Activation as Freedom in Cosmococas
May 12, 2017
by Lydia Mullins, University of Chicago
Originally published in the 2017 edition.
I arrived as if it were the limit of everything:
the need to develop more and more something that would be extra-exhibition, extra-work, more than a participating object, a context for behaviour, for life…
When Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida created Block-Experiments in Cosmococa—Program in Progress, a series of nine experimental environments complete with music, slide projections, and instructions for participation, they exhibited them in Oiticica’s own apartment and showed them only to a fairly insular New York scene. Forty years later, much has been written on the works, and museums like the Art Institute of Chicago are beginning to embrace the Brazilian artist. Scholarship on the series invariably centers on either the activation of a once “passive” participant or on the complete freedom that the works enable. Yet it seems that these two popular readings, which are often presented as two sides of the same coin, actually involve an inherent contradiction. The word “activation” necessarily entails a subject and an object, some sort of work done on the viewer by the art or artist. The other dimension of the popular interpretation—the Cosmococas environments as spaces of absolute freedom—is not readily compatible with this kind of transitive activation, though. Absolute freedom, after all, suggests control over one’s own self in the absence of an authority figure, and does not seem to encompass the notion of being subjected to some kind of “activation” by the work.1
In order to reconcile the seeming contradiction in these readings, I suggest that we view activation in Cosmococas not in terms of subject and object, but rather in terms of the environments created by the works overall, and especially how these environments differ from the world outside the works. With this perspective, we will see that both freedom and activation are granted to the viewer by what Oiticica calls the “open system.” In other words, the sense of freedom so often lauded by Oiticica’s critics comes not from the elimination of authority or rules, but instead from a new approach to these constraints. When seen as works which exist within social and political contexts, it becomes clear that the seeming restriction of freedom within the series actually serves to liberate the participants from the even greater constraints on freedom found beyond the walls of the works. An understanding of this reconciliation of past interpretations sheds new light on the notion of freedom and is crucial to the future exhibition of Cosmococas.
Initiated in 1973 as a collaboration with Brazilian filmmaker Neville D’Almeida, the Cosmococas are a series of slide-show environments or “quasi-cinemas.” Though only one work, Neyrótika, was publicly exhibited before Oiticica’s early death in 1980, several museums have posthumously exhibited pieces from the series using Oiticica and D’Almeida’s extensive writings, scripts, and instructions.2 Many of the Cosmococas follow the same pattern: up to five slide projects are situated in a room (often Oiticica’s New York loft), each projecting sequences of about thirty slides called “moment-frames” onto the room’s walls and ceiling.3 To complete the sense of a multi-sensory, all-encompassing environment, a soundtrack plays continuously and participants are encouraged to move through the space, recline on mattresses and hammocks, and to allow the projected images to fall on their bodies.
This paper will consider two of the Cosmococas that have been posthumously exhibited: CC1 Trashiscapes and CC3 Maileryn. Oiticica and D’Almeida conceptualized the first in the series, CC1 Trashiscapes, in 1973 and presented it at Babylonest, Oiticica’s loft, on March 13th of that year. According to Oiticica’s script, the soundtrack of the work was a “montage of NORDESTE (Brazilian northeast) POPular music,” along with the music of Jimi Hendrix, street sounds from New York, and a male voice reading text. Oiticica considered these audio fragments to be “chance elements,” randomly aligning with the visual sequence of slides.4 Props present in the environment included a mirror, cocaine, boxes, a knife, ashtrays, cushions, a New York Times Magazine cover featuring filmmaker Luis Buñuel, a Frank Zappa album cover, and a poster of actor Luis Fernando Guimarães wearing a parangolé (a wearable sculpture made by Oiticica). Finally, projectors played sequences of slides in “open time” on two of the room’s walls. The use of “open time” in the slide projectors meant that the visual sequences were shown continuously, with no predetermined start or end point; it would be up to the participant to decide when they were finished looking.5
The other work to consider is CC3 Maileryn (1973). In this work, Oiticica was interested in the consequences of South American paradigms: he writes that the soundtrack for the environment would be a “tape to be made using Neville’s suggestion… for the incorporation of sounds/music suggestive of SOUTH AMERICAN ARCHETYPES.” Props in Maileryn included scissors, cocaine, and a copy of Norman Mailer’s 1973 biography Marilyn wrapped in cellophane. Transparent vinyl covered a sloping topography of sand that obscured the floor, and images of Marilyn Monroe were projected onto the walls and ceiling. As per Oiticica’s instructions—perhaps meant to unsettle or remove the viewers from their daily lives—participants removed their shoes and belts before lying on the floor to blow up “virgin balloons” at the sound of a whistle.6
Both scholars and Oiticica himself have argued that the works are emblems of activated viewership and complete freedom. Let us begin with the interpretation of the environments as spaces of freedom: many have identified liberation in Cosmococas by connecting the works to Oiticica’s socio-political background. Working in New York in the seventies, Oiticica was in quasi-exile from Brazil’s military regime. In his scathing 1971 essay “Brazil Diarrhea,” the artist writes of the Brazilian government’s “cultural-institution policing,” which he had escaped by moving to New York.7 We can think about Oiticica’s New York production, which included Cosmococas, perhaps as a sort of antidote to the government and its policies. In this context, Oiticica’s many writings on freedom in Cosmococas, which frequently center on “open” environments and “unconditioned” behavior, make sense in that they resist the “policing” of his viewer-participants. In a 1974 paper about the series, he writes, “I really don’t want to make formulas… internal questions-situations can arise; possibilities of relating to un-conditioning situations-behavior.”8 Here, Oiticica seems intent on vacating the works of any models that could “condition” the behavior of the participants. Thus, the artist’s writing suggests that the elimination of conditioning in art stands in opposition to policing and oppression. Resistance to oppression, though, does not necessarily involve full freedom, and it is crucial to make this distinction. After all, what would be the work’s purpose if it were truly devoid of rules?
This question goes unanswered in much scholarship about the series, which holds up the Cosmococas as spaces of freedom and liberation. However, this scholarship overlooks the importance of defining freedom as something more complex than the elimination of conditioning and rules (or, in economist F.A. Hayek’s stronger terms, the elimination of coercion). Critic Margaret Sundell, for example, writes that “Quasi-cinemas seek rather to transform pop culture from within by unleashing its latent liberatory potential.”9 Irene Small, a fellow Oiticica scholar, agrees that the works reject “performance-viewer structures for open-ended participant situations.”10 “Open-ended” suggests that the works are structured in such a way that the participant, faced with innumerable ways of interacting and proceeding, forges their own path. Writing about a 1969 performance piece that predates the Cosmococas, Small says that the participants “make [their] own words as [they] desire… desire being the operative word.”11 Thus, in Small’s interpretation, Oiticica’s work from the 1970s was primarily concerned with the desires and inclinations of the participants, and with freeing them from restraints or control imposed by external sources. The works allow participants to do what they would naturally do in the absence of authorities. Thus, the freedom lauded by Oiticica and his scholars is one of openness, of participant-led actions and of minimal rules imposed by the authority figure of the artist.
However, the quasi-cinemas were not in reality without rules and expectations of the participants. The spectator’s freedom, then, cannot derive from an absence of rules or conditioning, but rather stems from their new application. Sabeth Buchmann and Max Hinderer Cruz, authors of Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida: Block Experiments in Cosmococa, Program in Progress, further this idea of liberation, writing that the quasi-cinemas “allowed the viewer to lead the analogy between the manipulation and the viewing of images.”12 This statement suggests that the works free participants from authority, “allowing” them to control their own experience. Yet, it is crucial to consider how this freedom is framed: what if we replaced the “allowed” in Buchmann’s statement with “prompted” or “compelled?” Scholars frequently conceive of liberation in Cosmococas as the breakdown of rules and as the permission of a kind of self-control that participants have long wanted. By thinking of this allowance or permission as more of an active gesture, perhaps as an obligation, freedom in the Cosmococas becomes not the absence of Oiticica’s rule, but rather the basis of participation.
This more active side of permission—obligation—complicates the activation of the participant. Like the work’s ostensible liberation, its activation of the viewer is frequently outlined in writings by both Oiticica and his scholars; many authors talk about participation in the series as an antidote to the culture of quiet contemplation popular in museums at the time. Placing the series into the historical context of the 1970s makes it tempting to see Cosmococas as an activation of the once-oppressed viewer previously confined by the bourgeois culture of contemplation. Prevalent ideas at the time included the Marxist model of de-alienation and emancipation, the poststructuralist idea of the active viewer dismantling aura and authorship, and the emerging collectivist challenging of high art as defined many advanced art practices.13 Oiticica’s own conception of participation and the activation of a viewer bolsters this historically informed interpretation. In his theory of crelazer, the artist aims to establish a “form of non-alienated leisure time antithetical to both” capitalist and communist notions of work.14 The theory suggests that if only Oiticica could induce this state of crelazer in his audience, he could de-alienate them. These contexts, and the support they lend to the idea of participation as freedom, are further substantiated by earlier avant-gardes of the 20th century. From Brecht’s concept of estrangement to John Cage’s incorporation of the audience into his performances, participation has often emerged as an exploratory and freeing mode of experiencing a work, especially when considered in opposition to the staid contemplative mode.15 In this context, it seems that Oiticica’s activation of his participants is a freeing, permissive act rather than an obligatory one.
Looking beyond scholarly writings and the contextual examples of historic avant-gardes to Oiticica’s work itself, it becomes unclear how permissive or obligatory this activation may be. To understand whether Oiticica achieves freedom in his quasi-cinemas via participant-led permission or artist-led obligation, it is necessary to understand exactly how the participant is activated. Oiticica’s conception of an “open system” is a leading factor in stimulating the participant. Small writes that the Cosmococas were a “sustained attempt to use the work of art as a means of suspending various systems in their open states.”16 Small defines Oiticica’s open system as a kind of snapshot of various fragmented systems in their “open states”—in other words, in still indeterminate stages. The open system is visible in many aspects of the Cosmococas, from their soundtracks (which often feature the music of John Cage, himself a pioneer of indeterminacy), to their general lack of a linear narrative.17 In the absence of such a narrative, the viewer is able (and forced) to piece together the work in a personalized order rather than follow along a single track. Oiticica’s open system can be considered in three ways: with regard to his tenure at the Museo Nacional; as the possibility of fluctuation in the semiotic plane that allows for spontaneity and freedom in interpretation; and as a way of confronting what Oiticica saw as the shortcomings of traditional cinema.
Let us begin with Oiticica’s time at Brazil’s Museo Nacional. In the sixties, the artist worked with his father at museum, where he assisted in the taxonomical classification of the museum’s collection of Sphingidae specimens.18 Around the same time, he established an “internal taxonomy” of his own artistic production, based on Linnaeus’s systems of classification.19 His dedication to taxonomic systems in this process of categorization, and to the theories of evolution on which they are based, has broad implications for interpreting Cosmococas and brings into discussion the possibilities of evolution and telos in Oiticica’s work. At the more concrete level, his time at the museum inspired him to apply the ideas of taxonomy to his own work starting in 1961, when he began taking inventories and classifying his work.20 Linnaeus’s taxonomy is not just a way of organizing—it extends to theories of morphology and evolution, themselves the pinnacle of the “open system” in their refutation of any idea of fixity in nature and embrace of the constant development and branching of species.
Perhaps it is useful to consider Oiticica’s output not only within the framework of its classification, but also with regard to what theories determine that organizational framework. At the Museo Nacional, Oiticica classified specimens according to the latest taxonomic research; taxonomy was not fixed fact, but rather a means of organizing knowledge that shifted and changed as human understanding of nature expanded. In the taxonomic systems with which the artist worked, taxonomic designation was considered “merely an epistemological approximation,” a theory that loosely located species in their respective places in evolution. Oiticica’s taxonomy, then, was constantly under revision: it was a system that continuously reordered itself to fit nature’s course, evolution.21 By placing his own work within a taxonomic framework, Oiticica entered it into a similar theory of constant evolution. A single work, then, can be compared to a single organism or species and can be seen as a pause in the constant flux of evolution, whether artistic or natural. Oiticica’s practice is then a way of establishing his lifelong production as an “open system” in which no one work is ever complete or closed, but rather one step in the boundless process of evolution.
Taxonomy and evolution are also one way we can begin to consider the obligatory nature of the open system. Small writes that encompassed in this understanding of evolution is the idea of morphology as telos—the idea (no longer held) that in nature, species, over time, have some inner will to develop toward a single end form; as Charles Sanders Peirce said, “Chance begets order.”22 Even if the artist did not have a conscious endpoint in mind for the Cosmococas, their location in his theorizing about evolution necessarily has some relationship to this idea of morphology as telos. With this teleological weight in mind, the evolution and “open system” of Oiticica’s work take on a sense of obligation, his participants instruments in the art’s development toward its telos rather than agents propelling the work in independent directions. Thus, while the quasi-cinemas can be seen as open systems in terms of how they act to suspend some kind of infinite time, their being totally open-ended or free is complicated, as complete liberty seems to suggest the potential for divergence in any direction, rather than the kind of convergence predicated by the works’ ties to evolutionary theory.
Thinking about semiotics in Cosmococas can help make sense of this distinction between divergence and convergence, and can address how it might be possible to both exist an open system but also to resist being totally open-ended. Small writes that Oiticica “sought to sustain a prior moment when signs operated within a radically shifting semiotic ground—a moment when a system, having been undone, offers up the possibility that it might be remade.”23 This statement is well supported by the works themselves, and especially by Oiticica’s use of cocaine. In Cosmococas, cocaine functions as a plastic material, a “mark-maker” used to draw lines and designs on albums covers, and a muse ingested by live participants and subjects of the projected films alike. Concerning the use of cocaine in Maileryn, Oiticica writes, “a little like snow, snow also immediately gives you cocaine ‘snow,’ meaning the concealing or replacement of what was there before with a semantic element that is the result of an intuition or, literally, an ‘inspiration.’”24 Thus the substance is semiotically significant, at once drawing attention to the optical flatness of the projected images (by introducing a three-dimensional object to the two-dimensional album covers) while also shifting attention toward the bodily experience. With this constant inhabiting and shifting across semiotic planes, the cocaine never fully translates from a single signifier to a single signified and instead occupies the space between the two, adding to the feeling of a suspended open system. This way of forming an open system in Cosmococas relates to how Oiticica activates the participant and to the nature of this activation. With the connection of the works to taxonomy and telos, we found that the participant is, in some ways, a means of working toward some goal. In placing the participant in an open semiotic system, Oiticica further develops the role of the participant as one who completes the system and is thus activated. In the case of CC1, the various appearances of cocaine—as semiotic sign, as drawing medium, and as consumable substance—leave the participant to make sense of the drug’s various manifestations. In Oiticica’s own words, the purpose of the artist is to be an “educator” and to create “unfinished, ‘open’ works” for the public to “finish.”25 In this way, the open system forces activation, perhaps toward some telos.
Oiticica’s confrontation of conventional narrative cinema is informed by this reading of open semiotics. Thinking about the Cosmococas in terms of film, it is almost as if Oiticica has taken a cinematic experience—whole, complete, and closed, easily cordoned off in a theater with a start and a finish—and broken it down until it becomes, instead, an open system. To do so, he has released the different aspects of film from their usual locations anchored in the closed space of cinema: the random sequence of slides unfastens “moment-frames” from their usual place in a continuous narrative, and the multiple projectors destabilize film’s single point of view. By deconstructing film into separable, mobile parts, the artist pierces the illusory veil of the closed cinematic system, unfurling it as an open system of moving parts. These disintegrations are made possible by Oiticica’s treatment of time, which is key to understanding the ambiguities of the Cosmococas as spaces of both escape and obligation, freedom and implied constraint. Mary Anne Doane, Professor of Film and Media at UC Berkeley, writes that cinema can structure “time and contingency in capitalist modernity.”26 In her theory, cinema confronts the ever-increasing rationalization of industrial society by preserving single, fleeting chance moments in each individual frame while its continuous narrative creates a new level of time altogether, encapsulated and divorced from the viewer’s time. Oiticica may put it best, writing that the “absolute super-definition [of film] always seemed to me as being too prolonged: the pictures changed but somehow remained the same.”27 In disintegrating cinema, then, Oiticica partially disintegrates this kind of time: his work shatters the continuous narrative of film, drawing the projected images back down from film’s unified, other-worldly quality and re-tethering it to the time of the viewers. This rejection of traditional cinematic time is one way in which Oiticica activates the viewer: by bringing the slide-shows into the participant’s own time, he makes it more possible for the participant to interact with the images; there is no temporal barrier or bubble to break.
Oiticica’s use of the term “super-definition” evokes his study of Marshall McLuhan’s theories of media and interaction, which were key to Oiticica’s own theories on the disintegration of film. Oiticica wrote that he was “not to be contented by the relationship (mainly the visual one) of spectator-spectacle (nurtured by cinema—disintegrated by television) and the widespread indifference of such notions.”28 Thus the artist makes clear his dissatisfaction with conventional film and its lack of an activated participant. One way in which he mended this dissatisfaction was through disintegration and, in McLuhan’s terms, the transformation of the filmic medium from “hot” to “cold,” from spectacle to interaction.
McLuhan theorizes that “hot” media, like film, are “super-visual” and ignore the “fragmentation of reality,” instead presenting moving pictures as whole and closed. This is compatible with Doane’s theory of filmic time, too: each conceptualizes film as a complete, and removed, entity.32 Conversely, “cold,” low-definition media like television do not simulate a single, closed system, instead opening up a participatory structure in which the spectator-participant is required to complete the system. One relevant example of Oiticica’s transformation of a hot medium (film) to a cold medium is his use of cocaine within the projected images. He uses the substance to draw crude, unelaborated lines over photographs of Marilyn Monroe in Maileryn or photographs of Jimi Hendrix on album covers in Trashiscapes. In this way, the artist mixes the low-definition picture created by the cocaine with high-definition photographs and film, compelling the participant to complete the picture, to comprehend the simple lines of cocaine as both the substance itself and as a drawing melding with the photograph it lies on.
In 1968, Oiticica appeared in Glauber Rocha’s film Câncer, an experiment that incorporated improvised acting and dialogue in its filming. In 1971, Neville D’Almeida, soon to be Oiticica’s partner in Cosmococas, came out with Mangue-Bangue, an experimental work that inspired Oiticica in its move away from traditional cinema, favoring a “mosaic image” and multi-sensory experience over linear sequence and pure opticality.29 When Oiticica set out to make his own quasi-cinemas in 1973, he did so by coupling the foundations of these earlier films with his own motivations and his interest in McLuhan. Especially energized by the mosaic nature of Mangue-Bangue, Cosmococas sought to use a structure closer to montage than to linear sequence; Small writes that “the rupturing of linear sequence through montage or the still-frames of slides thus suggests a kind of illiterate or semi-literate film, one from which a cinematic language might be reconstructed as something that is no longer cinema at all.”30 With this breakdown of “cinematic language” came Oiticica’s application of McLuhan’s classic distinction between hot and cold, high-definition and low-definition.31 Just as he brought McLuhan’s theory of filmic literacy to bear in his disintegration of linearity in the Cosmococas, the artist also applied McLuhan’s idea of the participatory nature of low-definition media to his series.
In these ways—being evolutionary, end-based, semiotically undetermined, and filmically disintegrated—the open system activates the viewer by leaving something for them to complete; without the pre-determined experience of conventional cinema, the participant is thrust into power, asked to choose how to put the discreet pieces together again, perhaps with the sense that there is some telos they are to move toward. César Oiticica Filho, nephew of Hélio Oiticica and director of a 2012 documentary on the artist, writes, “Oiticica’s work becomes something concrete only when faced by the public and it takes place to corroborate a phenomenon, which was Oiticica’s incessant quest.”33 Oiticica not only allows participants to add to and complete the quasi-cinemas, then, but actually compels them to do so by placing the success of the works on the shoulders of his participants. In other words, when faced with consequential choices, the participant is obliged—whether by the artist or by self-imposed pressure—to play their part to close the system, perhaps by drawing semiotic connections among the various objects and media present in the Cosmococas. Buchmann and Hinderer Cruz even compare this kind of participation to anthropophagy and claim that Oiticica provides the “conditions” for the situation’s construction, which comes into being through the participant’s temporal action; the participant body undergoes the process of devouring the conditions given by Oiticica, digesting these conditions by mixing them with their own perceptions and actions, and excreting (or completing) the complete embodied work.34 Thus, to return to our original question of permission versus obligation in the Cosmococas, we now see that activation in the series is primarily obligatory. With that questioned analyzed, then, we have only to consider whether this obligation can fit with any definition of freedom to fully understand why the Cosmococas are lauded as liberatory. It is crucial to note here that participants in Cosmococas are willing but not free. The participants certainly enter the environments by their own volition; discussion of how Oiticica constrains the freedom of his participants does not suggest a lack of willingness.
Oiticica goes one step further in his activation of the participant: he not only obliges them to “complete” the quasi-cinemas, but also guides them in how they complete the works. In other words, by choosing what objects and images are present in the environments, Oiticica controls how his participants will move through them. While certainly a form of control (or perhaps because it is a form of control), these choices—which range from items present in the room to directions given to the participants—are what make the Cosmococas liberating. Some forms of control are latent: for example, the cocaine Oiticica supplied to participants in private showings is an indirect means of control in that it modified the participants’ states of mind. Oiticica induces a certain state of mind in other ways, too: the artist’s commitment to crelazer, for example, the “creation of leisure or belief in leisure,” is made manifest in the slow pace of the slides (fifteen to twenty seconds each), and the cushions provided for participants in CC1 Trashiscapes.35 36 Even though these aspects of the works do not actively control the participant, they induce a relaxed and perhaps vulnerable state, itself is a kind of control.
In Maileryn, on the other hand, Oiticica demonstrates direct control over his participants by requiring that they remove their belts and shoes before entering the quasi-cinema. This stipulation plays into the vulnerability outlined above, which is produced by Oiticica’s positioning typically private states and acts like the removal of one’s belt into the semi-public sphere of the art space. At the most concrete level, though, it represents Oiticica’s physical control over the participant’s body. Though participants are not forced to remove these items, the consequence of their refusal would be an incomplete, unembodied work. This idea of the participant faced with a consequential, rather than neutral, decision can also be understood as a burden. Art historian Janet Kraynak points to other artists of the time, especially to Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic, as placing a burden on their audiences by introducing violence into their work–once violence, whether the scissors in Cut Piece or the array of tools in Rhythm 0, comes into play, the participant’s actions grow weightier and more consequential. The Cosmococas do not involve this obvious violence (although there were often scissors and lighters available, which were used for pleasure but also hold latent violent connotations). Instead, they call for barefoot and reclining participants. Participation carries a similar burden of vulnerability.
An even more direct form of control comes in the balloons present in Maileryn, which participants are told to blow up or let down at the sound of a whistle.37 This is an especially authoritative example of Oiticica’s activation of the participant. A formerly liberating space—balloons recall the freedom and pleasure of childhood, while images of Monroe could point to the pleasures of adulthood—becomes dictatorial as participants heed the militaristic toll of the whistle.
Through the numerous strategies outlined thus far—the framing of the series in a teleological taxonomic system, the suspension of signs to create an open system, and the disintegration of the whole cinematic object to fit with that open system—Oiticica creates a work that not only necessitates a participant, but also asks the participant to do certain work. This work involves closing the system by entering into a certain state of mind and performing certain acts, like blowing up balloons. Thus, in the environment of the Cosmococa itself, the participant is not wholly free, but rather subject to Oiticica’s limited framing of their options for action. How, then, can we close the contradiction of freedom and activation, rendering the two prevalent readings of the series simultaneously correct?
Perhaps the best way to reconcile freedom and activation, whether permissive or obligatory, is by thinking about what Oiticica obligates and guides participants to do (relax, pop balloons, and take drugs) in conjunction with the greater context of the Cosmococas: artistic spaces in 1970s New York. Janet Kraynak writes of Bruce Nauman’s 1960s installations and environments, “Participation functions simultaneously as a source of seduction and controversy, touching upon a series of arising social tensions that are part of the larger history of the sixties and its lasting influence on contemporary culture.”38 Though similarly participatory, Nauman’s work differs from the Cosmococas in the level of control and calculation it entails. The artist writes, “I have tried to make the situation sufficiently limiting, so that spectators can’t display themselves very easily…it’s another way of limiting the situation so that someone else can be a performer, but he can do only what I want him to do.”39 Participants certainly felt Nauman’s intense control; critic Jan Butterfield, speaking to Nauman about his Green Light Corridor (1970), said, “I think it is a very frightening piece. The manner in which it was structured made it necessary for participants to participate in it your way—and that is frightening.”40 Nevertheless, Kraynak’s reading of participation in Nauman’s work may be useful in thinking about Oiticica’s participation in inspiring viewers to see the space of the Cosmococa as a part of “larger history.” Her study of Nauman in context moves us to pose our own question: does historical context lend any feasibility to obligatory participation as a kind of freedom?
Kraynak explains that in the sixties, there was a fear that politics and freedom would give way to technocracy, prioritizing productivity and efficiency over traditional ideals. Kraynak proposes that, in Nauman’s installations, this anxiety over technocracy manifests itself in a kind of game theory (which is significant in technocracy’s goals to reduce waste and inefficiency) in which the artist anticipates and interrupts his participants’ behavior, placing surveillance screens and blockades in places that restrain and tamper with what he predicts to be the participants’ natural actions. Kraynak’s main idea of “dependent participation” goes hand in hand with this preclusion of the viewer’s participation; she writes, “Participation as obligation: a tacit form of control in which reciprocity is all but guaranteed and desires and will are exploited, becoming, in effect, forms of submission—or dependency.”41 Thus, in anticipating participation and framing it so that the art-goer needs to participate, Nauman creates a dependent participant who is seduced by the work but also forced, by the lack of real choice, to participate. One example is Floating Room: Lit from Inside, in which the participant is compelled to enter a brightly-lit box in the center of the otherwise pitch-dark gallery. This type of participation fits with French sociologist Alain Touraine’s theory that a technocratic society depends on social inclusion rather than exclusion, and that all members of society would be compelled to participate, and in turn be manipulated by the things that drew them into that participation.42 In some ways, we can see this idea of dependent participation in Cosmococas, which draw participants in with the promise of crelazer, and thus similarly play into the dependence and inclusion that Nauman creates in his installations.
Unlike Nauman’s installations, though, which use sensory tricks to alienate participants from their own bodies, the Cosmococas alienate participants from the world outside. This is especially evident in the sense of time the works create: as discussed earlier, by disintegrating cinematic time into “moment frames,” Oiticica secures a position between photography and film, too slow for film but not as static as photography. This position allows participants to immerse themselves in the slides’ temporal logic, following along with the images and aligning their own bodily movements to the films’ gentle pace. Small argues that the random sequence of the projected “moment-frames” splinters time even further. Lacking an encapsulated time to watch, the only continuous time participants experience is that of their own interaction with the slides, the time in which they walk through the quasi-cinema. Small explains, “the Cosmococas imply a single film occurring across two simultaneous registers: that seen as image and that experienced as lived fact.”43 Thus, time in Cosmococas is integrative; neither the participants’ time nor filmic time, it is some fusion of the two.
Art historian Anna Dezeuze expands upon the effect of the slide pace, pointing out that the projected images cycle through more than once, repeating with variations. For example, in Maileryn, lines of cocaine act as variable line drawings superimposed on images of Monroe so that, in effect, “an object [remains] the same, but [passes] through different planes.”44 Thus, the quasi-cinemas draw us into their world via a shared time and then transport us elsewhere, to a new “plane.” This occurs in CC1 Trashiscapes, whose soundtrack recalls the street sounds of New York. The work welcomes participants on their own plane—perhaps coming in from the street—and then brings them to another plane within the room, incorporating other music into the soundtrack and reframing the sounds of the New York street. In recent renditions, this sense of an encapsulated space—of the participant exiting the world as they enter the quasi-cinema—becomes readily apparent. At the Walker Art Center’s exhibition of CC5 Hendrixwar, for example, the quasi-cinema was separated from the rest of the gallery by a door, and viewers were asked to leave their shoes by the entrance. Isolated by the door and the social convention of wearing shoes in museums, the Cosmococa takes on a position outside of the museum and outside of norms, transporting participants to a different kind of society complete with its own set of prescriptions and norms.
The Cosmococas draw the participants away from life external to the quasi-cinema in more abstract ways, too; for example, Sundell writes that because it is illegal in modern society, cocaine “propels its users outside the law,” where relationships and power dynamics are different than within legal society.45 By sanctioning cocaine use within the space of the Cosmococa, Oiticica encourages these kinds of relationships and freedoms that are not visible in legal society, encouraging a revolution in consciousness and perhaps liberating the “citizen-consumer of our own global era.”46 In this way, the Cosmococas create a time and space apart from everyday life, whether away from the anxieties of looming technocracy (as argued by Kraynak) or simply from the norms and restraints that accompany all social life.
The possibility of activation as freedom becomes clear once Oiticica’s activation of participants is framed as a way of removing them from the sphere of conventional society. In Oiticica’s own words, “crelazer may be marginalized now, but I am sure there will be the day when it won’t be, as far as human aspirations become disalienated in an oppressive world, not as a desublimative and fake activity, but as a real one.”47 The artist’s statement frames the rest of this discussion by defining crelazer as a liberating and de-alienating state of mind and body. Forty years later, this critique of social constraint, and the subsequent need to be pressed toward freedom in the quasi-cinema, still resonates. Selene Preciado, curator and program assistant at the Getty Foundation, recounts in a 2011 exhibition review that, as she watched a two-year-old laugh and smile in CC4 Nocagions, she thought of “how limited and repressed adults can be while experiencing art that was or is meant to awaken our senses and minds.”48 Rather than seeing Oiticica’s obligation and activation of the participant as encumbering, we can conceptualize it as a liberating gesture, invoking to the norms and rules of normal life and then refuting them, inviting participants into a micro-society in which rules de-alienate and the norm is a kind of leisure.
In Oiticica’s original iterations of quasi-cinema, then, activation was freeing. Though it involved work done by Oiticica on the participants (thus slightly diminishing the freedom they held within the art space), in a greater sense, this activation pulled participants out of the restraints imposed by conventional society and into a new set of rules. This prompts us to see freedom not as the absence of rules, as we are accustomed to thinking, but as a new application of rules that allows new norms and states to arise.
However, a final thought disrupts this liberatory potential of the Cosmococas—is it possible to recreate this freedom in a modern museum? Choreographer Johannes Birringer has commented on the “impossibility of recreating the intuitive or direct communal exuberance of dancing samba on the carnival streets or imagining the collapse of class and race difference.”49 Birringer’s take on a modern display of parangolés can be extended to the Cosmococas. Can the participant really reach the same level of freedom and dissociation from greater societal norms in a busy museum, monitored by security cameras and guards? The series, as we have seen, activates its viewers, drawing them away from the restraints of everyday life and towards the leisurely and integrative world of the quasi-cinema. The museum, with its myriad norms and expectations, seems to latch onto the participant, holding them back from retreat into the Cosmococa. As the series finds its way from Oiticica’s apartment to major galleries and exhibition spaces, the norms of the museum may be the most difficult to counteract.
1. As conceptualized by philosophers such as Friedrich Hayek and Isaiah Berlin.
2. Irene Small, “One Thing After Another: How We Spend Time in Hélio Oiticica’s Quasi-Cinemas,” Spectator: The University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television 28, no. 2 (Fall 2008).
3. Margaret Sundell, “Hélio Oiticica ‘Quasi-Cinemas’: Wexner Center, Columbus, Ohio,” Artforum International Magazine 40, no. 6 (February 2002).
4. Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida, Cosmococa: programa in progress, ed. César Oiticica Filho, Paulo Herkenhoff, and Kátia Maciel (Buenos Aires: Projeto Hélio Oiticica, 2005), 220.
5. Ibid, 220.
6. Ibid, 221.
7. Luke Skrebowski, “Revolution in the Aesthetic Revolution,” Third Text 65, no. 1 (January 2012).
8. Oiticica, Hélio Oiticica: Great Labyrinth, 207.
9. Sundell, “Hélio Oiticica.”
10. Small, “One Thing After Another.”
12. Sabeth Buchmann and Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz, Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida: Block-Experiments in Cosmococa—Program in Progress, One Work (London: Afterall Books, 2013), 86.
13. Janet Kraynak, “Dependent Participation: Bruce Nauman’s Environments,” Grey Room 10 (Winter 2003): 31.
14. Small, “One Thing After Another.”
15. Kraynak, “Dependent Participation.”
16. Small, “One Thing After Another.”
17. Selene Preciado, “Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space,” Art Nexus 10, no. 80 (2011).
18. Irene Small, “Morphology in the Studio: Hélio Oiticica at the Museo Nacional,” Getty Research Journal 1 (2009): 109.
19. Luke Skrebowski, “Revolution in the Aesthetic Revolution.,” Third Text 65, no. 1 (January 2012).
21. Small, “Morphology in the Studio,” 109.
22. Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007), 46.
23. Small, “One Thing After Another.”
24. Buchmann and Cruz, Hélio Oiticica.
26. Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
27. Oiticica and D’Almeida, Cosmococa: programa in progress, 210.
28. Oiticica and D’Almeida, Cosmococa: programa in progress.
29. Small, “One Thing After Another.”
31. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994).
32. Oiticica and D’Almeida, Cosmococa: programa in progress.
33. Ibid, 235.
34. Buchmann and Cruz, Hélio Oiticica.
35. Oiticica and D’Almeida, Cosmococa: programa in progress.
36. Skrebowski, “Revolution in an Aesthetic Revolution.”
37. Oiticica and D’Almeida, Cosmococa: programa in progress.
38. Kraynak, “Dependent Participation.”
40. Bruce Nauman, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words: Writings and Interviews (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005), 179.
41. Kraynak, “Dependent Participation,” 36.
43. Small, “One Thing After Another.”
44. Buchmann and Cruz, Hélio Oiticica.
45. Sundell, “Hélio Oiticica ‘Quasi-Cinemas.’”
47. Skrebowski, “Revolution in an Aesthetic Revolution.”
48. Selene Preciado, “Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color, and Space,” Art Nexus 10, no. 80 (2011).
49. Johannes Birringer, “Review: Bodies of Color,” Performing Arts Journal 29, no. 3 (September 2007): 46.
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