God Only Knows Who the Audience Is

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As part of their culminating project, the students of the Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice at California College of the Arts wanted to organize an exhibition that highlighted the alternative art spaces and the work these spaces fostered in the Bay Area from the 1970s to the present day. To articulate the most crucial elements of this thesis, they focused on one Bay Area art space of particular value, La Mamelle/ ART COM. By mining the La Mamelle / ARTCOM archive the curators created a nexus of work, ideas, writing and presentation strategies that serves as a contemporary art history lesson and an exciting entry into some of the most challenging performance pieces from the last forty years.

The result, God Only Knows Who the Audience Is: Performance, Video and Television Through the Lens of La Mamelle / ART COM is both an intensely dense and cleverly open-ended exploration of the Bay Area's relationship to the development of performance and video art using the esteemed La Mamelle / ART COM archive as a through line for the entire exhibition.

From 1975-1995, La Mamelle / ARTCOM was a non-profit artist-run exhibition space in San Francisco. Interested in discovering new forms of art and art making, the organization had its early roots in publishing and art distribution. Soon after, they evolved into an exhibition and performance space showing multiple media, including photography, ephemera, conceptual and video work, as well as hosting screenings and a library. La Mamelle / ARTCOM was also responsible for forming one of the first online artist networks. The name change in 1980 from La Mamelle to ART COM reflects how the organization openly embraced change as they began to confront the relationship between art and technology.

"Explanation Attempt," Whitney Lynn, 2010.

The exhibition is divided into two levels with each level further divided into conceptual premises. The first galleries start with the body and its absence but then quickly dig deeper and present work that confronts the concepts of both preserving, presenting and even recreating performance work. Whitney Lynn's 2010 Explanation Attempt, Explanations (Loop), and Forever, from the Doug series is both an homage and a challenge to Joesph Beuys's 1965 epic performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. In his first gallery exhibition in 1965, Beuys sat in the window of the gallery and described his drawings to the dead hare in his arms. This was a remarkable performance that still holds great resonance for artists today. Lynn's photographs of herself trying to hold a live rabbit in her arms, and the rabbit fur-covered sweater hung in a frame next to the photographs, is a simple yet sophisticated calling into question how performances can exist after the act. Is preserving the ephemera from performance art or even recreating the performance itself paying tribute to the work or giving it a new life? Is it perhaps a silly exercise, stripping the work of its agency altogether?


Luis Felipe Ortega and Daniel Guzman's video Remake (1994) also confronts these issues. The artists recreate some of the more well-known performance art works of the last few decades, cracking open the long-standing conflict between performance art and theater, and revisiting the question of how to represent ephemeral work inside the gallery.

"The King," Eleanor Antin, 1972.

As God Only Knows Who the Audience Is advances, a combination of past and current video work straddles the line between performance work made for video and video documentation of performance art. There are five pieces in this intimate space, ranging from Eleanor Antin's 1972 video, The King, to CCA student Noah Krell's darkly comedic To Move a Body (Hill), 2010. The questions of the archiving, presentation and value of performance art are raised without being resolved. It is this lack of didactic definition that allows the pieces to remain representatives of a rapidly evolving art form and preserves a sense of timelessness.

"To Move a Body (Hill)," Noah Krell, 2010.

All of the work (aside from the contemporary pieces) was selected from the pages of the La Mamelle/ ART COM publication. Seeing the publication covers -- the posters used to represent the mission of the organization -- alongside contemporary work reveals an inspiring bridge between an organization of the past and its current relevance in today's cultural landscape.

Moving to the Wattis's second floor, the exhibition dramatically transforms into a black box viewing space (harkening back to La Mamelle's space on 12th Street in San Francisco). The room is populated with several small viewing stations displaying work that asserts the idea that television could be both a populist medium and deliver art to the masses. The space has the feel of an amusement park -- if a video art archivist designed an amusement park.

Bouncing from one video to the next is a thrilling adventure into the vastness of the medium's potential. From Bill Viola's Reverse Television -- Portraits of Viewers (1983-84), which shows stereotypical 'normal' Americans doing exactly what the title suggests, to Mario Garcia Torres's frenetic multi-monitor installation, All that Color is Making Me Blind (Notes on the Beginning of the End of Video Art) (2008) to the ultimate negation of the television monitor with Jaime Davidovich's Red, Blue, Yellow (1974), which shows a hand taping red, blue and yellow tape to one of three television sets tuned to nothing but static. The screens are covered with lines of just one color in a linear and ordered fashion. It is the ultimate negation of the medium, which is made all the more complicated within the context of so many unique videos and performances on screens in the exhibition.

God Only Knows Who the Audience Is is an exercise in dissection. The physical and conceptual divisions and dissections set up by the curators and, at times, the work itself, effectively provide a coherent way to absorb the depth of the work in the exhibition. The ground floor galleries provide an introduction to the kinds of performance art La Mamelle was championing. The work contexualizes the significant concepts being confronted in these genres: How do art spaces exhibit performance art? What value does the remants of performance hold? Should this work be recreated at all? What are the differences between live performance art being documented on video and performances made for video? Does that distinction matter for the audience?

These are broad and open-ended questions that have no easy answer. In fact, it is nearly impossible to consume all of the work in one sitting, but that is hardly the point. These divisions set multiple access points -- and challenging ones at that -- providing paths to navigate through the larger thematic issues of performance art. By the time the viewer arrives on the second floor, the show focuses on one arts organization's attempt to confront all of these issues.

Each piece selected, each presentation choice made represents a cavernous collection of discussions; the research and writing set forth by these curators and this effort is certainly apparent. Each piece dissected gives a better sense of the whole, but even that whole is up for debate. Is it the whole of performance art, the whole of alternative artist-run spaces in San Francisco, the whole of academic curatorial practice programs? It could be any of these and all of these. Even if we do not know who the audience is, as the exhibition title suggests, we understand that the work in this exhibition acts as a provocative invitation to ask these questions and many more.


God Only Knows Who the Audience Is runs through July 2, 2011 at the Wattis Institute on the San Francisco campus of the California College of the Arts. For more information visit cca.edu.