Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Collaboration

Are dialogue, collaboration and appropriation "the lifeblood of all great art” and "the very quintessence of culture itself” as has been suggested recently?  I'd say that's true of some segments of popular culture.  Certainly, collaboration is the name of the game in Hollywood, and appropriation is the lifeblood of Madison Avenue.  I suppose you could argue too, in a Hegelian sort of way, that a dialogue between two artists might, if the dialogue were an argument, lead to a synthesis that advanced art, or, that if the dialogue were jazz-like, the conversation itself might be artistic.  But I wonder if appropriation can, under any circumstances, be called the lifeblood of art.  Even collaborations and dialogues are problematic.

A long time ago I had the opportunity to collaborate on a project with a relatively well-known and successful painter who was, at the time, interested in making the remnants of ancient signs more visible in the modern world.  He asked me to produce some handmade "paper" for a series he was doing for the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston.  I was working out of Galveston, Texas, at the time.  The pieces of paper he had in mind were large photographs of a performance piece he was planning to put on at the Imperial Sugar Company warehouse on the wharf in Galveston.  I filmed some of the performance and made some black-and-white photo murals that were quite large for that time: single sheets of paper, some as large as 4' x 5', processed in huge, open tanks of chemicals in a commercial darkroom in an old Galveston building.  It took my crew of 4 people several days to produce the prints.  I ended up with some kind of chemical pneumonia from making the murals and doing the studies for the big prints in a small, poorly-ventilated darkroom in Austin, Texas.

The artist "transformed" my photo murals into art by covering them with hair, blood and semen, pins and needles, dirt and other materials.  They were first shown at the CAM and, later, some of them made a nationwide tour before ending up in the Menil collection in Houston.

For forty years, I've thought of what the artist did to my prints as "enhancing" them in some way -- as if by laying his art-world-acknowledged hands on my photos he was turning essentially worthless paper into real art. Amusing, but a little sad.

Recently, I learned that an old LA Times review of one of the artist's retrospectives had mentioned my photographs.

"A group of photographs that might be overlooked amid this sensual overload is conceptually the most interesting piece in the show. Not the usual documentary report of a performance, these black-and-white photos are more like remnants of 'Sugar Sacrifice,' a private, filmed event held in 1974 at a sugar warehouse in Galveston, Tex.

"Setting up a painted 'rug' and 'altar' in the shadow of a 20,000-pound mountain of sugar, Tracy 'sacrificed' what he regarded as his best painting. Symbolically, he meant to sacrifice art to food as a gesture of serving the greater good in a world where he believes hungry people outnumber the well-fed.

"Politically motivated art can rarely be more than a conscience-raiser. This grandiose but hermetic ritual only exists on film and photographs, but the pictures suggest a visually powerful extravaganza in which the sugar resembles an Egyptian pyramid and a warehouse is transformed into a mystically charged landscape."

Over the years, I've become more and more convinced that the best "collaborations" and "dialogues" are the ones that take place inside the same skull.