Art & Development

Recent, future, random

A random round-up of things I’ve seen or are looking forward to:


Robert Irwin‘s rambling, 50-MPH monologue at Mills College. I couldn’t sum up what he said — comparing Modernism to a cup of Coke, and proposing an array of realms of art rather than a hierarchical pyramid — but I’m pretty sure it was brilliant. I should probably re-visit Lawrence Weschler’s biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees after all the other books I’m reading, or intending to read (Ranciere’s The Future of The Image and Beyond Visual Perspective by Gaetano Curreri-Alibrand. Yikes!). Cheers to Mills for bringing such an influential and erudite artist to the East Bay.

Valentine’s Day Celebration at Glide Memorial Church.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area all my life, but I am taking time to appreciate quintessentially San Franciscan experiences like visiting Glide, a Unitarian church whose openness, political activism and community service is a prime example of powerful faith-based progressive work. M and I attended the service on the suggestion of a friend, who was performing an excerpt of The Erica Chong Shuch Performance ProjectsLove Everywhere, a beautiful, tender dance/theater/music performance on love and marriage equality—the civil rights struggle of our time. It was really profound to have the time and space to celebrate love in all of its manifestations—unconditional love, the love of one’s community, to love fiercely and courageously—on Valentine’s Day. (How many red teddy bears does anyone need anyway?) More often, what’s needed is a reminder to look beyond your immediate situation towards community, and to be in spaces where you are accepted as you are. To love and be beloved.

Collaborative installation by Chris Bell, Elaine Buckholtz, and Floor Van Herreweghe at SF Arts Commission Window Space, 155 Grove Street, San Francisco
For Chain Reaction 11, artists were invited to nominate other artists to exhibit at SFAC. One chain went beyond the call and developed a collaborative installation that fills the window site with a sculpture, video and light work, and spills onto Grove with a moody, Sam Shepard-esque musical component. It’s wonderfully unexpected and surreal, and it’s one of my favorite art things that I’ve seen of late. I urge you to visit it, especially at nighttime. It’s on view 24/7 at 155 Grove Street through May 16.


Friday, February 19, 7-10pm: Opening Reception
Blow As Deep As You Want to Blow: New Work by Michelle Blade

Triple Base, 3041 — 24th Street, San Francisco
Exhibition: February 19 – March 21, 2010

Weird bad paintings; don’t come to this if you leave your sense of humor at home.
Denim on Ice: paintings by Keith Boadwee / Erin Allen / Isaac Gray
Steven Wolf Fine Arts, 49 Geary St., Suite 411, San Francisco
Exhibition: February 19 – Mar 20, 2010

Art & Development

interpreting the emancipated spectator

In his speech on The Emancipated Spectator, the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Ranciére examines the ideas of the spectator and the theater (which can easily be extrapolated to visual art). He aligns Artaud‘s, Brecht‘s and Debord‘s criticisms of the theater and spectacle with Plato’s fulminations against mimesis (no to representation and art, yes to reality; no to conflations of spectatorship with passivity). He explains that the actor-spectator relationship is too much like traditional pedagogy: hierarchical, active v. passive, stultifying.

I was surprised how much Ranciére’s ideas relate to popular education, an area I studied ages ago as an idealistic activist/youth worker. Those experiences will shape how I understand institutional power and privilege for the rest of my life. So when I arrived at graduate school, I was surprised that some co-horts could name-drop Hegel or Adorno, but understood race and class on Oprah’s terms — on interpersonal levels rather than systemic ones.

It’s interesting to see contemporary art critical theory (Ranciére’s writings and interview has appeared in Artforum) overlap with radical pedagogy. Raciére’s description of the conventional schoolmaster sounds like Paolo Freire’s “bank” model, in which students are empty piggy banks that must be filled with knowledge by teachers. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere describes an alternative “each one, teach one” model where everyone’s knowledge and capacities are respected and valued. In Ranciere’s words,

Emancipation is the process of verification of the equality of intelligence…. the “ignorant master” … does not teach his knowledge to the students. He commands them to venture forth in the forest, to tell what they see, what they think of what they have seen, to check it and so on.

Ranciére goes on to point out that even if works of propaganda have fallen from favor, dramaturges or performers still put

pressure on the spectator: maybe he will know what has to be done, if the performance changes him, if it sets him apart from his passive attitude and makes him an active participant in the common world. This is the first point that the reformers of the theatre share with the stultifying pedagogues: the idea of the gap between two positions. Even when the dramaturge or the performer does not know what he wants the spectator to do, he knows at least that he has to do something: switching from passivity to activity.

This is a fundamental flaw in art that aims to mobilize the viewer, and this is what I was alluding to when I wrote the post, Why I Am Not Making Activist Art for Activist Imagination:

The assumption that the viewer needs to be educated or inspired by the artist can imply an unequal relationship. This seems aligned with outmoded Modern and pre-Modern notions of the artist as genius – where an artist’s talent qualifies him to grant a gift of beauty or rare vision to the viewer. But instead of bestowing something upon recipients, I like Lewis Hyde’s idea of a gift: a symbol that forms a social bond.

What social bond? I think the work of art mediates a relationship between the artist and viewer.

artist, work of art, viewer

As does Ranciere in regards to theater:

…the performance itself… stands as a “spectacle” between the idea of the artist and the feeling and interpretation of the spectator. This spectacle is a third thing, to which both parts can refer but which prevents any kind of “equal” or “undistorted” transmission. It is a mediation between them. That mediation of a third term is crucial in the process of intellectual emancipation. To prevent stultification there must be something between the master and the student. The same thing which links them must separate them….

So what does Ranciere propose?

We have not to turn spectators into actors. We have to acknowledge that any spectator already is an actor of his own story and that the actor also is the spectator of the same kind of story. We have not to turn the ignorant into learned persons, or, according to a mere scheme of overturn, make the student or the ignorant the master of his masters.

This, I think, is a central question in participatory art — when artists challenge their sole authorship, who is to say that viewers have anything invested?

Ranciére goes on:

Spectatorship is not the passivity has to be turned into activity. It is our normal situation. We learn and teach, we act and know as spectators who link what they see with what they have seen and told, done and dreamt. There is no privileged medium as there is no privileged starting point….

This is what emancipation means: the blurring of the opposition between they who look and they who act, they who are individuals and they who are members of a collective body….

An emancipated community is in fact a community of storytellers and translators….

This resonates with a lot of ideas in contemporary art: the end of the division between art and life, the skepticism that many contemporary artists feel about their privileged position of authorship, and the desire to create artworks that enact generosity, reciprocity and exchange.