Dossier | When the Artist Parties, Is It Still a Celebration?

  • Vanessa Beecroft, VB52.168.NT, 2003-2007. Performance VB52, Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino, 2003. Photo: courtesy Lia Rumma
  • Cai Guo-Quiang, Black Rainbow: Explosion Project for Edinburgh, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 2005. Photo: Richard Kempton, courtesy Cai Studio
  • Marc Horowitz, Me & You Show, Hayward Gallery, Londres, 2008. Photo: Tim Noakes / SocialStereotype.com & Marc Horowitz

When the Artist Parties, Is It Still a Celebration?
By Paul Ardenne

Celebrations: an ensemble of festivities organized occasionally; this word, which evokes good times had together, is an umbrella term for an infinity of festive “occasions”: all are events which also underpin the idea of a collective festivity, the ceremony, jubilee, banquet, feast, gala, garden party, the society ball, reception, carnival, beanfeast, and fun fair.

In the classical age it was customary for the artist to oversee celebrations or accompany public festivities, a tradition which modernity has taken over in its own right. Whether this regards the Venice carnival, the fêtes galantes of the eighteenth century, the ephemeral festivities at the court of Versailles, those of Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin-Rouge, the masked balls and café-concerts organized by the Montparnasse artists or, last but not least, the Factory parties in New York City and psychedelic parties, all these are instances in which the artists join in the celebration, aesthetically revitalizing it, if not transcending it; contrary to the romantic standard of the melancholy or vain festivity, everything indicates that the artist is not necessarily the enemy of festivities.

In this matter, the contemporary period is characterized by continuity: the artist frequently displays his/her interest in the festive. However, living art prefers to add a twist (acting as though, all the while injecting a critical point of view behind the scenes), the celebration taken up by the artist today is often ambiguous: pure exaltation, dubious expenditure or critical subject?

Celebration in the Post-modern Era
Since the second post-war years the “festive” has been given form by various artists in various ways: aestheticized meals organized by Daniel Spoerri and Dorothée Selz, pagan parties by the Viennese Actionists, playful and desacralizing ones by Fluxus, collective liberation sessions orchestrated by Jean-Jacques Lebel in his Parisian Festival de la Libre expression events. . . to name but the most memorable among the festive formats that usher in the contemporary age of art.

This festive inclination has not waned in the current period. It has merely led to a reconsideration of how the festive is viewed in a historical moment—with postmodernism as its backdrop—in which individualism and the relativity of values were soon to triumph. Any celebration of anything whatsoever done in a collective manner and in the name of “being together” (be it a familial, friendly, social, political, commemorative, or of a symbolic nature) by this token becomes problematic: the collective party is evidently no longer primarily my party celebrated in the name of my values, but something else more general which does not necessarily concern me, or even concern me at all. In the 1990s, in a significant way Claude Lévêque and Sam Taylor presented videos or installations showing people dancing by themselves, imprisoned in their bubbles, partying for and by themselves. The same feeling of social dissociation and decoupling with the festive group presides over the famous (Untitled Go-Go Dancing Platform) that Felix Gonzales-Torres displayed at the same time during several exhibitions: a gay club dancer wearing briefs, headphones over his ears, dances alone on a pedestal—the metaphor for a lost party (communal festivity) and self-absorption as a privileged sphere of pleasure. And also what to say of Vanessa Beecroft’s multiple regulated and interminable banquet servings, particularly when one compares their pleasure value with that of Spoerri or Selz’s communal feasts thirty years earlier. This event, marked by a severity that has nothing coenobitical about it, was organized by Beecroft in 2003 at the Castello di Rivoli, for female models and personal friends (VB 52, twelve meals served over thirty-six hours, of which eleven were monochrome and the last, multicoloured): a heavy feast, preset like a ballet, and in which all communication between the guests seems to have been banished, all this in an atmosphere imbued by boredom and indolence—the anti-party par excellence.

Another problem the end of the twentieth century artist must confront is the new status passed on to the collective celebration. In regards to its organization, it escapes either voluntarism or individual decision-making, since it is frequently decided-seized by public authorities. The implicit rule of this new festive regime is that it is the “us-we” who is invited to party all together, and no longer primarily the “me-I” when s/he feels like it and with whomever s/he chooses. The celebration, this event that one could have viewed as occasional and related to small, tightly-knit groups’ private pursuit of fun, this party that modernity succeeded as best it could in removing from the traditional calendar of festivities (religious ones, such as the celebration of saints; commemorative ones which punctuate institutional political life) is now returning under the barely masked guise of the same, driven by power and viewed by it as an agent of controlled collective life. In fact, how can one judge certain events other than as so many tricks to force social catalysis or avoid its foundering? These events, remote-controlled in so far as is possible, that are the official Nuits Blanches in Paris or elsewhere, the Zinneke Parade in Brussels, the Lyon Fête des lumières, the international soup festivals in Lille and in Berlin or other Transurbaines from Saint-Étienne, all these are large-scale productions of the cultural industry which have nothing to do with an individual festive initiative. This is a subtle form of contemporary oppression. The organizer has every chance of winning here: s/he pleases and offers an occasion to relax and let go which is at the same time a means of easing political tensions.

It is patently obvious that nowadays the “celebration” is no longer simply good relaxation time: it has become a political stake. In the opinion of the technocrats of “urbanity” the organization of a celebration is generally an opportunity to tighten the social bolts at minimum cost. No spontaneism, the contemporary party is a programmed and highly supervised event. The imperative of “communicational action” (Jürgen Habermas), the will to make one believe, at all cost, that there really is an indefectible social link between the residents of a given geographical zone, even if it is the place of all factual oppositions, have turned the party into the prime example of a mimicked sociality. Society is falling apart? Let’s organize a party! From a technocratic and interventionist point of view a celebration is entirely beneficial. Everybody has fun, one forgets everything, like in the times of the historical carnival, starting with the usual social violence. What’s more, the celebration has the welcome air of a non-ideological manifestation, it addresses all without distinction and without regard to class. When the subordinate parties with his boss to the bass drones or the rhythms of techno music, s/he forgets the fact that by tomorrow all will be as before—a return to business as usual, the all powerful hierarchy, social exploitation, wealth discrepancies, and class disdain.

A Party for Me First of All
One may legitimately be weary of these types of festivity, and question their easy success (i.e., their frequently being for “free”). But is this enough to declare them one’s sworn enemy? Regardless of whether it may be steered by authoritarian interests, people generally acclaim such festivities. Nowadays, who would dare to criticize the Fête de la Musique—a formula which has spread worldwide—first established in France by the socialist minister Jack Lang? Actually, nobody is the answer. Consent and voluntary servitude is thus manufactured by stuffing the citizen with festive sweets.

The alternative to the programmed and “submissive” celebration are numerous, beginning with private parties where one celebrates what one wishes, and which have not disappeared, far from it. In terms of large-scale formats the most interesting since the 1990s is certainly the rave party, upheld for a long time by the crypto-anarchist and “auto-monarchic” (dixit Hakim Bey) thinking of the travellers. One set up camp here or there, wherever one’s heart desires—in an abandoned warehouse, a fallow field deep down on the Eure, on the edge of an ice field—one turns on the sound and dances, one activates one’s body just long enough to feel good, to let go of one’s inner and social tensions, till exhaustion if one wants. The TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone) that ravers create in their passage joyously shows the limits of societies of control: one can still thread one’s way through the meshes, so as to organize and live one’s own parties without prior authorization. This also holds for the Flash Mobs, these informal and festive gatherings of crowds contacted on the internet which appeared at the beginning of the 2000s: at this time and at such a place (usually public), let’s all meet up to explode Coca-Cola bottles by filling them with Mentos drops, to organize pillow or toilet paper roll fights, let’s freeze on the spot without warning in the middle of the street and mimic an immobile body. Frozen Grand Central, New York 2007: for about five minutes the participants of this singular happening in the big New York train station, stood still as a single group, as though they had been frozen on the spot.

Is the Party Alone Enough?
In terms of artistic production the limits of the rave or the Flash Mob may reside in their event-based nature, that of an ordinary performance, for as soon as the mathematical time of these ephemeral manifestation passes nothing remains but the memory and some images broadcast on YouTube. This event aspect doesn’t at all bother the artist who organizes the party and who turns these moments into an art in and of itself, in the example of certain DJs and VJs whose activity is to turn the lived experience of the mix, hands glued to the record player, into a highly aesthetic instant (in part, the activity of a Gerald Rockenschaub). However, it can also turn out to be a very frustrating experience as soon as one desires to both party and transmit a certain idea of celebration by conserving a useful trace of it once the projectors are shut off and the partiers return to non-festive activities. The work of art, in this case, does not suffice as an event, in the canonical sense given to this term by George Brecht in the 1960s: an action carried out in its own time by an executer, presented as a gesture, and then nothing.

To put on one’s own party as an artist. What’s more, to celebrate it and also have it be something artistic that can be perpetuated, endure and constitute a “party memory.” This is the axis chosen by, among others, Pilar Albarracín, a Spanish artist who exalts sexual or commemorative celebration. She is her own subject and lives her party in the manner of a performance, but she also makes a video of it that becomes the memory of an intimate party not to be forgotten for anyone—the artist herself no more so than the viewers of her work. In many of her filmed performances Albarracín freely portrays herself as an accomplished, strong woman, with a sexual or physical energy that nothing seems able to contain. La cabra /The Goat (2001), a short performance in which she dances like a maenad violently shaking a leaky wine skin, staining her clothes with the bacchanalian liquid in a moment of erotic exaltation, and leaving the spectator stunned—the expression of furious and orgasmic energy. Another one of Albarracin’s performances, Viva España / Long Live Spain (2004), shows the artist walking confidently in the city, followed by a breathless brass band that does its best to follow her in her triumphal march. Albarracín, who celebrates herself (my bacchanalian orgasm dance, my triumphal march), in one sweep widens her intimate festive moments through their transmission (once recorded) in image form—what I communicate about my own party. Although grounded in a precise moment (the mathematical time of execution), the festive expression she proposes to the spectator is perpetuated ad infinitum on a demonstrative and exemplary mode, which follows up on the gesture’s instantaneousness. This exposition in the strict sense (expositio: that which is “put into view”) of the intense moment of an intimate celebration, paradoxically, takes on a social dimension: I may be enjoying myself all by myself, Pilar Albarracín seems to suggest, but nothing is stopping you from doing likewise. Just do as I do.

To experience a celebration in order to film it, to leave a trace, a proof, to transmit its nature, is an inclination one could hold to be problematic. It means that the celebration does not suffice as an event lived just for itself, and that it can be more, all things considered, than itself. To turn celebration into the object of an art is like creating a pretext to widen our view of celebration, which is no longer but a lived moment; or simply to push us, the viewers, to reflect about celebration itself, about the phenomenon it constitutes, by approaching it vicariously and in the second degree. I, as an artist, will show you my celebration so that you, as a viewer, can better evaluate the value of yours by comparison. This is without doubt, consciously or not, the position defended by Elena Kovylina with Waltz (2001). This work is nothing less than the proposition of a desperate party, of a joy foundering in distress and self-destructive pursuits. Kovylina publicly engages in a highly drunken and loose-tongued performance, in which she calls on the men in the audience to dance with her to the tune of the famous German song Lili Marlene playing in a looped version. This Russian artist punctuates each dance with the regulated absorption of a class of vodka. Minutes pass and the dances follow one another, Kovylina, by now drunk, becomes unsteady in her movements. She sways, trying as best she can to hold on to her partner’s neck as one would to a lifesaver, and she lets go and finally collapses. End of party. This is, no doubt, a transitive proposition. One that is conceived to be disseminated and to endow celebration with an equivocal image—that moment when one wants to feel good but when the dark demons of our lives, thirsty for the absolute yet remaining disappointed, always get the better of us.

Feast Is Mine, I Live It My Way
To celebrate and have a party, to organize it, to show it: at the dawn of the twenty-first century the visual artist readily moves towards this goal. S/he is no enemy of celebration, quite the contrary. Though it must be said that s/he is not its mindless propagandist either.

An inflexion of the artist concerned by the “celebration” and eager to make it more consistent, would consist, first of fall, in making clearer the idea of “celebration.” To this end, what better way to proceed than to multiply celebrations and festive occasions? This multiplication of the festive sphere can involve the creation of a specific calendar for celebrations, in the spirit of Robert Filliou’s pioneering steps who in the 1970s authoritatively designated a day in the calendar as being from here on “Art’s birthday” (every January 17). This voluntarist method was to be relayed by Pierre Huyghe in 1995 as part of the brand new Association des Temps Libérés. According to the regulations of this association, which at first gathered artists, the sought after goal is first of all sociological and political: “the development of unproductive time, towards a reflection on free time, and the development of a society without work.” Acting within the framework of “public meetings, conferences, publications, parties. . .” the Association des Temps Libérés remains an artistic proposition, a seat of utopian aspirations. Actually, there is little chance that its recommendations and hope for the proclaimed unproductive society will take shape in concrete organizations, however fruitful the brainstorming it engages them in may be. What is important, however, is the reconsideration of the question of “time” that such an endeavour establishes. If in this case the artist tackles the calendar, it is because s/he feels that it is badly structured and thought out. In this sense, the Association des Temps Libérés was at the origin of a significant collective creation, One Year Celebration (2003-2006) which set up, in the tradition of Filliou referred to above, a new celebration calendar (Andy Warhol day. . .) developed by artists, musicians and architects. This calendar, as one may guess, consists of a factual proposition that has nothing in common with traditional calendars in which the figures or events celebrated are usually of religious origin or derive from political history.

Rather than betting on the organization of collective time and proclaiming a celebration calendar that would be difficult to have accepted, since its celebrations would likely be on the fringe and concern few people in the end run, the artist can decide to create celebrations directly. Celebrations, as one would suspect, that would be somewhat unusual. It is in this vein that Thierry Théolier designed festive happenings between 1990 and 2000 that were highly singular and of which he was the grand organizer. The most famous of these was an orgy organized in Paris that has remained quite memorable. This “Tooz Art” [tooz derives from partouze, the French slang word for orgy. Translator’s note], to be precise, is only one of the innovative aspects of the reworking of the notion of “celebration” by the contemporary artist. Alexandre Périgot, for example, organizes Air Guitar contests in his famous “Maison Démonstration, Maison d’Elvis,” a full-scale replica of the King’s Graceland mansion, which he installs here and there in Paris, in Thailand, or elsewhere. In New York the Polish artist Joanna Malinovska created a public performance titled Quintet for two violas, two cellos, and a corpse, a festive ceremony with a musical score and musicians in which the cadaver participated fully. One of the musicians remains immobile and silent since his score is blank (a composition by Masami Tomihisa, Venetia Kapernekas Gallery, March 2008). As for Andrea Mastrovito, he gathered several friends in 2008 at the Teatro dell’Italian Academy of New York, where he replayed the rock group Queen’s last concert (Wembley, 1986) in playback for 16 minutes using fake paper instruments.  He himself played the role of his idol Freddie Mercury (Queen, 2008)—the party I couldn’t make it to, that I couldn’t experience, and which I therefore restage.

Rethinking Celebration
The multiplicity of festivity registers staged or carried out de vivo by contemporary visual artists suggests the following idea: the very notion of “celebration,” as broad as it may be, must be broadened further still, stretched if necessary until it is re-conceptualized. Sandra Kranich and Cai Guo-Qiang, both fascinated by pyrotechnics, coordinate highly aesthetic fireworks, sometimes consciously presented in an imperfect manner, as Kranich wants it—a celebration, yes, but one that avoids having spectators abandoning themselves to this pure contemplation, which distances from reality through bedazzlement and exaltation.

Nothing prevents the artist to be a thinker of celebrations, a theorist or craftsperson of the best possible party. An artist such as the American Marc Horowitz conceived his Center for Improved Living in this sense. In this creative laboratory where he leads every participant to create what s/he wants by guiding and supporting his/her process, one is only asked to be in a good mood, relaxed, and to create while amusing oneself to the accelerated rhythm of uproarious laughter. Euphoria reigns here, and it is not recommended for the overly serious: creation in and of itself can be a party. On the subject of rethinking celebration one can also make reference, on a more practical level, to Brian Eno’s reflection on the matter. This acousmatic artist—specialized in techno parties—seeks to improve festive spaces in closed and noisy environments for the benefit of users. The developer of the Quiet Club, a chill out type space that is both simple (in its spatial organization) and sophisticated (in its sensible effects), Eno puts the function of the artist at the intersection of the inventor of forms, the aesthete and the physiologist. “Most nightclubs are designed to stimulate you, to make you go faster, to excite you. I wanted a club that would calm me down, and leave me still and at peace with myself.” His Quiet Clubs offer “an environment conducive to creative imagination.”

To conclude, the place of celebration as that of a self-fashioning is also that of an intimately lived sociality.

[Translated from the French by Bernard Schütze]

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