A hard-driving new medium 'updates' performance art

Thursday, November 11, 2004
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There are some amusing "updates" on some famous performance-art pieces occurring on the Internet. These projects take what conceptual artists did in the 1970s -- projects such as sitting in a room for a year, or making one painting that depicts the day's date every day for 40 years -- and let computers do much of the work. It is not clear if these projects are meant to honour or mock the original art works, but then the original projects were often done in a spirit of great playfulness themselves, so it hardly matters.

Here's an example. In 1978, during the heyday of extreme acts done in the name of art, a Brooklyn-based artist by the name of Sam Hsieh decided to do a performance that would last one year. He built a cage-like cell in his studio and sealed himself inside it. Someone brought him food and took away his waste every day. He unsealed himself a year later. Viewers could come and witness the artwork progressing at scheduled visiting times.

This piece was, like so many similar pieces done at the time, largely about an attempt to include a fourth dimension -- time -- in an artwork. The time it took to do it was not merely the process that led to a final product; it was the final product. Once the process was over, there was no more piece of art. This also meant, in theory, that the art could not be bought and sold. It also involved the artist physically in the work, so that artist and artwork were indistinguishable.

Perhaps the most famous experimenter with the representation of time in art is the great On Kawara.

He is best known for making one painting every day since 1966. Each painting simply depicts, in white lettering on a black background, the day's date. He has also done such things as type out the numbers, representing years, from one million BC to one million AD (the resulting pages fill dozens of large, leather-bound volumes), and then have volunteers, working in teams, slowly reading out the numbers in a public gallery.

The new twist on this stuff is this: If you go to a website (http://www.turbulence.org/Works/1year/performancevideo.php), you can see a live video stream of two artists who are duplicating Sam Hsieh's 1978 imprisonment trick. You can watch them, in two separate cells, sitting, sleeping, eating or reading, 24 hours a day. But it's a fake. The artists have put together a lot of video footage to make it look as if they are there. The images are edited together by a computer program as they run, so that every viewer sees a slightly different cut (but they are edited cleverly, so that if you access the site in the morning, they will be doing "morning" things, and so on). There is a sound track that seems real as well.

Viewers are asked to log into a program that records how much time they have spent looking at the piece. The piece will be completed when a viewer has logged one year of viewing time. In other words, the idea of the piece is to transfer "the onus of a one-year commitment to the work from the artist to the viewer." There is no real artist in a cell -- but you can still spend a year of actual time looking at one.

The artists behind this trick are called River and Whid, who call themselves MTAA (for M. River and T. Whid Art Associates). They write of their experiment: "In the work, we mimic endurance without doing the labour. We also know the audience can just close the browser and walk away. No one needs to suffer on this one. The failure is built in at the front end."

Of course, to remove the actual artist from a piece like this -- a piece that is really all about endurance and suffering -- is to empty it of meaning. The artists believe that they are pointing out how the creative process has changed, through technology, since the original Hsieh piece was created.

They have done a similar "updating" of Kawara's date paintings, simply by writing a computer program that automatically makes an image of the day's date, in white on black, every day, and sends it to your screen. This act is clearly iconoclastic -- it makes a mockery of Kawara's labour, as if it were an entirely mechanical act with no intellectual significance -- but it also raises questions about the value of art done by computers.

Similarly collaborative computer-based art projects are springing up all over the Net. Some are like the old Surrealist project of the "exquisite corpse" -- they are huge digital canvases, begun by one person but added to by many, so that they are infinitely expanding in all directions. Some are clever concepts, such as the mile-long line that the New York-based artist Rev. Luke A. Murphy has on his website (http://www.lukelab.com). It's simple -- you can scroll down a simple black line that is exactly one mile long: In a sense, it fits on your screen. There is also a square mile on one page.

These works, like MTAA's performance-art "updates," take advantage of the dull labour that computers can do in split seconds. They are using the computer as a new artistic medium whose awe-inspiring powers of calculation and dumb endurance are only just beginning to be explored by artists. Oil paint was once just as new.

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- tom moody 11-19-2004 7:17 pm