The work of Jacqueline Riva and Geoff Lowe, otherwise known as A Constructed World (ACW), ranges from painting and installation to conducting performances and producing the magazine Artfan. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, and working together since 1995, ACW employ methodologies in its projects that bring attention to current and diverse modes of artistic practice. Moreover, these projects manifest an inter-dependence between, and collaboration of, artist and audience in the production of a work and its discourse. With an interest in the proposition of artistic practice being a service, and considering its benefits and its shortcomings, this conversation focused on two of ACWs recent projects, a performance and a workshop held during their brief residencies in the United States and Canada, respectively.
S: My first encounter with your work was at the open studios day at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, New York. On my way to your studio space I bumped into you in the buildings hall, just in front of the elevator door. You were with a video camera on tripod, fixing the height of the base and, as I remember, fixing the focus of the lens. My arrival to that area interrupted you, and just when we were about to begin a conversation, the elevator door opened and a loud and clear cry of someone came from it. "History, NO!" a woman shouted. And she shouted again, "Historia, NO!"
The cry continued, and, while you were back with the camera, the other visitors and artists came out of their studios, walked through the hall, and approached the area of the elevators where we were standing, now mute. During that time, about five seemingly attenuated minutes, the elevators door remained open and the cry was heard incessantly, sometimes shouted in English, sometimes heard in Spanish. But one couldnt see the face or the body of the woman performing as a gigantic megaphone made out of corrugated cardboard completely dominated the elevators space. The megaphones immensity was of the height and the width of the elevator, making it apparent that the slight angle at which it was positioned made for only a bit of room for the performer. So there she was, cornered in the back, shouting through the speaker-hole, "History, NO!", sometimes rushed and loud and with the accent on the NO, and other times emphasizing it, but with a calmer and lower sound. Though you were not performing, it is clear that you directed and produced the event - you were actors at another level - so it is to you, rather than the performer, that I ask why was the cry "History, NO!"?
G: I hope you dont find it coy to say that I dont know.
S: I dont find it coy, yet I think we should endeavor to develop something from that cry.
G: Well, its not like there is a precise meaning of it - we are still in search of its meaning. For now, I think of it partly as a cry in pursuit of a response. Perhaps those words, "History, NO!", are also about emphasizing the present, a suggestion to pay attention to what is happening. Then, I guess, the cry proposes to give value to occurrences as they are being experienced; to avoid postponing the judgment of an events worthiness. However, interpretations of that cry other than these could be equally true, and most likely ones that I dont know of yet. Hopefully new meanings will accrue.
J: I think that the words yelled are about not accepting the way history has been laid out - it has made many exclusions and only recently has History been challenged and a re-writing of it has begun. In History No! the cry was made by a young Mexican woman and the accent was noticeable. All those details have particular connotations.
S: In thinking of this performance as a happening in itself, both the event as medium and the cry as content accentuate this presence to which you are referring. But what about the megaphone? Why is such an instrument (also) a medium and apparatus of the performance?
J: Perhaps it emphasizes the idea of reaching out a message to people. I dont know exactly, but I associate it with propaganda. There is also the factor of the elevator. I think it was the best space in the building to do this, as the performance, the cry, could reach more of the audience on its travel from one floor to the other.
S: A constant relation between an event and a subject, a play between occurrence and encounter, is not only operating in History, No! In a way, this is characteristic of your other projects, particularly the workshops. Im curious to know about the recent one that took place in Canada.
J: Jen Budney (curator and writer) invited us to run a two-week project with Theron Lund, a High School teacher in Edmonton. We accepted, and the only thing we asked for was to have the workshops meetings in a space outside of school grounds. Before our arrival, Lund had gathered 17 students to participate. Though some of them had met before, they had never been together as a group for each one came from different classes, scenes, and backgrounds.
G: The school gave us this fantastic, weird, round building that was abandoned but well taken care of. They also granted the use, if decided upon, of their gallery space.
J: As a preface to the workshop, and to open the forum for a dialogue, we encouraged the students to make of the workshop whatever they desired, allowed, and consented to do, as a group. This first meeting was in the gallery. And there, at the end of the day, the students proposed to make an exhibition as an outcome of the workshop. They wanted to do something other than what was usually done in that space. With general consensus on that idea, we then moved to our meeting room, and the workshop was initiated with casual presentations, personal introductions. We didnt know exactly what was going to happen.
G: Surprisingly, all of the participants were very articulate. Individual points of view were laid open well and clear, which somehow created a level of tension. Also, their initial decision of making an exhibition produced a sense of anxiety in them, since it indicated what they wanted as an end at the same time that it disclosed a not-knowing of how, where, and what, to begin with.
J: In time and after a series of discussions on what to do, the group decided to take a name: HIVE. This marked a distinctive shift in the workshops dynamics. It was as if, upon their naming, that they started to consider that it was a group project. During the workshop we did a series of tableaux-vivants, where someone came up with an idea and the others made skits or enacted the idea; these were photographed. We also decided to register in charts our daily discussions, and these were posted and accumulated day by day on the walls.
G: At one point, when things became a bit slow, we asked them if they wanted to do a collaboration with DAMP - an artist collective from Melbourne that weve worked with before - around the unusual building that we where working in. At the end of each day, the members of HIVE wrote 3-4 lines describing the space, which we faxed to DAMP, who for their part made a drawing based on those descriptions. At the end, we had 10 drawings that curiously looked exactly like the building.
J: The exhibition showed these drawings, the daily charts, the tableaux pictures, one sound and four video pieces, records of conversations and individual thoughts on the group or any other idea that had come up in their minds during the workshop. What the exhibition really did was to show the process of being together in the group, of the workshop.
S: The workshop seems to function partly in a state of not-knowing, as you say, but also, and perhaps more significantly, in the desire to know. A desire that likely grows more out of curiosity rather than from the territory of dominance, since that which is yet unknown (or perhaps, simply unrecognized) happens to be the story of the Other or of that something other - a story which wants to be experienced, as opposed to the history that wants to be mastered. This is why I think that, at least in the case of HIVE, the anecdote or the anecdotal becomes the form of communication that, evidently, is most often used by both the participants and the exercises practised within the workshop. What I find interesting is that the anecdote moves away from the mechanics of the group towards the space of the exhibition: HIVEs presentation in the gallery space. The groups anecdotes are manifested in the exhibition, and the exhibition, in its design, is itself an embodiment of anecdote. There is a clear and nice homology: a transparent presentation of the structure of the groups experience, and of how that group structures experiences.
J: The only caution we have with this use of anecdote in relation to our work is that we are trying to merge the official and the casual so that when put together in a context, its hard to make a distinction between them, say, like speech and talk. Whereas the anecdote already has a pejorative aspect like, "thats only anecdotal", as though it is a lesser form of speech.
S: Youve decided to run workshops as art projects. Is there a particular reason for doing this as opposed to making something else?
G: Well, one of the things about art is that you make something and you put it out there, and people supposedly respond to it by looking at it or by buying it; by consuming it in some kind of way. Capitalist culture makes it seem like its a fairly straightforward way, but I think that that process is a lot more mysterious than one thinks to know. And I think that if you are working with a group of people, they can respond to what they and we have produced. One of the underpinnings that comes from the group workshops is the act of listening. With the workshops one can hear more stuff, what people think about things; there is a more immediate response.
J: Many people run workshops in different ways. For example, a workshop can teach someone a skill or technique. But we are not organizing workshops with the intention to teach something in particular. What we are doing is working and learning with the knowledge and inquiry that the participants already have.
S: But if your workshops are run with this premise - to put in practice what the participants bring there - is it like working with the idea of praxis? That is, what the students bring and put in practice were skills or experience that were gained, at least partly, in the classroom, and that were then exercised in the workshops sphere. In this sense, its another level in, or kind of, social formation. What happens in the workshop is in correspondence with the move from one institution towards another, from what occurs in school then into the so-called work-field.
G: No, thats a post-structuralist reading of some kind and I dont go along with it at all. Its not just another, another, another thing like that.
S: Then, in this withdrawal of something like the production of an art object, what is it that you choose to produce?
G: An exchange, a contact; something more unstable and uncertain.
S: And what do you think in terms of experience and response as two different levels in the reception of your work?
J: If they were merged, then our work would be done.
Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, originally from Mexico, currently works as the Exhibition Coordinator of The Americas Society, New York City. In Distinctions, a Master-thesis exhibition presented last spring at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College (New York), she focused on artistic projects that investigated processes of identification and group formations. At present, she is working on Mesh, an exhibition co-curated with Tumelo Mosaka that will be presented this Summer at The Project (New York).
Geoff Lowe and Jacqueline Riva (ACW) have been travelling for the last bit in Italy, USA, Canada... Have no intention of stopping for a while their much-lauded magazine project Artfan has been replaced by or grown into <Hospitality project> which is similar but the outcome will be decided by what people choose to contribute. They have just finished editing a video about Castro.