Monday, May 16, 2011

i will tell you if i'm dead

Today I'm sitting at home as the plumber and his crew destroy my house.

On Friday night, around 1:00 am, I heard a strange combination of sounds emanating from our basement. "Well, that can't possibly be the cats," I thought.

It wasn't. Instead, water was pouring out of our basement ceiling--onto, among other things, some of my old paintings which have been piled up down there for about three years now...basically, since I stopped painting.

After furiously poking a few holes in the ceiling to try to figure out where the heck the waterfall was coming from and putting large plastic storage bins under the holes, I closed the main water shutoff valve. The torrent eventually stopped.

We've spent the whole weekend without water, relying on the kindness of neighbors and finding creative ways to "flush" the toilets.

Today the plumber's crew arrived to cut a giant hole in our dining room wall...only it turned out that was the wrong wall. It was the living room that needed triage. After removing all of the wall-mounted electronics and moving the media cabinet, we discovered that, yes, the whole bottom of the wall was sodden and blistering.

So, now there's a giant dust cloud in our house, a floor-to-ceiling hole in our living room, and the sound of furious hacking and hammering in our basement.

One repercussion, aside from having spent the last two days feeling like we were camping in our own home, was that on Saturday, my art band with Kathryn Cornelius, formerly known as Beat Freaks, missed an opportunity to interview with artist Agnes Bolt for an upcoming residency in Philippa Hughes's condo--and to be present for a photo shoot, during which we hoped to unleash a new song that's presented in part via a powerpoint presentation.

(The band's current name is Business as Usual--hence the powerpoint obsession...but by the time of our next show it will likely be something else.)

Agnes, as you no doubt have read by now--see photos here; read Kriston's piece for the Washington Post here; read Arin Greenwood's piece for the WCP here; read Philippa's tumblr about the experience here--spent a week living in a giant transparent plastic bubble in the middle of Philippa's live/work space.

The experience was initially very stressful for both Philippa and Agnes. This became clear after I talked to both of them on Tuesday night: They were attempting to play with one another, test one another's boundaries, but it felt strained, anxious, genuinely contentious.

Philippa began the night ignoring Agnes and her habitat completely, and focusing on Victoria Gaitan's artist's talk. Many who were present (myself included) had no idea that the subject of the talk was Victoria's work, and assumed we were really there to hear about the bubble--so this led to a surreal disconnect.

Only at the end of the talk did Philippa really acknowledge the giant clear structure that was dominating her living room and making it impossible for people to get to most of the condo's space without passing behind the kitchen island and gingerly stepping over one of the blue retractable tunnels through which one enters Agnes's domain.

"Oh, have you met my houseguest?" she asked. "This is Agnes. She's staying with me for awhile."

Philippa then suddenly reversed course: She asked everyone present to pack into Agnes's structure, just to see how many people it could hold--and, again, to mess with the artist.

Agnes responded by turning on a fog machine, presumably to fumigate her structure. This set off the condo's smoke alarms. A look of panic flashed across Philippa's face as she tried to remember if this could result in the sprinkler system going off.

I've been fascinated by the project for a number of reasons. As someone whose work is at this point largely about open-ended collaboration with other art world-ers, in which I attempt to force uneasy alliances and get people to agree to things that aren't necessarily in their best interests, I am quick to reassure potential collaborators that I want them to feel empowered. At every step, they should be allowed to see how they will be represented, and have final say over the results of the collaboration in some fashion or other.

This is usually, in part, just a ruse: Once I have people on board, their participation becomes their de facto validation and endorsement of the project, regardless of what they really think of the results.

Agnes, by contrast, did not seem to make any effort to allay Philippa's fears. The rituals she put in place surrounding the residency--communicating via hand-written notes; demanding to be fed twice a day, kissed once a day; asserting that she could keep objects from Philippa's life that she could drag inside the habitat, and eventually present and sell them as part of the project--were all designed to make things more uncomfortable, not less.

At one point on Wednesday, after a lengthy back and forth via e-mail with Philippa in which we mused about Agnes's practice, motivations, and personality, I received an e-mail from Agnes herself--albeit from Philippa's account.

The artist had borrowed Philippa's laptop and was reading--and responding to--her e-mail. She'd just seen everything we'd written about her.

"Uh, Agnes?" I wrote. "Does Philippa know you're reading her e-mail?"

"She's been complaining that my presence has set her back in all the emails," she explained, "so I thought i'd help her out a bit."

I've had more than one conversation with local arts folks who regard the project suspiciously; one friend even dubbed it "MFA art"--suggesting, perhaps, that it is only of interest to those in academic circles...and in no way participates meaningfully with the market it critiques.

Agnes is an MFA student currently in Pittsburgh, she is not connected to or collected by Philippa, so there may be something to this. Further, Philippa, as an arts organizer and advocate, was actually very tolerant toward this intrusion into her personal space, much moreso than a ridiculously-wealthy-and-out-of-sight collector--who would be a more likely target for a critique of gallery culture--would be.

But the issues underlying the project are real, and not merely of interest within a grad program. Further, the references to relational aesthetics that have been used to frame the project are, I think, misleading.

Relational or dialogic art is often understood as opening a space for encounters with a directly engaged audience. Agnes's project as I see it was designed to stifle engagement, impose distance through oppressive-seeming rules regarding conduct. This to me makes the work look more like a sort of faux-modernist confrontation than a space for open exchanges.

The clear plastic structure looks like a modern, triumph-of-universal-technology imposition, one that doesn't take account of the local conditions in Philippa's condo. Its design is weirdly, laughably futuristic.

The leotard/uniform, the extreme limits on speech/communication, the rules generally: These are all about making experiences deliberately curtailed/contingent somehow, refusing to make things easy for the viewer/participant, and instead provoking confrontation, confusion, alienation. Again: Modern art. Think triumphant abstract paintings that resist interpretation; think forbidding angular architecture that is uncomfortable to live in and stubbornly apart from whatever setting it occupies.

I think Agnes would disagree with this evaluation to an extent--I know she believes that she was as exposed and uncertain in the transaction as Philippa was. Certainly she was dependent on Philippa and had placed herself in a vulnerable situation--asking for food and collaborative good will from a stranger.

Mostly, at this point, the project highlights a typical D.C. conundrum: It received a fair amount of media coverage--but nearly all of that coverage centered on the spectacle, and didn't really do much to help a general audience understand how the piece might or might not relate to the history of performance generally.

What's that? Oh, right: The title of this post is an acknowledgement that I haven't written anything here in awhile--no, I didn't die; thanks for asking--and is also a reference to a track from "Shut Up, Little Man," the early '90s cassette phenomenon that, improbably, is now a documentary film currently making the festival circuit.

At some point, when we were working for the campus humor mag at UVa, Mike Wartella and I had this tape memorized and would parrot the parts back to one another in the wee hours of the morning. Some things never change: I still pull plenty of all-nighters trying to finish things, and apparently people's appetites for hearing drunks yell at one another remain strong two decades or so later.

Anyway, as I said: Not dead. Just busy. There are lots of changes coming and new projects brewing. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Maura Judkis wrote a piece yesterday (Monday, May 16) over at TBD about Philippa, Agnes, and tensions over ownership within their project. Read here.


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