pedagogy as a way to obtain outcomes moved the work away from making room for complex subjectivities to emerge through the unexpected. It retained instead a clearly defined boundary between artist and viewer, participant as art medium, like paint, plastic, or found object, rather than as intentional contributor.

Collaboration must be something more than merely including viewers as material elements, switch flippers or noise makers, in a predetermined course of events. It must extend beyond the making of participants into flexible media with which an author can mould something that claims to be radical but which is really just another version of the status quo. In Hypertext 2.0, media theorist George Landow names two types of collaboration: one type involves two or more people constructing a document or object together by working on parts and exchanging those for review and “versioning” which is conducted “out of the presence of the other collaborator and at a later time” (105); and the other is a networked type of collaboration that is follows an “assembly-line or segmentation model of working together,” which he finds to blur the boundaries of authorship. While these descriptions encompass the scope of what often comprises collaborative work in the minds of many, they are indeed still limited by both the adherence to the territory of “my text” or “my experiment” and to the linear concept of time that envisions everything, even creativity, as occurring sequentially.

I do not wish to deny the validity a range of collaborative work styles like the ones Landow describes, or the possibility that they are useful, productive, or even interesting ways to share creative labor. It is simply that I wonder whether they do full justice to the potentials of the practice of collaboration and its capacity for giving rise to ethical questions about subjectivity formation, conflict, community formation in terms of instability and failure. While complicating authorship is an interesting effect of shared labor, it is certainly not the most important intervention collaboration makes in either labor practices or the processes of forming subjectivity. If this is a method for working that is to retain its validity, and not to be discarded as an imposition on the private sphere of each participant, it becomes important to examine where the intensities of collaborative work gives access to territories and affects occurring outside the customary boundaries of waged labor, personal identity, and stable subject positions. The trends from the last thirty years or more to evoke multiplicity, fragmentation, and chaos in art, film, and literature and online knowledge practices, (with gentle or perhaps superficial nods to quantum physics), which are so apparent in the processes of creative collaboration, serious attention must be paid to unpacking a complex description of collaborative methods, to the affects they generate, the aesthetic theories they engender, and the significant effects they have upon subjectivity.

The strident engagement with difference and the multiplicity occurring in the complex time presented in the introduction to this volume is the perhaps the most radical contribution of collaborative practice, not the erasure of authorship or a simple “strength in numbers” kind of problem solving. When awareness of how contending with difference, without erasing or conflating it, is brought to the problem of sharing labor, participants become hotly porous to the needs, desires, and situations of each other, rendering the movements of trans-subjectivity, described previously as a transient commingling of identities and bodies in networked flows, active, acute, and significant. A project involving a group of international feminist scholars provides some examples of the kinds of tensions arising in difference that can productively nurture insight into the importance of foregrounding difficulty. Allowing that disagreement and dissension are part of the process of working out an theoretical problem with material consequences, namely global feminism, that has a history of alienation in spite of its liberatory intentions. The following situations begin to show that, at its best collaboration encourages discord because in the fraught moment, the unexpected turn, invisible tensions are made visible and collisions engender unexpected paths that could be interesting to follow.

[1] While a number of artists were involved in staging Happenings from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s, including Red Grooms, Claes Oldenberg, Jim Dine, and Robert Whitman, I am focusing here on Kaprow because he has been discussed in terms of “collaboratively” incorporating viewers as part of the work. My argument attempts to complicate the question of collaboration in his work pointing to the way that Kaprow’s project makes the viewer into a kind of art material, a medium for making art, more than a creative participant in the making of work. This differs for example from work by Milan Knížák, a Czech artist active in the 1960s and discussed at length by Claire Bishop (2012, 131-139) who also staged “Happenings” but which Bishop claims are “more poetic and prevocational than Kaprow’s” (132) thanks largely to the oppressive, dangerous social conditions under which he worked.

 

 

Terminus Nodus : a project by Multipoint

A strange and poetic installation constructed by Multipoint (participants for this project include Pam Strugar, Linda Parnell, and April Durham), this project was installed at the Riverside Arts Project gallery in Riverside California, June 2010 and in the Kellogg Gallery at Cal Poly Pomona in November 2010. It lives in memory on the Small Wonder website (where you can hear the sound component if you turn up your speakers when you load the page) and elsewhere on the internet (see some links below). Following you will find an introduction. Don’t stop…

You enter this work as one in a consumer space. Next door installright1you can get a floral dress or a feather headband. A little further on, margaritas come in vast salt-crusted bowls. Across the way, movies, falafels, and tiaras mingle with the sounds of swing or punk or retro-surfer music from the band of the day. In this space though, expectations explode. Some things seem broken but emit light; other elements are clearly non-functional yet a freeway rushes and a heart beats. Images remind you of your mother, the dreaded dictator of a bygone generation, yourself. Projections are hazy but then you remember that you saw that image last night in your dream.

routesSpanish architect Ignacio Solà-Morales used the French phraseterrain-vague (roughly translated “wasteland”) in the mid-90s to describe a place outside the normal, unified space of the city; it is a physical space but also a psychological space, a place of potential. It is wild and crumbling and therefore vital and wondrous. In his bridge trilogy novels, cyber-punk guru William Gibson situates the landscape of his marginalized heroes on the useless no-persons’ land of the defunct Bay Bridge. Nano technology has made the steel and concrete of the old bridge obsolete and nomads from all walks of life have come to occupy a new wasteland and make a community of sketch-artists, tale-tellers, and people who are free from the homogeneity of the normal. These people can actually assert some agency in a system that dominates every aspect of life, from vision to action. These people seem down and out but they are really the only ones who can change the world.

The space of Terminus Nodus is about investigating the tesla2terrain-vague without fixing it in time, nation, or language. It is an ebb and flow of memory: disastrous and beautiful, archaic and electrified, frightening and potent. Partly remembered stories mix with appropriated mathematical formulae and overlay broken and refigured objects, erasing former signification and evoking something new without making that new thing concrete.

Frames point to nodes that slip away again when a projectiontesla3 turns or a light flickers. A rush of muddled sound flickers past a note about that girl you once knew, that man who haunted your dreams, that boy with the curling hair.

If all that was known had been destroyed would we make art? Would we find a way on Cormac McCarthy’s road to express and create? What would aesthetics mean to us and how would we engage with them? If all the books were gone, what would the new ones look like? Would Eli be able to memorize them in a trip across America?

A fetish for memory occurs in another Gibson novel, Pattern Recognition. We wonder what would Casey do if she met Ivan the Terrible in a montage of sound from under the freeway in speak1someplace really different from Tokyo. This is an experiment in colliding visions, teasing out a new expression, erasing the subject and re-inscribing it on the surface of collaborative and collective memory.

It is a nomad’s journey. Thank you for taking the ride with us.

Links to some other appearances:

Terminus Nodus on facebook

Terminus Nodus on youtube

Terminus Nodus in Riverside

Terminus Nodus continues (A Hunt in the South)

Reviewing Rodarte: Topographies of Collaborative Thinking

Rodarte. States of Matter. March to May 2011. Installation. Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles.

April Durham, cross posted from Critical Digital Humanities, 2011

The installation of the work of fashion and costume designers Laura and Kate Mulleavy (Rodarte) at MOCA-Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood represents a departure from theusual displays of fashion seen at fine art institutions in the recent past. Art world curatorial projects with fashion designers have resulted in an often-unsatisfying collision of designer labels within the institutionally separate but perhaps not so different (from the high-end shopping district) space of the museum. For example, the joint project between Marc Jacobs (Louis Vuitton) and Takashi Murakami for MOCA in 2007 resulted in a “product line” of wallpapers, handbags and day-minders that neither reinvented nor really disrupted the LV label, the Murakami oeuvre, or the curatorial habits of the museum. Because States of Matter is conceived as a hypertextual activation of synchronous and divergent narrative maps that link the “clothes,” the relationships among the collaborators, and the space of the museum and the city, this “fashion show” represents a significant reconsideration of the rendezvous between art contexts and fashion designs.

While the fashion blogs reported that the sisters chose selections from the Fall 2008, Spring 2010, and Fall 2010 collection  ((See for example: http://laist.com/2011/03/04/rodarte_exhibition_featuring_black.php, http://www.stylelist.com/2011/03/03/rodarte-moca-exhibit/, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/01/jeffrey-deitch-bringing-fashion-house-rodarte-to-moca-pacific-design-center.html, or http://www.mediabistro.com/unbeige/las-moca-readies-rodarte-exhibition-an-out-of-body-experience_b11380)), the installation exceeds the representation of hip fashion design. States of Matter is not merely about the interesting costumes from Black Swan (2010) and not at all about offering a consumer product for sale in the museum shop or the Melrose boutique; instead it reflects the conversational narrative of a multi-actor site specific creative practice, which has developed out of the exchange between the designer-sisters and their other collaborators in relationship to the institutional context in which the presentation occurs. This engagement presents the fashion/art dialog as a hyperlinked narrative topography involving the history of art, cinematic and literary narrative, and a gestural memory of the bodies that might occupy the space/time accounts being rendered. Further, it navigates the history of the museum as a colonizing institution for culture  ((See for example, “Census, Map, Museum” in Anderson 1991.))  in relation to the geography of Los Angeles as a haunted series of nodes in a larger complex of fashion spaces, by rendering a web of connections that critically engages networks linked to consumption and subjectivity relative to these spaces and institutions. While not a literal “electronic” hypertext as this installation exists in the “physical” world of dresses and lights and workshops and museums and not in the “cyber-world” of the computer, the piece nevertheless expresses a generative reconfiguration of narrative and art-making that traverses the “tactile” and the “coded” in a way that is very similar to what we experience when navigating a site on the internet. So while materially different from an electronic text, States of Matter shares an experiential, gestural, and narratological structure with texts that are more traditionally considered “hypertexts.”

In Hypertext 2.0 from 1997, George Landow offers a detailed discussion of hypertext as a body of “linked texts that have no primary axis of organization” (36). Contextualizing this within Derridian notions of [de]centered language and Deleuzo-Guattarian concepts of relational rhizomes with “their thickenings and shifting connections …[of] network-like structure” (40), Landow describes much of what now comprises a broad experience of the textuality  of everyday life. Concerned mainly, in late 90s literary discourse, with legitimizing and enlivening the field of criticism around electronic texts like Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Patchwork Girl by Shirley Jackson or web-organized research projects, Landow nevertheless describes a kind of intertextual referentiality that certainly extends to alter-electronic ((I would like to be clear that I do not really find anything to be “non”-electronic as we certainly know that data is conducted along electronic circuits in biological as well as mechanical and digital. Differentiating these types of delivery systems in a polemical manner is not an accurate or particularly interesting consideration. In fact, as the systems achieve similar results, the methods and structures are different only in terms of style.)) “texts” as well.

Landow desires, in a way that also seems historically situated in the late 90s, to distinguish electronic texts containing explicit links to various data packets held within the text from printed codices whose hypertextual references can only ever be implied by the hinted relationships either contained some other place in the book or found generally in the canon of printed literatures and collective cultural memory. While this is an appropriate differentiation, and it would be bizarre to insist that the hypertext implied by Joyce’s footnotes in Ulysses or Derrida’s specters in his visitation on Marx, are the same as those of a webpage or a Storyspace novel, the fourteen odd years since the publication of Landow’s book have resulted in a widespread, almost naturalized, integration of hyperlinking as a way of thinking, a cognition model appropriate to a post-industrial, late Capitalist, intensely fragmented narrative topography of life. The most banal example of this is played out in “social” networking websites where navigating the neighborhood of historical memory, significant event, and everyday life is a constant movement among webs of various acquaintances and institutions representing and expressing tiny packets of experience in a linked and polycentric set of connections.

Considering States of Matter, in hypertextual terms requires a close look at the material work and the experience of viewing it. The installation was presented from March to May 2011 on two floors in the little tower that is MOCA’s space at the Pacific Design Center. Moving from the diffuse but Spring-bright Los Angeles sunshine into the velvety blackness of the first floor exhibition space places visibility, normally an imperative for optimal art-object gazing, into jeopardy. With the pause needed to acquire visual bearings, there comes a moment of precarity in which the floating dresses, the pool of black on the floor which frames them, and the awkwardly exposed clutch of lights in the middle present a menacing mise-en-scene: uncertainty is the violent affect and fight or flight the reaction. There is a sense of stepping onto Mr. Toad’s ride without having known you were doing so. Abruptly this little museum trip has become an encounter with a dark narrative, one in which the logics governing vision, form, and time are cracked and scary in their very subtlety; continuing into the space means navigating the “sense” of the illogical. You adjust yourself quickly so your friends don’t notice that you were frightened and begin to more coolly examine the forms, careful to stay behind the white lines delimiting the safe space.

The subtle, pseudo-horror/fairytale frame is the first clue that what is here is not simply trendy fashion for film and magazine, the rave of all the ready-to-wear blogs. Rather, there is a sense that a bent and backwards story, drawing on a long personal and cultural history of design and relationship, of bedtime stories and conceptual analysis, is being unfurled, for the readers of these objects and for the institutional environment. We know that Rodarte comprises a team of sister-designers who appear, from the videos of their runways shows, very private and a bit shy, and that further, they work closely with other artists on the non-clothing elements of this show. So the situation where a multi-actor, site-specific working group engages in a creative practice that also challenges the institutional contexts in which they are involved becomes foremost to considering the multi-nodal diagram of narrative unfolding in this work. Further, the dialog has a strange logic governing it, one that is based on faulty memory, erroneous maps, and cracks in the looking-glass that shift what is visible from self-contained wholes to tenuous, layered, and non-linear topographies of narrative: what can be known disrupts what is expected.

There is a dense recent history of artists working “collaboratively,” either toward expanding individual practices as with Claes Oldenberg and Coosje von Bruggen or toward creating environments where individual contributions could be combined into a cohesive whole and thereby manifest a non-heirarchical subjectivity as in the Womanhouse project organized at CalArts by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro in the 1970s. While these working processes have provided interesting interruptions in the normative idea of a singular, sublime, creative genius, they have mainly been subsumed by the institutional practices they were disrupting. Coosje is always listed second to Claes (as wife and supporter of the real artist perhaps) and the Dinner Party project, which involved 400-plus participants to create, is always attributed to Judy Chicago as an individual artist. Alternatively, the multi-actor site-specific working group I am describing, mobile and transitory in its materiality, shifts a notion of collaborative participation away from the “mass” and toward a relational exchange among actors in a network of sitting, doing, making, telling, presenting, and changing. States of Matter, especially as it is not claimed institutionally as a “collaborative art work,” has the participatory structure involved in film making or event production but allows for the maintenance of individual identities, however precarious, within the context of its moment of engagement.

Curiously the virtuality of the dim and disorienting space of the installation collides gently but powerfully with the actual physicality of the space. There is a subtle movement around and among the notions of visibility, presentation, narrative, and fashionable bodies that does not create a new spectacle, fashion-show-cum-art-object, but invents a resonant diastolic/systolic exchange between the actual space the body of the viewer is occupying and the virtual space of what the objects, the room, and visuality are becoming. This engages in an unexpected way with Jacques Rancière’s notion of the aesthetic-politic where a “community” of the ignored becomes a subject for consideration. This is not a community of self-actualized subjects but a collection of entropic waste elements that gather for the moment, are always precarious, and which ruptures the sensible. This rupture is, for Rancière, the aesthetic action of politics and the politic description of aesthetics. While ultimately his position of aesthetics and politics leaves something profoundly unconsidered, the formulation of exchange between a perceived whole (the self-identified subject) and the monstrous garbage left off by the energy it takes to constitute that subject possesses a virtual energy of its own. Merely by existing, moving through spacetime in a kind of disregarded thermodynamic process, this entropic offal pushes hegemonic systems of vision and visibility, wealth and power, labor and production into a state of becoming that eludes, however momentarily, containment by the established and normative institutions.

The narrative elements of the installation expand as the eyes grow accustomed to the darkness and although visibility is constantly foiled, the details further weave a loose, disjointed narrative that matches the construction of the elements. Dresses float above the glossy black pool like webbed remains of something that might have covered a human form but which might also be the shadow of gowns remembered, glimpsed fleetingly in the reflection of a plate-glass window. Little tutus, made famous from their appearance in a popular film, rotate from an apparatus in the ceiling that turns slowly so that the traces of the gestures made by the ballerinas once wearing them (the bad ballerinas as these tutus are black) remain while the dancer is only an ill-conjured memory.

The long, columnar gowns are fabricated from feathers, shreds of cheesecloth and silk, and vinyl that has been irregularly embroidered to look like seared, blackened flesh. Membranes of delicately jeweled lace are overlaid by scraps of interfacing, a textile that is normally used to give fabrics varying degrees of stiffness, but which here has been exposed and pulled apart, torn into what appear as webs abandoned by spiders, long gone after digesting the bodies of their prey. Made only more elegant by the fragile connections of each part, the dresses appear forsaken but not abject, in some ways empowered by the role granted them as imagined armor for pretend encounters at gala events where the war is in the social maneuvers and not in the actual bodily contact. A conversation is revealed, based on the viewer’s willingness to slowly examine the multiple layers comprising the narrative topology, and acts as an echo of dialog that isn’t heard properly and is left resonating only in the places of desire and remembrance, simultaneously past and future. It is a dialog of imagination but also of forgetting, where what was discussed and what was hoped for, all that is implied by grand elegance and graceful gesture, slips reality and ebbs away in the dim frame of the museum gallery-cum-faulty memory bank.

Adding a further strangeness to the shapes the gowns assume here are the forms supporting the clothing; made from thin layers of resin and reflecting an awkward relation to the human form, not idealized feminine mannequin and not runway model or waif-like actress, they seem closer to dehydrated, translucent columns of skin, that while only visible in slivers, support the dresses as a frozen recollection of a body that can merely be conjured as approximation. This shifts the ongoing normative representation in fashion of feminine ideals into the space of 18th century anthropology, where tattooed human skins were preserved for display in French natural history museums. The “body” filling the Rodarte designs are ghosts of forms, decentered from the institutional idea of “body,” barely present and if not exactly ungainly, definitely ill at ease and fragile. Further, they render the dresses more like wispy pieces of architecture, columns from a Neo-Classical structure visited on a third grade field trip and remembered incorrectly but significantly nonetheless. These hyperlinks establish connections among a dis-functional set of nodes, separated by vast desert voids and refusing to coalesce into coherent and known structures; they evoke instead an emergent space of perplexity or stupefaction, that Avital Ronell calls “[a] corollary to knowing…[where] ignorance has its own story, a story that needs to be told, but one, perhaps, that can spell only ruin” (29).

As with any good story, more pages need to be turned, more links associated, to get a fuller picture of what’s going on, if indeed anything is going on. The narrative presented by the gowns suspended in this abyss, while felt, reveals itself slowly as a multi-cursal path that goes beyond the desire to possess and to see in the deep, velvety darkness. One needs to enter as it were, the other side of the mirror, seeking the continuation of the story upstairs. So one proceeds, directed finally by the closely hovering security guard, to a stairway portal providing a nauseating, flickering, fluorescent glow of purpled white light, illuminating the path to additional components, further data, informing this story.

At the top of the stair another room contains three groups of white costumes: to the left, a set of long dresses; in the center against the back wall two rotating tutus; and on the left two Grecian/1960s style cocktail dresses and a single tutu. For a moment all of the fluorescent tubes flanking the room have illuminated and the space is saturated with uncomfortable, institutional light of another variety, the kind from high school gymnasiums after the dance or from the hallways of the county hospital at 11:30 on a Saturday night. Then they go out, these lights, leaving not exactly darkness, but with just a few purple tubes flickering, the gloom is palpable and resonates again with some other uncomfortable experience involving an exploded appendix or lost awkward embraces. Throbbing on and again rendering the delicacy of the objects barely visible, the lighting makes you doubt your ability to actually observe the objects, and your desire to gaze without limitation at the deeply fragile and frightening delicacy of the gowns is foiled. There is a disruption not only in expectation but in possibility for viewing, for acquiring, and therefore for containing. Knowing has to be left up to something that is subtler and less reliable than close, detached observation.

Still it is possible to ascertain a group of long white dresses reminiscent of the long black ones on the first level, where sheer white, lace has replaced the translucent black cheesecloth. Curiously, this is not the carefully constructed lace of couture fashion; rather it is the $1.79/yard lace from the Sunday swap meet at the Drive-In in Santa Fe Springs. This is the kind of lace that doesn’t distinguish itself by beautiful arabesques and intense brocaded figurations broken up by delicate webs of silk; rather, it features a small non-descript, stylized rose repeated every 1.5 inches ad infinitum and the poly-blend is wash and wear. The forms are all the more peculiar for this choice when contrasted with the other unusual wooly, velvety fabrics used for the bodices and yokes. Resembling wedding dresses hanging from the rotating rack at the dry cleaners rather than new gowns in a shop window anticipating a romantic future for consumer-brides, these forms shift between fashion and architecture, a past event and a dreamed structure. Further, considering the strange combination of materials presented here, they shimmer metamorphically between something like a uniform, something like armor, something like furniture. They mostly sport wide shoulders like those of a 1940s evening gown and the snipped in waist of a Victorian frock coat. One short gown has Alpaca fur epaulets and capped sleeves and another appears to be made from 19th century horsehair upholstery. While ostensibly “wearable” in the end, the materiality of these pieces evokes a notion of the hospitable armchair disrupted by the demands of the structured uniform. There exists a kind of strategic folly in the links among the materials, the forms, and the fashion in this grouping, which generates an uneasy conversational trajectory about relationships, partnerships, and expectations for the future that remain inconclusive and fraught. They are faulty links that defy the site map directing those ever-present data gathering spiders toward organizing the information such that it is navigable and proper.

Adding further tension is the pair of Grecian-style cocktail gowns, of the bosom-hugging style that looked so good on the luscious 1960s Elizabeth Taylor of BUtterfield 8. Suspended over a pile of tumbled light ballasts fitted with red and white fluorescent tubes, these party dresses are randomly striped with what appears to be blood, dumped Carrie-style from the ceiling, but mopped up fastidiously before the party started. Further, the little tutu rotating in this composition has a blossom of blood at the navel in something that definitely is not a flower, but seems to be coming from a stab wound. Opposed to the ersatz wedding gowns in the space, they form a kind of shrill but beautiful argument, a narrative trajectory that, again, Liz might have followed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, profoundly articulate but completely incomprehensible. Then you remember an image of the sister-designers posed beside the ostensibly blood-soaked frocks and wonder if their take on expectations for femininity is as gothic and problematic as the image implies.

The sweetly white tutus twisting center room in front of their ladder of shivering light fixtures take on a new relationship to the grace of the ballerina and the desire of little girls pirouetting together in their bedrooms or grown sisters discussing deconstruction and post-structural narratology over the cutting table in their Pasadena studio. The groupings upstairs seem a broken-mirror inversion of the black, frightening elegance on the first floor. The two levels begin to resonate one with the other and a weird narration of tentatively remembered conversations, songs sung into hairbrushes, and longing for something that resembles your mother’s dreams starts to pulsate through the space. You look askance at your friends and wonder if they also feel the floor opening up. Then the lights flash again, and your eyes twitch and you remember the other actor in this network, Alexandre de Betak, a set designer who has worked with Rodarte on their runway shows.

At first, the fluorescent tubes, seen in the context of MOCA, reference the 1960s minimalist sculptures of Dan Flavin. But the lights in States of Matter cycle uneasily, evoking instability rather than the sublime transcendence of modernism. They break from the institutional reference and link more directly to an engagement with their own recent history in the presentation of fashion, and in that they extend the narratives mapped by the work in this exhibition. In fact, they seem to reference more the malfunctioning lights in the cheap shops on South Fig in Highland Park than any real art historical objects. The disturbing color choices (bright white and mauvey-purple) flicker and flash in an irregular rhythm that is difficult to watch. Part techno club set, part low rent shop window, they irritate the viewing experience, further making visibility a problem, foiling the possibility for clear, sustained gazing, for direct encounter between body and objects, for observing quickly and dismissing or consuming. The problem of vision does connect, via layered, multiple, and fragmented links, to more recent concerns with perception, cognition, and epistemology through the forced connections to fashion presentation.

For Rodarte’s Spring 2011 collection runway show, de Betak organized an unconventional presentation with some of the same materials used in the States of Matter installation. The room was emptied of runway or even chairs and instead wooden pallets were stacked on the floor and leaned against the walls between which were placed fluorescent ballasts with white and yellow tubes (link to YouTube video of show). The minimal environment nods to 1960s sculptures from which it might take its inspiration, but the narrative relationship of the space to the architectural clothing designs from this season’s line has more to do with what architect and urban planner, Ignacio de Sola-Morales, calls the terrain vague. This is the no-man’s land of urban and suburban abandoned public spaces: closed strip malls, weed choked vacant lots, and industrial complexes that have been forsaken mid-construct such that foundations and partial walls provide perfect pallets for illegal artistry and drug overdoses. Sola-Morales discusses this space as one of pure potentiality: emptied of the perhaps oppressive force of normative productivity, these derelict spaces offer a chance for a creativity that comes from the margins, one that could be liberating but which is also dangerous and frightening. Linking to a dead zone like this is further opening a connection to the illogic of the backside of the looking-glass, a place of pure potential because the contained knowledge of rationalism is made monstrous such that it needs to generate something different. This difference, however, becomes part of a larger network of knowing, doing, and being, an affective complex of shifting, pulsing movement that animates narrativity in subject/object relations in a continual and precarious movement that is both destructive and constructive at once.

The lights in the States of Matter installation engage with the fractured memory of the gowns and the institutional memory of the museum/museum-goer in a way that joins a paradigm of creative desire, moving in a space not logical to normative productivity: it is a desiring mode that knows only the force of its own creativity. The exhibition does not inhabit an entirely known space, but rather diagrams multiple layers of topographical narration, linking stories that move in disjointed patterns, and which only make sense when the irritation and fear they evoke fail to be “righted” toward a comforting and rational containment. The quivering lights, the levitating gowns, the skin-like crusts that serve as human forms all combine in a linked dialog with the actors in the network, figuring a graceless dance that is the very nature of engaging with dreams, desires, networks, labor, heartache, failure, uncertainty, and fear inherent in creative practice, but also in the very stuff of living.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Landow, George. Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Print.

Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: on Politics and Aesthetics. London and New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Mulleavy, Laura, Kate Mulleavy, and Alexandre De Betak. States of Matter. 2011. Mixed media installation. MOCA-Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, California.

“Rodarte Spring Summer 2011‬.” Youtube. 15 Sept. 2011. Web. 5 May 2011. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzvbSGCur1E&gt;.

Ronell, Avital. Stupidity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Print.

Solà-Morales, Ignacio. “Terrain Vague.” Anyplace. Ed. Cynthia C. Davidson. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1995. 118-123. Print.


chameleon moves: some ideas about trans-subjectivity

by April Durham . 2  November 2012

Early one morning, the self was gone, carried away by scrupulous refutation of the possibility for Being-human, for ever seeing like God. The singular subject, a self in itself, so dear to the progressive settlement of Modernism, drifted out to sea on a boat of its own construction: colonialism, industrialism, fascism. The self that could improve in Historic time by means of dialectic resolution, toward a Platonic or other ideal was revealed by Foucault as a construction of power, by Derrida as the trace left by language, and by Butler as an often unchosen performance. The discourse of the Self revealed innate, assumed to be being, as wavering object about which lasting claims could not be sustained, and thus removed the viability, with spectacular effect, of the self-contained Self.

The rhetorics of the self, so carefully and thoughtfully mapped out by poststructuralist thinkers, intend to reveal the ways in which discursive arrangements inscribe a notion of subjectivity that seems natural, but is more fully a constructed edifice, and in revealing this construction they posit that it is possible to change the related ways of knowing and constructing diverse versions of the Self toward inclusive, tolerant social configurations. Further, the “linguistic turn” or the “discursive turn” allows a multitude of voices, female and feminine, racialized and colonized, homo- and polysexual, dandified and slovenly, to speak with all their complexity, range, and richness. This vocalization is necessary of course; everyone must speak. Every experience needs to be heard, all possibilities considered, again and again and again.

Still there is something unsatisfying lingering at the edges of the determination of identity constructed in discursive performance, which resists universalizing power strucutures, something that exceeds the containment of the rhetoric. What about seepage? What about the migration of hair oils and bodily fluids, dance moves and facial expressions, lip gloss and lubrication? What happens when the tropes of territoriality seep into neighborhoods from which they do not emanate, in which they are “inauthentic?” What about uncontrolled forces that remain uncontained even when described, that cannot be harnessed, directed, or owned? What if the insistence on territorializing through giving voice becomes another way of racializing, marginalizing, excluding, reinscribing what is being resisted? Perhaps a flaw of using what has been defined as “phal-logo-centric” language to describe everything that is not the phallus in refutation of a dialectics of progress is that the singular subject (redescribed as brown, black, yellow, red; homo-, trans-, bi-; girl-woman, insect, machine) still rests securely at the base of what is liberated. Despite my non-normative proclivities, I am still my own man, woman, companion species, crustaceous decapod, i-device.

Empathy might allow us a moment of intersection, an intersubjective sharing that makes each of us more tolerant of the other. It might. For Husserl, intersubjectivity plays a fundamental role in the formation of both myself as an individual subjectivity and that of some other experiencing subject with whom I engage in an objective spatio-temporal world[i]. There are three components in this exchange of empathy: Me, You, and the space-time continuum in which this exchange occurs. Founded on our beliefs about ourselves, our understanding of an objective world can be largely considered, rational or otherwise, as an ongoing measurement of “Me” in terms of what I perceive in you, through empathic iteration, to be similar, different, or something in between. While intersubjectivity makes it possible to posit an ongoing developmental process, even an evolutionary one in terms of psyche and self, it rests very solidly on the notion that “Self” is and remains contained in the singular bodies sensing it and that “Other” is necessary, if tolerable, to its construction.

It may not seem like such a bad idea: nurturing empathy, tolerance, exchange, evolution in oneself and one’s fellow citizens. Yet, I find that leaving a singular and contained subject lingering unexamined and unchallenged in every deconstruction of the self forges ethical dilemmas that necessarily receive the same kinds of address, the same move toward resolution or admission of the impossibility of resolution, carved into Modernist Humanism that poststructuralism, contemporary feminism, and cultural studies critique.

In this project[ii], I propose unfolding a notion of subjectivity that radically reconsiders the atomistic individual, posited as a separate if integrated part of a larger collective of humanity, and which is at the same time complexly sympathetic to the fact that “each” has “a” body and a psyche with which to perceive, engage, modify, and affect the world. Through the consideration of a particular kind of creative collaborative practice, I propose that aesthetic, processual engagements within situated networks of action/acting provide moments where subjective boundaries become so permeable, so porous, so fuzzy, that they do not hold up and therefore allow a finite event of trans-subjectivity. This extends the possibilities of intersubjectivity in that it slips aside, again momentarily, from the maintenance of individual subjective boundaries, in the instance of engagement: the powerful creative forces affecting those involved in a particular moment move faster and more effectively than our organizing minds can work to contain them.

This sounds like madness, you say, a plunge down Alice’s rabbit hole where names and logics and bodies are frighteningly changeable, horrifyingly illogical, un-locatable as my own. As a palliative for this initial horror, I can only say, it’s temporary. Trans-subjectivity cannot be conceived as a universalizing condition that replaces individuality or singularity. It is more carefully understood as a playful, if frightening slippage that seems unfamiliar but which occurs regularly whether we recognize it or not.

“Why should we play this way?” is the next objection I imagine to arise. “What does this serve?” We are always imagining, proposing communities where each feels safe, has respect for life generally (even non-human vitality), and where difference is tolerated or even nurtured. We know, however, that tolerance, respect, and community are terms with serious limitations, semantically and in practice: tolerance can thinly veil its hateful opposite and can be delivered with condescension, at best; respect for others is tied intimately with respect for oneself, a quality that goes under-tended in a culture intent on keeping its consumer desiring. Notions of “respect,” therefore often stem from hierarchical qualifications based on accumulation of property, knowledge, status, or even offenses (if one is more inclined to the criminal side of things), and can extend only with difficulty to those without these attributes; community of course has many problems, including assumptions around the (again heirarchized) validity of particular “core values” that assume a very narrow notion of right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, in and out, resulting in the ultimate exclusion of anyone deviating from these narrow trenches of identificatory “core-ness.”

Because trans-subjectivity arises through intensity, it is only loosely connected to rational formations of identity or to stratifying power structures. It is the result of a commitment to creativity in a particular situation that makes manifest a kind of illogical, “wishful,” and processual experience in which known structures are challenged, even on quantum levels, and through which individuals cannot pass unaffected. I am evolving my theory of trans-subjectivity, at least in terms of inception, through my own experience with a self-managed artists’ working group, Multipoint, constituted in various forms and in different geographies, over the last twelve or so years. The experience has been very particular, and while I will bring other collaborative creative practices and narratives to bear in comparison and in conjunction upon my own experience, the wealth of strange and subtle perplexity evoked by the practice in which I have engaged with many people over these years offers an important basis for me to puzzle through the consequences of both the process and the effects of working in this way. While I still have “my own” creative and scholarly practices, the experiences occurring within the group practice has radically altered my way of perceiving myself, in relation, as both a producer of things and ideas, and as a friend, colleague, and member of various communities. This alteration is what I intend to explore here with all its radical implications and violent hopefulness, toward something that might be more than wishful, utopic desire.


[i] Beyer, Christian, “Edmund Husserl”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries /husserl/>.

[ii] I am referring here to my dissertation project “The Chameleon’s Way Through: Generating Trans-Subjectivity in Creative Collaborative Practice.”

Becoming All of the Above: Madness and Trauma in the Characters of Christian Bale

a map of the mind . by April Durham . 5 October 2012

This project is a hypertext map of becoming-mad in the Guattari-Deleuzian sense of that activity. It began when watching Dark Knight and a friend of mine mentioned that he found a paranoid schizophrenic subcharacter to resemble Bruce Wayne. Then I was thinking about Christian Bale as a superhero and I just kept seeing him as a serial killer in American Psycho and I made a mental comparison of Batman and Bateman the name of the character in American Psycho. Expanding this line of thought, I realized that most of Bale’s films, since he was 13 years old, have involved his playing pathological characters, some more severely affected than others.

I’ve been interested for some time in challenging the visual and semantic structures we use to build up meaning, because I find them to be very limiting. Specifically, I have been focusing on the way that language that is supposed to make sense, is oppressive. Applying something like Jean-Louis Comolli’s apparatus theory to language structures, I have been working on challenging semantic “rational” sense-making toward a semantics of affective logics which I have coined as Gothic Logic. The space of Gothic Logic necessarily entertains entwined logics, multiple orders of time and reality, and an insistence on the space to be out of sync with accepted wisdom, common-sense, linear thinking, and Aristotelian logic while at the same time engaging in rigorous and thoughtful, subtle and expansive thinking-being action.

So I wanted to work with the way these films, where Christian Bale is the star, use pathology and its “cure” or resolution to drive the narrative and the characterization of the Bale protagonists, to propose a range of possibilities, including but not limited to the ones that conclude the films. In other words, to explore how is the madness of Bale’s characters functioning and what might it do in addition? While I have a grave respect for Trauma Theory and its serious investigation of the horrors of modern life, I am interested in honoring difficulty rather than eliminating or curing it. Never minimizing the very real pain involved in mental or physical illness and it’s vast and difficult repercussions in the life of the sufferer and his or her family members, I am curious about the possibility of allowing madness to give voice in an arena that exists alongside that of the curative or recuperative.

So I built a web map of Bale’s characterization/embodiment of a range of mad and frightening characters. From Jim in Empire of the Sun, to Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise, I explore the embodiment and resonances of pathological mental states, including those that appear to be good or noble (like Jim or Batman) but in fact are reflections of the disintegration of social and subject structures brought on by the traumas of war and imprisonment, or late capitalism and shifting ethical paradigms.

By way of introduction to the web-map, I would like to mention that part of this inquiry into semantic and visual mechanisms involves messing up linear progress through a text. So I want you to have to start, browse around, peer in to various windows and frames, and then go back again to one or more windows to continue the path of inquiry or to start again and go a different direction. It is intended to be slightly confusing and rather awkward, in that navigation is not keyed to intuitive moves we are used to making when navigating websites in 2012. There should be enough strangeness that you feel a little pain while engaging with it but not so much that you will just get frustrated and leave the game altogether. The idea here again is to confound expectations but leave something familiar, a memory of something known, that allows for moments of rest but that require you to move on. The model is based on Deleuze and Guattari’s orchid (that draws the insect) and wasp (which pollinates the flower) to evoke an exchange that is constantly changing the terms of identity discourse, embodiment, and even thinking structures.

 

Play with Me: Interactive De-Struct[ion]ure at the Museum of Latin-American Art

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a collaborative visit . by April Durham . 17 August 2012

Long Beach is about 20 minutes southwest of the crumbly LA neighborhood where I am spending a sticky-baked summer. I am too tired to drive and Pam prefers to pilot anyway. It’s already needle hot when we leave at 10:23 am. The 110 to the 5 to the 60 to the 710. Aquarium exit to Broadway to Alamitos. The parking lot is mostly empty and (finally) a sea breeze teases us toward the door. The space is so professional, so institutionally proper, with excellent air conditioning, gleaming floors, and very quietly polite security guards. The museum avoids the obvious tropes of Latino-ism, tropical frescoes, colorful tile, dense installation. Instead, minimal institutional space sanctions resistance, creating a strange, almost discomfiting celebration of the ways in which its constituency creatively reflects on its experience of the world: a globalized, not-particularly-supportive, often-exploitative world.

Why interactivity? The term implies, these days, a high level of technological interface, a mediating of the “natural” world by the tools of the cyber terrain. But there are only two pieces with an overtly technological structure: Deep Thought V.2, by Dream Addictive, brings to mind boardwalk fortune telling machines, where touching bolt-like “sensors” connect the traveller to a machine that renders thoughts as biofeedback, eventually spitting out a slip of paper with a Spanish interpretation of the imagination. The other involves sitting inside a little oval hut made from egg cartons and waving hands in front of sensors that emit the sounds of the Tijuana streets. Neither of these pieces functions with the slick, fault-proof necessity of the digital interface though. The sense is that they repeat where they should progress or they reset because the physical touch is too tenuous, issuing faults or making frailty and apparatic vulnerability transparent to that of the “natural” human. Fear of too much interface drives the interaction with these works more than a streamlining of the meat-to-machine we’ve grown to expect à la Sleep Dealer.

An air bladder made from pages of An Introduction to Psychoanalysis and other books by Freud that the viewer can enter, a candy-finish painting the viewer can touch, and a wall of plastic funerary flowers to which the viewer can add. Only uncertainly interactive, these works seem shy and tentative, failing to invite the masterful engagement humans are used to exercising with their digital partners (AKA computers or games). Appearing as traditional sculptures, the viewer hesitates to touch. The guards stand by looking pointedly to see if you will touch, in fact. But beautifully trained, they kindly, gently encourage, lifting edges, coax the shedding of various bits of clothing, soothingly offer instructions on precisely how to interact.

Pressing on the slick sunset finish of Rubén Ortiz-Torres’ painting, you see the shadow of your hand beside that of your friend and then it fades as if you were never there. The nature of this interactivity is not immersive, not consuming in the way a Gibsonian, jacked-in cybersurfer (or an MMORPG player) experiences/becomes. Rather, it is consuming in the way of a penetrating glance cast by a stranger in a dark public gathering place that catches the receiver in the middle of the chest and is long remembered, even though it was perhaps the most momentary experience of one’s life. The lingering questions: who, why, what… transmitted in the print, the look, the air between ebb and flow through Memory, layered upon the fading imprint of body heat cast by whatever number of viewers dared to touch the same surface.

If interactivity, in today’s online gaming world and even for more pedestrian users like bloggers, vloggers, and social networkers, implies a certain machine-to-human-to-human interaction, with a performative component, the interactive quotient of these works is shockingly “lo-tek.” The concerns of high and low, however, are shared: what does it mean to navigate the political, aesthetic, and social (aren’t they the same in a way?) terrains of shared space/time? Is is possible to witness the “Other’s” sensations/cognitions, material-semiotic struggles, mediated in objects, subjectivities, and histories encountered in the institutional setting (be that the museum or Google Chrome)? What is the nature of that connection? How to describe it? Faulty, tenuous, vulnerable, pedantic, shrill, violent, contained, noisy, ephemeral, colored, blocked, or elegiac? What about gaps, glitches, non-functionality, errors, obviousness, inelegance, and awkwardness? Does my interface accommodate embarrassment, illiteracy, clumsiness, incompetence? While the stakes in on-line interactivity hinge on these last attributes being ameliorated through the discipline of practice, the works in this show leverage the incapacity of the viewer to prepare her laboring body for skilled engagement. Frailty and inability are prized when succumbing to the floating weight of Freud’s knowledge or the faux-foliage of funerary decor of  Alberto Baraya.

The nest built by Franklin Cassaro of pages from books by Sigmund Freud, taped together with plastic packing material, breathes a welcome to its strange interior. “I could lie in here all day,” says my companion. “Yeah,” I sigh. Highly legible but impossible to “read,” these familiar texts, so important to 20th century thought, culture, and social/psychical understanding float around like a breathing womb, a lung-abyss that allows in light, receives the air from a rotating fan just outside, but does not encourage exit. Even the kindly young guard who so attentively lifts the edge so you can enter, is nowhere to be found when you want to leave. You have to struggle against the rigidity (however frail) of the tape, and the concern for damaging the already creased and worried edges of the text, to trip out awkwardly and straighten your skirt, and wonder about who might notice your dirty knees. While deliciously inviting, the interactivity solicited by this work is precarious, and if not imprisoning, then certainly sticky and all the more maddening thanks to its beauty.

In the lobby of the museum, Federico Herrero offers the closest thing to immersive interactivity in a piece comprised of old, painted cardboard, little boxes, sticks, and styrofoam balls, all dusty and a bit decrepit. This work “translates the mix of colors, shapes, and forms of the streets of San José, Costa Rica—and the tropical landscape that surrounds the city, onto gallery walls,” or so says the museum website. The artist offers a little space, like that in a preschool, where components that might be used to make the throw-away artworks that fascinate my friend and me, comprising each of our own art practices (differently but in a shared context) can be moved around at will, bent, walked upon, hidden under, stacked. I reach out and move a stick as we pass by the jumble and a little tower of stuff tumbles over, almost landing on my foot. Interactivity can be dangerous, first lesson. I look to see if the security guard is ready to wrestle me to the ground, but he goes on checking things on a list and ignores me. “Pam,” I whisper. “I think we can play.” Pam, of course, doesn’t need another nudge and begins dealing out slabs of wasted cardboard in various shades of green in piles that appear random but which are governed by her highly honed aesthetic sense. I move some sticks and a ball into a tight grid at one corner. Then I make a little ramp and hope a ball will roll down it.

We stay here the longest, really playing, really having fun and never at all intimidated, cautioned, or constrained by the fact that we are professional artists, serious women, not-super young, creative urchins lingering between the spaces sanctioned for play and those made political by the kind of gesture exercised within-upon them. We wonder for a moment, loving cardboard, thinking about fish, wishing it could stay this way, desire unmediated in a falling-down structure that is oh so pretty all the same.