Editor's note: Skewed Visions co-founder Charles Campbell's enthralling four-part series on change continues this week with his reflections on creating art on a global scale. (Read Charles' take on personal and local change here, and stay tuned for his final column, looking at change from a survival perspective.)
Change in the context of living as one point in a multi-nodal multiverse
I’ve set this thing up wrong. Going from the personal to the local to the global. Makes it seem like a pathway logic, as if it is possible to progress, to “develop,” when really it’s about levels of intensity and dispersal. In these days of people going all over the place, when so much becomes global, flat, and ex-pat Midwesterners from Brooklyn fret about post-consensual capitalism in Ohio, the distinctions of local and global are less like lines on a map and more like ingredients in a rimless bowl of soup. What does “change” even mean here?
Who knows what’s going on?
I’d love an answer to that. Because I love expertise and experts: the idea of individuals whose knowledge and skills are comprehensive and authoritative. In fact I know a couple people who are, frankly, scary smart and capable. And, yes, I would call them experts – but mainly only on grant applications, not to you over coffee. But do they know what’s going on? I guess that depends on how you ask them. But this is the thing: everybody is like 9 years old or something inside, even – especially – those who look like they’ve got their poop together. Would this be the world we live in if experts knew what’s going on? Even so, let’s not be satisfied in our ignorance. Just because we can’t know everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. This gap is part of the motor that makes us run.
You only know it’s real when it hits you in the face (importance of the spider)
So because no one knows what’s going on, we need to be a little more careful. This means cultivating skepticism is relevant. And skepticism ought to lead to questioning. Of everything. The jargon that arises around making art mutates frequently, but it always comes from somewhere. It may even come from some artist’s work. But we shouldn’t let the Naming of Ideas convince us of their value. Yes, that’s where the money is, but value is different than price – and we’re making art not money.
As artists we wake up every morning and get hit in the face with a sledgehammer. It’s the nature of the business. Yes, sometimes (I admit) it doesn’t hurt that much, but maybe that’s just because I’m getting used to manually replacing my smile in the mirror every morning. And you know what? That’s how we know what’s going on. Flakey funders? Small audiences? Uncomprehending criticism? Real information. Useless collaborators? Tightwad donors? Mental breakdown? Real information. Pain is educational.
So we need lots of legs, a wide reach. This is the flip side of skepticism. The making friends part. Being generous, up the ladder and down. This goodwill is not to ensure a place at parties or in some presumed funding hierarchy. This is how you swim in the soup. It’s messy and sometimes up looks a lot like down, so we need a lot of friends: a lot of legs.
So what about the global?
Maybe the global is sort of an intense version of the local. Two aspects of the same thing that changes over time and space.
Imagine that, instead of being a person living in time and space, you are a chunk of carrot floating in a thick and hearty vegetable/beef soup. Why? Because it makes us less discrete. The “O, I’m so human: I am me and no one is like me,” glitch can be found under a bunch of repressive ideologies. But this being-a-carrot-in-the-soup metaphor might be useful beyond political critique. What happens if we think of ourselves as intersections within systems, rather than as individuals?
Why not? Our bodies are made up of continually regenerating (changing) cells. Our memories are remade with each recollection. Space is not an empty vessel. We can even feel the impact of it on our face as we move. There is direct, intimate, interdependence between each of us and the environment. What’s more, this intimacy is also relevant to time. Remember Faulkner: The past is never dead. It’s not even past. It’s all a big soup.
The knife you spread your peanut butter with was made somewhere at some point. It is now in your hands. Then you put it down. What connects this object in time is not something essential to the knife, but a complex set of maneuvers inside your head: the perceived relationship that we recognize in the world. We are the intersection of these things.
What we hold onto, whether old letters or butter knives, comes from somewhere and is going somewhere else – heedless of our affection. But what you have, memories, objects, and the complex and intimate and fleeting relations between them – the soup – is what makes us…us. It’s why tearing down old buildings hurts so much.
My mother is gone. And her letters aren’t what they were when she wrote them. But they turn into what they become, which is what they are: they change. That’s what being is. So while we may be betrayed by the past’s disappearance, we are also simultaneously intimately connected with these other times as they exist with us now. Even the absences are present. This is as comforting as it is horrifying but it is material reality, as tangible as a kiss.
We move through this soup and aren’t ever the same. Certain things are sort of predictable: this chunk of celery comes round pretty regularly. But there are so many things in this pot, it’s never the same surface twice. It’s all here: past, present, future. This is what life is. This is the change we live in, if you call it living.
Getting beyond survival
So in this soup, change in a global context is different than a survey of what’s happening around the world. (Besides, I’d like this essay to be relevant next week.)
To extend “change in a global context” beyond leveraging the recently flattened world for marketing purposes, we need to allow our practices to change with the world – and I don’t mean adding tweet seats. It seems to me that if we swim in a soup there’s not much point in making art for a dot on a map. A global context for Skewed Visions then is less about what countries we can tour to, or even how social media can connect us to a larger audience dispersed around the world. It is more about the kind of work our thinking does. How does it connect with the other intensities happening elsewhere?
Sean Kelley-Pegg did a fine piece last June using cell phone and GPS technology that wasn’t about how cool phones are (nor merely translating a conventional story to a new technological medium) but that joined the intensities of urban renewal, secret data exchanges, and journalism, in an intra-city tour that made these intensities a constitutive part of the audience experience. Gülgün Kayim is working on a piece for the demilitarized zone in Cyprus, becoming a part of the intensities of belonging, political expression, and migration, among many other things. How this piece will shape itself in relation to others (e.g., audiences) is still an ongoing process, but you can bet it won’t be made like another Waiting For Lefty.
The (Impossibility) Death of the Avant-Garde
Are we just being weird? Just trying to be different? Well, I should hope so. What’s the good of trying to be normal? But we’re not trying. This is not about trend-spotting, it’s about the soup. Skewed Visions tends to be placed on the left side of the hoary experimental/classic divide, but labels are fundamentally about exclusion. Putting people in their place. Avant-garde? If you’re not on a one-way train how can you say you’re out in front?
Larger trends and “historical” movements are history being written from a fortress
Since the visibility of things like Sleep No More, artistic practices that disperse audience and performance within an environment tailored to its purpose have become recognizable and, evidently, practicable. Once a practice specific to aesthetic localities, immersive theater is now another reasonable style to be adopted by those who desire a more open format and audience-based experiences in their theater. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Jerry.
“Immersive,” like “site-specific” before it, and soon “relational,” has become a category of practice that in acquiring a relatively consistent definition functions like a tool for reproduction. And if you can reproduce it, you can create a business model and a soup spoon.
The larger moment that site-specific and immersive practices are seen to constitute is being created from a behind thick walls: from Somewhere Else. The articulation of these moments in a sense globalizes them, makes them possible to identify (and create) elsewhere through generalization: identifying attributes, and discounting some while validating others. Because what else does global mean? Even the oceans only cover 2/3 of the earth’s surface. This is how language works. This is how the world works. But the aesthetic labor of a Skewed Visions piece is meant to develop the local anew, to regrow the specific in the face of the general. It’s not about saying something, or showing something, or providing an experience. Even though these elements are there. It’s about making work that thinks for itself.
Change is fuel
In the face of this soup – or rather, from the middle of it – when something becomes global (identifiable in accordance with principles distributed across space) it dies. Not because it is popularized, or normalized – not because it’s “so over.” But because in order to become global in this sense it has to be identified in such a way that it can be applied across multiple other local occurrences. It is no longer an intensification of the local. When this happens it begins to lose its practical specificity to global generalities. It is a smoothing over of the local by a broader generality meant to be used as a template. From our position, this globalization relieves it of its interest, of its excitement, and its vitality. We are left imitating another simulacrum.
But these deaths are not tragic. This is the challenge of the acceptance of death. The changes wrought by the sweep of any such globalizing motion are the same changes that can now be our fuel: a source, a means by which we can achieve further motions of our own. If nothing else, these deaths show us one thing again and again: we are not dead yet.