Review by Travis Diehl
Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, often called Baal Shem Tov or Besht, was a Jewish mystical rabbi. He is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism. — from “Baal Shem Tov,” Wikipedia. Accessed 1/4/13.
The Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses, or BESHT, was a series of five performative lectures organized by Adam Overton for Pomona College Museum of Art’s 44th Project Series between November 1 and December 16, 2012, and was accompanied by five newsprint publications designed by Tanya Rubbak. BESHT continued the “spiritual investigations” begun by Overton, Rubbak, and Claire Cronin as Signify, Sanctify, Believe—employing the Nu-Age aesthetics of crystals, squiggles, rainbows, beards, and obsolete software—only here the emphasis was on Speech; the lectern was the interface between artist and audience; the charismatic guru served as medium, not only engaging the viewer but inviting contributions by over a dozen artist friends. Events included an Eternal Telethon fund drive (#2), Negative Affirmations by Anna Mayer (#3), and a “Toastmasters-style” award ceremony (#5). Throughout, BESHT advanced the notion that play, often through the use of surrogates, might prepare us for actual encounters—that “dabbling” in religion and/or spirituality and/or art, while insincere on the terms of a given belief system, might also constitute sincere preparation to engage other parts of the world: to open up, to see magic, to let go. Reviewing the complete, cellophaned set of newsletters over a year after Overton’s project—one based on the intimacy and immediacy of public speaking—we might consider this publication, like BESHT itself, as an ironic remove—both a sincere part, and an irreverent double, of the real thing.
What does it mean to hold something sacred? Issue #1, printed in blue and black, embellished with OS-X pop-up windows, diskette clipart, and a pixellated rose, delivers its thesis by way of an anecdote. In 1975, Julius Eastman interpreted a section of John Cage’s Song Book by “soloing” with a wacky lecture on the “Sideways-and-Sensitive style of love,” stroking and undressing a man and woman on stage. Cage was furious; after all, indeterminacy had its limits—its sacred, inviolable aspects. Eastman’s irreverence, however, was also a tribute. BESHT took after the latter. Yet Eastman’s interpretation provoked in a way that BESHT did not. If indeterminacy had by 1975 grown into a new orthodoxy, the young Eastman once more upset the sacred. In contrast, BESHT‘s Nu-Age treatment of the spiritual or self-help seminar reads as a soft version of the mystical oratory explored in darker earnest by its contemporaries (Brody Condon for one)—more a collection than a reaction—more playful than confrontational. The Guided Meditation Marathon in #4 both mocked and perpetuated the recent surfeit of Guided Meditations in Art Contexts, such as the Hammer Museum’s Mindful Awareness sessions. Yet if meditation is the goal, there are better ways than art: guides with less ego or agenda. You wouldn’t hire an artist to fix your toilet. Still, BESHT states, in #1, “You know this isn’t about masters anymore, or mastery, right?” Put another way: What’s so sacred about shit?
In Issue #4, UNFO (Amanda Ackerman and Harold Abramowitz) present Dan Kun-yi Chen’s RISD MFA thesis on robotic intimacy. The text describes one device, for example, that performed “cat-like behaviors” such as purring and nuzzling feet. “Does replacing our most intimate human relationships with machine interactions rob our life of its meaning?” asks Chen. “Comfort versus discomfort, sincerity versus insincerity.” Echoing this question—one at the heart of BESHT—Hannah Pivo’s essay in Issue #5 characterizes Overton’s “practice” as “. . . a careful balance between sincerity and irreverence.” Indeed—irreverence is abundant, to the point of overpowering whatever reverence might underlie the artist’s intentions. “Test subjects” found Chen’s robots both humorous and helpful; the simulated cat-nuzzling was in fact comforting, but a robotic arm meant to give consoling pats was less successful. Ultimately, Chen surrendered to the inevitable dual readings of his work—concluding that the serious inventor must push on through the laughs until their innovation’s merits win out. In the process, the robots might teach us something valuable about real human contact—just as the guru as clown might represent—seemingly by accident—tragic truths. Key here is the idea that Art is a secular spiritualism all its own; that people “believe” in art; and that BESHT serves to puncture, and thus facilitate a new, meaningful relationship to, this orthodoxy. Yet the question remains: At what point does a casual treatment of such material harm more than help? Perhaps when the joke confirms rather than upsets our suspicions—closing down, rather than opening up, a more sincere experiment.
Adam Overton and Tanya Rubbak (Eds.), The Bureau of Experimental Speech and Holy Theses (BESHT), (Pomona College Museum of Art, 2012)