A Making Sense colloquium
The morning after the night before! The day is upon us! Here we go! Bring it on! This morning I feel ultra-alive. I’ve just had a cold shower. Brrrrrr!! Now my heart goes ping, my mind does zing, and I’m brim full of joy to start the brand new day. Emotions are running high and there’s a lot of tension and pressure in the air. Xéna and I prepare provisions and material for our performance and direction of the day’s event. Ahem:
This year’s theme concerns how art can inspire, saturate and activate the different ways that we perceive the world. Do we have 5 senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste? Or 6? What about emotion, empathy, imagination, memory, and how we exist in time? We intend to experiment and expand our sense stimuli today, and build a collective interface that redefines how art stimulates us. Participants are not passive listeners, but invited to act out, perform and react with an active participation. Rather than listen, we invite you to collaborate. We will do this by offering performance, presentation, interactive workshop, exhibition, installation and dance in multiple dimensions. It is the participants’ job to activate and utilise the crescendo of insight that we are offering today, in order to build a creative and ground breaking method of understanding how art helps us to make sense of the world. We have a jam-packed day ahead, with no room for deviance. It’s going to be intense. I promise you’ll be knackered by the time we get to our colloquium dinner later. To kick things off we have curator, critic, artist Robert Storr, who is one of the most influential Americans in the art world. Dean of art at Yale since 2006, former curator at MOMA and director of the 2007 Venice Biennale, Storr is going to speak about the dynamic aesthetic experiences he created in Venice, under the rubric of ‘Think with the senses, feel with the mind, art in the present tense’.
Well, that was the plan. In the end I improvised my introduction, bumbled out something slightly irreverent/irrelevant, and then my hero took over (thank goodness). His presentation was immense. He talked about the opposition and binary between what is known as ‘Outsider art’ or ‘Art Brut’ and insider art, or art and culture intertwined in the academy, museum and art world. This is particularly relevant because Outsider art is given prominence at this year’s Biennale in Venice. Now, he said, Art Brut is defined by what it is not. It was termed as such by Dubuffet in 1951 as an anti-cultural position. To invigorate art is to de-culturate it, so it is untainted by culture. There is a purer state of creative need. And yet this supposedly anti-cultural group, who established Art Brut, was created and embraced by highly cultivated people who were embroiled in what they are reacting against. This is full of contradictions.
For me, Lorna (i.e. this is my thought, not necessarily Storr’s), the source and purpose of art is to found an interface between contradictions. A surface trajectory that paves a path between opposing phenomena, ideas or substances, which provides neutral, interactive contact with them both, offering a new way which is freedom and truth. Storr talked about art without a method, which is compelling for those who create it and compulsive to those who look at it. Art in spite of itself, helplessly created. Pure creative energy, if expressed without dilution or overlay, is preferable to the art made by those conscious of conventions in which they work.
More inspiring utterings continued. Storr discussed De Kooning’s figure drawings, done at a time of possession by psychological illness, and asked: is his art his art, if psychological illness is such an important factor and changed his work so much? There is diminishing control over his work, building a new understanding of art, and a new understanding of his (lack of) conscious self. Is it the mind who is master of the creative impulse, or a reflex eruption of creativity? In Storr’s opinion, there is always a method of judgment involved in (good) art. De Kooning and Pollock’s works, for example, look like whiplash spontaneity, a flair flare, when in fact they were very reflected. There is muscle memory, which disposes control over pressure or speed. It looks like it is improvised on the spot, when in fact it is automatic, and trained over and over again. Art Brut, or Outsider artists depend on automatic chance, whereas Insider art is programmatic. But this binary is false, since there is bleeding and interaction between chance and intention on both sides.
You choose the arbitrary in order to control the undetermined, but not to be arbitrary. If you have an impairment, you work around it. All artists are intelligent, self-conscious people. This was a somewhat controversial statement and lead into rumbling concerns regarding who or who is not an ‘artist’, and the binary split that remains between art made and exhibited inside or outside of the academy or (capitalist) art world. There are many different methods of artistic practice. In my mind, following Joseph Beuys, we are all artists, and I would not like to restrict the liberating possibilities of art practice according to a selective, judgmental hierarchy, whereby only a few ‘intelligent’, trained individuals qualify to make the grade. But this is not what Storr was trying to say. Everyone may be artists, everything may (potentially) be art, but there are different modalities, merits and failures of art.
There are different kinds of art, for different audiences. We all have an opinion, which is unique and perhaps contrary to another’s. At the colloquium these diverse opinions were raised – for example, in Storr’s and O’Cain’s talks, they think very differently about Richter, and there were other conflicting tastes, thoughts and views.
But this is one of the aims and intents of the Making Sense colloquia: to present a safe and proactive space whereby various dissimilar or unusual sentiments, attitudes and reactions can be expressed. Rather than imposing a hierarchy or dictating a certain view, resolving conflict, or offering timely resolution to arising oppositions, our purpose is to provide a platform for issues to be opened. Here is the opportunity to state your case, react to others, and think anew. Since the colloquium took place plenty of participants have indeed expressed their views, in an email exchange. Some of these views are revelatory, being gratified, inspired and stimulated by Making Sense; others are disgruntled, disappointed, with noses turned up at the problems they perceive from how we managed the day and its contents. This exchange is insightful. On the one hand it demonstrates the success of our venture, which is to provide an interactive and accessible forum for difference, and make multiple viewpoints and sensibilities accessible and possible; on the other it points out problems with the organization of the event, which we need to address.
Meanwhile, in response to an ongoing question that was raised throughout the day, I listened to my intuition: Who is an artist? The artist creates out of a necessity. I can’t do, or be, otherwise. Whether or not I have been trained or exhibited my work, inside the art world, I can call myself an artist because it encompasses, feeds and drives my passion and my vision for being in the world at all, after all, at last.
At the colloquium the second keynote speaker was Frank O’Cain, who presented after lunch. He was eloquent and a stimulating orator, surrounded by a swarm of followers, who came to kowtow in adoration from the Arts Students League.
O’Cain said: When I see great art it keeps me alive, it gives me purpose. The creator is the shaman of our time. He did a demonstration, which involved drawing the figure with charcoal on a large piece of watercolour paper. The line is a shaman, you become magic because you do it. All great art is built on space and light. Rembrandt understood the integrity of space. At this point I felt a bit diminished, since I’m not terribly good at figurative drawing (at all), and I disagree with the idea that this is the base for all artistic utterings. Surely there is more to understanding the world than figurative drawing! What about new media, or other ways to express synaesthetic and fractal dimensions, that won’t fit into form? O’Cain told us that Richter was ‘silly’, a ‘criminal’ who plays with ‘smears of paint’. This opinion was a direct contradistinction to Storr. How subjective.
And yet, surely this is the great gift of art: it allows everyone to have their own opinion, state it and differ with others. The artwork enables an interactive platform for this meeting place of different opinions. Such a platform is a surface plane, not for guerrilic conflict or destructive antagonism, but somewhere for debate, discussion, expression and creativity. This is why art is liberal and liberating.
Unfortunately there were technical difficulties at the lecture room we hired at The Met., which hampered Leon Tan’s otherwise profound, responsive and provoking presentation, in particular. In fact this video screening and talk, Making and Unmaking Sense, was powerful because of the way that Tan presented the clinical and ethical problems with pharmacology and the DSM. With his colleague, Virlani Hallberg, Leon based the talk on a screening of excerpts from Receding Triangular Square, in which habitual relations between moving image and sound are disrupted in order to facilitate seeing and hearing anew. In some ways the minor technical difficulties we were having aided this new method of seeing and hearing, since making sense in the gap between what we saw and what we could hear promoted a new and different mode of contact with the world.
Any problems which arose in the organisation of the event did not deter our overall game plan. By raising them the colloquium achieved one of its aims, which was to offer a space for debate and reaction to the ways that the art world and the real world (which is different) manages, dictates and markets a so-called (selective, hierarchical, binary, judgmental and punitive) ‘vision’ of what counts of and can be done with art, per se.
Before lunch was a treat: John and Annette Lee’s beautiful, fleshy roundtable Smell, Taste and Touch. They brought gustatory, olfactory and tactile offerings for us to chew, swallow, sniff and stroke. It was a breathtaking, simple, raw experience of country life, pure life in its elemental form. We guzzled all the crumbly biscuits, sniffed the herbs, fondled the leaves and twigs and enjoyed exercising our respective, often mal-stimulated sense organs. Such a calming and nourishing opportunity provided a sublime aesthetic experience that centered and restored the colloquium, reviving our spirits that had been feed, roused and disgruntled during the morning’s proceedings.
After lunch was O’Cain’s talk, and then two concurrent workshops. These were interactive and we all became collaborators in performances. I flitted around between the two of them, and enjoyed each tremendously. One (Terri Suess, Birgit Matzerath, and SYREN Modern Dance: Music, Dance, Draw!) involved a recital of poetry and a piano recording of some beautiful music, which the dancers responded to, improvising and floating into extraordinary, corporeal, graceful dimensions across the studio space. Participants were given some paper and coloured pastels, asked to sketch their reaction to such beautiful stimulus. I quickly scribbled some dashes of yellow and bounding lines in my notebook, feeling inspired by a sudden rush of energy that alighted from the interaction between the music, poetry and dancers.
Then I rushed into the other workshop (Jack Becker: Collaborative Labyrinth). This involved creating and then meandering meditatively through a labyrinth with sound-cancelling earphones in a completely dark room. Sensory deprivation. This was a very moving and compelling experience. Upon leaving the darkened room we had to write down three words on a Post-it Note. Mine were: lightening, thunder, prison. In more detail, I heard thunder in my head, that rumbles of those darkened times which shook me to my core. I saw flashes of lightening on the shells of my irises, and it felt like being constrained in a metaphysical prison. It frightened and compelled me.
My reaction to the rest of the colloquium was somewhat carnal and Joyce-an in its expansive, non-literal stream of consciousness:
Michael Delacruz’s presentation was an operetta with SYREN dancers, set against a skylight carving tones with space, moving clouds of taste, basking in the warmth of emanating strength with lengths of limbs that bring me forms that sing, tingling with sensations, long for intrepidation, decrepit torn out thorns of sadly groaned soliloquy, with darkened mourning shapes, restated and reborn, newly shorn. And the figures’ shadows paint through the light of the projection and paint movement and gesture on the video. I hear their breaths and feet sliding on the carpet as the bodies shift and mime in pain at war and sadness and in conflict amongst the wails and wilting flower heads. Instead they stroke the floor and heave in air. The energy is set in time a moan of Persian. Clapping rhythm, a children’s game in time to doge-al funeral chants. It’s meant to unrelent, cast pain, but then, create pure beauty and a consonance, an elegance, a community called freedom. Sound – video, colours, song, music, moving image, verse, tragedy, sincerity, fuzzy, blurred, pixated screen, water ripples. Three women dance. Separately but so together, a triptych. Touching the audience – so close, whilst their shadow touches the video image. Woe is thrown around the floor with grace that weeps at epic gates of judgment, hell, damnation on the edge of lamentation. What is lost and what lost there is emotion in the turmoil. Misery overcome, flowing, shedding tears and descending into darkness. And so: ‘preserve us unshaken in peace’.
How melancholic, but so powerful. This lead into a roundtable discussion, where we discussed ideas such as organizing a multi-sensual art fair, partnering with museums and arts organizations to bring experiential art lessons into schools, online and into the public space.
Soon it was time for the artists in residence and philosophers in residence to present their tokens, which provided a Making Sense of Making Sense and tied up the day. First off was the courageous Janice Perry. Before I knew what was happening I realized that she was stark naked! She’s taken off all her clothes! Now this was a political statement. Perry wished to bring back the body, and specifically the woman, into proceedings. She pointed out that the keynote speakers, and all the speakers, in fact, had focused on and applauded (or demised) male artists. No mention of female artists. What does it mean to be a feminist, and a woman, in the art world, in the world itself, today??? Are we still ignored or excluded? Perry wanted us to sit up and notice her, as a woman, a female artist. And queer as well. Certainly, this was a surprise. Although her body was actually hidden behind the lectern.
But she made a statement, raised a point, and in so doing utilized the powerful platform provided by the Making Sense colloquium. Here is the poem, of ‘aphorisms spewed out by the speakers throughout the day’, which she recited, in front of a backdrop video showing a Met. security guard walking down the hall looking at children’s self portraits:
Desperate fear is different
Backlash against intellectual rigour
Retreat to individual insight
(Make a) Conscious decision
(He’s) Playing a game with himself
Tearing apart the beauty of womanhood
The mind and the hand
It all happens at the same time
(It’s) Highly intellectualized
All of the above
Roll the dice
(Take a) Leap of the imagination
(To the) Psyche of the viewer
Remove the idea of the Artist
The thingness of things
(The) sound of sound
Anti-art does not abolish the complicated
(It’s the) Process of culture-making
Reset the point
I know his process, I saw the movie
You don’t want to become the author of the next locked position
Artists who didn’t produce any work of consequence
Executing an intention
Art makes the ordinary
The power of the ordinary
Art picked me
The psychology of local people
I accompany her when she does ceremonies
You can easily lose yourself
I heard a lot of nonsense today and I enjoyed it
Then it was our dancer in residence, Rachel Tess. Time for some more stream of consciousness rambling (it was an incredibly moving performance):
contorted angular shapes
clothes fold and fling
with abrasive sounds
molding time and breath
she shakes on line with
stretching shifts of bones
that slide and glide across
we come closer:
we come closer:
the dance is bigger and
I hear the heat
a feat embracing
tastes now racing
as the heart beats on time
to sing with every movement
rhymed the to to-gether
and futures never
of bones that mime
coming ever closer
soon we will
disbanding all inconsonance
singing in a circle
To sum up, philosophers Rita Peritore and Florian Forestier came from France to deliver their pensive reaction to the day. Rita talked about how sense is natural, in excess, and shared. As such it promotes justice. There is an explosion and opening of sense through the symbol and through speech. Our perception is the narrowing of a lens in amidst the flux that incorporates duration, a backlash against intellectual rigour.
I am now in the middle of Central Park, where Caroline Wendling is leading a meditative walk around or amongst the elements. It is raining, and drops blob onto my notebook, gently smudging these words I am writing. This is a peaceful, relaxing, and beautiful occasion. I get to inhale scents and see different colours. I stroke and crush a leaf with my fingers until it releases its smell, which seeps through my alert nasal glands and beckons comfort to contain me.
After Caroline’s wonderful, calming walk amidst the greens and light rainfall in Central Park, we went out to dinner. By now I was shattered, so this was fairly uneventful. So I made my way back to the apartment (via rain now pouring, wet feet, and losing patience waiting for a non-existent bus, an expired metro card and eventually resorting to a taxi (which I never do)), feeling ready for bed.
Now it is time to process what happened and the sense made at this year’s colloquium. It has raised a large degree of feedback, some applauding and very positive, inspired by the event, others feeling that it had failed to achieve its supposed aim of stimulating ‘the six senses of art’. This has been hard to hear at times, but the fact that the colloquium opened a space for all kinds of reactions is an achievement in itself. It was important – and difficult – to raise problems and questions. We can learn and grow from their statement.
This we intend and have already begun to do. Next year we hold our colloquium in New Delhi, India: Making Sense of Crisis: Art as Schizoanalysis. This will be an exhibition at KHOJ International Artists’ Association and a colloquium at the India International Center (IIC), New Delhi. The exhibition and colloquium will adopt the theme of art-making as a means of responding humanely and critically to social crises and traumas.
There is more processing, learning and action to be done. We have not finished thinking about the sense that was or was not made at this year’s colloquium. It was a powerful, moving experience. It has raised important questions and opened a space for debate, discussion and difference of opinion. In that way the colloquium engaged with and created an interface upon which reform, and freedom, become possible. This is the purpose, and truth, of art. Here the world makes sense.