Relational March: Lexington and Louisville, KY
Day 4-6: Lexington/Louisville, KY
We are here in Lexington at the University of Kentucky on the invitation of Rae Goodwin and Dmitry Strakovsky. We met Dmitry briefly last year at Grace Exhibition Space, he is (among many other things) a performance artist. We met Rae in July 2013 when she was in Brooklyn as part of Residency Unlimited. She became a primary collaborator during the Brooklyn International Performance Art Festival (BIPAF) and has performed at Glasshouse Projects, Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery, and as part of many other interconnected performance art festivals and exhibitions, a core member of what may be cognized and termed as “the international performance art community.” Here at the University of Kentucky, Rae is an Assistant Professor and Director of Studio Foundations. Rae is an artist and person whose philosophies and aesthetics are conceptually unified across all areas of her life. While the university may perceive a schism between her work as a pedagogue and academic and her work as a professional artist, Rae’s focus on personal heritage and intergenerational community, and her beliefs in the emotional and psychological health that collective action can support, ethically underpin her relationships with people across spheres. Professors and professional artists alike are often most successful when such conceptual cohesion is visible, functional, and focused: when concepts are translated directly into social, public action. Here is an interview with Rae Goodwin in her studio that provides a window into her ideas and their concrete application:
After we perform in the U of K gallery, there is a Q & A. All day, being here in this setting, we remember what it was like to just begin to connect personal values and philosophies with one’s artwork. To just begin to build “A Practice,” yes, but also to relate values and ideas to in-world performances as well as to making art. The differences between two different ways of framing “practices” (1: as a consistent mode of production that translates concepts into art objects, 2: as a way of relating based in values and conceptual concerns) are made somewhat painfully apparent as we attempt to answer multiple questions about the concepts behind our work and what the work is “about;”
Future Death Toll and PPL both work relationally, each performance is a process, concepts are interpreted by individual spectators and participants rather than communicated as messages and our methodologies are rooted in concepts which are embodied as relationships rather than represented as images, objects, or informations. One student asks (a much better question for a performance artist actually) what it feels like to perform, Edward asks him in return what he felt like during the performances. “Like my life was being blown apart,” the student says “like I was going to throw up.”
On Friday, as we are doing critiques with MFA students throughout their vast studio building, this same student, shows Rae and me his notebook, filled hypergraphically with symbols and diagrams; he is attempting to build a “universal lexicon” tying together Kaballah, the tarot, alchemy, the periodic table, and a number of other arcane and scientific systems. The student speaks so fast, pumped so full of concepts. I remember what it was like to be 19, how little everything made sense, and how much sense seemed to be possible.
Other students have developed ways of justifying and explicating their art work, perceiving of practice solely as a mode of production translating concepts into meaningful objects. One graduating MFA candidate explains that his use of turmeric is tied to his cultural background, that his close-up photography of spices references traditional Indian landscape painting. Referentiation itself, cultural representation, objectification of identity, and other more complex conceptual lines of questioning are circumscribed in favor of summary elucidation of the art objects. Other students are struggling with elucidation, and also with conceptual cohesion, especially when their work has social, performative, or conceptual aspects. One student in particular is desperate to find a way of framing his extremely disparate ideas into something that can be explained in words, something that can brand him and ready him for public distribution. He has, variously, built a huge installation of toilet paper, lumber, leaves, bells, and fishing line in the studio building basement, and written out the URLs of hundreds of Google searches for “Traditional Chinese Painting” on large sheets of paper. Teetering between conceptual work, performance work, sculpture, and painting, this student has been warned that if he doesn’t (literally) get it all together, he will be ejected from the MFA program (and consequently, with loss of student visa, the country).
This student, and many professional artists too, complain that the “art world” can reject what it can’t objectify, what can’t be explained and seen through a 30-minute studio visit. Performance art especially, as much as it is negatively defined by its resistance to product-based art, is also often defined by its focus on relativity (which can also be perceived as inconsistency, reactivity, dispersal), improvisation (which can also be perceived as lack of preconsideration, lack of virtuosity, failure to fulfill expectations), and embodiment (which can also be perceived as lack of apparent connection between ideas and form or failure to provide a clear cause and effect between concept and realization). Dear Andy: What kind of understandability does art need to be “good”? And where does this understandability lie?
It seems invaluable for students to work with a professional artist like Rae, whose work results not only in objects or individual mimetic performances but also in life practices and the processes of practicing, i.e. teaching, teaching teachers to teach, working collaboratively through organizations like Integrative Teaching International, of which she is president, and throughout the performance art community.
On Thursday Rae (who is also spoiling us rotten with home-cooked meals, bourbon, and warm bedding) drives us up to I.D.E.A.S. 40203, a contemporary art chamber of commerce centered around artists-as-entrepreneurs. Founders Theo Edmonds and Joshua Miller frame their curation and cultural organization as social performance art, and as strategies towards combining art and “sustainable economic development.” The chamber of commerce/gallery itself is in a neighborhood where people sit in electric wheelchairs across the street, passing a bottle of vodka. We are conflicted, torn between interest in the form of the project (i.e. its focus on the second type of framing practice) and the implications of this practicing that we perceive; while the project claims to support and exist to serve its Louisville “community,” the gallery door remains locked during the day and problems of gentrification and the results of “economic development” through art seem totally ignored. PPL’s performance involves digging up pieces of bricks in the empty lot across the street and bringing them into the gallery. Perhaps fortunately for our “careers” as artists, Theo and Joshua don’t seem to see this action or the rest of the performance as a (respectfully) critical reaction. They ask to keep the pieces of bricks (which are in a line across the inside of the gallery) but they didn’t invite anyone to the event and they don’t pay us for our “entrepreneurial” labor as performers or for the ephemera. Every action is conceptually complex, every action is hypocritical through some subjective lens.
Dear Andy: what kind of cohesion does social performance need to have to be responsible? And where does this responsibility lie?
To continue this post would be to trespass into more and more vague territory, into the autonomy of art and its (potentially intentional) escape from social responsibility, into art education and its processes (none of us on this tour have MFAs so might be unqualified to discuss this), into attempts to define of what “a concept” is, into further deliberations on types of practice and nouns vs. verbs…after delicious blueberry pancakes made by Rae, instead of writing more on this post we press on to St. Louis.