Friday, April 30, 2010

Change Blindness

The end of the semester draws near and I feel like posting blogs has become somewhat of a salmon run, so I'll write something short. Today I went to the Whitney Biennial. Of the many fantastic and not so interesting works I became interested in Kerry Tribe's Making Memories, which is a short docu-bio about the patient H.M. who is put on screen, interrogated, interviewed and commented on by doctors and neuroscientists. Patients who are referred to by their initials do so in order to remain anonymous. It is incongruous then that we are given some very intimate images of H.M. that reveal a very private space. The film which consists of two projections side by side (analogous to the relationship between right and left hemispheres) is the study of H.M.'s post mortem hippocampal memory. Perhaps then it is significant that his name remains unknown to us, that he remains a patient. What we observe is a becoming memory, and not simply a portrait of an individual, who in any case, because he has lost the ability to record new long-term memories, is not entirely sure of his own identity. We know more about H.M. in fact than he does, and in a way adopt his identity by inferring certain things about his life. The two screens cause our attention to jump, lose record of one image in exchange for the next, simulating a kind of short-term amnesia. The two screens create a gap, which is the space of the not-remembered or the forgotten. In normal healthy subjects change blindness is part of our everyday world. When momentarily distracted we may miss entire details of a person's face or even happenings in the world. One famous test is that of switching agents or objects in front of a subject during a moment of distraction. The subject may or may not be conscious of the fact that there has been a switch and continue interacting with what they perceive to be the same object or person. I feel that Kerry Tribe does a good job in bringing out our own vulnerability when it comes to making memory and recalling our identity, while also remaining true to her subject.

- Caldwell

Virtual Relational Aesthetics

This video – a virtual re-enactment of the re-enactments of Abramovic's works in Second Life – is a follow up to my previous post on Marina's 'The Artist Is Present."

(Note you might need view the video directly on youtube because you need to sign in as above 18 years old viewer)


Past Sculptures

My second blog post is again less a theoretical investigation on a particular matter than a question or an experiment.

I have to admit that the recent show of Marina Abramovic does less strike and entertain me because of the artworks themselves (although I have to say that I respect and appreciate her body of work very much) or because of theoretical references we tempt to force on art works; rather it interests me as a new step or understanding that she provides us on performance art. I am not sure whether this is a critical point or it is just how performance art is developing in its organic way and whether there should be less resistant against this development. We'll see.

But what I mean with a new step in performance art is that I think Abramovic denied a very specific element of performance art which is the event, the actions performed on-site and on the specificity of time. Time specificity and site specificity. So what happens if we deny this element and just concentrate on the concept or the script of the performance? A script which usually is in itself open and again based on the site and the time in which it will be performed. Even the term 'to perform' is in my opinion not the right term. But because of the lack of English I can not suggest another term at this moment. So what happens here if we just take the script and the plan of an already happened event/performance; what happens if just take the documentation of it and let it be re-enacted by other performers? Can we still talk about performance art? Or are we talking about objects? Isn't it the same as 'living sculptures' of Gilbert and George?

In the case of Marina's 'The Artist is Present,' I think that all we perceive in her show are objects in the form of documentation material or sculpture. Nothing there is time- and site-specific anymore. Everything is ruled by a plan. Even the exhibition design was based on the plans and scripts of the performances. There is no space for process. There are guards and rules who tell you how to be in this space. Everything is an re-enactment and theater. It is nostalgia. It is past. The artist is not present. The artist is object. The artist is past. And I will be able to buy the artist.


Smooth Hypertext

I just wanted to share a few blurbs with you which I came across recently and I thought they might be related to the concept of "smooth space" as Delezue and Guattari described it.

The first blurb is a work by Christian Hubert, which some of you might know already. This theory is in the form a hypertext and "It contains extensive paraphrases of readings, generally, but not always, clearly credited [...] Many come from readings in contemporary developments in science like chaos and complex systems studies, some theoretical biology, and some related philosophical writings, particularly the work of Deleuze and Guattari."

The second blurb is a background sketch on the history of the hypertext. I wanted to mention a text by Critical Art Ensemble to open up the field. It is the chapter 5: "Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production" from the book The Electronic Disturbance. Here is an extract:

"Thinking about a new means for recombining information has always been on 20th-century minds, although this search has been left to a few until recently. In 1945 Vannevar Bush, a former science advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, proposed a new way of organizing information in an Atlantic Monthly article. At that time, computer technology was in its earliest stages of development and its full potential was not really understood. Bush, however, had the foresight to imagine a device he called the Memex. In his view it would be based around storage of information on microfilm, integrated with some means to allow the user to select and display any section at will, thus enabling one to move freely among previously unrelated increments of information.

At the time, Bush’s Memex could not be built, but as computer technology evolved, his idea eventually gained practicality. Around 1960 Theodor Nelson made this realization when he began studying computer programming in college:

'Over a period of months, I came to realize that, although programmers structured their data hierarchically, they didn’t have to. I began to see the computer as the ideal place for making interconnections among things accessible to people. I realized that writing did not have to be sequential and that not only would tomorrow’s books and magazines be on [cathode ray terminal] screens, they could all tie to one another in every direction. At once I began working on a program (written in 7090 assembler language) to carry out these ideas.'

Nelson’s idea, which he called hypertext, failed to attract any supporters at first, although by 1968 its usefulness became obvious to some in the government and in defense industries. A prototype of hypertext was developed by another computer innovator, Douglas Englebart, who is often credited with many breakthroughs in the use of computers (such as the development of the Macintosh interface, Windows). Englebart’s system, called Augment, was applied to organizing the government’s research network, ARPAnet, and was also used by McDonnell Douglas, the defense contractor, to aid technical work groups in coordinating projects such as aircraft design:

'All communications are automatically added to the Augment information base and linked, when appropriate, to other documents. An engineer could, for example, use Augment to write and deliver electronically a work plan to others in the work group. The other members could then review the document and have their comments linked to the original, eventually creating a “group memory” of the decisions made. Augment’s powerful linking features allow users to find even old information quickly, without getting lost or being overwhelmed by detail.'

Computer technology continued to be refined, and eventually— as with so many other technological breakthroughs in this country—once it had been thoroughly exploited by military and intelligence agencies, the technology was released for commercial exploitation. Of course, the development of microcomputers and consumer-grade technology for personal computers led immediately to the need for software which would help one cope with the exponential increase in information, especially textual information. Probably the first humanistic application of hypertext was in the field of education. Currently, hypertext and hypermedia (which adds graphic images to the network of features which can be interconnected) continue to be fixtures in instructional design and educational technology. An interesting experiment in this regard was instigated in 1975 by Robert Scholes and Andries Van Dam at Brown University. Scholes, a professor of English, was contacted by Van Dam, a professor of computer science, who wanted to know if there were any courses in the humanities that might benefit from using what at the time was called a text-editing system (now known as a word processor) with hypertext capabilities built in. Scholes and two teaching assistants, who formed a research group, were particularly impressed by one aspect of hypertext. Using this program would make it possible to peruse in a nonlinear fashion all the interrelated materials in a text. A hypertext is thus best seen as a web of interconnected materials. This description suggested that there is a definite parallel between the conception of culture- text and that of hypertext:

'One of the most important facets of literature (and one which also leads to difficulties in interpretation) is its reflexive nature. Individual poems constantly develop their meanings—often through such means as direct allusion or the reworking of traditional motifs and conventions, at other times through subtler means, such as genre development and expansion or biographical reference—by referring to that total body of poetic material of which the particular poems comprise a small segment.'"

I will send the PDF of Critical Art Ensemble around for those who are interested to read further. Related to the above there is also a graphic/map which I have found on the Documenta 12 website through which they tried to visualize the concept behind the 'Documenta 12 Magazines' program. The website and description:

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mark B.N. Hansen and Jim Campbell: Exploded Frames and Views

In this week’s reading from New Philosophy and New Media (2006), Mark B.N. Hansen lays out the foundations for his theory of new media art, rooted in a phenomenological, Bergsonian understanding of the way artists and audiences engage with such data. The work of photographer, digital video, new media and installation artist Jim Campbell engages and illustrates many of Hansen’s ideas regarding embodied vision, and its role in framing the flow of digital flow of data for every viewer, in his current exhibition Exploded View (through May 22, 2010) at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. Arguing for the radical newness of new media art in the face of dismissive evaluations like those of Rosalind Krauss and Liev Manovich, Hansen writes, with the flexibility brought about by digitization, there occurs a displacement of the framing function of medial interfaces back onto the body from which they themselves originally sprang (22, emphasis original). For Hansen, the content of a new media artwork, transformed into raw binary data, is increasingly liberated from the material requirements of one particular medium or support like a canvas or photographic print. Consequently, the body takes on the role of delimiting the scope and scale of the work’s data or, as Hansen writes, “as media lose their material specificity, the body takes on a more prominent function as the selective processor of information (22).

In Campbell’s work, particularly the titular centerpiece of his new exhibition, the information on display makes viewers irrevocably aware of their role in framing and processing of the piece. Furthermore, “Exploded Viewundermines the incompatibility that Hansen posits between his interpretation of Bergson and Deleuze’s willingness to grant a certain autonomy to the support through which artworks are presented to viewers (8). Campbell’s practice involves the juxtaposition of moving and static images, the presentation of digital video footage in forms and framing devices that challenge our ability to perceive any figurative data at all, and a foregrounding of the comparatively simple pixel and LED units that make up these visually complex works. In many pieces, such as Montgomery Street Pause(2010), the work seen from a distance shows a horizontal, cinematic street scene in black and white made up of over a thousand LED lights under plexiglass playing in a loop that pauses at its midway point. Upon closer inspection or from an askew angle, however, the figurative image disappears and becomes a fluctuating, abstract pattern of miniscule individual lights of varying intensity. The piece suggests one way we might view its data, while allowing for the body to deploy its sensorimotor power to create the unpredictable, the new(7).

Exploded View(2010) maximizes the role of viewers’ bodies. From one very specific position, the strings of LED bulbs hanging in the darkened gallery like holiday garlands coalesce to reveal endlessly looping footage of a silhouette walking in a circle, falling, getting up, walking further, falling, getting back up and so on. There is no suggestion that this is the one, correctway to view the piece: viewers move around the work freely, apprehending it as an abstract flow of lights not unlike rainfall from certain angles, a kind of digital interpretation of a drip painting in four dimensions. The piece, as Hansen writes, introduces the power of creativity into the sensorimotor body(8) just as it asserts the autonomy of this very specific material presentation of this particular video loop; namely the custom LED structure that Campbell, an MIT-trained electrical engineer and mathematician, designed for the piece. Like the figure in the video it displays from that one specific angle, we circle Exploded Viewencourages us to move around it, apprehending it from different angles and distances. If occasionally we fall into the one spot from which we see the figure running and falling, Campbell’s light and video installation encourages us to keep moving. In doing so, Exploded Viewproblematizes Hansen’s opposition between the frame and embodied perception (8). The piece, like so many of Campbell’s works, foregrounds the process by which the image becomes a merely contingent configuration of numerical values (9), and in this particular configuration as pixels displayed with LED lights it frames one specific form this data can take, while empowering viewers to frame it differently. It frames a digital image that then explodes the frame (35). Rather than suggesting a limitation of Hansen’s work, this additional wrinkle in his new media theory demonstrates the rich complexity of emerging contemporary art practices such as Campbell’s.

This is a video of an earlier piece by Jim Campbell, "White Circle" (2000), which shows how his works go from figurative to abstract based on the angle and proximity of the viewer.

-Benjamin Sutton

The Artist is Present: Marina Abramovic and Relational Aesthetics

It was nothing short of a profoundly unique experience to witness Marina Abramovic's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday, April 24th, 2010. I say this not just because of the profound impact that her work left on me for the days after witnessing the re-performances and re-presentations of her literal "body of work"; this experience was novel as it was the first time MoMA has curated a retrospective on the oeuvre of a performance artist.

I had an inclination of what to expect after having lunch with my artist friend on the Wednesday prior to visiting the museum. She explained the piece that Abramovic herself was to be performing on the second floor of the museum, The Artist is Present, as the artist's ultimate work. My artist friend's explanation served to be a far more modest, cursory description of the performance, as the experience is far more serene yet grand than she made it out to be. Upon entering the museum and ascending the stairs to the Marron Atrium that exists as a space traditionally in constant flux exhibiting temporary collections, large-scale pieces, and video installations, one encounters massive floodlights at each of the four corners of a large square marked off on the floor by tape, the square almost the size of the space itself. In the center of the square sits Abramovic on a chair at one end of a wooden table wearing a long, red gown that is simultaneously confining her body and yet somehow cascading around her legs and onto the floor, making herself at once separate from and one with the chair on which she is positioned. There is a chair positioned at the other end of the table facing the artist in which museum visitors are invited to sit and engage in an unspoken dialogue with the artist for an indeterminate amount of time. Her body appears in this same position every day for the length of museum hours until the retrospective closes on May 31, 2010.

Endurance is a large part of Marina Abramovic's presentation of her body/of work. Sitting or standing for hours at a time, subjecting her body repeatedly to collisions with other objects, beatings, lashings or deprivation, Abramovic tests the limits of human comfort with acts of tedium, stress, and concentration. As she submits her body to these series of acts – examples can be drawn from her three parallel pieces from 1977 entitled Freeing the Memory, Freeing the Body, and Freeing the Voice in which she speaks, dances and screams until she has pushed her body to the point of failure – Abramovic seeks to push her body out of its comfort of stasis and stagnant, un-becoming being. In committing to performing these acts in front of a live audience (or at times the future audience implied in the act of filming the performance), the artist insists on creating a dialogue with herself and her audience, creating herself as both the subject and the object of her body/of work. Much like her piece The Artist is Present, Abramovic questions the notions of object and subject and of artistic and audience.

If, as Nicolas Bourriaud asserts in his text Relational Aesthetics, "each particular artwork is a proposal to live in a shared world, and the work of every artist is a bundle of relations with the world" (i), then Abramovic's aim of blurring the line between artist as subject and audience as object (and vice versa) lies in her confrontation of her body with the spectator. Consistently appearing nude without engaging in sexual acts and subjecting her body to the will of her audience like she did with Rhythm O – asking the audience to use one of 70 or so different objects, some of them potentially lethal, on herself and taking full responsibility – the artist is confronting her audience's notions of the body and of the traditional work of art while at the same time dispelling concepts of sexuality and humanity.

" is no longer possible to regard the contemporary work as a space to be walked through...It is henceforth presented as a period of time to be lived through, like an opening to unlimited discussion" (ii)
– Nicolas Bourriaud
None of Marina Abramovic's works exemplify this quote from Bourriaud more literally than her piece The House with the Ocean View (2002), a space constructed for living out a minimalist existence in the hopes of purifying the artist's body and mind. Consisting of three rooms with nothing more than a shower, a toilet, 12 changes of clothes and gallons of purified water, Abramovic lived in this elevated space for 12 days with three ladders made of butcher knives offering her only chance for escape. While the artist was only present in the space via a filmed projection of one of her performances of this work, the stark space, beautiful in its modernist simplicity and austerity, the picture below offers one glimpse into her 12 day experience in the performance space.

"I didn't have verbal communication. It was only with the eyes. I became so sensitive that – it sounds almost religious – I had this amazing opening of the heart that hurt me. This is why I believe time is so necessary: the public needs time to get the point. When I spend 12 days in a gallery, its energy is changed. Artists have to serve as oxygen to society, and that is what I do" – Marina Abramovic, from an interview for ARTnews.

Katharine Relth

(i) Nicolas Bourriaud. Relational Aesthetics. France: Les presses du reel, 1998 (22).
(ii) Ibid, 15.

The Passage of Time and Construction of Memory: A Thesis

As a supplement to/outline of my presentation for today's class, I wanted to post an explanation of the thesis project I am currently working on. Loosely titled "Through a Century of Ideas: Time and Memory in the Work of Walter Benjamin, Chris Marker, Gilles Deleuze & Wong Kar-Wai" (until I think of something better), the paper will examine the notions of time and memory as they appear in the works of these four figures.

I've been interested for the past year or so in the potential connections between Walter Benjamin's work and that of Deleuze. While I don't want to conflate their arguments, it seems that there are a number of possible connections between their writings, and so I'm looking at Deleuze's Cinema books and a number of Benjamin's essays (and The Arcades Project) to figure out how they interact with and possibly enhance one another. Both Deleuze and Benjamin write extensively on the passage of time and recollection of the past, though where Benjamin's work focuses on the fragmentary and transitory nature of modern experience, Deleuze addresses (in the Cinema books – certainly not in general) more the nature of time itself and the way that Cinema as a medium allows us to experience it qualitatively. Both theorists also use Bergson, and so I will be looking at their different applications of Matter & Memory.

Because this is a project that focuses on cinema, I also wanted to look at directors/film-makers whose work examined the same themes. Wong Kar-Wai and Chris Marker, I think, are working through the same kinds of problems in their films and so I will be examining their films in conjunction with the writings of Deleuze and Benjamin. I'll show some clips in class.

I'm really interested in the way these four figures, whose writings and films span roughly a century, work through the same kinds of problems and what we can get out of engaging with these different socio-historical moments as well as with different mediums.

I'll talk more about my research, concerns, and the things I've been mulling over recently in class, but I also wanted to share with you all a short piece I did for Film Forum last semester that was inspired by this project. I titled it after Proust (mostly because I thought it was funny), and it's a short sort-of documentary piece I shot on the Bolex. It clearly needs some work but addresses some of the same topics in a much more personal/informal kind of way so I thought I'd post it here.

-Ashley Arostegui

24 City and the Time Image

This movie, directed by the Chinese director, Jia Zhangke, brought me clarity about what we have been talking about lately in our class. I believe that it has the formal attributes to be considered an example of modern cinema.

The use of the long shots and depth of field and the approach to a reality intertwining fiction and documentary are the two characteristics that I would like to highlight.

The long shot takes us to another time within time and to another space within space. From the credits scene to the opening scene to the last scene we are transported to the history of factory 420, to the history of the expectation in a modern Chinese society, to the history of the characters, to the history of China, to the history of image and to the history of cinema.

The power of the long shots puts the viewer in touch with the subject even if we lost track of what they are telling, it doesn’t matter. One has so much time to delight in the image, to find the beauty where there is no apparent beauty, that the words of the speakers became just texture, not words anymore. Furthermore it is possible to apprehend history in layers, first the layer of the history of the character, second the layer of the history that this character are in touch with, third the layer of the history of image.

The framing, use of long shots, long takes and depth of field in this film took me back in time to Citizen Kane. Most of the shots used windows, mirrors and the architectural structure to create the framing within the framing. The camera movement occurs only when is absolutely necessary Je Zhangke is capable of generate a film experience, “a moment of awareness”. I’m sure that I will forget the whole story but the images will remain. The same image becomes 1000 images as in Citizen Kane, the transparencies, the mirrors, the windows makes the viewer fly more that just see. I wonder is here is an explanation or a link to what Deleuze meant when he was talking about the crystal image.

The feeling of being face to face with the exceptional characters that he brings to the screen is exceptionally convey in the scene of two men looking at the camera until they laugh, they laugh and the viewer laugh at the same time. They are looking at us and we are looking at them, is a game. I felt that the director was laughing too, making fun of him self, criticizing his own proposal.

Other aspect that interested me was the blend of documentary and fiction, stressing the boundaries between these two genders, just as in Neorealism. He plays another mirror game with the actress Joan Chen whose nickname is Little Flower. She is playing the role of Gu Minhua in 24 city and in her story she talks about how the people in the factory used to tell her Little Flower because she was very similar to this actress. I believe that these games bring to scene the inherent question of reality in cinema.

Finally I will like to say, that with this film I understood the power of the time image as the generator of a unique and whole reality, just A reality not THE reality It does not matter if it is documentary or fiction. Some might complain that he is leaving behind “the moral contract” with the viewer but I believe that he is generating a new relation between him and his work and between his work and the viewer. He is bringing back the “aesthetic contract”.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Process of Becoming-Animal

For this post I wanted to briefly outline becoming-animal as a concept and how it relates to human becomings. Before entering this description I should stress that it will be an extremely truncated and perhaps incomplete reading of becoming-animal since I am still coming to terms with the specifics of this expansive subject. I think that Deleuze and Guattari’s most succinct description of becoming-animal is actually in the chapter on the rhizome when talking about the relationship between the orchid and the wasp (which we read for class). Deleuze and Guattari write (please excuse the length of this quote) that the relationship between these two beings is:

“not imitation at all but a capture of code, surplus value of code, an increase in valence, a veritable becoming, a becoming wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization even further. There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjected by anything: Rimy Chauvin expresses it well: ‘the aparallel evolution of two beings that have absolutely nothing to do with each other’" (10).

This description of two entities becoming each other is perhaps easier to grasp since the human does not enter into the equation, and along with that issues of choice and intentionality become clearer. What we have in the relationship between the orchid and the wasp is clearly not either party literally turning into the other, pretending to be the other, identifying with, sympathizing or pitying the other (which are all possible misconceptions of becoming-animal). Instead what we find is a co-establishing and transgressing of borders between to two entities, which are, themselves, constructions of other entities. The wasp exists as it exists because of the orchid, although they are still distinct from each other. Yet, despite this distinction, they both transgress their own borders: the wasp finding its inverse image in the orchid, the orchid leaving its pollen with the wasp. In this way each entity’s body is found to be porous and composite in nature, leaving parts of themselves with the other.

This process takes on a political dynamic once the human enters the picture. What we consider essential in humans is brought into question through our interspecies becomings, and once these basic assumptions are called into question so too are a whole host of secondary assumptions upon which we shape our society. Foucault clearly illustrates this towards the end of this debate with Chomsky:

I identify three main myths that are called into question through Deleuze and Guattari’s chapter on becoming-animal: those of human individuality, the basis of our social organizations, and the completeness of the human body. Individuality, our distinct status as personalities fade as we leave ourselves, or open ourselves, in pursuit of relationships outside the human. This takes up Deleuze and Guattari’s fight with Oedipal thinking and the essential narcissism of Freudian psychology (the exact same narcissism that Mark Hansen champions). Thus they argue that little Hans is having an interspecies relationship with the horse, a becoming horse, not an intra-species and introspective relationship with his own memories. Human rights, no longer restricted to the human, lose their essential and inevitable qualities. As Foucault describes in the above clip, the mechanisms of justice, education, the family, the church, the army and so on are revealed as state rather than natural human constructions. The member of the mob, the pack, or the band replaces the individual within the family, the church, or the society. This is one sense of becoming-pack; the other correlates with the concept of becoming-molecular. As the barrier between human and non-human is broken down, so too is the barrier erected by the body. The body becomes, not an independent, stable object onto itself, but a house full of doors and activity, in which outside forces are constantly entering, exiting and interacting. We stop being a body of functioning, goal-oriented organs, and become a streaming highway, a convergence of forces.

-Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa

Monday, April 26, 2010

Relational Aesthetics

I took my children, Luca age seven and Jackson age 11 to the MOMA for my field report. We had a wonderful day and it was interesting to see and feel the museum from a child’s point of view. When we arrived there was a long line and both of my children started to complain. We jumped on line, and because of the ten-minute wait we started to socialize with the people all around us. Just waiting on line was a relational experience for us; it appears people enjoy seeing children at museums! This was a good omen, I have never taken my kids to any museum other than The Museum of Natural History and aquariums and zoo’s. I was not sure if my boys and the MOMA were ready to meet each other?

We walked around, looked at many beautiful paintings and finally stumbled upon the Marina Abramovic installation, “The Artist is Present”. Bourriaud states that what the artists produces, “first and foremost, is relations between people and the world, by way of aesthetic objects." This installation was a little world of its own and for me and my children experiencing this piece of art was definitely a “state of encounter.”

The whole atmosphere felt like a cross between a movie set and a church. There were big lights shining on the artist and her partner and cameras were placed at each end of the exhibit. There also was a hushed silence, and a feeling of reverence or group prayer hovering in the air. My children were immediately captivated and my younger son said, “Mom let’s sit down, it’s weird but I am not getting that bored feeling in my stomach."

So we sat down and experienced Marina Abramovic in a beautiful flowing red dress sitting across from a young woman in a jean skirt and white sneakers. Abramovic and the woman intently looked into each other’s faces and the experience was silent and beautiful. Most of the people watching in the audience quietly chatted with each other and it was so invigorating to sit and watch the artist and her subject interact. The intimacy between the two women was spellbinding and it felt refreshing to witness this true human connection without any filters. I felt like I had a social bond with the artist and her subject and I also felt like I was sharing what it means to be human with my children and the other spectators.

Afterwards, I had a conversation with my children about what the work meant. For me, it was like a metaphor for how an artist works and what it means to “put yourself into your work”. Also, it was a truly relational experience, something akin to a collective group worship, where every spectator is fiercely engaged in the process of learning about themselves and their experience in the world. Thank you Marina Abramovic!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Movement and the Digital Image

As an initial reaction to a technical detail of Mark Hansen’s argument, I’d like to talk about movement and pixilation in the digital image. On page 9 of the introduction to New Philosophy for New Media Hanson writes:

“If the digital image is an accumulation of such discontinuous fragments, [pixels] each of which can be addressed independently of the whole, there is no longer anything materially linking the content of the image with its frame, understood in its Bergsonist-Deleuzean function as a cut into the flux of the real. Rather the image becomes a merely contingent configuration of numerical values that can be subjected to ‘molecular’ modification, that lacks any motivated relation to any image-to-follow.”

According to my, admittedly limited, knowledge of video files this is, strictly speaking, untrue. A compressed video file is made up of both the change in color pixel-by-pixel, frame-by-frame (called the I-frame) and the movement within those frames through time (called the P-frame). This is what allows for the technique called datamoshing in which I-frames are deleted but P-frames are not, creating a decidedly unique effect. This technique has been used by artists such as Takeshi Murata:

And Paperrad:

How this retention of movement-in-time effects Hanson’s argument theoretically I’m unsure. In Deleuzean terms, the strictly striated space of pixel grid is smoothed over by the P-frame’s access to movement which identifies larger forms on the screen and transgresses the borders of individual pixels. For a how-to video on datamoshing and more information about the process you can watch this video:

-Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Two Examples of Relational Art: Tino Sehgal vs. Marina Abramovic

Tino Sehgal's piece "This is progress" at Guggenheim was something of a disappointment for me: it did not seem a successful example of socially engaged art. The work belongs to the realm of what Nicolas Bourriaud calls "relational aesthetic": its meaning should be elaborated in a collective effort, through the encounters between the artwork and the viewers. Claire Bishop's famous criticism of the work of several artists supported by Bourriard (e.g., Rirkrit Tiravanija) raises the question of the character and the quality of the inter-subjective relationships that arise in such socially engaged artworks – the issues essentially ignored by Bourriaud. Bishop's concern in her response to Bourriard's texts is the possibility of formulating aesthetic criteria for judging socially engaged art. According to Bourriard, relational artwork is automatically capable of producing positive human relationships by means of its "social form", which immediately makes it political and emancipatory. But is it really so? Bishop argues that the mere social structure of an artwork encouraging inter-subjective interaction often leads to trivial, self-satisfied art, which circumvents truly political issues. Bishop suggests that for relational art to be successful, it should "provide a more concrete and polemical grounds for rethinking our relationship to the world and to one other". Such grounds for Bishop are political issues: social inequality, exploitation, etc (e.g., Thomas Hirschhorn's work).

I think it is fair to ask questions about the character and the quality of the inter-subjective interactions with regards to Sehgal's piece. What kind of the relationship is produced between the viewers and the performers of the piece? What is the meaning of the question that opens the piece ("What is progress?"), who asks it and why is it being asked? What are the roles of the artist, the performers and the viewers? How are they structured and why?

Sehgal's piece seems to be a good example of the relational art in which the "social form" is the end in itself: the piece is deemed socially engaged and successful because it provokes a conversation between the viewer and the performers of the piece. The whole structure of the piece is aimed at prompting such conversation regardless of its content and of the motives of the participants, and without much concern for creating a meaningful relationship between the interlocutors, in the absence of which the conversation is unlikely to be anything deeper than the accidental exchange of truisms between two commuters on a train. Although the conversation is seemingly open (the only limitation is the theme: What is progress?), the piece itself is curiously over-determined: its beginning and end are two fixed positions between which the viewer is guided with relentless determination and the encounters are strictly codified in almost all the details: the age and the social status of each successive interlocutor, the amount of time allocated to each episode, the rigid system of transitions, the impersonal character of the conversation, the business-like efficiency of the ending. The very favorable review of the piece by Holland Cotter, characteristically, contains a slightly disconcerted remark: "I was about to press on with this when Bob stopped and said gently, as if on cue, "The piece is called "This Progress,' " and walked off." At the same time, despite the highly controlled structure of the piece, its meaning is extremely loose: everyone is invited to answer for themselves what progress is. As the case usually stands with such broad questions removed from any specific context, the answers are either random observations or vague generalizations. The starting point for the conversation might have being almost any other of the so-called profound questions – what is the nature of art? what is time? what does it mean to be a human being? – without making much difference for the functioning of the piece. Anyone can say anything because there is not much to say (or there is too much to say, which eventually amounts to the same thing).

In contrast to Bishop's position, I do not think that for the social art to be successful it necessarily must raise political questions. But I am, with her, interested in a productive discussion about the social art. An artwork should not be praised for a single reason that it provides a chance for communicating with other people and for experiencing yet another random encounter. Not all communication is meaningful and not any experience is worth having. As Gilles Deleuze remarked, “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation."

As opposed to Tino Sehgal’s show, Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at the MOMA left strong and lasting impression on me. Her current performance in the MOMA atrium is a very strong piece, emotionally charged and disturbing; undoubtedly it is also a feat of endurance. It establishes a very personal connection between the artist and those among the audience who choose to participate in the piece. The rest of the audience, although only spectators of the piece, are still conscious of the particular relationship developed between Marina and each of her successive co-performers. The piece is especially effective when considered it in the context of her work from the last few decades shown upstairs.

Seeing the documentations of so many of Abramovic’s historic performances in one show is an overwhelming experience: it makes one certain that she is among the greatest artists of the late 20th century. I am somewhat doubtful, however, about the use of the live actors in the re-enactments of several of her pieces. For me at least they looked the least interesting element in the show – mere illustrations of Marina's past work rather than actual living performances. The fact that these artists are seemingly anonymous and work in shifts only reinforces this impression. The important elements of a performance – the presence of the artist and his/her physical endurance, which create a bond between the artist and the audience – are totally lost. To make the reenactment element of the show more successful I think at the very least the performers' individual names and artistic backgrounds should have been made known to the public.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reading Earth Moves

Reading Cache's Earth Moves got me thinking about how similar historical geographic and geologic readings could tell the story of the processes by which the cities we know and live in came to be as they are. Certainly each story would be unique as the life and particular qualities of each locale are generated by tendencies and events forever tied to a particular historical process of becoming. And, while each of these histories may be very telling of a city's character, the concepts and technologies effecting specific projects are informed by an increasingly global awareness. As a result, I predict that a collection of such exegeses would add a great deal to current studies on the homogenizing effects of globalization and regional efforts to maintain local identity.

Of course, such a comparative global history would be a wonderful project for, say, an entire generation of scholars, but what occurred to me to look at (as a possible term project) came from a much more homegrown sensibility. Growing up around Boston and its suburbs and moving directly to New York, I've been especially aware of the importance of hills (especially as gradients of social and economic exclusivity) and flat or flattened areas as common grounds in which socio-economic boundaries must be more artificially enforced. As a teenager, I lived on a hill on which the size and extravagance of a house varied in strict proportion to its elevation. As land was cleared further up the hill and the top was reached, I noticed the houses tended toward a new, more vertical architecture. For undergrad, I went to Tufts, a university in a town bordering Boston, with a historical narrative also centered firmly on its location at the top of a hill. In this case, the symbolism of the hill, ringed by buildings of administration and the classic liberal arts departments, had to do with the spiritual ideals of the Unitarian Universalists who founded the school and 19th century concepts of the higher learning (the ivory tower).

Reading Cache, it soon occurred to me that Boston, an old town with an ever-expanding shoreline might have something to add. In short, Boston's history, government, and symbolic social elite are centered around Beacon Hill. At the foot of this hill, the city extends in all directions, flatly, built up on reclaimed land. Boston originally had three distinct hills, but two were removed, the earth being used for landfill to expand the city. The third, Beacon Hill, reduced by half, is the only remaining hill in Boston proper. It is the site of the State House as well as some of the most expensive and exclusive property in the state. The dome of the State House, visible down the sloping central park (Boston Commons), is gilded in 23k gold. Many other structures in this densely packed area establish their status not only by the usual means of wealth and association, but by law as they have become historical landmarks. Immediately beyond the hill are architectural works of the 20th century, founded, of course, strictly on landfill.

The solidification of this citadel of Bostonian identity, power, and wealth and the expansion of Boston's landmass by land reclamation came about over centuries of economic trends, social movements, and pure accidents. For instance, the Great Boston Fire of 1872 destroyed 65 acres of the small city, allowing an effort of contemporary urban planning to reorganize parts of the city. The debris from the fire was used to further the ongoing landfill project, beginning in earnest circa 1795, continuing to fill in the harbor immediately surrounding Old Boston. [Time-lapse of the landfill] While the fishing industry has long since been pushed to surrounding suburbs, the coastline nearest the hill has become populated largely with elegant hotels and restaurants and elite marinas and yacht clubs. With the harbor filled and the entrance to the Charles River nearly choked off, the population of Boston working in the fishing and lumber industries that once supported the city are now well below 1% of the laborforce.

The more I dig, the more I find the task of constructing a compelling or complete Cache-style narrative of Boston unattainable. For instance, I've yet to get into the impact of the city's subway system, the oldest in the nation. Nor have I broached many critical periods in the life of the hill. (For instance, leading up to the civil war, the hill was divided with the social elite living on the south slope and many prominent african american leaders living on the north slope, also known as "Black Beacon Hill".) And most recently, the largest landfill yet, Logan Airport (1971-2000). While this project still appeals to me, there have simply been too many meanings and purposes applied to the use of the hill, the flattening of its surroundings, and the expansion into the bay. And none of this goes so far as to touch on defining aesthetics of the area, such as driving down Storrow Drive, beneath sea level onto Soldiers Field Road, watching joggers pass the riverside park, itself only inches above the Charles, as crew teams pass by. As much as it is perpetually in flux, there is a precise sense of what it is to be in and travel through Boston that my few hours of work can only begin to sketch. And I still haven't mentioned the Big Dig.

Brian Johnson