David Antin

Another reference from Sekula, this time a poet and performance artist whose work looks at oral traditions as well as questioning traditional narrative structures. In an interview, he speaks of how his talk performances differ from traditional poetry readings in the sense that they are improvised rather than learned and recited – as he said in an interview, reading a poem is like “returning to the scene of the crime/you try to reenact it and the more you try to bring it back to life the deader it becomes.” He likens himself to jazz artist John Coltrane, in the sense that he is not interested in changing the grammar of language so much as exploring opportunities within its structural limitations. He says that he is interested in thinking, as opposed to thought, and in this sense he can be considered similar to Breton, believing a stream of consciousness will reveal a higher truth rather than any structured theorising underlying the process of cognition. Again we come across the idea that we are in possession of a surfeit of knowledge, and this in itself prevents us from thinking further – systematic thinking is falsified through closure:

…what I really am doing is partly making a polemical case for what I believe is real thought, real thinking, as opposed to what has come to stand for rationalism in the history of Western thought, which is a straw man: the notion of the totally closed logical system which has only one little hole in it that is unfortunate because there is a paradox lurking in the corner.”

His method is to try and approach things with a childish naivety, by not accepting belief in supposedly rational things – how true are the truths we purport to know as truths: “it seems to me, without being naive, you can’t ask the right questions.” Proceeding thus in a Socratic way, Antin explores and questions what are commonly accepted ideas – an example being the apparent unity of the prisoners held in Nazi concentration camps: without the barbed wire there would be no unity. This is a very prescient thought in a time when numerous nations that had been held together by oppressive dictatorships have fractured under the weight of democracy once the regime has been toppled. He likens his performance to unravelling a knot, trying to find the ends of an issue and picking it apart, a form of unravelling that leads to new forms of ravelling: “I knot and unknot and I am looking for an ultimately elegant knot structure which I will eventually work out of the remaining material.”

Antin publishes transcripts of his performances, but they are very often not faithful reproductions of the original speech, since he is inclined to add items that for reasons of time constraints or audience reception he was not able to insert in the original. In this sense the resulting text is almost like another version of the performed speech. In light of this, Antin paraphrases Levi-Strauss who remarked that: “…the one thing that is so marked in all primitive art and that is almost lost completely in Western traditional art as we know it … is a sense of occasion, whereas occasion so dominates the art that he was talking about.” The performative aspect of a work of art, since it has been institutionalized and academised and removed from the public sphere and public discourse and placed behind glass in galleries, a phenomenon that artists are more than ever beginning to deal with (as I looked at previously when I analysed the curatorial work of Clémentine Deliss).

Elsewhere (Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 30, No.2, 1995, pp.143-154) Antin speaks of the role of the narrative in the creation of self as subject, using the allegory of a beggar who dreams of being king, he notes that every transformation poses the risk that the desiring subject will be destroyed when the dream is fulfilled. As such, we build bridges to the past and the future – which is the essential nature of narrative:

All self is built over the threat of change. There can be no self until there is an awareness of one’s subject position, which can only be created by the threat of change or the memory of change. Every change creates a fracture between successive subject states, that narrative attempts and fails to heal. The self is formed over these cracks. Every self is multiply fractured, and narrative traversal of these fracture planes defines the self. Narrative is the traditional and indispensable instrument of self creation.”

This is a really interesting concept, that the construction of narratives helps us to navigate and form our identity. Antin also posits that we form our narrative competence from dreams rather than from storytelling, since the goal of a narrative is to make present, not intelligible, and dreams have the nature of forming a present out of anticipated future and remembered past “in which we always have a definite stake, because they are always anticipated and remembered in the light of desire.” He firmly rejects Freudian interpretation and notion of dreams as hieroglyphs or rebuses, since this static terminology would deny the possibility of narrative interpretation, and denounces the hypothesis of the dream as ‘simple vector’ wish fulfilment that can be expressed in a few words as ‘grossly oversimplified’.

Antin’s “Autobiography” is available online here, and it provides an entertaining patchwork of extracts, anecdotal passages or single sentences, which rather than attempting to draw a line from birth to present (as a traditional autobiography would), it builds up a picture of the author in such a way that we come to understand the man is a collection of the people, events and experiences that formed him. A truly postmodernist piece of writing.

Although Antin may be working with language as opposed to images, his ideas on narrative are definitely worth reading and considering, even by visual artists.


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