I recently met Danielle Freakley, who is currently approaching what she terms "Phase Two" of a three phase project called – and under which she seems to call herself and the near-mechanical vessel the project requires she become – The Quote Generator. The first year and half of the project – the first phase – was dedicated to speaking entirely in quotes from various popular sources, such as films, advertisements, books, magazines; the second phase, which will last a year, demands that she speak entirely in quotes made by others with whom she has communicated; and the third, which will last six months, will find her speaking through phrases she made in the past. The project thus denies her articulation of her immediate responses, emotional or intellectual; she must defer to another source – its derivation being from popular media, others, or herself, that best or most interestingly or simply most easily suit the present situation – in order to "express" herself, although this word feels quite out of place in this instance, as these quotes seem less expressions than approximations. The project strikes as a kind of strain of what has been termed endurance art; the term, like all codifying ones, is misleading and oversimplifies the task the artist has set forth for him- or herself, but it also works: much of what Chris Burden and Marina Abramović, among so many others, conjure in their work is not entirely distinct from what the work of someone like David Blaine, he of lower "artistic caliber," accomplishes, namely, a sense of a self-imposed psychic exile, the purpose and value of which is debatable and, for many, mystifying.
She showed me a video of her work and I thought it was really funny; naturally, the tenor of a phrase changes entirely – such as when, in an oft-used favorite of hers, she says "Thank you," in a setting in which such a platitudinous formality is expected but not necessarily understood as an expression of gratitude, and then attributes it to Deep Throat – when attached to a specific source. As one video available on YouTube may attest, this project may first and foremost seem just charming and fun – or, as others I have since shown her work to, annoying –, but this belies the tremendous mental and psychic strain it must cause her – of having to adopt others' phrases to best suit what are likely her widely divergent states, of sheer memorization – to live her life as The Quote Generator; the seeming frivolity, the charm, of her performance distracts from her commitment to it, which is as likely to provoke awe as it is a headache. When Chris Burden crucifies himself to a Volkswagen Beatle, or in Marina Abramović's Rhythm 0, there is no question that what the artist is subjecting him- or herself to is serious: vital organs, sanity, and life itself is at stake. None of these things – save perhaps sanity, certainly – are at stake with The Quote Generator, and this may cause some to dismiss Freakley's work: it may seem to many, at best, a charming aggrandizement of contemporary culture's reliance upon "quotation" – of phrases, but also of events and situations, of our need for the comfort of the familiar – or, at worst, a hipsterly, tongue-in-cheek, Gawkeresque trial that the artist set forth for herself, without any inherent cultural or societal or artistic need for it. But both of these overlook the tremendous strain this must have put on Freakley's social and mental life, wherein her means of expression were limited to the words – or particular usage thereof – of others; she denied the public what may be termed her self, and, in so doing, denied her more intimate and meaningful social interaction: she was unable to respond to others in a manner she could formulate; instead, when a question was posed to her, her responsibility to her project demanded that her immediate response not be to search, say, somewhere within herself, but to search through her vast archive of quotations in order to find something that best fit the question; she was tailoring herself and her social responses to the phrases and formulations of others. Another video bears an shocking, poignant, and tragic moment in which The Quote Generator is speaking, while on a plane, with a man who is quite evidently in a great deal of existential distress; the artist is left to deal with what may be called this man's "cry for help" in the way her project demands she do; in this particular instance, the charm and cleverness of the endeavor dissipates and the whole thing seems much more sinister, depriving the artist – still a human, a social animal by scientific classification – of her full capacity for sympathy and for giving this man the fuller therapeutic attention he needs. The goals of her project, and the mental strain it has caused Freakley, pale in comparison to what this man is going through. What is interesting about her project, as distinct from other works of "endurance art," is that it necessitates the interaction of others, of an audience; it is a social artistic experiment, which is quite rare. But the social integrity of her project falls apart in moments like this, when her project denies her the ability to truly and, perhaps, properly address her plane-mate's crisis. It is emblematic of the work's capacity.
And so she too has subjected herself to a kind of debilitating existence. But what of it? a common, dissenting refrain demands. She brought this supposed "suffering," this "mental strain," upon herself; are we supposed to celebrate her for having accomplished something for which no one particularly asked? It is a worthwhile question: ostensibly – or so goes the thought of a particular camp of artists and critics –, it is the work that should speak for itself, not the process; Burden and Abramović, among others, would sympathize with this sentiment, and would demand no sympathy for the difficulty these projects caused their psyches. And neither, for all I know, does Freakley. But it does seem unfortunate to me that it would be forgotten or overlooked.
All of which is to get to what I intend to be the "meat" of this query. On another video, one which Freakley showed me herself in order to better acquaint me with her work but which I can't seem to find online, she is speaking with a television reporter; he is evidently dubious of her endeavor, and seems intent on, in some way, "outing" her, catching her in some way or proving the pointlessness of her project. He seems mad at her; he wants to get her, not in the typical sense of a viewer trying to "get" – to understand – a work of art, but in the perhaps deeper sense viewers may feel of trying to get at – to attack – the artist.
It is a striking moment; it seems a pithy encapsulation of the wariness with which many view any kind of unusual work of art, particularly if it has a performative element. And I suspect that it is emblematic of the wariness with which so many now approach artists and their work, if its medium is unusual and its purpose opaque. The stature of art has been raised, by an immensity of factors, to impossible, unwarranted heights, and has given rise – particularly in the twentieth century, but this avatar had existed long before – to the so-called Artist-God, a figure embraced by such varied artists as Joseph Beuys, Jackson Pollock, Damien Hirst, Le Corbusier, and countless – primarily male – others. Art has become divine in its obscurity, artists divinities. Thus, much is at stake when a new artist enters the scene: we suddenly have a new potential deity to deal with. What I interpret the attempts of this television reporter as – in trying to dismantle, mock, and undermine Freakley's project – is a certain kind of rejection, a fed-upedness, with artists. So much is obscure in contemporary art, and with contemporary artists who fashion themselves god-like figures, that many outside of the echo-chamber of the art world have little room for any more of these gods, before we find ourselves in a present overflowing with such pagan artist deities. The reporter was not necessarily upset with Freakley, specifically; he was upset with artists in general, and the immense space and respect many of them are given despite the fact that, to the vast majority of the population, their work is entirely impenetrable. This reporter was simply trying to refuse entrance of yet another artist into the Artist-God pantheon, whether or not she even sought it in the first place.
Art occupies a distinct place within our culture, and this is not only because we have such difficulty – as we should – in defining it. Part of what makes it unique is that it is viewed as necessary, as analgesic to deprived mind, as a means by which to understand one's self; and yet the vast majority of art produced these days exists in and for the self-referential art world, and people outside of this exclusive "club" find little relation to it, little place to understand the art works, let alone themselves through it. This is not the artist's fault, per se; many artists do not actively seek the Artist-God role – I doubt that Freakley does – they just pursue thoughts that interests them. These thoughts, then, through some ineffable process – involving artists or collectors or critics or museum and gallery owners or curators, or any combination thereof – that ends with the thought having become Art, become imbued with the particular sanctimony of art.
The mere presence of another artist, particularly one using "newer" media – and performance has become nearly emblematic of the unapproachable in contemporary art –, scares many not involved in the art world. They may feel that they are falling behind in this new religion; they may wish that this new religion never existed. I certainly do. But the dissonance that creates such tension between the art world and the "non-art world" exists in the space between the importance placed upon art and its actual approachability, its understandability. Art occupies a peculiar space wherein it is a much-moneyed, respected, and invaluable part of society; but many of the most visible of its practitioners can be very difficult to understand, and a schism is created wherein people know that these artists are, in some fashion or another, "important," but they don't know why. And for good reason: no one lets them in, certainly not the artists or the critics who treat this hallowed ground as one to be kept cleansed of the artistically agnostic, of those who are interested in art but do not follow any particular artistic sect or denomination or belief system. The art world is at once central – due to the social importance traditionally given art, the preposterous amounts of money it attracts, and art's supposed capacity for articulating the ineffable – and peripheral, due to much of contemporary art's inaccessibility, as well as its preferred image of itself, one that stems from most post-1914 art. This is extremely unfortunate. There is much phenomenal, fulfilling, understandable, and worthwhile art that is currently being produced; but it is being muddled by the Hirsts of the world, by those who take art as a game and seem to thoughtlessly enjoy pushing its already limitless borders, who don't seem to get that what they are doing has already been done and that what their audience – already giving them attention – demands is a better means of comprehending their work. There are many artists and critics who, it seems, do not want the "common fray" to enter the art world, to understand it. The insular world of contemporary art likes its insularity, but it also likes its singular place in the cultural landscape: above all else, ostensibly high-minded, often impenetrable by all but the "informed" few. It likes its gods; it likes its religion. It is no wonder that others – no matter how poorly chosen their objects of derision are, as was the case in the interview with Freakley – seek to de-deify art; it should be de-deified, but if the artists who attract the most attention – if artists like Hirst – still manage to occupy mainstream obscure art, they will only further the schism between artistic production and artistic comprehension. More import is currently placed, by curators and critics, on fulfilling the artist's needs than the audience's. The Western art world does have religious qualities; it does have its deities, and it prefers them to be of the Old Testament brand: implacable, obtuse, unapproachable, incomprehensible. It is no wonder there is a backlash, that so many are openly hostile to contemporary art without, in a sense, giving it a chance; a strong value is placed on obscurity in the art world, and no viewer – that is, no believer – wants his or her gods to be obscure.