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Searching for an Empty Signifier, or How to Read Vassya Vassileva's Work? by Bojana Videkanic

by Bojana Videkanic


photo: Ivan Roussev

"The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist."(1)

The past thirty or so years have been marked by a so-called 'cultural turn', which emphasizes cultural systems and their influence on the creation of meanings. This turn has also opened a new door for those in the arts to use multiple and interdisciplinary approaches to the production, criticism and reception of art. Of the many new terms and notions that the cultural turn has generated, questions of identity and its political, social and economic ramifications seem to have surfaced most powerfully. Identity thus has become a contested space and its role in political and aesthetic action(s) is seen as one of the pivotal questions of the so-called postmodern age. What, then, is the role of art in constructing and challenging identities?

Fado's IDea series tries to address some of these questions by showcasing diverse performance practices by a number of national and international artists. One such artist is Vassya Vassileva, whose performance In Search of Friedrich Nichtmargen / From Uncreative Travel Book XXIII [Surface Area 510,100,934 km2 196.950.168 miles2] was presented in the context of the 6th 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art. Following the dates of the festival, Vassileva's performance took place between October 19 and October 28, 2006, beginning with an initial public presentation at Xpace as part of the opening event, and unfolding to the general public through daily meetings at 5 pm at the Toronto Free Gallery. Vassileva's work offered the audiences of the festival a particular way of thinking about performance and conceptual practices. Her work is a careful intermingling of conceptual and performance art that creates its own cryptic language and through that language challenges notions of art, identity, epistemology and artistic positioning.

As Heidegger's quote from the beginning of this text suggests, there is a curious relationship between a work of art and its creator. As Derrida and Barthes suggested in the 1960s and as Heidegger seems to argue in his writings, the artist cannot be solely responsible for the work's creation. The myth of the originary genius, the lonely artist, is thus rejected in favor of an idea that the work has a life of its own, influencing the artist. The artist and the artwork are therefore forever seen as imbedded in the historical, cultural and other environments which influence the creation and meaning of what we call art. Vassya Vassileva's performance work brings these notions to the fore. In her practice, the artist constantly challenges her own positioning as an artist. She challenges the notion of the audience and opens up the meaning of her actions to a variety of interpretations. In this manner, Vassileva follows a long line of performance and conceptual artists who, since the middle of the 20th century, have been trying to reposition art and its often elitist identity.

The Lines of Sight

There is a famous episode in the history of performance art in former Yugoslavia when, in the early 1980s Tomislav Gotovac, a Croatian performance artist, walked along Ilica Street, one of the main streets of Zagreb (capital of then Republic of Croatia,) and did a public performance/action piece. The piece included him walking down the street nude, singing a famous popular song about Zagreb and kissing the ground that he walked on. A police officer came to him and arrested him for public indecency. However, when the artist was brought to the police station he was immediately released as the officials there understood that this was 'art' and the directive was not to disturb such occurrences. The police received information on what they should do if something like this were to happen again. And lo and behold just a few short weeks later a policeman was patrolling the streets of Zagreb and saw a man trying to climb a large pole. He carefully approached the man and asked him if he was an artist. However, the man replied that he was not. He was clearly drunk. The policeman said, "In that case, you are arrested." This amusing incident is telling of the kind of reactions performance art practices, especially those done in public, can elicit.

I felt a similar thing was happening as I watched Vassya Vassileva's first performance at Xpace. The room was filled with people. There had been several excellent performances prior to Vassya's, and the atmosphere was quite high. However, there was also some confusion as the artist quietly stood leaning on the wall, holding in her hands a small plant placed in a bit of soil. There were no announcements or physical signs that something was happening. At a certain point people began to notice her standing there and started approaching her, asking about what she was doing. The answers were as puzzling as the performance itself: cryptic, short, and often in a form of a question. Vassileva is looking for someone I was told, she is looking for Friedrich Nichtmargen, an artist with whom she worked. But what does this plant have to do with her search? How is it supposed to help her? What is the point? These and many other questions were posed to the artist as she stoically stood there, her hands shaking from holding the plant, her eyes focused. She is trying to see how much the plant will grow.

Johanna Householder writes that "[p]erformance art seeks to investigate existing conditions, includes human presence, and questions the purposes, processes, apprehension, and experience of art; while making it"(2). In that sense Vassileva's actions, not only on the night of the opening of 7a*11d, but throughout her subsequent public actions, included specific questioning of the position of art and artist in the specific moment. Playing with both critical theory and semiotics, Vassileva has built a multilayered practice which speaks about her own position as an artist, but also the meanings that are created through the act of involvement with the world around her. In Vassya Vassileva's performances, every performative act is an act of its own negation. Not only is she in dialogue with the act of naming and identity, but she also questions the very possibility of art.

"Art's double character as both autonomous and fait social is incessantly reproduced on the level of its autonomy. It is by virtue of this relationship to the empirical that the artworks recuperate, neutralized, what once was literally and directly experienced in life and what was expulsed by spirit".(3)

Following Theodor Adorno's critical view of art, we could argue that Vassileva's performances are primarily acts of questioning and negation of art, and of specific social, cultural, political, and theoretical discourses. My written response to Vassileva's work deals with three specific and very personal observations. First is Vassileva's interest in negation – negation of art itself and questioning of the role of the artist. Secondly, I wish to look at the ways in which Vassileva's practice engages the question of art as a social act, an act that is both a response to one's own practice but also an act of responding to the Other, the audience. And finally I am also interested in the relationship that Vassileva establishes to the notions of epistemology, science and the discourse of reason.

In Search of Friedrich Nichtmargen

"Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless."(4)

We are sitting on the floor of the Toronto Free Gallery. Vassya is in the middle, using an upturned wooden pedestal as a desk. She is reading a series of questions, all of which have been compiled during the course of her stay in Toronto. The questions have been posed to her by various people she has met. Some of them are related to the performances and some are related to things that have happened in general. The list is long and the performance finishes as the list is apparently exhausted. Someone adds a couple more questions at the end. Vassya smiles. In a brief comment after the performance, Vassya adds that this was the 'real' performance (as opposed to all the performances done in the previous several days). Posing questions in regard to Vassileva's work is not hard, as it seems that the practice she confronts us with demands them. The most obvious question of course is that of the relationship between her performances and the search for Friedrich Nichtmargen. He is a real person, perhaps, or maybe we would like him to be real. Vassileva never really discloses if her search is trickery, an illusion. What we find out from her proposal for the Toronto performances is that she has lost Friedrich.

Me, Vassya Vassileva I am in search of the artist Friedrich Nichtmargen since Thu, 4 Nov 2004 14:42:37 -0800 (PST). Since I lost Friedrich I have been perseveringly looking for him. I cancelled my engagements in order to be able to search for all vestiges of evidence that Friedrich would inevitably leave behind himself. I am much grateful to all artists that support my effort to pursue the intricate working of Friedrich's mind.(5)

Friedrich is thus a premise for Vassileva's search, but search in this case becomes an end in itself – or does it? The search is a particularly constructed process in which the artist engages in a variety of actions, or protocols, as she calls them. Each moment lived in the city is a search event meticulously recorded, written about and planned. Vassileva uses everything from texts, maps, mathematical equations to diagrams and notes to search for Friedrich, and each encounter brings new possibilities. However, the question of Friedrich's existence – or rather, his disappearance – is never solved. And as Vassileva argues, Friedrich could be related to everything; he is an empty signifier. This notion of an empty signifier also puts Friedrich in the position of an empty centre around which everything else happens. Thus, he becomes everything and nothing. He is able to subsume all other meanings, and as Vassileva argues, he can be related to everything depending on who is initiating the search. By allowing Friedrich to become almost anything and everything, Vassileva also allows her practice to become more open to questioning.

In his now famous text "Aesthetic Theory", Theodor Adorno argued that works of art are autonomous social monads which always carry within them specific kinds of tensions or contradictions which stem from artworks' internal, or formal tensions, from their intellectual import, and from artworks' and artists' involvement with the socio-historical environment out of which they come and to which they react. These contradictions are telling of an artwork's autonomous nature and are also the way in which art is socially engaged. That is, artworks become "the social antithesis of society."(6) By their specific, and often cryptic formal language and what Adorno calls 'truth-content', artworks serve as a mirror to the capitalist/ industrial, instrumentalized society.

The notion of negation is key to such artworks and stems from understanding art as a constant questioning of itself, or as a negation of its own premises. Vassileva uses such a strategy of negation in her practice. By constantly proposing specific notions through her performances and then negating them – for example, when approached with a question about a specific action that she is doing, she will answer with a question that challenges the action itself – she establishes a dialectical dialog, a form of dialectical thinking which opens up the meanings of the work and allows a multiplicity of interpretations. Thus, her performances are in a constant state of flux, both innately connected to the audience and constantly eluding meanings, constantly in a game of non-identity. Friedrich Nichtmargen is therefore a perfect metaphor for art itself, or at least how Vassileva sees it. It is impossible to identify who he is, where he is, or why people are searching for him. The elusive nature of this person, his impossible, always-absent identity, is a metaphor for the fact that each artwork always leaves an unknown remainder, a part that can never be identified. Adorno would call this non-identical thinking, a way of thinking that does not impose a specific identity upon the object considered, but allows the object to always be different, strange, or contradictory. Art is therefore a repository of non-identical thinking, thinking in contradictions. It allows the object to always elude total understanding or reading. Vassileva insists that to respond to something, an artwork in this case, is to be aware of the limits of one's response, of one's immanent situatedness in the world and in a particular frame of thinking.

What Do You Think This Is?

To put it simply: to respond is to be engaged with the others, to provide for a living discourse that involves and considers the limits of every interpretation, every naming, every description, the insufficiency of every mental concept we create in order to articulate reality.(7)

Another important aspect of Vassya Vassileva's work is her insistence on art as a social practice which acknowledges that each interpretation, each act of naming or describing, is insufficient and limited. However, each one of these acts is equally important in the artistic production as it displaces the common preconceptions around origin of the work of art and the artist's role in it. Each of Vassileva's performances in Toronto was intrinsically connected to the notion of audience participation. While standing at the bridge on Queen St. East, holding her small plant, the artist engaged in a vigorous discussion of what she was doing with several of us standing there participating in the performance. Moreover, as we participated in a philosophical discussion on the questions of usage of live objects (i.e. plants) in performance art, the passersby looked at us intently and transformed our conversation. The surreal scene on the side of the bridge, surrounded by traffic, noises and construction, created an environment in which every external reality (external to Vassileva's initial action of holding the plant in her hands), every word we uttered, and every person who passed by, somehow altered the reality of the performance itself. The question is then who is the artist, and what is art? This is the very question that spanned all of Vassileva's actions throughout her week-long stay in Toronto.

At the opening night at Xpace, audience members most commonly asked one question: What is your performance about, why are you holding the plant? And every time the artist would respond by asking a question: What do you think it is? This emblematic question seems to point to the heart of the matter, as it directly uncovers the centuries-long notion of the artist as the sole author of the work of art. For Vassileva, as for many artists engaged in performance practices for the past several decades, this question has always been turned back toward the audience, acknowledging the fact that the origin of meaning is never a singular event of naming or identifying, but a constant, ongoing dialectic of various naming and misnaming events, of identifications and misidentifications, of interpretations and non interpretations. Therefore, each performative act is a social act in which the Other is recognized and included. It is, as Vassileva argues, innately a living discourse. Almost forty years ago, Roland Barthes wrote "The Death of the Author", which recognized the problematic of the author, arguing that by removing the author a text is freed from the imposed limit of singular meaning:

Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is "explained" – victory to the critic.(8)

Thus, the text needs to be recognized not as what he calls a 'teleological' unity but as an unstable field where multiple writings and meanings clash. The reader, accordingly, becomes the focus of that multiplicity of writing, as the texts are geared toward the destination – the reader. Vassya Vassileva recognizes this in her work by turning the focus from herself and asking the viewer, or the participant, to interpret the action. Thus, the question posed to her 'what is your work about?' is immediately turned toward the viewer and the meaning is thus reversed.

Artists' work is relational, and deeply involved with the audience recognizing that the meaning is always in between, always in negotiation and never closed. Therefore, Friedrich Nichtmargen is a perfect symbol, a perfect subject who always stays elusive to identity, open to suggestion, an empty signifier around which any and all constructions of signification are possible. And when Vassileva searches for Friedrich she is, in actuality, searching for the viewer.

In order to prefigure his local appearance I shall strictly follow his own rules of mathematical formalization while measuring the distance by my own

Vassileva's performances are a mixture of planning, improvisation and experimentation. They are pseudo-scientific, pseudo-theoretical, philosophical and purely physical interventions that combine audience participation as well as total negation of audience presence. Her work is laden with subtle tensions and contradictions, actions that seem to lead to absurd conclusions. However, these tensions are a deep reflection of the socio/cultural milieu out which the work comes. One of Vassileva's performances at the Toronto Free Gallery was an excellent example of such tension. She drew two circles on opposite sides of the gallery space. One of them was on the floor and the other on the wall. The small plant used in every performance was suspended over the circle on the floor by a piece of wire. The performance consisted of the artist walking from one side of the room to the other, seemingly measuring every step she took. There was an air of confidence, knowing and determination in her actions. As an audience member, I felt as if I was privy to a scientific, or alchemical experiment. In her later performances, the small plant on a piece of wire was manipulated by the artist in various ways. All of such action events seemed strangely familiar and yet cryptic. They seemed familiar because of Vassileva's mimicking of the scientific discourse through positioning of the body and manipulation of the material. Furthermore, the cryptic element was there as an odd leftover, a signaling that this was not a scientific event, but an alchemical one. How does one turn thought into material? How does one make the plant grow? From day one, it seemed that Vassileva was trying to make the small plant grow. How can mind rule over matter?

All of these tensions are of course also part of everyday life, and are not perceived in such metaphysical or alchemic terms. Contemporary scientific discourse seems to be laden with notions of instrumentalized reason. The need to have power over nature – not just nature around us but also the nature within us – has become an overarching goal of genetic research, physics and biochemical experimentation. To know and to discover is to possess. Such a need has created bizarre, Frankenstein monsters, from the atomic bomb to the creation of cloned animals that can be harvested for their organs. It seems that there is no place on this planet that has not been overturned and possessed through human intervention. But as we have now learned, all such possessions come with a price tag. They are inherently contradictory. While on the one hand we create more gadgets, improve our communications, make our lives faster, we are also destroying the very home in which we live. Vassileva points to this contradictory aspect of Western epistemology by creating subtle, tension-filled actions which through their idiosyncratic qualities point to the absurd nature of the human need for development and possession. However, unlike science, art in this case mimics science in order to reveal its innate flaws. This is why Adorno stated that art is "the social antithesis of society"(9). Art is a mirror held up to society, a mirror which through its autonomous language can breach the possessive reason of mainstream discourses.

Conclusions

As Vassya Vassileva has elaborated in several of her responses and statements, as a writer or as an artist one is always primarily a responder to what is happening around her. Such responses are always situated and their meanings are never complete. And so I also have to submit to this observation, acknowledging that my own response to Vassileva's work is only a limited, very personal and always biased view. As such it does not mean that it is any less true, as truth has nothing to do with responding to art. What becomes important is to always leave room for interpretation and free reading of the text. No one should possess the work, the artist least of all. This is perhaps the most important observation I can make both in terms of Vassileva's work and my own writing about it.

I have tried to tease out three important streams of this extensive performance/ conceptual body of work. It is hard to write about a project such as In Search of Friedrich Nichtmargen, not because it is large but because it spans a variety of disciplines and contexts. It is a conceptual conundrum, and yet it also opens itself up to new interpretations. The reactions to Vassileva's work in Toronto were multiple, from interest to confusion to irritation. From my own conversations with the artist, I have learned that she received dozens of questions and an equal number of readings – from understanding that her work is ecologically based to that it is purely conceptual. I guess all of them are right in a way, as this is what Vassileva would argue. Her quiet, pensive and very humble demeanor allows everyone to add their own two cents. This in itself is part of the work, as the artist puts herself in the position of a non-identical thinker, or an open signifier. Identity is a tricky notion; it plays somewhere between reality and illusion, and both the artist and Friedrich Nichtmargen whom she is looking for are opened. They play between reality and illusion, allowing the viewers to become participants, or artists themselves. Finally, as Vassileva has written to me in an email, "indeed when we write about other people or things we genuinely write about ourselves... as what we describe speaks about us far more than our direct confessions or reports on our own beings."(10) And so I am adding my two cents to Vassileva's work, my own participatory note, in hopes that it will contribute to the richness of the artist's complex and ongoing search.

(1) Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Albert Hofstadter Trans. and Intro. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2001.p.17.
(2) Householder, Johanna. “apologia.” Caught in the Act: an anthology of performance art by Canadian women. Ed. Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder. Toronto: YYZ Books, 2004.
(3) Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
(4) Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.132.
(5) Vassileva, Vassya. “Artist Proposition.” For Fado Performance Inc. 2006.
(6)] Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.8.
(7) Vassileva, Vassya. “Notes on Introduction: Performance Art Respondent Forecast #1.” For Mobius International Festival of Performance Art, Boston, 2006.
(8) Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.
(9) Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p.8.
(10) Vassileva, Vassya. “RE: Hey there another question.” E-mail to Bojana Videkanic. 14, December, 2006.

Bojana Videkanic is a PhD student at the Department of Social and Political Thought at York University, Toronto. Her background is in art history and fine arts, and her research deals with contemporary art practices, visual culture and cultural theory. Bojana teaches art history and visual culture at York University, Ontario College of Art and Design, and University of Toronto in Mississauga.