The Why Scenario
There is a received idea that often turns up on the food pages of better British newspapers that you should never trust recipes, especially those offered by chefs. Yet as was recently pointed out in the liberal British newspaper The Guardian, although such a statement reveals something about the relationship between chefs, food and consumers of food it does not always lead to bad eating. In a way this text is a kind of recipe and a potential level of questioning would be extremely useful in the context of a working environment such as this one at the Fondazione Ratti.
So the recipe idea will do for a start, as long as it could be said that a true recipe is a refinement of a series of actions and things that have already been played out towards a result that some other people would also like to try in order to compare it to their own actions and observations towards a new set of effects. The key to the recipe analogy here is an understanding that the order in which these actions and things are considered within the artistic field has become too complex for clear memory.
In addition there is some apparently contradictory moment in the execution of the act or combination of things that unless it is noted down clearly it would probably be overlooked. Yet the act of trying to note something for further use and consideration leads to a new set of objects, effects and combinations. We all know that these near immediate responses reflect back onto the original recipe and change its significance. So as I lay out the areas of interest they will be reflected and transformed as I write and speak.
It is necessary to outline the areas of interest that have informed my practice and that I see operating in common with certain others, although this is not always immediately clear through a consideration of merely formal concerns alone. For while the areas of interest may be shared, the specific ideas as they relate to the production of art objects and relationships are deliberately fuzzy. A set of thinking linked to action, that attempts to occupy spaces in between the areas of social structure that are seen to be the most useful in our layered and reflective situation. For even now there is a tendency to value the authentic (or an ironic acknowledgement of an impossible search for it), played off against closely related ideas that come from the application of sophisticated cultural analysis towards an art of commentary and quasi-sociology.
Such ironised responses to the role of the artist in society have left broad swathes of territory clear for game playing and occupation, as has the focus on a rigorous desire to present a complex and responsible contextually oriented activity. So we are left with the potential of the middle ground. And in order to deal with this effectively we must take into consideration the ideas that surround the use of the "scenario" and the "set-up". A focus upon and creation of new moments where actions are played out alongside a series of objects and images within a web of hard to read relationships that goes beyond the authentic while resisting the desire to take comfort in sociological reflection and didactic "presentation" alone. Bringing together effects rather than results towards the creation of a new set of situations.
"A newspaper describes a recorded conference between Nixon and his aides over the Watergate affair as a 'role playing session'; a projected course of events is referred to a 'a scenario'. In both examples there is an implication of dishonest artifice, a hint that public people are simply 'acting out' a deviously prepared script." (The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought ).
There are some who view the idea of the "role", as in "role playing", with a degree of distrust and it has been argued that the modern use of the word "scenario" has become inextricably linked to this idea of assuming a "role", such behaviour not being real or responsive or at least too all embracing and simplistic a set of terms to describe the complexity of our situation. It is true that the way these terms evolved into use is specific to a particular period, and while the concepts may have been superseded in some fields they still have potential within an art situation that revels in slowness. In the Sixties the words "role" and "scenario" entered into the language of journalism and social work, in order to describe any situation which appeared staged or performed, especially in relation to mainstream politics.
Erving Goffman had revealed two clear forms of the "role" in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956) which remain useful tools in analysing recent developments in art even if they are now overused and redundant in relation to politics and journalism. The first idea is linked to "Role Distance" (the extent to which the individual may free him or herself from the demands of mere adequacy in a given role, and exploit the possibilities of play and improvisation above and beyond the necessities of "correct" behaviour). The second form is linked to "Role Conflict" (what happens when the individual finds him or herself in the position of playing two or more roles at once -when, for example, the doctor has to minister to a member of their own family or an artist has to enter into the world of finance and big business). Goffman and others set out the extent to which it might be possible to understand behaviour as part of a complex drama inextricably linked to the idea of "the presented self". A series of quasi performances on a new level of relativism. The idea of lying reframed as economy with the truth. Time has passed and "double speak" has evolved as a subset of role playing. Freeing up that earlier moralised problem and allowing the "scenario" to develop into an area of potential for artists, however they may present themselves, represent themselves or be presented. All this is linked to game playing. The desire to work out a series of propositions or scenarios in order to better understand a situation or a set of social conditions. Artist as overseer rather than seer.
Central here is the idea of the middle. The spaces in between effects and social set-ups. The use of the ideas that have sprung from the application of "role playing" and "the scenario" (and their over use in other areas) has ensured that the most dynamic potential terrain for artists and other manipulators of visual and socio-political space is that centre area which also embraces strategy, compromise, negotiation, mediation, game playing and so on. In order for this to work within an aesthetic context, in other words for it to be of use to people who are expecting some thing from a set of objects, images and information, it is also necessary to consider the potential of interior design, straightforward information transferral and the setting or the back-drop. Role-playing taking form as an apparently compromised scenario mentality to play itself out. So we have middle ground, role playing, the scenario and the idea of strategy replayed as a recipe all of which might be reframed and presented in a visual form that borrows from interior design, film and television sets, and the world of quasi-political rhetoric.
There have been recent attempts to re-charge the potential of art in relation to all of the above, yet these trials may be thought of as a form of "dog-art". Artists bringing relationships back to the gallery, re-ordered and re-worked in order to show the rest of society, the people who are not artists, what they have been getting up to. Like a dog bringing back a thrown stick and showing it to its owner. The owner knows about the stick already, he or she chose to throw it in the first place and although it could be said that the dog has an inkling of this too, the act is really something played out within the spirit of the work-out rather than a sophisticated action. Intentions and results are uneven. Yet we are all aware that the resolution of form and content in art is no longer necessarily the best judge of relative success or failure of any activity.
So there is some value in dog-art. It does perform a useful function in reflecting a distorted version of what is taking place back at all of us, playing out a set of situations. But in the end we are faced with something that operates much closer to the earlier moralised problematic of the understanding of the "role" in relation to politics and society where there is little recognition of blurring. The main problem with "dog-art" is that it underestimates the potential of non-artists to understand and contribute to the society in a meaningful, that is intellectual, way. Yet it plays its most important part in emphasising roles and therefore continuing the old modern avant-guardist challenge to the traditional idea of an artist. As such it is the extension of a late twentieth century desire on the part of some artists to view themselves as workers, or now as researchers or social anthropologists, in order to square their egalitarian impulses with the hierarchies of art. Unfortunately, of course, in order for dog-art to work effectively it has to reinforce those very hierarchies it is attempting to counter.
To proceed from here it is necessary to consider the potential of time-scale in relation to art. Pre and post-production. All work must be seen in a new light in order for operation in a centre ground to work effectively. Access must be regained to the pre and post production of art works, effects and display. Earlier artists, in their desire to be seen as workers, played with such ideas to a certain extent and it could be argued that they laid bare the functional structure of the art world in order for others to play with it. In an attempt to see if there is any way to proceed let us consider the following scenario.
The What if Scenario No. 1
It is night time in a city. We are not concerned with the details of the streets or any specific building. Instead we sweep across the roof tops. Moving faster than a car and slower than an airplane. Reaching the limit of this squared off place we continue to move across a desert landscape. The view is dark, yet the sky glows slightly with blue and red. Cut back to the city. A group of women are having a discussion in a bar. There are no men present. We see each face quite clearly. There is a silvered canopy above their heads. Parts of this provisional pergola are filled with brightly coloured plexi-glass. The conversation is wide ranging. Many subjects are covered. How to communicate. How to meet. How to travel. Back out in the desert. We are no longer moving. There is a visual stillness combined with a human presence suggested by a heart beat or a high pitched yet barely audible noise. We move slowly. Then down into the ground. Everything is black down there.
Back in the city we are now outside the bar. Three of the women leave the place where they had been talking. The walls of some of the buildings are clad in aluminium up to a certain height although this level does vary. Pausing for a moment. The three bid each other good night and head off in different directions. We keep cutting between them as they move on. It starts to rain and we see each of them in turn pause for a moment and look up at the sky. They are walking through quite different urban environments by now. Above their heads a large corrugated structure is extending from the buildings that line the pavement. Baby blue. Covering and protecting the lone pedestrians from the rain. Time moves faster now. One of the women is a doctor. Every now and then we see her as she goes about her daily business.
We learn something of her life and see the way she operates. She is capable of changing the way people look and the way that they feel. The second woman works with computers. Her world is mainly confined to the office space that she occupies half way up a towering building. She changes the way people understand the world around them and the world within them. The third woman seems to have no clear job and no obvious social obligations. Her abilities are best understood as an expression of her multiple activities. Something of a mediator she is clearly talented and precise yet has managed to avoid specific allegiance to any set group of activities or responsibilities. She is capable of changing the way people think and they way they create and maintain their loyalties.
The question of whether or not these three will meet again is not important. There is some synchronisation of their actions and a certain degree of shared understanding between them. At least it seems that way from our distance. Each of them goes through a complete life, from the age of 25 onwards. We follow their successes and their disasters. The idea of achievement here is relative to their intentions. It is not clear whether the three are "good" or "bad" in our terms. Their behaviour is rooted in negotiation, communication and understanding. At all points they seem to experience many things at the same time. We spend an equal amount of time attending to each of them. The neighbourhood effect. Yet this is not exactly obvious because of the way that our understanding of their developing stories is ordered.
Although we follow a conventional chronological narrative, it seems to work in three distinct ways. One of the characters is clearly getting older and proceeding towards eventual slowness and potential death. One is getting younger and more enthusiastic while the third seems to remain in a form of the present. Although the present that is under consideration in this case is definitely some kind of parallel present rather than clearly related to a specific series of moments that we may be familiar with. It is not "the near future" or the "recent past" but something quite different. Three people, meeting once and never seeing each other again. We are the link between them. And we provide the logic that might be applied to understand their relative status. Out in the desert at the black hole in the ground, a large green mass of vegetation is growing. At some point it will escape the confines of this desiccated place and make its way towards the city. Maybe the three women are working towards this moment, maybe they are trying to avoid it ever taking place.
I've given two types of conference in the artistic context: the first is somewhat scientific and deals with human smells, not perfumes but the smells we actually produce on the body, and the significance of these smells in terms of communication between humans. In this sense it was a kind of scientific conference, though it gradually got less and less scientific: what I would do was to fan the emissions from artificial analogues of these smells on a hot plate into the room so that people could smell them for themselves and understand what I'd been talking about. The conference would got pretty smelly and, by the end, the stink created made it increasingly dramatic.
I could rest assured that by the end there would be nobody left in the room. The conference proved to be quite a success and I have been asked time and time again to repeat it which has taken me to various different countries. However, I finally decided to stop offering it because I didn't want to end up hawking the same conference everywhere. I think the most important thing is that the conference be to a certain degree interesting, and this was a subject I found particularly interesting.
For the second conference, I came up with something that was similarly interesting for me and for everybody else: love. This conference I gave twice. The first outing, Copenhagen, ended in an argument with some of the audience, because they didn't agree at all with what I was saying. At least it was interesting from the point of view that there was a disagreement as I was trying to look at love from a very cold, mechanistic perspective based on a theory that I had drawn from evolutionary theory which involved trying to explain love from the point of view of a logic aimed at producing a reproductive result. I find this approach amusing because the logic itself is amusing and this provoked a very strange reaction. I actually held the conference a second time but it wasn't so strong, although the difficulty of seeing such an emotional thing as love so cold bloodedly remained. This is why I wanted to try something new. I did not, however, want to put on a slide show of my work, complete with anecdotal commentary. I never liked the idea of letting your whole artistic life pass by in a thirty-minute slide show: it is, in my opinion, stressful and not particularly fruitful.
Therefore, I have opted not to prepare anything. Every time I have found myself thinking about it, I have tried to wipe it out. The idea was to get here without any preparation, without a single slide, a more immediate approach, a life experiment, just me here in front of you, showing you what my thinking is all about. You want something from me right now, not just to know what I look like and behave, but to get something more immediate, something that is really present and which has to do with the ideas that I am currently developing. Furthermore, the structure here is very convenient because I can just say a few words, as I'm doing now, and then pass it all over to Angela to get the translation done and, in the meantime, concentrate on what to say next.
Right, this has been a very long introduction, so now it's time for me to come up with something that is more closely linked with what I've said earlier. And that's a bit more difficult. I think I can really talk about art and I also think that's the reason I'm here and the reason why art, in my opinion, needs to be produced. Now this might seem a little pretentious, but I'll come back to it after the translation -but I believe minds can be broadened by art, not because it means you are necessary producing something new but because, above all, you are developing something that is already present. Thinking back to when I was a child and I had a very strange conception of the world. At the beginning there was (probably) no conception, just a sort of input that I would try to come to terms with.
However, there comes a point when you do develop that conception of life: initially, it is to no great extent dominated by the social context you live in because it's something you come up with yourself. As far as I am concerned, it is a conception that goes through a lot of changes along the way. Speaking now, I can't say it was a nightmare -more a fantasy- something that took off in a certain direction and something I no longer think about. If I mention this, it is because as you grow up, getting to know new friends, family, whatever, it's something you start to develop together with the people who are already around you. It's as if you consent to the concept of the world.
Consequently, you do come to accept their position but, at the same time, you are obviously carving out your own position. Yet in order to live in and be accepted in a certain society, you develop a consent to society in terms of your concept of the world. This means that when you are a child, you still have the freedom to think but you think in highly different terms which you proceed to develop into what might be an unconscious concept of the world yet one which leads to a world view that excludes other world views. This is why other world views are important -something that I'm sure becomes apparent if you compare your own childhood with childhood in different cultures or what you yourself have subsequently gone on to do. However, the problem remains: how do I reach this point? I see no need in developing something completely new.
Everything we need is already present. A form of synthesis, an expansion of the thinking I referred to earlier. In art, we are always looking for something new, the next big thing. Indeed, if you look at it in political terms, it is a very capitalist structure: capitalism is always on the lookout for something new because that's what keeps the whole thing going on. Yet is there any real need to keep coming up with something new? It's a problem that exists in science among other domains, although it seems to be on the wane. It is becoming more and more difficult to produce anything new as it requires a more technically evolved approach. As far as the synthesis I am proposing is concerned, it makes the constant search for something new seem outdated. The broadening of thought, this synthesis of what already exists nowadays would be interesting, but of course any synthesis needs direction. This direction could be dictated by the urge of the times in which we live. For instance, I believe there really is an urge towards an ecological revolution.
Even this is strange in so far as we are not really sure whether we are actually destroying what we need to survive or whether we can go on as we are and continue to be able to live. Of course there will have to be changes, but they will not necessarily have anything to do with impending catastrophe. As for the resources we live on and the way we manage them, some changes are being made for the better with certain developments ensuring that the resources we need are being channeled in a more viable way. On the other hand, it might well be already too late and what we are developing at the moment might, in the next hundred, two hundred years, lead to an ecological catastrophe. The situation is paradoxical three times over. First of all, we do not know whether it is true or not -maybe if we just slow down a little bit life will still be viable.
Secondly, and this really is a paradox, even if we knew what the outcome was going to be, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to change course right now. The third paradox is the most interesting: the situation is perfectly normal, nothing about it is "unusual" or "abnormal", there's no reason to think about it in these terms. We are behaving in the way you would expect of any living organism were it to develop the consciousness we have developed and everything that that implies. So, is the situation which is underway really catastrophic, and, if it is, can we change it by calling upon all the intellectual capacities we have developed? Probably, but would our behavior have to change as a result? Indeed, would this be necessary or would it simply be part of a natural process of development if the whole thing did come to an end? New life forms will develop. This process might well have already happened in the universe on various previous occasions.
What I am suggesting is that we should not be taking decisions as to whether we see things this way or that and how to behave accordingly but making things happen at the same time, just as it is possible to think to these different scenarios in the same time. It may seem like a contradiction. Personally, however, I see no real need to resolve it. This is what I think is the nice cliche' about art: there are all these different layers which are to a certain extent contradictory but which are all present at the same time and also understandable at the same time. So if you forge this link between art and yourself, there is the chance of a simultaneous understanding of the environment we are living in.
I believe that art can become a sort of tool and there is nothing wrong with this in my opinion. Generating more confusion in the form of extended thinking. Art can borrow from every other profession and jump in between. My major complaint, however, would be that there is a degree of restriction due to a long-standing tradition of producing specialized results. Such specialization is, of course, responsible for the highly specialized structure in which we operate -galleries, institutions and so on. But I don't think there's anything wrong with the structure. The most interesting question is whether or not this structure can be expanded upon. But what, all told, is an institution, a Kunstverein, a Kunsthalle or whatever? It's a space that is open to anyone who can afford the entrance fee. As an artist, you really are given the opportunity to use the space to create an environment different from the one you would normally spend your life in.
In art institutions particularly, we could be developing new possible types of environment, not so much new in the sense that they are different from everywhere else but in the sense I used before that they are syntheses: "synthetically new". By living there, of course, I don't mean you have to take along all your stuff and move in but spend a certain time of your life there, be it only ten or fifteen minutes. Everybody knows that the environment they live in, work in or whatever, has an influence on them and produces a certain feeling which, again, is a certain kind of thinking. It is an age-old idea, and one that has been developed by architects. Buckminster Fuller -who believed that the architecture and the environment you live in forms the person you are- comes to mind. Personally, however, I would not fully subscribe to that idea because I don't think the link is always immediate or strong although it has a certain influence on what is going on. As I said before, there are two possibilities: either you think about changing society or you think this is a stupid idea.
But what I want to suggest is that we think about the two possibilities at the same time and maybe think about bringing about change for pure reasons of beauty. I also believe the western culture of thinking we have developed is based to a great extent on dualism. Now and again, in digital computers, you can see what all our thinking is about because in order to think about something, we require a sharp border that allows for distinctions between other things or the context. The dualism that surrounds us often leads us to compare good with bad, new with old and so on. It is something we do all the time and it goes too far, further than necessary in my opinion.
A highly reductionist approach: the ability to reduce something to its very point in a context, means this something becomes very clear and you can start thinking about it. What I prefer is to see things in terms of "graduality", percentage. Consequently, I find statistics, for instance, highly valuable. Statisticians have three ways of looking at their data. The first is what they call "binomial distribution". The options are "yes" or "no", in digital terms "0" or "1", "male" or "female", with only two possibilities of distributing the data. This is the way one most often thinks, but it is only very rarely true of the actual distribution that surrounds us. The second is a scale of orders which is true of the natural numbers, for instance. If you say "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10", you find yourself with separate units of numbers and there is no link between one and the other except for the order. The third is the best and is also the most common yet most difficult to conceive
If you look at all the possible numbers, you know that between "1" and "2" there is a universe that could take you deep into eternity. This is what is meant by "graduality". I believe that in the end you still have to make a decision even though, as I said before, it is not nice having to decide. You have to make the decision for your life, but you don't have to make the decision in accordance with what your opinion is. You know that you will probably be here only once. Understanding fully what this means is already a life-long process. Yet even if you don't understand it, and probably nobody does, at least I don't, it does have a dimension which I, personally, find outrageous, fantastic, beautiful and fascinating. Since I've started trying to understand this, I really like my life a lot more and I'm happier to be here, to be in the condition of being someone. You probably get my meaning, although there's always this problem of translating things into words. You can see how difficult it is for me to talk about this, but you see what I am getting at because it is something that affects everyone.
Artist and theorist. A graduate of Goldsmith College in 1987, he has exhibited and presented projects throughout Europe and the United States. He also writes for several art magazines, among them: Parkett, Flash Art, Purple Prose and is a founding editor of Documents sur l'Art. In 1991 he founded with Jack Wendler The Publishing Company G-W Press. Since 1994 he is head of the visiting artists program at Goldsmith College.
Artist and theorist (whose background is in the sciences) who creates works wherein logical paradoxes are made to collapse. With works including a swing for children which sees them flung over the side of a high-rise and swing sets covered with poisonous mushrooms, he tries the very survival of the species. His work has been presented in various international institutions. Part of his work regards the realisation of video works, conferences and texts for such magazines as Documents and Flash Art.