You Didn’t Have to Be There…

As promised:

http://fora.tv/2007/11/14/Photography_and_Contemporary_Performance_Art

This is a link to a panel discussion on the relationship of photography and performance art, featuring RoseLee Goldberg, Babette Mangolte, Vanessa Beecroft, and of course, Marina Abramovic.  I think that this is a really great discussion of the topic, despite the fact that some of the the concerns don’t get fully addressed.  It focuses (photo pun!) mostly on the larger more central concerns of photography as documentation, such as the idea that photo compresses something that is time based and ephemeral into a single static moment, the fact that the photographer should at all times be a representative of the truth, and of course the question of when and how documentation becomes a work of art in it’s own right.  It’s difficult to clearly delineate these issues as they all become muddled together, one tying into the next, and feeding back out of another, however.

image

Personally, I think I struggle the most with the first concept, the fact that photography can never capture the entire scope of the performance.  The best that it can hope to do, is to give a good sense of how the performance looked, an impression of what happened where and in relation to whom.  It can never capture the “vibe” of the experience, or the dynamic between viewers/participants and the artist.  And yet, at the same time, the photographs exist as a type of proof that the event happened for galleries, press, or of course in our current situation, act as evidence for our next studio visit.  But, aside from proof, why must these images be created?  I go back and forth on this hourly…

image

Very early in the video, RoseLee Goldberg makes the point that often times people are told that “You have to be there (at the performance), to understand.”  Her response is that, well, she wasn’t at the Battle of Waterloo, or any other number of historical events, but she can still appreciate their significance.  In her view, experiencing performance via photography is legitimate.  I however, am not so convinced on this logic (Isn’t the saying that history is written by the victors?).  These “documentary” images of a performance are not the objective records we believe them to be.  Photographs can easily be misleading or even misused after the fact, leading to interpretation or opinions that may not be in line with what the artist intended.  In fact, you can have a terrible performance, or even one that never actually took place, evidenced beautifully in a still photograph.  Then, even if the images captured reflect, at least, the essence of what the artist was going through, they are very carefully edited and circulated by the artist themselves, there by controlling the interpretation of the work.  Chris Burden always had his performances documented, but culled the documentation down into one or two photographs that were then used to represent that piece of work for perpetuity.  Babette Mangolte also points out that art historians tend to follow a similar behavior pattern in their realm of research.  Instead of looking for many images from the same performance, the habit of art historians is to viewing only published documentation, thus narrowing the field through which the work is encountered.

image

All of this leads me to wonder exactly how right it is to “experience” a performance via photography.  Photography lies.  It always has, and will continue to, be it through the medium itself, or those who make use of/study it.  I think our society is more in love with the idea of a beautiful image than we are with the truth.  Marina Abramovic makes a wonderful point when she says that art historians typically only concern themselves with the still photo because it aestheticizes the performance in to  one single thing.  In essence, it that image becomes one single, easily digestible tidbit, which can easily come to stand in for the piece in it’s entirety.  Which is where we cross into the territory of the documentation become a work in it’s own right…

image

This is another aspect of this discussion for which I don’t have a really good answer.  While most of the art we look at is viewed through documentation, performance art is almost exclusively viewed this way.  Because of the fact works are often only performed once, or done for a specific place, or the artist has passed, the only way we can access those pieces is through their documentation.  So when galleries or museums wish to show a piece of work which no longer actually exists, what is there to do but use the documentation, making it an art work in it’s own right?   Finally, there is the need to take into consideration the idea of photography itself as a performance.  In this respect, Cindy Sherman could be creating a performance every single time she creates one of her images.  Think also of the Yves Kline image, Leap into the Void, a composited image of an event that never truly took place.

image

Some things I had never considered, that this panel brought up, was the concept of the importance of sound to a performance and it’s documentation, and the idea of “collaboration” with a photographer.  The idea of sound I think is a truly crucial one that photography has no hopes of addressing.  All performances have some type of sound associated with them, even if it is only the ambient sound of movement, or of the space itself.  That has an impact on the way a performance is perceived, and that is not captured in a photography.  When we look at photographic documentation of a performance, we cannot get even a sense of what the space sounded like, and so we lose that important information for our interpretation.  Lastly, in the panel, the question is raised as to how the artist relates to and works with the photographer.  Oddly enough, this thought had never crossed my mind.  But it makes sense, if you’re attempting to capture your performance, the relationship to the person documenting it becomes something of a collaboration.  You have to understand them, and they you…  There’s a necessity for being on the same page.  However, this then raises the question of creative rights.  Does the work belong to the photographer, do the images belong to the artist?

It’s murky water my friends.

Advertisements

Ubu Roi

It’s been a crazy busy two weeks.  School is now in full swing, as are research and art making.  I’ve got loads to share about all of that, but first I thought I’d share some thoughts about a play I’ve just read for a class, Ubu Roiby Alfred Jarry.  It prompted a lot of thought and a little bit of research on my part, and hopefully it will do the same for you.  The translation I am using is from 1961, with a short preface or forward by Barbara Wright, and accompanied by two essays by Jarry.  It was published by New Directions Publishing Corporation, and is the “Twenty-Seventh Printing.”

Image from Wikipedia, Originally a woodcut done by Alfred Jarry of Ubu Roi.

 

Until about a year or so ago, I had never even heard of Ubu Roi, which the more I think about it, the stranger it seems, as I’ve taken at least 3 art history courses that covered the time period in which it was first performed.  The first time I came across Ubu Roi was reading Roselee Goldberg’s Performance Art from Futurism to the Present.  I remember being intrigued by what was described, as well as the cultural/historical events surrounding it.  I felt that I should probably read Ubu Roi, but I was wary of doing so.  For whatever reason, the way it was described in Goldberg’s book reminded me of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.   Several years ago, I made a valiant attempt to read Catch-22 and found it’s bureaucratic absurdity so painfully difficult that I couldn’t even finish the book (an extreme rarity for me).  It left a really bad taste in my mouth that made me hesitant to read Ubu, which come to find out was completely unnecessary.  I really enjoyed reading Ubu Roi, and found a number of parallels to our current social, cultural, and political ideas/events.

 
In the forward/preface to the play, Barbara Wright mentions the comparisons to Shakespeare that Ubu has faced.  Even with this forewarning I did not expect it to so obviously and blatantly follow the plot of MacBeth.  It’s been an incredibly long time since I’ve read that play, but the prodding and abuse of Père Ubu by Mere Ubu in Act I, Scene I, instantly reminded me of the portion of MacBeth, where Lady MacBeth urges her husband to “screw your courage to the sticking place” and do what needs to be done.  At that point MacBeth has essentially thought himself to a standstill in regards to the prophesy delivered by the three witches.  Lady MacBeth’s assaults imply that her husband is too weak of will and clearly not manly enough to advance in the world. As Ubu Roi opens, we see Père Ubu, too stupid to see the possibilities that Mère Ubu has clearly already considered, thus the verbal attacks, once again rousing the spouse into action.  Reading Ubu Roi reminded me of what a dark, violent play MacBeth is, and how it really reflects the inherent evilness of man kind, in much the way Ubu demonstrates the crass commonness of humans.  We always want what others have, we can never be satisfied with what has already been achieved or earned.  I think given Jarry’s aims in creating Ubu, a better choice could not have been made, especially in light of what he writes in Of the Futility of the “Theatrical” in the Theatre.   In this essay, Jarry asserts that there are two things that can be done in order to make the theater more accessible to the audience.  Firstly, that they are provided with characters who think like them and are relatable/understandable.  Secondly, that the audience is given a “commonplace sort of plot.”  In other words, people, places, things, events, with which they are familiar.  In using, nearly word for word, the plot from MacBeth, as well as placing Père and Mere Ubu in the roles of MacBeth and Lady MacBeth, Jarry provided a ready known, familiar plot line.

A second thing which crossed my mind while pondering this connection to MacBeth, is that Jarry had created a piece of art that was postmodern long before anyone could grasp the concept of postmodern.  He appropriated, with out apology, material from Shakespeare’s work, twisting it and adding to it, serving his own purposes.  Part of this “borrowing” pushed his ideas about making the theater more accessible, as I stated previously, but I think it also stood as a sign of things to come, whether or not Jarry intended for it to do so.  The idea of Ubu Roi being before it’s time is hinted at in both the forward/preface and the essay Questions of the Theatre.   In that essay Jarry uses a really lovely metaphor for the idea of time and the evolution of ideas, writing:  “Light is active and shade is passive, and light is not detached from shade, but, given sufficient time, penetrates it.”  He goes on to discuss the idea that people who have lived a long time have lived among a specific group of works and concepts.  Essentially stating that what these elders are familiar with, is what becomes the accepted, and therefor normal, mode of thought and artistic creation.  He notes, however,  that one day “We too shall become solemn, fat and Ubu-like and shall publish extremely classical books…And a lot of other young people will appear, and consider us completely out of date…and there is no reasons why this should ever end.”  I take these two quotes to mean that something, such as Ubu Roi, may be put forward, but it may not be understood until it has experienced the test of time, so to speak.  It brings to mind a sort of wave of understanding.  However, these works will eventually be pushed aside the same new understandings and continually advancing tide that brought about it’s initial understanding.  It’s my opinion that humans in general seek that which is familiar and comfortable to them.  When something comes along, as Ubu did, and challenges or mocks the known, all thrown in to disarray, which is something I think is a very prominent goal in postmodernism.  This is underscored by Wright in the forward/preface, when she reports:  “It caused an uproar, was violently booed and violently applauded; it was compared with the work of Shakespeare and Rabelais, or dismissed as insipid nonsense; it was called the inspiration of modern youth, or dismissed as a rather poor joke.”

The idea that Ubu Roi was dismissed as a poor joke also brought to mind for me Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop.  I watched that movie about six months ago, and still find myself wondering exactly what it was meant to convey.  Was it a farce?  Was it a documentary?  Was it only a joke?  Is Banksy making fun of the sudden popularity and profusion of street art?  Is he questioning the value of the artist and art in our current society?  Is he challenging the art market and collectors yet again?  Is it all of the above or none?  I sincerely wonder.  Exit Through the Gift Shop is alternately described as all of the above, depending on who you ask and their personal experience of it.  I feel as though this is much the way Ubu Roi would have been received, at least by those in the world of the arts.  In the same way Exit Through the Gift Shop is so unbelievable unlikely and absurd, so too was Ubu in it’s time.  You are left unsure of whether or not to take it seriously, and it causes to to really question your perceptions of the surrounding ideas, events, and even the culture.  While frustrating, and I’m sure confusing for those who experienced the first appearance of Père Ubu in 1896, I feel the lingering questions are a positive thing.  It continues to force you to think, long after your initial experience of the thing.  While Ubu Roi (as seen through the lens of modern culture) is not as shocking or offensive as it was once considered to be, it is clearly the first of its kind.  It asked its audience to view itself with out a filter, and therefore reconsider themselves.

Finally, as I was reading, I saw an incredibly strong parallel between Père Ubu’s behavior and that of today’s culture and politics.   Père Ubu is a selfish and immature person, acting with out thought for consequence to himself or others.  For him the ultimate goal is self gratification at any and all costs.  It doesn’t matter if he has to kill hundreds of nobles, or refuse advancement to those who aided him, he will have what he wants.  Ubu Roi examined the entirely too commonplace occurrence of those with power and money to wind up abusing that power and money in the quest for their own success.  I think this is still true of American politics.  Politicians lobby for, and enact legislation that benefits themselves, forgetting their duty to their constituents.  Often times, laws are passed in knee jerk reactions to specific events or situations with no thought of how they might affect future generations.    Politicians work to better their own situations, to make more money both privately and for their reelection campaigns, saying whatever it is they need to say along the way.  This short sightedness is also a very common theme in today’s popular culture.  We want everything, and we want it now, we have become a culture of instant gratification. We continue to talk on the phone and text while driving, even though we have been warned that it may result in fatal car accidents.  Our iPhones are much more important than common sense or safety.  Americans currently find themselves in financial crisis because they borrowed money with out a true thought as to how we would pay it back.  The prominent thing in our minds was the McMansion, the giant flat screen TV, or the giant SUV that we really had no need of.  Much like Père Ubu, we are too ignorant to even take responsibility for our behaviors, instead we point fingers every which way, blaming others for our misfortune.  We blame the banks for bad business, the economy for high unemployment, and the government for spending too much, but we never stop to examine our own behaviors or think for ourselves, something we have in common with Père Ubu.