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Monsters of Nature and Design

"Monsters of Nature and Design," a performance art project headed by University at Buffalo professors Gary Nickard and Reinhardt Reitzenstein, has caused a good deal of public confusion -- and in some circles, outrage. (Read today's ArtsBeat column on the project here.)

That's owing, mostly, to the fact that the first two "Monsters" performances involved the very public ritualized smashing of pianos (see this 2008 ArtsBeat blog for more), a glimpse of which you can see in this video of the first "Monsters" performance at Babeville in 2007:

I asked Nickard for a little clarity on the issue, and he sent along an essay he wrote on the intellectual basis for the project that makes a reasoned (though practically impenetrable) analysis of the relationship between James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis. But his e-mail explaining the impetus behind "Monsters" is far more illuminating. I'll post it in its entirety after the jump. Giving it a read might just change your mind about whether Nickard's project ranks, indeed, as a piece of art. And then again it might not. 

Either way, please share your thoughts in the comment section. And if anyone was at Friday's performance, chime in!

--Colin Dabkowski

Gary Nickard:

I will give you a few ruminations that you might consider.

My roots as an artist go back to the conceptual art era of the 1970's when performance was a far more common.  It wasn't really thought of as a separate thing and was commonly integrated into artistic practice.

Both CEPA (which I ran back in the 1980's) & Hallwalls always considered performance an important element on the menu of artistic offerings and included the form from the very beginning.

For example, Cindy Sherman's photography can be thought of as a documentation of private performances, and Robert Longo has presented a number of performance works (as well as participated in a rock group). 

The LA artist Mike Kelley's practice is a perfect example of this polymorphous practice - his work is installation and performance based and he participated in the legendary rock group Destroy all Monsters. The group was formed in 1973 by University of Michigan art students Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, the painter "Niagara" and filmmaker Cary Loren. Not long after, members of two important Detroit-based groups signed on: guitarist Ron Asheton, earlier of The Stooges, and bass guitarist Michael Davis of the MC5.. Their music touched on elements of punk rock, psychedelic and noise rock with a heavy dose of performance art. 

I think that it is important to note that I came to visual art from rock music (and from literature and philosophy) so my practice remains informed by a very eclectic background and there is always far more "back story" than initially meets the eye. 

The entire monsters idea grew out of discussions I was having with Biff Henrich of the Vores. We were intrigued by the recent tours that the 1970's bands Pere Ubu and Television were doing where they presented original music as an accompaniment to and interpretation of popular films.  We thought about doing the same, but since I have always had an interest in live art, it occurred to me that instead of playing off a film, why not a performance?

I had recently concluded an intensive study of the relationship between James Joyce and his "evil twin" Wyndham Lewis. As I pointed out in the long essay I provided, Lewis was the only critic Joyce took seriously and they wrote each other into their books. I thought of the two as entwined, yin and yang, in Lewis's own words: "Monsters of Nature and Design."  Since I had been working with Reinhard Reitzenstein on collaborative installations that seemed to collide his "nature aesthetic" with my obsession with science and its history, a comparison with Joyce and Lewis in a performance seemed natural.

When I was a curator at the Alternative Museum in New York City back in the late 1980's I had the privilege to witness Raphael Montanez Ortiz do a piano destruction for a Fluxus show we presented. As a veteran of a post punk band of the late 1970's the neo-DADA roots of this piece (and of Fluxus in general) captivated me and I must have filed the memory away for future reference.  So when it came time to consider what kind of performance to enact a piano destruction immediately came to mind -- perhaps as part homage, but really more as a departure - acknowledging where we came from as artists and then moving on.  It was staged at the end of a long winter, in the waning days of the Bush administration and people were fed up in more ways than one! So it seemed to me that some form of ritual catharsis was in order. As a result we "went all medieval" on a pair of derelict pianos and released the palpable tension that was in the air - sort of like "those pianos died for your sins" and nature and design achieved a temporary balance.  In my estimation the first Monsters performance was a whopping success -- people loved it and after the action was completed, the crowd rushed down from the balcony and picked the carcasses of the pianos clean asking us to sign the detritus.


Anyway, Monsters II was an obvious outgrowth.  We pondered the question of where could we take the idea and it occurred to me to incorporate a new faculty member who also did performance work and so we came up with the "tribal" theme -- positioning the African George Hughes initially in front of and then between the two European colonial Monsters.  While the performance was still destructivist in nature, the failure of the technology was if anything totally serendipitous producing the unintended but wonderful John Cage moment of silence while the technicians fumbled with their gear (reminding me of one of the important messages of Kubrick's film "2001 A Space Odessy:" in space man loses control of his tools). What came out was the collision between ancient ritual traditions and the modern technical and for this performance in the end nature won out over design.

[ArtsBeat note: Nickard's e-mail was sent before Friday's performance]

Now we come to Monsters of Nature and Design III -- this performance will be a bit different from the other two in that it is not strictly speaking destructivist in intention or execution.  Instead, my sense of this one is that it is more about striving and being thwarted.  

Craig Smith was one of my first graduate students when I came to UB 15 years ago and he has grown into quite an interesting internationally significant artist.  Despite the fact that his work is oriented in a different direction (sports is a central theme) we understandably share certain philosophical interests and viewpoints.  He will be the lead performer on this one along with his partner Colin Beatty.  Reinhard and I will adopt the role of Monsters who will simultaneously direct and interfere with their actions.

Craig's work is based upon Relational Aesthetics, a defining strategy for a wide variety of art produced by the generation who came to prominence in Europe in the last two decades. Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term in 1995, in a text for the catalogue of the exhibition Traffic that was shown at CAPC contemporary museum, as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." Relational artworks are judged based upon the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt.

This strategy dovetails nicely with the ideas of the first two monsters performances in that we intended both of those events as cathartic spectacles designed to create a social environment in which people were encouraged to participate (e.g. when we invited the audience to collect "memntos moria" off the destroyed pianos which we then signed - designating the fragment as art). 

Thus the role of relational art is to avoid proposing imaginary and utopian realities, but instead to actually embody or reflect ways of living or models of action within the existing real, on whatever scale chosen by the artist. So rather than the artwork being an encounter between a lone viewer and an aesthetic object, relational art produces intersubjective encounters. Through these encounters, meaning unfolds as the result of collective experience, rather than in the space of individual contemplation.

Monsters of Nature and Design III will definitely be an example of that kind of art. Craig and Colin's striving to complete the task they established (of marking out a cricket pitch) will be directed by Reinhard and myself who will convey instructions in languages that neither they, nor probably anybody else in attendance speaks. To make matters more difficult for them, they will attempt to make use of some powered equipment (that in the end will only make their tasks more difficult) plus Reinhard and I will be interfering with their ability to function using various theatrical devices. All the while the band will be playing a thick metallic drone in the manner of the layered guitar symphonies of Glen Branca.

Speaking of serendipity, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery is having a major event simultaneously for the hockey draft and so our event will actually be (unintentionally) deconstructing their event - this was totally unplanned, but it couldn't have worked out better (especially since Monsters II was unintentionally staged at the AKAG during the opening of the new Burchfiled-Penney building (its sort of like unintended payback).

For more information from, Craig's end of things in this performance, you can consult the Big Orbit statement that Sean just sent out.  From my end of things, organized sport has always been a source of bemusement.  Years ago I was something of a hockey fan (though I was more oriented towards Montreal than Buffalo) but I also viewed Buffalo's obsession with sports (like much of the post-industrial rust belt) as the tragic / comic we see unfold in Vince Gallo's hilarious "Buffalo '66."  I waged a losing battle for the attention span of the public as CEPA director back in the '80's and now watch the silly on-going drama of Terrell Owens dominate the area's consciousness as a jaundiced and somewhat disinterested observer.  So I will leave it for Craig, a genuine football fanatic, and Colin, a former semi-professional baseball player to best represent sport.  Reinhard and I will be up in our Ivory Tower, yelling and interfering...

So much for intentions - we will see how this one turns out and where it might lead...

Finally, you mentioned the resurgence of performance art.  Yes, I think there is an increased interest in the practice of performance - many of my students have passionately embraced it, but remember it never really went away, it was always lurking around the margins of the art world just waiting for a chance to strike and regain the public attention span.

--Colin Dabkowski



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