REVIEW: Participation - Production - Presentation: A Report on Ricardo Basbaum's Collective Conversation
Curtis Grahauer | february 3, 2015
Collective conversation was performed on the evening of October 29, 2014 in the Audain Gallery against the backdrop of Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum’s exhibition, The Production of the Artist as Collective Conversation. The performance was the culmination of a one-month intensive class in SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, facilitated by Basbaum–the Audain Visual Artist in Residence–and SCA Assistant Professor Sabine Bitter. The participants in the class included Shannon McAllister, Susan Bernal, Margaux Cheung, Lucien Durey, Deborah Edmeades, Caroline Engelstad, Irina Giri, Abbey Hopkins, Jasmine Huang, Kevin Jinn, Jasmine Kwong, Adriana Lademann, Anchi Lin, Arthur Lin, Chris Ling, Daniela Molinari, Stephanie Ng, Cydney Paddon, Neo Tang, Wan Hang Tsang and myself.
As a current MFA candidate at SFU, I enrolled in this course for the opportunity to witness Basbaum’s conceptual and participatory practice firsthand. Previous to this I had only seen documentation of his project, Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?(ongoing since 1994), which involves a large steel object called NBP (New Bases of Personality), but I now could experience the physical object. The NBP–a clunky, steel basin whose shape resembles an eye but also calls to mind a large cake pan or communal urinal–is an object that Basbaum encourages individuals and groups to use in whatever way they choose. He proposes that through interacting with the object, the “experiences you carry out make visible networking and mediation structures.” Documented by the participants themselves, Basbaum states that these experiences ‘are more important than the object itself,’whose multiple clones exist simultaneously in different areas of the globe, connected to exhibitions of his work. The documentation of experiences with the object can be uploaded to the artist’s website archive of the project, to be included in future exhibitions of his work.
The participants in the course were asked to divide into groups, take the object out to interact with it, and document this experience. Prior to this, we looked at previous documentation of people using the object, and certain interaction trends emerged. There were images of people sticking their heads, arms or legs through the NBP, and images of various participants laying down in it like a human yin yang. The object was used as a container and a tabletop. It was impossible not to think of a potential experience with the object without considering these past uses, as though the object itself, while not singular, seemed to have accumulated its own history of representation.
For our experience, my group decided to bring the NBP to a local dance night at The Astoria Pub on Hastings Street. The theme of the night was “Do The Hustle.” Strapped to a handcart and manipulated like a puppet, the NBP participated in the hustle dance lessons, and several people with no prior knowledge of the object or its history, wanted to dance and get their picture taken with it. Unaware of past participant’s tendencies towards interacting with the NBP, people stuck their appendages through the orifice of the object, and one couple even insisted on getting their picture taken in the classic human yin yang. These interactions with the object that recreated trends associated with past experiences, brought up questions of what constitutes an “artistic experience.” Art and artistic experience are not solely based on innovation and providing a novel way of looking at the world, at social experience, or the natural environment. Art is the communication of information, ideas and emotions through an individual or collective perspective that is articulated in an object, an event, or some combination of the two. The object that Basbaum created is intended to incite an artistic experience that can only be completed through the event of participation.
Basbaum told the class about the inception of the NBP object, and how he wanted to create an easily identifiable form. The form, created in 1994 and modelled on a stylized representation of an eye, was meant to have a graphic impact but no specific purpose that would determine its use. The function of the NBP is that it is an open form to be interpreted by the participant. In the twenty years that this object has existed, it has accumulated documentation that spans the growth of the internet’s popularity and the ubiquity of social media. In this time the object has taken on a life of its own as its associated documentation accretes and aggregates. For one to have an artistic experience with it, one not only interprets the object, but also must respond to the documentation of previous interactions.
Before Basbaum’s exhibition at the Audain Gallery opened, he worked with our class to develop and write the script for collective conversation, using readings and discussions to help shape its content and structure. We met in the gallery to discuss the process of forming the text for the collective conversation, which first involved listening to recordings of past performances. Basbaum insists on a diversity of voice in the script and encourages participants to write in their native tongue. Upon listening to the recordings that had been made during previous exhibitions in places such as Chicago, Seoul and Vienna, I was immediately drawn to the segments that used words or vocal sound effects to create harmonies and dissonant choruses–where grammar and sentence structure broke down and vocal sounds became sonic texture. Regardless of whether the voices were speaking in English, Korean, German or otherwise, any single voice felt awkward. The manner in which the text was read was dry, and what was being said felt like the opposite of a conversation. It felt more like I was being talked at. It sounded like badly written dialogue read by non-actors who did not have the capacity to emote or emphasize the text. Reflecting on the process of producing the script for the Audain Gallery performance, my initial perception was not far off. After creating the script with Basbaum and our class, however, I understood that without these solo parts, the script’s dynamic would weaken and the harmonic sections would not be as strong.
On Fridays our class would discuss the assigned readings, and Saturdays were reserved for the collective writing of the script. The process of scriptwriting began with a period of individual generative writing. We were asked to respond to our interactions with the NBP object, or our personal concerns regarding the idea of “the artist.” There was a diverse contribution from participants. At this stage, like the beginning of any project, it was difficult to see how this written material was going to be shaped into something interesting. There were many times during class when heads nodded off, or seats were left vacant after a lunch break. But this inconsistency in engagement with a project at an uncertain stage felt endemic to participatory art in general. In a studio practice, inanimate materials may behave in ways in which an artist did not expect, but the artist still has authority over determining the materials that are used. Similarly, the casting process of a film or a play leaves a certain amount of control to the director or producer–yet when an artist asks for participation with no contract or remuneration, the consent from the participants is based on tenuous trust.
Once the first stage of the script’s generation was completed, our class as a whole began to read it aloud and edit together. The incongruity in the individual contributions dissipated as the different texts were synthesized. Basbaum encouraged further contributions from participants, however the editorial process of what written material made it into the script depended on the artist’s own aesthetic sensibility. How he decided to include one piece of text over another seemed to be based both on his experience developing scripts for previous performances, as well as his preference to sustain a diversity of voices and languages throughout the document. Successive contributions filled in the blanks of the first draft, as the class was given a form to which they could respond. Even after our class listened to previous recordings of past performances, it was not until we were in the midst of scripting our own collective conversation that the actual process of how one of these scripts is created was revealed.
In his 1969 essay Art After Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth writes that “[a] work of art is a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist’s intention, that is, he [the artist] is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art.” Considering Kosuth’s description of an artwork as a tautology rooted in the artist’s imagination, how could this concept relate to the collective rehearsing and refining of a script that was to be performed? Which part of the collective conversation is the work of art? Is it the script, the performance or the documentation of the performance? Or is it the original concept, followed by the proposal of the structure, and the development of the script?
Our class’ participation in the development of the script appeared to be part of the work of art, but even when this participation is aggregated with the other components of the exhibition, such as the diagrams and the documentation of previous collective conversations and NBP experiences, there still is no final concrete articulation that stands as a “work of art.” This is similar to the way the NBP creates an artistic experience when activated through interaction, as opposed to its form, or its many clones, existing as a discrete art object. The “work of art” is the actual “work” to participate in the artistic experience that Basbaum conceptualizes and constructs through platforms like the NBP, or the development and performance of the collective conversation scripts.
The script progressed and was rehearsed so many times that it was a relief when Basbaum asked us to withhold emotion or inflection when reading. The rehearsal process of any script can be exhausting, even more so if one also has to conjure emotions for the words being read. By the time the script was completed, it was difficult to ascribe authorship to any particular piece of text. Some participants read words that they had contributed, while some read the words of others. Basbaum directed which quality of voice connected with which piece of text.
The performance was staged against the backdrop of the Audain Gallery exhibition, which included two projections of NBP interactions, a half-dozen recordings of previous collective conversations and their corresponding scripts, as well as two wall diagrams that served as flowcharts of Basbaum’s artistic practice, illustrating his methodology for participation and creating connections. One diagram, painted yellow, which illustrated the Would you like to participate in an artistic experience? project, also acted as a framing device for the 4x6” photos of the class’ experiences with the object. Arranged around the metal furniture object in the centre of the room, the twenty-two participants, including the two instructors and a teaching assistant, each had a microphone for amplification and recording. Surrounded by a crowd of audience members, we entered the room, performed the script as we had rehearsed it dozens of times, and then it was done. The post-performance feeling had that sharp but fleeting pang of nostalgia that always seems to come after any intensive group experience. The collective organism that was created in class had served its purpose and its life was over.
It could be read as a misnomer to call the script and the performance a “collective conversation” as there is no actual conversation occurring. One of my own contributions to the script was based on words that were gleaned from a web post titled “Cooperation vs. Collaboration.” The author writes that, “when cooperating, people perform together (co-operate) while working on selfish yet common goals,” whereas “when collaborating, people work together (co-labor) on a single shared goal.” Much of what I took from the post made it into the script, along with some text I found on drum circles that I thought related to whether the class was cooperating or collaborating with each other and with Basbaum. In the end it felt like there was a synthesis of the two concepts. Or, perhaps it is difficult for me to see the division between the two. I, like others in the class, chose to participate in an artwork by an internationally renowned artist for my own experience as an artist, but the goal, to create a script for a performance, was shared by everyone.
Neo, Margaux, Chris, Cydney
[two female voices and two male voices]
No master architect, conductor, or blueprint is needed.
You can join or leave a circle at any time and the beat goes on with or without you.
In a forest there is no script that all of the organisms follow.
There is no conductor.
Yet there are countless levels of interdependence and cooperation at work in which selfish goals intersect to sustain each other and create larger, unpredictable, organic patterns.
Don’t wear rings, watches or bracelets while playing. Metal jewelry can damage the head, as well as itself. Shedding the jewelry will also protect your hands.
Support the fundamental groove that you hear being created in the song.
There is plenty of freedom to experiment and express your rhythmical spirit within the fundamental groove.
 Ricardo Basbaum, “The Production of the Artist As Collective Conversation,” (FPA 269/369 course syllabus, School for Contemporary Arts, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, September 2014),http://fpa-369.blogspot.ca/p/syllabus.html,
 Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” Studio International vol. 178, no. 915 (October 1969),http://www.intermediamfa.org/imd501/media/1236865544.pdf.
 Shiftctrlesc, “Cooperation vs Collaboration,” accessed 4 January 2015, http://cloudhead.headmine.net/post/3279118157/cooperation-vs-collaboration.
 Arthur Hull, “The Unwritten Rules of Drum Circle Etiquette: 14 Steps to Better Community Drumming,” Drum! Magazine, (March/April 2011), accessed 4 January 2015, http://www.drummagazine.com/hand-drum/post/the-unwritten-rules-of-drum-circle-etiquette/.
(Photo Credits: Ricardo Basbaum with Adriana Lademann, Anchi Lin, Jasmine Huang, Kevin Jinn, Jasmine Kwong, Chris Ling, Stephanie Ng, Wan Hang Tsang, Daniela Molinari, Susan Bernal, Shannon McAllister, Abbey Hopkins, Irina Giri, Caroline Engelstad, Curtis Grahauer, Cydney Paddon, Lucien Durey, Margaux Cheung, Neo Tang, Arthur Lin, Deborah Edmeades, Sabine Bitter: collective-conversation. Performance, Audain Gallery, 2014. Photo: Blaine Campbell.)
For more information on Ricardo Basbaum: The Production of the Artist as a Collective Conversation click here.