14 January 1999
Not Avant-Garde Enough: The Praxis Group
by John Troyer
for the 1998 American Society for Theatre Research Annual Meeting
In a century marked by the deployment of several revolutionary and germinal modes of thinking in the production of contemporary aesthetics, the current avant-garde atrophies with time and age. A commodification of the avant-garde took place, from the shopping malls to the art museums of the United States, erasing the lines that kept these two locations distinct. The normalization of the "un-normal," for lack of a better term, has led to the creation of rules, controls, and languages that regulate the avant-garde in extremely traditional fashions. A conglomeration of laws that encourage transgressive ideas that must find support and acceptance from the keepers of the kingdom. The language of my contemporaries, those who create the work and those who control the sites of performance, lacks and ignores the need for new ideas. These individuals silence the dynamic thoughts that push forward into unconventional spaces, break rules, challenge laws and dismantle the normative structures which strip the avant-garde of praxis.
"Often compelling" read one side of the white sign; "Sometimes unsettling" read the other. A young man stood in a cold November drizzle, surrounded by me and our colleagues in white laboratory coats. Some members of the entourage held similar white signs, half sheets of poster-board with bold lettering stating: "Evidence of Rational Planning and Control was everywhere apparent/ Abandon urban centers," "The Malls of the 1990s/ Like a fancy birthday cake." Each of the lab-coated individuals (twenty-one total) were members of the Praxis Group, a Minneapolis based performance unit that engages site-specific locations in the public/private sphere to challenge the rhetoric and laws of the mundane, controlled existence of contemporary life.
The Praxis Group had just been expelled from the Walker Art Center, the largest modern art museum in Minnesota, while performing its unsanctioned and unsolicited performance piece SACRED GROUND. The text for the piece came from the institutions Annual Report as well as the gallery walls holding The Architecture of Reassurance, a new exhibit on the construction of the Walt Disney Theme Parks. The Praxis Group was stopped by an organization that sponsors and produces performers such as Allan Kaprow, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk, and Ron Athey. Each of these internationally recognized artists makes a career out of breaking both institutional codes and, at times, the law.
The performance began at noon on the first Saturday of the month when the Walker Art Center charges no admission price and is open to the general public.
The members of the Praxis Group positioned themselves in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden across the street from the Walker Art Center. Once positioned, the Praxis Group performed randomly selected functions, such as moving chairs and reading newspapers. At 12:30pm, the entire group crossed the street and entered the Walker Art Center through the front doors. Praxis placed three members as plants carrying design portfolios that contained the signs. We then split into three segments, with three individuals taking on the role of legal Counsel for the Praxis Group. The three larger groups met together every ten minutes in a line and revolved counterclockwise, then dispersed back to their original locations. After a period of 30 minutes, the group was supposed to move to the top floor of the museum for a photo-shoot amidst the permanent collection where photography is allowed. The Praxis Group walked inside the museum (telling all who inquired that questions "had to be answered by Counsel"), split up and turned one circle. Roughly fifteen to twenty minutes into the gallery presence, the Walker security staff told the Praxis Group to leave. As Lead Counsel for the Praxis Group, I offered to explain what was happening and asked to speak with the head security officials about their concerns. No conversation occurred and the Praxis Group engaged "Plan X"- the code for expulsion by the location. Two reasons were given for the expulsion: patrons complained and the Praxis Group had not asked permission to perform in the museum galleries. We had not asked permission to appear on the "Free First Saturday" of the month, when the general public is admitted to the museum and does not pay a gallery fee.
In the Walker Art Center, a "house" of modern thought, spatial boundaries, while not entirely visible to the casual observer, exist on a framework established by current models of urban planning. In his essay, Walking in the City, Michel de Certeau outlines an "operational concept" and "rational organization" for the modern city where control of the populace requires systems to eradicate "the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it" (94). De Certeau explores utopian and urbanistic discourse as the location of new urban planning which indulges sites of suburban consumption. As the populace of a city moves to interior locations, the needs of affluent individuals take on added importance. These places develop new languages of commerce, creating the commonly accepted shopping mall-- a site important to affluent tourism and the Mall of America in Minnesota.
Regional locations no longer encompass environmental, cultural, or historical sites as pure tourist attractions. Rather, as in the case of Minnesota, both the Mall of America and the Walker Art Center exist near each other as sites of cultural consumption. On a purely tourists-per-attraction ratio, the Mall of America attracts more visitors than the Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon, or Disney World (Knight-Ridder). The Mall of America also "hosted" a Praxis Group performance, 900 Seconds, in May of 1997. Both sites, as de Certeau suggests, eradicate elements that challenge their authority. The Walker Art Center controls the observation and experience of art while the Mall of America controls the art of consumerism for shoppers. By entering into these locations for unsanctioned performances, the Praxis Group rearranges the topography of the space by creating previously unknown landmarks, images, and arguments.
At the Walker Art Center, the Praxis Group reconfigured the institutions frontier edge (and Disneys Frontierland), pushing into a sphere of action that, sadly, the Walker Art Center stopped. A sphere of action for the Praxis Group that stood in solidarity with the activist art exhibit of Joseph Beuys one floor below the performance. By exerting a passive (i.e., non-violent) dislocation of the normalized museum experience, the Praxis Group found an organization confronted on its territory by an entity using practices, paradoxically, supported and celebrated by the Walker Art Center. It is an important distinction however, that the Walker Art Center did not recognize the Praxis Group as part of any normalized avant-garde structure. The Praxis Group did not exist in the cognitive and cultural language of the Walker Art Center. The inability to define a clearly visible presence forced an erasing of the group from the institutions landscape. The repercussions of the decision grow in irony when portions of the institutions "Statement of Purpose" are read:
The above ideas do not represent a departure of beliefs from similar arts institutions. Nor is the reaction of the Walker Art Center to the Praxis Group different, I believe, than that of many other modern art museums. In a desire to achieve more "efficiency" as a location of knowledge and discursive aesthetics, the Walker Art Center operates in normalized patterns that paradoxically purchase the work of artists who do the exact opposite. The Praxis Group stands in the shadow of the mammoth modern art center with its history of financial support for the avant-garde. For the sake of argument, it is also true that non-profit arts organizations must adhere to stringent rules and taxonomies when seeking funding. Tension erupts, however, as a space of overlapping and volatile fields witnesses transgressive groups contesting the self-legitimated legitimization process of contemporary art museums. A series of fields that not only overlap but also create, for the Praxis Group, a frontier of rules that are easily broken by existing outside the normalized boundaries of the avant-garde.
In the frontier space of the Walker Art Center galleries, a further argument draws on another deeper and more insidious struggle-- the tension that exists between de Certeaus definitions of space and place. In SACRED GROUND we find a conflict arising between the place that "implies an indication of stability" (117) and space that "in contradistinction to the place has thus none of the univocity or stability of a "proper" (117). To determine what happens at the moment of transgression between inhabitors of space and place relies on the permeability of the sanctified location. More often than not, each specific locale pre-establishes systems of rules to negotiate with spatial intruders. These rules manifest either in writing, visible upon entering the location, or as part of a silent "agreement" that the public internally enforces. When the rules dont exist in an agreed upon form, an improvisation of authority creates new models that mediate crises. Eventually, a respective institution of place renders a decision as to how pliable the rules of negotiation may ever become in neutralizing inhabitants of space.
What happens, then, when an individual breaks the law in a minor and/or serious way? In general, the individual is apprehended, arrested or released. A sentenced punishment deemed appropriate by the legal authorities of the State will manifest as a response to the infraction. Let us next make the question more difficult by asking: what happens when a group of individuals, more specifically the Praxis Group, infiltrates a given place? In the process, it creates a consciously and recognizably different presence within the location- a non-threatening visible entity that exists without breaking the laws or rules of the institution. The lines between wrong and different appear as both the local authorities and the general public define the presence. In many cases, especially at the Walker Art Center, the public might never realize something abnormal is happening. Only after the police, security, local administrators, etc., remove the intruders can the public know trouble is occurring. In some cases, at that moment of realization, the public will defend the offender(s) in question. At the Walker Art Center, patrons began questioning Security as to why the Praxis Group was being forced to leave. Those who intervened in the situation criticized the museum staff on site, which only quickened the expulsion process.
The Praxis Group wrote a letter to Walker Art Center shortly after the expulsion and delivered it to the entire curatorial and administrative staff. The letter simply asked how "the Walker Art Center made the one decision which compromised its integrity and statement of purpose most- the Praxis Group was told to unconditionally leave." (Praxis Group). The Walker Art Center responded with a letter that summed up the official response by stating, "on a Saturday curators are not normally in the building, and thus we were unavailable to participate in the dialogue you apparently desired" (Vergne). In the place of the curator, we find excuses and rationalizations. In the space of the Praxis Group, we find the role of discursive critique and the potential destabilization of rigidified rules. The Praxis Group embraces these concepts and tactics in the creation of cultural activism that mirrors the rules of everyday life.
The mirroring tactic employed by the Praxis Group is an extension of Michel Foucaults heterotopic spaces. The heterotopias "which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted" (24). The third principle of the heterotopic space begins the Praxis Group operations: "the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible" (25). The juxtaposition, for the Praxis Group, does not involve performances on a traditional stage space that allows for easily placated audiences. The creation of heterotopic space remains paramount for the Praxis Group, as we bring several different sites of performance, knowledge, and discourse together in the privately owned spheres of public space. Any location that appears to be a unified place, free from cultural disruption, is where the Praxis Group begins the research and the process. By employing the autonomous theatre concept of Tadeusz Kantor, a "mechanism that has it own independent existence," (42) Praxis abolishes the stage and creates a "single site, without partition or barrier of any kind, which will become the theater of the action" (Artaud 96).
These sites of action in the state of Minnesota find recent court decisions both supporting and removing civil liberties. The Mall of America literally put the notion of free expression in public spaces that are privately owned on trial. The initial Hennepin County District Court decision, State of Minnesota vs. Freeman Algot Wicklund, et al., involved the Mall of America and a group of animal rights protesters from the Student Organization for Animal Rights (SOAR) from the University of Minnesota. The SOAR group protested the use of animals in fur clothing outside Macys department store, inside the Mall of America, on May 19, 1996. The Mall of America police asked the protesters to stop, and those who did not cease handing out literature or holding anti-fur signs were arrested. In the Hennepin County District Court ruling, the concluding segment of the decision states:
The case moved to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where the District Court decision was reversed. The Appeals Court decided that the Mall of Americas rules were not "unconstitutionally restrictive" (6) and that the revenue given the Mall of America from municipal tax dollars does not make it an explicitly public space. The Minnesota Supreme Court heard the case argued in November of 1998 and expects to release a decision in the spring of 1999.
Signs remain from the legal case, both symbolic and real, on which the Mall of America posts "Rules of Conduct". These behavior expectations stand at the front doors of all the main entranceways and represent a forgoing of Constitutional rights when entering the Mall of America. The rules state:
On the day of the Praxis Group performance, Mall police told some members of the group that their white laboratory coats were "inappropriate Mall attire." When the Praxis Group created the performance, none of the specific Mall rules were broken with special attention to rule three, which previous protest groups violated. The Mall of America, as the local example of the Utopian American ideal of unfettered consumerism, lends itself to the construction of deviant heterotopic (Foucault 25) situations by groups such as Praxis. Regulated order remains paramount for the Mall of America and it takes little (for example, white lab coats) to deviate from the norm. The Mall of America defines itself in advertisements as "the place for fun in your life." The Mall makes no allusion to free space and never positions itself as the "space for fun in your life." It was, however, the complete break from "Mall reality" that I think aided the Praxis Group with 900 Seconds.
The Mall of America police never expected to see a challenging of the daily norm via the Praxis Group. The situation for the Police required an improvisation of decision-making that determined the Praxis Group was not a threat, just an anomaly in the system. A cultural vocabulary didnt exist for the police at the Mall of America to say one way or another what the Praxis Group was or, most importantly, was not. At the Walker Art Center the authorities wanted the Praxis Group to leave and used their language of expertise to decide that the presence of the group required quick expulsion. The Praxis Group was not art, according to the Walkers definitions. In fact, a staff member, overseeing the childrens education room explained, "What youre doing is not art, is not avant-garde because were the most avant-garde museum in town" (Christopher 1).
The entire Disney exhibit was about "The Architecture of Reassurance": those structures that tell us everything is stable and unified. When the Praxis Group entered the exhibit galleries and the hallways of the Mall of America it drew a line between the comfort of reassurance and the dynamics of cultural critique. The Praxis Group applauds the activities of those in the past that began the cultural critique as a career.
The conclusion of these events for the Praxis Group starts in1962 with one such critique. An emerging theater artist from New York arrived in the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota, to stage the latest in performance work for contemporary audiences. He created a performance in a series of caves that had been converted into a restaurant years earlier. A young man by the name of Allan Kaprow brought Happenings to the state of Minnesota. All three performance nights, according to a front page story in the major Saint Paul newspaper, "were sold out" (Letofsky A1). Popular reaction was mixed, with many people unsure of what was happening during the Happening, nevertheless knowing they were experiencing some cutting edge theatre. One anonymous letter did appear in the following weeks letters to the Editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch expressing both disgust with the production and, more importantly, a strong resentment of the performances cost-- $3.50 per person. Even Kaprow said that audiences, at other times, were "sore because you paid [a] $1.50 contribution" (15). As the writer of the anonymous letter states,
In thirty-five years time, contemporary performance comes full circle for the Praxis Group. The institutions that created sites for transgressive performance have, in time, forgotten their organizational past. The Praxis Group challenges the role of institutions that define representational practices, normalize living structures, and advocate cultural rigidity. The role then of the avant-garde, as yet undefined, is a blank sheet. The Praxis Group stands on the cusp of the great unknown, white laboratory coats neatly pressed, and observes the construction of the next generation- not waiting for permission to strike when the moment is right. As Jürgen Habermas states, "the avant-garde understands itself as invading unknown territory, exposing itself to the dangers of sudden, shocking encounters, conquering an as yet unoccupied future. The avant-garde must find a direction in a landscape into which no one seems to have yet ventured" (99).
In an article about the experience of SACRED GROUND, a reporter asked Walker Art Center spokeswoman Karen Gysin about the expulsion of the Praxis Group.
The Praxis Group declares a Second Rule of Engagement:
Never be avant-garde enough.