A book on the Grateful Dead and contemporary art, to be released Fall 2016
co-edited with Elizabeth Cline & Mark A. Rodriguez
A book on the Grateful Dead and contemporary art, to be released Fall 2016
co-edited with Elizabeth Cline & Mark A. Rodriguez
Published in Prism Of Reality Issue Number 2, 2013
Let’s not call it a game. Curiosity – What’s Inside the Cube? is a self-proclaimed “one-of-a-kind social experiment.”1 This iOS and Android app is masterminded by software studio 22Cans, and Peter Molyneux—famous among gamers for designing Populous (1989), the first PC god game. Opening Curiosity, a player is presented with a three-dimensional cube, skinned with pictures, floating and slowly spinning in a glowing, white room. Pinch-zoom half a dozen times and the surface dissolves into itty-bitty “cubelets,” exploding seemingly at random. If you happen to touch one, it shatters, and you receive one coin. Players join “thousands of people world- wide to simultaneously chip away [in real time]…”—a massively-multiplayer tapping experience.2 “Deep in the centre [sic] of the cube is something life-changingly amazing,” claims 22Cans, “but only the first person to reach the centre will discover what’s inside.”3 To get there, the world must tap through thousands of layers, each made of millions of cubelets, and each distinguished by a distinct color or picture scheme.4 There is some variation in gameplay—accurate tapping multiplies coin values; coins may be used to buy chisels and bombs for enhanced demolition; you can draw pictures. Molyneux also hopes players will be “curious” enough to unlock new features unveiled during the course of the game, even paying real money through iTunes/Google Play for special abilities. But the core mechanism is constant: tapping cubelets.
Version 1.0 launched at the end of October 2012. The initial flood of tappers crashed the 22Cans servers. The Curiosity in-app “stats” section shows this usage declining quickly, however, and, perhaps in response, the cube’s surface imagery started to change. Mystical CGI graphics shifted to architectural travel photographs. A month later, the cube began to feature snapshots of faces, four per side, layer after layer. A quick Google search suggests that these snapshots are most likely crowd-sourced5 from those who funded 22Cans’ Kickstarter campaign for their forthcoming “delightful reinvention of the god game”6 called Project GODUS. As of this writing there are nine faces per side—tiled underneath a giant countdown number.
For the uninitiated: god games are a type of AI simulation where the player is an unseen divinity with modest influence over a digital world of worshipers. When the followers prosper, the player gains more powers—and so the game progresses. Importantly, the player is not striving to reach the end of a path, but rather works to shape a world—a community, even—through an open-ended series of manipulations. Hm. Sounds like the Cube. Unwitting worshippers tap away on their iPads and Samsung Galaxy phones, while visual “clues” and new game features are revealed willy-nilly— to keep us curious. Rather than allowing these powers to emerge within gameplay itself, the programmers of 22Cans assume the deity role, transforming Curiosity into an undeclared god game through their manipulation of the user community. Meanwhile, the seemingly endless Cube has become a successful launch pad for Project GODUS. 22Cans’ carrot-dangling veers more toward funding stunt than experiment, forestalling the potential outcomes of such a massive (though decentralized) collaborative effort.
Well, players may be getting fleeced, but I’m still tapping. Curiosity is a slick and somewhat new-agey take on the satisfactions of popping bubble-wrap. Molyneux’s quest for meaningful gaming channels simultaneous connectivity into some kind of digital utopian workplace, evoking a breezy sense of accomplishment. Meanwhile, as all the world gathers ‘round the collective digital abstraction, the Cube anchors a real-time community, sibling to Second Life or the Twitter- verse—but with a crucial difference: while the vanity space of social media can reflect worldly classifications through language, appearance and politics, each user of the cube is the exact same anonymous, tap- ping finger. Indeed, perhaps it’s more communist than utopian—or more capitalist: an MMP sweatshop. In any case, the ulterior world looks pretty dark and boring in comparison. Isolated and jabbing at the screen, the idealistic benefits of Web 2.0+ are channeled into the rote pleasures of endless zoom, scroll, and tap.
Indeed, despite the dull reality of Curiosity’s mechanics, the Internet is full of talk about all things Cube—from speculation over just how many cubelets make up the total volume to YouTube videos demonstrating the Diamond Chisel (available for three billion coins). One lyrical blogger went so far as to imagine the Cube suspended by space tethers or anti-gravity near a Swiss lake.7 This quirky nodal community, shaded by discourse, is vastly more satisfying than the strict restraints of the game’s architecture, and here, in the Curiosity experiment at large, is where Molyneux somewhat unintentionally succeeds.
So much chatter over this highly aesthetic virtual object—we’re reminded of Claire Bishop’s recent admonishment of much contemporary art for turning a blind eye to the technological advances fundamentally shifting communication, media, and social relations.8 Bishop goes on to explain that adherence to physicality and intellectual property will doom art to nostalgic farce. Her description of the few art works that do successfully incorporate Web 2.0+ is an awfully good description of Curiosity: “Each suggests the endlessly disposable, rapidly mutable ephemera of the virtual age and its impact on our consumption of relationships, images, and communication; each articulates something of the troubling oscillation between intimacy and distance that characterizes our new technological regime.” Though Curiosity isn’t art per se, Molyneux comes yet one step closer to the truly contemporary work: absorbing lessons of the hastily advancing virtual era, but largely to promotional and narcissistic ends. Whatever its designers’ intentions, Curiosity’s ambivalent embrace of digital “community” draws out and exemplifies the darkness at the center of social media—the Web, Cubed.
1 Description of Curiosity – What’s Inside the Cube? on the Apple App Store. Accessed April 9, 2013. The Cube has since been opened, and the app is no longer available for download.
2 In actuality, much of this “simultaneity” appears to be approximated by animations—no doubt owing to the technical challenges of syncing millions of cubelets across thousands of connected devices.
3 Description of Curiosity – What’s Inside the Cube?
4 Internet rumors suggest that these pictorial schemes hint at the Cube’s secret.
5 Harry Slater. “The Curiosity Cube Diaries – Volume II.” Pocket Gamer, April 3, 2013. <http://www. pocketgamer.co.uk/r/iPhone/Curiosity+- +what%27s+inside+the+cube/feature. asp?c=49452>. Accessed June 11, 2013.
6 See the Project GODUS Kickstarter page. <http://www.kickstarter.com/ projects/22cans/project-godus>. Accessed April 21, 2013. Before proceeding into the Curiosity online shop, a pop-up suggests supporting GODUS on Kickstarter. The £450,000 project was successfully backed on December 21, 2012.
7 Harold Schellinx. “Curiosity, Cubes & Numbers.” Soundblog, December 9, 2012. <http://www. harsmedia.com/SoundBlog/Archief/00789. php>. Accessed June 11, 2013.
8 Claire Bishop. “Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media.” Artforum, September 2012, 434-441.
Published in Prism Of Reality Issue Number 1, 2012
A few years back, I heard a rumor: Steve Kado, a Canadian performance artist, had walked north from his home in Ko- reatown to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia—a distance of 30 miles. In a city built for cars, walking such a distance is obviously an act of pure will. If his car was at the mechanic, surely he could have found a ride with a friend; if trying to escape the city’s essential cliché, LA Metro public transportation is actual- ly fairly functional. Several months later I heard another rumor: Kado also walked from Koreatown to the port of Long Beach, 30 miles to the south. Between these two performances, Kado somewhat astoundingly bisected the city along its longitudinal axis. This artwork no doubt recalls Bas Jan Ader’s 1973 In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles). Yet unlike Ader’s thoroughly documented journey, the only trace of Kado’s performance is hearsay. While the former leaves us with poetry—snippets of song lyrics delicately written onto each photograph, an oh-so-solitary figure wandering through the night—the latter’s journey dries the mouth and brain with the thought of spending so much time
on the dusty shoulder of San Fernando Road. Kado’s walk seems inanely paced in comparison to constant iPhone-ing and much hyper-snappy contemporary video art, its willful slowness highlighting our daily high-speed jitter.
But upon further consideration, did his walks actually take place? A search for answers reveals only the difficulty of dis- cussing Kado’s project—not only because
of its inherently slippery epistemology, but also because such a performance doesn’t seem to fit into any established discourse. The truth of the rumor can never be pinned down. Then how to proceed when so thoroughly denied any agency as viewers? In this complete re- jection of the experiential, the project’s art-value must be understood semiotical- ly within cultural and environmental con- text. Yet this is different from what might be described as “action” or “interven- tionist” performance—the former (most simply) seemingly reliant on process, and the latter leaving an evident physical or cultural disruption.
The answer can be found in gesture—a term used too loosely in art discourse. Painting, specifically Abstract Expres- sionism, is most frequently described as “gestural”—but what does that mean? That the flick of a brush somehow cor- responds to an inner emotional and psychological being? A painting is often constructed with hundreds or thou- sands of paint-movements; presumably not every mark can carry equal emotive urgency. Gesture, the symbolic move- ment that supposedly conveys interior- ity, instead borders on the mechanic, or worse yet, dead-ends in discussion of the non-representational. Through a closer examination of several classic perfor- mance works, I hope to reevaluate this term apart from the grandiose Modernist cliché.
Outside of art discourse, gesture is a sym- bolic or token motion intended to empha- size or affect: movement as metaphor. One accepts a bow to suggest honor, respect, humility, yet it is really through shared cultural context that leaning forward in the company of others means, “You are of greater power and esteem than I.” Ges- ture must be corporeal: it is either car- ried out through physical movement, or
is an intentional motion with an implied enactor. These movements always return to an original context and a performing body. Giorigo Agamben, in his short essay “Notes On Gesture,”
expands: What characterizes gesture is that in it there is neither production nor enact- ment, but undertaking and support- ing,” returning to context as it “opens the sphere of ethos as the most fitting sphere of the human.1
Gesture pokes at the codes of its sur- rounding environment, sourcing and grounding the enactor; the subsequent interpretation may call these very values into question.
Within art, we can relocate the meaning of this term in performance work. It seems necessary to describe certain performa- tive projects not as actions or interven- tions but as gestures. Born of the early demonstrations of Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni, gesture is an embodied perfor- mance. It is vulnerable to and through in- terpretation, due to a diffused (and often removed) audience/performer relationship. Gesture-as-performance occurs outside of the traditional dialectic created by recital- style work. In his Living Sculptures (c. 1961), for example, Manzoni designated “audience” members as artwork by “per- forming” a signature on their body in a
social setting. This can be positioned in contrast to early Fluxus and Situationist happenings, which emphasize the physi- cal experience of a viewer vis-à-vis the actions of a performance. Gesture exists in spectrum with action, sliding between the interpretive and the experiential. Semioti- cally, this continuum may be mapped onto the axis between metaphor and metonym. As with these two linguistic terms, wheth- er the author intends a didactic message or affective meaning determines the degree to which they relinquish interpretive con- trol, and drives the method by which they deliver content.
Gesture performance can exist completely within documentation. Indeed, because it relies heavily on author-in-context for meaning, it is not easily recreated. Unlike that of action, the power of the gesture lives recursively—perhaps only so— through text, image, or word of mouth. This stands apart from an artwork which requires a viewer to traverse and interact with an environment, or in which move- ment depends on the subjective, in-the- moment choices of a performer. Agamben quite eloquently elaborates on the two- fold relation of gesture to the photograph, which underscores why gesture-as-perfor- mance-art can exist so fully in documenta- tion:
In fact, every image is animated by an antinomous polarity: on the one hand this is the reification and effacement of a gesture (the imago either as symbol or as the wax mask of the corpse); on the other it maintains the dynamis (as in Muybridge’s split-second photographs, or in any photograph of a sporting event). The former corresponds to the memory of whose voluntary recall it takes possession; the latter to the image flashed in the epiphany of involuntary
memory. And while the former dwells in magical isolation, the latter always refers beyond itself, towards a whole of which it is a part.2
Though Agamben later asserts this as a problem to be solved by film, this dialectic enriches our understanding of gesture-as- performance. Documentation immediately crystallizes the movement and environ- ment in some manner of public-sphere museological display. A viewer’s memories are actively concentrated toward the being of that gesture (and its context)—but as an ideal (imago), and not necessarily as the movement presented as such. We are given the incomplete narrative and its lim- its. At the same time, Agamben’s dynamis allows an opening of meaning through extrapolation. Understanding thickens based on our own biases, opinions, and emotional makeup, but only as associ- ated with the potential of what we have witnessed. It is this fuzziness of subjec- tive interpretation that sets gesture apart from action. Gesture strives to provoke
an indefinite viewer understanding. This could be considered a shortcoming; but the performance regains power as mean- ing builds in relationship to known, per- sonal experience. Because documentation affords gesture this isolation, its affect has the potential to surpass the demonstrative. Gesture may be more potent captured than experienced live.
Historically, action starts empty. Alan Kaprow specified that, within his 18 Hap- penings (1959), “actions will mean noth- ing clearly formulable so far as the artist is concerned.” The staged activity of the per- former, through which “the line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible,” becomes merely formal.3 Happenings attempted to
Prism of Reality – 23
coerce the audience into losing their sense of viewership; to this purpose, the actions of the artwork were emptied of symbolic value.
Around the same time, the Viennese Ac- tionists embraced ritual and violence as means of emotional extortion, but still eschewed symbolic value. In 1960s perfor- mances of Orgien Mysterien Theater, Her- mann Nitsch shredded a lamb carcass on stage as a “manifest action (an ‘aesthetic’ substitute for a sacrificial act).” He aimed for audience catharsis:
Through my artistic production . . . I take upon myself the apparently nega- tive, unsavoury, perverse, obscene, the passion and the hysteria of the act of sacrifice so that YOU ARE spared the sullying, shaming descent into the ex- treme.4
In Nitsch’s words, these staged actions were intended to be so full of primal (and ultimately accessible) passions that a viewer could be freed from the emotional hardships inflicted by the extreme violence of mid-century Europe.
It is tempting to think of Nitsch’s sangui- nary performances as gesture, but this overlooks his insistence on viewer involve- ment. Though the first few aktions had a passive audience, his performances grew larger and eventually included active par- ticipation, ultimately becoming an orches- trated action theatre. The artwork was conducted through a group of other actor- participants in symphonies of ceremonial activity—a Dionysian gesamtkunstwerk including music, dancing, fruits, and the smearing of blood. What differentiates this art-action from art-gesture is the emphasis on experience over interpreta- tion. When a performer undertakes such
Matt Siegle // Doubtful Motion: Gesture as Performance
Matt Siegle // Doubtful Motion: Gesture as Performance
24 – Prism of Reality
gruesome tasks as an individual gesture, they strive for the symbolic translation concomitant with environmental context and, more loosely, viewership. Instead, Nitsch stated,
The negative image of Dionysian de- bauchery, passion, ends in the masoch- istic excess of sacrifice. . . . The O.M. Theatre utilizes this phenomenon, and in this way achieves a regression within art, a break-through of the Dionysian. . . . The sensually real, sadomasochistic situation of tearing-up is identical with an extreme break-through of instincts.5
Orgien Mysterien Theatre was a Brechtian experience of theatre acts, a ritualistic ca- tharsis for the viewer. In a sense, Nitsch’s gesamtkunstwerk was not so far from Kaprow’s professed fluidity between life and art, though in this case on an emo- tional level.
Undertaken a decade later, Czech “action- ist” Jirí Kovanda’s early works exemplify the gesture-as-performance. Merged into the public sphere, the art-value is only found within recording. These meditations on contact took place within the streets
of late ‘70s Prague, and became so slight as to be completely unobservable except through text and photo documentation prepared by the artist. Most works are tautologically titled: Untitled (On an esca- lator…turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing beside me…), 3 September 1977. An earlier performance, Untitled (19 November 1976), locates Ko- vanda in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, arms spread full eagle, trying to block or simply touch passersby. In an interview with Slo- vak artist Július Koller, Kovanda described the goal of these works as:
to examine and to experience relations and borders between people in public
spaces, for example. Or my own posi- tion there in everyday situations. Or a position of an individual in a crowd. Among others.6
The muscle of this work lies in its double interpretation as both an immediate at- tempt for intimate contact with strangers and as an embodied gesture towards free will and movement. Kovanda has stated,
The question is when communication takes place. I think it’s at the moment when the thing is referred to as art. That means that if an action has an au- dience, it happens straight away. If no spectators have been invited, however, I think it doesn’t take place until after- wards . . . when it’s presented as art.7
The work Untitled (Waiting for someone to call me …), 18 November 1976 dem- onstrates that Kovanda’s performances hinge on this crux—that is, on the gesture. In private, Kovanda sat beside a tele- phone and waited for someone to call. It is unclear if anyone was present for this performance (nor does it matter); likewise, it is uncertain if anyone knew to contact Kovanda at this given point in time. What now exists for the viewer is a photograph of the artist sitting solemnly beside the telephone, with text above reading “x x x/18. Listopadu 1976/Praha/Cekám, až
mi nekdo zavolá…” Whether someone did call remains inescapably ambiguous; ac- cordingly, it follows to think of his behav- ior symbolically, as gesture.8
Presentation context is another distin- guishing feature along the gesture/action spectrum. Returning to Nitsch, his actions were clearly bracketed in mediated perfor- mativity even though they may have been loosely scripted and invited participation. Broadening the definition of gesture, we
are looking for movements that express an idea, sentiment, or attitude. It seems that in order to find meaning in a gesture- movement, there must be some relation- ship to the earnest or sincere—some im- mediate proximity to the performer—even though it may be untrustworthy. So what then of gestures in a traditional performer/ audience dialectic, where a viewer’s atten- dance presupposes a blanket acceptance of staging?
Robert Ashley, seminal experimental com- poser and pioneer of opera-for-television (precursor to music television), accuses live staging of coddling spectators. A viewer comes to witness an artwork di- vorced from the genuine being of them- selves or the performer, and as such their experience becomes mise-en-scène. Refer- ring to the trend toward music recitals in the 1970s, he writes:
That palpable but invisible wall be- tween the entertainer and the audience is a fact of the recital. As a member of the audience you are a consumer and a consumer only. Take your seat. The musicians come on stage. Two or three pieces. Intermission. Two or three piec- es. End. You are back out on the street having had an experience, which in most cases lasts only as long as the ex- perience itself. This is a recital. It could have been juggling or a live porno act. Whatever it is, you are not a part of it. You have been a watcher. The recitalist hopes that you have been entertained. But you have not been included. You have simply been distracted from what is outside. . . . Because the composer does not have the idea of including the people who come while the music is being enacted. We have lost the idea of the rituals that remind the people who come that what is happening is only a
Prism of Reality – 25
small part, a “surfacing” of the con- tinuing musicality of everyday life.9
Staging immediately nudges a perfor- mance toward a predetermined outcome, foreclosing a broader comprehension available through context, convenience, and similitude. A sign made by an ac- tor may be interpreted as a gesture, but only in relationship to the fixed phras- ing given within the experience. This forces a canned interpretation: viewers “learn” through mediated actions in an artificially contained environment. This does not carry meaning beyond the stage. True gesture relies on proximity within a (shared) public context, and a vulner- able interpretation based on metaphoric shiftiness. Such a position is weak—but this weakness gives gesture its power. It is exactly what defines gesture, a fleece for something too hard or soft to be spoken, executed in the same everyday reality that both the performer and witness share. Gesture can become a bridge to the truly unspeakable.
David Hammons’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale oc- cupies precisely this position. During a blizzard in 1983, Hammons sold snow- balls of varying sizes, priced accordingly, alongside other vendors in New York City’s Cooper Square. This performance seems like a comment on the position of the artist himself within relations of class and race: an African-American man as- sociating with low-brow street vendors rather than the luxury of the white-box gallery, while perhaps also positioning art as a scam. Within the artwork, Ham- mons provided no clues as to whether
he meant to provoke a consideration of race through his commodity’s whiteness. He has famously denounced art audience viewership, insisting that these street sale
Matt Siegle // Doubtful Motion: Gesture as Performance
Matt Siegle // Doubtful Motion: Gesture as Performance
26 – Prism of Reality
performances were for the everyday view- er. Still, there is plenty of documentation of this performance; in these photographs, we now find art value through equal con- sideration of context and the suggested transaction (gesture again as hearsay). It is only because this artwork occurs for a presumably unaware public that his posi- tion is destabilized. Is he actually trying to make sales? Why would Hammons, with a respectable career and gallery, reduce himself to a joke? And what did that mean in 1983? Where Kaprow’s aim was to blur the line between art and life for a viewer, Bliz-aard Ball Sale collapsed artist and subject. In its art-value, Hammons’s action becomes gesture—the symbolic ac- tivity nestled within the day-to-day hustle of New York vendors.
And so, returning to Agamben: the defin- ing characteristic of gesture is “that in it there is neither production nor enactment, but undertaking and supporting.”10 For gesture in performance artwork, the goal is not structural production nor emotional charade.11 Instead, Agamben describes these movements with two verbs (under- take, support) that connote accountabil- ity and responsibility. The relationship between the movement and the viewer
is now greatly thickened, for the artist- as-subject is unavoidably linked to the former, and the public context becomes common ground. This heightens a sense of interpretable visual rhetoric, constructed by both artist and witness, within an un- controlled yet shared sociological environ- ment.
As disempowered viewers, considering Kado’s walks is like chasing our own tails.
No one witnessed either artwork as such, and they may or may not have happened. The only thing to grasp are the words by which we learn of his performance, and yet language in and of itself does not con- vey the truth. Meaning is completely in- secure, but it is precisely at this epistemo- logical crux that Kado entrusts us with the work’s interpretation. This is a generous move on his part—one that speaks against a moment when every piece of informa- tion seems quantifiable and verifiable.
A little while after hearing of these walks, I saw Klara Liden’s 2003 video Paralyzed at The Museum of Modern Art. The foot- age begins with a solitary figure seated on a daytime commuter train, quietly staring out the window. Someone is filming and their hand is unsteady, the footage unpol- ished and poorly lit. The subject is hooded in an olive green woodsman coat, wearing black tennis shoes and slightly baggy, torn jeans. A quick cut jumps to the bare trees and scaffolding ostensibly outside the train. The video returns to this mysteri- ous figure, who now slowly stands with outstretched arms and awkwardly prances in a circle. We see other passengers for the first time.
The figure starts to dance a jig to the ac- companiment of post-production drums and squawking (later identified as “Para- lyzed” by ‘60s psychobilly artist The Legendary Stardust Cowboy). The jacket comes off, revealing a loosely fitting pink blouse, auburn hair ponytailed beneath
a short-billed cap, and a female body. It is Liden herself; she begins to swing from the bars of the train, rolls on the floor— all apparently of little concern to the other commuters. She tosses her shoes, and in a dead-bug freakout, she shimmies off her pants to uncover light blue basketball
shorts. Liden climbs on top of the lug- gage racks, pulls herself through and over seat partitions. The camera blurs as the videographer follows her down the middle of the train. She attempts some clunky gymnastics, then leaps up and down the aisle, garnering only a few lethargic glances. She does The Worm. The video jumps to another quick shot of industrial landscape, then ends with an exterior view of the train at a station. Glimpsed through the windows, something is slightly differ- ent; Liden is wearing her shoes and hat again, and the interior of the train is now artificially lit.
Reviewing the video, it becomes clear that this seemingly continuous performance is actually three freak-outs subtly pieced together; the camera blur and second ex- terior shot transition between different se- quences. But in each performance Liden is wearing the same thing: light pink top and light blue basketball shorts, in marked contrast to her genderless initial costume. Obviously antithetical to the performer’s figure are the sluggish other train pas- sengers, set in their cultural coding, and seemingly unaware of the artwork rolling down the aisle. As the projection dims, we stand in the museum watching.
Matt Siegle // Doubtful Motion: Gesture as Performance
Prism of Reality – 27
Matt Siegle // Doubtful Motion: Gesture as Performance
28 – Prism of Reality
1 Agamben, Giorgio. Infancy and History: The Destruction of Experience (London: Verso, 1993), 140.
2 Agamben, 139.
3 Kaprow, Allan. “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings (c. 1965),” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1996), 709- 714.
4 Nitsch, Hermann. “The O.M. Theatre” in Orgien Mysterien Theatre/ Orgies Mysteries Theater (Darmstadt: März Verlag, 1969), 35-40.
5 Nitsch, “The Lamb Manifesto” in Orgien Mysterien Theatre/Orgies Mysteries Theater, 47-52.
6 Kovanda, Jirí. “Koller and Kovanda.” New York: Ludlow38 Kunstverein München Goethe Institut, 2009, 4.
7 Kovanda, “Interview with Ján Mancuska.” Frieze. Issue 113, March 2008, http://www.frieze.com/issue/ print_article/jiri_kovanda/, accessed May.
8 Soviet forces and troops from several other Warsaw Pact countries invaded the former Czechoslovakia in 1968, ending the liberalization efforts of the Prague Spring. The Prague Spring was an attempt to partially democratize the country and bring additional rights to its citizens, including loosened restrictions on speech and travel. If Kovanda’s performance were intended as an action, the emphasis would be the experience of Kovanda’s wait. He might have a crowd, an audi- ence, in a formalized exhibition space.
9 Ashley, Robert. Outside of Time: Scores, Notes, Writings (Cologne: Edition MusikTexte, 2009), 52-58.
10 Agamben, 140.
11 Agamben illustrates this with the distinction between playwright (produc- ing/doing) and actor (enacting/acting).
Published in Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory
Vol. 21, No. 1, March 2011
Fallen Fruit: United Fruit
Fallen Fruit Collective 17 June – 27 September 2009 Los Angeles, CA, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions
Fallen Fruit Collective, a collaboration between David Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young, grew out of a 2004 artists’ project for the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.1 In an attempt to construct a positivist critique of the urban South-western landscape, the group has playfully initiated efforts to ‘‘reconfigure the relation between those who have resources and those who do not . . . and to investigate new, shared forms of land use and property’’2 with neighborhood fruit-scavenger maps. When invited to a particular community, Fallen Fruit plot fruit trees on or overhanging public space. Easy to distribute and free-of-copyright, their maps encourage local harvesters to discover nature within their urban environment and re-imagine land routinely navigated on a daily basis. This project has become their familiar trope within Los Angeles, but has traveled to cities outside of Southern California as well. Fallen Fruit’s activities have also expanded into other fruit- oriented projects, including a proposal for an ‘‘Endless Orchard’’ in 17 acres of downtown Los Angeles public green space; neighborhood jam-making sessions where all participants contribute public fruit and leave with a jar of confection; and civically minded media-based artwork and installations. Most recently, Fallen Fruit presented EATLACMA, a programming series and gardening reconfiguration of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
United Fruit, their 2009 summer show at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), is the group’s first solo showing. It is also a shift in scale, from the local to the global. Part of a longer, in-progress work titled The Colonial History of Fruit, Fallen Fruit Collective aims to intersect localized and subjective narratives of colonialism with the larger construct of ‘‘objective’’ history, all through the lens of fruit (next up, kiwi and arctic berry).3 United Fruit developed out of a residency in Colombia, South America, and the piece responds to the legacy of the former United Fruit Company (UFC).
An early twentieth-century corporation that traded tropical fruit grown in Central and South America, UFC partially colonized Colombia through develop- ment of agricultural and industrial infrastructure in support of alien banana flora. In 1928, plantation workers of Cie ́nega, Colombia, organized the largest labor movement ever witnessed in the country, striking out against UFC for fair working conditions. Sadly, the country’s ruling political party squashed the movement with help from the army, resulting in an unknown (large) number of civilian deaths in the now infamous Banana Massacre.4 To create the work of the show, Burns, Viegener and Young visited Cie ́ nega where UFC still exists today in the much-reduced form of Chiquita Bananas.
Fallen Fruit splits their portrayal of this history between LACE’s two viewing spaces, with the front gallery dedicated to pictoral representations of the Colombian industry’s human and physical landscape. A concise wall-text explanation of the UFC accompanies four polished, monumentally sized photographic artworks, this institutional display feeling like a departure from the collective’s goofily humored DIY efforts. Perhaps to offset a somewhat dour mood, the group plastered a monster, 13400 peeled banana cut-out on the wall opposite the entrance. This contrasts with the more somber nine-panel photograph suites that mirror the opposing long walls of the gallery: Banana Workers (2009) depicts a different laborer per-photograph and Peligro Trampero (2009) curiously splits a photographic landscape panorama-presumably of a banana plantation-across the panels. Opposite from the giant banana stands a giant 12000 cut-out of a plantation guard holding a very large shotgun, perhaps alarming to a viewer accustomed to a less overtly threatening (though not by any means ethically perfect) agricultural industry in the United States.
United Fruit twists tropes of contemporary and modern art for a social-minded purpose. The 9-panel photograph series, each panel more than five feet tall and box- mounted six inches off the wall, recall minimalism’s serial geometric format, while treatment of subject matter rings of the Du ̈sseldorf school of contemporary photography. The workers, depicted from waist up, evoke Thomas Ruff’s large-scale portraits, in their somewhat emotionless expressions and flat lighting, though without Ruff’s stark passport-like posing and his theoretical insistence on the surface-only qualities of photography. The ‘‘tropical’’ landscape brings to mind Thomas Struth’s Paradise series, in which Struth portrays dense, edenistic jungle landscapes in juicy large-format color photographs. Ping-ponging to a different generation of modern art, it’s hard to look at a large, bright banana in an art context and not think of Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. Between these references, you can almost hear the collective’s prompt, smartly but somewhat self- consciously: ‘‘Can artwork tell you more than the Germans did with their pretty pictures?’’ Although the front gallery raises this question, the prompt feels heavy handed. Other than the ominous rifleman, there’s obviously no narrative depiction of Colombia’s colonial violence.
The rear gallery quickly takes on the answer. Los Bananeros (2009), a wall-sized video projection, follows clumps of bright green bananas through an open-air plantation factory line. A fascinating how-things-work video sans narrator, viewers watch as bananas move through the hands of workers, onto conveyor belts, into mysterious washing pools, and are finally packaged into boxes that wind up in the grocery store. In front of this projection Talking Heads (2009) presents five single- channel videos, each a studio setting with a different Colombian resident discussing their knowledge of banana history and general feelings toward the fruit. Transcripts on top of each television help those of us with lesser Spanish skills, but even then the history is piecemeal:
All I know about the massacre is that a war was waged to fight for plantation workers rights. It was a very sad, violent, and bloody episode in our history, and what little I know about it was told to me by my grandparents, who had lived through it. There is a monument representing the plantation laborers. It is of a man who fought in the war, who put his life on the line to protect his village, the plantation, and the workers rights. I personally don’t eat bananas. I don’t like them; they taste like tubes of flour to me. My favorite fruit is the strawberry – it has a bittersweet taste. But as a concept, I think the banana has had a positive impact on the people here – it’s brought jobs and trade to the economy.5
Watching all five monologues and reading the transcripts, viewers make out a rough outline of colonialism via banana, yet not without acknowledging how truthful history evades even those within its fold. This troubling irony manifests across a chain of incomplete information: the events and details chosen as historical construct are subsequently passed on to the workers implicated within this narrative, which they impart onto the viewer through the artwork. The metonym of the misremembered past is well-formed, with sadness only further heightened by humorous anecdotes of the fruit’s sexual qualities.
The Banana Machine (2009), another wall-sized video projected opposite from Los Bananeros, is less insightful. Mimicking the compositional format of Talking Heads, The Banana Machine cycles through a series of diverse and multiracial teenagers all happily eating a banana. Shot with a studio-white background, it seems a bit, perhaps purposefully, like a Benetton advertisement. The gesture feels pandering, however, and if there is sexual humor, it comes across thinly. It does clearly remind viewers that in the face of ruthless industry shaped by capitalism, we are all just passive consumers, and yes the banana really does look like a phallus. This conclusion would be more dynamic if Fallen Fruit trusted the viewers to reach it themselves, constructing their own meaning once outside of the gallery.
United Fruit displays the tricky problem Fallen Fruit encountered when it moved from orchestrating neighborhood-based jam sessions to commenting on the impact of capitalism (past and present) in a global arena. With local interactive work, the body acts like a fulcrum for a remapping of well-understood terrain. This strategy does not work as well within a gallery showing dedicated to post-colonial landscape. Despite a programming series including artist talks, a ‘‘banana meditation,’’ and a participatory performance during the opening reception, the hands-on approach is necessarily backgrounded. Perhaps the ‘‘A-Ha’’ moment now occurs in the day-to- day actions of the viewer, while out doing the weekly grocery shopping or enjoying bananas and granola for breakfast. It’s a passive move, but a strong one: the landscape and history Fallen Fruit addresses isn’t only accessible through a quirky artist-group project, it is embedded and available for reflection in everyday life.
3. LACE 2009, press release.
4. Bucheli and Read 2001.
5. Transcript from Mayra Melendez Garcia’s interview.
Bucheli, Marcelo and Read, Ian. 2001. ‘‘United Fruit Company Chronology.’’ United Fruit Company Historical Society. http://www.unitedfruit.org/chron.htm/
LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions). 2009. Fallen Fruit goes global: Fallen Fruit, United Fruit, June 17 – September 27, 2009. Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions
140 Past Exhibitions. http://www.welcometolace.org/exhibitions/past/