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.”