Your Next Life: Producer or Consumer?

Your Next Life - The Whitehouse- 11 February 2011

Laura Curley, dAeve Fellows, Jonathan Mayhew, Erin Finley, Mark & Patricia, Randall Gagne, Stacey Sproule, Stephanie Fielding, Ulysses Castellones, Robert Dayton, Hanna Hur, Mark Byk, Ian MacTilstra, Jonny Wheeldon + Maleen Relk, Peter Mohideen, David F.M. Hanes, Zoe Noble Fox, Kaley Flowers, Beth Kotierk, Zoe Solomon, Nitasha McKnight, Felix Kalmerson, TARPGHOST, MLXNDRSC, Singithi Kandage, Marisa Hoicka, James Fowler, Fox Xoft

Performances by: Amy Jenine Ling Wong, Adriana Disman

I was recently reminded of the shared meaning-making process between performance artists and audience members at a recent exhibition and small performance showcase, Your Next Life at the Whitehouse. The space was crowded with drunken people and it was about midnight; rowdy, chatting, yelling, dancing, making out. To begin a quiet, introspective and delicate performance in this atmosphere is a challenge if only to contain the crowd. Enter Amy Jenine Ling Wong. Enter disruptive gentleman who doubled as a walking stereo, a couple belchers, some gigglers and an impromptu documenter and we have a perfect set-up for audience interaction as part and parcel of a performance. To say that the audience is not implicit in the real-time interpretive meaning-making of a performance work is an argument you can’t win. Although I am a great advocate and attendee of performance art events, I could not for the life of me mentally leave the social party atmosphere and pay attention to the performance. Early in the performance, once the crowd had settled to be quiet enough for the first couple rows (kneeling down in a semi-circle) to hear Amy speaking, there was a man standing in the side lines, with speakers blaring from his knapsack and chatting quite loudly to no one listening. A man on the other side of the room yelled, over the audience, over the performer, breaking the weak silence that was barely established: “Hey guy, shut the fuck up.” This was followed by some giggles and accolades that settled reasonably back to an almost quiet audience. This was also partnered with some occasional loud belching (result of the several tall cans circulating) and laughing with my friend over the belching and saying “hi” to another friend over someone with a small portable camera recording all that was happening (including the “hellos”). I was paying far more attention to what was going on around the performance than the performance. Where was the performance?

Again, I was recently reminded, a couple days after this night, of Fluxus and John Cage’s consideration of the responsibilities of audience members and the responsibilities of the artist in interpretive authority and production as being very blurred. I came across a quote from Cage where he expressed his endeavour to ensure that “people realize that they themselves [audience] are doing it, and not that something is being done to them.” In the case of this event at the Whitehouse – the audience had taken charge – they were doing and being done to (done to each other?). At the time, people were frustrated, disturbed, drunk, judgemental, or they were ignoring all that was going on around them and paying full attention to Amy’s performance. Whatever was going on was a part of the performance or it was disruptive and competing with the performance and Amy should have been programmed for a different time slot and perhaps a different venue.

I recently talked with Adriana Disman, who also performed in Your Next Life in a separate side space from Amy’s performance in the main space. She expressed a fascination with the Whitehouse audience, considering their behaviour to be very respectful in the way that they were able to calm down enough for Amy’s quiet performance (again, “quiet” only by comparison, considering the room was filled with yelling chatting drunken youths). She also reflected briefly on her own ongoing performance that evening that placed her in a vulnerable position where people volunteered to lay in bed with her for intervals of time. She said that she had anticipated that someone would get “handsy” (and had prepared for this outcome) but thankfully that wasn’t a problem. She was impressed by the audience reaction to both performances. I would agree, that we (the audience members) gave a pretty damn great performance.

What does it mean to be more interested in what’s going on in the audience than what’s going on in the performance? Is this an indication of the performance being somehow inadequate or that I am simply equally impressed with what audience members brought to the table? Positioning all these issues in a discussion about context seems to resolve some questions.

The only way that people can be so relaxed with these situations is because of the nature of performance art, as non-object-based and de-commodified, allows people feel like it’s more of a work in progress (up for resolution and addition). I believe the relaxed situation, in that the party atmosphere of the Whitehouse fractures the austerity of the white cube, which facilitates the environment where people do feel like their actions have more of a stake in the overall experience.

If the performance needed a quiet audience, the artist and programmer should have ensured that that was provided, or else deal with the consequences. Perhaps the performance was intended as an interactive experience, implicit to the meaning of the work– but how far can this be allowed without loosing control?

This goes back to Cage’s quote that boils down to consumption vs. production. In larger museums/galleries, visitors are consuming a product: the institutional identity, the exhibition design, the gift shop, the infrastructure (something is certainnly being done to them). Somewhere like the Whitehouse – you’re not buying into that space through attendance or admission fees to anywhere near the same degree – you go to experience a different kind of art – potentially work that hasn’t ever been digested or “resolved.” The Whitehouse has not produced some large expensive marketing plan that is directed towards specific audiences. Its goal is not to bring its attendance numbers up, or if it is, their goals are directly relating to benefiting artists directly (either studio members of exhibiters) through those bigger audiences. In that space, audience members can be producers and not consumers – and this happens in real life.

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