in Opinion | 01 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

Public Relations

Three artists exemplify new strategies in the production, distribution and dispersal of meaning in contemporary art

in Opinion | 01 MAR 08

Pawel Althamer’s project ‘Film’ (2000–ongoing) was recently included in Tate Modern’s group exhibition ‘The World as a Stage’. The piece consisted of a 35mm film trailer, Realtime Movie (2007) – presented in cinemas across London, on Tate’s website and on YouTube – and a public event, a re-enactment of the trailer as a live performance. Both elements were shot and staged in London’s Borough Market, featuring a cast of extras and the British actor Jude Law.
The film depicts Law walking through the market and buying fish, and includes scripted, ‘everyday’ performances from the extras: a businessman talks on a mobile phone, a tourist looks at a map. The film has high production values – it looks like a ‘real’ trailer – but there is an odd collision between the slickness of the production and a wildly romantic, poetic voice-over, read by Law: ‘I was surrounded by a cloud of flames, but soon I realized that the fire burned within me […] experiencing illumination beyond description.’

The trailer is a fiction for a film that doesn’t exist. It serves as both an advertisement and a template for the viewer’s subsequent experience of the live event. The trailer directs the audience to Borough Market at a specified time and date with the strap-line ‘Come. See. Experience’, and it uses the conventions of cinema – particularly the star persona of Law – to signal to the audience that they are participating in a film scenario. Following Althamer’s intentions, this recognition of the filmic scene creates a doubling-reality effect for the audience, entailing a shift in perception, an opening-up to their surroundings, perhaps even encouraging the epiphany suggested by the trailer’s voice-over.

The event itself, following the more material desires of the audience, became, however, entirely focused on the spectacle of Law. And as is the nature of celebrity and performance – often, up close, a case of expectation disappointed by bad timing – it was simultaneously exciting and banal. The scene bordered on chaos as Law, tracked by a film crew and chaperoned by bodyguards, struggled to walk through a crowd clicking mobile phone cameras. The event certainly entailed a doubling of reality, but one more in tune with the paparazzi scenes that are quite often stumbled across in central London these days. As a coalescing of public access, behavioural social experiment, iconic fetishism (that’s Law), marketing strategy and cultural investment in London in 2007, it was terrific and complex.

What interests me most about this work is how, as an audience, you encounter it. What is the intended, or ideal, context for viewing or experiencing it? Watching YouTube on a computer at home? Standing in the street waiting for Law to turn up? Being told of its production as an anecdotal narrative? ‘Film’ works in terms of an idea of the dispersal of the art work – not its dematerialization – through various formats and media. This constant shifting of registers relates very directly to an idea of public and private experience, inner and outer space, spiritual and material consciousness, and to a collapsing of social relations and contexts, which I think Althamer is ultimately interested in. It is also obviously pertinent in terms of production and spectacle: it’s a fairy tale of sorts about the desires of the institution and the conditions of possibility for the artist – ideas, then, of publicness and public relations bound together.

Another take on the shifting nature of public art is outlined in Seth Price’s essay ‘Dispersion’ (2001–2), which is freely available to download from his website. The piece is a succinctly idiosyncratic assessment of distributed media, art production and the socio-economic forces shaping everything from the status of objects to the position of the audience. What I am interested in here is a point that Price articulates about the conventions of public art works and the changing nature of an idea of the public. He writes: ‘We should recognize that collective experience is now based on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture, knit[ted] together by ongoing debate, publicity, promotion and discussion. Publicness today has as much to do with sites of production and reproduction as it does with any supposed physical commons [sic], so a popular album could be regarded as a more successful instance of public art than a monument tucked away in an urban plaza.’ So it follows that using the available networks of free market capitalism allows for an art work to be distributed to the broadest possible public. And, by turn, not only is the most public art work ultimately to be downloaded and experienced privately at home, but the meaning of that work also resides in multiple sites of mediated ‘critique, publicity and discussion’.

Although I didn’t attend Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, which was staged last November, I have followed the evolution of the piece on the website of the producer, Creative Time, and through editorial coverage. From looking at the website, it seems they and Chan had everything covered, from employing the Classical Theatre of Harlem to staging myriad community outreach projects in New Orleans itself; there is also a film in production and a reader due for publication. Of course, not having participated in the communal experience of the dramatic production, I can’t comment on its quality or the atmosphere of local community. If it had been a bad production, it wouldn’t have carried the piece, yet I’m not sure that the quality of the theatre or the ethical positioning is what’s so important here. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans is a very clear gesture in terms of artistic strategy and site-specificity, as Chan points out in his artist’s statement, in the vein of Susan Sontag’s staging of Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo (1993). The ‘success’ of the art work is in Chan and Creative Time’s consummate staging of a gesture of association. The recent history of New Orleans combined with the work of Beckett – the site of politics and universal themes of existential Absurdism – are extremely potent, while Waiting for Godot, the 1953 play itself, of course, remains the same.

Chan is acutely aware of contemporary structures for the creation of, and strategies for the distribution of, meaning, not least in the extremely evocative photographic documentation or his own written statements. The ultimate siting of this work is not in witnessing the production in New Orleans but in its evocative re-telling. Chan’s artistic gesture resides in his manipulation of myth. And as such, it is an astute exploration of public and power relations.