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‘Training for a Better World’ by Annie Abrahams

06/12/2012
Michael Szpakowski

First off, some claims, some general, some particular. I’m going to use these to speak about the work under consideration and in turn call upon that work to support the claims. A kind of virtuous critical circle.

General: works of art are not messages but objects. They don’t say things nor ask questions, nor assert, nor investigate. Neither do they as objects have messages somehow encoded or embedded within them. To assert otherwise is a massive category error.

As objects they may of course be brought in evidence, copied, become conversation pieces, be described well, be described badly, be described perversely, be seen, be half seen, be missed, be lost, be found, be written about, point to things, be compared and many other things, some of which have not yet been imagined.

Further, artworks are fuzzily-bordered and not necessarily of a physical or temporal piece – the object is not simply the object (and ‘the object’ might not be physical but words, a concept, a sound recording, a protocol) but everything that accretes as a result of it – commentary, jokes, other artworks made in response. If mathematical terminology wasn’t so regularly and toe-curlingly abused in the arts, we might refer to them as manifolds, not necessarily connected.

Even the historical is not immune. There’s a reaching back in time where an established work is transformed retrospectively by homage – ‘Las Meninas’ an obvious case in point.

Also: the work of art is finite – it was born and it will, one day, cease to exist (and it will be forgotten, or there will be no-one to remember it). Everything changes, everything dies.

This implies, too, that although the individual author matters, as product of a unique formation and a unique set of locations in time and space, every artwork is socially authored.

Particular: Abraham’s work represents a new conjunction of technology, collaboration and performance as a generator of moving image. It has precursors (freely acknowledged, indeed celebrated) but it is qualitatively new. The moving image work comes in two flavours, fresh and preserved, both with their own particular and delicious savour. Abrahams conducts live performances on the internet. These performances occur singly, as pieces in themselves, or form part of the programme of events accompanying exhibitions. The moving image pieces in this show are all derivations of this kind of performative event. Except derivation has an air of the hierarchical and the types of piece form no hierarchy any more than fresh or smoked salmon do.

A final general claim: writing about art is not a science but itself an art. Sometimes the brush will be delicate and sometimes broad. There is no recipe or rules or template. One can be too delicate – sometimes confusion is good, particularly in the matter of the affective. Crude thinking sometimes gets us further, paralleling, not dissecting, the richnesses of work. There are some mysteries one should leave as such.

OK. Onwards and upwards…

Performative is currently a much used, some might say overused, word. One quite common usage is to suggest that a work contains visible or at least trackable traces of its own making, a kind of archaeological or sedimentary record, and that perhaps this might have been to varying degrees intentional.

Of course it’s arguable any work of art is performative in this way and that it’s quite hard to erase the trail behind you whether what you make is time based or photographic, sculpted or made with hand applied pigment of one sort or another. Continuous looking and thinking about art for any length of time, especially allied to making stuff oneself, whether dabbling or something more serious, hones an increasing sensitivity to these questions. And this matters; particularly when it comes to over-nice distinctions between close relatives such as the still and moving photographic image and esoteric arguments about how time is differently present or presented in each of these and in other further flung practices too. The new scholasticism feeds on ever finer such distinctions.

So it’s a relief to come across work, which is genuinely performative, enough so that even someone undrenched in theory can see it, can get it and can be delighted and exalted by it. Furthermore work that smells unmistakably of the human, that abuts the high and the low, the crude and subtle, that blurs boundaries, that borrows and echoes the work of others not with the pinched expression of someone with a theoretical framework but in a spirit of ‘why?’ and ‘let’s play’ – the two childish precursors of grown up science and art.

Annie Abrahams’ show at the Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Languedoc-Roussillon in Sète is a graceful and elegant dog’s dinner of a show. Physically it’s odd, exiled to the upper floor (still a generous space) whilst Catherine Gfeller, someone altogether more easily glossed and hence exhausted (though not without merit) gets the more conventional downstairs galleries (and attracted the lion’s share of the press on the opening night.)

Said upper floor comes in two instalments – a lovely hangar type space, where a game of golf seems distinctly possible, with a kind of tail leading off it, a long thin corridor which fattens a little towards its farther end maybe 100 metres away.

The layout of the show utilises this peculiarity nicely. In the big room a very large two projection installation, Angry Women, spans one corner and takes up a considerable portion of the two adjacent walls.

In the far corner, diagonally opposite, a monitor, with two chairs and two sets of headphones, of which more later.

Leaving the larger space, two more monitor based pieces at junctions where it’s possible for an individual to sit and others to pass. Five chairs arranged in a circle with copies of two books of interviews on each (one with Abrahams, and one with a selection of other cultural figures) and highlighter pens. In the middle of the circle, a pile of blankets. A larger wall piece of rough and ready cardboard placards with texts (“mutuellement vulnérable”, “euphorie communicative”, many others) in various hands.

At the far end, a number of framed photo and images based pieces plus a work consisting of a single photograph and headphone delivered audio (it’s a snapshot – snapshot size, snapshot aesthetic – of husband and wife volunteer fire fighters. The audio is manipulated audio of texts on the subject of fear read by them. Let’s not try and place all this into any sort of context yet. Let’s set out our stall, enumerate, account, describe.)

A final deft touch is the symbolic linking of the two areas by a ribbon of text occupying the 15 or so centimetres above the floor, skirting board height, the topic of which appears to be mental illness (and all elegantly lettered except for one point where a letter had been omitted and is inserted with a caret symbol.)

The vast majority of the pieces employ texts or performances – both gestural and textual – by others – often created according to some seed question or protocol. The texts often come from questions posed on the internet but sometimes from workshop or outreach type (type –this is just to tentatively and provisionally locate the thing – it’s outreach Jim, but not as we know it) activity.

The performers in the moving image pieces are geographically dispersed but brought together at a single time by webcams and some custom software that Abrahams has used on a number of occasions where the web-cammed-in participants occupy a space in a rectangular grid (aficionados of seventies UK quiz shows such as Blankety Blank will get it immediately).

There’s a fragility, a delicacy, a tentative hold on existence, a testing of our belief, about these works that so many works of fine art – as opposed to design – have. The sense that what we have incorporates the idiosyncrasies, indeed the weaknesses of the support materials and media, into a final object (the same sense as when an artist wilfully uses something manifestly not intended for art, or allows mistakes to stand, or omits, or makes all too evident repairs; this is not new. Think pentimenti, or the hasty addition of an extra panel of canvas or paper to take account of expanding ambition or vision, or the aestheticized unevenness of Japanese tea-ware.) This sense of object-hood rather than message or statement is key. An objecthood which in retrospect could not have been other, but equally could not have been proposed, foreseen, except in its protocols of playfulness.

The pixellation, dropout, glitching, concomitant upon the pushing of the current state of the network to its limits in the multi participant pieces (and this reminds one of how flicker and roll and a general fuzziness become now part of the Acconci piece Abrahams draws upon in her Theme Song After Acconci – which reasons of space preclude too much detail about here – suffice it to say Abrahams honours, compresses, feminizes, satirises and intensifies the original. If Acconci could have had access to a “better” technology, one where the speed was constant, where no flicker or roll appeared, would he have then felt it served his purpose better? Did what he saw even look fuzzy or worn to him? Probably yes, compared with the film standards of the day, as does Abraham’s work compared with high end digital video [and even the current, rather good, quality of You Tube].)

To offer participants a protocol is paradoxically both to assert and to cede control, to know and to not know how things will turn out (an analogy is the use of chance in the works of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, where the mechanisms make the generality of the sound, its broad texture, predictable but any particular instance impossible to predict or even fully imagine [but all, please note, a matter of degree because the finer the grain, the greater the level of magnification, the more we can find such uncertainty in anything unfolding over time – it’s a question of our norms – what is the difference between the Stockhausen piano pieces where the performer can choose the order of segments and a Mozart sonata where the tempo may be quite widely varied? – in principle, none])

The piece Pourquoi avons-nous des difficultés à ouvrir un ordinateur et en changer le disque dur? plays on a single monitor with the screen divided into two areas. In each we see, sometimes with difficulty and ambiguously, parts of a computer, screws, connections and hands.

We hear two voices, one that of Abrahams and the other her co-performer, discussant, what have you, Eliza Fantozzi, speaking in French. In the version at Sète there are English subtitles which even for non English speakers provide a kind of functionality, meaning, in that the words tend to be positioned on a line from left to right according to who is speaking. When both speak suggestive gaps appear, though these cannot be read definitively).

The subtitles are in a strange (for a native English speaker) near-English (the title, for example, is translated as “Why do we have difficulties to open a computer and change its hard disk?”).

This is, it must be said, cute, amusing and engaging and it underscores the altogether naughty childlike quality of the entire interchange. The characters (for I think one should mistrust the assumption, however tempting, that we have here unmediated access to the actual participants) are playful – amused and amusing. At the same time they ruthlessly anatomise the roots of their difficulties with technology (but the performativity avoids being on–message in any sense and makes for something strange, complex and even uncomfortable. At one point Fantozzi complains of the lack of colour variety inside the machine and starts painting the components with nail varnish to “create a much merrier circuit” – Je crée un circuit beaucoup plus gai).

Later Abrahams lays into a ribbon connector with a pair of scissors and then starts apparently fringing it with regular cuts half way across … There is an association of the decorative, the playful and a rejection of the serious which is somewhat too close to many gender stereotypes to be entirely comfortable. (The piece was originally performed on international women’s day 2011) And yet, and yet – the end result is complex, for there is a steeliness to the play and a self respect and assertiveness. Perhaps (I don’t know. I don’t think there is a definitive answer. I don’t think close reading or theory can bring us it either) it is the very truthfulness, the richness of the incorporation of the world as it is and not as we might like it to be from which this springs.

Before we get to the physically largest and most imposing presence in the show we’ll look at its neighbour, comprising two chairs, a monitor and two sets of headphones.

Double Blind (Love) is a record of a 264 minute telematic performance by Annie Abrahams and the US artist Curt Cloninger which took place on November the 29th 2009. Annie Abrahams was in the Living Room (Espace de création contemporaine) Montpellier, France and Cloninger in the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, Asheville, North Carolina, US.

Both wore blindfolds for the entire duration of the performance, which was a joint telematic musical (and I use the word advisedly; though Abrahams describes Cloninger as a musician she appears to reject the description for herself. I think she is mistaken) performance taking the form of an improvisation, largely vocal but with some keyboard input from Cloninger, around a short musical cell from the track Until the End of the World by U2. The section in question has a repetition of the word “love” for its sole lyrical content and occurs just over midway through the song. It would perhaps ordinarily be described as a chorus but in fact appears only once in the song (although it continues as a backing vocal throughout the next verse), one of the first of many tiny idiosyncrasies on our pathway, peculiarities which add cumulative spice and interest to the project. I’d always found U2 banal and full of bombast but going to the song, under the circumstances of researching this piece, with necessarily open eyes and ears was a small epiphany, one of a number occasioned by a systematic engagement with Abraham’s work.

It’s worth noting that much of the structure of this piece came originally from Cloninger. In the previous year he had performed a number of pieces under the title “pop mantra” where in a live situation he repeated a similar pop music cell for a period of hours (“usually blindfolded”).

Cloninger had also video documented these performances though at this point this is documentation and lives no independent life of its own.

Let’s take a look at these proto ‘Double Blinds’. There is as yet no suggestion of interchange, of development. Although this is clearly a more obvious option with two performers, conscious development is not impossible in a solo performance. It does however appear to be consciously excluded. In an echo of the process or systems driven works of the seventies, Cloninger sets something in motion and allows it to unfold. He attempts to repeat the phrase many times. Presumably his arms start to ache and his voice to tire. This trial of endurance becomes a principal motor of the pieces. What does this evoke? For me, and you might share this, there are the dance marathons of the twenties, the notion of sport, especially individual sport, of pitting oneself against oneself; there is ritual repetition – Sufi whirling, or that carrying out of repetitive, gruelling and apparently pointless tasks sanctified in some Buddhist traditions; the pilgrimage; there is a kind of practical prayer through ritual, suffering or self-abnegation.

The motoric unwinding and associated characteristics obtain in Double Blind, too. What is new, what comes from Abrahams, is the telematic – the fact of separation by an ocean and the fact of collaboration. Indeed there is an inbuilt sharper contradiction as the collaboration separated by so much physical distance is of the peculiar intimacy that attends musical partnership, improvisatory or not. (A couple of years before Abrahams had performed a telematic kiss for three hours with the US artist Mark River.)

Despite Abraham’s denial the finished performance falls entirely within the established parameters of the musical. Precedents such as the work of Meredith Monk could be cited for Abraham’s compelling vocalisations – song, whisper, shout, scream, cry of pleasure, cry of pain – whose musico-dramatic logic and sensitivity to her performing partner, this listener at least, finds totally satisfying. It’s a touching partnership, with both performers bringing a fierce commitment to the task in hand but also each bearing different gifts – Cloninger, a formed musical sensibility supported by conventional skills and Abrahams a kind of discovery/invention of improvisation (indeed of music) ab ovo.

Thousands of years in 4 and half hours.

There is a formal challenge and satisfaction too, common to both Abraham’s and Cloninger’s concerns – how much transcendence can be mined, discovered, invented, from the small, the insignificant? Can it be exhausted before we are exhausted and what does the transfiguration brought about by the attempt suggest about us as human beings?

Two performers. Two chairs for two spectators only. Likewise, two sets of headphones.

Grace.

Opposite, stretching luxuriantly out, is the exhibition’s jewel in the crown – Angry Women, created by Abrahams and twenty two other women of many nationalities, speaking about anger; acting out, demonstrating, reflecting, on anger, on webcams from their different individual locations and in their native tongues, with the images being sent to the 3X4 grid, in a format that Abrahams has made her own. Because of the limits of even current streaming technology it was necessary to conduct two separate performances (separated by an interval of a couple of months). The length of each performance was determined by a protocol where a minute’s silence by all participants signalled the end. This resulted in pieces of differing lengths which lack of synchronisation adds another layer of fragile grace to the final projections, projected large on adjacent walls around the corner joining them with sound from the left images fed to the right speaker and vice versa.

The effect is visceral – we face what feels like a wave of humanity, not so much in numbers, although 23 is impressive, but in the infinite malleability of the face, hands and of gesture and expression and of how these things can occupy the frame. Sometimes that frame will resemble a Giacometti portrait, with the subject appearing to recede into what seems to be endlessly deep space. At others red lips or an open mouth, sensual and terrifying by turns, occupy the whole of the space – and furthermore each cell is constantly in flux (because these are living, breathing unpredictable human beings). There is something both of portraiture and of the dance at work, and a species of found poetry too, which the moving image work has in common with the collaborative texts at the other end of the exhibition. The combination of iron control, planning, foresight (the grid, the protocols) with a letting go and a trust elsewhere – the phased lengths, the blank space for the person who didn’t turn up, the performative possibilities – makes for something of great richness.

Additionally it’s clear that those of the performers who have previous experience are consciously playing with and against their fellows – gestures are mirrored, sounds echoed, the fiction of looking elsewhere (to the side, or above) in the grid is impressively deployed.

The angry women turn out to be at one and the same time very particular –unique – women and women in general too; the women in general turn out to be human beings in general (and general en masse because each so particular) and the human beings in general turn out to live in this, one, our, very particular, world – that mysterious, frightening and wonderful place.

In keeping with the cheering on of lack of clarity, of mess, of crudity I’ve espoused so far in this piece (and will continue so to do, here and elsewhere) I want to say we need to take the exhibition (and the world) as a whole. Offering us the video and the still image pieces and audio means we cannot but think of them together (we can choose to artificially isolate pieces but we cannot undo our knowledge of that whole). So to the extent that I have selected topics here I have done violence to Abraham’s art, which has no message, is not confined to any one medium, collaborates in multiple ways, borrows, steals (and gives) and presents us with a set of marvellous and mysterious objects which afford us a spectrum of entirely new pathways to the world, to seeing it, talking and thinking about it, ourselves, after we have gone to the bar or got on the train north to Paris and thence homewards, happy and somehow a little changed.

—-
Training for a Better World – Annie Abrahams

Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Languedoc-Roussillon, Sète, France
28/10/2011 to 01/01/2012

Michael Szpakowski is an artist, composer & writer. His music has been performed all over the UK, in Russia & the USA. He has exhibited work in galleries in the UK, mainland Europe & the USA. His short films have been shown throughout the world. He is composer & video artist for Tell Tale Hearts Theatre Company & a joint editor of the online video resource DVblog. For more details see http://www.somedancersandmusicians.com

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Michael Szpakowski is an artist, composer & writer. His music has been performed all over the UK, in Russia & the USA. He has exhibited work in galleries in the UK, mainland Europe & the USA. His short films have been shown throughout the world. He is composer & video artist for Tell Tale Hearts Theatre Company & a joint editor of the online video resource DVblog. For more details see http://www.somedancersandmusicians.com Share: Twitter Instagram Facebook