Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Logan Gabrielle Schulman's "KEEPING ON (breathing)"

Set up for "Keep on Breathing" by Logan Gabrielle Schulman
The term "contemporary art" is confusing. Isn't all art "contemporary" at the time it's created, whether it's a vase of flowers, a geometric image or a performance piece? It turns out the label is applied based on the artist's intention. A painting of a vase of wilted flowers could be categorized as contemporary art if it's intended as a commentary on the impact of climate change. Or it could just be a beautiful painting of flowers from the artist's garden a la Monet. Ditto re: a geometric painting that might be intended as a reflection of today's fractured and hard to understand world or an exploration of form and color. It's complicated. 

There's no question, though, that Logan Gabrielle Schulman's "KEEPING ON (breathing)" fits squarely in the realm of contemporary art. The performance piece was created specifically in response to the upheaval taking place at New College in Sarasota. Governor DeSantis' hostile takeover of the school has been written about in the press across the country and even abroad. (To see what's being said, click here for coverage in LA and here in London.)  The goal of DeSantis and the people he's placed on the College's board and, in turn, in leadership positions at the school is to eliminate the College's "diversion, inclusion and equity" programs and to convert the institution into a school with conservative religious values. As the Guardian said, it's all part of DeSantis' politically calculated "war on woke." (The "politically calculated" part is my addition.) God forbid that white people feel bad -- and perhaps even a little guilty -- about the past and present treatment of Blacks and other minorities in our country or that we teach principles of respecting each other no matter our differences. 

Schulman (who goes by they/them pronouns) is a graduate of New College who lives in New York City. As an artist, they felt compelled to create a work that would speak to what's happening at their alma mater. Schulman and a supportive friend boarded a plane with a suitcase filled with a deflated rubber body, a pump from a blow up bed and a sheet. The first stop was Orlando, where they borrowed a parental vehicle and loaded it up with a folding table, a couple of chairs, a long PVC pipe and an extension cord. Then they headed down to Sarasota to stage "KEEPING ON (breathing)."

Once on the ground, Schulman emailed people to let them know about the project. "KEEPING ON (breathing)" would take place at noon and 6 pm for a couple of days at locations disclosed 30 minutes in advance. Schulman had requested permission from New College to mount the work but was informed there wasn't sufficient time to get permits in place. And so the work became a "guerilla" or pop up event. (So far as I am aware, this didn't present any problems.) 

When the time came, Schulman settled into a chair to read from Walter Benjamin's "The Fall of Herculaneum and Pompeii." The story tells how the people of Pompeii died and became encrusted in ash, an artifact to be considered and studied in the future. Some of the people who died did so because they didn't flee quickly enough, staying instead to gather belongings. Others died later as they ventured in to retrieve some of their possessions too soon after the eruption. There's a message there. 

As Schulman read, the pump periodically breathed life into the figure. The pump was loud, and Schulman would pause reading as we watched the figure's legs straighten and the body become fuller. Soon, though, the pump cut off, and the body deflated again after its unsuccessful attempt at continued life. It was disconcerting, and the analogy to what's happening at New College was clear. 

To Schulman, "KEEPING ON (breathing)" was a way for the New College community to collectively grieve what's happening. On the artist's website, the project was described in part as follows: "Ancient Judaism calls a person in the throes at the end of life -- that liminal state of here/not here -- a goses. It is said to be a deed of paramount importance to go and sit with a goses, to hold space with them, to treat them as a full person, to not treat them as if they're gone, but simply to reflect with them and with one another, sharing space, and breath, and time together." 

The question Schulman is ultimately asking is whether New College as we know it will, like Pompeii, become an artifact, an experiment to be studied in the future. The writing seems to be on the wall or, perhaps, in the ash. 


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