Tony Schwensen : Love it or Leave It
As his contribution to the Biennale of Sydney's 'revolutionsonline' website,
Tony Schwensen offered a link to a recording of Gil Scott-Heron's spoken word
classic 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised', released in 1970, the year of
Schwensen's birth:
‘You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on
and cop out. .. The revolution Will not be televised, will not be televised, Will not
be televised, Will not be televised. The revolution will be no re-run brothers; the
revolution Will be live, '
Nostalgia comes into play here: nostalgia for a time of apparently clear
choices, when anger and frustration found obvious, identifiable targets, when
relativism appeared less insidious; nostalgia for a time that never was. In this
context Scott-Heron's track is a form of historical document urging the renewal
of cultural consciousness in an age of burgeoning infotainment consumption. It
appears both raw and prescient, passionate and yet forlorn. For the revolution
will, of course, be televised (or webstreamed) wherever it is played out. And, as I
suspect Schwensen would hasten to add, it will also be live - banal, painful,
quotidian - but alive and real.
Tensions evoked in Scott-Heron's text can be found underpinning
Schwensen's own, very different, physical practice (driven always by
performance even when finding final exhibition form in video and installation):
tensions between the committed impulse to resistance and an awareness of the
likely limited impact of such a stance; between belief in the potential and
fundamental good of society and anger at its complacency and stupidity;
between the oscillating efficacies of the real and its representation. Such
conundrums fuel Schwensen's work. His practice is predicated on the urgent
need to engage with the social and political complexity of the world - of people with
his own body and through extended periods of time. (Remembering that
this is a world in which millions of individual assertions of presence and identity
are platformed instantaneously via the virtual, 'don't touch', 'never connect'
conventions of MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and the like.) And yet it is a
practice that assumes residual apathy as a key condition of the populace at large,
in part because it itself stems from such a condition.
Schwensen's practice has a rare and singular, we might say appropriately
'elite' quality to it - no-one else of his post-conceptual generation in Australia is
making durational performance of such intellectual ambition and formal rigouryet
it is resolutely of the culture that both nourishes and frustrates it so, In
particular, the work acknowledges opposition to self-reflection, to change, to
independent (as opposed to self-interested) action as a default setting within
Australian society, Nevertheless, it openly, even fondly, partakes in an Australian
vernacular. Speaking from within, it conveys a form of fury with cultural lethargy,
with a devaluation of social, political and intellectual capital that is amplified in
the microclimate of the art world, As such, it is not afraid of becoming the target
of its own critique, Yet crucially the work never pretends to offer the ultimate
agency to enact real social or cultural change, It poses questions and picks at
scabs, It offers neither solutions nor salve. Schwensen's practice is a form of
cultural resistance that never loses sight of its own probable ineffectiveness. But
such a sense of futility provides no reason to cease work. As Schwensen spelt
out in adhesive tape on the floor of the demountable hut housing his The art of
watching (after Vermeer): Thorpes feet, Pittmans knee, Bradman's house,
Schwensen's arse performance of 2006: 'FAIL AGAIN FAIL BETTER'.
This Beckettian dictum - treated seriously - could well serve as founding
principle for Schwensen's early performance video works, begun in 1999 in
Sydney just before the artist took up a residency in Rotterdam. He pursued this in
earnest during the Netherlands residency and continued his project back in
Australia and elsewhere from 2001, culminating in a small survey show at
Performance Space, Sydney, in 2005, 'FATWHITESTRAIGHTBALDGUY Tony
Schwensen Videoperformance Work 1999-2005'. During the 1990s, Schwensen
had established a reputation as a young installation artist working with found or
industrial materials to make structures and interventions in gallery spaces that
engaged or confronted the physicality of bodies moving about the space. In
Rotterdam the artist was faced with new limitations of financial and material
resources as well as insider access to the working structures and psyche of
European culture. Treating these constrictions as the new parameters for his
practice, and working within the confines of his small studio space with minimal.
rough and ready props and his own body as art object, Schwensen set about
producing a set of repetitive, durational performances before his single fixed
camera. By turns banal, tedious and absurd, yet also obsessively engaging, even
funny, these works feature the bulky mass of the head-shaven artist in grey boxer
shorts (occasionally set off by black workboots) pushing himself through a set of
seemingly aimless actions: rhythmically dancing on the spot, arms swinging and
face grinning (Hamburger Boygroup, 2000); more delicately dance-stepping
around an upright pole fixed in a bucket (Sea of love, 2000); or dressed in the
local football kit kicking a football back and forth on an elastic rope (Rotterdam
hooligan training, 2000), Hamburger boygroup reworked one of Schwensen's first
forays into video performance made in a Sydney garage the previous year Prime
beef export quality - but this time without the nipple tassels.
Later works further extended the conversation between tedium and
meditation in these performances. There is a tension between the apparently
meaningless reiteration of the body's objecthood in a basic grammar of
movement (such as Banging your head against a wall, 2001) and hints of the
underpinning consciousness driving these actions as forms of commentary on
states of solitude, cultural exclusion and frustration at the absurdities and
contradictions of contemporary life. Evidence of this authorial consciousness is
particularly found in a number of 'waiting' works where whatever is suggested
by the title, the camera simply represents the artist sitting, attempting with
the utmost seriousness to remain still (Waiting for enlightenment and Waiting
for a train - existential and prosaic sides of the same coin - both 2002; Be
alert but not alarmed, 2003; and Thinking about manipulating a fluorescent
tube, 2005). Some of these are the most overtly communicative of
Schwensen's early works by virtue of them taking on the form of 'live'
portraits: faces existing with all their details and flaws and quirks of
movement, appearing to stare back at the viewer. This makes their sudden
and random receipt of violent slaps (This is where we live, 2003) or their
double index finger gesture of abuse at the camera (One for you and one for
your dog, 2005) all the more mesmerising.
With all these works, the exhibited video is of the same length as the
original performance; as long, that is, as Schwensen's body endures. This
experience of duration as a form of self-consciousness is strongest in what is,
at least to date, Schwensen's last major work involving a filmed performance
within a 'closed' setting. Weighty weight wait, 2006, features the artist perched
motionless on a large green exercise ball, itself positioned on a large set of
scales in the packing room of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW),
Sydney. For eleven hours he sits, an extreme exercise in waiting. This IS, quite
literally, a study in the relationship between time and mass (observe whether
the artist's weight alters while he 'waits'). At the same time it is a portrait of the
artist infiltrating and inhabiting the bowels of one of the nation's stately art
institutions. (The work, crucially, was made for exhibition upstairs in the
AGNSW as part of the 2006 Anne Landa Award eXhibition.)
In exhibition form Weighty weight wait is a three-channel installation made
on high definition, 16:9 video format, emphasising the pictorial presence of the
artist. In this regard the representational, if not conceptual, ambition of the
work is new. Although working with a one-to-one temporal match between
live action and video, Schwensen's work consistently evidences a developing
investigation of relationships between the live and mediated body, between
the human body and sculptural forms, and between physical and screenbased
viewing encounters themselves ranging from 'cinematic' installation
projections to monitors as sculptural objects and surveillance camera footage
flickering furtively on the computer screen. More than most practitioners
working with video and performance, Schwensen seems to understand that
each artist brings with them - or comes encumbered with - their own
representational conventions and modalitles of experience.
The relationships between action, documentation and representation in
particular have deepened in Schwensen's work of recent years as he has
increasingly undertaken major performances outside the studio in live gallery
and non-gallery settings. These have subjected the work to a range of
unscripted audience interactions, with The art of watching a significant
example. Commissioned by Melbourne's Australian Centre for Contemporary
Art (ACCA) as part of the artistic program for the 2006 Commonwealth
Games, The art of watching involved Schwensen viewing every moment of
Channel Nine's television coverage of the games from his prefabricated cabin
on the gallery forecourt (having paraded through the city streets to his cabin
wearing a tracksuit and carrying the sign 'SCHWENSEN'). Here, sitting on a
mat, leaning against his exercise ball, he consumed over 180 hours of jingoistic
and nationalistic coverage. Through the cabin's window he conversed with an
estimated 400 visitors, undertook radio interviews and was even interviewed
by Channel Nine. (A planned live webstream did not take place, but
Schwensen was filmed by surveillance-style cameras throughout the
performance, with selected footage posted onto the ACCA website each day.)
Having discussed this televisual projection of an aggressively insular
Australian identity with a range of visitors through his cabin window during
The art of watching performance, Schwensen made three subsequent
performance works in 2006 that sought to manifest and absorb the reflection
of a particularly strident and visible form of Australian nationalism. That sport
provides the platform for such critique in a number of works is hardly
surprising given its agency in populist discourse regarding Australian identity.
Moreover, Schwensen has long held an interest in this area of recreation - one
of his first performance video works made in a suburban garage and entitled
Having a good, long, hard look in the mirror, 1999, featured the artist in an
Australian one-day cricket cap doing just that: mulling over the inadequacies of
his own nascent 'performance'.
Responding to the paucity of Channel Nine's coverage of New Zealand
competitors during the Commonwealth Games, despite a large local diaspora,
Schwensen travelled to Auckland to undertake Complain to an Australian about
Australia Day, 2006, in which he sat in the gallery Michael Lett dressed in
sombre black, inviting visitors to sit down next to him and do just that. For
Neighbours, performed at The Great Escape festival on Cockatoo Island in
Sydney Harbour, Schwensen - attired in tracksuit bottoms, T-shirt, an
Australian flag for a cape and a frightening plastic Southern Cross mask forced
his audience from the room, one by one, with the aid of a
petrol-powered leaf blower. That the symbolism is clear does not detract from
the visceral potency of the act. In C'mon, 2006, performed at the ANTI
Contemporary Art Festival in Kuopio, Finland, Schwensen in his daggy dark
green 'Australian' tracksuit relentlessly served, retrieved and served again a
single tennis ball for eleven hours, trudging from end to end, screaming
'c'mon' after each shot - an empty exhortation to himself against the drab
backdrop of a tenement building, forlorn trees and grey European skies. The
work is fingernails-down-the-blackboard material- an excruciating
manifestation of the ugly Australian abroad.
Schwensen made three major new performance works through 2007
before he left the country in the second half of the year to embark first on a
residency in Paris and then to take up a position in Boston teaching
performance. Rise, 2007, the most ambitious of four works made by
Schwensen at Artspace, Sydney, over a five-year period, was intended, in the
artist's own words, as 'a hundred-hour meditation on stupidity, nationalism,
delusionism, the devaluing of manual labour in the Western world both
socially and financially, and the rampant and thoughtless consumption that
has accompanied it with particular attention to its manifestations in
contemporary Australia'. Political In intent, it formally confronted Schwensen
with a new performance conundrum: what to do when there is literally
nothing to do.
The artist inhabited a large gallery space for one hundred hours, dressed in
blue overalls, framed by a quote from Samuel Beckett writ large on one wall '
Hopes: None, Resolutions: None' - and on another the aggressively
nationalistic Cronulla riot cry - 'Love It or Leave It'. This latter statement
echoed at regular intervals throughout the space via a recording of the artist's
voice (accompanied by close-up video images of his mouth) ensured the most
uncomfortable of environments. Schwensen had originally planned to process
one hundred litres of salt water through a hand desalination pump, while also
processing a more internal liquidity: as ever-increasing numbers of empty
water bottles were strewn across the space, so rose the levels in his urine
containers to highlight the energy inefficiency of desalination. However, the
pump malfunctioned on the first night, leaving Schwensen with little to do but
simply exist In space, pace the gallery, banter with the occasional Interlocutor
and attempt to ignore the large numbers of late-night visitors banging on the
gallery windows (the gallery opens out onto a busy street, with an iconic fastfood
cart across the road). The initial hundred-hour performance period was
followed by a further week in which another monitor was placed among the
performance detritus in the space, screening in real time those seemingly
interminable one hundred hours again. Shot with a fixed camera that could not
fully track his wanderings about the gallery, the footage did not always feature
Schwensen; nevertheless the forlorn weight of the 'failed' performance (that
was, in turn, the crux of its success) was magnified in this dogged revisitation
of the artist's basic waiting-out time.
Rise was bracketed by two works undertaken in Schwensen's original
home territory of Sydney's western suburbs, and in direct dialogue with his
own family history. In Plowing back, 2007, Schwensen retraced the steps of his
transported great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Plows, who on arriving in
Sydney in March 1817 was assigned and marched to Collingwood House near
Liverpool as a convict labourer. Dressed in fluorescent orange road-worker
overalls, Schwensen restaged the walk from Circular Quay to Collingwood
House, now home to Liverpool Regional Museum (and temporarily to the
offices of Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, commissioners of this work). where
for a week he slept in the reputedly haunted basement cells and undertook
convict-style labouring tasks about the property. In a companion work of
sorts, Harrowing Plow from the Plough and Harrow, 2007, commissioned by
Campbelltown Arts Centre, Schwensen walked through the nearby suburban
streets to the local cemetery where he spent the day and night 'haunting' the
Plows family burial site.
These recent works crystallise the manner In which Schwensen's practice
fundamentally constitutes a form of being in the world. The artist performs a
type of subject-object conundrum via hiS carefully planned actions (which are,
without contradiction, often a form of failed action, even inaction). In
Schwensen's work the artist is both a labourer - and labour is a crucial motif
throughout - and a formal figure subject to his own experiments in action and
duration. Both performance and installation forms of work are also
manifestations - or shadows - of Intellectual labour. Schwensen's work never
looks effortless because it never is. It never looks easy because there is never
ease. There is difficulty, awkwardness, even boredom. Just like the world.
Which brings us back to resistance, revolution and the 2008 Biennale of
Sydney. In response to the biennale's inability to fund his initially proposed
durational performance work, Schwensen set up a fund raiser performance
project - Fundrazor (fuck vou pav me) or who gets to sit at the pointy end of the
plane? 2008 - operating a sausage sizzle outside the Museum of Contemporary
Art during vernissage to cover the costs of his own presence, with surplus
'profit' being donated to the biennale to assist in funding future artists' projects.
In a practical sense, the action is again infused with a degree of futility with
regard to economies of scale, but the gesture itself is vital, as is the recognition
of a type of everyday community solidarity In the form of the sausage sizzle.
Most pertinently, the labour of the artist sets out to supplement government
funding, patron programs, corporate sponsorships and international funding
partnerships. In so doing it points to the limited income from such sources
available to Australian artists when considered In an international context and to
the bureaucratic art-world priorities dictating it's dispersal.
In his typically laconic yet acerbic manner Schwensen appears to pose the
question: might any more than just a few Australian artists aspire to be other
than the volunteer labour pool servicing the 'big ticket' events of the local art
world? Satire hits harder when played for real.
And in the work of Tony
Schwensen, playing for real means undertaking solid, thoughtful,
propositional actions through time in the world. The revolution will be live.

 Blair French
Art and Australia Volume 46 No 2, 2008