Crossing the Line 2012 Journal: On Denying the Surplus Value of Art(?)

David Levine’s “Habit.”

A couple days ago, Vallejo Gantner did me an inadvertent favor. Gantner had made his way to Graz, Austria, for a conference called “The Truth is Concrete,” sponsored by the Steirischer Herbst Festival, which was concerned, roughly speaking, with the intersection of art and politics. Anyway, Gantner, who’s prone to tweeting (something I’ve never gotten the hang of), issued the following nugget while live-commenting on the conference:

Stephen Wright – “we need a user-ship strike, not a production-side strike to maximize surplus value extraction” Got it? #truthisconcrete

Whatever else, I appreciated it because it reminded me that I hadn’t finished reading Diedrich Diederichsen’s “On (Surplus) Value In Art,” an essay I’d come to by way of our research for Everyone’s a Critic (come see it Thursday!). Interestingly, upon returning to it after a few weeks of down-time during which I’d been run ragged covering Crossing the Line, I found it an interesting way to approach, at a macro-level, much of the work I’d been seeing.

To begin, I have to explain Diederichsen’s conceit: throughout the essay, he plays on the double meaning of the German term mehrwert. In common German parlance, mehrwert roughly translates to the American corporate-speak term “value added.” But it’s also the word Marx used for “surplus value.” A more proper critic would probably be able to offer a more concise definition, but in short: Surplus value is an important concept in appraising the way capitalism produces its own valuation of goods and services. Within the Marxist frame-work, “value” is defined as the total of the labor and cost of products put into producing something; if the resultant good is sold at a price higher than that of its “value,” the difference is the “surplus value,” which is thus roughly synonymous with “profit.”

Anyway, drawing on both Marx and the contemporary double-entendre the term mehrwert implies, Diedrichsen seeks to apply the concept to a traditional understanding of art-making. He begins from the perspective of those who evaluate it, either before (in terms of selecting a given work as worthy of production support) production or after (in terms of evaluating its achievement), and proposes that:

[A]art is a phenomenon that plays out entirely–from beginning to end–in the “bonus realm” and hence must always generate Mehrwert, just like capitalism and capitalists.

Let me clarify: Diedereichsen’s point is that art-making in a more traditional sense is a matter of producing some affect–or at least an effect–than can be deemed as sufficiently in excess of what goes into it than the support for its creation. It’s as simple as saying, from a critic’s perspective, that one play is good and another is not, for no other reason than the former made the critic grapple with or feel something. That alone is a demonstration of surplus value. So if we return to my point about mehrwert being roughly synonymous with “profit,” it makes perfect sense. Which play would you buy a ticket to, or choose to help produce?

The reason I find Diedrichsen so compelling right now is because he’s produced a frame that helps me make sense of a lot of what I’ve seen at FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival. In general, what I’ve seen a lot of–and I mean a lot–is artists toying with audience expectations and seeking to deny them. Artists utilizing a framework that suggests a certain trajectory and pay-off, and then, by intersecting that practice’s discourse with that of another, seeking to make the work fail to satisfy expectation and thus to achieve expected added value. It’s fascinating to examine transdisciplinary art from this perspective. The name implies a certain indeterminacy, but forced to look at work that makes such conscious choices–and which exposes its own construction of other discourses (typically visual art versus performance, something we write about a lot here at Culturebot)–it’s interesting to me the degree to which it reveals itself to be a problematic construction in its own right.

Let me give a concrete example. If there was anything approaching controversial at this year’s Crossing the Line (notwithstanding DD Dorvillier’s Danza Permanente, but that’s mostly due to the the scandal over the review), it was Gerald Kurdian’s The Magic of Spectacular Theater.

To understand why it was controversial, it’s almost necessary to read my interview with Kurdian. In brief, Kurdian told me that the piece he was working on (he was in developmental residency at Abrons up to opening night, including when we spoke) was, at a basic level, playing with audience expectation. What is the difference between a pop concert and a theater event? Like at the level of saying, at one you’d stand around listening to music, and at the other you’d you sit and watch spectacle. At one you get to drink and hit on people during the performance, at the other, you have to wait till afterward. Furthermore he intended to explore in terms of his own role as the performer: different context, different expectation. And finally, he suggested that he intended to also grapple with the idea of a “virtual self.” It leads from the premise logically: If he is by turns toying with the expectation of how he as the performer should behave for an audience based on contextual expectations, then he reveals his identity onstage as highly performative. Thus it’s quite easy, having established that, to confront the audience with how they, through the aegis of digital technology and online avatars, present themselves as performative identities.

But here’s the interesting thing: Kurdian told me that, but when I showed up on Tues., Sept. 18, that’s not what I saw. The show started almost 15 minutes late, and when we entered the theater at Abrons, all of the projection and effects apparatuses Kurdian had shown me during the interview were gone. There was just a piano. Kurdian entered, sat down at the piano, and a did a series of song. Then he sort of walked off. It lasted maybe forty minutes tops. The doors to the theater were not opened, and there was a palpable air of expectation that something else would happen. But it didn’t. Eventually, someone stood up and left, and everyone else followed suit.

I found Kurdian outside smoking and asked him what had happened. He explained that he’d decided that the material he had been working with didn’t achieve what he wanted to do, and so he’d made the decision–he was very clear on this, I was to treat it as a conscious artistic choice–to do what he had done. What I had seen may have differed from what we’d discussed, but that was just a matter of the artistic process.

My initial thoughts were, well, complicated. First, I felt I was being bullshitted. The event lacked enough sense that obviously it wasn’t well planned in advance. I thought Kurdian, who’d expressed some level of uncertainty about the event during our interview, had decided at the last minute that what he was playing with wasn’t working and tossed the whole thing, and was now asking me to appraise it as something other than an artist freak-out. Which is fine; he wanted me to be willing to write that it was a bad performance, or one that didn’t work, rather than to say what I thought had actually materially happened to produce the event I saw. That makes it problematic, because I feel like I have to be honest when I write and explain what I though happened regardless of whether I choose to see the event as a proper art work or a last minute cop-out.  Second, this was irritating because he’d established the entire thing as a play on expectation, and I had a sense that, whether intentionally or not, what he was suggesting implicated me in the process.

If, in my article, I suggested that something else would happen (as I had) than actually did happen, I was being used to help establish the proposition he was playing against. Not only do I think that’s a problematic supposition, but, in Kurdian’s case, I felt it was almost being used as a cheap out. It was a attempt to reconfigure a very different choice than I’d been presented with as the actual choice all along, and furthermore that my acceptance of the proposition he fed me was thus a part of the establishment of the very process he’d employed to set up the expectations he sought to disappoint and challenge in the event.

Needless to say, I left Kurdian on the steps feeling rather ill disposed towards him. “Bullshit” is the operative word you should be taking from my description. But here’s the funny part of the story–I have friends outside the performance world who are really not well versed in these sorts of practices, and so sometimes I ask one of them to come along to a performance that I think, in advance, they might find interesting for one reason or another. In this case, expecting a video and magic based spectacle, I took a friend of mine who’s not a performance person at all. He did not read my interview with Kurdian before coming to the show. Did I tell him something about what I expected? Yes. But not enough for me to expect the response I got from him after the show.

Rather than disappointment or irritation, he seemed mostly bemused. Then, to my complete surprise, he began informing me that he actually found it interesting that he’d gone to a piece called The Magic of Spectacular Theater that featured neither magic, nor spectacle, nor theater, and how it was interesting, to him, to be confronted with a disappointment of his own expectations.

I’m not quoting him verbatim since I didn’t record it, but it was so striking it caught me off guard. Here was a guy who wasn’t an art insider, who hadn’t read my preview interview, who was smart but not conversant in contemporary performance particularly, who seemed to be parroting back to me the very things Kurdian had told me he wanted to provoke in his audience. Here I was feeling bullshitted by the guy, and yet my own guest was getting exactly what Kurdian had wanted him to get from the show.

As the story goes, Kurdian had in fact had a crisis somewhat akin to what I supposed, and the next night reintroduced elements of the piece he’d discussed with me. Or so I’m told. I’m not sure I can claim to have seen The Magic of Spectacular Theater at all, since the Tuesday night performance I saw differed so radically from the Wednesday night performance I’ve been told about. But I find it hard to be disappointed since weirdly enough the night I saw worked. How else am I supposed to characterize an event (born of whatever circumstance) that managed to disappointment both my “informed” expectation as well as my friend’s less-informed one?

Kurdian made it clear: part of his purpose was to achieve “failure,” in the sense that his goal was to prevent the piece from matching pre-conceived notions of what it was supposed to be. He set out a priori to disappoint expectations and deny mehrwert, and despite my initial misgiving about what I saw performed, I have no choice but to admit that in a way (different from what he intended, it’s true) it worked. But interestingly, I was also forced to acknowledge that the effect could be achieved without recourse to me, or any cleverly misleading preview materials or even a description: the title alone and the setting of a theater as opposed to a club were enough to achieve it.

Let’s take a turn in a very different direction and I’ll see if I can bring this all back around: DD Dorvillier’s Danza Permanente and, in fact, Alastair Macaulay’s ridiculous review of the show. My feelings on Macaulay’s criticism are pretty well established, I think (see here, and here).

Dorvillier told me in our interview that one of the things she was working with in the piece was exposing the labor of performance, the “constant relationship to interpretation, to being the interpreter, to being the conduit of the music or dance or information.”

What’s fascinating to me is that (and I admit, I may have been primed for it by our discussion) this was the thing that emerged most from the performance. Dorvillier incorporated music into this piece in a way that promised to be provocative: Rather than being a dance set to a music, she sought to make the musical score–the document itself, rather than the soundtrack–the dance score. In other words, rather than responding to the music, her dancers were supposed to be the musical score. They were supposed to interpret through their bodies and presence not the feelings the music evoked but rather its structure and composition.

The first sign that it worked, I guess, was when I started paying attention to the dancers’ feet. This happened about two-thirds of the way through. At some point, they were wearing some sort of stage shoes; tonally, I noticed when two of the dancers removed these.

In traditional balletic forms, there’s a dematerialization of labor. In ballet, the sound of the dancer’s foot hitting the floor is minimized–it’s a sign of a lack of accomplishment. In dance, feet are extraordinarily important–you pick up on it fast. Dance is a skill, a learned technique, and you can tell a lot about the artist by watching his or her feet. A couple weeks ago in Philadelphia, I saw New Paradise Labs’ 27, and when I met actor Matteo Scammell afterward (who played Kurt Cobain) I wound up asking him if he had dance training (he did), because I noticed how he was arching his foot doing leaps off a table (he was barefoot during the performance).

So one of the most interesting things about Danza Permanente was the degree to which it made me hyper-aware of the sound of the dancers’ feet on the floor. The choice to play with shoes versus bare feet was a conscious one on Dorvillier’s part. The timbre was very different, just as the timbre differs between a cello and a violin. But within the context of dance, the hyper-awareness this brings fixates your attention on the effort of the dancer. It makes you aware you are hearing the sound of the dancers’ feet on the stage floor, in a way that wouldn’t have normally registered in contemporary dance (which dematerializes gravity and impact far less than ballet). You are literally hearing the effort of the dancers, an effect achieved through variation of the timbre of the impact, and through various other devices throughout the piece, you find yourself paying more and more attention to signs of their efforts.

This is, sadly, a predictable turn-off for Alastair Macaulay, who remains committed to the dematerialization of the labor in dance. The thing that links his offensive comments about Jenifer Ringer’s consumption of proverbial sugarplums and Walter Dundervill’s unequal thighs is the degree to which the labor is materialized. If Macaulay were a better critic, he’d acknowledge that his main complaint about cellulite is that it moves in one direction even if the dancer is moving in another, which reveals the effort and force of the act. This is Macaulay’s deep and largely unacknowledged prejudice–it’s not even about the dancer’s “looks,” he just doesn’t like it when the labor is materialized, and criticizes it even if it’s clearly one of the work’s propositions. Which isn’t to say that Dorvillier’s piece didn’t have problems–the single sentence I can see some sense in in his otherwise snarky review is: “But there is no partnering (also no floorwork).” It’s oddly specific (and incomplete) but given the conceit, there were many dimensions to the choreography left unexplored, in terms of space, both horizontally and vertically, as well as the relational arrangement of dancers. But is the piece as bad as Macaulay suggests? No. He simply doesn’t like it because it does something he doesn’t like dance to do, and lacks the insight or courage to say so directly.

But here, on the topic of labor, we find ourselves at perhaps the most commented upon piece thus far at Crossing the Line: David Levine’s Habit. I interviewed Levine, and he recently allowed the publication at the Performance Club of an essay that further contextualizes his work. It’s fascinating stuff and is concerned with this intersection of labor and surplus value.

Habit is a cross between an installation and a theater play. The piece has to be situated within a sort of a visual art context. At the Essex Street Market, where it played in NYC, it was a raw industrial space, not a white cube–very much in keeping with laboratory/process-based presentation très en vogue in the wake of relational art. Within the space, Levine creates in three dimensions the most cliche theatrical setting of the American stage: a white trashy ranch-style house.

Within the setting, Levine presents a 90-minute play on loop. For nine hours a day, with alternating daily casts, a simplistic and predictable (to be clear, this was Levine’s intent) naturalist play unfolds. The actors know the script, but the blocking is wholly improvised. If they need to use the bathroom, cook food to eat, or just want to change it up, the actors choose their location and positioning as the action unfolds. The play’s ending (a double murder suicide when I saw it) sets up the beginning (three people waking up hung-over after a party). During the work day, no one enters, and no one leaves. It’s a self-propagating system.

Conceptually, Habit is inherently playing against surplus value; it actively engages both the visual arts and performing arts discourses and seeks to satisfy neither. As Levine told me, referencing his earlier piece Bauerntheater:

If you came […] looking for endurance art, you were instantly disappointed by the fact the guy was wearing a costume. You would have been perfectly happy to see the 990-hour endurance piece about farming, but what was disappointing was he was an actor. Or if you went to see this little-done Muller play, you would have been disappointed that there was no narrative or drama, just this guy farming, with the reassurance that he was ‘acting,’ but you couldn’t tell. Habit‘s just a much more fulfilling version of that.

The two discourses and their attendant expectations are set to contradict one another, thus both “failing” to produce their respective mehrwert. But just as Dorvillier sought to reveal the labor of the production, so did Levine, and the way this plays out actually prevents the intended failure.

When you go to Habit you’re presented with a couple things at once. First, a play. There’s a clear narrative and an action you try to follow as a spectator but can’t really. For one thing, unless you come at the opening in the morning, you don’t know what the beginning of the script is. And for another, you can’t actually see or hear it all from one position. It’s an installation within the space. You’re forced to move fitfully around it trying to catch all the dialogue and action, an impossible task. This leads you to the second thing the piece clearly presents: That it’s an installation, a visual art work that exists at a conceptual level.

The problem with Habit is that it doesn’t quite “fail” as successfully as it seems to want. I went four times. Three times for 40-50 minutes and once for about 10 (long story, I’m just being forthright). I saw the script (which runs about 75-90 minutes, depending) all the way through across all visits, but mostly I got to see the middle–I only saw the beginning/end once.

Theatrically speaking, what did I see, as a critic? The honest answer is a weak script with weak, improvisatory staging. Not because the actors were bad or unaccomplished, but because it was improvised and you could see them struggling to maintain motivation for their actions as they responded to one another. And this, in turn, was placed within a decidedly visual art context. Habit isn’t participatory in the same way, say, Sleep No More is. The audience appraises it as an object. This produces an interesting conflict–Habit works as visual art but fails as theater, and the reason is that theatrical component reveals its labor while the visual art component does not.

What you see watching Habit is actors struggling to make a failing proposition (namely, to produce a realistic compelling fiction) work. Let’s be concrete–the ending I saw featured cheesy death scenes. People lying around breathing through physical exertion though they were supposed to be dead. Nary a special effect to be seen. Willing suspension of disbelief was the ask of the day. What you saw–what any theater novice would have seen–was the labor of producing the play. And if you missed it the first time around, all you had to do was wait long enough for another cycle to reveal the divergences, the differences, and thus further expose the labor of presentation. Over time, the fiction of the play disappears and you find yourself watching actors working.

But the labor of performance doesn’t resist objectification. The theatrical surplus value may have been in short supply, but interestingly, the contextualization as visual art object was quite successful, precisely because exposing labor is deeply authentic. Not even as a descriptive term, but in fact in actuality–watching an actor breathe while playing dead is authentic as you get, just as Dorvillier’s footwear choices draw your attention to the action of the feet. Visual art isn’t antithetical to drama, it just objectifies it. Damien Hirst, for instance, placed thousands of butterflies within the objectifying frame of one of his vitrines, the drama of their life from cocoon-emergence to death–dropping, with no doubt a delightfully authentic thud to the floor of the Tate Modern–turned into an art-object.

So drama–even the most authentic sort, from actual birth to actual death–can be objectified. Why would labor be any different? Comparatively it’s quite easy, as Habit displays. The piece works in a rather ugly way; theater, with its ephemerality, has no power over the frame proposed within the piece. Levine’s ranch-house is shockingly similar in aesthetic terms to Hirst’s vitrines: A big box that separates the viewer from the object. I was tempted more than once to impose myself on the actors, to reach in, knock over a stack of CD’s or throw open the window curtain while they were using the bathroom, just to break down the non-physical barrier the between spectator and performer the piece establishes. I suspect, in fact, that Levine might be totally okay with that. But just as I try not to litter and bus my own table, I didn’t do it, because I didn’t want to impose more work on the actors, to make their lives harder.

And this gets us back to precisely what I see as troubling about the transdisciplinary art I’ve seen presented thus far: It proposes to toy with the various discourses (I use “discourse” charitably; “expectations of spectatorship” is more apt but more cumbersome), yet we can see within this transdisciplinary proposition its own expectation, its own structured mehrwert–that of surprise at the denial of expectation. That’s your pay-off. Of the three works works I’ve discussed, Kurdian’s succeeded in spite of itself, Levine’s sought to achieve something it didn’t quite pull off, and Dorvillier’s–the only one situated fully within a singular tradition–was pilloried for daring question the assumptions of traditionalists, a far less radical sounding proposition than the other two. But seen this way, Dorvillier’s is the most successful of the three, problems with the piece notwithstanding.

To return to Diederichsen, I think it’s revealing that, seeking to elucidate the concept of mehrwert, he resorts to the analogy of a joke and its punchline. If you laugh, if the joke’s funny, that’s your mehrwert. A joke sets up a punchline, much like the framing of an art-work establishes our expectations of what it will do. In the past, you see, I’ve also written about jokes as way to explore performance creation. But here Diederichsen and I depart. Despite his critique of mehrwert in the art, in some ways he remains committed to it. The resistance he proposes is negation, the refusal to offer the pay-off. He references artists like Salvador Dali and Martin Kippenberger using this analogy, artists who would essentially set up the joke but then refuse to deliver the punchline. This, for Diederichsen, is a sort of resistance to the capitalist valuation of art, as it refuses to provide the value-add, the pay-off, at the end.

But whether you provide the punchline or not, the only thing we’re concerned with here is the punchline, the pay-off, the mehrwert, except we’ve defined failure as an equally valid goal to pursue. But we’re still obsessed with the end point. I would again propose the counter-example of “The Aristocrats.” For those who haven’t seen the film of the same title, “The Aristocrats” is a joke whose power emerges not from its punchline (which is nonsense) but rather from its telling. “The Aristocrats” succeeds as process, in other words, not product. Its utterly unconcerned with its punchline. And I think this is an important concept to keep in mind. Compared to the work of, say, Michael Kliën and Steve Valk’s Choreography for Blackboards, or, indeed, the critical writings of Marten Spangberg, artists who propose that art can be a methodology for analyzing the world in which we live, the rest of these “transdisciplinary” artists seem engaged in so much jouissance–play for its own sake.

“Transdisciplinary” in this sense is a misnomer: It has less to do with discipline than with expectation and frame. It can play with expectation, but offers nothing more than the contrived failure of playing against form. And as such, despite the putative rejection of definition implied by the prefix “trans-,” it’s as fixed a format as any other, its mehrwert established as little more than pop nihilism, the rejection of expectation.

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