Mark Leckey Spectacular Teacher


In the last several years, English artist Mark Leckey has shifted from video art to increasingly performance-based practice. Leckey, a professor of film studies at the Staedelschule in Frankfurt, cites his experience teaching for the change in approach. His performances deal with questions that every pedagogue should consider: What is the information that I transmit, and how does it become knowledge? How does my own subjectivity, if I can call it that, transmit information? How does the very structure of transmission, transmit back to me?

Photo courtesy of MoMA

In the Long Tail, presented at the Abron Arts Center this past weekend as part of MoMA’s Performance series, is the most recent piece in a peculiar performance style that combines academic lecture, mega-church sermon, New Age hucksterism, the artist’s talk, and an emotional, exhibitionist one-man show. Abron Arts Center is a traditional theater setting, and Leckey has arranged his stage accordingly, as though for a play. He installed props recycled like repertory materials from other performances (his Cinema-in-the-Round at the Guggenheim, 2007; his residency exhibition at the Koelnischer Kunstverein, 2008): a blackboard, a desk with a Mac computer, a monumental sound-system, a video screen, and a working replica of a device called the mechanical scanner in front of a model of Felix the Cat.

Before Leckey even walks on stage, the video shows a glistening, flaccid metallic blob. Turns out the blob is a tail: When the artist comes onstage, he introduces its presumed host, Felix, which in smaller effigy rotates on a turntable illuminated by spotlights. It’s a restaging of a photograph of the first broadcast of a moving image, which Leckey happened upon online. Leckey appears onstage and begins by speaking about Felix, how the mechanical scanner embodies what he calls the “transition from rigid matter to gazefied material.” Felix begins to sound human.

What begins as a relatively humble discussion of the artist’s practice expands into a grandiose theory of man and the world, punctuated with crowd-pleasing divertissements in the form of videos and demonstrations. That Leckey’s argument seems to make a kind of sense at the time, but is nearly impossible to summarize or even reproduce, is symptomatic of his feline rhetoric. His primary concern is the “long tail,” an economic concept from an article by Chris Anderson, originally published in Wired. The “long tail” refers to a chart mapping consumer tendencies, where the frequency of the mainstream market is concentrated in the “head” and ever more arcane niche markets form a long “tail” (which, in aggregate, overwhelms the head). “Nothing is irredeemable in the long tail,” he says, “everything is recuperated.” In other words, there is a market for every taste.

Economics isn’t really Leckey’s field, however, and the long tail becomes a universally applicable rubric. It is itself rather irredeemable. Another recurring figure of In the Long Tail, the cybernetic feedback loop, undergoes a similar, manic abstraction—Leckey draws it again and again on the chalkboard, with great emphasis. But Leckey’s fanaticism really sets in when he speaks of the long tail as a giant fetish, cybernetically producing what you want from it, where things can be, as he says, wished into existence. Chanted ommmms blare over the speakers and Leckey sinks into reverie about how the long tail can liberate us to a “sweet spot in the midst of the swarm” where, like the Ouroboros, we can primally satisfy our own desires.

I’m touching on only a tiny part of Leckey’s argument.  In his contribution to a conference, Canvases and Careers Today at the Staedelschule, artist John Kelsey discussed what he calls the “hack,” a charlatan who successfully fulfills the post-Fordist demand for adaptable virtuosity. By using his rhetorical brilliance in the service of bullshit, Leckey stages this very condition. Criticizing specialized jargon, and the emancipatory rhetoric of 90s new media academicism, Leckey inhabits his role. Somehow he doesn’t seem so different from Andrea Fraser, whose animated, bankable personae inhabits a critique of exchange of the work of art. At one point in the performance, Leckey mentions Joseph Beuys’s “social sculpture,” in which society becomes a work of art—with the challenge of leading with a rather spectacular stick. Leaving the theater, audience members could be overheard musing on the “beautiful,” “fascinating” performance.