Tag Archives: Carey Young

Martha Rosler, Carey Young at the Whitechapel Gallery

On Thursday night (Nov 20th 2003)– Martha Rosler presented a remake of her “Semiotics in the Kitchen” video from 1975. It’s the video in which she pretends to be a cooking show presenter, and goes through an a to z of kitchen implements, waving them to the camera, and sometimes brandishing them threateningly. She’s trapped inside the tv, inside the kitchen, inside the structure of language (that’s how she talks about the piece herself).


The idea of re-enacting, live, a performance originally made for video was a bit odd, and I think she dealt with it as best she could – by creating a kind of “audition” situation where a couple of dozen young women (who had been recruited from the local art scene) queued up to take a role in the kitchen, going through the alphabet of implements. There were 3 “kitchen sets” where this process was going on simultaneously, meaning that the huge crowd that had assembled at the whitechapel had a higher chance of “getting close” to the performance. It was pretty messy and unruly, but not a bad way to bring a certain intimacy (most of the other pieces this week have used the "auditorium" set-up, which was fine for their work, but Rosler’s needed that closeness between audience and performer). It felt a bit like being in a shopping mall, looking at a (very odd) product demonstration, rather than watching a tv show (although the action was transferred live to tv monitors within the room). Some of the performance participants hammed it up, others were deadpan, I think they all got a kick out of taking part. Rosler acted as a kind of director for the piece, even giving instructions sometimes as it was in progress.


"Semiotics in the Kitchen" came after Carey Young’s “Optimum Performance”, which took the ambiguous meaning of the word “performance” (meaning either “a piece of performance art”, or “a level of achievement within the business world”, similar to “effectiveness” or “efficiency”) and transformed the gallery into a motivational business seminar. She hired an actor to present the piece, which he did very well indeed, in front of a set consisting of grey felt-lined panels and indoor plant. The speech itself was all about how we can all "achieve better performance by having regular reviews". It was very funny, and cleverly written and crafted.


However, I would not make any claims for the effect of the work beyond being a (in-)joke or stunt…unfortunately, that’s just what Young did in the discussion panel session at the end of the night, jargonistically telling us what the piece was “about” (“soft architecture” “soft business”, (whatever that means) and “creating a space of ambiguity”) and so on. She told us that she had worked in the business world for some years, and that she felt it was important for artists to develop the ability to speak corporate language and operate within a business environment. She even mentioned that art was being considered as a diplomatic tool for international trade deals, and that it could therefore be a powerfully subversive element in world politics.


Young's argument was utterly unconvincing, especially after the Morris lecture from the previous night, which had hammered home the way that large artworks have constantly been used as an unconscious tool of capitalist imperialism. Young was also disappointing for her lack of commitment to any "actual" real life politics – she said that she had used the business sphere as “research” for making artworks. Contrast this with Rosler, whose work and life deals with labor and gender in a direct and concrete way, and, as Rosler said, maybe there was a “generation gap” issue going on between the two artists. Young came across as a caricature of the late 80s artist-entrepreneur (Koons et al), whereas Rosler presented as a throwback to a forgotten generation of outdated and somewhat unfashionable politics (unionism and labour conditions etc). The final question from the audience was “besides being two women, why are you both presenting work on the same night?” – Rosler, who had been holding back up til then, leaned into the microphone and droned “actually, I had been wondering that myself.”

Atlas Group and Mark Dion at the Whitechapel Gallery

Saturday night (Nov 22, 2003) was dominated by Walid Raad's tour-de-force powerpoint presentation about the activities of The Atlas Group. The Group’s archive deals with "the situation" in Lebanon, especially since the civil war in the mid 1970s. It is a fictional archive, (sometimes a fiction based on true documents and events), which attempts to make sense (and even poetry) of the constantly unstable political climate within Lebanon. It does so by utilising the minutiae of everyday life, and this is important for both the archive’s intrinsic content, and its apparent authenticity.


By concentrating on vast quantities of very minor information (such as the make, model, and colour of every car used for a bombing in Lebanon between 1975 and 1989) we are swept into a world enormously different from our own (in terms of daily personal danger) and yet incredibly similar and banal at the same time (ordinary cars, in colours we might choose ourselves). In this, The Atlas Group consistenly proves that it is in masterly control of the craft of its fiction – the overwhelming quantity of detail which makes us swoon, and forget the fact that it might actually be all just made up.


Raad extends this performance craft even to the point of planting questions in the audience, for which he has answers ready-prepared. In response to one of the questions, “can you give us some background information about the situation in Lebanon?” Raad sighs, and opens up the directory of his computer (visible to the audience on a data projector), revealing countless filenames for documents on the history of Lebanon decade by decade for the last five hundred years. By this strategy, he can reveal the breadth of the answer to that question, without actually needing to answer it directly.


For as he said, “when you talk for too long, people will try to make you shut up. But when you are asked a question, you have permission to talk for a long time”.* As both me and a friend commented at the same time, he is one clever cookie.


*…however, it should be noted, that this information about questions and answers was volunteered by Raad, and not given in response to any particular question. (Perhaps he wants to hammer home just how clever he really is, and why not, we all got a kick out of it anyway).


Mark Dion, prior to Raad’s presentation, showed old-fashioned slides, and gave an entertaining A-Z of extinct animals, and biological nightmares of our times. In moments, it was very informative (especially in relation to biological facts), yet, as my friend Tom pointed out, the tone of the lecture was "more catastrophic than critical", and therefore not very useful for instigating concrete change to the problems it described. However, the scope of the lecture was modest, and I don’t believe it set out to achieve more than it did – therefore it was nowhere near as irritating as the Carey Young performance (and the claims made on its behalf) earlier in the week.