Performa09--Week 1: Arto Lindsay's SOMEWHERE I READ, Guy Ben-Ner's Drop the Monkey and talk with Jon Kessler, Dexter Sinister's First/Last Newspaper and film showing of David Loeb Weiss's Farewell, Etaion Shrdlu, Tacita Dean's Craneway Event
On Sunday, November 1st I went to Times Square where Guy Ben-Ner's Performa commissioned video, Drop the Monkey (2009), was being shown on one of the bright lcd billboards with subtitles (the film is originally in English and Hebrew). I am a Ben-Ner fan, so was looking forward to seeing what he had come up with for the 09 biennial. My first impression of the video was that it was a bit of a fuck you to the biennial. The backstory for the video, revealed to me during Ben-Ner's conversation with sculptor Jon Kessler the following evening, is that Ben-Ner submitted a proposal to make a video which would be shot as Ben-Ner travelled between Israel and Germany to be with a girlfriend who he was seeing at the time. Free airfare? While Drop the Monkey may be taking the piss, its motivations are clearly not as simple as that. The radical procedure at work in Ben-Ner's video is that each shot occurs after Ben-Ner has traveled to Berlin or Tel Aviv by plane. So, as Ben-Ner put it poetically at Cooper Union, each border crossed produces a shot.
I like thinking about Ben-Ner's traveling in his video after the other videos he's made, all of which feature domestic spaces transformed into sets, and which use Ben-Ner's family as props and players. With Drop the Monkey it is as if Ben-Ner has broken through the interiority of his work--a world of play, perversity, and odd transferences featuring literary characters such as Herman Melville's Ahab and Daniel Defoe's shipwrecked protagonist, Robinson Crusoe. The fact that Ben-Ner flies back and forth to see a girlfriend in Berlin is significant since Ben-Ner would seem to seek a line of flight away from (or out of?) the nuclear family in his previous videos while negotiating domestic responsibilities such as taking care of his children.
During the talk, in response to questions from Kessler and the audience, Ben-Ner insisted that he made the video in order for his work and his life to be involved with one another. The commission with Performa seems, then, created from a genuine want to be with a loved one, and to also risk capturing that other person through Ben-Ner's contractual obligations to Performa (Ben-Ner used the word "capture" numerous times during his interview with Kessler). Whenever Ben-Ner spoke about his commission there was an anxiety that he seemed to perform: that he may lose the loved one through his commitment to the art project (which he did); that he may also not fulfill his obligations to his employer (which he was only able to do under emotional duress). The situation is perverse, and intended as such by Ben-Ner. The perversions of the film raise more question than they resolve. What is art when making art becomes inextricable from the practical dilemmas of our life (such as how to be with a loved one when this being with is inconvenient or unfeasible)? What happens when our lives become the actual vehicles of live art (rather than the opposite). Life itself becomes a kind procedure, or form, determining the work. Inversely, the work becomes a set of consequences in one's life.
In the video, Ben-Ner is still a loner, as he is in his earlier films such as Berkeley Island and Moby Dick. He is a one man band as he plays both parts (himself in Tel Aviv and himself in Berlin), and operates a video camera via remote control and clever makeshift remote devices (in one scene he attaches a pole to a tripod so he can track himself as he circles the camera). Through the video, Ben-Ner comes off as both a comedian and a deject. Travel is always bound up with melancholy, and almost every piece of art or literature involved with travel may be said to be a work of longing. In the video, Ben-Ner writes on a t-shirt that he eventually wears for the duration of the video "I wish I were somewhere else." Never does Ben-Ner make reference to the Holocaust, but as an Israeli traveling back and forth between Germany and Israel the fact looms. (As Ben-Ner joked during the Q&A: "It [Berlin/Germany] is one of the last places in the world where we [Israelis] can go and still feel like victims.") To "prove" to his patrons that he was in Germany or Israel for discrete shots, Ben-Ner often filmed himself in front of monuments and other sites indicating place. In this regard, Ben-Ner's obligations to Performa also become obligations to history: to prove that he was 'there', at a definite place in space-time. These debts haunt any diasporic people; Ben-Ner's very personal art becomes an allegory for more universal experiences: longing, remembering, loving and, mainly, keeping one's promise.
I read once in Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution that poetic rhyme schemes offer an intuitive way to proceed in composition, as though language were itself a life form growing and evolving. In Ben-Ner's Drop the Monkey it is significant that the artist has chosen to rhyme his script, and even more so that the rhymes seem to work both in Hebrew and English subtitles. It is as though Ben-Ner's rhymes were composed in both languages at once, something inconceivable to my uniglot mind. Hearing the rhyme scheme, it struck me as Shakespearian, but then everything rhymey (ABAB) tends to sound a bit Shakespearian. Is the function of the rhyme scheme to remember? Is it to add an additional risk-factor (what will the next line be? how can it fit with the narrative arc of the work?) Does it function procedurally—a generator of the text? The only moment of the video when Ben-Ner speaks English is when he recites T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "I grow old ... I grow old ... / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. // Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. // I do not think they will sing to me." The recitation of Eliot's love song is appropriate given the similarities between Eliot's dramatic persona and Ben-Ner's character in Drop the Money. Both are neither here nor there; they are indecisive, naval gazing, and self-deprecating. They long for what they do not possess, and from this sense of dispossession derives both comedy and tragic ironies.
The second work I encountered at Performa09 followed immediately after Ben-Ner's video premiere in Times Square. Just to the left of the Times Square bandstand, a group of people with cell phones and tan trench coats were gathering to participate in Arto Lindsay's processional sound piece, SOMEWHERE I READ. The participants formed a line and proceeded to the bandstand. While they did so they held up their cell phones so that the public audience could hear what sounded like a camera rhythmically clicking. With each "click" the participants turned their heads, mimicking the mechanical motion of pre-digital cameras reloading. The gesture was appropriate to Times Square, given how much picture taking goes on there, especially on the bandstand.
Before Lindsay's participants occupied the bandstand I saw numerous couples and groups of people posing for each other with cell phones and cameras. From the bandstand the procession strutted down Times Square halting frequently so that it did not lose anyone. It also performed a dance, which resembled "classic" Hip-hop choreography (imagine 80s Hip-hop moves post MJ's Thriller). The reference to Hip-hop reminded me at once that Times Square was once a place where break dancers would show-off their routines and aspiring rappers their acts. It also reminded me that Hip-hop dance mimics mechanical technologies in dances such as "the robot" and in the "popping and locking" of your basic old school break dance routine. Given the "futurist" theme of this year's biennial (09 is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist manifesto) Lindsay's choreographic choices seemed historically resonant.
As with all public art, what can be most interesting about the artwork are the ways it is received by an unsuspecting public. One middle-aged woman snidely warned that the procession was some kind of "cult"; teenangers with hoodies and baggy jeans asked incredulously, "people are watching this?" Teenagers in "free hug" shirts appropriated the event, giving hugs to the crowd walking beside the procession. As a contemporary art format, there is a sense that the procession/parade/march is a emancipatory format inasmuch as it proves there is power in the mere assembly of bodies, and especially in bodies organized for dance/music/discourse. Is this Lindsay's point?
Where I thought SOMEWHERE I READ was unsuccessful was in the scale of the work. The sound piece playing from the camera phones was barely audible amidst the many sounds and noises of Times Square; likewise, one wanted more bodies, more mass for effect. 500 people marching in tan trench coats instead of 30 (at most). One also wonders (as with much art), if one would not be better off organizing bodies for a particular political cause. Do Lindsay's processions not represent a longing for collective demonstration, thus the potential for action? How can art not seem alienated in this regard, when there are so many urgent causes for whom bodies should collectively gather, protest, and demonstrate?
The third event I attended was the opening of Dexter Sinister's The First/Last Newspaper pop-up in the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I didn't know what Dexter Sinister was going to do, I just knew it was going to be good given Dexter Sinister's track record for blending high concept art with cheap and dirty design. I was not disappointed. After bumping into Cory Arcangel and discussing with him Dexter Sinister's projects in relation to his own (both of which appropriate heavily from the work of others, and address obsolescent technologies), I realized that Dexter Sinister was showing a film. The film it showed is a rarely screened film by documentary filmmaker David Loeb Weiss called Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu that chronicles the night of July 2nd, 1978 when The New York Times switched from analogue to digital printing technologies.
What I saw was really like nothing I've ever encountered. Elegant in its simplicity, wondrous in its artifactuality, one is first shown the Linotype printing process, a process involving large machines that produce metal letters from a vat of molten lead. After watching this process from start to finish, one sees Times editors working with type-setters who, Tetris-like, fit all of the type for the individual newspaper pages and accompanying spaces into a metal frame (a frame per page). While the type-setter reads (upside down and backwards) what is written, the editor proofreads. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.
Carl Schlesinger, an ex-Linotype operator himself and the narrator of Weiss's film, was in the audience for Dexter Sinister's screening and talked about the film explaining how dramatic the night of July 2nd 1978 was, and how difficult it is for our present to imagine the risk the Times took by changing from analogue to digital at that particular moment in history when digital technologies were as yet unproven. In a kind of reversal of this 'progressive' technological movement, Dexter Sinister is undertaking a project fitting with the spirit of their design practice as it engages technological obsolescence: they are printing digitally using electronic scanners and contemporary multimedia software, but then posting the news via wheat glue (the original adhesive for early printed news). In doing so, they will both historicize newspaper printing processes and have a public reflect on the current state of the news as, currently, printed editions are overtaken by electronic ones. Where 100 years ago the Futurist manifesto embraced technologies of militant speed heedlessly (a phenomena which Paul Virilio and other historians have been highly critical of), Dexter Sinister puts on the brakes provoking critical reflection, if not alternative utopias inherent in the obsolete.
I attended a few other Performa events this past week, but the event which most affected me was Tacita Dean's contemplative and painterly documentary featuring the late Merce Cunningham and company, Craneway Event. Although Dean's film requires patience (at times I was brought back to my experiences of watching certain films by other painter-filmmakers such as James Benning, Michael Snow, and Stan Brakhage), I believe the film was worth spending time with.
In the opening shot of Dean's film one sees a seagull stretch its wings repeatedly, each time about to take-off. Finally the bird does take off. The rest of the film alternates scenes of Cunningham rehearsing with his company. While one can view the film as a document of Cunningham's rehearsals in late life (there is something particularly beautiful about the fact that we see Cunningham wheelchair bound throughout the film given the many iconic images of the dancer-choreographer caught by camera in mid-air), the film transcends documentary becoming a work of art in itself. Dean, who has made other works of art after such art world heroes as Robert Smithson, advances her own problem of how to be in conversation with the work of other artists while preserving the integrity and singularity of her own practice.
While watching the film, I was intensely aware that Dean's background is in painting. While we see the figures of the dancers clearly, they are often transformed by the light in the building where the dance takes place--a dock warehouse converted into a performance space along the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond, CA. Cunningham's dancers rehearse within a building with walls of towering, latticed glass. There is something religious about the experience of the warehouse bathed in light, only instead of stain glass we just have regular glass. One is also aware of the time of day in the film, and how diurnal shifts effect how the dancers are perceived, the dancers being at times transfigured by a certain incident of light, or obscured by shadow and glare.
The glass walls of the Craneway building also allow the film's audience to see much of the San Francisco Bay. The view is panoramic. And the wide lens Dean uses enhances the panoramic effect. Throughout the film we see boats and ships in the background--phenomena which Cunningham comments on repeatedly. There becomes a sense that the dance is native to this landscape. Not just the landscape as a series of physical facts, but as a series of durations overlapping and occurring synchronically--coevally. Certainly the movements of the dancers reflects the specific goings-on of the docks, and of the larger area of the San Francisco Bay. Again and again one is reminded of the gull from the first shot of the film. At other times the dancers mimic the creaky mechanical movements of nautical technology (ropes and cranes), and a general feeling of transport (goods being brought in and out of port).
While Dean is certainly painting with light, I believe that she is also providing a loving portrait of Cunningham, whose practice is a practice--clearly--of patience, and of a deep attention to duration as an essential quality of one's environment. The dance, Craneway Event, is born out of this fact and Dean's film shows it. The dance is an event and the film what expresses event--event being that which happens, and through which time finds shape, structure, and integral form. When the film was over I heard people speaking admiringly about Cunningham's dance techniques. One person exclaimed, “it [the film] makes me want to dance." It was difficult not to be moved by this film, which got to essences by carefully observing physical facts, and acted generously towards someone who, like so few artists, made of their life a continuous work of generosity—an overflowing cup of care and concision. For many in the audience who knew Cunningham, I don't doubt that Dean's film may have also seemed a somber farewell. In the closing shots the glare of a setting sun is at the center of the shot and lights the dancers moving separately in clusters. The light of the sun is the diurnal light of an actual day. That light gives way to something else. Mainly applause. The dancers bow to Cunningham having finished their dance. The credits roll, the lights come on, and we clap in the main chapel of St. Mark's Church.