Saturday, August 21, 2010

Arhus at the Centre of the World: reflections on Mail-art and William Louis Sorensen, Simon Anderson

The art of WLS is interactive, portable, and open to interpretation or manipulation by its recipients, and so offers a model of the art of the period. Beginning in the late nineteen-sixties, WLS created a body of artworks which both relied on the international postal system for distribution, and which used language to organize the work. These elements synchronize with broader trends in experimental art, particularly with conceptual art, with art through the post, or Mail-art, and with visual poetry. This was a time when the modalities of correspondence art began to spread worldwide, when numerous international connections formed and grew, and when some of the tenets and practices of the ‘eternal network’ [a phrase coined by Robert Filliou] were developed. The subsequent three decades saw these uses of the mail become a complex and multi-faceted medium of art. Mail-art is perhaps too recent a phenomenon to be understood historically, but there is growing agreement that art using the mail constituted a vital part of the experimental, conceptual, post-pop art world, one that linked a novel assembly of pertinent and on-going issues for artists such as WLS, in creative and amusing ways.

Correspondence art blossomed in the nineteen-sixties as part of the more general development of conceptual art. The art of concepts, attached as it is to language, was bound, sooner or later, to investigate and use an international postal system founded to transmit written and printed material. Artists as varied as Carl Andre, On Kawara, or Gilbert and George informed their audience of progress in works which could not be exhibited in conventional ways. These ranged from pattern poetry to an itinerary documented, to the construction of a persona. Some realized that there was a step beyond the simple act of sending fellow artists samples of work through the mail, into the creation of active networks.

Visual poetry is one name among many used to describe a parallel development which focuses on the structures, rather than the meaning of language. Again, a wide range of artists, from Eugen Gomringer to Isidore Isou dissected syntax and inverted, invented, re-invented language, both speech and writing, for a variety of reasons: personal, aesthetic or political – perhaps all three. As with Mail-art, this expanded poetry re-emerged early in the nineteen-sixties, and taking advantage of easy and cheap reprographics, became widely disseminated through the nineteen-seventies. Perhaps WLS may not think of himself as a poet, yet his I’ll seduce you all my life combines a nod towards nineteen-eighties-style self-disclosure, an elegant, if rather unstable exercise in verticality, and also exhibits an array of poetic devices including rhyme and rhythm, to say nothing of the alphabet.

These barely discrete worlds of Mail-art and language experiment are and have been connected through individuals and ideas. Any attempts to categorize must provide context for comprehension, rather than items on an agenda, therefore some basic history is required. There are many and various sub-divisions within the world of mail art; too many to be pertinent here. I will not address the iconography of rubberstamps or artistamps, nor will I enlarge on the arrests of so-called subversives, or the legal adventures of pranksters and provocateurs. Likewise I cannot offer a survey of visual or sound poetry. I am forced to bypass the multiple issues raised by the term ‘concrete’ and the aesthetics of the photocopy or the tape-recording. I shall instead focus on certain exhibitions to which WLS contributed, and some examples of his mailed and text pieces. Although his work may not follow the aggressive collage aesthetic of much later correspondence art, the avenues that led him to use the mail, and a number of issues his projects and comments raise, offer glimpses into the development of contemporary conceptual art.

There is general agreement about the beginnings of Mail-art, which comes at the price of precision. Certainly since the organization of official, national postal services, there have been those who used them imaginatively, but Mail-art is a mainly western phenomena, infected with the irony of the avant-garde. Marcel Duchamp’s LHOOQ was attached to a postcard, Kurt Schwitters made use of postage stamps, Bern Porter claims he began in November, 1914, but none of these can be identified as the first Mail-art. A nod is given to FT Marinetti, and the dadas embody the right spirit; surrealists collaborated at a distance on marvelous projects and the College of ‘Pataphysics built a network around a ludic concept; but accurate history demands stricter definitions than Mail-art currently allows.

In the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties, the mail as a medium was enlivened by members of the group defined by Pierre Restany as Nouveau Realistes. Signatories to the manifesto included Arman, and Daniel Spoerri, both of whom used the post and its accoutrements; postcards, postage stamps, rubberstamps etc. as constituents of their art. More memorable, perhaps, was fellow signatory Yves Klein, who used a miniature blue monochrome instead of an official stamp on invitations to his 1959 Parisian exhibition ‘La Vide’.

The most famous individual originator of Mail-art in the late twentieth century was Ray Johnson, whose ‘New York Correspondance School’ [sic] provided not only a hilarious model for many subsequent pseudo-institutions, but also showed how active and autonomous a postal network can be: how the mail can become a generative medium. Johnson’s ever widening correspondence circle began as a small coterie of friends and acquaintances from the hippest fringes of art, business or bohemia, whom he linked and stayed connected with through the post. His art for the mail is quite indistinguishable from his wider output, which varied in form from artists’ books to constructions he called ‘moticos’. Dealing with media stars, minor personalities – he initiated numerous faux fan clubs – and including bizarre news items or local gossip, he would mail collages, typed notes, drawings, sometimes asking that the recipient add to the piece and return it, or alternatively send it on to a third person in the chain. Occasionally he would name a yet different person as the sender, with address, to further feed the network. His name, his humor, his methods dominated areas of the correspondence world up to his suicide in 1995.

Ray Johnson’s associations in the New York art world of the very early ‘sixties included several founder members of the international, intermedia collaboration named Fluxus. These artists had a fundamental impact on Mail-art, although the relationship is far from simple to characterize. Mail-artists need have no connection to Fluxus – and WLS puts himself in this category – but probably Mail-art exists, as such, because of Fluxus. Artists such as George Brecht and Yoko Ono took an imaginative approach to the mail, and the group promoted its use in a number of ways; first, the structure and formation of Fluxus was shaped by correspondence; second, individuals and subsets within Fluxus produced and published Mail-art projects. At times, Fluxus existed only through an elaborate – albeit largely imaginary – mail-order catalogue system, and furthermore the earliest impulses of Fluxus as a group – that of collecting and anthologizing individual and themed activities among experimental artists is an essential element of conceptual art as a whole, and of Mail-art in particular. More prosaically, mailing-lists were an economic life-line for small publishing ventures such as Fluxus and its more scholarly counterpart, Dick Higgins’ ‘Something Else Press’. These lists quickly mutated from business subscription or information tools into creative resources for exhibitions, projects and centers such as in Canada’s “Image Bank”.

WLS received his initiation to art through the mail via one of Fluxus’ early and original practitioners, Ben Vautier. A prolific artist, Ben was included in numerous Fluxus publications, individually and as part of topical sets. One of these was a ‘FluxPost Kit’ with postage stamps, rubberstamps, and postcards by Robert Watts, Ken Friedman and Jim Riddle, including the most quoted and venerable example of Mail-art, ‘The Postman’s Choice’, in which a postcard has been doubled, and bears title, plus space for stamps and an address on both sides. By making the back into the front – and vice versa – Ben’s minimalist gesture illuminated the enormous mechanics of the international postal network but then left it up to some human appendage of the system to decide which addressee gets the card. And the lucky recipient is so by the grace of some miraculous life – intelligence, even – in the system: the sender’s contribution was complete at drop-off.

Ben Vautier has the dubious distinction of having been described by the notoriously fickle George Maciunas as a ‘100% Fluxman’, yet despite this, he has never ceased his active involvement in publishing and performing outside the Fluxus remit, with fellow artists based in the south of France. Typical of such was the ‘Festival of Non Art, Anti Art, Truth Art – How to Change Art and Mankind’, which, from a base in Monte Carlo, took place ‘everywhere in the world from the 1st to the 15th June, 1969’. This festival sought to highlight artistic activities that valued ‘ideas and attitudes more than physical or commercial esthetic objects’, and although the festival was avowedly non-political, being more of a search for new ideas, participants were encouraged to organize manifestations at their own responsibility, in their local regions, and to invite further participation from others. Fluxus was invited, along with a wide array of artists which included Walter de Maria and Marcel Duchamp. Posters were put up in Arhus as part of Vautier’s universal effort for change, the contact to WLS being Eric Andersen, who, like Ben, had been part of Fluxus since its formative first tour. To examine and re-examine perceptions of the world has been a constant thrust of WLS’ ideas, sometimes expressed both bluntly and gradually, with a sharpness amid the blur – as in his typographically manipulated poster of 1981; “To change a reality is the reality”.

WLS participated in postal communication through a growth period. Until the mid-nineteen-sixties, there were reckoned to be less than a hundred artists using the post-office as medium, whereas by 1995, Italian artist Vittore Baroni claimed to have corresponded with at least three thousand people, out of a pool, he suggested, of up to 20,000 Mail-artists. The International Post Office facilitated this by its own progress - and its ability to apparently permeate political barriers. Mail delivery continued to automate through this period and spread to a point where one might mail almost anything, almost anywhere. Challenging postal regulations became the theme of several international exhibitions, but the large scale adoption of a global system had at least two greater effects on the development of the art: it forfeited a simple hierarchical system of taste and distinction, and it celebrated provinciality. The mail equalized everyone into participants, and geographically everywhere had a similar mail service; deliveries being pretty much as reliable in Firenze as Manhattan. In the realms of Mail-art, the centre is difficult to pin down and really less important than the sector exhibiting the greatest activity, where the network is hottest. It is perhaps no accident that historically the most active sectors have been provincial or from states and nations perceived as being on the margins of cultural advance. The machinery of the post office ensured the connection between Wroclaw, Calgary or Liverpool. Monte Alban is as far as Monte Carlo – which in turn is as far as the local Post Office: Arhus might be the centre of the world.

One project in which WLS participated exemplifies some of these shifts in Mail-art from semi-private communication to quasi-public art events. Ken Friedman – onetime director of Fluxus West – said his ‘Omaha Flow System’ was an attempt to regenerate of public interest in the arts, as well as being a pleasurable experiment involving many on an individual basis. As part of his exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum, Friedman encouraged exchange between artists and between artist and public: the gallery became a staging post for a myriad of creative communications, involving several thousand correspondents. Omaha Flow, and similar experiments, such as “An International Cyclopedia of Plans and Occurrences”, to which WLS also contributed, added new dimensions to Mail-art by extending the dialogue into the public sphere, and by generating massive mailing lists which themselves acted as springboards for further outreach.

The energy and optimism generated by such exchanges must soon diminish. By 1979, WLS began to express frustrations with his involvement with Mail-art. “SO WHAT?”, he wrote, in his text “8 Points on meeting through correspondence”; complaining of “contributions from the same persons from the same sort of material, including that of your own”, and in his dissatisfaction he was not alone. Ken Friedman, in his attempt to give shape to the history of Mail-art, admits his own irritation with what he felt was an explosion of self-serving ‘junk’ mail after the network became popular. Believing, as they did, that mail-art constituted genuine communication between individuals, many on the circuit found the limitations of cheap reprographics and the physical restrictions of the postal system led at some point to ennui. Uniformity meant conformity, and such a situation was anathema to many correspondence artists, who valued conceptual difference, geographical distance, and the freedom of content, as much as the aesthetics of the stamped envelope. WLS had also realized that the universe of Mail-art had been unable to extend beyond – if as far as – the modernist culture it sprang from. There have been few, if any, Mail-artists in Africa or the Middle East, and although the geopolitics of the time allowed Warsaw Pact countries to be represented, there was little communication with the then USSR. It was also becoming apparent that the much vaunted democracy of Mail-art as a movement, with its credo of ‘no jury, no returns, no fee’ did not protect the eternal network from ‘more or less traditional exhibitions’.

However, the positive aspects of Mail-art, which included ‘breaking the isolation of people/nations/ideas in art’, encouraged WLS to continue and even increase his postal activities. Some of his mailed work from this period seems to presume upon a familiarity with certain basic structures – arithmetic, say, or syntax - and gently undermines them, at the same time as they are exposed. A story “…almost too good to be told” reveals itself as a sequence of contexts given coherence “to a conclusion”. WLS chose structures which put viewers in a position to act, interact, decide, or at least acknowledge the possibility of decision, of the innumerable choices and decisions which we weave to construct our daily reality. Reading is made difficult all over again by devices within the system of language: ninety alphabets in two dense columns camouflage a sentence picked out in diacritical marks, to the effect that each letter’s position in the ninety-lettered sentence is decisive. Here, WLS arguably enters the realm of what has been called ‘eyear’ poetry, ‘typoetry’, visual poetry or language art, whose heritage includes Apollinaire, Italian Futurism, Raoul Hausmann and his friends; reawakening in the nineteen-sixties to include artists as diverse as Eugenio Miccini, Augusto da Campos, Emmett Williams; and still more recently Tom Phillips and Michael Gibbs, to pick a few from an enormous reservoir of artists. Although each has a different method and intent, most artist-poets in this field deconstruct and recombine elements of language – as a reminder that before the words are read, they are looked at. Writing is a visual art and speech is a sonic one: WLS has experimented with both, an early example being his 1968 sound poem; ‘Produce a sound that is placed before/after the letter…’, performed at the Museet i Molleparken in Arhus, and later distributed internationally by mail. Again, in a work designed for mailing, “IFTHEREISAPOSSIBILITY…”, the act of reading grinds to a halt by the absence of punctuation – the silent sentinel of syntax – and its replacement by uniformly spaced upper-case type. An almost impenetrable grid of letters forms a phalanx around his photograph, the block cantilevered on his mailing address. Aside from offering interaction, the text itself mentions life as performance and performance as product - once readers have learned this new art of reading.

Through several works, the visual impact of the texts competes with the ascribed meaning of the words for paramount significance. WLS contorted and distorted the rules of language – among other systems which include technology and science – and offered opportunity for further distortion, politely opening the door to deviance from the norm, or for what ever the system might generate. In a case such as the recent book T.O.W.C. [The One Way Correspondence], the presentation of the text in six languages in itself offers a neat paradox: its potential audience would appear to have grown sixfold, but those that are able to read the entire 1002 pages must be a fairly select group. As with the experience of Mail-art, widening the structure can bring unexpected results. Here again is one aspect of the close affiliation between experiments in language and conceptual art: the propositions of the latter tend to need language, yet WLS reveals language as just another proposition, juggling concepts of its own. Even ‘Project 14’, which used a computer to calculate 14 to the 14th power, and would seem not to need words, is still expressed through the language of mathematics.

Project 14 also offers an insight into idiosyncratic scientific interests long pursued by WLS: few artists were considering the computer in 1969. A number of his mail and conceptual pieces used the rules and modalities of science, and numerous experiments in sound and vision continued alongside his mailed work, including film and video proposals beginning in the late nineteen-sixties, and a telex project hosted by the Archive of experimental and marginal art in Lund, Sweden, in 1977. This label ‘marginal’ had been widely applied to Mail-art since it was promulgated in Herve Fischer’s 1974 book “Art and Marginal Communication”, where the term was meant to empower the activity of unknown Mail- and rubber-stamp artists. For WLS, according to the 1979 statement, his use of the postal system was contingent on its efficiency rather than any inherent political potential. The mail transferred information further and more affordably than any other medium, and while this was the case “it will have to do”. However, once the utility of the postal system was surpassed, WLS inevitably moved on to technologies more favorable to his conceptual art.

Simon Anderson 2006


Joanna Fiduccia examines the refusal of meaning as artistic strategy in the work of Eric Duyckaerts, Jimmy Raskin, Benoît Maire and Falke Pisano

Horsepucky, poppycock, baloney, bull butter, bull feathers, humbug – as many names for what philosopher Harry Frankfurt called one of the most salient features of our culture: bullshit. If it is true that the contemporary world is swimming in it from the discourse of the previous US administration to the profusion of empty language and images jamming up cyberspace, it is also far from seeming all bad. No sooner is bullshit condemned as an enemy to truth or the symptom of a broader idiocy, than advocates rush to defend it as a creative exercise of extrapolation or even, to the mind of Harvard professor William Perry Jr writing on academic bulling in 1963, an expression of the highest values in a liberal education, namely, the capacity to understand someone else’s form of thought well enough to expound upon it, with confidence, if without data.1 This is a skill, the ‘art’ of bullshitting.

A fitting term. If bullshitting is an art (as craft as well as cunning), it is just as often pinned on art itself, which has shouldered that accusation since Plato maligned mimesis. A history of 20th century art could even be sketched as the punctual embrace of this fundament: consider that two of its most paradigmatic works are Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, 1917, and Piero Manzoni’s ‘Merda d’artista’, 1961, and that one of its most influential thinkers was christened the ‘excremental philosopher’ (Georges Bataille) – to say little of Yves Klein’s (hot) air architecture and his ‘Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity’, 1959, or even Pollock’s excretory drips. These cases can be likened to what Philip Eubanks and John D Schaeffer call the ‘gamesmanship’ of bullshitting: showboating, often among friends, that is ‘at once grandiose and difficult to be sure of: it gets away with something audacious while also putting it plainly on display.’2 Or, it gets away with something audacious because it puts it plainly on display. It nearly goes without saying that contemporary artists reckon with this strategy, and that artists failing to do so risk seeming fey and sincere. Bullshit’s presence in art seems no longer a threat to its integrity, but rather an integral part of its mechanisms.

Yet, that is surely only half the story. Pedagogy and ‘the educational turn’ have come to be recognised as widespread preoccupations for artists, institutions and art structures alike. And since bullshit and pedagogy rarely make easy bedfellows, even if you admit their entanglement on the student’s side, it seems high time to recalibrate the bullshit of contemporary art. First, a caveat. There are numerous annexes of bullshit that will not be discussed here, the consideration of which would likely lead to different conclusions. In art, these include bullshit as conspiracy theory, bullshit as historical pastiche, bullshit as ethnographic study (cf, in much more nuanced terms, Hal Foster’s ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ in The Return of the Real, 1996), and the bullshit revelation of bullshit. Instead, I’ll limit myself to a few examples restricted to bullshit language or speech in contemporary art.

Given the rich history of art and bull, exactly what kind of bullshit is in question? In Harry Frankfurt’s essay ‘On Bullshit’, originally published in 1986 in the Raritan Quarterly Review and reprinted in 2005 as a small, widely popular volume, Frankfurt defines bullshit against its kindred deception, lying. He concludes that, whereas the liar ‘design[s] his falsehood under the guidance of… truth’ and is therefore ‘inescapably concerned with truth values’3, the bullshitter spins a yarn in complete disregard or indifference for the truth. Frankfurt’s success precipitated articles in the popular press as well as sociological and philosophical journals, some of which reference a second disquisition, GA Cohen’s 2002 analysis ‘Deeper into Bullshit’. Cohen’s target is academic bullshit, the opaque and arcane language understood by many to be the true legacy of structuralist/post-structuralist thought (in his article, Cohen references the hoax played on the esteemed journal Social Text by Alan Sokal, a mathematics and physics professor, who successfully submitted an article of pure and intended gibberish). Cohen construes bullshit not as a disregard for truth, but rather a disregard for meaning, or even, a refusal to mean. It is ‘discourse that is by nature unclarifiable’,4 whether produced sincerely or constructed in the interest of cowing an audience through excessive, abstruse language.

Of course, ‘discourse that is by nature unclarifiable’ seems to touch on what some maintain is a tenet of art, that is, its resistance to effective paraphrase, its ‘capacity to invite repeated response’ (TJ Clark), or conversely, in the words of Paul Valéry, A work of art, if it does not leave us mute, is of little value. Furthermore, if art can be intentionally indecipherable, it can also disregard certain truths in order to access others (historically, the truth of subjective perception or some such). This presents a difficult case for defining bullshit in or as art; even holding on to certain characterisations (a refusal to mean, unconcerned with truth-values), bullshit in art can run from playful virtuosity to po-faced camouflage.

On the side of the former is the work of Belgian artist Eric Duyckaerts, whose didactic lectures cover such subjects as diagonals, couples and Sheffer strokes, at one clownish and erudite and just this side of aporia. Duyckaerts plays at turns the enthusiastic assistant professor and the bumbling instructor, implicitly calling into question both his authority and your attentiveness to it. The back cover of his book on certainty, Hégel ou la vie en rose, reads ‘the adoption of a truth for one person […] transforms progressively into a certainty for that person and that, during the process of appropriation, the truth has continued on its merry way to find itself, in fact, far beyond the certainty of that person.’ These are lines that could also describe the experience of absorbing Duyckaerts’ lessons: charmed into believing a probable proposition, you’re soon led down a path that seems to have never seen the light of reason.

Similarly virtuosic is New York-based artist Jimmy Raskin, who for over 20 years has pursued an aesthetic-philosophical investigation in the form of sculptures, videos, lectures, diagrams and texts. Its tagline of sorts, ‘There is a disciple who is permanently confused!’ is drawn from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883-85, from the chapter in which Zarathustra endeavors to explain the difference between the Poet Pure and the New Poet-Philosopher (the disciple, obviously, doesn’t get it). Raskin explains, in terms not unlike Cohen’s, ‘[The disciple] does not yet know that the folly of Poets is a self-created doom. Lacking deep knowledge and obligated “to lie” (even to himself), the unenlightened Poet flounders in an excess of language.’5 Raskin has empathetically drawn up five so-called timeless lessons with which to direct the disciple’s transition into a New Being. Number Two is Lying Just Enough v Passive to the Lie; Number Five, Being Paradoxical, Subversive v Self-Contradictory. With such references, Raskin’s work emerges as an inspired mix of philosophical themes, convoluted associations and incisive self-reference. His recent exhibitions almost recklessly merged Zarathustra’s tightrope walker with a character Pinn (Pinocchio, piñata), Rimbaud’s Voyelles with Stephen Hawking’s black hole – a flirtation with virtuosic bullshit, anchored by real existential weight.

Paris-based artist Benoît Maire has an academic pedigree behind his densely philosophical works: a discontinued doctorate that would seem to give him special purchase on academic arcana. His earlier projects such as ‘The Spider Web’, 2006, a heterodox selection of objects that served as a pretext for a conversation with Arthur Danto – had a frontal engagement with philosophy, yet were sufficiently removed from academic procedures to create a large margin for bulling. A more recent work inherits the linguistic contortions of its references (Lyotard, Lacan, Badiou… ) often exacerbated by their ludic position in the artwork (‘4.3 – description of the elements of the game: / a – the mechanical transcendent, / b – the general mirror of transcendental indexation / c – investigation A (defeated) following the position / d – the empty subject, which only speaks through the scream […]’). In November 2009, Maire discussed the source of these quotes, his reflections on the Aesthetics of the Differends, with academic Jonathan Lahey Dronsfeld at Hollybush Gardens in London – a conversation that illuminated the subtly humorous side to Maire’s near-impenetrable language: the absurdity of using academic philosophical discourse to debate work that has expressly abandoned the academic philosophical context.

Maire has collaborated with Amsterdam-based artist Falke Pisano, whose work is another example of abstruse language. Like Raskin, Pisano has a repertory of preoccupations or theses that are reincarnated in her lecture-performances, sculptures, installations and text-based videos. Yet unlike Maire and Raskin, Pisano forfeits an absurd or virtuosic angle by producing hermetic work, composed of systems outlining its own apprehension. One of the most recent iterations of this appeared in the 53rd Venice Biennale, 2009. Composed of panels of text and diagrams suspended in steel frames, ‘Silent Element (Figures of Speech) II’ expands upon a series of works (‘The Complex Object – Affecting Abstraction #3’, 2007; ‘Object and Disintegration: The Object of Three’, 2008; and ‘O Eu e O Tu / The I and The You’, 2008) that concern the relationship between speech and visual apprehension – however without having, or claiming to have, a relationship to phenomenology. But its language seems to belie that Pisano’s diagrams were narrated by statements such as ‘Duration can only be experienced when perception takes place from one structure to another; consequently temporal values are transferred to a continuous present experience of time’ and that ‘The figure spoke with the intention of installing a logic of transformation between disparate conditions’.6 In the context of the biennial, namely its conjunction of high seriousness and a general public, this language appeared deeply alienating and hopelessly obscure. Invested with the authority of a precise, vaguely phenomenological lexicon and, of course, the authority of the biennale itself, Pisano’s failure to communicate could be felt to reflect on her audience rather than on the obscurity, emptiness and disregard of meaning(fulness) in her language.

Yet aside from a poorly judged relationship to audience (for which the artist cannot solely be faulted), how reasonable is it to claim that Pisano’s work is intimidating and alienating whereas Duyckaerts’s is rousing or Raskin’s self-reflexive? I speculate it is precisely because her presentation aestheticised rather than parodied pedagogy. The panels, which recall didactic devices such as wall texts or labels, produce the expectation that knowledge will be delivered by Pisano through her art, while the obtuse content refuses communication, refuses to mean.

However it is not entirely fair to say that this expectation is produced only or even primarily by the work itself. Ought we not to see its source in the zeitgeist of ‘the educational turn’, a return to a conservative perspective on the function of art – namely, to instruct? Although part of the allure of recent pedagogical tendencies in art is their ambiguous seriousness, very few discount entirely the objective of instructing their audience. In this light, Frankfurt’s definition – disregard for truth and the subsequent degradation of the social relations that hinge upon it – suddenly looks far more significant. Indeed, it only becomes a problem once the art world starts looking like a plausible place for academic learning. For whether bullshit is endemic to art or redeemed by it, it’s there, and it might not always take the virtuosic route. Perhaps the one who should on the chopping block is not the bullshitter at all, but those who would seek to remake art in the vision of the classroom.

Joanna Fiduccia is on MAP’s editorial advisory board

1. William Perry Jr, ‘Examship and the Liberal Arts: A Study in Educational Epistemology’, Originally published in Examining in Harvard College: A Collection of Essays by Members of the Harvard Faculty, ed. Leon Bramson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 1963
2. Philip Eubanks and John D Schaeffer, ‘A Kind Word for Bullshit: The Problem of Academic Writing’, College Composition and Communication 59.3, 2008, 380
3. Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, 32
4. GA Cohen, ‘Deeper into Bullshit’ in Contours of Agency: Themes from the Philosophy of Harry Frankfurt, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002, 332
5. Miguel Abreu, ‘Interview with Jimmy Raskin’ in Blinding the Ears – Accecare l’ascolto (Milan: Kaleidoscope, 2009), 24
6. Cf Cohen on the Althusserian texts he confronted as a student: ‘[They] possessed a surface allure, but it often seemed impossible to determine whether or not the theses […] were true, and, at other times, those theses seemed capable of just two interpretations: on one of them, they were true but uninteresting, and, on the other, they were interesting, but quite obviously false.’ Cohen, 322

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Book Excerpt - Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between, Sharon Irish

“Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between” by Sharon Irish (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

The Community Arts Network is honored to present an excerpt from “Suzanne Lacy: Spaces Between,” a new book by Sharon Irish and the first in-depth look at the work of an artist who has been doing important community-engaged art since the 1970s. Lacy’s artwork has been radically political, urgently demanding and intensely compassionate. As a teacher, she has laid down landmark theories for viewing and evaluating public art, particularly those involving community participation. Lacy’s own book “Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art” is a staple in the curricula of the many new degree programs in community cultural development. In our own history, Lacy was the cover girl in 1978 for Issue #1 of High Performance magazine, the forerunner of CAN, and her new work continues to draw the attention of our readers.

In her introduction to this book, Irish notes that Lacy’s art has been labeled “body art, conceptual art, performance art, feminist art, political art and new genre public art,” and it continually crosses borders laid down by art history and criticism. It’s challenging enough, she says, writing about a painting on the wall, but “when the art involves hundreds of people over months or years … and the subject matter is current and controversial, the mental diagram can become a jumble of ideas bumping crazily against each other and ricocheting off at different angles.”

In order to investigate Lacy’s work, Irish has discovered a “network of nodes” that she calls “the three P’s: positionality, performance and participation.” This network forms the structure of the book. Irish’s introduction of these terms focuses a new lens on the engaged art of today, for which Suzanne Lacy’s work has led the way. We join the introduction halfway through Irish’s approach to “performance,” glancing at the importance of “place” and “coalition building” in Lacy’s new genre public art, and then her approach to “participation.” —Linda Frye Burnham


Another way that Schneider’s “historical weight” of privilege and disprivilege may have bearing is in the spaces in which we act and interact. Geographer Edward Soja noted that “life stories [are] as intrinsically and revealingly spatial as they are temporal and social.” Thus, in addition to gender and racialization, my discussion includes the particular sites of Lacy’s art making. Anne Enke’s 2007 book Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism is exceptionally valuable in that her

analysis focuses on the ways in which women intervened in public landscapes and social geographies already structured around gender, race, class, and sexual exclusions and on the ways that these processes in turn shaped feminism. A focus on contested space, as opposed to a focus on feminist identity, helps explain how feminism replicated exclusions even as feminists developed powerful critiques of social hierarchy.

Examining the actual spaces involved in Lacy’s art making offers insights into how her projects critiqued everyday urban areas, or not. Geographic aspects often join with our behaviors to normalize hierarchies that remain unquestioned by many of us. Thus, when a performance occurs in public, connecting, say, oppression, visual form, and urban site, the impact increases through linkages of these nodes in an imaginary network.

Coalition Building: Traveling Between

Coalition building is hard because it requires finding some common ground on which to come together, creating enough trust to hold that space open, while recognizing simultaneously that substantial differences exist. For Lacy, the subjugated status of women in this patriarchal society provided that common ground. Affirming that personal experiences among women vary widely, Lacy nevertheless has maintained that women can and should join together to address oppressions that affect us all. These joint efforts then are carried out as allies, although “sisterhood” still echoes through her work.

What Lacy has called “[t]he ‘expanding self’ became a metaphor for the process of moving the boundaries of one’s identity outward to encompass other women, groups of women and eventually all people.” Lacy’s curiosity, generosity, and outrage compelled her to explore what life was like beyond her individual body for those different from her in race, ethnicity, age, and life experiences. In a 1993 article, critic Lucy Lippard described Lacy:

An inveterate border-crosser, she has long been almost indecently curious about everyone else’s experiences, charging into new areas where angels fear to tread—a vicarious chameleon, or perhaps a beneficent cultural cannibal, cultivating multiple selves as a way of understanding injustice and survival.

Lacy’s “indecent curiosity” fueled her indefatigable coalition building, a node that links to participation, positionality, and public performance art.

To the extent possible, Lacy placed herself within different human configurations, physically, mentally, spatially, and historically.68 Her art forced her to shift realities, to “travel.” Although, of course, she could never fully reproduce the worlds of others, she “traveled between” these contrasting worlds, exploring a liminal space that philosopher María Lugones defined as “the place where one becomes most fully aware of one’s multiplicity.” Lugones used the term traveling to describe a person’s movements among different social groups or “worlds,” which themselves are no more stable than an individual’s identity.

To make art in coalition, moving beyond unexamined or unified identities, promises an art that forges flexible connections, allowing ongoing dialogue. But without an insistent and continual analysis of power relations, especially one’s own, the art may well serve to reinforce the status quo and trendy, “decorative” multiculturalism. Lacy’s friendship with artist Judy Baca, among other relationships, challenged her to think more deeply about the complexity of race and racist attitudes in the United States. In order to “cross over” into another’s existence, she began to collaborate with others from whom she could learn.


While Lacy herself usually was the catalyst in a process that culminated in an art project, she often collaborated with others. Lacy thus shared agency for a work of art with participants who joined her in its creation. Curator Lars Bang Larsen wrote in 1999 about the ways in which “social and aesthetic understanding are integrated into each other” as “social aesthetics.” This sort of “osmotic exchange” in Lacy’s work sometimes produced an integrated result but also presented the possibility for unresolved or multiple endings. Just as the creation of her art existed along a continuum, so too did the reception of it, what I call “participatory reception.” In 1995, she wrote, “Of interest is not simply the makeup or identity of the audience but to what degree audience participation forms and informs the work—how it functions as integral to the work’s structure.”

Lacy’s art challenges assessment of it because participants helped create representations of the ideas at the same time they observed those representations. The meanings they perceived during the collaborative process at times altered the imagery, and the meanings evolved. Lacy has written that “[m]any of the forms we have come to assume as part of community-engaged art—its multivocality, for example, its pluralism of styles of presentation and its postscript-like conversations—are aesthetic evolutions developed through confrontation and resolution of confl ict during the making.”

While certainly the imagery in any one of Lacy’s projects has its own merits, intrinsic worth, and interest and can indeed be evaluated aesthetically, “traditional” formal evaluation is not sufficient for new genre public art. The compelling aspect of Lacy’s approach is the degree to which she pushes art into the public so that questions of aesthetics, ethics, audience, reception, and creation are amplified. Once amplified, these issues and people’s responses to them provide feedback into the art process itself, contributing to that reception loop.

Lacy has long worked between theory and practice—writing, teaching, directing, making. Her writings formulated theory for new artistic configurations. She has diagrammed artistic positions on an axis moving from private actions of the artist as experiencer, then reporter and analyst toward public activism. She herself then has been an indispensable participant in meaning making, contributing to public discussions about oppression, privilege, and liberation. Her contribution, in theory and in practice, has been to close the distance between production and reception.

Further, she suggested a model for analyzing the audience “as a series of concentric circles with permeable membranes that allow continual movement back and forth.” The genesis of a work—a circle at the center of this diagram—is encircled by rings of collaborators, volunteers, and performers, those watching the event (“immediate audience”), and the media audience. Lacy labeled the final ring the “audience of myth and memory” (Figure 2). Lacy’s “target” diagram helps distinguish among the various layers of audience; the center—“the creative impetus”—is labeled “origination and responsibility.” While I appreciate that Lacy takes responsibility for her art as well as includes herself in the credit for its genesis and that she states that the circles are “permeable,” I find my nodes-in-networks model more useful. The artist is an essential node, but including her in the network of collaborators, performers, and audience stresses the reciprocal nature of Lacy’s approach to public art. Rebecca Schneider asked, “What can reciprocity look like? How can we do it? … Reciprocity suggests a two-way street but it does not necessarily reconstitute the delimiting binaries which feminists and postcolonial theorists have been fighting to undermine.” Reciprocity and “how to do it” have been fundamental to nearly all of Lacy’s projects.

“The public” in the sense I am using it here includes person-to-person encounters, group dynamics, institutional responses, and social networks. These interactions shift and infl uence the art process on many levels. Artistic practice such as Lacy’s embodied art lends itself to an exploration of the terms of engagement—art arises from an individual artist, is shaped by that artist’s identities and concerns, but also by those who cocreate the piece. Cocreators may include an arts commissioner, a mayor, or people in the art production, for example. Art functions as a tool for reflection: there is a reciprocity between the practice of art making and the theory that informs that practice.

Strategies to communicate effectively with people not ordinarily attentive to the arts have long occupied Lacy. This challenge underlies her involvement in media literacy, press conferences, performances outside of galleries and museums, and collaborations with communities outside of art circles. In 1995, she commented:

[T]here’s also an appropriate contradiction between, on one hand, the way in which artists are trained to express self and to make meaning by drawing on interior sensibilities, and, on the other, the demands of a new public arena for dialogic and collaborative modes. I personally find it a very exciting confl ict because it is essentially the metaphor of self and other.… Consequently, what we have to resolve, spiritually, is the sense of no-self or an encompassing all-self, and, in art, we have to do at least some negotiating between our reality and other realities.

Naming Participation

Grant Kester’s 2004 book Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art discussed what he called “dialogical art,” an “inclination” in art that foregrounds interchange and process. Lacy’s work with teens in the 1990s in Oakland, California, is featured prominently in his book. He labeled Lacy’s work as transitional, meaning, I believe, that her art drew upon both community arts and “the post-Greenbergian diaspora of arts practices,” such as Happenings. She also retained control of the visual image to a degree that some of the younger practitioners he discussed do not.

Kester usefully formulated a philosophical background for dialogical art, discussing discourse ethics and feminist interpretations of specific contexts for interactions. He stressed that this approach to art is “durational rather than immediate.” Conversation Pieces deepened my analysis of Lacy’s art by suggesting that we “need a way to understand how identity might change over time—not through some instantaneous thunderclap of insight but through a more subtle, and no doubt imperfect, process of collectively generated and cumulatively experienced transformation.…” The book enumerated three aspects of a dialogical aesthetic: first, art functions as “a more or less open space within contemporary culture”; second, it involves “a form of spatial rather than temporal imagination”; and third, it aims to achieve “these durational and spatial insights through dialogical and collaborative encounters with others.” The spatial imagination, what Kester described as “the ability to comprehend and represent complex social and environmental systems,” and the creation of artistic structures to facilitate encounters are particularly salient in Lacy’s work and help to link the social dynamics of participation to the place and form of Lacy’s projects. In keeping with my nodal scheme, I will examine both interactions over the longterm and the immediate embodied responses related to Lacy’s art projects.

Kester named other terms similar to dialogical art: Ian Hunter and Celia Larner used the label “littoral art,” a geographical term describing a shoreline and thus evoking a place where two different “bodies” touch. Other critics have discussed “conversational art” (Homi Bhabha) and “dialogue-based public art” (Tom Finkelpearl). Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics focused on art of the 1990s that involved the art audience as a microcommunity; his analysis concerned art’s role as “be[ing] ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.”

Problems of Participation

In my experience, when an artist engages with politics as Lacy has done, some advocates for social change get their hopes up during the preparatory stages—tackling a social problem—and then experience bitter disappointment when the artist moves on. Some critics claimed that while Lacy’s art challenged the status quo in political arenas locally and nationally, the artist then departed, adding another community to her résumé while leaving local folks to wonder what actions should come next. Yet Lacy’s practice has been a complicated amalgam of arrivals, departures, and returns. As early as 1982, she asked, “What is the artist’s responsibility to her collaborators, performers, and audience after the performance is over?” She then offered several examples of long-term, community-based art but also suggested a larger model, “a network of women across the country who are working together on a single project with local goals as well as a sense of belonging to a nationwide project.” Ever questing, she vowed to continue “to struggle with the problems of sustaining energy within specific communities… ; clarifying the relationship of action-oriented goals to broad-based coalition building;… and generating a sense of participation in a national vision with women in geographic locations.”

Her efforts to recreate “metaphors of community, over and over” involved substantial travel, tightly scheduled with her job and other commitments. Some projects no doubt left some participants feeling they had been given short shrift. I suggest that “in-betweenness” is both the problem and the resolution in her work; she is moving among nodes when others expect her to commit to stasis. In spring 1978, in an interview with artist Richard Newton that was published in High Performance magazine, Lacy tellingly explained her artistic process and how it contrasted with political organizing: “I am trying to represent myself to the feminist community as an artist and not as an organizer: I greedily hold on to the ability to make my own images, and make clear-cut distinctions about how much organizing I’m going to be involved with.” Lacy’s art emerged from the relationships among her, her collaborators, and audience members; in other words, these interactions were not in themselves the art, but they were crucial to her art making.

French curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics had a large impact in the Anglophone art world when it was initially translated into English in 2002. Bourriaud’s optimistic and sketchy book attempted to set the terms for an approach to art in the 1990s that created a community with an art audience, such as the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija. Claiming that art “tightens the space of relations” and “produces a specific sociability,” Bourriaud’s arguments have eluded me because I remain puzzled by just how the disparate artists he names—from Vanessa Beecroft to Liam Gillick, from Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Philippe Parreno—either fit into “relational aesthetics” or share aesthetic criteria. The “hands-on utopias” offering a “rich loam for social experiments” that Bourriaud described do indeed share a “coexistence criterion” that “permit [the viewer] to enter into a dialogue,” but the range of issues and options on display by the artists under consideration do not seem to me to cohere into anything but the designation “art.” Furthermore, the relationships that interest Bourriaud seem to be apolitical.

Perhaps the reason that Bourriaud’s work has been cited so widely is because there remains a need for ways to discuss relational art; for me, his contribution has been in framing some questions and generalizations. “[W]hat does a form become when it is plunged into the dimension of dialogue?” “As part of a ‘relationist’ theory of art, intersubjectivity does not only represent the social setting for the reception of art, which is its ‘environment’ its ‘field’ (Bourdieu), but also becomes the quintessence of artistic practice.” Detailing what happens to forms-in-dialogue and trying to be precise about intersubjectivities are what I try to do here in relation to Lacy’s art practice. Bourriaud’s statement—“The nineties saw the emergence of collective forms of intelligence and the ‘network’ mode in the handling of artistic work”—validates my own network schema, although I suggest that Lacy pioneered this “network mode” with others in the 1970s, for political, feminist purposes.

Bourriaud’s interest centered on evaluating the quality of the relationships that unfolded in the work of various artists, but he never fully defined what the artists he considered might mean by “community.” This criticism by Claire Bishop highlights a key problem in relational art: artists and participants coming together do not necessarily a community make, nor does being together in art inherently promote democratic processes. Bishop claimed that for Bourriaud “all relations that permit ‘dialogue’ are automatically assumed to be democratic and therefore good.” Anthony Downey further noted that “relational art practices do not necessarily mirror—although they may replicate—the conditions of the social milieu in which they exist; rather they generate and propagate those very conditions.”

The goals of Lacy’s works are not always as “convivial” as those of the artists that Bourriaud promoted. Instead of fostering a “feel-good” community, Lacy has often aimed to create structures for conversations that name and discuss difficult issues rather than resolve them, fully aware that dissent will be as much a part of those interactions as agreement. In part antagonism is inevitable given the lack of common discursive frameworks among some of the participants. Bodies coming together, however, also introduce nonverbal ways of knowing that complicate performances and life with a range of tacit behaviors.

Lacy’s works invariably involve conflict, some unpredictable and unintentional outcomes, and some heated criticism, in part because of the provocative themes involved and in part because the “spaces between” in her art allow for multiple interpretations, ambiguity, and disagreement. In her large-scale works, Lacy has insisted on providing an aesthetic and social context for many points of view. Lacy’s performances have offended some who have felt that she overstepped, seemingly speaking for those whose voices she intended to amplify. Others have objected that her focus on women as a group has minimized their differences, discounting very real challenges of race and class.

Participation in the Art World

Negotiation between realities—particularly the world of contemporary art in the West and folks usually outside of those art circles—has been at the foundation of Lacy’s artmaking process. Lacy often sought connections among her peers, arts as they are practiced in communities, and the historic avant-garde. Since contemporary experimental art is anathema to many—at best we tend to dismiss it as just weird—accessibility to her art forms has been crucial to Lacy. She noted the difficulty of bridging these two worlds, “audiences outside of the art world” and “our own concerns.” By inviting members of the public into her performances, as cocreators, participants, and observers, she linked other nodes in the network, shaping both the artistic performance and the reception of it by the general public.

The avant-garde as I use it here refers not just to experimental imagery created as an alternative to established forms and media but also to the ways in which the art was produced. Lacy’s generation experimented with avant-garde modes of production that included collective or collaborative methods of creation and presentation or exhibition outside of the usual gallery or museum settings. These approaches challenged the status quo and helped younger artists tackle the star system of authorship more directly. Yet by “avant-garde” I do not mean an unchanging response, because clearly issues both within and outside of the art world have shifted and continue to do so. By placing the emphasis on production, on the social and economic position of art, the forms and media used do not necessarily have to be in the vanguard; they can bridge between different audiences.

This interest in linking disparate groups has been generative throughout Lacy’s career. She has deliberately and consistently sought collaborators beyond the art world. In 1975, while living in Los Angeles, she developed a close working relationship with Evalina Newman, a woman in her midfifties who had been forced to leave her cleaning job due to reactions to the chemicals at work. Ms. Newman, with time on her hands, had filled her apartment with a quilting frame and organized a sewing and crafts circle for other women in the Watts housing complex, the Guy Miller Homes for the Elderly, where she lived. The Miller Homes and the community center had been built on sites that sustained major damage during the 1965 Watts uprising. While the women sewed, they shared their personal histories and their fears about actions of the neighborhood teens. They also crocheted pot holders and covers for tissue boxes, along with stitching quilts. Lacy joined this art-making circle as part of her job with the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). As a CETA artist, she “wanted to explore with a single community how performance might combine with their self interests and how it might, as well, enable that community to inter face with other communities.” Lacy created a photo-quilt series about her friendship with Ms. Newman.

Over the course of three years, Lacy and the Women of Watts did a series of installations and performances in and around the Guy Miller Homes. For example, they displayed their art in the recreation hall and invited neighbors, politicians, and Los Angeles– area artists to their exhibits in order to alert officials to their concerns about crime. Lacy asked in 1980, “What makes one person’s environment a home, another’s an artwork?” She recognized a shift by a number of her contemporaries toward engagement with extra-artistic concerns, while still drawing on past ideas in the art world. She wanted to assess conceptual art by her peers, like Linda Montano, Jo Hanson, and Martha Rosler, among others, in terms of “the success of their intentions in ‘real life’ as well as in the art milieu.”

In activities with the Women of Watts, as with her other works, Lacy was interested in creating spaces, literally and figuratively, where everyone’s creative output could be valued without placing it in a hierarchy of artistic quality. While she certainly claimed authorship of this work in the art world, she also moved into other, really much larger worlds, where her aesthetic interests coexisted alongside those of others. Lacy’s training in zoology, psychology, dance, visual art, and community organizing provided her with skills and concepts to perform in a rapidly shifting social milieu. She moved between science and art, between ideas and enacted forms, and between adaptive behavior and resisting actions. Hers is a “both/and” approach, in which she attempts to be present in several arenas simultaneously.

Lacy has shown an enduring commitment to using art in public to inform people about issues of common concern and to affect policy. I suggest that the “spaces between” in her art provide openings that might be transformative for selves that are permeable and multiple. Diana Fuss noted in 1991, “The problem, of course, with the inside/outside rhetoric, if it remains undeconstructed, is that such polemics disguise the fact that most of us are both inside and outside at the same time.” We perform, moving between art and life, built space and human flesh. This “betweenness” creates tension, at once dynamic and troubling. To enact these relationships in reality, on the ground so to speak, is especially difficult given the separation from, indeed denial of, our bodies. Lacy’s art has embraced the body, deepened into spirit, and enhanced bodily wisdom with strategic, intelligent analyses of politics. Her international career has demonstrated the power, problems, and possibilities of art between the spaces of our diverse lives, as she has attempted to create structures that might give shape to a nonsexist, multiracial democracy.

The University of Minnesota Press Web site offers a Q&A with author Sharon Irish:

Sharon Irish holds a joint appointment in the School of Architecture and the Community Informatics Initiative/Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign. She is the author of Cass Gilbert, Architect: Modern Traditionalist.

Original CAN/API publication: April 2010

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Ai Weiwei and Vito Acconci: On Life, Culture, and other Matters, Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya

In 2008 Para/Site Art Space invited Ai Weiwei to work on a project in Hong Kong. To my surprise, he accepted. Indeed, we didn’t have much to offer to him, if we compare the micro space of Para/Site Art Space to the Tate Modern or the Mori Art Museum, to mention just two of the institutions with which he is working. At my suggestion, we invited Vito Acconci to collaborate on the project. For sure, the pairing was unusual, and a very challenging one. Vito Acconci stopped producing art in 1988, and Ai Weiwei stopped producing architecture two years ago. The similarities in their careers and their mutual respect for one another brought them together in a way that I did not expect. This has probably been the most challenging project that I have ever been involved with as a curator-a project that, at the time of this writing, is growing and headed for uncharted territory. The project was initiated with their decision to transform the art space into a meeting ground for both their studios in New York and Beijing and will be undergoing constant transformation until July 4, 2010. Part of this project involves a twelve-channel sound device/installation that plays recordings of the working sessions between Ai Weiwei and Acconci Studio. On display are 128 snapshots, most of them taken by Ai Weiwei, that portray their time together in Hong Kong and Beijing, plus an endless accumulation of texts and architectural models.

As phase II of the project took place in Hong Kong with a series of working sessions between them and their studios, I decided to interview them for ARTPULSE. The resulting conversation* highlights their different ways of thinking but also their connections. We met for breakfast in Causeway Bay, which is the closest that you can get to Tokyo in Hong Kong, and talked about art and life, with the occasional interruption from Ai Weiwei’s one-year-old baby. As Ai Weiwei’s native language is not English, there was an imbalance in the conversation, but this was also because Vito Acconci is a person of language, and Ai Weiwei is more comfortable with the short and sharp communications of Twitter, where he spends an average of eight hours every day following the closure of his blog by the Chinese government.


Vito Acconci - People choose their influence-at least, people decide.

Ai Weiwei - Do you think people decide better than a three-years-old child? I think it is better [decided by] a three-years-old child.

V.A. - It’s probably true!

A.W. - No one lives alone, and without cultural influence, either you influence somebody or you are being influenced. It’s like being exposed to viruses all the time-sometimes they attack us, and sometimes we get along with it; this is [the] general condition.

V.A. - I love the idea of influencing, but I hate the idea of imitators. The worst thing is when people do some copy of work I do. But I’ve been influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, I’ve been influenced by Jasper Johns, Jean Genet, and . . . the architects Piranesi, Boullee . . .

A.W. - Vito is a dreamer, and he has found a way where he feels comfortable how to present himself; it is just like a writer [Vito Acconci agrees]. I think that Duchamp gave a new definition of art and made his contemporaries look old. Duchamp is about the attitude, about questioning and questioning yourself. [He] represented a general condition of the artists, rather than focusing on painting or sculpture. I find this helpful for everybody-the minute you take a position, then you are an artist. It is not about the institutions, and not about the establishment. I think he hated the establishment and thought . . . it . . . a stupidity.

V.A. - Duchamp said, “In France there is a statement ‘Stupid as a painter.’” I didn’t want to be stupid. The influence of Duchamp is an issue that is so confusing, as for my generation it was an issue that was so pervasive. In some way you wanted to find something wrong with Duchamp, you wanted to find the way out. The public attitude of the dandy is something that I don’t like so much; I want things to be more open, the notion of the secret of what I’m doing, you know I’m doing nothing, I’m playing chess, but I’m doing something else that nobody knows about it-for me, I hate that. I hate the idea of an artist saying, “I did something, but I don’t know why I did it.” Of course language is always going to be parallel to an activity and you are never going to completely explain that, but you have to try. I hate the idea that you can talk about other activities but not about art; it’s like religion! And I hate religion. I went to Catholic school from the age of five to twenty-two. I would never believe anything again, and I love not believing. I want to use something, art or architecture, but I don’t want to believe something.

Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya - Was Joseph Beuys a problem?

A.W. - Joseph Beuys is not a problem for me. In the United States some people could not accept Joseph Beuys because it had such a heavy sense of history. And in the sixties and seventies the artists in the United States think they are so liberated, so special, because of the moment they were living; they thought that living with the problems of today is enough. But the current condition is the past, and the future will come to us, so why are we so busy going back and forth? We just stay there and just let it go through us; we are just like a filter. But many nations have to live in the past because they can never get rid of it or are always haunted by their nightmares.

A.R.F. - Is that China-is it a country that lives in the past?

A.W. - Yes, China is trying to reshape the past into something different. It is already a fact that they want to either change it or erase. We sit, and we say, “Come on, this is not possible!” Going back to Beuys, to me personally, I don’t really understand him that well.

V.A. - It is a problem. The idea of all these followers wearing the same kind of hat is scary. Maybe the Nazi attitude doesn’t go away that easily.

A.W. - We always want to reduce ourselves, and we wake up and think [about] what we want to do today. And that’s a crisis.

V.A. - For me it was a conscious decision: I don’t want to have a style, I don’t want to know what I’m going to do each day. I want to be excited every day.

A.W. - Irony is that even that attitude becomes a style [laughs].

V.A. - The upper side of that [is] I don’t have to do anything too deeply.

A.W. - It’s like Warhol, right? The shallowness versus depth. It is not easy to become a surface.

A.R.F. - This brings the question of individuality versus the collective.

V.A. - Right now the collective is very important to me, because I don’t think the work comes from one; the work comes from a group of people, even though that group changes, but I want the work to come from a group.

A.R.F. - Does art or architecture have a place helping develop a collective that is free and democratic, with individuals who stand up?

V.A. - I think it can. I think the art attitude is very simple: it’s what children do all the time, they see this [his palm facing up], let’s have it like this [his palm faces down], let’s turn it upside down, let’s try something else. I think the basic attitude of art, . . . but that’s the scientist attitude as well . . . sometimes I don’t see the difference.

A.W. - Contemporary thinking is about questioning the establishment.

V.A. - Is it more of a Western attitude that the artist has to change [things]?

A.W. - In the East you have Zen and Tao, which is very loose. The moment your consciousness . . . the world begins to be alive. You cannot only start every day, but every moment you can become enlightened. Of course it is hard to achieve. But you can appreciate the moment that you use your heart. I think that this is antiestablishment because you achieve enlightenment from some way that you don’t even know it. Establishment is the way we normally think the world is and accept in our normal logic. Jasper Johns said we never change object, we only change perception; it is the role of the artist to make the change of perception be effective.


V.A. - I love Hong Kong. It is easier to love a place when you’ve been only three or four days. I love the ups and downs; I love the very tall, very thin buildings-when you don’t have much space you use as much as you can. It is a city of stairs, of ramps, of changes of level, but it is a city also of niches; every street seems to have alleys. Public space doesn’t exist in the plaza; public space is in the alleys, in the intersections. Public are people talking on the phone. Hong Kong feels like an old version of the future. It is very new and very old at same time. There is . . . an urge to make something newer and shinier; I got this feeling when I went to Tokyo as well. City needs mix, mix of people-that is the future: not necessary blending but the individual particles . . . I get scared with notions like the “public”; the only way of the public to exist it is becoming many clusters.

A.W - Cities like Hong Kong have great potential of becoming very important cities. But of course not so much happens in the [art] museum, which is fine as long as people get consciously involved in discussions. Why spend twenty years in education? This will change. But the system itself defends itself; they wouldn’t let it go, it is like a monster.


A.W. - The most liberating power since the human came down from a tree is the Internet. The Internet maximizes the individual power-every individual can freely gather information and build its own structure and express itself. It is a miracle; we don’t need more than that. It is the ultimate tool and it gets back the dignity of being individual; one dot here, one dot there, and they can connect the same second. This is beyond imagination. And still it allows you to be yourself, still be a dot and not to connect to anybody. I posted a note about dinner in a Hong Kong restaurant and over one hundred people turn out. They know you, but we never met before, and then they disappear. And this dot mobilizes another one hundred dots, absolutely a technical society, and all this is for free. Twitter friends from sixteen to thirty years. For the Internet there is no nations, no boundaries anymore.

V.A. - I have kind of resisted Facebook and so on, but maybe it is a big mistake. It’s not second nature to me.


A.W. - Cultural institutions are shameful, because culture is about sharing, about free exchange.

V.A. - Art culture, especially when money is involved, is about keeping people out. It is about a language that nobody can understand. I love theory but I hate jargon. Art in New York is like that.

A.W. - I think New York has institutionalized the art system.

V.A. - Common thinking is that the generation of the seventies was breaking the frame. Still, when I started, the most important art for me was minimal art, so when I got to a gallery, I would start looking everywhere-you were not sure where art was. And then the eighties ruined everything. That is the common thought. But I’m afraid that my generation caused the eighties. It was in my generation that the art gallery dealer became more important than ever, as the gallery dealer could say to the collector, “I know that you can’t even see this but I’m telling you that this is art.” So we did a horrific thing. We didn’t intend to do it, but the things that you don’t intend to do are always more important than the things that you intend to do.

A.W. - Like Einstein as a scientist-his attitude was to be against becoming an icon, but he became an icon; ironically, he became an icon himself!

V.A. - When I started doing life performance, what . . . started to really bother me was that everybody that knew a piece of mine then knew what I looked like, so I started to think, “Am I doing art or am I starting a personality cult?” [laughs]

V.A. - Language is changing so fast that I’m not so conscious about it. I’m already behind it; computers are a language itself.

A.W. - My father was purely a language person, and my ultimate goal was to see if I could write. But we walked in opposite directions, if he is a writer, and I become a builder. I want to be a writer.

V.A. - Music of a particular time has always been the prime influence: Neil Young, Morrison, Ramones, Sex Pistols.

A.W. - Now the music to me is Twitter.

“Acconci Studio + Ai Weiwei: A Collaborative Project” is on show at Para/Site Art Space, Hong Kong, through July 4, 2010.

* Conversation took place on April 12, 2010 in Hong Kong.

Alvaro Rodríguez Fominaya is executive director/curator at Para/Site Art Space (Hong Kong). He has developed his professional career in Hong Kong, London and Spain. He was chief curator at Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM) in Spain. At Para/Site Art Space, he has organized projects with Shahzia Sikander, Surasi Kusolwong, Tsang Kin-Wah and Gao Brothers, among others.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Living in Multiple Dimensions: George Brecht & Robert Watts 1953 - 1963, Simon Anderson

One of the most remarkable phenomena to occur around Rutgers at the end of the 50s was a dynamic collaboration between Robert Watts and George Brecht; this partnership, between two ordinarily reserved characters, bore a firm friendship lasting up to Watts' death in 1988. Robert Watts was in his early thirties when he met George Brecht, and had been teaching at Rutgers since 1953. Brecht, just two years his junior, was working as an engineer at Johnson & Johnson, and here lies their first connection: Watts' first official schooling had been in mechanical engineering, and he had been an engineer in the U.S.Navy. The differences — Brecht was an inventor and research chemist — are as important as the similarities, but both men had turned from an early training in the sciences, and brought to their art a particular kind of analysis, which is visible in both separate and cooperative creative productions.

Brecht had seen Watts' work in an exhibition at Douglass College, and was sufficiently impressed to telephone him and invite him to a show of his paintings in New Brunswick. The two men then met weekly, and, over lunch at Howard Johnson's, they dreamed up a number of fascinating projects across a wide range of activity, between them generating ideas that played a vital part in the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Their combined efforts helped to create a community, and cemented some long-term affinities within the experimental arts. A number of the artists they included in the Yam Festival of 1963 reappeared together the following year at the Monday Night Letters, a weekly series they organised at New York's Cafe au Go Go. The participants in these evenings of music, events and happenings, lecture-demonstrations, dance and indescribable intermedia amount to a roster of American Fluxus, with additions from the New York avant-garde.

Their collaborations were more than simply administrative; they took on and mixed a number of forms: acts of imagination, visual innovations, creative design and straightforward organisation. Yam Festival (1963), for instance, was an amusing and clever idea that helped to produce unique forms of art, and must have required a good amount of the kind of logistical activity that many of us call work.

The Festival was conceived as an extended performance, taking place in the New York area beginning in May 1963, thus creating an exquisite pun which typified the spirit of their intent. More than a simple series of actions and events, the real Yam Festival was a long and multifarious celebration: it lasted, according to Brecht, about two years — "the idea keep things going. Everybody who wanted to could contribute." It was generated partly at the invitation of Bob Whitman, who had been chosen to curate an exhibition: the show never happened, but Watts and Brecht developed Yam Festival into a multitude of jokes, surprises, games, lectures, mail-order-art, and simple occasions made festive by a gathering of like minds in playful mood.

Yam Festival activities included Water Day, Box Day, Clock Day, and two days of a Yam Hat Sale; there were openings, poetry, performance, exhibitions and parties; there were tournaments offered daily, with intermissions and prizes. Information on this miscellany was spread by a printed calendar, whose disjointed graphics are typical of Brecht's design. It featured advertisements for An Anthology and Fluxus 1 amidst a lively plethora of event scores and jokes. Yam Day itself consisted of an 'endless and continuous program of performance beginning about noon on Saturday through evening and Sunday.' This marathon was advertised as featuring the work of a wide and international array of artists, with events by a spectrum of Fluxus associates from MacLow to Maciunas. There was an afternoon of happenings, music and dance at George Siegal's Farm, with a roster that presents a new slant on artist affiliations of the early 60s. Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell and La Monte Young, all fellow Fluxists, were joined by Allan Kaprow, Yvonne Rainer and sculptor-dancer Chuck Ginnever. This concert-picnic was presented by the Smolin Gallery, who chartered buses for the trip to South Brunswick.

At one point Yam Festival involved Watts in a two-hour 'presentation' at a symposium on primitive and contemporary art at Michigan State University's Oakland campus. This Yam Lecture was a variation on an already flexible frame: two readers picked random texts from envelopes whilst a disconnected series of images was projected onto a wall. Watts himself described the Yam Festival as a vehicle that involved a range of "material that ordinarily is not so directly useful for art or has not yet been so considered."

One important aspect of Yam Festival was the subscription event, a mail-order system, in which a sometimes unknown and randomly chosen audience were offered an unspecified object in return for a self-chosen amount of money. This participatory programme, entitled Delivery Event, involved a range of objects that give a considerable clue to the joint interests of the two organisers: food, pencils, soap, photos, actions, words, facts, statements, declarations, puzzles, etc.... It is a poetic list that includes household articles of the most mundane, even prosaic kind — the very stuff of 'life,' if and when one has chosen to separate Art from Life. That Brecht and Watts both saw a need to deliberately but purposelessly erase this theoretical fracture is one clue to the longevity of their collaboration — if not their longer-lasting friendship — and a certain hint at their involvement with another mail-order catalogue, Fluxus.

These shared enthusiasms can be better understood in light of their individual approaches to art-making and their relationships to the art-object. Since the mid-fifties, Brecht had been educating himself and writing an unofficial dissertation on chance imagery (later published as a Great Bear Pamphlet by Dick Higgins), whilst Watts experimented with mark-making. These interests were to lead both men to the margins of abstract expressionism, and in the case of Watts, to an early association — at least in the minds of some art-critics — with neo-dada.

After World War II, Watts switched from engineering to the arts, and enrolled at the Art Students League, before moving on to Columbia University where he studied Art History. His experience left him with an interest in aboriginal art, particularly Eskimo culture, and this attention is reflected in the stark lines of his mostly monographic abstractions. His early work had consisted of hybrid abstract paintings, and had often included nature studies; there are, for instance, birds portrayed in a series of small paintings using a calligraphic style that distorted them and could not help — given the era of their production — but be identified with trends then current in American abstract expressionism.

By 1956 Watts had begun to experiment with cut-up paintings and seemingly random collections of imagery, but around 1958 he shifted from abstract painting to sculpture and assemblage. Around 1959-60 he was building with found objects and assembling ersatz machines: Monuments, for instance, was a series consisting of found objects and texts embedded into plaster, sometimes acting as maquettes for very large proposals. Here we can begin to see a recurrent tactic; he subjected materials to a succession of fantastic or seemingly inappropriate processes, and thus discovered a third function — or at least a potential for functions. After experimenting with these mechanical toys — he had shown evidence of technical ability at an early age — his artistic boundaries widened exponentially to include film, events, and happenings — the whole range of possibilities open to the intermedial artist. Watts' investigations across all media were always coloured by his playful view of the world, which inevitably led to comparisons with dada, the previous explosion of anarchy and irony.

Throughout the 1960s a majority of reviews of Watts' exhibited work relied on the unhelpful but vaguely familiar term 'neo-dada.' It was almost universally so-labeled from the first exhibition in the winter of 1960. Like those dadas who saw too clearly the follies of their age, and who exposed them with a laugh, Watts was often misunderstood: "barely transformed rubbish" wrote one cruel journalist, later adding in compensation that Watts did, at least, construct 'authentic' examples of the genre. A couple of reviews of his show at Grand Central Moderns mentioned his Goya Box in a favourable light. This small sculpture featured postage stamps illustrating Goya's nude Maja, among other miniature graphic items. This early exhibition revealed Watts' interest in aspects of philately, offering a hint of his later importance to the history of correspondence art.

His early, often kinetic, sculpture elicited comments on his very evident technical ability, whether or not critics agreed on his use of that talent. One, for instance, praised him as an 'entertainer,' and whilst the New York Herald Tribute agreed that it was 'uproarious,' their reviewer later described it as,

...rooting onlookers out of any attitudes of complacency they possess, and showing that art galleries needn't be the solemn places they are supposed to be but on the contrary repositories of great curiosity.

Certainly, Watts' own mechanical and philosophic curiosity prompted his visual and formal investigations — fields of enquiry which transformed and remade simple ideas into extended multilayered themes, as can be seen in his uses of light.

Watts' grandfather ran a movie theatre, for which he made his first graphic works, and it was there that he gained his interest in light, "I used to make advertising slides for the movie house and it was thrown onto the screen with the 'magic lantern,' the projector. It was just unbelievable — no kidding — huge and very bright light. Very interesting." He began experimenting with light again around 1957-1958, in a collage with randomly activated decorative lights, which were then a novel Christmas item. His continuing use of electricity can be seen in Hot Sculpture (1960), which uses a wire heated to red hot, mirrors, and stuff embedded in plaster. He used reflected light again in Marble Game (1958), in which light played off metal foil, and this early impulse to reflect continued with his famous collections of chromium bread, fruit, vegetables and chocolates, shown most appropriately in the supermarket-style exhibition held at the Bianchini Gallery in 1964. These reasonably priced multiples were part of a large series of cast objects, mostly food — including eggs, which were covered in coloured flock, and sold by the dozen. The frisson of chrome stayed with Watts through the middle 1980s. In the 70s he enlarged upon the theme with a series of Ashanti Sculptures replicated in chrome. Made generations before Koons' seaside caricatures, Watts was able to protest and make personal issues of cultural pretension, consumerism and coca-colonisation, colliding in a symbolic fetish wherein observers can literally reflect on their own situation in the surface of the object. His repeated use of food as a motif also often amounted to social comment: his eerily beautiful T.V. DINNER is an indictment of the twentieth century isolation of individual life whose solitary, illusory and ultimately inhuman units arrogate for themselves the luxury of civic grouping.

It may be true, as has been suggested, that his preference for reflective surface was partly stimulated by the mischievous challenge it offered to photographic documentation, and if indeed his intent were as much subversion of commodification as celebration of illumination, then it merely emphasises a continuing thread through his oeuvre: from fake pork or lamb chops to Fluxstamps, and from Implosions to Yam, Watts knowingly played with the many-faceted conventions of commodity and distribution. The egg is surely the original multiple, yet selling red-white-and-blue flocked eggs in a contemporary Art Gallery reaches deep into questions of social organisation.

Perhaps less deliberately, Watts' use of chrome literally reflected variety into his palette, which was largely monochrome, otherwise naturally muted or coloured by industrial design. After his mostly black-and-white paintings, he moved into sculptures in which colour was often totemic, like the eggs, for example, in national colours. Whilst hardly the mark of a colourist, this was a presciently Pop solution, with obvious American connotations that appealed to Watts, who made early use of other pop icons, such as brand-names, neon light, and fast-food. Works such as Great American Lover (1960/61), only confirm Watts' inclusion into the canon of early Pop.

As if to confirm his connections with the Pop world, he tried, in vain, to gain legal control over the word itself, but he soon cut loose from the stable and his work really forms part of a dark underbelly beneath those bright and sexy, consumer-friendly forms such as pop, op, and kinetic art. He forms part of the sinister band who shadow the 60s of media memory; like Wolf Vostell, Ray Johnson, Gustav Metzger and LaMonte Young, among others, who carried the issues celebrated by Pop into unpopular areas less suitable as advertising for American-style capitalism, Watts took on the commodity fetish with subtle wit and savage gusto, which he combined with the thoroughness of an engineer.

His play, like that of Brecht, involved the multi-layered use of humour, in many forms, from the comically surreal to the slyly ironic. He was not above the vulgarity of the sight gag — see the witty series of photographic illusions on a dinner theme — and his equally weird sense of slapstick endeared him to the heart of Fluxus. His F/H Trace of 1962, in which the bell of a French horn is filled with small objects or fluid, which spill to the floor as the soloist performs the preliminary bow to the audience, has became a concert classic — one of those select events whose hilarious simplicity and bold intermedial exchanges has enabled them to be remodelled to suit the variable occasion. Maciunas had early taken to Watts as a result of some correspondence pieces they exchanged whilst the former was in Germany. Watts sent some get well postcards embedded with toy-sized explosives to him, and thereby launched a sporadic collaboration that saw the publication of many varied editions by Watts, including a business partnership, 'Implosions', whose stick-on skin-art has again become a fashion item in the 1990s.

Part of Watts' power lay in his ability to playfully combine scourging wit with razor deep cuts of profundity, and he brought to this combination a unique and appealing aesthetic. From the fully operative automobile dashboard of Starchief (1962), to the literalist reading of a feather dress Feather Dress (1965), and from the neon-light artist signature series to his many illusory laminated photo-objects, Watts subjected any randomly generated idea to the playful machinations of his imagination.

In Scissor Bros. Warehouse, Watts formed part of a trio that outfluxed George Maciunas' contemporary efforts at collectivity and alternative commodity distribution. Not only was he subjecting his identity to the eponymous corporation — along with Brecht and Alison Knowles — but all the goods they printed their triptych upon were generally cheap and industrially made. The mass-produced quality of the objects stood in complementary contrast with their identical treatment. A wide range of ordinary things, from bijouterie to tool chests were overprinted with the anonymous and chance-produced assemblage, which were then sold for little more than their street value. The dealer, Rolf Nelson, was even quoted as claiming '...we'll take orders — stencil anything anyone wants with BLINK.' Watts had contributed a photograph of semi-naked celebrants at an Balinese wedding, replete with esoteric tattoos; Alison Knowles — the principal printer of the three — occupied the lower third of the yellow cube with three scissors in gradual stages of opening, and Brecht's event score Blink provided a meditative hiatus between them. Scissor Bros. Warehouse also included a variegated advertising flyer reminiscent of V TRE and the Yam Newspaper. Combining the classic Fluxus characteristics of collaboration, randomness, humour and anti-art irony, the show was labelled first as 'a protest that could well end all protests.' In his conclusion, however, reviewer Art Seidenbaum admits that the protest here was 'more obscure' than the issues he imagined they were against.

In reality, Watts was rarely obscure: cryptic maybe, but rarely was his work designed to disappear into the background. George Brecht, on the other hand, has described his ideal event as coming close to a natural occurrence — effectively erasing the difference between artwork and happenstance. Certainly, he started his enquiries from the singular position of not caring whether they did or would ever constitute 'art,' yet the result of his endeavors, especially the 'natural event,' is exactly that of endowing the insignificant with a range of new, even meaningful possibilities. His cavalier attitude to the status of his works extends to many other conventional concepts: a rejection of the limitations that he feels attach themselves to things and ideas already named — as he has said, he prefers "all the possibilities."

Brecht has made his disdain for history clear on many occasions, pleading a poor memory, or arguing that any individual's contemporary research on the spot is better than academic enquiry. He has, for instance, at least three different published places of birth, including the poetic 'Halfway, Or.,' whose qualified ambiguity points to the fact that all memory is essentially fictional. Both artists seem to have reinvented themselves consistently through their lives, and both have celebrated the constant flux of duration in their art, but Brecht appears to have additionally refused to see the value of the conventional kind of fact-gathering that generally accrues to artists of his stature. Like fellow Fluxartist Eric Andersen among others, he cares less — or seems to — about the actuality of his past than the range of possible ramifications of the kind of ideas he was having, or is now having. The only notebook he cares about is the one next to his table, now. This has not prevented the publication of his notes, but it has made him an evasive interviewee — one who seems to often dissemble or obfuscate, although it is more likely that he strives to reemphasise the fluidity of experience, the fickleness of remembrance, the arbitrary nature of circumstance.

By 1958, Brecht had begun to see his life as a series of interactions with the uninterrupted connectedness of the world, rather than a set of specific occurrences, itemised by date. Later wishing to see over and through the predictable system of scientific — at least, numeric — order, he rewrote the calendar in terms of individual experience. The ubiquitous universality of his arrangements, e.g. 'Day of the Bird' are, as in our present calendar, equalled by their arbitrariness, which may well be the point.

The period circumscribed for the Rutgers Circle marked a tremendous period of change for Brecht; in his official career as a chemist, as well as in his personal life, the kinds of advances that are seen in his work are visible in outline. From his 1953 move to Johnson & Johnson, where he began as quality control engineer, to his departure for Europe in the middle 60s, Brecht had revolutionised his ideas about art, and the way he should be in the world. Allan Kaprow has recalled that Brecht's habitat changed markedly within the space of three weeks — from benign suburban to bohemian stark — and it was around the same time that he engineered a part-time position at work: a freelance consultancy with built in time for research and study, which was to became a philosophical experiment on his life. This time marks a particularly expansive manner of thinking for Brecht, when the several directions of his conceptual life ran parallel enough for there to have been fascinating interchanges between these normally separate modes of thought. His knowledge of the history and philosophy of science was easily parlayed into the sphere of music, and thence art, where his explorations in chance, coloured by Zen Buddhism, led to startling new developments in performance art. Although he described himself as having 'survived' an education in chemistry — an experience which it apparently took him six months in Mexico to overcome, — he was able to assimilate his interests in science with these other concerns, and use them productively.

At the time of Brecht's first connection with Watts, he was living in New Brunswick with a wife and child, working as a chemist, immersing himself in history, philosophy and art, making paintings that were almost text-book exercises in chance-imagery. They were produced by dripping paint over crumpled paper, which he smoothed out and overpainted according to his taste. He described these as 'corrected abstract expressionism,' but then,

In 1955, in the summer, while lying on the beach in Atlantic City, it came to me that starting with dripping was ended. And what to do. I started a notebook of possibilities of making works by other chance methods.

Soon, in collaboration with Watts and Allan Kaprow, he was to give shape and form to this search, in collaborative text entitled Project in Multiple Dimensions.

Project in Multiple Dimensions was a grant application jointly proposed by the three men; written sometime between 1957 and 1958, it is a ten-page document that lays out a case for support of 'an examination of contemporary technological advances for the purpose of discovering new forms for creative artistic expression.' Apart from a budget, the text includes an introduction to the very notion of new areas of art activity; a schematic explanation of the avant-garde; thoughtful personal statements from each artist; and a proposed six-month concert and event series, with an individual event offered by all three. The Proposed Program was rather vague, with repeated use of the embryonic term 'event'; but the budget was precise, including an amount for lumber and welding supplies. One third of the total was for individual reimbursement, and another third for publicity and printing costs.

As an application, Project in Multiple Dimensions was not a success, although years later, Watts was to prove successful in gaining a Carnegie Foundation award for a course at Douglass College. On behalf of Rutgers University he was awarded $15,000 towards a course that would encourage new kinds of research into new kinds of art. Project in Multiple Dimensions surely provided the seeds for this venture, and additionally, the document represents an informed and careful analysis of experimental art and art education at the time.

In places, Project in Multiple Dimensions has the air of a Futurist manifesto, using lists, comparisons and appeals to technology. Like Marinetti, Russolo et al, they declared a search for materials and methods that had yet to become available to artists. The phraseology is somewhat corporate — referring to people as 'the human organism,' and yet despite its occasionally earnest tone, the document is prescient in parts, arguing, in the introduction, for experimental sound productions that have subsequently begun to occur. The enigmatic language in the section listing examples of these new concepts might almost be read as presaging the concerns of dematerialised art, situationist happenings and land art, with references to new and unexplored forms of 'non-space,' 'synthetic space' and 'natural space.'

The section labelled Background continues in an idealistic vein, reflecting a celebration of the hegemony of American capitalism. Displaying a feeling of liberation from the bondage of European cultural standards, the rebellion implicit in Project in Multiple Dimensions typified an element of the post-war American experience: there was a 'loosening of forms' across a wide social front. The three artists argued that daily experiences had become fragmented, and that there was widespread transformation of thinking and acting, giving as one example the recent change in newspaper design, whose traditional regular columns had been replaced by 'asymmetrical groups of type' in no apparent order. Given that Brecht was to first make a collaged newspaper for the Yamfest with Watts, and then go on to create another V TRE for himself and thence for Fluxus, it is perhaps no surprise that the daily news analogy should be used to illustrate a journey from restrictive rationality to the chaos of modern collage. The fate of V TRE was to mirror this modernist analogy, slowly shifting from a random collection of incredible tid-bits to a performance catalogue of efficiently modular design. Kaprow, of course, was also occupied by the quotidian, writing in the 'personal' section of the piece that he 'proceeded from the everyday situation rather than from art.'

This third section of Project in Multiple Dimensions contains three texts that reveal one shared trait: a struggle to name their art. Kaprow's detailed description of the elements within his happenings – what he called 'some kind of synthesis of elements that belong to several arts,' is ultimately reduced to negativity: '[t]here is no 'script' or 'story,' no 'dance' score, no 'set,' no 'music,' no 'stage,' no 'audience' really...' Watts, also, was clearly searching for an appropriate term to describe his activities: in anticipation of Dick Higgins exquisite appropriation of the term 'intermedia' he assembled his varied interests as an 'exploration of various time-space-movement situations through the use of both electro-mechanical devices and selected synthetic and natural materials.' Brecht, perhaps influenced by his growing interest in Zen, manages to be specific and yet say little: 'My art is the result of a deeply personal, infinitely complex, and still essentially mysterious, exploration of experience. No words will touch it.'

As early as June 1958, Brecht had evidenced a fascination with Buddhist views on the world, and he no doubt had his interest in oriental thought stimulated further by John Cage's affinity for the teachings of Dr. D.T.Suzuki. Both Kaprow and Brecht had attended Cage's classes at the New School for Social Research, where Cage doubtless advertised Suzuki's lecture at Columbia University in September, 1958. Brecht made a note of it and it may be that he went to listen to him. In an Evergreen Review of 1958, Aspects of Japanese Culture, Suzuki writes very clearly about the a-logical nature of understanding, and the uselessness of rational interpretations of existence, positing a proposition which may have appealed to Brecht,

Life itself is simple enough, but when it is surveyed by the analysing intellect it presents unparalleled intricacies.

In this article, Suzuki also makes comments that surely have some bearing on the shape of Brecht's earliest event-works, particularly Water Yam, the collection of event scores that he produced for Yamfest, and that were published as one of the first Fluxus editions. Brecht acknowledged the importance of pure intuition as a creative force in some of the scores. He later admitted to not necessarily understanding all of his work, whilst other pieces, including solutions to real problems, occurred to him in dreams.

Although his ideas, according to one interview, 'just come, without motive, without any reason, without logic...,' it might be possible to trace the genesis of one particular event, Two Durations, through some of Suzuki's comments. "One of the commonest sayings in Zen," he wrote, "is 'Willows are green and flowers are red.'" By this he meant that facts of experience are to be accepted as they are, neither positively nor nihilistically, although,

When he says that the willow is green and the flower is red, he is not just giving a description of how nature looks, but something whereby green is green and red is red. This something is what I call the spirit of creativity.

Prior to this, his notebooks for Cage's class indicate that Brecht had been toying with durations, indicated by flashlights, using green and red coloured light. By the time of Water Yam, however, the durations were registered simply by the titles of the colours: Red. Green. This represents a shift from the imposition of a particular experience upon the audience, to a text that is little more than an invitation to the universe of possibilities — as Brecht put it — that any individual audience member might choose.

Whether or not he had read Suzuki, and whether or not he consciously applied what he saw in Cage to his own ideas — for it is quite evident that he and Cage are very different kinds of artists — Brecht, in the years he was associated with Watts, helped to forge the medium of the event as a site in which the individual could find a universal, or through which the universal could be individualised.

In Two Durations, for instance, the open structure of the event-score makes the piece portable, flexible, open to modulation and transformation. No longer is the redness of red limited to the feeble power of a flashlight, but rather to the richness of the human imagination. It can be experienced everywhere and anywhere — from traffic lights to botanical gardens; from museums to the dinner-table. In a1972 Fluxus concert, Takehisa Kosugi indicated the pair of elements by drinking red wine and eating green salad.

Two Durations offers a salutary example of Brecht's ability to synthesise, or correlate, thoughts, rather than simply analysing them or subsuming them in larger concepts. For Brecht, whose position, as already noted, stemmed from Asian ideas almost as much as from western science or philosophy, duration was both infinitely measurable and simultaneously unknowable from outside. His early versions of Drip Music were painstakingly calculated, using burettes and such scientific devices; as with Two Durations, the score was latter distilled almost to a pure — though not necessarily platonic — essence of water, musically accumulating in your choice of situations. Like the philosopher Henri Bergson, perhaps, whose meditations on time are so crucial to any grasp on Fluxus, Brecht realised that such 'off-the-peg' concepts as are provided by language will always be insufficient to describe the continuous flow of internal duration. Brecht, in switching from the calculated measurement of time, matter, and space, to a metaphysical understanding of duration, experience and intuition, gave the minimal gestures of the event a potential for enormous personal effect.

This shift became evident in formal terms; at some point between 1959 and 1962, during the production of Water Yam, Brecht managed to slough off most, if not all, excess content in his work, leaving only the minimal necessary for delivery. Initially, around 1959, he was creating event scores such as Candle Piece for Radio, a printed text that necessitated complex notation devices and enumerated explanations; Brecht himself admitted that it generated too many instruction cards. Like a recipe, the score offers precise instructions, arriving at strict mathematical randomness, and Brecht's scientific training is evident. Just as Kaprow's earliest Happenings are characterised by deliberate inversions of his own exact analysis of the work of art — randomly juxtaposing generic activities from 'life,' 'play,' 'work,' — so Brecht used the sharp and accurate tools of science to construct a scrupulously indeterminate music.

In the Spring of 1960, standing in the woods in East Brunswick, New Jersey, where I lived at the time, waiting for my wife to come out of the house, standing behind my English Ford station wagon, the motor running and the left-turn signal blinking, it occurred to me that a wholly 'event' piece could be drawn from this situation.

In the Summer of 1961, he was still playing with complex orchestration, as in Mallard Milk, a collaboration with Dick Higgins, who provided a marvelously poetic and evocative libretto for Brecht's sound-score. Requiring players to wield toys and common objects in addition to their chosen instrument, he further elaborated a complicated mathematical scheme involving some undefined chance procedure and the performers' age. Earlier that year, however — according to the skeletal dating system of Water Yam — he had honed the event to a monosyllable, in one of his most enduring works, Word Event. There is a contrast between these almost contemporaneous works: Mallard Milk, like its predecessor Motor Vehicle Sundown, adopts a strict system and a sharp tone to ensure the best attempt at chance; the planned escape from intention requires an elaborate score. The laconic Word Event, however, with its 'bulleted' EXIT, offers the absolute minimum: a single word.

Paradoxically, this spartan form manages to contain a very high degree of inevitability. Everyone exits. It may be done badly, but it can't be done wrong. The exact nature of each replay of EXIT — how, when and why each performer completes the piece, is, of course, an entirely aleatory matter, and whether it is noticed, applauded, or even consciously rehearsed, the artist has succeeded in freeing himself from the burden of intent, using the most limited structure imaginable.

Brecht's contribution to the genesis of Minimalism should not be understated. Despite claiming never to have studied Latin, the motto multum in parvo appears in his notebook of spring 1959, and, in an even earlier, more formal setting, he had written; "[T]he primary function of my art seems to be an expression of maximum meaning with a minimal image, that is, the achievement of an art of multiple implications, through simple, even austere, means." Another facet of this drive towards nothing is the sparse formal presentation of his ideas: Water Yam, for instance, is usually published as a plain box of white cards, with instructions or event scores, simply printed in the condensed sans-serif font favoured for early Fluxus publications.

The majority of events in Water Yam tend to be terse, even to the point of impenetrability. Concert for Clarinet offers a monosyllable: 'nearby'; and Concert for Orchestra consists simply of the mysterious and parenthetic 'exchanging.' Other scores vary from brief lists to statements that seem like probable instructions. The lists — often bulleted and carefully placed upon small cards according to precise designs by Brecht — are presumably activities to perform or notice. Water, for instance, offers only the following possibilities: coming from, staying, going to. Piano Piece, however, assumes an act. Brecht has himself performed this as a simple gesture, placing without stopping, yet the deceptively simple score, 'a vase of flowers on [to] a piano,' carefully omits any firm directive. This economical form was deliberate, and entailed an increasing level of enigma in formal terms; as he acknowledged in a 1970 statement, later events became "very private, like little enlightenments I wanted to communicate to my friends who would know what to do with them."

Privacy prevails with Brecht; though he remained in sporadic but friendly contact with Watts until the latter's death. His gradual shift into seclusion did not begin until the later 1970s, after a number of fascinating collaborations, including V TRE, with Maciunas, among a proliferation of Fluxus Publications; with Robert Filliou in the cosmic experiment that was La Cedille qui Sourit; and with Patrick Hughes in a 'pataphysical investigation into paradox as a phenomenon.'

Similarly, Watts played well with others; apart from numerous group exhibitions such as his 1964 show with Richard Artschwager, Christo and Alex Hay, at Castelli, and aside from his co-publication with Maciunas on a wide selection of Fluxus objects and multiples, of necessity he co-operated with the number of craftsmen needed to produce such a rich diversity of art. Later, he was to co-edit an anthological report with Edmund Carpenter, Christopher Cornford and Sidney Simon, documenting a year-long experiment in pedagogy. Published in 1970 as Proposals for Art Education, it is an exemplary study of creative collaboration between artists and art students.

Their careers developed separately, although sometimes in parallel through Fluxus or European gallerists more sympathetic to ephemera. Watts remained an experimental and effective teacher, and an inspiration, through the international postal network of the 1970s and 80s. Brecht, turning to the production of marvellous objects, re-imaged his entire oeuvre as a virtual text, The Book of the Tumbler on Fire.

Not an heroic partnership — Brecht and Watts were not the pioneers of post-modernity, roped together on the slippery slopes of intermedia. Rather, their concerns were revealed as a playful kind of inquisitiveness that was sharpened and maintained by their training in the sciences. Their joint commitment to imagination, invention, and investigation, whether in formal institutions such as Rutgers, or looser affiliations such as Yam Festival, was reinforced by combined practices that amount to 'pataphysics. Their shared approach to research allowed the mind to travel freely over the conceptual surface of an object, to dissect it in myriad fashions, and reconnect the parts in new, more interesting, and always amusing, ways. Both men were naturally attracted to a seriously playful view of the world, and the coincidence of these various unpredictable characteristics made their unique collaborations fit seamlessly into the larger community better known now through Fluxus.

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