Come with me on this please – what mechanisms might artworks use to share experiential knowledge?

Images: The Sound of Silence (2006), Locked Room Scenario (2011), Love Story (2016)

Come with me on this please – what mechanisms might artworks use to share experiential knowledge?

Denise Poote June 2018

I am going to consider how the relationship of the audience and the artwork can work together to create shared experiential knowledge. By exploring this possibility of relationship, I may develop an understanding of how my drawing practice can be also be shared as experiential knowledge with the audience.

This will involve examining how a selection of contemporary artists’ artwork use performance-related strategies and techniques to achieve a destabilisation in the expectation of the audience. Using accounts of my personal encounters with these artworks, taken from working notes, I will reflect and evaluate on their value to my own practice of embodied drawing.

By embodied drawing practice I refer to my own process-led mark-making that is usually associated with a fixed length of duration in relation to a journey (eg a bus ride, a walk). How I can share the experience of making these drawings as a kind of knowledge (rather than communicate or illustrate my experience) is a key research question for me at this point.

The selected artworks examined here can be broadly defined as a part of Western contemporary culture and are installed works in form, using live or filmed performance elements that include human presence, props, moving image and photography. My personal encounters with these works evoked emotional and physiological state changes (for example, activating an audience, provoking movement or sensory changes) that was immersive, embodied and non-verbal. This kind of experience is also how I can describe my personal drawing practice and will be part of my terms of reference in my consideration of the relationship of audience and artwork in this essay.

In this brief discussion, I will postpone to further relevant research an examination of an extension of this audience/artwork relationship that would include the artist. I will also postpone closer examination of the relationship of the artist to the artwork they make during an embodied drawing process.

In his book of lecture transcripts Six Drawing Lessons, William Kentridge recounts a story about a magician who appears to blow soap bubbles that the man then proceeds to smash with a hammer. The magician reveals to the audience that he has a small bell concealed in his coat that he chimes as he hits the bubble giving the illusion that it is made of hard glass rather than liquid blown soap. Kentridge observes that even when the performer had revealed to the audience how the trick was executed, they continue to perceive that the soap bubbles seem to turn to glass.

“The pleasure in the moment of us believing and not believing at the same time is a jolt of self-assertion.”

Kentridge (2014, p16)

The transformation in their engagement with the trick has made the audience complicit with the magician in some way. If we consider the artist’s role as one similar to this kind of magician and that an artist’s intention and presentation of an artwork also may function to provide a ‘reveal’ moment, akin to a magician’s set-up and performance of his trick, what mechanisms may be at work from which a viewer/audience may experience a transportation that is both emotional and visceral in certain cases?

Can these mechanisms be considered to produce a form of shared experiential knowledge?

Alfredo Jaar The Sound of Silence (2006) Installation view

We begin by examining Alfredo Jaar’s work The Sound of Silence (2006). Jaar, an architecture-trained artist who learned magician’s tricks as a child, designs his works to give the audience specific information to convey a strong immersive sense of matters that are often harrowing and beyond the cultural “like a haiku”. He describes his work as ‘mis en scene’, a combination of magic, theatre and architecture (Art21, 2007).

The theatrical set-up for the work began as I waited with the audience in a huge space where a smaller cube clad in tubes of bright light was situated. Entering the smaller cube in darkness, a projection screen slowly revealed text of a gradually emerging story about a photographer and a photograph of a starving tiny girl and a vulture. I started and swore as the real-life flash bulbs in the space shocked the image onto the screen and concluded with text again telling us that the photographer gassed himself a few months after winning the Pulitzer prize for the photograph. The story is given a physical quality by the sensory assault – like some neuroscientific Pavlovian training to jolt me to an

awareness of the horror that is an embodied experience resonating with the subject matter of the work in materials and form. Jaar describes his mechanisms working on the audience

“To do something when they know I was trying to hide something, but they don’t see it. What they see is the magic.” (Art21, 2007)

The magic of the work, the anticipation of the viewing, the change of light quality, moving from the brilliantly lit outer space to the darkness and the quiet reveal of narrative arc that the words on the screen provides reminds me of qualities found in a theatrical performance. This sense of the theatre is also available in Ryan Gander’s artwork Locked Room Scenario (2011). It includes performative elements using actors and props and constructions outside the conventional boundaries of the gallery exhibition and its institution and becomes an encounter to liken to a theatre performance ‘en promenade’.

Ryan Gander Locked Room Scenario (2011) detail view

It does literally follow you down the street in the end.

I visited the exhibition with my family and found a neutral, decommissioned commercial business building turned over to art. We entered expecting an art exhibition gallery setting and quickly understood this show was a set-up with hints to narrative and shadows behind frosted glass and locked doors. We became explorers, trying to solve a puzzle. It was investigative and playful, climbing on shoulders to peak into high windows and pushing rudely past surly youth on stairs we suspected were hiding something from us. When we left, we talked and laughed about it, walking along the road to find the way home. About 10 minutes later, a man who seemed mute and might have just got off the bus nearby, dropped a piece of paper in my hand. He was a planted actor and it was

startling and emotionally transformative to find this extension of experience out of the gallery building into a space where it wasn’t expected. I felt like something magical had occurred and the feeling remains now some years later. This embodied activation is similar in some ways to the transformation I experience in my drawing practice. This element of acting in performance theatre as a ‘set-up’ to destabilise/disarm an audience may be useful to transform to a drawing experience perhaps.

Gander talks about Locked Room Scenario as a project made up of elements of inaccessibility as a mechanism for evoking intrigue:

“When you’re given something on a silver plate, you often disregard it, but if you find something on the floor, you put it in your pocket and you’re on your own when you find it, you value it a great deal more.” (Tate, 2011).

We believed we were in a role as exhibition visitors and had an element of control in that but the constructs of the project including its architecture, narrative and artwork/props worked to manipulate that assumption while also giving us each unique participatory path through the setup.

However, the tensions between the audience and their encounter with the work are subtle in their methods: a theatre performance The Friday Night Effect at Edinburgh Fringe 2017 failed this test of mechanism. Periodically the stage actors stopped performing and a mediator asked the audience to decide by vote which of two paths the action should next take. The quality of the setup/the ‘trick’ was not complex enough to hide the endgame where all paths led to the same option. This may have been intended by the writer but the unsatisfactory suspension of belief that control was available failed – I felt untransformed as the subject of the attempted manipulation. Perhaps a more developed, subtly wrought storyline would produce a more convincing way of investing in the device offered.

Candice Breitz Love Story (2016) Installation view

I found this idea of audience immersion through investment with a narrative used to profoundly moving effect in Candice Breitz Love Story (2016). Through close looking and spending time with Breitz’s installed artwork, we understand a re-enactment is taking place on large screen video, with popular and familiar celebrity actors rehearsing and performing in a greenscreen studio setting. I believed I understood what I was watching and committed to that relationship. This belief is undermined in a highly affecting way as the audience choose to move through the space to the room behind the screening where numerous TV monitors showing the real people telling their stories from which the actors were extracting their monologues. The impact of this ordinary failure to understand people’s true lives was very emotionally charged and the transformational qualities of Breitz’s presentation was in some way an embodied effect. It reminds me of the love-like commitment I felt studying a single drawing at the British Museum recently where, through close looking and time spent, I found revelations and new knowledge and made new connections with the work that changed how I feel about it from my first sight.

Ed Ruscha is famously quoted as saying “A bad work of art makes you go, “Wow. Huh?” A good work of art makes you go, “Huh? Wow.”” (Ruscha, 2011). At the heart of this over-simplification of value is something useful here: a destabilising of established initial perceptions that can be a catalyst for a new vision of what is presented. This destabilising of expectations may be a bridge to connecting the experience of making my drawing to the experience of encounter with them by an audience. Set-ups and provocations, mis-directions and narratives that are complex enough to intrigue without dismissal flow through these observations.

Duration seems a key part of my drawing process and seems evident in these experiential transformations through mechanisms like close looking like my recent British Museum experience or investing in the narrative strands of the work as with Breitz video or Jaar’s setups. As part of his process for the Darkness Visible project, Sam Winston aimed to persuade poets and illustrators to stop – to not do the thing they do (Winston, 2018). This strategy of persuasion, manipulation and trickery, the tools of the magician, stand-up comedian or storyteller, how far can this kind of setup be tested before an audience disengages? Ryan Gander’s work aims at an individual unique experience, but it is difficult to account for a given response – either way, engaged or not, is it one of the intelligent but overwhelmed or of the dumb and lazy?

The possibility of what JL Austin describes as ‘performative actions’, verbs that constitute an action simply by saying the word, may be powerful here: I vow, I apologise, I do – religious and ritualised, theatrical and non-conceptual. It may be that by introducing a

set-up of clearly performative elements relating to an embodied drawing practice eg sensory deprivation, ritualised, duration-dependant processes, a shared experience can be made. But it’s also fugitive: how to pin down a cloud of experience and then share it?

Susan Sontag’s position on pornography (Sontag, 1969) as a form of knowledge may be helpful here (despite acknowledging its problematic qualities in how it is abused – especially in 2018, where internet access means it is widely available compared to 1969 when Sontag was writing): the pornographic imagination as such works to transform experience in a visceral way within ‘a total way’ (Sontag, (1969, p.69). She discusses ‘total’ imagination in terms of religious encapsulation which she notes is reductive and which for my drawing practice, I consider may devalue its fugitive, pre-verbal sensibility by losing its field-like, hard-to-define qualities to become an idea. Perhaps the positions of extremes like ideas of faith and imagination may provide space for movement/shift in a middle ground where the cloud of meaning around my drawing can continue.

In this writing, I have examined how I have considered the relationship of the audience and the artwork and how they might work together to create a shared experiential knowledge to gain an understanding about this in relation to my embodied drawing practice. By looking at a selection of cross-media contemporary art practice that use elements of performance, installed and immersive artwork (for example, activating an audience, provoking movement or sensory changes), I have discussed how particular artworks and artists are positioned in relation to an audience to evoke emotional and physiological state changes (like Kentridge’s ‘jolt of self-assertion’) and how these encounters are presented and to what extent is the audience manipulated to behave in a certain way.

The evidence and theoretical connections direct findings towards a destabilising effect and strategies found in theatrical performance and installed duration-based work like film and live art. This element of performance and the theories of performative action and total immersion connect possibilities based around ritualised process and investments of faith and imagination. A closer examination of the relationship of the artist to the embodied process in this framework would be a further path for practice and research.

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