I’d been to the NYC 1993 exhibit at the New Museum a few weeks earlier, but this time my eyes were closed and a stranger was guiding me through the second floor. He described the installation in front of us and, based on his clues, I couldn’t think back to what it could be: “A domestic scene. A red room and a white room. There are family photographs on a table. They look like they could be from the 70s. There’s an American flag, broken dishes on the floor, an open can of Coke…” (more…)
My favorite stories make connections between things I wouldn’t otherwise have imagined could relate to each other. My favorite stories are true, but constructed. Putting something into a surprising context is similar to creating fiction. If we are to enter a book the way we enter a room, we don’t read on a straight line. We don’t start from the beginning. Stories in this room are objects on pedestals, and images on walls. Perhaps the book is a collection of stories with a title that is just as ambiguous as the connections between the topics, so we carry our body from one object to another, making up our own answers, and reading in a random order. If we need some kind of categorization, it comes from the building itself.
I always feel as if I am entering a book when I step inside The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. The inconspicuous building sits between a carpet installation company and a forensic lab on Venice Boulevard, and often tends to be discovered by surprise. It resembles something out of David Lynch, but what doesn’t in LA? Their collection includes Hagop Sandaldjian’s “Microminiature Sculptures,” seen through a long row of microscopes, mechanical diorama’s of opera sets, a display of animal horns (including one that supposedly grew out of a human woman’s head), and vintage medical illustrations. The mood ranges between playful–on the second floor there is an interactive exhibit of string figure games (including the popular playground activity “cat’s cradle” )–to deeply touching–painted portraits of the 1960s Soviet space dogs hang in a candlelit memorial entitled, “The Lives of Perfect Creatures.”
If you’re a New Yorker, walking through Neil Goldberg’s retrospective at The Museum of the City of New York is like walking through a collection of moments from your own day. Stories the City Tells Itself (now extended through June 19th) examines seemingly unremarkable urban moments that suddenly become worthy of our attention because, as city dwellers, we all share them. One installation features video of shop keepers raising their shutters in the morning, next to video of elderly passengers boarding the M15 bus. They pull themselves up, and the film captures both resilience and decrepitude as their ascension synchronizes with the rhythm of the opening shutters. There are film stills of disappointed passengers as they’ve just missed their train; silent footage of roller coaster riders trying to describe the Cyclone at Coney Island; close-ups of hungry salad bar patrons at lunch hour. These pieces demonstrate the varied ways New Yorkers encounter the same situation, with some appearing eerily identical. (more…)
One of the principal dilemmas in performance art is how to document it. If a performance or happening only exists in its present action, what results when it is photographed or videotaped? Does documentation simply water it down, or does it completely fail to preserve the essence of a piece? Clifford Owens: Anthology at MOMA PS 1 features performance guidelines or “scores” that Owens collected from twenty-six multigenerational African American artists. During a five-month residency at PS1, Owens enacted these scores, subverting, altering or ignoring certain aspects of them. These scores demonstrate pieces previously done by other artists, or assignments given specifically for Owens to carry out, using himself as a vessel to anthologize this work.
Some instructions are specific, with detailed steps to illustrate the intended movements and feelings. Dave McKenzie’s score reads, “Pick a corner of the room and place yourself in it and against it. Try to conjure up a past that isn’t your own. Get ready to move. Don’t think too long about what you might do. Now act! Stop! Now think about the future after you. Make a phone call.” Derrick Adams assigned Owens to wash his face while listening P. Diddy. with step by step guidelines for how Owens should go about this, including ingredients for the performance, such as the type and color, (white) of face wash to use. Owens pushes further by having patrons of PS1‘s “Warm Up,” music series wash their own faces in the museum restroom, and taking portraits of them in bubbly whiteface. They too become vessels for parts of this anthology. Senga Nengudi’s score, “Sweep,” is inspired by the idea that most people worldwide, from the time they learn to walk, have engaged in the activity of sweeping. She instructed Owens to use a broom three times to move colored sand into changing designs and then to invite an audience member to create his or her own design.
Other scores ask for a large amount of interpretation before the participant can even begin to follow the instructions. Steffani Jemison told Owens to “Experience regret. Do not apologize.” Owen’s interpretation was to photograph PS1 patrons pouring water on him, ripping his shirt open, or slapping him on is rear end. William Pope L. simply said, “Be African American. Be very African American.” To which Owens answered by enlisting actors to chase a single line of white tape up the stairs at PS 1 shouting, “I am African American. I am very African American,” and asking visitors, “Who is your favorite black artist?” or, “Do you have any black friends?”
Anthology arose from Owens’ long-standing desire to create a compendium of often overlooked contributions of contemporary performance art by African Americans. Rather than exhibiting documentation of these works or collecting them in a book, Owens compiled them in a more personal medium–his own body. He becomes the anthology: authors collected within the author. What results is a living, breathing archive represented in the body of a person. It is as if he is taking cues from these other artist’s, but not leaving himself and his own work behind. He shows how an artist’s work is always informed by and through other voices.
The exhibition includes ongoing performances and visual representations of the scores, not just photographic evidence of their happenings. The scores appear to be work themselves, some presented as the emails they came in, and others as elaborate maps or visual cues or even notational patterns.
Some directly and necessarily address race, such as Rico Gatson’s instructions to recreate the black power salute of the1968 Olympics for five minutes, in which Owens represents not just artists of the present and past, but also historical icons. Others probe into identity politics such as issues in sexuality, embodiment, gender, and exposure, using the body as an appropriate and compelling site for these performances. In one video, four people reposition Owen’s nude and limp body, as if he is a sculpture or a doll. Kara Walker’s score instructed Owens to “French an audience member.” Asking him to examine and embody the role of a male sexual aggressor, she writes, “Force them against a wall and demand sex. They should be an adult. If they are willing to participate, abruptly turn the tables on them and you assume the role of the victim. Accuse your attacker and seek help from others. Describe your ordeal. Repeat.”
The exhibit shows a film of Owens walking through the middle of a circle of spectators, scrutinizing each audience member–mostly women–and finally choosing someone to kiss. When Walker learned of his plans to interpret her score literally, she asked to withdraw from the project. “If he goes through with it he leaves no room for imagination or freedom of choice,” she said in a statement to The Observer. They reached a kind of resolution when Owens invited Walker to join him in one of these performances. She followed him around the room acting as a kind of guard, her presence diffusing his machismo.
“I am of course responsible for creating this evil scenario,” Walker told The Observer. “The difference is, my proposal exists as a slip of paper, a planted idea–the performer reserves the right to simply not do it.” The score indeed seems to bear directly on Walker’s own work, with silhouettes, for example, representing master-slave sexual relationships. It evokes a brutal history between white women and black men, and challenges it. Yet one participant, Marissa Perel, a writer for Art 21 says the problem with the score is that it’s not complicated enough. She writes, “I wanted to believe that something was being worked out in this space, that we were all participating in some kind of exorcism by recapitulating the shared trauma of slavery and prejudice. It’s about a Black man being allowed to exercise a power in the museum that he could be arrested for if enacted in the public realm.” She says that Owens barely interacted with the men in the room, and that encountering people of a variety of gender identifications “would have destabilized identity and desire in a way that would have truly elevated the participatory experience to one of shared risk. But on the other hand, maybe I needed to be reminded of my particular subjectivity in this world in precisely the ways that Owens’ performance made me feel.”
On close inspection, the scores’ contents are teeming with conflicts on what it means to be Black, to be a man, to be inventing a history, to be re-staging a history, to be a vessel for history, and ultimately, to be inventing oneself on stage. Perel’s dilemna speaks directly to the undeniable presence of the real Clifford Owens in the room. Is he merely demonstrating a concept, performing a history of sexual aggression, or performing himself as a sexual aggressor?
Lorrain O’Grady’s score reads, “One, think of an ‘Other’: animal, vegetable or mineral. Two, create a record: audio, visual, or text of your interaction, real and/or imaginary, intellectual and/or emotional, with this ‘Other.’” Owens considers the possible definitions of her idea of “Other”; in terms of psychoanalysis, critical race theory, or postcolonial theory, deciding on animal, mineral and vegetable to play the three Others. Owens performs on a live feed that is projected to an audience of viewers. He holds the chicken in front of his crotch, chops vegetables, and slams a knife against the cutting board. Accompanying him is a naked woman, also playing with the food and the animals. Suddenly, the camera and live feed become a kind of mirroring Other, the chicken becomes the Other species, and we have gender Others as well. In reinterpreting, or in a sense, rewriting many of these scores, Owens rewrites history. It seems appropriate to document a history of performance art by reinterpreting it, not necessarily mapping the changes, but documenting that which has been influenced.
Anthology is a brave discourse on collective authorship that not only creates an appropriate medium for chronicling performance art, but uses that medium to plague further into the material of the art. Owens himself is not only the medium, or the vessel for the art, but also the content.
Photographer and filmmaker Moyra Davey is consistently praised for her interest in small, overlooked spaces and in subject matter that occurs on a microscopic and interior scale. But in her most recent film Les Goddesses, she expresses a self consciousness towards the very thing she’s known for. Her work examines the outmoded: a shelf full of record albums, old newspapers, magnified close-ups of the surfaces of pennies so scratched we can no longer recognize Lincoln’s profile. Images of dust, books, and handwritten notes recur, and her still life style seems to illustrate a common search for absolute meaning among spaces where we still only ever find objects. If the aim of today’s artist is no longer to make something noble, uplifting or even beautiful, Davey’s images suggest that the aim that remains is to represent a closely examined life.
The film explores her struggle to overcome a resistance to contributing to a world of images of dubious honesty, and an inclination towards retreating from this fixation on the minute. She is haunted by something she heard Jean Luc Godard say once on a French radio station. “Filmmakers who make installations instead of films are afraid of the real,” she quotes. When Davey’s career began in her early twenties she was more concentrated on portraiture, and now she expresses a struggle to return to street, vÃ©ritÃ© photography. She compares these recent still lifes, which take place in a controlled, malleable practice, with “rehearsed writing,” from notes and journals. The opposite being writing from the unknown, an image seized as it occurs, a movement as it moves, with little chance of revision.
In her essay, The Wet and The Dry, a companion to the film Les Goddesses, she refers to Walter Benjamin’s A Little History of Photography, “‘To do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations,’” she quotes. “Yet that abandonment is precisely what would begin to take place in my photographs over the next ten years, beginning in 1984, until my subjects constituted little more than the dust on my bookshelves or the view under the bed.” Throughout the film, she mentions concern about an inability to be present in any reality other than the reality of the camera. For a photographer, does the reality in the frame come first, or the circumstances which pushed the photographer into that frame? What is the difference between a tamer of time and a slave to time?
She hints at feeling blocked, and compares herself to a writer, but lacks a name for her obstacle. Writer’s block has a kind of legitimacy because of its common designation. This comparison is appropriate because it’s not quite right to think of Davey as solely a photographer. Her primary passion seems to be the act of reading. (She wrote a whole book on it in 2003 calledThe Problem of Reading.) In Les Goddesses, we see Davey pacing through her apartment with the camera pointed towards one seemingly random spot, as she walks in and out of the frame. She is walking and talking, opening the film with a voice-over that relates the experiences of eighteenth century radical philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and her family. As she shares biographical information and reads passages from Wollstonecraft’s and her daughter, Mary Shelley’s diaries, Davey searches through portraits she’d taken of her own sisters years ago. She rifles through a pile of prints on her bed, her left hand presenting a succession of images, while her right hand holds the camera. The pictures are of a group of four women, of tattoos on their hips, and of individual poses. She ponders her sister’s illnesses and her own; encounters with pets and men and drugs and art. Davey collapses time by weaving her story with Wollstonecraft’s. She uses narrative transitions such as sharing this autobiographical information in conjunction with a background story about a collection of Wollstonecraft’s letters. “It was published in 1796, two hundred years before the birth of my son Barney,” she says, or tells us that Mary Shelley’s son Percy, unlike his literary and artistic parents, hated art museums. “Barney, aged thirteen, does not like art museums either. He says they instantly make him feel sleepy. He told me: ‘An ideal way to spend the day would be to drive to an airport and watch the planes take off and land.’”
Les Goddesses presents two important strategies in Davey’s investigation of herself and her work. Firstly, it creates a dialogue between Davey’s present work and her past’s. We see the portraits she used to make next to her new still lifes. She cuts to a shot of her hand brushing dust off a bookshelf, as if to symbolize another move away from images of this kind of surface. Secondly, the film and her monologue within it serve to connect Davey’s writing and reading practice to the memorializing practice of her photographic work. The film reexamines her process of looking.
I imagine that Moyra Davey takes pictures the way she reads, as if reading is making something, producing information rather than consuming. I consider seeing her photographs as a reader as well. For Davey, reading is not an escape from the self, but a performance of the self. If performance of the interior self means fitting ourselves into the exterior world, a good reader invents herself through the pages of a book. Davey leads us to ask not only what is the difference between a photographer and an essayist, or the difference between taking notes on an event or taking photos, but what is the difference between a reader and a writer?
The videocamera points out a window, or towards the corner of a room as we listen to Davey and she paces into and again out of the shot. She walks and talks as if she is thinking out loud. It reminds me of how we often take walks to tease out our thoughts, or of activities that we do with our bodies to help generate ideas. I know a high school English teacher who tells her students that if they’re having trouble getting into a book, they should put themselves in a physically uncomfortable position, sit in an uncomfortable chair, or make themselves cold. This way, the largest distraction is physical, separate from the task of the mind. I have a writer friend who says she writes the best sentences when she has to pee. I like this idea that distracting ourselves with our bodies actually helps our minds to focus. I know people who go for a run when they need to work out a problem; people who write not to document, but to think; people who take notes never intending to look at the notes. The act of note-taking (or picture-taking) simply sharpens the thinking, strengthens the consumption of the present.
Throughout Les Goddesses, Davey not only summons Wollstonecraft and Shelley, but other literary figures of the past. She ponders songs that have evoked memories otherwise forgotten, specific outside sensations that have brought on states of wellbeing such as letting water in a creek slip through her fingers. In Goethe’s Italian Journey, written in 1786, she notices that travel, a displacement in time and space and the ultimate fatigue it brings, also contributes to states of understanding, well-being, and “weightlessness.” She evokes Marguerite Duras’ dilemma, “To be without a subject for a book, without the idea of a book, is to find yourself in front of a book. An immense void.” Davey then notes that Duras “would go at it–writing and drinking–for days and nights.” Movement and consumption contributes to thinking. Duras was not afraid of “The Wet,” Davey’s term which comes to mean creative fertility.
“For Virginia Woolf, ‘being’ was writing and ‘non being’ was everything else,” Davey writes. “The thing is only alive (and by extension, I am only alive) while it is in process; and I’ve never quite figured out how to keep it ignited, moving.” One thing I notice about her work is that it feels incredibly urgent, as if collecting and writing and taking pictures is a vital physical process. I remember feeling an urgency towards writing and note-taking while taking care of my mother when she was ill, that I had never felt before. Writing would not only help my mind to work, but it would salvage my well being, and literally contribute to saving the life of my mother. Writing down names of medication, blood counts, her doctor’s names, lists of foods she craved, and lists of morphine induced dreams she told me, was a matter of life and death. Taking notes meant that I was acting towards a solution, and most of those notes were never even revisited. They merely helped me to get a grip on a challenging present. The thought crossed my mind one day while I was driving, (also a physical activity for courting thinking) of replacing the verb, “run” in that common, desperate phrase, “run for your life,” with “write.” Traveling, walking, reading, writing, drawing, listening to music, taking drugs, taking notes, taking pictures, are all altered physical states that may assist in the generation of ideas.
The final section of Les Goddesses is another photo-story called “Coda,” within which Davey remarks upon a recent development in her process of looking. On subway rides to the library, in search of Mary Shelley’s diary (among other books) she began to notice subway riders absorbed in writing of their own. Her narrative is now accompanied by a new series of still, color portraits. These new images are a combination of her close examination of the minute, and the present, street photography that had been a source of anxiety. She reflects on the paradoxical process that occurred while making this very film. “Just when I’d been writing about the disappearance of the figure from my photographs, I found myself taking street pictures again, in the dim green light of the Manhattan subway.” She tells us of children doing their math homework, a woman in orange velvet gloves writing in a diary with a yellow pencil, and of a man she saw twice hunched over a crossword puzzle in almost the same position. A city travels, thinks, moves, writes, with one woman reading it and taking pictures.
Georgia Sagri’s performance, Working the No Work in the Whitney Biennial, begins when she emerges from behind a cardboard door that resembles a homemade structure in a child’s playroom. You might consider that it begins even earlier, when she enters the gallery itself, saying, “It is going to be a little late.” Perhaps the performance begins even before that, when the spectators enter the gallery and look around at the objects in the room. As it grows quiet and becomes clear who the audience should pay attention to, Sagri taps her feet and slowly approaches a laptop on the floor. She curls her body over the keyboard and records the sound of herself retching. She walks around the room making the same tortured sounds so that they can be recorded from different distances. They begin to play on a loop as she herself becomes quiet, and she moves her body with the rhythm of the retching.
By now, she has taken off her black cotton outfit. Hanging against the wall are pants, a T-shirt, a skirt, and a jacket, which all depict the life sized form of a woman’s nude body. When she puts on each outfit, she appears to be wearing her own body (and it is, indeed, Sagri in the images). She takes a moment to stare down at the breasts as if they are foreign, as separate from her own chest as any design on a T-shirt. Wearing this synthetic skin, she acts out the looped retching sounds, bending over to clutch her stomach and sticking out her tongue as if she is vomiting.
I saw her give a talk as part of Columbia’s Xtracurricular series three days before I actually saw her perform. I was worried that I may have experienced Sagri’s performance backwards, but perhaps this way of witnessing her was just as appropriate as any. It was like I was cheating, skipping to the explanation rather than experiencing the action. I imagined that some people in the Columbia audience might’ve been puzzled Whitney patrons who’d seen the performance piece and wanted a longer explanation. A slideshow of photos from Working the No Work ran behind her as she began to speak, and I thought perhaps I should leave, not wanting to ruin the show for myself.
But the talk was more about what performance means to Sagri in general, rather than an explanation of this specific piece. In fact, when someone asked if she could tell us a bit about the pictures projected behind her, she answered, “They are just background,” and went on to the next question. The woman sitting next to me told me she thought that this response was a little unfair. In fact, Sagri comes across as a bit solemn, while there is so much fun and wackiness in her performance. She just takes presence very seriously, and defends the right for the performance to speak for itself.
The title, Working the No Work, refers to a struggle against working for a boss or an organization so distant from the self. Sagri, who was born in Athens in 1979, was one of the original attendees of the Occupy Wall Street General Assemblies this past summer, and her work makes constant reference to situationism and to modern Greek anarchists. She told us that the Greek word for space is often used to refer to “the people,” in situations of protest or demonstration. Therefore, her performance space becomes a space of living people, acknowledging that every peripheral witness is a contributing author. In her lecture, she expressed a dilemma between working through representation rather than existing as a presentation. “How do you articulate ‘no authority’ in a performance when performance itself is all about authority and center?” she asked. In her performance, she steps over spectators in the room, makes eye contact, and silently reaches her hands out to people if they begin to leave before it is over. People wander in and out, and even the security guard seems at ease, smiling at the more bizarre moments.
As Sagri moves, footage from different spaces around the Whitney is projected against a wall, along with rolling credits, and text in the format of the Star Wars opening crawl. Those credited as “Contributors” (in no discernible order) include Plato, Martha Rosler, Lady Gaga, someone listed only by their first name, “Micah,” Pierre Paolo Pasolini, among many others. She seems to be, in part, handing her authority not only to the spectators in the room, who influence her work in the present, but every person who influenced her before, whether from personal relationships, or artists from decades ago. She is not the only author of the piece and she shows how these authors coexist within her body. They have contributed to the present performance by contributing something to a public, collective knowledge.
The installation and the performance are continuously evolving, with the endpoint being the creation of a book. It seems that Sagri does not intend to assemble a physical book, however. She uses the metaphor of the book to explore the blurring of the role of an author. Distinctions between an author and a reader, a producer and a product are no longer significant. Reading and witnessing are part of the action. She is writing and editing through her movements. There are no spoken words in the performance, (at least in the one I attended) but she still refers to it as a “discussion.” At the Columbia talk, she described watching a performance, telling us, “You begin to recognize yourself through someone else’s movement.” I couldn’t help but think of the way we recognize our own words and thoughts when we read a good book.
In Working the No Work, she imitates different versions of herself as she moves under the layers of her own body. She changes her clothes over and over, and sings or whispers to make more looped sounds to dance to. Some movements are gentle, others are harsh, such as throwing herself against a wall, shouting, “Ow, ow, ow!” The movements reach a kind of climax, and then descend as she expresses her exhaustion. She puts on a pair of glasses with pictures of her own closed eyes in the frames, and lies down on the floor to rest. She closes the performance when she changes back into her black outfit, hangs the cloth limbs on the wall, and leaves.
Sagri’s garments as well as the pillows in the installation, are designed by Brooklyn-based eco- fashion designer Shabd Simon-Alexander.
While she might share her authority with those who influenced her, every echo, every movement, undoubtedly comes from Sagri. “I do not understand performance but I understand the myth of Narcissus and Echo,” she told us at the Columbia lecture. In this myth, of course, Echo is disabled from speaking her own words and can only repeat the words of others. Sagri noted that the mirror image and the echo are almost the same, but the mirror destroys Narcissus, while Echo only grows and reaches farther into the world. Sagri recognizes herself as an embodiment of voices, other echoes, while reminding us that she is still wearing her own body. The looped sounds move farther from her voice until they begin to sound like objects. Still, the visual presentation reminds us that the sounds originated from the human body in front of us, not from the laptop. “Action happens from searching for the other through an echo of ourselves,” she said at Columbia. “Echo doesn’t know herself. She is always repeating what others are saying, but then that becomes herself.”
In her lecture, she compared her way of performing to copying and pasting on a computer. The digital loops make copy after copy of something other than her voice, a kind of ghost in the machine, while we are constantly reminded of her presence and physicality. She talked about property and authorship becoming less and less tangible in the digital world, and considered that this way of looking at ownership might somehow become a part of our behavior in the social world as well. How can we know a place if we only consider what it has been named for, or who it belongs to, rather than who walks through it? Can we get to know each other better if we call the people and things that influence us the “authors” of ourselves? She described a scenario of two people meeting, and considered that instead of asking, “What do you do?” someday we will ask a question that is much more “plural” and integrative. More than anything else from the lecture, I held this scenario in my mind as I watched the performance. What would be a more integrative question for getting to know someone? Naturally I think of replacing, “What do you do?” with “Who are you?” but this also seems too easy, and might be just as limiting. In my own attempts to fully witness and understand performance art that is intentionally cryptic or difficult to access, this scenario seems like a useful tool. Performance art pushes us to look, (and read) in a way we might’ve not known we could. It can puzzle us, provoke us, and force us to recognize ourselves in places where we are not. It is a way of asking, “Who are you?” and getting an answer that is more than just one person’s own name.
Working the No Work will be at the Whitney until May 27th. Sagri performs on Sundays at 1pm, as well as select Fridays: March 9 and 16; April 27; May 18, all at 7pm.