The When and The Where

13 05 2011

Last Thursday was the first Thursday of May.  First Thursdays in Boise are designated with a special name:  “First Thursday,” and are part of a promotional package for the city to showcase its arts and culture.  Galleries stay open later than usual, the Boise Art Museum stays open later than normal and is free all day, the “Artist in Residence” program (which are a number of unused retail spaces in a downtown building that have been given over to artists for a few months at a time) is available to the public, and various other special events take place throughout downtown.  This is not something unique to Boise—other cities have First Fridays, “Art Walks,” Third Tuesdays, Every Other Fourth Wednesday, etc.  Whatever the city and whatever the day, it seems to be a bit of an attention-getting (and downtown business-boosting) advertisement to remind people that, hey!  There’s culture in this town!

In Boise, the first Thursday of May has taken on a sort of “Super First Thursday” status with the annually growing interest in what is now known as Modern Art.  For this event, The Modern Hotel (originally a TravelLodge motel in the 1960s that was renovated into an über-hip boutique hotel in 2007) turns over all of its rooms to local artists who make temporary installations, one-night-only performances, or just turn the room into their own personal gallery.  Originally, it was known as “Art at the Modern” and did not take up the entire hotel.  It has grown to the point where not only is each room utilized, but the action has spilled into the courtyard, the parking lot, even the street.  This year’s event required streets to be closed down to accommodate the thousands in attendance.

As you can see, it was exceptionally well-attended and even a flash-mob was able to fit right in.  It was a Boise-specific Art Holiday and everyone, it seems, got exactly what they wanted, just like Christmas.  Surely, when art is something this special, everyone involved can appreciate something, even if they weren’t necessarily art-inclined before.  However, when art is treated as something so specialized and unique, it runs the risk of becoming marginalized and, in the long run, less capable of creating a true impact. Art In Boise&flvUri=&partnerclipid=

This kind of news story is not uncommon.  Actually, I think this gives more weight to the art created and the event itself than some other reports, like the bemused curiosity  or even hostility that Morley Safer so expertly wielded on 60 Minutes.  But even though the intent of the story is to promote art rather than marginalize it, it treats the event as a curiosity.  “What are these crazy artists up to?  This guy’s covering himself in dirt and writing poetry.”  Without the anchor saying or showing it, the implication here is a roll of the eyes and a nudging, “Can you believe this?”

But press is press, even when it’s on television or YouTube or some guy’s blog.  Even though it may be treated as a trivial curiosity, when art is reported on as something special, it generates interest and familiarizes the public, in this case, with “alternative media” productions like installations and interventionist performance art.  But with the attention, the frame of “Art” descends on the event and separates it from the rest of life.  Art isn’t just for everyday.  Art is special, like church, and therefore it needs special days.  Church has Sunday.  Art has First Thursday.  It needs special buildings.  Church has, well, a church.  Art has Galleries or Art Museums or Hotels that are turned into galleries for one night a year.  And with this attitude, art, like church for many people, becomes something we don’t think about until those specific times and places.  We go on with our lives every other day of the week, not thinking about art until it’s the right time and place.

But what about art that doesn’t wait for the “right” time and place?  What about graffiti?  Is it only “Street Art” when Banksy and Shepard Fairey do it in London and LA, but vandalism if some no-name does it in Boise or Olympia?  What about activist art?  Is it only art when it’s been canonized in a history book like Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz’s In Mourning and in Rage (1977)?  What about art that is a public access television show?  A YouTube video?  A low-traffic blog?  A walk along sand dunes?  The dissolution of a township?  What about the 20 year-old man who was arrested in North Boise yesterday for walking around naked?  Might he be art?

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Of course, placing the frame of “art” over objects and activities that exist outside of that frame has the potential to lessen their impact.  To the broader public, Judith Baca’s ongoing Great Wall of Los Angeles may be seen as less representative of the collaborative social impact of the project when attached to the name of Baca as its mastermind or “artist.”  Labeling something as “art” that could also be something else takes the opportunity of the “something else” out of the equation.  The object or action in question becomes simply and solely art.

These examples of Lifelike Art, as Allan Kaprow calls them, work best when they occupy the spaces in between the frames of “art” and, say, “theater” or “social work.”  For instance, I have the opportunity to be a part of a show of faculty artwork this coming fall.  Since my primary works involve television, performance art, or performance poetry, my expectation would be to use something along those lines for this exhibition.  However, my work in television relies on the fact that the viewers who come across it do not think they are viewing art.  The effectiveness of the satire comes in the surprise within their response.  It is the same with interventionist performance.  The unwitting “participants” of Boise Naval Base’s Election (2004) did not see the action as spectacle, as artistic—they were caught up in a goofy action on their way to dinner that may (or may not) have caused them to think a little differently about democracy in America.

BNB members Russ Wood and Flint Weisser campaign on the sidewalk during Election.

When something like this comes into the gallery, it becomes spectacle—it becomes theater. My favorite example of this did not actually occur in a gallery, but within the frame of “art” nonetheless.  Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes staged “The Cruci-Fiction Project” in 1994, attaching themselves to 16-foot crosses at Marin Headlands Park in front of 300 invited guests and members of the press.  The performance was meant to be a critique of the state-sponsored enmity of people of color, specifically Latinos, in California.  Even though fliers were distributed through the crowd, asking people to free them from “their martyrdom and take us down from the crosses as a gesture of political commitment,” it took the audience over three hours to realize that their lives were actually in danger and organize themselves to get them down.  In that time, Sifuentes had nearly fallen unconscious, and Gómez-Peña had dislocated his shoulder.  The internal injuries were such that, the next day a doctor informed them that in another half-hour, they would have died.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña during "The Cruci-Fiction Project"

The invited guests knew they were there for art, and the presumption was that the performance was like theater–that nobody really dies and nobody really gets hurt.  They reality of the action was subsumed into the assumption of the artifice of art. The act as art fell short of its stated goal.

Could this have made a greater impact had the frame of art not been place over the action?  I, for one, do not have an answer.  Perhaps, outside of the frame, a visitor to the park would have asked if the artists were okay and found help to take them down sooner.  And perhaps that person would have thought about his action of helping someone who looked so over-stereotypically like the vilified Latinos of the news stories.  And perhaps he wouldn’t have.  Photos taken of this event have been reproduced as postcards with no caption, Sifuentes’s name omitted and Gómez-Peña’s misspelled.  It’s unclear what impact, if any, those postcards have had on the people they’ve been sent to with stories of a San Fransisco vacation.

When artist friends of mine are hard at work in the studio, I often ask them, “Is it art yet?”  Usually, I’m asking them if they think the work is done, but I am also asking if it’s something that is ready to be set aside as art in its own special place, to be viewed at its own special time.  But what happens when the answer is “no?”  Not that it isn’t finished, but that it shouldn’t be viewed in a special place or at a special time.  What if it’s something that isn’t “art?”  Where can we go from there?

(Information on “The Cruci-Fiction Project” came from:  Gómez-Peña, Guillermo.  “When Our Performance Personas Walk Out of the Museum.”  Dangerous Border Crossers:  The Artist Talks Back.  New York:  Routledge; 2000.  pp. 62-72)




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