An open-ended look at contemporary art – both inside the Walker and out – as framed by our Visual Arts curators.
In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited a range of voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s […]
In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited a range of voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. Following up reflections by Chris Conry, Nabil Ahmed, Keli Garrett, Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, and Rahila Gupta, we conclude this week by hearing from Fatos Ustek, Rachel Anderson, and Jeanne Dorado. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.
(Non) / 0
By Fatos Ustek
All prefixes are derivational and they provide lexical meaning. The prefix “non” is twofold, standing both for absence and negation. It suffices to show that what has been is no longer there or is not as it used to be. It might indicate a loss, a condition of without and/or amplify the states of lacking. Zero is both a number and the numerical digit used to represent that number in numerals. It has a function in the numeric system and fulfills a central role in mathematics as the additive identity of integers, real numbers, and many other algebraic structures. Zero is also a conceptual image sharing the qualities of “non,” furthering the concept of nothingness. Zero negates and “non” is the counter-positive of something in existence.
The arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, and multiplication are processes that change an existing value by the force of another number. In applied mathematics, when zero is added to or subtracted from another number, it does not cause a change in the numeric value of that number. But when that number is placed in a multiplication relationship with zero, it loses its numeric value. Division is a function that seeks to break up an entity through a denominator. A complication arises in the process of division when the dividend is zero. The result is no longer definable as it attains multiple values simultaneously, hence is assigned NaN (not a number). Both multiplication and division are processes that can activate a major differentiation in value. As with relationships at large, in mathematics a singular value is always the result of multiple couplings and can be derived by multiple means. That is, the outcome of the two values—introduced to one another at a specific gravity-entropy constellation—might be reached by other relations under variant circumstances. A basic example: 60 is an outcome of 2 and 30, also an outcome of 2 and 120, 5 and 12, and so on. Hence the specificity of the mathematical operation is of great significance, especially when complicated formations and values are at hand (i.e., museum and non, museum and participation, non and participation, and so on).
Fatos Ustek is an independent curator and art critic based in London. She is a member of ICI and AICA TR, the editor of Unexpected Encounters Situations of Contemporary Art and Architecture since 2000, author of Book of Confusions (2012), and founding editor of Nowiswere Contemporary Art Magazine (2008–2012).
When This Thread Snaps
By Rachel Anderson
The revolution won’t be led by red flags and the sound of “Bella Ciao”; it won’t be written about by approved academics whose careers we’ve followed and trusted; it won’t elevate the voices of those we long to hear more of, who affirm us and raise our spirits; it won’t fill our airwaves or our ears with solidarity and the justice for which we stand. It won’t happen between respectable hours and in designated areas, and it won’t have an allocated tea station, information board, or “quiet zone.” There will be no training and organized occupations, no sign-up speaking platforms, no “burn out” support group, no PA system fueled by pedal power, no press photos, no high-visibility vests, no polite unauthoratitive signage.
It will come like a flood in the night, with boundless power and uncatchable form, with inconsistence and unpredictability; it will speak with an invisible voice in a language we won’t understand because we never listened before. It will not see us, and it won’t obey our rational demands or follow the path we prepared for it. It will swell and burst. It will be appalling, misplaced, and reckless. It will prioritize the wrong values, it will dance to the wrong songs and laugh in the wrong places; it will be unreasonable, it will be angry, it will be untamable; it won’t understand that we are the good ones who devoted our lives to this time. We will be left with no choice but to join our old enemies in order to put an end to all this, because we have real work to do and a revolution to prepare for.
Note: Last year I went to a socialist film festival to see a documentary about the 2011 London riots called Wonderland: My Child the Rioter, which presented interviews with young people who were involved in these riots and their parents. There was a panel discussion afterward with a working-class family from the north of England who appeared in the film. The young boy was politicized, angry, and radical; he was a very compelling speaker. I think he was studying politics. The first in his family to go to university, he positioned himself as somewhere between anti-capitalist and Marxist. A woman sitting behind me made a comment during the Q&A that went something like this: “You’re a really bright, articulate young man and I want to congratulate you, but most of those who joined the riots last year weren’t being political.”
The riots took place in August 2011 across London and other cities in the UK. They began after the police shot and killed 29-year-old Mark Dugan in North London. Hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets and thousands were arrested and given severe prison sentences; five people died. Because of the extensive looting that took place during the riots, the mainstream voice of the media and public undermines these actions as not being “political.”
What Would Socrates Say?
By Jeanne Dorado
What do I have in common with Jesus, Rosa Parks, George Washington, Fidel Castro, and a Quaker? Mavericks or misfits, we offer our communities alternative paths to follow and infinite ideas to be considered outside of perceived respective norms. While we look like anyone else within our species, the whole is greater than the sum of our parts. We live nonparticipation fiercely, demonstrating leadership and perseverance while going against the grain. We ask tough questions, rock boats, and challenge paradigms collectively.
You want in? Here’s how:
1. By Discussing World History: Beauty, like history, lies in the eye of the beholder. Globalization has ensured that it’s now easier than ever to discover alternative mainstreams, occurrences, and perspectives. Experience is like a prism with many angles from which comes color and light. The shade of the Mankato Massacre of 1862 moved Minnesota forward as an immigrant state, while simultaneously moving us backwards in morality. The experience of bullying started long before the Internet. So how do we define progress? Can progress be Cuba’s coastal conservation or is progress developing resort Rivieras?
2. By Asking More Questions: Born in the 1980s, I was raised to think I was unique and irreplaceable. While I appreciate the sentiment, if I’m not a retail sales goal, I’m a credit goal, or it’s networking, advertising, unique visits. Return on investment. You’re quantifiable in the eyes of a ledger. Numbers are like origami—you can shape a statistic into almost any form and it will skew up (or down) into a life of its own. Origami is two-dimensional, like the sheet of paper you hold now—turning you into the passive subject being dazzled and deceived into responding to a prescribed need for planned obsolescence and mind-numbing consumption. Carry on. Corporatocracy has all the answers. But what is the meaning behind this, and at what and whose cost?
3. By Being Paranoid: Don’t look now, but someone is out to get you. There’s no composite facial sketch, but by taking an observant look to count the logos, brands, and hype you confront daily, you should start to get the right idea.
4. By Living the Difference: Don’t let habit get the best of you. Innovate and evolve, human! The legend of Jesus is that of ultimate nonparticipation. He said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor … and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) The one thing that I’m lacking is no things at all? A profound shift, indeed. Prescribed common sense dictates otherwise, but it is possible to survive without 4G or NYSE—much of the world does this every day.
I’d like to secure a healthy blue dot for the exquisite children that shimmer among us, that they might be assured a life-sustaining planet, shaved ice, and the iridescence of soap bubbles. What could possibly be more important?
Sincerely, nonparticipation is necessary to save ourselves from ourselves. I’m leading the parade and fucking for peace.* Now who’s with me?
* By consent and signed waiver only.
Jeanne Dorado is an advertising professional based in Minneapolis. Obsessions: great advertising, cause marketing, qualitative research, ethnography, travel, Julian Jaynes, total market campaigns.
In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into […]
In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. Following up last week’s reflections by Chris Conry, Nabil Ahmed, and Keli Garrett, we hear this week from Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, and Rahila Gupta. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.
The New New Deal in Art and Politics
By Larne Abse Gogarty
Private and public galleries and institutions are often opposed within contemporary art criticism and discourse with public equated with good, ethical practice, and private equated with corporate baddies. This is problematic insofar as very few, if any, “public” institutions are entirely one or the other. Instead, due to declining public funds for the arts, most work on a mixed income of private and public money. However, in relation to the question of the New Deal and nonparticipation, I want to suggest that this dichotomy also fails to think critically about the relationship between art and the state.
In 1940, the Walker Art Center reopened as part of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project within their Community Art Centers division. Along with hosting special exhibitions and the private collection of T. B. Walker, it began to run art classes and mount ventures relating to the local community. The WPA Federal Art Project was a huge relief program for unemployed artists and ran alongside others within “Federal One” such as the Federal Theatre, Music, and Writers Projects.
These WPA programs positioned cultural workers as useful members of society, not romantics locked away in garrets. Art, theater, literature, and music sponsored by the New Deal therefore had to straddle the divide between being “socially useful” and aesthetically interesting; quantifiers that were arbitrated by the New Deal administration as well as art critics, institutions, and audiences. Artists engaged in participatory, politicized, and social practice today are often said to face similar challenges in having to face up to “ethical” as well aesthetic criteria.
Many of the cultural workers employed by the WPA had leftist sympathies, particularly those employed by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Famously, director Hallie Flanagan was asked to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 and defend the “communistic” tendencies within the plays supported by the FTP. It closed shortly after, largely due to these accusations.
However, those who created works with “communistic” sympathies felt they were indeed being “socially useful”—and that in order to be at all aesthetically interesting, the arts needed to engender forms of resistance to capitalism. This raises the question: socially useful and aesthetically interesting for whom? And how?
When contemporary art discourse derides social practice as instrumentalized, this is because artists are assumed to be doing the job of the state that contributes funding to their creation. What is missing from this debate is a discussion of politics, and intention on behalf of the artist(s). In placing The Museum of Non Participation in conversation with the idea of the New Deal, we get an image of a political order that creates a terrain for conflict, renewal, and a questioning of the relations between state and citizen within the arts. It raises the possibility of the social within artworks as something to be politicized quite explicitly, in a mode that is not didactic but instead capable of prompting a dialectical process for the viewer. All good art is involved with the social. What needs to be asked is what is the “good” in this equation—and thus, where do your politics lie?
Larne Abse Gogarty is a writer and researcher currently doing doctoral research on community art and collective practice in the United States in the History of Art Department at University College, London.
By Olga Gonzalez
There is an apparent absence of presence that suggests indifference or maybe worse, collusion and complicity. In Peru, (non) participation in the form of ignorance and prejudice has contributed to a “culture of impunity” despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) recommendations toward the pursuit of justice. In 2003 when Salomón Lerner, the chairman of the TRC, handed in the final report to President Alejandro Toledo, he said it “contains a double outrage: that of massive murder, disappearance and torture; and that of indolence, incompetence and indifference of those who could have stopped this humanitarian catastrophe but didn’t.”
In the aftermath of violence, “I didn’t know” emerged as a common phrase, particularly among upper- and middle-class citizens in Lima. It seems ludicrous to think that the estimated 70,000 victims during the 20-year-long internal armed conflict would have come as a shocking surprise to Peruvian society. The truth is that everybody knew but not everybody cared about the fate of indigenous Andean people who had become main targets in the war. With their identities conveniently conflated with terrorism, indigenous people were perceived as the enemy. Framed as such, they became what Judith Butler calls “ungrievable lives.” This is the inconvenient truth that everybody knows but pretends not to know. Silence and denial then. Denial and silence today. The absence of justice, always. And we all know it!
In “post-conflict” Peru, symbolic reparations in the form of public apologies, memorials, and museums create the illusion of a nation coming to terms, as does the paradigmatic “Never Again.” To remember is not for all. In Peru, differences between political and ethnic factions are pushed to clear delineation. For economic and political elites who justify the military violence as unfortunate but necessary “excesses of war,” to forget is the only path to reconciliation. For the Quechua-speaking peasants, to erase the traces of any sympathy they could have had with the Shining Path guerrillas, particularly at the beginning of the war, is the only path to become “the innocent victim” entitled to adequate economic reparation. These tensions with memory are reflected in the country’s “sites of memory.” The critical visitor to these places might notice the silences, so tangible in their own invisibility, and attempt to denounce and create the missing stories. In other cases, the visitor’s absence condemns the site to oblivion, making (non) participation a powerful means to question a memorial or museum’s failure to challenge the status quo. We forget that to build does not always mean to construct!
Olga Gonzalez is assistant professor of anthropology at Macalester College. Her research examines the relationships between the politics of memory/secrecy, visuality/representation, truth/reconciliation, and violence/subjectivity in Latin America.
By Rahila Gupta
Perhaps nonparticipation should not be written off.
When it is unconscious, it is not worth remarking upon because we do not even know what it is in which we have not participated.
Postmodernism presents nonparticipation as an acceptable, alternate reality and deems the political impulse to change it invalid because that would reintroduce the binary idea of right and wrong.
Nonparticipation, however, might be an act of resistance.
If it is actively chosen because the activity that seeks your participation needs to be critiqued, then nonparticipation or noncooperation becomes a critique (compare with the teachings of Gandhi).
But to make the resistance visible and concrete, steps will have to be taken, and in that process nonparticipation will mutate into something other, its alter ego.
It has been my life’s work as a writer and activist, using every political and artistic strategy, to shift resistance and noncommitment from inaction to action.
Whether it is working with women escaping violence, fighting for the right of disabled children to be embraced by the mainstream, standing up against racism or religious fundamentalism, or treading a careful line between the competing claims of race, gender, and class.
So that it becomes an addiction.
So that it becomes as inevitable as drawing breath.
So that you feel the vibrating energy of a group of people embarking on a joint project.
My artistic endeavor is about setting up a honey trap, snagging your emotions, drawing you in, inviting identification, empathy, analysis—all this embedding a call to action.
But to be true to itself, the artistic impulse cannot live in black and white. It must heighten color, muddy the waters; it must tear at the soul with an irreconcilable sense of contradiction; it must take you to the edge of the cliff. You must experience the breathlessness of falling before it draws you back and allows you the sensation of relief.
You walk unsuspecting into the easy rhythm of a ballad, the embrace of a soap opera, the snare of a thriller.
That part of the journey must not be difficult.
I surrender experiment with form, language, and genre.
It is when you have been lured in that the difficult questions will be posed. It is then that I stand to lose my newly won audience. Will you stick with me through the rest of the journey? Will you heed the call to action? Will you resist this relationship that appears to be based on a denial of agency? Or will the attempt to live up to its standards serve the artistic impulse but strangle the political will?
And when all of that has been bridged and you, as one in a hundred, have made the leap of faith, you must face the imperatives of the political—the contradictions between the quest for numbers and the quality of the participation, the insistence on the right political analysis and the right language.
We argue about language because it embeds attitudes, and yet when language changes to signify a break with the past, the landscape of prejudice often doesn’t change but rather ambushes new words with old ideas.
You walk into this purer-than-pure ideological space of the museum, newly enthused by your brush with art, and feel confused.
The activist needs to understand your journey and needs to learn to embrace you.
In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into […]
In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. This week we hear from organizer Chris Conry, artist/writer Nabil Ahmed, and playwright Keli Garrett. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.
What Does It Mean to Not Participate?
By Chris Conry
Let’s start with what “nonparticipation” is not. It is not apathy, protest, or renunciation. Nonparticipation works something like the quantum mechanical concept of the observer effect: to observe a particle is to change it. Nonparticipation is an unstable state that requires consciousness to be observed, but is instantly transformed by that same observation. It starts with pain. Once aware of our nonparticipation, we tell ourselves stories: “I never wanted to be part of that crew.” “The two-party system is inherently flawed.” “I’m the black sheep of this family.” You know there is a thing and you know you ain’t part of it.
Nonparticipation, in another way, is akin to the concept of quantum superposition: a particle exists simultaneously in multiple physical states until it’s observed and gets measured as ice, water, or steam. Nonparticipation is not-yet-participating. During the pain, we have a choice. What is the meaning of our not being an active part of something? Who are we, if we’re not that?
The craft of politics is the self-serving story. I can tell you what it means that the unemployment rate is up, the Dow Jones is down, or the election is too close to call. I can tell you a story to help you be part of (or not part of) some particular set of facts. Nonparticipation, then, is the space where we get to engineer a new story that tangles with, co-opts, or succumbs to the thing we are already re/joining anyhow.
So, if there is a choice to be made, how do we make it?
Once-trusted givers of order are increasingly viewed as unresponsive and self-serving. The US Congress, the church, and the financial system are experiencing crises of legitimacy. People view them as impenetrable or foreign, with power based in history, but ill-suited to our present needs. In response, people are innovating with political forms that are decentralized and democratic: online networks, occupations, and lending circles that are open-ended, personalized, and temporary. These two entities—established institutions and self-organizing people—pose competing claims for legitimacy: one based in authority, the other in authenticity.
So here we are in a museum—excuse me, an art center—that is temporarily hosting a “museum” that is itself not a building, but a multilayered project, including a play by Bertolt Brecht and a reflection on the New Deal. Step outside. In Minnesota we are, in fact, renegotiating the New Deal. Can we afford Medicare? Should we cut Social Security? Should we expand Medicaid? Can we save the New Deal? Do we need a new New Deal? Who’s party to that deal? Should we include immigrants? Should corporations pay? Is working hard and playing by the rules going to get you ahead?
Visiting The Museum of Non Participation, I am reminded that with the pain of alienation, there is freedom. I’m a voter. I’m Lutheran. I have a mortgage. I’m simultaneously a participant and critic of our institutional authorities. As the exceptions to their rule grow more numerous, I have a choice: to plunder what’s left before it is gone or to repurpose and reauthorize what remains.
Notes on Nonparticipation and an Entangled Earth
By Nabil Ahmed
In 1990, the first assessment report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that large-scale global migration due to climate change is the“greatest single impact” on world security. The climate is increasingly acting as a trigger to future conflicts around not only resources but also over migration at an unprecedented scale. A new contested term has entered the political imaginary through an environmental sensibility: climate refugees. The people of the mega deltas and the Island States in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, or in the Caribbean—Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Maldives, or the Bahamas—face a radical future with the rising oceans and the loss of their state.
Statelessness is in itself not a new concept. Historically, however, it is embedded in either multistate systems or it forms part of a complex national identity, geopolitically present through separatist movements that result in actions ranging from negotiating representation to guerrilla wars. Climate change will produce a completely new definition of stateless population where geographic territory submerges, redefining the very terms of politics that shake the foundations of a political philosophy understood by Carl Schmitt as an epic battle between the land and the sea. Can a state still exist without territory under international law? And what will be the rights of the people? The global north wants to protect a pristine nature that no longer exists, but at the same time use national immigration laws designed as deterrents and as instruments of antagonism, animosity, and violence on the human body.
Nonparticipation might be one way to understand this disparity between the global north and the global south. The first is responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions and extractivist fetishism, while the second pays the price through their historical nonparticipation in the global economy and epistemologies of the north. But I argue it is precisely in their nonparticipation that space for politics in the global south has opened up. The people of the global south share nonparticipation with nature after centuries of domination. In politics after nature in the Anthropocene—the geological epoch coproduced by humans that resonates the deep time of the planet—the global south and nature come to the table for a proposed contract between Earth and its inhabitants, poised between a gesture and a protocol.
Nabil Ahmed is an artist and writer who lives and works in London. He is currently undertaking doctoral research at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, London, where he also teaches. His practice and current research interest is in nonhuman political agency and the making of contemporary ecological interventions in the Bengal Delta.
By Keli Garrett
While I wrote this I kept thinking, I guess it is okay that every day approximately thirty-three people die from gun violence. That our violence is quotidian, expected, anticipated, and therefore our sacrament. That when seven women and twenty-six seven-year-olds are shot up, missing limbs and chins and fingers, life will go on here as usual. The NRA guys will get together and buy T-shirts with guns on them, renew their memberships, and assemble to heckle the grieving parents and families of the victims. Surely, I thought, the rest of us shouldn’t be condemned to sharing the same sky with such people. Really? I thought. Yes, really, was the answer.
THE NEW DEAL
At any point
I’ve checked out
and have opted in
with the solipsistic
really, what else is there to see?
Potholes and fractures
the movies played by
James Cagney and Matt Damon,
and, really, what else is there? besides those
or the two by two
that follow the
injected into the arms of
who having no recourse but to play
the words as they are written
happily ingest the poison,
the stuff of which
their dreams will be made,
not of Kubla Kahn
In a matter of moments
We were galvanized.
We drank instead and
Closed our thoughts
No more dark things
Nightmares can be forgotten
We are what we think
Thanked our lucky stars
On est a l’abri nulle part
That we live in a place
Where one can
Shop all day and night
And that food is copious and plentiful
We decided instead
To eat too much
Living the Dream
Devouring our distresses
Anything not to peer into oneself
An abyss without and within
Our holes are vast though,
And nothing will fill them
Keli Garrett is a playwright and performer. She is a 2011 recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant from the Playwrights’ Center, where she is also a Core Member Playwright.
What does it mean to name and define not only a body of work, but a political or philosophical position, an artistic practice, or relationship to a wider social context? These are questions propelling The Museum of Non Participation, a long-running project and Walker exhibition by artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. Through the very […]
What does it mean to name and define not only a body of work, but a political or philosophical position, an artistic practice, or relationship to a wider social context? These are questions propelling The Museum of Non Participation, a long-running project and Walker exhibition by artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. Through the very act of naming and identifying their project under the concept of “nonparticipation,” the artists activate a collective process of inquiry around this inherently malleable and expansive term.
For Mirza and Butler, “nonparticipation” speaks to urgent social conditions and pervasive everyday realities. As they describe it, “one aspect of nonparticipation is to acknowledge that it is a life condition, both consciously and unconsciously exercised in each of our lives. Internationally it exists in the excess of one’s own society, which is often gained at the expense of another’s nameless plight elsewhere. Locally it is recognizable when, for example, people encounter an issue that they believe is valid or necessary—say, homelessness, the right to protest, the Iraq War, but in that simultaneous moment they ignore it or reject it.”
As nonparticipation surfaces in our daily lives, Mirza and Butler assert that rather than being a position of negation or denial, it is a position from which to speak.
In conjunction with The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. In coming weeks, we’ll publish texts written by these international and local collaborators: Nabil Ahmed, Rachel Anderson, Chris Conry, Jeanne Dorado, Keli Garrett, Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, Rahila Gupta, and Fatos Ustek. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.
For them, nonparticipation is understood variously in relationship to large-scale global migration and climate change, post-conflict situations, endemics of violence, daily habits, agency and identification as a citizen, social welfare, and resistance and revolution.
We extend an invitation to you to take on nonparticipation in your own terms.
By Susy Bielak, Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, Yesomi Umolu We are about to tell you the story of a journey. An exploiter and two of the exploited are the travelers. Examine carefully the behavior of these people. Find it surprising though not unusual. Inexplicable though normal, incomprehensible though it is the rule – Bertolt Brecht, […]
By Susy Bielak, Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, Yesomi Umolu
We are about to tell you the story of a journey.
An exploiter and two of the exploited are the travelers.
Examine carefully the behavior of these people.
Find it surprising though not unusual.
Inexplicable though normal, incomprehensible though it is the rule
– Bertolt Brecht, extract from The Exception and the Rule
Last Thursday night, in the midst of a blizzard, a collection of players and spect-actors created a forum in the Museum of Non Participation. Within the space of the gallery, we enacted a play, Bertolt Brecht’s The Exception and the Rule, whose very subject was on trial.
Also, on trial, were these questions:
- Where does power reside in the room?
- Who gets to speak, and who is silenced?
- Which facets of a narrative will come to light?
Within Brecht’s play , the “rule” implies a legal language or a directive, while the “exception” evokes being ungovernable or searching for an alternative to either the state or the free market. Together, they act as both a statement, that “the rule cannot exist without the exception,” and a question, as to what a state of exception might be. Through the story of a merchant and his servant, The Exception and the Rule explores themes of capitalism and economics, labor and hierarchy, legislation and state ideology, hiding and secrecy, and the lack of union rights.
As described in our prior post, a significant part of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s engagement at the Walker and in Minneapolis was working together with Twin Cities’ citizens to translate this play, using methods of Augosto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed in a series of four day-long workshops. The performance—presented as a one-night only event–was the culmination of this immersive work. How do you take process-based practice and the intimate space of a closed workshop to the open and very public space of the gallery? These were the challenges and the risks at play as we presented our interpretation of the play to an audience of between 80 – 120 people.
I am the narrator
I am the translator
I am the transcriber
I am the one who bears witness
To the uncomfortable being of other
In that in-between space
Who holds the tension in this space?
Who has author(ity) here?
- Andrea Jenkins, extract from Deep Privilege
The audience, or spect-actors, were brought into the Rules of Engagement through the Games for Actors and Non Actors:
Within the performance, there were formal contradictions between flow and rupture. Ruptures came from literally breaking out of Brecht’s tale through freeze frames and Forum Theater. Through freeze frames, players and audience alike were able to pause and silence the performance in order to interject narratives/opinions/discontents from their own lives and experiences. In Forum Theater, a real event was enacted in which the spect-actors were invited to take up the position of the oprimido and re-imagine the scenario, in order to affect change.
co-erced, manipulated, guided, coaxed, rehearsed, coddled,
cajoled, nursed, pushed into…..forgetting a—l-l of that mess-s-s-ss-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s through …..
– Veronica Ochoa, extract from of 13 ……
There were tensions between image (Boal) and narrative (Brecht). Throughout the course of the performance, players cycled as readers made their way through the script. Multiple players voiced single characters, while, simultaneously, others generated improvisational tableaus (the body as phonetics). Both pushed against binaries, engaging the simultaneous roles as oppressors and oppressed.
In conclusion, we find ourselves in a contraction, in the space of having generated new modes of language, and acknowledging the limits of language. There’s an inability to find a means to speak to all of the registers on which this work operates–mute, voiced, gestural, political, social, personal, anguished, agent.
A reconfiguration of nosotros, the Spanish for WE. There is nos, the subject “we”. This is the people with power [the oppressor, colonizer, privileged] contained with-in—– hyphenated —–yet in constant exchange with the other, el otro, the oppressed. I add the @ to have both-genders-in-one and in order to neutralize the masculine predominance that exists within the Spanish language.
– Rigoberto Lara Guzman
This can’t be the conclusion.
The performance—an ephemeral, manifold act—was, and is, experienced through a host of positions (of body, perspective, etc.). We acknowledge that this work can only be documented collectively. We invite you to join us in the process by adding to the comments stream below.
If your name is a sound, what does it move like? On Saturday April 6, fourteen people gathered in the Walker’s Barnes conference room for the first of four days working on radical political theatre practices in preparation for a performance piece applying working methods of Augusto Boal to Bertolt’s Brecht’s 1929 learning play The […]
If your name is a sound, what does it move like?
On Saturday April 6, fourteen people gathered in the Walker’s Barnes conference room for the first of four days working on radical political theatre practices in preparation for a performance piece applying working methods of Augusto Boal to Bertolt’s Brecht’s 1929 learning play The Exception and the Rule. The impetus for this gathering–a process of workshopping, translating, and performing–is a key element of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal.
Led by the artists, the workshops immediately established a space where institutional roles of curator/artist/producer/participant collapsed. From the onset it was clear that we would all participate equally in the activities to come. And the roles we each play daily– labor lawyer, father, educator, student, playwright, activist–would simultaneously materialize and dematerialize. During our time together, we would confront the fundamentals of where we stand and act in the world–politically, socially, morally–exploring our mutable positions (and positionalities) through movement and voice.
But first, we have to introduce ourselves. We each do this through performing our names– crossing a circle we’ve formed as a group, moving towards another participant, and enacting ourselves through sound and movement. A trilled erre, hurried consonants, languid strolls, skips, hops, leaps. Characters begin to form and morph within the span of a few paces. This sets the tone for the days to come– rich with movement, reflection, and rigor enacted through Boal’s games.
Brad and Karen led us through a rich and complex succession of games. Following is a taste of a few.
Hypnosis a game of trust. It’s also a game of power. One person holds out their hand and the other keeps their face within four inches of it. The person with their hand out leads, the other follows, and then they switch. There are two rules. Both people must be silent and need to maintain four inches between the face and hand.
If you were to float above us during this exercise, you would see pairs of people respectively running, crawling, walking at snail’s pace. Some of the leaders did so gently. Others were more aggressive. Some pairs moved meditatively, like tai chi. Others moved acrobatically.
There were three progressions of this exercise:
First–One leads, one follows. Invert.
Second—Neither leads, neither follows. How do you move with mutuality?
Third: Both resist. How do you move?
We paused every so often to scan the room to see what positions bodies had found themselves, and to digest each as positions of power.
The game called up questions of parity, mutuality, leadership, internal conflict, and the ease and difficulty of trust. We formed a collective body– one that made clear the ways in which the position of being a leader or follower, are inherently precarious.
We stood in a circle, turned outwards and closed our eyes. We were told a word and instructed to illustrate it with our bodies. Some of these words–like silence, trust, merchant, and coolie– came directly from the group’s response to the play. We made these images silently, first for ourselves and then for the group.
We then turned into the circle and presented our body images as body memories. With some of these, we were asked to hold our position and gravitate to others in the room with whom we felt some affinity. We clustered in groups that became tableaus and were told to freeze in place. Group by group we showed each other our tableaus. Our fellow players were asked to describe what they saw in the happenstance scene, to tease out the hierarchies of power between bodies and gestures.
This is a just a brief fragment of how we worked, building a collective consciousness and a shared vocabulary that was at once physical, emotional and verbal– bringing the body to bear in the production of knowledge. During the performance due to take place tonight at 7pm, the audience will witness the slippage between Boal’s practice, Brecht’s narrative and the life experiences of the players. The event will be improvisational and open to contributions from its audience. This framework invites consideration of the subtleties of power, not only of the play’s characters, but of the players and the audience in the space. In this way, this moment serves to open the discursive space embedded in the exhibition itself. In place of being a finite performance, it serves as a rehearsal for how viewers might engage in the Museum of Non Participation throughout its Walker debut.
It goes without saying that an art center such as the Walker is the sum of many parts: from the physical structure that holds a variety of discipline-specific content and acts as a beacon for publics from the Twin Cities and further afield; to its programming team and support staff who ride the hamster-wheel of […]
It goes without saying that an art center such as the Walker is the sum of many parts: from the physical structure that holds a variety of discipline-specific content and acts as a beacon for publics from the Twin Cities and further afield; to its programming team and support staff who ride the hamster-wheel of cultural production, feeding an expectant audience near and far. There are also the artists who create artworks and choose this place to be the hallowed ground on which they stand and are consumed, whether permanently (through entry into the collection), or ever so temporally. The Walker’s long history exists not only as a reference to what has been achieved, but also stands as a tangible entity that the institution needs to answer to in the present in order to push forth a legacy steeped in time. Beyond this, there are of course other unseen realities, functions and qualities that make up the Walker – the sobering forces of economics whether monetary or otherwise, the cultural capital embedded in our collection and the caché this offers amongst a broader art world. There are of course power relations and political forces implicit in all these aspects of the institution.
Using these elements as fertile ground for discussion and collective thinking, the Interdisciplinary Work Group (IWG) has come together to assess the “pragmatic and more theoretical” concerns of engaging in and supporting interdisciplinary practices. This inquiry has been directed at both internal ways of working across programming teams as well as looking at how artists work today, which is in a manner that increasingly defies disciplinary divisions of performance, visual art, theatre, film/video. The group has been a somewhat self-sufficient initiative since fall 2011, inviting a selection of artists and thinkers to discuss interdisciplinary and collaborative practices and the spaces that support their growth and sustainability.
During one such session, which I initiated, the group met with architectural theorist Eyal Weizman to discuss his approach to similar questions that have arisen through his research-led practice. Below is a report from writer Susannah Schouweiler on our conversations. I have taken the liberty to highlight the points in the text that I feel have a particular pertinence to discussions the group has had to date, namely foregrounding the fact that this process can play a part in ‘institution building’. The work of the IWG need not just be about assessing the status quo, but can be about working with our colleagues to formulate a departure from existing models into as yet to be determined future ones.
As a point of reference, I also want to call out two institutions that share similar profiles of having once been ‘multidisciplinary art centers': the Institute of Contemporary Art , London and The Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw (whose recent project Office of Possibilities covers similar terrain to the IWG). Emerging from questions of how multidisciplinary art centers continue to function in a climate where disciplinary boundaries are transgressed and blurred, the two institutions have evolved new structures that attempt to bridge the gap between disciplinary departments internally and promote new models for supporting interdisciplinary art practice. I also want to direct your attention to another project, Department 21, which took similar pains to re-imagine another great institutional context that has gone through major transition in recent decades – the art school.
A small group of Walker staff – researchers, educators, programmers and curators — convened in the center’s basement Art Lab last October to talk with Israeli architect, human rights activist, polymath artist and intellectual Eyal Weizman. All of us members of the Walker’s IWG, we met for an informal conversation led by visual arts curatorial fellow Yesomi Umolu, who’d invited Weizman to speak briefly with us.
Umolu begins by asking us to consider Weizman’s varied practice – in ‘forensic architecture’, human rights advocacy, collectively produced, activist art installations in Palestine — with an eye toward “the pragmatics and challenges involved in fostering and sustaining institutional support structures for collaboration and interdisciplinary work.” She notes that “aside from his theoretical aptitude, Eyal has been quite successful at establishing productive arenas for exchange, carving out spaces for interdisciplinary work in both heavily bureaucratic settings (like the university)” as well as in settings more politically charged and restrictive, like his work in Palestine.
Umolu particularly points to his efforts in the creation of an open residency model for the collective behind Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (D.A.A.R.) based in Beit Sahour, Palestine. According to the mission statement provided online, the D.A.A.R. “combines discourse, spatial intervention, education, collective learning, public meetings and legal challenges… to act both propositionally and critically within an environment in which the political force field is dramatically distorted. [To that end, the collective] proposes the subversion, reuse, profanation and recycling of the existing infrastructure of a colonial occupation.”
But before our discussion with Weizman begins in earnest, as with all meetings, members of the IWG begin by introducing themselves. Our introductions around the table stop for a moment with Susy Bielak, the Walker’s Associate Director of Public and Interpretive Programs. Weizman interjects with questions of his own for her – about Bielak’s role in the institution, her work at the Walker — upon hearing her title. He wonders aloud about the designation, “director of public and interpretive programs,” parsing the language of the title, noting how such a moniker in an arts center like ours betrays the changing cultural currents beneath the surface, the evolutions in institutional roles and intentions. Usually, he says, interpretation of art is left to the viewer. “What does it mean for an institution to invert the process of interpretation in this way? Does it amount to sampling the world?” Further, he wonders aloud, “all of these other roles we have in such arts centers, could they be inverted, too?”
He goes on, “There is a certain critical mass, beyond which institutions are no longer just a black box, a container for art to show, and for the public to see.” To remain relevant, Weizman reflects, “an institution has to be a step ahead, to anticipate and even to create the very conditions for the art it will later show.”
“It’s a question of scale, isn’t it?” he asks. “And that’s the wonder of what you have here: The ambition of creating quasi-think tanks within a center [the way the Walker has], across a variety of disciplines, and then dispatching those fine senses into the world, cultivating an institutional, interpretive practice that is mediated through artistic research… that’s very interesting.”
Take the Walker’s new website, he says. “It’s full of independently produced, outward-looking commentary. That’s such a change from the usual museum presence online, restricted to presenting the art and information particular to its own collection.”
He says, “To be relevant, your institution has created a free-standing information channel, providing news and commentary of its own [rather than relying on outside media to interpret the work].” Further, “it’s not about visiting that artist ‘over there’ anymore. Curators need to go ‘there’ before any art is even proposed, as part of the institution’s preliminary research. It’s the difference between institutional cultivation and discovery.”
After the introductions are complete, Weizman explains a bit about the origins and practical structures undergirding the practice and residency program of Decolonizing Architecture. D.A.A.R. was co-founded by Weizman, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, who currently manages the collective’s day-to-day activities and programs. The site, southeast of Bethlehem, has between three and 15 residents at any given time; the Delfina Foundation fully supports two of those residents, selected through an open, competitive process.
Weizman laughs, “D.A.A.R. started as a $300,000 grant in search of a mission.” He explains, “Alessandro [Petti] is a writer; I wrote a book; Sandi [Hilal] wrote a book. In the course of our own research, we realized that a lot of people were interested in coming to Palestine. Slowly, what emerged from our work there was an entirely different type of architectural practice.” He goes on to note that, while there are other architectural residencies people can apply for, D.A.A.R. combines those residential residencies with a type of studio residency, putting artists and architects in residence together. He says, “What is interesting about colonizing the architecture [in these contested areas of Palestine], beyond the work itself, is that doing so involves bringing together a collective studio, creating a commons among us.”
What unites their various practices, he says, is “a very Godard question (i.e. Do you make political film, or do you film politically?). For us, that question is: Do we engage with existing political architecture, or do we work politically, actively creating the conditions for our practice?”
“For us,” he says, “any collaboration [with existing political architecture] would effectively amount to a normalization of the situation [in Palestine]– we just wanted to get away from all that.” He goes on, “The end of the Intifada was fuzzy, it was dangerous — the whole idea of cultural agency in the midst of that brutal repression. But afterward, you could see an A-list of international scholars passing through Ramallah; it was like a permanent biennale.” He goes on to note that “the area’s not under siege anymore; it’s actually very cosmopolitan: it’s like Tel Aviv, but with a wall around it, where you can’t move around freely. The time was ripe for a ‘cultural Intifada.’”
By way of its residency program, the D.A.A.R. collective has produced work shown in biennales and museums around the world — the Venice Biennale, the Bozar in Brussels, NGBK in Berlin, the Istanbul Biennial, The Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, Home Works in Beirut, Architekturforum Tirol in Innsbruk, the Tate in London, the Oslo Triennial, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and many other places.
Yesomi Umolu raises a practical but thorny question: “Given the collaborative manner of creation of work in the D.A.A.R., how does the group handle issues of co-authorship and credit?” Weizman shrugs, saying, “Our captions (for work) are a mess. We never managed to figure out how to credit all those involved our works’ creation; there’s always a diary, a description of where the work comes from, how it came about. But what we do is alive, it’s changing all the time, and so the notion of credit… we just figuring it out as we go. The end goal is to have co-authorship, of course, but the minute particular names are involved it gets complicated, too confined.”
Michele Steinwald, a curator of performing arts at the Walker, changes the direction of the conversation, referring to the more philosophical notions presented in Weizman’s talk the night before: ideas about art as truth-seeking, about the sleuthing, investigative work involved in “forensic architecture” and its slippery, aesthetically creative conclusions. She asks him to apply those insights to a question that’s been troubling her, to do with the implicit transactions involved in publicly presenting performance — transactional expectations framing the relationship between audience and performer, but also that of the commissioning institution and artist. Steinwald said she was curious how Weizman might “rupture” those expectations, re-negotiate terms and expectations on both sides to change the way work is created, presented and, ultimately, publicly received.
She says: “In the world of dance, there’s a sense that our audiences simply don’t understand contemporary work. So, as a presenter I’ve been struggling to find ways to be more generous about explaining, about arming the audience before the artists perform. I’m trying to work backwards from the conditions framing the transactional nature of buying a ticket, seeing a show.”
Steinwald puts it another way: “How do I unearth the ‘truth’ of artistic practice and process behind performance, the logic of choreography for the uninitiated? How do I tell the story of that work in a transformational way?” She goes on to tie her questions to Weizman’s own work: “Yesterday, in your presentation about the investigation and narrative creation involved in ‘forensic architecture,’ you talked about the inherent plasticity, the inevitable give in the truth-seeking process.”
She’s interested in the plasticity inherent in the transactions, the commercial relationships implicit in public performance, Steinwald says: “I’d like to break down audience presumptions surrounding monetary value, the expectations that follow when you buy and ticket and sit and watch something in a theater for a certain period of time. I want time to stand still during performance, to play with the framing conditions in such a way that we can cultivate altogether different audience experiences of dance.”
Weizman responds bluntly: “I don’t know. But I’m fascinated by your articulation of this idea of a contract [between ticket-buyer and performer, commissioner and artist], and what might be involved in the breaking of the contract.” He muses, “I’ve written [in The Least of All Possible Evils] about the process of seeing as something that needs to be opened or ruptured.” As in the situation you mention, he says, “there’s a kind of transactional contract involved in seeing,” and it’s one, Weizman notes, that warrants deconstruction.
He says, “There is a fabulous political theorist Ariella Azoulay; she writes about something she calls ‘the civil contract’, taking the idea from Rousseau.” With regard to Steinwald’s concerns, he says, an interesting line of inquiry can emerge from that starting point: “What is the civil contract involved here, and how might you open up the formalization of these relationships [between audiences and performers] in a way that transcends the transactions of consumption?”
Simply put: “What is in the ‘contract’ of dance performance? How might you present dance in such a way that disrupts that original, implicit contract [rooted in models and expectations of consumption], and which opens up new modes of relationality?” This isn’t so much an avant garde disruption of viewing you seem to be talking about, he says to Steinwald, as it is a shift in understanding of the “conceptual, political, intellectual” underpinnings of the work itself and how it’s conceived.
Weizman steps back from the specifics of dance, to more general notions to do with specialty and the privilege of expert knowledge or disciplinary fluency. “We need to think of the emergence of ideas as being part of their time. I’m less concerned with doubt or deconstruction, or the imagined oppression of specialists or experts.” The fact is, he says, “you don’t have to be expert to participate in the conversation.”
As for ‘truth,’ he says, that’s plastic too: “I don’t have a problem with a certain amount of doubt.” After all, Weizman says, “bringing doubt is what artists do — that’s the role of aesthetics, isn’t it? We need to be projective, we need to propose new worlds.”
He argues for artists to embrace “militancy – aesthetic, artistic, creative power focused like a laser beam.” He says, “I grew up in [Israel] — a country that is colonizing, killing – and we have to do better, we have to take sides. We need to think beyond artistic critique to partisanship, and the work of proposing something new.”
Are you an artist with a foot in activism, a community organizer, or a small business owner? Are you someone who questions the status quo? Are you interested in uncovering structures of power and exclusion? Are you the exception and the rule? This spring, London-based artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler present a collection of […]
Are you an artist with a foot in activism, a community organizer, or a small business owner?
Are you someone who questions the status quo?
Are you interested in uncovering structures of power and exclusion?
Are you the exception and the rule?
This spring, London-based artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler present a collection of film, text, and performed actions in the exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, on view in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery from April 18 to July 14, 2013. As part of this project, Mirza and Butler are inviting local residents to workshop and stage one of Bertolt Brecht’s short “learning plays” The Exception and the Rule. The “rule” implies a legal language or a directive, while the “exception” evokes being ungovernable or searching for an alternative to either the state or the free market. Together, they act as both a statement, that “the rule cannot exist without the exception,” and a question, as to what a state of exception might be. Through the story of a merchant and his servant, The Exception and the Rule explores themes of capitalism and economics, labor and hierarchy, legislation and state ideology, hiding and secrecy, and the lack of union rights. The artists invite you to eat, talk, rehearse, and perform together in order to explore and enact how these themes play out in our daily lives, as well as to consider how these can be extended to the audience as active participants.
The Exception and the Rule is one of Brecht’s several Lehrstucke or teaching plays. Brecht himself translated the term as “learning play” intended to educate people primarily about socialist politics. Typically, this form of political theater privileges function above content and foregrounds collective teaching and learning through various modes of performance. It attempts to break down any division between author and audience through reflexive gestures that reveal the “mechanics of theater.” Through this and other plays, Brecht developed a way for non actors to learn through playing roles, adopting postures, getting rid of the divide between actors and audience, and focusing on process rather than a final project. Working in the same vein, Mirza and Butler encourage you to enter into the project with the spirit of mutual enrichment and collaboration, where personal experiences/expertise and collective interpretation ultimately converge in the public presentation of the play.
Dates and Times:
Friday April 5, 7–9 pm: Social evening with participants (optional)
Saturday April 6, 11–6 pm: Games for actors and non actors facilitated by Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, based on Brazilian director Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, a tool for social change
Saturday April 7, 11–6 pm: Forum theater–development of the games method and thinking through the implication of the audience in the play
Saturday April 13, 11–6 pm: Close reading of The Exception and the Rule and development of characters
Sunday April 14, 11–6 pm: Voice work, performance and body choreography
Thursday April 18, 7 pm: Public presentation of The Exception and the Rule in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery
We ask that applicants commit to being present for all sessions, your regular participation is essential for the group to work as a whole.
To participate in the workshops and staging of the play, please fill in the short application form here, by Friday, February 8, 2013.
Applications are free and open to anyone, however registration will be limited to up to 10 individuals. Hospitality and a small stipend will be offered to the selected participants.
Looking back on the evening of Thursday 30th May, when Minouk Lim in collaboration with Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson presented the performance FireCliff 3 in the Walker’s Burnet gallery, it is rather difficult to recall the intricacies of the piece. This is made ever more complex by the fact that I was privy to its […]
Looking back on the evening of Thursday 30th May, when Minouk Lim in collaboration with Minneapolis-based choreographer Emily Johnson presented the performance FireCliff 3 in the Walker’s Burnet gallery, it is rather difficult to recall the intricacies of the piece. This is made ever more complex by the fact that I was privy to its development from concept to realization, so my thoughts are inevitably filled with successive impressions of it. For me, the performance exists as series of fragments of half finished and half completed movements, recollections of late night rehearsals and early morning Skype conversations, continuous reviews of scripted elements and sounds samples, all conflated with countless musings on the pragmatics of lighting, sound and crowd control. I suspect this is also how Lim and Johnson experienced that evening; as they stood at the crest of a figurative firecliff in the darkened gallery, ready to deliver for the first time to an expecting audience.
Despite my fuzzy memory, on the night, the work presented itself anew, and as I watched it unfold, certain elements that repeatedly came to the fore during the project’s gestation resonated once more. As such, in place of providing a play-by-play review of the performance, which will do it a great disservice, I offer a reading of it through the singularity of the word Monster. Yes, Monster. This particular noun came into Lim and Johnson’s joint vocabulary during the very early stages of their conversations, which were conducted via emails and Skype sessions given their relative distance from each other – being in Seoul and Minneapolis respectively. In an early correspondence Johnson writes about her explorations of “the ongoing creation of Monster” in a new choreography she was developing at the time. Speaking about the menace of this at once real and imagined fiend, she conjured images of terror, fear, evil and destruction in relation to the natural world, socio-cultural relations and oneself.
Instinctively for some, Monster takes them back to childhood – to the creature under the bed (or in the wardrobe) that is a signifier of childhood fears and uncertainties about the world beyond the safe space of the bedroom. For others, Monster is the mythical being that populates old wives tales and urban legends. Ostensibly fictive, it often exists as a constructive coping mechanism in places that have faced real moments of trauma. Being from across the proverbial pond, the Monster to the north in Loch Ness is an international calling card for tourism to the region as well as a representation of belonging and shared belief (or skepticism) across the communities of those great isles. Even more menacing for some, in the complex realm of geopolitics, Monster poses a very real danger to real lives in the form of military action, seemingly dormant terrorist threats or even multilateral sanctions that purport to serve a greater good. For no matter what side of the geographical or ideological border you are on, the specter of war and conflict signal a very monstrous end.
All these strands converged poignantly in FireCliff 3, as Johnson’s scripted monologue and choreography returned the audience to the place of childhood memories and family interactions. In the haphazard yet formal gestures and poses of the five dancers, we witnessed the “feasting and dancing, talking and making things” of days gone by. Propelled into a space that narrated the ritualized effacement and remembering of the past, of time hurtling forward and receding back into personal consciousness, benign movements took on ominous tones. Surely we were not to trust the saccharine and homely landscapes Johnson’s choreographed bodies created, because beneath all this there lay palpable moments of loss, death and anxiety – Monster was indeed very present.
Likewise, as the narrative transitioned to Lim’s inner voice, we were brought within reach of the mental state of individuals and communities who live in the shadow of potentially monstrous neighbors. For the artist, this is most evident in the threat to the north of South Korea’s territorial boundaries. By extension, Lim’s script also articulated the dangers of seeking protection or release from the grip of Monster – and the ‘by any means necessary’ dictum that usually guides such desires. In this case, the rampant militarization of borders that has gripped her country in the name of maintaining the political impasse and the contingent relationship with western powers, particularly America, have in themselves become stifling facets of daily life. Lim summed this up beautifully when she uttered:
“I want to be part of you
I want to be chosen by you
I want to praise you and commit myself to you
I willingly show you the back of my neck”
On a broader level, Lim’s metaphor of vampirism and self sacrifice also extends to the quest for modernization and the compulsion to partake in capitalism’s global project that has gripped emerging economies in the late 20th century. This is has proven itself to be an ideal that consumes hearts, bodies and minds indiscriminately – a fact that Lim experiences firsthand living through rapid social and spatial change in contemporary Seoul. In touching on this very salient point, FireCliff 3 ultimately asks: ‘where do we to turn, when in an attempt for self preservation and progress, we succumb to Monster and end up replicating its features?’ This question lingered heavily in the air as the audience stared at their reflections and that of the infrared feed of the performance through the mirrored screen ahead of them. Thus begging the question, might we be able to turn to each other for emancipation?
If as the performance proceeded, there appeared to be no resolution to this conundrum, then this was certainly helped by sound director Byungjun Kwons’s fascinatingly anarchic soundtrack, which mixed sound samples from Korean Pop culture, Top 40 hits and traditional Korean instrumentals with aplomb. Under the weight of this aural onslaught, the performers oscillated between desperation and exhaustion. Similarly the assembled audience was caught in the belly of the beast unable to escape its raging tumult.
Nevertheless, amongst the darkness and melancholy, there was much light in the performance, both symbolically and literally. For essentially, both Lim and Johnson infer that when there is no one else to turn to, then courage must come from within. The kernel of this idea can be traced to earlier exchange between the collaborators, where Lim writes of conceiving “Monster as courage…who is not afraid of dying and darkness…” Sharing this sentiment, Johnson adds “Monster as flame of light, as courage to be reborn.”
At this point, it is important to mention the use of Lim’s wearable sculptures and Portable Keepers throughout the performance as it points to the possibility of countering the destructive forces of Monster. Constructed from scavenged industrial materials that are piled and pasted together, these objects at first sight appear to be of little use or import. But as the dancers go about carrying, holding, hugging and raising them aloft, contorting their bodies to the uneven forms, they take on a peculiar functionality.
At various junctions in the performance, the wearable sculptures become shields or appendages to the human frame, at other moments they are mere adornments –for a short while transforming into impromptu headdresses or jewelry. These vignettes gesture towards the overturning of fear and sorrow into direct action and resilience that often follows cataclysmic events of social change, political upheaval or natural disasters. Whether we consider the use of raw material as emergency shelters, or the shifting of social oppression into a revolutionary spirit or even the translation of acts of terror into an ethos of tolerance, Lim’s tactile sculptures embody the overwhelming ability of the human spirit to push through all costs. In the end, it is clear that Lim and Johnson encourage their protagonists and the audience alike to be consumed by the mess and mayhem of Monster – to emerge from within its bowels. Monster thus transposes into medium for constructive reawakening and rebirth.
Fittingly, the performance ends with Lim starkly describing the death of an unidentified lover, juxtaposed with a projection of her 2009 moving image work Portable Keeper. As the figure in the video carries a totem pole fashioned by Lim through the busy streets and construction sites of Seoul, the performers unravel and raise aloft a limp fishing net weighed down by latex. In this closing sketch, Lim and Johnson allude to the reclaiming of forgotten lives, memories, most importantly, a foreseeable future, that can be brought about after succumbing to and surviving the presence of Monster.