Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"To Whom it May Concern"

The Ambiguous Correlation of the Artist and the Spectator

The Chair: Private and the Public, Spectators entering to the performance space facing to the scopofillic "self" enlarged on the LCD Projection encountering a question "What are you looking at?

Ahmadabad based artist Jinal Patel recently developed a community based art initiative "Seeds" during the artists residency by Gram Art, at Paradsinga Village in MP.  The artist asked the village children to collect some seeds and give it to the artist. The artist generated a workshop of toy-making out of the seeds. In the residency program during 10 to 20 June 2014, children made toys and dolls in animals and other natural forms covering the seeds with cow dung and mud. Notably that covering increased the life or vitality of the seeds for longer time. On a particular day all the children went to a field and threw the seeds up randomly with a possibility leaving out there: of sprouting, uprising and being full-grown trees someday somehow.

More than the life, earth and seeds, the project was also about randomness, speculations and possibilities. "It is very interesting to me", Jinal Said, "to see how the forest is developed- by itself, without plantation: without plan, without care". The randomness of the natural forests insisted the artist to think about the project in one hand, and on the other a concern around the village-children of the upcoming generation who were seemingly tend to get away from the cultural, social and ecological roots inspired her to develop the project with seeds. 

The throwing of the toys (or the seed-balls so to speak) randomly brought greater significance in multiple ways. Those seed-toys were expected to grow up in the future- sometime, somewhere, somehow. This also addressed a critical dialogue around spectatorship or the act of perceiving an art work: where the artist or performer performs an art work for some imaginary spectator amongst the crowd expecting the communication to grow:  sometime, somewhere, somehow.

Jinal Patel

The relation between the art and the spectator lies upon some such kind of randomness. Nobody ever could claim with conviction for whom a painter paints or for whom a sculptor sculpts.  Nor exactly for whom a singer even sings. Amongst thousands of audiences there might be some special one for whom the art is crafted. In some cases one can say that an artist works for its patrons or connoisseurs. Michelangelo created the Sistine Chapel ceiling, between 1508 and 1512, under the commission of Pope Julius II. Was it only Pope Julious II for whom it was addressed? Then there are names like Vincent Van Gogh who could not manage to sale art works across the life time. Thus, was he addressing someone to reach out after his death? Well, it sounds weird. Again, contrarily, some examples could be cited like "Waiting For Godot" of Samuel Becket or works of Marcel Duchamp for their immediate public responses.

There are controversies around the national anthem of India "Jana Gana Mana" which was first sung in Calcutta Session of the Indian National Congress on 27 December 1911. It was officially adopted by the Constituent Assembly as the Indian national anthem on 24 January 1950. King George V was scheduled to arrive in the city on 30 December and a section of the Anglo-Indian English press in Calcutta reported that Tagore's anthem was a homage to the emperor. So even today some people in social networking sites try to raise the issue saying how could it be a national anthem which was written to praise the colonizers. But over the period of time of acceptance the address in the anthem has been established differently: to whom it may concern.

It is a difficult task to categorize the songs of Rabindranath Tagore under the categories like devotional songs, Love songs, Nature songs etc. In most of the songs the presence of "you" is highly indefinite. In the same piece of creation, according to one reading the "you" could be assumed as a human being with flesh and blood, whereas in another reading the same "you" could be something beyond grasp: having some metaphysical connections. The same could be stated for the Sufi lyrical poems. They appear as a love poem along with mundane descriptions of the beloved, but the beloved might be something undefined in its concealed essence. The Sufi poets often deliberately leave it open for interpretations where the "you" could be read as a beloved of opposite gender, the Guru or the master of certain discipline, or the supreme omnipotent.       

And there was Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator" appearing as a barber accidentally turned to the man of great power. Towards the end of the film, standing at the podium in front of thousands of people the barber Chaplin was addressing: "Hannah, can you hear me?" Now, to whom was he actually addressing?

Saying "To those who can hear me, I say", the barber Chaplin said, "do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish". In the long speech Chaplin looked to the camera, with a gaze that seizes the audience. It was a rare evidence in Chaplin movies of such a tight close up constantly gazing back at the audience for a prolonged duration. His eyes were thoughtful, and at times it seemed he was talking to the 'self' rather speaking to 'others'. It was only then - when he addressed the soldiers he moved his eyes and the position of head, and also changed his expression. Gradually he got excited and said, "let us all unite" - there was an applause amongst the huge crowd in front of him. It was a time when he looked upward, pointing to some emptiness to address Hannah. Then there was an insert of Hannah, a woman lying on ground, trying to listen something in the air.

"Hannah, can you hear me" it was his voice, "wherever you are?" His vague look and the assumption associated with the dialogue "wherever you are" were complementary.

"The clouds are lifting, the sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world ...Look up Hannah, the soul of man has been given wings. He is flying into the rainbow, into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me and to all of us".
When he addresses Hannah, was it Hannah - an individual from some corner on earth? Or was it the audience of the film, spectator of the art? Was not it for "all the men", " to you, to me and to all of us"?

There was a bit of ambiguity for Hannah may not hear his voice. There was possibilities that his voice may fade out before it reaches his target - Hannah. Then at the end of this glorious speech, at some other location where Hannah was lying on the ground, it was on the air, " look up Hannah, look up!" Somebody asks, "Hannah, did you hear this?" Hannah stops him and says, "Listen...".

Can this ambiguity also symbolize the doubts of the entire creative community? 
In the same context of randomness, ambiguity and uncertainty here is another touching evidence from Diderot's "Letter to Sophie Volland", written in June 10, 1759, quoted by Jacques Derrida in "Memoirs of the Blind, The Self Portrait and Other Ruins".
“I write without seeing. I came. I wanted to kiss your hand…this is the first time I have ever written in dark……not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.” Here is a tender appeal to someone, with a sense of self doubt regarding the ability of making an expression. This unpredictability, might not be for the receiver but towards the mode of communication of course. Whatever skill one might have acquired in any field in the arts of expression, while making the expression certain amount of doubt always remains out there.

Bottle throwing with a message

It is a common tendency for all kind of arts to reach out to its target audience, either physically or conceptually. Every dialogue needs two sides of participants.

While talking of the randomness of the 'target audience', we can remember the tradition of putting message into bottles and throwing them into the sea. The first recorded messages in bottles were released around 310 BC by the Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus. It is said that Christopher Columbus on his return to Spain after his first voyage to the New World was caught ino a severe storm. Columbus threw a report of his discovery along with a note asking it to be passed on to the Queen of Castile, in a sealed container into the sea, hoping the news would make it back even if he did not survive. Columbus survived and the sealed report was never found, or at least, its discovery never reported. And there are many evidences like this. On June 10, 1914, a scientist from the Glasgow (Scotland) School of Navigation cast 1,890 bottles into the ocean to test undercurrents in the seas around Scotland. One of those bottles was recovered in 2012, and was confirmed by Guinness World Records to be the oldest message in a bottle ever found. It was a 98 years old message.

In a story published in 'The Guardian' it is said, the world's oldest message in a bottle is now exhibiting it in Germany. "It was very surprising," Erdmann, said, recalling how she found out about the bottle. "A man stood in front of my door and told me he had a post from my grandfather. He then told me that a message in a bottle was found and the name that was on the card was that of my grandfather." Her visitor was a genealogical researcher who had managed to track her down in Berlin after the letter was given to the International Maritime Museum in the northern port city of Hamburg. The brown beer bottle, which had been in the water for 101 years, was found in the catch of Konrad Fischer, a fisherman, who had been out in the Baltic Sea off the northern city of Kiel last month. Holger von Neuhoff, curator for ocean and science at the museum said this bottled message was the oldest he had come across.

Yoko Ono allowing the spectator to intervene

As philosopher Gadamer stated, “Artistic presentation by its nature exists for someone, even if there is no one there who merely listens or watches”. However, regardless of being one of the prime aspects in all sorts of creative expressions, from visual arts to writings to theatre or cinema, the correlation of the artist and the spectator remained overlooked  in most of the discussions across the history of art. Whenever we talk about a painting we talk about the artist. We do not talk about the spectator who was or is seeing it. We are mostly known to the processes of making, but we have never known to the processes of receiving.

Because spectator is a troublesome agent everywhere. If we search for the spectator as a social agent against the artist then the whole thing shifts from a perceptual or philosophical or spectatorial field to a sociological one, because, the spectator is not a mere individual but a group of people, a society, and beholder of some similar kind of acceptance or taste.  At the same time one cannot avoid the need of a conceptual speculation since the act of perceiving is an individual act and the quandary of the performer-spectator relationship contains some psychological dimensions as well.

In the recent developments in theoretical studies there is a growing interest in looking things regarding the spatial location of the spectator. Art historians like Donald Preziosi has explained clearly how across the history we have been talking about the artists, performers, authors or the creators and keeping the other side, the spectators totally ignored. Not only in theoretical enquiries but in practice as well the artists of all kind have been searching for the best possible way out for a convenient 'correlation'. The emergence of Installation art could be cited as an outcome of such inclination. The 'fountain' by Marcel Duchamp where he placed a porcelain urinal with a signature in the name of an art work was a breakthrough in the Gallery based art practices. Why should an art work remain stuck, being framed and hanged on a flat wall? So the art work started coming out of the frames and raised pedestals. They turned more space oriented and gradually they tend to become interactive.

Today artists are more interested into performances, durational arts, community expressions, new media interactions and other interactive experiences. Performance artists started claiming its originality by using of 'real blood', 'real semen' and 'real time' experiences. In the emerging young artists also there is a tendency for rejection of representational arts. They started believing in direct communication and the live-ness of art practice. The new media artists started exploring the contemporary developments in technology to grasp the communication of the new age. There are more and more public art projects where artists try to re-define the public through their practices. They want to reside the art work amongst the public physically, spatially and also durationally. 

In certain clever way, one can see it, the artists today are not patient enough to wait for a spectator lying in remote uncertainty. Instead, they try to hold the hands of spectator literally. For the sake of a direct communication an artist today do not hesitate to behave like a social activist or play a role like a journalist or anything like that. The conceptual art, thus, even freed the art from materiality. They are no more interested in thing-art, if a content through certain experience could offer better communication. Today an artist allows his or her own body to be scribbled by the spectator, and by the process a changeover from spectator to artist and artist to spectator is being celebrated. Well, literally the means of communication endorsed, the artist reached out to the spectator on its given time and space. But a paradox lingered right in the core of it with what I would like to conclude my discussion.    

As the spectator as an individual entity is privileged in a contemporary practices, the interpretation and re-interpretation of a certain art practice are multiplied even more than the previous conventional or traditional practices. Gradually there is a growing community of spectators who are matured that ever before, who stopped asking, "what the artist tried to mean?" Now many people stopped asking, "what is the meaning of this painting", standing in front of an art work. Because people are progressively learned the fact that- it is the spectator who adds a meaning to it. It is the spectator who completes the artist. 

Each and every work of art tries to define its own spectator in certain ways. As every artist tries to define the conceptual location of a  spectator differently, it is also notable that the same artist also tries to do the same in different art attempts. On the other side of it, it is the spectator's position that embodies the interpretation of an art work. The position of the spectator is constantly variable, and hence the meaning of art is constantly variable too.

As a result, at the end of the day, even after so many attempts taken to reach out to the targeted spectator in its literal sense, the artistic expression still lies in ambiguities regarding the conceptual location of the spectator. It is still like writing in dark, without even knowing "whether it is forming any letter or not". It is like the thrown seeds to the field with just a random expectation of growing some trees sometime, somewhere, somehow. It is still like the message in a bottle throwing to the ocean, for someone asking "wherever you are", and addressing: for whom it may concern... 

Samudra Kajal Saikia
A-31, 3rd Floor, Gali No. 10
West Vinod Nagar, Patparganj, New Delhi

email: kankhowa@gmail.com

mobile: +91- 9811375594

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