When I moved to Austin from New York seven years ago, the hardest thing to get used to wasn’t the heat or the size of the trucks or the accents or the cowboy hats and steel guitars. It wasn’t the egg and cheese sandwiches served on tacos or the flying cockroaches or the hippies. It was the friendliness. A lifetime East Coaster who’d spent the previous three years in Brooklyn, I couldn’t get used to the idea that the guy being nice to me in line at the bank wasn’t try to get something over on me; he was just being nice because, well, it’s better to be nice.
In Austin, people build bridges; in New York people build moats.
New York is a miserable place.
I suppose it makes sense that that kind of emotional distancing, that kind of constructed sense of cynical cool would play such a big part in the contemporary arts scene in New York. The same instinct that keeps people from engaging strangers in line at the grocery store (not a bad instinct in a city like New York, mind you; open the door just a little bit and strangers will come pouring in to get a piece of you) is probably the same motivation for the affected sense of haughty sophistication and low-grade contempt that seemed to define so many of the “art” experiences I had in the city. All those clichés that play so well in movies actually do exist. The chain-smoking tortured and torturing artistes dressed in black, the incomprehensible performance pieces designed to keep out rather than let in.
What do you think of when you imagine contemporary installation art? A sense from the artist that he knows something you don’t, that he might deign to tell you, but that if he does he will do so like a doctor pouring medicine into your mouth – knowing it’s for your own good — though he’s convinced that most likely you’ll never really understand what he’s talking about and that medicine will only go to waste? That’s what I think of.
It’s not the same thing in Austin, though. How could it be? How could such a generous town ever hope to produce the level of disaffection in its arts scene that a town like New York can conjure up so effortlessly? It can’t. That kind of confrontational approach to modern art just wouldn’t make any sense here.
For example, I went the other day to the Austin Museum of Art to check out the New Works installation by Austin film and projection artist Luke Savisky. The piece is being featured as part of this year’s Fusebox Festival, Austin’s annual contemporary arts program that is going on through next Sunday all over the city and which proves that you can have experience experimental art without feeling like you’re being upbraided for philistinism.
Like the city and the festival and, apparently, Mr. Savisky himself, New Works is devoted to a sense of aesthetic modesty. It’s located way at the back of AMOA, fanfare free. You have to walk through a large and rather conventional exhibit on screenprinting to find it. You have to walk around the correct corner, seek out the right door, and pass through curtains to get there. I didn’t see any people making the scene. I didn’t see anyone, come to think of it.
Savisky doesn’t show any interest in the clichéd trappings of the self-important experimental artist, with his/her apostolic belief in the significance of his/her work. With its spinning cages, projected light displays, and vintage 3-D effects, New Works might be challenging to understand, but it’s not challenging to experience; Savisky doesn’t feel the need to make you suffer along with him. He refuses to make that most dubious of art-world connections: the one between discomfort and revelation.
Savisky doesn’t demand hair-shirts or beds of nails or glasses of hemlock. He provides an ambient music soundtrack. He provides 3-D glasses. He even provides a detailed instruction sheet that explains how to get the most out of the installation. My god, the man even provides couches for you to sit on. How many downtown New York avant-gardists would be so welcoming?
Stay tuned to Arts & Minds for more Fusebox coverage. Visit their Web site here.