Audience As Subject at YBCA

SF-based Culturebot Contributor Moe Beitiks sent this report from the opening of the Audience As Subject exhibit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Audience as Subject: Part 1, medium. Appropriate title. Because the audience at this exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts isn’t a collaborator, but a kind of circus-freak subject, where the artist reshuffles real-life folks according to a vision.

I went to the exhibition’s opening as part of an audience myself: semi-tipsy revelers, louder and more boisterous than the usual gallery crowd, loosened up by lobby drinks and the leaking sounds of Mental 99.  As a result, the feeling of the exhibition was less of the usual quiet reverence you get in a gallery. It felt more like being at a giant party, where the urge is to stick your head in a room, say “cool!” and move on.

Much of the space in the gallery is divided into little screening rooms, the projections and seating spaces adjusted to each experience. As an audience member you’re appropriately framed for each performance. For Stefan Constantinescu’s film, Troleibuzul 92 (2009) you’re sitting in plastic bus seats. The circle of TVs for Venerations (Applause 3) invite an enveloping kind of self-congratulation. On their screens run an endless cycle of clips: studio audiences clapping and cheering one another, and you’re invited to circle them endlessly.

Ironically, the installation with the most comfortable seats made me the most uncomfortable: Isola Bella (2007-2008), a collage of clips by artist Danica Dakić. In it, we watch members of an Eastern European mental institution performing and witnessing their lives on a stylized stage, wearing cartoonish half-masks and accompanied by eerie piano. There’s a blurb on the wall outside that references utopias, the social systems, color. But it’s hard to keep the current state of social services in mind while watching a man with cartoon eyes describe his horrific childhood.

Since performance artists shattered the fourth wall, social media has come of age—along with YouTube, reality TV, web cams, status updates, you get the picture. In this normalized over-exposure, it seems odd to ever feel like a voyeur, inappropriately peering into other people’s lives. But that’s exactly the feeling that Yoshua Okon’s pieces provoke. He’s given a partial retrospective along with the Audience exhibition, largely because his work provocatively involves human non-performer performances.

The piece Canned Laughter (2009)— literally a series of laughing cans– is pretty funny, until you see the film of the “workers” hired to make them laugh. It’s a comment on the conditions of factories in Mexico as well as the manufacturing of culture– think the recent Banksy opening sequence for the Simpsons– but in this case, the beleaguered workers depicted aren’t drawings, but actual people.

In Rusos Blancos (White Russians) (2008), Okon rehearsed a series of arguments, speeches and performances with a family who live out in the American desert. He set up four cameras in their living room, the shots overlapping, with spectators in each frame. The pieces title refers to the type of drink the visitors received from their hosts before witnessing a spectacle that blurred the boundaries between reality and performance. Was the dog pissing on the carpet rehearsed? Does playing out backwater stereotypes disperse or just confirm them? Or are we just being made fun of for watching at all?

The poster image for Audience as Subject is the piece Turn On, by Adrian Paci, where unemployed workers of his native Albania are filmed along steps next to generators holding giant light bulbs. The power of the engines and the softness of the light romance the faces and pasts of the workers. It’s one of the few pieces where the “audience” is treated elegantly and respectfully, giving rise to the feeling that reverence is its own kind of sideshow.

Perhaps the pieces in Audience as Subject are so unsettling because participation has become such a rampant aspect of modern culture. We’re no longer content to passively witness: we must comment, link, share, tweet, “like” or dislike. The subject of many of these works volunteered to be framed and ordered by an artist. A security guard approached Okon personally and asked to be featured in a piece. The result is HausMeister (2008). We watch a film of the guard as he crawls on all fours through a man-sized mousehole, meeping and blurping at us. The piece’s introduction will tell you it’s about territory and power, but what comes across is the guard’s incredible willingness and faith in the artist.

Three days after the exhibition opened, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. YBCA’s hometown erupted in orange and black. Giants Champion gear went on sale before the game had even finished, along with giant Brian Wilson Beards, spinning orange scarves and F*CK YEAH shirts. Strangers hi-fived one another on the streets and woo-hooed the sky. While Audience as Subject presents people as framed by a select few artists, it also begs the question: how else do we agree to be framed?

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