Monday, August 01, 2005

From Artlike Art to Lifelike Art: The Extraordinary "Happening" of Gavin Newsom and Mabel Teng

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I work in the public sphere—creating public art, advocating for the arts with my colleagues at Public Address, helping to create city policy as a city arts commissioner, and generally talking the arts up everywhere. I'm also a Latina lesbian who's been part of the discussion of gay rights in San Diego. Right now the issue of gay marriage is the hot button that's making both the Left and Right squirm.

The popularity of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Will and Grace" notwithstanding, the path in this country for advocates of equal rights for the Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Transgender community is uphill and subject to ongoing and random rockslides. When the LGBT community steps outside its current acceptable role—to be the court jesters or style mavens to Middle America—it runs into the reality of its continuing marginalized status. Even the legislative good guys tell you, "Hey, slow down, too much, too fast." It's hard to hear from your friends that you're the reason that the Republicans are in the White House, even if that's the sad rationale for losing an election Democrats would have won had had they bothered to actually run a campaign. The Democrats feel like they're losing altitude in one, long nosedive. They're getting ready to toss out the heavy baggage in the next election cycle, which is what gay rights, especially marriage equality, is to many of them.

So when a straight, white man with matinee looks and a brilliant political future ahead of him, and a stylish Chinese-American woman who looks like a Vogue editor, risk it all to make a statement of conscience, those two officials become more than political figures; they become the performance artists of the new millennium against which all others shall be judged.

I was married in the Valentine Weekend Revolution in San Francisco, when Mayor Gavin Newsom and County Recorder Mabel Teng blew open the doors of city hall and said to gay and lesbian couples, "All are welcome to wed and be legally recognized as a family." And come they did, by the thousands, with their families, their children, their friends; dressed in everything from blue jeans to Armani, arriving in taxis from the airport, hiking in on the BART, huddled under umbrellas in the rain, their arms filled with flowers or holding on to balloons, sitting outside city hall in their backyard folding chairs, accepting coffee and pizza from well-wishers. Once inside the rotunda, the brides and grooms looked around the gilded hall with the kind of disbelief and cautious optimism reserved for immigrants coming ashore after a long and arduous sea voyage. The pure exuberant joy of that time was something I will remember the rest of my life, not just my own, but that of the thousands of other couples, their families, friends and even strangers.

The authenticity of that moment exists, and will continue to exist, like the ground itself. It is why millions of Americans sat glued to their television sets, swept up in the moment, knowing they were seeing something that they had not seen in long memory: a Happening.

In the 1950s a number of pioneer artists were reimagining and reconfiguring the art world. One of the foremost figures in those days was Alan Kaprow, father of the Happening and precursor to Performance Art, who left New York in the 1970s to become one of the founding faculty members of UC San Diego’s art department. I met Kaprow as a graduate student, working as one of his teaching assistants, and was introduced to what, for me, was a seminal work, an article he had written for Art in America in 1983. Entitled “The Real Experiment,” it mapped out a philosophical position for art making that has been part of my intellectual toolkit for almost twenty years. It chronicled his move away from the museum, studio, gallery confines and moved art into the sphere of real life. Everything could and would become art, with a kind of deep intentionality and attention that became part spiritual practice, part democratic exercise. Sweeping the floor became art, catching sunlight in a paper bag became art, running for office in a small town became art, moving furniture became art.

Kaprow has always been interested in everyday life and what he calls “lifeworks.” His biographer, Jeff Kelley, writes, “For him the modernist practice of art is more than the production of artworks; it also involves the artist’s disciplined effort to observe, engage, and interpret the processes of living, which are themselves as meaningful as most art, and certainly more grounded in common experience…Because Kaprow sees most art as a convention—or a set of conventions—by which the meanings of experience are framed, intensified, and interpreted, he attends as an artist to the meanings of experience instead of the meanings of art (or ‘art experience.’)”

Gavin Newsom and Mabel Teng strike me as Kaprow’s direct heirs. Moved by his outrage over the President’s State of the Union Address in which George Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Newsom met with his advisors to put together the social and political structure that would frame the next few weeks. The meaning that arose from that structure was not about the structure itself so much as it was about those who participated in it. It was the thousands of couples, their friends, their families, and fellow citizens that gave it, the artwork if you will, its meaning.

Mabel Teng was instrumental in mobilizing her office, the County Recorder and Assessor, into a one-stop wedding chapel, with hundreds of volunteers who performed heroically for four days, answering questions, helping to fill out forms, officiating over the ceremonies, acting as witnesses, processing the paperwork, and taking pictures when called upon. If Newsom created the vehicle for change, Teng made sure it had gas, air in the tires, and all the lights in working order.

The country and the world were riveted by the sheer bigness of it, the spectacle, the unscripted realness. In lives filled with mass produced everything, where the co-option machine works overtime to grind the life out of our most human and humane moments, the San Francisco marriages were a cleansing wind. The process of living, of revealing the processes of our daily lives, became something extraordinary. Mayor Newsom and County Recorder Teng dared to take the sheer ordinariness of marriage and frame it in such a way that it intensified our sense of its sacred nature, so much so that millions of Americans, of every political hue, were asking themselves what it all meant, and by extension, what their own marriages meant.

In true Happening style, the gay weddings made everyday life into art; or as Kaprow would say, it moved our thinking away from artlike art (museum, gallery, studio, and all the commodification that goes with it) to lifelike art. Thousands of people wanted to participate, not just as brides and grooms, but as volunteers and witnesses. You wanted to BE there, to escape the sense of NOT BEING anywhere in particular. People wanted to put their face, their mark, their humanity into the mix; they wanted to be transformed. They were.

A definition of Performance Art on the web talks about its participants (the people that come to the performance and become a part of it):

“Performers are encouraged to capitalize upon unplanned occurrences while acting out fantasies based on real life within a certain roughly pre-ordained structure that suggests symbolic and universally basic themes and meanings. A field of aesthetic operation is thus created in relation to life, combining artfully determined materials with strong associational properties, and dimensions with events and things from the sphere "outside" of customary definitions for art.”

People participated in taking the “unplanned occurrences” and ran with them.

At the end of the fourth day, when the officials in city hall were pleading with people to go home, they couldn’t marry anymore couples, we thought we’d stick around because there was the feeling that anything could happen. Everything was in flux and people were making it up, so to speak, on the fly. Any one individual could make something happen, could alter the outcome.

A young man came out of the building and surveyed the scene. Most of the couples who had been waiting with us had gone home. I don’t know why I saw him distinct from all the others, but something in him was sizing the scene up. I was on the stairs when he asked in a soft voice, “Is there anyone here who still wants to get married? We can take you.” A couple of us heard and grabbed everyone around us who had been waiting and pushed our way forward. We were escorted inside by this bespeckled youngster in a striped t-shirt and khaki pants. As he passed us through the doors of city hall another woman, a temporary supervisor, said, “What are you doing? We can’t take any more people!” The young man, with calculated nonchalance said, “Oh, there’s just a few of them. We can take them.” And with that, a dozen couples became part of the artwork and part of history written from the ground up. Where that young man is I’ll never know. He passed through our lives and altered them forever.

Some images of that weekend remain vivid: the drive to San Francisco from the bird watching marshes north of Sacramento; the ride in the green van with pink flamingo hood ornaments; the line of couples which stretched around the block; the strangers passing out food, coffee, and roses; the cops and officials saying, "Please go home folks, we can't marry anyone else today;" the young man who came out to survey the scene and then, unexpectedly, waved a few of us inside; the volunteers, dead tired, guiding us lovingly through the process; the anxiety about doing the paperwork absolutely right so that it wouldn't be tossed out on a technicality; the transportation official who was deputized to marry us; the vows scribbled on bits of paper; the lines to get the official documents; the cheering crowds as we emerged from city hall; the standing in the pouring rain to cheer those who followed us; a final photo with Mark Leno, soaked to the skin. These memories will stay with me my entire life.

My partner and I, and thousands more like us, got the chance of a lifetime: to make out of our life an artwork that extends itself outside the limitations of the time in which it took place. It, the artwork, keeps extending itself outward in pond circles as the struggle for marriage equality, for substantive representation in civic society, continues into this next electoral year. That forthcoming election, with its measure to strip gay couples of domestic partnership rights, and with the backdrop of Assembly bill 849 (the bill that would create gay marriage in California); that election will be forever in relationship to an artwork that hangs, not in a museum, but in the hearts and minds of people everywhere.

For that we have Happening masters Gavin Newsom and Mabel Teng, and one anonymous young man, to thank.

The essays of Alan Kaprow can be found in The Blurring of Art and Life edited by Jeff Kelley, University of California Press, 1993.