Unreal Nature

April 18, 2012

Haptic Experience

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:09 am

…  the “ghostly images and distant sounds” of Happenings — things heard but not seen; activities viewed out of the corner of an eye or through plastic sheeting; events experienced in brief, photographic flashes; sections that one viewer might experience but that another would learn about only by comparing notes later — these can all be understood as insider experiences of the secondhand, outsider view.

This is from Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s by Carrie Lambert-Beatty (2008):

… [Rainer] feared that publishing the texts that performers spoke or read aloud in her pieces alongside descriptions of the choreography might distort the record: “Being so much more synonymous with the format of a book than the physical elements of the work, these texts are more true to the spirit of their original presentation than anything else in the book and, consequently, more lively.” Implicit in her musing over sources in general, and in this caveat in particular, is a recognition that the dead traces of live performance are supplemental in Jacques Derrida’s sense of the term — not only adding to, but changing and partially replacing their vanished referents. Rainer knew this effect well from her immersion during the late 1950s and early 1960s in the traces of dance history; she spent long hours during this early phase of her career poring over dance books and photographs in libraries and shops. Later, as she herself prepared a retrospective book, she registered the danger that the traces of her art, so amenable to reproduction, dissemination, and ex post facto interpretation, could become her performances as we know them, signs replacing what they signified.

And so, of course, they have. Traces are all we have to understand performance of the 1960s: the tattered programs we find in archives, the flat photographs languishing in books and files, the fragmentary descriptions in critics’ accounts, or the equally worn, altered, and patchy memories of witnesses and participants. The subject of the present book, then, can really only be Rainer’s 1960 performance as we now have it, her art as a matter of traces. My gamble, however, is that this slip of representation into the place of performance is not external and incidentally to live art, but central to its workings — at least in the 1960s.

… How was the audience addressed in live art of the first half of the 1960s? For the present-day investigation, a starting point for this inquiry can be found packed away in the carefully labeled and bar-coded box 51 of the Carolee Schneemann archive in the Getty Research Institute, among a series of items sent to Schneemann during the 1960s and 1970s. There is a gallery of announcement in the form of a small, inflated plastic bag, there is a book whose leaves are made of lead, and there is the object I went to the archive to experience, one day in 2005. Fluxus artist Ay-O’s Finger Box: a nearly cubic paper-covered cardboard box, about three and a half inches square, its top punctured by a small round hole accompanied by one of those pointing-hand icons, so dear to Fluxus design, and three words: “put finger in”. In the cool silence of the Special Collections Reading Room I followed the direction.

No one seemed to notice my slightly guilty grin as I probed the cube’s soft innards. The Japanese artist Ay-O, then based in New York, filled boxes with various tactile treats during the 1960s — water, feathers, steel wool, Vaseline, confetti. The Getty’s online catalog had disclosed in advance that this one contained foam rubber. Yet I was still taken aback by the experience set up for me some forty years earlier, for instead of the slab I had expected to encounter, my finger found bumps and folds of foam, curls and crevices to explore. It was at once sexy, clinical, and silly to wiggle around in this space — distinctly bodylike, yet obviously artificial; a funny space I could not see but now intimately know.

In this way, the box had me put my finger on what Hannah Higgins has called, appropriately enough, “the point of Fluxus“: it provided an instance of haptic experience and embodied knowing specifically opposed to the relation between the subject and its object in conventional Western epistemologies, where disembodied vision is the means of knowledge, critical distance the model.

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… Consider the tension in the way Norwegian critic Per Hovdenakk … recently celebrated the event-score form: “The real Fluxus event can be performed anywhere, at any time, by anybody, alone or with other people. When you do it, you share an experience with friends you have never met, or may never see, but you know that they are there and that you have a part in something important.”

Any such event might be as radically embodied as Finger Box. Yet just as radical as Hovdenakk’s description, is the way such an experience is dispersed. Published in 1990, just prior to the flowering of the Internet, Hovdenakk’s model of Fluxus collectivity seems to prefigure the disembodied, multitemporal model of community we now associate with the World Wide Web. But of course communications technologies had been inculcating such models since the invention of the telegraph and telephone, while mass media, especially broadcasting, had made the experience of what is temporally or spatially distant a dominant feature of twentieth-century life, a condition given its shorthand by Marshall McLuhan’s term “global village.” As an organization that was both international and collaborative, Fluxus perhaps inevitably made a theme of complex variations on the here-and-now meeting the there-and-then. Consider how the Danish Fluxus artist Eric Anderson imagined both dispersal and deferral in his event-score Opera Instruction of 1961: “December 11, 1963: Sit down from 7 PM to 8:03 PM (Danish Time) and think about the people all over the world who may be performing this.”

… In Happenings, [Sontag] reported, audiences were sprinkled with water, threatened with torches, crowded uncomfortably, deafened by drums. Such treatment, which for Sontag provided “the dramatic spine of the Happening,” amounted to an almost hyperbolic insistence on the aesthetic of involvement that has been crucial to most accounts of this art, then and now. Trying to capture the spirit of the events in Art News in 1961, inventor of the term “Happening” and preeminent theorist of the genre Allan Kaprow both provided a litany of images that will recall the insistence on the nonvisual in Fluxus — amplified breathing sounds, spinach-throwing, smells of lemon juice, noxious fumes — and summarized the way Happenings stressed and revise the idea of spectatorship itself: “you come in as a spectator, and maybe discover that you’re caught in it after all … “

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… The emphasis within these works on that which was perceived, but just barely — the performance within them of the peripheral and conjectured — echoes a critical problem that faced the makers of these events. Arising just at the moment that Beat and other underground cultures were reaching the attention of novelty-seeking mainstream press, the Happenings received an unprecedented degree of publicity. By the mid 1960s, the term “Happening” became a buzzword applied to everything from lipstick commercials to PTA meetings to the Vietnam War. All this attention led Kaprow to worry about the effect of a new notoriety on the art form and on participating artists. Through such publicity, the Happenings were widely experienced secondhand, despite the makers’ evident aspiration to primary experience and involved spectatorship. “Although widespread opinion has been expressed about these events, usually by those who have never seen them,” Kaprow worte early on, “they are actually little known beyond a small group of interested persons.” And this in turn suggests that the “ghostly images and distant sounds” of Happenings — things heard but not seen; activities viewed out of the corner of an eye or through plastic sheeting; events experienced in brief, photographic flashes; sections that one viewer might experience but that another would learn about only by comparing notes later — these can all be understood as insider experiences of the secondhand, outsider view. It is as if the makers could not help but work into the events themselves the structure of the Happenings’ publicity problem — which is to say, the very conditions for making live art in a media culture.

My previous post from Lambert-Beatty’s book is here.



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