Augmented Realities: Performance In Real Life
Ft. Zach Kleyn, Marcel Maus Hermeneutical Think Tank, Frau Fiber, Jennifer Moon, Jin Seok Choi
March 1-28, 2019
Curators Hannah Kim Varamini & Christina Valentine in conversation with brd
BRD: Christina, you had been telling me that you had been developing this show beforehand. Could you walk me through the process of how you originally conceived of the show? Hannah, how did you come to be involved and decide to stage it here with Love’s Remedies?
CV: I’ve been thinking about performance for quite a while, especially the way that the concept and the word has been co-opted. In his divorce papers, the guy from InfoWars said he was a performance artist; and the way that he uses the term almost covers what he does on his news network as fiction. It creates a justification to say “Oh, that’s ok. You’re not a risk.” Similarly, like what happened with J.T. Leroy, the author that everybody thought was real, and then it turned out that she was a fictional character. If someone said, “I thought it was a real person and you lied to me”, then there was some sort of a condition of “this was real, and now it’s fake.” Then someone said, “Oh, that’s just art,” and then it was O.K.
I thought this was really interesting; the way the concept of art and performance art in particular, today, is like a catch-all to absolve you of doing something that actually could have impact. I thought that was really different from performance art from the sixties and seventies when, because of the political climate, people were trying to do things that were considered art but that also encroached onto real conditions.
I was also looking at artists who seemed to be making efforts at doing something that would engage the public in a way that would somehow implicate them or make them have a real outcome.
Zach was one of the first ones. He went to CalArts, and the whole time he was there, he told a lot of people that he had a twin brother. In his final MFA show, he did this piece where he and his twin were supposedly looking at family footage, talking about their memories together. He then reveals that he doesn’t have a twin. It was like a J.T. Leroy situation where people were upset. He constantly maintains a space where it’s never determined.
York Chang, an artist who is not in this show but who I’d like to include in the future, is someone who also creates ambiguity and complexity. Even in 2007, he was doing things that were implicating false narratives in the ar world. He told me this anecdote. He went to the Library of Congress to see the archives of Artforum; he slipped in an article of himself into one of the magazines so that he could officially say he was in Artforum. He had other works like this. He created a whole magazine dealing with performance art, but it was dated from the seventies. It was a creation of a whole story of a performance art group in Laguna Beach at that time. It’s a false narrative; at the same time, the way we think about our culture right now, false narratives tend to have a sense of reality. A lot of these works are playing with that, and I thought that was really fascinating.
HKV: One of the interests I’ve been thinking about is the difference between metaphor, which is symbolic alignment of disparate elements, to metonymy, which of course was highly influenced by working with Charles Gaines at CalArts. Metonymy can be symbolic but it has some ties to a real relationship between representation and its abstraction.
Christina was talking to me about this premise and for me, it tied into this discourse around the boundaries between art and life. That’s something that I’m personally interested in: when does performance become more than just a symbolic act but precipitates actual consequences in our everyday living? I’m interested in everyday materiality, and the potential for everyday materialities to be seen differently.
Christina and I worked together to streamline and focus the framework of the show. We realigned and molded it together with additional research and connections Christina had made as she was formulating the show on her own. I said, “We have this gallery space that’s empty right now, and we don’t have anyone scheduled for March - it’s a short time frame, but let’s just approach this as an experiment.” We started this dialogue in early January, actually. Christina had already reached out to a few of the artists to confirm their participation months ago, and we invited the others and it came together.
BRD: You are talking about this idea of ethics and trust, or maybe violation of expected boundaries. A lot of the work in the show has to do with family relationships. I thought that was a really interesting touchpoint of where these artists chose to work with the idea of where there is performative fluidity. Can you talk about this idea of the family structure being used to explore that? In some ways, it feels like a safer or more established parameter in which to approach the edge of what’s permissible, as opposed to, say, exclusively in the public sphere, where there are repercussions on a grander scale.
CV: It’s really funny; I didn’t see this connection until I saw all the works in there. There are three works that are dealing with family. The Jennifer Moon piece is almost coincidental because we also wanted this other series of works that was during her time in incarceration, but we couldn’t get them. Her piece really encapsulates family dynamics in the sense that her whole family meets in virtual space as avatars, and that falsity allows them to be more transparent to each other. Sometimes it’s through the device that is seemingly fictional that real communication could happen. In that sense, there were overlaps conceptually with pieces like Brent’s, which is the complete construction of a false institution. He’s always doing this weird doublespeak that’s like an institutional voice, but by undermining it, he’s actually critiquing the whole thing. Through the falsehood, truths come out - and Jennifer was doing similar things.
Maybe in some ways, family spaces are the spaces that we’re most not ourselves. We are and we aren’t. All the family members know that you’re not being truthful in some way, but we allow it in order to survive with each other.
BRD: I make work about my relationship with my sister. She is not that much younger than me and she has physical and cognitive disabilities. The type of relationship I have with her is constantly modulated based on ideas of past self and present self. She has an idea of who I am or what my boundaries are. I was that person in the past, but I’m not that person now. But I often perform that personhood with her, sincerely. There’s a way that the type of relationship I have with her arrests the distinction that you often end up making as you turn into yourself as an adult, making those breaks from your family. It’s an interesting parallel where you mention this idea of performativity within the family structure in order to sustain certain roles within the relationships.
HKV: All of these artists are dealing with structures of identity. The family is where Christina was saying it is this structure that can be imposed on someone and often is a very ambivalent space where people don’t feel like their full selves. Like you were saying, seeing yourself as a child or growing up with external expectations can prevent certain ideas of what an identity can be. A lot of the artists are also grappling with revisiting that, or using performance to create alternative ways of interacting with problematic impositions of identity.
BRD: These artists are directly interacting with family members so that this boundary between real life and the art space is collapsed because theys are specifically engaging in the art act, as opposed to not knowing about it or being told after the fact. Do you know the circumstances of the ethics involved?
CV: For both of them, their family members knew. The title of the piece that Zach’s in is called The Chase. He has Chase 1 and Chase 2. He’s planning on doing this until the end of his life. His dad is agreeing to do this until he dies. So it’s a collaboration with his dad. Jennifer, too - they knew that they were going to be doing this together in this space and that she was going to document it. They are all aware of it; nobody was fooled. Jin’s piece, however - his dad is not privy to it at all. I don’t even think his dad will ever see this. In many ways it’s not even about his dad, but he uses his dad as a foil to actually do a critique on culture and identity. There, he’s using his dad as a prop device.
HKV: It is a little ambiguous, because he does address his father directly in the video. And he says, “I’m going to translate/subtitle this so that you understand what is going on.” But you don’t know if he’s actually going to do that, or not. There is a possibility of interaction, but it’s ambiguous.
BRD: Brent’s work and Frau Fiber, both through their interaction with the gallery space, invite the participant to examine their own assumptions about certain relationships that they have with those institutions. Relating that back to how you were originally conceiving of this idea of performativity, do you consider that the primary space of interrogation? Or through the act of curating in this particular space and its constraints, these other components about performative identity seem to dominate the space a bit more?
CV: All the artists overlapped with how they negotiate identity. Jennifer’s is a private or intimate identity, but then Frau Fiber and Brent - their work is about public identity. Brent actually does go to academic conferences. He’s going to do his lecture performance toward the end of the run of our show. At conferences, he does not get listed as a performance art event; he gets listed as a lecturer or presenter. It’s only in the midst of him doing this piece - it looks like a presentation and the more he speaks, the more obfuscatory it feels, and it starts to break down. People are note-taking and suddenly go, “What did I just write?”, and then they look up and the thing starts to break down. Some people are laughing and other people are absolutely confused. And other people are still taking notes, as if there’s information. I love that he can do this. It undermines and makes us question the veracity of the system that we all work in, either in academia or the arts.
BRD: Have you talked to him about that process of interacting with the organizing conference and getting their permission?
CV: They didn’t know. He proposes these things as real lectures. But I did ask him about it. I saw him do it once at a conference. Some people are completely fooled, and other people are in on the joke, so who’s the person that’s actually experiencing the art? Is it the person who is “in on the joke” going, “Oh, I know what this is. I understand this performance.” Are they the art appreciator audience? Does the person that doesn’t know that it’s performance become part of the piece? I was asking him these questions. He is indeterminate at this time. It was fascinating, because it shows how art in general, people looking and experiencing, is never a clear direct line. Every person who looks at a painting, even, comes away with a different experience. He gets to the heart of the structure in which we do the experiencing, and I thought that was really good.
Is there an ethical question? Possibly. I do wonder, over time, if this piece will be viable. The more people start to know about it, then everybody will eventually become, “Oh, I know what this is,” right? When Igor Stravinsky does his The Rite of Spring the first time, he causes mass chaos because people couldn’t understand what it was. Two years later, everybody’s sitting there very calmly experiencing the music, going, “I know what this is.” These moments of rupture could only happen momentarily.
BRD: It has to do with this idea of consequence that you were talking about. If that performativity becomes too clear, then the consequence of enacting a change or shift in perception becomes much more fraught or subtle. It’s much more contingent - it’s a reminder that that happens not just at a performative level, but in other types of works that we assume are more static and don’t have that capability to enact those behavioral changes on us. The crux of it is that the more we become aware that that’s happening to us, the less of an effect it has.
CV: It slides back into the word Art in the commodified sense. Frau Fiber and Brent, in many ways, are trying to break through the culture and language of commodification that we are so entrenched in, but it can only happen in these moments of confusion. Then it gets reabsorbed right back into the system.
HKV: The thing that’s interesting about Frau Fiber is that there are so many more projects than Tailor Made, which is part of the exhibition. There’s a movement that she’s trying to build. She has this project called The Sewing Rebellion, which teaches people how to sew and hosts workshops and classes for free. Her whole thing is a movement against fast fashion and the commodification that leads to inequalities like low wages for labor. I find her very interesting because she’s doing these workshops in non-art spaces, where there’s not this expectation of Frau Fiber as performer, which risks disengaging her project from its political critique. She’s most interested in actually creating change and equipping people to actually make choices that are conscious when it comes to how they purchase their garments.
BRD: That comes back to that awareness that there’s this limited room where those actions can cause you to change your perception. Or that the potential is greater the more it slides into the “real” space.
CV: Maybe that’s what the problem of the art space has become. I’m reminded of when Roger Fry writes his criticism about art and how we have this disinterested gaze, and that we ought to have a disinterested gaze. If you think about that idea, it gets traced back to this concept of connoisseurship, and that we should be able to look at art devoid of politics. Which is completely false. We still do that and yet we claim that we don’t. Work like Frau Fiber’s problematizes that idea and that’s why I really wanted her in the art space, because in the midst of having a transactional exchange - the people giving her mending and then her taking money - on the one hand, it can be read as performance, but there’s real cash being exchanged, and it blurs the boundary of that. There is real labor that’s happening; it stays completely ambiguous because some people see it as performance and they kind of detach from the commentary she’s making. One woman said, “I was really rooting for getting Vietnam’s prices!”, and suddenly she realized, “Oh, I was rooting for these low wages.” It catches you. I really love that. Sometimes, still, the art space can be incredibly activating. It can be incredibly impactful. As we become more and more commodified, it becomes fetishised and dislocated from actual things. I see that as a problem. Banksy’s piece at the auction was a really good example of that. On the one hand, you could say he was trying to create a critique of the object and commodified culture. At the same time, it sold for more. In the post-capitalist system, you can’t even have a moment where it could stay as a critique. The critique itself becomes the commodified act. How do you make work that’s going to have any kind of impact in this way if this is how it is? These artists that we’re looking at are making an impact.
BRD: Let me ask you about this idea of impact regarding people that were coming through the gallery on Friday and Saturday. What were their interactions like with the artists that were present doing these performative acts? Was it like being caught in the act? Both of the artists were really playful, so I am curious to hear how that invitation allowed for people to respond.
HKV: With Frau’s pop-up shop, because the person who gives the clothes has to spin the wheel, it implicates every single person who gives her mending. It brings our own complicity to our consciousness. I had several conversations with people who said the same thing: “I was really hoping that I would get Cambodia, which is 45 cents an hour! I was really hoping I wouldn’t get France, which is $11 an hour.” There are different opinions as to what could cause this kind of reaction. Whether we are so engrossed in the capitalist system that we’ve been socialized to want low costs or if it’s just human nature to want to save money and have more money for yourself. The people that I talked to did have similar reactions, feeling this tension within themselves because their action determined what the wage would be.
For the hotline, which I called, the interaction was ambiguous.
BRD: Did you ask the questions that were available or did you make your own questions?
HKV: I asked one of the last ones. I thought that I would have more time to inject my own questions but it was a very professionalized answer.
CV: This was the first time Brent did the hotline. It was like a dry run. There were some technical difficulties; he started to realize that the way he was doing the answering might have to shift, so it was a lot of working through.
People would go into his informational space and be really overwhelmed by it. Being inundated with information, they would quickly get out. But that’s exactly how it is with art institutions. We are like that. I want to talk to him about it more. How do you keep a person in a space like that and help them go through a slow-paced gaze in order to see the breakdown of communication and become conscious of it as an act?
HKV: Brent also had takeaways, which is different. He had a bunch of informational takeaways and then these other objects.
CV: Sea Monkeys, Firecrackers supposedly made out of peacock poop...
HKV: That is one way people might experience or re-experience it on a different time scale. I noticed a lot of people were taking stuff.
CV: Oh! That’s good!
BRD: In both projects there’s this idea of engaging you with psychological seduction that marketers often utilize in order to close a sale or get people to stay thinking about a brand. Whether that’s a takeaway or audience participation, that keeps them thinking long after the fact about the thing that they’re engaging with. I can imagine taking things away is really enticing. It’s enticing that he has these things that are so idiosyncratic too, that makes someone say, “It’s not just a piece of paper.” You start to be able to possess part of the art experience through having these unique objects. In fact, in his piece, he had those laptops up, too. I’m assuming you can access the websites now. There’s so much information there as well; and this allows someone to go back and look him up again and re-engage with that material in their own private space.
In the case of Frau’s performance, I did participate. What I was happy about was just that I had something available, that I could participate. There was also something about the way that she structured interaction that felt really welcoming. I know that there can be hesitation a lot of times with people engaging and letting themselves feel vulnerable and not knowing what the outcome is going to be in an art space. You have this suspicion that you are going to be duped, or something is going to happen so that there is a change. I’m always thinking, “Do I want that to happen in a public space or not?” That invitation allowed me to feel like I could engage.
I didn’t call the hotline. He had a helper that was showing the process and encouraging people to call. Even then, I said, “I’ll think about it.” That was high stakes, somehow. That there wasn’t a face-to-face interaction that I could know what the response was going to be. That’s a roundabout way of saying that there’s this fine line in between audience engagement for altruistic purposes and for these capitalistic ends, and I love that both artists straddle this line willingly.
CV: I’m very interested by that too.
HKV: It’s interesting to think about the difference in their strategies, too, because Frau’s is sort of a game. You spin the wheel, you know? With Brent, there are a lot more layers of looking and you don’t really know what this whole thing’s about. Frau is very transparent.
It’s also interesting that you brought up the marketing because the MMHTT is intentionally utilizing these tactics. It is not transparent at all what the project is, which is maybe part of the critique. It’s much more layered and harder to decipher.
CV: It’s the sheer inundation of what looks like information that leads to the awareness of how inauthentic and artificial it is. You have to experience waves and waves of Marcel Maus. The intention is to overwhelm you. You leave or you become overwhelmed and it becomes funny. When people think it’s funny is actually when they’re getting the piece. They go, “Oh, it’s funny, because real institutions suck, and they do stuff like this all the time. They do, through their corporate speak, confuse me.” He’s doing it purposely and knowingly, and that’s what makes it like, “Oh, I’m on the inside of the joke. Now I understand the critique that starts to occur.”