Friday, August 18, 2006

Primal Secrets | Total Gym | Foundation Gallery

Primal Secrets | Total Gym | Foundation Gallery
Originally Posted on Panel-House: July 2004

There was something old fashioned about Total Gym’s recent one-week show, Primal Secrets, at Foundation Gallery. The art was, for the most part, discrete objects or video; the raucous sound of the birdhouse speakers and the blatant aggression of the looped Pokeman seizure footage was simple and pointed; and even the invitation to attend the opening with a mask provided for you by Total Gym in the spirit of a kid’s party planned enthusiastically. Children don’t have many modest parties with homemade paper props anymore, a fact which Total Gym surely knows and wishes weren’t so. This new collective’s name itself invokes a teenager’s hyperbolic valley speak about the mundane, surely a sign we are to think about the past, for a moment, rather than the future for eternity.

Digression/Topic Sentence: Just because I’ve mentioned children, nostalgia, and, most importantly, a collective doesn’t mean I’m going to discuss the idea of “play” in contemporary collaborative art practices. I’m not.* Plenty of critics and artists are doing this already. For a taste of what has become a debate, see Michelle Grabner’s essay in “Xtra” Vol 6 No 1 and Greg Sholette’s response to Alison M. Gingeras’ recent “Artforum” article (Summer 2004). The gist of the dialogue is that there is suspicion that the newer collectives, who get together and make things (like crafts, music, time), are not as socially responsible as some of the groups that came before and were formed in response to immediate political issues such as overpopulation or a dishonest media. Examples offered of the former type of collective are Milhaus and The Royal Art Lodge; examples of the latter are Temporary Services and REPOhistory.

This debate isn’t really anything new. It’s about process-heavy work v. concept-heavy work v. social issue-heavy work and the responsibility of the artist who makes work in whatever combination of the above. The artist’s responsibility will always be of concern to people who care. Recent political scandals cum atrocities have upped the ante for now. Outrage and a call to arms are warranted, certainly. However, collectives have no greater artists’ responsibility than their peers working alone. Groups might be more LIKELY than others to make an exciting and hard hitting statement, but they are under no more obligation to do so. With that in mind, I was excited to see how Total Gym’s show brought the energy and force of a group effort to make a self-aware product that has very little trace of the process in it. The work stands on its own. There is trace, to be sure, but it is of the humor and engagement with language that may or may not be Total Gym’s tools for working together. A mysterious press release read like hermetic grandstanding and good-humored joshing; now that I’ve seen the show of discrete art making quiet and succinct statements, that writing sounds more like an acknowledgement of the high expectations for and deep history of the collective process. “Implant, implant, implant, implant,” says Total Gym. And it will, in whatever way it wants.

* If I were going to talk about “play”, I’d do it as a dispatch from Vegas or the Indiana boats, where there is true game. Or if I were more of a fan, I’d go on location to a soccer stadium or baseball field. No matter what, though, I would not talk about play as the fictional ideal that artists are supposedly closer to achieving than the rest of the world. I think play is about having rules and working within their parameters (and of course breaking them when necessary). Spontaneity and improvisation are only such if there is something already there to work with. The feats of grace and agility that occur when players play are amazing because of the effort, training, and intentionality of the process. There is no such thing as play without parameters. And the more interesting the parameters, the more interesting the play.

Written by Anna Mayer

(((NOTE: Sadly Foundation Gallery left Chicago and, happily, is doing well in Los Angeles.)))


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