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What Can the Performance Artist Do for You?

by Jessica Santone

SARA MORAWETZIn INSTRUCTION EXPERIMENT: ACTION // REACTION, Australian artist Sara Morawetz will occupy Defibrillator’s Electrode Window Gallery during the first two days of the Rapid Pulse festival, where she will complete instructions submitted to her by the audience. I asked her to tell us more about how this piece developed, her research on scientific methods, and interacting with the audience through social media.

Jessica Santone: Can you tell us a little about INSTRUCTION EXPERIMENT: ACTION // REACTION and how it is similar to or different from other work that you’ve done on experiments, the scientific process, and knowledge creation?

Sara Morawetz: INSTRUCTION EXPERIMENT fits into a broader series of investigations about the mechanics of scientific methodology. It was devised to conceptually explore the nature of method creation whilst also serving as a subversion of the processes underpinning experimental science.

I am drawn to the underlying philosophy of both conceptual / process-based art and theoretical science. While these fields are generally perceived as being quite disparate, I find there is a common currency in the analytical processes that both engage. Artists and scientists both set out to uncover hidden truths, each group developing a methodological practice that measures, tests, defines and then redefines the constituent elements of a given scenario. In doing so an initially complex hypothesis is broken down into a series of logical actions that attempt to reveal the fundamental nature of the subject in question.

The focus of my current work (I’m currently pursuing my PhD) is an evaluation of the very concept of ‘methodology’ itself. How does method work? How is method recognized? How is method made, unmade, broken down and reassembled? And when striped of function for the sake of art, what purpose does method serve and how can it be measured?

In pursuing answers to these questions, I have become less interested in the ‘output’ of science and more engaged with the practical and philosophical concerns of science, specifically: observation, standardization, and method as action. I seek to understand how these concepts affect the way in which artists’ think and how they work. In this regard the history and philosophy of science has become a crucial part of my research, with figures such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Norman Russell Hanson and Thomas Kuhn being far more influential than any one specific scientific discipline.

My performance for Rapid Pulse invites an audience of both digital and physical spectators to send me an instruction / action / thing to do that I will enact / interpret / subvert within the confines of a window space of the gallery. These instructions are gathered prior and during the performance via several online platforms (my website, Twitter and Instagram), as well by audience members on the street viewing the performance live.

The performance creates an observational viewing platform where I am constantly observed, alongside performative detritus that in its cumulative effect exposes patterns, processes and method within my experimental practice. INSTRUCTION EXPERIMENT is by far my most interactive / participatory work, in that it allows multiple people to engage with me and the work over two days of the festival.

JS: I was really taken with the documentation of repeat repeat that I watched on your website, in which you write the word “repeat” repeatedly. What is interesting for you about the way that repetition operates? Do you experience repetition differently in a durational performance than in the process of making a large, detailed drawing or painting (like your Quanta series)?

SM: The video you’re referring to was made as a short test for a larger performative work I am hoping to stage later this year. I designed the work to be representative of the ‘action’ of scientific research and as such, am hoping to stage the performance in various centers of scientific research.

The Quanta series was pivotal to my current practice in numerous ways. It was my first body of work inspired by scientific action (based upon the systems within the work of my husband, computational mathematician Dr. Darren Engwirda) and led me to think about methodology as a point of convergence between science and art. It also brought clarity to the importance of repetition, duration and ultimately performative actions that are now all central to my ongoing investigations.

Repetition is such a ubiquitous thing – it is universally understood and experienced. I use repeated actions to the point of physical/emotional/material exhaustion in an attempt to simultaneously imply tedium and exactitude – and also to convey a degree of importance to each task. While these values fundamentally underpin the nature of scientific process, they are typically overshadowed by the results of scientific endeavor. Performances such as repeat repeat and INSTRUCTION EXPERIMENT act as a tribute to these unacknowledged actions in science – in homage to the countless, thankless hours that counter the ‘aha!’ breakthroughs popularized in modern culture.

I feel the repeated act works similarly within art and as such serves as a conduit between the two disciplines.

JS: This performance requires a fair amount of trust in the audience. Are you nervous at all about what people might ask you to do? Are you excited about the possibilities of being asked to do something new or unusual?

SM: I am very excited about the possibilities of the work. It is really wonderful to be able to create a work that is as new to you as it is to the audience. Without doubt there is a really interesting dynamic of trust between myself, my actions, and the audience – one that is held in balance with every new action. I am prepared (as much as one can be) for the full spectrum of possible instructions, but of course there are always some nerves due to the live submission process – content must be processed in the moment while being watched. The most surprising thing about the instructions I have received thus far is actually the audience’s appreciation of the vulnerability of my position and the respect shown for it.

I have found my vulnerability is largely a perception. While it is true that I am vulnerable (I have no control over what instructions are sent to me or what I may be asked to do, and I am on display in a glass box like a scientific specimen to be observed). Yet ultimately I am the one who directs the order and outcomes of each action. As a consequence I can leverage more control than one might expect. I believe this is actually the crux of the work and the element that speaks most clearly to the nature of scientific endeavor. Again and again, science is required to take in unpredictable data – objects and forces outside its control – and find mechanisms to assert order and structure. In science we are given the illusion of seeing the world ‘as it is’, but, for better or worse, an invisible matrix has already be assigned to that material. We are seeing a truth, but it is a constructed one.

JS: Why did you want to circulate the documents of your action via Twitter and Instagram?

SM: I think my decision to use social media as a platform for engagement was a direct result of moving from Australia to the United States. Suddenly, these mediums of communication had a larger significance in my life as they provided a set of tools to diminish distance. Through images I was still linked to family and friends in Australia and was also able to share my own experiences in a new city. As a result, I think a method of negotiating ‘remoteness’ (an ironic term to use when living in New York I know – but in this case still relevant!) became an almost subconscious concern in the work I was making. Additionally, I came to consider such tools as vehicles for performing actions to an audience who was not physically present.

By the time I was planning the first iteration of INSTRUCTION EXPERIMENT (at “Critical Animals / This Is Not Art” in Newcastle, Australia, 2014) it seemed only natural to utilize these mediums to connect to the multiple communities I was now part of – so that friends and colleges in Australia, New York and elsewhere could all interact with the work even if they could not be present physically. The unintended consequence of course, was that through these platforms the work reaches an entirely new audience, delivering a new sense of engagement.

JS: How exactly should people participate? Where and when can we watch you perform?

SM: The best way to participate is to come along to Rapid Pulse! You can see me in the window from 1pm on Wednesday June 3rd and 11am on Thursday June 4th and can leave me an instruction in person! If you are unable to come to Chicago, I will be continuing to take instructions via my, Instagram (@sara_blue) and Twitter (@sarablue).

Over the two days, I will attempt as many instructions as possible and will be posting my responses on Instagram and Twitter as each action is completed.

I await your instruction.

photo courtesy of the artist
Jessica Santone is an art historian specializing in histories of contemporary performance. As of fall 2015, she will be Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History at California State University East Bay. Her research examines how audiences play key roles in performance events, as conveyed through the documents they produce or circulate.
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