Dolce utopia

Pub date February 9, 2010

VISUAL ART Amid day-to-day art world caprice, an event titled "Dynamic Adaptability: A Conference on New Thinking and New Strategies for the Arts" took place Jan. 28 at Herbst Theater. Rather than vie for stability, the organizers envisioned the gathering as an opportunity "to explore our changing environment and offer fresh ways of thinking about the future" of Bay Area arts. "This is a time," they asserted, "of tremendous potential for new ideas to take root."

Surprisingly, the speaker who best formulated this alternative model — this strategy of adaptive dynamism — was an outsider, and the youngest person at Herbst Theater that day. But 22-year-old neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer would argue this makes perfect, logical sense. Author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $24), Lehrer claims remote perspectives and practices offer unforeseeable insights. He argues that keen novelists like Proust can lead us to new understandings of the brain and society at large that neuroscientists (and other professionals) might otherwise overlook. The same goes for innovative artists; great art provokes new questions, which in turn abets new thinking.

The reason, Lehrer argues, is reason. Linear projections fashioned by rationality allow cognition only so many avenues. According to Lehrer, "emotions" — those messy feelings that propel many artists — "underlie cognition differently. And like morality and aesthetics, they have inexplicable qualities." Essentially, the more variegated and multidisciplinary the approach, the better the chance of screwing in that light bulb. The battlefield of "truth," it turns out, isn’t won solely by techies in labs, but also by writers and artists in studios.

Yet what if artists today can’t afford studios? Lehrer convincingly makes a case for dynamism, the importance of arts and humanities disciplines joining hands with sciences and other fields. But with arts budgets always the first to go in a paraplegic, sloughing economy, how are artists to survive, let alone produce? Better yet, how are they to adapt?

Artist-provocateur Philip Huang provided the conference’s other answer. Adorned in a cape, glitter vest, and Snoopy t-shirt, Huang greeted the audience by yelling, "Hey, motherfuckers!" Then he did it again, and again, until the shock wore off, at which point he was able to convince the crowd to taunt back, effectively turning the theater into an absurd acoustic swirl of contrived and zealous "Motherfucker!" chants.

Huang espoused an artistic model borrowed from TV and radio journalist Robert Krulwich, a strategy of "throwing yourself." It’s a prostitution tactic of pitching and hustling, but without the grip of the pimp or institution. And it works. In 10 short minutes, he convinced a dumbfounded-turned-elated crowd to fund his "24-hour Witness Fitness Performance," a straight-from-the-ass proposal to do a performance circuit on sidewalks that face treadmill runners as they vacuously stare into urban inanity. Hoang raised nearly $300 of wadded-up bills, all thrown at him like roses at a princess, despite his goading, "Fork it over, motherfuckers!"

Huang clearly doesn’t give a shit about the economy; he’s the type of artist who, despite uncertainties, will always find a way to produce via hustling. His "studio" is a case in point: the bedroom doubles as a "queer performance space" where he screens work and disseminates it through a YouTube channel (spider75berkely). But it’s his street performances that are most interesting. An artist’s work is likely to suffer if entirely withdrawn from the world (Proust’s last writings, where he ensconced himself in a cork-lined bedroom for three years, attest to this).

The mutability of an "in-between" or "third way" of making art was proposed by speakers at the "What is the Good of Work?" seminars organized by the Goethe-Institut in New York. Aimed at "think(ing) of unemployment as an artistic and philosophical category" given the amount of unemployed artists, the seminar "takes its starting point in the claim that today the artist — defined by creativity, unconventionality, and flexibility — might be seen as a role model for contemporary workers."

Liam Gillick, who spoke at the most recent seminar Jan. 30, believes today’s artist has an opportunity to "to reflect on permanent leisure." "The good artist is always productive and works all the time," he says. This "work" isn’t necessarily work or leisure in the traditional sense, but work characterized by "flexible knowledge-workers exercising self-organization and self-determination where the studio functions as a laboratory." Gillick views entropy as art’s current model: resistance and production via indeterminacy and flux.

In a similar spirit, albeit unwittingly, this article was written in several spaces (Herbst Theater; BART; seat 14B on a Boeing 757; Everyman Espresso and Fresh Salt Bar in NYC; a friend’s Brooklyn bedroom that isn’t really a bedroom but a living room with a partition; and all the criss-crossing streets in between), in several formats (notebook; laptop; cell phone; napkin; and folds in my brain). There were distractions — turbulence announcements; actors rehearsing scripts of banal, big city dating-related dialogue while jogging in place; a man’s heinous, relentless laughter that sounded exactly like a 1980 VW Rabbit desperately trying to turn over in the dead of winter; and near the rampant heat of a misused radiator. This may account for its moments of disjunction, but its words are imbued with many shifts in space and time, so that ideally they reflect more than a static mirror might.

Metacognition, or "thinking about thinking," as Lehrer explains it, is crucial to problem-solving and development. As is distance and movement. This is why Lehrer suggests doing work when traveling, walking — even daydreaming. Distancing oneself from an immediate obstacle allows for relaxation, which allows alpha waves to generate, which leads to moments of insight and epiphany.

"We shouldn’t be complaining about uncertainty or the prospect of no future," Gillick claims. Nor should we follow the opposite instinct of scrambling for "transparent utopias." Those, he warns, are never "transparent but actually opaque and dangerous."

I believe art critic Nicolas Bourriaud proffered the best way out of the current impasse faced by artists in a time of economic struggle and failure: "I am not persuaded that we should respond to this sort of ‘all or nothing’ by another globalizing system," he says. "I’m under the impression that we are approaching an era of ‘dolce utopia,’ to quote Maurizio Cattelan. It’s the idea of constructing temporal spaces which permit for a while experimentation."