Monday, January 25, 2010
Samantha Persons-I am Art Series
Person's Untitled (Reflections of art and the artist in relation to the viewer)
installation view of COMMODITY, COMMOTION, COMMUNICATION.
COMMODITY, COMMOTION, COMMUNICATION-by Samantha Persons is the sort of exhibition that is exhilarating to see in KC. It is an installation that is saturated within a much broader context than just the references made to art history and commercialism. It is an attempt to understand identity, amidst an inhumane capitalism (take our capitalistic notion of economy, instead of sustainable local economies). Persons’ explores the paradox of self. Personal identity, which is ever evolving in a world that could not even define the first decade of the twentieth first century because of the sheer of horror and confusion perpetrated by the very own system we have held dear, is the place of exploration.
Persons’ draws upon found object sculpture (Persons’ is a bit witty like Duchamp) and the abstraction of modernism. This is especially seen within Persons’ paintings such as I am Herstory, I am making History, I am a part of Herstory, I am Fighting History, which reminds one of the Constructivist Abstraction as well as a Dadaist collage. Now image that these modern artistic movements are the infatuation of a modern prepubescent girl who is in the midst of her grand sexual awakening. Gender issues are presented throughout by the use of bright colors, organic lines, mechanical lines, and glitter. Of course, there are the stickers, something which Persons’ is sort of known for employing as symbols of femininity and masculinity: Hello Kitty, SpongeBob, rainbows, etc. There is also the use of the american flag (Persons’ does not capitalize) and money as well, associated with Masculinity, or more specifically corporate America. This is mixed with a truly contemporary installation format that beckons comparisons to Jessica Stockholder’s use of paint drenched found materials and carnival-ish colors. Pieces such as I am a Fake blatantly attack the superficiality of modern existence as well as the idea of kitsch. We see Vermeer’s Milkmaid painted over to only highlight the figure of the woman with the action of pouring milk being removed, as the ultimate statement against objectification. A plastic banana on Styrofoam seems to suggest the absurdity of Andy Warhol, who elevated the phallic shape of a banana into an emblem of commodity.
Spectacular and celebratory as well as critical, Persons’ work is demanding by challenging the viewer to shift from the role of the consumer or the one swallowing the “art pill,” to one taking responsibility for interpreting and activating. To do so, the most activating and engaging part of the exhibition was Persons’ personal collection or “stacks” of reading material that highlighted discussions on Feminism, the history of Painting as well as titles on individual artists. Titles such as The Clash between Islam and Modernism in the West appear especially haunting in this configuration, when confronted by the gigantic american flag pillow you are invited to sit upon. You cannot help but then place yourself outside of the context of art, into a much larger sphere. Is this preoccupation with art within the west only allowed only because we are spoiled and greedy? Is our art experience a direct result of colonialism and if so how do we reject our history or rather accept our history? Freedom of expression in many areas of the east is suppressed or at least the attempt is made to suppress (look at the 2009 election in Iran). To avoid such guilt, to challenge the system, Persons’ suggest that the best resource starts with self-education as a means towards understanding identity and your place within in the world.
In essence, Persons’ work, if it had to be defined, would be labeled Altermodern. The work stands out as Persons’ personal archive but one to be shared within a broader global context. Persons’ work is a reaction against commercialism and the layered contexts of history, which, along with environment, shape and mold the self. For employing the anti-aesthetic, Person’s work is certainly is engaging. But then again, this is about the activation of the mind through an art context, something Duchamp supplied us with. This is Persons’ attempt.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Jaimie Warren and Whoop Dee Doo
"The Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artists Awards are sort of like the Emmys of the art world in Kansas City,” a friend of mine remarked, as she tried to explain what all the fuss was about to a “non-art gallery frequenter.” To keep it simple: local artists are given a sum of money (to do whatever they wish with) as a way to further promote the abundant creativity within Kansas City. These artists are also expected to participate in an exhibition in which they will be the focus. In years past the recipients of the awards have been the likes of Jim Leedy, Gear, Russell Ferguson, Cody Critcheloe of the Ssion,Donald Ross (“Scribe”),Ke-Sook Lee, Lester Goldman, and Lori Raye Erickson, just to name a few. These are people of divergent practices yet never ceasing productivity.
What this year’s youthful recipients suggest (as well as artists of years past such as Cody Critcheloe) is that Kansas City is now starting to emerge as a vital arts community. The winners of this year’s award: Dylan Mortimer, Andrzej Zielinski, and Jaimie Warren have all received national attention. Warren has even received international acclaim. It is important to note that the same can be said for many recipients of years past. In this sense, the CSF visual artist awards functions as a way of insuring Kansas City’s spot on the art map and of keeping these talented young artists local. This is an effort, on behalf of the CSF, to build upon the art scene within Kansas City. This is opposed to Kansas City becoming just another place in which folks pass through. In short, it is a way of securing K.C. a spot as an emergent “art center”. Kansas City has now become a launching pad for artistic careers, especially in the case of Mortimer, Zielinski, and Warren who all possess DIY attitudes when it comes to their craft as well as their approach towards the business side of art making.
Dylan Mortimer is known for his exploration of his Christian faith through faith-based messages, which are, altered into popular expressions of everyday language and popular culture. This exploration has formulated into a system of messaging that have been presented as public signage interventions (such as telephone booths converted into a prayer booths), kiosks, Stained Glass Windows, and so on. For the CSF Visual Artist Awards, Mortimer has utilized the language of hip-hop to critique a culture of materialism and by association, the false sense of spirituality that may be prevailing within a culture of want. Using street dialect to communicate messages of moral value, Mortimer’s wall hangings are constructed out of cardboard, glitter, and Christmas lights. These materials are the poor man’s materials: cheap and humble. Not adorned with expensive gold, these wall hangings may appear very embellished but only for a brief second. These are not slick objects in the sense of the objects contemporary society seems so concerned with. The use of such direct, everyday materials is very obvious but this is what helps one come to the recognition of their own desire. As Mortimer proclaims in Fuck You Satan, which is composed of text inside a military-tank, is the fact that we all wish to rid of such desire, to become released from the shackles of want. At the same time, we also proclaim that our spirituality is a vital component in our good fortunes, which in contemporary society and in contradictory fashion, has been translated into material possessions. In this recognition one praises the higher power or as Mortimer states: God Hooks My Ass Up! Yet what exactly does God provide? Is it a material wealth, which is evident in his gold chain series, which depict the last supper and Christ wearing a crown of thorns? Mortimer asserts that economic status is irrelevant in terms of faith. Mortimer asks some very important questions of contemporary society but the one that seems to be the most prevalent is: has faith been reduced to a commodity?
Andrzej Zielinski’s paintings presented in the CSF Visual Artist Awards seem to float within an indeterminate state. Floating somewhere between representational still-life paintings and abstraction, these multiple panel, mixed media paintings and smaller framed images, depict satellites in a mixture of vivid and solemn hues. For the bigger paintings, composed of multiple panels, one must look up towards the image of the ubiquitous satellite. These satellites are what connect the world in a technological sense and according to interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, keeps the threat of nuclear war ever present in the future. Zielinski’s paintings play upon our fears, our ambitions, to keep striving beyond our means. Satellites seem to represent our utopian aspirations for perfection in which we look towards the heavens and neglect our own well-being. Zielinski paintings seem to be exercises similar to technological explorations, in the sense, that his paintings present a sense of experimentation into the realm of the unfamiliar. They function as the most challenging of art functions: to create a process of questioning within the viewer. In this case, I am left wondering: What exactly does progress mean?
Jaimie Warren, of international acclaim, is known for her creative shenanigans under the moniker of the collective art group, Whoop Dee Doo , which opperates in a faux public access television format, and her photographs, which appear to document her humorous navigations within the world. Perhaps you’ve heard of her? For the CSF Visual Artist Awards show, Warren decided, most appropriately, to exhibit a sort of history of Whoop Dee Doo via a film of documented amusing hi-jinxs and performances. This all takes place in the goofy installation she has set up inside what is to be perceived as a magical cave made of found and recyclable materials. Whoop Dee Doo is all fun and games (and rightfully so in a world of so much pain and anguish), which presents a formula for artistic contribution and collaboration that serves as an “anyone can do this” model. For Warren it is a curatorial and collaborative based project in which the collective becomes more important than the individual. Although the notion of the collective identity appears trendy, Warren complicates things with her photographs. It is within her photographs, which appear as though they are taken from her flickr account, in which the individual (Warren herself) and the collective (the rest of the world she engages with) merge. Here Identity is fused within the language of the everyday snapshot. The photographs present the world, for Warren, as a place of personal navigation and self-reflection, which can appear self-indulgent. These photographs, to my surprise, are quite modest in comparison to the blatant energy produced by Whoop Dee Doo, which in many ways, allows Warren a different sort of artistic license. Whoop Dee Doo, is her project in which she truly allows others in. The model of Whoop Dee Doo, might not be fresh but what Whoop Dee Doo provides is the space and permission for individuals to be who they are with the comaraderie of a collective identity which is healthy but when taken to cult like extremes, can become dangerous.
The CSF Visual Artist Awards show was surprisingly playful, and that in and of itself is something to respect. However, Mortimer's work is the most accessible with its use of contemporary street language. His work is unapologetic and in your face. Not to mention amusing. Zielinski's work is promising but is he telling us anything new? The same could be said for Warren who besides giving a community a creative outlet, really isn't giving us anything challenging to view. There is of course the whole elevating the status of "the everyday snapshot" to fine art but the photographs presented by Warren aren't very revealing of those moments of the everyday which make life truly special. Instead, they are primarily Hedonistic. There are no entry points for the viewer to step into her work.
Let’s hope that the honor of such a prestigious award pushes these young artists to new, extraordinary heights and fosters their artistic growth in a time of great adversity.
visit: http://www.charlottestreet.org/ for more information.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
As a “search for an entrance or a passage to another world,” German artist Wolfgang Laib, constructs repetitious minimalist sculptures made from natural materials, such as the pollen and rice seen in Without Place-Without Time-Without Body (Now on display at the Nelson Atkins Mususem of Art in Kansas City, Missouri). Without Place-Without Time-Without Body, is a quiet, organic work, which consists of hundreds of piles of rice, all organized by the human hand. In the center, lays five mounds of hazelnut pollen (collected by the hands of Laib). These piles of rice and pollen forms a grid that echoes the geometry of our modern world while at the same time, appearing to be a fabulous mountain landscape. Due to the human hand, imperfection is found. The grid is not perfect because the form of each pile of grain slightly differs. The grid of grain and pollen attempts perfection and falls short. The materials are utilized as a source of enlightenment, beckoning their spiritual and natural implications as a symbol of regeneration and the cyclical nature of life itself. The grid suggests both man-made and natural systems but the materials of rice and pollen are key components. These materials serve as a reminder of what is essential and what Laib is claiming to be vital: that in finding vehicles of spirituality, one finds nourishment for the soul.
Laib is an artist tied to specific places-India, China, and Germany. Within this installation, the idea of transcendence blossoms into a transportation device that appears to be achieved within this world, through reminding us of the preciousness of organic materiality. Transcendence seems to be less about ascension and more about realizations of reality. It is in this realization, in which one becomes “enlightened” with the knowledge of the cyclical nature of life and the beauty that exists through such a process. Forced to look at forms that rest upon the ground and point up, ascension becomes an act of looking. This act of looking is towards the sky, which contains the sun, the moon, and the stars and confirms that the sheer force of gravity has us rooted in the land, which harvests the grain and pollen. Thus the mounds become another way of asserting physicality and spirituality simultaneously.
Centrally located within the sculptural installation, are the five pollen mounds, which radiate with the pure saturation of their yellow hue. This is a potent visual experience. These are also a reference to the Five Sacred Mountains in China, which Laib has climbed. The repetition of the installation suggests infinity and the cosmos while acting as an offering for the viewer to engage within her or her own ontological dialogue. Through this experience you are transported to another place, all the while remaining rooted in materiality. Without Place-Without Time-Without Body, serves as a meditation on life, which has “ no beginning and no end," and we find ourselves immersed within.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Third Friday 9/18/09: Great Accommodations with Jamie Burkart and Urban Culture Project’s visual and performing arts studios
It seems that third Fridays is where it is at lately if your looking to be an engaged participant. Whether it is navigating an inflatable river system or giving constructive criticism and suggestions to a local dancer and performer in residency-what art seems to say lately is that you are not just a viewer. You are a vital component, one that is of value (and not in the sense of economics). You are of value because you have something to share, something to contribute as a human being in the world.
Many artists are acknowledging that they can't face this world alone and with good reason. Jamie Burkart is another example of someone who subscribes to this mentality.
This past third Friday was the reception for Great Accommodations with Jamie Burkart: Imagining Lifestyles for Cities on the Water as well as the open studios preview of the Urban Culture Project’s visual and performing arts studios. Although first Friday has contributed much to the arts in Kansas City, it has as of late, felt rather stale and stuck (perhaps the lovely commercialization of such an event has contributed to this? as well as new developments in the West Bottoms. Third Friday, by the way of the Urban Culture Project, provides a very vital platform for what Kansas City needs: dialogue and exchange.
This dialogue is formed via Great Accommodations with Jamie Burkart who through his personal navigation of American rivers is re-envisioning a way of life that is codependent mimicking the notion of symbiotic relationships. Jamie essentially wants you to know that “ There’s a river in this city” and to ponder the implications of developing cities near rivers. He wants to highlight Kansas City’s potentials and does so, I believe, pretty damn successfully. If you ask anyone who knows anything, they will tell you that something is happening here in Kansas City that is rather unique for the Midwest. Jamie might be preaching to the choir however (those that already attend Third Friday might already have a hunch to K.C.’s current status via the art world and beyond). The amazing thing would be to see how Great Accommodations affects the non-gallery frequenter because the show has such wonderful considerations that react against stale artistic frameworks.
What Jamie is offering is not necessarily the 21st century’s answer to Huck Finn as some have labeled him, though I suppose you could look at him in that manner. Great Accommodations is much deeper than being written off as just a man’s journey with his close friends. It is at the core speaking to something many of us, especially generation y are use to: the idea and importance of social networking.
Great Accommodations is sort of the synthesis in a series of engagements that Jamie is the facilitator of, which highlight the use of local rivers as a social networking agent. It comes out of an interest of the river’s capacity to connect people. There is something romantic and noble about these desires, which have been activated by Jamie.
Mr. Burkart alongside of Suzanne Hogan and other multiple collaborators built a bicycle powered paddle wheel raft in typical D.I.Y. fashion which took to the rivers a few years back. After doing so, Jamie and Suzanne Hogan mailed hundreds of letters and placed facebook advertisements to reach people and places located along the Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Ohio rivers. These letters and advertisements were open invites for individuals to share their experiences and perspectives of life on the river to share alongside of Jamie.
Great Accommodations is Jamie’s humble attempt to communicate the use of rivers as agents for connection. His attempt to communicate this came through using the bicycle powered raft as an artifact of what is possible with a little bit of courage, the complete transformation of the Paragraph and Project space into a massive site specific inflatable river system, and the use of technology/media emphasizing the idea of connection.
It is a hands-on interactive experience immersing the viewer/participant in a physical, behavioral, and visual environment. You are invited to explore the inflatable river system made from plastic tablecloth, blue painters tape, and recycled building materials, all while Jamie acts as a gallery attendant, “active accommodator”, and facilitator of the show. You navigate the space as you confront interactive pieces such as Accommodations for James Johnson which is what appears to be a simple modulation of the viewer’s real-time movements against rippling wavelike artifacts as a metaphor for the dynamics of the river and Moving in Cities on the Water in which by the turning of upside down bicycle wheel, the viewer can scroll through a looping slideshow of 410 photos taken near the Missouri river between Kansas City and Saint Louis, while audio composed by film musician Spencer Owen mimicked the barges of the river.
There are other pieces that emphasize the desire for connectivity on a social level such as Strangers which is a piece that dates back to 2007, in which Jamie bridges the span between two apartments via window to window by the length of wood. He then in a display of his mastery of balance walks across the beam of wood into his neighbor’s house, where is neighbor had been active and isolated upon a computer.
It seems that the only thing that seemed stagnant in the show was the bicycle-powered raft, which hung in one section of the inflatable river system. It would be nice, as a viewer and participant to have some sort of interaction with the bicycle, to actually power the raft, to learn the mechanics of such a device, etc. This is a small issue in comparison to a show that functions in such an open manner.
What is amazing is that an artist is willingly to assume so many roles. Humility has finally entered the art realm! Nothing felt forced or unnatural about the presentation or the manner in which the work was talked about. The space only functions as a living museum because Jaime is doing so. It is the openness of this young artist’s personality that attempts to rid of old dichotomies and opens one up to an offering of trust, one that many of my generation are engaging in. Will this change anything? Only time will tell but it sure is inspiring.
Speaking of breaking down barriers, alongside of the third Friday reception for Jaime Burkart was the open studio preview of the Urban Culture Project’s visual and performing arts studios at the City Center Square (which is located at 12th and Main, 5th floor). The facility provides shared studio/rehearsal space for both visual and performing artists as well as small private studios. The venue includes a large open space (approx 3,000 sq. feet) and the private studios are each approx.150 sq. ft.). This preview was perhaps the most magical part of the night because of how refreshing it was to see these creative beings inhabiting a highly corporate building. The artists which have been selected have transformed the sterile environment of corporate office spaces into something invigorating (or at least it is getting there). The space and the artists are currently residing on a one-year lease, so let’s hope that this space becomes a place of constructive, innovative, and fresh engagements through the arts.
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Labeled as an urban oasis and aspiring to become a “civic jewel”, the Citygarden, which is in the heart of downtown Saint Louis, opened on July 1st 2009. It serves as an urban sculpture garden featuring modern and contemporary sculptures. It is a project funded by The Gateway Foundation (at a price tag of approximately $30 million), to help revive downtown Saint Louis. Though not a relatively new or groundbreaking idea, the garden gives a much-needed boost to the possibilities of public art within The Saint Louis region. What it comes down to is: good design and an attitude towards public education that is accessible.
Saint Louis like many other cities is a city that has been experiencing a rise in those living in lofts and apartments within its urban core. Beyond an investment in living at the core of the city, Saint Louis is also seeing a renewed interest in the downtown area as well as its grand arts district from people traveling from the suburban outposts looking for attractions in the heart of the city. The irony is that the suburbs are exactly what contributed to the economic decline in Saint Louis within the city in the 1950s. Now downtown Saint Louis is trying to revitalize itself by attracting many to return the origins of the city, to the heart of its core from these suburban locales.
Downtown St. Louis is modest in comparison to the downtown of Chicago hailed for its public art (think Millennium Park). Yet for the flack that Downtown St. Louis receives, it has a decent number of historic, family oriented attractions such as the Gateway Arch, The Old Courthouse, The Washington Street Art district and the unique City Museum. The Citygarden is a great addition to these educational and artistic attractions.
Blossoming within the Gateway Mall, an area of downtown that has been ignored for a long time and serves according to locals as a place where “ the homeless sleep”, this sculpture garden is bustling with the energy of the twenty first century. It was not long ago that this area was nothing but an unattractive grass mall full of numerous cracked sidewalks. The buildings towered over this plaza where life seemed to barely converge.
This once unattractive park is now a highly accessible park which is unfenced and offers entrance from all its points. It is just across from what many unfortunately claim as the “unattractive and inaccessible” Richard Serra piece titled Twain (named after Missourian Mark Twain). Yet with a renewed interest in this area of downtown, Serra’s twain appears to receive some of the benefits of having a beautiful park just across the street. The citygarden for many of its visitors that live and work in Saint Louis renews public art and gives it justice, even if none of the pieces are site specific. More importantly, it attempts to educate one on the motives behind making public sculpture and a free public garden by the use of maps which contain a small amount of information on all 23 pieces featured and the use of audio tours via your cellular device (hosted by local celebrities such as Ozzie Smith formerly of The Saint Louis Cardinals and Jenna Fischer of the hit television show The Office). If only the same could be done for Serra, perhaps Twain would have a higher acceptance rating.
There are many features that make the Citygarden a treasured space. One can sense that every part of the three acres of landscape and sculpture was planned with every detail taken into consideration. The use of public space for a garden that features local and regional plants is a popular thing to do in the age where interest in sustainability has grown popular (as it should be). However, we can learn so much about our surroundings, the native area we inhabit and its history through thinking this way. Not to mention, that this is a step in a right direction for Saint Louis. The Citygarden, though packed at lunch hour as business executives, construction workers, and lawyers take a lunch break, serves as a place of relaxation, play, and hopefully inspiration.
What truly makes this sculpture garden enjoyable is the amount of time dedicated to the sustainable features (designed in collaboration with landscape architect Nelson Byrd Woltz) which aides in educating visitors of the beautiful natural elements of the Saint Louis Region. The sustainable features include: green roofs upon the architecture (which helps reduce the “ Urban Heat Island Effect”), rain gardens (six separate ones which covers more than 5,000 sq. ft and helps prevent erosion, water pollution, and flooding), and plants (mostly Missouri natives), which are designed to give a unique experience and a humbling one at that. There is care expressed clearly in the designed of this park. In an age where projects are built without consideration and skyscrapers have become the symbol of status, this is incredibly meaningful to see within an economic decline.
Combined with the plant life, there are also three water fountains in which two of the three (The floodplain Band and The River Terrace Band) are designed to be interactive cooling elements for the public. On any given day you can watch children run through The Floodplain band, which is a paved field of 102 vertical jets that project water up to ten feet in height.
The other fountain is the The Rivers Bluffs Band, which cascades from the café terrace to the floodplain band below as a waterfall constructed from native limestone. It represents the falls and the bluffs of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. This is all part of an attempt to present three bands that represent the natural history of Saint Louis and its surroundings, through representation of geographic features of the province.
Most of the sculptures themselves are not site specific and were not commissioned for the park with the exception of Big White Gloves, Big Four Wheels by Jim Dine and special casting of bronze by Marisol, which will arrive next year. The collection overall offers a view of modern and contemporary sculpture of European and American artists. None of the sculptures featured are incredibly loud. The intent for the park is to be enjoyed therefore the art is not overly challenging. There are no great demands put upon the viewer where the Serra’s Twain across the street offers a conceptual challenge.
The Gateway Foundation already owned two of the 24 sculptures and the rest were purchased for display. The gardens sports many famous and typical names that one would expect to find in a sculpture garden such as Jim Dine, Niki De Saint Phalle, George Rickey, Mark Di Survero, Tom Otterness, Tony Smith, and Benar Venet. Most of the work verges on the abstract (such as the Benar Venet’s 230.5 Degree Arc x 5 and Mark de Suvero’s Aseope’s Fables) or the metaphorical (such as Donald Baechler’s Scarecrow and Aristide Mailol’s La Rivere). A personal treat was Keith Haring’s Untitled (Ringed Finger), which is situated at the Southern River Terrace Band. It presents the energy of an abstracted body in motion. The simplicity of the piece, made from painted steel, is reminiscent of his work for children’s hospitals and came as a nice surprise and a beautiful welcoming gesture to the western edge of the park.
The cutting edge and contemporary “ works” that the park offers are two LED panels designed and programmed by Julian Opie (titled This is Kiera and Julian Walking and This is Bruce and Sarah Walking) which present the everyman and woman walking in a continuous animation and a 10-foot-long outdoor state of the art LED video wall. The video wall apparently will be utilized for baseball games, movies, commercial films, and art videos. The art videos will be chosen by a team of curators, one each from St. Louis' major museums: Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, and the St. Louis Art Museum.
The crowd favorite and one of the nice surprises was the polish artist Igor Mitoraj’s Eros Bendato (translated: Eros Bound). This is probably the most powerful and awe-inspiring pieces that the garden has to offer. Eros Bendato greets visitors on the southeastern edge of the park, and is meant to be the dismembered head of Eros, The Greek god of love and desire. Bandages wrapped around head bind Eros, suggesting that desires and ideas have been imprisoned. What is powerful is the fact that it presents the idea that civilization is being held together amongst the chaos. For this fact, Eros Bendato is possibly the most thought provoking piece in the entire garden.
The Citygarden is not ground breaking but a nice dose of art and nature in the middle of what use to be desolate urban jungle. It has become the intersection for play and relaxation during the workweek and for visitors to the city. It is no Millennium Park but its purpose should not be competition. It has brought beauty among the concrete and asphalt underneath the skyline of the arch and should become one of the Midwest’s many treasures, while blossoming into a “ civic jewel” for the city of St. Louis.
Review: Electromediascope at the Nelson Atkins Museum Of Art. Steina and Woody Vasulka's Participation
Review of Steina and Woody Vasulka’s Participation
Steina and Woody Vasulka are renowned artists that are credited alongside others with the development of what we now today deem new media art. The Vasulka’s founded The Kitchen as a media arts theater in New York and formed an arts collective to reside there in 1971. They have explored the territories of documentaries, modulation through analog and digital signal processing as well as computer programming.
They arrived from Prague in the 1960s to New York where they found themselves in the midst of an explosion of culture through the arts. Steina was previously studying classical violin and Woody was a student in the FAMU film academy. They soon, to their amazement at the exciting times they were living in, began to document using a portapak, the emerging underground theater and music scenes in New York City. The results were compiled into Participation an example and tour de force of this illegitimate culture riding the waves of free love, Pop art, feminist issues and the emergent homosexuality on display within New York and American culture at large.
Steina has stated that she learned the craft of the camera as a documentarian of the counterculture of New York also known as the “ sexual avant garde”. All the elements that make a great documentary are in Participation. The craft is very evident in particular by how we are as the audience led upon this tour de force through the use of the simple process of editing. Steina and Woody make good decisions for the most part particularly when it comes to managing time, inserting either potent clips of famous musicians (Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Don Cherry performing in Washington square are standouts) or underground homosexual theatre, where the sheer performance, the spectacle of these performances is enough to take your breath away. They splice this footage in contrast to some of the more illegitimate figures and actions within the underground culture such as burlesque dancers, drag queens, and some of the characters that hung around Andy Warhol’s Factory that add humor to the equation.
The highlight clearly was a piece that could stand out separately from the rest of the footage. It was Steina’s piece where she is lip-syncing to “ let it be” by the Beatles. What was so enthralling about this presentation and simple action has to do with the potency that still resonates with the lyrics “let it be” in relation to the time period that Stenia is lip syncing in. The 1960s and the early 70s was a time of change from the sexual revolution to the Student riots in 1968 that happened all around the world, and Stenia’s piece is a humorous and enticing video to watch. This video presents and sums up the excitement of that era.
The film closes with Don Cherry (who was an innovative Jazz trumpeter and was a pioneer in the Jazz/fusion movement) who seems to bring the film to a close with his performance in Washington Square. Once again, this is a clever editing choice on part of the Vasulkas who presents Don Cherry leaving Washington Square as spectators look upon alluding to the idea that the events, changes, etc. that transpired during the course of that era still live on and are responsible for some of the major developments that we have experienced presently especially through the arts and the world at large.
Participation acts as a sort of time capsule capturing the uniqueness of a certain region going through massive change. How does one react to change historically? Historically we have reacted by utilizing the art of expression. This is what this film presents: the democracy of expression in the United States during the late 1960s and 70s with all its audacity. Participation is an amazing journey with very few mediocre performances.
However, this film was not meant to be viewed within an institutional setting such as the Nelson-Atkins’ Auditorium. When displayed in the early 1970s, it was projected in gritty bars frequented by the people it was depicting. Perhaps by screening this film within an institutionalized setting the experience became a bit "formal" when it was meant to be experienced "informally"? I also can’t help but wonder if the curators have taken into consideration that perhaps the title alludes to something beyond just the artist’s own experience? The importance of being a part of something special is the knowledge that what is so special about it is the fact that you are sharing.How could this film be presented in a manner that promotes a reciprocal exchange that is felt. If anything could be founded within Participation is that those within the film had the driving force of passion for expression.
Most of my critique actually is with the institution itself which in many cases appears to be a very limited sphere. How could this film be displayed in a way that evokes the audience to become participants? How could we view this film in contrast to the era that we are participants within?
This brings us to the problem with many institutionalized programs, which lie in the lack of a critical dialogue as well as the lack of employing the use of experimental educational models. This could be useful especially if the work is a bit dated (which I don’t feel that Participation suffered from).