Staged Is Just As Good

by Nora Joung

After the Norwegian Young Artist’s Society’s (UKS) Annual Assembly of 2017, a lucky few got to parttake in what could be called a piggish and excessive, though undoubtedly deft and perturbing display of the seduction-mechanics of event-culture, a «happening». Commissioned by UKS and delivered by the artist Eirik Sæther, its parts consisted of a rented party bus; a room filled with shredded and modified clothing all brandishing the insignia 57K (apparently the number of followers of one Instagram-celebrity); hordes of excitable fashion kids and art audiences punctual for once as they scurried about the gallery room cum wardrobe to find an outfit; and the flashing of the audiences’ camera phones. Uniforming was mandatory, trousers, shirts and jackets. Without them, you weren’t allowed on the bus. Some had heard that there were design items hidden in the piles of clothing, feverishly flinging tops and pants searching for gold in the gravel. Many tried out several outfits, consulting their friends or inspecting selfies before deciding. Others again were hesitant, changing garb as if they were accepting a death sentence. On the bus, a seemingly endless supply of free beer. People familiar with Norwegian inclinations will know that this is sure to wreak havoc. It wasn’t just any watery lager, of course, but Dronebrygg’s Saisons and IPAs, high in alcohol content and held in high esteem. Participation in the exuberance was key. Although the organizers had been adamant that the number of persons on the bus could not exceed the number of seats, hardly anyone was sitting down. It seemed everyone agreed that a fun atmosphere is a frail thing – especially at a party you cannot leave at your own volition –  and to not only demand a vocal and bodily contribution by themselves to secure the success of the party, but also from everyone else. Maneuvering through the bodies writhing to pop music on the moving bus, hair and clothes damp from spillage and sweat, it was hard to decide whether this was a case study of our complicity in extreme nihilism, or a celebration of the young art scene, idealized as it already is among many of its participators. The bus made a stop in a posh residential area overlooking Oslo, where the outline of two cars gradually became discernable on the dark, vacant parking lot. As the headlights turned on and the engines started revving, people shrieked with delight at the spectacle. Again only a select few, the most daring ones I presume, got to sit in the passenger seat as the cars skid around on the asphalt (the word for this activity in Norwegian is pleasingly «råne», meaning «boar»), the others present as transfixed onlookers. I was on the first of two trips the bus took that evening. As we arrived at the drop-off/pick-up point at Kunstnernes Hus, the passengers stumbled out of the bus and into the bar, where rumours quickly spread regarding what had happened, mixing with the expectations of the next lot of people preparing to board the ride. I went to change out of the uniform. When I got back, the gallery room cum wardrobe had changed character. Newspapers shredded to bits, moistened by beer and torn by dancing feet, young bodies strewn across the floor, kissing, crawling, photographing and being photographed. The event was not purely about facilitating the «existential thrill of unmediated presence» suggested by Claire Bishop as the emphasis for North American and European Happenings of the 1960s – and rejected in the staged «Happening for a Dead Boar» authored by Roberto Jacoby, Eduardo Costa and Raúl Escari with the participation of Oscar Masotta among others[1]. The twist of the dead boar was that no Happening actually took place. The artists staged the images of enthusiastic participators engaging in dancing and grinning, and issued a press release announcing the Happening to the media, who picked it up and ran with it. Though they are more dissimilar than same, I mention the Happening from ’66 because of a striking similarity in the staged images to the ones appearing under the hashtag for Sæther’s bus ride – and because of a shared media-savvy coldness. «Happening for a Dead Boar» according to Bishop «obliterated the problematic dividing line between (first-hand) participant and (secondary) viewer, since there was no ‘original’ event to have attended in the first place.[2]» Sæther’s currency in the Happening for the living boars, was the vast distribution of images via real-time, location-based social media tools, securing that a large number of persons belonging to a certain demographics knew what was going on through a mythologizing live-stream the artist didn’t need to labor for himself.  Were the participators coerced into glamorizing and sharing the event? Of course not. People gladly share ‘content’, whether the content is an art happening, a fashion brand, or a new cocktail mixer. In a seminar held in Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in 2010, Claire Bishop pointed out that since online forums such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube has realized Joseph Beuys’ Marxist allegation that «everyone is an artist», the production apparatus is primary and the content secondary[3]. Using the audience as a material, the artist had foreseen how they would react to the situation he put together, apt as they were to pose and stage themselves within the framework, complicit as eager documenters and documents of the art piece, as testament of not having «missed out», but participated in creative mass-production. Sæther simply facilitated what was already going on. The perpetual partying in the Norwegian fish tank. Fin de siècle copiously documented, branded, and brought to frutition.

 

Remembering the events after the UKS Assembly, my mind wandered to Masotta’s rationale regarding his conduct towards the actors he’d hired for his Happening «To Induce the Spirit of the Image» from 1966, as described in «I committed a Happening[4]»: «I wasn’t going to demonize myself for this social act of manipulation that happens every day in real society.[5]» The justification follows a passage where Masotta relates that he raised his actors’ fees to as to receive «their full attention[6]», knowing that money is a mover and a motivator, and feeling «a bit cynical[7]» about it. A common question among my colleagues, is in which ways one should use tools of affect, manipulation, how they should circulate; and how and why artist’s usage of these tools are different than let’s say advertiser’s, communication media’s or political strategist’s use of them. If an artist has a presupposition in regards to how people respond to certain situations: with servility after promise of payment; with eager participation in exchange for glamour; is it then OK to use these manipulations? If you know that you’re offering money to the poor or attention to narcissistic neurotics? Talking to colleagues about Oscar Masotta never fails to prompt debate on these questions: means and ends. There is something about the person and his work that seems to resonate with issues very much on people’s minds, be they aesthetic or political in nature. Artist and core organizer of Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) Lise Soskolne said during her visit in Oslo some months ago, that art does not belong to the political Left. That’s true, of course. Artists on the Left who aim to produce critical discourse rather than objects for circulation in a market, still use tools that are up for grabs for anyone, and that are indeed cleverly utilized by advertising, tabloid media and political strategists alike, to various ends. It’s not as if art practices that are de-materialized cannot be commodified, or that art made with Leftist intentions automatically is inherently politically resistant to the forces it objects.

 

In a conversation with artists Per-Oskar Leu and Halvor Rønning, who are contributing to Segunda Vez, we discussed whether the Left is less efficient in the use of imagery than its political antagonists. Maybe the Left has a handicap in that it is simply easier to excite people’s desires than their sense of responsibility through the use of the visual. Considering Oscar Masotta’s acuity in the three Happenings he made as an artist, it’s tempting to say: no. People I’ve spoken with are quick to identify that Masotta’s use of communication media as a material was ahead of his time. Perhaps Masotta chose visual art as a medium because he understood what propagandistic potential it had in promoting the politics he subscribed to. However, the spectacle has changed somewhat since the 60s, especially taking into account the self-surveillance and radical transparency many live under through social-media platforms. Marketers of virtually anyhting: chewing gum, art exhibitions, or Right politics seizes this change of habits as an opportunity to create highly intricate strategies: peronalised ads being one of them, content marketing another. Large museums and art galleries in Oslo pay bloggers and ‘influencers’ considerable sums so that they’ll take outfit pictures in the exhibitions, thereby recommending them to their followers as the images slip frictionlessly into their feeds. The visual has a propensity for addressing affect rather than analysis; images are good at moblilizing emotion, whether it be desire, anticipation, fear or anger. Advertisers, spin-doctors and artists all capitalise on this manipulation. In an interview, Creative Director of Creative Time Nato Thompson[8] points out to Trude Schelderup Iversen that we as subjects feel that we are somehow impervious to being manipulated. Thus, we can watch any TV we want, play any video games etc, because we think we are intelligent enough to navigate the impressions without being affected by them. Thompson continues that particularly in the arts, we are adamant that anything should be able to «come at us at any time». Seeminlgy suggesting that citizens are willing to assume responsibility for making sense of the floods of images we’re constantly subjected to, as individuals, and not as a collective. Out of the words that sometimes fall on artists, «watchmen» is of the more flattering ones.  Artists can excercise their critique through their slow, steady march through institutions. Ephemeral and ubiquitous ones like Instagram, or governements, or capital, identifying and pointing out where power lies, attempting to shake things up, or to destroy them. Some take things one step further, both identifying power and proposing alternatives.

 

Prerna Bishnoi’s graduation work from the Art Academy in Trondheim (KiT/NTNU), like Sæther, uses total participation as a strategy, but to different ends. Bishnoi promotes a utopian collectivity built on empathy and critical discourse, but founded in fiction. Further explained in the thirty minute video work «Larpy: Starring Me, You and Chief Belief Officer», the artist organizes Live Action Role Playing (LARP). Participation is a premise here. There are no viewers, everyone has to partake in the fiction as it plays out. In the video, she recounts a bizarre event during a LARP where an actor was able to convulse and perform vomiting on-demand, in a scene where it was scripted that a patient received bad news from a doctor. Medical staff uses LARP, the artist tells us, to learn empathy, and to prepare for difficult situations. Bishnoi goes on to propose that LARP could be a model for other worlds, by creating fictions that people so invest in that it substitutes the reality we share for one of the group’s own choosing. I had a knee-jerk reaction to this proposition. It seemed risky to me, to  turn away from reality, even for the purpose of creating time-based micro utopias. Fiction is, after all, a quite potent weapon. Surpressors use fiction to undermine the supressed’s sense of reality. Businesses uses fiction to manufacture needs. Corporations, Bishnoi informs us, also use LARPs. Undoubtedly not only to improve themselves in any moral sense, but to optimize their performance and increase revenue. Again, the tools are available for anyone, and artists aren’t necessarily more clever or persuasive than RedBull’s marketing team. You’d have to navigate deftly to put together a complicated fiction and still come out on top. Even so, Bishnoi seems to propose that role playing, in the hands of ‘good forces’, that is, is a helpful tool that can be used to incentivise people to better themselves, morally and politically, throught the creation of fictions. The artist doesn’t seem to be suggesting withdrawal, or play-pretending  political participation. It’s tempting to understand her gestures as laboratories. If artistic practice is not the most efficient way of creating politics, it is still an arena in which one can create a climate for the politics one wishes to see prevail. A kind of artist-as-gardener, model builders of better worlds.  My mind returned to Michéle Bernstein’s plaster work “Victoire de la Commune de Paris” that showed the contrafactual victory of the Paris commune, had it not been beaten down after two months, resurrecting the potential, making it ‘possible again’.[9]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]   Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso Books, 2012, p. 108

[2]   Ibid. p. 108

[3]   As reported by Gerd Elise Mørland in Kunskritikk: http://www.kunstkritikk.no/artikler/offentlighet-uten-betraktere/, my translation.

[4]   In its English translation first commissioned for Listen, Here, Now! Argentine Art of the 1960s, edited by Inés Katzenstein and Andrea Giunta, and published in 2004 as part of The Museum of Modern Art’s Primary Documents series, republished online and reprinted by Segunda Vez in Cahier No. 1 by permission http://segundavezsegundavez.com/texts/i-committed-a-happening-1967/

[5]   Cahier No. 1, p. 36

[6]   Ibid. p. 36

[7]   Ibid. p. 36

[8]   For Art in Public Space Norway/KORO’s anthology «Critical Issues in Public Art», to be published

[9]   Shown in Galleri Exi in Odense, Denmark in 1963 as described by Mikkel Bolt in his «Notes on the Situationist International in Denmark», 2003 with material from the archive of the Copenhagen Free
University. The text has also been published as a booklet (CFU#9) including additional documents: http://www.copenhagenfreeuniversity.dk/sikortuk.html