3.6 / Review

the whole of all the parts as well as the part of all the parts

By Jessica Brier December 7, 2011

The whole of all the parts as well as the part of all the parts is a solo project by Los Angeles–based artist Frances Stark curated by Sandra Percival of the contemporary art space YU in Portland. It is a cinematic installation that explores the layered meanings of performance and technology, the creative process, and the mediation of personal and artistic experience.

It consists of a single installation that is divided into eight video segments, totaling fifty-three minutes in length, with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The museum is divided accordingly into eight smaller galleries, with the walls acting as projection screens and partitions. The piece begins every hour, on the hour; lights go down, and the first video is projected onto the wall closest to the museum entrance. At the end of the first segment, a giant arrow flashes on the screen, pointing visitors to the next gallery where another video immediately begins. Stark choreographs our movement through the space, and the piece progresses like this until viewers have traveled to the far end of the museum. Some rooms have benches and others don’t, so even the position of viewers at rest is predetermined.

The videos combine text, music, a clip from Fellini’s 8 ½, and video footage of an experimental opera Stark performed at the Aspen Opera House in 2010. Aside from this footage, the only figures that appear are computer-generated: one male and one female figure created in the program Xtranormal, clad in white briefs and Adam and Eve–style leaves respectively. The characters are never named, though we come to understand the woman as Stark herself. She uses the avatars’ not-quite-human voices to heighten our sense of technology-mediated humanity—an idea that permeates the piece and holds it all together.

The problem of authorship also serves as a thread through Stark’s work. She layers other people’s music on top of her own words, filtering them through a computer program made by someone else. In one of the most entertaining moments of the piece, the audio morphs into a kind of stream-of-text musical set to an upbeat, rhythmic soundtrack, and a line appears on screen that echoes this longing for originality, as if the piece itself yearns to be authentic: “Oh to be as sound as a song not simply flat and half as long.”

Much of the whole of all the parts ruminates on the difficulty of being an artist—the internal pressures inherent in the act of creation, the impossibility of originality, the anxiety of writer’s block, and the particular stress of being a “professional” artist. The computerized voiceover that introduces the first video primes us with some stream-of-consciousness agonizing of this ilk. Stark worries that she may be “losing the ability to write.” This feels a bit like the introductory sentence of a short story in its first draft, one that provides essential momentum but is likely to get lopped off in the revision stage.

Frances-Stark-The-whole-of-all-the-parts-and-the-parts-of-all-the-parts-2011-installation_view

The whole of all the parts and the parts of all the parts, 2011; installation view, Mills College Art Museum, 2011. Courtesy of the Artist and Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Phil Bond.

Frances-Stark-The-whole-of-all-the-parts-and-the-parts-of-all-the-parts-2011-installation_view

The whole of all the parts and the parts of all the parts, 2011; installation view, Mills College Art Museum, 2011. Courtesy of the Artist and Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Phil Bond.

And maybe this was the point, for Stark: to combine both the finished and messy bits of a work, the whole of all the parts and the parts of all the parts, even those that seem redundant or preliminary. This is one way to expose the circuitous process of making art. The computer-voice declares, “I cannot tell anyone how all these parts and parts of parts will add up.”

By far the most engrossing parts of the piece occurred in the latter half, featuring flirtatious online chat sessions between an anonymous man and woman. These conversations are not only the source of the work’s central narrative, comprising a compelling drama that unfolds over time, but also the synthesis of its most poignant ideas that are obliquely hinted at elsewhere. Their words pop up on screen in turn and distinguished by two different fonts. Over time, it becomes clear that the woman is Stark, and the man is an Italian architect whom she has never met in person.

In one conversation, Stark compares being an artist to being a sex worker; there is always a “pressure to get it on.” Stark is able to express her own fears and innermost thoughts about art, sex, and intimacy to (and through) this stranger. At another point, the Italian suggests that they should never meet in person because they are too alike. For both of them, “nothing is enough.” This phrase stuck with me, resonating like some kind of Zen proverb. Does it imply that they are never satisfied? Or that the most minimal human contact—next to nothing—is, itself, enough?

The relationship between Stark and the architect is interesting on two levels. There is an obvious strangeness to knowing someone across the world only through instant messaging, creating the illusion of closeness through the remove of technology. But more interesting is that this medium allows viewers, as voyeuristic audience, to witness an intimate exchange in a way that wouldn’t be possible through any other means. I came to understand the Internet as an ironic enabler of intimacy, both for Stark and her mystery man, and for viewers as their audience.

When the lights come up, the question of how all the parts, and parts of parts, add up (or don’t) lingers. Experiencing the work is perhaps reflective of the process of its making: it is disjointed and disorganized, leaving many threads unstitched. The wall text informs us that the whole of all the parts…was punctuated with a “finale” at Performa 11 in New York this November. Part of the opera created for the Aspen Opera House was also revised and given another life as a performance titled I’ve had it and a half! at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles earlier this year. Understanding the way Stark recycles, revises, and extends the life of her work is crucial to her process as an artist: for her, art is by definition always unfinished, always reflecting back on itself and finding new life. This is a messy process. But for all its conceptual loose ends, Stark’s work feels genuine precisely because it is messy. She is always working through these questions: How do we make anything original? Why make art at all? How is experience translated through space, time, and medium? What constitutes performance? These questions lead to more questions, which, like the life of her work, simultaneously reach back into the past and forward into the future.

 

The whole of all the parts as well as the part of all the parts is on view at the Mills College Art Museum, in Oakland, through December 11, 2011.

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