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’. Juneau Projects’ artistic performances are many things to many people; exciting, cross-disciplinary, unpindownable. To me, they occupy a space in which theoretical extrapolation of a series of tensions can take place, and provide a fertile ground for debate. Juneau Projects was established in 2001 by Ben Sadler and Philip Duckworth, and places technology at the heart of a practice which embraces the crossover between music and performance art, including submersing Sony Walkmans to record their dying sounds and most recently creating performance spaces in direct conflict with the white cube aesthetic: painted a murky orange with pub chic décor. The Audience is Listening The first theoretical extrapolation stemming from ‘The Principalities’, Juneau Projects’ Fine Art Fellowship exhibition at the Stanley Picker Gallery, is the validity or lack thereof of the recording of performance art. For within recording artistic performances lies the tension between the concept of authenticity and the auratic presence of art objects (after Walter Benjamin), in which characteristics such as provenance and attenuated cultural value are given greater value than the object itself. So the question is raised: what can the recording of an instance of performance art achieve, other than to privilege the documentation process over the reality? For the sake of posterity, a form of third-order simulation is created, with the reproduction having more validity than that being reproduced, the concrete copy over the discrete, finite performance. Does this lead to the very thing that distinguishes performance art from other art forms being lost,

its instantaneity, its reliance on the human and the attached inconsistency? If it is, this could also lead to the ‘death’ of the maker, particularly in performances that rely on digital media such as ‘The Principalities’, where the artwork subsumes the creator. A bleak perspective perhaps, but this can be mediated by another reality, one which declares that the lack of such a record allows a performance to be lost to history and therefore makes its existence reliant on the fragmented memories of the audience. However, it is not necessary to look far in recent historiography to find concrete examples of the flaw in this solution. For recollection is more than averagely affected by the semiotic divide, a divide between associations and definitions, when memory becomes invariably and necessarily subjective. This subjectivity in audience recollection leads to no ‘true’ or absolute viewpoint, or even a social construct of the truth

based on habit. So we find that the ‘truth’ must fit within these parameters; therefore this was the performance as the collective memory recalls it; therefore this is how it was, definitively. And yet this viewpoint means questioning not only the individual recollection of a performance but also the media which is being recollected, e.g. music or performance art. To Record or Not to Record? With two such fundamentally oppositional viewpoints on the recording of performance art, how can the performance’s identity be retained without its very performativity being compromised? Fortunately, Juneau Projects itself has defined its perspective on this. The ephemerality of its performance constitutes a proportion of the performances purpose and charm, and if history missed it, it is history’s loss. In this Juneau Projects reconstitute its role as maker, and reiterate

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The Maker’s Hand in Digital Performance Art

Juneau Projects

‘The Principalities’, Juneau Projects’ installation at the Stanley Picker Gallery Image courtesy of Ellie Laycock: elllielaycock.com


‘The Principalities’, live performance at the Stanley Picker Gallery Image courtesy of Ellie Laycock: elllielaycock.com

Juneau Projects: Phil Duckworth (l) Ben Sadler (r) Image courtesy of Ellie Laycock: elllielaycock.com

its importance. However, as some video clips do exist and its performance is not the entirety of its practice, such a well defined viewpoint only adds to the general noise surrounding the debate. So let us return to Walter Benjamin and the concept of authenticity; for Juneau Projects admits that it wishes the original, the authentic performance, to be privileged over any form of recording. And, as the maker of the performance, it is surely Juneau’s right to demand control of how its work is distributed and remembered? If it wishes ‘The Principalities’ to be enjoyed as live performance art, who would suggest that history has a greater right to its work? However, this leads to another debate. For the performed music element of the artists’ work is digitally programmed in the MIDI format and relayed through the synth-axes which perform the role of musical instruments (in ‘The Principalities, the water jet carved shapes of a snowy owl and a squirrel). This means Juneau Projects does not choose the sounds that are performed once they have been programmed. It would therefore be possible that the music could be reduced to the reproduction of a recording, a set of reproduced (via programmed MIDI file) 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 recorded and reproduced, foregoing the human element of live performance? The Maker’s Mark The answer to this question rests at the heart of another debate. This debate concerns the way makers leave their mark on the objects of their practice, a debate nowadays framed by two concepts central to 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 meticulousness, Juneau Projects and others look to place the maker’s hand into this most alienating medium, digital art, in order to prevent these postmodern concepts prophesying the ‘death’ of the maker. These artists refute the notion that digital art is the final nail in the coffin of the practitioner, and liberation from preconceptions around digital art becomes central to an understanding of their work. Although the (post)modern move away from authenticity has carried with it an intention of democratisation, it still remains at the heart of many art exhibitions, albeit mutating into what could be termed skill or any of the other words bandied around the idea of art in its loosest sense. Juneau Projects put the maker’s mark into their work through opening their practice to school

workshops, in which cardboard creations from the children are united with the digital technology to make functioning musical instruments. As images of these workshops are displayed in the final cumulative project, the equipment itself seems 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 refusal to treat art as sacred, to allow the unskilled to pilfer from the experience and graft of the artist. However refreshing it may seem to desanctify the art work per se, a performance group such as Juneau Projects finds itself ritualising, as only the craftsman can, the choices they make. Why use a water-jet rather than a circular saw? Why choose to remain undefined when a conversation, however brief, leaves no doubt as to their artistic intention and therefore identity? This series of questions leads me to an unlikely marrying of causes in the Chinese paper cutting artist Lu Shengzhong (see overleaf). His work is breathtaking in its sheer juxtaposition of scale and detail, and awe-inspiring as further investigation reveals the high degree of meticulous-

ness, each little figure being unique and hand cut. His work is described as “[sustaining] its vitality through endless recreation and variation” and it is this endlessness of similar action which, along with interviews conducted by Laurie Britton Newell in 2006, in which parallels to Juneau Projects can be drawn. For Lu Shengzhong is obsessed and transfixed by his scissors, described as small, traditional, beautifully wrought and shaped for purpose. In his refusal to use a scalpel to cut out his myriad of tiny red men, Shengzhong defines himself in terms of craft, rendering his obsession underneath the allure of his work. When talking to Juneau Projects, the need to retain control of its work and its insistence on not creating a perfectly shot and recorded film of one of its performances inevitably reminds me of the ritualistic desire to define oneself in some way, whether that be through a thumbprint in clay or the signature at the bottom of a painting, or an essay or a credit card receipt. Equally inevitably this leads me to the sociologist Richard Sennett, as the fear of what will fall with the advent of reproduction – the written ousting

Detail of ‘The Book of Humanity: The Empty Book’ by Lu Shengzhong Image courtesy of flickr profile Dubris

the oral storyteller, the photograph sounding the death knell of the painted portrait, the film rendering the imagination irrelevant, abstract art destroying the skill of the draughtsman etc. – is neatly sidestepped with the comment “treating technology as an enemy will only render humanity more helpless.” Against what? The meticulous, pseudo-ritualistic behaviours displayed by Lu Shengzhong and Juneau Projects are ways of recreating the thumbprint, of reforming the simple in order to render the complex digestible in an age of digital reproduction where each copy is as pristine as the first, each viewing as important, each moment as irrelevant, each viewer as decharacterised. Sennett notes that the collaborative makers of opensource software such as Linux are much
Further Reading

like the unnamed workers in the medieval guild, suggestive of the fact that the tie between performance and craft is “an enduring basic, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.” As a writer, how do I place my mark in a world where words are frequently absorbed online in blogs or status updates; what is my voice worth in a point-of-view-saturated, cyber-orgy of words? My maker’s mark is my underlying methodology, my personal geography, the internal compass swinging wildly and widely as new ideas are absorbed, morphed and eliminated – how can such an underlying mark become visible when its texture is that of the words it exists within? Perhaps it is most obviously manifest in my footnotes; of which there are none – does this make it anonymous?


The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Benjamin 1936 | Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard 1981 | The Social Construction of Reality Berger and Luckmann 1966 | The Death of the Author Barthes 1968 | What is an Author? Foucault 1969 | Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft Britton Newell 2007 | The Craftsman Sennett 2008

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