This festival of performance and video pieces exploring Kenneth Goldsmith’s concept of “uncreativity” was stimulating, excruciating, and really one-of-a-kind in terms of presenting a practice. Billy Mullaney’s curation, and performances, indulged in deconstructing very diverse forms through one framework, which often lead to that tricky, productive frontier between common humor and singular absurdity. The pieces, in keeping with Goldsmith’s wariness of the precious figures of “art” and “artist,” were described as “built,” like a shelf or a snowman, emphasizing practicality and the primacy of other material–instead of say, “created,” which implies a more mysterious, artistic genesis. But this was definitely “art,” and forthrightly so. I mean that as being, among other things, non-utilitarian and maybe most importantly, mediated. What I’m really interested in here is thinking about the distinction between “uncreative” and “unartistic,” and what that says about the place of the concept of uncreativity and its import, at least for me as a performance artist.
The show was a substantial exploration of the concept as I understand it: de-contextualizing a range of recognizable forms and content, exclusively in their own words, to reveal much of what we take for granted in them and ultimately in the way our world orders perceptions and knowledge in all its mundane corners. By simply, almost stupidly, “uncreatively” delivering verbatim de-contextualized mathematical or literary paradigms, digital or pop culture excess, etc., something absurd, new, and yet almost anti-socially frank surfaces, and we have to endure it and reckon with it. Uncreativity is thus hard work and courageous in its own right, not merely post-modern. But I wonder how the presentation of these materials as “art” fundamentally challenges this. Mediating the monotony or aggravating fickleness we’re so often glibly enveloped by takes us just to the edge of meaninglessness, but having the art concept of “uncreativity” productively holds us back from inner-annihilation and boredom. To me, the possibility that the processes presented in the show were fundamentally more “artistic” than they were “uncreative” puts me right back into a sort of existential tension I feel like I’m always struggling with: why make art? Instead, of say, putting energy into a less mediated, more phenomenal and immediate experience with the world? It’s sort of a rhetorical question I guess; or on the bright side, healthy, since most likely its consideration alone could keep you on your toes. But it becomes actually really critical and practical when the art itself is pursuing “artlessness,” which in my view uncreativity in some deep way works under the auspices of.
Wonderfully and weirdly, the piece I personally was charged by Billy to perform in this festival had all this angst wrapped up in it for me. And I had a full fifteen minutes to sit with that, all by myself (with him pacing a few feet away but), since I was simply reading aloud an 11-page text off paper behind a curtain. It was “City of Nature:” “Built using: All descriptions of nature in Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Waves’.” Endless, yet plain and simple, descriptions of nature and nothing else. I read it at a steady pace, enunciating each word clearly, like I was feeding them into someone’s earpiece (as was my direction). My own work as a poet and performance artist deals substantially with nature/culture, and language, and the reading quickly became a sublime experience for me, not dull, or conceptual, but very affective and almost delirious. It seemed to me like a literary experiment that sought to capture a phenomenal experience with the natural world to the point of sublimity, and not just an exercise to reveal the incessancy of natural descriptions in novels, and their subversion. I don’t know what the “builder” Tom Comitta intended, but I can’t imagine he wasn’t aware of both effects, and more. My point here is, however “uncreative” this process was, was it not exponentially more “artistic” in its almost supremely modernist approach to capturing sense in language? And if so, does that not derail Uncreativity? I’m not sure what Goldsmith would say. He’s surely into art, in the end, with an interesting way of tricking himself into it I would say. But is he into affect? Does uncreativity care about feeling? Was I doing it wrong, and that’s why I transgressed the practice into having an affective experience? By one measure, the lack of a single clap from the audience on my second night, I think I was actually doing it just right. How did the audience have such an uncreative time, when I was so caught up in the art of it all, crawling just under the surface?
Looking back on the rest of the bill, I think perhaps mine was the most somber and flat piece–a noiseless plateau. I really like that. Most were outright hilarious, others serious but charismatic. I wonder if this was an artistic choice on Billy’s part, or if uncreative work, as inherently absurdist in a way, tends to bag all the shades of humor along with that. Perhaps that’s its most intriguing challenge–which was exemplified in the final piece, performed by Billy, of a verbatim re-enactment of a “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” episode. After having dipped our toes in the concept for an hour, could we in fact meet this piece without irony, without sarcasm, and yet also without nostalgia and sentimentality? I found myself watching Billy’s face and gestures so intently, looking for a betrayal of any of those qualities, and, impressed at not finding them actually, wondering where exactly he was emotionally, singing those earnest simple songs, lobbing his shoes and coats around gently. What was the affect of his labor at uncreativity? He wasn’t building; he was acting (his art), and doing a phenomenal job, re-presenting Mr. Roger’s oddly revolutionary candor without trumping it. That was a bright glimpse of uncreativity for me, where I just saw Billy’s iteration, and “the text” in all its linguistic and behavioral modes, side by side, and the art was almost most active in keeping any of those previously-mentioned affective traps at bay. It also seemed like those guileless regards he sang of, about loving oneself as one is, were loose somewhere between his lips and Mr. Roger’s, and no one in the room could claim those either.
Uncreativity can really neutralize, I was thinking. But, here is a parting cheap-shot, because I’ll leave it to add to the stock shock and not go into it, and because I think in part I understand Goldsmith’s arrogant -or naive- experiment: that of the attempt of neutralizing Michael Brown’s body in reciting his autopsy as a poem. The show’s pieces don’t go anywhere near that, but it makes for a pretty intriguing lens through which to see them, where issues of art and affect in this highest/lowest act of uncreativity suddenly make the whole thing a touch explosive. Which, if you can’t objectify it, is another way to neutralize the subject…
By Moheb Soliman
About the Uncreativity Festival, curated by Billy Mullaney and performed by him and numerous others including myself
At Bryant Lake Bowl April 3-4 2015