Guerilla Art Behind the Orange Curtain: Dos and Don'ts
A little while ago, I was asked to speak to about my work to a college art history class.
At UC Irvine.
In Orange County.
I had been working on a slide show piece, a piece playing with the conceptual and formal structure of the slide show. And here I was being given the opportunity to do an artist talk which always involves a slide show.
So I gave my artist talk. Always performative, this talk was a full-blown performance. Not only every image I showed, but everything I said was part of the piece.
The piece which has since developed into an installation, and which I’ve exhibited in Los Angeles and San Francisco involves text as well as images, like a primitive version of Power Point. Indeed, the archaic nature of information dissemination has always been part of the point. The kernel of it, the seed, was the information coming out right after the 2004 election the notion that rigged voting machines, particularly in Ohio, won the election for Bush; an election stolen for the second time.
So there were text slides about that. And text slides playing with polling in general, the nature of the survey; we are the mass of people that is constantly polled and surveyed, Baudrillard observed. Our identity, our subjectivity, that is the greatest commodity. “Commodify your dissent.”
The thing is, the place where I start, the ideas that I take for granted and on which I would hazard to say most of the people reading this are in agreement the OC kids could not get past. Talking about the election grew out of my genuine fear and loathing at the likelihood of democracy fundamentally usurped; from there I went my usual route interrogate, problematize. Things aren’t as simple as left and right, right and wrong, red and blue.
“I feel like I’ve been brainwashed,” one of the students said.
“You want people to protest like you do in San Francisco,” another one said, referring to images I had taken around the time the war started, images which had more to do with the function and behavior of The Group vis a vis The Individual than they did with, uh, advertising the activist lifestyle.
“So I guess you’re pro-Kerry,” another student observed. Pro-Kerry? In other words, anti-Bush? To raise the issue of tampering with a fundamental tenet of democracy is to be pro or anti one candidate or another?
I don’t even think they knew it was a performance. It was hard to tell, but it seemed like the instructor didn’t know it was a performance.
What this brought home to me was what is so easy to forget, living in a place like San Francisco that for so many people, the little matter of who is in power is like a college football game, Michigan versus Ohio State. It’s as superficial as that because people don’t really feel the impact. As long as they can go shopping (the big mall in Irvine is called “Fashion Island”), who is in power is little more important than who’s won the Superbowl. What do you do now that Bush has won election? I’m going to Disneyland.
It also reminded me of the age-old consideration for any Communicator who is your audience?
Yet at the same time, how could I ask for anything better than for someone encountering my work to come away feeling brainwashed? Whether in the OC or O-town, the alternative would be digestible, assimilable pabulum. Guerilla art struggle is a new entertainment!
Maybe it changed the way they see things, if only a little bit. I’ll never know. There was no adulation, no applause, save for the perfunctory variety.
But I completely undermined their expectations, subverted the programmatic structure that was given to me.
I wasn’t dealing with people who were “right there with me,” such that they could “get it” and then let me know how well (or not) I’d succeeded. I had to go by a different barometer.
How else are you supposed to do art?