May 6, 2013–ongoing
The disillusionment and sheer creative chutzpah of the Nixon era are conjured in the typescript facsimile pages that make up the catalog for the 1970 show Art in the Mind, which was held at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. It was a time of social division, systemic change, and raw anger perhaps not unlike the present moment in America, and the show of conceptual art that the young Oberlin College sculptor Athena Spear (later Athena Tacha) assembled then captured an intriguing chunk of the zeitgeist. Conceived as a text-only exhibit, it included proposals and notions by some of the era’s brightest conceptualist-oriented lights, including Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Jonathan Borofsky, Luis Camnitzer, Joseph Kosuth, Les Levine, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg, Adrian Piper, William Wegman, Hannah Weiner, and many others—sixty-five altogether. It’s a remarkable thought experiment in itself to imagine their letters and telegrams, detailing impossible fantasy projects and whimsical aesthetic exercises as they clunked across the nation in that pre-internet epoch, courtesy of the newly independent US Postal Service, or via Western Union. It was the same spring that another soon-to-be influential artist of the period, Robert Smithson, paid a visit to the nearby Kent State University campus, about an hour’s drive to the east in northern Ohio. While there, Smithson rented a backhoe and labored with Kent State University sculpture students to create his Partially Buried Woodshed (1970). After the National Guard fired on student protestors, killing four of them on May 4, 1970, someone painted the date over the collapsing building’s broken lintel. Hidden behind bushes, the work survived for decades and became an unofficial memorial to the tragedy.
Early this year, Oberlin College associate professor Nanette Yannuzzi and UMass Boston associate professor Ann Torke became aware of the neglected trove of Art in the Mind while doing research at Oberlin’s library. As it happened, in the fall of 2012 Cleveland SPACES Gallery then-executive director Christopher Lynn had approached Yannuzzi, inviting her to propose a project for this year’s exhibition celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Cleveland Performance Art Festival. A reprise of Art in the Mind seemed like a natural choice for this occasion, and together she and Torke set to work to revisit and reinvent Tacha’s landmark experimental show, approaching several of the original participants and a broad sampling of contemporary artists and writers. By summer there were sixty exhibitors for enact who were asked to think about ways that early conceptual art had influenced them. The resulting ideas, images, digital clips, and sound performances were included in a website of the same name.1
Both the original catalog and enact’s site start off with a flourish, presenting contributions by Acconci. His 2012 digital film animation When Buildings Melt into Air and the Air Re-forms into Buildings (2 min. 43 sec.) is a mesmerizing exploration of time and dissolution, memory, and recurrence. His camera circles the various buildings around the Piazza del Duomo in Milan, Italy, dissolving one building at a time into screens of larger and larger pixels. The images proceed from straightforward views through lavish, Monet-like phases into sheer abstraction, then reverse and reconstruct the scene. The unashamed visual beauty and aesthetic balance of this piece contrast with Acconci’s two twisted, slightly humorous 1970 typescript proposals, which are sportive explorations of personal manipulation and surveillance. The first of these instructs students from New York’s School of Visual Arts to finagle a mention of their names in his friend John Perreault’s Village Voice column. Acconci outlines various strategies for analyzing the dynamics of New York City’s art-critical milieu and suggests that “each student can have the intermediate goal of winning my favoritism.” The second outlines a plan to clandestinely shoot color photographs of the entrance to one of the buildings that houses Oberlin’s administrative offices. This was to take place every hour for twenty-six days, after which the photos were to be labeled and sent to him in New York. Then as now, such performatively paranoid projects no doubt rang a little too true to seem actually crazy.
The philosopher and artist Piper, noted already in 1970 for her Catalysis series and other overtly transgressive performances in which she questioned the shadowy boundaries of identity, gender, and race, was also included in both exhibits. Her 1970 mailing to Tacha seems like a kind of bow to the inherent infinity of subjective experience. Titled context #6 (elicited), it read: “I am collecting information,” then asked the recipient to “write, draw, or otherwise indicate any information suggested by the above statement.” Several blank pages were attached. Piper continued this same broadly categorical approach into the present for enact, in her Nothing to Lose #2, a “personal declaration” certifying that she will always do (“absent uncontrollable acts of God”) what she says she will do. Here, four decades later, Piper presents the self as an inflexible frontier between action and intention.
Baldessari, the West Coast’s grand master of the conceptual use of photography and, with LeWitt and Kosuth, one of the godparents of conceptualism, also has a puckish side. In 1970 he sent a to-do list of capricious questions and proposals, which he posed to pioneering electronic art musician (and one-time Oberlin Conservatory of Music professor) Pauline Oliveros. Called Fifteen Musical Projects. An Exchange with Pauline Oliveros, his koan-like thought problems and performance strategies remain intriguing more than forty years later. Number 2 on the list reads, “One hundred people say UMBRELLA.” Number 6 suggests, “Musicians dress like various birds, use assorted bird whistles, sit in trees. An outdoor composition.”
Several of the artists taking part in enact have fun performing or rethinking Baldessari’s ideas, especially “UMBRELLA.” Film and video artist Nancy Andrews’s piece Umbrella, Re-enacting #2 of John Baldessari’s 15 Musical Projects (1 min. 20 sec.) presents a recording of the w rd, alternately spoken by one hundred people in unison or as single voices, generating a sound map that spans the screen, evoking something akin to the Manhattan skyline. New York performance artist Clarinda Mac Low layers recordings of the word into a montage that meditates on dimensionality and presence, while interdisciplinary Boston artist Jen Barrows makes a compilation of pronunciations by men and women culled from online dictionaries—a sort of one-word script. But for sheer quiddity measuring up to the original, the prize in this category should go to California’s Melissa Smedley, who performs her Enact an Act mainly in front of a tall chicken coop, initially with a basket of eggs on her head. Smedley briefly addresses “UMBRELLA,” extending a long bungee-type band between her outstretched hands, using her head as the apex of a schematic umbrella shape while a voiceover repeats the word. But better yet is her deadpan version of Baldessari’s number 6. Smedley’s arboreal musicians are eggshells, cracked in half and inscribed with little bird faces, hanging from the branches of a bush. She does well, too, with Les Levine’s proposals. In 1970, Levine imagined machines that he dubbed Fecaloids, which would chew up objects like manuscripts or credit cards, and spit them out as “art” in the color of the viewer’s choice. Smedley masticates the pages of Art in the Mind, afterwards molding them into lumpy shapes and floating them as the hulls of little toy ships. Close-up shots of her chewing also reference Levine’s 1970 film Topesthesia ( 20 m in.) focusing on the mechanical functioning of mouth, eyes, and hands.
In keeping with the often ambitious absurdism of classic conceptualism, the environment of Oberlin itself is the subject of RISD animation artist Lorelei Pepi’s Mount Oberlins, Apology (2013), in which the artist conceives a scheme to make a hollow cast of Montana’s Mount Oberlin and move it to Ohio. Following a somewhat convoluted chain of reasoning, we learn that Pepi intends to generate methane from the (quite tall) Lorain County Landfill, which is to be trapped under the cast, and to mandate continuous apologies to the earth from Oberlin residents. In her introduction to 1970’s Art in the Mind catalog, Tacha attributes the idea that an exhibit of conceptual art is best presented in catalog form to New York gallerist and early conceptual art promoter Seth Siegelaub, whose 1968 Xerox Book was one model for the Oberlin catalog/show: “The interested spectator is not given the best chance to absorb new complex thoughts by standing in front of a wall covered with endless typed or hand-scribbled pages; and the space of art museums and galleries is wasted when filled with documents.”2 Tacha’s argument rests on the fact that the range of conceptual art is a mismatch for a gallery environment, where, at best, the kind of big, ambiguous, and time-consuming ideas typical of conceptualism can only be sampled. Yannuzzi and Torke’s excellent online exhibition makes the point that the practice of conceptualism is thriving and, at least in this instance, is far more gender-balanced (as the now venerable Guerrilla Girls point out in their contribution to the new show, sixty-four percent of the artists here are women, as opposed to six percent in 1970—but the Guerrilla Girls also ask us to count the women artists on today’s museum walls); and further, that the broad capabilities of today’s technology are unbeatable in this context. A well-made website composed of high quality digital works is the best “book” yet for the exposition of conceptual art, with the advantages of sound, a cinematic sense of time and space, and the infinities of hyperlinking.
Douglas Max Utter is a painter and arts writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.