Thursday, 28 May 2009


Susan Hiller, The Provisional Texture of Reality: Selected Talks and Texts, 1977-2007, ed. Alexandra M.Kokoli (JRP Ringier, Zurich, & Les Presses du réel, Dijon, 2008). ISBN 978-3-905829-56-3.

There is a delicate balance throughout the thirty years of talks, catalogue essays, introductions and interviews that comprise The Provisional Texture of Reality. If Hiller demonstrates a verbal facility in regard both to her own work  and broader structures and histories of art and thought, she is also acutely aware that if she could just talk or write about the issues involved then there wouldn't be any point making the art itself. 

So the writings here give rein to that analytical verve, but always hold back, maintaining a space for the art work itself to function. Re-phrase that as the balance between logic, reason and coherence alongside something more mysterious and unfathomable, and an argument could be made for this being the key subject of Hiller's artistic output as a whole since the 1970's.

This critical-reserve concerns both her own art work and that of the artists about whom Hiller talks and writes. The first section of this book, then, is comprised of explorations-cum-tributes concerning Tarkovsky, O'Keefe, Helio Oiticica, Yves Klein, Henry Moore, Jackson Pollock and Kurt Schwitters. Hiller's tone varies. Her Pollock piece is the closest she comes to art history, seeking to unfold a web of underappreciated artists and influences she saw as leading up to Pollock. The piece on Tarkovsky moves quickest from its ostensible subject to a broader web of ideas and her own practice. But perhaps that is itself a tribute to the astonishing relevance Hiller finds in Solaris: its existence, like the other work she reflects upon, as a kind of viral cultural contagion.

Often - as was no doubt expected by those inviting her to speak at numerous themed conferences and symposia - Hiller is weaving out from each artist's work into a broader web of cultural connections as a way of connecting to her own work. There is a sense throughout Provisional Texture of attaining some clear ground where the self, the work, and the broader culture are all held in balance, and prioritising one is more choice-in-the-moment than imperative. The opening of "O'Keefe As I See Her" states a method applicable to many of the essays in this collection:

In a way, this is a collection of detours around the subject, circling in on it. It's like a drawing, where the negative space is as important as the marks, and where individual marks don't mean much on their own. In the process, I've found my lines of thought converging or overlapping to define a tentative shape that may represent a sighting or wish for something that will emerge more clearly in the future. (33)

Hiller's balance and reserve doesn't stop her making astute critical points. In the O'Keefe essay she raises many issues that have preoccupied academic art historians, but always founded on that initial statement of ambulatory method. Her critical response comes from her ongoing attempt to think (inter-) contextually. So here is O'Keefe in relation to her paintings, in relation to lots of other painters, to her depiction in Stieglitz photos, in relation to Hiller's own biography of engagement with O'Keefe, to Linda Nochlin's gender focussed criticism, and so on and so on. 

Susan Hiller reflects on how much easier it is to talk about an art work when it's not in the room with you...

Essays on Oiticica and Klein focus on the difficulties of preserving anything like an accurate and authentic picture of their work. What we can access of Oiticica's work is "only a collapsed sign of the larger work he made available...relics of a dead past." Klein, by contrast, "took death into account when he made it explicit in his practice of deliberately creating works that were already 'only traces" (55). Hence " his relics do not seem to convey more to those who knew the artist personally than to those who didn't." (55)  

Such concerns with the object and related processes of collecting, categorising, curatorship and the museological, relate to Hiller's background as an anthropologist. This emerges here as a biographical detail, an obvious influence on her intellectual approach, and a source of irritation to an artist often finding herself victim of, as she would see it, a lazy critical willingness to identify her works as exhibiting anthropological tendencies. If Hiller wanted to work within anthropological frameworks, her own impatient, somewhat irritated position seems to be, then she wouldn't have abandoned her original career plans. 

This is to a degree somewhat disingenuous because Hiller, at least early on in her career, cultivates and depends upon the connection to anthropology as both a source of income and  that through which the distinctiveness of her work can be articulated. Here Hiller reviews two exhibitions that, via content and context, weave a fraught amalgam of art and anthropology. In these essays - from 1979 and 1986 - Hiller is not accumulating a "collection of detours" that slowly circle in associatively on their subject. The ideas that lead to these exhibitions are colonial hangovers, and Hiller's aim is to highlight and skewer them with as much clarity as possible. 

Thus her review of Sacred Circles: 2,000 Years of North American Art (Hayward Gallery, 7 Oct 1977- 16 Jan 1978) builds to where the show becomes - at least reading about it thirty years later - a kind of anti-credo for her work as a whole:

This exhibition, then, is really about using 'art' to cover up some historical truths; about using aesthetic judgements as a way of avoiding moral judgements; about expressing admiration for spiritual values while manifesting only materialistic ones; about admiring the 'work' while ignoring its meanings; about voiding symbols of their complexity by eliminating their context; and about valuing art objects more than societies.

     To say that the purpose of the exhibition is 'that this art should at least be properly regarded for the sake of a better understanding among peoples', is, at the very least, an inadequate way to render justice to the peoples whose works are represented. (101)  

Hiller's argument is all the more convincing for how - on the occasion of a review-essay for Studio International - she moves from condemnation towards demonstrating some practical alternatives. Several pages are given over to models of the kind of catalogue entry a non-colonial ethnography and curating would practice. Where an existing catalogue essay refers to "a wampum belt [that] served as a gift, also as a binding symbol of an agreement," Hiller appends to the beginning of the entry the note: "THE MAKING OF TREATIES WITH THE NATIVE AMERICANS WAS CONSIDERED PURELY GESTURAL BY THE WHITES." (96)  

This efficacy throughout Hiller's counter-practice prevents many of the pieces in The Provisional Texture of Reality from being circumstance-bound musings. It also explains how Hiller negotiates the divide between artistic and academic, the creative and the theoretical - happily critiquing the later whilst holding to herself its authority.

Hiller herself explores all these issues in her still clear and powerful talk "Women, Language, and Truth", presented at a panel on 'Women's Practice in Art', organised by the Women's Free Art Alliance" in 1977.  Hiller's central conviction is the impossibility of anybody or any-thing being fully represented by any available position. Noting how we are each "simultaneously the beneficiary of our cultural heritage and the victim of it" (115), Hiller goes on to observe that "It is always a question of following a thought, first incoherent, later more expressible, through its process of emergence out of and during the inconsistencies of experience, into language." 

All this in the first two paragraphs. By the end of the talks two pages Hiller has offered, not a conclusion - "To sum up would be premature, obviously" - but three working proposals that clarify her non-positional and largely upper case free strategies:

      1.all my ideas begin as part of the necessity for truth-telling in art practice;

      2.not being entirely at home in the ordinary, dominant languages make this less than simple. At the same time, it gives me a wide range of options; and

      3.the greatest self-betrayal for an artist is not indulging in anarchic or careless opposition to rational politics, but in fashioning acceptable SEMBLANCES of truth. (117)

Of course, over the time span and career of this book, there is the position of the Self to consider. Or, rather, such a career as Hiller's has to find its own way of not becoming a fixed position, whilst exploring a focussed range of themes, and meeting the professional and commercial pressures to make new work. Hiller herself articulates her anxieties over this in "An Incomplete Text on Commissions", a - perhaps tellingly - previously unpublished text from 2003. It also explains something of why  From the Freud Museum has become so emblematic of Hiller's oeuvre.

Moments before giving an important lecture about her work, Susan Hiller performs an emergency resuscitation on her inner anthropologist...

Comprehensive as this collection is, it remains necessary to view it alongside Barabara Einzig's Thinking About Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller, which gives a sense of the different forms - and image-text relationships - Hiller's lectures have employed. Provisional Textures is poised between a Collected Writings and a snapshot of a writing and talking practice as a place for theorising, engagement and public address. Even though some texts - like Incomplete -  gives a presence to Hiller's private writing, this is not a place for notes and other linguistic doodling - as collections of artists' writings often fetishise.

By the third section of this collection, however, I had begun to have a mental picture of Hiller, sifting through  a wad of invitations to conferences on art and dreams, art and surrealism, art and anthropology, art and any paranormal phenomena you care to mention, trying to select those with enough of a space of difference to warrant the inevitable repetition. One that seems to warrant the effort is a conference on Body & Soul in Edinburgh in 2000.  Hiller concludes her talk by noting, as the book began, her interest in "perspectives where figure-ground relationships can be allowed to shift" (249) and how "not editing-out and not forcing strange juxtapositions and unanswered questions to conform to theory is an aspect of my style, almost a signature." 

But the talk also offers a chance to develop ideas around the body that are unarticulated elsewhere in this book. It suggests  a motivation for these writings: let the flow of one's professional life as an artist, the opportunities that arise to talk and write, be a way of revitalising thinking and artistic practice itself. In her writing-talking about the body Hiller attempts a methodology that avoids becoming 'a position' - using one's knowledge and abilities, but always willing to start again, refusing  certainties and obsessive originality, looking for clarity, the genuine engagement with the highly familiar: 

The word 'body' seems very now, very contemporary. The word 'soul' sounds romantic and deeply unfashionable.

The word 'body' makes me very cross when used in connection with contemporary exhibitions, art of the body, the body in art, body art, etc., etc. In my opinion, body can be evoked but not represented. Pictures of bodies I don't think have much to do with 'body.'

Body is felt from the inside ... body is empathy. Body is communicated through touch and smell as much as sight. Body in art would be traces, stains, smears, sounds, not images. Body is blurry ... Handwriting is body. Voice is body.

Friday, 22 May 2009


Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating, JRP Ringier and Les Presses du Réel, Zurich, 2008. ISBN 978-3-905829-55-6. Interviews with Anne d'Harnoncourt, Werner Hofmann, Jean Leering, Franz Meyer, Seth Siegelaub, Walter Zanini, Johannes Cladders, Lucy Lippard, Walter Hopps, Pontus Hultén and Harald Szeemann.

Hans Ulrich Obrist's interview project has the defeat of the book form in its sights. Spanning different generations of artists, curators, writers, architects, and scientists, its gathering together - such as Charta's 1,000 page volume in 2003- can seem unnecessarily monumental and static for a project that, by the time of publication, is already well into further real or projected volumes. Less than paper and a spine, it needs a canny database capable of endlessly arranging and rearranging its subjects according to particular themes, subjects, connections - with a LUCKY SEARCH function to enable the unexpected.

That said, I hope any self-respecting database, given the search field "curating, history of," would come up with something like the eleven cogent, perceptive interviews collected in A Brief History of Curating. If the Charta tome is a sprawling Documenta of a bookwork, and The Conversation Series a pleasing but sometimes too ephemeral show in a valise, A Brief History is about right. Although its subject area is more dispersed and fleeting, it fits alongside Amy Merchant's Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-74  as a model of oral history as an appropriate form for revealing the complexities (and vagaries) of how modern art, its practices and institutions came into being. 

Gathering interviews conducted - and sometimes previously published - between 1996 and 2007, part of the pleasure of this book comes from its multiple functions. This is Obrist the curator thinking through his own practice in conversation with his elders. It is also a broader, more objective attempt to construct and document a history of exhibition making - working methods, practices, biographies, self-definitions - where it is lacking. It recognises and celebrates individuals, whilst using them as gateways to other curators, shows, geographies and ideas. 

Curating emerges, then, as a profession of divergent, multi-located practices and practitioners, none of which would have used the word themselves. Thus, Harald Szeemann was originally involved in theatre, but turned to art because "it gives you the same rhythm as in theater, only you don't have to be on stage constantly." Lucy Lippard defines herself as a writer, but one for whom  putting on shows articulates issues that seem important. Such biographical variety poses a striking alternative to the latest professionalised crop of Curating MA graduates.

Obrist looks at these diverse practices and asks: what is curating? Talking with Anne d'Harnoncourt he lists the ideas that have emerged from or informed the making of this book: John Cage says curating should be a "utility"; Walter Hopps quotes Duchamp's notion that " a curator shouldn't stand in the way"; Felix Feneon says the curator should be a pedestrian bridge [une passerelle]. D'Harnoncourts own definition is one of the books most lucid:

I see curators as enablers, if you will, as people who are crazy about art, and they want to share their being crazy about art with other people. But I think they also have to be very careful not to impose their own reactions too much, their own prejudices, on other people. And that's hard because on the one hand you can only be yourself; you can only see the work that you see with the eyes that you have. I think of curators as opening people's eyes to the pleasure of art, to the strength of art, to the subversiveness of art, whatever it is. (179) 

Clear and lucid this might be, but it is also, importantly, vague and amorphous. Whilst interviews like these can be used to build a history of names, dates, exhibition titles and layouts, there is a vaguer history of intention and experience filtered through memory that is consistent with the fleeting nature of the exhibition.  I found myself reading these interviews as examples of a curator's working language: a way of talking about their work that is poetic - in the sense of working through suggestion - as much as it is literal and descriptive. Is it, I wondered, in the poetic register of this working language that the legacy of curating has to be transmitted? 

Harald Szeemann discovers that the history of curating is far stranger than he expected...

If this is the case, then D'Harnoncourt is at the more literal end of this spectrum: transmitting the curators legacy as a way of seeing - shortly after this definition she quotes Gilbert and George's phrase "to be with art is all we ask." At the other end, again, is Harald Szeemann, whose coinages for his various organisations - Agency of spiritual guestwork, Museum of Obsessions - seek consciously to convey energy like some Beuys fat piece on a chair. Such phrases have a certain continuity - perhaps we can inhabit them, take them as our own, and see what happens. They also emerge here as deeply personal coinages, articulations of private formative structures and assumptions.  

If each interview proposes a private language then what of the activity that language arises to describe? Perhaps what the interview form reveals best - particularly when, as here, most subjects are remembering things from 30-40 years prior - is the curator as a particular way of thinking, responding, making connections and arguments in space and through history, geography and the contemporary. Often this involves the establishing of certain spatial coordinates. So whilst Pontus Hulten produces a trilogy of horizontally conceived exhibitions (Paris-New York, Paris-Berlin, and Paris-Moscow), Werner Hofmann observes: 

I then became aware of the period of Goethe as a quarry, as an inexhaustible conglomeration of periods of artistic experiments. I worked with these coordinates for a long time. (134)

And this (conceptual) spatiality develops further as a method for the making of exhibitions: 

I bored into the tunnel from two ends. On the one hand from the material that was on offer, and on the other from the theory. So both deductively and inductively. Twelve chapters arose from this about everything that can happen with art, or what it can be misused for, and what results from it. (145-6)

Hofmann's clear intellectual enthusiasm and ambition is actually a fairly understated example of one dominant tendency of many of the interviews: to see exhibition making as an attempt at utopia. All exhibitions are utopias, says D'Harnoncourt, and Obrist's oft-mentioned notion of exhibition as 'lab' seems entwined with the provisional, temporary and problematic freedom of the utopia. 

However, if this book is usefully thought of as a nineteenth century novel, the key theme would be the entwining of this utopian impulse with the politics and workings of public and private institutions. So, to generalise from different interviews, we see a curators own tension between large scale, ambitious, slow to realise projects, and the need for quick, responsive, flash projects, mapped onto the various architectural and administrative possibilities/pressures of self-run projects, temporary museums, biennales, large institutions, and the creation of museums from scratch. 

This, of course, is a fraught process and, for young curators, the book is a tool kit of different methods for working through such tensions. See, particularly, Seth Siegelaub and, er, blue period Lucy Lippard: dematerializing the exhibition into a box or a book or an envelope (and who both, in some sense, eventually remove themselves from curating completely). Or Pontus Hultén, whose work is invested in creating a new kind of museum, perhaps closest to the multi-focus and activities of, say, Tate Modern today. Or Szeemann, again, dependent on the resources of large institutions for his huge projects, then withdrawing from such organisations and making a show in his own home of his father's barbering tools.

For the more practically minded, this story can also be told through its details: changes to the number of shows per year and the speed of turn around, the presence or not of administration, insurance and security. Most interviews lament the passing of a more relaxed time, when a Mondrian could be casually transported to the gallery by a curator in a Taxi. Then, too, there is the articulate and moving discussions of the role of a permanent collection, its dialogue with the seemingly more exciting world of temporary exhibitions. Hultén hauntingly points out that without the permanent collection ones work can disappear overnight, leaving no trace. 

Obrist himself, meanwhile, is much more a participant in these dialogues than many of The Conversation Series, where he takes the role of enabling his subjects to express themselves fully within an unquestioned aura of their own brilliance. Here he is more particular, trying to place his own research in juxtaposition with his subjects, fleshing out the name or isolated fact, always with the oft-declared aim of making - in Eric Hobsbawm's phrase - "a protest against forgetting."  

As, too, the history he chronicles ends with his own pervasive curatorial presence. The dexterous shifting from small to large, near and far, lasting and fleeting, that Obrist presents, is very much what he himself has made a rule of the game. On the evidence of these interviews, I'm not sure it's a dance that those before him were ever able to sustain for very long. Instead what this generation seem to offer the present - or what is amenable to transmission through the interview format - is more a call for a bold method of thinking and acting, practical and utopian both, constructing a history that enables a dexterity of both location and movement.  

Another interviewer would maybe have had other more challenging questions: about ambition, power, and career, and how the developing of curating went along with the development of the market. But such oral histories as these are perhaps only possible as a conversation amongst colleagues. A critical perspective would require another method and purpose entirely. This book, instead, is the recognition and the party.


Wednesday, 20 May 2009


One of the tensions at Expanded Cinema: Activating the Space of Reception (Tate Modern 17-19 April, 2009) was between the focus of the conference organisers and the broader interests of  the sell-out Tate Modern audience. 

If the first had at its core the historicization of certain film practices of the 1970's (often through conversations and presentations with those film makers themselves, including Malcolm Le Grice, William Raban, and Chris Welsby); then the frustration came from those for whom the conference title had promised a  broader exploration of moving image culture, on our phones, laptops and throughout the urban environment.

As that list of names reveals, there were also more gender based grounds for disgruntlement with the conference organisers. The first issue was also, to a degree, a mis-aligning of expectations, testimony to how Tate Modern can attract a large, somewhat diverse audience to what is actually a narrowly focussed academic conference. But the tensions - manifested largely in frustrated questions and comments from the audience - raised unaddressed issues: 

What happens to the self-definition of the experimental film maker when their techniques are proliferated and advanced throughout a larger culture that is unwilling to see what they do as particularly important or interesting?  

Do conferences like this, at their worst, become guarded zones for the preservation of self-importance? If it is ethically and aesthetically important to claim a "specialness" for such work, then what is special and for who. How does it relate to all the stuff deemed not-special?  

Just asking these questions was work for a different event. 

The images in this post are a first step towards thinking about a film culture that can tackle and embrace these issues. Taken at the Union Square Virgin Megastore in Manhattan the top images show, on wide aspect ratio screens, scenes from the teen vampire movie Twilight, directed by Catherine Hardwicke. The lower screens are of Edie Sedgwick, newly available on DVD through the 13 Screen Tests CD project, where Warhol's subjects get soundtracks by Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. 

As the film-maker Julie Talen pointed out - showing me the photo's on her iphone a few days after the Tate Modern conference - the images not only pose a suggestive and inadvertent multichannel experience, but unconsciously mimic Warhol's Inner/Outer - where Sedgwick's film and video selves somewhat unnervingly encounter one another - not unlike, it occurred to me, the different constituencies at the Tate Modern conference! 

One final question: how does our thinking about the future possibilities for film culture change when the images in the Virgin megastore are of Lou Reed not Edie Sedgwick? 

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


Jeremiah Day & Simone Forti, ICA London, 7 May, 2009. 

Writing about her  "News Animations" the writer-dancer Simone Forti observes: 

I can more easily access the raw store of fragmentary thoughts, feelings, and speculations out of which I build my understanding of the world. A News Animation performance involves improvising with movement and spoken language, taking off from the fluid, flickering, dream like image of the world brought to us by the news media. Moving and speaking at once, gives voice to the place between thoughts and muscular or visceral sensations, between verbal syntax and the body's syntax of sudden moves, hesitations, slumps and changes of facing. It reveals a process which is usually very private.

My father used to read a couple of news papers each day... When he died in 1985 I began to read the news myself. It wasn't coming easily to me. I did start to experience a sense of familiarity with the stories, with the personages, but most of all, as a dancer, I started to have kinesthetic impressions of pressures, currents, accumulations and pending collapses. I was noticing terminology like 'the dollar in free fall', and Lebanon being called a 'slippery slope.' Soon I was dancing the news, talking and dancing, being all parts of the news; tankers moving up the Persian Gulf, 'human waves' of Iranian youths crashing into the Iraqui forces invading from across the Shat al Arab estuary. 

The movement included the kind of gestures one makes when explaining an describing, but here the gestures were taking on the whole body.


Jeremiah Day began his and Simone Forti's performance at the ICA by reading aloud some poetry from Amiri Baraka. There's a rhythm to the words, and to the body reading, a certain array of gestures, although initially Day's are quite neutral - like anyone might be stood reading aloud to group of people. Gradually, however, Day's movements - he paces from one side to the other of the ICA theatre space, turns on a slide projector - have a spatial expanse and focus that we might recognize as dance. Soon, as the piece unfolds, Day sits, squats, stands, walks, talks: a dance-language of words and movements, both linked and autonomous.

I found it an exhilarating experience. For a second piece, Day was joined by Forti, and the two engaged in a surreal, playful, storytelling conversation about economics, in which again verbal language and movement shared an equal role. Or what was the precise word-movement relationship? Day and Forti counter an avant-orthodoxy where words and gestures must not be illustrative, being unafraid to ground their word-movement relationship in literalism: hands waving in the air when talking of water, arms outstretched to be a bird in flight. This enables the complex rhythms and elaborations that do unfold to be read not as virtuosic but as a pleasure-in-relationship or - as Fred Dewey would suggest in his following talk - a demonstration of democracy in process.

Much of the pleasure came from how Day and Forti moved both within the particularities of their own bodies and the space itself. The performance had been shifted from the gallery to the theatre space at the last moment, and whilst text appeared fixed, both Forti and Day were making use of the particular space in which they found themselves, leaning against its walls, climbing its steps and odd nooks. The architecture, too, became part of how ideas and relationships could be manifested, tested, explored, and played with. Both words and images functioned as primary text, commentary, and ornamentation.

For a final piece Forti came on with a copy of the days newspaper and improvised, the newspaper entwined with body, text and her own reading aloud of the words on its pages. Pages were held out, resting on air currents, slowly drifting to the floor, or crumpled and held up against her face. It almost seemed a poetics for the whole project that Day and Forti had presented us with: an art process that finds a way to shape, refine, develop everyday gestures to where they acquire a further layer of import, but without removing them from their source.

Before the final piece, Fred Dewey - who has published Forti's writings as part of his Beyond Baroque publishing project - responded to Day and Forti's project, seeing it as a model of a particular kind of democratic culture. He talked about Forti's particular relationship to poetry, in which written texts would be edited by the body. This created a new kind of text-poetry-transcription, but also, said Dewey, seemed a demonstration of poetry as an act of moving, thinking, and writing in public space, a physical research in time and space. West quoted Carlyle:

unreality is death to all parliaments and all things

and also Milton:

to speak all tongues

to do all miracles


Day and Forti were performing to launch Jeremiah Day/ Simone Forti , a publication chronicling a collaborative exhibition and performance series at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin in 2008. Day had become fascinated by the story of the Blasket islanders, who emigrated to Springfield, near Boston. The Blasket islanders had been the sources of one of the finest repositories of oral lore, collected by George Thompson, but in Springfield, Day's research informed him, the storytelling culture had vanished completely.

The resulting publication combines Day's black and white photographs of a city - whose  physical and economic decline appears to match the vanishing of its stories -  with images of Day and Forti's collaborative performances. There are also several transcriptions of Forti's News Animations which, whilst thoughtful, rhythmic texts in their own right,  were best read after the performance, newly animated by their proximity to a body, no longer privately consumed texts on a page but, even in an act of solitary reading, inseparable from a performance/demonstration/conversation in a public space.  


Later in her essay "About the News Animations" Simone Forti observes:

I teach improvisation with movement and language in workshops around the world. I often begin with an essay I call Movement Memory Snapshots. We sit in a wide circle and each offers a particular memory which comes to mind because of an aspect of movement. I use the term 'offers', so as not to be directly asking for either language or movement. Some plunge in with their whole body or describe with their hands. With some, their movement, as they speak, is subtle: a shift of gaze, a sudden working of their toes without their being aware of it. But there is always some movement related to the activity of that telling. 

We talk about the movements we saw each other do: a mix of abstracted shapes of our original experience, signs like pointing, mimicking, shifting weight at the end of a thought and many other kinds of body moves. Movement and language improvisations can be done solo, or by two or more people working together, sometimes conversationally, sometimes in juxtaposition. Once people get the hand of relaxing into this flow between verbal and kinesthetic, the question becomes: What to explore. What to research. What to express. 

"About the News Animations" originally appeared in Oh, Tongue (Beyond Baroque, 2004). Jeremiah Day/ Simone Forti, published by Project Press, Dublin, 2009, developed from the exhibition Simone Forti/ Jeremiah Day 'News Animations'/ 'No Words For You, Springfield', Project Art Centre, Mar 27- May 3, 2008. ISBN 1-872493-24-6

Monday, 11 May 2009


Performing Localities: Recent Guatemalan Performance Art on Video , INIVA, London, 5th and 6th May 2009. 

Remember after the first evening I wanted to ask Rosina Cazali (Guatemalan critic and curator) about what it means to have these works be shown here in London?  Whom is this work directed at originally?


You mean its "sight of reception"? 


Yes, I suppose.  In yesterday's Q & A, a couple of people raised similar questions, didn't they? 


Yes, I remember.  So, what did you get out of the panel's answer? 


When Rosina says that 75 percent of this work has only been seen outside of Guatemala, that says something about who is seeing this work and for whom it's designed.  Then the avenues for dissemination... she went on to say that there are no viable places to show these works in Guatemala. I don't remember specifically why. 


Perhaps there are no venues or that people aren't quite ready for this type of work.  But in essence, the people in Guatemala are not seeing this work, or this type of work that's been shown here the last two evenings. 


I also sensed that Rosina wanted to tell us not to feel too bad about our being ignorant of their history, not having their political situation 100 percent correct, because this work is art. I remember that she repeated the point about the desire of taking this artwork into a different status, not only within a specific Guatemalan situation, but in more of a global art context.   


What do you think 'different status' meant?  A different status in terms of content or reception?


I understood it as being about reception.  I remember her saying "an event like this is an example" and what we are doing here is good, positive.  She used the word 'we'.  I'm guessing she was referring to an art establishment based in the 'western world'.  I also remember her positive use of the word 'discourse' several times…


If we were to view the work we saw on the level of an elegy or meditation, does the work stand on its own?  In terms of the quality of the work...


I personally stopped worrying about its quality, or if it was an artist film, all of these criteria that I normally think about.  Maybe this seemed inappropriate to me.


Then are you admitting that you're not receiving the work in a way that Rosina wants you to?


Well, yes.  That's my very first honest reaction.  It's also true what Julian Stallabrass [Guest Critic and Art Theorist/Curator] said, "The only history we know about Guatemala is the worst part of its history.  There are issues with categorizing artists by their nationality for international art exhibitions?"  I agree.  That's not ideal either.  Perhaps on this second night Rosina felt strongly about representing aspects of contemporary art in a Guatemalan context without the heavy political references... nothing wrong with that. 


Of course, it's not all bad in Guatemala.  Undoubtedly he's right in saying that.  But what I couldn't process was this disconnect between that idea and the work itself, the content within the work itself.  This content doesn't really address what's outside of Guatemala's tragic past and current difficulties, so I 'm confused.  Certainly, we would be interested in a Guatemalan artist's portrayal as an even balance, the good and bad, the joyful and the horrible.  But that's not what was presented.  The work we saw on the first day, it was so direct and visceral:  A woman [the artist Sandro Monterroso] making tortillas from the corn that she eats from the cob, chews, and spits back out; a man [the artist Angel Poyon] shouting into a hole in the ground the names of missing Guatemalans; a woman [the artist Regina Jose Galindo] carving the name in Spanish for the word 'bitch' on her leg with a knife; and the same artist in another piece shackling her neck, arm legs with heavy chains then proceeding with her daily activities for 4 to 5 days. There was more.  Then a discussion afterwards that began to place this work within a historical/contextual locality.  So what else was there to say? 


It's too bad that there weren't any artists at the event to receive our questions.  Is it important for him or her to be a Guatemalan artist?  Or do they prefer to be a global artist?  How do they want us to receive their work?  Especially in relation to the actual events/situations that are referenced.


Jessica Lagunas, "120 Minutos de silencio" "120 minutes of silence," New York, 2008. Single-channel digital video. 12o minutes. Color, silent. Short clip available online

How do you begin to make comments on this work  How do you call it by name?  I don't have right to do it.  Do the artists themselves have the right to call it art?  It's quite complicated.  But then the second evening, the work was much less visceral with a certain layer of remove.  There's still references to drug trade, illegal immigration, and missing war victims, but most of its was not first person performance.  The commentary afterwards was much cooler and was more interested in talking about how the work fit into a global artist network.  And the idea that these artists want to be understood as an individual artist rather than merely a Guatemalan artist.  The two nights couldn't have been more different. 


It's true.  The first night was about Guatemala, what they've endured, the works that come from this condition and environment.  You and I didn't or couldn't have a discussion.  The next day we're confronted with having to talk about these works as art.  The committee wants to frame it in relation to a market distribution system. (It's not their words but that's what I thought they were talking about.)  To discuss it in this way seemed to ignore what we experienced in this work and perhaps to forget the specifics of the events that actually happened. 


To say that these crimes also occurred in other Central or South American countries, or speaking about this injustice in more general way, as if the specifics didn't matter... We were being asked to shift register, or to read this in a certain way, and I wasn't able to do this.  In the end aren't we just replacing one framework with another- Guatemalan artist for Latin American artist or Global artist?  Perhaps this is for the sake of the artist's individual integrity, but that didn't help eliminate any of my discomfort with the discussion.


But because of the different nature of the second evening, we were allowed to be active, and to have a dialogue.  Even though the dialogue was going in a disturbingly cool and distant direction to our perception of the situation and whether we agreed or not, we were able to react and engage.  This seems positive.  We were developing our thoughts in terms of a Guatemalan artist's place in this world even if at a superficial level. 


Perhaps this reflects the aims of the second night's discussion panel?


So then, what's an appropriate response to this work?  Is there a one?


Well to start, the realisation that we're in such a small insular bubble is obviously important. 


But can 'Art' really engage with this kind of situation with any substance?  Make it into image, decontextualise the situation, make it more abstract and aesthetic, easier to digest.  It's building awareness, but anything beyond that? 


Can this works exist as art without its political content?  Can the artist be successful without the political content? 


You mean to be recognized, from outside?  Certainly in Guatemala there must be non-political artwork, still lifes or portraits or something, but maybe those would be of no interest to us.


Then the corollary, does this work maintain itself without the political content?  Is it quality/successful art?  Without its political content?  I know quality is a slippery word.  But you and I recognise that it exists. 


Then that question carries a hope for art?


Certainly the panel sees it this way.  Regardless I can't separate this work, the work we saw, from its political content.  Perhaps the next generation of work...


I would like to think an initial motivation for making this art is as catharsis initially, like women quilting.  One example is the last piece about cutting the camouflage pattern from a pair of army fatigues [an excerpt from 120 Minutes of Silence by Jessica Lagunas]. perhaps they just have to do something.  To make 'art', you could say, to maintain some kind of sanity, a way forward, to live life.