Project 00018: What is “Debate” in French?
Whitney Art Works
The three members of the conceptual art group christophermichaelsullivan (CMS) held the first of three scheduled debates last Friday at Whitney Art Works on Congress Street. The topic: What is CMS?
Chris Sullivan, the group’s art director and “chief operating officer,” took the position that CMS is fundamentally an artistic entity. Communications director Gordon Lane argued that CMS is first and foremost a business. Although the group makes work of dubious commercial value that often questions the intersection of art and commerce, it cannot escape the capitalistic economic context in which it exists, he said.
The third member of the group, artist and musician Derek Lobley — billed as CMS’s “producer” — argued that CMS is absurd. CMS “contradicts itself and inherently tears itself apart,” said Lobley.
Immediately after the half-hour debate, moderator Randy Regier asked the small audience to indicate which member they felt had won. Lane edged out his two partners by one vote (8 to 7 to 7), implying his argument that CMS is a business carried the day.
I’m inclined to say all three members are right to some extent, but Lobley is closest to the truth. CMS makes art, and some of that art sells (“We’ve sold work; we probably should be paying taxes,” Lobley noted, eliciting laughs), but its activities are absurd, in that their projects are so at odds with the conventional understanding of art and its role in society that they’re comic.
Take Project 00004, “Le dîner de Descartes à la fin de son premier jour,” which is nothing more than a recipe for cheese ravioli with tuna and mayo. Project 00006, “Iron Will,” is a blueprint for a public installation in which an artist works weekdays from 9 to 5 wiggling an iron rod set in a block of granite “until his demise or the pole is broken.”
In last fall’s Project 00013, “Insider Trading,” Lobley and Sullivan set up a fake office in a college art gallery; while Sullivan painted CMS’s logo on dollar bills, Lobley made cold calls trying to sell them: “You can purchase a work with our printed logo in red for $100; a drawn logo in your choice of red or blue for $150; a painted logo in red, blue, or yellow for $200; or you can buy all three for $300 and save!”
CMS is, in other words, an art-comedy group. Most of their projects are thought-provoking, intelligent and humorous. This latest project, however, falls short of the high standards they’ve set for themselves.
The main problem with last week’s debate is that the members of CMS are not actors or orators. Lobley, who also performs in the indie-rock band Metal Feathers, was the most comfortable public speaker of the three, but their collective lack of rhetorical skill made the debate considerably less compelling than it could have been. To pull off performance art, you need to be a performer.
Lane rushed through his opening remarks, peppered with grad-school references to Kathy Acker, Damien Hirst and the like, making it difficult to follow his points. Later on, given opportunities to rebut one another’s positions, the three failed to generate a genuine sense that they disagreed. And confusion over time allotments and other rules contributed to the overall feeling that this performance wasn’t quite ready for prime time. More practice clearly would have helped.
The debate series continues this Friday, Jan. 16, with a discussion of art titled, “Contemporary Western Diets in Performance and Conceptual Art.” That one sounds a lot funnier. The series concludes on Jan. 23 with a town hall–style debate on the topic of “intellect.” Both take place at the gallery at 6 p.m.
In addition to the performances, blueprints of past CMS projects are on display in the gallery this month, but I highly recommend you visit the CMS Web site, christophermichaelsullivan.com, where all their past work is well documented and archived.
— Chris Busby
Project 00018: What is “Debate” in French? takes place at Whitney Art Works, 492 Congress St., Portland. 774-7011. whitneyartworks.com.