Toward a Micro Revolution
In late 2005, the seminal New York-based public art organisation Creative Time embarked on an ambitious, multi-platform project Who Cares, with the aim of investigating art’s relationship to social action. Combining a series of privately convened intimate forums between artists, theorists and cultural producers, as well as commissioned public art projects and a publication, the initiative was conceived as a mechanism to “interrogate the popular notion of artists as leaders of social change” and debate the possibilities for critical art forms within this framework.1 At a time when the capacity of culture to shape public discourse is increasingly challenged by a conservative political climate, the rhetorical foundation of Who Cares signified a belief that art “can foster dialogue on important public issues” and in doing so generate “a sense of personal involvement and responsibility”.2 Consequently, the focal point of analysis centred on how this occurs. Amidst shifting democratic frameworks in both art and political spheres, Who Cares thus set a precedent in addressing a landscape of production modelled around hybrid private-collective subjectivity.
Almost simultaneously, a project heavily invested in precisely these values was incubating only several states north in New Hampshire where Sydney-based collaborative artists Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark were in residence at The MacDowell Colony. Amidst escalating discourse around the relationship between art and social change, and as widespread speculation about global climate change was building momentum, Miranda and Neumark’s project Talking About the Weather began to take form.
Three years later, Talking About the Weather has evolved into a sophisticated cross media initiative that encompasses performative, audio-visual, web-based and installation elements. Developing through a series of residencies around the world, the project articulates a response to the terrifying, overwhelming, and urgent issues of global warming and climate change. Using human breath as a metaphor for personal implication and action, the project enacts an imaginary investment in using the CO2 contained within our exhalations to ‘blow back’ global warming.
Breath donations towards the artists’ ‘breath collection’ are gathered in several ways: through performative encounters in urban public spheres, where they invite participants to inhale and exhale into a microphone and document the act on video; via their internet breath-blog, where people are asked to describe their current breath and the weather context in which it is taking place; and through drawing workshops in which participants ‘draw breath’ in concrete form. In 2008, the project will expand into the domain of Second Life, where virtual breath donations will be collected from digital avatars.
In many ways, the framework of Talking About the Weather reflects defining features of the climate change issue. Breath is, of course, universal and fundamental to existence, and the project draws a parallel between the basic physiological processes we take for granted, and their utter dependency on an environmental context that, until recent times, has been unconsciously exploited. By honing in on the contribution of individuals – comprehendible and easily made manifest – the process points not only to the implication of all people in the issue at hand, but also to the significance of enacting change at a micro-social level towards a solution.
So too, the framework echoes the global nature of climate change and its circulation within a discursive sphere. Talking About the Weather is both temporally and spatially dispersed. The artists’ collecting activities have taken place across Europe, America and the Asia Pacific, with blog entries and drawings contributed from locations just as diverse. The work of art here is reconfigured from a finite, concrete aggregate of materials, to a set of discursive, transitive relations that accrue through fragmentary actions. The project is both the process and culmination of the performative engagement of participants and intermingles the acts of generating breath donations, documentation of these encounters, and the artists’ subsequent exhibition of their evolving breath collection in galleries.
In this sense, Talking About the Weather approaches the hybrid private-collective model of subjectivity privileged by Who Cares via a mode of production that has risen to prominence through recent site-oriented art practices. In particular, Miranda and Neumark invoke James Meyer’s notion of the ‘functional site’ as having replaced singular and literal sites of production and reception:
Meyer’s positioning of the site as a shifting and unstable configuration intersects broadly with a shift in the relationship between works of art and their audience that has been theorized since the 1990s. In Talking About the Weather this relationship is of primary significance and is centred on the participatory gesture as both a personal event, and equally, as forming part of a collective action. While the artists are keen to point out that there is no appeal to “older notions of community” premised upon culturally determined parameters,4 the concept of communality is relevant nonetheless in that the work, by its nature, generates a community of sorts. Each contribution to the artists’ breath collection is the trace of an interaction, however fleeting, that forms part of a dispersed and evolving network of subjects. One might think of this community on Jean Luc Nancy’s terms, as “a whole of articulated singularities”, determined by the interplay between the “plural voices of singular beings”.5
Indeed, the strong resonance of Talking About the Weather withNancy’s concept of a community as ‘being in common’, as opposed to constituting common beings, is perhaps one of its most compelling aspects. In choosing the medium of breath, Miranda and Neumark have folded the intensely personal, intimate, and resoundingly individual into a rumination on collective action and global connectivity. Each breath offered to the collection is an act of generosity, but also of commitment – a step towards addressing an issue so enormous and perplexing that the potential of the individual to make an impact can easily seem insignificant.
While the concept of collecting and unleashing a mass of breath to reverse the effects of climate change is both absurd and futile, beneath the façade of harmless play the project mobilises this simple gesture as a means to encourage reflexivity. Talking About the Weather asks us to pause and consider how we are individually implicated in the unsettling weather effects unfolding around us. By “collecting the breath that would normally be used to talk about the weather” the artists rupture the space between dialogue and action.6
Far from producing a point of termination, this rupture encapsulates the work’s potential to generate a shift in perspective – transformation of an existing world-view, or at least the production of new possibilities by activating thought processes. Despite the superficial framing of the project according to an eventual conclusion, Miranda and Neumark are not working towards a particular discernable or concrete outcome. In fact, quite the opposite. Here the ‘work’ of art is to act as a register for thinking change, a platform for ambiguous and unknowable micro-revolutions.
In this sense, Talking About the Weather resounds with the suggestion of curator Charles Esche, that the sphere of art can act as a “modest proposal” for the world large,7 a parallel zone in which existing orders can be re-imagined, change pre-empted, and the value of speculation nurtured. Perhaps this is a zone where affect and effect meld into one another. Between the embodied and emotive rush of exhalation for a cause, and thoughtful reflection on the complexities of the issue it draws attention to, Miranda and Nuemark’s approach eloquently occupies this point of convergence.
Anneke Jaspers 2008
1 Anne Pasternak, “Introduction,” Who Cares (Creative Time Books: New York, 2006) 11.
3 James Meyer quoted in Miwon Kwon One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004) 29. Originally published in James Meyer, “The Functional Site,” in Platzwechsel, exh. Cat. (Zurich: Kunsthalle Zurich, 1995), and then again, in revised form, in Documents 7 (Fall 1996) 20-29.
4 Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark, artist statement, December 2007.
5 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Ed. Peter Connor (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1991) 76.
6 Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark, artist statement, December 2007.
7 Charles Esche, “Interview with Charles Esche by Pelin Tan,” Beyond Culture: The Politics of Traslation accessed 6 Nov 2006 <http://translate.eipcp.net/Actions/practices/eindhoven-istanbul/interview>