Friday, May 28, 2010

A Teller Is Available

"A Teller Is Available", currently on view at venues throughout Greensburg, does a masterful job of leading the viewer away from his or her accustomed role of passive observer towards the much more dynamic situation of being an active participant in the creation of this provocative piece of performance art. This ongoing performance raises difficult questions about the role of the artist, and the loss of the artist's identity in the artwork itself.

The basic elements of this artwork are simple. All of the performances take place at “Banks”, spaces that vary only slightly from Bank to Bank. You enter the “Lobby”, a fairly open area with a table containing various documents necessary to conducting business with the Bank. After choosing from a range of possible transactions, you take your place in a line, waiting for your chance to interact with the artist or “Teller”. Strategically placed ropes create a labyrinth for you to walk as you approach the central area of the performance. The meditative quality of walking the labyrinth seems to prepare the viewer for the encounter with the Teller.

The time it takes to make your way to the front of the line varies depending on the number of participants in the performance and the complexity of the transactions that they choose to perform with their Teller. The mood in the line tended towards boredom, with a hint of impatience at viewers who seemed to be making unnecessary demands on the Tellers. But this preliminary wait seemed to heighten the experience of hearing a Teller call out “Next, please”, accompanied as it was by the realization that you were, indeed, now entering the performance as a full participant.

Documents in hand, you approach the “Teller Window”. The Teller Window was basically a gap in a wall allowing you to interact with the Teller without actually entering the Teller’s space. The wall rose to approximately eye level, and the “window” was a shallow tabletop inset at about chest height into the wall upon which documents could be passed between the Teller and the viewer, with about 6 inches of free space between the tabletop and a thick piece of glass that filled the gap up to the top of the wall. Nothing about this arrangement hampered communication between the Teller and the viewer, but it created a clear sense of our space versus the space of the Tellers.

At this point, you the viewer become the “Customer”. On the days when I witnessed and participated in the performance, the exchange between Teller and Customer typically consisted of several distinct steps. Both Teller and Customer are standing, with the Teller Window between them. The first step was “Small Talk”, often consisting of a question for the Customer such as “Is it still raining out there?” The Teller’s existence as part of an artwork separated from “the real world” was emphasized by these questions. The Customer was brought to realize that he or she could leave at any time, whereas the Teller was essentially trapped within the performance. After the Small Talk, the Teller queried the Customer as to the nature of the transactions that they were going to perform. The Customer then hands the Teller the forms which had been prepared in the Lobby. The Teller takes the forms, and consults the Bank as to the feasibility of conducting the requested transactions with the Customer. The fate of the Customer is being “Told” here, as the Bank, not the Teller, has decided the success or failure of the Customer’s transaction.

Here the Teller truly becomes an interface for the Bank, and it is this point in the performance that the strangeness of the roles being played was the most striking. Where earlier the Teller had some freedom to modify the performance, such as replacing “Is it still raining out there?” with “How old is your little girl?” in the Small Talk, at this point in the piece the Teller loses his or her autonomy to make decisions, and simply must either complete the transaction if it met with the Bank’s approval, or reject the transaction if some criteria of the Bank’s was not met.

If the Customer’s attempts to conduct business with the Bank fail, the forms are returned to the Customer. If, on the other hand, the transaction is successful, the Customer is provided with a small printed “receipt” to keep as a record of their participation. Either way, the Customer leaves the performance with some documentation of the event, though the documentation does little to record the human interactions between artist and viewer. The performance typically ends with the Teller wishing the Customer “a nice day”.

As you leave the Bank and head towards your car, you are left to ponder the performance that you just helped to create. Has the artist been sacrificed to make the artwork, swallowed up by the Bank for eight hours a day, repeating the same actions again and again for the edification of each new viewer? Is the artist a Teller when no one is at the Teller Window? Once again it is demonstrated that the artwork only exists in the presence of a viewer, that we make the artwork as much as the artist. Consistent with the history of performance art, questions about art as a commodity have been raised - was the artwork's value dependent on the funds being exchanged by the Bank and the Customer, or was the performance itself the thing of value? Many viewers, in their roles as Customers, were powerfully moved by their interactions with the Teller. Was this a testament to the skill of the artist, or was it more of a reflection of what the viewer brought to the performance? I think it is this last point that made the strongest impression on me, that "A Teller Is Available" ultimately acts as a mirror of the viewer - it’s your response to this powerful and poignant performance that creates the meaning of the work, and whatever you were "told" was something that, on some level, you already knew.

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