During Fall Semester, 2015, University of Utah graduate students in SPAN6900-2 Analyzing Texts: Form and Content visited Rare Books. During the third and final session with Rare Books, the students were introduced to late 20th century/early 21st century fine press and artists’ books. The session ended with the premiere viewing of our copy of DOC/UNDOC Documentado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática, purchased in September. Student response was so strong that managing curator Luise Poulton, in her typical over-enthusiastic way, exclaimed, “You should post your thoughts on Open Book!” Prof. Isabel Dulfano, in her own enthusiastic way, immediately took up the suggestion and made this a new assignment, right then and there. Bless the beleaguered grad students! Rare Books is pleased to present these responses, one post at a time.
From Peter Tanner
The work of Guillermo Gómez-Peña has always caused quite a stir. The manner in which he has maintained a dialogue with, around, and trespassed over the subject of borders and in particular definitions that have been accepted as fixed in defining such borders, has always raised open questions that his viewer, or reader in this case, must confront in order to establish their own relationship to his work. The art book/performative book DOC/UNDOC: Documentado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática (2014) is a work that questions the fashion in which the book is both a static and malleable medium for communication of both ideas and experiences. When one interacts with this work one is forced to cross one’s own limits as to what can and should or should not be done with an object of obvious value, which is also meant to be used and discovered. To illustrate I will describe my first encounter with this phenomenal performative work/performative book.
Several colleagues and I from my department (Spanish) were viewing many extraordinary limited edition artistic texts that are held by the Rare Books Department at The University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. Works such as Francisco X. Alarcon’s De Amor Oscuro, Pablo Neruda’s Piedras del Cielo, and Jorge Luis Borges Siete Poemas Sajones are just a few of the amazing collection held by the library. All of these texts were developed with the highest quality craftsmanship and when possible the direct collaboration and input of the artist. While these texts were fascinating for their quality, and the fact that the text in some cases they had actually been handled and signed by the author, for example the Borges book, they are none the less texts that are beautiful books to be owned and perused with the hands, mind, and eyes of the reader. However, the performative text by Guillermo Gómez-Peña was a different experience entirely.
De Amor Oscuro, 1991
Las Piedras del Cielo, 1981
Siete Poemas Sajones, 1974
The case for the performative book contained several traditional collections of works of visual art that, while much more visual oriented than those of the texts listed above, were still in book format (either codex, accordion format or a more contemporary edge book binding were used). The difference between these more traditional texts and the more performative text of Gómez-Peña was apparent in the reaction of my colleagues to my exploration of the text. Before I explain my experience delving beneath the protective plexiglass, which separated the traditional texts from the more performative elements found below, I should say something regarding the history of interactive art.
From arguably the 1920’s forward there has been a movement in art that involved the idea of not just having a work of art to behold, but rather one that must be manipulated to be fully appreciated. Some early examples are Alexander Calder’s mobiles, and Joaquín Torres-García’s manipulable toys for children. Later works such as Lygia Clark’s Bichos and Máscaras sensoriais; Gyula Kosice’s kinetic sculptures, Carl Andre’s minimalist tile patterned floor displays, as well as Donald Judd’s sculptures required either manipulation or activation by the presence of the viewer/participant to complete the experience with the work in a three-dimensional world. This of course also relates to the dialogues that performance artists such as Joseph Beuys and Marta Minujín present to the world that must relate in some fashion to their work, and in the case of Minujín the environments that she produces. These types of works are fantastic examples where art breaks down the barrier between life and art, the more common interpretation of the effect of these works. They also reinforce the fact that the viewer, unless initiated to the need to trespass, will not understand that they are supposed to interact with the work and allow the work to facilitate their crossing the border between life and art. It is this very transgression of the boundary between visual witness of a work versus participation that Gómez-Peña seeks to break down.
The need for participation now explained, I was absolutely giddy at the chance to interact with the work of so transgressive an artist as Gómez-Peña. As a group we looked at the traditional texts and looked at all the objects behind the plexiglass resting in the bottom of the case. The plexiglass rested upon the tops of small partitions within the bottom of the metal case that serves as the container of all the books, objects, sounds, and videos that form this piece. Each partition below the plexiglass contained a collection of objects, some of which were easily visible, though much remained invisible, placed with in small velveteen-looking bags. Extending from the partitions tops and protruding through holes in the plexiglass are buttons that could be pressed by the viewer to activate a recording that would be played by the sound system also contained in the “books” box-like metal case.
While my colleagues looked on I couldn’t help but ask if we could remove the plexiglass and examine, that is touch, fondle, and explore the items within the case. At that moment there was a sort of awkward laugh that went around the group. The laughter seemed to express two feelings: the first, there he goes again with odd requests and comments; the second, of course he will not be allowed or actually ever touch the items in the case, it is after all behind the plexiglass. In retrospect this perceived reaction illustrated to me the way that we all seem to let ourselves be contained by the expectation that the glass, the plexiglass in this case, is not meant to be transgressed when it comes to those objects that we are visually told are archival, and thus separate because someone has set them apart.
When I was told that the plexiglass could be removed, and that I could examine, that is touch and explore the objects, I waited with anticipation while my colleagues watched, seemingly unsure of what to do. I further asked if I could touch everything and get into each and every velveteen bag. I was told I could, and so I did. A plethora of objects that were at times both disparate though connected fell out of each bag into my hands, including collections of fragmented body parts: ceramic heads, arms, legs, and even an iguanas severed and preserved paw. There were two sets of dice, which I picked up and rolled, to see if they were loaded (they weren’t). I tried on the pair of flip lens sun glasses and said to my colleagues, “I am seeing you with the artists’ eyes.” They laughed. There were only two things I did not get to either use or try on, the luchador mask (which I did hold but did not wear), and a metal container that was shrink wrapped. I was not permitted to open it this final container (a mystery never to be solved). Only one or two of my colleagues handled any of the objects, and no one handled them all like I did. It was amazing to hold them, to see the mystery unfold and realize that, as the video and audio performances state, I was leaving my impression or trace upon each object that I held, with my own oils and sweat. More importantly, I feel that by transgressing the plexiglass border, that I was fulfilling not only the intention of the artist as he sought to have his viewer/reader move beyond their own boundaries, but also, and I do not mean to be egotistical but I cannot think of another way to say it, modeling this type of trespass for my colleagues that seemed more or less unwilling to cross the boundary.
This type of work is meant to cause the viewer/participant to not only trespass the art/life border of the object imbued with the aura of artistic production, but also to cross over the porous definitions that we use around us. To investigate something unfamiliar one must experience something outside of one’s comfort zone. It is the very investigation of definitions beyond those that one sets upon oneself that facilitates the reformation and discovery of perspectives beyond one’s own, both conceptual and physical as this work demonstrates. By this kind of questioning the significance of the boundary as a fixed and defined concept is also redefined as more porous and flexible than perhaps previously believed. Ironically, for those that choose to not cross such boundaries, even in the most cursory way, their choice is one that solidifies the boundaries defining rhetoric. This then, at least to me, presents a third option, one which Gómez-Peña has always had as a guiding influence, what is the place of those that are undefined within a system that requires definitions? Are rights only available by functioning within established definitions? What is lost when is one is left undefined? What is their relationship to the definitions and those who both define as well as leave undefined all such positions? Works such as this one by Gómez-Peña, et al., open up all sorts of new concepts for the viewer’s/reader’s contemplation. Not the least of which is, is this a book or a work of art or both in a new hybrid performative format? You can choose for yourself, but I beg you, please move past the plexiglass.
Gómez-Peña, Guillermo, et al. DOC/UNDOC: Documentado/Undocumented Ars Shamánica Performática. Santa Cruz, CA: Moving Parts Press, 2014.
Coming soon: Dallas Fawson