Mini Bar (London, 2009)

8 Dec 2009

Paul Pieroni’s text on Dean Baldwin’s installation

It makes you blind, it does you in
It makes you think you’re pretty tough
It makes you prone to crime and sin
It makes you say things off the cuff
It’s very small and made of glass
and grossly over-advertised
It turns a genius to an ass
and makes a fool think he is wise
It could make you regret your birth
or turn cartwheels in your best suit
It costs a lot more than it’s worth
and yet there is no substitute
They keep it on a higher shelf
the older and more pure it grows
It has no color in itself
but it can make you see rainbows
You can find it on the Bowery
or you can find it at Elaine’s
It makes your words more flowery
It makes the sun shine, makes it rain
You just get out what they put in
and they never put in enough

Love is like a bottle of gin
but a bottle of gin is not like love

– Love is Like a Bottle of Gin by The Magnetic Fields.

While we may venture to consider Dean Baldwin’s Mini Bar in terms of a number of other modes of artistic engagement, arguably it is best understood as a contribution to the field ‘participation art’. By definition, the participatory artwork is classified in terms of the interpersonal relations it represents, produces and prompts. The social context, then, is paramount in such works, as is the condition of interaction (the work relying on a public or selected participation for its very existence).
Canonical examples of participation art include Allen Kaprow’s ‘happenings’, an intervention like Gordon Matta Clark’s SoHo restaurant Food (1971-73). Joseph Beuys’ incessant Oak tree planting, and perhaps most relevantly, Tom Marioni’s ongoing work The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art (1970-2009). More recently, though, and in a more complex sense, Nicholas Bourriaud’s so-called ‘relational’ artists of the 90s – figures such as Vanessa Beecroft, Liam Gillick and Rikrit Tirivanija – have once again proposed the validity of artistic approaches predicated on participation.
However, paraphrasing and protracting Rosalind Krauss’ concerns about installation art, one might say that one of the chief concerns surrounding this type of art – from its historical origins in the post-medium context of late 60s/early 70s conceptual practice to its more recent ‘relational’ revitalisation – is the potential that it might be unable to generate sufficient self-reflexivity or critical criteria of assessment (the danger being that under the novel facticity of social relations, the crucial question of the quality of those same relations gets obfuscated).
This problem can be rephrased as a question: is a participatory artwork (for instance the Mini Bar) simply of value because it explicitly brokers social exchange, or is it the particular quality of the social exchange taking place the thing that matters in a participatory art work?
In response, I would argue that there has to be something – a tension or complexity – in the very relations and exchanges being conducted in order that they take on some form of value, or that that matter, become real. It’s no good just allowing people to participate; they have to be participating in something with an innate complexity and quality of its own.
As we know, the Mini Bar was a bar. It was designed for participants to entry and have a good long drink and ultimately get drunk. Now, in a social sense there is something fundamentally problematic and unstable – even antagonistic about this type of boozing. Drunkenness can cultivate huge love, togetherness and jouissance between its fellows. Equally it can turn the world into something different – hideous even – in just a second…
Writing on the subject of Martin Kippenberger’s inebriate predilections, Daniel Bauman has recently argued:
Associated with the culture of refined abandon is the idea that art and alcohol are closely, if not directly, related. It’s an ancient cliché (Dionysus/Bacchus) and last reigned supreme in the existentialist circles of the 1950s, when it was most wonderfully embodied in the mythologised figures of Jackson Pollock and Wols. Their biographers, admirers and critics were largely responsible for the image of the radical artist as a human being who struggles equally with art and alcohol, a battle that ultimately has to end in tragically romantic self-destruction

Bauman’s equation between alcohol and art, and its telos in tragic romantic destruction, renders the modernist-heroic archetypal artist figure (drink in hand) a little more sensible (and perhaps a bit more timeless…). In terms of our own contextual concerns, it suggests that alcohol might bring to a participatory art work (and the inter-personal relations it generates) precisely the necessary sort of complex relations…
As the Magnetic Fields say: It makes you prone to crime and sin / but it can make you see rainbows
I would argue that the Mini Bar was a success in as much as it managed to establish formal participatory relations in line with the hugely complex device of alcohol, inebriation and the ancient regime of drunken creativity. A potentially sterile situation of participation (people hanging out, doing something) was juiced up with the pure and necessary friction of boozy true-life relations. Indeed, amongst the joyful yelling; loutish singing; arguments; tears; illicit kissing; passing out; glass smashing … it was very hard to try and recall that you were in Dean Baldwin’s participatory artwork, his orchestrated situation, his sphere of (some!) creative control…
Each night, we the inebriates would together soar beyond the formal limitations of an artwork based around a construct of social exchange in order to … actually exchange!
You only need recall (and we do) the friendships made and confirmed in the Mini Bar or the tensions developed, dissipated or established there to know that this was a place of REAL relationality and REAL participation.
For this drinker at least, this is truth, value and substance of Dean Baldwin’s Mini Bar – and nothing else.
You just had to be there.
I was.
It was amazing.


Cocktails (courtesy of Dean Baldwin)