What's Left of Theory?: The art of everyday life

Considering theory as the application of philosophy to everyday life.

At the "What's Left of Theory?" conference we presented a performance (paper) on the above subject. This "paper" is the "script" from that event. The actual performance may have differed slightly, but no records are available. The ideas are presented as a dialog because that is how we arrived at them.


amy working on a cloak
The Cloak Project, (in progress); Amy Berk, New Zealand, 2001

ANDY: My name is Andy Cox and this is Amy Berk. We are artists based in San Francisco, California which has a very active alternative art community.

The title of this presentation is What's Left of Theory?: The art of everyday life. We consider how theories of art and life have inspired our art practice and that of others, and how the practice of these theories can be vehicles for revolutionary social change.

AMY: I moved east to west, landing in San Francisco in 1992 to attend graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute, receiving my MFA in 1995. Previously I had lived in New York, raised on Long Island and attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut where I received my BA in 1989 in both Studio Art and English. I write about art for a variety of publications, most recently for stretcher, a web site which I edit with a group of others, and have taught art at many levels. I am most occupied with teaching inner city teenagers in the Meridian Interns Program, an after school art-making and gallery management program which aims to break down cultural boundaries and increase modes of communication and succeeds in challenging and changing the way we all view the world. Through this range of practice(s), I attempt, to paraphrase Allan Kaprow, to make art out of my life by weaving meaning-making into any or all parts of it and to make art that can't be art but somehow is.

sf print collective
Come Enjoy the Mission - Cleaner, Brighter, Whiter Tablecloths; San Francisco Print Collective, 2000

ANDY: I'm a dual national of the USA and the UK. I've lived in San Francisco for the last ten years, mainly in the Latino Mission District. This slide shows a poster by the San Francisco Print Collective made in response to gentrification of the Mission during the dot-com boom last year.

citybank ad with che guevara Citibank ad - Che Guevara; 68" x 47" inkjet on paper; Andy Cox, 1997

ANDY: Until 1994 I was a full time civil and environmental engineer. I then embarked on a Masters of Fine Art at San Francisco State University, in the department of Conceptual and Information Arts. The course was laced with cultural theory, particularly media theory. Out of one class emerged the Citybank project, pictured here, which became my final thesis. Everyone seemed to like it apart from Citybank who threatened to sue the school unless it was removed.

ANDY: The major thing I learnt from all that theory is that capitalism sucks and that the state is more interested in protecting the rights of corporations rather than individuals.

san francisco mayor willie brown
Willie Brown Proclamation, 48" x 30" photostat: Andy Cox, 1997

ANDY: So, in 1997 I formed the guerrilla art collective Together We Can Defeat Capitalism. Amy is one of the members of the group and the slide shows another member, conservative San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The aim of the group is to "raise questions about early 21st Century capitalism and have some fun too". The group has undertaken several controversial projects some of which I'll talk about later.

Artistic and Theoretical Antecedents

antonin artaud
Antonin Artaud; "I cannot conceive of a work of art as distinct from life"

ANDY: The first inspiration for the kind of work I do was the poet, playwright, and heroin addict Antonin Artaud. His idea for a Theatre of Cruelty was for a theatre that would destroy the distinction between actors and audience, between art and life. This is likely to be a painful process for all involved, hence the cruelty. Artaud's ideas have their seeds in the Dada and Surrealist movements. Arch-Dadaist Marcel Duchamp asserted that art is merely way of looking a things and even a urinal can be a work of art. The threads of the dissolution of art into life perhaps go back to the partial demise of high art brought about by the invention of photography and the social and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th Centuries. A point recognized by Hegel when he said "art does indeed pervade all the business of life like a friendly genius".

castaneda reiman sculpture
Castaneda/Reiman, "Skylight Stack", plywood, drywall, carpet padding, skylights, 40" x 34" x 17"; 2001 (Traywick Gallery)

AMY: My work (and my life) has been heavily influenced by people, ideas and objects dedicated to questioning the status quo, pointing out societal inequities, and working towards creating a more just and humane society. Some groups that have particularly affected me are the Feminist Art movement, Constructivism and Arte Povera. Other artists in San Francisco and beyond have made work that I believe reflects a kinship with these movements. In their work collaborative team casteneda/reiman question the notions of safety and shelter using the language of building and in so doing call into question these concepts in our society.

jemima brown and dolly
"Plastic Twin Tourists" by Jemima Brown at PUSH Artspace, San Francisco, Spring 1997

AMY: Also stemming from Feminist art practices along with Arte Povera is British artist Jemima Brown and her plastic twin Dolly. Jemima considers Dolly, who is made out of sex doll parts, her collaborator and together they address identity, gender, sex, voyeurism, tourism and colonization - of the mind and body and internal and external relations and relationships.

fletcher and loggins
Art in Transit Market Street Poster Series by Harrell Fletcher and Michael Loggins, 1999

AMY: Literally making art from the street are Harrell Fletcher and developmentally disabled artist Michael Loggins. In this poster, part of the San Francisco Market Street Art in Transit series, the collaborative duo detail every item seen while walking down Market Street, items not commonly thought of as art materials but fodder for their fertile imaginative posters. Interestingly, most of these artists come from elsewhere, London, Tijuana, Pittsburgh, and Portland but find themselves in San Francisco and with a commonality in their art practices.

capitalism stops at nothing
Capitalism Stops at Nothing (1), video insertion, San Francisco subway system, 1998

ANDY: The movement for me that welded art and life together into a revolutionary practice was Guy Debord's Situationists with their notions of the psychogeography of the city, the dérive, and most importantly détournement - the overthrowing of institutional and corporate power by appropriating their language, symbols, and sites. The Situationists have been called the last utopian socialist movement. And although ideas of utopia are largely discredited, as artists we are given free reign to imagine any kind of society we like. The slide shows a Together We Can Defeat Capitalism project in the San Francisco subway system. The monitors show advertising and train destination signs. On behalf of the group I paid to place an ad with the same design as the train destination sign. The advertisement was removed by the authorities and then re-instated with a disclaimer. The ad provoked a large amount of media attention, including an interview on the US financial program! Market Place.

dublin pleasanton bart
Real train destination sign, Bay Area Rapid Transit System, 1998

ANDY: Those whose practices extend and in some cases run parallel to those of the tradition of the Situationists include the Fluxus movement, Hakim Bey's "poetic terrorism", and groups like the Billboard Liberation Front, Electronic Disturbance Theatre, ®tmark, Together We Can Defeat Capitalism, and many anonymous practitioners. Humor and irony are important parts of this practice as demonstrated by some slides of anonymous works in the Mission district of San Francisco:

bushgore equality blf lsd rtmark
Campaign Poster; Billionaires for Bush or Gore, various media, 2000 Altered HilLSDale Shopping Center Sign; Billboard Liberation Front Promotional Corporate Ad; ®tmark.com

Our own Paths/Artwork

amy berk good guys
"the good guys" by Amy Berk; installation @ 4' x 12' x 3'; various fabrics, pom-poms, old clothes and thread for the exhibition it's not easy being green at Traywick Gallery, Berkeley, 2000

AMY: My work ranges in scale from intricate patterns of pins on Styrofoam and stitches on fabric to large-scale public fabric and print installations; and ranges in scope from very personal investigative sculptures using my own clothes to collaborative public art projects. I am concerned with examining what lies behind societal strategies of power, presentation, and content, exploding economic, gendered and cultural boundaries and trying to build something new. In this installation from an exhibition in Berkeley in March of this year entitled it's not easy being green, I used old clothes and various fabrics and pom -poms and such to create these little stuffed sculptures called "the good guys".

amy berk pinstallation
"pinstallation" (1 of 2) by Amy Berk; 24" x 24" x 1"; steel straight pins on industrial Styrofoam insulation, 1997

AMY: In "Pinstallation" blue housing insulation, normally hidden behind the wall, is brought to the outside and punctured by steel pins highlighting or obscuring certain sections of the industrial text, bringing our attention to where it is often not.

amy berk rothko drawing
"rothko drawing #10" 8" x 6", post-its on paper; 1998

AMY: This piece is constructed out of the lowly post-it and pays tribute to visionary artist Mark Rothko. He used untested fugitive materials and the idea of the magical and transcendent doorway to try to find the sublime. Here this banal office supply attempts the same.

amy berk goethe institute
"architeutonic- goethe wall installation 1998-99" by Amy Berk; 15' x 47'; felt, denim, mirrored material, huge zipper, ties, chiffon, fake fur, packaging material, etc, 1999

AMY: This installation, "architeutonic", was commissioned by the Goethe Institute-SF for their 47' long second story library wall. I used materials with content connecting them either to San Francisco and/or Germany, many of the materials were given to me by people (people often give me odd materials thinking I will find a use for them, and I often do) or were found secondhand. The piece works with the architecture of the interior space and its practical application as a working library.

amy berk motel lanai waterfall
"waterfall/floralwall: motel lanai vacation" (detail) by Amy Berk; 12' x 20'; plastics, chiffons, velours, metal, satins, cottons, etc 1998

AMY: As in "architeutonic", in "waterfall/floralwall: Motel Lanai vacation", art was taken out of the gallery setting, this time placed into a human habitation, a motel on the heavily touristed Lombard Street in San Francisco. Using the idea of the decaying motel's tropical theme, I created a fabric waterfall in a dark and dank environment complete with waters whooshing sounds. One visitor became so relaxed he fell asleep in the bed for several hours.

ANDY: To further illustrate the work of Together We Can Capitalism and how a theoretical art background (not to mention that of a civil engineer), combined with a dislike of capitalism has morphed into an art practice embedded in public space and everyday life, I want to talk about three projects.

prepare to stop corporate control of the media
Prepare to Stop, electronic message board, National Association of Broadcasters Conference, San Francisco, 2000
three mumia!!!
Three Mumia, billboard, San Francisco, 1999

ANDY: In September 2000 we dressed as workmen, rented an electronic road sign and parked it outside the National Association of Broadcasters conference in San Francisco while Colin Powell was giving the keynote address inside.

ANDY: I've coined the term guerrilla pop to describe work that uses the strategies of guerrilla warfare combined with the style and irony of pop art: Che Guevara meets Andy Warhol. This billboard appropriation aimed to advertise the case of Mumia Abu Jamal who is on death row in the USA.

Art, social change and community building

the guerrilla tea room
The Guerrilla Tea Room, general view, San Francisco, 2000

ANDY: Much of the work we've discussed so far comments on or critiques society. Although of course this kind of work can galvanize communities of interest, we now want to say something about art that more directly attempts to build and empower communities.

In The Guerrilla Tea Room, Amy and I, along with other TWCDC members, turned a gallery into a tea room (with guerrilla wallpaper and free tea and cake) and turned a tea room into a site of community resistance by serving up subversive literature, encouraging discussions of politics and generally brewing sedition against the status quo.

the guerrilla tea room rabbit hole
Rabbit Hole to the Socialist Utopia by Amy Berk created for The Guerrilla Tea Room, 2000

ANDY: Amy made this rabbit hole to the socialist utopia using a rubbish bin, fake fur and an arrangement of mirrors which gives the impression that the hole disappears into infinity.

bed in for peace
Bed-in for Peace; screen capture, 2001

ANDY: In September 2001 while in residency at New Pacific Studio, Mount Bruce, New Zealand, borrowing from Yoko Ono's and John Lennon's Fluxus Bed-In for Peace during the Vietnam war, we conducted our own bed-in and fast for world peace in response to the events in Afghanistan. We stayed in bed and fasted for 48-hours, and conducted a global video conference over the internet. We talked with people from many countries including Pakistan, USA, Israel, Malta, Denmark, and Australia. We didn't stop the war, but most people who took part left with a feeling of community and hope.

meridian interns web work "web (site)" 13' x 13'; paper clip ladders; collaboration with teenaged interns in the Meridian Gallery Interns Program; Meridian Gallery, downtown, San Francisco, 1998

AMY: This piece, web (site) was part of an exhibition entitled ART/work created in collaboration with teenagers in the Meridian Interns Program. Together we thought about art and work and how they affect all of our lives. We created a spider's web out of "ladders" made from paper clips symbolizing what we do to get ahead on the ladder(s) of success. And, our thoughts on work and art were written on legal pads and our doodles, the things we do when we are supposed to be working, were on yellow post-its displayed along the walls of the gallery.

new pacific studio dinner salon
dinner salon at New Pacific Studio with Kate Coolahan, Kay Flavell, Bridget Percy, Roz Derby and Andy Cox organized and moderated by Amy Berk for www.stretcher.org, Mt. Bruce, New Zealand, 2001

AMY: This is the second dinner salon that I moderated for the art and culture internet magazine stretcher- (www.stretcher.org). This one took place in October, 2001. The dinner salon consists of an intimate dinner party with casual conversation on a broad topic - the topic of this salon was "the new regime". Ideally the salon will be broadcast live on the internet with the viewer as a full participant, dining along. Serving food and wine in a convivial setting upends the idea of the internet as strictly a sterile vehicle and aims to bring people together utilizing an alternative format.

megan wilson home project
"Home" a public project by Megan Wilson, 2001

AMY: Concerned with the difficult housing market in San Francisco, artist Megan Wilson distributed hundreds of signs proclaiming "Home" to Mission District residents to display in their windows or wherever they lived, as a sign of solidarity. They also served to draw attention to the fragility of the concept of home.


amy berk and andy cox market street project
"Untitled # 529" by Amy Berk and Andy Cox; 68" x 47; lambda photographic print; 1998(a project of the San Francisco Art Commission's Market Street Art in Transit Program)

ANDY: This orange poster is a collaboration between Amy and me. We were commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission to create 24 posters for a busy street in downtown San Francisco. We created these evocative color field posters intended as an alternative to advertising, one where the viewer filled in the content.

amy berk and andy cox market street project
"Untitled # 291" by Amy Berk and Andy Cox (with unknown collaborator); 68" x 47"; lambda photographic print; 1998 (a project of the San Francisco Art Commission's Market Street Art in Transit Program)

Theory has been absorbed into our art, and our art has been dissolved into our lives.

ANDY: Is any of this work we've shown going to foment the next revolution, defeat capitalism, or change the world? Probably not, but its a lot of fun and sure beats watching TV.

I believe in terrorism, not violent terrorism, but the kind advocated by Hakim Bey, "poetic terrorism" - abnormal acts in public space that encourage people to question reality - acts that are essential to a participatory democracy. Such acts are difficult because the Spectacle constricts the field of debate to its own parameters.

Any participant in contemporary image culture runs the risk of being absorbed into the system, even if the message is contradictory. It seems its only a matter of time before a subversive technique is sucked into the black hole of capitalism only to be spat out the other side as commercial advertising. Companies from Sun Microsystems to Levi's pay casual labor to wheat paste their street-credible advertising, IBM has recently been fined by the City of New York for stenciling on the city sidewalks.

AMY: However, there are still spaces, autonomous zones, where contradictory messages can flourish, from independent artists spaces, on the streets, the cracks and crevices of the internet, day to day interactions, and even in bed.

In an act of "poetic terrorism", an unknown collaborator beautifully sums up many of our interests and goals by overlaying this inspiring text by Margaret Meade on top of one of our posters-- "Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

This statement, this act of civil disobedience, this poetic act and others like it leave us with hope that the cumulative effects of such acts can explode the inequities inherent in our society.

Amy Berk (www.amyberk.com) is an artist, writer, and educator. Andy Cox (www.TWCDC.com) is an artist, engineer, and activist. They are based in San Francisco.