Saturday, May 10, 2014

Participatory or Interactive Art (Again)

     We've been talking about participatory art and I am wondering where to draw the line.
      Do you remember those scenes from "Alien" (directed by Ridley Scott,1979), in which the victims are rolled up in a gauzy substance and "cocooned"?
Yucky and worse, scary. 

      Well, now the antropofagia art of Lygia Clark (b. 1920 - 1988) a participatory genre, is now an exhibit entitled,  "The Abandonment of Art, 1948-1988" at MoMA, New York, May 2014 ( a covering article by Roberta Smith was published in the NY Times' Weekend Arts, May 16, 2014).

Below: thread-wrapped torso

Below: Deadly Cocoon from "Alien", 1979

       Clark co-founded the Neo-Concretist art movement. The Neo-Concretists believed that art ought to be subjective and organic.

       Throughout her career trajectory, Clark discovered ways for museum goers (who would later be referred to as "participants") to interact with her art works. She sought to redefine the relationship between art and society. Clark's works dealt with inner life and feelings.

Material Culture and the Methodology:
     I once was a curator on the staff of a prestigious outdoor history museum, what in Europe is called a folklife museum.  Its job is to document and record with care and in some fashion "present" and explain architectural forms (houses, sheds, barns), artifacts, and life skills and patterns of belief (parenting and politics, weaving and cooking, religion and the means of production). In short, the material culture of a time period, in a specific location.

     The better museums draw from all sources including archeology, ethnology,  folklore, art and,of course, history, both oral and recorded.

     The "interpretation" of scholarly research in this field, in the US or in any capitalist nation, is inevitably tugged by 2 opposite and often opposing ideals: education (clarifying and challenging ideals and misconceptions, or entertainment (profit, amusing the public with Disneylandish, expected stereotypes and only a thin layer of information.

    In the former case, we ask visitors to attempt to mimic the language of the costumed interpreters, to answer questions such as "When do young girls begin to work in a kitchen with grownups?  What in our own lives is this like?" Or, "How do we, today, accomplish this task (healing, education, facing death, social unity, cooking, mending a roof, traveling from X to Y, voting in a national election). What are your tolerances in this issue?

     This is what makes museum interpretation a metaphor. It is the equivalent of taking part intellectually or artistically. And the "interpretive staff," a well-trained and knowledgeable crew, draw them into the history museum's time-specific life.

    Elsewhere I  have written a longer, more concise commentary, in which one line stands out as both useful and memorable: "Interpretation is essentially a metaphoric activity.  Metaphor, in brief, implies a new evocation of meaning" (Folklife and Museums: Selected Readings, eds Hall and Seamann, AASLH, 1987).

    Under such interpretation quilting groups met, not to machine-sew store-bought, polyester materials but to make random, home-spun "wadding, piecing and hand-sewn cloth strips into warm winter bed covers. Moreover, there is another dimension to this activity - a performance of food preparation, as women usually brought to share their very best traditional covered dish lunch. The quilters' conversations around the quilting frame were more oral history of the community than gossip. Young boys, now grown men, can still recall listening while sitting under the  frame, and absorbing the names and places while munching on tidbits.  They tell us that such conversations were their first taste of local history.

     However, even the best museums sometimes cave-in for popular and profitable issues: for example, Christmas in real time Indiana, 1836, was a quiet,low-key day of religious reflection and hardly noted, but the public likes English festivities, a candle-lit, Dickinsonian feast with the later adopted German Tannenbaum. Admittedly, the Christmas tree was known in Vienna and by the royalty in Denmarkin 1840, and the tradition of bringing indoors a natural green goes back to pre-Christian people.  It appeared in Canada in 1871 and in Godey's Lady's Book by 1860.

Viggo Johansen (b. Copenhagen,1851-1935), Glade Jul (Christmas Party), 1891


      And although harvest festivals of thanksgiving have been ongoing here since the 17th century, the official Thanksgiving holiday was formally established only in 1864 by President Lincoln. But such wayward museum activities are often more than balanced by the public reading of the Declaration of Independence, as was the documented tradition in Indiana towns, circa 1836.  Patriotism was very public. Hurrah for Jackson and Van Buren!

    And so I read with great interest in the New York Times, on Saturday May 10, 2014, wherein Randy Kennedy wrote a piece about the opening of A Hotel with Spirit from 1971, that is an installation of yet another former "pseudo-hotel' ("Al's Grand Hotel", a public establishment established by ) on Freize on Randall's Island   Kennedy was invited to spend a night, to experience the artist's moment or hours, and see as much as he could take away with him.  It reminds me of Christopher's Reeves' character in the film, "Somewhere in Time" (1980) or Woody Alan's "Midnight in Paris" or, best of all, Jack Finney's novel,Time and Again (1970)

Time and Again.jpg

Let's read an excerpt of what the reporter said in his own words:

The Strangeness of After-Hours at the Frieze Art Fair

    In 1971, Allen Ruppersberg, who'd been running a cafĂ© with friends, decided to trick out a house on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles as a gathering place for artists. That version of Al's Grand Hotel existed for six weeks, and — not unlike the restaurant Food, which existed around the same time in prelapsarian Soho, started by Gordon Matta-Clark and his pals, and was reproduced at Frieze last year — it took on a mythic afterlife, as time went on and the Los Angeles Conceptualists who gathered there (along with people like Dennis Hopper, who supported them) got written into art history. And so something that originally was a bit casual and happenstance became invested with mystery and significance and DIYism, qualities that Frieze, this lavishly produced pop-up, wouldn’t mind getting a hit of. (Back then, my room was $30 a night; today it was to be $350.)

Vulture-by carl swanson-May 12, 2014
Inside Al's Grand Hotel, at the Frieze Art Fair.

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