Discussion
Content Is Not a Four-letter Word
Susan Otto (moderator), Charles Gaines, Harry Gamboa, Jr.

 

 

Susan Otto: To begin with, I actually didn't want to prepare anything to say, except that this seminar is, to me, so exciting. I mean it. When I was doing photography, I was a fashion photography assistant. There's so much about photography that is just a ridiculous process. So, speaking for myself, I think that these two guys on the panel with me are really looking forward into the millennium. Whether you like all this digital stuff or not, the idea of the static image is completely taken over by commercialization. Image and text is a magazine, these days. That doesn't mean it has to be; it just means it's completely co-opted. So, the idea of using images and using text and meaning, text that functions as form and content, is thrilling. As artists, I plead with you to experiment in this direction. If you want to make images and text, that's fine. But also bear in mind that the idea of text is running light years ahead of you, so you might as well chase it. Mary Kelley writes about the artistic text as everything in the piece. There's no privileging of the language or the image. It is medium, tools, for images. As photographers, it's a remarkable time to start working in that way. I think that the three of us, although we don't make complete logical sense together, I'm so happy for that. It's three different ways and approaches to things. I hope you disagree with everything I say, so that you go out and do something else. It's got to move forward. Advertising is kicking our asses. Art needs to be experimentational. I realize that the rest of your universe is run by the market, but if you leave this room with one word, it should be "experimentation." So I will defer to my colleague, Charles.

Charles Gaines: The only thing I can think of is to try to respond specifically to the idea of image and text, I guess the way it was described to me in a letter. I didn't actually get to that. The paper that I was operating from was trying to get to that, too, but that was on page nine. What I did think of was that I want to recognize that there is a distinction between image and text, and not ameliorate that distinction, so that a certain interest of mine could be served. I like to think about it not necessarily as a binary difference, but maybe (as) the distinction between discourse and figure, where there is a social space of indeterminacy. I'd like to hold on to that framework in order to be able to put into effect the experimentation that Susan's talking about. Our experimentation is in one way involved in some kind of investigation into the object. You need some kind of dynamic relationship, something to go in between, in order to conduct this experiment. The difference between text and image, and figure and discourse, serves that purpose well for me. In one of my papers, I said that text served as (metonymy) of its image; I should say that it can reverse itself, as well. I think that text is the mechanism that operates within a total imagistic framework of a work of art. A text is revelatory in terms of the social mechanism that's going on in an image. More specifically, it doesn't mean it reveals what a work of art really means, but it does provide a context for this set of questions. For example, in the last piece that I did, I used the text specifically to make locations in the work. But I think that the more rigorously I tried to make these locations, the more it functioned to open the work up on the other end. I kind of want to hold on to that distinction.

Otto: I believe that, in my generation, I was brainwashed into believing that the distinction between image and text was a distinction between image and language. I think, for purposes of forward thinking that perhaps is not ready to be theorized yet, or is not understood by a generation of people, that what we're talking about is representation.

Harry Gamboa, Jr: I'm going to go from nutshell to nutcase. What can I say about image and text? In terms of experimentation, I've always been in the situation that I think there aren't enough images or enough text to explain my experiences. It's very difficult to share your own perceptions. You're limited to what's already available to you, usually. You must be able to challenge those limitations by creating new words and new images, and incorporating them in such a way that will express whatever it is that you want to say. The opposite side, of course, is when you are saying a lot by saying nothing, and you don't present new images. You're basically recycling that's already out there without challenging or reinterpreting it. I've heard it said that cultures continue to reinvent the wheel, but they also tend to reinvent the same ideas for the same words and situations. But I believe there's quite a lot of social blind spots that need to be illuminated and brought forth. That can usually only be done by people who are artists. That whole action of creating, I'm not convinced it's always a synthesis of what's out there; I believe a large portion of it comes from within.

Otto: One of the things that I'm so in awe of by Harry, in following his work over the years, is its seamlessness that comes in, from script to poetry to Spanish. One of the quotes was talking about learning, and he says, "What are the ABCs of poverty? Altruism, bullets and crime." There's a dark humor to it, a satire, a social condition; but there's also a reference to something that we all can relate to. Don't misinterpret me: I'm not saying it's universal. I'm just saying it's that last little sticking point that resonates in a very poetic way. I think that's what you're talking about.

Gamboa: Sort of. I think that's what you think I'm talking about. I'm also thinking about it, so I agree.

Gaines: There's one thing about Harry's work I want to give recognition to. However you want to describe it, as coming out of Dada, Fluxus or Conceptualism, he was using this kind of language at a time when it was very unpopular. It became more acceptable around 1981 or '82. I think a lot of this Neo-Conceptualism came out of attitudes that you can see in Harry's work from the early 1970s. That's really interesting to me, because I'm curating a show that is, in a way, trying to make this point. For some reason, the language of Fluxus or of Conceptualism actually opened the door for the kind of critical attention that was later developed in the 80s. Mention should be made of this, when we consider the fact that in 1973 or '74, there might have been, among minority artist, maybe five or six of them working in this way in the entire country. I think there should be a tribute to this kind of idea. There's a tape going, and I'd like to use that tape to put it on the record.

Otto: I realize that what we're talking about is image and text within the framework of an artwork. But there's something that happened at Cal Arts around a month or two ago. You all are in grad school, and there seem to be two camps: theory and hate theory. You know what I'm talking about! It's been going on for a long time, especially in Los Angeles, for some reason. What happened was Charles organized a seminar that addressed a lot of issues around these topics. For instance, is theory prescriptive to art making? What role does theory play in art making today? What is the future? Where are we going? I'm not saying these things are unrelated. It's an attempt to bring this discourse forward, not only about the art but also within the art.

Gaines: Yes--I organized a conference that tried to investigate the state of theory in the late 90s and its possibilities for the future. It turned out to be a very exciting event. In fact, it's being transcribed and turned into a publication. It did come out of the sort of problems that were going on not just in LA, but nationally, coming out of a kind of environment created by (Dave Hickey's) article. It was an attempt at marginalizing critical expression, and theory especially, in relation to art practice. It was in such a strong way that you were marked if you made any attempt at critical expression. It reminded you of Galileo thinking about the zero in private. As with any seminar, it was inconclusive, but some very exciting talk came up around the notion that theory was being put forward as a particular kind of thing or experience, when in fact it's much more broad and ubiquitous. Rather than thinking of theory as a particular kind of language, with a particular set of principles and theorists, we should think of theory as, generally, thinking. So, to be against theory would be to be against thinking. What one person thinks about is of course different from what another person thinks about. A lot of people think this is a very important conclusion. A lot discovered that at the moment of resolving a thought, they became frightened and said, "Well, I don't have to resolve that thought. I'm beginning to theorize, and that's deadly." It gives you permission not to be frightened of your own thoughts. The whole fear is that you will be identified with a certain kind of thinking or a certain group of people, or that you will be given over to the tyranny of theory, to speaking of or listening to ideas that you don't understand. That's an outrageous thing to do, because it's a posture, but it's a posture that's very popular in Los Angeles right now. The conference (was) about working these kinds of things out.

Audience: Hickey's essays weren't specifically against theory; they were against what he was calling the "therapeutic institution." But what they really were against was the whole idea of the therapeutic in art, which seems to me something all three of you are involved in, the idea that art is not separate from the social, that art can do something as well as be something. That was the basic thrust of the book.

Gaines: The problem was that he set up a binary, through talking about a process he called "the rhetoric of beauty." That was the killer. That's when the binary was set up that excluded certain kinds of practice, because he then saw those kinds of critical practice as "therapeutic." If you were at the conference, you would understand there wasn't a unified position on this. But that was my position on it.

Audience: Who was there?

Otto: Victor Burgin, Mary Kelley, Jennifer Gonzales, Michael (Clegg)....

Younger: Did you invite Hickey? Because Bergen and Hickey were here together, and Bergen really attacked Hickey. He sort of hit him sideways. I think it would have been interesting if he were there. I want to ask you to talk a little about the Darryl Gates piece?

Gaines: [Yes, we invited Hickey. "Darryl Gates"] was one work in a series. I had this notion that if I tried to reveal the representations of race, that they would probably be pretty one-dimensional and negative. I thought that that might be so, but I had no idea. So I did a piece where I arbitrarily selected texts from magazines and newspapers, and subjectively lifted any word or word phrase that referenced race in any fashion. In the work, I placed these phrases in the proportional position in which they were found in the text. So, the image that you would look at would be a series of numbers that would be substitutions for the words that had been removed. At certain points, there would be the injection of a word or word phrase, then another series of numbers, then a word and so on. The space between the words corresponded to the distance between the words in the actual text. What happens is when you read the words, you get the idea of an author who was really angry, violent and ready to kill someone. I think the representations of race that we have in American culture are pretty violent, aggressive, and negative, and exceptionally horny. It's a preoccupation that artists have with violence and sex. Just to make sure that my own subjectivity wasn't so much of a factor, I had other people do this as well, select out words that they thought referenced race. The words that we each selected would be different, but the cumulative effect was of a text that was the same, violent and angry. I did this piece using Darryl Gates as a subject. This piece had to do with religion, so the words and phrases constituted a text that was a description of, say, Jesus Christ, Gandhi, or some other holy person. Of course, these were words that were all talking about Darryl Gates as a subject, so I pondered what that could have meant. These were all wall pieces, occupying walls about twelve feet high and twenty-five or thirty feet long. The letters were seven or eight inches high, so they had a sort of massive presence. I also did a few as drawings.

Gamboa: I just want to contextualize this video. Talking about the novellas from Mexico that are broadcast nationally and internationally, I wanted to provide an alternate version that would have novella-esque features. It would be shot in LA and the whole focus would be on doomed love affairs. I created about twenty of them for cable television and public access. It was several networks reaching close to a million households that were connected. Since it was done at such an early point in the development of cable TV, they didn't have enough material to fill their time slots. I'm showing this one because it was shown three to four times a day for three years, and it just became a regular part of southern Californian culture. It's been shown here in New York several times, but the impact was in LA. It finally stopped showing when there was a demographic shift in the area in which it was being shown, and you started having families writing in, saying it was corrupting their children. This piece is called "Baby Cake." The script was written in two hours, it was shot in three hours, and edited in four hours, all in the same day. I had a zero budget.

Video is shown.

Audience: I suppose this is not normally a question. Susan talked about experimentation with image and text. It's something that I think about a lot, because I work with text a lot and also video as well. When I hear the word "experimentation," I think of it as something more formal, the way ads appear using text formally.

Otto: You know what? Read anything Dada. Experimentation is not formal. It's just not. There can be formal experimentation, but experimentation really is walking down the street.

Audience: That seems to be a little too abstract for me. I was thinking of what Charles Gaines was trying to say about experimentation in terms of thinking differently, but that is still extremely abstract. When you say "walking down the street," can you be more specific about it?

Otto: It's about walking down the street and being open to thinking about different things, to interacting with other people, being run over by a cab, or eating a hot dog that makes you throw up. Experimentation is about being open to these experiences that you have, and not only being open to it, but also having the presence of mind to remember it, reflect on it, and incorporate it into your lifestyle. I know Harry and I have many conversations just about our day. I don't know how else to be clear about it except to say that you have to keep yourself open to influence. You have a responsibility, as a smart, educated artist, to take that influence and do something spectacular with it, something subversive with it. You should do something that you're not supposed to do. My whole life is about doing stuff that you're not supposed to do. Does that make sense? I don't mean to be glib. The way I would start is really simply, with, for instance, New York. Go to different neighborhoods, and make a list of the things that you see. I can guarantee you that 90% of that list will be things you wouldn't have thought of otherwise.

Gaines: There's another word we should think of, and that's "criticality." I think you should be suspicious about anything you think of. The main idea behind the suspicion is that anything I think about is probably passed on to me by someone else, and not for my benefit. That may not be true, but this is the position. Therefore, you become sort of suspicious. You have to utilize this suspicion. If you talk about being formal, it's not really about that. I gave a talk one time, and I was talking about back in the 70s, when one of the really important ideas was that you should be making new work. There was a spirit in the 60s and 70s that comes out of the spirit of the 50s avant-garde. The project of the artist was to use art as a field of investigation in order to find its properties, and then move beyond or outside of [them]. Experimentation was about finding a way of locating new ground. When I was talking about this, I was saying that I started making systematic drawings. I thought it was a way of revealing something about the nature of making art that would allow me to say something that's new and different. Call me delusional, but this is what I thought. One of the people in the audience didn't get that. They said I had all the choices in the world to choose from to make art. It occurred to me that 80s or 90s people hadn't experienced the boundaries and limits that we were operating within in the 60s and 70s. Nowadays, what can't you do? I was up there hooraying the benefits of investigation and experimentation, and there were people in the audience who had no way of accessing what that must have been like. I don't know if that's a description of this audience. It's a little sad that such an idea has lost its polemical spirit. It's a little nostalgic. If it has, then this is a terrible state that we're in, because if such an idea has lost its polemics, it means we've all been taken over by the greedy capitalists. The ideas of experiment[ation] and criticality have been appropriated within this space I was talking about, of exchange value. People are afraid of criticism, because it's an idea that is connected with certain kinds of postures they don't want to be associated with. For that reason, I think the need is even greater to locate and find a space. I think it's our responsibility to locate this new space and criticality. You can't let that die.

Audience: Speaking as someone from the younger generation, who understands this limitlessness of experimentation, I can say that experimentation is easy. All I would have to do during this question is get up and stand up on the table in front of you and it would negate this notion of authority that's been put up.

Otto: Yeah, right! I'd kick you off.

Audience: Okay, fine, go ahead, kick me off! I can do this stuff, but that's okay. I'm not trying to be confrontational.

Otto: That's experimentation?

Audience: No, this isn't experimentation. It's trying to create an intimacy.

Otto: This is an intimacy? C'mon, what are we doing? I don't know you. I'm sorry. Step, bounce, go.

Audience: That's exactly my point. Where do we claim responsibility, and the criticality that you're talking about, in this situation? Are we not continually undermining ourselves, as I just did? If experimentation is limitless, if that's the case, and we're continually trying to find new bounds, what do we take from what has already been established? How do we integrate? In some respects, always looking for the new...

Otto: No, you're confusing what I'm saying. Experimentation does not equal the new. If you don't believe me, go on the Internet or watch MTV and you'll understand what I'm saying. It's not the same. Experimentation is about criticality; new is about marketing. That's an important distinction, because new and marketing will eat your life if you let it.

Gaines: I think you've made a good point. What you're expressing is the difficulty of space. It wasn't this complex twenty or thirty years ago. It's very complex and it's a tougher job. Your point is well taken, the possibility of wasting your time. It's important to know when you're being productive and when you're not. I think there's a strong sense of futility about it.

Otto: Let me give you an example. The other day I was at home, cranking Jimi Hendrix. He was so far ahead of his time, but if you got up and played Jimi Hendrix today, you'd be a fool. It's a progression. It's not about one-upping people; it's about time and process. Does that make sense?

Audience: Yes that makes perfect sense. My question is how to avoid being solipsistic, in many respects.

Gamboa: I think it's time for the Nike story. I think one of the things about being experimental is that you have to deal with everyday reality. Susan wanted me to tell the Nike story: in LA they've spent billions and billions of dollars building a subway system, except it only goes about two miles. Most of the money has gone to refurbish the homes of the politicians and send their kids to college. They also have a light rail system that really doesn't take you anywhere. I like taking it because I like going nowhere. I was on the train the other day; it would have been much easier to take a different route, but I wanted to see what would happen. As I was getting on the train, it turns out that there were these young people gathered about, almost like a religious ceremony. Two of them were holding a pair of brand new Nikes that looked really fabulous, I guess, to everyone else, except me. I just kept thinking about the time that my son conned me into buying him a pair. Every time the door opened, more young people would get on and gaze at these things, stopped in their tracks. I had a thought in my mind that I should break this myth; I was going to tie the shoelaces together and throw them out the door. But I would have been out the next one. In the whole performative aspect of doing something, one has to be able to expect to be rejected, or to transform something that's an art situation into a very real situation. What you did just now, coming up and stuff, was fine, but I think we all saw the imaginary line, and you never crossed it, which is the only reason you're still sitting here. It's okay because it's all contextualized in this situation, but in the early 80s, there were many performance artists who would do things that would endanger the audience, or insult them and hurt their feelings. They expected to be surrounded with an aura of being gifted and being an artist, given license to do that, but that's not really the case. You can be an outlaw, if you want. You might really be an artist doing gifted and great things, but you could live and die with the disrespect and the hatred of many, and only be understood five hundred years down the line. On the other hand, you could also end up in jail. You have to understand what the limits are.

Otto: Let me respond to you really quickly. At Cal Arts, I teach a class called, "Millennium Studio." It's set up to be a workshop. When I first started it, I thought it would be total failure. It's an installation class for all media, and it's divided into two sections. Half the class shows one week; half the class shows the other week. I'm talking site-specific, installation, on campus or anywhere around the campus. And guess what? You show, or I scream at you like you've never heard before. Actually, I haven't been screaming lately; I've been mostly giving dirty looks. So everybody shows, and it becomes this thing where the student is saying, "Oh my god, it's Saturday, class is Monday, and I don't have anything to show." They have to force themselves to make something, to do something like take an egg carton, light it on fire and see what happens. It's not experimentation on this elitist, hierarchical level; it's experimentation often out of desperation. My mother's always saying, "Yeah, you've done so well," and I tell her, "Well, fear and desperation can be quite motivating."

I think we should end here.

 

 

Analysis by Elizabeth Cohen

 

 

Charles Gaines claims that experimentation in art is a thing of the 60s. In the 90s our options seem limitless. If we see our options as limitless, what could be surprising or revealing? Although this would make it seem that there is no need for experimentation, there is. If the spirit of experimentalism has died, the capitalists have won. We have a great need to find a new space for criticality. Susan Otto suggests that art is experimentation. If Gaines and Otto are right, what is at stake for the contemporary practitioner? In the analysis which follows I will write about what experimentation is and is not (as discussed by the panelists). Then I will problematize what is described as the practice of experimentation as a way to reveal the politics of it. I will describe the role of theory in this practice and what I see as the problems or questions raised by the panelists' discussion.

What does it mean to speak of experimental behavior? According to Otto, experimentation is not limited to the formal. It requires being open to experience. Once one has experienced, it is necessary to reflect on the experience and react in a spectacular, smart, and subversive way. Gaines suggests that experimentation requires criticality or suspicion beyond the formal. It requires locating and claiming new ground. In summation, to be experimental one must:

1. be open to experience;

2. reflect critically and suspiciously on one's experiences;

3. react to the experience in a spectacular, smart and subversive way;

4. locate and claim new ground.

Of these requirements the fourth, or locating and claiming new ground, seems to be the one that raises the most questions.

What is often described as experimentation is not. As I stated earlier, Gaines and Otto expressed that experimentation is not merely formal. Otto complicates the discussion by declaring that experimentation does not equal new. Experimentation is about criticality. New is about marketing. If we take this statement as suggesting that experimentation is possible without anything new, the fourth requirement, locating and claiming new ground is called into question. Gamboa challenges this idea. There is not enough image or text in the world to describe his experience. He proposes that the job of the artist is to illuminate what he calls social blindspots. This statement suggests that in order to successfully illuminate social blindspots the artist must not recycle existing works. It requires new work to add to the description of an experience.

To further develop the discussion I will shift the focus from what is meant when one talks about the experimental to the practical problems around the experimental act. Chris Frederick, a student, challenges the panelists. Where do we find criticality if experience is limitless? This question suggests that the attempt to perform an experimental act could be futile. Within this context Otto states that new is not experimental. But, if we see experimentation as a surprising reaction to a set of experiences there is a problem, a paradox. One must do something new to be experimental, but being new is not experimental. It seems as if the effort is pointless. Gamboa and Gaines take a more practical approach to the challenge. Gaines states that this mistaken assessment is often the result of a parochial or limited world view. He emphasizes the importance of theorizing one's ideas before acting. For an experimental act to be effective, Gamboa states, one must assess the environment or context in which the act is to take place. A mistaken assessment could yield disappointing results and a lack of control, which could be dangerous to the actor and/or the public. I will discuss the ethics of the experimental act below.

If experimentation is critical, surprising or subversive it must require the violation of certain social codes in order to be potentially successful. These codes can range from speaking softly in a museum to not trespassing on private property. What are the ethics of experimentation? Gamboa says that artists ought not hurt or endanger others. That is not allowed in the game of experimentation. He states, You can be an outlaw and live and die with the disrespect of many. He emphasizes the need to proceed in an educated manner. A chemist does not just throw chemicals together to see what will happen. Rather, a chemist studies and has a hypothesis before conducting an experiment. Artists should act as chemists if the act is the experiment. Gaines suggests that to make these hypotheses the artist must theorize her or his ideas. He did not elaborate further on what he meant by this. He further suggests that an act is not experimental if the actors are operating under ideas that they do not know about. Is theory prescriptive? If it is, where is the experiment?

This lively discussion around experimentation between Otto, Gamboa, and Gaines raised many questions that remain unanswered and some troubling contradictions. The panelists spoke in generalities which made it hard to draw conclusions from their points. What do the panelists mean when they use the word "new"? How can postmodern theory and experimentation be reconciled if it is postmodern to think that the new is impossible and experimentation requires doing something?