Interview: Elana Mann on Exchange Rate: 2008
by Claire Ruud
Exchange Rate: 2008, an international performance exchange project organized by Los Angeles based artist Elana Mann, is a response to the 2008 presidential elections in the United States. Through Exchange Rate’s online presence, artists from around the world may share their performance directions and post their interpretations of performance directions written by other artists. Many of these performances have already taken place, from Quito, Ecuador, to Tel Aviv, Israel. On election night, Exchange Rate will culminate in an extravaganza (including performance, live election results coverage and libations) at Remy’s on Temple in Los Angeles. With its online and offline presence, the project insinuates itself into virtual and physical public spaces, investigating the way the internet has restructured access to knowledge and the legacy of performance directions within politically engaged art practices. Recently, …might be good tracked down Mann to ask her about the project.
…might be good: Can you give me a little background on when, why and how you came up with the idea for Exchange Rate: 2008?
Elana Mann: When I was in Rio de Janeiro during the winter of 2006-2007, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had just announced their candidacy and it was headline news for many days in Brazil. I was taken aback by the outpouring of interest concerning the elections that I encountered. Everyone, from pedestrians I met on the street to fellow Brazilian artists, wanted to ask me: What did I think of the candidates? Who would I vote for? Who did I think could win? Of course, I was naïve to be so surprised at how invested the Brazilian population is in the political process of the United States, as our politics and policy deeply affect not only South America, but every other nation in the world (as we have seen from our current economic crisis). This particular election, though, has captured the attention of the world and of the US population like no other election in my lifetime. My intent with Exchange Rate was to provide a platform for a different set of electoral concerns, including international perspectives of those not allowed to vote in this coming election, but certainly affected by it.
…mbg: In Exchange Rate, rather than have artists write and perform their own performances, you ask artists to write performance instructions to be carried out by other performers. What is the significance of asking artists to perform one another’s instructions (rather than perform pieces they’ve written themselves)?
EM: In Exchange Rate I am gathering a group of international artists together that are willing to apply a process of risk, chance and hope amidst a climate of political distrust and antagonism. These artists are working in contrast to the recent unilateral actions of the United States, rather Exchange Rate represents a community of artists that are enthusiastic about interpreting directions from and collaborating within an international network. Artists have been performing instructions, or scores, created by other artists since the late 50’s/early 60s. I am interested in this history of exchange and how it relates to our current cultural climate, in which many contemporary artists are exploring the power of both social interaction and political engagement. When an artist offers instructions to be carried out by other performers there is a lot of chance involved and also a great deal of risk. The original creator of the artwork can never know exactly how the piece will be interpreted and likewise, the performer is unable to read the creator’s mind. However, in the very act of exchange and interpretation there is a hope that something fantastic will be created.
…mbg: In 2006, you performed GIVE IT TO ME, DO IT TO ME, MAKE ME..., a piece in which you asked other artists to write you performance directions, which you then carried out. In that piece, too, it seems that you were investigating a relationship between a performance writer and a performer. Can you describe that piece briefly? What types of instructions did you receive?
EM:I began GIVE IT TO ME as a way to investigate the dialog and communication that had been going on between myself and my graduate school colleagues at California Institute of the Arts. I asked all of my classmates to give me performance directions and I would perform them accordingly. I received sixteen instructions and created sixteen performances. Some of the performances were directly related to a classmate’s art practice and gave me a glimpse into their world. In one case, I was asked to perform a song popular in drag routines by a colleague who is a self-proclaimed “gender terrorist.” I experienced firsthand the difficulty of accessing research material; the clerk at Blockbuster had no idea what a drag queen even was! However, other performances involved absurdist or humiliating gestures, such as doing jumping jacks with a leotard on, singing songs that were against my politics into a doughnut hole or in a cocktail dress. Invariably, the project as a whole became a study of power dynamics, control and gender relations, which potentially represented the dynamics of my graduate school community more than I had anticipated.
…mbg: In what ways did GIVE IT TO ME feed into the development of Exchange Rate?
EM: My experience with GIVE IT TO ME directly fed into creating Exchange Rate. Although I promised myself I would never do a project quite like that one again, the process and results were fascinating to me on a sociological, political and interpersonal level. The triumphs and failures of directions continues to captivate me. Applying the intricacies of a direction-based project to a situation (like the 2008 US elections) that was already rife with systems of manipulation, power and control seemed like a natural next step. Still, I learned through GIVE IT TO ME that I had to create safeguards for the parties involved in the project. For example, in Exchange Rate participants were able to choose the directions they wanted to interpret and I also facilitated dialog between the performer and the creator about plans for the performances. Both of these factors have ensured that there are no gigantic surprises or dramatic letdowns in the process.
…mbg: In your press release you explain that the Exchange Rate performances “will mirror the pageantry we are seeing in the political campaigns” during this election. Can you offer some specific examples about the ways artists involved in the project are interrogating the spectacular nature of the political campaigns?
EM: There are a few different ways that participants are challenging the spectacular nature of the political campaigns. Some of the artists have created parallel performances that both reflect and question the theatrics of what we are seeing in mainstream media. For example, Jason Kunke, an artist based in Los Angeles, CA has written Political speech for a Hydra culled from historical speeches from sources as wide ranging as the Republican Women’s Conference to the current President of Georgia. The piece took on new dimensions when it was performed in Spanish by Ana Fernandez on the steps of the capital building in la Plaza de la Independencia, Quito, Ecuador on Thursday October 9, 2008. Other participants have chosen to directly contrast the political pageantry, either by creating anti-spectacles or proposing more personal encounters. REP (Revolutionary Experimental Spaces), from the Ukraine, has created a piece called Untitled Aktion, which they originally performed during the Orange Revolution in 2005. Interpreters of Untitled Aktion will create a political demonstration in the middle of a field or a desert with no witnesses. Three artists from Los Angeles, Liz Glynn, Vincent Ramos, Adam Overton will be performing this work separately in undisclosed locations.
…mbg: What other recurrent themes or questions have you seen in the work posted on Exchange Rate?
EM: Many of the performance directions call for intimate, poetic and participatory actions. Eva Jung, a South Korean artist who currently lives in the United States, created directions that read: 1. On November 4th 2008, buy a local newspaper. 2. Read all the Obituaries Section. 3. Write down the phrase or sentence that makes you smile. 4. Make copies and exchange by mail with other Exchange Rate participants. These instructions point to honoring/recognizing those who have not made it to see a new president elected. Sara Roberts, a Los Angeles based artist, wrote a piece called untitled music for everyone which calls for a communal prayer for the voting public. Another artist from Canada, Julie Lequin, wrote a piece that encourages a performer to get in touch with a long-lost friend and reconnect over a list of questions about the elections. All of these examples highlight the desire and importance of connecting with others during this election time, a time filled with hightened emotions and severe outcomes.
…mbg: The Exchange Rate website allows artists to post “performance directions”—instructions for performances they’ve written—and “performance interpretations”—documentation of performances written by others that they’ve carried out. Apart from a convenient means of communication, how do you see the role of the website in your project?
EM:The Exchange Rate website is the heart of the project and speaks to current methods of communication and politics. The site acts as a direct intervention into the current ways we are receiving information. Much of the population reads and gathers information about the election from the internet and so the Exchange Rate website exists in the same sphere of influence. I love how the web allows for simultaneity between the Exchange Rate site and other websites pertaining to politics and economics. Web visitors can look at the Exchange Rate activities on our blog and then surf over to The Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal and then back to Exchange Rate. In addition, unwitting web audiences type in the search words “Exchange Rate 2008 + [insert country]” and the project website appears alongside sites for that country’s currency exchange (try googling this for Ukraine-we are the third on the list!). Furthermore, activists of all kinds and both of the candidate’s campaigns are using the web in unprecedented ways to further their messages and activities.
…mbg: What considerations were significant to you in designing the site? For example, how did you think about it formally or in terms of artist/viewer navigation?
EM: The first thing I thought about was how to create a structure that would be easy to modify. Since I knew I would be continuously adding to the website as projects started rolling in, I thought a site with a blog component would be appropriate. I also wanted web visitors to be able to navigate through all the interconnected artists and projects. On the site, each artist has a page displaying her/his performance interpretations and directions and also links to the various artists who are interpreting her/his directions. Thus, the site connects each artist and project connected in a complex and intricate network.
…mbg: The culmination of Exchange Rate seems to be the November 4 “grand election night event.” What’s your vision for how that night will look?
EM: In planning for the November 4 event, my intent was to create a space where both action and reflection could take place. My desire was to juxtapose performances occurring in real time with the performances happening on network news. There are going to be two stages and various other locations in a sprawling indoor and outdoor setting, where all different sorts of performances will be taking place-durational, theatrical and participatory. Throughout the space will also be TVs and displays of elections results, including a few places to access the Exchange Rate website. Karen Atkinson, a Los Angeles based artist, will be curating two events within the space as well: Conventions & Attitudes, a projection project of still images from over one hundred national artists, and Americana with Flair, an election themed reception with performative servers. Meanwhile, since many attendees of the event will probably be experiencing deep emotions of elation or despair (hopefully the former), the November 4 setting had to include areas where groups of friends and colleagues could sit together quietly or more contemplatively and process all of the activity going on. And of course there will be a full bar available to lubricate the spurts of emotions throughout the evening.
…mbg: What’s important about holding performances on that particular night?
EM: The November 4 night is for people to come together, so that no one needs to be alone, or at a bar, on election night. I hope it will also create a context in which to examine the election proceedings and the theatrics surrounding them more critically.
…mbg: Once the elections are over and you’ve posted all the performance interpretations online, will Exchange Rate be a completed work, or do you have plans to continue the project in some way?
EM: I have already started working on an Exchange Rate: 2008 book with the Los Angeles based designer Roman Jaster. The Exchange Rate: 2008 book will be launched on the inauguration of the next president. I was interested in making a physical document/artifact that would highlight and connect all of the Exchange Rate: 2008 projects and allow for the project to live on past the moment of the elections.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.