December 1st, 2005


The Whitney 2006: through a glass darkly

It's been hell to keep this secret for so long, but now the participating artist list has been announced I can shout it from the diagonal Marcel Breuer rooftop: I'll spend March to May of 2006 in New York City doing a daily art performance as part of the Whitney Biennial. Curators Philippe Vergne (an old friend of Toog's from Marseille, now at the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis) and Chrissie Iles headhunted me for the Whitney when I was in New York this summer doing my story improvisation show with Mai Ueda, I'll Speak, You Sing.

When I went for a drink with Philippe at the tiny Angel's Share bar on Stuyvesant Street in July he asked if there was something I could do which related to my Stars Forever album, perhaps making tribute songs to the art on display. (There are other musicians in the 2006 show, people like Japanther, Spencer Sweeney, Jim O'Rourke and Daniel Johnston.) But I fine-tuned this into the idea of an "unreliable tour guide". The idea is that I'll be in the Whitney daily, making short guerilla interventions as a semi-official tour guide, delivering improbable information about the art in the show. The story improvisation element of I'll Speak, You Sing remains, but there'll also be a strong influence from Stars Forever because I'll be making somewhat Panglossian, 18th century-style tributes to the art, trying to find uplifting humanist messages in the things I describe.

The idea came to me after I saw elderly Jewish ladies tour guiding people around Takashi Murakami's "Little Boy" show at the Japan Centre, authoritatively imposing elevating humanist meanings onto images of Yoshitomo Nara's grumpy little girls and Mr's sex perverts. I also followed a tour around the Glasgow Museum of Contemporary Art this summer, fascinated by how subtly yet firmly the guide was disagreeing with her guests' interpretations of the collection and substituting her own.

As the New York Times reports, there are two firsts, two innovations in the 2006 Whitney show. Firstly, European artists will participate (it's always been billed as an American art show), and secondly there'll be a title and theme: "Day For Night", the English title of Francois Truffaut's 1973 film about film-making, La Nuit Américaine. Technically, la nuit Américaine is just the phrase the French use for the American technique of filming nocturnal scenes in daytime, with dimmed exposure and filters to make it look like night. But it also means "the American night", and the curators want to imply that the US under Bush is currently passing through a "long night of the soul" and has lost touch with the Enlightenment (itself, of course, European in inspiration). This is a show that will see the US "through a glass darkly".

"Through the curatorial lens of the Biennial," says Chrissie Iles, "'Day for Night' explores the artifice of American culture in what could be described as a pre-Enlightenment moment, in which culture is preoccupied with the irrational, the religious, the dark, the erotic, and the violent, filtered through a sense of flawed beauty.  This reflective, restless mood is not unique to the United States; its presence across both America and Europe suggests a shift in the accepted values that have formed the basis of 20th-century Western culture."

This is the context, then, in which I'll be playing a Tocquevillesque or Panglossian tour guide, a European whose attempts to bullshit the dark, irrational work on display into benign and elevating pabulum—somewhat in the manner of an 18th century poet eulogising his brutal, powerful patron—will only end up underscoring the darkness. Of course, things like this have been done before; the Chapman Brothers have ruthlessly undermined humanism in their work, and Andrea Fraser made a tour guide piece as part of the Institutional Critique school of the 80s. There was also a performance at the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale this year in which artist Tino Sehgal had the security guards jumping round chanting "This is so contemporary!" and discussing the meaning of the show with visitors (the ones who debated longest could get a three euro refund at the press office later).

But despite these overlaps and similarities in theme and technique, my three-month performance at the Whitney will be very much my own. It brings my New York experience full circle, because it has something in common with the webcast performances which were my pretext for moving to the city in 2000, when, at the invitation of Glenn Max of Knitactive, I performed a cabaret entitled Momus as the Earl Of Amiga Presents Electronics In The 18th Century. The Whitney performance will also overlap in theme with another interesting project I have for 2006: it looks as if I'll be writing a piece of longform fiction for a French publisher entitled "Lives of the Composers", a series of imaginary lives of musicians pitched somewhere between Calvino's Invisible Cities and Vasari's Lives of the Artists.