Making Time at Human Resources: Nizan Shaked

Coinciding with the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Los Angeles, The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is hosting the offsite working session “Making Time at Human Resources” on February 22, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Cal-State Long Beach professor and art historian, Nizan Shaked.
Out of the six exhibitions my students curated since I began heading the Museum and Curatorial Studies program at Cal State Long Beach, two have taken the issue of exhibiting performance as their primary concern. In 2008 Un-figuring the Body (lead by Megan Hoetger) investigated the posthumous representation of performance-related objects in the gallery space, tackling the problem of how to represent the (intensely) physical work of performance after the event took place, and the theoretical implication of how the human body becomes “figured” in representation. Currently on view, Split Moment (lead by Mary Coyne) examines the relation of time-based work with two-dimensional forms of representation, by thinking about the latter as a form of “writing” in the Derridian sense.
These professional exhibitions were curated by the students for our accredited University Art Museum (UAM), and in both cases they were met with varying degrees of antagonism to the display and/or the programming. The first exhibition provoked the resistance of the institution itself, which questioned the “museum quality” status of Johanna Went’s performance costumes, and the merit of Dawn Kasper’s series of performances. (Went’s contribution is now acknowledged in various Pacific Standard Time exhibitions, and Kasper is gearing up to be part of the 2012 Whitney Biennial.) With Split Moment the criticism came from the museum’s “general public.” While both graduate and undergraduate students responded enthusiastically to a recital by dancer/choreographer Flora Weigmann, members of the community complained that it had not been sufficiently contextualized in for them to understand what they were seeing.
It seems that my students and I have made several assumptions when curating the programing. Since Flora’s piece Wondering was on display, we expected that the audience will organically enjoy the live event and extrapolate its meaning from the discussion of her video piece addressed in the exhibition brochure. Both the video and the live event were a tribute to modernist choreographer Mary Wigman.  It was only after watching the event that I could articulate how the movements themselves held a tension between a modernist aesthetic and a postmodern distance captivating me in my inability to distinguish between the two.
However, even now I feel insecure in my ability to discuss the meaning or significance of this dance. I am wanting for criteria and do not even have the means to assess whether my observations are insightful or obvious. False confidence is not an option here. In fact, I think it’s the first problem to be weeded if we are to formulate a concrete and meaningful critical tool. I therefore see the question of criteria as central and think it should be approached comparatively.
But here we face another problem. On the one hand, most critics/historians I read (indeed, with bias) evaluate performance in relation to the canon of art-discourse that is deeply connected to formalism, either directly, or because their argument has been formulated through the art-historical dialogue with this powerful position. Even the varying schools of politically engaged criticism are ultimately debating formalism, whether they admit it or not, and the strong influence of this methodology continues to shun inter-disciplinary discussion. On the other hand, the dialogue with formalism is the last straw connecting us to a meaningful history—the last frontier against the onslaught of spectacular populism that has seized the imagination of museum personnel, funding agencies, and of course private philanthropy, consequently lowering the bar in our institutions of display to an unacceptable common denominator.