1 The Road to Sophronia

MPB CURATES 2007, guest carrier Eduardo Martinez, downtown Edmonton, AB

In MPB Curates 2007, artist and writer Valerie LeBlanc states, “Through the medium of the itinerant performer, the MPB aims to make unexpected outdoor encounters and interactions possible while generating discussion among a random body of spectators/participants.”[1]Little more could be said to accurately characterize the nature of the MediaPackBoard (MPB) and the dynamics of interaction that operate around this participatory model of the art encounter. Firmly grounded in the idea of “artwork as social interstice,” or what Nicolas Bourriaud refers to as a point at which art takes “as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space,”[2] MPB operates at street level in a face-to-face encounter with the viewer.

True to this form, in September of 2008 LeBlanc presented the work MPB EARTH: The Angle of Incidence is Equal to the Angle of Reflection along Stephen Avenue, Calgary’s main downtown pedestrian mall. This work offered passersby the chance to take part in a hands-on demonstration of optics, to participate in the artwork and, for a moment, to be artists themselves. A small camera mounted on the string of a weather balloon transmitted its point of view to the backpack monitor. Using a mirror and kite strings, participants were able to direct the camera, control its point of view, and zoom the camera in on their subjects to directly manipulate the view transmitted to the MPB worn by the artist. Viewers readily engaged with the artist, drawn in by sheer curiosity to the physics of the media and the strangeness of the encounter. The combined interactive technology/biology of video and performance enticed viewers into their role of completing the artwork.

Spontaneity, participation and interaction are often seen as antidotes to the white cube gallery space, which has been characterized as a static, institutional model for exhibitions. Performance and media art are particularly poised to offer more participatory models for audience engagement, models that might potentially expand audience experience beyond an oft-called “passive” encounter with the art object within prescribed private symbolic space. However, this is not to say that media-based or performance works presented in public spaces are not without their own symbolic or prescribed nature.

In the case of MPB, LeBlanc clearly states “the nature of the technology sets a formality and creates the presence of an ‘other’ with the camera and the monitor.”[3] Here LeBlanc plays with a characteristic of what Roland Barthes calls the dioptric arts, the internal processing of representation that divides the viewer into both their physical body and the theater of the mind located within “the scene, the picture, the cut-out rectangle”[4] of the screen. As media theorist Lev Manovich observes, “this act of cutting reality into a sign and nothingness simultaneously doubles the viewing subject: who now exists in two spaces, the familiar physical space of her body, and the virtual space of the image within the screen.”[5] Moreover, in this scenario of viewing one’s self, the video screen further immobilizes the viewer as “a subject that voluntarily becomes a prisoner of the machine in order to see her own image,”[6]and the camera’s eye becomes that of the viewing subject, now captivated by the perspective, zoom and motion in virtual mobility. This virtual mobility and subsequent imprisonment of the viewing subject is frustrated by the MPB, because the viewer, by necessity, must perform as the viewing subject. The physical movement of the viewer serves to free the body from the immobility of the virtual resembling something more akin to Virtual Reality (VR). The viewer is still tied inextricably to the technology, the balloon, the camera and the monitor on the back of the artist, but like a dance partner, she performs and responds to the duality of body and screen, and to the MPB artist as well.

Is this performative dance enough to emancipate, or at the very least confound the media in order to produce a meaningful and dynamic (rather than static) relationship between art, artist and audience? Performance and its relationship to the body also works within a set of formal relations: there are rules that define and govern what is and is not performance particularly in the negotiated realm of public space. It has been over five decades since the term “happenings” was first coined by Allan Kaprow in 1959 to describe performance works that eliminate the wall between art and viewer,[7] and since that time, performance art has established its own set of parameters that excise it from reality to make it another of the dioptric arts.

The body exists as the screen upon which this relationship is enacted, where representation and the gaze of the viewer are excised, intertwined and divided. The artists themselves are not immune from this effect but become part of the mode of representation, what Marina Abramović refers to as “performance mode.”[8] Borrowing further from Roland Barthes, the writer Sanna Lehtinen suggests the performance artist’s relationship to her audience can be examined in terms of the concepts of proxemics and idiorrhythmy. Proxemics refers to the spatial dynamics around the artist, and idiorrhythmy is the aspect of “living together” or, the pursuit of an “ideal, fluctuating balance between an individual’s rhythm and a communal rhythm … manifested in the division and use of specific spaces”[9] in the space of performance. In the case of MPB, I am referring not only to the spatial, but also the verbal interactions and the movements of the performative dance between participants that construct the representation. The artist, the viewing subject and the artwork are bound within the parameters of these spatial and relational interactions, and are understood to be art-reality is excised and reconstituted as a sign as solid as any object.

The question then becomes, given the formal presets imposed by both media and performance, does MPB Earth achieve what it sets forth to do? Does the relationship between artwork, artist and viewer enter into a dynamic state where formality is a constituent part as opposed to the defining whole? Is a new relationship formed between all of the players, artist(s), artwork and participants? MPB EARTH: The Angle of Incidence is Equal to the Angle of Reflection necessitates a delicate and nuanced negotiation of both form and function and its success relies upon the seductive and poetic exchange between the artist, individuals and viewers. This model of interaction was tested in MPB Earth’s optical experiment and mediated through the technology of the screen, which seduced viewers to perform and, as is the case in any consensual seduction, to place themselves in vulnerable receptive states. The artist bore the responsibility of initiator in this exchange, always remaining respectful and mindful of the vulnerability of the viewing audience and their possible inhibitions, while satiating their own desire as part of a seductive dance in which they too become vulnerable. The end result is a consensual participatory encounter and poetic exchange, idiorrhythmy.

MPB EARTH (2008), The weather balloon Calgary, AB.

MPB EARTH (2008), The weather balloon Calgary, AB

It is difficult to adequately describe the dynamic qualities of MPB EARTH in words, as the participatory performance depends so much on the push-pull of technology verses performance, and physical space verses mental/emotional space. Perhaps a literary metaphor can better serve this analysis where descriptive text can only fail. In his book, Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino describes the city of Sophronia through the character of Marco Polo. Sophronia consists of two half cities: one, a festival city replete with a midway, roller coaster, Ferris wheel, death-rides and big top; the other half-city comprises stone and marble factories, a slaughterhouse, palaces and schools. One half of the city is permanent and the other is temporary—at the end of the season “workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry, the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery, the hospital, load them on trailers, to follow from stand to stand their annual itinerary,” to the “vacant lots of another half city.”[10] The tent city of half-Sophronia remains, the music and shouts of the midway suspended; only anticipation remains during the months and days before the return of a full life. MPB EARTH: The Angle of Incidence is Equal to the Angle of Reflection, like the city of Sophronia, is built upon multiple foundations, not the least of which is expected or defined, but the MediaPackBoard remains as a point of permanence, a full performance, of which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts in the most unexpected ways.

Renato Vitic

  1. 1. Valerie LeBlanc, MPB Curates 2007 (Basic Bruegel Editions, 2008), 3, http://valerie.basicbruegel.com/mediapackboard/curates/
  2. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (1998), trans. by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002), 14–15.
  3. Valerie LeBlanc, MPB Curates 2007 (Basic Bruegel Editions, 2008), 5, http://valerie.basicbruegel.com/mediapackboard/curates/
  4. Roland Barthes, “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein,” in Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 69–70.
  5. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2001), 104.
  6. Manovich, The Language of New Media, 107.
  7. Christopher W. Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama: Volume 3 Beyond Broadway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 45.
  8. Arthur C. Danto, “Sitting with Marina,” The New York Times, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/sitting-with-marina/?_r=0
  9. Sanna Lehtinen, “Spatial Aspects of the Encounter in Marina Abramović’s Performance The Artist is Present,” (paper presented at the European Congress of Aesthetics, Europe and the Concept of Aesthetics: Societies in Crisis, Madrid, Spain, November 10, 2010), 8, http://www.uam.es/otros/estetica/DOCUMENTOS%20EN%20PDF/QUINTA%20TANDA/SANNA%20LEHTINEN.pdf
  10. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972), trans. by William Weaver (London, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1974), 18.

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