An interconnected world demands that we collaborate in the public sphere. Indeed, without this cooperation the public sphere would not exist, for it requires not just an action, but also a reaction. The speech is not a speech until it is heard. The rally is not a rally unless it is seen. The map is not a key until it is read. To exist, the public sphere requires a necessary but beautiful tension between all of us, all of us collaborators.
In a recent interview, the artist Eric Fischl admitted that he needed others to complete his paintings. Fischl spoke of, for example, his famous painting “Bad Boy,” in which a nude woman idly picks her toes while exposing her private parts to a young boy. The boy, though his focus is on the woman, reaches behind him and fingers the insides of her purse.
The interviewer, Kurt Anderson, asks what the boy is swiping from the woman’s bag. Fischl answers:
It doesn’t matter what I thought, and that’s the nature of the art exchange. What I try to do is make a painting that takes you to a particular place in which meaning is present, but it’s based on your associations. You end up possessing the experience by you attaching meaning to it. … [The viewers] look at the woman and they decide: is that the mother, a babysitter, a prostitute, etc. They look at the boy and the purse they decide: is he stealing money, is he looking for car keys. All of these things are possible.
In other words, it is up to the viewer to complete the narrative in Fischl’s art. The work is collaborative on two levels: the art needs the viewer to be art, while Fischl needs the viewer to complete the artistic experiment. Since there are potentially limitless numbers of viewers, there are potentially limitless numbers of stories—of artistic “pieces”—that can come out of “Bad Boy.”
On June 23 I had the opportunity to complete an artistic narrative. Or, at least, I was allowed to fill in some of the blanks, for when is a work of art ever complete? “Writing On It All,” a temporary show-slash-performance that took place over three weekends in June on Governors Island, New York City, was a collaborative writing and artistic experience in which artists and viewers came together to “read, react, and revise,” to “revel in writing on walls.” The chosen venue was a Twentieth Century house, once the quarters of officers when the island served as a military base.
I opted to participate in “<legend> </legend>,”1 the collaborative segment spearheaded by artist Carla Gannis and poet Justin Petropoulos. For their interactive piece, the duo collected historical documents about Governors Island (including images), selecting an array of items that represent the diverse way the island has been defined or mapped (e.g., a military base, a recreational area). Petropoulos redacted the historical texts (such is his forte) to create original poetry. The newly spare text was transcribed onto the walls of a second story room. Participants were asked to react to the texts by adding words or images onto the wall using charcoal and chalk.
Next, Gannis created digital collages of the historical images and projected the ghosted (near transparent) images onto the walls. Again, participants could react to these images by tracing the outlines or adding their own flair.
Meanwhile, an audio recording of Gannis and Petropoulos reading from the original historical texts played while Gannis, using a projector wired to her Macintosh tablet, reacted to the words by drawing yet more figures and shapes.
The total effect was to create a new (temporary) map of Governors Island, albeit one of the mind and spirit. The collaboration in this vertical mapmaking was between Gannis and Petropoulos, and between the artists and an engaged public. Viewers, grabbing multi-colored chalks and attacking the walls with abandon, reacted to the poetry, the sounds, the drawings, or the drums in their own heads.
According to the artists:
The goal of the project is to explore the ways people communicate, document, and map moments from the past or in the present, and the relationships that are created in and by the various media used to those ends. We locate everything we experience, in the present or as memory, in a place, and those experiences, because they are subject to the whims of subjectivity, are personal, and so too a kind of myth.
Inasmuch, it is up to the participants—the collaborating public—to find their own way through “<legend> </legend>,” to map their own experience as they see and feel it. Writing on the wall is a way for the viewer to become an engaged cartographer, allowing space for the creation of a small vision of the world as it appears in that moment. Unlike today's real-world maps which clearly delineate in real-time how to get from Point A to Point B using XYZ Road, nobody’s map in “<legend> </legend>” is wrong, for neither the journey nor the destination can be disproved.
For my part, I disavowed agency and followed Gannis’s path as she sketched it out in real time on the wall. As her naturalist curlicues and figurative sketches decorated the walls, I hurriedly traced her movements, wearing down several pieces of chalk (blue, green, yellow) to nubs. The effect, besides being fun and somewhat game-like, had the appearance of a multi-part simultaneous translation: The voices of Gannis and Petropoulos read history, to which Gannis immediately reacted with her photographic tracings, a visual reading if you will, to which I followed along as best as I could. History and the ever-moving present became contemporaneous. The art was not just in the “finished” product on all four walls—the art was in bringing individuals (both present and not) together to make something. The art was also in combining multiple temporal realms: the history of the island, the history of that particular room, and the present.
The title says so much more about what it is Gannis and Petropoulos seek to accomplish, because it actually doesn’t say anything at all. “<legend> </legend>” is empty code. There is no message between the html brackets—you must enter those commands yourself. The definition of the legend, that encoded symbology of what appears on any map, is up to the viewer: you determine the meanings of your cartographic meanderings. There is the physical path ahead of you, but there is also the path seen by others to which you may not be privy. Consider, for example, that the crow flies straight, whereas you must traverse hills and valleys and round uncertain bends to reach (perhaps unknown) destinations. There is the open road and there is the road less traveled.
And then there is the symbolic path, “a natural guiding force that leads all things to their fulfillment,” says Laotzu. It doesn’t matter if you know exactly where you are or if you are completely lost, whether you are determined or a wanderer. There is a way, and whether you choose to follow the path ahead or to strike off on a new course, it is up to you.
But still, you collaborate, for you continue to act within the public sphere. We act and react to each others’ comings and goings. The map may be ours to share, but the legend remains yours to create.
- 1. Readers take note: “<legend> </legend>” is a collaborative project that consists of a series of poems and drawings based on text redaction. The project is rooted in analog works, specifically poems written by Justin Petropoulos from hand-redacted text and ink drawings created by Carla Gannis in response to audio recordings of Justin’s redaction poems. As the poems and drawings are completed, they are digitally rendered and scaled up for projection on walls, 3D printed sculptures, and interactive works. The poems and artworks are also slated for their first exhibition at Transfer Gallery and their first publication with Jaded Ibis Press in September 2013. The work will be distributed in various formats, each with their own aesthetic integrity. Ultimately the drawings and text will be made into various analog and digital assets for projection, interaction, audio, Ibook, and traditional book form.