SUSAK expo 2006 (conversations)
Susak Conversations reflections,
notes on the idea of situation
by Jo Melvin
In Susak wheelbarrows are highly significant functional objects. They are commonplace, as there are no private vehicles on the island. Some are customised and everything from builders’ materials to shopping is carried in them. Wheelbarrows are a familiar sight once you’ve spent any time on Susak. When Daniel Devlin told me he was thinking of painting the barrows orange as an art piece my reaction to the idea was that its enactment would simply and directly address critical considerations on issues of intention, ownership and originality in contemporary practice. I will outline these and point to different ways of addressing them.
The painted barrow presents an incremental shift in perception for the viewer and through the fact that it is different, art as a way of thinking enters the cultural arena. It recalls a work by Daniel Buren in 1970, the stripe posters, that were placed in all the Paris metro stations, in the situation where you would expect to find an advert. Viewers may not have known the theoretical context the project addressed but they would or could have noticed the work, if regular metro travellers they would have noticed the poster’s re-occurrence in all the stations they visited. They may have speculated or they may have wondered. In either case a shift in thinking through looking would take place and the reflection on this sets in motion trains of thought that without the encounter with the poster(s) would not have happened.
The idea of painting wheelbarrows is pragmatic, and it has a direct visual effect on the environment. The barrows are generally grubby in appearance, some quite battered with erosion holes. Daniel outlined the scheme of his idea, to paint Susak’s wheelbarrows a uniform orange. They would be properly prepared in a workmanlike way, sanded down, then the application of undercoat before two final coats. A notice inviting owners to sign up their barrows for the work was placed in the central bar, thirty were consigned. It was free. This caused general astonishment even disbelief as well as a certain amount of humour at the absurd notion of a group of artists working freely on a laborious task. This fact marks one of the important considerations, the distinction from exchange value as commerce and introduces exchange as trust and gift. The gift exchange is from the artist and trust exchange is from the owner. The introduction of humour in the absurdity of the situation is another important factor.
I imagined the Susak resident noticing a pleasant difference, or the holidaymaker struck by the unusual number of orange barrows wonders at the reasons and thinks it a local custom. The encounter causes a subtle rupture of thought processes. The owner is pleased, a good as new object, better as it’s not drab looking but bright. It’s at this point where the art idea enters the project. It is through two distinct threads, one is nuance of meaning in the shift of perception, the other by bringing together different exchanges between people, of objects and of context. It operates pragmatically as an actual event and philosophically as the event of understanding. And it’s also like the telling of a joke where a whole range of interlinked references come to the fore without being directly stated.
There’s another story to tell here. The above is a theoretical position. In the conversations I referred to the idea of an impossible transparency by outlining how what I want to say is never tied to what I do say and that the gap between what I say and what I intend to say drives me to continue in hopeful expectation. It is also tinged with despair. But despair is not the subject, there is no time here in this outline of thoughts for dwelling on the despairing aspect, it is instead on the modification of what is said, each attempt begins again the aim for transparency between thought and its articulation, between the idea and its intended realisation. I wanted to be part of the wheelbarrow painting team. It’s convivial to engage in labour, sharing common concerns, it’s quite a luxury away from my normal routine of work in a different situation entirely. I would not have the same relationship with wheelbarrow painting here in Stoke Newington, but in Susak my so called ‘normal’ time based relations were temporarily unhinged. There was what I called a skewering of time. Others felt it too and it was not simply tiredness although this was definitely a factor. Our time awareness had no anchor, a day for instance, felt like a week, as the markers of familiarity weren’t there. This was simultaneously exhilarating and un-nerving. And for me it was precipitated by the collective energy of a group of people working. I don’t mean simply those on working together on the barrows, but the whole group endeavour with disparate but shared enterprise in participation.
But who, unless they’ve done the job before, would have thought the barrow to be such a complex object to paint?
I am writing after the event of Susak Expo, re-tracing threads of apprehension. This discussion is framed by reflections on the simultaneity of apprehension and comprehension. I cast backwards what was then a forward motion.
My task, now, in this text and then, on the island Susak for the intense, short period at the beginning of July is to attempt to perform the act of thinking through a form of dialogue that is a conversation. The conversation may shift in direction but it has the singular intention to reach a possible transparency of intent. I hope the text serves to perform an exchange, like a mirror of recognition for those artists who were present, but that it also extends the act of exchange with those who weren’t there. Between what I say and what I want to say falls the shadow – between what I write and what I hope to write, falls another. Driven on though by the lack of exactitude, my lack becomes the determinant that drives the repetition of my attempt to communicate that indistinct in between-ness that is pertaining to the idea and the event of Susak Expo 06. The shadowy realm of inference and speculation is an aspect of the in between and it is located between those participating artists, between the artists and the residents, between the countries we come from and the island of Susak. It is in the space of recollection.
If not now, when? Before the event of Susak I wrote a short text where I explored the idea of specificity and situation, how location and context become transformed through the fluid motion of telling and re-telling a story and where translation becomes metaphorical…There are different points and situations, a multi-layered temporal linearity to weave these threads by re-casting thought processes in relation to, and alongside, the specific sets of events. It’s with this aspect that I will start. When does the expo as the idea, begin? Is it with Daniel Devlin as he speculates on a possible event? Or is it as it becomes specific through each participant’s individual journey to the island? This subjective engagement is realised through the anticipatory journey, then to share the individual trajectories of these journeys, literally and metaphorically is where something other than conscious subjectivity comes into the arena. This is the space between us where dialogue and exchange begins and potentially it’s a risky business. It may evolve or not, by leading to a realisation which in turn may fail. But without the risk it can’t fail and it’s not worth doing. The way exchange transaction is defined as the outcome’s success or failure is edgy, and anxiety prevents risk.
The threads of prospective trajectories crisscross in various ways. Some fuse to generate new intentions. Some are like the forester’s tracks that go nowhere … or they lead to somewhere indistinct. Some intentions maintain a singular, independent volition and remain inviolate. Other threads become too entangled and caught up in a confused state they become disengaged and worse, disillusioned. This disillusionment is the direct result of thwarted purpose of intention, and it leads back to the question or, more accurately the problem inherent in the proposition of Susak Expo as a concept without a plan. Here on this island a large group of artists, assembled by a shared and idealised vision of Susak Expo as still possible but unrealisable, found the ideas for its conclusion – that is its realisation, as a show problematic and contradictory. Accusations reflect a personal sense of loss, and they mask a mourning of what was thought to be possible. The difficulty of bringing into the open an arena, the island location, as a dual space, an actual place and a metaphorically possible one, for the experientially understood encounter and its documentation is the essence of contradiction. It centres on the dilemma of how to pin down the realisation without fixity. The story is told and in its differences it becomes like the game of Chinese whispers and takes on new character. These stories are part of the open agenda arising from the project’s intended beginning, and in a way they necessarily become central to its idea; they could not have been predicted or intended before the event. And the question after the event remains caught between an idea of success and its subjectivities, as somehow specific and the idea of failure that doesn’t fulfil the nominal specificity. One interpretation is of the event’s success and another is of its failure. Stories are told differently, felt differently and understood differently. But to reflect after the event is to recast the thought processes that led towards it whilst holding on to the fact that its not just an abstract philosophical problem concerned with aesthetic relations as an open procedural unfolding, but one directly faced with ethical relations, the inescapable realisation as put by John Donne: ‘No Man is an island.’ To address this notion necessitates acceptance of responsibility at a deeper level than usually assumed by the term responsibility, I am not referring to organisational logistics, but responsibility for one’s intended project and its instigation. This is to take on the work’s ambition. Ambition becomes authenticated in the act of responsibility.
Between the ideal and its realisation the shadow of doubt emerges, between what is said and what can’t be said there remains a space of impossibility, and paradoxically it alludes to the ideal as still possible. One must not spend time doubting, one must just begin. It is exemplified by the fact that the Susakian language has no word for art, and the idea of art becomes a wordless extemporisation that can be demonstrated in a series of actions, performed, located and in other words it leads to new situations.
One element I drew on in the conversation-talks and the short text is the way stories are used to demonstrate ideas and understanding specific to situations but not limited by them. The situation itself is one that reoccurs in different locations and at different times. The story’s dualism is the means to articulate through phenomenal form the indistinct idea that’s perhaps forgotten as well as the indefinable gap between: first the idea, then the intention, and last its realisation. Into each fall doubt, anxiety and uncertainty. The story’s dualism locates situations to provide spaces for inter textual dialogues where Plato’s cave becomes Kierkegaard’s banquet by conjuring with mirrors and spectres. The story is told differently but the shadows of us reflect back from the texts as I attempt to recreate the cave’s transformation into the banquet scene in Stages in Life’s Way and then to relocate the action to the upper room of house 600. Plato’s cave as a device to frame thinking about perception and a subsequent loss of clarity is embedded in meta-structures of understanding the world of feeling and inference. Kierkegaard’s banquet also takes place in an out of town location, like the cave it is remote, but it differs in the grand surroundings of a country mansion. The character’s delivery of after-dinner speeches plays on inference and intention and on the subject of love – love as the force for living, the reason to live.
My act of interlocution was to expose and demonstrate the risky substance as the energy of the situation by appropriating and remaking elements (from Kierkegaard, Plato, Diogenes) to find a form to locate the ideal and actual in the act of becoming realised in the present moment as a procedural event. It is a microcosm of Susak’s event as an arena and it’s not limited to a mirrored reflection of intention. Re-writing history as event by reliving it takes the subject beyond the present … and it’s a re-integration that goes beyond the perceptual limits previously encountered. It is an aesthetic enactment … and there’s a loss, unredeemed and unredeemable as the last talk did not take place. This sets up a new relation with what became retrospectively the last talk, the talk that did not conclude, the talk in other words before conclusion. This talk was not intended as the last, rather as the penultimate, the fourth in a series of five, before my departure that was also before the end. ‘Waiting for the end boys waiting for the end…’*
What’s become of them boys, waiting for the end … the conversations shift, repeat, redefine, extend.