Matt Siegle, The Human Potential Movement, Park View, August 11–15, 2014: Interview with the Artist

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One night in the middle of August, I made my way over to Park View, an art space started by Paul Soto in his newly rented apartment in the MacArthur Park neighborhood. Park View was having its inaugural show, a five-night performance by Matt Siegle called The Human Potential Movement. Visitors could drop in on any of the five nights between 7 and 10 pm, and come and go as they wished.

I entered the small apartment to find a simple, clean living room with a single striped couch positioned under the window opposite the front door. Matt was crouching on the hardwood floor, surrounded by gadgets and wires. Two clumps of blue lights lay on the floor. I took a seat on the couch, next to two people I didn’t know.

A loop of monologues played over the small speaker system attached to Matt’s gear. It was a mix of Esalen texts, poetry by Walt Whitman, and the artist’s journal entries. You could tell that speech recognition software was being used to translate written text into disembodied speech. While this meditative soundtrack played, Matt repeatedly struck a match, used it to light a candle, and then snuffed out the flame with his fingers. He did this over and over again, letting the candle burn for less than a minute before putting it out and repeating the process. A pile of used wooden matches was accumulating around the candle.

About once every 15 minutes or so, Matt would get up and switch the short candle out for a long one that sat atop a wine bottle. He would light it once then switch it back. Throughout the performance, he pretty much stared straight ahead with a blank look on his face. People came and went, and no one spoke. Two friends entered while I was there, and we only nodded at each other in recognition before they settled in.

In this calm living room setting, I felt like an indulgent parent or grandparent watching a child perform. There was a sense of attentiveness and support and simply letting Matt do his thing. As the ritual droned on and looped with utter impassivity, its steady repetition seemed to create a kind of completeness. Matt was being utterly present to the moment, bolstered by sonic tools of self-realization, and we were all witnessing and sharing in the moment. It felt like a pure ceremony of being and/or becoming, with a simple intimacy that was strangely soothing.

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Below is an interview that I conducted with Matt by email in which we discuss the particulars of this performance, and his thought process leading up to it.

Carol Cheh: The last time we talked, you told me about how you didn’t feel you could perform any more. Could you recap that conversation for our readers? Also, what changed?

Matt Siegle: For me, performance art is about experimentation, breaking shit down, working out problems through embodiment. Vito Acconci said it well: “You can’t do performances for too long a time: performance has to be a way of breaking out of one kind of art in order to find/invent another kind.” He’s a little hardline, but the sentiment is correct. I don’t really like to do this type of artwork unless it’s under the skin, and if I know what I’m going for too much, then I probably shouldn’t bother. In 2013, I finished some video work related to a long-term performance project (2009–2012), but other than that, it had been about two years since completing a major piece.

I started doing performance in 2007. This was after the proliferation of quick and easy digital media, but before the total smartphone/Instagram/Tumblr explosion. In the mid-2000s, the viewing experience of real-life body narratives had really shifted toward web-browser scrolling, but it was still personal computer-based. Internet experiences were not quite so intensely narcissistic yet, and we had just watched (and read about) the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through the laptop screen. So outside of dance and music, the theatricality of a live performance event seemed so extraordinarily false and out of touch, unless treated very carefully. But at the same time, performance felt like the appropriate way to explore engagement and apathy, and those were my big interests at the time. I ended up working on a lot of video, digital collage, and other forms of manipulated documentation.

Later in the decade, iPhone and self-recording really took off, and this technology (and all the associated avatars and narcissism) kind of obviously became the edge for performance art. Here’s where I got into a huge block, because really, I don’t like smartphones very much. I mean they are extremely useful and I love playing dumb video games, but also it gets so tiring sometimes, and seems so reductionist. You know how Words With Friends was really great for a couple of months, and then it just turned into an annoying Tamagotchi, but with more guilt for letting “friends” down? That’s how I feel about my smartphone, except once you have one you can’t really go back.

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So I was kind of on lockdown because I was totally obsessed with this technology—life integrated with iPhone—but I thought I needed to stop performing because I didn’t want to do a selfie Tumblr stream or whatever. Very quickly, some artists really mastered this arena (e.g. K8 Hardy’s Instagram), but it became apparent that this type of work didn’t hold anything for me.

You and I talked outside the Mike Kelley show at MOCA. There is something so intensely human about that work. He allows you to relate your body, as viewer, into some of the rawness he approached, but surrounded by other watching viewers at the same time. The messiness of human psychology feels very physical. Around the same time, I saw a piece by John Burtle where he stood outside a dilapidated garage, in the foreclosure- and flip-happy Highland Park neighborhood, and he balanced a Trader Joe’s or Von’s orchid on the side of his head. He stood there for a really long time! Eventually John walked, bit by bit, edging toward the inside of the garage, until the pot fell and broke. Watching with a group of other people, huddled around this busted domestic structure, felt communally nerve-wracking.

Mike’s and John’s works reminded me—really, convinced me—to consider the physical body again. I started to think of performances as bodies together, shared experiences. I’m talking about natural human-type experiences, but not in a Topanga Canyon, ayahuasca-cumbaya kind of way—maybe dirtier, a bit broken, with some grit. And that this could feel fresh, and exist beyond Relational Aesthetics. Gradually, the idea of a performance started to make sense. It could communicate with and skate along the surface of the digital sphere, but mostly exist as lived experience outside of it.

CC: What was your goal in enacting The Human Potential Movement?

MS: The Human Potential Movement is about self-realization, in the sense of enlightenment. The texts in the piece follow the history of self-realization in America, from the Manifest Destiny period up through modernism and into the contemporary moment. I didn’t do this performance with a specific goal in mind necessarily, but if anything I’d like viewers to pick at the idea of what contemporary enlightenment might be. Are we there already? Or maybe it’s in digi-cyborg form? Or in the flesh, actually through that Topanga ayahuasca circle.

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I have been struggling to articulate why this idea, in general, feels important in the contemporary moment. Maybe it’s because we’ve finally reached a particularly visible intersection between self-realization and American narcissism. Dropping off Facebook and the Internet for a Zen retreat can actually become a pretty aggressive self-promotional gesture. Do enough yoga and you’ll have a really nice ass. I mean, I want to have a nice ass too. I also want to know what it means to use more of my brain, and exist freely and with ease in the digital mind.

CC: Why did this performance take place every night for five nights? Were the numbers significant — the fact that it started on 8/11 and ended on 8/15 (thus, 1 through 5)? And, what was the significance of the strings of blue lights?

MS: Mostly, I wanted to set up an environment where you would share the performance with just a few other people, sitting together on the couch. Since the work happened over several evenings, the audience was dispersed and this allowed for a more intimate viewing experience. Also, there was an element of randomness, in that anyone could walk in and join in at any given moment. Chance closeness with strangers, kind of like an online forum comments section.

I wanted viewers to feel like they could enter whenever they wanted and leave whenever they wanted, and that beyond their immediate presence, they would know that the performance would continue on. It’s a kind of cognitive framing, where you understand the piece in the immediate moment—in the body—while knowing that the performance will exist the next day too, when you probably won’t be at Park View, and that it existed yesterday, before you had an understanding of the work and its contents. The daily repetition concretizes the gestures, the installation, and the environment, but not in a hardcore sculptural way. It’s not a Tino Sehgal or The Artist Is Present kind of everlasting, it’s more graspable and finite, more about repetition in a living-human sense.

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It follows that the Monday through Friday choice was very intentional, to create the sense of banal, everyday eternity. It ends on Friday, because it’s the weekend, and then a new week starts on Sunday, but the reset button is hit, and a whole other tableau of life plays itself out. As humans, we are stuck in these repeating loops of time and behavior, and it’s important to me to set myself and my performance within one of these loops, and then release from it.

There is no significance in the numbering of the dates, although it is a nice coincidence that each night could be numbered 1 to 5. There were four strings of lights in the installation. Those lights, and some other small installation components—such as the ceiling fans with the one light bulb in place, the couch, the curtain rods with empty curtain rings—were there to create a kind of vacant, quasi-mindful domestic ambience. In my twenties, I spent a lot of time in youth hostels in South America and Eastern Europe, and I’m sort of thinking of that inescapable namaste vibe, but more ghostly, after everyone has left town—maybe the stereo is still playing Manu Chao and the tables and chairs are disheveled.

CC: I see that you also did this performance in a gallery space in Copenhagen. How would you compare the two experiences?

MS: I performed in Copenhagen in a really great artist-run gallery called YEARS. They do an amazing job with their space—it’s as polished (and as formal) as some smaller commercial galleries here in LA. So that iteration really occurred in a white-cube gallery environment, and as a result I had to punch up certain qualities to take people out of the immediate sculptural read of the work, to make it a relatable experience. There, the social component was more prominent—we had gin and tonics served, in real glassware! So while some people watched quietly, it was totally okay for others to have classy drinks and smoke cigarettes in the secondary space of the gallery. I also made a bigger effort, during those three hours, to connect with individual viewers, to distinguish myself from the Gilbert and George living sculpture thing. I spent a lot of time staring at people, really actively looking at them, but I would also let my eyes wander so as not to seem too rigid. The other breaks within my looping behavior were erratic and unpredictable.

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The performance only happened for one evening, so the crowd really grew within the gallery during the course of three hours. The event was certainly more dramatic. In the white-cube context, the crowd also gave a performative bracketing: the crowd signified the event is happening now. In this setting, doing the work over multiple nights might actually start to feel too scripted and encased in stone.

Also, since most people in Denmark aren’t immediately tapping into California Big Sur history and that Esalen hippie vibe, it seemed they could focus on the more pagan qualities and some of the darker components of the work. My positioning and setup could read as an earth-bound fire ritual. Without the mindfulness patina, the candle extinguish/relight loop seems more futile, and the computer voice sounds more like HalAdding to this, there’s no need for fans or air conditioning in Copenhagen, and so the sulfur smell from the matches could really build up in the space. It got pretty acrid, and the stench really offset the holistic nature of some of the texts. More than a few people told me they could not think about the performance without thinking of the devil.

Ultimately, the YEARS setup lost the smaller, communal feeling of what happened at Park View. But at the same time, at YEARS the margin between leisure and performance was deliberately very thin, and you could encounter the work more casually. It was a bubbly viewing environment, yet everyone was still really respectful. The performance works either way—a collective meditation channeled into a fizzy cocktail party, or into a living room couch huddle.

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