3 curators, the same 5 artists, 3 different exhibitions. As Linden ubercurator Jan Duffy says, it's like the 'invention challenge' on Masterchef. Provided with limited ingredients, each curator must compose separate exhibitions for the audience to compare and (inevitably) evaluate in terms of creation or invention. For Jan, the point is to 'make visible' the 'process of cultural production', to expose some of the behind the scenes kitchen prep that produce exhibitions, to manifest the 'persuasion' and 'negotiation' that differentiate exhibition outcomes. Of course reality TV is a ready benchmark, signalling our interest in real people and real situations, generating a new quotidian form of drama. Further, it is supposed to involve the active participation of audiences rather than passive spectatorship, (although texting 'Bozo' to '1800-who-cares' is its most dismal form).
But reality TV is also a self-reflexive moment in which we can see everything - backstage, the rules and regulations, the equipment and technology - that renders audio visual content. Reality TV is self-conscious TV and what is 'real' or 'true' about it is not so much the story or event but the elaborate, all-inclusive view of TV making itself, which involves the networks, the producers, the audiences, as well as the extensive global circuitry to engage 'genuine 1 billion' world audiences, whether for the World Cup final in 1982, Diana's funeral in 1997, or the finale of American Idol in 2008.
The art gallery has been surprisingly aligned to the same self-conscious presentation of determining conditions surrounding the artwork. Indeed, Brian O'Doherty's classic essays on the white cube could be reread these days as a primer for the house in Big Brother. 'The outside world must not come in', creating instead a hermetically sealed environment, within which 'perceptual fields of force' are so great as to visualise, totalise everything, all relations and every detail conspiring to an ultimate image. 'We see not the art but the space first'. The transformative power of the gallery is such that 'context becomes the content' and anything introduced into the gallery 'frames the gallery and its laws'. Our knowing changes everything. 'Consciousness makes artefacts of us all' and in this space 'we are all aware of being aware' such that we know what we see is a distillation of the real conditions of production and presentation, the gallery simply an arena in which these are played out for one coherent, dramatic visual effect or another. Indeed, when O'Doherty describes us 'looking down' from a 'withdrawing spacecraft' to notice an 'evenly lighted cell' that appears in an otherwise darkened landscape, 'a white ideal space', I think of a brightly lit studio at Dream World on the Gold Coast and the rest of the dark, un-televised country tuning in to watch.
As a former house (built for Moritz Michaelis between 1855-1885) Linden's
particular ambience exacerbates the connection. So on this occasion who's in
the house, who are the housemates, what are the rules? Apparently Big Brother
spoke to the curators weeks ago:
He said as much to the artists too.
Beyond this we might observe that the 3 curators - Melissa Keys (formally WA), Reuben Keehan (NSW), Peter McKay (SA) - come from 3 state funded contemporary art spaces. Each of them usually work with living artists producing new work. The two Melbourne artists, Catherine Bell and Chris Bond were chosen by Jan Duffy because of their diverse practices and each has worked in the gallery before. The curators had not worked with these two artists before. Each curator then chose one artist from their own state: Matthew Hunt (WA); Akira Akira (SA); and Huseyin Sami (NSW).
So the scene was set, and is being played out as I write, to culminate in the 3
exhibitions unveiled on opening night. Jan was anxious halfway through:
Of course we are not privy to the interactions between the housemates. Jan, Peter, Reuben, Akira, Melissa, Huseyin, Catherine, Chris and Matthew are busy 'collaborating' and 'negotiating', as Jan suggests, but there are no cameras secreted away to record furtive transactions or audacious pronouncements. Nonetheless we are encouraged to regard the final exhibitions as a residue of the complex relations between them and we'll no doubt ask what makes the differences between shows, and are they significant, and what value has been added in each case? And the gallery is a perfect backdrop to these questions, since it is designed to focus our attention and dramatise events, an integral part of the history of 'noticing' things, as O'Doherty says, 'making visible what has been seen but not looked at', in this case, the process by which exhibitions are determined by the different relationships between artists and curators.
And of course everyone may take a different approach. Reuben's given up finding 'links' between artists and is going for self-reflexive random association with what seems like a found text. Melissa is emphasising what is unfinished or unravelling in art and in the world. While Peter is revisiting the nature/ culture divide via the work of Jackson Pollock. Chris is well known for his discreet abstract paintings based on book covers, Huseyin for his dramatic performances and painting machines, Catherine for swimming with eels and channelling Joan of Arc in testing live performances, Akira for his restrained and self-contained molecular, geometrical and globular forms, and Mathew for his subtracted painted phrases on scraperboards.
So what will they do together? Basic set theory suggests over 150,000 combinations based on some of those hoary old categories you might find on an Australia Council application form, such as media, gender, cultural background, hybridity, regional location, in addition to curatorial theme. It's an impossible task to speculate on how things could come together but the theory suggests that with so many variables there will be what statisticians call a 'normal distribution' of possibilities, that is, a neat bell curve, where some of these shows in potentia will gather around a mean, an average, expressing the kind of sense and logic that we usually anticipate and get from curated exhibitions. But what of other tendencies towards the nether regions of probability, the chaotic or random outer flanges of that bell, the greater rather than lesser deviations from the norm?
Lars Von Trier's 1996 set-piece Psychomobile 1: World Clock is a great case in point. Across 19 rooms of a Copenhagen art gallery, 53 actors performed 3 hours a day for 50 days determined in part by the movement of ants within an anthill in New Mexico. While each performer was designated a basic character or type - Guru, Postman, Boy Wonder, The Cur, Emperor, Petite, AA - there was no script. A video camera documented the movement of ants linked by computer to a series of coloured lights in the gallery. Certain thresholds in the ants' activity would set off the lights, prompting certain prescribed events and changes in mood in the narrative. Jesper Jargil's film The Exhibited, released in 2000 and shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival, documented the event for film audiences, and - as the title suggests - reiterated the substitution of personal relationships for the artwork, since they were precisely what was 'exhibited' in the project and what we are considering here.
Some have suggested Von Trier's influence on Big Brother which commenced in the Netherlands in 1999, and the excerpted clips from the real-time documentation interspersed with interviews with the actors in Jargil's film do sound a bit like Big Brother: Up Late. Jargil's film, however, communicated a gradual worsening over 50 days as the complexity increased - relationships deteriorated, characters were killed, characters fucked each other, actors fucked each other, people could no longer tell their role from their life. Sounds just like Big Brother, but no one left the house. Documenting a persistent theme in Von Trier's work ("My greatest problem in life is control over chaos"), the film was a study in entropy and chaos within predefined limits, where characters were controlled by a system they could not control or even know, and it ended with everyone tied in a Gordian knot of byzantine human affairs that could only be violently cut.
I guess the confluence between experimental film, auteur cinema, improv, Big Brother, and contemporary art exhibitions is not that surprising, since it reflects the same interest in process across disciplines, ostensibly a sociological phenomenon, arguably, even a species disposition, which Von Trier's performance emphasises in its relationship to an anthill. Indeed, the house - and every house by definition - is full of animals. And it's the widening perspective we have of human endeavour (O'Doherty compares it to the view from a spaceship leaving earth), as a specious version of life on the planet, that accounts for our lives' 'real' significance, its meaning and purpose, and that provides a framework for understanding and explaining stuff. Not because of the colour, the form, the acting, the narrative, but because this is really how it happens - how culture, aesthetics, indeed all events, are over-determined by the fundaments of being an animal, being human. Lars Von Trier, like Big Brother, is an ethologist.
So is this how exhibitions are made too? Mathew Jones once told me the artworld - like the house - was basically about who's fucking who, either literally or metaphorically. While in this case the marriage is arranged and Big Brother has spoken, curating is nonetheless a kind of seduction - or as Jan puts it 'persuasion' - between 'living' artists and curators. And I agree that many decisions, passing as aesthetic choices, are driven by libidinal, subconscious forces that motivate secondary technical or conceptual legitimations. As a curator I have felt these drives whir and hum beneath the more dispassionate words that I've written about artists and exhibitions and I suspect 'collaboration' and 'negotiation' in this case may simply be euphemisms for more basic attractions and repulsions. Contra posito, we are ill-disposed to the work of people we do not like, so we have to find a good reason.
And to what extent do we share these drives, or vital forces, with other living organisms? To what extent does ethology elucidate the work of artists and curators? Remember Congo? Star of Zootime in the 50s with Desmond Morris, collected by Picasso, outselling Renoir and Warhol at auction, survey shows at the ICA and star of the survey 'Ape Artists of the 1950s' at the Mayor Gallery? Morris traced Congo's sensibility beyond 'prehistoric cave artists' to the very 'birth of art'. Can he curate, too? Well then, let's put him in the house! 1. because part of me thinks that, in the manner of putting enough monkey's on the job, one of them will not only write like Shakespeare, but could also curate the 'Arsenale' at the Venice Biennale; and 2. because what we would do the same and differently from other apes somehow holds a key to a more peaceable world for the species that remain.
It's one of the reasons I'm a fan of Japanese artist, Shimabuku. First time I saw him, he was sitting on a park bench in Cahors (which translates as 'dog' and 'bear') with someone in a bear-suit, an octopus in a tank, and a dog, just waiting for whatever might happen. Years later in 2007, I saw his 1992 work for the monkey's at Monkey Mountain sanctuary in Kyoto; a tangled mass of wire, shiny pebbles, flowers, rattles and mirror. Photos document the interaction of the monkeys. Watching my daughter sift through the installation, she resembled those first users with the same pronounced sense of inquiry. Like Dr Doolittle, Shimabuku talks to the animals and we can stop and listen to their varying replies across his oeuvre; dogs, monkeys, an octopus, an owl, pigeons, a deer, mixed with our own voices. In its pan-species address mixed with Shinto at large, Shimabuku's work could be regarded as a kind of secular animism in which we transcend a limited human perspective to begin thinking profoundly about all others. The story Shimabuku tells is the kind of legend celebrated by story-tellers in every culture, about all the living creatures on the earth.
It's the same story in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's head-on with zoosemiotics, comparing the aesthetic and musical sense of bower birds to 'art brut', linking art to territorial expression via fish, birds, and spiny lobsters, concluding that 'art is not the privilege of human beings', but more like an aesthetic dimension of all species behaviour. Perhaps making exhibitions with other people in a house is not that far removed from the leaf-turning activity of the Brown Stagemaker. Perhaps our antics as artists and curators, do compare with other kinds of animal behaviour, and that what we do may as well be determined by ants in New Mexico as by Lars Von Trier, or may as well be curated by Congo as by Robert Storr or Daniel Birnbaum. Since not only is there equal significance derived by audiences from seemingly random, or simply unattributable factors, as from our own thoughtful, purposeful rationale and explanation (as the brute stats would attest) but if we search for meaning far back enough, go deep or wide enough into our fundamental motivations, I reckon we will find the 'truth', the 'real TV' reasons, we are all alive and kicking.