Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Art of Becoming: An exploration of female artists living for (and in) their work, PART 1 is no longer possible to regard the contemporary
work as a space to be walked through...It is henceforth
presented as a period of time to be lived through, like
an opening to unlimited discussion.

Art is more about asking questions.[2]

How should we think of ourselves? How should we
articulate who we are and what we can become?

As disparate as they may seem, for French philosopher Gilles Deleuze the arts, science, and philosophy are all arenas of potential creation. Deleuze asserts in most of his texts and interviews on philosophy that “we really have to see philosophy, art, and science as sorts of separate melodic lines in constant interplay with one another”[4] and not as disconnected factions at war with or competing with one another for prominence. Not so much interested in discovering a preexisting notion, a quest that would imply that all realms of possibility are already in existence and are just waiting to be found, one of the main goals behind Deleuze’s philosophical pursuits was to create something new, believing that there exists “a hidden image of thought that, as it unfolds, branches out, and mutates, inspires a need to keep on creating new concepts.”[5] Perhaps this is why Deleuze held such an affinity for the arts, focusing many of his 18 total works on visual modes of representation and literary forms of creativity,[6] for the arts are generally viewed as the ultimate realm of creativity in opposition to science, the ultimate realm of logic. But one cannot ignore that a good portion of Deleuze’s work, especially his monumental text A Thousand Plateaus written with longtime collaborator Felix Guattari, focuses on specific scientific and mathematical arenas such as neuroscience, geometry, and chemistry in relation to his and Guattari’s theories on assemblage and process ontology, thus conflating these modes of potential experiment-based creativity with philosophic inquiry.

To maintain and continue Deleuze’s investigation into the connectivity (and potential unique breaks) between the arts and science, it is my hope that a focus on these two fields will reflect the way that each sphere of creativity incorporates or disunites from Deleuze’s themes of being as becoming, duration, and smooth and striated spaces, and the exploration of immanence. Although Deleuze would assert that “there’s no order of priority among these disciplines. Each is creative,”[7] an exploration of the ways in which science and art look at the final outcome of an event – as well as an examination of the process of becoming during an event – will hopefully make an argument for art, especially duration-based performance art, as an ultimate potential for the representation of becoming. This paper will primarily explore the ways in which contemporary female performance artists Linda Montano, Marina Abramovic and Andrea Zittel have experimented with[8] and (unintentionally) incorporated these Deleuzian concepts into their work. In a way, all of the following works of art answer Deleuze’s essential question of “how might one live?” giving the viewer of the work a glimpse into the lived life of an artist living for and in their work. Interested in the effects of these “lived” art experiences, Abramovic, Zittel, and Montano attempt to suggest one mode of lived experience through their pieces, all of them relating somehow to austerity, duration, isolation, and dealing.

An essential starting point for understanding some key concepts in the work of Deleuze is certainly with his prioritizing of process ontology over substance ontology, favoring constant development and transition over absolute statehood. Process ontology allows for entities to be open to transformation and change, is an exploration of that which is coming into existence. Note the use of the term exploration here as opposed to definition, for “ontology does not offer answers but rather ways to approach the question of living.”[9] Process ontology values being as becoming, being in a state of constant development towards an unforeseen and undetermined goal. For Deleuze, “to become is not to progress or regress along a series…becoming is not an evolution, at least not an evolution by descent and filiation;”[10] becoming is therefore not about improvement or degradation, betterment or deterioration. Becoming is about transition and change, never stopping for ultimate satisfaction but constantly exploring new possible situations for one’s own existence.

Not restricted to the theoretical realm of philosophic thought, process ontology very much informs architect and theorist Bernard Cache’s stance in his work on the creation of structures. An alignment with process ontology certainly inspires Cache’s concept that “in no case does the identity of a site preexist, for it is always the outcome of a construction”[11]; for Cache, no destination has a predetermined future or path along which it necessarily will or must follow, much like the Deleuzian concepts of individuals as in a constant state of becoming (Deleuze, never one for humanism, would argue that architectural sites are no different than animals, than humans, than flowers…). Architecture is an art form that plays a prominent role in the A-Z Living Spaces – small, self-contained home modules in which an inhabitant has access to everything she or he needs – of Andrea Zittel and in Marina Abramovic’s durational performance pieces, and is another space to which one can apply Deleuzian concepts surrounding this ontology of becoming. Noticing that “Zittel’s aspiration to ‘new kinds of situations’ seems to parallel a broader trend[. T]he proposals she (Zittel) receives at Socrates—for “Interstate” as well as for other exhibitions—increasingly reflect ‘a notion of public art that is not monumental but rather changing and ephemeral’,”[12] Zittel’s collaborator Alysan Baker reflects on the notion of the nomadic (or, in Deleuzian terms, “the smooth”) in contemporary art as offering potentials for becoming and transition.

For the three female artists in question, process ontology offers a chance to recognize the outcome of each lived experience as uncertain and unpredictable, especially Montano’s Seven Years of Living Art, in which the artist wore a different color every year and lived in a room of the same color for seven years; Abramovic’s experiments in duration and consciousness with The House with the Ocean View (2002-2003); and Zittel’s hope to create “wonderful experiences that are completely unpredictable”[13] with her A-Z Pocket Property and her A-Z Living Units. In constructing the first of her home units, Andrea Zittel believed “that when I made that piece and I had everything perfected that [would] solve all of my problems" of living in the confined space of a storefront in Brooklyn. However, once she was done with the first unit she discovered that was perfect and there was nothing left to do to it, I felt
completely despondent, very listless and depressed. At that
point...I had this revelation that no one really wants perfection;
that we're obsessed with perfection, we're obsessed with
innovation and moving forwards, but what we really want is
the hope of some sort of new and improved or a better

When Zittel set out to execute the performance of A-Z Pocket Property in which she lived on a prefabricated, floating island in Denmark by herself for one month, she liked the idea of “not really knowing beforehand if it’s going to be a great experience or a horrible one”;[15] this spirit of conducting tests mirrors the ways that Abramovic “considered performance art a laboratory for experiments in consciousness.”[16] Zittel’s Pocket Property enterprise was a dance with isolation in its purest sense – except, of course, if we are to account for the friends who joined her to film the experience for a day.[17]

In mentioning this fact of video recording that performance artists tend to employ when documenting their work, one cannot ignore the discussion of live performance versus recorded performance – in fact, Phelan holds true to the notion that, at least in terms of Abramovic’s House, “the potential for the event to be transformed in unscripted ways by those participating (both the artists and the viewers) makes it more exciting,”[18] something that arguably cannot occur when re-watching of the video of an event. A video of an artistic performance, most likely edited down for length, does not bear witness to the complete experience of becoming through which the artist is moving both in front of and with an audience. When deciding to document her seven days of performances for Seven Easy Pieces (themselves re-performances of the works of other artists such as Vito Acconci, Valie Export, and Gina Pane), Abramovic asserted “that her purpose in hiring the famous documentary filmmaker (Babette Mangolte) to record every minute of the total forty-nine hours was to avoid “repeating the mistakes of the ’70s” in failing to attend to such details.”[19] But, as Phelan would argue, “performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: Once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.”[20] In fact, one must question whether not recording those performances in the 1970s was actually a failure of these artists or in fact an acknowledgement of that which Phelan insists. Tending to agree (and I am certain that Deleuze would as well) with Phelan, moving away from a focus on the recorded representations of the work of these artists will offer a more true depiction of the duration-based experiences of becoming explored by Montano, Abramovic and Zittel.

As mentioned above, all three of these women artists have conducted performances and pieces that deal with the concept of duration, although they were certainly not the first in the art world to explore these Deleuzian notions. Similar in the themes of duration, striated space and immanence, Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1978-1979 (Cage Piece) explored the notion of isolation, discipline and dedication as he positioned himself within a self-constructed jail cell. This piece consisted of Hsieh living in an 116 × 9 × 8 caged room with nothing but simple lights, a sink, a bed, and a pail. He also had some toiletries and a friend who would visit to feed him and rid the waste from his cell. He did not speak nor read nor listen to music for this entire year.

His works have been called explorations not in suffering but in struggle and duration. The living of one’s life is certainly comparable to duration, for life is unquestionably the ultimate duration for all of us. A precursor to the work of the three women to follow, Hsieh’s work is perhaps a comment on “prison, the model site of confinement”[21] for Deleuze in his extrapolation on Foucault’s notions presented in Discipline and Punish. Indeed, the setting and title of Hsieh’s work do evoke a site of confinement as opposed to the older notion of a society of discipline; thus, it is interesting the Hsieh explains his work as exploring this very notion of “discipline.” To a certain degree, Hsieh locked himself in a cage for an entire year in order to free himself from the weight of his life, similar in vain to his goals with One Year Performance 1981-1982 (Outdoor Piece) in which he did not allow himself to enter any buildings or confined spaces, moving about New York City with only the items he could carry with him. The ways that Outdoor Piece more readily manifests this sense of freedom from control and imprisonment Cage Piece achieves through irony. Far more ominous and incarcerating in nature than the female artists to follow him, Hsieh and his work still “[fit] squarely within performance art’s peculiar and extreme explorations of the human condition”[22] although perhaps in a different, more politically enforced notion of what is to exist within and through humanity.

[1] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presses du réel, 2002), 15.

[2] Andrea Zittel qtd. in Jori Finkel, “ART; Making the Desert Bloom Out West. Way Out West,” New York Times, 25 September 2005.

[3] Todd May, “How Might One Live?” in Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 8.

[4] Gilles Deleuze, “Mediators,” in Negotiation 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 125.

[5] Deleuze, “On Philosophy,” in Negotiation, 149.

[6] See, for example, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (with Felix Guattari), trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (London and New York: Continuum, 2003); Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

[7] Deleuze, “Mediators,” in Negotiation, 123.

[8] In maintaining a discussion aligned with Deleuze, this phrase should not be seen as an attempt to separate the body from the mind in the Descartean sense of transcendence. Deleuze would argue that there is only mind, consciousness, self, or I that exists within and not separate from life.

[9] May, 25.

[10] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 238.

[11] Bernard Cache, Earth Moves: The Furnishing of Territories, ed. Michael Speaks, trans. Anne Boyman (Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT Press, 1995) pp. 15.

[12] Alysan Baker qtd in Michael Ned Holte, “From California to the New York Island,” Art Forum, May 2006.

[13] Interview with Andrea Zittel, “Consumption,” 2001 episode of Art: 21 – Art in the Twenty-First Century (PBS, 2001-present; Art21 Inc)

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Peggy Phelan, “Marina Abramovic: Witnessing Shadows,” Theatre Journal, Vol. 56, No. 4 (December 2004), 571.

[17] The outcome of her friends’ visit is the film Gollywobler, directed by Joachim Hamou (2000; Denmark).

[18] Phelan, 575.

[19] Johanna Burton, “Repeat Performance,” Art Forum, January 2006.

[20] Peggy Phelan, “The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction,” in Performance: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, ed. Philip Auslander (New York: Routledge, 2003), 320.

[21] Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies,” in Negotiations, 177.

[22] Roberta Smith, “A Year in a Cage: A Life Shrunk to Expand Art,” New York Times, 18 February, 2009.

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