In the 1980s, it was common to speak positively about ‘bad painting’. The term was first coined in 1978 by New Museum director Marcia Tucker and later embraced by Albert Oehlen and others who made discourses of quality or rightness visible on canvas, or else instantiated through paint the disappearance of exclusionary aesthetic judgement after decades of Avant-garde prescriptivism. Could we today speak about bad performance or bad installations in a similarly approving way? Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, brought to the American Pavilion of the 2011 Venice Biennale an exhibition that met with a strong critical backlash in some quarters (‘angry, sophomoric Conceptualism that borders on the tyrannical’, as Roberta Smith of the New York Times had it), but it was so openly two-dimensional that you had to start thinking it was intentional. The show featured an ATM hooked up to a church organ (Algorithm, 2011): the equation of money and the divine is surely too straightforward? In front of the pavilion was an upturned tank with a working treadmill on top (Track and Field, 2011): the equivalence of warfare and athletics is so basic that the ploddingness of the equation must be the point?
For their recent exhibition in New York, ‘Fault Lines’, the pair filled the gallery with ten massive two-step risers made from a variety of metamorphic and igneous rocks. Throughout the day, pairs of boy sopranos would use the steps in a performance of a 10-minute duet, written by the composer Guarionex Morales-Matos, the lyrics of which consisted entirely of insults. ‘Talking to you makes me think that man’s descent from the apes hasn’t even started yet!’ one treble sang. ‘You must be the reason for contraception!’ trilled the other. The singers were on the cusp of puberty, their voices approaching a breaking point just like the geographical fault lines from which the stones are said to come (according to the press release) – and, hey presto, insults are fault lines too! Surely the obviousness is the beginning and not the end of the matter? Surely?
This is not the first time Allora & Calzadilla have turned to music. In a 2008 work entitled Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on ‘Ode to Joy’ for a Prepared Piano, the duo placed a grand piano punctured by a gaping hole in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and hired performers to step into the gap and play Beethoven from inside the instrument. The hole eliminated two entire octaves from the piano, and the performers had to play the bass notes with their right hand and treble with their left, generating mistake-filled ‘variations’ on Ode to Joy (1823), the anthem of the European Union. Fault Lines, like that earlier work, used music not as its own end, but only as a means to enact a collision between two elements in the most crushingly evident way. It is as if the artists read Jasper Johns’s dictum to ‘take an object, do something to it, do something else to it,’ but then resolved always to stop halfway. Artists who seek to create a ‘good’ performance might see in music a way to subordinate their own totalizing scenarios to chance, or a terrain to explore the possibilities of difference in repetition, or an opportunity to play the force of classical virtuosity against a deskilled art system.Allora & Calzadilla’s performances, by contrast, recognized that music – sung by adorable children – is primarily a seduction, creating light entertainment whose obviousness and emptiness is precisely the point.
There is one critical difference between Allora & Calzadilla’s ‘bad’ performance and, say, the bad painting of someone like Oehlen, who quite publicly discussed his ambitions to paint badly. Allora & Calzadilla, on the other hand, have played it straight, speaking about the shallow surface of Fault Lines as if it were profound. (‘When we found the word “fault lines”, it was a moment when we could link geology with speaking,’ Calzadilla told the Wall Street Journal in September.) It would be safer for the artists to explain ahead of time what they were playing at, but we must assume that their silence about strategically embracing badness is a deviously cunning part of their artistic conceit, a means to incorporate the flatness of art discourse within their intentionally flat exhibition. We really must.