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.