With happy end #3, KAMP KALF
Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer on Ryan Trecartin
There is nothing else in today’s art world even remotely like Ryan Trecartin’s videos. Copying and pasting a crazy collage of dialects and accents, the protagonists—so many young, sexually ambiguous, wig-wearing and face-painted chatterboxes—deliver compu-pop poetry about their chronic over-existence. It’s a sci-fi theater of the absurd for our manically paced YouTube era, a singular vision created by Trecartin in collaboration with his creative partner, Lizzie Fitch.
Born in Webster, Tex., in 1981 and raised in rural Ohio, Trecartin was what he calls “a tech major” (film/animation/video) at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, where he lived with a group of art students who came to be the core of his collaborative team. He attracted the attention of the art world in 2004 with his senior thesis, a video called
A Family Finds Entertainment, which was posted online—as all his videos tend to be. Two years later he was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, “Day for Night,” and his first feature, I-Be Area, screened at New York’s Elizabeth Dee Gallery in 2007. By all critical accounts, Trecartin and Fitch’s immersive, setlike video installations (dubbed “sculptural theaters”) stole the show at the New Museum’s “Younger Than Jesus” survey in 2009. And their tour-de-force seven-part suite, Any Ever (2009-10), which was presented at museums around the world, fixed Trecartin in the firmament.
Throughout all the hoopla of this meteoric rise, Trecartin and Fitch have kept a conspicuous distance from New York, opting instead to live and work in Providence, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami and now Los Angeles, where they have been based since 2010. In L.A., Fitch-Trecartin Studios—the essence of sprawl, low and vast—occupies a warehouse just off the freeway in Burbank. Shooting recently wrapped for a new group of multichannel videos (his first since Any Ever) that Trecartin is presenting inside five freestanding sculptural theaters in “The Encyclopedic Palace,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni, at the 55th Venice Biennale. Retaining the awkward, blocky feel of its SketchUp origins, the L.A. set was one big room fragmented into themed zones replete with an enormous hot tub, a spinning bed, bleachers and at least a dozen disconnected toilets. But the set was deserted: party over. Trecartin and I spoke in April at his Los Feliz home and studio, where he had just resurfaced from his latest 30-hour-plus session editing these as-yet-untitled movies.
SARAH LEHRER-GRAIWER All of your videos are so layered and ambitious, I’m curious how you feel talking about a work when you’re still in the middle of it.
RYAN TRECARTIN Because I work so collaboratively, I never know what the works are fully going to be until they’re done. So I can’t really talk about them until then. It’s typical that the things I think they’re about end up being background linearities, or like a larger mesh across the movies. The most interesting concepts I’m working on at a particular time are not in the forefront of my brain; the script works as a vehicle to dig into deeper, non-frontal questions.
I structure the movies more to create opportunities or obstacles than as planned works. I definitely embrace the unintended, even in the editing. Often I discover plots or ideas that I didn’t know were there, and I then cut them into the work, altering the original script. I don’t title works until they’re finished.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Is this project for Venice a discrete work?
TRECARTIN It’s a first phase. I showed three movies in “Younger Than Jesus” and at the time I knew they were going to grow into a larger system of works, but I hadn’t conceived of Any Ever formally yet or its structure, which ended up being seven movies in total.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Are you at a comparable stage with this new work?
TRECARTIN Yeah, except that what I’m showing in Venice is complete in itself. I’ll continue to work with all the material we shot this spring and continue to shoot more, probably over the next couple of years. Instead of discovering its phase logic gradually through the process, Lizzie [Fitch] and I have planned the phases ahead of time, which changes the way we film and build sets. We’re deliberately challenging our process—the way we actually organize and make our ideas happen.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Do you mean logistically, as in the way you organize people?
TRECARTIN I mean everything. We now feel more of a responsibility to our work than we used to. Since 2011, we’ve had to think about continuing to exhibit our work and manage its installation so it shows the way we intend. (Our works are not easy to install.) I’m lucky to have a creative partnership where we believe in each other. You can do so much more with someone else than you can alone. One person’s ideas become less important, and it’s the exchange that matters. The nuance and particularity of how things are shared between people makes something special. I’m not interested in one-to-one ratios, but in what happens when many people’s associations merge in unexpected combinations.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Have you and Lizzie lived together since 2000, when you first began collaborating?
TRECARTIN Aside from gaps for logistical reasons, we pretty much have lived together the whole time. I’ve done everything with Lizzie. I have also lived near [artist] Rhett LaRue since 2000. The three of us have worked together, on and off, since 2005.
LEHRER-GRAIWER The movies are a focal point where your collaborative network converges.
TRECARTIN There’s this idea in these new scripts that an audience revolution takes place in which people are liberated. The movie supposes that if you ignore or abuse something long enough it’ll create an “I” and gain free will. The revolution generates multiple worlds that are interior, pioneering into consciousness rather than outward into space and matter. That begins an era of multiple, parallel worlds rather than one of leaders, audiences, crowds and mass.
LEHRER-GRAIWER The idea of making a sel—an “I”—out of ideas and nonhuman objects has been bubbling in your work for a while.
TRECARTIN That’s a very deep concept for me and shows up in all aspects of the work, even in the stand-alone sculptures that Lizzie and I make together, which I think of more as scripts, games, personalities or behaviors than sculptures.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Where did the “personality” for your new movie come from?
TRECARTIN I recently revisited some footage I shot back in 1999, basically right after The Blair Witch Project came out, when I was a senior in high school. It’s full of night vision. Watching my old footage now is so strange; people had a very different relationship to the camera. They didn’t want to be filmed. Then they either forgot the camera was there, which doesn’t happen now, or they narrated what they were doing. You can see how people’s relationship to the camera used to be really primitive.
These high school videos inspired a lot of this project’s content in a way that I’m not sure I’m comfortable with. I’ve started thinking about the footage in relation to anthropology.
LEHRER-GRAIWER How so? As in going undercover in a subculture?
TRECARTIN Anthropology is one of those things that eludes me. The “study of humans” could mean anything. I’m interested in the way people simultaneously negotiate divergent presentations of themselves for a variety of contexts. American culture has always had people in occupations that have to do that—politicians, PR agents, narcs.
LEHRER-GRAIWER You play a character in the new movie who I’ve heard referred to by your collaborators as the “dick director.” What kind of director is that character and what kind of a director are you?
TRECARTIN My character was commenting on everyone’s delivery of their lines in a very linear and aggressive way, like that person just said this and here’s my response posted on a message board. He was very into stopping or blocking things from happening by narrating them in real time.
That’s the character’s agenda; as a director, I shoot from scripts very linearly. A script might be 15 pages and I just go straight through, line by line. Normally I don’t show anyone the script. Sometimes lines are assigned to people ahead of time and sometimes not. Sometimes I direct body language or encourage an accent. I used to break the script down into short lines five or six words long, and have someone say them over and over. They would say them so many times that they might forget what they were saying.
This time I fed people paragraph-long lines and told them to say what they thought I said back to the camera. That kind of distortion of the script has been important. It’s a very intense thing to put someone through. I’m asking for a lot of trust and I take that trust very seriously.
There were about a hundred people in this project, half I know well and half I’ve never worked with. The sets were built in a warehouse and are not domestic scale. I learned that the amount of physical space between you and a wall is significant. I was shocked by how much the space changed acting behaviors and me as a director.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Was the spaciousness freeing?
TRECARTIN No, the opposite! Free isn’t the right word. The architecture created a situation where people felt they should project, even though we miked them individually. It’s different than yelling. Someone trying to project their voice out is less subtle in their body. I try to avoid theater associations like projection. I like things that feel real, even if someone’s acting completely psycho, it should be convincing as a person being animated and bizarre. I only like put-ons when they are used to communicate an idea.
LEHRER-GRAIWER It seems like another important directorial decision was to shoot at night.
TRECARTIN But we always shoot all night long. That started years ago because I hated setting up lights; it ruins the flow. Night shoots are the easiest way to make sure no light comes in the windows.
I also realized that at night people are less likely to get phone calls and e-mails. The performances I’m looking for require being possessed and falling into a fragile zone that is easily ruined. On nighttime shoots, people are more in touch with edgier, perverse thoughts. Their associations are different than daytime associations. Unpredictable and repressed things come out when people get really tired.
LEHRER-GRAIWER That nocturnal quality feels timeless, the same way the sets are a no-place place. That unlocatable space is very specific to your videos.
TRECARTIN I don’t ever establish location when I’m shooting. Instead of a person saying something within a space, I want to think about the space being on top of or framing the words.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Does that pose a relationship between place and media? Or maybe place is just data located in a box or hard drive.
TRECARTIN I’m actually trying to think past technology at this point and more about creative desire. People want to feel situated and located, but they don’t want to feel like they’re a slave to anything. To deal with limitations of place, characters in the movie make “fourth-wall generators,” “fifth-wall randomizers,” “location situators” and “consciousness expanders,” forcing old forms of exchange into scenarios that allow something to be broken. I’m interested in establishing a structure of obedient behaviors so that obedience can trigger destructive impulses.
LEHRER-GRAIWER And give way to disobedience?
TRECARTIN Yeah. The first phase of this project is supposed to be like level one in a gaming system, where human ancestors are accessed as information. It’s a game and it’s also a university. In the first level of the game, no one has a name—or rather, everyone’s named Jenny at first.
LEHRER-GRAIWER How do you specifically address the idea of mainstream American youth culture? The world of this new movie seems to be overtly fratty, sorority, college, MTV, spring breaker-esque.
TRECARTIN And it’s accessed in a way that’s super-reduced and basic. The idea that “pop” and “mass” are more a constructed, marketing idea than a lived reality keeps coming up in the movie. Characters constantly say they don’t want to go Top 40 because they want to be niche and pick their own fans. They refuse to be filtered through a sense of “mass.”
LEHRER-GRAIWER Has this new body of work been influenced by the fact that you’ve been living in L.A.? You have a bigger budget and are using Hollywood professionals for the first time—like set builders and some professional actresses. Is your “dick director” character modeled on a Hollywood type?
TRECARTIN No. Directing happens in all fields, not just movie-making. I was thinking of my director character more as an animator. In this movie, humans evolve into animations. Then the animations generate their own free will. It’s suggested that, in the movies, no one is human after all, but just animated. However, basing the design of the set on different television conventions was in my mind because of being in Los Angeles. Sitcoms and game shows always shoot from the same angles where one wall, the fourth wall, is missing. We positioned several open sets around a central stage so it became a continuous 360-degree situation: no inside, no outside, no separate audience position, no clear delineation of roles, on or off stage.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Is that different from your previous movies?
TRECARTIN I’ve always done 360-degree sets, but this is the first time I took the idea outside of a domestic space. There were multiple cameras. If you were helping with the shoot you were in costume too. The crew, who appear in the shots, wear sweatshirts with the word “Witness” on them. They also wear green hats, because I associate green-screen color with production; there is a lot of green-screen color that I’m not keying out. My character also wears a Witness sweatshirt. He’s the most vocal Witness, though everyone in the sweatshirts is really part of the same conglomerate character. That character is the point of access for us viewers.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Your work has generally taken a positive, optimistic outlook on the prospect of subject formation today, despite the homogenizing force of global corporate culture. Does this movie take a darker turn?
TRECARTIN I do think I’ve taken a darker turn. I generally feel very positive, but pretty soon I think there are going to be basic freedoms and rights that we’re going to have to fight for.
All my movies have addressed that tipping point where one freedom replaces another. This has a lot to do with surveillance—not video camera surveillance, but the surveillance of people’s activities, and the creation of algorithms that allow programs, companies or governments to understand what you like, buy or own. I think this is exciting and scary. Rhett sent me an article about the automation of the court systems, suggesting computers could do a better job of judging a crime than humans. Now that sounds scary to me because, personally, I like feeling that if I had to I could talk my way out of something. Clearly we’re going to evolve into something beyond what we are now, so it doesn’t really matter.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Could you say more about that?
TRECARTIN Once technology makes it possible to alter our brains, we’re going to. Not everyone will. There will be more than one species of what are now humans. That split might follow class lines. Who knows? In the past couple of years I’ve felt like the outcome is not set. I feel more angst and anger than usual.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Does that angst correspond to your own trajectory of rapid success?
TRECARTIN I’m sure it does in some ways. But I try to only pay attention to expectations coming from my friends and peers, the people that I really care about. I don’t really have anything in particular to say about art-world success, because for the most part I feel extremely lucky and excited to have the resources to be able to focus on making art.
I felt a similar angst and anger during the making of I-Be Area . I think it’s a phase. When I made A Family Finds Entertainment , I was in a very positive state. With I-Be Area, I rebelled and made the process hard on myself. After beating myself up during I-Be Area, Any Ever [2009-10] came out in a very natural, inspired way. Any Ever has perversion and darkness but generally embraces the attitude that as long as you stay aware and utilize things that are happening to and around you, you’re still free.
This new project focuses more on basic human interactions, blending the lines between controlled experience and complete breakdown.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Breakdown as a way to get perspective?
TRECARTIN Yeah, to disassociate and fall apart. When a relationship stops being challenging and starts coasting, usually someone breaks the other person or themselves. Maybe humanity doesn’t actually like stability all that much.
LEHRER-GRAIWER You brought Parkour guys on set. Parkour stunts evolved out of military training on obstacle courses, right? And the whole spring-break vibe is very American. I’ve heard that a lot of props on your set were weaponized, like earmuffs stuffed with razor blades, as though any depiction of “mainstream America” would have a bellicose dimension.
TRECARTIN That’s a big part of it. People in the movie talk about funding wars as if that were a badge. Characters are always talking about how they’ve weaponized things, even family members. I weaponized the party gear, like big red Solo cups that shatter, to mirror the idea that something pleasant, communal and social can be used as a weapon.
LEHRER-GRAIWER You’re a fan of the TV show Killer Karaoke, which imposes risk-taking to exaggerate performance. Has that influenced this project?
TRECARTIN I love that show! It definitely inspired my directing style for this movie, now that I think about it. Movement didn’t happen like it used to in my work because shooting on one big open set actually produced a trapped feeling; so risk had to instigate movement.
A lot more happens in real time in this project. Normally I shoot to create material for the editing process, not for the live performances. This was different; the raw footage is really fun to watch.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Is that partly because you used some professional, celebrity actresses?
TRECARTIN We just used a few. I wanted to work with Molly Tarlov [from the MTV show Awkward], Aubrey Plaza [from Parks and Recreation] and Alia Shawkat [from Arrested Development]. Natalie Love and Jena Malone are in it, too. Jena was already a friend beforehand. I have always loved actresses in secondary roles who you wish were onscreen more.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Were they familiar with your practice?
TRECARTIN I don’t think so, except for Jena, but they watched it and said yes. It wasn’t that different from directing friends, which was great. They were good at saying something that sounds absurd and delivering it with a sense of decisiveness and confidence that’s controlled yet belligerent.
LEHRER-GRAIWER Do you think their age is part of why they were such a good fit?
TRECARTIN Yeah, they’re all generally my age or younger. I’m 32. People born in the ’80s, particularly ’86 and after, really do have a different way of accessing performance.
I’ve always been very unnostalgic about history, which is just as creative and malleable as the future. I don’t
think people need to be hung up on accuracy. A larger objective history is just not important. I think we’re moving into a world where, as everything gets captured and recorded, we’re gaining a new sense of time. Someday we’ll be able to time travel through information. The focus will then shift to intention and feelings.
I used to be fine with the idea that we supposedly make things to be maintained for history, but I don’t think that will matter in the future. If you’re making something for history or legacy or the ages, it’s in vain. The only thing that matters to me at this moment is making things for the present—and the future. It’s not about becoming a part of history. Timelessness is a romantic throwaway.
Currently on view Ryan Trecartin in “The Encyclopedic Palace,” at the 55th Venice Biennale, through Nov. 24.
Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer is a Los Angeles-based writer.
By Coco Fusco
The State of Detention: Performance, Politics, and the Cuban Public
The detention of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the Cuban government’s actions to prevent her performance from taking place in Havana’s Revolutionary Plaza have made international news headlines in the past week. Public outrage about the censorship of the performance and concerns about Bruguera’s whereabouts have circulated in social media outside Cuba, but little in depth consideration of the context and implications of the performance has been available in English.
In the aftermath of the December 17 pronouncements by Barack Obama and Raul Castro about a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, Bruguera published a public letter to the two presidents and the Pope in which she proposed relocating her 2009 performance Tatlin’s Whisper #6 to the Plaza of the Revolution, thereby offering an open mic to the Cuban citizenry to express their views about their country’s future. According to Bruguera, she was encouraged by friends to carry out her proposal. Calling her project #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand), she used internet platforms to launch her performance from outside the island and was supported by a number of dissident groups and opposition blogs. Bruguera then travelled to Havana on December 26 and was immediately summoned to a meeting with the director of the National Council of the Fine Arts, Rubén Del Valle, who made it clear that she would not receive authorization or support from official cultural channels. His position was made public in an interview released after the December 27 meeting, as was the Cuban artist and writers’ union repudiation of Bruguera’s performance. On December 29, Bruguera tried to obtain authorization to use the plaza from the National Revolutionary Police. Her request was denied. She made public her intent to continue with the performance without any official support, and was detained on the morning of December 30. Several dissidents who had expressed solidarity with Bruguera’s project were either detained or placed under house arrest at the same time. Among them were Antonio Rodiles and Ailer González of Estado de SATS, blogger Yoani Sanchez and her husband Reinaldo Escobar, activist Eliecer Avila, photographer Claudio Fuentes, and members of the activist group The Ladies in White. Performance artist and poet Amaury Pacheco was also detained near his home in Alamar, though he had not expressed any intention of attending the performance, and artist Luis Trápaga and filmmaker Boris González were arrested at the plaza. As of this writing, Pacheco and González remain in detention, together with a Cuban correspondent for the Madrid-based opposition blog Diario de Cuba and several opposition activists. Bruguera was released on December 31, but her passport was confiscated and, although she has not lived in Cuba for more than five years, she has been ordered to remain on the island for the next two to three months, while law enforcement determines whether or not to charge and try her for disrupting public order and resisting police. Since her first release, Bruguera has been detained two more times: first for calling a press conference and then for protesting the continued detention of some of her supporters (The most detailed and up-to-date reports on the detentions can be found in diariodecuba.com and 14ymedio.com).
Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana version), 2009. HD video, 40:30 minutes. Documentation of the performance at the Tenth Havana Biennial, Central Patio of the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, Havana, Cuba. © Tania Bruguera. Blogger Yoani Sanchez (right) gives a one-minute speech within the performance.
The international outcry over of Bruguera’s detention does not associate it with the December 24 arrest of another artist, Danilo Maldonado Machadoaka El Sexto, who was apprehended when he was on his way to stage a performance in Havana’s Parque Central involving two pigs named Fidel and Raul. El Sexto has not been released and he was not granted an interview with state representatives prior to his arrest. This is probably due to the fact that he is not a member of the Cuban artist and writers’ union and does not command the international press attention that would lead to a rash of unfavorable articles such as those generated by the censorship of #Yo Tambien Exijo.
Media coverage of Bruguera’s performance in English, including a recent editorial in The New York Times, has expressed disappointment that freedom of expression was not respected and that opponents of the Cuban government continue to be subject to threats, harassment, and detention. For those who follow Cuban politics, this comes as no surprise. First of all, the Cuban government’s control over culture, media, and public discourse has been absolute for more than five decades, and vague promises of change are not tantamount to actual modifications in law or policing practices. Second, the recent agreement to swap political prisoners and reopen embassies is not in itself indicative of a political transformation in Cuba—negotiations leading to the release of political prisoners have taken place since 1962—in the immediate aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion—and talks leading to restored diplomatic relations have taken place on and off since the 1970s.
Fidel Castro reads a Spanish translation of Barack Obama’s autobiography.
Deeper consideration of Bruguera’s situation involves considering whether an artwork can effect political changes in the realm of civil rights and how an artwork might catalyze collective political action. The capacity for manifestations of “people power” to effect change depends on the participation of people in large numbers, and no artist or dissident group currently operating on the island has the capacity to marshal the Cuban citizenry. Cuba supporters contend that this is because of mass support for Cuba’s existing government, while Cuba’s critics argue that political will is suppressed by an authoritarian state. One of the main obstacles to the organizing collective political action outside state channels is technical, which is to say the weak communication infrastructure in Cuba. It is the country with the lowest level of connectivity in the hemisphere. Any attempt to convene a large-scale public gathering in Cuba is thwarted from the onset, not only by the country’s highly effective security apparatus, but also by the fact that the vast majority of Cubans lack access to the internet, cell phones, and home-based landlines.
Graffiti by Cuban artist El Sexto, who was arrested on December 24, 2014 on his way to a performance in Parque Central, Havana.
Bruguera’s reliance on the internet to convene the Cuban public has provoked a certain degree of skepticism from critics about her intentions. “The Cuban people” did not show up at the plaza and it is likely that most Cubans on the island have no idea of what #Yo Tambien Exijo is. Cuban dissidents supporting Bruguera have been quite vocal about their disappointment about Washington’s decision to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba. The dissidents see this as a capitulation to their government’s interests, and Bruguera’s performance has been interpreted by some of her critics as a means of interfering with the negotiations between the two governments. Although comparisons of Bruguera’s project to Occupy Wall Street have been made, there is no evidence of widespread organizing in Cuba that parallels the kind of mass mobilization that preceded the 2011 occupations of New York’s financial center or Tahrir Square. The only activist campaign that has been successful in drawing broad-based support for constitutional reform in Cuba was the Varela Project, spearheaded by Oswaldo Payá in 1998; the campaign was undermined by the arrests of numerous activists in 2003 and the death of Payá in 2012. State repression of protests in Cuba for the most part targets a small group of opposition activists, dissident musicians and artists, and the pattern of protest-repression-detention-release-protest has been repeating for several years without shifts in tactics on either side.
The state’s response to Bruguera’s performance combines usual and unusual elements for the Cuban context. No one in Cuba has the legal right according to Cuban law to use public spaces for demonstrations or cultural events without prior authorization—and it bears mentioning that similar restrictions exist in several other countries, including the United States. Such restrictions are strictly enforced with regard to actions in the Plaza of the Revolution, which is the Cuban equivalent of the White House lawn. The plaza is surrounded by key government offices and guarded round the clock and permissible activities are limited to tourists taking picture of Che’s giant silhouette and official ceremonies. In 2011, a group of Cuban dissidents received sentences ranging from three to five years for distributing anti-government leaflets in the same plaza. The Ladies in White, an activist group led by female relatives of political prisoners, were forcibly dragged out of the plaza by police in 2008.
This is the only known sketch of El Sexto’s performance planned for December 24, 2014. The performance did not take place but led to the artist’s detention.
The rhetorical attacks that were launched this week in government sponsored blogs against Bruguera deploy sadly familiar and paranoid nationalist rhetoric—she has been characterized as an agent provocateur supported by counterrevolutionary exile forces, functioning under the influence of foreign trends. Cuban artists in previous eras who dared to carry out unauthorized performances in the street or in state galleries were also censored and detained: Juan Sí Gonzalez was stripped of his artist union membership, made subject to public censure, and detained in the 1980s for conducting political performances on Havana streets. Angel Delgado was imprisoned for six months in 1990 for defecating on a Communist party newspaper in a Havana gallery. And in 1991, after poet María Elena Cruz Varela penned a public letter to Fidel Castro calling for democratic reforms that was signed by ten Cuban intellectuals, she was dragged out of her house by police and taunted by a crowd of government supporters while pages of her political writings were shoved down her throat. Cruz Varela received a two-year prison sentence, as did two filmmakers who attempted to document her arrest.
Protest image with the silhoette of Amaury Pacheco made in protest of his detention.
The relatively brief duration of this week’s detentions contrasts with Cuba’s treatment of dissenting voices in previous eras. As has been pointed out by Cuban human rights activists, Raul Castro employs a different strategy for managing dissent on the island—detentions are shorter but the rate of detention has increased since 2008. The amount of international media attention given to the machinery of Cuban state repression has also increased, particularly in relation to internationally known dissident figures. Thanks to the growth of independent journalism and blogging about Cuba in the past five years, it is much easier these days for people outside Cuba to obtain information about the processes and procedures that constitute the exercise of state control. The interplay between cultural bureaucracy and state security in Cuba is more transparent than ever, but this has not prevented the state from using force against its opponents. That said, the rhetoric used by Cuban cultural bureaucrats has become more nuanced in recent years. State supported bloggers may rail against Bruguera as a counterrevolutionary, but National Council of the Fine Arts president Rubén Del Valle took great pains to explain that she is a “child of the revolution” who has erred by engaging in a “reality show” that is more of a political provocation than an aesthetic gesture—in short he displays a capacity for and interest in cultural interpretation. Nonetheless, Del Valle insists on the prerogative of the state to authorize all cultural activity and to keep Cuban art free of politics, as well as the supreme power of the government to orchestrate the transformation of US-Cuba relations.
This poster alerts various official figures to Tania Bruguera’s recent detention by the Cuban police.
While art world cognoscenti around the world have been venting on Facebook and circulating petitions regarding Bruguera’s detention, and exiled Cuban intellectuals have been ruminating on the meaning of #Yo Tambien Exijo, little commentary has emerged from Cuban artists living on the island. After a deafening silence in the days prior to the performance, only a few artists have responded to press queries with terse expressions of regret about Bruguera’s detention. Cuban National Arts Prize winner Lázaro Saavedra issued the lengthiest public statement so far via his Galería I-mail on December 30, in which he critiqued Bruguera’s performance as a miscalculated attempt at “aRtivist action” that preaches to Cubans about something they already know too well, i.e. the limits on their freedom of expression, and allows the artist to advance herself professionally with minimal risk, since she resides abroad and enjoys a kind of media coverage that serves as a protective shield. Saavedra claims he would have preferred that Bruguera create a temporary autonomous zone in which the voices of Cubans who live in Cuba and are not well-known artists could actually have been heard. It seems that Saavedra presumes that Bruguera’s performance was supposed to reveal something unknown, or that placing the mechanism of repression under scrutiny in a performance is unnecessary if the Cuban people are already aware of how their government exerts control of them. There are too many examples of artworks that have called upon viewers to review the already known so as to see and understand it differently for such presumptions to be unquestionably sustainable.
While Saavedra rightfully draws a distinction between the meaning and effect of Bruguera’s performance in and outside Cuba, he dismisses the potential worth of staging a media intervention from Cuba for a foreign audience beyond its uses for professional advancement. Cuba may be an island but its culture does not exist solely for local consumption. Bruguera’s foreign audience is the only one at present that can easily consume the flow of information about her artistic proposals, political views, and serial detentions. The Cuban people remain outside the picture so to speak, but Cuba’s status as an art world superpower comes under scrutiny. Cuba draws thousands of foreigners to its cultural events each year and the smooth functioning of its promotional machinery depends on approval from and alliances with foreign institutions, benefactors, art world luminaries and tourists. Cuban artists living on the island rely heavily on income from sales to foreigners. In light of the fact that in the past year, artists and arts professionals invited to biennials in Sao Paulo and Sydney have exercised political will by expressing their opposition to financing from governments and corporate sponsors whose practices they consider unethical, it may well be time for art world cognoscenti who have for so long been charmed by Cuba’s eccentricities, anti-imperialist rhetoric, and relatively cheap art prices to consider what, beyond the convention of indignant public letters, might serve as a valid response to a state that imposes draconian measures to enforce its hegemonic control over public space and discourse.
By Claire Bishop
THIS SEEMS TO BE THE YEAR that dance went discursive. The possibilities and limitations of this shift marked the two most influential performance experiences I had in 2014. The first was Ralph Lemon’s Value Talks at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a yearlong series of discussions and performances, and the second was Boris Charmatz’s expo zéro in its two-day iteration at Berliner Festspiele in July. And, sigh, full disclosure: I was partially involved in both projects, as one of a lineup of invited participants.
Lemon’s Value Talks were organized as part of his one-year Annenberg Research Commission Residency at MoMA and seemed to spring from the choreographer’s unease with the way in which dance has begun to appear in museums since the mid-2000s (i.e., as entertaining fairy dust, injecting live thrills into sterile spaces). This trend requires choreographers either to edit preexisting work or to produce new pieces that relinquish atmospheric specificity (including lighting and acoustics) for the unforgiving harshness of the white cube. Lemon proposed a series of seven events that dealt with the question of value, beginning with the incommensurate economies of visual art and dance but also extending more widely into issues of race and culture. Although most of the events were filmed, only a couple are available on MoMA’s website—itself raising questions about where performance’s value lies: in the event itself or in its documentation (of which this article forms a part).
The first event, in October 2013, was a discussion that included Lemon, Charmatz, and the venerable choreographer Simone Forti, which reportedly got off to a bad start by asking how visual artists manage to sell a conversation for a million dollars, all of which seemed like a nasty case of Tino Sehgal envy. Finance also dominated the second event (the first that I actually attended) a month later: an intimate gathering held in the “Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New” show, where MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry recounted the difficulties of acquiring Robert Rauschenberg’s combine Canyon, 1959, due to its inclusion of a bald eagle (illegal to trade or own in the US). The talk was fairly innocuous until associate director Kathy Halbreich asked my opinion, which inadvertently opened things up to an explosion of criticism of MoMA’s institutional values, particularly the depoliticized neutrality of its displays and Lowry’s claim that the museum was no longer canonical. Finally, those of us frustrated with MoMA could speak truth to power; it was therapeutic, although it almost certainly won’t have any impact.
Later in the series, in March, art historian Kellie Jones spoke on the theme of absence and ancestry in the work of David Hammons. For the first half of her talk, Jones lectured in absentia, her disembodied voice filling a small screening room with the poetry of her father, Amiri Baraka, who had died two months earlier. This was a powerful opener to a discussion of Hammons’s work in relation to bebop. Two weeks later, artist Kevin Beasley and poet-scholar Fred Moten put together an evening themed around improvisation (“On Value, Poetry, and the Turntable”): Beasley mixed records while Moten simultaneously composed a rapid-fire response in poetry. In May, we gathered off-site to see choreographer Sarah Michelson “in rehearsal” with two of her dancers; she spoke so sotto voce that this was easily the least language-driven event in the series, effectively presenting the rehearsal as pure image. Inviting us to enter after the discussion had already begun and to leave before it had ended, Michelson refused the usual format of performance-and-talk-back in favor of opacity, a fantasy of rehearsal.
Of course, had Yvonne Rainer’s contribution been realized—a proposal to fall asleep underneath Henri Rousseau’s 1897 painting Sleeping Gypsy—it would have trumped Michelson’s antidialogic provocation. The event was nixed by the museum for reasons I don’t fully understand (something to do with Tilda Swinton’s sleeping performance the previous fall). Finally, there was yours truly, leading a guided tour of the contemporary galleries at MoMA fifty years in the future, overwriting the Sigmar Polke retrospective then on display, positing a utopian hang of art prompted by a total change of social values. (Rainer’s proposed work managed to make an appearance in this imaginary display.)
Lemon has referred to the Value Talks as “performance essays,” but I experienced them more like a seminar or workshop: a chance to gather regularly with peers to hear one-off experiments in our respective mediums. The series also put me in dialogue with the African American art and performance scene, which is still far from integrated into the city’s museums. When one reflects on the series as a whole, however, it seems discouraging that MoMA can only give so much space to African American artists, and to this degree of experimentalism, in the form of fleeting events like performance and education, rather than being able to admit such forms of creativity and criticality into its exhibitions and collection displays.
BORIS CHARMATZ, meanwhile, has been developing a speculative and discursive approach to dance since 2009 under the auspices of the Centre Choréographique National de Rennes et de Bretagne, France’s National choreography center, which he has renamed Musée de la Danse. Expo zéro, which I first saw as part of Performa 11 three years ago, isn’t an exhibition so much as a drifting series of encounters between the public and ten performers. I was invited to be part of the team for its Berlin debut last summer, alongside performance artists Rabih Mroué and Tim Etchells, curator/writers David Riff and Hu Fang, dancers/choreographers Shelley Senter and Pichet Klunchun, and choreographers/dancers Mette Ingvartsen and Meg Stuart. In July, we gathered for five days to workshop an event that then opened to the public for two days.
In its lack of structure, the experience was at once maddening, terrifying, and exhilarating. Charmatz’s only organizing principle was for us to present our individual proposals for a museum of dance in the seven empty rooms of the Kunstsaele Berlin, a classic nineteenth-century bourgeois apartment turned art gallery. We were forbidden from using costumes, props, objects, scores, or scripts; there was no furniture and no music or video. (In this respect, it was not dissimilar to Lemon’s pared-back approach to performance at MoMA: using only the tools available to create hypotheses about museums and value.)
The result was a combination of strategies with a higher conversational and collaborative component than any previous iteration of expo zéro. Invisible histories of performance, questions of ownership and reperformance, improvisation versus scores, social dance and pedagogy were all put on the table (or, rather, the floor). Riff was a walking repository of information about Karl Marx, especially his relationship to dance (who knew he’d wooed his wife with a quadrille?). Ingvartsen explained and enacted a collection of now-iconic erotic performances by Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci, and others. Etchells performed exhilarating streams of verbal improvisation, either in dialogue with Stuart’s choreography or in tandem with Mroué as they spent hours amassing imaginary objects in a room. I pursued discussions about social choreography with the other performers or asked them to teach me how to dance. These wordier contributions alternated with quieter, more physical presentations, such as Klunchun’s sculptural excerpts of Thai royal dance, Hu’s meditative tai chi sequences, or Senter’s back catalogue as a dancer for Trisha Brown (and authorized instructor of Rainer’s Trio A, 1966). Charmatz himself veered indefatigably between turbopowered dance improvisation and high-energy discussions with the audience.
To my amazement, it all kind of worked: People settled in for this five-hour hybrid of exhibition/conference/ performance, with viewers and performers continually flowing between rooms and words and movement. Discussions were not preprepared and repeated but spontaneously erupted after a week of sitting in a room and listening to each other. The overall structure was raw and unpolished, in part because we weren’t being filmed for posterity, and in part because we were in a continual state of testing. (In this respect, it couldn’t have been more different from the übercontrolled boot camp of Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours, 2014, running simultaneously at the Serpentine Gallery in London.)
That dance is now moving into exhibition spaces and adopting a discursive register seems to be an inevitable consequence of Sehgal’s popularity, even though his “situations” are indebted to a ’90s generation of French choreographers (including Xavier Le Roy, whose “Retrospective” just closed at MoMA PS1, and Charmatz). But both the Value Talks and expo zéro point to paths beyond Sehgal in harnessing performers who were allowed to let their own knowledge flourish; lifetimes of research and expertise were not so much performed as made available to new contexts and collaborations. As an academic, I welcomed the ways in which the Value Talks and expo zéro opened up alternatives to the conventional scholarly formats of the symposium or lecture; rather than taking these presentational devices as a given, these projects made possible the option of embodying and enacting ideas in other performative formats. And yet the joy, pleasure, and risk of each series were directly indexed to its intimacy and scale: The freedom of these experiments only seems to be possible with limited audiences and a lack of repetition. (In Berlin, tickets were restricted to one hundred and fifty people. In New York, the events were invitation-only, although at some point Triple Canopy will publish a record of the series as a book titled On Value.) Whether this exclusivity of address and resistance to popularization is a creative necessity—or a crippling drawback—is one of the trickiest questions that experimental choreographers now have to confront. I just wish you all could have been there.
Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at CUNY Graduate Center, New York.
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