December 2, 2016

My Gaga Dream



I had a dream last night about Lady Gaga. As some of you may know, she studied art before she became a pop singer. So in my dream I was at an opening of some of her artwork – which is hard to describe, but it was composed mainly of text, with some imagery that was smallish and secondarily placed. The text was apparently embossed, white raised lettering on a white background. The gist of the words’ meanings has faded over the daylight hours but I do recall there were footnotes and the further exposition of the “meanings” there in the footnotes is also lost on me – but I was left with a profound sense that it was my responsibility to explain these works of art to my students.

I am not teaching currently so I don’t have any students. However, I often dream of teaching, prepping for class lectures and carrying out longish conversations – which remain steadfastly logical and pedagogic, even in the unconscious realm of my dreams! 

Several things struck me about this dream, as my consciousness came into focus throughout the morning, and I began to reflect about the uniqueness of the transference of knowledge in the act of teaching. I recalled something my old professor, Richard Klank, had said about understanding, that essentially it describes the state of “standing under” whatever the term or concept we’re discussing, as if under an umbrella. The physicality of that image and the way it conveys how knowing something feels has remained with me all these years.

This kind of dissection of words can be fruitful and I do it often. So I worked on this dream a bit more, considered that feeling of responsibility I had while walking through Gaga’s dream, that I would need to be able to talk about Gaga’s work with my students, to explain it. This easily granted me insight into the nature of responsibility, that I had that “response-ability” and that my pedagogic duty was to transfer my understanding of Gaga’s art through my responses to her work.

At a Thanksgiving dinner with friends last week I listened as a fellow educator, now retired, spoke of his own “life-long learning” as a science teacher. It is well known among us teachers that one is constantly researching our subject areas to stay abreast of developments in our various disciplines. For me in the fine art area, particularly with relevance to theory, this meant subscribing to art periodicals, perusing the Internet’s art sites and blogs to read reviews, essays and critiques. Additionally, I toured DC’s museums and art galleries, usually got up to New York City each season and foraged through whatever world-class cities' venues I found myself in, from Denver to Hong Kong.

We became learners to be better teachers. My syllabi evolved over the years, expanding into new eras and covering new artists for class lectures. I also was able to create another Corcoran College class based on my research on postconceptual tendencies in contemporary art.

All of this takes time, of course, and the educator who hits that 10-year, 15-year, or even 20-year mark does benefit from the specialized knowledge gained. But what do we do with it besides lecture?

There’s publishing, obviously, if you have the stamina for it. But with the wealth of free material awash over the Ethernet, one shouldn’t hold out for a career in the academic textbook niche.

Be that as it may, I want to return to that dream. Lady Gaga is a pop phenomena, and she seems like a respectful person, as she impressed Tony Bennett – probably not easy – and performed and recorded with him. We know that she studied art, and I’ve lectured on her savvy appropriation of Tania Bruguera’s lamb-meat dress (1) and her obvious emulation of Madonna’s persona shifts – possibly inspired by David Bowie’s brilliance in pop star “shape-shifting.” But she doesn’t make art...yet.

And those “white-on-white” words and sentences, even without knowing their context or intent, bear some close reading. If we can see that it’s almost invisible, would that help? Is it “Art” with a Capital A if it’s hard to see, hard to make out, and even harder to respond to?

It is precisely because my 13-year tenure as an art theory professor, coupled with those concomitant “response-abilities” to my students, had recently ended, that I find myself reflecting on my continuance of research and critical discourse as “Art.” And this moment is when the dream has emerged in my unconscious. Did my unspoken yet anticipated critique of Gaga’s word-works represent my indecision vis-à-vis my own art practice?

Any thoughts?


IMAGE: Lady Gaga in her meat dress at the 2010 VMA Awards; taken from YouTube without permission.

1. Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak created yet another meat dress ("Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic") in 1987; go here for more. 






November 19, 2016

The Future [4/12/07]

UPDATE: I feel that our current political and cultural climate requires us to carefully consider our future as artists. With the President-Elect taking time off from the transition process to chastise the audience at last night's performance of "Hamiltion" for boo-ing the Vice-President-Elect, we know we're in for a rough 4 years - hopefully he'll only be in power that long.
In making a selection "From The Archives," I found my former theory student Arash Mokhtar's piece from April 2007. Arash is still in Brooklyn, still writing and working in film, I believe, and his take on art, power and history deserves a second read. Let us move forward with trepidation but a courageous will. 
   
Administrator’s note: Arash Mokhtar lives and works in New York City, maintaining a studio in Brooklyn where he works on his paintings, photography, collage and sculpture, continually entertaining studio visits to court gallery representation. He also writes, and his essays and reviews are considered and occasionally published online at ArtCritical. Professionally, Arash transitioned from the decorative and scenic art world to the independent film industry in New York, working as Assistant Director, Art Director and Production Designer on productions, features and shorts. He is currently working on a feature screenplay and adapting a Mark Twain essay into a short film.

His essay, “The Future,” represents a recently graduated fine artist’s view of contemporary art’s possibilities. While maintaining an incendiary and distinctively critical tone, his inquiry ranges from the art market’s “power” structure to the scourge of “relativism,” finally yielding to the dialectics of historicity. I am particularly impressed with Arash’s mind and his writing abilities, and I publish this piece because I feel it is essential reading for art students and practicing artists.

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“Endurance is more important than truth.”
-Charles Bukowski

It is the first day of spring. For some ancient cultures it is New Year’s Day, the vernal equinox. Our American culture is facing off against other nations in an increasingly troubled era. Our limited resources undermine our expansionist tendencies. Art today reflects our limits.

Like U.S. politics, art culture has taken many missteps in the recent past. Relative to its place among the rest of society, the “art world” in America, that is to say, galleries, museums, so-called collectors, board of directors of fine (read High) art along with many well-established “emerging” artists are in a state of crisis, or perhaps more importantly, the work is. Not an impending doom like a horrible natural disaster coming in off the horizon, but more like a catastrophe brought about by a toxic mix of insouciance and greed.

Art, as a concept and a practice, possesses power. Many of the conflicts our nation seems involved in, and many of its scandals, are about this power, the power to represent. (The Middle East has been in a conflict to represent itself, unmediated by imperialists, colonialists, and “free-market” capitalists for nearly a century…) People’s minds can be affected, perceptions altered, lives and histories changed. The power to affect, to cause an effect, is an increasingly unpopular notion among the upper classes of art world insiders. (In the interests of full disclosure, I myself was at one point an art school rat and have been graced with the academy of High versus Low and exposed to the doctrines of post-art’s relativisms and theory.) Artists and dealers, academics and gallerists, enthusiasts and collectors, are all in a state of market-driven appeasement. The roster of endless art fairs circling the globe rather seamlessly testifies to this. Who is feeding this market? Who is driving it? What is the product? Has art, or what we’ve come to regard, and reward, as art become simply another negotiating tool? A product whose mutability can suggest an infinite market of goods that ride the guise of creative liberties? After all, who can really say what is art and what is not? What has quality and what does not? Can a judgment really be made?

This mish-mashed understanding of relativism has bred not only unimaginative imitators who find no need to endeavor to invent (and don’t believe in the concept altogether) and a cynical marketplace unwilling to seek out freshness and vitality in its young art. Of course, these traits can be imitated, much like the co-optation of underground and once transgressive subcultures throughout the U.S. as evidenced in stores, clothes, magazines, sports, and movies…ad infinitum. It almost seems like the human compulsion for rebellion, especially adolescent rebellion has been replaced by the deep desire for conformity and success. Art, as seen in commercial galleries and fairs, is fronting the cynical machinations of the desire and envy industry, most notably Fashion. Art is no longer in a relationship with fashion, it has become it, stripping away any real power it has. Possessive appeal usurps meaning. It no longer represents, it duplicates. The broadest possible appeal has brought with it the most irresponsible kind of neglect. The marketplace has infiltrated the studio, and worse, the creative imagination. Is there even an ongoing discussion in the intelligentsia, through magazines, newspaper articles, online forums, schools, etc. or is there only a whole lot of self-congratulatory validation going on? One senses that criticism has ceased to exist outside of the minutiae of what was created when and by whom and exhibited where; a veritable celebrity digest of who’s who in art now. How many artists compete for a chance to have a place in a true cultural dialogue, rather than a spot in the so-called “canon” as exemplified and disseminated throughout the market? How many works are made heavily tempered with a learned careerism that dismisses originality, struggle, failure and accomplishment as outmoded human qualities that belong only to Greenbergian notions of art? Works are made pre-conscious of their place in the bazaar. This is not a marketplace of ideas. It has degenerated into a self-actualized boast, a grandstand of privilege. There are now many easy prisons of thought seeking to restrict any art that attempts to provide something that could be called experience.

American art is moving through a state of crisis and denial, a deluge of newly minted art and artists of the anti-ecstatic. Real connection and parallels have been replaced by isolated gestures. A sense of proportion, or scale, is lost, in terms of where one’s work fits in any historical context. The idea of history itself is dismissed as mass appeal has replaced individual curiosity. This is the dictum of marketing. Art can, and should be, more. Young artists in the States seem to be embarrassed and repelled by honest exchange. The work masks emotional response with a superabundance of stylistic metaphors and cliché colloquialisms expressing ennui. Art is ideas and can provide truly unique and independent experiences for people. This, in fact, can be a responsibility of art, if artists choose so. This is not a precept of artmaking, or necessary condition, as any cursory glance at the history of art would easily demonstrate. Anything goes, obviously. There should, however, be more than lazy intellectualism and regurgitated theory; stylistic meanderings of the comfort class. Outside of a handful of artists, art seems so safe, an easy commodity that doesn't dare disturb the ether of sales, but only postures and poses in neo-punk platitudes and stylings.

This is a crisis that comes in the form of willful neglect. We live in a time of global connectivity, radical change and superb action. Being disconnected from change and relying on heavy-handed imitations with total disregard for invention and investigation should be detestable, not readily rewarded. Too much that passes for Art today avoids connections that could provide experience. It dabbles in fashion-driven marketing practices. It has been recruited and reprogrammed to drive the engines of mass culture: to forget history, deny experience, and forego relationships. These things can be messy, awkward, “uncool” and discomforting, much like our troubled times. But art in America today reflects little to none of this. It relies highly on distorted capitalist notions of success--fame and fiduciary evidence being the proving factors. Connections to history are crudely drawn in afterthoughts only to prop up the artist’s myth and to provide depth to otherwise vapid art. It has become a race to the bottom. Forget history. Broadest possible appeal. Lowest common denominator. Is this the future of American art? Is everyone really so tired that they feel actually “feeling” something is too much effort (and much too embarrassing)? Our culture, our collective American consciousness, is at a low point. Artists seem afraid, uninterested and not up to the challenge. They should attempt something more but don’t. Why should they compose work when an isolated and meaningless gesture will do? Why should they develop if imitation is enough? Race to the bottom…when we reach it, I hope some of us will continue to possess the desire, and energy, to find our way back up.

October 19, 2016

"Medium Specificity & the Post-Postmodernist Conundrum"




One of my former art theory students, and recent Corcoran College Fine Arts graduate Arthur Kwon Lee has interviewed me for his "Long Story Short" podcast series. Our lively discussion covered many topics, ranging from speculations about Greenbergian "master narratives" to the numerous challenges facing all artists that are practicing in today's contemporary world. It is available for your listening pleasure on Arthur's Soundcloud and the link is here.

September 30, 2016

Orders of Photographic Identity Construction [11/7/11]

Administrator's Note: In memory of James Dean who died tragically 61 years ago today I am re-posting my essay on photographic identity construction from November 2011. Even in Dean's brief lifetime his cinematic myth had begun with 1950's teens' appropriation of his jean-clad, windbreaker rebel image. One wonders what the 85-year-old James might have been up to in the 21st Century had he lived.  

In 1865, photojournalist Alexander Gardner had six of the accused Lincoln conspirators brought up on the deck of the USS Montauk, an ironclad monitor anchored in the Potomac River, and posed them for a series of famous photographs. Irrespective of their historic value, these photographs additionally reveal Gardner’s desire for an “artistic” expression in his photographic work. The accused men were dressed in coats and ties, hair combed and styled, then positioned against the iron turret for the various shots.

The above photograph of Lewis Payne then presents quite a conflict of photographer, portrait subject and image. First, we have a young man accused of savagely attacking Secretary of State William Seward with a knife and conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to overthrow the Federal government. Moreover, the photographer appears to disguise Payne’s predicament, draping him in beige overcoat and hat. The Federal guard’s hands, holding a bayoneted rifle, are just visible at edge of frame and if we look closely we can see a chain hanging from Payne’s wrist.

This exemplifies the primary way a photographic image constructs identity and demonstrates first order identity construction, as authorial control by the maker. For reasons forever unknown, Gardner decided to cast Lewis Payne as a dashing but disheveled rake, handsome and mysteriously at peace with his fate.

The use of photographic image to wield fiction and create mystique was coincidentally used the previous year by a youthful Jesse James. In the 1864 photograph above, a sixteen-year-old Jesse attired himself in dandy tie, rolled-brim cap and Colt revolver to introduce his vision of what he was soon to become – an outlaw. The “Wild West” was waning by then but was being immortalized in newspapers and “Dime Novels” and these accounts may have inspired Jesse to present himself thusly, using second order identity construction as the photographic subject self-crafts their own identity, fictional or otherwise.

Warner Brothers and their careful control and dissemination of James Dean’s image in “Rebel Without A Cause” might best represent the final order of photographic construction of identity. In the motion picture, Dean portrayed Jim Stark, a troubled teenager, and the film studio costumed Dean in blue jeans, white t-shirt and red windbreaker in many of the prominent scenes. It is said that the red windbreaker was “over-dyed” by director Nicholas Ray to achieve luminosity for the color film.(1)

As quintessential depiction of teenage rebellion and angst, Dean’s persona in “Rebel” has no equal during the 1950’s. Perhaps this is due to its third order identity construction masterfully dictated by the powerful film company. The film’s influence upon American teenager fashion was further impacted by Dean’s sudden, unexpected and tragic death in a car crash:

“Teenagers who saw the film latched onto Dean’s look. Actress Steffi Sidney, who plays a bit character in the film, later remembered that how after Rebel came out she would drive by her old high school and all the boys hanging out in front would have on that same red jacket.”(2)

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1. Bayse, Ali. “Cinemode: Rebel Without A Cause”.

2. Ibid.

August 29, 2016

Performance Art: Recreation or Emulation [10/19/06]



Performance art, which gained dominance as an art practice in the 1970’s, was definitively about duration and presence. The performance act is time based certainly, and thus expresses itself in the duration of those actions by the performer(s), and our focus is on the physical body (presence) of the performance artist(s). The fact of the art object’s superfluity was already in the discourse, as stated in theoretical propositions laid out by Lewitt, Kosuth and other conceptualists. This paradigm shift from “commodity objects” to a dematerialization of those objects may have been a factor in the move to performance by many young artists during this era.

Marina Abramovic was one of those original performance artists of the ‘70’s generation and she is practicing her art today. Her "Seven Easy Pieces" performance project undertaken at the Guggenheim Museum last year represents the most visible project of “re-interpretation” of what can only be termed archival performance art “pieces.” What I would like to discuss here is the conflicts that will undoubtedly arise in future re-enactments of previously performed works that were time-based in a specific place, encompassing a particular presence, and existing within a long-past socio-economic and political episteme.

First, some background. In the Dialogue with Heidi Grundmann conducted in 1978, Abramovic says:

". . . no documentation can give you the feeling of what it was, because it cannot be described, it is so direct, in the documentation, the intensity is missing, the feelings that were there. And I think that that is why performance is such a strange thing – the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment and afterwards you don’t have anything, you have only the memory."(1)

Operating presumably from “memory,” but fortified with photographs, video footage and “eye-witness” accounts, Abramovic sought to recreate some of the 1970’s era performances, a “greatest hits” collection, if you will, of vintage Acconci, Beuys, Export, Pane and Nauman performance pieces (with two of her own for good measure). For brevity’s sake, I will only critique her recreation of the infamous Seedbed piece, for it is the most revealing divergence from the original performance work and the “particular presence” of Vito Acconci.

Acconci’s 1972 performance, in which he surreptitiously “planted” his “seed” beneath a wooden platform built into Sonnabend Gallery, was an invasive yet hidden ritual. The visitors to the gallery could not see his actions but they heard him on speakers in the space as he masturbated. He referred to the visitors as “my aid. . . my fantasies about them can excite me. . . the seed ‘planted’ on the floor, then, is a joint result of my performance and theirs.”(2)

The obvious distinction between Acconci and Abramovic is one of gender, which clearly validates the original ’72 performance as more worthy, as the “planting” of semen is biologically impossible for Abramovic. Her “cover version” of Seedbed, then, is a travesty, purely reliant on the sensational and voyeuristic modalities that performance has now become. The ’72 piece was clearly not about achieving orgasms, so why would Abramovic chose it to replicate in ’05? Where Vito negotiated the dangerous terrain of sexual power and threat, Marina’s Seedbed seems relegated to the realms of soft-core arousal and empty spectacle.

After Abramovic’s week of performances, in a public dialogue at the Guggenheim monitored by Nancy Spector, a question was raised about “the perhaps insuperable difficulty of preserving a performance’s meaning in a totally different social and political context.”(3) It was noted that Abramovic appeared to “bridle” at this query, and possibly that is “the tell” that would suggest to us that Abramovic had not fully considered all the implications of this performance-appropriation series.  For if she sought to emulate the performance pieces, to actually “strive to equal or excel”(4) the earlier works with her re-presentation of them, then she was ignoring her own dictum that “the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment.”


Original post from 10/19/06, with comments & discussion.

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1. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 759.

2. Nancy Princenthal, “Back for One Night Only!” in Art in America, Feb. 2006, 91-92.

3. Ibid., 90.

4. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, 1984, 408.

July 22, 2016

From the Archives: "Reading" Post-Conceptualism in Post-Medium Photography

Administrator's Note: Currently in semi-retirement, I am focused more on specific art, music and curatorial projects of late. As such, I will be re-posting selected popular essays from Theory Now's archives. Readers can expect updates on my creative endeavors. Meanwhile, here's a post from February 2006, "Reading" Post-Conceptualism in "Post-Medium" Photography, with nearly 10,000 views over the past 10 years; original link has contextual comments and discussion.



Post-conceptualism can not only replicate or “re-present” the best of conceptual art’s theories but it can also result in a “style without substance” as contemporary practitioners shrug on the “cloak” of conceptualism and become the “metonymic avant garde.” Conceptual art’s intellectual discourse sought to re-invest the activity of art with a social “use value” that the conceptualists felt had been mislaid. Other theoretical issues advanced by the original conceptual artists were the divestment of the “preciousness” of the object, and the “dematerialization” of same, further expansion on minimal art’s concern with the temporal aspects of perception, and the consideration of documenting “actions,” not necessarily performative actions, both through “instructions” and a “deskilled” photography.

I would like to propose here that the photographic work of Hiroshi Sugimoto is work of a post-conceptual practice. For any artist to engage in the re-statement or appropriation of previous art theories and forms, it will be our assumption that they should not only adhere to the tenets of these earlier forms but they would be expected to advance these concepts, to add something to the discourse. The current Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work clearly makes the obvious point, through nearly 150 photographs, diorama and installations, that this artist has been more than dabbling in a few of the conceptual practices stated above. Whether he succeeds in “carrying forward” any of these earlier conceptual art issues is what I wish to consider.

For example, the idea of “de-skilled” photography was current in the 1970’s, during Sugimoto’s formative years as a photographer. But he says:

“I didn't want to be criticized for taking low-quality photographs, so I tried to reach the best, highest quality of photography and then to combine this with a conceptual art practice. But thinking back, that was the wrong decision [laughs]. Developing a low-quality aesthetic is a sign of serious fine art - I still see this. But to me, serious concepts are only shown through a highly mastered technique.”
(From an interview with art critic Martin Herbert published on Eyestorm http://www.eyestorm.com/feature/ED2n_article.asp?article_id=135 )

The apparent contradiction in Sugimoto’s mind, between doing “serious fine art” through “taking low-quality photographs” and the idea that “serious concepts are only shown through a highly mastered technique,” exposes an artistic conflict that was resolved by the 1980’s. It would be naïve of me to assume that successive generations of artists would stick to this original “game plan” of candid, “lo-fi” photography, when it became quite obvious that the “art market” would convert most of the 1970’s conceptual artists to the “real world” idea of “commodification.” This reversion to the “precious object” is clearly the operative nature of much of contemporary post-conceptualism, but those artists who still dispense with “commodity,” mostly performance artists, have taken a more difficult and (perhaps?) worthier path, better left to another discussion.

What I would like to address then is time. Sugimoto’s famous series of photographs taken in darkened cinemas has been discussed in terms of its depiction and engagement of “architectural concerns.” However, it is the very “concept” of this series by Sugimoto that appears most favorably related to the earlier conceptual art theories stated above, and is both historical in his respect and innovative in his approach.

If we suppose that the time for the exposure used for the photograph was the same as the projection time for the film, as has been stated by Sugimoto, this allows for a “compression” of the filmic event into a single frame. This temporal concern of compressing time clearly resonates as a critique of the “medium” of photography, a “medium” that by its very technical aspect exists in the “moment.” This “reduction” of the film into a “single” frame ironically “stretches” the time in its conception.

“What remains visible of the film’s time-compressed, individual images is the bright screen of the movie theater, which illuminates the architecture of the space. That its content retreats into the background makes the actual film a piece of information, manifesting itself in the (movie theater) space. As a result, instead of as a content-related event, film presents itself here as the relationship between time and spatial perception.”
(From http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/theaters/)

It is this foregrounding of “time and spatial perception” which supports my post-conceptual “read” of this particular series of photographs by Sugimoto. However, I would disagree with the idea that the dominant nature of film is “content-related,” especially within the context of Sugimoto’s photographic practice. For these post-conceptual, “post-medium” photographs to “work” one must truly consider the cinematic atmosphere of the theater itself, which does reference both “time” (duration of filmic event) and “space” (the theater itself), which further explores minimalism’s interest in the “temporal aspects of perception.”

(U.A. Playhouse, New York, 1978 by Hiroshi Sugimoto, courtesy of Gabriel Einsohn, Communications and Marketing, Hirshhorn Museum.)

May 31, 2016

Art in Embassies: A Collaborative, Participatory Installation

As an artist involved with creating participatory art for the past 10 years, my installations aim to present an art experience that takes viewers from contemplation to social engagement. As an arts educator, I always welcome opportunities to teach and hold workshops on social practice. This post details the amazing experience I had recently through an invitation from the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies (AIE) program to travel to San Jose, Costa Rica. I will focus on my experience collaborating with six San Jose artists, and my participatory installation at the “Reflections on Diversity” opening night reception at Ambassador S. Fitzgerald Haney’s residence. I plan to share in subsequent posts the wonderful experiences and insights I had in conducting four workshops during this trip. 
         San Jose artist Carolina Parra transcribes text on English blackboard.        
June 2015: How my journey to Costa Rica began
My journey in participating in the AIE program began with an email invitation from Ms. Camille Benton, AIE Curator for the State Department, to submit an artwork for her “Reflections on Diversity” exhibition to be held at Ambassador S. Fitzgerald Haney’s residence in San Jose, Costa Rica. I was delighted for such an invitation but I also thought that it would add to the experience of social practice if I were to be there to do the installation and to hold a talk to engage the public. With that in mind, I sent my proposal to Camille and was pleased to receive an enthusiastic response. In the ensuing months a number of bi-country teleconferences involving Camille in DC, as well as with Ms. Beverly Thacker and Ms. Gabriella Bolanos at the U.S. Embassy in San Jose began to take place as we mapped out an itinerary for my 5-day trip. The result was an exciting and full agenda that would give me opportunities to:
  • Collaborate with six San Jose artists on making of my text boards for the “Reflections on Diversity” exhibit.
  • Give a talk at the “Reflections on Diversity” reception on opening night.
  • Conduct four social practice workshops for the University of Costa Rica, National University, the Museos de Central Bank, and for community artists, including an organization called Arte por la Paz.
To engage the audiences at each of the scheduled events, I would begin with a PowerPoint presentation on social practice, followed by a participatory art activity using my bisected-text technique for a “hands-on” experience, and end with a debriefing of participants’ personal experiences of the entire workshop.

March 28, 2016: Collaboration with 6 amazing San Jose artists
Mr. Juan Diego Roldan, Visual Arts Coordinator at Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano, invited six local San Jose artists to collaborate with me: Ms. Li Briceno, Ms. Karla Herencia, Ms. Carolina Parra, Mr. Audie Rafael Fallas, Mr. Fernando Rudin, and Mr. Xavier Villafranca. We were given an expansive gallery in the Centro Cultural to do our work. Upon arrival at the gallery, I was happy to see my two blackboards that had been shipped to Costa Rica were already mounted on a wall. I had prepped these blackboards months before in my Maryland studio, with 12 strips of painter’s tape running horizontally on each four-by-six-foot blackboard.
MCB talking with six San Jose artists who worked with him on text transcriptions.  
As I sat in a circle with Juan Diego and the six artists, I was enthralled by the energy and creativity these individuals exuded --- exactly what I needed for my planned participatory art project. I asked each of the artists to speak about their own work, as a way for me to learn more about each of them. Fortunately for me, the good folks from the U.S. Embassy had set me up with portable translation equipment and an earpiece, from which the voice of the professional and personable Mr. Leslie Gonzalez was translating in real time every word of each of the artists as they spoke in Spanish. I learned that the San Jose artists were practicing in a variety of disciplines, including everything from painting and sculpture, to participatory art and motion-activated site-specific installations. In addition, some of them were also art professors at University of Costa Rica. It was humbling to meet such a group of creative and talented fellow artists and I was grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with them in the creation of my blackboards.

When it was my turn to speak, I shared my concept for the project and about my bisected-text technique. I also spoke about Jacques Derrida’s sous rature – placing words “under erasure” – and how my methodology had evolved from teaching art theory, and how it became participatory in 2003 when I first invited the public to decipher the text and to experience the art through language. 

As we began to work, I shared with them the short passage I had written that was inspired by the title of the exhibit, “Reflections on Diversity. This passage would be the text that would be transcribed onto my blackboards, in English and in Spanish. Here is the text I wrote:

The first step in understanding a diverse culture is taken through language. When we meet people from other cultures their new language is like music. We may not understand the meaning but we can hear the rhythm of speech. Rather than focus on our lack of understanding we should revel in the rhythmic poetry of the other. The moment we encounter a new language can be transformed by the wonder of a diverse culture. This is a discovery and exploration of diverse cultures through the rhythm of language. Knowing cultural diversity begins first with language.

The above passage was saved on two iPads I had brought, one iPad had the English version and the other had the Spanish translation. I gave the iPads to the artists, who had divided into two teams: Carolina, Xavier and Raphael worked on transcribing my English text on one blackboard, while Li, Fernando and Karla transcribed the Spanish translation on the other blackboard. At the beginning of transcriptions, adjustments were made so the size of text would be approximately two inches. Some of the artists asked whether I wanted them to print or write in cursive. For past installations, printed text was my preference but for this project I wanted the individual writers to have the freedom to decide how to do their text so some wrote in cursive form.

While the artists were hard at work, a reporter from La Nacion arrived to interview me. During the interview, Natalia Diaz Zeledon asked some intriguing questions about social practice and the nature of the artist’s control of the work. I talked about my first experiments with participatory works, and how challenging it was for an artist “to let go of his work” and how I try to “connect more with the audience and give them an experience to be immersed in art.”

Meanwhile, a number of creative ideas were emerging. First, Li raised a question about whether she could incorporate the use of Esperanto on the Spanish blackboard. I thought this was an excellent suggestion and quickly agreed. In short order, Carolina asked if some Spanish words might be interspersed in the text on the English blackboard, and then someone wanted to know if they could use “Spanglish.” Again, I agreed. My appreciation for the collaborative spirit of these six artists had by this time truly energized me. After all, this was the first time that I had worked with other artists on transcribing text and I was feeling empowered by the collaborative nature of our efforts. The ease with which our collaboration had developed and their creative suggestions allowed me to easily alter my typical process.

Our collaboration was wrapped up with the most exhilarating group debriefing after the “hands-on” experience. Each of the San Jose artists expressed their appreciation for engaging in this collaborative process. Some of them also shared ideas on how they might use this participatory concept in their future work within their communities. I also discovered that a common perception among them was “how comfortable they felt with [my] open attitude to share the experience.”

As for me, I told them that the suggestions they had made on using other languages on the boards had made a strong contribution to our collective work. I also expressed that I had truly enjoyed our collaboration, and I appreciated them sharing their energies on the project, and I would be honored to have them each sign their names on the blackboards as co-authors. They unanimously agreed and, choosing red pastels from my materials, we moved to the blackboards and each 3-person team signed their names on the bottom front of the board they worked on. Among the photographs documenting the morning’s activities are several of them signing their names on the blackboards.

March 29, 2016: Opening reception at Ambassador Haney’s residence
The next night was the opening reception for “Reflections on Diversity” at the Ambassador's residence, truly a highlight of my trip. The evening began in the beautiful garden with Ambassador Haney welcoming his guests. During his opening remarks about the exhibit, he also introduced Roberto Gomez, a Miami-based artist, and David Johns, a Navajo artist from Arizona, who both had abstract paintings in the exhibit. After that, Ambassador Haney introduced me and invited the assembled guests to move inside to the foyer where my blackboards were installed.

There were approximately 50 guests assembled in the foyer where my blackboards were installed. I shared with them the incredible collaborative experience I have had the day before with the 6 San Jose artists at the Centro Cultural. I talked briefly about participatory art and how I wanted to be present at the launch of this “hands-on” activity at the opening of this exhibit. As the guests waited with anticipation, I stepped out from behind the podium to walk to the front of the two blackboard panels, and gestured to the large bowl of red, white and blue chalks and pastels – “the colors in the Costa Rican and United States flags” – and invited them to come forward, to see what words and phrases they could find, and to participate in our art.
 
Ambassador Haney led by example by picking up a red pastel and walking to the Spanish blackboard. The rest of the guests responded quickly to his initiative and they began to interact with the blackboards enthusiastically. Soon they were fully engaged with the chalks, the text and one another. It was very gratifying for me to see the guests’ energetic contributions and appreciation for this new participatory art form.
 MCB & Ambassador Haney talking about the artwork during opening reception.
It was exhilarating to speak with the Ambassador, his wife, their children and guests about my art and their experiences interacting with the blackboards. I was also thrilled to share the moment with five of the artists I had collaborated with, who were at the reception. As I continued to interact with all the guests, the evening passed before me as though I were in a beautiful dream, one that I am truly grateful to experience.

Final reflections
This experience of working with the San Jose artists has given me a new appreciation for collaboration as a methodology. Creativity can be pushed into new theoretical areas and my participatory practice will be further expanded. There are two possibilities that I can now envision: new collaborative installations created in tandem with peer artists, or the act of constructing a project takes place with the participation of the public in a coordinated effort. Either way, I look forward to the possibilities of developing unique works and projects in collaboration with others both in the United States and overseas.