Perth Symposium, various venues 19 - 21 March 2004
The School of Contemporary Art (SOCA) of Edith Cowan University (this year in conjunction with The Bureau of Ideas) recently held the second of a series of six annual symposia planned on the subject of beauty. There is no room here for a full account of the symposium. What follows is essentially a personal and highly selective impression picking out a few items out of a rich and varied fare.
Domenico de Clario, Head of SOCA, explained that the idea of the series was stimulated by his meeting Arthur Danto and reading his lectures titled 'The Abuse of Beauty'. This particular symposium had the aim of exploring ideas around '&the dialogue between those who are drawn to maintaining classical paradigms of beauty& in either their practice or theoretical approach and those who are drawn to the constant reinvention of new ones.'
A brilliant innovation of the Symposium was that it took place in five different locations, starting at the water tank of Mount Flora Museum. The first paper by Julian Goddard contrasted the Platonic ideals of an original present in the idea of cover with the anti-foundational approach of Dewey, the remix. It was in the remix that new possibilities of beauty emerged. One of the symptoms of contemporary culture was the collapse of ethics into aesthetics. Looking good has become the equivalent of being good.
At the Bakery Artrage Complex Ted Colless gave a challenging paper, in which he contrasted today's culture of the re-mix with that of the cover version, the dominant paradigm for most of history. The cover version relies on the memory of an original that acts as the universal source of values, a Platonic ideal against which all versions are measured. The remix in contrast is not a recovery; it neither improves on, nor falls short of an original, but is a new creation.
On Saturday we arrived at the baggage carousel in the Virgin Blue terminal at Perth airport to find Domenico de Clario seated in the centre of it as his assortment of artefacts went on a never-ending journey round him. He argued that the cover version was an impossibility because there can be no determining original. Quantum physics shows us through the Uncertainty Principle that physics has abandoned paradigms of certainty in measuring phenomena. He read seven short stories describing the migrant experience, perennially attempting to recover the authenticity of a lost original from the remix, a project doomed to fail.
Later we moved to the high-tech Barbagallo Motors in whose showroom a red Ferrari, a yellow Alfa Romeo, a blue Audi and a green Jaguar had been arranged. There we enjoyed a sumptuous free lunch while deciding which car most exemplified for us the Platonic ideal, from which we were separated only by a lottery win.
In this high-octane context Rex Butler's paper was in good company. He argued that there was a danger of confusing statements with meta-statements, so that each meta-statement becomes the statement for the next meta-statement. This image of infinite regress was illustrated by his reference to the Jorge Luis Borges' story 'The Library of Babel'.
This was like post-modern art, Butler argued, endlessly reflecting back on itself, but in the end only showed the equivalence of things to themselves. The radical nature of the re-mix is an illusion, because everything is already connected to everything else. Butler concluded that cover and re-mix could not be opposites because the re-mix doesn't really exist. There are only cover versions.
It was a masterstroke of planning to follow this demanding paper with a fashion performance of clothes by Rebecca Patterson of the label breathless. Accompaniment by hip-hop and an ambient skateboarder, her model gave a great showing of Patterson's current collection.
The collections' wraps and layers, printed abstractions and textures had the visual liveliness of paintings, whilst capturing the moody attitude of mix and match that's so accurately now. Patterson summed up her creative credo by saying: 'As soon as things get boring I mess them up.'
The session at Barbagallo's ended with Mark Minchinton giving a lively account of a production showcasing the original rehearsal of Strindberg's Miss Julie. His aim is to get the performance to approach the condition of rehearsal, to adopt the strategy of the re-mix. Cover is a colonial space enthralled to an original master version, always existing elsewhere.
The symposium then moved to the closing party of Marie Bonnal's photographs examining the relationship between pornography (image) and art (imagination). The evening ended with a performance of cover and re-mixed songs by Natalie Gillespie.
Sunday sessions were enhanced by the generosity of IKEA; coffee and the first papers in the restaurant area, then to sitting room sofas, and via the children's section to final papers in the checkout area.
Stelarc presented an illustrated retrospective from his Stretched Skin performances to his more recent prosthetic investigations of the body's obsolescence. In the lunch-break we were able to ask questions of his virtual talking head inhabiting his laptop; it even told jokes but was clearly a cover version, lacking the wonderfully infectious laugh of the original.
Ian McLean, speaking in the children's furniture section, rejected Rex Butler's image of a remix of infinite regress as a black hole, equivalent to Sartre's 'nothingness at the heart of being'. McLean argued that from the time when icons became art we have been haunted by an un-nameable secret which cannot be told, resulting in the endless struggle between re-mix as exorcism and cover as the sacred. The issue is not cover or remix; rather cover and remix exist in an 'unholy symbiosis'.
Fittingly, in the check-out section Dawn Freshwater looked at whether the self could be deemed remix or cover by using a psychoanalytic framework. Psychotherapy might be seen as a self-reflexive integrating process, re-connecting re-mix and cover. We all yearn to return to the origin, to an original self that may not exist. We are neither cover nor re-mix but in continuous transit between the two.
The symposium ended with a session in the pub before a dinner at a Thai restaurant and a final performance of cover songs by Domenico de Clario, titled 'My Western Home'.
I have been to many academic conferences in the UK before coming to Perth, but have not experienced one that contained such a lively mixture of stimulating papers and creative ideas from artists and academics.