Group experiencing Ernesto Neto’s installation TheAnimalSusPensiveOntheLandGenscape. Documentation by students in the photography course at Spectaculu – School of Art and Technology. Leopoldina station, Rio de Janeiro, September 26th, 2012. Photos: Kelly Malheiros. In partnership with Spectaculu

Art in the World
Tania Rivera

If the “museum is the world,” as Hélio Oiticica was already suggesting in 1966, this statement does not just mean that art should be taken beyond institutional walls. The affirmation that the whole world could be a place for art implies the presupposition that art already existed outside the museum: in life. Cited in full, the artist makes his point explicit: what Hélio wrote was “the museum is the world: it is everyday experience.”1 The artist’s reflection is then about expanding the institutional field of art in a way that foregrounds experience–and not only that which is usually understood as artistic experience, but rather, the experience of everyday life. Life itself.

Reflecting on the critical expansion of the museum and the artistic, curatorial and educational practices that accompany this process, asks us, in fact, to reexamine the difficult but fundamental question of what is the experience of art. It is not to find an answer to this question, which is always up in the air, always problematic, and the very object of reflection for artistic practice, as well as related fields such as aesthetics. But rather, it is to assume the impossibility of defining the art experience as that which precisely really matters: the lack of well-defined limits that makes of it something discreet and not necessarily spectacular. A relative indeterminacy allows a remarkable capacity for the dispersion and dissemination of art in everyday experience.

With the term dispersion I propose to name the fact that art is part of the mass of perceptions and events that is life, but it distinguishes itself at some point, thanks to a gesture of the artist and its destination in the gaze of another. Such a gesture may be minimal, an appropriation that highlights an element of the common world–such as the piece of asphalt in the work by Oiticica that he found on Presidente Vargas Avenue in Rio de Janeiro. To him it looked like the shape of Manhattan Island, so he called it Manhattan Brutalista (1978), and took some photos of it. Or this gesture can be complex and consist of a long project, perhaps involving other people and interfering in the denseness of life in order to introduce some change to it–as is the case with Memorabilia, the work created by José Rufino at the invitation of The Andy Warhol Museum, together with people affected by Alzheimer’s disease. An article about which the reader can find in this first issue of MESA magazine.

Now with dissemination I understand the fact that when such an element is highlighted in the world by an artistic gesture it earns, in return, a great potential for poetic contamination affecting other elements in the world. The Rorschach inkblots and the writing of Alzheimers’ patients and their families, as worked on by Rufino, are able to change something in the experience of those people who collaborated with him; and also change my perspective on this disease, as well as, more broadly, on our capacities and incapacities, on memory and on the relationships between people. To put it imprecisely, but without great pretensions: about life. Art thus throws some seeds into the wind. Dissemination has to do with the potential for art’s transformative resonance on the subject and the world. However, it is unknown whether the seeds that are sown will find a fertile soil, if the wind will take them too far (or too close), if they will find rocky ground, or if the rain will help them to settle and grow. Rather than implementing a program with clear ideological intentions, art is about a kind of erratic dissemination, of which it is impossible to measure the “effectiveness,” and that may or may not hit its target. The important thing is to realize that there is in the movement of dissemination a certain kind of address – like a shipwreck message-in-a-bottle thrown to the sea. We do not know if one day it will be found by someone, and if there will be a clear message (although perhaps any message in there would be a kind of SOS: Request for help, a radical appeal to another).

Dissemination sometimes makes itself known, most often through minimal signs. One of these caught my attention in the description of the experience of the visit to Ernesto Neto’s work oBichoSusPensoNaPaisaGen [TheAnimalSusPensiveOntheLandGenscape] (2012) by a group of blind and seeing people, reported and discussed in a few essays in this magazine. Virginia Kastrup observes, at one point, an artist educator passing her hand through the hair of one of the participants, who is lying down beside her, in a very intimate and natural way. Artistic experience mostly takes place between people–even if we are alone in an exhibition gallery–and it is always radically intimate– even if it is not about touch and the presence of the body.

The museum, cultural centers and commercial galleries are places that invite artistic experience, but nothing guarantees that in them this will actually take place. Much contemporary artistic practice shifts the emphasis from an object to be contemplated to actions or propositions, making the reception of such work more complex, at times even problematic. How can the museum house these hybrid products without constraining them as materialized objects that can be seen? How can commercial galleries reconcile their goal of selling–which presupposes, of course, a product that can be admired and purchased–with respect to the dispersion and dissemination of art in the world that may result in immaterial proposals (or ones that don’t burn themselves out solely as an object to be contemplated)?

Taking on the task of expanding the institutional field of art is undoubtedly a political and ethical position. An act of resistance against the dilution of art into the art market. An affirmative act against the kowtowing of life to the perverse logic of the commodity. An artistic act, perhaps.

If art is dispersed in the world, its mode of contact is that of the encounter. Intentional or fortuitous, the encounter always takes place in a unique way: I can find art around the corner from my house, just as I can come across it in a museum exhibition. Of course, I have more chance to encounter art in a space that is traditionally designated as such, but I can also run into it in a magazine, in a book or in a more or less banal life situation, if I am open. This openness, in the “receiver,” in the public, is the counterpart of the artist’s gesture that can on occasion take place. However construed, such openness should not be confused with cognitive capacity. It is about experience, or rather, that the subject there takes place2. It is about seeing oneself in a unique situation, but in one that happens on common ground, in other words, that involves a sharing with others. As in everyday life, in art the subject resumes his singular, unique condition, highlighting the common ground on which we all find ourselves. It celebrates and explores, in the experience as defined, that that which is the most “intimate” is exteriorized, in a shared context with others (extimate, to use the term coined by Lacan)3.

It seems useful to me to think of art in terms of situation, rather than place. The term situation has to do with a locale (site) and with an event in a temporal duration. Art occurs in a place in time.

The situation in which we find ourselves is only partly determined by our actions and intentions. Life consists of complex situations in a complex interweaving of causes, effects and chance events–always in connection with other living beings. Perhaps current artistic production often assumes this tangle as its structure, assuming itself as non-autonomous and subject to transformations that define its mutable form, depending on the situation in which someone encounters it. This dimension is in the foreground, today especially, in artistic work with communities, such as those developed during the 8th Mercosul Biennial in cities of Rio Grande do Sul, and in Scotland at Deveron Arts, experiences discussed in some of the videos and articles present in this issue of MESA. Some curatorial / artistic proposals deal with the very issue of sharing and building the “common” in artistic practice, understood broadly, as happened in Makers’ Meal, also developed in Scotland and presented here.

More than exhibit a particular artistic work or facilitate its reception for an audience, the role of the curator, institutional staff in general, and of the art educator, in particular, seems to me to be one of (re)creating the situation of that artwork, in a way that remains faithful to the work itself. This fidelity is critical, as it is about not imposing a “reading” of the work that totally deviates from the situation created by the artist. But it is important to realize that, to the extent that the situation of a work is in part open and changeable, the work of the curator and the art educator always involves some degree of deviation (intentional or not), as well as randomness. Moreover, in many cases it is the curator who creates the situation in which the artist’s work will be conceived and presented – especially when it comes to projects that consist within themselves of the kind of gesture that highlights an element or a question of dispersion in the world, comparable to what I called the gesture of the artist. Partnership and sharing are in these cases the basic conditions for the emergence of the artistic situation.

The critic, in turn, seems to me to create a textual situation that must also be true to the work’s proposal, assuming the sharing of (re)creation and chance that it also involves. This textual situation also owes much to the size of the encounter: the critic with the artist, the conversations between the two, the critic with the work in exhibition or studio situations, as well as the critic with texts by other authors as well as with works by other artists. In my opinion, the critic must, as the curator and art educator, take it upon him or herself to disseminate the work grounded in a practice of its eventual dispersion. After holding on to it for some time, the critic should re-launch the shipwrecked message-in-a-bottle into the sea, bringing the transmission of this poetic situation to the here and now.
To deal with art is always to reencounter, with others, the minimal gestures and things, at times quasi-invisible, by which everyday experience touches and transforms us. Be it in the northeastern Sertão (in the photo essay “The Unique World of the House of Miracles”) or the Rio slum (which we reencounter in the video The Authentic New Carioca) or all around you, outside your window or next door, remember that life pulsates (and art as well).

1Oiticica, Hélio. Programa Ambiental. In: Figueiredo, L.; Pape, L.; Salomão, W. (org). Aspiro ao Grande Labirinto. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1986, p. 79.
2Translator’s note: In Portuguese “o sujeito ali ter lugar” literally means “the subject there has place” implying both a sense of having one’s place and taking place. In other words that the potential for experience is dependent on the context of the event of subjectivity taking place, of becoming-in-relation to others and to one’s surrounding context.
3Lacan, Jacques. O Seminário, livro 7: a ética da psicanálise. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1997.