Sunday, February 10, 2013

the story of one of the best performances of the last ten years in america and the critic who put it on the map

alFrEdo tRifF

this post is about performance art and the power of words.  what's unique about a great performance is how well it fits its time. 

let's keep in mind that structurally speaking, performance art blurs its own presence. that is to say, a performance always "performs," a dynamic which also affects what is said or written about the performance.

last week, i stumbled across this article from the huffington post.

on june 13, 2009, the art guys married an oak tree in a performance entitled the art guys marry a plant.  600 people attended the ceremony sponsored by  the contemporary museum in houston.

the wedding (2009)

lawrence weschler introduces the social context:
Back in 2009, against a political backdrop in which local Texas politicians were ranting about how they couldn’t very well condone weddings between gay individuals because before you knew it they were going to be asked to condone weddings between people and their dogs, the Art Guys decided to marry a tree. Said wedding was not consummated at the time, however, because the tree was still underage (just what kind of deviates do you take our Guys for?) and also because the sapling had yet to find a permanent home. Then this past November, the tree having come of age (or at any rate grown taller than either of the two of them) and a permanent spot having been located, on the shady grounds of Houston’s prestigious Menil Collection, a dedicatory ceremony was announced, for which I was recruited.
three days before the "wedding" (on june 11), art critic douglas britt (who is gay) presented his appraisal for the houston chronicle, kind of odd, since performances happen in the present & you expect a critic to withhold judgement until it happens.  

britt regrets, 
(...) the fact that their wedding isn’t to each other. It’s to a live oak sapling."Welcome to The Art Guys Marry a Plant, the latest performance — or as they prefer to call it, the latest “behavior” work — by the Houston conceptual duo. And it has nothing to do with the country’s hottest civil rights issue, they say, although they both support the right of same-sex couples to marry.
on june 12, a day before the "wedding," we get a a second entry. britt is not "a huge fan of the concept,
(...) it bears comparison to last year’s New Yorker cover depicting the Obamas as terrorists — the one the editors had to explain was really making fun of the people who think they’re terrorists, not the Obamas themselves…

not so fast. there are two levels going on here: logically speaking, britt's inference is hasty. performatively speaking, it works just fine. words play a part in this reception: britt presents a future performance as if it happens in the present. he understands he's breaching protocol and excuses himself: I’d be thrilled if their performance somehow overcomes the feeble concept behind it. time to revise  the ancient conceptual riddle: what's more important, the piece or the concept behind it?

he then quotes michael galbreth (the taller of the art guys) in an interview: 
(...) it doesn’t even warrant discussion. I’m happy that the issue is out there because it helps promotes us, in a crude sense, when the people mistakenly think that it’s a political gesture, which to my mind, it’s not.
a less-than-desirable response in britt's opinion. but why is he surprised? what the performer is saying makes sense: the critic takes the wedding to be political, and that's fine, but it's not really about that.

yes and no. galbreth, being one of the performers, should know what it is about, a point britt cannot dispute. yet, the "wedding" can be seen as "political" for the critic-as-audience. this is not a contradiction. it's the nature of the game, something galbreth wouldn't disagree with either. 

the performer brings up chris burden's famous shoot to problematize britt's charge, that is, The Art Guys’ piece raises — even exploits — the No. 1 civil rights issue of our time only to drop it like a hot potato). for galbreth performances are unpredictable events: Chris Burden has talked about his shooting himself as sculptural – as a form penetrating a form – but then he did it and it suddenly shifts the dialogue because the devil is in the details.

britt doesn't buy it:
And the idea that performing a ceremony, then taking the tree off to the woods comes even within light-years of the level of commitment it took Burden to do Shoot (no matter what you think of its merits as art) is just dumb. Not gloriously, deliriously dumb; just dumb.
galbreth insists: a performance's "richness" can be overshadowed by politics:
if you contextualize it in a certain way, than there are certain things that can’t be ignored. And I think this one is that way too. I think there’s a potential richness to this that doesn’t just stop on the surface of political discussions.
both critic and performer defend their half of the equation: 1- performances are intention- and reception-dependent, 2- as a process, reception takes time to unravel. as we'll see, the critic's whole argument hinges on the fact that marrying a tree in 2009 is politically opportunistic.

let's speculate a bit: what if same-sex marriage was legal in 2009? britt's argument wouldn't stand. so, there's  nothing essentially political in marrying a tree. another interesting angle is, did britt expect galbreth's answer to be "serious"? one gets that impression (here's the full paragraph so you can get the rhetorical presentation):
For their big fat not-so-gay wedding, the Art Guys are playing it straight. The vows and format will be as traditional as possible. An ordained minister will officiate, and he’ll only address the Art Guys, because trees can’t talk and the Lorax hasn’t been invited. After all, one “fairly simple read(ing)” of the piece that Massing suggests is that it’s “an acknowledgement of man’s existence and how it bumps up and interacts with nature.” But there won’t be a marriage license, because the Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which voters passed overwhelmingly in 2005, leaves no wiggle room for quirky exceptions, spelling out that marriage “shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.”
isn't performance art a realm to blur boundaries between "straight" and "bent", "real" and "performative"? yes, the critic retorts, 
(...) but when it comes to the boundary between this artwork and the lives of gay and lesbian couples — even those in states where gay marriage is legal — the piece blurs it much more effectively. As far as Uncle Sam is concerned, their unions have no more legal standing than the Art Guys’ marriage to a tree. Of course, it also inadvertently reinforces the “slippery slope” argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.
i should point that denouncing the possibility of "inadvertently reinforcing the slippery slope argument," britt actually doubles on the fallacy. let's examine this "slippery slope" (GMSL from now on):

GMSL: marriage is traditionally defined between different-sex humans. if we allow marriage between same-sex humans, then we'll have to allow for marriage between humans and animals, humans and things, etc. 

the causal direction is this: if same-sex marriage happens ----> anything can happen.

but marrying a tree actually inverts GMSL's "warranted" direction (above), that is to say, humans are marrying trees before same-sex marriage happens, thus proving the received GMSL's "warranted" causal direction invalid. yeah, britt makes GMSL way too strong a player. can he see it? but who cares for logic now that the important issues are out there?  

here's britt's conclusion:
the Art Guys actually support gay marriage but are staging a piece that looks like it could have been commissioned by the National Organization for Marriage, if they pinned their hopes on conceptual art instead of deposed beauty queens.
this is britt at his most open-ended (my blue above shows he's aware of the intention/reception dichotomy). 

we get a third entry (june 13, the actual wedding day). britt now adds his own video entitled the critic takes no joy in being right. in it we see a man's hand (presumably britt's) looking through different JOY liquid-soap items on a supermarket isle. britt's article for the houston chronicle is a hybrid of words + video. britt is doing performance with words. clever and effective. 

coming back to the "wedding," this much attention already bodes well for the the art guys marry a plant performance (TAGMP hereon). success in art is marketable. marketable is desirable. if one believes galbreth's excerpt above, britt's attention has already fulfilled the art guys' goal of self-promotion.

on june 16 galbreth responds to britt's compulsive coverage:
If we say this event is not about the politics of gay marriage, nothing we say or do will convince anyone that this is the case if they choose to think otherwise. The facts are right there to observe under broad daylight and described succinctly in the title “The Art Guys Marry A Plant.” It is not about gay rights. It is not about rights of any kind. And as we have said, it’s not “about” anything. It is (as they say) what it is.
true, performance's reception is as unpredictable as a hurricane trajectory.
In your article you referenced an older work of ours, “Bucket Feet,” in which we walked around downtown Houston with buckets of water attached to our feet. Now, what if someone believed that the action of impeding our normal capabilities of walking somehow referenced walking disabilities? I suppose they would be free to do so, but we simply walked around with buckets on our feet. And that’s that.
this was minimalism's conceptual fight in the early 1960's with the old generation of new york critics who expected to infer meaning where there was none. suddenly, galbreth plays "serious,"
(...) many times, we’re not sure what it is that we’re doing. But we do it anyway. And it fact, we do it before the world with honesty, integrity, an enormous amount of thought and consideration, and, I would like to think, some panache. This is our thinking. This is our experiment. This is our art. We’re happy to leave it at that.
a perplexing ending: on galbreth's own account we had it that with performance art people can believe whatever they want. suddenly & conclusively, the performer avows "honesty" and "integrity" @ britt and his reading public. why? this betrays the spirit the art guys have buttressed so far to counter britt's -equally problematic- argument. as a result, self-congratulation becomes conceptually supererogatory. since rusell's paradox, one cannot say "i am honest" and win the day. what happened here? a slip of tongue? no. these are words doing their thing.

an exchange which takes "performativity" into the realm of psycholinguistics. here is britt's response:  
I didn’t write what I wrote because the piece “upsets (my) sensibilities about (my) own personal feelings about gay rights.” (For one thing, I didn’t know I had sensibilities about my own personal feelings.)
but of course you do! pragmatically speaking. besides, feeling-wise there's nothing weird about simultaneously having first and second order feelings. i can feel attracted to the smell of tobacco while repulsed at my own attraction. i sympathized with britt's intensity. this is what art criticism is all about.

in parenthesis, galbreth's bringing britt's "sensibility" issue (& prompting britt's visceral response) is a bit fallacious --even if it performatively succeeds into radicalizing britt's rhetoric. see that what's happening here is not scripted by a master rhetorician. words are sort of speaking through agents.
You gave me nothing else to work with. You started with a dull premise, and you didn’t add anything to it. And while you’re free to use the gay-marriage issue to draw attention to your “wedding” and use it as a “mechanism for (you and Jack) to piggyback on,” the fact that you’re oblivious to its resonance with what’s going on in the country doesn’t oblige me to stick my head in the sand along with you.
rhetoric & logic don't usually get along. britt is certain that the art guys use gay-marriage to draw attention to their wedding as a mechanism to piggyback on. do you agree? britt falls for the performative bait (it's hard not to). affirming that the art guys are "performatively" guilty of GMSL, plus using gay-marriage as a promotion tool (the art guys admitted they didn't mind it becoming a promotion tool since there's anything anyone can do to change that), and fighting to the death with it, britt pulls the rug under his own argument by ignoring his own bias.

performance is not math. reception is never a done deal. on the other hand, galbreth fails in his "honest" delivery.  logic gets buried under a black-and-white tectonic of rhetoric.

but who said words have to do logical things?

there is this cogitation by james surls. he's sympathetic to the art guys but his writing is a hodge-podge. this sentence wins for opacity: art is a paradox in all its manifestations, not real, but a symbol of and a metaphor for "a reality" that affects us. surls concludes that the art guy's performance marks a "a beginning for a new romantic era." to each its own.

care for one more? this piece by michael bise, an artist and contributor for glasstire:
My first reaction of wanting to discount the marriage not as bad art, but as a commitment that couldn’t possibly be sustained was overcome by a more intangible impulse to trust The Art Guys and believe that they were taking their vows to care for the tree and make sure it lives at least as long as they do seriously. This notion of trust relates not only to the ritual of marriage and the implicit trust that family members of the individuals being married place in those individuals, but also to the more artworld-relevant concern about how we are able to trust the motivations and intentions of artists. I trust The Art Guys.
bise is blind to his pleonastic cogitation: because you trust the art guys you trust the art guy's performance.

fast forward to 2011 & critic meredith deliso gives us a shocking list of nuptials: 

1- a woman getting married to an amusement park
2- a man takes his pillow for a wife,
3- a japanese guy marries his "videogame girlfriend" (he had to be japanese),
4- a german man marries his dying cat,

behold! the worst fears of the conservative right have come true. people now marry the non-human & the non-living, while same-sex marriage is still, for the most part, illegal.

there is no more GMSL to worry about. only britt didn't see it that way. 

the dedication (2011)

the news of a dedication of the tree from the 2009 piece TAGMP circulate through the art community. on november 19, the ceremony will be presided by lawrence weschler, director of the new york institute for the humanities.

AGMP @ the menil collection
in light of ineluctability, britt responds with a counter-marriage:
I need a bride, and time’s running out. I’m not picky about her looks, personality, upbringing or age, but the one trait I do require — that she, like me, write about art for a living, or part of one — is seriously narrowing my options. I’m pretty sure it’s the only reason they considered my proposal, which also included the promise of a swift, amicable divorce. Its brevity notwithstanding, the marriage would be a real one, complete with a license and all the rights and responsibilities that accompany the institution. The divorce, too, would be real. But they’d also comprise an artwork made in response to another artwork.
here's britt @ his most didactic:
(...) I didn’t hear about the accession until September, so I’ve had little time to execute a response before the dedication on Nov. 19. I ultimately settled on staging a piece called The Art Critics Marry Each Other. (Because the Art Guys’ brand of performance is largely meant to confound criticism, I thought readers — and perhaps the Menil — might find it helpful to see what really marrying for art, not pretending to, could look like. Besides, I can’t support the remedy some have suggested — that rogue elements harm the tree, which never had a say in the matter. Make art, not herbicide.)
britt's performative mistake here is to explain his motives & goals, which should be left open-ended to the reception end of the equation. meanwhile, words are spinning out of control: britt seeks a wife & proposes to art critic jen graves. it's contagious. she actually entertains her decision with the public
In my case, there were several factors, above all that I'm planning my actual wedding (happening in April). But I'm still torn. I despise the idea that art evades politics just because a couple of clueless (heartless?) artists say it does—and then that they're rewarded by a major museum. What do you say, Slog? Is The Art Critics Marry Each Other a compelling and effective enough protest to drop everything for? 
if graves goes through it, it would be out of conviction. she believes britt's argument and frames the issue as such: the art guys are both "clueless" (the wedding is not intentionally political) and "heartless" (the art guys don't care if it is). graves, as britt before, make the art guys' wedding -unequivocally- a political event. incidentally, she didn't follow through, which didn't stop britt's plans.

nov. 15, britt finds a wife and plans the wedding at a gay strip joint (reese darby is not exactly an art critic, but who cares).

nov. 19, dilso covers the dedication for the houston press.  

michael galbreth waters the plant in TAGMP
douglas britt, now britt-devon-darby (b-d-b hereon) marries reese derby.

douglas britt & reese darby

b-d-b is "released" from the houston chronicle (posted on b-d-b's new website reliable narratives).

nov. 16, deliso publishes a piece with this opening: "Words aren't enough for one Houston art critic to pan a performance art piece --he needs to stage a performance art piece of his own," missing the fact that words aren't enough because britt is doing something else. he's staging a wordformance, which is a performance anyway. as a side note, deliso closes with a quote by jack massing (the shorter guy): [Britt] is entitled to do whatever he wants to do, but it seems disingenuous to make a protest piece about something that wasn't a protest piece. what determines what makes a piece a "protest" or a "non-protest" piece? the author/performer? the critic/audience?    

here comes douglas britt's the art guy marries a woman
You're cordially invited to The Art Gay Marries a Woman, a wedding of art and activism to be held at 10:30 p.m. Friday night at Tony's Corner Pocket. Don't worry; we'll have the stage cleared in time for the 11 p.m. amateur strip contest.
in the meantime, d-b-d is on fire: this tree assault/performance on november 24 is as raw & exciting as it gets. this piece by b-d-b takes art criticism to a new level.

following these video/posts is the only way to understand b-d-b's life-as-performance in context:

on nov. 26, we get a feverish sequence of postings:
b-d-b thanks the houston chronicle to let him come out as a sex-worker.
b-d-b's "graffiti bombing."
bdb rants in his room (this one deserves attention):

@0.20: responding to TAGMP helps change its meaning.
@1.24: the here and now vs. the eternal view (a tree is a tree).
@21.48: 2011 is a boiling point in the civil rights struggle.
@2:53: the piece has improved, but it hasn't improved enough.

by now b-d-b's critique and life-as-performance series have effectively galvanized the  houston LGBT art community behind him. from here on a symbiotic dynamic should take place: TAGMP cannot be thought of without b-d-b's counterperformances, and viceversa.  

it's time to drop the bomb: lost in the media back-and-forth is the fact that there's actually no smoking gun. b-d-b is the one that piggybacks his agenda on TAGMP! which is not dishonest. b-d-b is right. same-sex marriage is the most important civil right issue of the now in america.      

nov. 30, d-b-d provides specific details of his earlier work as an gay escort! i love this line @ 5.12: "if there's one place that's not safe for a gay whore, former meth addict to be, it's probably alabama."

nov. 30, jen graves posts an update on d-b-d:
I interviewed The Art Guys, Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth, by phone from their Houston studio. Long story short: Massing and I had a really fascinating interview. He talked about resisting politics in art, about art as "the big set." He and I were getting somewhere, in terms of an understanding. I asked how the work would be different, or how he might see it differently, if he were gay. It felt like Britt-Darby's thought experiment was playing out just in our conversation alone.
graves brings the issue of bias to massing (remember britt denied bias as a motive behind his critique in his response to galbreth?). her sentence in red (above) puts the finger in the wound. had britt been a non-gay critic, would TAGMP's saga be the same? i think the answer is obvious.

graves doesn't get b-d-b's performative transformation.
As art, his actions have instead felt unfocused, self-absorbed, and frankly worrisome. "I get it—people are concerned," he says in his latest blog post. So I'll just reiterate here what I've told him privately: If you don't want people to worry, don't make them worry because, ultimately, this isn't about you, it's about the next Devons. You have supporters.
self-absorbed? definitely! performing one's life 24/7 one has to. worrisome? what if this is exactly what d-b-d (existentially) needs? hasn't b-d-b effectively blurred the known distinctions beyond that of regular performers? maybe that's why graves (an art critic) doesn't get it.   

the aftermath: vandalism

after all we've been through, what else could happen?

the art guys' controversial plant is attacked by vandals. 

b-d-b immediately condemns the action as a "taliban style response to a crappy work." @ this point, the TAGMP has become a media phenomenon with five articles covering the defacement at the menil gardens. the art guys nailed it. this is the kind of attention artists dream of.  

art people, even critics, get cold feet. sean morrisey carroll shares a litany of lamentations for the houston press:
Britt and the Art Guys have equaled each other in navel-gazing, demonstrating their inability to explain themselves clearly or to make art or art criticism accessible. They have alienated many people with their callous actions and set the Houston artworld further back from recognizing conceptual artwork as valid for years to come. Accusations of homophobia, witch hunting and professional incompetence are seeping out of the controversy which will inevitably leave a stain on Houston’s already soiled reputation. In the end, both Britt and the Art Guys are living out their own version of “art as life” by extending the metaphors made well-worn by Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman and abandoning the idea of “art for art’s sake.”
here is what morrisey-carroll overlooks:

1- no single explanation (or explanations) can solve this complex issue. performances happened. words did their job. people presented their case. what more do you want? isn't it clear ater two years that this controversy is bigger than b-d-b or the art guys?
2- art criticism needs to happen first to be accessible. there's no art criticism today, which is why this polemic is a very rare opportunity to witness art criticism in action.     
3- the valuable lesson here is that both the art guys and b-d-b have learned from each other's tense and uncomfortable interactions. 

tree removal

as the risk of ending this post with an implosion, check this huffington post update (january 13, 2013):
The Menil Collection director Josef Helfenstein issued a statement "to make clear that [The Menil Collection] has not de-accessioned the work, nor has it taken any steps toward de-accessioning the work, which continues to be a part of the institution’s collection." As for the controversy surrounding the missing tree, the Menil "has preferred to conduct these conversations in private."
we live in a world of arthoodication. did you really expect to see the tree improving its health and grow to be a hundred?

elain wolff, writing for plaza de armas (jan. 14) is right on target:
Here is what the Menil is going to say about this decision:

• They want to save the tree
•They’re worried about vandalism.
Here is the truth:

• They’re tired of the controversy around the artwork.

• They need to raise money for their drawing center and want this distraction to go away.
• They don’t believe in the artwork and are sorry they ever accepted it into their collection.
should we expect the tree removal from the menil gardens to (finally) bring to a close TAGMP's amazing sequence of events?

methinks not.


Luis Prieres- González said...

Thanks for the post. I really wished to see articles like this written in The Miami Herald.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, Triff!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful Article, what a joy~! :+) Thanks

Dissey said...

First, this post is way too long for the Herald which is a good thing. I am glad to find it here. If it weren't for blogs, where can you find something like this?
Nice try Triff.-

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is in depth coverage of this case. I'm an artist from Houston. We're shocked at the level of attention we have received over this controversy. Thanks for the post.

Elaine Schwarz

Feminista said...

For the skeptics this is the proof that art can shed light on the pressing issues of the day. I'll share with my class.

Anonymous said...

Why do you insist in talking about what other people talk about instead of talking about what people do?

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Anonymous said...

Imagine critics achieving the following:

" It justifies at the bar of intellectual criticism the deepest longings and emotions of the human heart; it verifies out hopes for man; it gives us back ennobled out faith in God."

Annie Besant

Anonymous said...

change *out for *our.

Alfredo Triff said...

Anon: Thanks for your comment. Could not find your "our for."

Anonymous said...

Hey. From Houston. Great review.