Art on a Human Scale

The curatorial concept of Guangzhou Live 11 is developed from the notion of human scale. Not because it is a concept that plays an important role in contemporary industrial design, clothing design, marketing, ergonomics, architecture or for that matter in relation to what has been described as Buddhist economics. But because the noton of human scale characterizes action art as an artistic media in all its different aspects.


Primarily, a person creating a work of action art does this through the use of his own being, through his body and his mind. He is not producing an object for any public to see hanging on a wall, projected on a screen, or standing in space. He his making his work, using materials, matter, elements and objects, live and with people around him. He is making an action or a non-action, in movement or static, where he is present. This basic characteristic of action art is one of the qualities that makes this an art that is essentially human, and which makes us want to use the notion of a human art instead of other more used terms like action art, performance art, behavourial art, etc. However, in order not to create confusion, we will continue to use the term action art. Actually what makes action art, an art of a human scale is all its different qualities. Yes it is difficult to see any quality of which it is composed that is not human.


Take for instance the framework in which it is presented. In contrast to theatre or dance it is not presented  on a stage above an audience, separating the artist from others physically. But it is realized on the same level as those experiencing it. It is not separated from others. As such in its physical relation to other people it always exist on the same level. Being realized on the same level as those experiencing it, the audience, the work is shown on a human scale what concerns the media used, i.e. the self, but also in its relation to others. This is further emphasized by it being a horisontal work with strong connotations to equality, through a composition that is rarely hierarchic. This quality of equal level between artist and audience sustains one of its maybe most important characterstics, that of identification.


Another characterstic that emphasizes the quality of human scale is that it works with a time span that can be followed by any other human being. It is realized by an individual and can be followed by anyone in what its duration is concerned. It is as such realized within a time span that can be measured by anybody else. The people witnessing an action are all unconsciously aware of this, through the fact that the work itself is carried out by a human being. This is also a characteristic that sustains the identification with the artists action.


Another parameter that has to be taken into account in relation to the notion of human scale is the location of the work. The works are themselves located where they are  presented, and at that very moment, which we understand is directly connected to its time characteristics. The works can’t be moved. The physical location of an action work is always here and in time now. It is an art form which is always here and now, its ephemeral here and now character, excludes the after in the sense of physical presence or in its presence in time.  The after can reside in the memory of the audience, of its experience and feelings having withnessed the action. But never in an object, whether it is a video or photographic reproduction, which merely can serve as an illustration. In this sense its unique location in time and space sustains the human scale quality in it being primarily an experience


Action art also have a quality that one could describe with the term proximity. It is close to other people, and in many cases the action artist interacts with the surrounding people, or with the environment as such.  This proximity, this closeness to others, emphasizes also its notion of being an artistic media on a human scale. There is rarely a distance created between the artist and those witnessing the work, on the contrary, the action artist is on many ocasions trying to eliminate any distance between him/herself and the audience. It has as such a strong quality of non-alienation as an art form. This characteristic emphasizes even more it being an art expression of human scale.  It is an art form which works with concepts like belonging, sharing, togetherness, solidarity, emphathy, notions that only has a meaning on a human scale and in dialogue to others.


Being an art form which stresses process, and the appreciation of process, in regard to the notion of result, action art is a field of contemporary art where the concept of  dialogue is of absolute importance. But dialogue on different levels. On the one hand the live dialogue, or dialectics, between the human being and his surrounding world, location objects, space, in his manipulation or use of the materials, elements, objects, and space in which he is realizing his work. This dialogue, this authentic process, which is presented live in action art, does of course exist in other artistic media. But no one except the artist himself will ever see it or live it, except in action art, where this struggle is the basic characteristic of the work itself. By stressing process, and its inherent dialectical qualities, action art presents while created a continous dialogue. And this dialogue is vehemently human scale, it is generally speaking a representation of any other persons action. A quality which opens up once more the possibilities of identification from the standpoint of the viewer. However on the other hand, there is another dialogue that is also constant in the work of an action artist, and that is that he is realizing his work here and now in front of other people. As such there are at least two simultaneous dialogues going on in a process based structure, one between the artist and his materials, and one between the artist and the surrounding people.


As we all know the art work can have an intended signification on the part of the artist, however it is basically the viewer who creates and projects his or her meaning on the work that is seen or experienced. This is true in painting, video, photography, installation and any other contemporary art media. However, in respect to these the signification of an action art work is always operating on a human scale. This is clear in that it is created live in front of the viewer who have to follow its evolution or process, on the other hand because it is realized by another human being with whom the on viewer can identify.

In action art the viewers experience, and the signification of this experience, in the role of its interpretation is from the viewer much more important than in other art media. Because the signification is one that is based on dialogue with the creator in a certain time frame and live. The evolution of the actions, hesitations, difficulties, solutions, on the part of the artists in the process of realizing the work, has itself a signification with which the audience can identify. But the basic notion of human scale in the signification of the work is its potential for identification between the viewer and the artist. It is here that the magic of human scale operates in action art. 


Basically the importance of the human scale qualities inherent in action art is the possibility of identification. Those experiencing a work of action art have the possibility to identify with the work, first and foremost because it is another human being who is creating it in front of and on the same level as themselves. The different qualities in the work of action art that sustains its potential for identification whether it is its human presence, its timespan, its here and now location, its equality aspects, its non-hierarchic framework,  its proximity, its dialogues, its process, or for that matter its authenticity, are all human scale. It is its multiple qualities of being human scale that makes this the identification artist and viewer possible.

The possibility of identification also generates the viewer to ask questions. Why does he or she do this, what is the meaning, what is the purpose ? An object rarely generates these kind of human questions. Objects can not respond, can not go into a process of dialogue.

But identification is not the main purpose. However, a potential identification with the work, and the artist creating it, leads in its turn to a possible understanding of much more important issues. The understanding through identification leads to an understanding and an identification with others, and of oneself. This aspect of understanding through identification is maybe the most important signification of action art as such, opening up possibilities that are non-existent in other art media. The possible identification gives also a possible stimulus to put oneself in the artists place, to start to create oneself, as witnessing the process and not the result. The basic notion of being human scale, or purely human, is what gives action art its future potentials as a media that goes beyond the traditionally appreciated art object, as well as our appreciation of art.


Although more and more artists works with art in a monumental and industrial way after the principle bigger is better, there are artist who works in object art media like painting, video, photography, installation on a human scale. At least what size is concerned. However, it will remain an object. And although the object can express human scale qualities as empathy, solidarity, etc. the object as such can never be these charateristics. It will always be an object, and exhibited as an object. With all its inherent significations of hierarchy, industry, commodity, consumption,  and alienation.

It is also clear that the viewer, for evident reasons, never can identify with an object. And the signification of this difference in relation to action art is of major importance. The viewer can not identify him/herself with a painting, a sculpture, a video, a photography. They can not identify themselves with an object. Identification needs a human being present. They can understand the intention of the artist, create an understanding of it, interpret the work, but they can not identify with it, because it stays an object. It can generate questions like what does it signify. The viewer don’t have any direct relation to the human being, since the person who created the work, once it is finished is alienated from the work. It enters into the flow and flux of objects to be looked at.

It is also true that art works changes signification as soon as it changes context, in that the context attaches a signification to the work exhibited or realized. Whether we here speak about action art or object based art, it is the same. However,  the signification of the same painting hanging in the artists studio, exhibited in a gallery, being presented at an art fair, or shown at a museum are all different. Each context inflicts a new meaing on the object. Another signification that the object can not resist. This is physically impossible in action art, since it is not an object than can be transported, that can change location. It is immaterial and ephemeral. The signification of the here and now experience can not change. But stays within the person who have witnessed the work.

Of great importance in this differentiation is that an action art work can not enter the market, it can not be bought and sold. As you can not buy and sell a life, or a moment in a life. It can only be lived. This quality of the work of action art, stresses even more so its human scale. It is not a commodity, it is being, and as such very close to life itself, from the standpoint of the artist as well as the people experiencing the work.


The fact that the work of action art de facto can’t be reproduced, gives it a high level of authenticity. It can be re-mediated, documented in photograph and video, its residues can be exhibited too. But it can’t be reproduced.  This quality emphasizes even more so its human scale character. It is not mediated through another media than the individual action of creation itself, it doesn’t result in an object alienated from the process of the artist nor the viewer. It is as authentic as creation can become. This because of its human scale character, in all its aspects.

We don’t have to agree with Protagoras old maxime that ”Man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are; and of things that are not, that they are not".

But what is clear today, as we are living in the ”société de spectacle” which Guy Debord so prophetically analysed and outlined in his text with the same title, is that we all have to get back to the basics, the basics of life itself, of what is human. We don’t need the spectacular, the monumental, the industrial, consumption, or its idea of  ” bigger is better”. It is time to focus on, what should be, simple qualities like empathy, togetherness, sharing, proximity, solidarity, giving, caring, questioning, i.e. all these things that makes us human. This is why action art is the future, why it appeals to people today, it proposes and gives us what todays society lacks, the human scale.