Rivane Neuenschwander’s […], 2004, graced the Arsenale on the occasion of the 51st Venice Biennale. The work is of considerable interest due to it being one of the rare attempts when a fine artist tries to break down the barrier between the audience and the work of art.
It is not easy for an artist to create a situation in which the viewer can interact. Hundreds of years of art history condition us to the assumption that art is all about the exceptionally creative individual who is the artist. We have been programmed to accept that creativity is the preserve of the genius not the common person.
What we might call the “romantic theory of genius” has insinuated itself into common sense, which is to say we almost take it for granted. But modern /postmodern culture is not about taking things a granted. Capitalism is a mode of accelerated evolution based upon an acknowledgement of the need for constant change and continuous adaptation. It is not surprising therefore that, as capitalism burgeoned in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, cultural production was also been bitten by the obsession with change. One of the most revolutionary aspects of Dada and Surrealism lies in their ambition, which they never realised, to break down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art. In his analysis of the more revolutionary aspects of dada and surrealism in Theory of the Avant-Garde Peter Bürger notes that artists devised methods for producing works of art which had the character of “recipes” that the reader or viewer could adopt themselves. Bürger explains:
Given the avant-gardiste [sic] intention to do away with art as a sphere that is separate from the praxis of life, it is logical to eliminate the antithesis between producer and recipient. It is no accident that both [Tristan] Tzara’s instructions for the making of a Dadaist poem and [André] Breton’s for the writing of automatic texts have the character of recipes. This represents not only a polemical attack on the individual creativity of the artist; the recipe is to be taken quite literally as suggesting a possible activity on the part of the recipient. The automatic texts also should be read as guides to individual production. But such production is not to be understood as artistic production, but as part of a liberating life praxis. This is what is meant by Breton’s demand that poetry be practiced (pratiquer la poesie). (Bürger 1984: 53)
The aspiration that poetry be practiced in everyday life, is not simply a concept that “everyone is a poet”. Everybody may be a poet, but certainly many people would not be very good poets. The most fundamental reason for this lies less in innate talent than in knowledge, practice and training. But this is not really the point that artists like Breton and Tzara were trying to make. The point lies in the need to encourage the role of creativity in everyday life. There are various reasons why this would be a good idea, not least being the uncritical absorption of sugary mass-produced entertainment which seems calculated principally to encourage social compliance. And as soon as one makes this observation one can note that it contains an implicit acknowledgement of a relationship between creativity and critical thinking.
So when an artist like Rivane Neuenschwander makes an effort to engage the throng of visitors to the Venice Biennale in creative endeavour then we should be sympathetic.
Her installation […], 2004, consisted of a series of desks with typewriters and sheets of paper on which visitors were invited to be creative without any instructions apart from the means of production that were the typewriters and paper. When finished visitors could pin their efforts onto to a large wall, which was impressively stuffed to the brim with contributions. Neuenschwander is Brazilian and it is worth mentioning that Brazil played a major role in the concrete poetry movement in which typewriters played a very significant role as a means to create visual configurations of letters and or words.
Strangely without any prompting from the artist it was interesting to see how many people actually used the typewriters to create what could be broadly referred to as visual poetry.
We must be talking about general knowledge here, a generic thing: typewriter + art gallery = concrete poetry. Which is not to belittle the attempts of the participants; some of which were interesting from a formal point of view. If the relationship between mass entertainment and encouraging creative interaction contains an implicit acknowledgement of a relationship between creativity and critical thinking; then the automatic way in which people used the typewriters to produce visual configurations leads to the realisation of an intimate connection between creativity and genre.
This is not to say that we can find rules for creativity. Creativity is much more about bending and breaking rules than obeying them. But at the same time Neuenschwander’s experiment does indicate that creativity and genre are interconnected. And it would be too easy to dismiss the hundreds of creative endeavours on the gigantic pinboard as failures due to the “habitual” force of genre as opposed to the mysterious mists of creativity that inform the work of an artist such as Rivane Neuenschwander.
Was she trying to show us that given a chance we the viewer are hopeless? I don’t think so. There is a little more to it than that.
Bürger, P. 1984. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.