Problematizing participation - case of Zero One, San Jose

Shared by reBlog @ Eyebeam

I had the luck of participating in a
biennial for new media art in San Jose, California. I also participated in the
first biennial in 2006, which was much larger in scale and well attended by the
professional in the field, largely due to the official collaboration with
I.S.E.A. (Inter Society of Electronic Arts) In the past, I participated in Ars
Electronica, Austria and visited Transmediale, Berlin, and media_city, Seoul,
which are some experiences that taught me how these events work. Zero One is
one of the youngest in the circle of large media art biennials, and through
three incarnations it served well as a cultural venue to the general public in
San Jose and Silicon Valley area. It makes sense that the Silicon Valley has a
media art biennial, given its material resource and proximity to the large
corporations and the community around them. For the corporation and academic
institutions that support the event, it is the easiest way to transfer their
technical and financial capital into a cultural one.

This year’s theme was ‘Out of garage’ and the description ‘Build
Your Own World!’ celebrates Californian notion of DIY (especially in relation
with Burning man festival enthusiasts) and the Art and Technology. Steve Dietz,
based in Minneapolis, curated the biennial for the third time. There were
various art projects, public installation, theatrical and musical shows,
‘locative cinema’, entertainment and ‘green prix’ march of electronic-recycled
bikes of all sorts. My experience as a participant and an audience largely
centered on the ‘South Hall’ a giant tent that is often used for commercial
conventions. Through 10 days of my stay at the South Hall, I observed couple
dozen projects being made, presented to the public, and torn down to the bear
material. I was delighted to learn about some artists, make few new friends,
and be part of an exciting environment. However I also felt a deep sense of
disorientation about the way some of the projects were presented.

‘Out of garage’ is an exhibition in the making, process
oriented event, that the audience were invited to participate in many
activities, workshops, and performances. The central space was dedicated to
‘Tech Shop’, with heavy machineries that were used for making many of the
works. The exhibition seems to focus on the potential of Do It Yourself, in
literal sense of ‘personal laboratory in a garage’, as well as more metaphoric
way of opening up ideas, knowledge, and technology. Some artists ‘open up’ by
making tutorial, some share codes, and some conduct workshops that invite audience
to participate. Such attempt to ‘open up’ artistic practice is happening
everywhere, it is not only with in media art. The trend may be more apparent
for media art because the technical ideas and source code can be shared by
others immediately. Idea and practice of ‘workshop’ is a prevalent medium for
many young artists now, as one can see or not see-unless participate, at events
like ‘Greater New York’ at PS1-MOMA. Pedagogy and research is not considered separately,
and participating in an art work is in a way being educated by the artist in
order to understand the art work. Such practice requires commitment from the
audience, much more so than walking into a gallery to see pictures. In that
context, Zero One’s shows the institution’s
willingness to cooperate with artists to invite the public to the art work.

It is important to note on failure, but it is more important
to note it’s success. However noting on the success may sound redundant, as I
may repeat the curatorial attempt described in their website. I’d like to focus
on it’s shortcomings, because there was a lot more of accomplishment, it is
only possible to do better next time by learning from the shortcomings. The successful
side of the biennial, or the aspect of it which worked, was that it really did
invite the public to see the artists at work, their failure and success, and to
engage in conversation with the artists. The aspect of which did not work so
well is that it could as well have been artists were up for display, not the
art work. One can argue artists inevitably take on a performativity in
participatory practice. However, for the case of Zero One, It is partly due to
the fact that the exhibition per se never looked presentable in general. The
architectural structure dominated the space. They were made of crude metal
supports and clear plastic walls, which looked somewhere between Burning Man
and run down high school gym. Many projects were shadowed by the space, and
lack of control in sound and light made it hard to present the work properly.

Another problem was lack of participation. At times, it
seemed like the number of artists outnumbered the public in the city of San
Jose. Simply, there were too many artists and too much projects that require
participatory involvement. Artists and groups were often seen waiting for the
public, almost like a vendor waiting for shoppers at a country fair. Yet again,
this can be a problem that is typical of any sort of biennial, where
unprecedented numbers of art works are invited for a short period of time.
However, if there is a lesson to be learned from this, next biennial will need
to connect with the general public, social centers, community groups, schools,
and fans in engaging way throughout the two years of preparation. New biennials
often end up creating a public event for the non-local audience, thus a
biennial for the visiting artists and curators. Zero One is not a conventional
art biennial, and the world doesn’t seem to need another one. Institutions like
Zero One need to find a way to connect with local venues and people, have them
engaged in curatorial decisions, production, and thus creating a true sense of
new public space through the biennial practice. This year’s number of
attendants seemed to be lower than the first two festivals. The numbers are not
so important as much as audience experience and artist’s gratification of
participating in the event. There were many visitors during the weekend,
however much of the workshop and participatory practices were over by then.
Also many visitors did not have the time to participate in time consuming
workshops.

Zero One biennial presented many cutting edge practitioners,
rare breed of artists who work in the field of Art and Technology with a
specific agenda for social cause and community involvement. Future Farmers,
Kitchen Budapest, MTAA, Blast Theory, Carl Disalvo and his students at Georgria
Tech, my fellow collaborators at the EYEBEAM roadshow, and the list goes on.
There were not as many usual ‘interactive’, ‘data visualization’ , ‘playful’,
‘location aware’, ‘audio visualization’ or ‘large outdoor projections’ that are
repeatedly presented at media art festivals, to a degree that they constructed
a genre in itself, called ‘media art festival art’. Many of the participating
artists required devoted audience and community involvement to complete their
projects, and the ‘South Hall’ was only filled with other artists, busy making
their projects happen. I was working with youths to create ‘First Person
Perspective’ head-camera apparatus and film about their private and public
space. I was fortunate to have few students to show up daily, for five days,
thus completing my workshop. Many other workshops had no participants during
the week, and many visitors, yet not so many participants during the weekend. I
was hoping to participate in many other artist’s workshops, but it often
contradicted with my schedule and responsibility as an artist, thus we
exchanged many ‘Hi’ ‘Nice to meet you’ ‘I love your practice’ and ‘Bye’.

Artist talk was a public venue for presentations and
discussion, which was one of the ways to meet other artists. I appreciated
having the chance to listen Brody Condon’s talk about ‘Level Five’. Inspired by
Live action role playing and Self-help events in the US few decades ago, he
created a very intimate, private, participatory performance at the convention
center, few minutes away from the South Hall. No audience was allowed to see
it, no video was exhibited at the biennial. Although his practice is highly
sophisticated, touching upon various cultural factors of our behavior and
desire, and the projects are compelling with a sense of humor and absurdity yet
very critical about conditions of our social expectations, I don’t think any
visitor knew what he was doing, or if he was doing anything at all. No one will
know until he exhibits the work at a gallery in some other place. Brooklyn
based artist group MTAA raised a barn, which the online audience decided which
parts go where. The project was supposed to be collaboration with local
community, who help the artists raise the barn, through participation on the
net, as well as physically building them. There were only a couple of folks to
help them, and the artists struggled to raise the barn mostly themselves. The
moment is a proper symbol for the biennial, artists building their own world,
without public. Jeff Stark and Todd Chandler presented his film with a drive in
theater and smashed up cars. The film was shot at the boat trip on the Hudson
river, made in collaboration with artist Swoon and many of their friends. A
truly all-American spectacle of obsolete technology and culture, it was a
beautiful project that was presented properly. Monica Haller’s Veteran’s book
project ‘Object for deployment’ was also another inspiring practice. The artist
collaborated with war veterans to write, edit, and publish their own book about
the war in a week’s time. It was the most emotionally moving piece in the show,
some had very graphic contents of emergency room in Iraq, some very sad notes
about a dead brother. These are some of the projects in which idea of personal
practice, metaphorically coined as the term of ‘garage’ or their studio/office,
meets the public, community, and audience into the world.

On the
Airplane back to New York City, I saw the city of San Jose becoming smaller
until it looked like pieces of LEGO blocks. I realized where I was. It is the
suburban space without the community in a communal sense, the neighborhood
without shared public space, highways of micro private spaces coexisting on the
move. It is not especially more eccentrically boring than other suburban towns
in the country, and yet it is notable because not every suburban towns have
international biennials. We stayed at an extended stay suite called ‘Stay
Bridge’. Our place was by no means luxurious, but in no way filthy. It was
modest in all manners, and I appreciated it for being so. Across the street
from our lodge was ‘Bay 101’, a legal gambling house. Few blocks down, there was
‘Ebay’ and ‘Pay Pal’ headquarters, and near the central San Jose, ‘Adobe’ and
‘Sun’ corporation buildings are visible. Between our lodge and downtown, there
are endless rows of single story business malls. While driving around the area,
my friend Jeff Crouse played some tunes which he considers to be ‘Business
casual funk’. Some miles of ride on the highway leads to ‘Santana Row’, a
European themed life style mall that seems as artificial as Disneyland, yet
this one tries to be real in the way reality tv’s are real. This realization of
where I was (social and geographical context of the biennial) reminded me that
it was the disconnection between the community and artist was the root of
disorientation