The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA tries hard to bring art and people together. They are unpretentious, have relatively low ticket prices (with discounts if you take public transportation), and programs that invite the public’s participation. For example: the Engagement Party series – a public program funded by the John Irvine Foundation that promotes new work from emerging Southern California-based artists. The latest artist to take up residency in the series is Ryan Heffington. Heffington is a performance artist, choreographer, designer, and “self-described dance guru who makes highly theatrical works exploring dance’s aesthetic and socio-cultural possibilities.” Seems like a perfect match for the Geffen’s social aspirations.
His contribution is called “HEFFINGTON MOVES MOCA,” and consists of three portions of “participatory dance-based artworks.” The first one, … AND NOW WE ALL DANCE! (2010) is a collaboration between Heffington and The East Siders, a group of artists, musicians, and performers who, based on their shabby-chic-hipster getups, must either all live in Silver Lake or shop at the same American Apparel.
According to the press release, the piece “comprises an engaging dance environment installed for a single evening under the outdoor canopy at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA… [It] attempts to move the viewer, who is invited to complete the piece through freestyle dancing as well as by participating in a variety of activities, including two classes taught by Heffington, during the three hour event.” According to me, it’s a dance party put on in the awkward hours of 7 to 10 PM. Who goes out dancing before 10 PM? I don’t know.
However, I really am thankful to Heffington for putting this on. Was it awkward? Sort of. When Heffington took the mic and shouted out instructions on how to do a modified Electric Slide, did it remind me of an aerobics class? Yes. Did the music and the shirtless men echo a gay club in the nineties? Maybe. Did it inspire me to dance and feel like a participant in a dance-based artwork? No. Was it a success? I don’t know. People seemed to be having fun. But was that the goal? Were they, then, not just throwing a dance party? It sure seemed like it. Despite it’s ambiguous effect as a work of art, however, Heffington’s piece did bring up an issue I had forgotten about, or avoided, for quite some time: conceptual art.
I haven’t really thought about conceptual art in over five years. I gave it a shot way back when, in my first year of graduate school, I was an intern at The Swiss Institute in New York. The first project I helped out with, and my first exposure to conceptual art, was a group show called “Do You Like Stuff?” which focused on the practice of indexing and organizing the things we collect. One artist had a table full of useful things, like twine and band-aids and plastic combs, that visitors were invited to take. Another artist had printed out digital images off of eBay and catalogued them in boxes for visitors to flip through. At the time I also had a job selling tickets at this museum on the Upper East Side called The Neue Gallerie, an establishment every bit as pretentious as it sounds, and the idea of the opulent paintings and Viennese Werkstaette furnishings in there being just as much art as the drab, worn objects in the gallery was bizarre to me.
Defining conceptual art is a tricky matter in itself, with art critics, theorists, and artists building on and disagreeing over what it does and where it stands in the task of representation and expression.From what I gather, it all circles around the notion that art exists beyond materials and beyond technique in the form of an idea in the viewer’s mind. My problem with it is twofold. First: I can’t accept the declaration that an idea, as opposed to an emotion, is the result or goal of a work of art. Second: my personal opinion that most of conceptual art is aesthetically barren. I’m thinking back now to the objects laid out in the Swiss Institute show. They fail (as art) because they are not pretty. Yes, I know this line is as shallow as a cheerleader in a bad high school drama, but it’s true. The objects in that room were drab, worn, and shoddy and I didn’t feel emotionally connected to any of them.
The lights and the music and the dancing in Heffington’s piece for the Geffen were all emotional, but I’m not sure if they succeeded in forming a piece of conceptual art. In his opening speech before the dancing began, he said something that I believe speaks to the central idea of the movement; something, which, on the surface, ties dance to conceptual art. He said: “dance comes and it goes. All we have is the memory of it.” Yes, dance is as ephemeral as objects in a work of conceptual art can be, but a piece of conceptual art leaves the viewer with the memory of an idea. Heffington’s piece leaves me with the memory of a dance party.