Friday, April 11, 2008

Allan Kaprow: Tail Wagging Dog

Tail Wagging Dog

I and a friend, the musician Jean-Charles Francois, did small events for each other one year to provide some diversion from our administrative duties at the university. We performed them together, usually just the two of us, sometimes with one or two others. This one involved our going out to the hills behind Del Mar (California). The idea was that one of us would follow the other without saying a word, only making sure to step constantly on the shadow of the other, no matter where he went. In practice, since the leader would go over stones, around cacti, and up and down ravines, the length and relative position of the shadow changed. Sometimes it was in front of the leader if he was walking away from the sun. In that case it was a bit tricky; the follower had to walk backwards to keep the shadow in view and to make a quick change as the leader swung around to a different direction. The leader, in theory, had no obligation to his follower.

At certain moments, for example when walking up a ravine, the shadow would be shortened by the angle of the ground. Then we would find ourselves nearly on top of one another, our shoes touching. When the follower lost contact with the shadow (as it frequently happened), he would loudly strike together two stones he held in his hands. This single sound marked the moment when we exchanged positions: the follower became the leader. But of course, since contact was lost so often, and our directions kept changing, it all got pretty unclear as to who was what. Nevertheless, it was very formally executed.

I would like to imagine a time when Tail Wagging Dog could be experienced and discussed outside the arts and their myriad histories and expectations. It would be a relief to discard the pious legitimizing that automatically accompanies anything called art; and to bypass the silly obligation to live up to art’s claim on supreme values. (Art saves the world, or at least the artist.) The arts are not bad; it’s the overinflated way we think about them that has made them unreal. For activities like Tail Wagging Dog, the arts are mostly irrelevant and cause needless confusion.

What is, in fact, relevant is the direct, physical involvement of those who choose to do an event like the one above. Meaning is experienced in the body, and the mind is set into play by the body’s sensations. This is exceedingly difficult for Westerners who have separated their bodies from their minds. But granting the difficulty, it is crucial. The value is what is for Westerners leaned in action. It doesn’t benefit from association with Rembrandt or Performance art (which is a conventional form of theater).

But in the foreseeable future, complete detachment from art culture is unlikely. (For example, this writing appears in an arts journal, not in an agricultural journal, which, although as specialized as art, has far fewer "spiritual" pretensions.) And besides, as some readers know, Tail Wagging Dog emerged from the secularizing experiments of advanced art of the 50’s and 60’s. It can’t lose its parentage so quickly. The best that can be hoped is that a gradual weariness with the art connection will naturally occur as it appears, correctly, less and less important.

So for now, the art connection has to be dealt with, at least to point up the most obvious confusions. There are certain conditions we take for granted in the arts which are carried over without question to participatory activity, usually by those who’ve never taken part but have heard something about it. Comparisons with anti-art, Dada, total art via Richard Wagner, are called up in an effort to absorb it into traditional modernist canons. While these are not entirely beside the point historically, it has become something very different today. So while I have written about some of these problems before, I hope I may name these assumptions more particulary here, if it will help to dispel some of the misunderstanding that surrounds this kind of activity. There are ten.

Assumption 1. Participatory activity is like all art: it is presentational. It is not. There is no product put out into the world, like a play, video tape, piece of music, etc.

Assumption 2. Participatory activity has an audience to be taken into account, who stand or sit apart from it, just as a painting, or a play, etc... has an audience. It does not. There are only part-takers in a roughly planned program. They may of course attend each other, as card players might, or team mates in basketball; but watching and listening in the midst of doing is very distinct from the specialized observations of a physically passive audience (only the mind is awake for a traditional audience, at best; and it has no responsibility for the actual work. It can only judge).

Assumption 3. Participatory activity occurs in galleries, stages, concert halls, literary gatherings, churches, public showcases and plazas, etc. It Does Not. Instead, it is active anywhere else: in stomachs, or freeways, in compost heaps, through Fax machines, or at the work place. There may be many places together, or in some sequence; some planned, some by chance; or alternatively, spaces that move as in an airplane; and spaces that exist in the mind.

Assumption 4. Participatory activity, like all art, has a single time envelope ( the three week gallery exhibit, the two hour concert or play, the forty five minute video tape...usually at night, after dinner). It does not. Neither does it have a definite beginning or end. Rather, time, being mainly real, hence variable and discontinuous, is the time needed to grow tomatoes, the time when phone calls are made, a minute here, a year there...Time is sometimes lost, and part of the activity may be to look for it. It is always concrete.

Assumption 5. Participatory activity has distinctive identity; you can point to it like a painting, a poem, a church, a play. It does not. Most of the time, only the participants would know it was going on; and even then it would seem to be another aspect of ordinary life. If I see a woman combining her hair in a car mirror, how do I know if she is or isn’t participating in some event?

Assumption 6. Participatory activity can be judged like all art, i.e. like theater or Performance. It cannot. It is to be valued neither for its esthetic excellence nor for its good intentions to improve the world. But participants do not give up judgments; their questions are simply directed to the other matters of life: getting rid of snails in the vegetable garden without using poison, finding a decent mate, examining the lint in an old suit pocket...

Assumption 7. Participatory activity, like plays, concerts, Performances, has tapes and other documentation left behind to inform others of what happened. It usually doesn’t. Events are either too low-key for meaningful documents, or they are dispersed in times and places that can’t be followed. And there are problems of "performing" for the camera or tape, hence to an audience. Instead, unplanned gossip is a way of telling stories about an activity, if you wanted to do so. But you might not...

Assumption 8. Participatory activity, like all art, has a point to make, a high purpose, even if covert. It doesn’t. It can be interpreted in inconclusive ways.

Assumption 9. Participatory activity, like real art, can become a career leading to fame and fortune. It probably cannot. If it doesn’t appear to be art; it happens far from honored locations, and at odd and unmarked times; if it leaves almost nothing to posterity,--why should the world pay attention, much less money?

Assumption 10. Participatory activity, although unfamiliar now, will one day be recognized as a respectable art genre. It won’t because it’s not art. And if it becomes art, it will be just one more shaggy dog story.

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