Uncharted Territory dot com

In man’s early years, he had still to occupy the entirety of the globe, on top of which he didn’t even know how much of the world was still unoccupied. Imagine: knowing your territory, but facing a frontier at all sides. How much further does it go? How big would primitive man have imagined the uncharted territory to be? With respect to this unknown unknown, those early times were correspondingly quite violent. Wars and genocide were constantly going on as men coped with the conflicting notions of discovering the world and sharing it with others.

Over time, the discovery was made that the world was round, and humankind swiftly moved to occupy it all. Wholly overtaking the planet, closing the loop, is an act that justifies itself. It ties the knot of discovery within a perfect package. Our unconscious must have felt immense relief circa the Enlightenment. Though we still have wars and genocide, violent deaths connected to the control of territory are decreasing, now that that territory is no longer unknown. We comfortably analyze the violence of the past as primitive and barbaric.

However, humankind’s drive to seek new frontiers is insatiable. Sometimes, when the frontier is either unseen or unfeasibly remote (like the bottom of the ocean or deep space), we resort to creating new frontiers ourselves. The latest example of this is the internet. The world wide web is a brand new world, also full of uncharted territory. Notice, too, how our exploration of that world has reverted us back to our violent past. We are turning against each other because we have become unknown to each other once again.

Do we create worlds because we strive for the thrill of creation, or for the thrill of discovery? Do those impulses overshadow the artificiality of our surroundings? Does that thrill cheaply distract us from more difficult undertakings, like learning to get along with each other?

The Private Lives of Ideas

Browsing Book Court’s New York Review Books shelf, one of my favorite publishers of late, I encountered its edition of The Unknown Masterpiece from Honoré de Balzac. Though he kept it short and sweet and I enjoyed it very much, none of the story has stayed with me closer than the epigraph (such is the curse of excellent epigraphs– they sometimes sum it all up better than the whole of the work to follow):
“I think a man spends his whole lifetime painting one picture or working on one piece of sculpture. The question of stopping is really a decision of moral considerations. To what extent are you intoxicated by the actual act, so that you are beguiled by it? To what extent are you charmed by its inner life? And to what extent do you then really approach the intention or desire that is really outside it? The decision is always made when the piece has something in it that you wanted.”
-Barnett Newman
I have had similar struggles with one particular story of my own. I began writing it long ago, in the mid 2000s, at a time when my enthusiasm for the medium overshadowed my rigor which had yet to burgeon. Intoxicated with exploring the nature of the creative mind through the narrative of a New York artist and using the staid prose mastered by Paul Auster, I conceived of a story so thin, so vague, so sparing in plot that is seemed to be impossible to complete, as I attempted to start filling in blanks. Somehow its vagueness made it impossible to tack on enough substance without changing it. Over the course of half a decade, I’d change the story over and over, riding on various mini-revelations– from how to start the story, to what words to use more of, to entire episodes in my characters’ lives, to entire revamps of writing style. It still hasn’t attained that satisfying combination of meat and emptiness that I was after in the beginning.
Sometimes a story seems just to exist, independent of its author on the one hand, but completely inside his/her head on the other. Part of me wondered what this kind of story would be like, from a philosophical, Barnett Newman-y, never-to-be-published point of view… then I realized that I may have touched upon an essence. Over the years I had come to treat the story as a repository, a sketchbook-story, a sandbox where I can experiment with styles and events and anything else, before incorporating them into other stories I am working on. The vagueness, thinness, and bare-bones quality of its world suits it perfectly for experimentation, and it also detaches me just enough to not be overly concerned with getting things right.
This story has about six or seven versions in existence currently, and it is pleasing to me to observe how it shapeshifts as I gain in influences and desires in writing.
While everyone has their own methods, idea-management in any creative medium makes up the greater part of a work’s lifespan. Also, once it transitions from idea to matter, it is still only its creator who is aware of its existence. That grey zone, that private life of an artwork, must be understood and mastered for any artist to become an expert in his or her craft. That is the essence of Barnett Newman’s words. With the moral decisiveness he posits comes a sense of urgency, a sense of one’s work not being entirely in one’s control, and with that urgency comes the feared factor of time, and with time come questions of originality of output, the dread that someone else will claim this frontier as their own if one is not pioneering enough.
On a few occasions I have come up with ideas that either get done later by well-known artists or have already been done (and I simply did not know the precedent). Some of these are intentionally stuck in my head, just like my hobbled phoenix of a story. And while the first reaction to this news is bitterness, I am overcome with a sense of pride in having shared something with great artists. The two most notable, most recent examples are:
We were both on to the way the overlapping personal space of two people encountering each other becomes suddenly magnetized, especially when the encounter occurs in unexpected places and at unexpected scales. While Abramovic’s is more stripped down, a case study, or well-designed experiment, mine relished more the varied and unpredictable urban stage. Two people sit facing each other just as above, but without a table. At a pace so slow it is nearly impossible to notice, the two chairs move apart (via wheels presumably). By the end of the performance, the relationship between the two staring individuals is quite different from the beginning. Passers-by might start to cross the magnetized interstitial space. One could then continue the performance on other days by placing the two actors at any distance apart, from several yards to several city blocks. Hopefully the project would evoke that feeling of longing for someone, the need for someone. It would also emphasize how fleeting these connections are, just like the connection I experience with Abramovic herself. Sometimes we are each other’s compasses, each other’s Meccas and Jerusalems. We magnetize each other.

My version of this story takes place immediately after an asteroid grazes Earth, knocking it off its orbit, and plunging the climate into a deep ice age. One man survives by maintaining a fire in the Library of Congress, using the entirety of documented human history as the fuel. It was interesting to me to be faced with the choice: allow yourself to die for the chance that humanity may be remembered, or sacrifice history so that you may survive.
Of these I am most irritated of having been beaten by those works that have impossibility built into them– works that are intentionally impossible to conceive because of various physical limits. In these, the famous thread that Duchamp began a century ago is picked up: it is only the idea that matters. It simultaneously empowers every individual but it also frustrates the heck out of me because I totally could’ve published that! One great case in point is Douglas Huebler’s Variable Piece #70, which set out to photograph every living human being. Nice little analysis from Notations, with subsequent comparison to John Cage’s legacy.
My question always is: how is it that an idea seemingly so destined to dead-end in the studio, in its private life, before seeing the light of day, spread to our consciousness? How is it that it’s now known as “the Huebler conceptual photography project” (indeed, these are the exact words I used when I appealed to Dennis Adams for help. He answered immediately)?
The famous artist can say that the idea is all that matters, that the present work is just there to illustrate that idea. Duchamp and Malevich are both granddaddies of this priority: all that matters is the will of the artist. The communication, the representation, all of that is secondary if not irrelevant. But! To deconstruct that would be to say that those statements themselves rely on being uttered by famous artists, or people with an audience. They are aware of their audience (that they even have one) and can thus get away with more. Sure, how many artists, alone in their studios, had painted the black square before Malevich, just as I had imagined two individuals sitting across from each other for a long duration before Marina Abramovic? The latter was just in the right place at the right time. Anyone who has seen Exit Through The Gift Shop and felt frustrated at the end by Mr. Brainwash’s rapid success is feeling the same thing– shortchanged because they sense that Thierry Guetta’s alter-ego acted only on account of knowing he was in the right place at the right time, not because of some sincere desire to create and move.
Noah forwarded me A Brief History of John Baldessari many months ago which contains that same nugget verbatim spoken by the man himself… in context, from 4:58.
Charlotte suggests these two ideas: 1) multiple individuals acquiring ideas in synchronicity and 2) “being in the right place at the right time” demonstrate that some ideas, concepts, or technologies only gain popular traction (come out, explode) when the world is ready for them. Technology for photos, for example, had existed long before the daguerreotype– the foundation for 12-tone music had been set midway through the 19th century, yet it only really started its friction against the public 50 years later. It’s like a multiple choice question: the solution is actually there in front of you, you just need to find it. This runs contrary to the blank canvas maxim/truism/cliche. But of course, there is ALWAYS a precedent, ALWAYS a pre-existing conflict or dialogue. It shows that there is more at play in “progress” than just the availability of technology, or the brilliance of any particular individual. It is a delicate mix of them, plus aesthetics, public opinion, politics, economics….. and the ingredients need to be brewing just right before the next revelation comes.
CG, American Flatbread, Burlington VT, 12.22.12

Much ado about Macbeth

The many Shakespeare-inspired performances about lately, plus one more, and my admiration of them all, provides the runway this time, public/private space as the control tower, skies are blue, and we are cleared for takeoff.
Above, from top: Alan Cumming’s Macbeth; Sleep no More’s Macbeth; New York Classic Theatre’s Twelfth Night; Pina Bausch’s Orpheus & Eurydice
Two of the four productions are of the same play and fittingly follow a very similar aesthetic, almost as if belonging to the same fictional universe. Set materials, colors, sounds, headspace, and the core idea of who is the real actor, where the play ends and life begins, vice versa, originating from Mac the Knife’s famous soliloquy.

The mutual collapse and inversion of the stuff which fattens the separation between the real and the unreal occurs elsewhere too. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky*, a great Soviet relic of a writer, wrote in Memories of the Future (if I recall correctly) about music, suggesting to the reader to see not music  determined by time, but the other way around, as time residing in music. Think of it analogously: if time were like God, the intangible omnipresence that we invent to explain and reference unsolved riddles, then it certainly makes sense that Time (capital T) is manufactured, like an ostentatious statue or road sign. Music is the most visceral, consumable, renewable resource (and perhaps more importantly: the most dispensed to its own manufacture), the fossil fuel for the production of Time, which flares up near the end and vanishes. Coming back from music to daily life, we have a new formula for imitation of life. Via the creation of something proximate and second-degree, life or reality suddenly comes into brief focus. Just like through music are we able to suddenly sense time, through acting are we able to experience life and its complexity, play with it, experiment on it. This is the entire premise of Lincoln Center’s Macbeth: evidenced in how Alan Cummings’ character, who we as the audience (and the doctors in their little crimson-curtained booth– a brilliant role reversal in itself) understand is stuck in this life for eternity, creates an alternate reality for himself and therefore a purpose, a meaning, a role. And of course, as far as he is concerned, that is just as fulfilling as the reality he used to inhabit outside that mental institution. Tantalized, I began inventing a past for him.
The play ends with the same line as it opens. “When shall we three meet again?” The looping device triggers many ideas. It makes it all more crazy. It frames the entire happening of the play, its entire chunk of time, as something created: something real while we’re in it, but something absurdly false once the lights go out and we realize that it’ll begin all over again once we’re flung out of the picture. Symbolically and metaphorically is it the equivalent of living in a cage: a forcefield or membrance, outside of which infinity may lie, but within which there is no segregation of direction. In the gut of a cube, you turn around at every corner and rush to the next, unable to tell the difference, and a mad loop begins, like those bouncy pong-inspired screensavers.
Sleep No More one-ups this degree of madness. It starts with the loop, but shuffles it all up like a deck of cards, which according to Ian Stewart, if done perfectly, will eventually result in shuffling the cards back to perfect order again. Like anything should, the scattered fragments culminate to give us a moment of supreme observation (the dinner)– something of a denouement.
Turning now to in the park….. and Pina Bausch’s . I was lucky enough to experience New York Classical Theatre’s Twelfth Night at both ends of its production life: firstly when the rehearsal stumbled upon me while I was sitting in the park some months ago (I was at one point surrounded by all the actors, repeating lines fron the final scene), and secondly for its closing night in Battery Park. The delightful sauntering and glimpses of improvisation by the characters with the audience became a picture made whole upon the backdrop of New York Harbor in the sunset, leaves whispering, and confused tourists passing by. Somehow refined theatre and those cheesy historical reenactments we attend in historic towns like Williamsburg VA had had a handsome child.
During the intermission in Pina Bausch’s Orpheus & Eurydice, my people-watching was interrupted by Charlotte’s comment about the origins of the pace of modern storytelling. I am constantly reminded by my classical music buffs living in Vienna that opera used to be the golden standard of all artistic production (Wagner’s emphasis on the Gesamtkunstwerk) and that opera involved all disciplines. The performance itself (which is what draws my interest presently) was equally as involved. People would spend an entire weekend at the opera house, a few hours each day. The idea was to go home and contemplate what one had just seen, allowing it time to stick, then forcing one to commit more to the story and the outcome. This pace is what modern television is meant to approach. Even today many hold the opinion that TV series binging saps the viewer of any long-term commitment to the characters. Giving an audience a day or a week in between episodes forces one, in anticipation, to mentally enter the story. The brilliant turn is that while you’re in the world of the show, you may realize that the story is in fact mirroring your every day life.
I turned my attention back to the folks on the balcony in the David Koch Theater with champagne flutes in their hands. Below, loafers and shiny white pants were ordering gelato from a stand. Avery Fisher hall, the fountain, and the opera house loomed across the way. Was I in New York, or in Europe? Back at the opera house, circa 1850, wealthy patrons sit in the upper balconies and have tea served them as the drama unfolds below. This detail is incredibly vital: suddenly their attention is divided between two things. Suddenly the possibility of missing a line of dialogue arises. Suddenly I realize that the glacial pace of opera was in fact manageable because it in fact didn’t demand unceasing focus for 4 hours at a time. The stretching of events happened even at the scale of seconds. Of course you’re not going to catch every single detail, nor were you supposed to. It was more of a background happening (see: Happenings — and their champions Allan Kaprow, Claes Oldenburg, Vito Acconci, Robert Whitman et al.) in the presence of which you’d stumble upon observations or notice events take place, and which gave you an alternate, outer zone to withdraw to engage in contemplation, but which wasn’t necessarily exalted as a perfectly composed thing. In a way it is a nod to life, an homage to the way life seems to pass us by, taking opportunities and events with it before we get the chance to catch them.
(As an aside, and opening the portal to an entirely other conversation, the difference between politics and art is actually the attitude of the audience. Here I use politics a bit more fluidly to include events, lectures, elections, protests, war, and the like. In these there is an invasion of privacy, a pushing up of the front of the extraordinary against the battlements of the mundane which we mentally erect in order to attempt to force patterns upon an inherently discorant and moment-to-moment existence. The concept of “day-to-day” is an invention credited entirely to civilization. Of course, nothing is completely insulated from disturbance, and this results in perhaps a slight “observer’s blues”, or an arthritic passivity, due to the simple fact that this strange event occurring before you is a species you’ve never seen before– nothing like the tame, docile creature of everyday life. It’s aggressive, confrontational, but not deadly. It magnetizes attention. Remember OWS? I suppose Slavoj Zizek would encourage one to see the moment through and do it justice by engaging it full-on, absorbing its energy so that the subsequent withdrawal back into daily life may make one appreciate their opposing extremes. I suppose my father, on the other hand, would resolutely refuse to follow the crowd, as goes his theory that mediocrity is a universal state in humanity– aligning with Hobbes– and knowledge the exception, and it must be protected at all costs. Attempts at its dissemination should also be avoided, he says, because ignorance behaves like a black hole, and will remain empty no matter how much you try to enlighten it. But tracking back, what I am trying to highlight is the performative nature of any event; and the key detail to pay attention to is the individual audience member.)
Allan Kaprow invokes a happening.
In action.
Occupy Wall Street
Before art was the “escape” from life, but now that principle is not only knee-jerk but also actually false. Art and life are now invading each other’s space more, and art is not the escape from life but more of a parallel universe experienced with just as much importance as the day-to-day.
Logically, this draws me to an observation quite close in pitch to one I made in Yarn II of Abstraction to Figuration, namely the broadening, over the past few centuries, of artistic merit and legitimacy to include ideas in rawer and less developed states.
Our generation is unhindered by such fathoms of possibility because we are handed an equally vast set of expressive tools to communicate and publish with.
Does this then mean that, barring diversions from the current trajectory, there may come a period in which people no longer “go” to theatrical, operatic, cinematic, or musical performances (architecturally eliminating the demand for “venues”), and instead where those performances exist organically (for lack of a better word) in everyday space? Performers and films would be playing out continuously, music would be ringing out at any moment for anyone interested in listening, and all performative art forms would take on a life of their own that is indeed whole and completely independent of those interested in perceiving them. And purveyors of those art forms would be living a new incarnation of art for art’s sake.
*Excellent writing that flows and drags through reality, distorting it into dreamlike form. Links to reviews here, here, here, and here.