Behind the White Curtain

A self-analysis on the capstone project METANOIA By Rieko Whitfield


METANOIA started as a pen line drawing of square in a notebook. The project began as a subversive critique on the “white cube”: the cold, institutionalized art world that grants power to artists from the top down. From the conception of the project to the final night of its execution, METANOIA’s focus shifted from an insider commentary to an immersive, tactile experience. As an academic assignment, the tension between concepts and their materialisation was the dichotomy that I struggled to intellectualize — perhaps more so the production of meaning around something immaterial. In practice, I suddenly found myself as the sole artist-curator-agent-fundraiser utilizing everything from microcrystalline wax, rolling scaffolds, CCTV cameras, web design, social media, and word of mouth buzz to orchestrate this guerrilla operation.

The temporary installation METANOIA at the American Church in Paris on the evening of November 28th, 2014

Context

When I started thinking about this capstone project, the first thing I realized was that I needed some historical context. When looking at the conception of the modern museum, we can trace the beginning of collecting practices to the Renaissance in early modern Europe. It was during the Renaissance the act of collecting was seen as a means of production of knowledge. The concept of the cabinet de curiosités in the 17th century existed as a system of categorization within the natural sciences (MacDonald, 83).

A visit with communications Prof. Charles Talcott’s class “The Museum as Medium” to the Basilica Saint Denis served as inspiration for METANOIA. The mausoleum was one of one of the earliest examples of collection and exhibition for the nationalistic display of the French monarchy.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the focus of collecting then shifted to serve as a memorial for political, institutional power through the display of sacralized objects. Around this period, the idea of the national museum became the objective symbols of nation-states. The obsession with collecting served as an organizational display of power over the constructed narrative of the public and national identity (MacDonald, 85).

The concept of the museum and the public is a relatively recent invention. Tony Bennett explores the ramifications of this construction, and its effect on the representation of power: “Museums may have enclosed objects within walls, but the 19th century saw their doors opened to the general public — witnesses whose presence was just as essential to a display of power as had been that of the people before the spectacle of punishment in the 18th century” (73).

From Phillipe Parreno’s exhibit “Anywhere, Anywhere Out of This World” at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, 2013

Fast forward to the late 20th and 21st centuries, progressive curators, directors, and contemporary artists are now subverting every purpose the museum once stood to serve — preservation, categorization, and display. Museums are more about inclusivity and interactive spaces for social dialogue than the display of sacralized objects.

These are the ideas explored by Nicolas Bourriaud, director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and the co-founder and former co-director of the Palais de Tokyo. His acclaimed essay, “Relational Aesthetics” follows the lines of contemporary artists such as Vanessa Beecroft, Pierre Huyghe, and Phillipe Parreno (three pioneering artists commonly associated with Bourriaud) who use the exhibition format as the medium itself. Bourriaud draws on theoretician Louis Althusser’s ideas by relating “Relational Aesthetics” as a “materialism of encounter,” where art becomes a point of social encounter — interactions rather than symbolic exchange in a private space (18). He traces this shift in 20th century art from the “modest, rational conception, hailing from the 18th century, and a philosophy of spontaneity and liberation through the irrational… both which were opposed to authoritarian and utilitarian forces eager to gauge human relations and subjugate people” (12).

He argues that in contemporary lines of thinking, the idea of forward moving progress is no longer considered an “inevitable historical evolution” (13). Instead of a deliberate vertical movement, contemporary art is moving horizontally. With the influx of mass globalization, commercialism in the museum space, and the explosion of technological advancement in the late 20th century, more intricately networked forms of knowledge have shifted the way in which we conceive of the purpose of the museum.

It is not that these concepts are necessarily new, but it is the way in which contemporary artists take an active role in identifying the limitations of the museum to redefine what the social encounter of the museum can achieve.

A preliminary video illustrating the concept behind METANOIA

Concept

As I started working on my project, all I knew is that I first needed to find a space to exhibit my work. I spent several afternoons brainstorming with fine arts Prof. Jonathan Shimony about different options for spaces around Paris. I brought several rough sketches to explain equally rough ideas about what I wanted to exhibit. I wanted a giant, white, neutral space. I wanted microcrystalline wax sculptures with models inside, that melted with the heat of infrared lamps. I wanted a CCTV camera filming the patrons entering inside the installation, and for that live stream to be projected in a different room. I liked the idea of the rigid space existing only as a shell to the morphous, organic material of wax and bodies and heat. I wanted the CCTV to be a way that these bodies relate to other bodies and to their own bodies by filtering the naked gaze through a screen. As I rattled off my fragmented ideas, Prof. Shimony suggested lists of galleries and spaces in Paris that could potentially house my large-scale creations.

Early studies with microcrystalline wax models in 2012 that inspired the wax sculptures in METANOIA

After weeks of research and finding some reason or another to reject every offer, I started to realize that no existing space was quite “neutral” enough for me. It was at that point I realized that I would need to make my own space. This opened up endless possibilities, and I became enamoured with the idea of exhibiting in a public space.

It was around this time that a fellow AUP student Ainsley Lundeen became interested in my project, and offered to help with METANOIA. Lundeen jumped right in by helping me find the perfect space for the exhibition. We spent months walking around Paris through parking lots, public parks, and community centers to try and find a space that would work. As we started making phone calls and sending emails to gain permission to host an event in these spaces, we were stopped at every administrative and legal road block imaginable.

It was at that point that I realized we needed to rethink our strategy. I decided to let go of the notion that the space had to be anything specific, and thought of locations I had easy and cheap access to. I went to speak with the American Church in Paris, as it was right down the road from the university, and I knew that AUP had hosted several large events at the church in the past.

At my first meeting with the head pastor Scott Herr, he was thrilled with the idea of having an art event at his church. When I explained the installation would be called “Metanoia,” he told me that he coincidentally spent a lot of time researching the contested origins and meanings of the word during his studies in theology. It is a Greek word literally meaning “change of mind” or “beyond perception,” but the signification of the word has shifted over time to mean “repentance” or “regret,” specifically in the biblical context. The word originally referred not to “regret,” but merely the shift in thinking that preceded repentance. Finally someone seemed to understand my project. Now that we had secured the date and location, and I could move forward with planning my actual exhibition.

A promotional video released months prior to the event

Presentation

After I secured the American Church in Paris, I suddenly found myself with no tangible artwork and a still unpolished pitch for the concept. Speaking about art in general or about another artist’s work has never been particularly difficult for me. However, this was the first time that I had to speak about my own art candidly and repeatedly, where the effectiveness of my communication would play a decisive role in making this event possible.

The years in my early teens that I started straying away from my classically-trained background in painting, I had a difficult time distinguishing what the significance of philosophical meanings played in a work of art. There was the process of creation that felt spiritual to me, yet was highly intuitive and so far removed from much of the sterile artworks in sterile galleries that I had frequently encountered. I found I could no longer speak about art in a way that didn’t feel contrived.

I became obsessed with finding some kind of theoretical justification for my artwork. I spent much of my university years turning to the library in a desperate search for meaning. I perused the books on the Basic Art-School Student and Basic Philosophy Undergrad reading lists that repeatedly recommended similar texts. From Badiou to Žižek, I had acquired a very superficial understanding of a lot of canonical names on a neat timeline. At the end of the day, I admittedly felt disappointed — not because I didn’t enjoy empathizing with the great minds of modern Western culture, but because I had failed to find the mystical answers for the formless questions in my mind. I also understood how very little I knew with just half an undergraduate degree. I felt I spent my university years merely honing my dinner party conversation skills.

This was the point that I began meeting weekly with philosophy Prof. Jérôme Game, who served as an invaluable mentor throughout the process of making METANOIA a reality. I was struggling with ways to explain the naive grandiosity of my thoughts. I thought I needed to write like the theorists we were reading in class, with all of their beautiful concepts and elegant logic. Though I had taken several courses that fed into my theoretical background of aesthetics and critical theory, one of the most important lessons I learned from Prof. Game was outside of the classroom. He told me that as useful as it was to learn by the textbook, it is more important as an artist to think through practice. Concepts and meanings do not just float in some magical Platonic ether — everything is always already situated, and knowledge is produced by being and doing in the world. Prof. Game, in essence, called me out and made me realize I needed to think from the bottom up. It seems stupidly simple, but it felt like it was something I had known all along but failed to recognize. I tried my hardest to let go of the concepts and names and dates I had memorized for his courses for a moment, and strip my ideas down to its bare bones.

I started asking myself more humble, grittier questions. What I came up with were the simplest of “elevator pitches.”

What is METANOIA?

METANOIA is a curated social performance, transforming a private space into an ephemeral public experience.

How will METANOIA be constructed?

METANOIA is a temporary art installation in the sanctuary of a church — a 10m by 10m cube constructed out of scaffolds and plastic screens. Inside the installation is a performance consisting of 9 live models encased in sculptures made of wax soaked bedsheets. Each model will exit and enter the sculptures at timed intervals. The spectators will walking through the cube will be filmed with CCTV cameras, and the live feed will be projected on another plastic screen in the adjacent room.

What does METANOIA mean?

The Greek word “metanoia” literally means “change of mind” or “beyond perception.” In the contemporary context the word has come to signify “repentance.” The original meaning of the word does not center around repentance, but rather the shift of perception that precedes it.

This kind of vernacular language and straightforward information is what I needed the most to get people to promote my project. It was also at this point I began to realize that I couldn’t dream of doing this all by myself. I am to this day still amazed how many people stepped up to volunteer their time and expertise at times I most needed help but was afraid to ask for it.

These “elevator pitches” were also crucial in convincing the student senate of AUP to fund my project in its entirety — a 2,500 euro price tag. After speaking frankly at several senate meetings and showing some videos and images illustrating my concepts, there was a unanimous vote in favor of passing my budget.

I know very well that receiving funding for art projects on the scale that I like to dream of is no easy feat in the “real world” outside of a university bubble. This is where presentation and language of an artist’s work can make or break a career, no matter how brilliant the sentiment behind an artwork can be.

A video directed by Gabriel Hedengren for Peacock TV documenting the process of constructing the body moulds of the models

Creation

After the theoretical formation of my project, I spent a warm California summer in my parent’s garage mindlessly gluing shower curtains to make the screens for the installation, and melting wax in thrift store ceramic cookers to make the sculptures. I wrapped myself in plastic tape to test if it would be sufficient to serve as a skeleton for the body moulds. I loaded the family soccer mom van with PVC pipes purchased at a hardware store and dragged my younger siblings to the local tennis court to help me hang the screens on wobbly plastic structures to text the installation in full scale. I packed the precisely measured screens and the wax soaked sheets into a golf bag and transported the pieces of my installation from LAX to CDG.

I then spent three months luring 9 volunteer models into my home to create their moulds in plastic tape. For months, every corner of my one room 25 square meter apartment I shared with my boyfriend was brimming with life-sized plastic tape dolls. It took an entire month calling a construction rental company several times a week in broken French to secure the rental of my scaffolds for the event. My order for 16 rolling scaffolds to be dropped off and picked up in the breadth of 24 hours seemed incomprehensible to everyone I spoke to.

A lot of my time and energy also went into making videos, photographs, and designs to create a visual brand for my event. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to explain my event to everyone, nor did I want to. I knew I wanted to keep an air of mystery to the event. Theoretically, if the aesthetic was strong enough to stand alone, then people would want to come even though no one knew who I was or what “temporary installation and social performance” meant.

A poster design from the print campaign

Promotion

The promotion began with the website, where I designed a very simple navigation with limited information on the event. All I really wanted to reveal was the date, the time, and the location. By purchasing a domain name and creating a professional website, what I wanted to do was fake my way into looking like I was backed by a large institution. I wanted to mask the fact that this event would merely be a senior project run by one 22 year old student.

Screenshots from METANOIA2014.com (please ignore the French grammatical errors)
Through the grassroots campaign, the Facebook event alone reached over 1,000 invitees

As for getting the word out, I relied heavily on Facebook to let my peers know the details of my event. Everything I wrote was deliberate, and every post I made was calculated and carefully timed. I sought advice from several friends who work as event promoters, and they gave me tips on how to target certain demographics to my event. I knew I had two kinds of people coming to my event: people who were close friends or art aficionados that were coming for the installation, and people who were coming for the hype. It was the latter half that was crucial to making the event a success, though they tended to be a finicky crowd to earn a committed RSVP from. Though this was all really a marketing gimmick, I coordinated an afterparty at an exclusive nightclub through a promoter, as I told him I would bring people to his club if he would bring people to my event. In the weeks before my event, I made an effort to go out and socialize with acquaintances and friends of friends and discreetly tell them about METANOIA. Many people I hardly knew became very supportive of my project, and they made a point to tell me they invited all of their friends. In real time I watched the number of confirmed attendees increase on the Facebook page. My mafia-style hustling didn’t feel genuine, but the sentiment behind it was. I think people understood that.

Meticulously scheduled posts to increase buzz closer to the event

In the week prior to the event, I bombarded the university and several other relevant locations with posters and made a schedule down to the hour of content I would post on Facebook in order to attract the maximum amount of buzz. Together with my friend Gabriel Hedengren from Peacock TV, we released a “viral” video to serve as a last minute advertisement for the exhibition. I slowly revealed more information about the event, such as the featured musicians and the afterparty. Two hours before the doors opened, I made sure to post Instagram filtered images of the exhibition set-up to remind everyone that the American Church would be the place to be that Friday evening.

A model steps out from under his wax mould

Execution

The morning of the installation, the 16 scaffolds arrived at the steps of the church. I had a team of 10 working to set up the event, including family, friends, and Prof. Shimony. We set up the scaffolds, installed the screens, and arranged the sculptures. Mathieu Motta, the university camera technician helped set up the CCTV camera and the projector with equipment he had purchased specifically for this event. The logistics of the set up went surprisingly smoothly and exactly according to schedule, as I had sat down with a group of volunteers to map out the tasks for the day. Lundeen was by my side all day for odd last-minute tasks like picking up flower bouquets for the wine tables, or purchasing things I had forgotten like plastic cups and tablecloths. The Wine Society club of AUP arrived to bartend, and in the hours before the event, models and volunteers came trickling into the church. They all wore black as I had instructed.

I explained the precise procedure of the performance down to the gritty details: Do not make eye contact or speak to anyone when you are in the sanctuary. Do not smile. Enter through the front and exit through the back. Once you are under the sheet, make sure you are comfortable but stay as still as you can. Charge your phones fully and set your alarm to vibrate so you know exactly when to get up. Do not fall asleep. When you leave, cover the tape mould with the sheet. With my mind on a million different tasks, I barked orders left and right and all 35+ volunteers complied.

Shin-Itchiro Yokoyama, a Japanese cellist, and composer who busks in the Paris Metro, performing in the center of the sanctuary

The DJ Max Irwin, and the cellist Shin-Itchiro Yokoyama arrived an hour before the event. I placed Yokoyama in the center of the sanctuary, because I wanted the spectators to assume the music playing was recorded as the installation would block their view of the musician. As they would exit the installation, the live cellist would be a bit of a pleasant surprise. Since the early stages of planning METANOIA, I really wanted a busker to play in the exhibition. I’ve always like the way buskers play directly to the public in public spaces, performing on a level of intimacy that removing the stage or the orchestra pit can provide. I liked the idea of a public musician playing for a free public event in a private, for-profit space like a church. Though I did not have the budget to offer payment to Yokoyama, I told him to busk at the church in the same way he would busk in any other public space. I made sure people were tipping him enough to make it worthy of his time and talent.

In the adjacent room, I placed Irwin by the wine bar. Though it was difficult to forsee how the music from the cellist and the music from the DJ would interact in the two rooms, I was really pleased with the interaction of the low key electronica with the bass-heavy lounge vibe and the instantly recognizable Beethoven, Bach, and Dvorak tunes that resonated in the sanctuary. Throughout the night, I kept my eye out on the crowd in the room with the wine bar, and told Irwin to speed up the tempo or switch genres of music to subtly increase the intensity of the party as the night went on.

The screen depicting two models exiting the cube at the end of the performance

One thing I did underestimate was the hypnotic power of the projection screen. The conversation earlier in the night was dominated by talk about who was currently on the projection, or how they felt when they realized they were being filmed. Most people in the theatre room were facing the projection, or glancing at the projection every several minutes. Most everyone went back through the installation two or three times, and many smiled or danced in front of the camera when they knew people in the next room were watching. It seemed to me like one giant, communal selfie.

A short video clip of the footage from the CCTV camera

The event attracted nearly 300 people ranging from AUP students and students from other universities, professors, curators, artists, musicians, and church members of different ages and nationalities. Throughout the night, many people asked me what METANOIA was supposed to mean, but I found myself telling different things to different people so that they would hear what they wanted to hear. To many I told them there was nothing intellectual to “get.”

Even though I have my “elevator pitch” of what to tell people when I need to get my ideas across efficiently, truthfully I myself do not understand what compelled me to put this event together or where these ideas ever stem from. The textbooks and the research certainly helped in the process of organizing my thoughts and putting things into context, but in the end the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is the importance of getting your hands dirty and applying those lessons to the real world.

Within the next several years I plan on building my art portfolio and expanding my practice before entering into an MFA program — probably in London at Goldsmiths, University of London, University of the Arts London Central Saint Martins, or the Royal College of Art. Once I establish myself a bit more, I would love to devote as much time as I can to my art. Since graduation, I have been working as a freelance graphic designer, enrolling part-time at the Sorbonne to take French courses, and working on my upcoming exhibition Tokyo Dreaming at the Combes Gallery from the 19th of February to the 17th of March.

Works Cited:
Baudrillard, Jean. “The System of Collecting.” Cultures of Collecting (1994). PDF file.
Bennett, Tony. “The Exhibitionary Complex.” The Birth of the Museum. Tony Bennett. London: Routledge, 1995.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. “Relational Aesthetics.” Les Presses du Réel (1998). PDF file.
MacDonald, Sharon. “Collecting Practices.” A Companion to Museum Studies. Sharon MacDonald. Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2011. 81–97. Print.