Friday, August 07, 2009

Looking back: Opening Ceremony for Olafur Eliasson's Parliament of Reality, May 16, 2009 at Bard College

We arrived at Bard in time to catch the afternoon session of the opening program laid out for Olafur Eliasson's permanent installation at Bard College The Parliament of Reality on May 16, 2009.
The site of the installation had changed greatly since I was last there in March. Having the "after, after the before gave me quick thrill. Defying the expectations set by the extravagance of some costly public art, the island is rather bland. This blandness also defies the expectations raised by much of this artist's other work and I think it should work well for the project as a whole going forward. This is no grand experiment in the tweaking of sensory perception. The work was created as a point of intellectual exchange, to facilitate social  gatherings and provoke debate.  It's an open air lecture hall, an academy in an approximation of the original sense: a venue where intellectual dialogue might be paired with the enhanced sensory input of exposure to the elements of nature.  This work is not apparently ostentatious (aside from creating a body of a water where there once was none in the middle of a grassy meadow). But this is sort of feature has been de riguer for upwardly mobile backyards for years, and in fact if this was in someone's back yard, there'd be the added feature a gazebo perched atop the island.  The swirling stainless steel canopy spanning the bridge is the only apparent glitz adorning the work.  This is a table, set simply, for the discurssive banquets to be held there. The work is also not complete. The plantings are new and will take several years of growth to ground the work to its site. Young trees belt the piece on the outer side of the moat. Standing on the disc. I tried to envision the effect that the fully mature trees would have on the space, anchoring it in place among broader environs.  Surely the plantings maturity will strengthen the geometry of the site and lend a sense of sheltered glade or nearly natural amphitheater. I imagine that in years to come this growth will provide the sensation of passing through an aperture as one passes over the bridge to the stone paved plaza of the island.  The island is paved in an arrangement such that the grout lines trace concentric geometric forms originating from a central cirucular stone with culminating in alignment of the cardinal points. The disc is ringed by seating in the form of large, irregular boulders.
CCS Director Tom Eccles kicking off the afternoon.

The afternoon session kicked off with a performance orchestrated by Andrea Zittel. The performance entailed four individuals tracing a square in, meeting one another at points along this square then turning back, all set to a pulsing soundtrack of a crushing, electric drone. There was something ceremonial, in an ancient way, in work. The repeated movements and the posture of the performers brought to mind lines of Irish step dancing - without that pasttime's more insidious traits.  I was anxious to see what Zittel had come up with as I have not seen to performance.  It was spartan and exhilarating.
Above and below:  moments from the performance by Andrea Zittel.

Following Zittel's piece, Molly Nesbit, professor of Art History at Vassar did a reading that spoke of the parliament and actions as a form of voting. She linked Eliasson's piece with a history of democratic gatherings in the region that predate Woodstock. I don't doubt the substantial content of her talk, but much of what she said gained little traction on the wagon trail track of my mind. At the end of her talk in an experiment of promoting an impromptu parliament, levelling the field amongst presentor and audience, she passed the microphone around to garner thoughts and responses from the entire group.
Professor Molly Nesbit giving her talk.

The microphone continued traveling through the gathered group before and after the final speaker, German philosopher, Pieter Slojterdijk. For me the most stirring words of the afternoon came from Sloterdijk, German Philosopher who spoke on the nature of reality by enumerating three human engineered projects that could well have huge impact on the perception of reality in the future.
 Pieter Slojterdijk
He enumerated three "clients" that could irrevocably alter humanity's tie to that which is considered "reality".
The first of his "clients" as he called them is Cern, which having recoved from damage incurred from defects in the facility's inaugural test last year is now ready to continue its exploratory work of observing the most elemental building blocks of the univers. The results of which could be (although infinitesimally small) creating a black hole and possibly bringing about the end of Physics as a discipline of experimental research. As the crowd giggled as Sloterdijk described the possible nature and progression of a man made black hole, I felt a bit of the ironic portense that is built up in a disaster movie as if we tempting fate in some 19th Century way. "OOhooh, men, flying in the air? preposterous!" Wonderfully creepy.
Sloterdijk's second client, is ETA, the ongoing attempt to create nuclear fusion of a sun-like intensity in a facility in the South of France. Paraphrasing Sloterdijk's imagining of the earth's epitaph: Born as a planet, it longed to be a star.
The final example cited was the International Space Station, the emblematic container of humanity's hopes for cosmologicol colonialism and our species' post-earth survival. How will our view of reality be shifted when life as we have known it, fully entangled in the fiberof its terrestrial host, is cast out into the void, expelled from our hospitable eartlhy womb?
Eliasson floated among the gathering, passing the mic, seeking to engender debate with the possibility of laying down the conversational ethos that would mark the tone of the place's future activities. Much of the talk leaned toward conjuring the practical out of the theoretical, making relevant the workings of this space.  The earnestness for affecting the world is always highly palpable at such events and virtually never actionable.

Olafur Eliasson on the mic.

Artist and writer Carol Diehl on the mic.

At one point, while I was standing on the edge of the island, I experienced a sensation that the disc was teetering slightly.  That of vertigo passed, but later as Eliasson was speaking about democratice structures and the idea of discourse and exchange, I realized the previous sensation was grasping at unconcious memory that offered an uncanny analogy to the structure of the piece and the idea of an arena for intellectual sparring:
How exciting!
The poles of high culture discourse and life or death contest are not as distant as the struggle between Flash and the Baron might suggest.  Sometime before the official opening of Parliament of Reality, a group of drunken students were apparently inspired to physical feats mischief, attempting to jettison one of the large boulders into the water, resulting in one student losing several fingers.
Though still nascent, the frogs have already claimed the space as their own. The moat of a pond is inhabited by tons of fat tadpoles. The conversations on the island was periodically accented with the oddly mechanized call of frogs resing on the bridge's canopy. The frogs' barking complimented the soundtrack of Zittel's work in such an uncanny way I, at first, believed it to be an additional sound piece.
Toward the end of the afternoon a man was complimenting Eliasson on his work and waxing rhapsodic about about how the artist's creations, the present one included, are breaking down walls, creating an egalitarian, democratic experience for all. I for one think that walls get a bum rap, and, for the record, I stand in praise of the good that a good wall can do....Robert Frost not withstanding.
In fact I sense that when the trees surrounding the feature mature, they will form a wall of sorts, buffering the island from the broader surroundings, enhancing the form and function of the piece.
It struck me as exceedingly funny and ironic that this man's praise of the demolishing of barriers was given while sitting on the only formation that is more exclusionary and divisive than a wall:  an island. 

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