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Juneau Projects: The Maker's Hand in Digital Performance Art

Juneau Projects: The Maker's Hand in Digital Performance Art

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Published by Portia Ungley
If a work of performance art is digitally made,
where is the artist? Portia Ungley, visual culture
theorist, looks at the implication of notions of
authenticity in Juneau Projects’ ‘The Principalities’.
If a work of performance art is digitally made,
where is the artist? Portia Ungley, visual culture
theorist, looks at the implication of notions of
authenticity in Juneau Projects’ ‘The Principalities’.

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Published by: Portia Ungley on Sep 23, 2013
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09/23/2013

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   t   h   e   m   a   k   e   r   ’   s   h   a   n   d   i   n    d   i   g   i   t   a   L   P   e   r   f   o   r   m   a   n   C   e   a   r   t
If a work of performance art is digitally made,where is the artist?
Portia Ungley
, visual culturetheorist, looks at the implication of notions ofauthenticity in Juneau Projects’ ‘The Principalities’.Juneau Projects’ artistic performances are manythings to many people; exciting, cross-disciplin-ary, unpindownable. To me, they occupy a spacein which theoretical extrapolation of a series oftensions can take place, and provide a fertileground for debate.Juneau Projects was established in 2001 by BenSadler and Philip Duckworth, and places tech-nology at the heart of a practice which embracesthe crossover between music and performanceart, including submersing Sony Walkmans to re-cord their dying sounds and most recently cre-ating performance spaces in direct conict withthe white cube aesthetic: painted a murky orangewith pub chic décor.
The Audience is Listening
The rst theoretical extrapolation stemming from‘The Principalities’, Juneau Projects’ Fine ArtFellowship exhibition at the Stanley Picker Gal-lery, is the validity or lack thereof of the record-ing of performance art. For within recording ar-tistic performances lies the tension between theconcept of authenticity and the auratic presenceof art objects (after Walter Benjamin), in whichcharacteristics such as provenance and attenu-ated cultural value are given greater value thanthe object itself.So the question is raised: what can the recordingof an instance of performance art achieve, otherthan to privilege the documentation process overthe reality? For the sake of posterity, a form ofthird-order simulation is created, with the re-production having more validity than that beingreproduced, the concrete copy over the discrete,nite performance.Does this lead to the very thing that distinguishesperformance art from other art forms being lost,its instantaneity, its reliance on the human andthe attached inconsistency? If it is, this could alsolead to the ‘death’ of the maker, particularly inperformances that rely on digital media such as‘The Principalities’, where the artwork subsumesthe creator.A bleak perspective perhaps, but this can be me-diated by another reality, one which declares thatthe lack of such a record allows a performanceto be lost to history and therefore makes its exis-tence reliant on the fragmented memories of theaudience. However, it is not necessary to look farin recent historiography to nd concrete exam-ples of the aw in this solution. For recollectionis more than averagely affected by the semioticdivide, a divide between associations and de-nitions, when memory becomes invariably andnecessarily subjective. This subjectivity in audi-ence recollection leads to no ‘true’ or absoluteviewpoint, or even a social construct of the truthbased on habit. So we nd that the ‘truth’ must twithin these parameters; therefore this was theperformance as the collective memory recalls it;therefore this is how it was, denitively. And yetthis viewpoint means questioning not only theindividual recollection of a performance but alsothe media which is being recollected, e.g. musicor performance art.
To Record or Not to Record?
With two such fundamentally oppositional view-points on the recording of performance art, howcan the performance’s identity be retained with-out its very performativity being compromised?Fortunately, Juneau Projects itself has denedits perspective on this. The ephemerality of itsperformance constitutes a proportion of the per-formances purpose and charm, and if historymissed it, it is history’s loss. In this Juneau Proj-ects reconstitute its role as maker, and reiterate
     J     u     n     e     a     u     P     r     o     J     e     c     t     S
 
‘The Principalities’, Juneau Projects’ installation at the Stanley Picker Gallery
Image courtesy of Ellie Laycock: elllielaycock.com
 
67
its importance. However, as some video clips doexist and its performance is not the entirety of itspractice, such a well dened viewpoint only addsto the general noise surrounding the debate. Solet us return to Walter Benjamin and the conceptof authenticity; for Juneau Projects admits that itwishes the original, the authentic performance,to be privileged over any form of recording. And,as the maker of the performance, it is surely Ju-neau’s right to demand control of how its workis distributed and remembered? If it wishes ‘ThePrincipalities’ to be enjoyed as live performanceart, who would suggest that history has a greaterright to its work?However, this leads to another debate. For the per-formed music element of the artists’ work is digi-tally programmed in the MIDI format and relayedthrough the synth-axes which perform the role ofmusical instruments (in ‘The Principalities, the wa-ter jet carved shapes of a snowy owl and a squirrel).This means Juneau Projects does not choose thesounds that are performed once they have beenprogrammed. It would therefore be possible thatthe music could be reduced to the reproduction ofa recording, a set of reproduced (via programmedMIDI le) and reproducible (just press the button)sounds. So where exactly does the original exist?What is the authentic? And if the work is reproduc-ible, is there any reason why it should not be re-corded and reproduced, foregoing the human ele-ment of live performance?
The Maker’s Mark
The answer to this question rests at the heart of an-other debate. This debate concerns the way mak-ers leave their mark on the objects of their practice,a debate nowadays framed by two concepts centralto the (post)modern understanding of a maker: the‘death’ of the author and the ‘birth’ of the reader.Through attention to detail and a high level of me-ticulousness, Juneau Projects and others lookto place the maker’s hand into this most alienat-ing medium, digital art, in order to prevent thesepostmodern concepts prophesying the ‘death’of the maker. These artists refute the notion thatdigital art is the nal nail in the cofn of the prac-titioner, and liberation from preconceptions arounddigital art becomes central to an understanding oftheir work. Although the (post)modern move awayfrom authenticity has carried with it an intentionof democratisation, it still remains at the heartof many art exhibitions, albeit mutating into whatcould be termed skill or any of the other words ban-died around the idea of art in its loosest sense.Juneau Projects put the maker’s mark into theirwork through opening their practice to schoolworkshops, in which cardboard creations fromthe children are united with the digital technol-ogy to make functioning musical instruments.As images of these workshops are displayed inthe nal cumulative project, the equipment itselfseems a cipher for the involvement of the maker,the mechanical representation of the handmade,the thumbprint in the project’s clay.However there is something obtuse about this re-fusal to treat art as sacred, to allow the unskilledto pilfer from the experience and graft of the art-ist. However refreshing it may seem to desanctifythe art work per se, a performance group suchas Juneau Projects nds itself ritualising, as onlythe craftsman can, the choices they make. Whyuse a water-jet rather than a circular saw? Whychoose to remain undened when a conversa-tion, however brief, leaves no doubt as to theirartistic intention and therefore identity?This series of questions leads me to an unlikelymarrying of causes in the Chinese paper cuttingartist Lu Shengzhong (see overleaf). His work isbreathtaking in its sheer juxtaposition of scaleand detail, and awe-inspiring as further inves-tigation reveals the high degree of meticulous-ness, each little gure being unique and handcut. His work is described as “[sustaining] itsvitality through endless recreation and varia-tion” and it is this endlessness of similar actionwhich, along with interviews conducted by Lau-rie Britton Newell in 2006, in which parallels toJuneau Projects can be drawn. For Lu Sheng-zhong is obsessed and transxed by his scis-sors, described as small, traditional, beautifullywrought and shaped for purpose. In his refusalto use a scalpel to cut out his myriad of tiny redmen, Shengzhong denes himself in terms ofcraft, rendering his obsession underneath theallure of his work.When talking to Juneau Projects, the need to re-tain control of its work and its insistence on notcreating a perfectly shot and recorded lm of oneof its performances inevitably reminds me of theritualistic desire to dene oneself in some way,whether that be through a thumbprint in clay orthe signature at the bottom of a painting, or anessay or a credit card receipt.Equally inevitably this leads me to the sociologistRichard Sennett, as the fear of what will fall withthe advent of reproduction – the written ousting
Juneau Projects: Phil Duckworth (l) Ben Sadler (r)
Image courtesy of Ellie Laycock: elllielaycock.com
‘The Principalities’, live performance at the Stanley Picker Gallery
Image courtesy of Ellie Laycock: elllielaycock.com

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