Wednesday, October 17, 2012

They Were Always Sabotaged: the Problem of Space Camp

Among my concerns prior to entering the Space Camp exhibition at Lamar Dodd were two interrelated questions regarding the ostensible raison d'ĂȘtre of the show. First, to what extent is artwork created by art students in the art school not site-specific when said artwork is shown within the art school facilities? And second, does not the artwork become paradoxically vague, a kind of shadow of the site, when the site is already so specific to the work, already prefabricated for assignments, their creation and display? I was eager to discover how such a challenge would be met, and lo I discovered: they simply avoided making site-specific art altogether!
            True, “altogether” is hyperbolic—a few attempts were made to at least consider the space. Rachel Debuque's short-corridor work “Fancy Room” and Elliot Walters' paper-behind-glass evocation of waves with “Water Memory,” along with a few others, offer fleeting acknowledgments of their immediate settings. Yet this acknowledgment never moves beyond simply making use of the terrain. Nothing escapes the fact of the site itself, a kind of booby-trapped environment that one would have either to negotiate with the utmost craftiness or disregard entirely. For what can site-specific art be if it is merely specific to the site? What of the specificity of the site? Lacking this interplay we are left with little to consider: signifier lacking signified, signified lacking referent (as though all three would even be enough). One can hardly blame those whose work could just as easily be hung from one ceiling as another, built into any wall, laid out on any floor. I suspect that on some level each of these artists knew they were always sabotaged by the demands of their assignment.
In 2006 a trio of Lamar Dodd students—Erin Burke, Danielle Benson and Audrey Molinare—created a remarkable series of site-specific works installed into various area houses. What was so remarkable was not necessarily an exceptional level of craftsmanship or elaborate injections of “meaning” into the works. These things may have been present, possibly even critical contributions to the overall effect of the installations, but it is doubtful this alone could have produced the sensation that visitors were genuinely experiencing something. But there we were, not just interacting but participating, bearing witness to something all too rare: we were taken by surprise.
            Certainly, I could go on at length recalling the details of these experiences. I could create elaborate descriptions, from the often startling juxtaposition of already-present household objects with delicate objets d'art to the delicious cakes that invariably awaited us in some room or another, but such exposition would only serve to talk around the point I wish this example to serve. What is most important here is the simple but apparently courageous act of refusing to be confined by the limitations of a chosen academic department. I say “courageous” advisedly, for it is after all courageous in the Germanic sense of being “heartful,” but that it takes courage in the contemporary sense to invest such playful faith in one's craft and audience is immensely disappointing. Perhaps it is simply the nature of faith to have to see adversity through, I do not know. Perhaps were it otherwise I myself would lose the sense of care I have for those who display such faith. I am, it seems, forever waiting to put this personal ambivalence to the test.
            As it stands, examples of this sort insofar as site-specific artworks are concerned are, to the best of my knowledge, few and far between locally. Yet it is only these works that have seemed capable of honestly calling themselves “site-specific,” and it is therefore all the more auspicious that they do not necessarily declare themselves as such. I think of the performances of Ted Kuhn and of the handful of collective shows at the Bulldog Inn. Are there others? Surely, but a short-list of what has existed is a fairly absurd demonstration of what does not.

If I have avoided the critique of individual works in Space Camp it is precisely for the fact that the show as a whole acts as a kind of trace of everything it refuses collectively. Professors do their job when they create assignments within the framework of the academy, students do their job when they fulfill these assignments, and whatever benefit this could be to the arts in general is undermined by the terrible impression that the only risk is that of compromised grades (which the audience isn't privy to) or of not having the “look” of art school (which the audience has probably seen quite enough of). It would be all too easy to rebuke my assessment with the reminder that, after all, this is school and these are assignments. We can, moreover, well see the varying levels of commitment to the assignment in each artist's approach to the problem, its execution, our own experiential involvement, etc. But what cannot be done by those on either side of this sort of institutional pedagogy is call into being that which has no end goal other than the thing-in-itself. As Wittgenstein writes, “If I have exhausted the justification, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say, 'This is simply what I do.” But if such is ever an ideal of academic training, it is exactly in the same manner that a traveler approaches the horizon line.
            What solutions might have been offered to overcome this problem of Space Camp? A multitude of answers could play out before this question. Happily, one was at last discovered. After wandering down hallways my companion and I were at last stopped in our tracks, startled by a piece shoved aside into an alcove: the surest piece of artwork turned out to be packages of insulation stacked on a pallet.

The strength of this piece was that it came into focus as art simply by naively inhabiting a space within the facility of the art school. The immense amount of calculation expended to create a context within which artworks could be created, displayed and studied framed for us incidental objects as something astonishing. Finally we were given the gift of having our own encounter with both a construct and the site. While the other “site-specific” pieces would have been art anywhere at all, we suddenly had the impression of a thing that could only have been art within that specific context.
            While the leap of faith required to see this object was certainly more than a little idiotic, the observation is no less true for it. This is one aspect of the exhibition’s two-fold flaw. Just as the artists’ works were apparently sabotaged by a generalized inability to reground the site, we as viewers had to do the highly specific work of re-interiorizing objects external to the show—to illumine the shadow of the site, as it were. This is not in and of itself such a terrible thing, but it seems tremendously suspect when we consider it the sum effect of a show devoted to site-specific artworks. Alas, the whole operation was neither here nor there.

In the final analysis Space Camp really isn’t worth very much—a show that is all site and no specifics. Erasmus reminds us that every man enjoys the smell of his own shit; Lamar Dodd won’t let us forget it. Instead we receive a suffocated cry from elsewhere, a place that only barely exists, a place where students actually take the initiative to be artists. Heaven forefend we muck up the margins of our education! Art school, enough cowardice! Surprise us!

No comments:

Post a Comment