Thursday, March 10, 2011

‘Stockroom; The Planet in Orgasm, or, Freedom from the Known' a lecture by Zach Rockhill

What follows is the transcript of a lecture I gave in February 2011 at Grand Arts in Kansas City as part of the Imaginative Reinvention of Education Symposium:

In 2009 I was invited by the curator Chiara Vechiarelli, in conjunction with the arts organization at Ca’ Zenobio in Venice to reinvent an Allan Kaprow happening as part of one of their scheduled peripheral events to the Venice Biennale.

Allan Kaprow, 'Stockroom' 1967

The invitation to revisit Kaprow’s work in Venice had been preceded by my doing a large scale re-invention of Kaprow’s ‘FLUIDS’ from 1967 at the invitation of the Performa ’07 biennial.

There is a core paradox in revisiting Kaprow’s work. Kaprow’s impulse towards art was founded on making singular works of art that insisted on their ephemeral natures, “something never before done, by a method never before used, whose outcome is unforeseen." I proposed to Ca’ Zenobio to revisit Kaprow’s earliest environmental happening, ‘Stockroom’, from 1961. Their 16th century palazzo seemed the perfect place to envision a spirited and messy American event.

Kaprow issued these instructions for the piece:

“Basically, the work is to be conceived organically rather than geometrically, though one should not interpret these words in any absolute way. The “feel” of it should be one of artlessness or stylelessness, therefore. This of course requires of the composer the utmost in responsibility and devotion to his job. While flexibility is intended within certain limits, license is to be discouraged.”

At around the same time, following a thread of interest that evolved in my studio practice out of watching Tarkovsky films, I found myself reading Stanislav Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ (which Tarkovsky had made into a film of the same name). ‘Solaris’ was published in 1961, the same year that Kaprow mounted ‘Stockroom’. On the surface this is a benign and perhaps totally unremarkable coincidence - but as I read and then re-read Solaris it dawned on me that there was a relationship between the two art works.

I’d been sensitized to the possibility of a relationship born of coincidence by an arrest at LaGuardia Airport in New York around this time. A young man named Scott McGann was caught on the jetway with a ‘bomb’ - that turned out to be a time machine.

His arrest perfectly mirrored Chris Marker’s sci-fi film ‘La Jetee’ – the time machine, the search for his mother, Orly/LaGuardia airports looking the same - and it left me thinking that confluences of art works across time and space might be more the norm than the exception. At the time I became obsessed with finding collapsed boundaries between art and life, geography, and time. Why couldn’t these events be tied to one another, and to myself? Scott McGann hadn’t woken up from his catatonic state following his arrest at LaGuardia and had been interred at Bellevue – unreachable. We'll never know if he'd seen Marker's film.

In spite of the derision being heaped on him by the press I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps his device hadn’t worked, if his body wasn't just a place holder, a buoy to mark his travels. What if each one of us, Lem, Kaprow and myself were the intersections of a triangle –in some other dimension - forming this new work?

'La Jetee/Daily News Swap' 2009, Zach Rockhill

“Solaris” is set on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris in the far future. The cosmonauts on the station are the last of several generations of scientists who’ve been trying to establish contact with the intelligent and sentient being that is the planet Solaris. Solaris’s one vast ocean creates enormous architectural and sculptural ‘mimoids’, ‘symmetriads’– sculptural forms - for no apparent reason.

On gala days (for the scientist as well as for the mimoid, an unforgettable spectacle develops as the mimoid goes into hyperproduction and performs wild flights of fancy. It plays variations on the theme of a given object and embroiders ‘formal extensions’ that amuse it for hours on end, to the delight of the non-figurative artist and to the despair of the scientist, who is at a loss to grasp any common theme in the performance. The mimoid can produce ‘primitive’ simplifications, but is just as likely to indulge in ‘baroque’ deviation, paroxysms of extravagant brilliance. Old mimoids tend to manufacture extremely comic forms. Looking at the photographs, I have never been moved to laughter; the riddle they set is too disquieting to be funny.”

The cosmonauts, in an effort to make Solaris in its architectural and sculptural exuberance communicate with them, (which it hadn’t done during the hundreds of years of their research) deliberately irradiate a swath of the ocean with microwave radiation. Following this, Solaris begins to reproduce inside the space station people from the cosmonauts’ past, dead people. The protagonist of the story, Kelvin, has his dead wife Rheya appear on the station in perfect health.

Film still from Tarkovsky's 'Solaris' showing Kelvin and Rheya

My first impression of ‘Solaris’ was that every sculpture student should be made to read it for its fantastic anology to the artistic process – an autistic ocean that makes sculpture, motivated by unknown forces. But then it dawned on me that, in reinventing the historic work of Kaprow, I was bringing back to the living something that was singular and now dead. What Solaris, the sentient and autistic ocean, did to Kelvin’s wife, I was now doing to ‘Stockroom’, circa 1961.

'Symetriade/FLUIDS 2007'

The novel, after the appearance of Kelvin’s dead wife Rheya on the space station, is a meditation on desire, grief and death. In the end, the cosmonauts can’t determine what the motive on the part of the Ocean is in sending the dead back to them, in much the same way that I couldn’t totally clarify my motives behind revisiting Kaprow. From ‘Solaris’:

"Unable to plumb Solaris's motive for the re-visitations, Kelvin becomes aware that despite his scientific and rational effort to understand his predicament, he loves the re-visitation as he loved the original: "You may have been sent to torment me, or to make my life happier, or as an instrument ignorant of its function, used like a microscope with me on the slide. Possibly you are here as a token of friendship, or a subtle punishment, or even as a joke. It could be all of those at once, or - which is more probably - something else completely."

I loved the work, it was a torment and made my life happier, I wasn’t sure what the motive on the part of the institutions that wanted this work were (though I continued to act on that imperative to revisit it), and there was friendship, as well as difficulty and punishment, in the work. Having set this analogy in motion I began to wonder - in a paranoid jag – if I also wasn’t an instrument ignorant of its function.

Film Still from Steven Soderbergh's 2002 version of 'Solaris'

The poles of this problem: history and the past on the one hand, the present tense and expanded field of possibility on the other, Lem and Kaprow, closely model a dilemma that I face as a teacher (of art). The problem was loosely addressed in the performance workshop that I did then with a group of students from the Academia in Venice.

What is the nature of this dilemma for a teacher and how does my odd pairing of Solaris and Kaprow model it? Everything that we agree is art has its genesis in other art, and knowledge in previous knowledge. There is always a precedent, a starting point and a model for what it is. Everyone comes to the endeavor with some idea of what it is and how it functions. The category of art as we understand it – with its constantly shifting tide lines of location, materiality, activity, performativity, dead and undead genres – can only be described by saying ‘the category of art’, -as absurd as that sounds. The planet Solaris can only send back to Kelvin something that he already knows and something that is dead. The mind can only project outwards what it already knows and it looks to repeat itself. Or, as Lem says later in Solaris, through Kelvin’s fellow cosmonaut Gibrarian, regarding contact with extra-terrestrials;

“We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past.”

And yet, what I, as a teacher, want for my students, is not repetition of other models or a mirror of the past. I want for them to make work in a boundaryless field of possibility, in a constant present tense of limitless horizons and enormous energy. I want them activated by what Joseph Beuys called ‘field character’ and I call endless orgiastic play, rigorous pleasure, ‘the planet in orgasm’ as Lem described Solaris – an enormous intelligent will to live. Call it what you like. Every student comes to art with, hidden on their person, the recognition that our lives should be constituted of something greater than this, a utopian impulse, a dream of possible lives - rich, deep, oceanic lives.

This brings me to the question of my role as a teacher, my position during that performance workshop in 2009, and one of the purposes of this symposium.

If on the one hand we’ve all arrived at the space station of - in my case art, but enter here whatever your endeavor in life is; architecture, engineering, cooking - and we are circling the planet earth looking to communicate with a vast intelligent being, that Lem describes as:

‘a monstrous entity endowed with reason, a proto-plasmic ocean-brain enveloping the entire planet and idling away its time in extravagant theoretical cognition about the nature of the universe.’

If we’re trying to communicate and all it sends back to us are the dead, and the teachers themselves speak in the language of the dead, but we believe there is a new form emerging of vast potentiality, how do we teach to it? How do we nurture – to borrow George Kubler’s term - “prime objects” over replications? What is our role as a teacher in this landscape? How do we open the door to the ‘something else completely’ of Kelvin’s description above?

In 2009 I described the project to the students in Venice; that there was a confluence between Kaprow, now gone but having insisted throughout his life on an artistic endeavor of constant innovation, and Lem’s learning to love through the ambivalent gesture of occupying dead forms. I told them about 1961 and about ‘Solaris’ and ‘Stockroom’ appearing on opposite sides of the earth with opposing impulses. I told them that I thought that the earth had asked me to come to Venice to build an elaborate mimoid/installation with them in the hope that we could occupy the present tense together.

They laughed. Being Italian, I realized, they were comfortable with the transubstantiation of the dead. I think this is where the imperative of the teacher in relationship to the student might be the most prescient – because what we were aiming for in that workshop was transubstantiation, transformation, and we were doing it with the hovering danger of committing necrophilia.

What do I mean by this? Every model, every idea of what art is or could be, that a student comes to making art with is at once the vehicle for their liberation - it has taught them that there is an expanded field for them to occupy - and their master, having set the terms of engagement in a vocabulary not their own. In the analogy of Solaris, as a studio art teacher – and I’m sure that the studio art teachers in the room can relate to this – the dead are all the ghosts in a student’s practice. They are the family of artists that a student self-identifies with. The ghosts are the earliest exposure and impression on the student, or on any artist, of the possibility of what a life in art might mean. Most importantly, the ghosts are also what we - as teachers - tell them art is.

Film Still from Tarkovsky's 'Solaris', Kelvin is having to tear Rheya's dress open because Solaris,

reproduced what he cannot remember about his dead wife - the buttons.

They appear and like Rheya, they look similar to things we’ve loved (or the student has), or have been told to love. If you try to undress them though, like Kelvin, you find that Solaris has mimicked only what was in Kelvin’s mind. They have no buttons on their dresses and no laces on their shoes – Kelvin having been unable to recall those details of his dead wife. The student, divided from the original creative act by their own partial knowledge of their attraction leaves equivalent vacancies. Kelvin asks Rheya where she came from – just now – and she can’t answer, Solaris having no memory to project into a past. They’re not fully formed. They are discordant, misshapen, and incomplete. If you mishandle them they are incredibly strong and resilient.

It is at this point at which many teachers of art diverge; with the majority saying simply ‘art cannot be taught’. What they mean is, beyond the etiquette lessons of materiality, the dead cannot rise, there is no transubstantiation. It occurs to me here, as I’m arguing for raising the dead, that my first impulse is decidedly un-messiah like: I think it’s imperative to put one’s hand down the back of Rheya’s dress to check for buttons; to acknowledge that language, whether spoken, written or transmitted through images or objects, is the currency of our exchange, and must, alongside the effort to generate prime forms, be self-aware of its previously inhabited meanings.

The question after that is how to negotiate the space between, on the one hand, the attraction to Rheya, the form, the language (whatever it is) and on the other, the complicated matrix that is our lived experience, between – as flat footed as it may sound – between form and content. The challenge is how to bring them into contact with one another and have the full and unarticulated spectrum of our lives fill the vacancies of the form we chose – ideally to exceed that form and synthesize into something never before done, something else completely.

It would take a second and third symposium to address the methods that good teachers use to negotiate this endeavor. As we’re about to go do a movement workshop with the dancer Leralee Whittle that loosely explores the pedagogic model I’ve described above, I think its important to mention that I see teachers as guides who set structures for unknown outcomes. In the analogy I’ve used, lets imagine that the ‘Rheya’ that has appeared amongst us is our own body, our relationship to it half formed, partial, loving and ambivalent. The only witness in the room is yourself, and Rheya.

Zach Rockhill

February 2011

Imaginative Reinvention of Education Symposium

Grand Arts, Kansas City

Friday, November 20, 2009

TALK SHOW, Omer Fast, Abrons Art Center. November 11, 2009.

Two middle age men stepped onto the stage; they both looked familiar to me.

“So how did you get into this mess?” one man asked.

The other man proceeded to answer this question. He spoke about life in the 60’s, how teaching led him to political activism, and how Kennedy and Martin Luther King's deaths turned him toward violent measures. He reminisced about falling in love and burst into protest songs twice. The man spoke passionately, nervously and yet seemed a bit rehearsed. He ended his story by describing the accidental explosion at 11th street that killed his girlfriend and collaborator “Diane.”

This was when I realized that the person speaking was Bill Ayers from Weather Underground, and as in most of his interviews about the Underground, he made it clear that while Diane's death changed his entire approach, it also made him more determined to be an activist for the peace movement.


Ayers exited the stage, and Lili Taylor took his seat. She asked the man on stage, whom I later found out was actor Tom Noonan, “So how did you get into this mess?” The game of telephone began.

And it was broken right the way. The actor had left out most of the idiosyncratic details in Ayers' narrative. His lifelong ideological struggle quickly evaporated into a tall tale about how loving a young woman led him to violent and regretful political actions. This left very little for Lili to work with. She basically had to start from a fairly generic love story and spin it out into a performance removed from historical context. Despite all, she did manage to captivate the audience with the tone and emotion of her performance.

Four more performers took turns. While I never thought a work by Omer Fast would make me laugh out loud, I was grateful that comedian Dave Hill took charge of the few rather grim narratives and injected some comic relief. By the time we got to the last performer, Rosie Perez, Diane had become a dangerously beautiful queer activist killed in an anti-Iraq-war protest because the protesters were making bombs to one-up each other in a competition for attention.

It was hard to watch Bill Ayers’ story deteriorating into farce with him sitting in the front row. But what did we expect? The performance was meant to be a kind of high-end theatrical experiment. And yet I couldn’t help but compare it to Fast’s other video works, particularly Godville (2005.) My dissatisfaction with the theater piece led me to explore how different performative structures produce and alter meaning, and how the role of forgetting plays out in the artist’s work.

In Talk Show, forgetting is a part of the act, a form of omission based on improvisation and the pressure of telling a story in real time. When something is left out by a player early in the chain, every subsequent player has to construct the narrative without that information.

In Godville, forgetting is the subject matter. The impression of a hole in the narrative is created through repeating and layering multiple interpretations, using jump cuts to compress time. The more we see, the less we feel we know about the actual narrative. In contrast, in the theater version where time is linear, the dissonance comes from the fact that we know more than the performer.

I guess the act of forgetting is much messier in real life. Rather than a kind of metaphorical erosion that we tend to theorize and recreate, forgetting things can be abrupt and arbitrary as a game of telephone.

And how about Bill Ayers? I wonder how many times he has told his story at this point in his life, and how many edits he has gone through in order to present a version of a remembrance that might just be too significant to be broken apart.

-- Annie Shaw

Sunday, November 15, 2009

William Kentridge, ‘I AM NOT ME, THE HORSE IS NOT MINE’

Part lit. 102 ‘Russian Authors’, part manifesto, part mission statement, part midnight rambling, part literary history of the fragmented self, part didactic lecture, part comedy routine, part fragments of other parts. . .

. . . it begins as a lecture. Kentridge is on stage describing for us his research into Nicolai Gogol’s short story ‘The Nose’ for an upcoming opera ‘The Nose’ by Shostakovich. He’s an enthusiastic college professor, energized by the profundity of his subject: the fragmented self in the western cannon. He reads aloud from the text, pince-nez on, pince-nez off, on and off, off and on, the artist’s handsome prodigious nose. That nose! Then, of course, Gogol’s nose in the story is gone, off on a career of its own and we follow it, and as we do, Kentridge appears on the stage in the projection behind him. He’s in the Kentridge uniform, his own Chaplin bowler/Beuys vest: white shirt and black pants. The doubled self is pathetic, shuffles on stage, shoulders slumped, trying to hide, a bum, a clown; he’s channeling Kentridge’s failure, the possibility that nothing will align, no point of meaning arrive. He listens, bored, as Kentridge delves deeper into the history of the fragmented self: from Gogol, to Cervantes to Tristam Shandy, self divided against self, stories within stories.

Kentridge lectures on our capacity to make bits of paper into form. The projection becomes hands forming a horse of torn paper: it’s the horse in Cervantes, the horse in the title that appears. It starts with 10 pieces of paper for the horse, then 6 then 3: the limit of our capacity to hold it is reached. Overextended, it becomes paper again. The papers fall off the page and the pathetic double dodges them. He gathers Kentridge’s dropped papers and hurls them in the air, collects them in reverse order. Later he falls asleep on a chair and then he sneaks away silently.

We proceed through a series of fragment and vignettes as Kentridge circles for meaning within the larger project of forming the Opera. He’s kept awake at night in bed (he appears in the projection with his wife sleeping soundly beside him at 4 am) trying to make meaning out of the bits and pieces he’s presented with. He’s searching for parallels with Gogol’s story: ‘Trotsky is the Nose separated from the party . . . no no’ he says, followed by, ‘The Nose is Persephone in the Labyrinth. . .’ and then cruelly berates himself for forgetting his Greek myths. The sleeplessness devolves into a chaos of images, the Nose is diving into a pool over and over again, the Nose appears in a processional, the processional runs mad, flags torn apart, its hands and then puppets and people, Russian avant-garde posters and text.

Towards the end, Stalin’s tribunal meets and a man is on trial: Kentridge reads the text from his ladder while his doppelganger falls asleep behind him: it’s a desperate plea to be allowed to die of his illness, that his crimes against the party don’t warrant the punishment, he’s too weak to speak, and at the end of each short sentence/plea to the tribunal Kentridge reads: ‘in brackets, general laughter in the room.’ Twin telephone cables hum in a gale; it’s the self outside, a tribunal against the self, a utopian impulse that mocks human frailty. The bum sneaks off stage.

This storm of cross-pollinating fecundity is married to Kentridge’s ghost and oldest bugaboo – Felix and Soho – self divided from self. The real Kentridge (we presume) on stage is desperately searching for a whole to draw all these figures into. In its best moments we don’t need the 10 fragments, 6 will make the metaphor hum and even when there are only 3 and the bum/clown is right and the center can’t hold, when the horse disappears – even then, we are left holding the impulse, the desire to see a whole. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Twelve days into Performa 09 and nothing much stands out to write about. However, I have seen some great local, experimental, less-expensive performances in the same twelve days. It is possible that my attraction to one over the other is structural. All the Performa events seem very safe and produced for easy consumption.

Firstly, in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s ‘Manifesto of Futurism,’ Performa has integrated the theme of futurism into its programming. The first publication of this text in 1909 (Boccioni’s application of the manifesto to the visual arts came in 1910) is highly problematic in a contemporary space. It is about recklessness without accountability to a community or society, and blatantly misogynistic. There are only eleven points in the document; and Points 9 and 10 state: “We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.” and “We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, we will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.” The 1909 manifesto stands revered and celebrated by Performa by renewing its content to a contemporary place without a critical or problematized platform.

Next, Performa is self-defined as a biennial dedicated to performance. However, the Performa Commissions program originates new performances by inviting artists, “many of whom have not worked ‘live’ before” to create work especially for the Performa biennial. This is a decision to promote already-deemed-acceptable artists to be shown yet again, versus taking risks and allowing un-tested emerging artists a larger platform that they rarely have access to. Also, the hand-selected commissioned artists work closely with the Performa production team from conceptualization to presentation. This, I suspect, is my reason for thinking that everything feels safe or tamed, like it has been tested for an uncritical (and paying) audience.

On the other hand, I went to the (non-Performa event) AUNTS Roadshow where I encountered a refreshing destabilizing experience as a viewer. The performances were non-hierarchical and happening everywhere in the space at once. Admission is a barter system, or a contribution to the free boutique/free bar, where everyone shops and drinks for free. It was a chain curation where the performers could do as many performances as they wanted, as long as they negotiated it with other performers in that evening. And, plenty of the works trusted my thinking ability as an spectator and I am still chewing on some in my head.

Granted, I haven’t yet seen many Performa events, I did see some of the Futurist Film programming at the Anthology film Archive and the works were lovely and easy to watch. They confirmed a traditional societal structure and did not make me have many questions as a spectator. Admission: $9

The Tacita Dean piece did not feel challenging either. The feature length film of Merce Cunningham’s dancers rehearsing in a gorgeous warehouse was a profoundly beautiful quotation to the end of his life, but not much else. I am always skeptical of beautiful film subjects (dancers, the warehouse, the Bay and sunlight) fueling a narrative. Watching in-shape bodies perform entertaining gestures is endlessly beautiful. The lack of musical soundtrack was the strongest aspect of the work. The juxtaposition of images of Merce Cunningham with the sounds of dancing feet was moving. Admission $10

Another performance I went to within the last twelve days was Will Rawls’ “Planet Eaters” at the Dance Theatre Workshop. This was not a Performa event, but an exciting model of risk and community. The event was part of the Studio Series; and Rawls used the evening to get feedback from the audience of about 40 people. He shared four movement sequences with us and asked us questions in between. At the end, we all sat in a circle and talked through some of our answers and thought. It was engaging critical dialogue and I appreciated the work that was being asked of me as spectator. Donation: $3

The Performa biennial claims to “build an exciting community of artists and audiences” however, a trusting, critical performance arts community already exists! Talented, questioning, hard-working performance artists are vibrant in this city and challenging the structures of how performance is shared. Performa feels regressive to me because it is pre-ordained and a modern construct for art tourism, based solely on art as entertainment. I was in conflict about writing a blog about Performa, because I did not want to contribute to the bloated attention that the festival is already receiving. Despite my hesitations and disappointments, I will continue to seek and share my observations for the last ten days.

-- Lindsay L Benedict

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hello Readers!
Stay tuned for reviews on Performa 09.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Hobza/Rockhill Performative Lectures

Please join us for a pair of artist lectures on Friday, May 30th, 7pm
at Fivemyles Gallery in Brooklyn.

Artists Klara Hobza and Zach Rockhill will be presenting new
performative lectures.

Hobza's "Nay, I'll Have A Starling" induces the epic return of the
European Starling to its motherland. Hobza will defend her grand
quest, sharing documentation material from her personal experiences
during the project, as well as borrowed sources from her research.
Hobza invites you to discuss the related topics of art, science,
politics, and other fields of humankind's passionate involvement.

Zach Rockhill's "Mysterious case/Adventures in. . . ." is an ongoing
project that places two coincidental narratives about adventures of
dislocation on the North American continent alongside one another, and
presumes their contemporaneous import.

Fivemyles gallery is located at 558 St. Johns Place between Classon
and Franklin in Crown Heights Brooklyn. Directions by SUBWAY: 2,3,4,or
5 train to Franklin Ave. Walk 2 blocks against traffic on Franklin to
St. Johns Place. Turn left, walk half block to Fivemyles. Located on
the web at

Klara Hobza and Zach Rockhill are both recipients of the New York
Foundation for the Arts' (NYFA's) 2007 Artist Fellowship. This
presentation is co-sponsored by the artists and by Audience Exchange,
a NYFA public program.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Mullican Under Hypnosis, a conversation

KH: As an introduction, I’d like to give a brief description of the stage from my memory. I interpreted this design as the frame for a lose script or a choreography, performed under hypnosis. Before Matt Mullican entered the stage, I remember seeing a backdrop of large scale paper covering the back wall, a simple desk and a chair. On the desk, we found supplies for brewing fresh coffee, a newspaper, and paint supplies. A blanked had been thrown over the chair. There might have been some more items and pillows on the floor.

Matt Mullican came in, holding on tightly to a bundled up blanket and a sketch book. As the performance unfolded, I was able to make out a rough script. I interpret this script as: A day in an artist’s life: Artist just got up, makes coffee, reads the news, makes art, reflects on what he created, and goes to sleep. Then, he left the stage.

We've all seen Mathew Mullican's Hypnosis piece or a version of it so just a few thoughts immediately: the opening conceit is that the performance is done under hypnosis, this information is in both the gallery print and is widely known, yet my first impression of him as a performer was not of a man under hypnosis - which is immediately interesting for a number of reasons, the first of which is that I don't have any idea what hypnosis looks like! Yet, because of the format, I'm suddenly in a position where every action/sound/behavior is thrown into question: is it or isn't it really hypnosis? As someone watching this it is both interesting and a distraction - because what he's doing is very compelling to watch.

That's interesting. It might be safe to say that most spectators from the art audience don't know what hypnosis looks like, either. I certainly don't. From this angle, the piece turns the mirror onto the audience, and their assumption of “the subconscious” and “artist as creator”.

Let's take the process of art creation: Indeed, right in front of me I saw take shape of what I heard before, myths of the artist genius as a creator: The angry man turned child when playfully executing his work, followed by existential crisis. If I saw this as a theater play, I would walk out not having learned anything.

But here, the hypnosis seems to guarantee authenticity. And I find myself admiring Matt Mullican for his courage and taking a genuine risk to expose his basic emotions to a quite possibly cynical audience.

It is certainly a risk to lay bare for an audience one's inner dialogues and processes, as it appears the hypnosis does. From an artistic standpoint, though, I would also argue that it releases one from a certain amount of responsibility at the same time. The performance itself is the artwork, with the drawing/painting created serving more as a record of the performance, thus what one would normally term the "art-making process" is the actual artwork. However, this actual artwork is being performed by a person with, ostensibly, no conscious control of his actions thus the normal questions of skill associated with artwork dissolve. The process is set, thus the performer's only responsibility is in applying himself to the process and allowing events to occur as they will. One cannot argue that he is a better or worse performer, because he really is no longer a "performer." He is really more of a personality or psyche, and one can argue that he is a more or less interesting psyche, perhaps, but not that he has developed a greater skill in his art.

In a sense, the only true control that he seems to have over his situation, perhaps, lies in his decision to actually undergo hypnosis and his choices regarding the arrangement of the space (the placement, as well as choice of objects). And it is never really revealed to the audience whether he personally chose how the space was set up, so the amount of control he has in this whole process is rather ambiguous. The more I consider the performance, I realize I can describe it, and explain what was interesting or uninteresing as an experience, but the performer himself evades any normal critiques because of the question of control.

I think it’s safe to presume that he was in control of the set up – it would make for a fascinating performance if he weren’t – and I think that’s the point where this revolving door of control/non-control hits it’s limit. For whatever reason, he made a series of choices before hand, he put out the coffee, the paint, the pillows, and decided these were the things he was going to have an experience with.

Historically, we can find many examples of artists choosing to lose intellectual control during the creation of their work. This loss of control was usually compensated by a conscious editing process that followed. Only after that editing process, the work was exposed to a larger audience.
There often was a smaller, possibly exclusive circle of people witnessing the process of creation. This audience could be observers, as during the happenings of Viennese Actionism. The audience could also be a small group of collaborators, even people who simultaneously are creating, as in experiments of the Surrealists.
Still, the accepted terms seem to be create-edit-show. (Of course, these don’t need to be linear.) To me, it’s during the editing process that the work is being crafted into academic value. That is, intellectual justification for the piece as a valuable contribution to a contemporary dialog.
Now, what do we do with a piece that’s clearly part of the academic art context, but withdraws from editing? We disregard it because it doesn’t play by the rules. But is that really what happens in Mullican’s Hypnosis pieces? I doubt it. He certainly minimizes the editing during the performance itself, though, as we mentioned in the very beginning, we can’t tell for sure how conscious he really is under hypnosis. He has at least thirty years of experience with performing under hypnosis, enough to tighten up the frame for each piece beforehand, and possibly during the live event. Mullican’s Hypnosis performances, whether the artist is fully aware of it or not, offer a very interesting contribution to questioning the usual rules of art making. I believe that at large, they throw out a product that lends itself for rich theoretical discussion.
I think what’s interesting about this thing about being in or out of control under hypnosis is that it proposes that the field of our conscious experience is a limiting factor – that the total bandwidth of possibilities is, on a day to day basis, reduced – and that through hypnosis Mullican is drawing on the total range. Those were the criterion for my criticisms of the ‘truth’ of his hypnosis: is he self-conscious (where that term means vain, concerned about his appearance)? Is he concerned about what the painting looks like? Does he ham for the audience when they laugh? Almost invariably the answer was no. He was inside the experience, the range was opened

First, I should preface this by saying that I did not see the Whitney performance. The one I experienced was titled "The Corner's Corner" at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions now 8 years ago, though it was exceptionally memorable. Assisting for this show was my first work experience after college. For the project, Matt underwent hypnosis in a miniature version of the house in Malibu where he grew up. My role was to help in drawing up its floor plan and building the structure in the gallery. I was sent to measure this house, literally corner to corner. During this process, I met not only Matt, but also his mother Lucia, who was then mourning the passing of her husband, modernist luminary Lee Mullican. Their house had an aura of authenticity, lived in and genuine, a distant relative of the modernist aesthetic common in our households today.

The floor plan was then scaled down, abstracted and constructed to fit into the gallery space. A little mouse maze just for Matt, its walls were only 3 to 4 feet high, painted in bold colors often associated with his installations. There, for one evening, he underwent hypnosis, and performed in front of an invited audience of sixty, consisting of family members and friends of the artist, his gallery Grant Selwyn, and LACE.

This element of intimacy struck me then, and I am reminded of it now, in comparison to the scale of a Whitney event. Then, I questioned the notion of a targeted audience, especially in terms of institutional ethics. At that time, LACE was a 22 year old non-profit, with the mission of bringing art to the greater LA community. Although documentation was exhibited during the eight-week show, it only confirmed that the performance did not translate, the public was put at a further remove from the actual event.

Now, in retrospect, I've become more empathetic towards the problem of a specified audience. The thematic backdrop for the performance was Matt’s childhood. Perhaps he needed the construct of an intimate audience, the way he chose hypnosis as the medium, to perform an experience that was impossible to authenticate by the general public in the first place. Matt would grunt, throw up food, or run around the structure smelling corners like his childhood dog. It was difficult for an outsider to watch, and I could only imagine how traumatic it might be for his family to witness this process. However, once we put aside judgment, what we really saw was a full-grown man attempting to grasp onto some part of his past, remembered or invented.

Going through our correspondence, we seem to identify our role in this performance as that of witnesses rather than as audience. Different than a rehearsed play or “conscious” act, hypnotism as vernacular performance is often associated with certain form of spectatorship, successful only when the audience confirmed the performer was genuinely under hypnosis. The more we have been distant from normality -- Matt acting out regular actions under an altered transgressive state -- the more we seem to desire certain proof of authenticity, some identification of control and intentional limits, to connect ourselves to the performer, and justify “this happened.” Is it at all possible for the context of art to provide another set of ethics for us (the audience) and Matt (the performer) to engage with each other?

Suddenly, I think about the circularity of his Whitney performance: Matt performing a day of the artist in front of an audience, many of whom are artists, in a biennial putting focus to art that employs populist vernacular to intervene with reality. Each of us, Annie, Klara, Nina and Zach, has our own personal version of what a day of an artist might look like. This is not unlike performing childhood in front of old friends and family members. What’s the point of watching something we all can closely identify at the first place? We can consider hypnosis as simply the medium, a kind of theater that allows an altered representation of experiences we all believe we know so intimately.

Again, we are back to the mirror. I think at this point it is useful to consider the brief statement about Mullican's performance found in the event listings for the Whitney Biennial:

"Since the late 1970s, Mullican has used hypnosis to explore the experience of the subjective. For this rare performance, Mullican acts under hypnosis as “that person,” treating his psyche as a found object and distancing the ego from the creative self.”

If the ego, or the self-aware part of one's mind is disengaged, as is stated to be part of the intention of this performance, we would expect a certain freedom from social constraint as the performer, theoretically, is no longer in touch with external reality - the place from which many social constraints are imposed. Certainly such release from constraint was visible in Mullican's outbursts of emotion, externalization of what sounded like internal dialogue, and on-going noise-making. Certainly all of these actions could be influenced by Mullican's own natural personality quirks, but we have no means of gauging this within the context of the performance because he has not allowed us to know the conditions under which he was hypnotized, nor were we allowed to view his transformation into the character we see in the performance space. As I understand from a former assistant of Mullican's, at least in one early performance, this transformation was visible, with Mullican changing into the personality of a child as he crossed a taped-off line demarcating the performance space. His choice not to reveal any clues as to the degree of the change he has undergone for this performance obscures the degree to which he is in control, returning us to the question of editing.

I do not intend to say that there is no editing, and no self-control within Mullican's performance. Even within the performance, a certain self-awareness is still present: the hypnotically-induced distancing of ego from creative self did not translate into freedom from self-doubt, as one of the more dramatic conflicts arose from the gap between expectation and reality, both with the missing Wall Street Journal from his stack of newspapers to the results of his composition on the back wall of the performance space. However, the exact degree to which he can exert any form of conscious control is impossible for the audience to even guess at, short of drawing on any previous knowledge of the man or his artwork. While this question of control in and of itself is not so important, it seems to me that recognizing its ambiguity is a key to understanding how we relate to the performance. As Annie pointed out, we have a desire to ascertain the authenticity of the experience (and I would add the exact degree of the authenticity), but the structure of the performance is such that it becomes an impossibility to come to any definitive conclusions on this question, forcing us to place it aside. We either accept that the performance is totally hypnotically induced, or disregard it as a farce.

If we accept the performance as authentic, this puts the decisions of how to perform this day-in-the-life-of-an-artist on a pre-conscious level, excising the involvement of the ego (as in self-image/pride). Although the experiences he draws upon, unconsciously, to perform this day are still uniquely his, because of the apparent lack of involvement of any self-important element, we can accept the veracity of his portrayal more readily. We identify the elements we are familiar with, and are less prone to questioning the elements that are foreign to us. After all, he did not choose them in order to portray himself as the stereotypical creative individual, but rather simply because it was something he unconsciously recognized as a common experience from his life.

All of this may seem a bit of a stretch in purely logical terms as, for the sake of illustrating the underlying mechanism, I have perhaps overstated the degree to which we are influenced by the structure of the performance. However, the main point I am trying to reach is that by placing the decision-making process on this pre-conscious level, he is able to establish a connection to the audience that would be more difficult and tenuous were he to make the same decisions from a conscious level. At this point I would draw a connection to one of the other main lines of inquiry in Mullican's general practice. Much as his pictographs are able to address people in a pre-verbal format, communicating in terms that may be difficult or simply different on the level of speech, his performances address and connect to us on a pre-conscious level. The parallel is not perfect, as we are in a different state of consciousness than he is and thus will necessarily comprehend the performance on a different level of consciousness, but I think it is an important aspect of the work that helps, for me, to illuminate a possible motive for Mullican presenting, as Annie put it, "something we all can closely identify at the first place."