Puzzled eels, floundering humans

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Post by Colette Copeland

On my way to the Fabric Workshop holiday party, I stopped by Basekamp to check out their latest exhibit. Basekamp is known for hosting international artist teams that produce collaborative works on site at the gallery.

In the true spirit of collaboration, seven artists from Melbourne, Australia, comprising two groups, and the staff of Basekamp were immersed in putting the finishing touches on the exhibit, which opened Friday evening. I had the opportunity to see the artists at work and to discuss their collaborative ideas and processes.

Both groups–ACW and DAMP–create work that explores the relationship between art and audience. They collaborate inside as well as outside their own groups to produce art, which challenges the established notions of authorship and myth of the individual artist as genius.

As in many of Basekamp’s exhibits, the work requires some background knowledge to comprehend.

Explaining Contemporary Art…

ACW (short for A Constructed World) is a collaborative duo originally from Melbourne, now living in Turin, Italy. One of the artists, Geoff Lowe, spoke to me about their most recent project, “Explaining Contemporary Art to Live Eels.”

Inspired by Joseph Beuys‘ 1960’s seminal work, “Explaining Images to a Dead Hare,” ACW contemporizes the notion of the inaccessibility of contemporary art to most public audiences. When I asked about the significance of the eels, I learned that eels are ‘unknowable,’ which is the crux of the work. Eels are inherently wild and come from two sources–the Sargasso and East Timor Seas. Like salmon, they return to their places of birth and are incredibly resilient.

What does this have to do with art, you may ask? Perhaps the eels metaphorically represent the antithesis of culture, the untamed and the unknown. The performance includes the eels swimming in a pool (ok, small bucket) of water, surrounded by pieces of contemporary art.

For the Philadelphia premiere, Lowe was using eels from the local Korean market and then releasing them in the Skuykill River. This seemed like animal abuse to me, but Lowe was optimistic that the eels would return to their native lands with this ‘knowledge,’ which they will transfer to their other eel friends.

I was curious as to how Lowe chose the contemporary art with which to educate the eels. There were some big names on the list, including work by Joseph Bueys, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Mike Kelly, and Tony Oursler. Lowe explained that some of the artists donated work and others were friends of the duo.

Also on display was a video of a performance in Europe. The eels seemed reluctant at first to engage the art, but then seemed intent on interaction.

Chain Reaction

On display by the collaborative group DAMP is a series of works on paper (comic book-style drawings) and a video entitled, “Chain Reaction.” Both represent two different projects and collaborative strategies (right, frames from “Suddenly…A Face Melting Solo,” by DAMP).

The drawing installation included multiple comics with divergent allusions to Biblical stories, pop and contemporary culture. My favorite was a diss on the Chapman Brothers, who are depicted in a boxing ring with fellow British bad-boy artist Damien Hirst. In the heat of the match, the Chapman Brothers are disqualified for having fake British passports, posing as British citizens, and are discovered to be Serbians in disguise. Clearly an insider knowledge of contemporary art is necessary to get the joke.

I spoke with DAMP member David Keating about the group dynamics and creation process. The artists worked on the comic drawing series over a year. Each week, the group would meet and exchange drawings. Then the artists would add on to other people’s drawings, expanding and altering the narrative, so that the work represents a collective viewpoint.

The “Chain Reaction” video began as an open call for video work from other artist groups. The parameters included a 30-second time limit, with the focus on a singular object, which enters and exits the frame. DAMP then created interpolations, which connect one video clip to another.

The resulting video contains six different artists’ work from around the world. In a playful, tongue-in-cheek fashion, the video subverts the notion of conventional narrative, while drawing connections between seemingly unrelated gestures and events. With a humorous quirkiness, the video asks us to question the cause/effect of our individual actions and their larger impact on society/the world.

I found both artists’ groups to be passionately engaged in both their collaborative processes and in audience interaction. From an aesthetic perspective, the conceptual aspects of the works were much stronger than the visual objects. Without the ‘insider’ knowledge of speaking to the artists, I would have missed much of the nuance in the work.

–Regular artblog contributor Colette Copeland makes videos and often writes about them

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