Monday, 5 December 2011

Cat thinks people not living life to the full

Cat thinks people not living life to the full: but I think we still need each other.
Publication: C: International Contemporary Art
Publication Date: 22-JUN-08
Author: Wren, Jacob

COPYRIGHT 2008 C The Visual Arts Foundation

In the book Recording Conceptual Art (University of California Press, 2001), a series of interviews with key conceptual artists all conducted in 1961 but unpublished until 2001, Robert Barry speaks about his now well-known projects involving telepathy--works that attempted to bypass "any kind of material, even words or language," explaining that 

The best telepathic transmission sort of takes place
unconsciously, where you don't even know you're
doing it. So that the latest of the telepathic pieces,
we just assume that the ideas will be transmitted
telepathically, instead of consciously trying to
do it. [...] We just simply don't deal with that problem
of what it is that's being communicated. We just
say that something is communicated and that's all
there is to it. Now, I'm communicating it. Whether
anybody picks it up or not is something else. In
other words, I wouldn't say I'm communicating it;
I'd say I'm transmitting it. If someone picks it up,
then that's communication. Someone might pick it
up rive minutes before I've thought about it. You see,
because that sort of transcends time and space, and
these things sort of exist for all time, so to speak.

It's difficult to imagine anyone trying to pull off such an audaciously flaky idea today. The fact that the artist actually doesn't do anything, transmits something without making any effort, and yet the work of art in some sense still exists, seems to verge dangerously close to a style of charlatanism much too obvious for out post-ironic times. Nonetheless, the specific manner in which this historically important work lathers up my scepticism suggests that he may well have been on to something, that this might be a radical gesture with a bit of spark still left in it. If we allow ourselves to be open enough, might a genuine belief in the paranormal--so far away from social norms but believed in by so many--be a strategy for refreshing the often too predictable contemporary artistic context? 


In her video Tele-pets (2006), Gothenburg-based Finnish artist Nina Lassila takes a different approach to telepathy. The video begins with the artist speaking in voiceover: 

As other people, I also like to talk to animals.
Sometimes I feel that they are responding. I
wonder what they are thinking ... I have heard
that there are people who can communicate with
pets and other animals. Obviously many animals
have a lot to say. I want to find out what ...

The voiceover goes on to document a variety of instances, stories the artist has gathered, of people's telepathic experiences with their pets. Underneath the sporadic but steady narration run images of these pets. (They could just be images of random dogs, birds, cats, horses and goldfish; there is no way to know for sure.) It could almost be a late-night infomercial advertising the possibility of a true telepathic encounter with your pet. But it couldn't be an infomercial, the tone is all wrong: the imagery too fragile, too elegant, too poetic. 

But then, what is the tone exactly? It is tempting to suspect that irony is at work here, that we are meant to slyly laugh at these lonely people who have nothing better to do than recount what messages their parrot or dog sends through the air and into their thoughts. However, upon repeated viewing, I gradually came to the counterintuitive conclusion that there is in fact little irony to be round here, only a generous sense of humour flowing out from an even more genuine sense of curiosity. 

A woman is watching a picture of a purple car. A
moment later her parrot who is in another room
says: what a beautiful purple. The same parrot
wakes her up in the middle of the night, saying:
you gotta push the button! (The woman
was dreaming about editing.)

In its way, its very different way, Tele-pets is just as earnest and funny as Robert Barry's purely conceptual telepathy experiments from 1961. Because, just as Robert Barry's work encapsulated one extreme edge of a very dry first generation conceptualism, Nina Lassila's video equally pushes towards a similar edge, a similar breaking point, for the post-conceptualism of our time. This is an art that desires to stop talking about art, that doesn't take itself too seriously but nonetheless wants to let in a greater sense of the world, and scratch away at its strange, unexpected corners. I suspect it is also a type of art that would not be possible without the legacy of conceptualism. This makes for an unlikely mix: this work still possesses the distance associated with the conceptual legacy, while at the same rime it attempts to forge a much greater intimacy with its subjects, the people whose stories if recounts, and with the viewer. In a similar manner to that in which much first generation conceptual art asked, "what is art and how far can we go with it?" Tele-pets asks, "how can I use art to forge a greater sense of engagement with the world around me?" 

In the same 1961 interview, Robert Barry says that his work with telepathy "raises a lot of fundamental problems as far as the existence of a work of art is concerned: just how much is needed, and how much has to be known about a work of art, before it does exist. I think it questions the very being of any work of art" 

At first I was tempted to write that Tele-pets refuses to play such games and doesn't particularly care for fundamental problems of the "existence of a work of art." But upon further consideration, I think that it is only a matter of questioning art from another angle: not reducing art to its bare minimum and waiting to see what's left, but instead, with humour and a very light touch, placing art alongside these intimate, very human stories from daily life, and then taking art and life together and viewing them within the larger scale of the natural world. 

An animal therapist writes about Tuatara lizards.
The species is very old. The lizards feel very uncomfortable
around humans. We move too fast.
For them time goes much slower. From the same
source I hear about a cat who can explain the
phenomenon of time. Time exists in layers, like
the pages of a book. The cat also thinks people
are not living life to the full...

Of course, Nina Lassila isn't nearly as famous as Robert Barry and most likely never will be. (She is still young, so anything is possible, but times have definitely changed.) This is another aspect of the kind of work I am writing about here, of which I believe Tele-pets is only one example. Radical artistic gestures feel played out; they will no longer make or break careers and maybe art careers themselves no longer feel so important, some flashes in the pan simply last longer than others. Robert Barry was interested in telepathy as a radical gesture in and of itself; Nina Lassila is interested in telepathy as a way to hear what the animals have to say. It may or may not be a generational divide, but these are clearly very different impulses. To discover something meaningful within the artistic context I wonder if it is now necessary to turn away from purely artistic questions, to look elsewhere, out into the greater world. 

Tele-pets ends with a final thought from the artist: 

Our culture is based on the superiority of human
beings. The need to control is too big ... but I think
we still need each other.

As the video makes clear, it is people and animals that still need other. I suppose it is a sentimental thought, maybe pithy, possibly naive, but one certainly doesn't have to be receiving telepathic messages from the animal kingdom in order to sense its inherent truth. 

* Jacob Wren is a writer and maker of eccentric performances. His recent books include Unrehearsed Beauty (Coach House Books), Families Are Formed Through Copulation (Pedlar Press), Le genie des autres (Le Quartanier) and the upcoming novel Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed.