August 21, 2010

Observations on Viewed Reality: Entry-Level

Ding is a young Asian woman. She’s typing on a typewriter. I wonder if she’s writing about me. The output falls on the floor. People are shooting photos. Ding just glanced at her watch. There’s no clock in here. She just said, “I have to be connected…” (Faded away.) She’s being videotaped. There’s a good possibility that she’s writing about me. When do her observations become about communication?

These were my “observations” about Ding Ren as she performed “Observations with a Typewriter” yesterday at the Smithsonian Museum's Archives of American Art. Having previously asked Ding’s permission to come and observe her performance of observing others, my presence was intentionally not a “performance,” but more of a report. My interest in her “observations” was specifically about her actions generating words (language) from observable realities. Also, I was seeking to “mirror” her observational act somewhat, to introduce the idea of a “chain” of observation. My observations here are italicized and transcribed exactly as I wrote them in my small spiral note-pad. My reflections are after-the-fact to elucidate or expand on whatever thoughts I gleaned from her piece. To that end, my “report” thus becomes further aestheticized, or “abstracted from” the reality of the event.

Is the fact that she’s being videotaped important?

Obviously, documentation of performance presupposes an “art” context; why videotape/photograph it unless there’s agreement at the outset that it is art. Historically, conceptual art is ephemeral, sometimes immaterial, and this fragility is often a result of its time-based components. In this sense, documentation is essential because there are very little “objects” actually produced; or objects have only referential importance to the actual “art” produced.

She rolls out blank space between bursts of typing. Is the blank space “context?”

As much as the “space” that exists in music, I think the space that exists around the focal aspects of art establishes a contextual apprehension of that art. Thus, the “white cube” is essential for contemporary apprehension of art that is often not very “artful.” But since Ding’s action of writing words on paper clearly yields “traditional” foci of literary content, i.e., poetry, this “work within a work” may allow the performative aspects of writing to be perceived as a “performance.” Would you be interested in viewing film of Joyce at his desk working on Ulysses?

Why am I here? At what point does this become less about the recording and more about the act of performance?

My intentions are stated above but I had a moment of doubt where I wondered if my “recording” her “observing” would have any resonance without Ding’s performance, especially as sanctioned by an institution as auspicious as the Smithsonian. My presence was clearly not necessary for “art” to occur, and any attempt on my part to create a relational aesthetic was mostly private and utterly unimportant to Ding’s piece. Still, I was curious enough about the ideas at play here to “participate” if, for nothing else, to generate the reflective contemplation of language.

I’m not even observing her. It’s all about the sound of the typewriter. She’s taken a drink of water. She’s very serious now – maybe anxious to end. “Your hat is gray.” (Ding addressed some person.) Taking a break. Performance can be so boring. I like the rolling of the paper. It seems to imply that there’s more to this than an observational act. Does the “space” of the white paper provide a context for “art?” (That’s a question.)

I became aware early on that my own concentration in hand-writing notes in a spiral note-pad kept my head down to the extent that I was missing the viewable reality of Ding’s piece. This requirement of self-imposed instructions was necessary for my observational recording to occur, yet the sound punctuated the environment somewhat soothingly. Ding’s demeanor fluctuated easily from serious to playful, evoking a relaxed atmosphere to her performance. Performance has often been “traditionally” perceived as theatrical and this can seem boring. Perhaps it is what we bring to it; many wandering into this gallery undoubtedly found Ding’s performance to be an unconvincing display of “art,” having little explanatory knowledge of what she was doing or why. Again, the sounds of Ding advancing the paper scroll through the typewriter introduced another, ambient perception of a performance that did not have to be “observed” to be perceived. And again, the idea of that paper being contextual returned, this time with an emphasis on the actual yardage of paper spooling out across the floor of the Lawrence A Fleischman Gallery, providing if not context at least an environmental actualization that some kind of “art” was being “made” here.

Typing is a lost art – there’s more reliance on gravity, weight and the fulcrum. (Is that it?)

This was one of the most satisfying “observations” that occurred to me during Ding’s performance. I marveled at how the act of writing with so “ancient” a device as a typewriter was able to cause such reflections about simple physics. And, yes, it is a fulcrum. It is obvious that Ding’s performance benefitted from the use of this kind of writing implement instead of a laptop computer. The associative factors of obsolescence and machinery produce “charged” connotations when related to language; writing as controlled information was fundamentally spread when partnered to industry. Parenthetically, “performance” gains recognition, as all art does, when partnered to recognized art institutions.

People are noticing I’m writing. She’s taken a bathroom break – 6:06. I’m going to go read some of what she’s been writing. Well, that’s a surprise – she’s been writing/observing colors of clothing worn by the visitors – each with time noted. So it’s poetry?

At this point my perceptions about Ding’s piece were altered by my straying from self-imposed instructions. When I shifted my participation to “reading” her “observations,” comprehension was introduced through the reading of what Ding was writing. Thus, my deduction and interpretation of the piece was demonstrably changed, and I was somewhat disappointed to discover she was merely noting the colors of apparel items and clothing that visitors to the gallery were wearing. Immediately, this suggested a poetic form, that is to say a method of conceiving poetry. I had imagined that Ding’s observations about the visitors were more descriptive, possibly assumptions or suppositions about them. Instead, there was a clear, simple agenda: note a visitor’s clothing item color and the time. Clearly, my “disappointment” is purely subjective; to interpret her piece as “disappointing” foists my subjective taste upon it. However, the revelation of what Ding was writing further connects her performance to conceptual art; that is to say, like previous conceptual artworks her piece is grounded by a set of instructions. Again, the relationship to machinery – “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

“That was a four-minute break,” she said, coming back. Not certain of the notations being “observations.” Seem to be more about “recording?” When do these differ? I realize now my “observations” are mainly questions. What does that reveal? (Another question.)

Continuing my own subjective analysis, I now began to critique Ding’s performance. It must be further noted that I had anticipated that my own “observations” would include critical analysis, a “questioning,” and this was something I fully planned on from the outset. After all, my presence there was ostensibly to witness an art performance and I expected my “observations” to be generated by my perception of Ding’s piece. The very nature of Ding’s deadpan observations about colors of clothing had a kind of pedestrian quality but still seemed rigorously “conceptual” and true to the concept. I would also say that Ding adhered more to the idea of “recording” than “observations,” and within this stricter parameter her performance was further grounded in conceptualism.

Two young men are crouched over the scroll of observations like it’s an archaeological relic. I may not have enough paper. (Ding remarks on a paper jam.) The casualness of her approach is antithetical to performance as “traditionally” viewed. Back to the poetry idea – is the randomness of this Fluxist? (Can’t seem to stop writing questions.)

Ding’s performance can be viewed as process art; the form (the scroll of paper with notations) is a result of her process. It was the easiest part of her performance to engage, even though access to the performance was visually more immediate. There is always an attitudinal aspect to performance whereby it is confrontational and visitors are somewhat intimidated by the actual presence of someone “making art.” To her credit, Ding kept the mood as comfortable as possible, chatting amiably with visitors while writing, thus deflecting the intimidation and changing the “traditionally” perceived theatrics of the situation. I believe the Fluxus association is apt, as the Fluxists created a lot of work based on instructions, was time-based and virtually ephemeral, and re-imagined poetry as “lists.”(1)

Poetry coming from discernment . . . (Ding: “I’ve been typing ‘beige’ a lot.”) . . . of experience coming from a reality that is viewed. What is that called? What kind of knowing is that? Observable information isn’t knowledge – or if it is it is the first tier of reality, a level of entry. Then Ding’s performance yields the access to an observable reality. Is this the opening into the void of consciousness? (How did I get to that?)

Here I was trying to make connections between “reality that is viewed” and empiricism, or knowledge based on sense experience. Certainly, we had two senses front and center here, sight and hearing, and my spontaneous assertion that “observable information isn’t knowledge” seems sound – “observable information” can be likened to an analytical proposition, that is, the veracity of a statement is clearly understood within the elements (words) of the proposition itself (“Mark’s shirt is blue.”) – yet the empirical knowledge must be verified within the statement. I doubted this thought even as it formed in my mind, immediately suspecting that this kind of knowledge was entry-level knowing at best, or “first tier” knowledge. Thus, Ding’s performance “opened” my thoughts to how observations, even simple notations of color, might reflect upon notions of our consciousness, one’s self-awareness, even to philosophies of perception.

(We broke concentration for a moment – she explained that I was observing her, etc.) (And I then broke my silence and said the performance was making me think these thoughts about philosophy and poetry . . . Ding said, “Don’t give anything away.”)

My presence alters her act of solitude. Yet I’m here to “mirror” the intensity; reproducing the observational aspects of Ding’s actions. Of course, I’d hoped the “chain of observable reality” would’ve been multiplied by the addition of others to observe me observing her – but that hasn’t happened. So we’re left with poetry – but poetry of a sort that calls to mind relationships of philosophy to reality and how the placement of art can be manipulated both ways.

Originally, I had invited my Facebook group, “Postconceptual Artists”, to attend and make observations about me making observations about Ding making observations about visitors. My “chain of observable reality” idea was to emphasize the communicative possibilities of observation and I realize now that both my experiment and Ding’s may have to do with causality, i.e., the relationship of cause and effect. Ding’s observations were caused by her visitors, yet she also conceived that these observations would have an additional effect of creating “poetry.” Moreover, the “placement” of Ding’s emotionless words on her typewritten scroll, as well as the site-specificity of the Smithsonian Museum’s Archive of American Art, rendered a performance piece that was intriguingly both philosophical and conceptual.

Images: Ding Ren performing at Lawrence A. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Smithsonian Museum’s Archives of American Art on August 20, 2010 (top); MCB making observations on Ding’s performance (bottom); photography courtesy of Page Carr; © copyright 2010 by Page Carr.


1. Ding's performance was held in conjunction with Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, on display through September 27, 2010.

2. Amazingly, this last observation I made was on the last page in my note-pad; I had arrived at 6 pm and Ding's piece ended at 6:30.


Anonymous said...

don't you just get bored to death with conceptulism?

My goodness me..cannot artsts move on from this drabness that was started way back in the middle of the last century?...its just not 'modern' Art anymore..

Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Not at all; conceptualism is pervasive throughout what you refer to as "modern" art. And conceptual art can be traced even further back than you suggested to Duchamp's "readymades of 1913-17.

Let's play a game: you tell me an artist you consider "modern" or contemporary, someone who has "move(d) on" from the "drabness" and I bet that they have more than a little allegiance for, or debt to conceptualism.