Note: In recent years performative art practices have spread through the field of exhibiting. The lecture by Ekaterina Degot focused on case studies of exhibitions that are mainly derived from her curatorial practice. She posed a question of the impact of such time interactions on our idea of → the contemporary, the production of images and the art economy. The following text is a transcription from her keynote lecture at The Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana in December 2014, which was part of a two-day seminar on Subjectivisation.
The Rise of Lecture Performances, Precarious Text, Concert Economy, and Other News from the World of Art
I will talk about the notion of “time-specific display”, which is obviously a take on “site-specific display”. I would like to start with showing an image by the conceptual artist Yuri Albert, who belonged to (probably) the last conceptual art generation in Moscow, and who is still active in Moscow and Cologne. In connection with his work I will address his solo exhibition What Did The Artist Mean By That?, which we made in → collaboration and which took place at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) in late 2013. The image is an appropriation of a Soviet cartoon with two characters that also appear in other cartoons appropriated by Albert. The ape represents a modernist artist and the other character represents “a good traditional artist”. The ape is very happy because of the object it sees, while the traditional artist is unhappy. To me, this image represents the main modernist critical narrative in art, which is about the reification of the object, or if we speak using more art-historian language, the isolation of an object in space. This isolation is a take on the status of a commodity. In this case it is actually not just a commodity but rather a dollar sign; money rather than a commodity, since a Soviet artist did not really see any difference between the two. I would like to underline that this is an appropriation of a Soviet cartoon.
Isolated reified objects are represented in a → white space, in a white cube, which is still the case for many gallery exhibitions, art fairs, and museums, but this is not how modern art actually started. In comparison, the Annual Paris Salon of 18th and 19th centuries portrayed a very different, very dense exhibition space, which may be seen in an 1825 painting by François-Joseph Heim Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon of 1824 at the Louvre. In contrast, in classic modernist images we are contemplating an object that is completely isolated; we are not distracted by anything else when looking at them; they are shown completely out of context.
The caricatures by the 19th century French printmaker, social critic, painter and sculptor Honoré Daumier might resemble “contemporary research installations” in a surprising manner. At the time, the paintings were shown next to each other and the museum/salon visitors held books and read texts, similar to what is very typical for a contemporary exhibition visitor, especially the professional one who tries to compare what they read to what they see. The white cube is thus a comment about the idea of commodity, that was acquired by the contemporary art world with the rise of the private market.
The next example is a research installation by the art duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme working in the field of sound art, who have just shown their work in Cologne. Their work is one of the examples of the type of display inspired by the Belgian poet, filmmaker and artist Marcel Broodthaers. This applies another narrative, which we see throughout the 20th century.
The first one, which I mentioned above, was the isolation of the object in space, and the avant-garde potential of such display is already fading. We know it rather from the context of very quiet museums or even art fair exhibitions. Another narrative, which is still very active today and even growing, is the identification of art not with an isolated object, but with a complex display making use of various principles, and the display of different texts, images, and objects. Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the border between curatorial exhibition and artistic installation, research installation or documentation installation, and so on. And if we remember the predominant model of curating of the 1990s, in which the role of the professional independent curator actually became more prominent (as seen with people like Nicolas Bourriaud, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Viktor Misiano), such individuals were talking about working in a creative process together with an artist. This process of working together with an artist became an important part of the curatorial task, and this was something new, that was not yet shaped.
In the last few years we see a different model of curating, which I also belong to, where curators work with objects or projects which already exist, although they might arrange them in different → constellations or combinations, giving them new meanings, using them in a way as readymades, using historical and non-art materials. And in so doing they are very close to what artists are doing.
This complex way of displaying is, I would say, the most typical form of contemporary art. In the first place, contemporary art institutions can be defined as institutions of display, even if they have educational and other tasks. Still the ultimate question is what they are showing. They can of course show very different things, it doesn’t even have to be an exhibition but something different like a performance, and nevertheless they still have to show something. They become institutions of display.
Another very typical question that professionals in the art world are asking each other is the question of time. The showing of installations actually requires a lot of time. For instance, a person who has not yet seen a biennial asks someone who has already seen it: “OK, how much time will it take?” This is a very common question, or restated in another form: “Are there many installations?” Then one could answer: “No, no there are just visuals and the rest are sculptures, you can see it very quickly.” Or in contrast: “No, you have to spend the whole day, you’ll be there for a long time.” This information is not available anywhere else, only shared between us. In other cases, when you are going to a theatrical performance or to a cinema or concert, or if you buy a vinyl record, it is the convention to have some information about how long the work will take to consume. You for example know that it will take two and a half hours with a break, or just two and a half minutes, and then you can make a plan. For example, I feel very frustrated when my students start showing a video without telling me how long it will be. One doesn’t really know. Should one be prepared for two minutes or for 45? I would prefer to know in advance.
In seeing an exhibition this time dimension is somehow hidden. And it is never expressed directly and openly that contemporary art also requires time. There is still a strong notion of the model of contemplating art. Let us imagine a person who is walking around the Louvre, let us imagine that there are no tourists, the person is there alone and is contemplating La Gioconda or something else for however long, however long La Gioconda will take him or her. We still think about contemplation of art as some sort of free creative process, but of course this is not the case. If you wish to see something, you always have to choose. Will you watch the whole video or just two minutes? So → temporality is very much present in contemporary art, but not really addressed.
Now, I will take one step back, and say that we are already thinking of an artwork in a temporal way with a well-known notion of “time-based art”. This term was invented in the context of museums, if I am not mistaken, because museum workers had to create categories for the works such as videotapes (documentation of performances, videos, films) to be kept in storage. Besides having a temporal dimension, many of these works started to question the dimension of temporality in general. For instance, we all know that the most typical form of video now is a loop, and there are many things written on the subject. This simply started as a useful technological solution for showing videos, but artists started to think about it in a more complex way.
I can refer here to two well-known works. The film by Clemens von Wedemeyer Otjesd (Leaving) was shot with a moving camera, and he created a loop in which you almost do not see the cut, and the film thus creates a surrealistic situation with a woman not being able to neither enter the Embassy territory nor leave it. So this is a staged surrealistic situation, which is a take on the notion of the loop. Another example by the same artist is one of his latest films, Against Death, in which this loop represents the situation of immortality.
The theme of a loop is also addressed by David Claerbout in his work Bordeaux. This is not really a loop in repetition. We assume at first that it is the same film, but in fact it is not. The film was shot 24 times, and the same scene with the same actors, totally identical, was shot 24 times at every hour of the day. The light situation changes a little between two shots. One doesn’t really see any difference at first glance, but if one happens to watch all the 24 hours or if one goes away and is back at the exhibition the next day, one might be surprised to see the same scene set in the evening rather than the morning.
Time-based art is already very well known. We are writing about it, we are thinking about it. But a question remains, how to show the time that the making of the work took. In another work, Letters to Émile Bernard, Yuri Albert rewrote Van Gogh’s handwriting. He also copied Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, and other texts important to him. By doing this Albert slows down the process of reproduction, revealing how long it really took to create these works. Another artist who has done projects that deal with time is Josef Dabernig, who was also mostly working with the notion of writing. With an artwork we cannot really be sure how long it took to be made. Even when it looks like a traditional painting, it might have been done very quickly. A sculpture may have been 3D printed; the making of a painting may have been outsourced. Writing, however, is still difficult to outsource, especially handwriting. In writing and handwriting a temporal dimension is still somehow present.
In these cases, we are speaking about art in real-time. Not in some imaginary time, as in a video-loop, which is a symbol of time, a represented time, surrealist time. It is instead real-time, making visible that time in which the artwork was made and is presented. If you start to read all the texts it will take you a lot of time, and in handwriting one becomes aware of that. It is exactly the same as it is with art in a site-specific situation, where the white cube was suddenly dropped and an artwork was presented in some real situation, in a real space. In the same way, we are becoming aware of the time in which the work was made.
Because time is abstracted we never think about calling it “white time”, as we do with → white space. A white space is an abstracted space, and every curator knows that every white space is not as white as it might seem in the sense of being totally abstract. Anatoly Osmolovsky once made an artwork, which I like very much. It was called The Critique of the State of the World, and shown in the Central House of Artists in Moscow, which was supposed to be a white space gallery. He placed some really white and really flat surfaces on the walls of the gallery, so it became clear that they were not actually white.
This means that it is only our abstracted thinking which makes us think that this is a white space. Every white space, as every curator knows, has some fire extinguishers, exit signs, and other stuff that is not completely abstract. We just make ourselves and our visitors forget about this. Every space can be seen as a site-specific one, and especially those post-industrial spaces which most of art projects are using now. The bottom line here is that in much the same way we are not really reflecting on the fact that artworks also take time to be produced, and especially that they also take time to look at them. So this is the core of the abstract notion of “white time”. The concept of time-specific display is making us aware of the time of a display, in the same way as site-specific display makes us aware of the space.
I will present two forms of time-specific display. One is a lecture performance, which is a very typical genre today, and the other is an exhibition, which is working with → temporality.
With the lecture performance, I would refer to a performative symposium Reports to an Academy. A Non-academic Symposium, Performative or Otherwise, which we just did with David Riff in Cologne, in Akademie der Künste der Welt, this strange institution where I work. The symposium was organised in Kunstverein on the topic of Ein Bericht für eine Akademie/Reports to an Academy, bearing the title of one of Kafka’s famous stories. The protagonist of this story is an ape, who ends up in a zoo and has for many years lived among humans. The ape thus becomes a human, knows how to be human, and that means drinking whisky, smoking, and so on. The ape has all the habits of being human but remains an ape, who is given a choice of staying in the zoo or appearing in a varieté, with the ape preferring the latter. The distinction between the zoo and a varieté was very important to me, because in a zoo the subject, even the animal subject, becomes an object. I would say this is a metaphor of an exhibition in which everything, even the living, become an object. In contrast, a varieté gives the possibility to perform, and this is why the ape in the story becomes an artist in this manner. In the symposium all the artists who we invited gave different types of performances, but very often around the notion of a lecture performance, in which a person is showing images and commenting on them. For example, Uriel Orlow, who opened the symposium, was reading a Kafka story and then commenting on it.
During the symposium Gabriel Dharmoo was doing a music performance with images, entitled Anthropologies Imaginaires, Keti Chukhrov also presented her new piece. And with Christian von Borries we were looking for new subgenres of the lecture performance genre. He first appeared on iPads, and during this whole time it was unclear whether he was sitting nearby or somewhere in Hong Kong. In fact, it was a site-specific lecture performance, which took place at one specific location and not in some abstracted place. Time was also very much a part of it, because Christian was appearing in a live-stream on the kind of mobile devices which everybody has now, and only later appeared in the space in person.
The lecture performance genre is very interesting because we still do not know how to define it, where the border is between a lecture performance and a lecture. As a lecturer I am all the time showing images, commenting on them, and I ask myself in what moment it will become a lecture performance. On the part of an artist there are several reasons for using this genre. It is one method to achieve the de-alienation of an artwork, in which an artwork is represented by the body and voice and by the presence of the artist him- or herself. On the other hand, for those coming from the academic field, the driving force behind lecture performances is the precarity of those academics that have to enter a field of mass media and pop culture, like ours. For in comparison to the academic field, that of contemporary art is pop culture.
Another reason for the widespread use of lecture performances is the process of merging of the roles in production, distribution and display. Again, if we look back to the 19th century, or even to the beginning of the 20th, the processes of production, distribution and display were very much divided by the division of labour, which was taking place in different places, done by different people. The artist was producing an artwork, someone else was distributing it, if there was a distribution through a gallery, for instance, and the display was also something done by other people. But in → the contemporary iPhone production of an image, the distribution of it, and the display, all happen at the same time on the same device. The same thing happens to the contemporary installation work, which artists and curators are doing together and all those processes are thus being merged. A lecture performance is likewise one of these things, and here I have in mind in the first place a lecture performance with images.
Of course, there are also more traditional performances, where people are making some sort of a theatre in the manner of Fluxus, or even in the way of Marinetti’s first performance. But I would say that the predominant model today is a performance with continuous image production, which is for some artists certainly just another form of research installation. Some even openly propose that “it depends on the condition of invitation, I can present it as an installation if there is space for it, and I can also do a lecture performance, just for one evening.” In each case it will mean a different economy.
Indeed, one of the reasons for the raise in the number of lecture performances is also the partial shift of the art economy towards a concert economy, from the economy of creating a unique work, which is presented in space and ideally sold through the gallery to an individual consumer or a museum. We are now increasingly talking about a concert economy, in which the artist is doing something ephemeral, like a performance or an installation, which is then dismantled, or a lecture performance for which one receives a fee. This is an economy that is closer to pop music, and I think we are just at the very beginning of this process, and we have to think really conscientiously of the consequences it will bring.
Another work I wanted to bring to your attention, which has also been shown during this three-day symposium, is one by Fadlabi & Lars Cuzner, two artists that are based in Norway who are researching and exploring the notion of a human zoo. One of the first exhibitions of that kind took place in the early 20th century in Oslo, where a village of Congolese people was created and those people were playing the roles of themselves. In fact, however, those people were not even Congolese, they were from another African country, but for some reason they had to play Congolese. The Oslo bourgeoisie was observing them, and journalists were writing horrific, racist things like: “Ah, we now understood how good it is to be white.” This is a totally impossible. shameful and embarrassing page of Norwegian history, which the country tried to erase. Fadlabi & Lars Cuzner – not Norwegians themselves – tried to rediscover this page and succeeded in creating a very embarrassing and difficult situation for everybody, because they announced that they will be recreating this human zoo. They announced a re-enactment, and local journalists became horrified that the story would repeat itself. In the end, the artists built a village and invited a number of people with dark skin, but it was not clear who played what role, since they invited journalists and some other people who were either Russian or Afro-American or Afro-Norwegian. The situation became extremely embarrassing and there was a big discussion in the Norwegian press, which became politically very important.
But this is just the pre-story. The real story is about us inviting them to a lecture for Reports to an Academy, and we assumed they would do some sort of lecture performance about this project. What they showed was actually a video about this project with participation of Susan Buck-Morss, and some other theorists. But instead of just showing a film with documentation about the project they staged some sort of a bar, and then stayed at this bar and commented a little bit on the film, but did not give a lecture, not in any really meaningful way. They also asked other people to join them on stage, drink a beer.
What they did was basically put a video installation on stage. However, in such an installation the viewer has the possibility of leaving or coming back later. Instead, they made us watch the film, but not in the controlled and isolated environment of a film theatre. They showed a sort of animated video installation, of which one aspect was that every display is now understood as performative.
Because every time artists exhibit research installations or documentation installations they place them in a different setting, which depends on the space, curator, or context. In this way every time an installation is shown it also becomes a performative iteration on some sort of a matrix that exists somewhere. If we remember the early avant-gardes, something similar already existed. Famously, in 1909 Kandinsky said something different, suggesting that artists should stop being performers in a musical sense, should stop performing someone else’s music, and rather they should become composers. What has happened now is that artists are composers who are performing their own work. The artists have to invent their own work, but then they also have to perform it. And even when they are outsourcing some of the work they still have to present it. One can say that this is what Kandinsky did, because he did not invent abstract art, he just saw one of his paintings, which was turned 90 or 180 degrees, and said: “Oh, this looks nice!” So he basically made a gesture that is actually similar to Marcel Duchamp’s, by turning something, doing a performative gesture, so it becomes a work of art.
Now, in the last part of my lecture I will refer to a solo-show by the previously mentioned conceptual artist Yuri Albert, which we did together at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. The title of the show was What Did the Artist Want to Say with That?. We tried to be secretive about what the show would be, and it was just announced that it was a major retrospective of Yuri Albert’s work, something which had not yet happened on that scale, and the audience at the vernissage, the artists and curators, were expecting to see his works, but they only saw texts in the places where the artworks – mostly paintings – were supposed to be presented. When preparing the exhibition I asked different people to contribute descriptions or analysis, comments about those works, and I also wrote many of them myself. Many contributors were well known to the Moscow art audience. Most important to us was that they were shown in the same way as real artworks. If it was a video projection then the text was also video projected; if it was an audio work then the text was narrated; but mostly, as I said, there were paintings. This was the situation for the vernissage, then gradually, during the duration of the show, works started to appear by covering the texts. Gradually the images were covering the texts, and at the very end of the exhibition there were just images. What was important for me is that there was not a moment where this gesture was expected or revealed. So people could not really compare the texts to the images, and they always had to use either their imagination or memory.
The show was very revealing to me about the relation of text to image. Especially in the field of contemporary art, to which Yuri Albert belongs, this relation was radically re-thought. Normally it is said that the image is rich, whereas text is an instrument of reduction. Conceptual art is thus always criticised for being something flattening. As a critic I often heard such criticism of this critique: “It is not everything, your text is not enough, the artwork has so much more potential.” The text is seen as something flattening, which is somehow killing the richness of the associations inside an artwork.
At the Yuri Albert show we had a totally different situation. It was the image that was killing the text. When reading the text you could have imagined different things if you didn’t know the work. And then when the artwork was hung over the text you could say: “OK, this is just that.” All the imagination was gone, there were no versions anymore, all the potentiality was gone, and the varieties in your head were killed. The visitors to the vernissage (mostly artists, curators, and other such professionals) found themselves a little bit frustrated, but in a pleasant way. They were very excited about it, but still, it turned out that to read a text took much more time than it would to see an image. They first tried to read, then found out that it was impossible to read and socialise. So people had to choose how to use their time – and I didn’t even plan this – it just turned out that temporality works in this way.
People started to nervously take photographs of the texts because they knew they would not be able to find them anywhere else. There was thus a frustration about the texts, which had a precarious character. In a way, at an art exhibition or when contemplating some artistic ensemble, you have an overview and can see it even if it is too big. But with a text, as Lessing points out, especially with poetry or listening or oral poetry, which he was mostly referring to, the work is disappearing in time. You have to remember very well what you heard, since when coming to the end of a poem you might have already forgotten how it started. And this makes people a little nervous. Lessing actually described the difference between poetry and painting, that poetry is much more precarious, since it is linear and represented in time.
Many of the early avant-garde artists who specialised in text also followed this line of thought. Kruchenykh for instance, friend and colleague of Malevich – much less known, but a great poet and also an artist – was experimenting in writing texts and simultanisation of the text, where the letters were appearing not in a temporal line but somehow as an image. They were very much aware of the difference between the linear temporal character of the text and special character of the image. They were deconstructing the goal of specialisation. Now what we are witnessing, and what I am also interested in, is rather the temporalisation of an image, an injection of time and understanding the temporal specificity. This helps us to discover the very character of the notion of contemporaneity. I am thinking more and more that the notion of contemporary art is something very specific, which was supposed to come instead of the special art in space. Instead of art in space there is art in time. This is about a very old distinction between temporal arts (theatre and poetry, which were oral, and music), and special arts (architecture, painting, sculpture). The contemporaneity lives strangely today in an ahistorical way. We find this contemporaneity in the timeline of a Facebook account, which is constantly changing, like our exhibition.
And maybe the last thing to say to finish this short sketch on → temporality in contemporary art is a profound shift in the cultural idea of immortality, which greatly influenced all these temporal shifts. For Yuri Albert, and many conceptual artists – at least in the Moscow conceptual circle – they have something of a cemetery of artworks. Albert is, for example, working a lot with burnt images. His series of black paintings My Favourite Books is painted with the ashes of burnt books written by Balzac, Pushkin, Swift, and Rilke. These books disappeared in this blackness and the geometry of modernism. All the possible narratives, characters, and emotions you might have had while reading them are now simply gone. The notion of the death of art is certainly there, but also art is becoming not just death but the instrument of death. Anyway, this immortality, as represented in a burnt book, and in the form of a memorial, is something conceptual art is working a lot with (Ian Finlay, On Kawara). These cemeteries are in a way a condensation of something, which has once been but is now represented as a condensed sign, and this deep cultural memory of what our post-mortem existence should look like in a book or painting has significantly shifted, as outlined in this brief review of the temporal shift in contemporary curatorial and artistic practices. We know about this phenomenon of post-mortem websites or post-mortem accounts of artists on social networks. People do not really know what to do with them. Nobody is closing them, and it seems they have become monuments in time, instead of creating a break by making a monument in form. These are temporal extensions and nobody yet knows how to work with them, even specialists working for social networks. While there is still no social consensus about this, it’s an issue that artists are starting to explore.
This was a brief talk about the temporal shift in contemporary curatorial and artistic practices.