Ris Publica (Jessica Winton)

By January 2, 2017Projects

Ris Publica (trans: public laughter) proposes the site of the civic parade as a unique possibility (i.e. – as an event that carries forward a history and infrastructure of civic culture whilst containing potential for the enactment of a diverse civic identity). A humorous form of open, generous and joyful participation, Ris Publica seeks to ensconce itself in the event of the parade by creating a semblance of conventional float entries.

Image above: Ris Publica (Jessica Winton), 2016, mixed media and performance, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Locations and Dates:

Version 1 has taken place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada on August 1st, 2016, during the Natal Day Parade and V.2 will take place once again on August 7th, 2017 (albeit with different content) It will then continue to take place annually. This work seeks to become expanded anywhere as a model of interposition in civic parades. Ris Publica is currently arranging V.3 participation at Art City in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada during the month of June 2017, during their annual parade. V.4 anticipates participation in the annual Wassail parade (typically in early December) in Woodstock, Vermont, through a collaboration with the ArtisTree Community Art Center.

Ris Publica project link: http://www.rispublica.com/

Ris Publica Halifax 2016 video link: https://vimeo.com/192560286

Halifax Natal Day link: http://www.natalday.org/parade-registration.php

ArtCity link: http://www.artcityinc.com/

Background:

In the inaugural Halifax/Dartmouth formation, four parade entries were created, performed and documented. Responses to the work in video, written and oral form continue to be collected by third-person interviews, and gathered through focused discussion of the event with the participants in the weeks following the performance. Knowledge acquired from this collection of responses will drive upcoming event formations.

The following practical descriptions, present the four entries created (in their parade order of appearance for 2016):

Domestic Cleansing #27: performers sweep around and under a 10′ x 16.5′ rolling carpet with brooms (that are attached to the rolling chassis by cables) which guide the maneuvering. Additional performers glean the leftover debris.

Jessica Winton, Domestic Cleansing (Ris Publica), 2016, mixed media and performance, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo: Katherine Knight

Lorem Ipsum #31: a group of performers carry a banner with an intentional “placeholder” text as the group name. Group member performers interact in a manner similar to a “wave” in the crowd at an arena, passing movement through and across themselves, initiated from within or from the audience themselves.

Jessica Winton, Sweet Nothings (Ris Publica), 2016, mixed media and performance, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo: Katherine Knight

Good Intentions #42: performers work with the machinery and hand tools of a paving crew; things go awry as they attempt to maintain the civic infrastructure – taking measurements and flattening the pavement – despite their best efforts to do a good job.

Jessica Winton, Good Intentions (Ris Publica), 2016, mixed media and performance, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo: Katherine Knight

Methodology:

Ris Publica attempts to employ a multi-faceted approach centred around readability/obfuscation  at the intersection of art, civics and everyday life. This ensconcing methodology attempts to position audience participation and response to an artwork into the format of civic festivity, thus hybridizing and expanding the realms of aesthetic literacy. This approach contains dual objectives – providing both visual examples of participation and instruction to annual participants in tandem.

Ris Publica envisions expanded aesthetic literacy and fosters the use of this vocabulary through additional participation promotion in upcoming years. Delving into the complex interactions of agents involved in the public spheres, this project limits its direction towards consideration of participation in the parade, rather than a specific platform outside of the event. By using indeterminacy (of authorship and meaning) as a possible point of accessibility for the audience, Ris Publica draws from the many strategies and concerns of the Fluxus movement, though distinctively, the intention of the Ris Publica project is to politicize the annual civic festivity through an accessible and symbiotic form, rather than contend the event itself has an “agency for action”.[i]

This endeavor seeks to jointly engage members of civic society for the parade, which provides the opportunity for the Ris Publica artworks to be recognized as having ‘exclusive characteristics and yet simultaneously shared experience’[ii]. The postulation is that through both the visual example provided by Ris Publica and participants’ experiences of each event, aesthetic literacy will improve, and the public will regard the arts with increased value and will thus increase heterogeneous participation. The results of this practice will be borne out as Ris Publica continues over several years and events.

The creation of this work as sculptural/performative objects stems from an interest in what Joseph Beuys described as social sculpture[iii] a methodology which elevates the importance of the connection of the work to its audience over its form. Unlike Beuys, this practice eschews the celebrity status of the individual artist, thereby landing in the dialogical framework of participatory practice. To the Project Anywhere audience, the explication of contextual politics will remain vague, though assuredly the inaugural forms engaged deliberative location and time specificity (Halifax/2016) to inform the content. Articulation of future versions will result in unique floats and performances being created, again derived from context specificity at time of creation.

The process of situating the first version in Halifax, Nova Scotia’s Natal Day Parade resulted in (estimated) 40,000+ in public attendance. This is equivalent to the estimated number of annual visitors to the two provincial art institutions of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. This outcome is significant, in terms of reception to the expanded field of public art, in that it reaches those whom Thomas Hirschhorn would describe as a non-exclusive audience.[iv]

The 50+ participants, who were drawn to the project through various public media appeals and word of mouth, encompassed many from this non-exclusive group. This smaller group, somewhat diverse in age, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, education, family position and heritage, experienced the work as a socially engaged art project – co-creating choreographic movement for each entry and contributing to the work’s own community through participation in rehearsals and convening before and after the parade for discussions.

A unique consideration of this work is a typically unrecognized participatory audience – the 20+ members of the municipal civic events administration and parade volunteers as well as local businesses (Ocean Construction supplied and delivered the asphalt roller) that contributed material and supplies. It was necessary for these instrumental participants to recognize the importance of this work and thereby authorize and support its’ occurrence. Through this civic process, the Ris Publica project has officially become a matter of public record, and was ultimately awarded the prize for the Most Humorous Entry, from the organizers.

Considerations:

The use of humour in Ris Publica, aside from being enjoyable to create, holds intriguing value in a social theory context. Employing a strategy of accessibility (meanings, materials, performance) in the humor-based work, attempts to mitigate any profound concerns that the work unwittingly reinforces predominant social hierarchies. Though relief or superiority theories may determine the subjective responses inherent in hierarchical humour, Ris Publica attempts to flatten these positions, placing itself through “incongruity theory”.

A humor theorist working in this vein, Thomas Veatch, writes that a person perceives humour when there is simultaneously a “violation of a subjective moral order”[v] yet also retains a predominating view of the situation as being normal. His broad use of the term “moral” here refers to “the issues people actually care about” at a certain emotional distance from the perceiver – sympathetic, but not sacred – and it is this middle distance that Ris Publica aims towards.

For the viewer, finding humour depends upon the discernment of an appropriate incongruity, which is perhaps on recognition of a structure that is then subverted. Defining this subversion further, Gregory Schrempp recognizes that this conceptualization “holds that the humor proceeds upon the apprehension of a structure of ideas rather than from the reaction to particular ideas, motives, or events [themselves].”[vi] Ris Publica aims to delve into local understandings and engage debate on alternate possibilities through exposure of the structure of this knowledge.

Though each version is engaged locally, there are universal examples of humour being used as an effective and acceptable gesture that is able to challenge the status quo, or push the boundaries of social acceptability, regardless of the message carried with it. The following text from Hub Zwart is such an exemplary description of the value of humour to social resistance – the ways we, as citizens, come to it, and empower ourselves via its utilization:

“… all of a sudden, the basic vulnerability of the dominant regime dawns on us or is revealed to us – and this is the experience of laughter… Moral criticism, and the subsequent dawning of a new moral discourse or moral regime, is preceded by the experience of laughter… [it] allowed for unprecedented forms of moral subjectivity to emerge and constitute themselves. True laughter is the ground and starting point of moral transformations, and an experience of epochal significance. “[vii]

Although the preceding quote speaks of laughter as the grounds for change, I would argue that laughter is a result of a cognitive change transpiring upon the discernment of an incongruity – humour. Our ability to recognize the subverted framework and discern the incongruity results in the vital bodily sensation of laughter. This laughter, freed from the body as mimetic energy, re-organizes itself in new ways, having emerged from a creative process and radiating outward from one’s body as a comic ‘wave packet’[viii].

Context:

Ris Publica intentionally chooses the forum of the public parade believing it resists the logic, values and power of financialization, as it occurs in an event largely unrecognized by typical institutions of art. As such, the parade functions as a “public sphere”[ix] as Jürgen Habermas proposed, and could be the method by which the civic structure is shaped, and altered to suit the dynamic needs of the people it ostensibly supports. Simon Sheik provides a description of an updated concept of what the public sphere could represent and it is within this contemporary description that I secure a rationale for this site for this work:

“we can attempt to posit the various public spheres or formats of cultural production – the exhibitionary complex, the educational facility, public television, et al. – as precisely the arena for contestations and articulations.”[x]

In its ideal form, the civic parade has the opportunity to graft the social identity of [non-partisan] registrants onto the viewers and allow for a safe and welcoming arena for the multiplicity of issues at hand for the citizenry.

As Judith Butler asserts, “To be a political actor is a function, a feature of acting on terms of equality with other humans­…The exercise of freedom is something that does not come from you or from me, but what is between us, from the bond we make at the moment in which we exercise freedom together, a bond without which there is no freedom at all.”[xi]

The critical difference in the structure of a civic parade rather than a protest or demonstration (what Butler’s earlier writing refers to) is that the purpose of participation is simply [re]presentation, under the auspices of a civic structure. This methodology of ensconcing the work within the civic parade (as opposed to a novel performance) not only allows for a widening of possible viewership and participation, but also corresponds to what Marc James Léger terms the “…sinthomeopathetic, which proposes a transformation of the mediating functions of institutions through occupation and radicalization”[xii]. In the case of the Ris Publica project, the institution occupied being the civic event of the regional Municipal Councils, transforming their function towards a more creative and representational venue.

Registrants have the potential to engage in this ‘public sphere’ via their own floats or entries – which are the visible elements of the reflected community – allowing for the recognition of one’s individual values, and the issues at hand in one’s social circles, amongst a plethora of other concerns. This is what Suzanne Lacy designates the “activated value system”[xiii] of the audience with which art has the ability to connect. This activation could be seen as blurring the distinction between ‘high art’ and social practice taking place on the tableau of society.

Ris Publica seeks to pursue the performance of humor-based critique within the civic event, created for, and enacted by citizenry on public streets where strangers interact, with the ambition toward beginning the existence of emancipated public spheres. These interests would be greatly bolstered when carried out in multiple locations, with engagement and participation strategies effectively researched, by critiquing locally supported issues within local contexts and ultimately disseminated via the platform provided by Project Anywhere.

[i]  Meyer-Hermann, Eva, Andrew Perchuk, Stephanie Rosenthal, and Allan Kaprow. Allan Kaprow – Art As Life. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008, p.82

[ii] Rancière, Jacques. (Gabriel Rockhill, transl.) The politics of Aesthetics: the distribution of the sensible. London New York: Continuum, 2006.

[iii] Beuys’ concept of expanding sculpture socially as a gesamtkunstwerk, (a total artwork) for which he claimed a creative, participatory role in shaping society and politics.

[iv] Hirschhorn, Thomas, et al. Critical laboratory the writings of Thomas Hirschhorn.     Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013.

[v] Veatch, Thomas. A Theory of Humor, the International Journal of Humor Research – 11,1998, p.168.

[vi] Schrempp, Gregory. “Our funny universe: On Aristotle’s metaphysics, Oring’s theory of humor, and other appropriate incongruities.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, Vol 8(3), 1995, p.81.

[vii] Zwart, Hub. Ethical consensus and the truth of laughter: the structure of moral transformations. Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Pharos Pub. House. 1996, p. 9

[viii] Massumi, Brian. The power at the end of the economy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. Print. (e-book)

[ix] Habermas, Jürgen. Thomas Burger, and Frederick Lawrence. The structural   transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois            society. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992. Print.

[x] Sheikh, Simon. “In the place of the public sphere? or, the world in fragments.” Situation. Claire Doherty. [Ed.]  London, Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery MIT Press, 2009, p.141.

[xi] Butler, Judith. Notes toward a performative theory of assembly. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015, p.52.

[xii] Léger, Marc J. Brave new avant garde : essays on contemporary art and politics. Winchester, UK Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2012, p.3.

[xiii]  Lacy, Suzanne. Leaving Art: Writings on Performance, Politics and Publics, 1974-2007. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, p.30.