Last night I found myself in the opulence of the French Embassy, designed in an earlier era by Stanford White (for the Whitneys, if I understand correctly), for a talk with Franco-Romanian visual artist Mircea Cantor, co-presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the Romanian Cultural Institute. It was…well, it was kinda awful, though not because of Cantor’s art, a show of whose work just opened at the Museum of the Moving Image, the reason for the entire affair.
Rather, the fault lay mainly in art critic Steven Henry Madoff’s interview questioning of Cantor. Added to the inevitably banal audience talk-back component, by the end I had the distinct impression that Cantor had spent the better part of 90 minutes being told what he thought and what his art meant.
Still, today I find myself wondering if wasn’t just Madoff’s pomposity that I found so off-putting, and whether he may not have had a decent point. I’m honestly not sure. It was often a yawn inducing affair.
Essentially, the discussion, following a brief introduction to his own key works by Cantor, centered on how best to see and understand Cantor’s work. Or at least that was what Madoff decided was most important. Cantor’s work (he provides fine documentation on his website) falls broadly into the conceptual vein: hiring a match factory to make double-ended matches, producing a protest with a crowd carrying mirrored placards, or, most provocatively, filming what happens when you install a live wolf and a live deer in a gallery. Without offering a specific response to any of these works, I’ll just say that to my mind, the difference between a success and a failed conceptual artwork is the degree to which the work is literal. Cheap provocations resorting to symbolism may want to position themselves as “conceptual art,” but are really blunt jokes that are less funny every time you see them (see: Maurizio Catellan). Cantor, I think, is sophisticated enough to be taken quite seriously.
Madoff though was irritatingly interested on speaking with the artist about metaphor, signification, and whether he really saw his own work as a “closed system” (Cantor: “yes”; Madoff: “no”). There are a couple problems with this, the first and most substantive of which is that ultimately, the artist’s intent is pretty unimportant to how we sure understand or experience his work, and, trailing a close second, having an interviewer essentially demand an artist explain himself only to disagree and demand the artist agree with his critic-interlocutor’s interpretation all makes for a really, really shitty discussion to have to watch. Substantively, there was no difference between Madoff’s interrogation of Cantor and what followed: the audience taking turns saying exactly only vaguely formulated as questions to which they expect the artist to basically respond “Yes.”
But at heart, I think there was something interesting to be gleaned from Madoff and Cantor’s dialogue. Successful conceptual art in essence depends on its ability to achieve a state of aporia in signification–the failure of something’s metaphorical value to signify itself to a reader. It must at once present the viewer with something to be read, while at the same time resisting full signification or interpretation. Thus the audience members who proposed their own interpretations at the end of the talk were met with a sort of weary half-agreement by Cantor, who essentially repeated, “Well, yes, that’s your experience and that’s fine,” which utterly failed to appease the audience members’ desire to impose a fixed meaning.
With a little while to mull it over though, I can’t help but want to give Madoff a bit more credit for what he was trying to say, which was in essence that the work, whether Cantor intends it or no, has some sort of metaphorical value in the sense that even if the signification process is being interrupted (ostensibly through conscious artistic act, but that’s really neither here nor there except insofar as he was asking the creator), that still, there is a clear intent for the images to provoke. I think Madoff was somewhat too interested in forcing Cantor’s work to conform to his own interpretation–leading Cantor at one point to note how distrustful he was of words to describe his work–but I think that was (hopefully) Madoff’s point. In which case the two may well have been arguing essentially the same point.
For me, the one take-away I had was how the entire affair intersected with a talk I went to on Sunday at MoMA PS1, where Marten Spangberg–at the tail end of a series of people who invited someone else to do something else leading penultimately to Maria Hassabi–presented a lecture about his “book” Spangbergianism.
Spangberg is a Swedish choreographer and–in journo-speak, I guess–an intellectual provocateur. Spangbergianism began as a blog structured as a performance development project. Essentially, Spangberg spent some sixty days developing a work, except instead of “dance” or “choreography,” he posted blog posts, only slightly reduced and edited (for reasons I do not fully understand, but I do know the blog is longer) to be printed as a book. Then, he toured the work, giving performance/lectures (but not, I would imagine “performance lectures” as we’d understand that term as a genre) at dance festivals, giving away the book for free.
I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve read part and saw Spangberg’s talk and it is quite lovingly provocative. Written from a state of “despair” over his artistic practice as a choreographer, the book is less an argument or critique as it is an explosion of response presented as a record of a generative process. A deep (and apt) skepticism (to use a polite term) regarding the extant system of public funding, curated festivals, commissions, and so on is expressed passionately throughout.
But what struck me about seeing the Cantor talk a day later, was how each artist in his own practice seemed to be responding to the way his work was being contextualized within a system. And what struck me was that while I, the performance critic, saw Cantor’s work through the lens of experiential art–that it opened itself up to diverse interpretations based on the spectator’s biases upon seeing it–Spangberg was, at least in his talk, arguing for the objectification of performance.
I can certainly see the point: whereas conceptualism sought to create the space for resistance by creating a sort of cognitive dissonance through the inability to assign fixed meaning to the work, performance today seeks to objectify itself in order to defend itself against the imposition of contextualization. The critics, curators, festivals, funders, the whole system that exists to select and support the creation of, say, contemporary dance, asks the audience to experience it only as a live event. The artists likewise accept this proposition in order to make themselves available to audiences (and thereby appealing to the system) even though it would seem to deny their voices as artists. The idea that art as an object–something with a meaning and value inherent to the thing itself, demanding understanding and the completion of the process of signification–is interesting and, I have to say, kind of provocative to me. I’m still not sure what to think of it (nor whether Spangberg would ever cop to having said anything of the sort).
Anyway, check out Spangberg yourselves: he’s at CAGE at 83 Hester St. in the LES tomorrow, Weds., March 7, at 7 pm. Claudia La Rocco also has a response to him up at P-Club, and finally, if you can’t get there for a free copy of the book–read it online at Scribd or just Google for the PDF.