By Rudolf Frieling
What is a visitor when he is not a visitor anymore? What are readers when they don‘t read? A wall of sentences in golden letters by Dora García simply states: “Una buena pregunta debeevitar a toda costa una respuesta “(2002) – a good question should avoid an answer at all costs.
Ever since Luigi Pirandello had six characters searching for an author on stage, the self-conscious act of showing and telling has been a continuous presence on the larger “stage” of modernity. A generation later, Bertolt Brecht’s didactic dramatic plays helped tear down the fourth wall. Today this theatrical tradition is being reviewed by a contemporary generation of artists. Spanish artist Dora García is one of them. After all, she gave one of the side characters of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera”, beggar apprentice Filch, a big stage at Münster’s “Sculpture Projects” in 2007. But where is Filch now? Or, as she phrases this question: “Where do characters go when the story is over?” . In a more recent video performance, actors playing Charles Filch, William Holden, and Lenny Bruce met to debate this question that has no answer; which is exactly how she frames her unscripted art of dialogue with people, places, genres, and the audience.
García’s hybrid practice between art, literature, theater, and television has produced a body of work that is unique and prolific. An avid reader and huge fan of James Joyce [an obsession we share], her references and direct artistic influences include Abbie Hoffman’s 1970 “Steal this Book”, Lenny Bruce’s legendary stand up comedy, Erving Goffman‘s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, Franco Vaccari‘s pioneering work in participatory art and Franco Battaglia‘s seminal work in anti-psychiatry. These criss-crossing interests converge in her focus on the politics and the ambiguities of the place of art, a durational action on a real or virtual stage, often played by actors, that interrupt, question, or upset existing contexts.
An early example is her 2003 project “The Kingdom”, “a novel for a museum” (MACBA, Barcelona) in which the reality of all events in and around the museum was only tentatively verified by their insertion into an ongoing online diary: “The Kingdom‘s basic purpose is to disinform. The Kingdom relinquishes the spectator‘s education in favor of his/her perplexity. The Kingdom does not want to enrich the spectator‘s perception of the world, or his/her perception of him/herself: it questions them.”
Setting herself apart from the charged traditions of 1970s performances, her “inserts in real time” have shaped García’s hybrid performative approach for more than a decade. At the Venice Biennial in 2011, her four-month-long performance project and exhibition “The Inadequate” provided a big platform in the central gallery which was used by various performers and guest speakers. The fringe of the platform was occupied by an inconspicuous writer as ‘performer,’ continuously posting updates and opinions that were projected in an adjacent gallery in real time. The work, entitled “Instant Narrative”, began in 2006 and constitutes one of her key exhibitions. It was later shown at SFMOMA as part of the “Descriptive Acts” exhibition in 2012. The observation not via a surveillance camera but a writer who is physically present and is easily mistaken for a staff member, generates a cybernetic feedback situation. The ‘artwork,’ traditionally the object being looked at, turns the gaze around and looks back at itself. Not only that, it also acts in response. “It” being a performer/writer and the white projection screen of continuous narrative. Gallery visitors either become characters in a narrative or not, sometimes being neglected in favor of other events happening at the same time. Visitors cannot be sure that they’ll be “seen.” To project their presence onto the writer, some start to act while others flee the scene and lurk outside the vision of the performer. Then there are those who reflect and respond in writing: “I want to disrupt the writer’s control of the room. As people flow in and out of the space, I remain stubbornly present and still, continuing to scribble things down into my notebook. If I stand still, she can’t write about me. Or perhaps this will give her license to look even closer at me. [Footnote: Tess Thackara account of her experience, published on Open Space, SFMOMA’s blog http://blog.sfmoma.org/2012/02/descriptive-acts-part-one/]
Much closer in spirit to the restraints of a Samuel Beckett text than to the idiosyncrasies of associative, creative expression, García’s insistence on factual observation produces a body of collective writing in which style and content become a function of the gallery events or non-events. Imagine you’d spell out loud all those observations about people that occur in your mind when walking through a busy gallery. But what happens when we’re alone and no one else is around? What emerges when a Cagean silence is not only listened to, but actually described in real time?
Beyond the body-centered performances of the 1970s and the conceptual gestures of relational aesthetics, I find in García’s works a structured activity, an ‘open situation’ (as Tino Sehgal would define it), a participation of a whole community, and a text generator – these elements combined make it a contemporary investigation into modes of performing art. I’m interested in this kind of questioning in its specific challenge to a collecting institution. What does a museum do when an open instruction constitutes the art work, however each time it’s acted out, it produces and generates an endless stream of effects, experiences and timebased narratives that materialize in text form? In García’s practice, these texts often leave the museum and circulate as books. They become part of her Joycean project of describing the world in collaboration with the audience. She signed my copy of her book All the Stories (2011), wishing me “a lot of pleasure and endless reading.”
This piece is selected from SFAQ Issue 13.