TAIL WAGGING DOG
I and a friend, the musician Jean-Charles Francois,
did small events for each other one year to provide some diversion from
our administrative duties at the university. We performed them
usually just the two of us, sometimes with one or two others. This one
involved our going out to the hills behind Del Mar (California). The
was that one of us would follow the other without saying a word, only
sure to step constantly on the shadow of the other, no matter where he
went. In practice, since the leader would go over stones, around cacti,
and up and down ravines, the length and relative position of the shadow
changed. Sometimes it was in front of the leader if he was walking away
from the sun. In that case it was a bit tricky; the follower had to
backwards to keep the shadow in view and to make a quick change as the
leader swung around to a different direction. The leader, in theory,
no obligation to his follower.
At certain moments, for example when walking up a
ravine, the shadow would be shortened by the angle of the ground. Then
we would find ourselves nearly on top of one another, our shoes touching.
When the follower lost contact with the shadow (as it frequently happened),
he would loudly strike together two stones he held in his hands. This single
sound marked the moment when we exchanged positions: the follower became
the leader. But of course, since contact was lost so often, and our directions
kept changing, it all got pretty unclear as to who was what. Nevertheless,
it was very formally executed.
I would like to imagine a time when Tail Wagging Dog could be experienced
and discussed outside the arts and their myriad histories and expectations.
It would be a relief to discard the pious legitimizing that automatically
accompanies anything called art; and to bypass the silly obligation to
live up to art’s claim on supreme values. (Art saves the world, or at least
the artist.) The arts are not bad; it’s the overinflated way we think about
them that has made them unreal. For activities like Tail Wagging Dog, the
arts are mostly irrelevant and cause needless confusion.
What is, in fact, relevant is the direct, physical involvement of those
who choose to do an event like the one above. Meaning is experienced in
the body, and the mind is set into play by the body’s sensations. This
is exceedingly difficult for Westerners who have separated their bodies
from their minds. But granting the difficulty, it is crucial. The value
is what is for Westerners learned in action. It doesn’t benefit from
association with Rembrandt or Performance art (which is a conventional form of theater).
But in the foreseeable future, complete detachment from art culture
is unlikely. (For example, this writing appears in an arts journal, not
in an agricultural journal, which, although as specialized as art, has
far fewer "spiritual" pretensions.) And besides, as some readers know,
Tail Wagging Dog
emerged from the secularizing experiments of advanced art of the 50’s
and 60’s. It can’t lose its parentage so quickly. The best that can be
hoped is that a gradual weariness with the art connection will naturally
occur as it appears, correctly, less and less important.
So for now, the art connection has to be dealt with, at least to point
up the most obvious confusions. There are certain conditions we take for
granted in the arts which are carried over without question to participatory
activity, usually by those who’ve never taken part but have heard something
about it. Comparisons with anti-art, Dada, total art via Richard Wagner,
are called up in an effort to absorb it into traditional modernist canons.
While these are not entirely beside the point historically, it has become
something very different today. So while I have written about some of these
problems before, I hope I may name these assumptions more particularly here,
if it will help to dispel some of the misunderstanding that surrounds this
kind of activity. There are ten.
Participatory activity is like all art: it is presentational. It is not. There
is no product put out into the world, like a play, video tape, piece of
Participatory activity has an audience to be taken into account,
who stand or sit apart from it, just as a painting, or a play, etc…
has an audience. It does not.
There are only part-takers in a roughly planned program. They
may of course attend each other, as card players might, or team mates
in basketball; but watching and listening in the midst of doing is very
distinct from the specialized observations of a physically passive audience
(only the mind is awake for a traditional audience, at best; and it has no
responsibility for the actual work. It can only judge).
Participatory activity occurs in galleries, stages, concert halls,
literary gatherings, churches, public showcases and plazas, etc.
It does not.
Instead, it is active anywhere else: in stomachs, or freeways,
in compost heaps, through Fax machines, or at the work place.
There may be many places together, or in some sequence; some planned,
some by chance; or alternatively, spaces that move as in an airplane;
and spaces that exist in the mind.
Participatory activity, like all art, has a single time envelope ( the three week
gallery exhibit, the two hour concert or play, the forty five minute video
tape…usually at night, after dinner). It does not. Neither does it have a
definite beginning or end. Rather, time, being mainly real, hence variable and
discontinuous, is the time needed to grow tomatoes, the time when phone calls are
made, a minute here, a year there…Time is sometimes lost, and part of the
activity may be to look for it. It is always concrete.
Participatory activity has distinctive identity; you can point to it like a painting,
a poem, a church, a play. It does not. Most of the time, only
the participants would know it was going on; and even then it would seem to
be another aspect of ordinary life. If I see a woman combining her hair
in a car mirror, how do I know if she is or isn’t participating in some
Participatory activity can be judged like all art, i.e. like theater or Performance.
It cannot. It is to be valued neither for its esthetic
excellence nor for its good intentions to improve the world. But participants do
not give up judgments; their questions are simply directed to the other
matters of life: getting rid of snails in the vegetable garden without using
poison, finding a decent mate, examining the lint in an old suit pocket…
Participatory activity, like plays, concerts, Performances, has tapes and other
documentation left behind to inform others of what happened. It usually doesn’t.
Events are either too low-key for meaningful documents, or they are
dispersed in times and places that can’t be followed. And there are problems of
"performing" for the camera or tape, hence to an audience. Instead, unplanned gossip
is a way of telling stories about an activity, if you wanted to do so.
But you might not…
Participatory activity, like all art, has a point to make, a high purpose, even if
covert. It doesn’t. It can be interpreted in inconclusive ways.
Participatory activity, like real art, can become a career leading to fame and
fortune. It probably cannot. If it doesn’t appear to be art; it happens
far from honored locations, and at odd and unmarked times; if it leaves
almost nothing to posterity,—why should the world pay attention, much less money?
Participatory activity, although unfamiliar now, will one day be recognized as a
respectable art genre. It won’t because it’s not art. And if it becomes
art, it will be just one more shaggy dog story.