Invitation postcard for exhibition/ happening and digital video shown at Vspace Gallery,
Victoria University, May 2005


Plan of VuSpace gallery with exhibition happening setup.

Melbourne Vuspace opening

The Opening constructed a hyper-real art event where audience and gallery merge to become one artwork.

The real opening crowd experience the psychological and sociological impact of being at a virtual blockbuster art event (on this occassion it is The Archibald Prize Opening night at the AGNSW) and find themselves becoming another artwork in the process. This event is in turn becomes a video to be screened in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition. A procession of art openings are then set in motion ad infinitum.

Catalogue Essay - The Opening

“Contemporary art has turned its own disappearance into its very material. It has denied its own principles of illusion to become a performance, an installation performance, seeking to take over all the dimensions of the stage, of visibility …” Jean Baudrillard.

“We are entering a world where there won't be one, but two realities: the actual and the virtual. There is no simulation, only substitution.” Paul Virilio.

“The Opening” is a happening performance event that interacts with the pressure cooker ritual of the gallery opening. Traditionally, gallery openings are seen as social events removed from the art work, even though the real art business of selling and making important contacts is often performed at exhibition openings. Brereton’s artwork reverses this equation. The Opening is the artwork and the exhibition is an appendage or afterword.

Anatomy of an Opening

The gallery space is cut in half by a false wall that is also a rear-projection screen. Onto the screen is projected a floor-to-ceiling video image of a “blockbuster art event” involving a large noisy crowd of invited guests, media personalities, politicians and other famous faces. In this case the major occasion is “the 16th biggest world art event” – the Australian Archibald Art Prize opening night at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Recorded and played back in real time, the virtual gallery space is gradually transformed over a 90 min period from a cavernous vacant room to a “chock-a-block” mass of people stretching from the immediate close foreground to a distant vanishing point at the far end of the gallery. The initial silence, punctuated by the out of frame sounds of popping champagne corks, also is disturbed. The echo chamber effect of isolated clinking of glasses and high heel shoes is overtaken by a jovial murmur of voices turned into a cacophonous roar rising from an expectant “art crowd”. This video screen virtual opening is framed and projected so that the architectural illusion or conceit of a contiguous space is setup as seamlessly as possible.

Against this dramatic virtual backdrop is the performed the actual and by comparison pathetic art gallery opening. As the relatively small number of faithful dribble into the small gallery space to gather around the drinks table for a plastic cup of cheap wine they are confronted by the imposing scene of an unfolding institutional art museum event. The shock of the virtual infiltrates the real and overpowers the usual modest levels of vocal noise within the small gallery space.

The Opening is not concerned with art works on walls. The focus is on the audience or gathered members of the public. The real “artwork,” if indeed there is one at all, concerns the “happening” produced by the interactions of emotions between people who turn up to the gallery opening. The gap between artwork and observer is broken down through direct participation and interaction. To emphasise this strategy, a series of dumb images (stills) from the video are set in motion on a loop on a computer screen off to one side of the gallery. No one is expected to pay any or little attention to these images and indeed anyone who does is quickly bored.

To further extend the empathetic relationship between actual and virtual displays, a digital video camera is mounted on a tripod facing the screen wall to record the meeting of the two opening events so producing a third degree opening record. A webcamera mounted on a monitor sends a live “feed” of the gallery visitors as they walk into the gallery space. The actual can watch itself in real time as it interacts with the virtual audiovisual reality. After the opening night happening the resulting video record is played on a loop from a lonely TV in the centre of the gallery space in real time for the remaining duration of the exhibition period – this is when the gallery takes on the nature of an empty church frequented by occasional visitors who silently commune with the art object or image as a disembodied eye. For these “gallery goers” there is a sense that they just missed out on the divine event. Yet their role as witness to the sacred art event is not in vain. Indeed the art event has now become art relic to be venerated as historical object or icon. The audience (faithful art lovers) perform a vigil after the historical fact that is another happening event… and so on for each new generation.

The fate of all performance art is to disappear and ossify as bathetic historical fragment such as a photograph or video recording.
Testing one two, one two.

There is a strange sense that the actual has been proceeded by the virtual here. To highlight this relationship between the virtual and the actual in constructing the real, the traditional opening night speech (mode of address) is used as a trope for teasing out and unstitching the fabric of the real (art realty/reality). Sound is a crucial player in this artwork. The audio track perhaps even more than the visual image is responsible for shaping the emotional responses of the actual (audience rather than “viewer”).

The audio track creeps up on you without you realising it. Suddenly you become aware that you are shouting to the person next to you just to be heard over the din of the crowded room. In the case of this work, it doesn’t matter if there are only a handful of people in the actual gallery – you still have to shout over the volume of the hidden speakers behind the screen. This scenario of two people standing in the center of an empty gallery shouting at beach other not only sounds funny but looks ridiculous too.

At one point in the proceedings the virtual opening (sound and image) abruptly stops – the screen wall goes black and silence falls over the gallery. In response, the assembled actual crowd follow suit. Everyone stops shouting and looks around to see why the world has stopped so to speak. Why the transmission of reality has failed them. Then after 15 seconds the screen recording kicks in again and the actual crowd relaxes and engages in loud conversation again as though nothing has happened.

Just to push the envelope of dependency a bit further the artist (Brereton in this case but it could be anyone) acts out the role of the keynote speaker during The Opening. The artist’s words are a poor quality half remembered echo of the virtual blockbuster slick opening address. Playing on the pathology of the art gallery opening ritual with its welcoming, thankyous and congratulations to artist and friends, Brereton rearranges the comfortable sequence of conventional events. In a call and response play (a la Narcissus and Echo myth) the microphone is pressed into action bouncing sound checks across the gallery floor – between the underworld of the virtual screen and the mortal world of the everyday.

Reality Art For Ever
Indeed the overwhelming sensation or emotional feeling for the actual gathering is one of heightened discord or antipathy. Yet for many art lovers there is also a energising release of tension through a parodic response. Perhaps the artist is performing a satire play here. A certain pleasure is forthcoming through a real time ironic days of our art lives passion play of differences that releases the humble actual from the stress of being there in the crowded virtual world.

There is vicarious pleasure that is to be had by rubbing shoulders with the virtual without having to login and enter the room itself. This is the Big Brother reality TV genre comes to the art gallery strategy. At once tedious in the extreme and psychoanalytically, if not socially, fascinating by turns. The rewards only come when you surrender to the pathetic absences embedded in the relentless rollout of the millions of tiny mundane events that make up the reality of all our time-caged lives inside the house of a hundred hidden panopticon eyes. There is a sympathetic relationship between the Truman Show effect and the art gallery opening. Both realities depend on the vision machine of the voyeuristic public gaze for creating the content of the show as real time event.

A Happening is not an Event
A “happening” involves audience participation whereas an “event” is something that occurs in a certain place and time. The Opening overtly and nostalgically appeals to the Happenings of the 1960s. Yet there is a specific constructed distance involved in The Opening that removes the audience from direct engagement with the object of fascination (the major event). Everything is vicariously lived out via the virtual image and audio track in the same way as the “live coverage” of a news story.

The Happenings of say Allan Kaprow in the late 1950s and 1960s created environmental works that demanded audience participation (an idea growing from John Cage's experiments) that tried to integrate space, materials, time and people into a complete experience or statement. The precedents for Kaprow's happenings were the publicly staged crowd antics of the post-World War I Dadaist such as Kurt Schwitters, the body without organs theories of Antonin Artaud, and the body as brush works of Yves Klein.

What interests Brereton about Kaprow's works is the way the audience was invited to be the centre of attention in the construction of the artwork. Kaprow turned the gallery itself into the artwork, creating an integrated environment for the spectator. Kaprow saw that every visitor to the environment was a crucial part of it.

The over riding aim of Happenings was to break down the traditional distinctions between life and art as reified object. In a real sense the audience made the art come alive. This was a return to an ancient idea of performance ritual – think of chanting or singing the real into existence – acting out the stories of our art dreaming. The then contemporary 1950s structuralist theoretical notion that the meaning of an artwork depends on a reader/viewer/listener rather than the intentions of the artist/author is also at work in the ideals of the Happening. The Opening in turn declares (to no one in particular) that the meaning and value of the artwork resides at once inside and beyond the gallery space. That the event has already taken place elsewhere and all that is being experienced is the shadow of the art event. If the art has gone anywhere it is to the ad agency and the public relations media department. The gallery is simply yet importantly the press conference venue where information is delivered and the product is showcased. The gallery is a machine assemblage of various moving parts – media, PR, aesthetics, marketing.

The Opening Bio-Tech Assemblage
Kaprow saw the art happening assemblage as something to be literally entered into. The gallery became only one venue for performance. Art had left the building. An expanded field of aesthetic operation was created in direct response to life’s dramatic and mundane events alike.
The deliberate choice of the title “The Opening” suggests that the audience is meant to enter into something – a space, a time or perhaps a concept even. The operation of opening something or of entering through an opening involves a movement of some kind or other. In this sense The Opening can be conceived of as a bio-technical mechanical construction that produces responses (actions and ideas) of both certain and uncertain kinds.

In Conceptual art ideas or concepts frequently relate to the nature of art itself. Many Conceptual artworks also engage with contemporary cultural, political or social issues. Conceptual artists from Marcel Duchamp to Art & Language or Gilbert & George and beyond aim to challenge traditional ideas of art by using non-conventional art strategies and tactics. In this sense The Opening is a conceptual art work – the ideas at play are produced as the work is played out in real time. However, the ideas are not more important than the experience of the happening event. For Brereton, people matter more than things or even ideas. Without people art does not exist. In that important point, The Opening is more than a machine, it is more like an event-organism aligned to the Fluxus ideals involving the hand of chaos playing its uncertain yet crucial part beyond the brief.

The Opening is therefore not concerned with “the art object” as an end product or even as some ticket alibi for the artist as heroic media star or industrial brandname. The Opening is independent of the artist as author and is never the same thing twice – like life it is fluid, organic, ever-changing and interdependent in its incorporation of “the viewer” into the completion of the work of art, its content and meaning.

© Edward. Ward, Sydney, 2005