Ten years have passed since a small group of us did this piece in Florence. Compared with current taste in performance art for staged, showbiz entertainments, its deadpan routines enacted without audience throughout that city, seem remote.
But Useful Fictions was close to the experimental arts of those days. It shared a prevailing minimalism of means and open-endedness in interpretation. It shared as well an involvement in the real environment; and in personal and social psychology. And, in keeping with these interests, its subject matter and methods bore little or no resemblance to the traditional arts. Activities, events, body art, land art, noise music, ordinary-movement dance, found-poetry, conceptualism and the like, all were unconcerned with high or low art and their internal, historical dialogue. The art world merely granted permission to do something other than art. It was the real, changeable world, the people in it, the ideas we used in making sense of that world, and the ways we behaved in it, that formed the nub of the quasi-art of those days.
Within this general setting, Useful Fictions was also typical of my own work during the first half of the 70's. It focused on what, for that time of social upheaval, was a compelling fascination with human relationships: whether or not there were ideal kinds of relationships, whether or not they could, (or should) be controlled, and if so, how. And often my work particularly played on what "society" does to relationships and on what the small margin of unpredictability in all relationships does (or might do) to society. That is, the slippage in human intercourse attracted me.
While reformers all over the world were promising to make relationships wonderful, or at least better than they seemed to be — I'm thinking of drugs, free sexuality, love-ins, communal living, group therapies, gurus from the East — I had no clear idea of what our problem was, much less its solution. I was sure there was a problem, though. I was part of it and was very curious.
So, during that period, my "Activities" (as Michael Kirby called them) were experiments to find out what a relationship might be under the special conditions of a piece. Usually, they would involve two, three or four participants (including myself) who would carry out a plan of simple transactions in the everyday world, without an audience. Occasionally there were pieces for one person alone, in which consciousness of self and one's constant inner chattering amounted to exploring a "relationship."
In other words, the pieces were model situations in the same way that group therapy sessions, or communes, were models to test relationships within relatively known and governable limits.
Ordinary social life also allows relationships to form within relatively known and governable limits. These almost define what "relationship" means. Society's learned rules are in principle no different than those of an Activity, just more complex and more internalized over a lifetime. So they're easily ignored or merely accepted without needing attention. For instance, the simple forms of verbal politeness "thanks", "please", "you're welcome"… In an Activity, however, everything you do is italicized, stands out like a sore thumb, because it's reframed or more or less disconnected from practicality. It's like practicing tying your shoe when you already know how.
Yet at the same time the Activities' subject matter and enactments are exactly the routine behavior that is normally ignored: stares, body mimicry, politenesses, mutual assistance, and mutual indifference. And because ordinary life is not filtered through an art "medium" like sculpture or fiction, but is undertaken as a direct experience by acting life within life and not on a stage, the question of human relationship (in this case) becomes little glaring, perhaps scary, even silly. Those pieces in the early 70's had no moral bias, they didn't judge wha anyone would feel in relating or not relating, and they had no evident outcome (the way, say, "primal therapy" had release from infantilism as its goal). That's why they were uncomfortable (to me too) and silly. The dumbell exchanges cast in exaggerated formal moves that you see in Useful Fictions, like all of my pieces then, were the equivalent of real life situations while real life was happening at every moment of the Activity. You couldn't put real life aside the way you could in watching a play.
This is what gives to Useful Fictions its absurdity and flatfooted humor. Just think of yourself being person A. Your partner, person B, whose name is Ginevra, is someone you just met because she showed up to be in the piece which she'd been invited to take part in by the sponsor Galeria Schema. She looks like a cousin of yours from Philadelphia.
There is a meeting to discuss practicalities with about sixteen people who will do the piece. (Two couples decide not to go on.) You're given a mimeograph of the plan, two tape recorders and mirrors and then you leave the gallery and go out into the street. The other partners do the same. They walk off in different directions, and you and Ginevra stand there and talk it over, and you decide to climb up and down three places: the winding back stairs of the Duomo leading to the top; the stairs of an apartment building where friends of Ginevra's live; and the long hill to the church of San Mineato al Monte.
You and Ginevra carry out the plan that day and the next, intersecting it with other things you both have to do, like giving a talk at the Art Academy or Ginevra's part-time job at a bookstore. You climb and descend your chosen stairways and hill, facing each other, back to back, copying each other's movements, your frowns, grimaces and smiles, either in reflection (which is a copy) or directly. There is much giggling, winking and face-pulling in the mirrors; and stumbling, too since it's not easy to walk ahead or backwards looking in a mirror or at each other. Occasionally passersby look at the two of you, and then continue on.
You talk informally all the time of course, sometime tricking each other by copying your partner's speech (Ginevra likes imitating your simple Italian). You take time to go to a restaurant for lunch or supper. You stop in at the apartment of Ginevra's friends and they play American rock music on their stereo and talk politics.
Then following the first two climbs and descents, you and Ginevra, alternately tell the tape recorder your accounts of what you had just done and experienced. You do this in each other's presence. This makes the story-telling absurd (you're talking to the machine instead of your partner) and you both tend to parody the events. So the stories when they're played back, seem very far from what you thought you'd done. You laugh about that and decide some of the stories are better stories than others.
But after the last climb and return you are alone, and this time you talk into the recorder to tell what you might suppose was the real truth or the real truth about the real fiction; of all your climbing and descending and your copying, and of your relationships with Ginevra. You alone listen to the playback and perhaps you decide to change it. You decide against playing it to her. She is off somewhere talking to her tape recorder, telling her truth or not.
Ginevra tells you later that she won't play her last tape for you because you wouldn't be able to understand her rapid Italian (which isn't quite true). But you she does play the tape, she admits, for her friends in the apartment building.
This is a relationship alright, but what kind of relationship? Should it have been sexually intimate, or intimate in some other way, to have been a real relationship? Should it have been a more formal relationship, instead, to acknowledge your cultural differences (you're American, she's Italian), your gap in ages (you're twice her age. your role as a guest artist (she's a student in the Academy)? Would that have made a more honest relationship?
Should the piece have been less silly; should it have been more serious befitting a serious art work? Would that have made a respectful and insightful relationship one worthy of both of you, and doing honor to the sponsor? Should there have been some form of advantage at the end, something you could point to as proof of a real relationship? What did you and Ginevra expect of one another?
These questions were not in my awareness ten years ago. So I never even hinted at them, I suppose, in presenting the piece to that small group of hesitant participants in Florence. In passing, I mentioned some of the obvious parodies built into those climbs to the heights and sinkings to the depths in many relationships; and those one-upman copies of each other's behavior, like the blind leading the blind. But I never scratched any deeper than these generalities.
I did hope that such a piece would mediate in some way between art, psychotherapy and not-so-plain life; that the participants would see that each of these was a fiction that could be useful for understanding ourselves and our relationships. But I didn't say it.
In retrospect, if there was any important omission from my presentation to the groups when we first met and when we assembled together at the end, it was in failing to bring this intention to the discussion. It might have shifted the perspective substantially.
I'm now interested in frankness of intention when that's known. Sometimes it's not clear; but when it is, withholding it may be unkind to the good will of those who agree to take part in your experiment, and it may get in the way of fulfilling the piece. Intention and expectation may be replaced by very different results in a piece, and that is interesting for everyone to discover. Intention is what most of us always have when we engage in any considered action. It is neither good nor bad, though it might be mistaken. Expectation is what we demand of the result of our intention (like when we bet on a favorite and it doesn't come in).In any case, it is simply part of the whole complex of human affairs. Artworks, despite the m)th of their self-sufficiency, have no more a life of their own than "life" has a life of its own.