Process : Before / After Brasil


I'm trying to work through some writings from London-based critic, Claire Bishop, specifically Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.  I was initially drawn to some readings on Relational Aesthetics - I think because of the fact that it is art work that involves people.  I have for a long time been fascinated by this art tradition - from Dada, to Happenings, Judson Church (a 60s avant-garde dance movement), Fluxus, Minimalism and other types of participation art.  Relational art, from what I understand, values interactivity and the creation of a "space" in which relationships are encountered over optical contemplation.   She writes, " [The] work of art is a 'social form' capable of producing positive human relationships.  As a consequence, the work is automatically political in implication and emancipatory in effect."  Bishop goes on to ask, "If the relational art produces human relations, the next logical question to ask is what types of relationships are being produced, for whom and why?"

I've been thinking a lot about this the last few days because this week Scott and I produce a participation art night.  Using the Brazilian culture as a backdrop, the night will look something like a more engaged and interactive party.  The guest will be required to cook their own food, will be asked to participate in a short Samba lesson and will watch the film "Waste Land, " after which they will be asked to share their thoughts through dialogue. 

The idea of attempting to produce a "microtopia" where relationships are created but the nature and outcome of those relationship are not examined is something that troubles me.  I am now asking why I decided to do this night  - where does my main interest lie.  In thinking back, I have created many sort of "mini-happenings" or opportunities for people to encounter something out of the ordinary.  I took a group of people to the woods to practice solitude.  I made the same group of people sit for an hour and half in silence.  I hosted a traditional Passover Seder.  I've taught Salsa to my dinner guest in my home.  And the list goes on.

I know that one thing for certain captures my attention in the "events" I've hosted: I love seeing a changed face as an outcome.  Very often as a result of the encounter with something out of the ordinary a participant will have a look of surprise or wonder, confusion or even joy.  I feel that we are for the most part so comfortable in our own social skins and we rarely require of ourselves to step out of those comfortable places.  I'm hoping that by asking my guests to dance a little samba, small cracks in their social armor will occur and I'm asking what happens when that happens.  What does that look like? 

Still, the evening does not ask: what types of relationships are being created by the night and why does it matter that they are created?  Hopefully, the event itself will help to answer this question.


Our participation art night, "Brasil" went well as an event.  The room looked amazing thanks to my friend Candida, the food turned out great and the dancing was fun but challenging for the participants (as I had suspected it would be.)  The evening started with the guests picking up a Caipirinha (Brazilian cocktail) and a typical street food called Acaraje, which was fried on the spot at a "stand" and served on paper.  They were also handed an envelope with my artist statement on the front and the menu and a description of the various foods inside.  After only a short time to mingle, I gathered everyone in to briefly state my intentions for the evening and go over the schedule of events.  I then broke the 25 people up into 4 groups.  

The 4 groups were given the task to put together a pot each of the fish stew Moqueca de Piexe.  This was my favorite part of the evening.  Haus Bethanien has a large industrial kitchen and everything was organized neatly for them, but chaos still ensued.  The more assertive of the guests stepped forward to lead their group and several people stepped out and became observers.  Ingredients and utensils were flying over hot burners and multiple languages could be heard shouting out instructions.  But everyone's focus - trying to get this dish right - was impressive!

Once the stews were simmering, it was on to an intense but short Afro-Brazilian, Samba de Roda and Rio Samba dance lesson.  The room was a bit small and this portion of the night was dreaded by some of the guests but I loved that almost everyone jumped in and did it embarrassed.  I think the guests could sense that they were all in the same position and were willing to try something new. 

Finally, the night settled down into a more quiet time.  We served up the stew and had 45 minutes to eat and converse.  Finally, the evening ended with a viewing of "Waste Land" the story of artist Vik Muniz who "paints" portraits of "catadores" with the same recyclable materials that earn them their livelihoods.  The movie is highly recommended.

I got some wonderful feedback but I think the night produced more questions for me than answers.  An artist friend of mine said the night wasn't art.  But I don't think this is a useful statement.  If the artist is trying to produce art then it is art.  The more pertinent question is: was it good art?  And I think this is the thorny issue because it seems very difficult to evaluate something without aesthetics.  Claire Bishop, the author I quoted in an earlier post, uses Jacques Ranciére's definition of aesthetic: "the ability to think contradiction."  Bishop's main contention with this type of work is that it does not "serve to unfold a more complex knot of concerns about pleasure, visibility, engagement, and the conventions of social interaction" and that the work is critiqued from an ethical viewpoint instead.  Did my guests encounter a creative experience that left them with feelings of social awkwardness and joy that might have helped to "re-humanize a numb and fragmented society?"  I think it did.  But did the evening have an internal critical tension that would have produced an aesthetic?  I don't think it did.  

View Brasil gallery

- Alicia Laumann