Monday, July 1, 2013

There's too much going on

Comic by Francis Burger, drawn in response to the discussions around 'Is Confusion a Form?', with Jane Guyer, Moises Lino e Silva and Kabiru Salami and others.

The Form of Life in the Studio

Zach Blas seeks to draw out questions of materiality and sociality embedded in studio-space in his response to William Kentridge's "Life in the Studio".
During his 4th Drawing Lesson on “Life in the Studio,” William Kentridge stated that an idea is never enough--one must experiment, make, do. It is through experimentation, Kentridge continues, that one reaches unexpected meanings and new possibilities. But to experiment, the studio must first be a “safe space” for uncertainty. 
Image taken by Matthew Omelsky
Kentridge’s presentation brings forth a series of questions about when experimentation and uncertainty close down or reduce in the artistic process. If the studio is the location of experimentation for Kentridge, the presentation is not quite that. Kentridge works mostly from a site of certainty: he reads and consults a notebook, and there is a visual presentation timed to sync with his words (perhaps operated/advanced by an assistant?). In short, there is a precision at work that is at odds with “life in the studio.” Of course, there is room for a bit of uncertainty in the presentation--but not much. And no questions are taken at the end, which makes the event feel more like a performance than a talk, lecture, or lesson.
What is the studio for Kentridge? In theory, it’s a place of irrational action, where utopia can be found and one can walk in contemplation; the studio is receptive to what might be considered non-knowledge, like stupidity and silliness. The studio is also a materials repository, where paint and paper can be thrown and a multitude of photographic equipment is at one’s disposal. The studio is not a gallery or storage container for finished works but rather a repetitive testing area. In the end, it’s a rather idyllic place for creative research, discovery, and the production of the new.
In practice, (Kentridge’s) studio is more complicated. Of course, it must exist in a specific location, such as a gentrified / gentrifying area that brings along issues of race, class, and displacement. The studio must also be supported by various economic factors to exist as such: a wealthy art career permits the existence of staff and assistants, materials and production equipment, as well as the time needed in the studio to actualize its promise. While the artist studio can conceptually be a laboratory for creative experimentation, it does not exist outside of economic conditions that always bring forth questions of labor, exploitation, alienation, and reification. I won’t say the studio is a factory (although, with some contemporary artists it is exactly that), but the studio unavoidably incorporates aspects of the factory.
Importantly, I am not accusing Kentridge of anything. I am just taking his idea of the studio and pushing it further.
My question is this: if Kentridge himself said the idea is never enough in artistic life, is “life in the studio,” as presented by Kentridge, more idea than practice? That is, does “life in the studio,” as a model for artistic practice, put forth certain assumptions about artistic production, life, ability, desire, and politics as well as avoid other material conditions of existence? I have already mentioned the economic issues that often remain invisible yet are absolutely necessary for the studio to exist as such, which reminds us that not all artists can / will have studios. However, not all artists want Kentridge’s life in the studio; that model of artistic production--bound within a permanent and enclosed space--is abandoned for something else, such as a street, community, or public site.
Following Kentridge’s description of the artistic process, perhaps today it is crucial to experiment, that is, make uncertain and new, life in the studio. What would this be? To start, paints, papers, pre-cinematic devices, and other common art materials are done away with. What constitutes a material can be experimented with; maybe the presentation, the seminar room, and forms of the public itself become materials. Today, such experimental practices are most visible in art known as social practice, which dramatically shifts the idea of the studio. Examples include autonomous, artist-run schools like The Public School, Women on Waves’ abortion clinic on a ship, and Toro Lab’s community interventions in Tijuana.
In short, life in the studio, as formulated by Kentridge, is the pre-condition to artistic production. It is like Foucault’s episteme or Ranciere’s distribution of the sensible. The form of the studio sets the conditions for what is possible as artistic production.
Thus, life in the studio is a form that must be constantly fractured, re-invented, so as not to stagnate and disappear into the art world. The life in the studio requires many forms, and it is through the many that the artist becomes practical and experimental. 

Zach Blas is a PhD student in Literature, Information Science + Information Studies, Visual Studies at Duke University

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Zach Blas

Zach Blas, Mask-Wearer
Zach Blas is an artist-theorist whose work engages technology, queerness, politics, and experimental research. He is the creator of art group Queer Technologies, a founding member of The Public School Durham, and a PhD candidate in The Graduate Program in Literature, Information Science + Information Studies, and Visual Studies at Duke University. Zach has recently exhibited and lectured at  Beta-Local, San Juan, Puerto Rico; The Banff Centre, Banff, Canada; Center for 21st Century Studies, Milwaukee, WI; Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool, United Kingdom; Honor Fraser, Los Angeles, CA; The HTMlles, Montreal, Canada; Medialab Prado, Madrid, Spain; MIX NYC, New York; transmediale, Berlin, Germany; and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, where he co-curated the 2011 group exhibition Speculative. Zach has published writings in Leper Creativity, No More Potlucks, Rhizome, Version, Women Studies Quarterly, and co-edited The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities. He holds a Master of Fine Art,  Design Media Arts, University of California Los Angeles. www.zachblas.info

When Art Meets Revolution

Nancy Henaku contemplates music's transnational resonances and revolutionary role in her discussion of performances by Neo Muyanga and El-Warsha.
The discussion with Neo and the El-warsha theatre company from Egypt was entertaining and yet intellectually provocative. For me, it seemed interesting that in our bid to discuss the significance of art  (in this case music) in revolutions, we ended up creating a form that was totally different from the forms of presentation that we have had so far at the workshop. The combination of speech, music, storytelling and a question and answer session made the session polyphonic in a way that linked up with the discussions we had been having on the multiplicity and dynamism of forms. What we probably did not realize was that in that session we ended up creating a form that exemplifies our discussions on “the life of forms”. 
I found the sitting arrangement particularly striking. With musicians and audience sitting in a circular formation, there was little or no distance between the two. Coming from Ghana, I was quickly reminded of the Akan storytelling tradition in which there exists an intimate and personalized distance between the performer(s) and audience. By using such an arrangement, we (the listeners) became involved in the performance itself even before we became aware of it. For me, my position in the discussion was dual. On the one hand, I was part of the process of production. On another hand, I was a processor and critic of the kind of knowledge produced in and through the discussion. Consequently, one could say that the arrangement tied in perfectly with the hybridity of the session— a combination of a discussion with a rehearsal.
El-warsha performing with Neo Muyanga
It seemed to me that the performances were defined by a strong link between expression and experience. For one thing, the texture of the musical performances brought to the fore the centrality of orality in African performing arts. This was in consonance with the oral cultural and literary background of the performers. Also, apart from the fact that the combination of elements from traditional hymns, urban church hymns and traditional South African music, the South African music played and performed during the event pointed to the idea that the elements within the songs are in themselves a means through which these performers or composers expressed the duality inherent within their own identities. Also, as explained in the discussion the unison seen in the South African toitoi music and the performance by the El-warsha company from Egypt is a crucial expression of affective states as well as different cultural modes.
Very central to our discussion was the role of art in protests and revolutions. The assertion that “at the very heart of every revolution is a vast history of storytelling” seemed very profound indeed. Music and the arts have been pivotal in all struggles for liberation across the world. In our discussion, our reference points were the Egyptian revolution and the Apartheid struggles, but I can think of the African American struggles and the roles that negro spirituals, blues, jazz and pop music have played in expressing that experience. Music indeed remains an important form of expression in the African struggle.
I came to appreciate in our discussion that both revolutions (the struggle for liberation) and storytelling (arts) need each other. On the one hand, revolutions have a way of giving life and significance to the arts and providing a whole history of human experiences which are then re-presented/re-created through music and other forms of artistic expression. It seems to me that without history (experience), there can be no arts. On the other hand, without storytelling, revolution is useless because storytelling is not just a means for calling people to action but it is also a repository or a re-enactment of the history created via revolution.
I left the session with the understanding that sorrow is not a negative force and that it is actually through sorrow that the fuel for revolution and change is created. 
Nancy Henaku is teaching assistant in the Department of English, University of Ghana