there is no better way to do that than with the work of mark thompson: an artist who has been written into the annals of performance art; while simultaneously written out of it. or, his work with live honey bees and their cultures, in order in part to challenge the strictures of what museums are mostly NOT willing to show: life. despite those strictures, thompson has been able to bring live honey bees into the hallowed spaces of contemporary non-living art, museums and other, non-conventional spaces. imagine: creating links through wire-mesh tubing so live honey bees can find their hives inside museums… imagine that that takes weeks, not days. then imagine that thompson has accomplished that…
in berlin before the wall came down, the same year, but just before. the images that follow are very complex and cannot be understood as images. they are beautiful. but their beauty to the eye is a pale rendition of their conceptual and performative content. more on that to follow. one of the most brilliant works of the late 20th C, 1989, the year that the 20th C ended. [don’t be fooled by conventional chronologies. the 21st century began in 1989. just after thompson’s work was created literally on the berlin wall, shortly before it fell, and the 21st C began.]
roloff and i, edited a special issue of the NYC magazine, New Observations, under the theme of Organic Logic. For that ground breaking issue, we interviewed a number of artists and non-artists, including suzanne lacy, the geologist, paul spudich, a public art administrator, ann wettrich, the artist/theater director, rodessa jones, musician pamala Z, and even john kriedler. we then commissioned artists to produce work specifically for this issue, and conducted interviews. our criteria for selection was that all contributors had to be involved in some way with ‘systems’ thinking, in the production of the ‘ecosystem’ of the art world. john and i went to great lengths to be represent the major players in the then SF area art world system. in retrospect, i can say that i think our New Obs issue stands the test of time.
i personally edited and designed the issue, though, when it went to press at NO’s, they ignored many of my design mandates, so the final result looked worse that i had hoped.
in any case, our issue of new observations broke new ground in that it examined the art world system, as a system, across a variety of the actors responsible then, for creating it.
so, from that issue, i want to present first, the work that mark thompson created:
his contribution consisted of the imagery above.
what follows is my cursory attempt to add some archival imagery as context:
below, top left: Mark’s early studio in west oakland, CA.
below: upper left and right: stills from mark’s film, Immersion, 1977-2005?). bottom left and right: Walk With Backpack Hive (date: ?): Mark constructed a bee hive from a wicker backpack and retraced some of the well known Japanese poet, Basho’s walks through the same region in Japan were the poet led an itinerant life – Matsuo Basho (1644–1694)
Mark’s own statement about House Divided follows:
“A HOUSE DIVIDED”, Spring 1989, Mark Thompson
During May-June of 1989 I was involved in the project “A House Divided” in conjunction with the exhibition “Ressource Kunst”. The installation site was an early 1800’s hospital, the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien bordering the wall in West Berlin. In mid-May I began a three week exploration of East and West Berlin to gather the raw materials-resources for the installation. Working with a 19th century bee hunting box used to track and locate wild honeybees living in hollow trees in the forest, local honeybees were tracked to their hives within about a 3 mile area of East and West Berlin. This tracking process involved catching honeybees, feeding and releasing them, then carefully sighting along the returning bee flight direction in a series of steps to locate the source of the honeybees. Through this process interactions occurred with a variety of people and beekeepers from both cities. Usually the children were the most curious and excited about catching the bees and following them through the city.
In West Berlin I met Herr Pickard, a beekeeper whose beehives were about one mile away from the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien. After an explanation of how I had found him, we spent the afternoon examining his bees and pulling honey off his hives. I described my project and the need to gather beeswax for the windows from beekeepers in both cities. He gave me the seed crystal of wax for the windows – a small fragment of wax harvested before the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, his most precious wax because it was non-radioactive. From other East and West German beekeepers beeswax was purchased as the raw material for covering the two windows and iron columns supporting the ceiling. After melting and blending, the wax was poured into translucent slabs for sealing the two, arched window openings and coating the columns in the former hospital ward. Glowing with a golden-yellow presence in the darkened room, sunlight passed through beeswax drawn from the East and West – wax transmuted from nectar through the body of the honeybee.
Within the installation near the windows was the Live-in Hive – a glass walled beehive designed as a shared living space between the honeybees and my head. Before the opening of the exhibition a swarm of honeybees was transferred into the Live-in Hive – bees found during my earlier Berlin exploration – Herr Pickard’s backyard hive. Passing freely through a wire mesh tube through the ceiling, the bees came and went gathering nectar and pollen from flowers on both sides of the wall. Foraging in a 3 mile circular area around the wall, the honeybees transformed this raw nectar through their being, generating the wax architecture of their city-home. During this process my head was placed inside the hive in a series of private, sitting meditations bringing me closer to the beginnings of a new city. This city architecture of living walls of honeycomb fused together from the flowers of two Berlins – taking form in relation to a human being. The honeybees, the artist bound together through creative, natural processes form a living bridge between two cities, two worlds.
Copyright 1990, Mark Thompson
the are a few images related to this work:
above: map of berlin wall with circle indicated position of the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien; the no-mans-land between the two walls; and illustrations of the honeybee waggle dance.
below: clockwise: bee box in which bees are capture two at a time, so one may be let go first and then following until lost sight of, when, the second bee is released and followed until lost. then, two more bees are captured, let go, and followed. this process is continued until the bee hive hunter traces the bees back to their hive. an assistant in berlin helping mark in this ‘bee-lining’ process; and two children enjoying the event.
below: arrive at the hive, when Mark met it’s owner in east Berlin, Herr Pickard
below: Mark and Herr Pickard; the wax H. Pickard contributed to Mark’s installation shown above; Mark in the process of building the windows inserts and covering them with H. Pickard’s was.
My overly brief essay on Mark:
I have a unique insight into Mark as person/artist/teacher. I have served with him on many faculty committees over several years, have had the pleasure of being on student review committees with him, and of sharing students, interests, and productive dialogues often rife with both agreements and disagreements. We recently worked together on the content and conception of the New York based magazine, New Observations. I’ve know Mark for more than 25 years, have witnessed many of works, participated in the production of one personally, [6th Sense], and have held countless conversations with him over the years.
I first came to know Mark through research. I study artists who have a deeply developed relation to science and technology, 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 original in such evocative associative insights and highly catalytic divagations. His concept of “art as decoy” is but one example. His paradigm for art also included the methods of detectives. Here, I will briefly to address only two of his works.
Mark’s first significant piece, Immersion, was “performed” for film in 1977 but not completed until some time around 2005? 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. Imagine the sound of a swarm of bees slowed until it enters a low base sonic register. 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 event, viscerally phenomenological as an experience (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,” without though, abandoning it’s aesthetic form and motivation. 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. The following taxonomies are, secondly, not merely symbolic sites, but must be interpreted as “empirically actual.” Consider: production/reproduction (bee/bee keeper), life sustaining interactions (flower/bee). Neither bees nor flowers can exist independently of each other – their interaction is necessary for both forms of life to exist. (And with their co-generation, humans would starve to death because their co-existence maintains human agriculture.) 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 an immersion in this scientific paradox. And it raises questions about how the narrow taxonomic categories of the biotic world come to be constructed; thereby, immersing us in the dissolve between us and other. Immersion is a performance-act which must be interpreted in this discursive and embodied cultural network. References to art history are helpful, but are insufficient without this larger arena of interpretation. Mark requires that witnesses to his work themselves, to some degree, become biologists; otherwise, they will not be able to comprehend the profundity of his work.
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. 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 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 3-4 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 over the course of the 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 actual state and imagined recreation, as re-unified. In the hospital room, a site for quotidian events often unnoticed, as well as a site for restoring health [of a city], 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, 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, between Mark and Herr Pickard, and of human/nature co-collaborative imagination of utopic possibilities, become dominant themes.
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. Walk with Backpack Hive required that Mark walk eleven feet per hour in order not to loose the foraging bees that lived there.