Safety Curtain 2017/2018

Crowds, Control and Opera

In the spring of 1984 John Baldessari asked me why I thought there were so few photographs of crowds compared to ones of single figures or ­couples. At the time, John had reason to ask that question based on ­observation of his own large collection of film stills. He had hundreds of film stills organized into cardboard folders with different subject ­headings. The folder for the category “kiss” for example, was chock full of ­pictures. The folder for the category “crowds” wasn’t. After tossing around a few ­possible theories, including the obvious one, that modern Western ­s­ociety values the needs and ambitions of individuals over groups we arrived at what we decided was the most reasonable explanation. It is simply easier to make an artwork (or write a novel, or make a film) about one or two people than it is to make one about a crowd. It is hard to know and more difficult to say what a crowd thinks and worse, we have no artistic conventions to confidently express it. In ­contemporary visual art there is no equivalent to the chorus. Baldessari, in his many works about crowds, has sought to find one. He highlights the size and shape of crowds as a possible indication of their reason. They include: “Three Crowds”, 1984; “Four Types of Chaos / Four Types of Order”, 1984; “Two Crowds With the Shape of Reason Missing”, 1984; “Two Crowds: ­Trouble (Excluded), Watching (Included)”, 1986; “Team”, 1987; ­“Aerial View / People”, 1988. “Graduation”, 2017, is Baldessari’s most recent consideration of the ­problem. When “Graduation” is fully operational in an opera performance, one crowd, the audience, faces another, a very large image of a graduating class on the curtain. Both crowds are strictly ordered and ranked. They therefore cease to be crowds (disorderly and unpredictable) and become more manageable / disciplined entities, audience and class formations. The work, if it can be reduced to a single purpose, is “about” how crowds are shaped by organizing principles that determine the capacity of the group as a whole and the relative the importance of it’s individual ­members. The students in the image are graduated. They are ordered by height and therefore segregated by gender. The women are in the first four rows because they are as a group, shorter. Depending on your interpretation of the arrangement, the tall men in the upper rows either dominate by height or, are distanced because of it. There are, however, some rule breakers in the group and Baldessari leads the viewers to focus on those standouts. There is a tall woman in the center of image who is out of size order. She is too tall to be in line with the other women in her row but based on the secondary rule of segregation by gender she does not stand with the men. Her size isolates her. The woman next to her is also a standout because she, by contrast, is too short for her row. We see the pair emphasized by a red silhouette in the foreground that echoes the smaller woman’s ­undersized shape. Creating order or disturbance by comparative size ­order is a formal strategy and theme in Baldesari’s work. Baldessari is very tall so one can assume he has experienced the something of it first hand, especially in the theater. The opera crowd is arranged by class (in another sense of the word) at least to the extent that class is linked to ability to pay and isn’t it ­always? If theater audiences were arranged logically by the ability to view the drama they would be organized like the “Graduation” ­photograph. The shortest people (mostly women) would have front row seats and the ­tallest ones (mostly men) would be in the back of the house. That would be a novel disruption of the order of things though I don’t believe it has been attempted even by the most experimental of theater producers. ­Attracting and managing the crowd is the business of theater and it has always been fraught with distress. Since its beginnings in Ancient Greece, the history of theater has been the history of crowds and crowd control both on and off the stage. From the time the first actors stepped away from the chorus, the crowd has become less and less a character in, and the focus of, the drama. Opera remains something of an exception. Opera needs crowds acting as one to achieve its effects. I believe that partly explains Baldessari’s interest in it.