what follows, is a combo of brecht and artaud. and honey bees. and the remarkable performance artist, mark thompson, and his videographer and artist, anne’ klint.
Queen cage: Mark Thompson
I first came to know Mark through research. I study artists who have a deeply developed relation to science, a rare breed, to which Mark belongs; his education began in the sciences. I met Mark, therefore, as a “research” “subject.” Little did I know what this would entail. I was aware that his “medium” was bees, (his “form,” performance with risk), and that he considered bee keeping as an art practice; I was aware of his deep commitment to “art as life,” to “life as art,” and to an art practice that cycles between those two phases. I had anticipated a deep identification with 19th century naturalism, transcendentalism, romanticism, though spun by his encounter with the culture of the 1960’s. For him, this meant defining the artist’s role not in terms of market profitability, but as performative provocateur and commentator on culture generally, as a practice of investigation into, reflection on, and intervention in social systems, not simply on the production of objects. (Just imagine what is required to bring an alien, possibly unfriendly form of life into a museum; how does one bring live honey bees to the interior of a museum, in a way that doesn’t interrupt their lives, or that of the museum; and just what does that mean?). I wasn’t surprised to find a professional library on bee science. But blimps? A professional duck decoy collection? A knowledge of W.W.I and W.W.II that would put any professional historian to the test? Especially in relation to aviation history? The complete video collection of Sienfeld? Or, a love for a strange Italian immigrant who settled in Modesto at the turn of the century, who built a vast underground fruit orchard and home, now a California historical landmark? Like all good artists, and all good teachers, Mark refused to be “reduced” to a “subject of research.” “Research” had to be expanded to include him. This is the very point of Mark’s artistic practice, and his contributions to art, to teaching, to imagining a way of life originate in such evocative associative insights and highly catalytic divagations. His concept of “art as decoy” is but one example. To make these general observations concrete, I want briefly to address two of his works.
Mark’s first significant piece, Immersion, was “performed” for film in 1977. The film shows the process of honeybees swarming to cover the queen on Mark’s head. The camera angle is low, framing only his head and shoulders against a blue sky. As the covering progresses, as more and more bees land, Mark becomes less and less visible, until all we see is a bee mound with the vague outlines of a human form beneath. As the coverage nears completion, the camera speed is incrementally slowed as it is raised to show only sky and wildly flying bees; until, at 2 frames per second, the field snaps and the “film” suddenly transforms: the blue sky merges with, and becomes, a physical state of traces of slow moving elements, with a low vibratory hum. The experience is tactile, a synthesized audio-visual phenomenon that should not be considered a representation, but the production of an experience. But of what? The work is visually minimalist and conceptually complex; its ontological status, ambiguous. The “film” moves from representation of an event, (the body covering), to the production of an audio-visual phenomenon, (the moment of transformation), that quits its representational function, becoming itself unique sensory data that could only be generated in film. How are we to understand this ambiguity? We must also recognize that this “film” can be understood as a kind of “scientific visualization.” It then becomes both a phenomenological event in itself, and, a simulation, or a “representation” of spacetime at the quantum level. This ambiguity is constitutive of the work as art.
To read the work then, at the level of content, is to map three levels of this constitutive ambiguity. First, the human/insect taxonomy represents what exactly? A perverse artistic act? A monstrous crossing of kingdoms? A profound attempt at doing so? Clearly, human/insect biological niches remain mutually exclusive, in terms of “actual shared worlds,” or so it seems. We may question this if the concept of shared worlds does not mean shared states of consciousnesses, and instead look at systemic interactions among the elements. Then we will see that though exterior at the level of species, they are interrelated at a larger environmental level. Second, the following taxonomies are not merely symbolic sites, but must be interpreted as “empirically actual.” Consider: production/reproduction (bee/bee keeper), life sustaining interactions (flower/bee). Understood systemically, they become impossible to separate and traditional biological definitions fail. The bee is literally part of the reproduction system of the flower on which it feeds – it is its sex organ; and the flower is literally part of the bee’s food system – it is its stomach. Taxonomic definitions must yield here, with no small consequences. Bee/bee keeper, flower/bee are partners that exchange life-giving functions but in radically dissimilar systems. The flower feeds the bee as the bee reproduces the flower, literally, not symbolically. Third, at the macro scale, bee and beekeeper are symbiotically integrated, while utterly alienated; at the micro scale, all is quantumly interrelated, and the differences between human, bee, and matter disappear.
Immersion is conceptually a reflection on and investigation into these respective ambiguities, each of which is a form of well known scientific paradoxes that might be collected under the heading of the subject/object problem. Immersion raises questions about how the narrow taxonomic categories of the physical, biotic, and psychological worlds come to be constructed; thereby, immersing us in the dissolve between us and other in each of these registers. Immersion is a performance-act which must be interpreted in this discursive and embodied cultural network. References to art history are helpful in understanding Mark’s work, but are insufficient without this larger arena of interpretation.
Immersion needs to be compared to its sequel.
House Divided was performed in Berlin in the spring of 1989, a few months before the Wall was destroyed by spontaneous political forces unimaginable at that moment. The center of action was an abandoned 18th century hospital located directly on the Wall. House Divided continued the work of Immersion but significantly enlarged the social and cultural systems engaged by the work. I’d like to point out here only its actual, real time, performative aspects. For three weeks, Mark and his assistants, using the bee keeping technique called “lining the bee,” sought to discover hives and their keepers on both sides of the wall. Using small wooden boxes with two compartments, they trapped bees. When the bees settled down, they were moved from the first compartment to the second in which they are fed honey and nectar before being released. The newly freed bees circle the new food source, rising to an elevation of 50 or 60 feet above as they map the location before returning to their hive. They then travel between hive and bee trap. Once the connection between food and hive has been established, the hive hunters follow the bees in the direction they fly for as long as they remain visible (not long), and repeat the process from the new location. After three weeks of moving in 100-meter increments, they discovered a beekeeper in East Berlin. Mark then smuggled the wax he obtained from the East Berlin beekeeper into West Berlin and combined honey from both sides of the wall, melted it down, and used it as “paint” on 12 foot high, canvas, window frames fitted into the two existing windows of the room in which House Divided was installed. The room’s lighting would change over the course of the day, as the light changed. In the room were two steel columns, a tree trunk on which sat the bee traps and a glass “observation hive,” with a chair underneath. Bees traveled from all parts of Berlin through a mesh wire tube connecting the outside to the hive within the room. For several hours a day, Mark sat, only during non-gallery hours, meditating with his head inside of the fully functioning honey bee hive, imagining a unified Berlin as the bees came and went. They built the hive around Mark’s head and imagination over the course of the several week performance.
Much of the analysis of Immersion pertains here. But the differences are important to note; the three week lining-the-bee, pre-installation period, the cold war location, the integration of bee with human social systems, the “reversed” immersive meditations (immersion in the hive instead of bees covering Mark’s head) and their private performances. In general, the work absents the artist as the location of spectacle, and substitutes the city of Berlin and its recreation. In the hospital room, a site for quotidian events often unnoticed, like the coming and going of bees in an urban cityscape, House Divided foregrounds the city’s reimagining as a pastoral scene; but, one in which the viewer is caught between direct experience of the beautifully lit room, filled with the smell of bees wax, and the indirect experience of “someone” pursuing an ongoing investigation whom they never encounter. The work is constituted by a first tension between the viewer and this unobserved observer, and secondly between the interiority of the hospital room, the place that restores health, and the exteriority of the city of Berlin. As the bees come and go across the wall, visitors to House Divided come and go across these real and imagined tensions. The quiet sensuousness of the “scene” could be the 18th century returned, though recoded in a third tension between the natural processes of actual/symbolic rebuildings — of a city being imagined, and a real hive being built. A statement, in its bringing together of possibility and actuality, that is at once both utopic and distopic. The overall message is optimistic, of imagining the absent meditator in an alien though natural world, as an alternative to the cold war polarity that bees are able to ignore, though people cannot. The human-natural worlds are figured in the hive as respectful, reciprocal compliments, suggesting the co-creative work-arounds of the “natural” and the “human” symbiosis addressed above. House Divided suggests the possibility of another form of social contract, one that would erase the divide between the natural and the human, as much as between the two coldly warring superpowers.
The shift from Immersion to House Divided is substantial. The essential difference is between the one-to-one microcosm, artist-bees, figured in the earlier work, to the many-to-many macrocosm of the later, with the intended subtraction of individualism. The negative human form observable in the hive could be anyone. And the concept of community, of collaborative making of the work, of human/nature co-collaborative imagination of utopic possibilities, become dominant themes.
It was in order to give to this last point an appropriate weight that I dwelled on Immersion and House Divided at some length. It was critical to do so in order to understand Mark’s other works in their fullest sense. Mark’s works, by definition, are alive; not “about” life; but are life performances. Thus they are without limit, without fixed form. They are performances, but ones that do not conform to traditional narrative structures or forms; they do not have beginnings, middles and ends. No more than a hive does. They are unfortunately artificially limited by art world venues such as museums, and art world expectations of spectatorship and consumption. His works demand to be conceived in a temporality unique to the modes of their performative production, and must be held suspended in the supplementary imaginings of those who have experienced them. Their temporality is best understood in the context of his performances in Japan. Passage: with Backpack Hive required that Mark walk eleven feet per hour in order not to loose the foraging bees that lived there.