Potential Risk of Failure

by Krystal South

Claire Fontaine install

One of my friends  spent hundreds of hours this summer installing the Claire Fontaine piece. Mapping out the United States of America onto the wall and drilling ten thousand tiny holes, then filling them with eco-friendly green-tipped matchsticks. The volunteer labor is a key part of Claire Fontaine’s conceptual gesture, as is the condition that the curator herself light the piece ablaze, something I was anxious to hear about after seeing footage of a burn of another work by Claire Fontaine shown in Europe. In the video footage, the curator repeatedly takes a blowtorch to a different map, and the hiss of flames is joined by the wail of fire alarms as smoke spreads through the exhibition space. The artists which comprise Claire Fontaine (more on that at Claire Fontaine’s site) described the scent of the kunsthalle, and the aftermath image of the burn is seared with a feeling of a man-made natural disaster, controlled destruction within the white cube.

Alas, this series of works has not gone over well in the United States, land of the free (except for some stuff!!!). A version was shown in New York unburned at Reena Spauling’s Fine Art gallery for what I assume are the same reasons it was shown that way here: you gotta get a permit…


Thing is: no one’s gonna give you that permit. Kristan Kennedy, curator of Evidence of Bricks, got the green light from everyone up the ranks except the final hurdle, ye olde fire marshal, “Not Possible At This Time” at the last step. The fire hazard was doused in retardant and remains in the state in which you can view it until October 30th. And it is a beautiful state! The protruding matchsticks create an optical illusion as you move around the room, and I found myself holding my breath as I looked closely, as though a breath could send them like dominoes across the wall.

But I was mad! I wanted to smell the work, I wanted to get the soot of the work in the soles of my shoes, I wanted to see the heat of the work in that classroom. It felt like weeks of anticipation were pent up in the thousands of green dots that wanted to BURN. The potential for so much more was heavy and hard, and I can’t go back to that room.

ClaireFontaine2011TBA-PICA GKW001 (7)

America! There is a special permit for artworks involving fire here in Portland (thanks, firedancers!) and something tells me that burning a map of the good old USA makes the whole thing hard to swallow for some. The bureaucracy of our great nation of paperwork withholds the completion of the act, all the more reason to burn it! The pent-up potential of the work feels true to the context of Portland, Oregon in the fall of the year 2011.


So many works within TBA felt like they were about RISK. Not the game, per se, but the idea of danger, a palpable anxiety of a threat to the self. The first definition of RISK, “possibility of loss or injury : PERIL,” sums up some ideas that appear behind a mutitude of works at TBA this year.

Claire Fontaine was risky but obviously restrained. (SEE: POTENTIAL)


Jesse Sugarmann’s video piece Lido (The Pride is Back) is full of risk. In it, the artist elevates three Chrysler mini-vans with 52 air mattresses within a giant interior space. The inflation of the mattresses in tandem creates a whine relative to the distance of the shot, creating a vaccum in the white space, and the vehicles look helpless as they are hoisted up into a slow and steady path with destruction. Their synchronized rise reaches a climax as the mattresses are filled and two risks present themselves; the mattresses on the verge of popping and the vans rolling off in forfeit to the suburban inflatables. When neither happens, the inertia is foiled while the tiny motors kept pumping and straining against the dead weight.

Sugarmann recreated this experience four times during the festival, unfurling mattresses onto the parking lot in the heat and pushing the vans into position. The science behind this is imperfect and self-taught, the risks are many but the artist retained a surreal control over the unweildly materials. John Motley was incredibly astoot in describing Sugarmann as a ‘lion tamer’ during the performance, circling the rising trio of vans in the sunset.

I caught two consecutive performances, and the scene was thick with both excitement and confusion. Art-goers, children, dogs and passers by watched the slow motion wreckage, as the vans slid to balance themselves on their front bumpers, ass-up but somehow balanced. During the second performance, two of the vans lost their balance, losing their perches and a cheer arose in the crowd at the actual action after all of that inflating anticipation.

MonaVatamanu_Florin_Tudor-RiteofSpring_2011TBA-PICA GKW

In another video work, this one by Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor titled Rites of Spring, the camera follows Romanian children as they set fire to piles of poplar fluff that congregate in the Spring. The children run the streets with lighters, the camera follows as the flames exhaust their fuel, over and over again. And surely every Spring those children are warned of the risk of their actions, but the little fires are far too tempting to avoid the danger completely. In the silence of the room I was sure I heard Stravinsky.

There are many health risks involved with bouncy castles, (SEE: OK? A and B, but when the bouncy castle is a larger-than-life supine pink elephant, legs akimbo, into which one enters through the rectum, the risks leave the merely physical and creep into the philosophical and psychological. Citing Oscar Wilde’s decadent reputation, Patrick Rock (of http://www.rocksboxfineart.com/) presented Oscar’s Delerium Tremens as an outdoor jumping establishment to the festival. Opening night, the physical manifestation of a drunken hallucination watched over the throngs as inebriation levels rose to a peak, Oscar popped, victim to a karate chop at the seam. Flaccid on and off for the rest of the festival, the monumental Oscar was a risk of the second definition, “someone or something that creates or suggests a hazard”. The chain link fence caging in soft Oscar really punctuated the gazes of longing from kids who were allowed to look but not touch, nor jump in the inflatable creature. All of the paperwork was in order, but the DT’s had the elephant down. Watching Sugarmann’s mattresses inflate next to the prostrate Oscar broke my heart a little, and I never even had a chance to jump.

Artists and musicians Lucky Dragons, speaking after their PSU MFA Monday Night Lecture a few years ago, summed up their work as “an attempt to fail beautifully,” something which has stuck with me since. Though I missed their performance at The Works as part of the Experimental ½ Hour program (migraine!), I think their goal encapsulates something I love and always hope to see in artwork, which is the letting go of control and the presence of chance. In participatory work or performance, chance runs rampant, and while performative or participatory works probably fail at the same rate as other modes of art making, their failure is public and the artist is often present. Once the work is exposed to the populace, it is out of the artist’s hands, and the potential risk of failure looms. Perhaps this opportunity for failure lets us trust in the fallible object-ness of even the most transient artworks. Hearing a performer fumble over their lines snaps us back to the farce at hand, that distinction between performer and audience scantly separated by a stage, a fence, a string of caution tape or a screen.
Mona Vatamanu/Florin Tudor. 8/8/2011 TBA-PICA
This gesture is brave, temporal and feels full of possibility. It is based in time but lives on in the audience and the idea. The bevvy of performances and performative documents that made up this festival have overwhelmed me the past two weeks, and I am filled with a desire to fail, beautifully if possible.

(SEE ALSO: photodocumentation of every day of the festival)

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One Response to Potential Risk of Failure

  1. Great post, I like the idea of potential, risk, and failure as a conceptual tie for the works this year. Michel Groisman’s “Polvo” game reflects these ideas as well. The game consists of making gestures by linking two body parts (either yours or another player’s) determined by playing cards with the body parts illustrated. The potential for combinations and outcomes is unlimited. The “risks” inherent in the tension of players each contributing publicly to the performance (individual embarrassment, physical weakness, sexual innuendo) are tempered by the ability each player (and each team) has to create the kind of atmosphere and interaction they desire. Participants have to be willing to engage or the performance falls short; a risk the artist takes. “Beautiful failure” is built into the game, since it ends when the proscribed combinations become impossible.

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