Something Might Have Happened
by Mike Schuh
Stephen/Steven performance at Hassla & Piñata
Los Angeles, CA
September 18, 2011
The space was warm enough to be uncomfortable. Most people were gathered on the sidewalk in front of the gallery waiting for Brendan Fowler's performance to begin. When it was time, everyone was asked to step in and get close. I hung back by the door, where the air was a little cooler. The crowd of people in front of me made it difficult to see the set up, but Brendan is tall so at least I could see his head above all others. An up-beat, pre-recorded song began to play, it's synthetic drumbeat accompanied by what sounded like a digitally generated acoustic guitar strumming rhythmically. Brendan's head nodded along with the music, occasionally filling up with a smile that seemed to materialize in sync with the beat, drawing laughter from the audience. Within a few minutes the music stopped. At that point Brendan began shifting objects around, ultimately dragging a wooden table over to the center of his designated performance zone and placing a large guitar amp on top of it. Brendan climbed on top and began telling a story about his days as a music student studying percussion, specifically the drum kit. The performance had taken the form of a monologue. Focusing primarily on the lessons of one instructor regarding improvosation, Fowler's delivery was casual, funny and sweet. He recounted stories he'd been told about the instructor’s days traveling and playing alongside many prominent jazz musicians of his time. The stories were originally told by the instructor in order to provide an anecdotal illustration of the significance of what Brendan explained as the most crucial component of improvisation: to always "be ready". It was at this moment that Brendan let us all in on just how apropos his explication of the value of being ready in performing; revealing what it was that we had all been witness to. When the music stopped earlier it was because his amp had blown. At that moment the performance he'd intended could go no further, which allowed for the amp to become the perch from which Brendan could deliver what turned out to be this completely improvised performance.
[What follows is an exchange of responses to this performance between Mike Schuh, curator Matthew Thompson, who worked with Brendan for his 2011 exhibition, The Anxiety of Photography, at the Aspen Art Museum, and Fowler himself.]
MS: Like all good art, this piece of improvisation invited psychological oscillations between the very specific set of terms (material, ideas, context) that define it and broader considerations of what art does or can do. It brings the viewer in and then opens them up, and then back and forth and so on, allowing the work to linger beyond the immediate perceptual experience. But with this piece, because it was an unfolding event, the very notion of "artistic intent", almost by default, ended up providing both the terms/materials/story for the piece and a subject matter that was directly dealt with. Whenever we're dealing with improvised scenarios, the notion of intentionality is key, but in situations such as this, where something goes wrong to such a degree that what was intended is essentially impossible, intentionality takes on a different character. It can't simply exist as one of those situations where one just riffs off what was already known/planned/expected, because we are now dealing with material reinvention, however immediate and improvisational. All of this led me toward new considerations of the artist/audience contract where the decisions of the artist and the acceptance of the audience intersect in order to establish the existence of a work as a work of art. It seemed that we were all in observance of a work of art coming into being, and, I felt, agreeing that it had. Yet it was certainly something that could really never be replicated because things such as knowing that there was an intended performance and that this wasn't it (although until the very end, I assumed this was exactly what was intended), and the actual malfunction of the amp couldn't be staged - they would exist as completely different materials than what they became in this piece. They would have to be staged and then we would be dealing with fictional elements that would seem to make this a much more coded and interpretable experience than it turned out to be. So, I wonder where you guys stand with this performance as a work of art. What did you take away from this experience given your respective points of view as the artist and as a curator who has recently worked with Brendan under different circumstances?
MT: I am particularly interested in one part of your response here that I find quite compelling: the fact that you thought it was “all part of the show”, so to speak, until the end. Maybe I’m speculating a bit too broadly, but I think that has everything to do with Brendan’s performances as BARR, and how much those employ earnestness in such an interesting way. So it wouldn’t be off base, at all, to assume that something as charming and disarming as Brendan’s impromptu save was premeditated.
One of the aspects of the performance that stuck out for me—and which I think your comments amplify—is a constant interplay between form and content in Brendan’s work. Brendan and I have spent significantly more time talking about the objects he makes rather than his performance, but I feel like the performance work is always in the background. Literally, as the discipline he comes out of (his background), and which provides, I think, the kind of structure around which he organizes things. So his works that are composed of framed photographs colliding and piercing each other, for example, are explicitly informed by his training in free jazz percussion. Brendan likens his choice of subject matter in his photographs as an emptying of content—for him, the repetition of flowers is a completely empty signifier that he is placing within this formal structure, the colliding frames, and repeating with variation. So from that standpoint, I think it is completely analogous to jazz improvisation. But when we’ve talked about his performances as BARR—and I think it is VERY important to distinguish those from other performances Brendan has done—he has described that as pure, almost formless content. While I might disagree with stating it that plainly, and I’m sure Brendan would probably disagree with that statement somewhat, I think it is interesting to think of his object making and his performance in those terms, as opposed terms he is trying to reconcile. Or maybe he isn’t trying to reconcile them, but to simply allow them to coexist as oppositions within a larger practice, as a kind of paradox. In that way, I actually think he embraces that paradox. And that has everything to do with intentionality. Perhaps his more recent performances come closer to uniting those attempts in single works or in more concise ways, rather than having them coexist within a larger practice.
BF: Matthew brought up some of my object based works and past performances as a background from which this performance came, and I think of it this way myself. It is true that I have worked in a number of different formats, and even from very different strategies within each of these formats, yet it is the case within my practice that I see all of these works functioning within a single overall project, and I am very much interested in (relatively) slow developments, which is to say I will try to make one thing a few times, and then modify or update it — rather than "moving on" or re-inventing from project to project — very much thinking about the rate at which updates are revealed within the overall span of a moment of work. I'm always coming from a place of relatively specific problem solving (how to express [idea] within [framework]) so I like to justify or prove the steps, earning the right to them; as such, the connection and progression should be available for anyone caring to look, as I love to do with artists whom I follow closely.
Before I say anything more about this September 18th, 2011, performance I'm thinking that it would probably be most useful to quickly trace out a trajectory, hoping to clarify my intentions leading up to this point. At 19 I went to school to study free jazz and print making, both of which felt like foundational studies. I wasn't sure yet how a career may look, so I was trying to cover my bases by way of training, which I felt would be useful, and clearly I chose with practicality in mind (kidding). Throughout high school and college I was in bands, exploring and enjoying the national — global, even — experimental underground networks that existed, and then, at 22 I began a project called BARR, which was designed as a lyrical solo performance. Spoken and sung, but more spoken (I'm tone deaf and color blind), with very bare pre-recorded, mainly-drum tracks, it was an attempt at a very literal and direct communication between myself and the audience. I performed mostly in underground music contexts, just because those opportunities outnumbered the "art" contexts about 50 to 1 (I would perform several times a week), but it wasn't until a few years in that I really felt it made sense to release records. I didn't think of this as something that was necessarily so listenable at first, but eventually I became curious about the idea of making this as a pop band, and so the third BARR album, Summary, came out in 2007 and I toured the US and Europe in support of it with a four piece band. Every night I would joke that we were doing rock and roll drag. At this point I had been touring heavily for a few years and felt as though I had sort of "solved" these problems enough that it was time to try a very different strategy. I felt as though I knew how to address a live audience, and so it was that I wanted to take on the idea objects, to see if I could make something that would really function in my absence. A record could express audio and text, and an object to hold, but my performances were really predicated on my presence, so I wanted to figure out something that could really function in my absence.
BARR was essentially content driven in that it was a vehicle to deliver a lot of speech, a lot of words, at once. Everything played secondary importance to the words. So my first attempt at object based work was text-based as well.
I exhibited largely text-based works — formal arrangements of lyrics; pointed reproductions of interviews; record covers for records that I had not yet produced — at David Kordansky Gallery in 2006 and Rivington Arms in 2008, but in the summer of 2008 I had a breakthrough — denying the pun, I am at a loss for how else to say that — trying to arrange a show in the 2nd Cannons project space. I was determined to show a poster for a tour which I had cancelled to work on the show, a study for what was to be my last record as BARR, and a life size photograph of the Casio keyboard upon which I played all the piano parts on the BARR recordings. The space was tiny, just the width of the small sliding glass patio doors that enclosed it, and two feet deep, the three framed images were each fixed in size and would not all fit in the space. After weeks of struggling to resolve an arrangement I arrived at my first crashing piece. It was a means to literally condense these three framed objects into one object, and at the same time adapted a compositional strategy from improvised music, which is to say, picture if you will the total cliché of three or four or more people all playing together, discordant and atonal; then picture that moment that only happens sometimes, when the players all crash onto the same note, the same beat, they feel it, the room feels it. It felt like this brute, slapstick gesture, as though this framed photograph of a keyboard had not only managed to crash through this framed poster, but this framed artwork, as well, piercing both in an impossible freeze that somehow hovers on the wall in a space about one third of that which the group would have taken; it kind of worked. I felt like I had finally found a way to make the objects kind of perform in a way that even I couldn't if I were there. They were finally doing their job.
The first few pieces like this I made involved very specific images, signifiers, bits of legible narrative, still kind of functioning like my BARR performances. Then, I became more concerned with the formal conversations suddenly open to me, and I tried to dash the content out of the work. In service of this focus towards a new, formal sculptural conversation, I began trying to obscure or empty the content, which in the past had typically determined the formal direction of my work. I began using a lot of images of flowers, hoping for them to function as signifiers for an exhaustion of content. Through all cultures, images of flowers declare themselves at once as present, aesthetic, and, I would argue — within our post-modern context — exhausted. They are aesthetic and empty. Of course this never fully worked, as I could never resist qualifying where the images came from within the pieces' titles (for example: Fall 2009 (2 Screen Flower Print, Flowers on Walk With Andrea/Terry/Cindy 1, Flowers Outside of Silk Flowers Show 1, Flower in Patty's Gazebo), 2009). Ultimately, in spite of any efforts towards a total formalist project here, this work winds up processing narrative probably just as much as BARR did, just in other ways. So, I have come to see the potential for new narrative strategies which run parallel to these formal possibilities within the "crashing" pieces and within these new wall pieces, as well, where framed images are attached, face to face, creating a new material, capable of sustaining more architectural projects. What began with walls made of framed images have lead to framed images which merge with drywall and construction lumber (stained to "match" the fine art picture frames) to create structurally sound display walls intended to hold up and support the work of other artists, partially in hopes for this other work — determined by curators other than myself — to complicate and be complicated by my work, to perform this complication after I release them into the world, after they have left my hands.
I had come to a visual language wondering what my performance would look like as objects, and then, in the course of the resultant object study, I began wondering what this new language would sound like. I had already dabbled in a few vocal-less performances, Brendan Fowler, which was kind of about dance music, props and expectation; and Disaster, which was about using a sampler to behave nastily. Whereas BARR was all original — without samples— and rigorously adherent to a set of very strict ideological parameters which had to do very much about empowerment and encouragement — in spite of being however critical at times — an ultimate sense of "I can do this / you can do this / we can do this"; Disaster was a way of exploring opposite impulses: it was all samples designed to exploit and mock those sampled, it was limply hostile towards the audience as well. Even the title, Disaster was intended to read as sexy at the expense of being conscionable, as in "my white guy deconstructed pop music performance deserves the same linguistic status as a tsunami, which wipes out an entire nation, yes it does." Disaster existed for a short time and primarily as a counterpoint to the BARR project, both of which eventually phased out in 2009 as I delved further into the formal object explorations of the crash and construction pieces, and as I became more curious, as I mentioned before, about the sound of these new works. So far all explorations have been anchored in the use of a sampler, like Disaster, but almost all of the samples have all been taken from my own back catalog. I am reprocessing my own narrative, in this case because I feel I have total license to it. The fact that there are years of recordings is helpful, as well, in creating a broad palette from which to work. For Performa 2009 I staged a durational (five hour) percussion performance within my solo show at Rental, in which I continuously played drums along with a sixty minute audio program consisting of largely randomized samples which I had produced and forgotten months before. It was about improvising against it while trying to "learn" it, and about creating a more directed, yet open space for the audience to engage with the show, positing another take on it. My intentions were never stated publicly anywhere in advance of or during the performance, it was simply advertised as happening 1:00-6:00 on _________, an impossible amount of time to indulge or plan for, I wanted to destabilize the attendees actual ability to experience the piece, as well.
It was from this point that Stephen/Steven came about. I will spare the name back-story here, and pass the mic back to the floor in a sec, as well — I'm sorry I've been going so long with this — but I want to acknowledge that I did in fact have a whole other plan, one which involved a fairly complicated (scored) sampler performance, a bunch of plexiglass and a framed photograph which was to be set up to appear as though it would break on top of me under these bricks and a drill, and a noted lack of dialog. What happened, the performance with me sitting on top of the amplifier, which was on top of the table, explaining my drum teacher in college was not what I was planning for at all.
MS: All of this provides a really good context for considering this particular performance. As is true for a lot of us, it makes more sense in terms of coming to an understanding with this piece to consider its place within the overall project of Brendan's work. This obviously includes object-based and performance works, both of which share certain considerations for time/event or a process of cause/effect, particularly with regard to the potential for varied outcomes once things are set in motion. For example, knowing that the plexiglass on a framed piece will crack and splinter when you crash another frame through it, or screw into it, but having no possible way of knowing how exactly it will crack or splinter.
You both brought up the relationships between form and content within Brendan's different projects. There have apparently been moves as both Barr and Brendan Fowler to tip the relationships between content and form more one way or the other - the idea of something like "pure content" with regard to Barr, and formal moves making use of "empty signifiers" or images with an "exhaustion of content". It sounds like the Stephen/Steven performance at Piñata was meant to involve a direct cross over between the framed/photographic objects and the music/language performances. I wonder if the intention with Stephen/Steven, or at least the Stephen/Steven piece at Piñata, is to seek a more balanced approach to the use of formal and content-based strategies? A sort of attempt at a more democratic leveling off of form and content that might be achieved through the combination or your object-based work and performance-based work. I might actually argue that what you ended up doing - the vehicle of an improvised performance carrying the content of how to work with and against one's intentions and a willingness to stray from or transform them based on a given situation through improvisation - was a remarkably succinct leveling of form and content.
MT: I don't think the Stephen/Steven work as it was intended is really about balancing form and content somehow. And really, I think what actually happened at Piñata was just Brendan being Brendan, riffing, and not necessarily a work per se. I like it as a way of starting a conversation about Brendan's work, but I'm not really sure if I think it is all that interesting as a work, other than for the fact that I think that it reveals that, in a pinch, Brendan probably reverts to over disclosure. In reading what Brendan has laid out, I think there are some elegantly simple strategies at play. There is a constant flipping or folding of the parameters he sets out: shifting from the visceral experience of the work lying in the content--how I would characterize the BARR experience, empowerment and encouragement, as Brendan said--to the form, which is what happens in the Four Frames (the aforementioned crashing frames work); flipping from a performance into its opposite as an object (the contrast between BARR's content and the Four Frames form) and then back into a performative sound work that is almost the mirror opposite of the original (in this case, Stephen/Steven and BARR); or Brendan's presence or absence in the work itself, which has an interesting trajectory through these projects because of the variety of Brendan's performance projects. The attitude toward the audience is so different in each case, and the amount of Brendan "as Brendan"--which would be A LOT in BARR, and maybe not so much in Stephen/Steven, or at least expressed there non-verbally. And there is personal content in the Four Frames, but it so mundane, as Brendan points out, that it really becomes empty. So in a way Brendan seems to be sublimating a kind of desire to inject himself into the work. So there is a kind of suppression that happens, a restraint of voice in the Four Frames and Stephen/Steven, but it kind of wells up through the cracks: like Brendan's inability to resist disclosure as he mentions in titling the Four Frames, or how Brendan fell into performing a kind of version of himself, improvising in a stylized way, and sharing. I know I'm rambling, but I see this constant play with the parameters and shifting things around as coming out of Brendan's own restless energy. And this leads to a kind of compression and release as Brendan moves between projects.
MS: I certainly agree that what we got at Piñata was Brendan being Brendan, and his ability to pull off the improvisation that he did, whether or not we call it a work of art, is precisely what made what ended up happening so compelling. By revealing to the audience at the end of it that he was essentially riffing due to an equipment failure, the work of art that many of us thought we were experiencing was dismantled. And yet the responses that his performance elicited in me were very much like the responses I have with any work of art that works on me. This performance worked on me. And ultimately, the fact that what happened was an improvised event, and even having that explained at the end, are what made it all the more intriguing. It opened up questions about how one evaluates intention in a work of art. Is it the now age-old issue of Death of the Author? It's certainly complicated further when we are told that what we just witnessed was not the work we thought we came to see. Do we then relinquish that authorization to the artist entirely? Is there a choice and does that matter? The more I think about it the more I realize that it was doing what a good work of art does, which is always in part leaving one with questions about what and how art could be. And I think a big reason why I was able to distinguish some sort of artistic value in all of this had a lot to do with the nature of Brendan's work, which you guys have both emphasized. What comes through for me from the way you guys have broken down the different operations at hand in all of Brendan's projects (not to suggest that any of them are strictly rule bound) is his varied position as an instigator. Again, this is something that I think also points back to larger issues of authorship, but Brendan is someone who I find to be particularly strong when it comes to making work (experienced as performance and object, or a combination) that does, in fact, feel like it is active. It is DOING its thing because the materials at hand have been dealt with in such a way that the work that results is part of an unfolding situation that includes the viewer and the artist as well. So what the artist, Brendan, has done is set out to instigate a sort of event that happens around the work. I think this may be what leads to the kind of flipping/folding and compression/release that happens THROUGH the work. It's shifty! And we're back on our heals, and we all have to "be ready" when it comes to Brendan's work. All of this is also what allows for something like what happened at Piñata, whatever it was, to be productive in a way that's at least like art. It behaves a certain way, even if that's not what it is.
BF: With one major exception, I really agree with Matthew's last statements and — barring said exception — I would even go so far as to say that this take is even sort of my "best case scenario" as far as a read would go.
The exception I take is with regards to this delineation of the performance at Piñata as being "not necessarily a work per se". True, it was not at all the work I had intended to perform that night, but it became very much the work; as they say, it was what it was. I had lost my last amplifier when my studio burned down a few months prior, and so this event at Piñata was the first occasion which called for a new one. I bought this one, the same model of Roland keyboard amp I had used for the last 10 years, off of Craigslist, which always carries a risk and so I tested it extensively at the guy's house. I felt good about this purchase and I felt confident about the performance, so I was probably more surprised than anyone in the room when the amplifier suddenly stopped producing sound about 1 minute into the performance! I was thinking about the audience; this was my first performance in a while and I always produce cards, invitations, for the shows, this time I had given out so many and so many people had come out that night, I wasn't ready to let it go. The hard part was getting everyone there, now was supposed to be the good part! After a few minutes of trying to play it off while I figured out what was wrong I realized that this was it, that the amp was not going to work again that night, so as per my past as a free-jazzer — and as per my explanation that night — I reoriented my understanding of the context, the wildly updated situation at that moment, and what the performance would be. I had already begun a performance, I was already inside it, and just because it veered radically from the plan, it didn't end there. It wouldn't end until I ended it. I think that this gets to the main reason why I love performance: in your studio you have however long to resolve a work, you can hold on to it in total privacy until you decide it is ready to be released, but in front of an audience you are problem solving in real-time; the problem solving, the process time, itself, becomes part of the solution, the result, the after-the fact that's what it was. I am always attracted to the "process as project" kind of space, and this moment afforded me something really unprecedented, that which there was nothing left but the demonstration to demonstrate, and so with that, I decided I would talk it out. But I didn't want to just say, "the amp's broke" as I saw that as an ender. There was no middle, as there was nothing, actually, but I wanted to prolong the middle as long as possible so then I realized my challenge was to set up the end for as long as possible — we can reduce everything past a beginning to a prolonging of the end, right? At this point I think I'm getting into what Mike was saying a moment ago, and this is another read for which I am grateful.
MT: Point very well taken, and I think I probably presented it a little too cut and dry. Of course it is a work, and I like it as a way of framing a discussion about Brendan's larger practice, and especially how improvisation fits in as an overall strategy. I'm just not sure how I feel about dissecting the performance at Pinata in isolation, and as a fully resolved statement, which is why I hedged it as a "work per se," and rather inelegantly in retrospect. I think my pause is about how we extrapolate meaning and intention from improvisational gestures. Brendan set out to do one thing, and another thing happened. It fits into an overall practice, but I don't feel the performance itself signalled to me some sort of shift in Brendan's thinking or something like an intentional levelling of form and content. Does that make more sense?
MS: I guess that's the question at hand. Or questions. What is to be done with something like this performance that happened? What is the function of intention in an improvisation like this? Is it okay to give it the same kind of consideration as something we might say is a fully resolved, or perhaps intentionally formed work, and could it generate an exchange of ideas and responses to it that seek to examine its productive potential as art? And that's just sort of talking around the piece. Without any interest in trying to define it's relevance within Brendan's overall practice, or in attributing any meaning to the piece, I think it has proven to be a productive work in that it does open us up to questions about its own value, and aspects of Brendan's work in general, as well as broader issues related to the nature of art. The piece leaves us with questions. And those questions open up to more questions. Not answers. Just possibilities derived from the specifics of the piece that allow it to remain in this active state well after it ended. This residue is why its productive.