Relational March: Lincoln, Iowa City, Madison
Relational March Day 10-16
After performances at SPATIVM in Lincoln, NE (part of Parrish Studios), Public Space One in Iowa City, IA and Evolution Arts Collective in Madison, WI and other brief public stunts, PPL and Future Death Toll attempt to respond to clusters of audience members gathering around us and asking “But What Does it Mean?” While we find this social behavior preferable to the occasional isolation and avoidance we’ve felt in other parts of the country, these conversations (feedback, responses, lines of questioning) have become a major aspect of this leg of the relational tour and more psychologically and emotionally exhausting than we have expected.
Two artists at Evolution, David Kelley-Daithi and Bijon Ronaghy, bring up cognitive dissonance and resistance to interpretation in conversation; as an abstract expressionist painter and a conceptual artist, respectively, they share vocabulary and ideas surrounding the futility of any search for empiric meaning(s).
Others, however, express their confusion and sometimes outright anger after our performances and our resistance to explaining what we “mean” by the prison/construction orange (F-DT’s signature color), by the bowling ball duct-taped to the foot, by the black plastic trash bags over the head, by the semi-nude dances, the climbing over bathroom stall doors, the declarative text, the interactions. Sometimes we forget that there is no direct equation between “understanding” and enjoyment: those individuals who are angered by our work seem to be so because they find it “sexual, alien, aggressive, hostile,” all descriptions that seem to conflux directly with fear of an “Other,” something not-understandable. On the other hand, those individuals who are excited and moved by the work seem attracted to the fetish of its Otherness, calling it “political, sexy, gut-wrenching, trippy.” Lack of understanding can also equal enjoyment. We can’t reduce these negative or positive reactions to socio-political responses to our representations of queerness, political opinion, or religiosity, reactions are far more complex than identity politics and formal opinions; we are all semiotic petri dishes swarming with multiplicitly interpretable signs. In Madison, our curator and host, the very warm and welcoming Kim Roberts, embodies the most common response we’ve found on this tour, a generous reassurance that she loves “the far-out, the wild, the crazy.” Her reaction echoes perceptions of performance art found all over the country, even in Brooklyn (see Matthew Silver’s language about his performance events at Bizarre Bar and elsewhere) where “crazy” quickly loses meaning due to lack of any “normal” to which anything could be compared.
Traditionally, the question “but is it art?” is the best question a performance art action can raise. But, if a thing is understood to be art, the type of art that it is can remain unrecognizable. Is it “bad” art then, or is it just misunderstood by its audience? If something is “crazy” does it mean that it is insensible and therefore not understandable, or that it’s foolish, unimportant, irrelevant to larger social issues or daily experience? Whose responsibility is it, to “understand”? And what, exactly, can or should be understood, and in what context?
After one of our site visits in one of these cities, Brian expresses uneasiness with regards to the “appropriate context” in which our performance work is about to be presented. Outside of economically and dialectically legitimized artworld galleries, theaters, site-specific-festival-sites, museums, etc, context is complicated by an intentional lack of it, and/or a lack of consideration of it due to homogenous default contexts created by lack of diversity. It is almost impossible to tell the difference between an arts community “marooned” from the artworld at large by geographic location and lack of inclusion in discourse vs. arts communities intentionally resistant to dominant artworld modes and models.
Either way, context slips around us. Based on framing (by the venue, including poster and publicity language, previous events, the art already in the space, etc) we could be a tiny circus, a punk band, we could be strippers or prostitutes (as a woman in one location feared), a sideshow, or even total “hacks:” our actions, movements, texts, and sounds could be estranged by our pure ignorance of “what art is supposed to be.” While we are in active pursuit of non-normative situations for performance, sometimes, “appropriateness of context” simply means a potentiality that a majority of audience members will or will not “understand” (and/or “enjoy”) an artist’s work (in any way, let alone in the way that the artist may themselves expect to be understood/understand it).
Edward asks: Does this have cultural relevance? What is cultural relevance?
Despite our declarations that we have no expectations for any specific understandings and that we desire to make performance work that can be accessed by anyone via their subjective perceptions, a lack of consideration of “appropriateness” with regards to context (as I attempt to define for this piece of writing above) is also a pretention: how could we possibly assume that what we’re doing would be tangentially able to relate to any of the individuals present, without some semblance of shared understandings/expectations? How can we explain ourselves, lodged and located as we are in our own educations in art theory, to individuals with very different frames of reference, or on the other hand, how can we explain ourselves, lodged and located as we are in photographs and video of ourselves performing in “low level” spaces, to art world curators and critics?
While the performance art works themselves (i.e. between 8-11pm in the performance space) may be unrelated and unrelatable, at times, we as people maintain that we can, ourselves, relate to other people during the social aspects of the tour-as-a-performance (i.e. the whole month). Certainly, in Madison especially, we have great discussions before the event begins about the horridness of Scott Walker, about the weather, and also about theoretical and ideological views on art. Here is an interview with Daithi, who is a founder of an artists-and-travel network called World Artist Exchange.
Backed into theoretical corners, we might insist that it is possible to make performance which takes up, as its politics of aesthetics, a reevaluation of modes of interpretation themselves. However, we also have little agency in this matter as interpretations are automatically performed as much as they are consciously constructed; identifications, associations, reactions, and sensations are stimulated within unbounded spectaculariums of perspective. We can claim anything we want, but questions remain as to who—if anyone—is interested in understanding what we mean, if what we mean is not currently understandable, or does not even intend to be understandable, as such.
Dear Andy: what is a spectacularium?