I spent part of yesterday evening attending a listening party / lecture presented by Salon97‘s Cariwyl Hebert about John Cage at the Booksmith bookstore on Haight Street, and another part at The Hub experiencing a series of two-minute presentations given by a group of people who just won (or were finalists for) grants from The Triangle Lab to pursue a range of “artist-investigator” projects. The idea of the projects is to think of artistic process as one of “scientific” investigation and to use art as a method of inquiry rather than as a means to create tidy / fixed answers to life’s issues.
Cage was the archetypal artist-investigator. He questioned practically every premise that people in the western world held dear about the nature and function of art. The discussion at Booksmith, though quite basic, was lively in this regard, especially following our collective performance of Cage’s 4’33”. (You can see us performing the piece in the image above, with an audience member by the name of Neil conducting the three-movement mini epic.)
The conversation explored the nature of silence and how the piece illustrates Cage’s point about the impossibility of achieving an absolutely noiseless environment, as well as notions about how no two performances of any artistic work can ever be the same. Even silence is different from one performance of 4’33” to another. The more we talked, the more questions came up.
Conversely, as far as I could tell, most of the projects that have been selected for artist-investigator grants from The Triangle Lab seem to be more interested in providing answers than asking questions. Perhaps the investigatory nature of the ideas was better outlined in the grant proposals. But the presentations mostly fell short in this regard.
One or two projects, such as Michelle Wilson’s plan to “sell the animal-based carbon credits in her body in order to scrutinize and critique environmental issues, food systems, and alternate economies,” seem to be open-ended. But interestingly, the very few projects that appear to be genuinely inquisitive in purview are quite far removed from the world of art. Wilson’s is a piece of environmental activism at heart.
The majority of the winning projects take the form of artistic responses to various social ills like murder, drug abuse and racial tension in downtrodden Bay Area neighborhoods. Arielle Julia Brown, for instance, intends to use her grant money to “curate a series of site-specific performances…featuring testimonies from Bay Area mothers who have lost children to systemic violence.” This, like many of the other winning projects, sounds very socially conscious and noble, but it doesn’t strike me as being geared towards the pursuit of new knowledge.
It’s perhaps unfair of me to judge a bunch of artistic endeavors based on two-minute presentations. And perhaps the completed projects will undermine my current skepticism. Still, I think The Triangle Lab should remind themselves of Cage’s legacy when they pick their next round of awardees.