The Life of Performance Arts

What Happened; or, Finishing Live

by Rebecca Schneider

The essay begins:

When you get a pebble in your boot—flesh, stone, and leather rub, irritating each other into and out of comfort. This essay is like that. In 2012, I stumbled over a minor comment made on April 19 at the conference “Making Time: Art Across Gallery, Screen, and Stage” at the Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, curated by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson. The comment was made by Sabine Breitweiser, who at that time was the chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Speaking of “acquiring actions” when “collecting” performance, Breitweiser said, almost as an aside during the question and answer session after her talk: “If live artworks are collected correctly, I believe they can acquire a patina over time.” The comment puzzled me, and I scribbled it down for memory’s sake with a question mark at the lead. What could it mean?

My difficulty was surely disciplinary. In a blog posting circulated in advance of the same conference, Malik Gaines, who was also an invited speaker, had written:

Visual art and performance are in a classic bad relationship. Art stays for the sex, the good times, the feeling of being alive. But art will belittle performance in public, will call it late at night but won’t let it stay over, doesn’t really believe what performance does is valuable. Art’s esteemed family only barely tolerates the relationship. Performance stays with its more powerful partner for the money, for the stature, the trips to Europe, for feeling like it belongs to something, for fear of having to go back to that old senile boyfriend, the Theater. How else can it support itself? But performance never feels like it really belongs in art’s world. It’s always using the wrong fork at dinner.

Indeed, as a scholar of performance studies trained in a history of actions that include mime, theater, dance, and other historical forms more “theatrical” and less “object art,” I felt like an awkward guest at the dinner table in relationship to Breitweiser’s comment. I looked up “patina” in various dictionaries, but it only turned up the meaning I anticipated. Patina is

  1. A thin coating or layer; an incrustation on the surface of metal or stone, usually as a result of an extended period of weathering or burial; a green or bluish-green film produced naturally or artificially by oxidation on the surface of bronze and copper, consisting mainly of basic copper sulphate …
  2. A gloss or sheen or finish; that on wooden furniture produced by age and polishing …
  3. An acquired accretion of an abstract quality; a superficial impression or appearance.

None of these definitions works simply or seamlessly with the immediate definition of performance art as typically featuring “live presentation.” Though definitions vary quite wildly across dictionaries—some describe performance art as essentially “collaborative,” others as “solo,” some say “theatrical,” some refer to its “fine art context”—they almost all use the word “live.” And though synonyms for “patina” like “distressing” or “weathering” might appeal to tragedians or expressionists (anyone might agree that a live performance of King Lear would employ weathering and distressing), “oxidation” is less quick to comply with disciplinary orientations tuned to dance or theater. And yet, Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings might seem closer kin to live performance than the average “bluish-green film” on the skin of a local monument. Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings, or piss paintings as they are commonly known, might be read as something of a theatrical parody, making base bodily fluid the agent of oxidation. Still, might one not easily argue that patination may be standard “senile boyfriend” theater as usual? That is, the crusty monument model might resemble the standard American theater to the degree that such theater often trots out productions so encased in layers of accrued acting convention that they can barely strut and fret (spread by the deadly MFA model of training in the United States and the tendency of the professional theater to produce nothing but replicant white and male playwriting). But if this is the case, why would we desire patination for performance-based art in general?

To make a long story short, I scrapped the paper I had carried with me to the conference, and, in the wake of Breitweiser’s comment, I began to track a new set of thoughts, live, as it were. I wanted to try to respond to the notion of a patinal live, but I knew the fork I would take would be different, and I wondered, as well, what or who exactly was being served by thinking of patination as desirable. The essay that follows tracks thoughts that, like thought, do not always track in a linear fashion but overlap, change direction, cross paths, interrupt each other, get swept under, and tend toward general promiscuity. My hope is not that one thought might align with another, or one discipline with another, for in that parallelism nothing can amount to encounter. Rather, I hope that the thoughts collected here might swerve, jump, bend—we could say dance—not under protective cover of singular disciplinary orientation, but open to weathering, on the move. Continue reading …

This essay asks what happens to live performance over time: Can it develop a patina, as claimed by at least one major art curator? Are intervals between or among performances part of a work itself, like skin or film that grows in the cracks of a work? Or is performance itself a kind of patination process? In short, can liveness be finished?

rcschnei_photo__thumbnailREBECCA SCHNEIDER is Professor of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University. She is the author of The Explicit Body in Performance (l997); Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (2011), and Theatre & History (2014) and editor and author of many anthologies, essays, journal special issues, and book series.

The Lived Experience of the Aesthetic

The Non-time of Lived Experience: The Problem of Color in Hélio Oiticica’s Early Works

by André Lepecki

The essay begins:

This essay aims to analyze the theoretical-conceptual production of one of the most influential Brazilian artists of the second half of the twentieth century, Hélio Oiticica. It is an effort in hermeneutics as well as an effort to follow Gilles Deleuze’s advice in The Logic of Sensation that we must listen “closely . . . to what painters have to say.” In the case of Oiticica, it is less a matter of listening than of reading attentively, seriously, closely, and theoretically the hundreds of pages of his copious, meticulous, rigorous, highly informed, and deeply original working notes, published essays, and articles—which were written as intensely and consistently as his “proper” artistic work was being created until his early death at the age of 42, in 1980. Thus, this essay takes seriously Brazilian critic Luciano Figueiredo’s assertion that “everything that Oiticica wrote is therefore an integral part of the body of his oeuvre.” Reading that integral part of his oeuvre, it becomes clear that much of what Oiticica wrote is aimed at an astoundingly rich production of concepts—particularly during the crucial period from 1959 to 1965, when he moved from his Metaesquemas (series of medium-size gouache on cardboard paintings usually featuring small monochrome squares or rectangles created between 1958 and 1959) to the definitely participatory tridimensional devices he called Parangolés (precarious capes and banners made out of multicolored fabric, canvas, plastic bags, string, and so on, and that had to be animated by the wearers’ action and dances, particularly samba). Contrary to the quite modernist partition that Deleuze and Félix Guattari perform in What Is Philosophy, when they distinguish art from philosophy by stating that the former is dedicated to the creation of “percepts and affects” while the latter is dedicated to the creation of “concepts,” my aim is to insist on the extraordinary philosophical production of concepts by Oiticica during the first half of the 1960s. I agree with art historian and curator Catherine David when she affirms that Oiticica’s oeuvre, including his theoretical-critical production, constitutes a “permanent inscription of a radically critical thought and action within Brazilian culture and modern art.” And I follow Brazilian psychoanalyst and art critic Tania Rivera’s recent statement, in the introduction to her book Hélio Oiticica e a Arquitetura do Sujeito (Hélio Oiticica and the architecture of the subject, 2012), that the urgent task for art history today “is to think with Hélio. . . . He was a tremendous thinker: theoretician, critic, poet.” It is then toward Oiticica’s thought-in-action, his “actioning” of thought through the problematic field brought about by art and its matters, and most particularly by the time that artworks produce in their complex relations to social and political matters, that this essay, perhaps too obsessively, turns. My aim is to contribute to a theory of temporality in experimental twentieth-century art by explaining and also expanding some of Oiticica’s key concepts, starting with the intriguing concept of “color-time.” Therefore, for more detailed descriptions and/or images of Oiticica’s works, I must refer the reader to other sources. Good quality images of most of his oeuvre can be easily found online; the Projecto Hélio Oiticica website provides facsimiles of the vast majority of Oiticica’s handwritten notes and typed texts, all cataloged and indexed; and, finally, several excellent catalogs of his work are available, as well as recent English translations of his texts. Particularly beautiful is the exhibition catalog The Body of Color, where reproductions of all the works invoked in this essay can be found. Even though those sources provide but weak representations of the works, they do give a general idea of what Oiticica was after in art, life, theory, and politics.31SJvH10VfL._BO1,204,203,200_

As already mentioned, in the following pages, I will pay particular attention to Oiticica’s experiments with, and theorizations of, color and time conducted between 1959 and 1965. Oiticica’s critique of time departed from his expressed desire to investigate what he called “the problem of color and the sense of color-time.” Indeed, the development of the concept of “color-time” is the key problematic informing Oiticica’s theoretical and artistic works throughout the whole year of 1960. It informed the compositional mode of several of his sculptures and installation works until the mid 1960s—including his Spatial Reliefs (1959), Penetrables (1959–63), and Bólide (1963–80).

I am particularly interested in understanding how Oiticica’s formulation of such an improbable entity, “color-time,” led this visual artist, emerging from the concrete and neo-concrete traditions strongly in place in Brazil in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to start experimenting with dance by late 1964. I understand Oiticica’s theoretical-aesthetic-kinetic experiments as political acts that open up alternative dimensions for experiencing matters of art and matters of life. They are the logical outcome of his initial intuition that a critique of the experience of art, and a transformation of art from the purely aesthetic into the vitally social, must start with a deep critique and a deep refusal of certain notions of majoritarian and normative time. This foundational refusal constitutes the first condition of possibility to let color and actions, now joined into a new aesthetic entity provisionally called “color-time,” precipitate a richer, more complex, conception of life and of art—one where it is time itself that must, above all, as Oiticica once said, be “undone.” As we will see, the binding between color and time, and the subsequent association of both to the notion of action, are essential steps toward: (1) a total reconceptualization of the notion of time; and (2) the “discovery” (Oiticica’s expression) in 1964 of the highly participatory and dance-oriented Parangolés. By 1965, the Parangolés and nontheatrical dance would for Oiticica become privileged conduits towards a renewed link between corporeality and action, time and matter, color and rhythm, politics and aesthetics. Continue reading …

This essay analyzes the approach of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica (1937–80) to what he called “the problem of color.” Oiticica’s conceptual-aesthetic pursuits between 1959–65 offered a renewed onto-political conceptualization of notions of time, particularly of the “liveness” of inert matters and of the “thingness” of participation. His notion of “vivência estética” (the lived experience of the aesthetic) bridged supposed gaps between performance and objecthood while offering a redefinition of what constitutes political action and what constitutes artistic matter.

ANDRÉ LEPECKI is Associate Professor in Performance Studies at New York University, an independent curator, and an essayist. He is the editor of several anthologies on dance and performance theory and author of Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement (2006) and Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance (2016), both published by Routledge.

The Peasants of Chinese Art

The “Peasant Problem” and Time in Contemporary Chinese Art

by Gu Yi

The essay begins:

In the early 2000s, Chinese art critic Gu Chengfeng lamented the absence of peasants in Chinese contemporary art. Having counted works at various large-scale exhibitions in China, including the Chengdu and Shanghai biennials, he bemoaned the fact that less than 2 percent of the exhibits concerned peasants. While it is no surprise that contemporary art is urban in its production, circulation, tropes, and concerns, Chinese critics found this absence highly problematic, as peasants, at that time, still constituted the largest social group in China. Although the Communist Revolution succeeded because the party addressed the peasant problem, the interests and well-being of the peasantry continued to be diminished by other facets of the nation-building endeavor in Mao’s China. Deemed the true owners of the regime by the state ideology, peasants were in fact bound to the region of their birth by the household registration system known as hukou, and they were deprived of the rations, medical care, education, and pensions to which most city dwellers had access. While the post-1976 reform era witnessed the loosening of government control of internal migration, the mingong (migrant workers or peasant workers), whose cheap labor had enabled China’s economic boom, continued to be discriminated against economically, socially, and culturally in the same urban centers whose construction and daily operations depended upon them. This stark inequality pointed to cities as the only destination for the upwardly mobile. At the turn of the twenty-first century, rural economic stagnation and social disintegration became so prominent that these issues were no longer merely topics for public policy. Instead, the peasant problem received widening attention from the cultural sector, including the art world.

The first decade of the millennium indeed witnessed a wave of artistic projects focusing on peasants. Critical discussions of these works have so far focused on the ways of seeing—looking up, looking down, and looking horizontally—that characterize relationships that intellectual and artistic elites have with peasants. A consensus was quickly reached that both the glorification and the debasement of peasants was problematic; “looking horizontally,” the only ethical and constructive approach, was also deemed challenging. Many works on peasants were denounced as little more than confirmations of the moral superiority of the domestic middle class and one more trope for Chinese artists and international collectors hungry for new symbols of “China-made.”

This article intends to rethink the peasant problem in Chinese art through the politics of time, as many works involving peasants are time-based and dependent on durational experience. Moreover, critical discussions of these works also reflect an obsession with artists’ investment of time, which is considered a guarantee of artistic authenticity in the face of over-marketization, both in the contemporary art world and in the globalizing sphere of socialist China. In addition, the temporal structure of art history is greatly contested when peasants and their works enter the contemporary art world. The works involving peasants provide a unique perspective on the problematics of the specific aspirations, concerns, and anxieties of contemporary Chinese art, echoing larger debates about artistic collaboration in time-based art, its hierarchies of labor, and its criteria for moral and aesthetic evaluation. China offers a particularly interesting case, as under bygone eras of socialism, artistic agency was bestowed upon the peasants by the state, even if only in theory. Fascinatingly, that historical precedent complicates contemporary assumptions of the potential of art in a global struggle against neoliberalism, assumptions based in the experience and inquiry of the West. It is to these larger debates on the temporal and regional politics of art that my examination of Chinese artists’ engagement with the “peasant problem” intends to respond. Continue reading …

This essay examines the time-based artworks involving peasants as participants, coworkers, and fellow artists that were created by Chinese artists during the first decade of the millennium. These works bring into relief China’s postsocialist reality and socialist legacy, offering a unique perspective on the politics of time in global contemporary art.

guGU YI is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art at the University of Toronto, Scarborough. She recently finished a book manuscript on the ocular turn in modern Chinese art, and her current research focuses on Cold War visuality and cultural exchanges within the socialist bloc.

Exit If You Can: The Resistance Art of Nelbia Romero

Archives, Performance, and Resistance in Uruguayan Art Under Dictatorship

by Andrea Giunta

The essay begins:

Between October and November of 1983, the installation Sal-si-puedes (Exit if you can) by artist Nelbia Romero, was shown at the Galería del Notariado in Montevideo. At one point in the pathway through the gallery space, broken mannequins lay splattered in red paint. This image visually replicated what everyday reality condensed into a complex amalgam of experiences that had slowly been accumulating from the time of the coup d’état on June 27, 1973, and throughout the years of the Uruguayan civil-military dictatorship from then until 1985. This coup was no spectacular, sudden, and violent experience like the one a few months later in Chile, with the bombing of the Moneda Palace, soccer stadiums filled with prisoners, and the detentions and urban murders. In the Uruguayan case it was a pact or form of defection of the democratic powers that resulted in the establishment of a military system whose repressive forms were consolidated through the prison system, torture, death, disappearances, censorship, and exile; mechanisms that gradually accumulated and increased.

 

Carlos Etchegoyen, performance photograph projected in Sal-si-puedes

Carlos Etchegoyen, performance photograph projected in Sal-si-puedes

Romero’s Sal-si-puedes made reference to Salsipuedes, the historical name of the encounter that took place in 1831 between the then recently established military forces of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay and the indigenous groups of the area. The name Sal-si-puedes does the work of literalizing the idea of entrapment and confinement that resulted in the massacre that in turn consolidated the extermination of indigenous people in Uruguay. Romero’s installation consisted of a series of expressions in several different media. Various objects were organized in a walkthrough; a musical score was composed especially for the piece; photographs of a dance performance about the different episodes of the violent encounter were used as the basis for a projection of slides inside the installation; and a small folder of quotes from historical documents was made available to installation viewers. Along with its complex materiality, which required the spectator to reconstruct meaning from a diversity of sonic, visual, and written archives, as well as from an experience of her own body, the theme of the installation—as well as the moment in which it was created—is relevant. Sal-si-puedes took up a violent episode that was constitutive of the state’s formation, actualized under the conditions of censorship and violence imposed by the dictatorship.

The installation combined a series of social, political, and aesthetic plots. On the one hand, it proposed a reading of a past massacre in a contemporary repressive context. On the other hand, it aimed to stage the subjectivities conditioned by the climate of censorship through a complex, interdisciplinary web. The reception and interpretation of the piece must therefore be understood in the repressive context of the dictatorship. Testimonies from Romero’s contemporaries evidence a use of opaque and complicit codes, means of expression that remain inconspicuous to the castrating gaze of the dictatorship and allow us to imagine microsocieties of meaning and dialogue from which reading communities were formed. I think of these collectives as part of the intellectual and artistic networks that sought to articulate dissident messages and activities in relation to repressive state control during the years of the dictatorship. In addition to these networks and messages, in this essay, I’m also interested in addressing the historicist effect of Romero’s installation, into which archival documents were incorporated as a way of bringing unresolved aspects of the past into the present. In no way, of course, do I intend to resolve them, but I aim, precisely, to point out their latency and unrest. Taken together, the disparate parts of Sal-si-puedes is a package of experiences that appeals at the same time to the body and to the different senses with which the documents of the past are interwoven in contemporary thought and experience. Continue reading …

This essay analyzes the 1983 installation Sal-si-puedes by Uruguayan artist Nelbia Romero, and its status as an act of resistance, in light of the dictatorship then in power in her country.

IntroOnlineFig1ANDREA GIUNTA is an art historian, curator, and writer specializing in Latin American art and modern and contemporary art from the post-WWII era to the present. She received her PhD from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where she is currently Professor of Latin American Art. She is Principal Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council.

Dance as a Poetics of Problems

A Parallel Slalom from BADco: In Search of a Poetics of Problems

by Bojana Cvejić

CvejicOnlineFig4

The essay begins:

This text is written with a double mission. By observing choreographic and dramaturgical ideas and methods in the performances of the Croatian collective BADco, I want to revive the importance of poetics in light of the predominance of practice in today’s discourse on art. BADco is a performance collective based in Zagreb (founded in 2000), and its artistic core comprises three dancer-choreographers, two dramaturges, and a philosopher: Ivana Ivković, Ana Kreitmeyer, Tomislav Medak, Goran Sergej Pristaš, Nikolina Pristaš, and Zrinka Užbinec. As the dramaturge Goran Sergej Pristaš has argued, today we are witness to a transformation of artistic work into praxis, whereby artistic labor is extended, atomized, and dispersed in a variety of activities in which the artist manifests his/her will. These purportedly free, yet commodified activities are often presented under the paradigm of art as research and education: as lectures, workshops, encounters, methodological exchanges, residencies, and so on. These occur in a familiar rhythm of fragmentation that subsumes life under work, that is, within the all-encompassing term artistic praxis. In such a regime of production little time is left for the artist actually to engage with his/her art, Pristaš concludes. In his brief statement “Praise of Laziness” (1993), the Croatian conceptualist Mladen Stilinović suggests that to engage in art making the artist must endorse (and perfect) laziness, in an emphatic annihilation of capitalist production and the institutional market. Laziness emerges as a poetics for Stilinović (and for Kazimir Malevich and Marcel Duchamp, both of whom he draws upon), or as a condition for poetics, understood as an engagement with the principles of production (poiesis).

According to Aristotle, poiesis is one of the three categories of human activity. It is poietikai technai that designates the art of making, forming, and composing, or production, in contrast to, on the one hand, praktikai technai, which refers to activity without an end or product, carried out for effect in public, hence, a performing art or an instantiation of the political life of citizens. On the other hand, poetics is also distinguished from teoretikai technai, which signifies investigation, or theory as opposed to practice. However, this distinction can barely hold any longer, as the term “practice” has broadened to such an extent that it incorporates both poetics and theory. Moreover, the discourse on artistic practice has cannibalized poetics, emptying it of thought concerning what the product of artistic activity is, what it means, and how its principles might become instruments for looking past art into society.

In order to explain what this double (artistic and political) articulation of poetics entails, as well as to situate the geocultural context in which BADco’s work arises, I will briefly introduce a book I co-edited with Goran Sergej Pristaš entitled Parallel Slalom: A Lexicon of Non-Aligned Poetics. The volume features essays on notions of poetics devised by Yugoslav artists and cultural workers—ideas and working principles that exceed the autonomy of art by also pointing to the political unconscious of a society (that of the former Yugoslavia, now under EU capitalist democracy, and then under socialism). One example would be Stilinović’s “laziness,” mentioned earlier; others would include the concept of “delay,” or the misrecognition, from the viewpoint of the Western-centered conception of modernity, of art in Eastern Europe or the concept of “radical amateurism,” which describes the artistic practice of taking the stance of the amateur who dares to ask disturbing, nonprofessional questions.

Two attributes characterize this kind of thought: parallelism and nonalignment. The latter refers to the nonaligned movement of states that were not formally aligned with either of the two major power blocs during the Cold War. Nonalignment suggests that neither the discourses of art in the grip of the Soviet socialist regime nor the postcolonialism of the West and its academic variants can adequately account for experimental performance practices in former Yugoslavia. While much of the experimentation was probed in writing—forming, since the year 2000, a regional (post-Yugoslav) platform of performing arts magazines such as Maska, Frakcija, and TkH/Walking Theory—the artists’ pages that were supposed to present performance artists from the Yugoslav context remained “empty.” Due to a lack of infrastructure for producing performances, artists and theorists were more often able to “rehearse thought” than to maintain a performance praxis, a fact evidenced in the export of Eastern European theorists and dramaturges into the Western context. Additionally, the spirit of collectivity and self-organization in life and artistic production within the independent scenes of Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Skopje, made the identification of experimental practice difficult or irrelevant. In the Yugoslav cultural legacy authorship isn’t branded as personal cultic expression or assigned clearly to one discipline, medium, or genre. BADco’s practice as a self-organized collective, a “nameless association of authors” (the acronym “BAD” in BADco stands for “bezimeno autorsko društvo” in Croatian) entails the rotation of responsible roles for each single work according to the varying wishes and concerns of the participating artists, roles that then transform in the course of the working process, rather than following established competencies of the individuals involved.

Now, returning to parallelism, calling poetics as a kind of thought a “parallel slalom” is to use the metaphor of a sloping ride, indeed, of a downhill ski race, which underlines the swift parallel connections between artists’ conceptual imagination and their critical insights into history and its political unconscious. The registers of poetics, politics, and philosophy here run parallel and sometimes get short-circuited among the notions of this lexicon. Parallelism also implies a kind of thought that arises from within, or close to, artistic practice in its productive rather than interpretive aspect. While today most art schools in Europe foster a procedural knowledge of art making, the poetical concepts in parallel slalom emphasize learning how to look through and from art rather than how to create it. Perhaps thinking of the political usefulness of art as a set of critical tools is a reflex from previous socialist times. Parallelism also accounts for the aesthetic similarity between Eastern and Western European performance practices, which has contributed to the perception of the Eastern as a déjà vu, as old-fashioned in the Western gaze, causing some misunderstanding and disenchantment in the West in the 1990s. Boris Groys has explained that the misrecognition of Eastern “non-art” by critics in the West, who failed to recognize it as art, reveals the difference in the use of art, not in aesthetic categories of form and style.

This difference in the aesthetic function of art is what we are going to observe in BADco’s choreographic poetics. Continue reading …

This text explores choreographic and dramaturgical ideas and methods in the performances of the Croatian collective BADco. It illuminates them within a distinctive poetics of performance—“non-aligned” with either Western or Eastern European cultural legacies—as a kind of thought that produces art, while it also looks past art into society.

BOJANA CVEJIĆ is a performance and dance scholar, a philosopher, and a performance maker. She is the author of several books, most recently Choreographing Problems: Expressive Concepts in European Contemporary Dance and Performance (Palgrave, 2015) and Public Sphere by Performance cowritten with Ana Vujanović (b_books, 2015, second edition).

Do we have a problem with time?

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts

by Shannon Jackson and Julia Bryan-Wilson

This introduction to the Time Zones special issue begins:

Do we have a problem with time? The we here is specific—it means not only the scholars, curators, and practitioners who think critically about twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic production and its relationship to temporality but also the small collective of the two of us who are writing this introduction together. We are a performance studies scholar and an art historian who have been thinking together about what makes questions about time so persistent, and so vexed, within and between our two fields. Duration, we have come to realize, might be the conceptual connective tissue that links these two increasingly overlapping disciplines. But “durational art” is only one of the many names that have proliferated in an attempt to bound an unboundable set of practices that frequently violate the borders of medium-specificity as they move from so-called “static” configurations into durational forms: time-based art, live art, hybrid art, intermedial art.

What happens when the same phrases—“durational art” or “time-based art”—traffic back and forth between the traditional visual arts (painting, sculpture) and the performing arts, especially when, in the performance-based disciplines, time or liveness hardly feels “new”? While the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century artistic experimentation is one of ever more blurry disciplinary borders, we often find that the habits and divisions of labor within different art institutions persist. Moreover, the training of artists and of critics separates skills and evaluative barometers within different art fields. Many kinds of cultural producers may be making, curating, and evaluating “live” art work, but our sense of what kind of work it is will be different depending upon its context, whether it is housed in a museum or a theater, or whether it is analyzed by a dance critic, a film critic, or a critic of visual arts.

Time Zones: Durational Art and Its Contexts brings together six substantial essays (by Bojana Cvejić, Andrea Giunta, Yi Gu, André Lepecki, Rebecca Schneider, and Wang Jing) and nine shorter reflections (by Weihong Bao, Natalia Brizuela, Allan deSouza, Suzanne Guerlac, SanSan Kwan, Anneka Lenssen, Jeffrey Skoller, and Winnie Wong) that approach time, duration, and liveness from an array of disciplinary and regional contexts. From the affective registers of contemporary sound art in China to the politics of labor and laziness in a collaborative performance collective in Zagreb to archive-based interventions during the Uruguay military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s, the essays plumb the specificities of practices as they unfold in real times and physical spaces. Contributors consider how the presumed presentism of “live art” puts pressure on the demands of historicity, as well as how it reconfigures relations to art’s viewers or witnesses. The essays and reflections examine how notions of time and duration have emerged as central, yet contested, in diverse projects that include public art, kinetic body-based sculpture, dance, and photography.

Together these texts make an argument, which is that the contexts that frame durational art—whether rhetorical, or national, or institutional—matter a great deal. Where and when does a piece take place? In what kind of site is it situated, and in what moment of time does it occur? What are the conditions of its inception and its continued circulation? Who is in the audience, and who talks about it after the fact? Is it applauded, or is it censored? These experiments with time respond to the local economic politics of particular regions as well as to transnational circuits of exchange. Questions of time in art interact with larger questions of migration, capitalism, and mobility in a global world. The ephemeral quality of time-based art can address and elude the political urgencies of volatile sites. Regionally specific themes and political issues prompt artists to collaborate across disciplines in some contexts but dissuade them in others. Funding models in different regions of the world both support and limit the capacity of artists to work across disciplines. Time-based art can in some cases disrupt and in others activate the demands of a market-based art calendar packed with biennials and high-profile festivals. It both challenges and enables the consumptive models of a globalized art world. Continue reading (free access for a limited time) …

Exploring the emergence of the rubric “time-based art” across several disciplinary formations, including performance and visual art, this editors’ introduction outlines some historical theories of duration across the arts and argues for a contextual approach that accounts for both medium and institutional location.

SHANNON JACKSON is Hadidi Chair in the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies, as well as Director of the Arts Research Center. Other publications include The Builders Association (2015), Social Works (2011), Professing Performance (2004), and the forthcoming online anthology of keywords, In Terms of Performance, co-edited with Paula Marincola and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

JULIA BRYAN-WILSON is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (2009), Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing (2016), and Fray: Art and Textile Politics, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

No Problem?

No Problem

by Michael Fried

This essay, from the special issue “Description Across Disciplines,” is a reflection on the supposed difficulties of “description” in the writing of art history and art criticism. It begins:

Let me hoist up an epigraph, which I mean to wave brightly over everything I shall go on to say, from Ludwig Wittgenstein (no surprise, to anyone familiar with my writing): “The light shed by work is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.” Let me repeat it, the thought is so foreign to our usual assumptions: “The light shed by work is a beautiful light, but it only shines with real beauty if it is illuminated by yet another light.” I will proceed by making several somewhat general points, which I will try to back up with examples mainly from my own work.

The first point is this: I stand strongly opposed to the idea that there is some special problem—some problem of a theoretical or systematic nature—involved in describing works of (so-called) visual art. This means, to cite a famous text, that I find myself in disagreement with the views put forward in Michael Baxandall’s well-known essay “The Language of Art History” (1991), where he raises a number of problems of a general nature, the most important of which is the lack of fit, as he understands it, between the “linearity” of language and the non-“linearity” of pictures. In contrast to language, he writes, “a picture . . . or rather our perception of it, has no such inherent progression to withstand the sequence of language applied to it” (notice the metaphorics of this: “to withstand”—as if some kind of struggle is going on, with language as the aggressor; “the sequence of language applied to it”—as if slapped or thrust onto the picture’s surface; no suggestion here that a picture might welcome the right language, as if having waited for it nearly forever: think of my epigraph). Baxandall continues in the same vein: “An extended description of a painting is committed by the structure of language to be a progressive violation of the pattern of perceiving a painting. We do not see linearly. We perceive a picture by a temporal sequence of scanning, but within the first second or so of this scanning we have an impression of the whole—that it is a Mother and Child sitting in a hall, say, or a sort of geometricized guitar on a table” (459–60). We then observe greater and greater detail, including relationships among elements, but whatever our progress of seeing and noticing is like, “It is not comparable in regularity and control with progress through a piece of language” (460). Superior art writers (he mentions Giorgio Vasari and Charles Baudelaire) find ways to deal with this mismatch, Baxandall concedes. But in his view there remains a basic disparity between the circumstances of the literary critic on the one hand and an art historian or art critic on the other, for the simple reason that a literary text and our reception of it “have a robust syntagmatic progression of their own which the linear sequence of an exposition cannot harm” (460). Again, the imagery is that of a struggle, in which sequences of words seek to impose themselves damagingly on—more strongly, to violate—an artifact that by virtue of its inherent nature does its best to resist them. Indeed, Baxandall refers in these pages to “the basic absurdity of verbalizing about pictures” (461), as if the very project of seeking to do so were somehow under a cloud. (I find this a bit too British-commonsensical; why should verbalizing about pictures be thought of as more absurd than verbalizing about human relationships or, indeed, any other serious topic?) Continue reading …

MICHAEL FRIEDFried_2014 is J. R. Herbert Boone Emeritus Professor of Humanities and the History of Art at the Johns Hopkins University.  A new book of poems, Promesse du Bonheur,  with photographs by James Welling, has just been published by David Zwirner Books.

Description and Redescription in the Milgram Experiments

Description in the Psychological Sciences

by Jill Morawski

The essay begins:

Whether our work attends to material objects, texts, behavior, or logic, at one point or another we undertake description. Yet such description practices often proceed without reflection or analysis. In my own discipline, psychology, researchers describe behaviors, experimental protocols, data analysis, and results, although they do so with scarce guidance beyond what is offered in a style manual. In recent articles, Heather Love, Stephen Best, and Sharon Marcus have argued against “suspicious interpretation” and advocated practices that seem to reproduce precisely the kind of transparent description that psychology has long taken for granted. Best and Marcus, for example, characterize the contributors to a special issue of Representations, “The Way We Read Now,” as “relatively neutral about their objects of study, which they tend less to evaluate than to describe, and which they situate in landscapes neither utopian nor dystopian.” As David Coombs has observed, such turns to descriptive criticism in literary studies suggest a disciplinary future “in which English has grown much closer to the sciences” by embracing value neutrality and objectivity as epistemic virtues. These moves toward description and away from interpretation and critique might be beneficial to literary studies, but what, if any, are the benefits to the sciences? Prior to this question stands another: what constitutes description in the sciences?

These questions guide this essay, which considers them in terms of one particular science, experimental psychology. Even at the start, there are some ready answers to the first question. Description is and has been crucial to psychology’s empirical practices, yet this aspect of scientific work apparently is so established and routinized that researchers rarely elucidate their methods or demonstrate the kind of “attentiveness” to the details of the observational events that is more regularly valued in the humanities. Under these circumstances, a focus on the practices and epistemology of description could provide guidance by which experimenters might refine, enrich, and possibly extend their description practices. Benefits could accrue also to a related aspect of modern experimental psychology, the quantification ideal, for the rise and triumph of quantification (taking numbers as accurate and sufficient descriptions of psychological events) risks substituting the “truth” of numbers for reports of what is actually happening. Description studies thus have the potential to inform research psychologists’ pervasive translation of psychological phenomena into numerics. Further, although scientific psychology depends on the description of observable events, its technical practices often involve dense inferential reasoning—that is, interpretation. Insofar as literary criticism regularly attends to interpretive practices, psychologists can take heed and consider how literary analyses might guide them toward better ways of interrogating their own scientific habits of inferential reasoning.

At the outset, it is important to recognize some distinctive features of the production and uses of scientific knowledge that are fundamental to psychology’s description practices. Chief among these features are the ideal of reductionism; elaborate techniques and technologies that are deemed requisite to observation, calibration, and the description of objects in the world; the preeminence of quantification over all other forms of description; and valences of material power, social and physical, that differ significantly from the humanities’ powers in effect if not in kind. Historian Theodore (Ted) Porter has analyzed these dimensions of science and isolated two different kinds of description. The first section of the essay reviews his taxonomy of science’s thin and thick description and uses it to outline the forms and contours of description in the psychological sciences, while at the same time acknowledging variations across this heterogeneous field. Porter’s analysis is especially useful in highlighting the scientific descriptions that are disseminated for general use and showing the social and material power realized through them. These “thin” descriptions, as Porter names them, figure centrally in scientific psychology, a science founded in the late nineteenth century with an explicit goal of improving the human condition. This aspirational goal has been sustained for more than a century and is exemplified in the now iconic slogan “giving psychology away” (in the sense of making it available for human benefit). The expression was coined by George Miller, one of the acclaimed fathers of cognitive psychology, whose 1969 presidential address to the American Psychological Association (APA) urged psychologists to give psychology away “as a means of promoting human welfare.” The second section of the essay centers on this “responsibility” to give psychological knowledge away for people to use by examining the modes of description employed in what is arguably the most famous experiment in twentieth-century psychology, Stanley Milgram’s series of behavioral studies of obedience. Reported in 1963, Milgram’s experiments continue to be regarded as the preeminent account of human tendencies to obey authority today. Examination of the relevant publications and archival materials indicates, however, that these avowedly objective “behavioral” studies relied on more than descriptions of behavior. They presumed an identifiable ontology that delineated deep psychic motivations and the consequent limitations of human autonomy. In order to assess the implications of Milgram’s ontological presuppositions—for both psychology’s description practices and the dissemination of psychological descriptions—his data analysis is compared with a redescription of that scientific evidence. The redescription contrasts in crucial ways with Milgram’s account of the experimental subjects’ virtually inescapable pull to follow orders. It also shows how much description matters when we aim to give psychology away.

The essay then moves, with an ironic twist, from reviewing psychology’s principal description practices to considering how psychologists devoted to objective descriptions have also engaged interpretation and even undertaken the suspicious and symptomatic reading they frequently denounce (notably in their rejection of psychoanalysis). My turn toward what some might take to be an underside of scientific description aims neither to fault the scientists nor to debunk the science; nor is it intended to promote any wholesale rejection of so-called deep interpretation. Rather, by redescribing an experimental record, I point to ways of reading experimental subjects’ actions that do not depend on either an imagined veridical description (a transparent representation) of those actions or a deep reading of invisible motives or tangled mentations. Without claiming to discover the “real” experimental outcomes, this redescription of the experiment brings attention to the effects of subjects’ behaviors: working with different ontological precepts, it aims to illuminate the performative in the behaviors they emit. Continue reading …

This essay uses the case of scientific psychology to explore modes of description and the broader objectives underlying these modes, reporting on both the complexities and potentials of psychological description. It examines the description techniques of the classic Milgram experiment and offers a redescription of the resulting data to show both how psychology’s practices of description entail more than objective accounts of observed behavior and how these descriptions can influence the social world and our understandings of ourselves. The case of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in obedience suggest the material and social powers of the descriptions psychologists “give away” for human benefit.

JILL MORAWSKI is Wilbur Fisk Osborne Professor of Psychology at Wesleyan University, where she also serves as Chair of the Science in Society Program. Her historical work probes the performances of experimental psychology and the kinds of persons that are enabled or constrained through these scientific practices. Recent articles include “Epistemological Dizziness in the Psychological Laboratory: Lively Subjects, Anxious Experimenters and Experimental Relations” (Isis 2015), and “Livelihoods of Theory: The Case of Goffman’s Early Theory of Self” (Theory & Psychology 2014).

News of Calais

Calais’s “Jungle”: Refugees, Biopolitics, and the Arts of Resistance

by Debarati Sanyal

This past spring, as the EU brokered its refugee deal with Turkey to “save lives” in theFig. 12 (Magnin - 'Dans le calme, le face à face entre migrants et CRS') Mediterranean, the French state razed a portion of Calais’s “jungle,” encampments that currently shelter 10,000 refugees, while building a container camp. In this essay, an analysis of recent film and photography highlights practices of resistance to the interplay of humanitarian compassion and securitarian repression, nuancing the view of borderscapes as sites of total biopolitical capture, and of refugees as bare life. Read the full advance version of this essay free of charge here.

A revised and updated version of this essay will be published in our Spring 2017 issue. This is unedited version is being posted in advance (October 24, 2016) in light of the swiftly changing circumstances in the Calais camps.  According to today’s Guardian, “Hundreds of migrants and refugees have left Calais on buses for accommodation centres elsewhere in France on the first day of an operation to clear and then demolish the refugee camp in the northern port town.”

DEBARATI SANYAL is a professor in the French Department at the University of California, Berkeley.