To follow things as I encounter them: Blogging, Art, and Attention – Lucas Ihlein
Posted by 127prince on May 14, 2010
As the tradition of “performance art” continues to expand, some artists have begun to use blogs as a way to record the ordinary social interactions which constitute their own creative practices. Since 2005, I’ve been creating blogs in an attempt to more intimately weave my art practice and everyday life, annotating the dozens of small events that accumulate each day. As a “blog artist,” I recognize the potential of this activity to bring to light some of the ephemeral interactions which specifically underpin my performative practice. Beyond its utility as a tool for documentation, blogging also helps hone my errant attention span, enabling me to make peace with seemingly insignificant or banal aspects of daily living. These tiny annotated moments of ephemeral experience are what I want to focus on here. Via a brief exploration of two blog projects by Australian artists, I hope to demonstrate the mutually transformative relationship between the practices of blogging and the quality of our attention.
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I begin by making a connection between blogging and some of the thinking around performance art. In his essay On the Performativity of Performance Documentation, Philip Auslander proposes two distinct ways of understanding the documentary materials that are often our only retrospective conduit to historical works of performance art. The two categories he distinguishes are the documentary and the theatrical.
The documentary category, Auslander argues, represents the usual way that we might treat a photograph of an event. A documentary photograph stands in ontological relationship with the original occurrence – as a kind of proof that it actually occurred and was witnessed. The aesthetics of 1960s and 70s performance art documentation (often black and white photographs shot in a matter-of-fact, utilitarian manner) further construct an atmosphere of authenticity. In this way, photography – and the photographer – become instruments for accessing “the performance itself” but in no way is the act of documenting considered to be an integral part of the event. However, Auslander writes, “the presumption of an ontological relationship between performance and document [...] is ideological”  In other words, it relies on the presumption that there is an “exact correspondence” between the two which, he argues, offers a convenient fiction for historians wanting to piece together the story of “what actually happened” in a work of performance art.
Auslander classes within the theatrical category, by contrast, those situations where a performance and its documentation cannot so easily be distinguished from each other. In the theatrical category, the document explicitly brings to life the performative act, which may never have actually existed in an “authentic” past time and place. He offers the example of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void, 1960 – a performance constructed entirely within the space of the manipulated photograph itself. Another example is Vito Acconci’s Photo-Piece, 1969: “Holding a camera, aimed away from me and ready to shoot, while walking a continuous line down a city street. Trying not to blink. Each time I blink: snap a photo.”  The photographs Acconci produces do not simply document his execution of the performance; rather they were (and are) are an integral component of the artwork itself. In this way, the practices of performance and document-making interweave. In the theatrical category, the moment of the “authentic” performative encounter thus shifts from some time in the past (between an artist and a physically attendant audience) to the present as we come into contact with the documentary material itself.
Auslander’s distinction between the documentary and the theatrical categories may be useful in considering how blogs operate as documents of ephemeral artworks – or, indeed, as artworks in their own right. Blogs, as I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, can be a useful method for documenting everyday activities – but they also might have one foot in Auslander’s theatrical category. This is due to the manner in which their method of production – an ongoing communicative process – makes discernible experiences which would otherwise remain entirely un-noticed, during the actual time period in which they are being experienced. In other words, the practice of blogging not only communicates (to a non-present audience) what an artist is doing, but it also produces a tangible effect on the attentive consciousness of the artist him/herself as the artwork unfolds.
I’d now like to turn to two blogs recently produced by artists Lisa Kelly and Thea Rechner, colleagues of mine in Australia. In October 2009, Kelly and Rechner (who live in Sydney and Melbourne respectively) “swapped lives” for a month: Kelly traveled to Melbourne, to be artist-in-residence at Ocular Lab, while Rechner shifted to Sydney, occupying Kelly’s vacated home and studio. For the duration of October, each artist produced a series of blog posts reflecting, embodying, and channeling their localised activities.
To clarify, the concept of a “life swap” between Kelly and Rechner was only incidental – the result of serendipitous timing – rather than an attention-grabbing gimmick. The two projects (Kelly’s THE LAB and Rechner’s between studio and field) were independently executed, developing each artist’s own continuing practice, rather than being conceived as a collaborative action. However, I think it’s fair to read them side-by-side, as they share philosophical and methodological underpinnings, and as Kelly and Rechner closely observed each other’s parallel blogging processes throughout the month.
Kelly’s THE LAB took the form of a residency with no clearly stated outcomes in mind. Or rather, her desired outcomes were apparently formless: “a set of actions, processes, reading and renewal” – an approach which, when combined with contingencies encountered on site, might produce: what? The answer to this question is precisely what Kelly could only find out during and after the residency itself. In fact, it seems to me (reading her blog) that Kelly did not intentionally work towards any substantial “product” at all. She passed time sitting in the gallery (an old corner store now converted to artist-run space), planted some clover in terracotta pots, regularly shifted these seedlings to catch rays of sunshine, observed the changing light in the room, and watched passers-by. The project was a kind of art-holiday. As Kelly writes:
For the first week it felt right to observe things as they were in the Lab. The given conditions, the objects in the room when I arrived – a plinth, a ladder, a trestle table, an amplifier and some foam – and the movement of light and air into and through the space. It was surprising how much was going on in and at the edges of an empty room. I felt no need to remove the objects, figuring I’d wait to see who had left them and what they might be useful for. For the first few days I was strongly mindful of the practices of Thea Rechner and John Borley, as I paid attention to air and light and sat on the front step with the doors open making eye contact with passing drivers.
Kelly’s residency proceeds in this way. After slowly acclimating to what surrounds her, she gradually begins to implement small repairs and “home improvements” within the space. For instance, she constructs a makeshift “humanure” composting system to replace Ocular Lab’s existing toilet for the duration of her residency. This is a “gift” whose use relies upon the recipient’s enthusiasm for the concept of human shit as garden fertiliser – an admittedly marginal practice, as it requires one to roll up one’s sleeves and empty the pan on a regular basis. Kelly’s humanure toilet – a technology which acknowledges the substantial qualities, and potential utility of (her own) shit – stands as a possible emblem of her entire slow-growing project. Sitting still, and “just noticing”, may seem rather underwhelming as a spectator sport. However, the combination of sitting still and blogging produces a shift in Kelly’s ability to notice. Such transformations in consciousness are born from Kelly’s parallel, interweaving, blogging-and-living practice – which, I argue, has a corresponding effect upon those who engage with her blog, as readers.
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While Kelly passed time at the Ocular Lab, much of Rechner’s sojourn in Sydney was spent moving (also rather aimlessly) through the city. Like Kelly, Rechner seems to have had no particular agenda. In her first blog entry, Rechner writes, “I haven’t really planned anything specific here, except to follow things as I encounter them.” She develops a daily practice of mapping her movements onto small, postcard-size sheets of paper – and uses these colour-coded mud-maps to navigate her bicycle rides and walks, between her temporary digs in Kelly’s suburban flat, and her borrowed studio in the city. Many times Rechner finds herself lost, as her idiosyncratic cartography leads her astray. However, these moments of being lost – because of the structure she sets up for herself – are able to be recuperated, incorporated as valuable aspects of her experience – or at the very least, as opportunities for further chance encounters or observations. As John Cage says in his 1959 Lecture on Nothing: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.”  Rechner’s working methods (unhurried meandering, hand-made maps uploaded to her blog) allow her to temporarily defer such irritation by declaring that wherever she is right now is a legitimate (even if seemingly “unproductive”) place to be.
Besides mapping her own movements through the suburbs, Rechner’s daily activity – like Kelly’s – also involves “observing things as they are.” She takes photos and small videos of the sky above her head; cloud formations; rubbish flapping in the breeze; smoke rising from an ashtray in a public rubbish bin. She photographs sunsets “for no other reason than an aesthetic delight in the endless variation of colour, and the half-blinding sensation of riding into low rays of light”. Rechner, it seems to me, skirts close to a rather romantic sensibility – and yet her bundling of all this disparate material (together with the maps) within a carefully annotated blog, prevents her project from sliding into cliché. Reading the blog, Rechner’s structured documentation of her own aesthetic delight in ephemeral everyday phenomena makes me aware that the key “product” of her project (besides the blog itself) is her own sharpened sense of attentiveness.
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It is easy to imagine Kelly and Rechner going about their respective daily practices – intimate gestures, small observations, almost invisible interventions and urban wanderings – oblivious to my prying eyes as I peep through the keyholes of their blogs. The tendency to accept these blogs as a diaristic portal allowing transparent access to a realm of action in the real world resonates with Auslander’s category of the documentary in performance art history. As a reader, it is tempting to simply use the blogs published by these two artists as a way to discover “what they did”. However, given the fact that nobody (except the artists themselves) was present to witness their ongoing activities, we must then view the making of the blogs themselves as an inextricable and essential component of Kelly and Rechner’s work.
Perhaps akin to a holiday-maker sending a postcard, the writing of a blog entry informs others – specifically others who are not present when and where the postcard is penned– of one’s activity. Importantly, this communicative act transforms the experience itself, creating a feedback-loop between action and reflection where the two become so interwoven as to be indistinguishable. The blogs deployed by both Kelly and Rechner form an invisible framing system that allows them to pursue their seemingly aimless activities, without these activities disappearing entirely from view. This framing function performed by blogs is perhaps better understood as an ongoing process, shaping and focusing attention, and thus creating a more intensified experience of that which is framed. The blogs created by Kelly and Rechner direct attention (their own and ours) to the unspectacular ordinary spaces and rhythms of their own experiences. Blogging helps us to find value in these moments, without needing to resolve the fragmentation, banality and contradictions which are a part of life – nor transforming them into fetishised, or merely “aestheticised” forms.
Allan Kaprow observed that the music of John Cage was generated not in order to drown out the noise of the world, but simply as a means of “listening devotedly to the manifold sounds that fill the air at every moment.” To position Kelly and Rechner’s blogs in this way is to acknowledge them as material and performative constructions: technologies for better listening rather than mere documentary depositories. The “attentiveness effect” – evident in the artists’ own mindful processes – is embodied and transferred by the blogs to their readers in an online environment. This might then align such blogs with Auslander’s theatrical category of performance art documentation, where the moment of live encounter between artist and audience is relocated from the “field” to the office computer, internet cafe, or laptop in the park. However, since the word “theatrical” seems to imply a level of dramatic contrivance – a kind of scripting, or deliberate audience manipulation – which I do not believe either of these artists consciously aspire to, it may be more appropriate to continue searching for an aesthetic vocabulary which can account for blogging’s somewhat quieter transformation of consciousness.
Lucas Ihlein is an artist living in Petersham, Australia who works with social relations and communication as the primary media of his creative practice. His work is variously embodied in blogs, participatory performances, pedagogical projects, experimental film and video, gallery installations, lithographic prints and drawings. He recently completed a practice-based PhD at Deakin University entitled ‘Framing Everyday Experience: Blogging as Art.’
 The two blogs which most engage with the processes of my own everyday life are Bilateral Kellerberrin, 2005, http://kellerberrin.com, which was carried out in a small country town in Western Australia; and Bilateral Petersham, 2006 http://thesham.info which took place in my own neighbourhood, Petersham, in the inner-western suburbs of Sydney.
Philip Auslander, “On the Performativity of Performance Documentation,” in After the Act. The (Re)Presentation of Performance Art, Barbara Clausen (ed.), Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2005, pp. 21-33. Auslander also refers to a pivotal essay by Amelia Jones, which I, in turn, recommend to those interested in this subject matter: see Amelia Jones, “‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation,” in Art Journal, Vol. 56, No. 4, Winter 1997.
 Auslander, ibid, p. 22.
 In fact, as Auslander argues, artworks which occupy the theatrical category implicitly question the existence of such an authentic or “original” experience.
 Auslander, ibid, pp. 25-26.
 Lisa Kelly, THE LAB, 2009, http://www.studiononstop.net/?p=61; Thea Rechner, between studio and field, 2009, http://betweenstudioandfield.blogspot.com/2009/10/month-in-sydney.html.
 Lisa Kelly, “October 2009 | week one,” http://www.studiononstop.net/?p=63. Kelly refers to Rechner’s blog, between studio and field, as well as to Rechner’s previous related work, studio berlin, 2008, http://studio-berlin.blogspot.com/; and to artist John Borley’s project On Time and Again, 2008, http://www.timeandagain.info/.
Thea Rechner, “a month in Sydney,” http://betweenstudioandfield.blogspot.com/2009/10/month-in-sydney.html.
 John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing,” in Silence, 1961, Wesleyan University, p.105.
 For more details on the effects of blogs on framing attention, see Lucas Ihlein, Framing Everyday Experience: Blogging as Art, unpublished Ph.D thesis, Deakin University, Melbourne, 2009. Artist and blogger Laura Hindmarsh uses the term “structural intervalling” to describe this framing process. She writes, “[for me] blogging has worked as a form of timekeeping – a structural framework overlaying a project in order to break it down and inevitably make more sense out of it for ourselves and potentially more accessible to a viewer.” See comment by Hindmarsh posted at Lucas Ihlein, Art as public forum: the art of blogging by Laura Hindmarsh, August 26, 2009, http://www.lucazoid.com/bilateral/art-as-public-forum-the-art-of-blogging-by-laura-hindmarsh/. See also Laura Hindmarsh, “Art as Public Forum: The Art of Blogging,” in un magazine, Vol 3, No. 1, June 2009, http://www.unmagazine.org/?page_id=261
 Kaprow, “Formalism: Flogging a Dead Horse” (1974), in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, (ed Jeff Kelly), 2003,University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, p 160.