Ahead of their upcoming presentations at April’s 4 Days. Artists Leslie Kulesh and Matthew Drage talk freedom, risk, participation, technology and spirituality to writer and curator Laura McLean-Ferris. Both artists invite audiences to experience artist-led meditations.
For those taking part in his work Peristalsis on Thursday 25 April Matthew Drage uses techniques taken from meditation and hypnosis to effect different forms of bodily awareness and consciousness. Leslie Kulesh leads a group of participants in a silent meditation for her work HD: High Dissolution on Sunday 28 April.
These two events are also part of Total Vitality, a long-term project initiated by Kulesh and McLean-Ferris investigating the body, wellness and physical experience in a highly technologised age.
Laura McLean-Ferris: You have both arrived at the use of meditation techniques in your artwork recently. Could you both briefly explain how you came to this?
Leslie Kulesh: I first performed meditation workshops at the end of October 2012 at an artist run space called French Riviera in London, as part of my show ‘Oh My Goddess!’ which was on at the time. I led two back-to-back eight-hour sessions within the exhibition over the course of a weekend.
In my past performance work I had always made an effort to include the audience in a friendly way. Encouraging them to give feedback online during a live Internet performance or building sets that incorporated audiences as extras into my pieces. For this performance I wanted to try something I had never personally done before with an audience. Besides research, I had no previous meditation experience before these performances. What I found was that by entering into this with no preconceived notions, I could allow the viewers joining me to do the same. Similar gestures of generosity toward the audience that I had created before would now be made through the absence of elaborate gestures, and the absence of over compensation I feel is due from the artist to a participating public. So for me it was risky but faithful to my work at once - the exhibition and space simply provided safe parameters in a specific environment. Everything else was left up to the participant’s intentions.
Matthew Drage: I first used meditation in a performance in early 2012, for a piece called Adrenal Collar. I'd just got back from my first meditation retreat - after having practiced meditation on and off for about four years. The experience I had there was so strong that I converted to Buddhism shortly afterwards!
Adrenal Collar took form of a lecture about the relationship between the adrenal gland, technology, addiction and transcendence. I asked the audience to do a short meditation before I started talking. In part, this was in order to try to bring them into the same psychological/imaginary space that I was attempting to occupy. I wanted them to experience the insistent reality of their bodies as mobile, decomposing, uncanny things. I suppose, in this sense, I used meditation as a ritual to allow them to enter an altered perceptual state. In particular, I wanted to make people feel as though they were entering a liminal space. By liminal I mean something quite specific: a space of imaginary possibility in which ordinary rules don’t apply; where the hold of conventional ideas about what it is to be a person become malleable. This is a similar space to that of live-action roleplay or improvisational theatre.
My use of meditation was also (and perhaps still is) about my wanting to offer my life and experiences as aesthetic contributions to the world. Given where I was at that point, spiritually and psychologically, I felt I had to offer participants a taste of what I was going through. To do otherwise would have felt almost dishonest, or at least as though I were telling a half-truth. I guess this is where there's a similarity between Leslie and I: both of us were offering ourselves up and making ourselves vulnerable in order to create the possibility of a shared experience. Whether this actually happened, of course, another matter...
LMF: I'm interested in asking you both about the positions that you take in relation to your participants. There are several elements to discuss here, but let's start with control/freedom. Your works leave much more room for those taking part to guide their own experience than many participatory works, relying on them to visualise or construct their own work. This means you must both finely tune elements of your roles within the pieces and make careful decisions about the way that you guide the participants. Matthew, what are the pressure points within your piece, or the elements that you feel require particular care in planning in order for the work to be experienced in a way that you would like it to be?
MD: This is a good question for me. I work on the basis of an ideal (or perhaps an unrealistic hope) according to which everyone who participates is going to be completely together in helping to construct a conceptual/imaginal landscape: that we will be psycho-mythologically unified, joint contributors. But the fact is that I'm going to have to go to some lengths just to get people to understand what I'm doing, or where I'm hoping to take everybody. This is where the tension in my work tends to be located: in trying to offer people the imaginative raw-materials to occupy the space I'm working to create, without just telling them what to think. In the past I've done this by giving talks, with a few short exercises, but, on the basis of discussions I’ve had with people who took part, these pieces were both overly didactic and ineffective.
In the piece I’m doing at the Arnolfini, Perastalsis, I'm going to use two strategies to attempt to deal with this problem. First, I'm going to try to make it as clear as possible why I think it's a good idea that we're all in a room doing this stuff in the first place, and I'm hoping that I'll get some people on-side... Or at least give them the option of setting their doubts to one side for the duration of the workshop. Second, I'm going to use hypnosis more extensively than I have in the past. I'm certainly not planning on using it to control people - I have no idea how to do this. I'm going to use it to suggest ideas and images to participants whilst they are in an open, dreamy state; a state likely to generate further mental associations which can then contribute to an opening-up of shared imaginal possibility. I really need the periods of hypnosis, combined with some images and figures that I'm going to introduce through a presentation at the beginning of the workshop, to give people a rich enough vocabulary to keep them going for the rest of the workshop. So I'm going to put most of my planning into these parts. The rest will more or less take care of itself.
LMF: The notion of doubt is something that seems to come up quite a bit in discussion of these two projects - the idea of the fearful or doubting participant. Many people are naturally fearful of anything that involves audience participation because they are shy and afraid of appearing awkward or foolish. There has been a lot written about 'the pressure to perform' as an audience member in the literature surrounding participation.
LK: I think a lot of the notions of fear/doubt trace back to the unknown. When an artist asks a viewer to observe their work, there is a low element of risk. When asking a viewer to participate in a work that depends on them - the stakes are raised. In my piece, HD: High Dissolution, I try to keep it light and self-reflexive. The title of the work is a play on HD, a common term for improved television and film viewing. High definition = a better experience, higher quality. By playing with this term while inserting the word 'dissolution' (a term used for the melting sensation experienced during meditation) I'm calling into question the automatic improvement promised by practices such as meditation and yoga. Before the meditation begins, I give a short introduction covering theories of breathing, moving and expectations. Again, I use this opportunity to talk about fantasy and the possibility of really having fun within the space. 6 hours in a silent room with strangers, completely cared for in every sense - from temperature control to food being brought to you. With no email or cellphones, no TV or music - this is a unique opportunity to allow your mind to run free, then practice reigning it back in. In the work I'm creating a scenario where each participant completely creates their own experience - I just provide the ability, and encourage them to really push the boundaries of their self-expectation. That can be scary, but I think I frame it as liberating. I like the idea of participants having this completely different experience as a reference point in their own lives in the weeks following the workshop.
MD: I didn't quite know what you were talking about at first when you asked this question, and I guess this is because "participation" is a bit of a funny concept when it comes to what I'm working on. With the exception of a few short-ish periods of discussion, everything that happens will require an input from everyone who attends. And even if people don't open their mouths, they're still contributing just by being there and being silent. They're "participants" in virtue of their being there. I certainly use various tools to try to help people engage as fully as possible, gleaned, as you say, from other contexts (mainly religious, psychotherapeutic and political). But since this thing isn't much like a spectacle/spectator type performance, in which people get to watch something happen from a distance, the distinction between participant and inactive observer doesn't apply. I might regret saying this, but I feel as though my piece is only even a "performance" because calling it that allows it to go in a gallery without anyone asking too many questions. There are certainly performative aspects to it, but basically it's not a performance. It's much more like a sculpture.
LMF: Yes I agree about the performance aspect in this case, but I think it's a useful distinction to make. It's clear that you both undertake the work together with the people who are engaging with it. Underlying my question was an interest in situating what you are both doing within recent art history and particularly thinking about relational aesthetics. Particularly in terms of what that seemed to promise (the social relation/human contact/potential relationships) and what it sometimes did instead (offer a staged version of social etc.)
Without getting too far into that, it's clear that what you are trying to do (build a sculpture/a collaborative work/a conceptual or imaginatory landscape) has different aims. I think, perhaps, faltering at the terminology (participant/performance etc.) is part of establishing the aims of the work.
Leslie, where do you stand in terms of the word 'performance' or 'participant'? Do you have a strong sense of what it is you are trying to create and the role of your audience/collaborators/co-meditators in this?
LK: Well, yes - I guess I see this work as post/after relational aesthetics in that one of Matt and my first concerns was that no camera or recording device be introduced to our workshops at any time. This is not only anti-institutional artwork, it is documentation suicide in a pics-or-it-didn't-happen society. However, there are many interesting ways to reconcile documentation, with the main point being that we know the people who will be joining us: "participants", "humans" - are more likely to feel comfortable getting involved and potentially exposing vulnerability if there isn't a camera present.
As far as the terms go, I think I'm more OK with using them. For Matt, meditation is part of his life, but when it comes to my piece, I'm genuinely interested in it not being my lifestyle, and the advantages I have in being slightly naive about meditation. To me, it is a group performance, and the people involved are participants in that performance. The term workshop is also useful in that it doesn't conjure up the same images of a stage and an audience that performance does. In a way, calling it a performance allows me to run a workshop like this.
LMF: As well as the lack of comfort with participants being documented, this is also clearly the kind of project in which pictures and video would utterly fail to capture the work in any case. So in some senses it also protects the work to remove this element.
Leslie, you are alluding to the way that this project comes out of a highly technological moment, in which there are screens, images, sounds etc everywhere to look at, and usually four or so at any one time (in front of me now is my laptop with 12 tabs open on my browser, my phone and an iPod). Would you say that this kind of bombardment, which society is clearly struggling to manage in terms of discipline, is related to the genesis of your works?
LK: Absolutely. Hito Steryl talks about a movement away from image representation in 'The Spam of the Earth.' Online cultures have been at their most progressive when working as a group, anonymously, and I think this may soon be mimicked in everyday life. When our image representations are increasingly used to market our desires back to us and our peer groups, I wouldn't be surprised if the new exclusive WAS anonymity.
The Internet, and web 3.0 (the mini computers in all our pockets) have taught us the power of distribution and we are learning (in tandem with capital), the ways in which it can be useful and exploitative. By performing these workshops outside of image/video representation, we can better honor the experience itself, also having faith in the memory and personal story of each participant. In thinking of modes and mediums of documentation, Matt and I have elected to use the desk outside the room we will practicing in as a short writing residency that will take place during our workshops. The writing that's done during this time will serve as a further layer, another facade of the experience, and will provide a perspective no image or video would allow.
MD: Informational bombardment is part of the genesis of my piece, but only in a very roundabout and general way. As in, I think that what Katherine Hayles would call ‘informatics’ - the cultures of information and its technologies - has made it possible for me to talk openly about spirituality. Post-internet and the new-age resurgence are not, in my view, simply concurrent: they are intimately entangled with each other. This Q&A probably isn't the place to go into why I think this... but it has to do with the ways in which dreams of transcendence have been piled onto, and played out through, techno-science in general - and information technologies in particular - over the past fifty years or so. The various kinds of bombardment you mention, Laura, are very much part of this discourse. (Kevin Bewersdorf's Spirit Surfers project is good shorthand for what I'm talking about; so too, of course, are the films Lawnmower Man and The Matrix.) But anyway, the present spike of interest in cultures of network technology is in part what has made the world a friendlier place for artists who want to use languages and practices relating to spiritual experience. My interest in network technology is, I'm increasingly finding, in the power of that technology to generate and distribute new forms of myth, rather than in its effects on subjective experience - though the two issues are of course closely related.
I should also say that own interest in spirituality was fuelled also by its rise as a popular trope, and the apparent relationship to this strand in popular culture and informatics was very exciting to me - I've been into technology for longer than I've been into spirituality. Another way of putting it is: I might not be Buddhist if New Age hadn't become cool; New Age couldn't have become cool without the internet; and my piece couldn't have happened without any of those things.
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4 Days runs from Thursday 25 - Sunday 28 April
Following April's edition 4 Days continues in September and November 2013.