Saturday, February 20, 2010

Relational Aesthetics and Speed Dating

Perhaps the trendiest of contemporary art movements/modalities and one of the more hackneyed means of meeting potential partners seem like an odd combination, maybe not as weird as Lautremont's chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine and an operating table...but there it is. During my recent pilgrimage to the naked ramps of the Guggenheim to experience/participate/ in Tino Seghal's works, it seemed to me that there were aspects of the interaction that resembled the dynamic that I have been told exists in speed dating situations. (Spoiler Alert do not read on, those two of you readers out there) When you arrive at the bottom of the ramps, you are approached by a child who asks you "What is your definition of Progress?" From there you embark on an upwards rumination with a series of partners. On the one hand, a cheesy or maybe parodic reenactment of what we imagine life was like for old Greek or Roman philosophers (but where is my poisoned chalice at the end?) and maybe this is what it's like at the APA. But I digress. On the other hand, the allegorical aspects are quite heavy handed: young child progresses in age to older person at the end of your upwards journey through the ramp, from more abstractedly philosophical to more and more detailed and personal (although the latter might be due to my particular responses to the questions, the issue of agency fascinates me, but more on that later), from below to the top, etc.

Apparently, Seghal trains the participants to ask a series of questions, but from there they can riff on your answers and are not supposed to lie when offering personal information. In some ways, the circumscribed dynamic reminded me of job interviews, teaching, or visiting the shrink's office because psychologically you are "trapped" in a situation with another person or persons where there is a time limit and boundaries on what you do or not reveal , or what you may ask. But when I reached the section where I encountered someone of my own age group, it began to take on another cast. Maybe it was because this guy claimed to be an Ivy League philosophy grad student from Central America and we immediately began to deconstruct the notion of progress politically and philosophically while bonding on what it's like to be a model minority in academia and the implications for our own academic production. Out of nowhere I gave the guy my card, something which I would never do in the real world. This is when I thought that the rigid rules of the game: we are randomly assigned a partner, we don't really know anything besides what we tell each other, there is a temporal cut off point and so only a brief window to let them know if one wants to continue talking, truly resemble this social game of speed-dating. You get the picture. Pretty obvious. One thing that may facilitate the exchanges is that unlike speed dating, or so I am told, here there is a clear indication of what the players in the game are there to do, perhaps someone is temporarily in control in so far as they launch the first question but then presumably it develops according to what you say to them. In some ways it also reminded me of what happens when you are at a shrink in the sense that they are reacting to your version of the story and you never know anything about their lives. And it also shares similarities with the dynamic when you visit a psychic or card reader, you try to tell them as little as possible, they use the cards or other prompts to suggest issues that might concern you, then ask you leading questions. However, if they are truly gifted you are telling them nothing and they are seeing the issues facing you.

The Seghal interactions were unsettling insofar as they were not clear as to the rules of the game. Were the performers working from a script, if so, how did they change it based on your responses? It was odd to get personal information from strangers and then abruptly be handed off to the next performer like a baton at a relay race. Although I am pretty much ignorant of philosophy, I happened to be looking up a definition of game theory for an article I want to write and became fascinated by a term they use, a "mixed strategy" that I understood as a factor having to do with speculation about the other player's strategy. In a way, that is what is happening here, and in dating too! In any event, the idea of speed dating had never appealed to me, but now I see why people do this. Later on, while speaking to a museum worker I learned that there have been quite a few phone numbers exchanged as an unintended outcome of the piece. So Seghal is not only hewing to the artworld's feel-good relational aesthetics orthodoxy and boosting the Guggenheim's street cred and attendance, he is performing a public service!