The Storytelling Challenge of Process-Based Art
On Sunday I headed to the Hammer to see Made in LA 2014, the newest incarnation of their biennial exhibition series aimed at highlighting some of the most forward-thinking and under-hyped artists working in the city. I walked away from the show more convinced than ever about the importance of a core component to building a career in the arts today: a strong, unifying narrative for one’s work.
Counterintuitively, though, my newfound conviction came from some of the included artists’ resistance to this theme rather than their adoption of it.
One of the major themes at the biennial this year, at least to me, was what I’ll call process-based art. Projects in this category are less about presenting a finished piece than a collection of postcards–figuratively speaking, at least usually–from points along a complex, protracted journey of creative development that often spans multiple media.
The particularities change from artist to artist and piece to piece. For instance, Piero Golia's The Comedy of Craft [Act I: Carving George Washington’s Nose] exists as both sculpture and ongoing performance. The nucleus of the project is the artist and his assistants’ ongoing work, all executed on a designated area of the Hammer’s second story terrace, to carve a life-sized duplicate of the first POTUS’s Mount Rushmore schnoz out of styrofoam.
The endeavor continues in fits and starts throughout the exhibition’s run and beyond. (With only a week left when I visited, it was unclear to me whether Golia would finish the carving before Made in LA 2014 closed, or whether he had ever planned to do so in the first place.)
When not actually conducting monumental rhinoplasty, though, Golia leaves the apparatus–the sculpture in-progress, the scrap styrofoam shorn away from it, the various tools and notes involved in the process–on view for visitors to wander across, as video cameras film their reactions.
Even once completed, the carving process will only be one piece in the project’s larger Tetris formation. The wall text bookending Golia’s studio-space-outside-the-studio explains that three subsequent 'acts’ of The Comedy of Craft will play out elsewhere in the future.
To slide another strain of process-based art under the microscope for comparison, Emily Mast's ENDE (LIKE A NEW BEGINNING) lives at the Hammer as a multimedia piece dismembered. The project exists as three discrete yet interrelated modules which comprise all, some, or none of the artwork, depending on how grad school your philosophical perspective about these issues is.
The first module is a collection of video installations in which performers (including Mast herself) play with a series of objects like baguettes, plastic buckets, and cardboard boxes in whimsical settings.
The second module is a series of sculptural installations set up throughout the museum, each one consisting of actual objects used in the videos (except for the foodstuffs, which are replaced by non-perishable replicas, presumably for hygiene’s sake).
The third module is a series of unannounced, on-site performances that both reprise the action in the videos and incorporate the objects in the sculptural installations. Like Golia’s actual sculpting, whether or not a visitor will actually witness one of these performances is entirely a matter of chance–something like the high culture equivalent of going to the zoo without knowing whether or not the polar bears will be awake. (Neither Golia’s nor Mast’s performances were activated while I was perusing the Hammer’s galleries, so it’s debatable as to whether I got the full effect of either.)
What’s the motivation behind process-based projects like these? And why are they so prevalent at Made in LA 2014, not to mention other recent institutional exhibitions?
Back in March, the opening of the Whitney Biennial–aspects of which grooved to a similar process-based hi-hat–sparked Jori Finkel to write a smart piece in The Art Newspaper about how the trend’s gathering strength on the biennial exhibition scene could be viewed in part as a reaction against the art market. For curators and artists alike, exhibiting process-based work can mean leveraging the not-for-profit soul of institutions to a degree that would be masochistic, if not suicidal, in a for-profit setting such as a gallery or an art fair.
Finkel captures the idea in miniature when she quotes Michelle Grabner, one of the curators of this year’s Whitney Biennial and a progressive enough arts practitioner that her website includes a category labeled 'professional activities’ alongside the more typical 'exhibition resume,’ saying: “Art fairs are very successful at circulating objects. So what else can museums do?"
I wholeheartedly co-sign Finkel’s perspective on the anti-market (or perhaps more art theory-appropriate, 'post-market’) character of process-based work. And from a strategic perspective, I think it makes sense for museums to exploit their unique freedoms to produce programming unlikely to thrive in revenue-thirstier patches of art world soil.
Interestingly, though, process-based projects still tend to produce tangible, collectible objects. For instance, I’m sure that well-funded admirers could acquire Golia’s completed sculpture or Mast’s installations, in much the same way as Marina Abramovitch’s career began to thrive when one of her gallerists lit on the idea of selling limited edition photographs of her performances.
So if traditional art world commodities can still emerge from process-based work, why is it still perceived as a challenge to sell? My takeaway from Made in LA 2014 is that it’s less a matter of the works’ protean character than its narrative complexity.
I’ve argued before–most thoroughly in the post I linked to at the top of this one–that concise artist narratives are the feeding trough of the current art market: the structure that conveniently positions the work at mouth level for hungry collectors ready to consume.
The idea is to distill the artist’s background and major themes into an elevator pitch. In the span of two or three compact sentences, a viewer must feel like they understand what the artist is doing and why it’s worth their time, money, or both. This way, all parties involved can make quick decisions in a marketplace increasingly concerned with speed and sales volume.
The fundamental problem in commoditizing process-based work is that, in a sense, it's too narrative. Instead of chugging easily off the conveyor belt of an artist’s single unified story, every piece is its own story. Grasping the project requires not only grasping the creator’s narrative but also a much more complex, completely separate narrative about what they’ve done thistime.
Even more challenging, the story of most process-based work is incomplete, fragmented, and therefore in need of reconstruction by viewers. They can’t just absorb and react to it. They must actively work to form a sensible arc out of the plot points. Each individual artwork becomes Finnegans Wake (or at least House of Leaves).
To help put matters in perspective, this blog post is about twice the size I wanted it to be when I started writing, strictly because of how much real estate was needed to explain Golia’s and Mast’s contributions to Made in LA 2014. That’s not a criticism of their works. It’s just a reality.
And ultimately, this same reality takes a boning knife to the unified narrative. What should be, in the gallerist’s mind, a sound byte becomes either a lengthy conversation–itself a serious opportunity cost for someone trying to make volume sales–or, more likely given the short fuse of the average art world transaction in 2014, the conversation’s awkward end.
From a critical perspective, the hyper-narrative of process-based work and the level of serious engagement it demands can be admirable for these reasons. But from a market perspective, they’re sabotage.
I also think most collectors see the acquirable objects from a process-based project as less complete, and therefore less desirable, than more traditionally 'finished’ works. In a sense, they feel as if they’re only buying a fragment–one souvenir from a larger intangible journey. The risk is that the objects start to feel more like memorabilia than artwork, and both the prices and the demand for them reflect as much.
In that sense, I assume the savviest artists inclined to work in this genre will adopt a kind of 'one for me, one for them’ strategy: create process-based projects for institutional settings while continuing to produce more traditionally commoditized work around a central narrative for their gallerists.
Taking this tack would not only allow them to indulge their more challenging, more critically oriented side but keep their practice well-funded and well-publicized by the gallery machine at the same time.
The alternative–refusing to deviate from the path of process-based artwork–likely leads to, at best, the hard land of under-the-radar critical darlings, which is precisely the territory Made in LA 2014 sought to bring wider attention to. I hope for the artists’ sake they take a nuanced approach to capitalizing on the newfound exposure, or else the storytelling challenges of their future projects could lead to some lean years.