BY Anna Gritz in Features | 19 FEB 14
Featured in
Issue 13

Testing Ground

Inhabiting the roles of collaborator and critic, Gerry Bibby’s performative projects shine a light on the hidden workings of institutional settings

BY Anna Gritz in Features | 19 FEB 14

5 Stages Liberation Project, 2nd Season, 2011, Performance documentation, Studiolo, Zurich, Courtesy for all images: the artist and Silberkuppe, Berlin

If Gerry Bibby’s art were theatre, its location would be backstage: the place of rehearsals and warm ups, of props, sets, and repurpos­able objects. Conspicuously confusing the site of production with the place of performance, the Berlin-based artist’s practice is indebted to the tradition of Institutional Critique; to a generation of artists like Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and, later, Andrea Fraser. Exploring the institutional infrastructure as a site for artistic production, Bibby’s definition of the contemporary institution expands on that of his predecessors. He includes the ideological framework and linguistic prerequisites that enable institutional work but also highlights the social networks that supply and fuel it. His tenor towards the institution is more ambiguous and less antagonistic, undulating not only between the roles of collaborator and critic, but also between associate artist, tenant and hired hand.

Bibby’s latest work is a two-year project commissioned by the Amsterdam-based performance platform If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution in 2013. This work will culminate in a publication collecting Bibby’s existing writing as well as new fiction and poems. During the course of the project so far – the latest installment of which is a two-person show with Juliette Blightman at Kunsthaus Bregenz – Bibby has collaborated with institutions such as the Lyon Biennale and Frieze Projects to produce new work. These works function as stand alone pieces as well as providing material towards the future publication.

Throughout the project Bibby has provisionally adopted the role of the roadie, the stagehand or behind the scenes helper. As a usually unseen fixture in institutional production the guise of the stagehand allows him immediate access to the internal workings of the backstage. Bibby has toured with other performances produced by If I Can’t Dance such as a restaging of Guy de Cointet’s play Five Sisters (1982) and worked on events that he was himself invited to participate in such as the seminar Appropriation and Dedication which took place in January 2013 at the Goethe Institut in Amsterdam. For this seminar – exploring the relations between affect and appropriation in artistic practice, Bibby devised the work Roadie (Voice throwing) (2013). His participation consisted in organizing the logistics of the event: setting up the stage and the audience seating, laying the cables, micing up the speakers, sound checking and providing the otherparticipants with water. The work of the stagehand is paired here with an audio piece that he mixed from the sound desk through the existing PA system in the seminar room, which was comprised of voice recordings describing the space based on images of it from the 19th century.

Gerry Bibby, I am a receptable for your extremities, 2013, Installation view, Frieze Art Fair, London

Another chapter was his project for the annual Frieze Art Fair in London in 2013. The commission was welcomed by Bibby as Frieze London was familiar to him from annual stints working at the fair in the first years after he relocated to Europe from his native Australia in 2005. On one of these jobs, while digging holes in Regent’s Park, the location of the fair, he came across clusters of oyster shells. Bibby was told by the architect in charge that such a cache is common in the UK as oysters used to be considered affordable nutrition and made up large parts of the working class diet in the 19th century. Struck by this anecdote and by the oyster as an unlikely symbol of British class struggle, Bibby decided he would feed oysters to the workforce that builds the temporary art fair tent.

The piece, I am a receptacle for your extremities (2013), saw Bibby, accompanied by a professional oyster shucker from a high-end London restaurant, walk around the under construction fair site handing out oysters to the workers. Afterwards he collected the shells and dipped them in a coloured latex mixture to keep them as a visible remnant of the performance. Relegated to the outside of the tent because of the smell, in the end the small heap of shells was only seen by those with an inquisitive eye looking from one of the windows onto the park. The oyster as the epitome of decadence gains significance here. Not just because of its curious role in British social history, but also as a metaphor of the artist as an institutional critic and faultfinder: planted like a grain of sand that is then smoothed over by the institutional process, the pearlmut around the intruder, the result is an aesthetic product ready for display and consumption. It is telling that the result of his piece was ultimately banned from the tent, deemed unsuitable to mingle with the luxurious dealings inside the fair. Now that the fair is over, the remnant shells will be set in cement and incorporated into fundaments for park benches.

Gerry Bibby, I am a receptable for your extremities, 2013, Installation view and performance documentation, Frieze Art Fair, London

The only visible remnant of his project inside the fair proper was a cheap couch positioned in its midst, serving as a place to crash for weary visitors and the busy production assistant – a role Bibby took on during the fair itself. The couch was surrounded by equipment boxes that had been the containers of the oyster shells. A4 sheets with textual fragments partially migrated from earlier works were taped to the outside of the boxes.

Bibby’s fascination with both furniture and language brings to mind John Latham’s term ‘mental furniture’. Though coined by Latham to discuss his dissatisfaction with the language of institutionalized education, the term carries the idea that furniture can hold an untapped potential beyond its use in support of daily life – imagining furniture as coagulated linguistic energy that shapes and supports our intellectual meanderings. Latham’s involvement in the Artist Placement Group (APG) and their strategy of placing artistic practice in the industrial workplace is also relevant, reminiscent of Bibby’s work as a stagehand or as the tenant of an institution, such as in the collaboration with Sean McNanney Their Time In The Oval Office (Remains) (2009) at the Kunsthalle Baden Baden. Latham resonates further because of his preoccupation with the book form and his insistence that the written page, as a vessel of petrified knowledge, has to be physically disassembled to become accessible: ‘rendering them unreadable in order for them to be encountered fully in the moment as events rather than objects.’1 This calls to mind Bibby’s ‘notes to the players’, his strategy of writing stage directions for his performers. For Bibby this is a way of stripping objects and places of their habitual meaning to dress them up in what he calls ‘language costumes’ – a way of reimagining them in unaccustomed ways.

Gerry Bibby, The Drum Head: The Counterfeiters, 2013, Installation view, 12th Lyon Biennale

In 5 Stages Liberation Project (2010), a piece Bibby first performed at The Artist’s Institute in New York (and which travelled in an adapted form to Studiolo in Zurich), he identified the main table in the exhibition space as the fixture and keeper of institutional authority and therefore the object to address: ‘Action: The aim is to liberate a vital structural component of this location and in doing, endow this ‘new’ object with a symbolic value – allow it to achieve a use value not predicated by those aforementioned functions.’2

With a nod to Catherine Deneuve’s character in Luis Buñuel’s 1970 film Tristana, Bibby amputated one of the table legs, leaving the table precarious and unstable. This was then remedied by a social prosthetic – a cast of four players sourced from his circle of friends, who would take shifts sitting on the opposite corner of the table using their own weight to counterbalance the missing leg. The players would arrive equipped with a bag bearing a quarter of their weight cast in cement. The cement was left hanging on a hook on a wall and was later combined to provide the weight necessary to keep the table balanced in their absence. The amputated table leg, meanwhile, liberated from its subservient position took on a new role: suspended from the wall of the gallery space it spewed the shredded pages of a Sotheby’s auction catalogue from its tip.

Objects and props often appear as rivals to Bibby’s actions and words, yet each of them carries the same potency. It is therefore not surprising that one of Bibby’s heroes is Jean Genet, whose writing appears in various disguises and homages in his work. One quote by Genet resonates intimately with Bibby’s approach to the written page, revealing the artist’s continuous attempts to test its limits: ‘The white of the paper is an artifice that’s replaced by the translucency of parchment and the ocher surface of clay tablets; but the ocher and the translucency and the whiteness may all possess more reality than the signs that mark them.’3

Gerry Bibby/Juliette Blightman, Exhibition view, KUB Arena, Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2014

Grotto Giganta: stalactite/stalagmite, (2010), a performance at the Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen exemplified this. It borrowed the motive of a swinging bouquet of flowers from Genet’s film Un Chant D’Amour (1950). Instead of the bouquet swinging between the cells of two prisoners, as in the film however, the flowers swung like a chandelier suspended over a copy machine. Bibby attempted to catch the fleeting moment of contact by the bouquet and copy machine – a game that resulted in a series of copies showing white elongated streaks on black paper reminiscent of long exposures of the night sky. Accompanied by the monotonous reading of the manual of the copy machine and a selection of textual fragments of his own writing – consisting of poetic fragments invoking the form of a travelogue – the piece demonstrates the possibility of intimacy, however fleeting, in spaces dominated by the authoritarian language of modern day bureaucracy.

Gerry Bibby, Four Hands in One Pocket, (detail), 2009, Paper collage, dimensios variable

The misuse of the administrative device is reminiscent of de Certeau’s appeal to ‘wear the wig’, or ‘faire de la perruque’ as he called it4: a strategy of resistance whereby company time or means would be redirecting towards personal ends. The plea for intimacy amidst authoritative powers is an ongoing concern for Bibby. He attempts to reinsert the private in the public, to create a space of a different artifice; one with the potential for transitory identities, protest and love.

1 John Latham, Art after Physics (Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1991), p. 106

2 Script/Score for the performance 5 Stages Liberation Project, 2010

3 Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, trans. Barbara Bray (Picador, 1989), p. 3

4 Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University ofCalifornia Press, 1984), p. 25

Anna Gritz is a curator and writer based in London.