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|VISUALEYEZ 2005 JOURNAL: MAY 31|
After looking at some of the documentation of the festival, I was struck in some cases by what the images revealed, what they didn't, and in some cases the discrepancy between the documentation and the experience of the work in a live sense. I'm also aware of the fact that how this work will circulate afterward will be as documentation: as images, and as descriptions that are often more reflective of the original concept than how the work took place in a live sense.
Certain traditions of performance work and site-specific intervention come out of a tradition of conceptual art (and perhaps to a lesser degree the Situationists); the work functions as a proposition or hypothesis: I will do X, and the work becomes about the execution of X. But what happens during this process of execution? Do we only care that it happened (and that we have documentation to prove it), rather than what happened?
Some of the works have made claims (to create dialogue with the public, to create a greater sense of comfort with human touch and intimacy, or to create a sense of belonging among a group, to use a few examples). So how do we talk about the work's enactment of these claims? For example, what kind of dialogue took place? Was it necessary for the dialogue to reach a certain degree of depth? Were there criteria in operation about certain topics of conversation? Or is it simply enough to claim that dialogue with the public took place?
In her text, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics', Claire Bishop asks:
I simply am wondering about how we decide what the ‘structure' of a relational art work comprises, and whether this is so detachable from the work's ostensible subject matter or permeable with its context… The quality of the relationships in ‘relational aesthetics' are never examined or call into question. When Bourriaud argues that “encounters are more important than the individuals who compose them”, I sense that this question is for him unnecessary; all relations that permit ‘dialogue' are automatically assumed to be democratic and therefore good. But what does ‘democracy' really mean in this context? If relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question is to ask what types of relations are being produced, for whom and why. 1
I would argue that if documentation is how the work circulates, if, in a structural sense, it is more important than the live experience of the work (because this is how the work is transmitted to those who weren't physically present) then the questions that Bishop poses (what kind of dialogue, what kind of interpersonal relationships) become a kind of blind spot, because they are the most difficult aspects of the work to document and transmit to a wider public. So the thought and consideration that some projects gave to their relationship to the public (or in other cases, the lack of thought and consideration) become secondary. I felt the most uncomfortable, either as a participant or an observer, when I had the sense that people were being used as ‘props': that our experience of the work didn't matter , all that mattered was to get a good picture.
Rather than trying to set up the familiar binary of live vs. recorded, I am trying to raise the problem of when the concept becomes more important than the execution. I feel the potential of the works in the festival is that they introduced other possible criteria, and other functions for artwork (for example, Jessica McCormack said that she noticed that the hand-holding performances shifted her relationship to physical contact in her everyday life), making it impossible to consider the work in purely aesthetic or art historical terms. But what happens when aspects of the work that point to a wider context (such as interaction with people not familiar with an art context) are in the end read only according to aesthetic criteria?
In the end what I am arguing for is for a vocabulary to talk about these live processes, to find ways of talking about the types of interactions, the type of human contact, who participates, and to what purpose. I would argue that such a vocabulary is necessary if performance art as a discourse is to develop. It would also help us to develop the rigorous open-endedness that I feel is the goal of works in the festival (rather than seeing rigour as leading to canons, formula and safe work, and open-endedness as essentially a laissez-faire approach).