Sunday, August 30, 2009

Josh Harris and QUIET: We Live In Public

The recent commercial release of We Live In Public, a documentary film by Ondi Timoner (which won a Grand Prize at Sundance in January and also screened in April at New Directors/New Films at MoMA), has focused attention on Josh Harris, the erstwhile millionaire who presided over Jupiter Communications and Pseudo TV, and who funded various downtown New York arts projects in the late 90s and early noughties, culminating (at least for me) with QUIET: We Live in Public.

QUIET was a heady but deranged bit of social sculpture, enlisting 150 artist/participants to live communally in a bunker housed on three floors of a loft building at 353 Broadway at the end of 1999. It envisioned a Brave New World of surveillance, control and loss of privacy, both predicted and facilitated by the Internet. Harris imagined that these long standing dystopian issues would be given technological feasibility through an interlocking network of computers and webcams. It would re-invigorate the pan- in Panopticon.

Harris now ^^ and then v v.

Harris had the prescient, net head epiphany of an early adopter, imagining a world of online social networking before there was actual broadband technology to make it possible. His vision, conceptualizing the emergence of all-encompassing public interaction online, predicted Web 2.0 sites like MySpace, YouTube and Facebook a decade early.

In December 1999, I was one of the pod people, living in a sub-basement warren of tiered sleeping capsules, like a Japanese tourist hotel or something out of William Gibson, sleeping pallets with room for just a mattress and alarm clock. Each was also equipped with its own camera and pivoting TV monitor. We could not only tune into various live feeds being recorded and broadcast within the compound. We were also constantly on camera, producing our own flow of images. Anyone at the central control booth could watch as we ate, shat, argued, made art, fucked, etc. Theoretically, anyone in the bunker, at any time, could tune into anyone else in the bunker.

We were waiting for the Millennium to change everything, prepping for the mother of all New Year's parties. Because in late 1999, people thought the computers would inevitably crash when the clocks turned from 19__ to 20__. Things would just go plumb haywire. Data would be irretrievably lost. Banks would lose their assets. Credit would fail. It was supposed to be the end of time, the beginning of a New Age. We were there at the cusp to confront a devolved reality after the machines imploded and left us with a post-apocalyptic, feral, dog-eat-dog world.

This sort of Luddite anticipation was grafted onto the larger panopticon structure of QUIET. We were the self conscious seeds of a new dystopia, and there were cameras everywhere to record us. Even in the bathroom. Even in the central shower console, multiple nozzles housed in a polyhedral plexiglass cage, where there was s-e-x.

There were communal meals and uniforms, bright orange Dickies work pants and grey work shirts silkscreened with logos by the Enger Brothers, Matt and Mark. There were various art projects: a gigantic RISK board by David Scher and Mike Ballou; a modular city/shrine by Alex Arcadia; Erik Parker's paintings; a walk-in sculptural installation by Aidas Bareikis; a shooting gallery by Alfredo Martinez (for guns, not dope); security interrogations presided over by Ashkan Sahihi. The entire video interface was installed by Fakeshop pioneer Jeff Gompertz.

Of course the end of the world did not come, as predicted, at 00:00:00 on January 1, 2000. Things never happen quite so simply. Although the cops did raid the place on New Year's Day and shut it down, mostly for the live ammo being fired in the shooting gallery. But the crash did not arrive until late 2000, when the first Internet bubble popped and wiped out most of Harris' fortune. By then he had wired his SoHo loft with over 30 cameras, so the total surveillance of QUIET became part of his daily life with his girlfriend. The toilet, the closet, the refrigerator each had its particular webcam. Things soon began to feel the strain.

Timoner's film, which I have not seen, is apparently merciless as it documents the implosion of Harris' personal life, while simultaneously according him the unquestioned status of a madman genius, an Internet idiot savant well ahead of his time. It also reveals him in his performance artist alter ego of "Luvvy", a shrieking clown with smeared makeup based on a character from the television sitcom Gilligan's Island, his favorite show growing up.

The film's very busy website, replete with downloadable widgets, Facebook and Twitter shares, screening information, theatrical dates, streaming video of interviews, photo albums, etc., is itself testimony to the total online connectivity and interactivity that Harris predicted. It includes this trailer:

Other recent coverage can be found on the New York Times, both a film review and a broader piece on Harris himself.

They say you can't go home again, but the release of We Live in Public brings me back to a moment when both the Internet and I were ten years younger. Or were we so much older then, are we younger than that now?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Art Aquatic with Duke Riley

Duke Riley
Those Who Are About to Die Salute You
Naumachia - Live Roman Naval Battle
Queens Museum of Art: Launch Pad Artist-in-Residence Program
Thursday, August 13th, 6 - 9:30 pm

This event promised to adhere to historical precedents from the Roman Empire, at least as filtered through the popular imagination of Hollywood films like Ben Hur: bread and circuses; pomp and revelry; the heady Coliseum drama of thumbs up and thumbs down; the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat; reenacted maritime battles staged in a shallow reflecting pool; "death" by baguette or balloon sword, catapulted watermelon bomb and tomato projectile; an orgy of flotsam and jetsam; an outdoor food fight seasoned with the anarchic spirit of a college toga party. And the added promise that all of this estival mayhem was being done in the name of art.

From the Queens Museum press release:

“Those who are about to die salute you”, from the Latin “Moritori te selutant”, attributed to prisoners addressing Emperor Claudius prior to the Naumachia to which they had been fated. –52 AD

In times of economic difficulty, Roman emperors would host violent spectator sports to placate the masses. The bloodiest and most decadent of these was the NAUMACHIA - prisoners were forced to engage in full-on naval warfare within a flooded Roman amphitheater. Variations were re-popularized in empires throughout European history, always coinciding with instances of over-indulgence at the brink of financial and societal collapse.

On August 13th Duke Riley will recreate his own version of Naumachia by flooding one of the former World’s Fair fountains in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Art dignitaries representing the Queens Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts and El Museo del Barrio will man the ships armed with baguette swords and watermelon cannon balls. Spectators wearing togas will engage with the performers during the battle, creating an atmosphere similar to the Coliseum.

Crafted from hand-collected Phragmite reeds (an invasive plant found in the Queens region) and materials recovered from the abandoned World’s Fair Ice Skating Rink and trash from the park the battling vessels will reflect naval styles from various cultures and eras, tying together the theme that political diversion has existed in all times and cultures.

A mandatory toga dress code will be strictly enforced.

Somehow I missed the event itself. Getting to Flushing Meadows Park proved too daunting a task last Thursday (the 7 train all the way out to Shea Stadium, then a 15 minute trek on foot), especially as I had a concurrent 40th anniversary Woodstock book signing and photo exhibit to attend on the terra firma of Morrison Hotel on the Bowery.

But coverage in various media outlets, both from the art press and for more general consumption, made me feel like I was actually there to experience the mass insanity.

I am a big fan of Duke Riley's work, of his previous waterborne performances and gallery exhibitions, all marked by his unique low-tech, DIY "squirrelly genius". His plywood and fiberglass mockup of the Revolutionary War submarine Turtle challenging the Queen Mary II to battle in New York Harbor was memorable for its direct historical reference and derring-do, as was an earlier show at Magnan Gallery based on an apocryphal history of piracy which he "documented" on a small island at the northern mouth of the East River.

Riley is an original, in much the same mold as Swoon and Bruce High Quality Foundation, imbued with a warped sense of spectacle and an anarchic doggedness. He is not only able to paddle himself out to remote spots in NYC's aquatic littoral, he then produces funky, unforgettable artwork using materials and references from these arcane locations.

He is one of those can-do types, maximal rather than minimal, with a low key workingman's demeanor, an adventurous action figure who has been known to insouciantly quaff a Bud Tall Boy while the Coast Guard rushes in to terminate one or another of his art stunts. Given to material pathos, recycled materials, waterfront squats and warehouses, and a spirit of showmanship that would give P.T. Barnum pause, Riley inhabits a doubt free zone wherein no material is too moldy or ragged, no gesture too corny or hackneyed, and no craft or folk art too modest or marginal that it cannot be whipped into shape to service his will to total expression, his gesamtkunstwerk. One of his early gallery exhibitions incorporated media as diverse as video, woodblock prints, drawing, mosaic, sculpture, diorama, objects mounted in vitrines, fabric art, even scrimshaw. Riley is a great believer in layering the "authenticity", in incorporating a broad swath of objects into each of his projects to imbue them with denser synergies of meaning, resonance and cross reference.

I can only imagine the wild toga party, the parade of ostentatious anachronisms and frat boy excesses, the not-ready-for-prime-time performances that Riley engineered in the shallow pond in front of the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a great backdrop he handpicked for the faux Romanisms, food fights, conflagrations and all manner of sword-and-sandal playacting.

Saltz does a good job chronicling the event in his New York Magazine piece. Unfortunately he then lapses into a habitual sermonizing, falling into his self appointed role as champion of the downtrodden. If it's not the percentage of women at MoMA, it's the familiar refrain of "exactly what the art world needs right now ... a perfect example of an artist taking matters into his own hands".

Yes, Riley is a "wild card" who came up with a spectacularly messy and inclusive performance piece. But he has always worked close to the bone, with low overhead, scavenged materials, hands-on ingenuity and volunteer labor, even when the art world was still fat with patronage. To cite him as a poster boy for post-recession art is to fully misunderstand the economies of scale that govern his aesthetic choices, which are self imposed and not occasioned by the new austerity. While the recession seemingly could not come soon enough for Saltz, allowing him the opportunity to moralize and posture, this should not confuse us regarding Riley, who is at heart an original freebooter, walking the line between bricolage and piracy. It is not that uncommon an artistic posture: Rauschenberg's combines and performances from the 60s also come to mind, as does the impetus for Arte Povera.

There is a cautionary note in Riley's Naumachia that can easily be overlooked, submerged in the roiling water and pummeled into submission by the microwaved tomatoes. Certainly comparisons between the decline of the Roman Empire and the current collapse of American hegemony are by now a given. The historical parallels between late capitalist globalization and the problems of ancient Rome have been made before, and at this point are more than a bit facile. Still, Riley would have us believe that he is resurrecting the Naumachia precisely for our contemporary moment of joblessness, deficit spending and economic panic, with the implicit critique that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is this sense of dour, fatalistic introspection, rather than Saltz's construct of an artist who takes the moribund art world by the horns and gives it a hearty shake, that allows us to view Riley's performance through the lens of the recession: bread and circuses fully appropriate to our age of anxiety and uncertainty.

That said, Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum, is to be congratulated for lending the institutional support, funding and studio space to accomplish this landmark bacchanalian performance. Elements from the Naumachia will be included in Riley's solo show at the museum, scheduled to open in October 2009.

A list of rules and guidelines was distributed to the performers.

For those (like me) who weren't there, there is a Flicker page and also a page on Huffington Post full of great images.

And so, in parting: We who are about to end this article salute you, Duke. You really earned your laurels on this one.

Video from the performance: