Several months ago I began a study of how to predict the future. My initial research led me to an examination of “herding”. If a person sets up a particular set of parameters in order to move a group of animals in a desired fashion, they are in a sense predicting the way that the animals will react to that particular stimuli. Stimuli can take many different forms such as voice commands, dogs barking, electric fences or (for the purposes of this particular installation) food presentation. The first recorded usage of the word “herd” referred to a person who controls or musters animals. Soon after “herd” also began to describe the group of animals that are being controlled. Originally, English speakers made no distinction between the group being controlled and the person that controls them. Building on this idea for The Charlie James Gallery my latest piece (w)hole will assert predictions of our future by “consuming” our sense of taste.
The original usage of the word “consumption” referred to a process or an illness that causes strength and vitality to be depleted from a person or a thing (related to “pneumonia”). Consumption also refers to ingesting or processing plants, animals, or minerals in order to gain strength and vitality. And, in current usage the word has taken on specific negative connotations, referring to ideas of over usage and waste. Imbedded in this word lies some very complicated contradictions as well as an age-old truth that can be best summed up as, “something cannot come from nothing.” In order for any living thing to stay alive it must deplete the life or strength from other things. Whether it is absorbing the rays of the sun, breathing in volumes of air, eating a planet, or slaughtering an animal, every living thing takes energy away from other things in order to survive. In science this process is called The Law of Conservation of Energy, which states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. In religion it is often named karma, or the universal law of cause and effect.
To address these issues of herding and predicting through the use of consumption I have been examining two distinct things. The first is how food is used to move and stimulate animals and the second is the delicate and vulnerable nature of the mouth (w)hole.
Food presentation is perhaps the simplest and most effective way to move animals. When a farmer introduces food and water troughs to a herd, the animals will naturally gravitate towards the troughs without the use of electric fences, dogs, or coaxing of any kind. Humans are of course no exception to this phenomenon. Consider how many times you have found yourself hanging out in the kitchen at a house party. We naturally organize ourselves around the places where our consumption is facilitated. For (w)hole I have constructed two wooden cabinets that look like refrigerators to serve as food troughs. The food and beverages that gallery goers will consume on the night of the opening will be inside these “troughs.” This will include single serving bottles of red wine, cracker jacks, popcorn, grape juice, and raisins. All of the things in the “troughs” will either stain a consumers mouth or will get stuck in his or her teeth. This provides the viewer with an unbeknownst physical remnant that each will struggle to dislodge from his or her teeth over the course of the evening.
Once viewers enter the gallery they will naturally gravitate towards the refrigerators, compelled by the “troughs” placement in the gallery and by the viewer’s natural inclination to explore a food source. Once a viewer is compelled to open the doors the other gallery goers will congregate around the “troughs” and begin to consume the contents following the path of the herd leader.
Near the front door of the gallery I will be standing behind a table with a metal harness inserted into the corners of my mouth. This harness is connected to the refrigerator doors by a string and pulley system that runs the length of the ceiling. As consumers open the “trough” doors the string is pulled taut and then lifts the metal harness in my mouth up, forcing me into an awkward and painful smile. During this time I will be talking to people about this particular piece as well as the other projects that are related to what is going on. After talking to people I will explain that I am offering viewers the chance to have a muscle inside of their mouth massaged. As people come and go, I will have participants lie down on the table and I will gently apply direct, soft pressure to the pterygoid, which is one of the muscles responsible for shutting the jaw.
Many people (including myself) hold a tremendous amount of tension in and around the muscles and joints of the jaw. (Metaphorically, this is where “consumption” is given physical articulation). The muscles of consumption tend to become tight and locked as they are constantly implored to extract energy from other things and at the same time are called upon up to open and close to allow a persons personal energy to escape as he or she breathes and talks. When these muscles relax some people experience a quieting sensation throughout their entire body. Though the action of touching these muscles is quite invasive and uncomfortable while it is occurring afterwards most will feel a certain amount of relief.
I rarely assume a traditional performance art posture, in which an artist takes on a silent or austere role. Instead I talk and interact with people. If audience members are confused about something, I do my best to answer their questions in an honest and straightforward fashion. Also, for every challenging action that I ask my viewers to do, I put myself into what appears to be a more vulnerable and submissive position. So, by taking a very informal performance posture, by offering a nurturing (albeit painful) service and by creating a situation in which I am being physically taxed by the actions of the audience I effectively set a stage to compel the “herd” to do something that they would never normally do: let a stranger put his hand into their mouths. In my opinion there is no other position that is quite as submissive.
I would first like to thank Charlie James for this incredible opportunity. I would also like to offer my sincere and humble thanks to Dane Johnson. The show would not have happened without his integrity and hard work. Thanks for making this happen! Extra special thanks to Blair Wood for shooting the video and to Felipe Dulzaides
for editing the video in a very short amount of time.