Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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September 18, 2007
dust 4

on the importance of letting dust settle

A couple years ago in a panel discussion entitled "Not For Sale: Artists View," Marina Abramovic made some very interesting comments about the history and then-current state of performance art.

Her remarks can be heard in a podcast on this page. They begin about 1 hour into the podcast.

Abramovic recounts the change in "performance" since the 70s, as she sees it.

The story begins with performances that transpired in real time, over the course of maybe 10-12 hours, in front of live audiences. The artists were, she claims, strictly opposed to the practice of making any documentation whatsoever of the performance. The only existing record would be the narrative account, given after the fact, by a participant or witness.

The late 70s saw a move to recording on film or video those real-time, live-"audienced" performances. However, the recording would involve no frame changes, no editing, and minimal cinematic intervention. The camera would be put on autopilot, with the cameraperson sent out "to smoke a cigarette," as Abramovic puts it.

She then attributes to Acconci the switch to performances in the studio, with no live audience, with the camera as the only "real time" audience member.

Abramovic then describes the "catastrophe" that happened next. I have not seen her remarks summarized in any written form anywhere on-line, so below is my transcription of what she had to say (all emphases supplied). I tried to retain the flow of how she talks.

Then [sigh] what happened?

It's -- then, the -- you know, everything became shorter. I mean, the public became less and less -- how you call? patient. And every -- their life is fast. And so the artist started to accommodate the speed of the consumption of the public.

So the videos and the performances became shorter. And then come three minutes, to one minute loop, to thirty second loop. And then everything became loop. You know? And then, that is really a catastrophic thing.

You know, it's like, the performance stopped, kind of, existing. Because, by looping material, you have the feeling of the endlessness of the performance. But no artist, no public went through the real experience of being there, that period of time, and doing the piece. So the experience was not there.

And experience is very important. Because in the performance, there is a point of transformation. After the boredom, as John Cage said, that real thing starts. . . .

So, when you're doing the performance, and it's a very long period of time, and you know that sometimes, in the structure of the piece, nothing is really happening, and you know nothing is going to ever happen.

Then, you are bored. Until one point.

Then you actually enter into another state of reality. Something else is happening. When the times stop, for you and for the performer. And then you are living in that particular moment of here and now. And this really is charismatic.

When the good performance is there, nothing can replace -- any document, or any video or any other material -- can replace that kind of transformation which you go with, after you see such a performance.

What maybe is an example of the kind of looped performance that Abramovic is talking about?

I don't know. Maybe it is something like Oscar Muñoz's brilliant "Re/trato." A short excerpt of the work can be viewed here.

Muñoz's "performance" begins, from the viewer's perspective, in medias res. If the viewer watches long enough, they begin to suspect that, while the real-time, tightly repetitive performance "ends" after 20 or 30 minutes, the video's conclusion loops immediately back to its beginning, with a seamless edit of sufficient skill that the performance is felt by the viewer to continue smoothly into eternity -- from whence it, in addition, then is perceived to have come.

But what of it? Is working with loops a historical misstep of some kind?

Not necessarily. To those who value the power of boringness, perhaps circular, looped boredom is somehow more meaningful/beautiful/insightful/whateverful for today's audiences to experience than was the more linear bordeom (if that simplistic distinction even applies) of the performances of Abramovic and/or Ulay.

On the other hand, she rightly may flag the problem of a world in which messages get ever faster and shorter, and windows of opportunity for expression get narrower, in a speed-up to which no one who cares about expression should contribute -- not even in an attempt to use the speed-up's methods "against it," ironically, or in the guise of "commenting" on it. Maybe Abramovic has identified an increasing inability today to maintain equilibrium along the supposed borderline between commentary about our soundbite world and capitulation to it, and the contradictory ground under the feet of the self-appointed artistic participant-observer.

[update 10/11/07: See also, Yvor Winters' notion of the "fallacy of imitative form"]

Who knows? Not me.

However, I do know that Jaimey Hamilton's nice essay, "The Way We Loop Now: Eddying in the Flows of Media" (.pdf), seems to spot a number of the interesting issues, on the pro and con sides of a looped, timeless art on which the dust never settles.

What might be the John Cage reference, bolded above, to the importance of reaching the state "after boredeom"?

Probably to his Indeterminacy, no. 75, which looks like this, roughly:

In   Zen                                  they   say:

            If   something   is   boring   after   two

                                               try   it
 for   four.

  still   boring,

  it   for   eight,



             and   so   on.

Eventually   one   discovers   that   it’s   not
boring   at   all
                           but   very    interesting.

In other words, the alternative subtitle of this blog post could be "The importance of silence."

In other other words, there would be no alternative subtitle. There would be no post.
[So, an even blunter, alternative subtitle:
"The Importance of Shutting Up"]

Some years back, an on-line journal of Marcel Duchamp studies included an interview with John Cage. The interviewer presented Cage with an intriguing theory about a possibly secret, symbolic meaning behind the dust in Duchamp's Large Glass
(hint: the secret connects to Jarry and a pair of old boots).

Cage's first response to the unmasking of the secret, we are told, was a    l o n g      silence.

Perhaps in a similar vein, Quentin Crisp, one of TiR's intellectual heroes, explained his discovery that led to the realization that he had no need ever to dust his furniture:
After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse.

How far can this attitude be pushed? An attitude of renunciation, of willing surrender to the passage of time pursued so single-mindedly that you could create surprising things with the blanket of dust that piles up?

We have the example of the old tale about Zhou Enlai's supposed reply, when Henry Kissinger asked him what he thought of the French Revolution:
It's too soon to tell.
(Prof. Stephen Cecchetti, like me, had no luck trying to track down a reliable source for this nevertheless delightful tale. See here (.pdf), at fn. 14.)

In conclusion: The aspirational credo for how Cage's -- and Abramovic's -- idea translates (but never nearly often enough) into the world of TiR:

If an idea for a potential blog post is interesting for two minutes,

               wait for a day before posting about it.

                                                            If still interesting,

            wait a month.

                                                            If still interesting,

            wait a year,
                              or two . . . or three. . . .

Eventually one discovers that it's not interesting at all,

                                    or is interesting in a new way you never would have noticed.

Pushed to even more extreme lengths, the above methodology can be applied also to responses to e-mails that are non-time-sensitive

[however, an implicit point here is that excessive contemplation of the disorienting effects wrought by the filtering mechanism of time

[cf. the components of the "filtering trinity" noted in an obscure liner note by Shriekback:


Now abideth these three, but the greatest of these,
           perhaps the fons et origo of the other two

                                 is laziness

                                          (which adds time)]

will tend to dissolve one's previously used criteria for determination of what is "time-sensitive."]

but I find this tends to confuse people
                                             unless explained. . . .