Saturday, 6 December 2008

'Everyone is here (let me tell you)' by Theron Schmidt

Peter Vittali, 'The Second Person' Martha Rosler, 'Semiotics of the Kitchen: An Audition' (video-in-progress) 5 December 2008

‘We have a lot of fun. Everyone is here,’ says Peter Vittali, enunciating carefully in his second language, speaking into a mobile phone which represents the imagined presence of Martha Rosler. For his performance, Second Person, Vittali picks up on a comment Rosler makes in her interview for the Performance Saga DVD series which accompanies the BONE 11 festival. In this interview, Rosler says, ‘We changed the world significantly, for about twenty years. A big change. Ever since, they spent all their time trying to change it back…. Right now, they appear to have won.’ To his imagined second presence in this conversation, Vittali asks, ‘Who is they?’ And, in response to the answer he pretends to hear, he repeats, ‘Oh, it’s them.’ ‘But,’ he asks, ‘Who is we?’ The answer comes: ‘Oh, it’s us.’

Peter Vittali, 'The Second Person' at Performance Saga Festival - Bone 11, Schlachthaus Theater, Friday 5th December 2008. Photograph (c) Martin Rindlisbacher

In the remainder of the performance, Vittali explores the logics and rhetorics of group membership and the possibility of making societal change. We – the audience at the event – learn of his alleged protest of an ad campaign on Basel’s tram system which Vittali claimed was denigrating of women. He tells us that he proposed that the local government make up for this campaign by allowing a group of Basel-based female artists to decorate one tram for one day. But, according to Vittali, the officials replied that in order to act a complaint from ‘a second person’ must be registered. With a mixture of irony and genuine interest, Vittali also questions the conservatism and resistance to change of national governments, a characterisation which Rosler’s interview implies. Referring to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Vittali asks whether this self-described ‘pre-emptive war’, the first in US history, might be the act of a forward-looking rather than backward politics. And with reference to President-Elect Obama’s victory speech, in which he declared that ‘Tonight, change has come to America,’ Vittali critiques a political deployment of ‘change’ in which the present is cast as discontinuous from history, neutralising any criticisms of the past and dispersing the energy of any past protest. If we – whoever this ‘we’ is – if we agree that everything has changed, Vittali suggests, then we make history disappear, and no change is possible.

Vittali’s performance is followed by an in-progress video screening from Martha Rosler. Rosler’s film briefly recapitulates her 1974/5 video work Semiotics of the Kitchen. In this original piece, Rosler is filmed in a domestic setting, demonstrating a series of alphabetically organised kitchen implements; each demonstration maintains an earnest, matter-of-fact appearance but contains some gestural element which is awry, menacing, or out-of-place. In 2003, the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London invited Rosler to re-create her piece for its series A Short History of Performance. Rosler responded to the brief by re-staging the work as a casting call, in which twenty-six women roughly the same age as Rosler was in 1974 give their own interpretations of the piece. The video-in-progress presented last night in Bern combines 1975 footage with 2003 footage, using both Rosler’s instructions and the way the video is presented in order to emphasise Rosler’s concern with the frame of the television box. And, clearly, the effort she has put into producing a documentary herself shows that she is just as concerned with the legacy of the event.

Martha Rosler, 'Semiotics of the Kitchen: An Audition' shown' at Performance Saga Festival - Bone 11, Schlachthaus Theater, Friday 5th December 2008. Photograph (c) Martin Rindlisbacher

As with Carolee Schneemann’s Remains to be Seen performed earlier this week, Rosler’s video document is an attempt to claim the telling of her artistic history. On-screen text at the beginning of Rosler’s video sets the context of both events. As it introduces the 2003 re-staging, which took place over several rounds, the text reads, ‘We have chosen to present these rounds together.’ This is an innocuous textual detail, something I would not have noticed were it not for Vittali’s earlier preoccupation with the use of ‘we’ and ‘them’. On this night, however, this body-less ‘we’, speaking on behalf of invisible editors and writers at work producing the video, stands out to me. It appears as a sign of editorial responsibility, acknowledging the ways in which the document has altered the original footage. But it is also plural, collective – it takes more than one, it takes many, it takes people whose names will not be known in order for this video to be here in Bern. ‘They’ have built the cameras and computers, bought and sold the software, designed the font face, typed on the keyboards, set up the servers, and uploaded and downloaded it so that ‘we’ can watch it. And even literally, Rosler’s 2003 re-staging needs not only a second person, a new actress to portray Rosler, but also a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth….

The second person needed for Vittali’s performance is, of course, an audience – the implied ‘you’ of the grammatical second person, the indirect object of the narrative contained within the unspoken ‘I tell you this’ or ‘I show you this’ that frames every performance event. And in my case, only able to grasp a fragment of the German words which make up the majority of Vittali’s piece, a third person still is needed: Almut, sitting next to me and whispering the occasional explanation. But so much of the performance is lost to me, such as the sequence in which Vittali controls a miniature tram going in circles while dictating a letter from an imaginary second person to an imaginary first person, who may or may not be the same people. This ‘we’ of the audience is made up of many individual pairs of ‘we’s, each person forming an ‘us’ with the performer, a ‘Vittali-and-me’. But these we’s are constantly changing, as individual attentions drift here and there, or, in my case, as a third person occasionally contributes to my little us.

History only has power as a concept when it is collectively owned – and this power is manifest in many ways, not least of which is the frustrating way, to Schneemann and Rosler, that the ‘they’ of art history might only remember these artists for their signature pieces (Interior Scroll and Semiotics of the Kitchen, respectively). The political hope of ‘we’ is that ‘they’ might become like ‘us’; but last night’s performance experience reminds me of the ways that ‘we’ are already constituted out of ‘them’, those second people we need to talk to, these third people we need to talk about, and this collective first person into which I claim you, my reader, when I write on our behalf.

The Second Person von/from Peter Vittali

Das Script zur Performance ist verfuegbar unter The Second Person ( in deutsch )

A draft of the script is available at : The Second Person ( english draft )

Die Texte frueherer Performances stehen auf meiner Webseite Performances Peter Vittali
The scripts of previous performances are available at Performances Peter Vittali (unfortunately only in german )

Viel Spass / have fun !

Peter Vittali

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