Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Games Artists Play: Performance and Failure

Stern's Stutter pic by Christo Doherty

Once inside the Wits Art Museum, it’s an unexpected relief to be confronted with what appears to be large blank canvases on the gallery walls. This may have something to do with having waded through a cacophony of studenty-art at the exhibition of the work by the long-listed candidates for the Absa L’atelier Award earlier in the week.

That experience alone could test anyone’s desire to be an art critic, though ironically such “bad” (read: lame, contemporary art-by-numbers) work affirms the need for critics – someone has to outright reject it if competition adjudicators can’t be relied upon to do so.

At Meaning Motion, a joint exhibition by Tegan Bristow and Nathaniel Stern, the viewing experience seems to rest in the hands of the viewer, rather than the artist. This could be said to be the case any time you observe an artwork but in the context of this show, it’s not just how you look and interpret it that will shape your experience but how you move. You have to stand close to the screens (they appear like large canvases) to trigger the technology that facilitates the interactive work and most of the works rely on your physical gestures to determine how the images, signs, or letters, in the case of Stern’s work, are animated.
This means the work relies on your presence to exist, to have some sort of visual life. The moment you step away from the screen, the work becomes dormant.

This is an attractive idea for viewers, especially critics, because it means you can silence or end the work at will. In this way the artwork is not imposed upon you, you choose when, and for how long, you want to engage with it.

This isn’t usually an option when viewing conventional art shows or performance art. The latter relies on this; performance art doesn’t only test the endurance levels of the performer but the viewer too. Enduring something as it takes place live is vital in our understanding of an embodied experience – that is gaining knowledge through an awareness of our bodies. And this should be more than feeling the back of a chair stabbing your back.

Stern and Bristow take this element of performance art one step further by jolting viewers out of their comfortable passive positions and encouraging them to feel the experience of looking and making, thus it is a kind of embodied observation and interaction that attempts to blur the boundary between viewer and participant. In a sense you are simply watching a self-reflection that has been mediated by different computer programmes written by the artists.

Bristow's Unsaid pic by Christo Doherty
The underlying premise of this show is to generate a set of images with your body, turning you into an involuntary performance artist of sorts, though the intended meaning of the work, the outcome and structure, has been determined by Stern and Bristow. So, it’s an illusion of control that they are really offering, under the guise of free will or interactivity. This idea is particularly pertinent to Bristow’s Unsaid, which appears to be set up for a participant to express themselves: a microphone is placed in front of a screen. However, as you approach the microphone a black square pops up over your face on the screen, erasing your identity and the words “left it unsaid” appear in the box.

In this way once you begin to “make” the work, you realise you have been “written out” of it.
As a result, you walk away feeling quite helpless in the face of the technology that is mediating this live interaction with yourself. This seems to fly in the face of interactive experiences, which are predicated on the idea that the participant gets to enjoy some level of control; this is, after all, the main payoff.
Participation and interactivity are usually marked by immersion too, a temporary forgetfulness of who and where you are, but quite surprisingly, while this exhibition appears to be set up for interactivity, the activities aren’t immersive or gripping in a traditional sense. It’s almost like each work is a new toy and once you have figured out how it operates, you move onto the next one. Perhaps this is because most of the interactive works are quite simplistic in terms of what they offer and the graphics, and visuals too, which have a sort of retro or crude digital aesthetic. This kind of mismatch between sophisticated technology and basic visuals emphasises a disconnect between the real and the intangible digital realms and what occurs when you try to make the invisible visible. This is best illustrated by Bristow’s Sound Prints – naive hand-drawings connected to small circuits via wires. Beautiful, slick or hyperreal graphics would not have relayed the divide between the complex programming and technology and the end product. Bristow’s Chalk vision; a black screen where your silhouette is rendered in an ethereal chalky line, is also crude but visually compelling. But mostly, the ideological pay-offs are more interesting than the visual or experiential aspect of the works, which may well be in contradiction with what this show sets out to achieve.

Take Stern’s notion of the body writing words or eliciting text – for a writer this is an especially thrilling idea, as few seem to understand how performative writing is; not only is it something the body  produces but it is informed by a certain persona and is usually engaged with relaying the experiential and desire to fix it to the page faithfully.

It is no surprise then to learn that in the work Elicit Stern employed an extract from a text by Marcel Proust, the French novelist famous for his enhanced recollections of reality.  When you stand in front of the screen where this work appears, letters from the text appear in order. The faster you move and the closer you are to the screen, the quicker they are generated. In theory if you moved slowly enough you would be able to read the text.
“Every pixel the sensor sees as ‘moving’ in every frame births yet another character, and so we usually get a sea of erupted text. I love this. We get a ‘sense’ of meaning, but can only ‘feel’ it,” observes Stern.
It is a highly evocative text where Proust details how the aroma of fresh scones triggers memories of his grandmother. Yet this sensual aspect, this intangible physical experience (smell) that is described in this text is withheld from the viewer, so while we can “feel” and control the letters, what they mean is completely beyond our grasp. Stern clearly intended this to be the case; he wants his viewers to get past the “words” and their literal meaning, allowing them to come into contact with a more abstract engagement with language that is triggered by a physical gesture/vocabulary.

After all is this not what Proust does to some extent; it is through conjuring a scent through text that the reader and writer are able to penetrate beyond it – into the physical world and those intangible qualities that allow for nostalgia.

Ironically, this idea sounds better on paper than an experience of it. While the body is immersed in the work in the sense that it is required in order to generate it; you never penetrate it; Proust’s text is broken into visual units, motifs that don’t necessarily allow for a more physical or experiential encounter. What occurs is disconnection: your body is reflected back at you in an unrecognisable form; the shape of letters, words, or motifs (in Bristow’s Dissonance at Six). In other words you become words and shapes and a kind of disembodiment occurs – you become separated from yourself, when confronted with the real-time digitised representation of yourself that is out of your control.

This, of course, seems in contradiction with this being an exhibition centred around interactivity and the body. But somehow this chasm, or failure, and the exhibition’s general inability to completely deliver on interactivity and control, is perhaps what makes it significant, particularly in an era where “immersion” in various kinds of digital realms has created the illusion that we are more connected to what is happening and are able to shape our experiences through it. It also draws to attention the difficulty in bringing performance into the gallery and the power dynamics of participation, which has become such a sexy concept in art making, and something that has driven the digital era. Stern opens an interesting discourse on text and the body, though perhaps it can’t be resolved in an aesthetic or visual plane.
Failure seems to be a prerequisite for performance artists.

Moys (in red dress) tries her hand at ballroom dancing
pic by Paul Greenway
Anthea Moys’s grand multi-performances at the National Arts Festival in the work Anthea Moys vs the city of Grahamstown was as its title suggests set up to fail; its hardly likely that Moys would have been able to “beat” the city, which was represented via various teams or groups engaged with different extramural activities.
Failure should be an unpredictable outcome of a performance rather than the driving objective. This may have been why Moys is said to have spent around three months in the small Eastern Cape hamlet training and learning how to play chess, soccer, sing and dance. In this way she would be seen to be trying her utmost to win in the face-offs with the various teams or individuals. The assiduous pursuit of acquiring all these skills would also make her appear like an over-achiever, as obviously winning the inaugural Standard Bank Award for performance art would also infer. The irony of pursuing failure, or setting herself up for failure as the work she would produce for the award, was not lost on her, it may have even given rise to it. The work the winners of the Standard Bank Young artists produce at the festival is always heavily scrutinised, particularly by their contemporaries and critics, who use it to measure their suitability for the award. So what better way to navigate this obstacle by admitting failure from the outset? Of course, the sense that she would most certainly be defeated by Grahamstown – quite a ridiculous and absurd notion in itself – also meant the work would fail on an artistic level too; as the outcome would be predictable – would there be any point in watching, when we knew what the result would be?

In a way, you found yourself willing her to fail too. Moys’s bubbly gung-ho vibe seems to invite failure in the sense that you want to see beyond this artificial performer persona she seems to consistently wear in this work, and previous ones. This sense of inevitable failure built into her performances proved an almost insurmountable barrier to it; if she did fail, which was inevitable, surely she would be succeeding because that is what she set out to do? It became obvious by the second or third performance that going through the motions of failure is more complex than it appears; it can be rewarding and there are different kinds of failure.

By turning competitions into performance art pieces she set up and juxtaposed the two competing notions of success and failure: to fail in a performance art piece is considered an achievement (evidence that you understand the underlying difficulties of performance), while failing in a competition is not.
As the performances progressed, however, the hard line between the two blurred; when she didn’t dance well during a ballroom face-off did this make her a bad performance artist? Those who were present at her face-off with a choir were quick to remark that her singing voice was awful.

Each of the competitions demanded different kinds of skills, so the success of the performance was reliant on different qualities each time she performed. Strategising was quite important in the chess game, while getting into character was considered of value in a historical re-enactment, where the winners and losers were also predetermined. In this way Moys’s OTT work was a richly layered one centred on understanding predetermined failure, not only in relation to performance art but in everyday life, particularly in these amateur groups where presumably losing at a chess game doesn’t have any consequences – the payoff is in cultivating a sense of belonging to a community, losing might even further this end (as it did for Moys).

Ultimately, and quite satisfyingly, the theme of failure driving Moys’s work almost made it beyond scrutiny. As she kept shifting the measures by which to assess her performances, she obviated the need for judgment, questioning its validity to the point that it seemed superfluous. - published July 28, 2013, The Sunday Independent.

The Meaning Motion exhibition will show at the Wits Art Museum in Joburg until August 18.

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