Social Form: Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly

October 29, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Wall Street Occupation is as much a social form as it is a protest.  Like Egypt’s Tahrir Square, it attempts to be a society in miniature, a practical guerrilla version of a Utopian vision.  The evolving physical organization of Zuccotti Park with its public library, kitchen (three free meals a day, ranging from peanut butter to indian dal, biryani, and samosas), comfort station (a free store with warm clothing, tarps, sleeping bags, and blankets), medical tent, sacred space (a tree surrounded by altars and meditators), cigarette rolling group, silkscreen zone, sign painters, drumming circles, people’s stage (open “mic” for 5 minute performances), media center (producing a 24/7 live video stream in addition to photo documentation and movie shorts), and three information booths, is mirrored by an ever increasing number of working groups and decision-making bodies. The most striking of these is the daily (nightly) General Assembly, a structured form of direct democracy in which proposals that affect the occupation as whole are offered up for consensus.

[general assembly in Washington Square]

The General Assembly is both a dynamic working process and a kind of group performance, almost street theater.  In part, this is the effect of the human microphone, developed as a way around police restrictions on amplified sound.  Speakers shout out their words in short phrases, which are then echoed in louder shouts by everyone in hearing range making it possible for people even farther back to hear what’s going on.  In very large groups, there may be two, or even three “generations” of the people’s mic – each phrase being shouted again in progressive waves towards the back of the crowd. “We amplify each other’s voices (WE AMPLIFY EACH OTHER’S VOICES) no matter what’s said (NO MATTER WHAT’S SAID) so we can hear one another (SO WE CAN HEAR ONE ANOTHER), yelled the facilitator at a recent Assembly in Washington Square Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon. “But also, we use this human mic because the police won’t let us use any kind of instrument.”

Repeating the words of whoever’s speaking has a curious effect, sometimes thrilling, sometimes exhausting.  It keeps the speakers concise, which does something to make up for the way it also elongates the process of saying anything. The short phrases give everyone’s speech something the feeling of poetry (maybe ancient poetry – the assembly as homeric epic).  It’s stranger to watch on video than it is to enact (The New Republic called it “genuinely creepy” in a recent editorial [behind paywall]). By becoming part of the human mic, you become a real participant in the meeting, bringing the words of whoever’s speaking into your own body.

The assembly is an attempt at decision-making which is open and porous, democratic in the absolute – whoever is there becomes part of the consensus, or lack thereof.  In theory, a newcomer is as important as someone who’s been there from the beginning, so the process of the assembly is explained at every meeting. Hand signals for communication are reviewed.  A few facilitators run the meeting, focusing their attention on process and refraining from taking positions of their own.  Invariably, as the meeting goes on, their voices become strained from shouting.

How does it work? There’s a specific process, inspired by Quaker meetings, Native American councils, the May 15 movement in Spain, and radical organizing from Chiapas to Seattle, with perhaps an unacknowledged nod to Robert’s Rules of Order which govern direct democracy town meetings in parts of New England today. Proposals come to the general assembly from working groups and individuals – requests for funds, agreements on social conduct, drafts of group declarations, plans for direct action (a list of past proposals and their fate can be found here).  Each proposal goes through several steps.  First, it is briefly explained by an individual proposer (as of this date, proposals are now posted on the nycga website 24 hours before being brought to the assembly).  There is a period of time for “concerns and questions.”  People raise their hands, or step up to a facilitator, and are added to the “stack” which is a list of people who will be called on. The proposer answers both questions and concerns as best they can. After this, there are “friendly amendments” – suggestions for small modifications to improve the proposal – the proposer is free to either accept or reject these.  Finally, there’s a call for “blocks.” Blocks are serious objections on ethical or safety grounds, more like a veto than a no vote – an indication that the person blocking would walk away from the group rather than see the proposal go forward.  In between each of these steps, the facilitators generally do a “temperature check,” asking the group to signal with their hands how they’re feeling about the proposal. Motions pass, when they do, by consensus rather than voting.  90% consensus is the rule of thumb, a vigorous twinkling of upraised hands.

[general assembly in Zuccotti Park]

David Graeber, in a recent piece in the Occupied Wall Street Journal, talks about how this came about:

On August 2, at the very first meeting of what was to become Occupy Wall Street, about a dozen people sat in a circle in Bowling Green. The self-appointed “process committee” for a social movement we merely hoped would someday exist, contemplated a momentous decision. Our dream was to create a New York General Assembly: the model for democratic assemblies we hoped to see spring up across America. But how would those assemblies actually operate? The anarchists in the circle made what seemed, at the time, an insanely ambitious proposal. Why not let them operate exactly like this committee: by consensus.

It was, in the least, a wild gamble, because as far as any of us knew, no one had ever managed to pull off something like this before. Consensus process had been successfully used in spokes-councils  —  groups of activists organized into separate affinity groups, each represented by a single “spoke” — but never in mass assemblies like the one anticipated in New York City. Even the General Assemblies in Greece and Spain had not attempted it. But consensus was the approach that most accorded with our principles. So we took the leap.

You can read the minutes of most general assemblies online.  Some go easily, others struggle.  This one, on October 21, is particularly interesting because it involves both a community emergency (a giant mound of wet laundry from recent rains that no one really wants to deal with, but must be dealt with), and a contentious decision (whether to modify the general assembly structure by adding a spokes-council where working groups could meet to deal with financial and logistical concerns).  Another, on October 20 involves a request from the park’s drummers for $8000 which was rejected (tabled) by the assembly after a heated debate.

[evening assembly at Zuccotti Park]

Six weeks into the occupation, the Structure working group (structure as in social form not tents) has succeeded in passing its proposal for  the “spokes-council,” which will move much of the allocating of funds, as well as logistical coordination, to members of chartered working groups. Debate has been contentious with serious blocks raised and many revisions to the plan.  It’s genuinely hard to say whether this will remove what makes the General Assembly feel so remarkable now – the fact that anyone present can participate in making even the most important decisions for the occupation.

New York General Assembly website.

Nathan Schneider describes the General Assembly in Harper’s

A practical guide to the group dynamics of assemblies.

Action: Unguarded Money

October 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

In 1956 Miklós Erdély placed open suitcases, primed with 100-florint notes, in the streets of Budapest to collect money for the widows and orphans of the Hungarian revolution.

“On 23 October 1956, spontaneous student protests in Budapest erupted into a general uprising against the Hungarian Communist government and the Soviet Army troops stationed in the country. In late October or early November, at one of the meetings that took place at his home, Miklós Erdély presented to friends and artists the idea of placing boxes for collecting money for the victims of the revolution – boxes that nobody would guard – in six locations around Budapest. The chose a work group, set up the boxes, and, on posters marking the collection points, wrote: “The purity of our revolution makes it possible for us to collect money in this way for the families of our fallen martyrs. The Writers Union of Hungary.” Using a car that belonged to the Writers Union, Erdély drove from box to box and tried to persuade the members of the revolutionary militia who were standing next to the boxes to leave: he told them that the time had come when there was no longer any need to guard money. It was not until 1965, when Erdély learned about “happenings” and the Fluxus movement, that he designated this action as an art event and gave it the title Unguarded Money.”  Božidar Zrinski (from the catalog of the 29th Ljubljana Biennial)

[ image source ]

See also a longer account in Colin Vernall’s essay “Money No Object: Revolution and Reevaluation in the Economics of Place and the Place of Economics in Art” [PDF]

Vernall goes on to describe a second money action of Erdély’s, Selling Money in the Street:

“Though definitely taking his cue from the earlier work in Budapest in order to highlight the strangeness of this value system, Erdély adopts a more ironic approach to this action than he did in Unguarded Money:

“It consisted of – since by then I had some money – selling money on the street at a price somewhat under its nominal value. Opening a boutique, and offering the 100-franc note for 98.50 – at a slight discount.”

Again, the work takes the form of an action. Erdély is recorded referring to it as such: ‘I started to organize an action. Using the experience gained in that ’56 thing’. However, when he applies for a boutique site on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, Erdély is surprised that the authorities are wholly opposed to the project on the grounds that it is ‘tantamount to devaluing their money’. Although little is known about precisely how this work finally came to fruition, the reaction to the piece was generally mixed. The idea of tampering with the value attributed to money, as demonstrated by the difficulty involved in securing premises, seemed to hit a nerve. Erdély was surprised to hear that a Swedish artist later attempted a similar piece, selling the Swedish krona for less than its nominal value. He registered less surprise, though, at the response of the Swedish authorities in imposing a jail sentence (source: Miklós Peternák, 1991. “Conversation with Miklós Erdély,” Spring 1983. Argus 2(5). 76-77).”

Source: Colin Vernall, “Money No Object,” eSharp Journal #11, Spring 2008

Library Action: Occupy Wall Street

September 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Occupy Wall Street library

Liberty Park/Zuccotti Park, September 27, 2011 – 10th day of the occupation

Occupy Wall Street

Updates: Twitter #occupywallst

Book Action: Ben Kinmont’s Prospectus

September 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

If you’re in New York, don’t miss Ben Kinmont’s retrospective at NYU’s Fales Library (on the 3rd floor of the Bobst Library at 70 Washington Square South).  You’ll need an appointment, but once you’re there you’ll be able to handle, open, and photocopy his archives and take away free reprints of several of his projects.

If you can’t make it to the show, you can buy a copy of the beautiful and underpriced letterpress book from Kunstverein (scroll down for hard to find purchase link)

Action: Inaction Painting

September 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jonathan VanDyke has written an interesting essay on his experience spending 40 hours staring at a Jackson Pollock painting (for an earlier account of his piece “The Long Glance” see “Action: Watching the Watcher“).

He says: “On June 3rd I turned my gaze away from Jackson Pollock’s 1952 painting Convergence after staring at it for forty hours. To enact The Long Glance, as I had titled my performance, I stood silently in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, eight hours a day for five days. I wanted to approach the painting in peak condition, and trained to stand at length with just incremental movement. By acting as a fixed counterpoint to an “action” painting, I intended, through my immobile body, to reorient the museum’s abstract expressionist galleries.

As manifestations of movement, Pollock’s drip paintings point back to the figure of Pollock; as our eyes follow a line, we are recreating the gesture of his body. When a line reaches the canvas’s edge, in the mind’s eye we carry it onward. The drip paintings activate the relationship between the eye and the body, while referring us to the space beyond the frame. Yet there’s something of a ruse in this: the painting was made with the canvas on the floor, Pollock circling it on all sides. Now it hangs on a wall with a proper top and bottom, despite its lack of an orientation in a true pictorial sense. Standing and looking at a Pollock drip painting, we can feel ourselves disoriented: what was once on the ground is now on the wall in front of us.

Turning towards something, we acknowledge its presence, while we simultaneously turn away from something else. When a work of art calls our attention, it guides our gaze. As we bend our necks to see the painted ceiling of a cathedral, we are meant to realize a celestial space. We are beckoned upwards, and thereby directed away from the ground, which is the space of all things “earthly”: copulation, excrement, and, at last, the corpse. By making his drip paintings on the ground, working with and not against gravity, Pollock returns our attention to the plane of the recumbent body.

[read the rest here]

VanDyke’s remarks on action and inaction reminded me of Alan Kaprow’s claim that his happenings and performances were an extension of Pollock’s idea of action paintings.

From Alan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock (1958)

“Pollock’s choice of enormous canvases served many purposes, chief of which for our discussion is that his mural-scale paintings ceased to become paintings and became environments. Before a painting, our size as spectators, in relation to the size of the picture, profoundly influences how much we are willing to give up consciousness of our temporal existence while experiencing it. Pollock’s choice of great sizes resulted in our being confronted, assaulted, sucked in. Yet we must not confuse the effect of these with that of the hundreds of large paintings done in the Renaissance, which glorified an idealized everyday world familiar to the observer, often continuing the actual room into the painting by means of trompe l’oeil. Pollock offers us no such familiarity, and our everyday world of convention and habit is replaced by one created by the artist. Reversing the above procedure, the painting is continued out into the room. And this leads me to my final point: Space. The space of these creations is not clearly palpable as such. We can become entangled in the web to some extent and by moving in and out of the skein of lines and splashings can experience a kind of spatial extension. But even so, this space is an allusion far more vague than even the few inches of space-reading a Cubist work affords. It may be that our need to identify with the process, the making of the whole affair, prevents a concentration on the specifics of before and behind so important in a more traditional art. But what I believe is clearly discernible is that the entire painting comes out at us (we are participants rather than observers), right into the room. It is possible to see in this connection how Pollock is the terminal result of a gradual trend that moved from the deep space of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the building out from the canvas of the Cubist collages. In the present case, the “picture” has moved so far out that the canvas is no longer a reference point. Hence, although up on the wall, these marks surround us as they did the painter at work, so strict is the correspondence achieved between his impulse and the resultant art.

What we have, then, is art that tends to lose itself out of bounds, tends to fill our world with itself, art that in meaning, looks, impulse seems to break fairly sharply with the traditions of painters back to at least the Greeks. Pollock’s near destruction of this tradition may well be a return to the point where art was more actively involved in ritual, magic, and life than we have known it in our recent past. If so, it is an exceedingly important step and in its superior way offers a solution to the complaints of those who would have us put a bit of life into art. But what do we do now?

There are two alternatives. One is to continue in this vein. Probably many good “near-paintings” can be done varying this esthetic of Pollock’s without departing from it or going further. The other is to give up the making of paintings entirely—I mean the single flat rectangle or oval as we know it. It has been seen how Pollock came pretty close to doing so himself. In the process he came upon some newer values that are exceedingly difficult to discuss yet bear upon our present alternative. To say that he discovered things like marks, gestures, paint, colors, hardness, softness, flowing, stopping, space, the world, life, death, might sound naive. Every artist worth his salt has “discovered” these things. But Pollock’s discovery seems to have a peculiarly fascinating simplicity and directness about it. He was, for me, amazingly childlike, capable of becoming involved in the stuff of his art as a group of concrete facts seen for the first time. There is, as I said earlier, a certain blindness, a mute belief in everything he does, even up to the end. I urge that this not be seen as a simple issue. Few individuals can be lucky enough to possess the intensity of the this kind of knowing, and I hope that in the near future a careful study of this (perhaps) Zen quality of Pollock’s personality will be undertaken. At any rate, for now we may consider that, except for rare instances, Western art tends to need many more indirections in achieving itself, placing more or less equal emphasis upon “things” and the relations between them. The crudeness of Jackson Pollock is not, therefore, uncouth; it is manifestly frank and uncultivated, unsullied by training, trade secrets, finesse—a directness that the European artists he liked hoped for and partially succeeded in but that he never had to strive after because he had it by nature. This by itself would be enough to teach us something.

It does. Pollock, as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or, if need be, the vastness of Forty-second Street. Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our other senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will those bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard-f happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the streets; and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents. An odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend, or a billboard selling Drano; three taps on the front door, a scratch, a sigh, or a voice lecturing endlessly, a blinding staccato flash, a bowler hat—all will become materials of this new concrete art.

Young artists of today need no longer say, “I am a painter” or “a poet” or “a dancer.” They are simply “artists.” All of life will be open to them. They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness. They will not try to make them extraordinary but will only state their real meaning. But out of nothing they will devise the extraordinary and then maybe nothingness as well. People will be horrified, critics will be confused or amused, but these, I am certain, will be the alchemies of the 1960s.”

(The full text can be found in Alan Kaprow’s wonderful, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993. An online version can be found on the Belgium is Happening site.)

Action: Unseen Performance

June 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Georgia Wall’s Unseen Performance 6-13-11

I saw this invitation on Rhizome:

CALL FOR PARTICIPATION: INVITATION FOR AN EXCHANGE.

I perform for you & you provide an account of what you saw.
1. Before the event:  Together we (you & I) choose a date/time and public location where the event will take place.
2. The event: I perform on the given street at the given time.
3. After the event: You then provide an account of what occurred during the event.

If you are interested in participating or have any questions please email unseenperformance@gmail.com

: : : : : : : : : :

When I wrote to her, she asked me to go to a small park at the intersection of Rivington and Attorney on the Lower East Side at 4pm and take a seat in one of three benches facing the street.

June 13, 3:55 PM.

Sunny afternoon, shady park.  The benches are crowded. I find a seat next to a well dressed, white-haired man. I glance at him, but he doesn’t make eye contact. A few kids, neighbors talking and hanging out. One guy is kidding another about how many brothers and sisters he has: “your father, he was a bull!.” One punches the other on the arm. Breezy in the shade, fat maple leaves hanging down. Half the voices in Spanish, half in English. The  park is a fenced strip concrete and paving stones, but plentifully supplied with trees and pigeons.  A group of teenagers talk and sway. A cart with striped umbrellas, red and yellow, blue and white, is selling ices across the street. There’s a pawnbroker, “buy, pawn, sell” and “LOANS” in big letters on the awning, framed by fistfuls of dollars. An ice cream truck pulls up in front of the park.

4:01 PM.

Kids chasing pigeons. The old man next to me gets up to leave.  A small asian boy buys a huge soft ice cream covered with jimmies.  Will I see the event when it happens? Will I know it? A hipster couple walks past with an economy candy bag.  A lone boy dribbles behind me on the empty basketball courts. A mom tries to pick up a flock of white paper napkins that have blown across the park – her hair is bleached to a caramel  color; she’s wearing a flag T-shirt. She leaves with her kids, a reluctant toddler squirming in his stroller, a pair of 6 year olds with black pigtails and bright red and pink shirts.

Suddenly I notice a young woman walking up Attorney street straight towards me, carrying a blue plastic pail in her right hand. There’s nothing odd about her, except that she’s walking slowly, deliberately, but that’s enough to tell me this is what I’m here for.  She’s wearing a short-sleeved black dress, almost a shift, that drops loosely to her ankles. It hangs like linen. Flat black shoes.

She turns to her left at the street corner, then turns again so her back is towards me and stands facing the blue wall of the building across from where I sit.  A little girl tries to talk to her, smiles looking into her face, but I can’t see any gesture of reply. The woman with the pail takes a few slow steps forward to the wall, stands still, head a little bowed to the left.  A bystander with a styrofoam coffee cup in one hand smiles and watches her, tries to ask her something, but again, it seems, receives silence, and moves on down the street.

She is still standing, facing the wall. Then she reaches her left hand across the front of her body and tilts the pail to pour out a thin stream of water against the place where the blue wall meets the sidewalk.  Then she stops, and stands again, arms at her sides, one holding the bucket.  This repeats in a slow rhythm: a little water is poured, a few minutes of standing, more water, more stillness.  The song of the ice cream truck goes on. The wind lifts her hair from time to time. No one watches her except me, just a few glances from people walking by.  She shifts the bucket from her right to her left hand, pours again. It looks heavy by now – she bends the arm holding the water. The wind blows against her dress. Now a turned head, then another, but no one stops.  She stands with both arms down, patient.

A guy in a white apron walks through the park, “Seedless grapes a dahllah! Seedless grapes a dahllah!”  No one buys any. She pours out a little more water. Stands again. Her stillness, the street’s movement. Two girls in maroon school uniforms pause and point but only for a second, barely slowing. This time when she pours the bucket goes horizontal, and the water streams out a little longer. Emptying.  She turns and walks away down Rivington, going slowly, bucket swinging a a little.  The last I see of her is the dark top of her head through past some parked cars.

4:16 PM.

I walk a couple of blocks to the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, where I’ve sent to give my account.  The curator greets me on the steps, under extensive scaffolding, leads me up what feel like big elementary school stairs to a small bathroom on the 4th floor. The light’s good in there, she says, and you’ll have some privacy.  She turns a video camera on, and leaves me to tell my story. I’ve been asked to say anything I want, but not to use the words “performance” or “performer,” instead I’ve been offered “event” and “she.”  The curator tells me the videos will be part of a show, which I hadn’t known, opening at a gallery in the building next week.

Catch it if you can:  “Performing Coordinates” June 22-July 6, 2011. Abrazo Interno Gallery, Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, 107 Suffolk Street, NY

More on Wall’s Unseen Performances.

Text Action: A Text that Destroys Itself

June 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

A collaboration between Dr. Howard Britton, Daniel Jackson and Simon Morris.

A Text That Destroys Itself in the Process of its Own Meaning

“Beginning with two separate texts on the work of Gustav Metzger, one black on white, one red on white, the authors Dr. Howard Britton and Simon Morris will take it in turns to read aloud pages from their work. Using Extraction, a computer programme created by the artist Daniel Jackson, words will be randomly removed, one by one, from each author’s text. 2 versions of Extraction will be running simultaneously. One will present the words from Britton’s text, ‘Gustav Metzger: a manifesto for destruction: between two deaths’, black on red. The other will present the words from Morris’s text, ‘Beyond Representation’, red on black. These will be projected onto the wall behind Britton and Morris, side by side like facing pages of a book. In the manner of a dada poetry recital, as one author reads from their text, the other author will simultaneously read aloud the words that have been randomly removed from the other text by the Extraction programme. Like a virus, or process of contagion, the aural presentation of words from one text will increasingly cover over the aural presentation of words from the other text, until meaning is completely destroyed/disappears. Extraction will aim to remove all the words in the performers text in the same time that it will take the performers to read their texts. Extraction presents the text, without the structure of their original meaning, and imposes its own order on the authors words. As the writer William S. Burroughs said: “Language is a virus from outer space.”

This action took place at the Gustav Metzger congress at the Atlantis Gallery, Brick Lane, London on 15th March 2003 press release can be read online, courtesy of Daniel Jackson

Read the full texts here.

Thank you Lana Turner Journal.

Action: Watching the Watcher

June 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

Over the past several days, artist Jonathan VanDyke has spent 40 hours looking at the Jackson Pollock painting Convergence, 1952 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, in a performance he calls The Long Glance.

Here are a few notes I took while watching a live feed of the performance.  The feed was configured as a series of changing still images, pulsing into view every second or so.

Tuesday, May 31, 1:26 PM.

When I looked this morning, VanDyke was alone with the painting.  He stood to the left of it, arms folded, very still.  He tilted his head once, rolled his feet outwards.

I tune back in when I get to the studio, and I see he’s surrounded by a group.  A young woman to the left, gesturing.  Ah, a docent tour.   The group looks at the painting, looks at Jonathan looking at the painting

White long sleeved shirt, dark pants.  Closer to the camera you can see the whiter outline of his undershirt.

He’s alone for a while.

Then another crowd comes in.  This group stands between him and the painting, looking at the Pollock. They give VanDyke a glance or two, but mostly go right up to the Pollock and look at its details.  An older gentleman stands to the right with a cane. Then they’re all gone, a flock.  He is alone, hands in his pockets, weight on one leg. A casual look of looking.

It feels intimate, watching him watch. He sheds the VanDyke, becomes Jonathan.

He stretches for a second, hugs himself, put his hands back in his pockets.

Now he’s folded his arms again.

Two women stand next to the painting, looking with him.  Much longer than the average time a visitor spends with a painting, but still, after three or four minutes they’re gone.

Now his hands are on the small of his back, elbows akimbo.

2:09 PM.

I check back in, no Jonathan. I’m glad, actually, that he gives himself some breaks. Short ones, though – here he is, walking back into the screen.

Arms folded, as if he never left.

2:30 PM.

He’s to the right of the painting, left arm at his waist.

Wednesday, June 1, 10:57 AM.

A group of school kids, many with matching black T-shirts.

Today Jonathan is in a gray shirt with a white collar, arms folded, mid painting. The kids vanish & he’s alone.  His arms drop to his sides. He shifts his weight to his right leg, puts his left hand in his pocket.

Truly, he looks like he’s just standing there looking at the painting. The kids reappear from the right side of the frame, stand around him again.  Almost like it’s a time loop. A teacher in blue is explaining things about the Pollock, gesturing right and left.

Jonathan’s arms are by his sides again, then folded.

I get some coffee, come back, a man with a thick black ponytail is in the frame, behind Jonathan, obscuring him.

He leaves and Jonathan rests his hands on the small of his back, seems to lean back, then relaxes into his contrapposto.

11:47 PM.

Mid painting.  One hand holding his elbow behind his back. Legs spread a bit. The kids from earlier wander back through. They’re looking at him more than looking at the painting now.  One girl plays with a strand of her hair.

And they’re gone again.

3:19 PM.

Arms akimbo, hands at his waist.

A woman stands with him off to the right, black T-shirt, khakis, dark hair, arms folded.  A companion. They look together.  A shared experience.  But then she disappears, one frame she’s there, the next gone.

Skinny girl with a long lensed camera taking a close up of the wall text on the right – I’m guessing this is the text to Jonathan’s work.  She bends forward into the frame.

He stretches his arms down, then relaxes them at his sides.

I sense now a feeling of endurance, a feeling of really waiting and waiting it out.  He moves his neck to the right, stretching it with his hand.  Walks in a little closer to the painting.  Stays there, hands in his pockets, shifting subtly from foot to foot.  He folds his arms, almost seeming to be hugging himself.

This close in some ways he seems part of the painting, part of its composition.  The brown of his neck, the gray of his shirt, his white collar, the darker swirl of his hair. And in some sense maybe he is part of the painting.  Where, exactly does it stop in our experience and where does he begin?

It’s a colorful Pollock. Orange trails, yellow and blue blotches, the khaki of unprimed canvas, black veins and threads, and over it all big white exuberant splashes.

One foot angling to the left.  Weight into his right hip.

The painting, of course, moves much more than he does.  And yet, on another plane, he, even at his most still, moves more than the painting.  An it and a him. We are invited to compare. It’s impossible not to think of those iconic pictures of Pollock bending over his canvas with a bucket of paint. Cantilevered out over the work like a dancer. All that sturm und drang and romance met with the simplicity, stillness, even dumbness of Jonathan’s gesture.

Now he’s edged forward so his whole body is in the frame.  The room seems darker.  His body tensed.

I wonder if he’s beginning to hate the painting, or is cycling through love and hate and love and hate again.

The closer he stands, the more his colors and shapes become part of the work.  The bottom of the painting now exactly matches the line where his T-shirt meets his jeans.  He’s off center, near where I first saw him, to the leftish.

4:20 PM.

Way off to the right. patient, patient. He closes with the painting.  Shifts his weight to the left.  Brings his feet together, then apart again. Crosses one foot over the other. Still, yet restless. Every couple of frames there’s a slight movement. For some reason, I feel at this moment that he’s really looking. Looking hard at the painting. Or making himself look.

How much can we know or extrapolate from tiny shifts of posture what a person is thinking or feeling?

He tilts his head to the right. Crouches down to the floor and squats. The difficulty of simply standing.  Standing as dance. But at a glance, he’s just squatting to look.  He stands, then squats again, then stands.  Now with right foot forward, hand on his back hip. Every standing pose is a classic of one kind or another. It’s hot here, where I am, and I wonder if it’s hot there.

He lifts his shirt, and I glimpse for a moment his white undershirt.

Legs crossed, front foot tilted on its side.

The painting will, inevitably, outlast him.  Out-endure him.

Someone walks by quickly, an older woman. He steps back legs apart (hips width apart, I hear a yoga instructor say in my head).  He steps back to the middle of the canvas.

He’s been alone most of the afternoon.

What exactly is a vigil? Why attend like this.  To attend, to wait upon.  To be ready for something.

5:45 PM.

I know he’s gone, but I look anyway.  The room is noticeably dimmer, the video grainer and yellowed in the low light. I watch the painting pulsing in and out of view.  It loads more often now, maybe because I’m the only one watching. Watching now that he is gone.

Thursday, June 2, 1:30 PM.

Hello Jonathan.  He’s alone.  White T-shirt, hands in his pockets, weight resting on the right hip. Medium distance from the painting. Very still. He tilts his head up slightly, then neutral.  A older woman in a navy jacket walks behind him, stops to read the wall text.  She walks up to the center of the painting, very close, cranes her neck to peer upward.  Then she circles around behind Jonathan, gives him a glance, disappears.

Now his arms are folded. Weight on the left hip.

I have work to do. I should look away. But strangely enough I am compelled.

He moves back and to the left a couple of steps. Tilts his head to the right.  He shifts back and forth slightly right left right. Tilts his head to the left. Then neutral. Then pushes his weight into his left hip. His head right again. A posture of assessing.

Now he pushes his hands down into his pockets, shrugs his shoulders up a minute, keeps his arms straight against his body.

This seems a little flirty. And I think of the painting looking back at him.

3:20 PM.

Three women watching with him, slightly behind, looking at the painting with tilted heads.

He’s off to the far right, right hand behind his back, holding his left elbow, legs apart, weight to the right.

The women talk to each other. One leaves.  The two that are left tilt one way, then the other.

Jonathan holds his hands behind his back.  He looks ready. Ready for what?

One woman imitates his pose. The other puts her hands in her back pockets.  The move and shift and move again.  He is still.

I have to go. As it happens, to a museum.  About 4:20 or so I’ll be looking in on a Pollock myself, a parallel gaze.

[ More on Jonathan VanDyke in follow-up to this post here: Action: Inaction Painting ]

More on Burroughs’ Color Walks from Michael Taussig

May 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Michael Taussig on Burroughs’ color walks:

“That was in 1964. Brion Gysin was his painter pal in those days and when you look over Gysin’s work, playing with color in relation to written words, let alone Burroughs’s own color work, as in the 1960s scrapbooks and the 1980s paintings, it suddenly hits you that there is a tight connection between the mad desire to cut out, on the one hand, and this fascination with color, on the other.

As when, in his homage to Gysin, Burroughs invokes the idea of going on “color walks”—which are a good deal more than color-coded walkways through Tangier or New York or Paris: red on Wednesdays, blue on Fridays, or whatever. A delightful idea, to be sure. But that is only the beginning because the idea here is that the very notion of a code is to be cut out, meaning that color is invoked so as to loosen the restraint of coding and that there is something about color that facilitates this, as if colors love to betray themselves like yellow means gold, awesome and holy, but also treason and cowardice, and it has a long history in the Christian West of marking adulterous women, Jews, Muslims, prostitutes, heretics, witches, and executioners.

Could we not say, therefore, that with the color walk we are alerted to the singular and beautiful fact that color itself walks?

This would make color even more of a flâneur than Burroughs,who liked to call himself el hombre invisible in his walks through the market in Tangier in the late 1950s. What was invisible in Tangier became color in Paris, thanks to Gysin’s paintings painted in Tangier. Maybe people have to lose themselves first and become invisible as long-term residents in a third world country before being readied for the color walk? But then Burroughs was continuously marginal in utterly realistic as well as in utterly romantic ways. He was queer. He was a heroin addict. He loathed America. And he had weird ideas about most everything, especially writing. Being marginal can mean you switch on and you switch off because you are either too conspicuous or invisible. Too invisible, that’s the point, at which point you emerge as color, walking color at that.

And, remember, the original insight for the color walk lay in Gysin’s playing with letters, letters that form words. Here color and the decomposition of written language signs go hand in hand. What also happens when Smoker comes in from the cold is that the old writer in the boxcar by the junkyard is once again able to write. As colors pour from tar, he unblocks. He pours. The cat purrs. And guess what? All his stories are animal stories. (“Of course,” adds Burroughs.) The old writer finds them in an illustrated book. There is the Flying Fox with his long black fingers and sad black face, just like Smoker. There is a Fishing Bat peering from under its shell. There is the Black Lemur with round red eyes and its little red tongue, the beautiful Ring-Tailed Lemur hopping through the forest as if on a pogo stick. “So many creatures, and he loves them all” (WL, p. 248).

The old writer caresses these pictures.

After all, “I have been a cut up for years,” the writer told us. “I think of

words as being alive like animals. They don’t like to be kept in pages. Cut the pages and let the words out.” Now the words and the animals become united in the stories the old writer found welling up inside himself as colors pour from tar.”

Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred

See also Taussig’s “Getting High with Burroughs and Benjamin” in Cabinet Magazine.

Image: Bryon Gysin Dream Machine iPhone app created by the New Museum as part of their Brion Gysin Dream Machine show this past spring.

More here: Color: William Burroughs Walking on Color

Color: William Burroughs Walking on Color

May 19, 2011 § 5 Comments

William Burroughs’ Color Walks

“Another exercise that is very effective is walking on colors. Pick out all the reds on a street, focusing only on red objects–brick, lights, sweaters, signs. Shift to green, blue, orange, yellow. Notice how the colors begin to stand out more sharply of their own accord. I was walking on yellow when I saw a yellow amphibious jeep near the corner of 94th Street and Central Park West. It was called the Thing. This reminded me of the Thing I knew in Mexico. He was nearly seven feet tall and had played the Thing in a horror movie of the same name, and everybody called him the Thing, though his name was James Arness.  I hadn’t thought about the Thing in twenty years, and would not have thought about him except walking on yellow at that particular moment.”

(From “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars” William S. Burroughs in The Adding Machine: Selected Essays, Arcade Publishing, New York, 1985)

“For example, I was taking a color walk around Paris the other day…doing something I picked up from your pictures in which the colors shoot out all through the canvas like they do in the street. I was walking town the boulevard when I suddenly felt this cool wind on a warm day and when I looked out all through the canvas like they do in the street. I was walking down the boulevard when I looked out I was seeing all the blues in the street in front of me, blue on a foulard…blue on a young workman’s ass…his blue jeans…a girl’s blue sweater…blue neon…the sky…all the blues. When I looked again I saw nothing but all the reds of traffic lights…car lights…a café sign…a man’s nose. Your paintings make me see the streets of Paris in a different way. And then there are all the deserts and the Mayan masks and the fantastic aerial architecture of your bridges and catwalks and Ferris wheels.”

(Burroughs, from an interview with Brion Gysin in 1960)

Update: More on Burroughs’ Color Walks from Michael Taussig

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