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Performing Occupation

I was in Vancouver, BC a couple of weeks ago for two concerts with Anthony Braxton, the second being an 8-hour “sonic genome” event that brought together over 60 musicians from the Vancouver area as well as a core group of the 12(+1)tet. Over the course of the day of performance, all of these musicians played Braxton’s music intermittently in one of three different large rooms in countless configurations.

This was an interesting experiment in community building (something of a interest for me lately), but what I was most interested in was something that Anthony introduced for the first time: battle-plan modeling. Without getting into the specifics, he asked all of the core group members to model our activities using G.I. Joe action figures before we went out and actually commenced these activities in the real world performance space.

This quasi-militarized activity made me think about the different kinds of identities that artist’s perform as they seek to connect with occupations other than their own. Sol Lewitt is another artist whose work depends upon his role as a “general” of an army of assistants, as does Jeff Koons and any number of other contemporary artists (not to mention countless old masters who relied heavily on their students to complete their work).

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen

In addition to the “General” or “Organizer” occupation, “Scientist” was a performed identity made prevalent during the post-war avant garde, mostly acutely observed in Karlheinz Stockhausen and his cadre of musicians in black suits and lab coats as well as musique concrete innovator, Pierre Schafer. This occupational connection seemed to be both an aesthetic decision as well as a practical one. In as much as these artists were pursuing pure research into sound, they were also aligned with government-run “laboratories” funded in part by post-war reparations.

And then there are the artists who perform the identity of the “Aesthetic” or “Monk.” Into this category I might clump light artist, James Turrell, composer Morton Feldman, and earthwork pioneer Robert Smithson. For these artists, the performance of intuition and simplicity created an aura of impenetrability.

James Turrells Spread (2003)

James Turrell's "Spread" (2003)

For these examples of performed identities and for other performances of “Businessman” (see Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol) and “Shaman” (see John Cage) among others, the artists assume the identity of “other” in order to accentuate the divide between the arts and other professional pursuits (This divide presumably frames an artist’s counterculture tendencies). I also think that these performances are in no way meant to be permanent. Instead, the individual might assume a series of occupational identities as they react to and comment on the zeitgeist.

This gets me wondering about what current occupations artists might perform as they seek to define their work in contrast to societal norms within the twenty-first century. Returning to the example of Anthony Braxton, one occupation that contrasts with the contemporary artist is the Military commander. Certainly Braxton’s performance directions says something about our militarized culture. Are there other occupational performances are out there that would mark similar trends?