Talk to Me

Rachel Valinsky on three new lecture-performances by Carissa Rodriguez, Naama Tsabar, and Pablo Helguera

View of laptop in Joseph Lubitz’s apartment streaming Carissa Rodriguez and George Liu, This is living, 2020. Image courtesy of Center for Experimental Lectures.

THE ARTIST’S TALK CAN BE A DULL AFFAIR: a PowerPoint presentation attesting to careerism and credentialization, an exposition of past and current projects and institutional engagements, uninspired commentary by an artist who seemed fascinating at a distance. The contemporary circuitry of MFA visiting lectureships alone harks back to the form’s origins in academic professionalization, which has largely become a requirement for critical and commercial success despite the unbearable (and unjustifiable) burden of graduate school tuition. Born out of boredom with this standardization of the lecture format, the Center for Experimental Lectures, founded in 2011 by artist Gordon Hall and now co-organized with curator Joseph Lubitz, has so far invited over forty artists to produce work that addresses the lecture as a creative medium.

Even before the onset of Covid-19, CEL had begun to expand its programming beyond in-person gathering and live performance. They’ve hosted radio lectures in partnership with the publisher Montez Press, which operates an occasional radio station out of the gallery 47 Canal, and a recent program at Artists Space with Amalle Dublon and Aria Dean that took as its constraint the possibilities of online radio transmission. In May, new commissions by Pablo Helguera, Naama Tsabar, and Carissa Rodriguez were reconfigured for the web due to the pandemic shutdown and presented in collaboration with the Rhode Island School of Design’s Department of Sculpture (where Hall is currently provost teaching fellow), the RISD Museum, and the RISD Center for Arts & Language.

Still from Naama Tsabar, Borders, 2020. Image courtesy of Center for Experimental Lectures.

Early in the month, Helguera delivered Free of All Ties from his home in Red Hook. Two months into lockdown, the artist discussed contracting and recovering from the virus, an experience of skirting death. He took the Zoom audience outside for a walk, speculated on trash accumulation during quarantine, inventoried neighborhood businesses that had folded during the lockdown, and recalled the area’s erased Italian immigrant history. He flashed to memories of his native Mexico City in the 1970s, of shops with long lines and sporadic hours, of living with unpredictability. In his reflections on memory and place, Helguera claimed to want to cast away the lingering hold of his own nostalgic predisposition, though a plangent sense of longing remained close at hand.

Returning to his apartment, Helguera settled at a computer to deliver the remainder of his talk. He transported himself back to a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, where his family settled after immigrating to the United States, illustrated through photographs of his childhood home, its ornaments, heirlooms, family memorabilia, and idiosyncratic art collection—generations’ worth of things. “The very act of immigration is an act of catastrophic loss,” Helguera said. Free of All Ties narrated the irretrievability of a past many times displaced, even as it insisted on maintaining often painful object attachments as the necessary work of memory. A seasoned art educator who currently directs the now-gutted education department at MoMA, Helguera expertly performed an object lesson on the lives of objects: his father’s portrait of Beethoven by the nineteenth-century Mexican artist Ignacio Rosas; a series of books self-published by his grandfather that no one but his father read; photographs of elders now passed, beckoning the artist to eventually join their ranks—all time capsules, latent things waiting for the catalytic moment of their historical activation.

Screenshot from Zoom meeting for Pablo Helguera, Free of All Ties, 2020. Image courtesy of Center for Experimental Lectures.

The following week, Hall introduced the second lecture-performance—Borders, by the Israeli artist Naama Tsabar—with avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveiros’s meditative 1968 essay “Some Sound Observations.” “As I sit here trying to compose an article for Source, my mind adheres to the sounds of myself and my environment,” she writes. It’s no surprise that Tsabar’s original plans for the commission, which centered on layered sound and corporality, were the most hampered by measures to reduce contagion. Performers would have piled up atop PA speakers, the accumulation of bodies dampening the emitted noise. Inconceivable in the time of social distancing, this principle of somatic layering took on new form in the virtual presentation of Borders, for which the artist invited four students from Hall’s class, “Talking is Dancing, Lecture-Performance as Form,” to deliver a talk on a subject of their choice. Asher White extolled the virtues of the now-shuttered Borders bookstore as a site of identity formation, gender expression, and performance; Muireann Nic an Bheatha recited a text in Gaelic over a video of a sailboat bobbing in the distant sea; Teo von Baeyer presented a miniature object theater inside a cardboard box; and Ariana Padovano spoke about the relation of physics and theology over a recording of Google searches. Tsabar herself launched into a monologue in Hebrew about the Cocteau Twins and their lead vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, whose unique glossolalia exploited the affective valence of vocal textures in the band’s ethereal songs.

It’s alright, I thought to myself, that I have no idea what she is saying, because soon the five lectures were aggregated into a single frame, a visual collage ushering in an excess of simultaneous sonic inputs. The undifferentiated digital field washed over me: a familiar feeling of information saturation and sensory overload, filtered through a newer, immanent experience of Zoom fatigue. I resigned myself to incomprehension. It’s better this way, if I don’t try to so hard to extract meaning, when it’s so clearly trying to elude my grasp. The piece culminated in a composition by singer Lindsay Powell (who uses the stage name FIELDED) livestreamed via Twitch, in which she mixed all the lectures’ audio tracks into a dense soundscape. “I’ve been here for a while,” she crooned through pop beats, “I’ve been here for too long.” Sounds familiar.

Still from Zoom recording of Pablo Helguera, Free of All Ties, 2020. Image courtesy of Center for Experimental Lectures.

On May 19, I watched Carissa Rodriguez’s collaboration with George Liu, a student of hers from Harvard, where she was a visiting lecturer from 2018 to 2019. If Borders ate away at the edges of individual comprehension as viewers became subsumed under the collective logic of the aggregate, Rodriguez and Liu’s lecture took aim at the injunction to visibility and disclosure that conditions constant virtual participation. In the first half of the performance, an unidentified figure—concealed behind a large curtain that wrapped around three sides of a sparse, nondescript room—repeatedly poked a long instrument (an unfurled tape measurer, I surmised) at a wall-mounted camera, whose bird’s-eye view captured the scene. Vigorous prodding and thrusting finally unhinged the device from its fixture; it cascaded down, violently collapsing into a new position mid-air, before the video ended.   

The scene then shifted to a live exchange between Liu in his campus housing, and Rodriguez, who wasn’t pictured. She gave him queues to click through a collection of photographs he had preselected on his computer as virtual backgrounds for their Zoom video call. Liu, who attempted to camouflage his ghostly, glitchy face with that of the most prominent figure in each photo, offered unscripted commentary throughout. An Elizabeth Warren rally: “Oh god, how do I feel about her? I guess I feel bad about her . . . And I feel like my understanding of Joe Biden is like a soup of images of him having dementia and assaulting women. . . I guess I feel pretty nihilistic about the situation.” Ei Arakawa’s recent WEWORK BABIES at Artists Space, in which Liu and fellow performers lobbed plastic infants in an alley outside the venerable nonprofit’s new building: “I can’t believe David Joselit saw me doing this!” Photographs of a now-shuttered Harvard building; of a porcelain pig with clover patterning. Liu oinked. “What if I don’t have any parting words?” he asked, before bringing his eye uncomfortably close to the laptop camera, twitching and blinking repeatedly in a long sequence that would make Chien andalou fans squeamish.  

Screenshot from Twitch stream of Carissa Rodriguez and George Liu, This is living, 2020. Image courtesy of Center for Experimental Lectures.

Tuning into this rare, regular appointment with the Center for Experimental Lectures three times in May, it was hard not to read these distinct events as a logical sequence progressing through coronavirus time—a formless extension of days and news cycles recently shattered by the nationwide uprisings against police brutality and white supremacy sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis officers. These talks, all of which occurred before the protests, articulated the changing, collective structure of feeling of which they were also symptomatic. I thought often of Helguera’s tender performance, which grew devastating as it morphed through discussions with friends and cropped up in therapy sessions, illuminating the peculiar, creeping phenomenon of regression that has seemed to grip so many. Regression is frequently pathologized, but this being in memory felt like a force field then, as we collectively navigated the prospect of “reopening” to an uncertain future. There can be comfort in regression, Helguera reminds us, as well as heartache: We remember, only to know the past can’t be fully retrieved. We cling to the promise of connection, only to be reminded of how far we are apart.

At the same time, Tsabar and Rodriguez pushed in other directions, even against the limited cathexis of recollection, proposing instead we pay attention to the saturated and chaotic platforms on which we produce and reproduce ourselves, readily, every day. As Lubitz remarked in conversation, we should be more cautious of our “tendency to fall into thinking that these online conditions of work and participation from our domestic spaces are somehow new.” “They are not,” he insisted. Rodriguez and Liu’s work, in many ways the most unpolished—with jarring sound levels, occasional bandwidth stuttering, and largely dull dialogue—surfaced an agonistic, even recalcitrant relation to the structuring pressures of our moment, where artistic and pedagogic labor are expected to adapt with ease to the increased demand for content production and virtual consumption. Called I am alive. You are alive. We are alive. This is living. after a two-channel video by Bruce Nauman in which two actors reciting one hundred variations on this mantra grow out of sync and incensed, their work reconstrued the uneasy assurances of Nauman’s script into affirmations no less resonant for their undeniable irony.