An elegy for geometric relations

“The distance between two points is measured in memories,” is the title of a book by Newfoundlander artist and poet Marlene Creates. We spent a day together in May, hunting for icebergs on a boat the size of a taxi, circling bergs as big as a high-school gymnasium. Ten-thousand-year-old fresh water chunks, with their chalky geometry, calved off the coast of Greenland, drifting for months or more southward across the Atlantic to arrive at the tip of North America. It would’ve started with a loud crack, breaking the frozen silence, and then the slowest drifting away from its point of origin. A glacially slow separation between two points.

Last summer, when Bill Berkson left us, I started reading Sudden Address, a collection of lectures he gave between 1981 and 2006 (thanks to a gift from Connie). It’s some of the most generous, educated, and intimate language on the subject of art I’ve ever set eyes and mind to. In reading I discovered a notion he returned to repeatedly: the Parallel Text. He mentions it in several interviews and in more than one of the essays I was reading. In “Critical Reflections” (Artforum, 1990),  he writes “An article or review can aspire to the level of a philosophical essay, belles lettres, or a kind of prose poem. It can insinuate itself with an equivalent vitality into the orbit of an artwork as a parallel text.”

A Parallel Text is when a translation is presented directly opposite its source, so that one might compare line for line, word for word. A bilingual reader might sense the nuance of what was lost or gained in its conversion between languages.  Bill used the phrase as metaphor for the relationships between an artwork (often a painting) and a related text (often a poem), that this process was related to translation as much or more than it was an act of interpretation. As far as I know he never elaborated on the idea at length, but in one essay (in Sudden Address) he writes: “I always have Clark Coolidge to remind me that the best thing a writer can do in the way of criticism is to continue the dialog. That’s the theory of the Parallel Text, that the truest response to a painting or poem is another poem and not an accumulation of ideas and description.”

Parallel suggests two lines moving in the same direction, rather than two points in relation. Perhaps they’re timelines marking events as they circulate in an orbit. But what does Bill have in mind here? Perhaps rather than “keeping one’s distance” in an attempt at credibly managing bias, we might instead risk a direct entanglement, enter into a dialog. And in that closeness we might find our own creative impulse. And to make allowance for that impulse, that one might relax the mechanisms of interpretation and historical framing, to resist the temptation to explain-away an object (an act of linguistic submission or containment). Instead we might look for that narrow passage between the lines. Bill goes on to suggest that rather than asking what it is, an artwork might alternatively be asking, what are you going to do about it?

But what if the person you have in mind isn’t around for a continuation, if the dialog has already found its punctuation mark? And can, alternatively, writing about an artwork serve as a kind of parallel text, as an act of memorial?

One grey morning in July, the morning after I heard about the loss of Ted Purves, Helena and I watched a video of him on my phone, still in bed together. It was from the Anecdote Archive, a series of videos that I had since taken down. I wanted to remember what project he had talked about. And then we discovered something, well, eerie.

Ted offered his extemporaneous reflections about Art/Life: One Year Performance 1983-1984 (Rope Piece) by Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh. It was an artwork that had made an impression on him, perhaps even shaped his early thinking about the possibilities and dilemmas of the field of art. Or at least served as a marker, a reference point for a term he’d become associated with: Social Practice. Perhaps it stood out as something beyond performance, where art and life met, but that didn’t quite have a name yet. For the performance Hsieh and Montano were attached by an eight-foot-long rope for an entire year, with the added constraint that they were not allowed to touch. Two points, attached by a line. So simple in its realization, only a length of rope and two committed people needed — but otherwise so absurd, like the conceit of a Samuel Beckett play. So rich with implied pleasure and pathos, constraint and intimacy, with embodied complexity.

The performance Rope Piece began and ended on the same day, July 4th. The same day that Ted died. It’s terribly tempting to find some specific meaning in that coincidence, but I don’t. However, I found myself thinking about the performance in the days after watching the video of him talking about it, wanting to learn more about it, perhaps as a way to remember Ted; to honor something he cared about as a way to acknowledge the many kind encouragements and warm company he offered me and so many others over the years. So I started reading.

The best text I found was an interview, “The Year of the Rope,” originally published in High Performance magazine, conducted during the final days of their year together. Hsieh and Montano were interviewed by a married couple, Alex and Allyson Grey, which has an interesting sub-textual implication: perhaps the Greys (as a couple) would have special insights, could ask the right questions to reveal the project’s inner world. In the Beckett play: two people tied together walk up to two other people tied together and ask each other what it’s like. The key difference between the two couples was that Hsieh and Montano weren’t allowed to touch. In a more recent interview, Montano mentions they had accidentally touched one hundred times, and had kept a record of each encounter. During the performance they also sacrificed physical intimacy with others, so one can’t help but wonder how those moments of contact felt, or how long they lasted.

It’s clear from the interview that both artists, in their parallel artistic practices, were interested in the relationship between art and life. It seems to have been in the air at the time; the prospect that art as a concept or force was powerful enough to overtake the entirety of life, that representation could overwhelm that which it represents in a tidal wave of meaning, never to recover. While there is something romantic about the idea, I have serious doubts about this project, and they become apparent in the different ways that Hsieh and Montano talk about Rope Piece. Hsieh talks about the performance being “about” life, and making “a connection” between life and art. Montano talks about a “merger” between art and life, and her past practice of “framing [her] life and calling it art.” In one, representation is happening through long-form performance, art about life, and in the other life is being framed and called art. No doubt these complexities of representation are still debated in Social Practice circles. Walking that line, I’d propose that meaning (in life as in art) is shared, not given or imposed, like an agreement. Like deciding to spend a year or a life together.

Rope Piece evokes many associations and there are more than a few mentioned or alluded to in the interview:  the umbilical cord, S&M, tied to a bad job, walking a dog, a scientific research experiment, military conscription (they cut their hair short in the beginning), and others. But I suspect its most ready association is between romantic couples, business partners, or brothers and sisters. Something invisible made visible. But what about a connection to an old friend?

The last question in the HP interview is about nearing the end of the year, the completion of the performance. I imagine Hsieh on Beckett’s stage, lit only by a candle when he says: “On a philosophical level, I feel that the piece is not nearing an end. It’s just that we are tied to each other psychologically. When we die it ends. Until then we are all tied up.”

Comments (1)

  • Matthew Rana says:

    Thank you, Joseph for this post. Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Bill Berkson during my time in the Bay Area. His art-writing is some of the best I have encountered, truly.

    I was, however, fortunate enough to study with Ted Purves for three years, from 2007-2010. The student-teacher relationship is often complex, but I always knew that I could call him friend. What follows is a memoriam that I began writing this summer, shortly after I learned of his passing. I hope it can add something to your elegy.

    In 2014, Ted started a blog devoted to the work of Brno-born artist JH Kocman (https://jhkactivity.wordpress.com). JHK Activity is dedicated to the memory of art dealer and collector Steven Leiber, a mutual friend, and centers around Ted’s collection of 40 or so works authored by Kocman during the late 1960s and 70s. In fact, Ted amassed this trove over a 20 year span, and in 2005 curated a show at Stamp Art Gallery, JH Kocman – Stamps and Other Activity Works from 1970-1980, that included work featured on the blog.

    The collection, which is made up mostly of artist books and ephemera, but also includes objects such as an altered comb, spans several of Kocman’s various ‘activities’, a term the artist used to describe specific areas of research. The categories range from: ‘entomological’ and ‘chromatographic’, to the somewhat more inscrutable ‘…’; there is even ‘Ben-activity’, apparently a reference to fluxus-affiliated artist Ben Vautier.

    As “an early attempt to focus on artistic practice as a way to understand the relationship between form and encounter” Ted’s collection paid particular attention to the way that Kocman’s works occupy forms of communication in order to “produce encounter at a distance – largely through pushing form to contain an ontological spark.” To me, this reads rather like a description of the poem. Perhaps Bill Berkson would’ve agreed?

    Having lived at a great distance from one another for several years, my communication with Ted had grown sporadic. So JHK Activity became a site to which I would occasionally return, for instance when I found a message in my email inbox alerting me to a new post. I never looked as closely or as often as I do now; during the months of July and August I visited almost daily.

    Through these repeated viewings, I’ve learned that Kocman’s works are mostly text-based, fairly straightforward in their presentation, and in many cases translate well to an online format. And Ted took great care in organizing them. So that even though I haven’t handled them or experienced their physical features such as weight, odor and texture, I nonetheless feel that I have acquired a sense of them. Or at least some of the strategies used.

    What strikes me is the theme of disappearance – or at the risk of jargon, presencing and absencing – in nearly all of the works represented. For example, ‘How to Correctly Spell My Name’ (1971-74) is a series of poem-activities wherein the artist progressively abbreviates his name from dr. jiri h kocman, to jh kocman, and finally the initials JHK. More directly, ‘JHK’s Participation – Absence – Card’, a work dated July 19, 1977 in which Kocman acknowledges his exclusion from a publication called Visual Poems.

    Another work from that year, ‘Satisfaction Poem’ is a white page stamped with a single phrase: “yes, I am JH Kocman”. The complex of identification and disidentification enacted here triangulates a zone of indeterminacy between subject, object, and addressee – the author withdrawing behind the page, the poem affirming its status as a ‘sobject’, or perhaps a kind of quasi-subject transferring agency among sender and receiver. What language-game is this poem playing? And to whose satisfaction?

    Recently, a friend of mine recited a phrase he attributed – somewhat dubiously, I think – to Wittgenstein: “where language suggests a body and there is none, there we find spirit.” As of this writing, I’ve not been able to confirm the source. Apocryphal or not, it resonates. Ontological sparks and all.

    As it appears on the blog, ‘About My Butterfly’, is an artist’s book from 1976 that consists of only two full-spreads. And of these four pages, two are blank. The first spread contains an offset print showing a man, probably Kocman himself, dressed in a white shirt and lab-coat sitting beside a microscope. Encircled in red, partially obscured by a luxuriant goatee (which, those familiar might recognize here a possible source for Ted’s somewhat eccentric choices in facial hair), the artist’s trademark bow-tie. On the following pages, stamped in blue ink, a message reads: “Whenever you see a butterfly, remember JHK.” The book’s title is handwritten on the cover.

    For all its irony, ‘About My Butterfly’ feels surprisingly intimate, and deeply human. No wonder that Ted was drawn to it. As part of a chain of remembrance, I want to extend it somehow – to occupy its form and invest it with new content. During one of our last email exchanges, Ted wrote: “I have started to see something of a unicorn called ‘the world at large’, which seems to be the key to spaces of freedom. It’s elusive now, but parts of it come through every now and then.” To a reader, such details may seem incidental. But they offer a small glimpse of his vision’s extent, as large as the world itself, to which no symbol is adequate.

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