Tour of the Facilities
by Monte Masi
One evening in June 2015 while living in Oakland, California, I take my laptop into the bathroom with me, so I can continue to livestream a symposium that is occurring on the other side of the bay, at the San Francisco Art Institute. Sitting on the toilet with my shirt off on a warm night, I use a packet of toilet paper to keep the laptop off the floor.
The symposium is called What Can Exhibitions Do? I am watching a keynote presentation by Lawrence Rinder, director of the Berkeley Art Museum, who speaks about an exhibition called The Possible, which occurred at the Berkeley Art Museum 12 months earlier. I have some friends who were involved in the show, who describe it to me as a raucous, overlapping set of chaotic gallery residency experiments, but Rinder focuses more on The Possible as a model for audience engagement.
Using a laptop to watch videos in the bathroom is considerably more awkward than a mobile phone. I get distracted easily and watch the viewcount for the livestream go up and down. The viewcount is never very high, though always in double figures. I wonder if anyone else is watching on the toilet.
At some point, I become very self-conscious of my consumption: not only because I am going to the toilet while watching the keynote but also because the location of the symposium is less than an hour’s travel time away. I have a moment of wondering if I might represent - to Lawrence Rinder, to the symposium organisers - an excellent example of an engaged audience: by myself, home alone, sitting on the toilet with the sound up.
One of the friends involved in The Possible will, many months later, post an image to their Facebook profile of a commercially available iPad stand with a toilet roll holder. It is unclear if this item is something they have purchased, or would like to purchase.
In July 2016, I enter the access toilet at the rear of the Australian Experimental Art Foundation to view a two-channel video work. On a pair of wall-mounted television monitors, I see a 3D scale model of the AEAF gallery space. I watch, from two different angles, as a drumstick taped to a pedestal fan motor jitters around this space. As the motor threatens to destroy the interior of the (model) gallery, we can occasionally see the artists - all of whom have their own individual works located in the gallery space proper - at the edges of the video frame, laughing and adjusting the motor as it knocks things over and gets stuck in corners.
The work is called This is a Crop Circle, or Model of the Replacement, or Dug and Digging With, and is part of the exhibition Dug and Digging With curated by Katie Barber and Stan Mahoney.
In this video of a machine going gently berserk inside the white cube I was able to read something about the exhibition design, the nature of collaboration and the responsibility of those working together to continually work to reconfigure and remake the relationships between each other as well as the institution itself. It was also a great gag - what artist hasn’t wanted to let loose (or be themselves) a chaos agent into the gallery space, even if a model version?
Given the question marks which still sometimes exist surrounding the conventions of display of screen-based artworks in the gallery environment - including length of the work, viewer entry and exit points, places for audiences to stand and sit comfortably - one of the strengths of this work is that it is installed with a toilet-going public in mind. The work is looped, 1 minute 50 seconds in duration, and you can easily view both monitors if you are sitting down using the toilet. Perfect for a quick piss I reckon.
At 3am, I watch a livestream of The Case for Nonsense Keynote by Hans Ulrich Obrist, delivered as part of the 2016 Creative Time Summit in Washington D.C. I get up in the middle of night because I am going to be talking about this keynote a few days later, at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, and I am concerned that if I do not watch it live via stream, then I may not be able to watch it at all for a number of days, until they edit their stream down into digestible edited chunks and upload them again.
Hans Ulrich Obrist has already taken the stage when I connect to the stream. I am very tired and begin to wonder whether or not I really need to listen to this - it’s perhaps less essential to the success of my upcoming presentation than I think it is. However, I am interested, committed: and there is something about getting up in the middle of the night for art - as opposed to say, Australia playing in the World Cup - that seems perversely attractive.
Four years earlier, at that year’s Creative Time Summit, I was in the auditorium when Slavoj Žižek began his keynote by saying that things were “pretty bad” and that sleeping was the only place left they “can’t get to you”. But I am not sleeping now, I think to myself: so they have me, surely.
I am wearing headphones, staring at an iphone screen and lying down as the keynote continues. Obrist traces a line from Dada to Fluxus to Joseph Beuys to the German Green Party to artists engaging directly with mainstream political processes and representative government. He calls nonsense the language artists use in talking to power anytime. It’s a quick and breezy not-quite-scholarship, but at 3am it is difficult to resist such claims.
The American poet and writer Eileen Myles appears via Skype to talk to Obrist - and she talks about her campaign for the 1992 US presidential election. The Cuban performance artist Tania Brugera appears via Skype also, and announces her campaign for the 2018 Cuban elections. Afterwards, I check Twitter to see what people tweeted about in response to this presentation, and most of it is support for Brugera’s announcement.
At 3:40am, I am back in bed: no headphones, phone on silent, livestream disconnected.
I am looking at Rainer Ganahl’s website and surfing through his Seminars/Lectures (S/L), an ongoing series of photographs of talks and lectures by cultural critics, academics, artists. The subjects of these images are not only speakers but also audiences, and their attendant viewing rhythms - boredom and concentration, activity and passivity - and how these are shown with the body. Audiences lean back or are slumped in chairs, presenters hold remote controls, artists recline with their legs crossed in front of tables with water jugs and glasses. The work is a deadpan index of how knowledge is produced and exchanged within lectures and seminars in educational and gallery settings.
After clicking through lots of these images, two aspects stand out. Typically, there are less people in the audience than one might imagine - at least the photographs give that effect - and almost always some other screen present in the frame: video cameras, smartphone, projection screens, TVs.
The poet Tan Lin says that ‘it would be nice to create works of literature that didn’t have to be read but could be looked at, like a placemat’ (1). I think Ganahl’s images create a kind of never-ending symposium that works along similar lines: where the presentations don’t need to be listened to but are instead looked at, skimmed over.
In early 2017, I am driving down Main North Road in Adelaide late at night, with a friend who has a disability. We have worked together at a gig in the country, and have been driving for a couple of hours already. We have already passed the 24 hour McDonalds and the 24 hour Café DeVilis when my friend announces that they need the toilet, urgently. Following previous discussions with my friend, I understand that we don’t have a lot of time, so we stop at a service station.
The attendant tells us the toilets are locked.
We ask for them to be unlocked.
The attendant tells us that they don’t have the keys.
We go outside. My friend walks past our car, to a dark area behind where the air and water is, and takes a crap, sacrificing a pair of undies in the process. Once done, they jump back into the car. We laugh. We feel bad for the attendant. We worry that we, or the car, are captured on a surveillance camera. We exit the service station, quickly. We hope that somebody unlocks the toilets next time.
Now I think about viewing videos of talks, lectures, interviews, conference presentations - alone and at home, in front of the computer, in pieces, at odd hours. I think about how my body typically feels while doing these things: impatient and distracted, but sometimes full of energy and concentration.
Almost inevitably at the beginning of these types of videos there are introductory statements of thanks: to the institution, or the museum benefactors, or the department doing the inviting. There are never edited versions around, so I stumble into highlight reels by default - by getting bored or anxious and moving that slider along until I hear something worth stopping for, listening to. I ambiently surf and scroll through these videos and take what I want. I think about the deliberate cruising of artist talks and academic presentations by artists and where this might intersect with the history of the public toilet as a site for desire and fast anonymous sex. I wonder about the history of the public toilet alongside public art, the idea of toilets as public space and the privatisation of these facilities. The Structural Transformation of the Public (Toilet) Sphere. I am not thinking about Duchamp’s urinal, but I am recalling places I have been where the toilets are permanently closed, or the toilet costs money to use, where toilets are for customers only. Artists who are asked to activate public space, who should just activate the toilets.
I think back to the work in Dug and Digging With, and whether the time it takes to go to the toilet might actually represent a perfect length for video art, or a perfect place to listen to a lecture. I would like to operate a gallery located inside the toilet at a suburban service station, but stipulate that the gallery (the toilet) must be open 24 hours a day, like when Michael Asher asked the museum to open 24 hours for 7 days as part of the 2010 Whitney Biennial. But then, it seems unfair to rely on service stations - a business which has a flimsy relationship to the idea of the public good - to keep their toilets open 24/7.
Finally I think of all the potential toilet-based artworks and toilet galleries around the world - as well as all the other action that’s gone on in toilets, which is significant - and I wonder whether artists can do more for toilets, in toilets, with toilets, and around toilets.
Tan Lin, Seven Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking: [AIRPORT NOVEL MUSICAL POEM PAINTING FILM PHOTO HALLUCINATION LANDSCAPE], (Wesleyan University Press, 2010), 16.