VISUAL ART Amid day-to-day art world caprice, an event titled "Dynamic Adaptability: A Conference on New Thinking and New Strategies for the Arts" took place Jan. 28 at Herbst Theater. Rather than vie for stability, the organizers envisioned the gathering as an opportunity "to explore our changing environment and offer fresh ways of thinking about the future" of Bay Area arts. "This is a time," they asserted, "of tremendous potential for new ideas to take root."
Surprisingly, the speaker who best formulated this alternative model this strategy of adaptive dynamism was an outsider, and the youngest person at Herbst Theater that day. But 22-year-old neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer would argue this makes perfect, logical sense. Author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $24), Lehrer claims remote perspectives and practices offer unforeseeable insights. He argues that keen novelists like Proust can lead us to new understandings of the brain and society at large that neuroscientists (and other professionals) might otherwise overlook. The same goes for innovative artists; great art provokes new questions, which in turn abets new thinking.
The reason, Lehrer argues, is reason. Linear projections fashioned by rationality allow cognition only so many avenues. According to Lehrer, "emotions" those messy feelings that propel many artists "underlie cognition differently. And like morality and aesthetics, they have inexplicable qualities." Essentially, the more variegated and multidisciplinary the approach, the better the chance of screwing in that light bulb. The battlefield of "truth," it turns out, isn't won solely by techies in labs, but also by writers and artists in studios.
Yet what if artists today can't afford studios? Lehrer convincingly makes a case for dynamism, the importance of arts and humanities disciplines joining hands with sciences and other fields. But with arts budgets always the first to go in a paraplegic, sloughing economy, how are artists to survive, let alone produce? Better yet, how are they to adapt?
Artist-provocateur Philip Huang provided the conference's other answer. Adorned in a cape, glitter vest, and Snoopy t-shirt, Huang greeted the audience by yelling, "Hey, motherfuckers!" Then he did it again, and again, until the shock wore off, at which point he was able to convince the crowd to taunt back, effectively turning the theater into an absurd acoustic swirl of contrived and zealous "Motherfucker!" chants.
Huang espoused an artistic model borrowed from TV and radio journalist Robert Krulwich, a strategy of "throwing yourself." It's a prostitution tactic of pitching and hustling, but without the grip of the pimp or institution. And it works. In 10 short minutes, he convinced a dumbfounded-turned-elated crowd to fund his "24-hour Witness Fitness Performance," a straight-from-the-ass proposal to do a performance circuit on sidewalks that face treadmill runners as they vacuously stare into urban inanity. Hoang raised nearly $300 of wadded-up bills, all thrown at him like roses at a princess, despite his goading, "Fork it over, motherfuckers!"
Huang clearly doesn't give a shit about the economy; he's the type of artist who, despite uncertainties, will always find a way to produce via hustling. His "studio" is a case in point: the bedroom doubles as a "queer performance space" where he screens work and disseminates it through a YouTube channel (spider75berkely). But it's his street performances that are most interesting.