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Jacques Derrida at
"Artaud: Writing /
Drawing." Photo
Peter Bellamy.

The Artaud panel
(l. to r.): Nancy
Spero Margit
Rowell Gayatri
Spivak. Photo
Peter Bellamy.

Antonin Artaud: The
Minotaur 1946

graphite and
wax crayon.

Two monkey images
from Suzanne Anker's
presentation at
"Monkey Business."

The "Monkey Business"
panel (l. to r.):
Kirby Gookin Ellen
Levy Suzanne Anker
Robert Shapiro
Jeffrey Deitch.

from artaud
to 2001

by Suzaan Boettger 

Plopping onto the folding chair next to me the woman exclaimed to her friend "Got in! Got a seat! Whew--I feel like I'm at a rock concert!" Yes, there was a sense of breathless excitement--no, actually, it was relief--at finally being seated in the rapidly filling audience, albeit not with music fans but theory mavens. In a few minutes, the Master of Deconstruction himself, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, along with his famous-in-her-own- right translator, the literary theorist of feminist and cultural "Otherness " Gayatri Spivak, the well-known artist, Nancy Spero, the Museum of Modern Art's chief drawings curator, Margit Rowell and the poet and Artaud translator Clayton Eshleman would discourse on the mad art of Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). Moderating the Oct. 11 evening at New York's Drawing Center was Sylvere Lotringer, who, like Spivak, is a Columbia University professor, and is author of Antonin Artaud and editor of Semiotext(e). Lotringer organized the several upcoming evenings at The Drawing Center in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition "Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper" (to Jan. 7). The talks' SoHo locale, the organizers soon explained was to mix uptown and downtown cultures. But while the advantage of this missionary work was having Derrida as a local attraction, foregoing MOMA's own large auditorium (with the roomy, padded seats) generated a ticket frenzy. Still outside in the cold, this SOLD OUT event's line of ticket hopefuls was three times as long as that of ticket holders. And what SoHo art fan is so insular that she wouldn't go to "up" to MOMA for a lecture hall of sufficient size (and comfort)? "Mixing" is the motif of the decade; the evening exemplified this with its theme, "Artaud: Writing/Drawing." Ditto for a panel the night before, Oct. 10, at the School for the Visual Arts on East 23rd Street, where speakers had contemplated interactions between art and science to another packed audience (about which more below below). Interdisciplinary theory analyzes work with high-and-low sources made by artists forefronting their multi-cultural and -racial, gender-bending identities for a system of commodified culture: all breaching the former discrete categories of the bourgeoisie. At the Drawing Center, Rowell began by recalling being "thunderstruck when [in 1993 she] first saw the Artaud drawings." Artaud has chiefly been known through his writings: his Surrealist theories of a sub- verbal, physically primal "theater of cruelty" were anthologized in his 1938 book The Theater and its Double (1938). Encountering Artaud's images, she "felt stripped bare by the eyes of his portraits." She described the "gestures of violence", evident in his letters from the late 1930s--sheets whose rips and burns manifested their mutilated texts synthesizing writing and drawing. These he sent from mental institutions across France, to which, after a violent episode in 1937 when acting on a paranoid delusion he was confined until 1946. During the extended period when he received numerous experimental electroshock treatments at the Rodez asylum in SW France, Artaud produced his brutal "schizophrenic drawings" sometimes while in a trance, chanting to himself. After his release (finessed by friends), his more composed portraits albeit with darkly penetrating gazes poured forth. Next, Spero read a brief declaration of her identification, as a woman, with Artaud's "sense of victimhood." Written several years earlier, Spero noted that the statement had made her part of the "Artaud industry, " but here that passive identity seemed both dated (Spero's well-regarded works are presently on view in SoHo at New York Kunsthalle, PPOW and Jack Tilton Gallery) and irrelevant. Spivak then acknowledged the contingency of her own remarks with her characteristic bow to "alterity", saying she "cannot claim the place for the Other." Charmingly bracketing her commentary with the repeated statement "I know little about Artaud, " she offered a riff on Artaud's "imposed heteroglossia"-- the different tongues in which he spoke-- the "series of inversions and crossing polarities" of his, "writing/drawing/cursing/singing." Eschelman added biographical information and described Artaud's tumultuous theater work as a "phantasmagoria compilation of Artaud's own life." Derrida had not prepared remarks, as he had lectured the previous night at MOMA and seemed to presume we'd all been there (Derrida groupies?). Nevertheless (or because of that), his impromptu analysis of Artaud's work was subtle yet clear. Artaud's merging of genres is made for Derrida's post-structuralist elision of binary oppositions, which initially addressed those between the acts of "speech" (presence) and "writing" (representation of the absent), then the mutual embeddedness of "writing" and "reading" (creation and reception) and the ambiguous multiplicity of voices encoded in writing. Here, agreeing with Rowell that Artaud's works suggest "spells " the Mix Master noted that it displays no authority of the "verbal" over the "visual"--both are in free play. He also claimed that while Artaud was aware of current artistic styles, his works disrupted the sequential history of art. Derrida emphasized the performative aspect of the work, stating that "All of Artaud's works participate in an urge to DO something not just EXPRESS something." They "produce an event in the act of writing and drawing ... they are events directed at an addressee." Instead of projecting a "French" sensibility they, evoke an "immediately universal glosso- poetics." Thus countering the reductive view that Artaud's works are signs of pathology, Derrida asserted that they are "not only lucid--they illuminate us on what it means to be dispossessed." This theoretical sampler served to expose some famous literary critics to SoHo, but, it suffered from a liability increasingly common to panel presentations, evident as well the previous night at SVA: it had at least one too many participants and too encompassing a subject. On both nights, the result was a series of too-condensed lectures by individuals, allowing only abbreviated conversational discussion either among themselves or with the audience. In the mid-to late 1980s, the steeply stepped SVA auditorium was THE hot site for topical discussions, before even the brief tenure of the October magazine literati at various symposia held by the Dia Center for the Arts, which in turn has been superseded by the Drawing Center's timely events. Here, the SVA panel tackled a futuristic topic, but perhaps too ambitiously, mixing references to simians, scientists and those gesturing monkeys-cum-theoreticians-- artists--in a discussion of "Monkey Business: Art & Science at the Millennium." Suzanne Anker, a sculptor, theorist and SVA art history instructor, organized and moderated this grandiose topic "to shed some light on some issues." Yet her rhetorical introductory gambit, asking the question, "What is it that separates us from the Great Apes, if anything at all?" was so broad as to promise only generalities in response. Beginning with a litany of monkey images in popular culture and art history Anker demonstrated amusing examples of anthropomorphism or of humans' ambivalent attitudes about our connections to the natural world. Jeffrey Deitch, director of the adventuresome Deitch Projects, then showed slides from the bold exhibition "Post Human" he curated a few years back which, included work that played on genetic engineering, but otherwise had little to say. Next, Ellen K. Levy also showed a series of monkey images for a metaphor that by now was becoming too cute. Levy, a painter whose imagery is informed by mathematical "complexity models " intently, read her paper which made her intricate ideas inscrutable to me; I refer readers to the fascinating issue of the College Art Association's Art Journal on "Art and the Genetic Code" (Spring 1996). Art historian and critic Kirby Gookin insightfully interpreted the classical practice of idealization (designing a beautiful body by adopting the perfect aspects of multiple physiques) as an esthetic predecessor to genetic engineering. Lastly, NYU professor of chemistry Robert Shapiro's witty and relaxed presentation of the search for the genetic code of sickle cell anemia had the art school audience rapt. One of his provocative comments was that, as much as artists incorporate science, they also influence it, not only by their picturing of sub-visible elements but by the consciousness they and their works manifest. But the necessary application of ethics to genetic engineering can't be left to either artists or scientists, and will undoubtedly keep the art/science dualism in a dynamic equilibrium. An installation of Artaud's drawings is also on view at Exit Art/The First World through Dec 21. Films by Artaud will be shown at the Anthology Film Archives through Nov 3. SUZAAN BOETTGER is an art historian and critic in New York.