Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Social Coercion = Collaborative Participation?

Sorry about the lack of activity, I've taken a bit a break at the halfway point to process what I've seen and relax for a bit before I begin my three-week tour of the Northwest.

This weekend I went to a performance of Frank Moore, an artist with cerebral palsy who gained notoriety in the early 90's after being singled out by Senator Jesse Helms as an artist who received money from the National Endowment for the Arts and created "obscene" work. Moore is noted for creating shamanistic (he founded his own religion) and interactive performance art, so when I saw a poster in Berkeley, I was intrigued.

While I found the art aesthetically boring, I was fascinated by the by the atmosphere that was established. Whereas I have spent much of my project trying to create an atmosphere where people overcome our culture's discomfort interacting with strangers and publicly participating in art, Moore has far overshot my goals. He creates a culture in which it is more uncomfortable to NOT participate in making art with strangers (often nude).

I've been reflecting on how this happens, and this is what I've come up with: First, the space is setup to create a hierarchy with Frank at the top. Frank is seated in his wheelchair and the audience reclines on the floor at Frank's feet, literally looking up to the artist. Frank's crew sits behind the audience making music and filming.
Second, because Frank has cerebral palsy, he can only communicate by using a pointer strapped to his head and pointing at letters on a board in front of him. His pointing is then interpreted and vocalized by an assistant who is also seated next to Frank and above the audience. This means that it is impossible to directly communicate with Frank. You can't really have a normal conversation because of the lag time involved, which results in Frank controlling the conversation. Also, anything that Frank says inherently has the weight of two people saying it. This also means that the audience's reaction to any comment is colored by first viewing the interpreter's reaction to it; as the interpreter is an middle-age woman who seems utterly devoted to frank, her reaction is always positive. Audience reaction is also guided by several assistants who sit mingled with the audience and seem completely willing to do whatever Frank asks without hesitation or indication that his requests are strange. There is also the dimension that our culture gives more leniency to someone with cerebral palsy, perhaps out of discomfort or guilt.
Finally, Frank begins the evening by having 5-10 minute conversations with each member of the audience, getting to know each one of them personally. Often he uses information gleaned from the conversation to ask people initially to start doing simple acts (for instance, pick up one of the toy instruments available and play along with the trance music in the background). Once he's gotten to know everyone, he starts asking people to perform more boundary pushing acts like undressing one another and dancing nude while images are projected on to them. Act this point, it feels like you have a relationship with Frank, and you get the sense that everyone expects you to agree to what he asks. If you don't say yes, you feel close-minded, like you're rejecting a cripple, and insulting someone's beliefs. So everyone I saw either said yes, or slipped out the back before they were asked.

In my mind, this creates an ethical dilemma. I feel people could benefit from overcoming their shyness, fear of intimacy, and reservations about their ability to create art. However, Frank Moore's solution seems to achieve this through social and psychological coercion. People are not free to express themselves because they are pressured into behaving in whatever way the artist commands them. Feeling free not to interact is just as important as feeling free to do so.

If you'd like to check out Frank Moore's work, you can visit his website: (warning, it's definitely not for all audiences)

No comments: