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<p>Superseding Transgression:
The Architecture of Vito Acconci
(or... what does performance art have to do with design?)</p>

Superseding Transgression: The Architecture of Vito Acconci (or... what does performance art have to do with design?)

UAAC Conference paper 2011

I have been a visual artist making installation works and a deviser of performance and video pieces in which I collaborate with dancers, musicians and writers. I have also worked with architects and other designers on competitions for projects in the urban environment. It is in the last two endeavours that I see potential for something intriguing that is neither design nor art. I imagine these disciplinary overlaps without contradiction. They are, simply put, something like 'a practice'. I imagine in them a fluidity of potential for thinking critically about how we think, build and operate within our culture and wider environments. The overlaps offer the potential for extrapolating rigorously at the fringes of each discipline, a position that allows one to see the 'operating system', so to speak, upon which each discipline rests. I am also a teacher in a department of 'Design and Computation Arts', and it is here, in the educational institution, that I find this overlap running slightly across the grain of traditional disciplinary categories like fine art and design, or new (non) disciplinary categories such as 'research-creation' which attempt to draw the conjecture of art-based practice into the social sciences or vice versa.

So for me the 'wicked problem' is about design itself – a question about the work of some practitioners that is evidently exiting and challenging (to me) yet to which art and design schools may not have quite caught up. I am compelled by the way design students will take on a problem as one between us in the world where fine art students often, somewhat disturbingly, can turn any problem into one of personal expression. Conversely, it seems that the designers have difficulty examining the philosophical grounds of a problem whereas it is the art students who have the willingness and the critical tools for pulling the ground of a particular situation out from underneath itself in a way that can lead to new ways of doing. So it is simultaneously demanding more from design and demanding more from art that has lead to my current research and set me on the trail of practitioners whose work seems to offer up clues to new modes of 'design practice'. The 'uselessness' of art and the 'applied' or productive nature of design appear to be a defining feature of each discipline. Art can ask any question, down to the very grounds of thinking and doing. Design can build to the refrain of any problem. There is a deep resistance to overlapping these two modes of thinking (or seeing the overlap which is already there), likely because a revealing failure is inevitable. Perhaps dwelling in this contradiction is the most useful corrective for each of these disciplines. Joined at their origins, they must stumble on together.

When you tease criticality out of the avant-garde you get what Theodor Adorno called the culture-industry (that is: entertainment). In the world of material culture you get design. When architecture, in the body of Mies van der Rohe, comes to America, it separates itself from its avant-garde roots and you get something called design – more specifically, 'international style' (according to Benjamin Buchloh). So we have generated a design culture that is separated radically from avant-gardist criticality and, meanwhile, we have an avant-garde which itself now exists merely as an historical category (occasionally re-staged by its own practitioners as nostalgic 'classical repertoire', as we see with Marina Abromavić). These assertions invite perplexing questions around re-defining 'criticality' in design and visual art as well as in a range of 'new' practices in which distinctions between 'design' and 'art' do not seem obvious. These might include electronic media work, practice in public space, the academic zone of research-creation and some approaches to gaming—all of which are coming to terms with a world where the push of corporate-technological culture seems to have shifted the location of potential human discourse to an information-driven, predominantly visual and screen-based culture of event. So the question which designers and artists face is where should creative practitioners go to do work which is relevant, rigorous and critical (as opposed to merely 'cutting edge')?

Can one be 'critical' and 'applied' at the same time? On the surface, practices rooted in design and new technology do not share what is understood as avant-gardist criticality. Does this mean that the work is not critical or rather than we need to think differently about how we define criticality? This paper uses the architectural practice of Vito Acconci as a way of looking at the potential of cross-disciplinary practices with a particular focus on design for public space and 'criticality' in relation to technology. Acconci's practice shifted from iconoclastic and transgressive art-performance to design for public space and buildings. This shift is from a defined artistic discipline (ironically, one whose 'wide open' scope is crucial) to a more slippery (and ironically, more 'specific') cross-discourse practice—a deliberate, apparently resistant and contradictory opening seemingly conceived to rupture strategies central both to his earlier work and conventional strategies of design. One could ask, does Acconci's architecture not just simply import a subversive construction derived from art performance into the world of architecture where it becomes ineffective? Or does this cross-disciplinary performativity allow a unique and essential questioning in the realm of public space that might offer an alternative to the visual and the monumental? Looking at Acconci's architecture leads to a consideration of design as inter-subjective cultural space, in contrast to a more 'western' history of design/architecture as a commercial-material culture of display. Why think about Acconci? I find some of Acconci's design work formally simplistic, even clumsy. Yet I think the key point is that this very failure or clumsiness (which is, I'd say, a vestige of an artistic-poetic strategy) is what situates this work right on top of a fault-line that is the vital problem for design and design-related cross-disciplinary work. This problem is a problem of meaning, a problem of criticality and a problem of articulating a rigorous position in relationship to technology. That some of Acconci's work might seem to fail and come across merely as 'poor design' is emblematic of the wickedness of that problem. So, though the work may not be successful in terms of cementing its own qualities as commodity or 'designed-thing', it does succeed in discursively opening a territory normally covered over by the architect/designer's finesse and sleight-of-hand at reproducing the expected in a novel way.

A Quick Overview
We know Vito Acconci as one of the key figures of the American avant-garde in performance in the 1970's and 1980's. The pieces we know the best are a group of performances, photo-documented performances and performed video works from a period of eight or so years (1969-77) that have become part of the canon of American performance art. These works include the Following Piece (23 days in 1969), Proximity Piece (52 days in 1970), Claim (1971) Seedbed (1972), and Untitled Project for Pier 17 (1971). Overlapping this burst of performance work was, beginning in the mid 1970's, a group of installation works that situated the viewer as a participant in the work and explored the public/private interaction space of the museum. Here are some examples: Where We Are Now (Who Are We Anyway?) (1976, Sonnabend Gallery-a meeting where not everyone has a place at the table); Middle of the World (1976). These projects take on more and more 'architectural' concerns into the 1980's: Machine for Living (1981); Portable Living (1983) House of Cars (1983)… culminating in an exhibition at MOMA, NY entitled "Public Places" (1998). What is significant is that from the eighties onwards Acconci begins to slip out of a role of artist making so-called 'public art' or 'art in architecture' and is operating more or less fully in the realm of design for public space, landscape and architecture and that the questions and provocations the work has to make are critical engagements with the discourse of design.

This turns us on to the question; what exactly is critical engagement with the discourse of design-culture? Park up the Building and House up the Building (1996) are parasitic structure attached to the modernist facade. Mobile Linear City (1991) is a mobile, public, accordion habitation that pulls into town and stretches out like a worm, as a disruption to urban planning's separation of driving and living, of corporate and domestic. The Storefront for Art and Architecture, designed in 1993, manipulates or animates the very façade that defines a building from the outside or a room from the inside, and takes these basic signifiers of place as precisely the thing to be brought into play, once again literally flipping the public into the private, like the slapstick flipping walls in Buster Keaton's famous parody of building, "One Week". This is the beginning of a formal strategy that continues through much later work, where floors and wall turn into seats and tables, where gardens go vertical, ceilings become ground, where paths wander off-axis and civic space is floated offshore. Courtyard in the Wind (1997) and Mur Island (2002) are two ambitious built projects that seem to have a complete independence from Acconci's earlier 'art' work and shit-disturber persona. We could mistake them for architecture, or landscape architecture. The question arises, now that these designed things live in that world, what do they do that is different from the productions of super-star architects who populate our urban space with feats of visual audacity and inventiveness?

Avant-garde to ?
How do we define notions of criticality embedded in avant-gardist cultural practices in relation to emerging potential for new kinds of criticality in the cross-disciplinary. Cross-disciplinary practices (often discussed in relation to 'new-media' and 'research-creation') coalesce multiple and differing ideas of criticality as well as differing formulations of the relationships of content, audience, space and the location of culture (for example, in the museum, in the theatre, in public space, in virtual space). In the discourse of new-media, dance and architecture have become touchstones in defining and redefining the terms of meaning-making, criticality and the space we are drawn into through cultural practice. The design practice of Vito Acconci demonstrates the kind of philosophical and ideological stress points that can be revealed by cross-disciplinary work in relation to meaning-making, criticality and the conceptualization of space itself. Looking at Acconci, we examine work that is exemplary as a bridge between the heyday of the American avant-garde and contemporary cross-disciplinary and design practices. The avant-garde in visual and performing arts is characterized by strategies of criticality and transgression that gather strands from many sources. Among these strands are the surrealist/Dada tradition, the hermeneutic criticality of the early Frankfurt School and the purely formal audacity of the American avant-garde in sculpture, music and dance (think of John Cage–truly audacious 'abstract' art). We can also include a generation of academic criticism which fixed the 'avant-garde', for better or worse, as a primary enabler of post-1960's theory. How does a definition of art practice which imbibes this 'critical' or transgressive role for art encounters new practices generated from a very different point of view, by virtue of the other fields and stake-holders brought into cross-disciplinary play (academic institutions for research, the dynamic of corporate high-technology, public and urban spaces as animated by mass-culture through technology and information media, and the deeper dynamics of technology itself)?

I'd like to (this is my project) clarify the terms of a certain discomfort that can be clumsily described with the following questions: What happens when the 'transgressive' of the avant-garde meets the universe of 'user friendly'? Is 'WYSIWYG' (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) emblematic of a dynamic where technical competence had replaced performative interplay, and ethics are eclipsed by a false representation of responsiveness? What happens when the world of poetry meets the world of science and the entrepreneur-inventor (when Antonin Artaud meets Thomas Edison, or in the present tense, when Vito Acconci meets Steve Jobs)? Is the iconoclasm and transgressive criticality of the avant-garde, the criticality of 'art' in general and of performance in particular, now a matter of nostalgia, as tired as the rebellious posturing of pop stars? If so, on what basis do we look for a new critical register, not bound to these tropes and strategies, in relation to prevailing conditions? Looking at Acconci-the-architect allows us to refine these questions both in terms of their philosophical and theoretical implications and their importance for meaning-making in contemporary creative practices which now must include design.

The 'Fixing' of Space
In relation to many new-media practices, the space of performance is of prime interest as a hybrid between two encoded cultural spaces; firstly, action grounded in the human body, with its proper perceptual world, and, secondly, the 'without-ground' or 'without body' of new media and the virtual. Acconci's practice has moved in reverse through this connection—from body-based performer to material/spatial designer (according to Acconci's self-described narrative). Movement- and space-based art practices (such as dance and architecture) are a key point of overlap between traditional artistic disciplines and new technology in their ability to confront a culture of information with a culture anchored in the experience of space. How are movement and space 'fixed' or codified by technology and new media? The nature of this 'fixing' should be a significant preoccupation for creative and critical practitioners in the face of new technologies and the reformulations of 'space' they entail. The nature of this 'fixing' is something that Acconci's evolution from body to space is predisposed to question. This questioning about the relation of bodily movement to space as technology would seek to 'fix' it is perhaps (and this very tentatively for now) one of the keys to something we could call one 'critical' zone in contemporary design practices.

The architectural practice of Vito Acconci is, then, compelling on three levels. Firstly, this shift in practice embodies a movement from a defined artistic discipline with an explicit 'audience' to a cross-disciplinary 'public' practice—a deliberate, contradictory gambit outside the art-world, conceived to rupture or resist rather than align itself with predominant work in the fields of architecture, urban design or landscape architecture. The work is generative of a performative engagement for a 'public' that much architecture and design avoids in favour of visual spectacle. Secondly, in the trajectory of Acconci's solo-practice, this cross-disciplinary work appears to abandon artistic tropes and strategies central to his earlier practice, including an oppositional and confrontational 'artist-iconoclast' persona in favour of attempting to embed new forms of criticality within larger social formations, where a construction of the artist's subjectivity as 'event' is not central. Thirdly, perhaps most interestingly, there is the predisposition to examine the 'fixing' or codifying a technological idea of space. When these three things are drawn into a practice of design something quite original is happening. Acconci's is not a project of display. It is a project of self-reflexive inhabitation. The idea of 'criticality' as a predisposition to examine the fixing of the human body in space by technological thinking, can help us see the strategies of Acconci as quite distinct from the epic visual monumentality of 'signature buildings' generated by contemporary architecture and engineering stars.

Can (something like) design be critical in a cultural era where avant-guardist iconoclasm, the subversive uncanny, the audacious purity of minimalism, critical negation or deconstructionist critical displacement have been superseded by a complex conflation of form, style and technology best expressed in the phrase 'user friendly' (and its terrifying artistic corollary, 'interactivity'). How does cultural practice re-situate itself beyond a nostalgia for the avant-garde's subversive strategies in a critical relationship to the managerial presuppositions of a culture of technology, information and entertainment?

Contemporary cultural practice that is uniquely defined in terms of its cross-disciplinarity and explicit use of technology (and design is this practice, par excellence) lives this 'wicked problem'. Acconci's cross-disciplinary metamorphoses is an example of a shift in how criticality can be deployed. With Acconci's architecture, there is an interest in the intimate relationship of body to space and to time as 'un-fixed' that is fundamentally different from masterworks of architecture and the main currents of design where visuality, efficacy and monumentality are the primary experience. So if we say that we are interested in how technology 'fixes' time and space and our relation to it, we see with Acconci a desire to fish out all the 'un-fixed' moments as the moments in which there is the most at stake and the most to be revealed.

Ælab: l'Espace du milieu

Darling Foundry, Montreal / Artpapers, Atlanta: 2011

Since 1996 the artistic duo Ælab (Gisèle Trudel and Stéphane Claude) have been producing installations, environments and multi-media events preoccupied with the life-cradling 'middle zone' between earth and sky. An ongoing major work, light, sweet, cold, dark, crude uses live performance of light, image, off-site feeds and immersive sound to explore ecological issues in an explicit way, focusing particularly on a natural wastewater management ecology pioneered by Dr. John Todd. This latest exhibition, L'espace du milieu has two parts: a 100' x 9' back-projection (cgi generated images of particles of indiscernible scale forming constantly fluctuating patterns) to be viewed while passing on the street or nearby highway, and a gallery installation which creates a heightened experiential space drawing visitors into an environment where their own sensory threshold must adjust in order to begin picking up the subtle aural, visual and visceral effects which are orchestrated in the space. While the exterior projection engages a cursory over-scaled visual experience which is the norm for information-based culture, the threshold sensory environment inside draws us into a zone where we begin to experience ourselves experiencing at the most subtle level. With this shift from earlier information-based work Ælab faces an important question which contemporary art encounters when touching on ecology and technology, namely, how does art hold its politics and how does art cope with an overt intensity of information (language, data or representation) that can easily dominate work and turn it into reportage.

This installation allows the viewer to engage a space which is rich by virtue of a reduction of visual experience to a threshold where the eye, the ear and the rest of the senses are not reading pre-discerned data but rather are feeling out a space in the raw. In doing so the space as we feel it begins to signal a universe of the indiscernible just out of reach of our senses. One arrives in a darkened room. Scaffolding divides the space into three areas which, as they each situate the body, I took as stations. Technology is discretely hidden. The first station is a sound dampened enclosure with a bench on which one can lie in the darkness. Detecting one's weight the bench vibrates or resonates into the body above in what seems like a composed pattern. Our forward-facing senses are re-tuned to the back. This directional reset seems significant. The second station is simply a chair in an area bathed in light and sound. We are facing nothing, however our sitting locates us in the centre of this fluctuating light and sound field which is like a pulse or rhythm which lulls any specific readings in favour of an immersive attentiveness to the surround. The last station is experienced standing or moving, a black screen or scrim, which can be seen from either side, with a kind of simple light projection/reflection which seems akin to theatrical devices for giving the illusion of smoke or water -- a decidedly three-dimensional illusion or tangible-intangible thing, once again situating the viewer on the threshold between the indiscernible and the discernable. Here our visual sense, so apt to decode and build sense, meaning and thing is caught tantalizingly close to its goal and forced to recoil in puzzlement, returning to the other stations and other senses for hints of what lies beneath the floor of sensory experience.

In my description this very tangible spatial-sensorial experience cannot but flatten out. In reality, L'espace du milieu takes us to a space which artists using citations of science or technological experiment can only report on. In slipping the desire to articulate a position or an activism on the macro level of language and information, Ælab actually engages on a level it would otherwise only have pointed to, and in doing so gets closer to the ethical core of their own radical ecology, ( possibly a journey best left to art than to science).

Maria Eichhorn

Vox, Montreal / Artpapers, Atlanta: 2006

Maria Eichhorn: Film, Video, Sound Work [Espace VOX; November 4 to December 16, 2006] features a cross-section of German artist Maria Eichhorn's production. On view are six works that range from documentation of older projects to works that actively engage both the viewer and the exhibition situation here and now. As such, the exhibition exemplifies both the limitations of conceptual or information-art practice and its potential to activate discourse on different levels.

There is an elegant side to conceptualism as object-making. A kind of presentation fetish is now a convention for information-oriented art practice, especially when the work employs non-narrative strategies of institutional critique. A specific presentation lexicon for the gallery has evolved: luxuriously produced and framed documents, display cases, videos, and so on. On the one hand, documentation-as-object allow us access to works that once activated a particular set of conditions, often outside the gallery system. On the other, these quasi-academic, quasi-aesthetic archives make a compromise between the marketplace's presentation requirements, the dictates of the museum or the traveling exhibition, and the realm of (non-visual) critical discourse. At best, these works allow us to think about similar conditions elsewhere. They offer case studies: examples of alternatives whose strategies can be considered in detail as they are now out of the fray. Ultimately, these documentary pieces are no stronger or weaker than a text about the work, they make the work palatable and open to consideration.

Occasionally, documentation-as-object adds an extra dimension by allowing us to consider primary material evidence. Such is the case with Prohibited Imports, 2003, a project that entailed the repeated shipping of a potentially controversial group of books from Germany to Japan, in an effort to provoke the Japanese Custom's practice of censoring books. In the original gallery exhibition in Japan, a display case housed the twenty-four books that, like a scientific probe, had made it through the censoring apparatus. This case is in the current exhibition. A shelf on top allows us to examine two copies of a book of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. One was censored; the other was not. A censored image juxtaposes an extraordinary physical delicacy to metaphorical violence: the contour of the resting penis, which is the center of the photograph, has been meticulously and finely sanded, removing the layer of ink and leaving the white paper beneath.

Film Lexicon of Sexual Practices, 1999-2005, is the exhibition's most compelling work. Its impact results from its precise activation of its context as it implicates the viewer in a set of circumstances predicated on the conditions of reception of the work in the present tense. One enters the gallery to find a projector. Following the artist's explicit directions, a gallery attendant explains that Film Lexicon is a series of three-minute films titled Breast Licking, Ear Licking, Eyes, Mouth, Cunnilingus, French Kissing and Love Bite. We may see one or any number of them. The films themselves are static shots, more or less clinical representations of their titular promises. This both heightens and dries out the level of engagement simultaneously. The work attenuates mystery, exoticism, and transgression, amplifying the sex industry's economic/power relationship. Once you see one film, you know that it won't get more or less interesting. In the absence of pleasure or connection, the piece heightens another kind of exchange: alienation-a condition for commercial pornography-is flipped on its head as the privacy of the website encounter or anonymity of the sex shop is reconfigured into a two-way encounter of an entirely different sort.

Espace VOX resides on a downtown Montreal street best known for its mix of strip clubs, sex shops, major cultural venues, and tourist draws like the International Jazz Festival. The poster for the show, a tasty image from Film Lexicon, is posted on the gallery's storefront, competing with the publicity for the sex-video cabins next door. The city has renamed this area the 'Quartier des spectacles' [Show District] in an effort to tease the global tourist dollar-a branding that depends heavily on the pseudo-gritty mix of sex-strip and tourist promenade. In this context, Eichhorn's Film Lexicon provokes a consideration of the deep contradictions between representation and reality, between desire and commerce.

9 Evenings Reconsidered: Art, Theater and Engineering, 1966

Concordia University, Montreal / artpapers, Atlanta: 2008
with Anja Bock

The 1966 performance series 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering was conceived as an open-ended experiment. What would happen if artists collaborated with engineers in the early phases of a work’s production, thus giving them access to innovative technology as a new creative material? Billy Klüver, the series’ organizer, invited four dancers—Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, and Steve Paxton—as well as two musicians—John Cage and David Tudor—and four visual artists—Robert Rauschenberg, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, and Robert Whitman—to collaborate with over thirty engineers from Bell Laboratories. They developed elaborate performances that were presented over nine evenings in New York’s Armory to audiences of up to a thousand five hundred people.

Curated by Catherine Morris for the MIT List Visual Art Center and adapted for Montreal’s Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery [March 9—April 21, 2007], 9 Evenings Reconsidered: Art, Theatre and Engineering, 1966, includes extensive documentation, artifacts, and a catalogue containing reprints of contemporaneous reviews by Lucy Lippard and Brian O’Doherty as well as new reappraisals. The exhibition allows us to reassess the historical significance of 9 Evenings. It also provokes questions about the restitution of past artistic events and the increasingly dominant role of technology in cultural discourse.

The wealth of documentary materials—color photographs, video footage, sound recordings, excerpts of interviews, and so on—included in 9 Evenings Reconsidered allows us to construct a fairly clear picture of the individual pieces. Taken together, these various sources create a detailed view of the event’s production, which no one sitting in the bleachers in 1966 would have been privy to. This privileging of production over both presentation and representation is questionable. In the “reconsidered” version, we can follow the artistic process and scrutinize some of the devices designed by the engineers, such as Robert Rauschenberg’s modified tennis racquets and archaic-looking relay boards replete with uncountable wires. As such, the exhibition offers up the formal residue of the works for exploration. This emphasis on authentic artifacts and schematic diagrams follows the art world’s auratic conventions. Yet, artwork always requires mediation. In this case, aura is brought to the work by the curatorial framework; it is not in the work in any essential way.

If the exhibition leaves the works’ contents relatively under-interpreted, the catalogue fills in some of the missing information: Lucy Lippard’s and Brian O’Doherty’s 1966 reviews perceptively question the viability of the art-technology nexus in the creation of a new theatrical form and the survival of the avant-garde. Lucy Lippard defines two basic conundrums in the convergence of art and technology that are still relevant today. First, technical errors and miscues often take center stage, in place of a real focus on the synthesis of aesthetic and technological inquiry. Second, the conception of work itself lacks radicality.

9 Evenings made use of technology in ways that are now quite ubiquitous: the amplification or rescaling of audio and visual material, the translation of one effect into another, such as sound into light, the wireless communication of instructions, and the use of sensors to transpose inaudible or invisible effects and data into the range of human perception. The first three are simple extensions of stagecraft, different only in technology from better-known theatrical machinery. The last, particularly in the work of John Cage and Alex Hay, creates the potential for a critical dialogue with technology. None of these projects succeed by virtue of impressive technology. They succeed when technology is critically framed in relationship to the viewer.

Lippard articulates stagecraft failures as a kind of elephant in the room, marring many pieces in 9 Evenings. By contrast, John Cage’s work reveals a different approach to failure and demonstrates a sophisticated and implicitly critical relationship to technology. Variations VII gathered sound signals from many sources: through the electronic “central control” used for the whole event and radios, fans, blenders, offsite microphones, and so on. These feeds were then manipulated and layered into a dense soundscape. As one participant put it, Cage wanted to make a piece using all the sound there is. Variations VII was predicated on a kind of failure. Not only would this utopian totality of sound simply cancel itself out if it could ever succeed, but the technical apparatus itself produced most of the signal, through interference, line hum, short circuits, and so on. Interference was the piece. This was Cage’s critical gesture, which, unlike much of the work in 9 Evenings, engaged the ideological baggage of technology.

Yvonne Rainer’s Carriage Discretions reveals that sometimes technology is only stage machinery. Here, performers moved apparently randomly, interacting with various objects while slapstick films were projected behind. Rainer used radios to communicate instructions to the performers, which were heard as part of the soundtrack. This work shows that, while we have to be attentive to the use of machinery, it need not necessarily be the focus of critical discussion. Many of the uses of technology in 9 Evenings prefigure their use in the following decades. They do not, however, represent shifts in meaning-making any more significant than when, for example, European opera houses began to engage marine engineers to invent the complex rigging of backstage machinery.

Ultimately, the exhibition does not venture past the facts of production, into the discourse generated by the individual pieces. While this may have made it conceptually and logistically unmanageable, this is neither a neutral choice nor a simple matter of institutional capacity: it is a curatorial decision. With every instance of mediation and dissemination, there is inevitably both a loss and a gain of meaning. Nevertheless, choice always figures in the equation. Which information is primary and which is secondary? This is a matter of debate. As such, the curator is always an interpreter. In the end, 9 Evenings Reconsidered implicitly delimits—and limits—the event under the rubric of today’s preoccupation with “new” media, thus continuing the very logic that Lippard criticized: the enhancement of technological effects at the expense of artistic content and a lack of “radical” ambitions.

Co-sponsored by the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art and Science and Concordia University’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, the Montreal version of 9 Evenings Reconsidered reflects the lasting desire to frame the event as a precursor to a discipline of art and technology. By contrast, Cage’s foregrounding of interference as content and Rainer’s relegation of technology to a supporting role in the service of wider meaning reveal two rigorous approaches to the use of technology. The import of the original 9 Evenings was its interrogation of the neo-avant-garde’s oppositional tactics, which, as O’Doherty argues, had become conventional by 1966. Today, 9 Evenings Reconsidered shows us the distance traveled. It allows us to question the reinstatement of beaux-artsdisciplinary territoriality around a particular medium—even if it is “new.” Nevertheless, some of the work also reasserts the rich potential of these crossdisciplinary trajectories. This is the significance of 9 Evenings Reconsidered.

—Anja Bock and Andrew Forster

Vues de Beyrouth (Videos from Beirut)

Galerie B-312, Montreal / Artpapers, Atlanta: 2006
videos by: Ziad Antar and Marc Casal Liotier, Mireille Eid Astore, Mansour El-Habre, Khaled Ramadan, Rima Saab, Louma Salamé, Shawki Youssef, Akram Zaatari

This program of  videos curated by Ricardo Mbarak and Wadih Safieddine includes work both by artist who are relatively well known outside Lebanon (such as Akram Zaatari whose work has been seen at the Sydney and Sao Paulo biennales) as well as artists whose work has not been widely circulated. Several exhibitions of the work of Lebanese artists such as 'Out of Beirut' at Modern Art Oxford (UK) this year and the wide circulation of the work of Walid Raad / The Atlas Group attest to a desire for an alternate view on the events of the last decade in the middle east and in Lebanon in particular. Though widely varied the works of these artists present an attempt to re-witness or reprocess decades of conflict and foreign intervention not through the distorting eye of the media but through the creative methodologies of cultural production. It is the power of the imagination to make conjecture and creative propositions in the real world which fact-based methodologies like journalism, politics, and the social sciences simply can not approach because of their responsibility to divide 'fact' from 'conjecture' (which is possibly no more that a form of sanitization).

It is one thing to judge works of art with an eye to relative quality in the terms of the criteria of contemporary international art and it is quite another to approach this work as a continuing and necessary collective unfolding of the construction of truth, history and event in a region constantly being interpreted through journalism with its preoccupation with facts and news, where history is written not only by the victors but through the casual expediency of the media, where image dominates analysis and the news event is valued precisely because it can be presented as a surprise with no roots in historical or lived reality. These videos have a vital place in our world because we need to know more. The quality of these works, in formal terms, is quite variable and the strategies occasionally clumsy but together they are evidence of the slow processing that the trauma of violent disruption entails. The tapes predominantly deal with the civil war (1975-1991) and its aftermath, slowly sifting through 'the facts' to uncover something real,  to make lived sense out of it - a need which is ongoing so many years later. Further, they offer alternative ground for assessing the most recent violent acts such as the Harriri assassination and the Israeli invasion.

Mishwar by Ziad Antar and Marc Casal Liotier deals directly with the aftermath of war as Hadi searches for confirmation of the fate of his brother who disappeared during the conflict. Told through interviews juxtaposed to recent shots of public demonstrations surrounding the Syrian withdrawal the video reinforces the continuity between past and current events. He knows that it is his brother's body which has be exhumed from a grave because he recognizes the t-shirt his brother was wearing but he is waiting for confirmation of DNA evidence from France before telling his mother. The wait for scientific proof which will allow closure for the family is agonizing and in fact does not happen in the video. We are left suspended between doubt and certainty like so many caught in the massive erasure of continuity that is one of the unseen destructions of armed conflict.

Akram Zaatari's In This House attempts to rebuild continuity and memory in a different way. Ali, a member of the leftist Lebanese resistance sits with a portrait of Che Guevara in the background and recalls a house which his group commandeered and used for six years. He recalls how, out of respect for the family whose owned the house, they refrained from causing unnecessary damage, carefully removing windows, not destroying tiles and not using the family olive tree for firewood. Preparing to leave the house, Ali buried a letter in the garden to explain the actions of his group. Zaatari and a laborer return ten years later and begin digging for the letter. For most of a day they do not find it, casting doubt on the specific facts of memory, and various neighbors and officials comment on the process. The dig is interminable, casual and quite humorous. In the end the canister appears and the letter is read out loud confirming both Ali's story and the fragility of memory as record.

  1. Curators: Ricardo Mbarak, Wadih Safieddine

Vida Simon: Excavation Drawings

Performance-installation in a hotel room October 10 to 15, 2006, Hôtel de la Montagne, Montreal /
Fuse Magazine, 2008

Vida Simon's Excavation Drawings was a performance which took place in a hotel room over six consecutive days. An art-audience visited this space outside the normal cultural circuit, waiting in the lobby to be escorted up to the room where the artist was living, dreaming and drawing. The room’s surfaces were covered with newsprint; the floor, walls, sofa and all the furniture. On the evening I visited, a tear in this neat ‘inside skin’ makes a hole through which I could see the dresser mirror. The windows look out over downtown. If one wished one could go out onto the balcony and look down de la Montagne towards St-Catherine (around the corner is the hotel where John and Yoko conducted a worldwide media event). The artist made eye contact, a kind of welcome or acknowledgement that we are not strangers, or don’t have to be, that we are both confined and not necessarily confined in a theatrical construction. In this instant there is a deft and precise articulation of the special rules of this real but exceptional situation. For a few minutes we are to convene within this exception. Then the performer slides into the chair-space under the desk, curls her back against us and is gone. My companion and I explore the room which is littered with charcoal drawings, some simple, like note takings, some worked and heavy with soot. A few drawings are pinned to a line stretching across the room.

Eventually Simon comes out from under the desk to write stories on the paper-covered floor at our feet for us to read (one story is about the chamber maid who came to visit, who came to work, and may have been alarmed by what she saw). She works on drawings and interrupts this concentrated activity at one point to hand us walnuts as a gift. She never speaks. Simon works with charcoal in our presence, erasing, rubbing, drawing and writing, erasing again, until each piece of Arches paper has, it seems, held and released a thousand thoughts and images. These stories-as-drawing emerge from the process of living, eating and sleeping in this place. Some are about growing up not far from here; sometimes they are surreal and autobiographical, sometimes more political. They are about a personal history of this place but also touch on matters of urban culture, economic disparity and in another mode of inquiry (in academia) they might be defined as urbanism. As visitors we witness a slice of this inquiry, the accumulated dreams-on-paper, stories told through the writing and gesture. In an inversion of normal artist-run performance practice we only see a fragment of a longer process (a half-hour out of six days) rather than an event which is a highly compressed and heightened moment or 'show'. I find this distinction important. Even if we could consult the archive of drawings, a whole is not accessible since many drawings took place on every sheet.

Excavation Drawings also involves a writing collaboration with Canadian poet Erin Moure. A text on Excavation Drawings is available in the room. Though physically contained in a pamphlet on a table by the door, conceptually this text expands outwards into a new geography. Like the clothesline of drawings, it cuts a rich diagonal across this plane, across the room and out into spaces beyond. In conventional terms this is a cross-disciplinary collaboration. Better to say they breathe together for a while. A little duet in which our reading crosses her drawing crosses her writing and enucleates a few more layers of this imagined space laid-up over the richness of this real space. Moure’s text, in English, French and Galician, draws on her own preoccupation with translation as a boundary-crossing and redrawing act. To translate is to redraw language on a different ground, on a different basis of knowledge. Why this deliberate subversion, sub-version? Moure writes,

To be hearing then a translation practice opening, a practice of interpretation conducted under closed-air conditions: the sound of charcoal, motion, rubbing that extends and opens time’s small room or “cabina.”… There is an element thus of swim in this excavation of erasure and setting down, till all that forms the “pictural” is the gesture itself, the floating bowl que reborda fluídico, and real spoon, “a dream of ash teeth”… the burnt fist of wood, madeira queimada, and the calcination, out of ash, (is there still, yet, metaphor) comes gesture, as if ash is not the end but is a diction, a fistula, passage outward.

What is left of Excavation Drawings is the last layer worked out of each drawing and the last draft of Mouré’s text. Layers of charcoal and typeset words become a metaphor for memory. Or become memory. The material itself becomes a sign of transformation and occasionally of mortal dread; soot caked on the inner surfaces of being. Charcoal dust is transformed into depictions of charred forest, of shelters, of graves. Simon performs in striped pajamas, simultaneously whimsical in the rhyming of a childlike morning playfulness and ominous as a faint echo of concentration camp uniform. This work seems to treasure the complexity of multiple meanings. At the same time the process is articulated by an awareness of the theatrical devices being used. I am not very interested in drawing, but I come and sit, and I am 'drawn to' by Simon: drawing becomes storytelling, communication in the present tense, rather than object making or archiving of experience. Performance art (which I am only tentatively more interested in than drawing) is twisted out of its cabaret event-splash cliché and becomes an action of meditative duration with which we interact for a few moments.

I was interrupted in writing this review by seeing a interview with Jean Genet, recorded in the writer’s last years. The interviewer prods for biographical details. Genet squirms and gently rebuffs. What further meaning is to be taken from the facts of his life as a piece of theatre? Is his homosexuality a political act? He likens the interview to a police interrogation. Eventually, exasperated by the situation he asks the film crew (who can’t be seen) if they would not like to put an end to this, push him off the chair, flip this ridiculous and conventional construction. The interviewer has tried to reinforce the image of Genet as a rebel and iconoclast but Genet seems to know that the real subversion lies elsewhere than the surface image of rebellion reinforced by biographical anecdotes. How do you pass the time? I eat in restaurants and watch people… Where do you live? In Morocco… You have a house? I live in a hotel…

Genet sees a distinction between the image of rebellion which the interviewer is trying to mine and the actual forms and boundaries which hem our thinking and need to be carefully and knowingly stressed into rupture. He refuses to be corralled on the surface of things, insisting on the right to provoke below the surface and across boundaries in such a way that no single work remains safely in its genre, but rather they become ‘events’ (as opposed to a representation of a position), spilling across boundaries to provoke conversation in the realm of the social. I like this as a definition of performance. I see the image of hotel room which Genet pokes towards the interviewer as a refusal of family and normalcy, an acknowledging of class division, of passage as the only permanence, of separateness and solitude as givens of human existence. To ‘inhabit’ a hotel is emblematic of the normalness of these things; an unbinding of the static fabric of normalcy. In this sense the room is a trope, a word at play. And John and Yoko’s hotel room down the street is much different yet at play in the same way. And Simon’s room also.

Do performance art practitioners sometimes only mimic the postures and the tropes of outrageousness, supplied by the archive of performance practice; repeating the event-style of the happening, the shock of the stressed body or the cabaret of transgression? We have entered the era of the professional marginal artist where the image of marginality we cultivate may to some extent only be conventional thinking, marginally funded. The challenge to artists is to weave a path out of this ‘marginal as normal’, to understand the theatre of culture in a different way and to activate or engage it on layers other than the most obvious. It is precisely this block which draws me towards performance. In this sinking ship I search from room to room for portholes which lead away from a repetition of formal strategy. In this context the evolution of Genet’s subversions (sub-versions) are a useful reference.

In this preoccupation I have learned something from Vida and Erin in their excavations. With Excavation Drawings the points of escape come in between the layers of language and the mapping of knowledge; in the translation. Not on the biographer’s surface, not on the surface of the everyday, not on the surface of polished professional moves, but in the poetic excavation. Heroic upheaval can sometimes be passed over in favour of a careful dig in the light of a subtle understanding of this theatre of culture -- the activated space between the work and the visitors. Simon’s Excavation Drawings begins this exploration at a place where I would not have expected it. A little escape hatch has opened in a wall made of paper.

I Don't Wanna Be in your Fuckin' Movie: Negotiating the Cinematic Eye in the Recent Work of Andrew Forster

Prefix Photo, Toronto / 2008

On March 24, 2004, television audiences around the world watched as, on the command of Israeli soldiers, a young Palestinian boy cut off the explosives that encased his chest. Hassam Abdo would have died that day along with the soldiers at the West Bank checkpoint he intended to destroy. Reports state that the fourteen-year-old began running toward the soldiers. They aimed their guns and shouted at him to stop; he raised his arms in surrender. A yellow robot was sent to him with scissors. The boy stood alone in front of the cameras, confused and frustrated, struggling to follow shouted instructions, trying to keep his hands up. Once disarmed he was paraded in front of the press in an army coat that was so many times too big for him that it extended to his knees. It was an unforgettable image. Both terrorist and victim, murderer and innocent, Abdo now takes his place in the iconography of war.

One of the central questions for artists who turn their attention to the unfolding of contemporary life is how to prevent political events from becoming reified into icons that pull at the heartstrings, but do little to transmit historical specifics. "Like a miniature guillotine, a camera shutter slices an image from the world," writes Abigail Solomon-Godeau.(1) How, then, does one keep the image alive so as to maintain an open and ongoing dialogue? Contemporary artists have at their disposal a material arsenal and a poetic vocabulary that can preserve the vitality of images and prevent their closure for propagandistic purposes.

Hassam Abdo's strange "dance" between life and death forms the basis of two recent works by the Montréal artist Andrew Forster. Cinéma: O fim de Orfeu (2004) is a multidisciplinary performance that was held at the S.A.T. (Société des arts technologiques) in Montréal from October 12 to 15, 2004.2 MOAT (2005)is an evolving video installation that was produced in collaboration with Michael Fernandes and first screened at Space in London from September 15 to October 8, 2005.(3) The two works have many common elements: the television footage of Abdo's surrender and its re-enactment by various performers; the incorporation of live sound and action from their respective sites (the park adjacent to the S.A.T. and in the moat around the Canadian embassy on Trafalgar Square in London); their attesting to the pervasiveness of the 'cinematic eye' and its ability to penetrate private and public space; and the confusion of the distinctions between fact and fiction, then and now, here and there.

However, the ways in which these elements are deployed in each work differ greatly, and their formal devices prevent easy assumptions. While it may be said that these works are about terrorism, surveillance and trauma, many other things may be added to this list: exploitation, sensationalism, media manipulation, geopolitics, etc. However relevant these issues may be, Cinéma and MOAT both take definitive measures to prevent any equivalence between them as signs and the referents to which they point. More interesting than what they are about is what they do: by putting audience members in an ambiguous position relative to what they are seeing, these works insist that viewers define for themselves the action they take when watching other people in public space or on the evening news. It is this 'work' that Cinéma and MOAT demands of viewers that extends the relevance of these projects beyond illustration and into the realm of political engagement.

Cinéma: O fim de Orfeu

The audience shuffles into a makeshift black-box theatre. The seats face toward one of the floor-to-ceiling windows that constitute the walls of this street-level venue. I take my seat three-quarters of the way up, on the aisle - my preferred spot in a movie house. The house lights dim, and with them our reflections in the window. The music begins, and the window is blurred by a curtain of running water. Nothing can be seen on or through this cinema's 'screen' but the flow of water and the refracted light coming from the street outside. The bent colours of florescent signs and street lamps merge into each other to make a shimmering tapestry of light. The effect is mesmerizing. The continuous stream solicits a memory of primordial waters, hypnotizing the audience into some sort of netherworld. We hear the footsteps of Orpheus in his manic search through Hades for his beloved Eurydice. "Orpheus!" she yells, cracking her voice. "Eurydice!"(4) The show has begun.

As the water runs dry, the curtain lifts to reveal the Parc de la paix - a grassy city block of the type common to many urban centres, with a few trees and a cluster of benches. Located at the intersection of St. Laurent and René-Lévesque boulevards, this park is used by a mix of office workers, street people, clubbers, drug dealers and sex workers. Two teenagers move a 'No Parking' sign ahead by a metre to allow for their car; a man in a pick-up truck pulls up to the curb to negotiate a trick; a couple argues and splits off to different ends of the park before coming back to centre stage to argue some more; drug money changes hands. At the same time, two women walk slowly around the park, deeply immersed in conversation; a man sweeps the park at random; another man shuffles picket signs that state 'oui' and 'non' as though waiting for a demonstration; another circles the park on his bicycle; and yet another sits and plays the kalimba.

It is uncertain what is scripted and what is happenstance.(5) This lack of clarity is further complicated by the fact that the audio track is a mix of both live and pre-recorded elements. We hear the kalimba, but we see that the player has put his instrument down. We hear the traffic roar up St. Laurent, but we see that all the cars are stopped at the light. Again, the curtain of water interrupts the unfolding narrative. It breaks the scene into disjointed fragments that we imaginatively construct into a story in order to ward off the threat that ellipses introduce: Did the argument end with a kiss or a slap in the face? Did the jock get sick of waiting or did his friend arrive? We do not want to admit that our perceptions are as jagged and contingent, so we plot, project, assume and concoct the missing conjunctions. Popular preference is for clearly defined roles, for stereotypes over ambiguity. Here, the stress of not knowing is amplified, as it is almost impossible to sort out what we are looking at and who is who. Are we watching a performance or are we spying on people? It is unclear on which side of the gates to Hades we sit.

In the midst of the dense visual imagery and poetic soundtrack, one performer begins to command our attention. He is a middle-aged man with glasses, dressed in an ordinary business suit and trench coat. We might perceive him to be a regular visitor to the park, except for the fact that his movements are evidently scripted. He is accompanied by a woman who appears to be calling out the orders for his gestures and then helping him with his coat at the end of each sequence. The gestures are those of Hassam Abdo and they echo the orders that we imagine he received at the hands of the Israeli soldiers: hands in the air, take off your coat, reach out and pick up the scissors, cut off the shoulder straps, cut through the vest, hands up! Repeatedly, we see the man perform this series of gestures as though a video were rewinding back to the beginning.

At one point, the performer breaks the rhythm of the sequence and marches up to the glass windows. An image of Abdo is printed on the front of his shirt. He turns quickly and walks away, revealing on his back an iconic image of the Holocaust: a young Jewish boy with bare knees surrendering to the guns pointed at his back during an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. His hands are held high in the air. He is another child victim reified by the camera into an image of a merciless war, but such connections are precarious and Forster's message is far from clear.

Cinéma is not a movie. There is no happy ending that ties it all together. In fact, it never really ends at all, as the visitors to this park continue to inhabit it on an ongoing basis. During the day, they can be observed from any of the hundreds of windows that face onto the park, including those of the S.A.T., which has a café that is convenient for such purposes. The invisible barrier of glass temporarily divides the world between 'surveyors' and 'surveyed,' subjects and objects, between those with the power to look and those who are looked at. The audience has the privilege of sitting inside in the dark watching the actions unfold at a comfortable distance. The activities of sex trade and crack deals are both shocking and run-of-the-mill in our culture. Many audience members were angered by what they saw, seeing perhaps for the first time the destitution that is usually glossed over, the reality that fails to be represented by mainstream media. Others were enthralled by the action and revelled in it, seeing at last an image of reality that is more spectacular, raw and 'real' than previous representations - a more credible special effect.

Andrew Forster asks, "What is the use of art in the face of political and social conditions which appear to be beyond our control?"(6) Despite their different responses, both groups of audience members responded to what they perceived to be real, the facts among the fiction. This reality surrounds each of us every day, but is usually only observed in detail by the police. For most of us, it is what goes on inside another black box: the television. In this context, the viewer is always on the safe side, watching the other being surveyed, profiled and interrogated. This oppositional dynamic has worn down viewers' ability to respond emotionally. Audiences have become increasingly desensitized by the proliferation of horrific images in both documentary and fictional accounts; some viewers suffer secondary traumatization. The market value of pain and violence and a cultural obsession with trauma continues to gain momentum, so how can we intervene in this process and slow it down enough to be able to interject our own intelligence? Each time we hear "Really, it was just like being in a movie," how can we restore the reality of our experiences without the intermediary of sensationalized images? How can we turn the insatiable cinematic eye into another kind of perspective that is capable of opening things up rather than pinning them down, that allows for empathy and participation rather than objectification?

During one of the four presentations of Cinéma, a First Nations woman who frequents the park yelled at and punched a performer before slapping and pushing two others. Mocking the central actor, she screamed: "Hands up, baby, hands up! Now take off your pants! Hey, Suicide! You take pictures of us! I don't wanna be on camera! I'll smash the fuckin' camera! Cameras out of here! I don't need this fuckin' movie!"(7) While there were no cameras in use, Cinéma's crew, whether empathizing or patronizing, was nonetheless trespassing on her territory. The relevance of art is often difficult to assert when other needs are more pressing, when food, shelter and personal safety are lacking. One viewer walked out of the black box and into the park, breaking the cinematic illusion before returning to her seat. This interpretive intervention reinforced the fact that these images are not mere streams of light being projected onto an opaque surface: the people being viewed are real. Her response was to participate in the performance so as to demonstrate the continuity of space shared by park- and Cinéma-goers alike. But the space that Cinéma opens up is not consensual and the possibility of immediate access to the events in the park is an illusion. The screen may be transparent, but that makes it no less operative.(8)

Indeed, Cinéma is precisely a mediating machine. By obscuring our vision and scrambling our sense of time and space - by making the ideological barrier of glass visible - Cinéma forces us to acknowledge that what we see is a result of our own projections. The audience is the cinematographer here, adding a particular slant to given events. The narratives of the Parc de la paix can be encoded in various ways, with exploitation and voyeurism marking the extreme poles of abhorrence and enthrallment. Cinéma is in no way didactic or prescriptive: Forster places the burden of interpretive responsibility on the viewer. Yet sitting inside the surveying apparatus limits the range of possibilities. One audience member summarized his experience by saying, "What I hated most about it was that I hated who I was when I was there, because we all just sat there." At the opposite extreme, another viewer said that she resented being put on display in a fish bowl. The experiences of these two viewers differ greatly, demonstrating that the "I" is not necessarily congruent with the "eye" or the "oculus" of the mediating machine.

There are, of course, other possible reactions, as well. Perhaps the most condescending and dehumanizing response a viewer could have is pity. The woman's demonstration of anger also demonstrates the danger of infantilizing the disenfranchised, the 'poor' poor. Pity increases the distance, whereas empathy brings its object closer. Yet empathy also has its inherent dangers: bringing it too close would be to deny difference and annihilate the other within the self by making it the same. The risk of over-identification must be curbed by maintaining a certain distance. Hassam Abdo's gestures, re-enacted and repeated into absurdity by a seeming businessman in a park half way around the world, allow for an empathic link of identification to be established with the young boy, and the marked differences between them ensure that they are not welded together by borrowed emotions. 'There' is now here in our midst, abstracted and turned into art, and yet more nuanced and complex than when presented behind layers of media 'takes.'

At the end of the performance, the documentary footage of Hassam Abdo plays on a translucent screen near the ceiling. What does our experience of Cinéma add to our understanding of these few minutes of world history? And what does our awareness of the historical source of the repeated gestures add to our understanding of Cinéma? As is often said, the answers we get depend on the questions we ask.

The house lights go up and we stare again at our own reflections in the glass. Now blind to the park, the audience is in the position of the seen object, not the seeing subject. Power can always be reversed. Many of the issues raised by Cinéma are further extended in Forsters video installation MOAT, which was shot and screened one year later in London. It explicitly editorializes on the previous work and is more pointed in its commentary. What was left open for interpretation in Cinéma is now more definitive: it addresses terrorism and suicide, as well as the political abstractions that obliterate the connections between events in order to erase the trail of cause and effect.

Using C.C.T.V. surveillance technology, MOAT mixes live footage from the site at which it is showing (in this case, the foyer of the Space gallery) with prerecorded materials documenting a diverse range of subjects, including the performance in Trafalgar Square and the moat encircling the Canadian Embassy, the capture of Hassam Abdo, a re-enactment of Abdo's movements, muskoxen in the Canadian arctic, a kite flying in the air. The screen is divided into four sections so that the viewer can see more than one site simultaneously, as would be necessary for a security guard. But occasionally the screen is full and a single quadrant is also divided in four: the sequence is governed by an indiscernible logic. In addition to diegetic sound, MOAT's soundtrack includes voice-overs drawn from news broadcasts, the performers and the angry First Nations woman in the Parc de la paix in Montréal. Dogs bark; the Kalimba plays. Tony Blair repeatedly insists on the need to 'protect' ourselves in the face of terrorism. There is no connection between the subway bombings in London and the war in Iraq, he says, as does his Home Secretary. Their spin of 'no connection' is rehearsed. MOAT asks us to imagine such possible connections. Forster has assembled all of these disparate events as if to ask, how? What could be the connection between the angry commentary, the attacks in London and Abdo's suicide mission? "Of course, there is no direct connection between them, is there," says the narrator, "but I imagine that there is one that we can be drawn into, that can be drawn into a consideration of here and there." The voice-over continues:

The situation of the Indigenous people of northern Québec and Labrador, which includes one of the highest suicide rates in the world, is a dark undertow beneath the carefully groomed and presented image of Canada. It is possibly an undertow which reverberates seismically with situations elsewhere, both as contemporary reality and as the outflow of parallel historical actions?
While this text is being narrated, the young boy's gestures are endlessly re-enacted by different performers, as if trying to connect to each other and the world around them by way of ritualized movement.

As in Cinéma, this exaggerated repetition in MOAT establishes a link that cuts across conceptual and geographical barriers. But what becomes much more clear is the nature of the collaboration between the performers. What Forster describes as 'a puppet and puppet-master dialogue between a Palestinian boy with explosives strapped to his chest and his well-armed captors'(9) no longer yields to such easy oppostitions. In one corner of the split-screen video, we see two performers, one enacting Abdo's 'dance' and the other embodying the Israeli military's voice, as in Cinéma. What is different here is that the two performers engage in a process of improvisational action and reaction. The 'soldier' gently takes the arm of the 'boy' and places it across his chest, for example, an action to which the boy replies by bringing his other arm down and around to meet it. Although the choreographic framework is that of Abdo's gestures, this collaboration distributes the responsibility; to ask which action was first is futile. What becomes clear in this duet is the fact that identities are always mutually produced in context, mutually dependent and mutually defining. By insisting on the materiality of the two bodies, Forster emphasizes that Abdo's 'dance' is a site of intersubjective identification and difference. The media often presents identities as though they were essential, as though people have specific attributes for no particular reason; that "they are just like that." But in actuality the formation of identity is a reciprocal process of co-production.

Forster's use of duet also heightens the sense of intimacy between captor and captive: the shouted voice is replaced by a silent touch. In the original 'puppet show,' the camera is at the command of the Israeli army and follows the direction of the soldier's orders. In MOAT the distance over which the soldier's voice reached is collapsed and he is in the same space as the boy. As such the eye is drawn into the action, as well, no longer bound to the point of view of an oculus behind security barriers. Viewers can now follow the touch rather than the camera, contradicting the media spectacle and allowing for a drastic redefinition of the event.

There is yet another issue that the repetition of gestures impresses upon the viewer: the incessant repetition of trauma. I do not refer to Hassam Abdo directly but rather to the trauma produced by the subsequent release and circulation of his image, which functions as an event in its own right. Traumatic events, by definition, cannot be integrated into the coping mechanisms that we have at our disposal and, for that reason, exceed comprehension. Abdo's gestures are re-enacted in Montréal and London as if trying to break through into representation. Despite the media's struggle for control over his image, the image itself is not able to communicate effectively due to its many internal contradictions. "Imagine a boy at a checkpoint in Nablus," asks the narrator:

Imagine the choices that suicide offers and the choices that it reveals. Imagine what we call the state of mind. Imagine suicide as a desperate act, as an enlightened act, as a murderous act, as an act of war, as an expression of reality, as a threat to the values we hold dear, as an indiscriminate act. Imagine.
It is the opacity of Abdo's gestures that comes to the fore through their seemingly infinite reenactment in MOAT. Repetition is a way of melancholic processing that will hopefully integrate the traumatic experience and thereby release into mourning. But if turning off our televisions could be seen as a hygienic way to mourn and forget within a split second, MOAT keeps the action in continuous sight, allowing it to cut in before cutting out. As such it is grafted onto external circumstances, allowing it to transform in significance rather than remaining a frozen 'slice.'

In light of the traumatic events of the early twenty-first century, clinical erasure is highly undesirable, as is extending their purview. What Forster seeks to accomplish in MOAT is both integrating the experience into a larger geopolitical structure and opening a space for independent thought through the poetic language of art. His eye is on the future despite the repetition of the past. At another point in the video, the voice-over poses a seemingly endless list of questions: Whaddya gonna do when it turns out the other guy is right? When it doesn't matter? When your clothes run out? When it rains all day? Whaddya gonna do now that the wall is down? Now that summer is gone? Now that we are exposed? Now that we know the past?

Although these questions are oppressive in the sense that we could also imagine the question, "Whaddya gonna do when there's no more oxygen?," they function to loosen our assumption of "the way it is." They point to the possibility of change. The image on the screen shows Michael Fernandes in the moat around Canada House, an ambiguous frontier that echoes defense measures that long preceded continuous C.C.T.V. surveillance. He appears to be flying a kite, but there is no kite to be seen. It is gone, just like the bombs, but is held in the memory of the body. But unlike the bombs, which speak of contested borders, war and violence, the kite carries with it the connotation of free open space and far-off aspirations.

Orpheus shuttled back and forth between two worlds for love. Artists play the role of Orpheus in our society, but the romance is gone. Violence on an unforeseen scale marks our contemporary reality. The objective is no longer to transcend, but rather to descend. In answer to Forster's question, the 'use' of art in the face of poltical conditions that seem beyond our control is precisely this: to crack through the conventions of representation in order to retrieve what is not being addressed down in the hell of the real, and to raise these things to the surface so that they can be discussed and negotiated. Cinéma allows viewers to observe but not to see clearly, thereby throwing into question the knowledge gained by surveillance and demonstrating the imbalance of power implicit in the apparatus of the cinematic eye. By contrast, MOAT offers the illusion of transparency that surveillance cameras provide, but scrambles the footage so as to question its assumption of coherence and to open the possibility of poetic connections between disparate events. In the first, one sits inside the oculus itself; in the second, the camera is already set. It sees us and we see what it sees - we are both suspect and guard, victim and assailant. To the long list of questions, I would like to add: Whaddya gonna do now that the lines are blurred? that the way is wrong? that the real is bleeding? that the gates are open?

  1. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "Remote Control: Abigail Solomon-Godeau's Dispatches from the Image Wars," Artforum 41.10 (Summer2004): 61, 64.
  2. The following individuals collaborated with Andrew Forster on the creation and presentation of Cinéma: O fim de Orfeu: Robert Schweitzer, Monique Romeiko, Marie-Andre Rho, Michael Fernandes, Solomon Diaz, Rainer Wiens, Didier Delfolie-Noulin, Speranza Spiratos (performers); Rainer Wiens (music); Nathalie Claude, Michael Fernandes (voice recording); Francois Girouard, Eric Duval (technicians); and Jack Stanley (technical consultant).
  3. In addition to Andrew Forster and Michael Fernandes, the following performers participated in MOAT: Robert Schweitzer, Cecelia Chen, Karsten Kroll and Nicolas Borello.
  4. Of the described actions, the walking, sweeping, picketing, cycling and playing were performed by Cinéma collaborators.
  5. From the press release for Cinéma.
  6. This incident was audio-recorded and subsequently played in the soundtrack for MOAT.
  7. Two previous works by Andrew Forster also address the ideological function of a barrier of glass. In Flex (2003), a friendly crowd hits, slaps and pounds the window at the S.A.T. (which had piano microphones amplifying the sound into the interior space). In Ost (2001), the work's title ("east" in German) appears on a window facing east over Montréal's former industrial centre.
  8. From the narration of MOAT.


Stephen Horne

B-312, Montreal / Canadian Art

Andrew Forster, like Bettina Hoffmann, another compelling Montreal-based video-installation artist, has relied on the cyclical gesture to structure his recent performance and video work. In 2005, he presented MOAT, a performance event in London's Trafalgar Square that comprised live video mixed with pre-recorded materials. Cinema (2004) was an ambitious and confrontational performance split into two parts; one was staged in a public Montreal park and the other in a glass-fronted theatre space across the street. Each site presented its performers as the audience for the other performance.

Duet (2008), Forster's latest video installation, extends his interest in the motif of cyclical repetition by staging a Sisyphean program of unproductive labour. One set of images is presented on a small flatscreen monitor in the gallery office; viewers discover them (or not) by chance. The imagery is vaguely recognizable; it has been appropriated from television news feeds and features a young boy struggling to remove what appears to be an explosive vest resembling those worn by suicide bombers.

The second video is projected in a black room. We inevitably enter at a random point in the work's narrative; however, it's not long before the story concludes and the actions repeat: a man in a suit and tie removes his jacket, his tie and finally his shirt, leaving him in trousers and a T-shirt. The T-shirt he struggles with, as if some hidden force is impeding its removal. A woman appears and begins to assist the man, and also to calm him. The success of the T-shirt's removal is undercut by the video looping back to its beginning, with the whole process of removal starting anew. The man's gestures resemble those of the boy in the news images. In this way, the small screen seems to be presenting the source or origin of the performance in the projection.

The protagonists' behaviour reverberates at a greater level as well. The two performers' actions go nowhere-they are subject to fragmentation and repetition, and in this are microcosms of the films themselves, which are structured by cyclical repetition. The performers' isolation mirrors our own, their frustration proportionate to our desire to grasp or exert control over the work of art.

Forster's work takes the form of a narrative that fails to narrate, of time caught in a loop. The ensuing sense of remoteness asks us to rethink the nature of our attachment to the other-an ambitious but rewarding prospect.



144 duotone images. A book of self-composed portraits; people looking at their own reflection in the mirror. Each photograph is taken from behind the subject, the camera looking over his or her shoulder towards the reflected image. The mirror allows each sitter to compose themselves for their portrait, seeing themselves exactly as they will be photographed, the camera capturing what is normally a private moment, before the mirror, putting on the face each of us presents to the world. The subjects see themselves being seen, and are seen (by the photograper and by the viewer) looking at their own image. (published by Nexus Press, Atlanta & Burning Ediditions, Montreal)


Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, Halifax / 2008
DVD + catalogue: introduction by curator Robin Metcalfe; essay by Anja Bock and Stephen Horne

DVD and catalogue documenting the exhibition Duet-Trio-Quartet at Saint Mary's University Art Gallery, Halifax, 2008. Contains excerpts from the video Duet and documentation of the installation Trio. Available from Saint Mary's University Art Gallery.