Steven Emmanuel: The Good Life

Steven Emmanuel (born 1982) spent 28 days alone, living under the stars and without the aid of industrial energy. The performance took place at the Zollverein UNESCO World Heritage Site, which once served as Germany’s largest coal mining and coking complex. The artist was equipped with only a backpack containing a first aid kit, a tarp, a knife and several books about wilderness survival. He had no water and no food, and was forced to lived off of whatever the land had to offer.

The performance took place as part of the exhibition “examples to follow! expeditions in aesthetics and sustainability”. Each day, Emmanuel left a message on a chalkboard. He used these messages to report back on the state of his health, however they also served as a palimpsest for ephemeral statements and reactions to the daily challenges that he experienced. In addition, he kept journals that were later turned into an art book. These now serve as the sole reminder of this existential experience. The book was published in a limited run of 1000 copies. #VISIT2013

Website of Steven Emmanuel.

Matthew Hearn: Seeing it, through seeing it through

I was once told an anecdote about the American artist Chris Burden. He had been invited to propose a new work for a Japanese institution. In the early 70s Burden made a series of performances in which he had himself shot, and where he was crucified on the bonnet of a VW Beetle. It was with these works in mind that the gallery invitation was solicited – in spite of the fact that the period had long passed since he used his body to such extremes. The work he proposed to the gallery does itself not matter. It is the misunderstanding of the work and its motivations highlighted by their response that I ask you to heed. ‘No, Mr Burden we want you to hurt and bleed more’. Casting Burden as the masochistic adrenaline-junkie, it stripped his performances of their calculated risk, citing them as equivalences for the acts of one-off impulsive idiocy; the kind enacted on Japanese extremist game shows.

Pain, distress and indignity have become universally consumable resources and the world it seems just can’t get enough of life being shit, shitty and shittier. There is an endless supply of this corrosive-misery in every newspaper and on every TV channel. The author Philip K. Dick wrote, ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away’. He was of course talking about the otherworldliness of science fiction, but nonetheless alternate realities that stick with us. Though the news or entertainment media may parachute us into worldwide theatres of affliction to witness their carefully choreographed performances of wretchedness, the camera soon leaves. As does that reality from our thoughts. We return to our own world, away from the horror we momentarily witnessed and on to the next hit of the stuff.

Recently, addressing the hardships of the global financial crisis, numerous politicians have made a spectacle of giving up the good life by living off minimum wage, or surviving on state welfare for a week. Enacted to highlight the incapacity and destitution of others, these acts of political pragmatism, performed to camera, came across as contrived parodies of the reality they did in fact not know. Their lack of political imagination and their stultifying rhetoric proved didactic: shouty-for-shouty’s sake. Fundamentally, knowing the facts is not an equivalence for knowing the reality. So, what can Steven Emmanuel tell us of the good life – of hardship and abstinence, of social responsibility and of private atonement? And, moreover, what can I tell you of the private reality and the personal imagination of Steven Emmanuel’s behind closed doors (or woodland glade) performance The Good Life beyond what is laid out in the diary? Let’s see.

As a primer I might tell you we joked privately that I might write an essay wholly avoiding mention of Steven Emmanuel; carry on writing about Chris Burden, or focus the discussion on The Good Life (2014) and Tom Good, Richard Briers’ lead character of the 70s BBC sitcom of the same name. Why am I telling you of this alternative reality of seemingly irrelevant possibilities? Because as an introduction to discussing Steven Emmanuel and his project The Good Life, it is important to recognise his reluctant and often obstructive relationship with the limelight. Whilst as a performance it might at first appear a public-facing stunt of bravado, the reality is that Steven is seldom so gregarious. Living off the land with next to no preparation, minimal resources or indeed (apparent) aptitude for the task may on paper read like an act of mindless and reckless enterprise, but far from being a Jackass-esque stunt or attention-seeking prank, for me The Good Life is characterised by its insistent commitment and single-mindedness. For those days under his selfimposed governance Steven opted out, forced himself to go-offline, and rather than making himself the subject on view, he diverted attention away from himself. Contrary to a performance of public spectacle, this near-private undertaking of abstinence functioned as a cover, as an act of camouflage and placed him nearanonymously seemingly invisible on the borders of humanity and society in ways we can never know; in ways Steven Emmanuel is still coming to terms with.

In the opening passages of the diary, Emmanuel states: ‘The performance itself, is just a lens for looking at a bigger something’. Both vague yet assertive, this descriptor highlights the multi-dimensionality of the project as both an act, and a metaphor for bigger somethings. As such the stated intentions on which the project was conceived – as a self-imposed period of self-denial from the use of industrialised energy – fundamentally differ from the multitude of meanings still unfolding in the aftermath of the project. Just as, the diary in respect of the select outtakes written down amidst shifting states of mind, is wholly separate from the physical in-the-moment experience of the performance. None of these components is, however, privileged. Each shapes and gives its own stamp to the project.

When Emmanuel applied for the Visit Residency program supported by the RWE, a major industrialised energy producer and provider, his pitch was simple: to shun, disengage and absolve himself from their product and processes. His proposition was itself a one-liner, a provocation: a moral white handkerchief of protest. It wasn’t in itself however a voice of out-and-out protest or an attempt to push the buttons of the corporate body. It wasn’t singing from the hymn sheet of how to save the world, but nor was it absolving the producers servicing a globally proven demand for ever-greater quantities of energy. It wasn’t on message either way. Rather it imagined a condition in which one had to assume responsibility for one’s actions. It understood that only by assuming responsibility for oneself could you begin to challenge the accountability of roles and representations, power structures and relations of others.

Whilst not being a proposal and a pending work about energy per se, by virtue of the residencies’ sponsors, energy was of course there radiating in the background. Proposing to live off an area of land scarred and scourged by its own industrial past – the Zeche Zollverein – energy and its production intentionally had aperfect tense existence there in the present moment. The Good Life wasn’t a prophecy for a green-future, or a prayer of optimism; the proposed work was about the highly personalised process of re-engaging nature, and learning to live a life without. Not just without energy. But in retreating from society, the process of disengagement was for Emmanuel a means to re-engage those issues we otherwise take for granted. Rationalised self-denial was in this context a factor – the founding context – but unlike the political stunt, the wilful acceptance of an undertaking of endurance was not the reasoning, but the means to imagine. The hardships of the process, of Emmanuel’s task of surviving are there in the diary for you to read: the newly learnt routines, the failed enterprises and the all-round circumspect exercise of SEEING IT THROUGH, WHATEVER. There too are the hunger-fuelled tirades against whoever and whatever, moments of existential clarity and muddled attempts to recall and reconnect. In this relentless, insistent, and at times helpless down-on-luck state, the diary isn’t easy reading, nor should it be – and anyhow, we have already established, we love that shit. But regardless of how complicit Emmanuel is in these circumstances of his own making, the process of actually living it is little alleviated. Through all this the diary pries and oversteps boundaries of personal space. Of the performance, it is up to you to read for yourself: in that regard I am not Emmanuel’s spokesperson. There are no spoiler alerts here. But whether you read it throughout or simply dip in and out, it might be suggested that if Emmanuel’s actions are about standing to account – taking responsibility and trying to imagine a form of alternative reality – in reading the diary, we too may become confederate in his actions.

Though The Good Lifemay have made a reluctant performer out of Emmanuel, its commitment to the task and its unfaltering obligation to seeing it though, make it comparable with much of his work past. To read the performance as a durational endeavour is to prioritise factors of time over and above the work’s processes and calculated framework. Take Emmanuel’s ongoing project Inside the White Cube (2009-). Begun with a fleck of paint in December 2009, Emmanuel entered into a lifelong contract with himself to paint this ball of solid white paint until his death. That is a lifetimes’ work. But how long is a lifetime? Time is a constant, but it plays to an unknown score. Inside the White Cube is moreover about the act of doing: the burden of practicalities and the anticipation of the unknown. What is the endgame for this object, what is its future? The ball is intended to become his gravestone.

For reference, in January 2015 the ball is the size of a basketball, and the weight of, at his own estimate, a three-year-old child. But that information is for reference only. Size, like time, is just a factor of scale: a consequence of the process. In Inside the White Cube, Emmanuel has made a lifelong commitment; it has become a Harry Potter-esque “horcrux” in to which he has imparted his soul. And in suggesting its weight as being comparable to a child, Emmanuel’s relationship to the object is itself quasi-parental: as if of his own flesh and blood, it is one of ultimate, unequivocal responsibility.

Like Inside the White Cube, The Good Life is essentially a private project: Emmanuel is/was doing it ultimately on his own terms, for himself. This dogged, righteous and at times belligerent approach Emmanuel has to his practice, is what makes the work: it prioritises the process and views the work through that process. But in favouring process over product the encounter with the work, the artwork, is often difficult to locate. You may have noticed that up to this point I have abstained from describing Emmanuel or his practice in terms of being “art”. Emmanuel has his own reservations, suspicions as regards calling things art. To this extent, since September 2014 he has made it a conscious endeavour, a performance, to omit the word from his vocabulary. My omission here is not an act of impersonation, but a sense of recognition for the problematical issue of defining where the *** is, and can be, in The Good Life.

In thinking about The Good Life in terms of art, there is no object to discuss. Looking at it on the terms of more traditional performance theory, there is a very clear tension between the live work and its enduring legacy. This essay began discussing Chris Burden, an artist who is synonymous for his own calculated control of how his work was documented and disseminated, and how the status of objects associated with the action were conceptually imagined in the aftermath of the performance. By conditions of his own conception, Emmanuel made this process of post-performance reconciliation far more complex. In the first instance he made the decision to deny the performance of an audience or other covert means of witness – which included any means or presence documenting the work. He encircled the performance with an aura of privacy, which though encroached on a handful of occasions during its actuation, on the whole remained steadfast. There are no visual representations for the work and there are no significant objects imbued with meaning through the performance.

Bar his own private immersion in the work the accompanying diary became the only real compatriot within this quarantine. As for the diaries, the notebooks in which the jottings were scribed – rain, tear and sweatstrewn, they are in one-sense relics; they are the works objecthood. But rather than elevating the status of the diary to that of an objet d’art, it is the entries themselves that Emmanuel has chosen to function as the surrogate for the work. It is these fragments of thought that endure as incarnations of the process. They are a thinking process, a working-through and a working-it-out process, and a process of admonishing and selfabsolving himself of the experiences brought to bare by the performance. That is where the *** is, those words are the ***work, and here in this book they have traveled through a binary-language of 1s and 0s and come out the other side as printed words: as a bookwork.

The Good Life is thus a works-worth of words; words that place themselves between the truth, and us, the reader. And yet they are the truth, or the means to get to that truth that remains. In lieu of first-hand experience this book is the performance in-a-form, the documentation in-a-sense, the concept and the afterword all wrapped in one. It is but one afterlife for the work. But most of all it is the means to enable us to begin to imagine, a way of seeing it through. How and what you imagine is up to you. * When Steven reluctantly passed over the first copy of his diary, the newly transcribed first ten days, I happened to be reading Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. This just so happened to be the months’ chosen publication for the book club I attend. It is a work of fiction as compared to the biographical accounts of reality that I was elsewhere reading in The Good Life. Set in the barren landscape of the American Midwest, it describes a moment in which the protagonists cavalierly set out cross-country across the drought afflicted landscape with ever-failing confidence that an elusive source of water will find them. ‘Just thinking about it makes you thirsty, don’t it?’ says Schneider, the self-righteous voice of reason: and it does, it makes me think; it sends me dry at the mouth. Time passes, their situation gets inevitably worse. Miller continuous to repeat his unfaltering mantra ‘we’ll find water’ but it is becoming harder to believe him. The Oxen’s tongues begin to swell, and all the men can do is bathe their swollen mouths with the last remaining globules of water. And all the time I am thinking about Steven’s precarious position. Shortly after the dawn of the third day they find water. I am as relieved as they are. But I am still worried. Even though months have passed since Emmanuel returned, having survived his ordeal – the association is still there; it all got a bit too real – that kind of reality that doesn’t go away.