If you teach an actor to farm, and you give him two acres and tell him to work the land, is he acting or farming? Is it performance art or food production? For artist David Levine, this is a riddle for which all answers are correct. His current project, Bauerntheater ("farmers' theater"), recently began its season in Brandenburg, in northern Germany. Levine trained an American actor in farm technique for one month in New York, as any director would rehearse a show, then flew the actor to Brandenburg for the debut. Bauerntheater will run continuously for one month, during which time the actor-turned-farmer will cultivate two acres of potatoes, "in character," for fourteen hours per day.
Why do this? Levine characterizes it as an exploration of the interplay and conflict between tradition, performance, labor and art:
Bauerntheater is concerned with global labor markets, with the performance of cultural tradition, with the representation of labor, with representation as labor, and with the troubled relationship of Endurance and Land Art to questions of "authenticity."
The project is sited on part of a UNESCO nature preserve, at the Biorama Projekt, an arts and green product design center, eco-tourism destination and demonstration facility for living close to (and off of) the land. Tourists who visit Biorama this month will see Bauerntheater in progress, and have a chance to consider for themselves whether this is rehearsed performance art, real-time food production, or some combination of the two. When it's all over, Bauerntheater will have a documentary film, an archive of performance journals, and a half ton of harvested potatoes.
I recently conducted an interview over email with David Levine and the project director of Biorama, Sarah Phillips, who returned some great insights from the half-way point of Bauerntheater's run.
Sarah Rich: Why did you choose to have an actor play a farmer, rather than have an actual farmer?
David Levine: A whole bunch of reasons:
a) Both America and Germany locate their...what should we call it…"cultural authenticity" in the figure of the farmer. It's silly, and it's a cliché, but that's what we do. So then the question is, can it be faked? And what happens if you fake it by using an actor, the epitome of everything urban, rootless, inauthentic? And yet, wasn't the image of the farmer highly aestheticized in the first place?
b) As an American artist—i.e., one whose work earns very little — I'm interested in the idea of representation as hardship; or representation as labor (even though art is often construed as being the opposite of work). So, I wanted to create a situation where the labor of farming became indistinguishable from the labor of acting.
c) Eco-Tourism, at least out here, turns agricultural work into a tourist attraction. Out here, for instance, tourism makes a much larger contribution to the economy than agriculture, even though agriculture is what the tourists come to see performed. What does it mean when your work becomes a kind of performance?
SR Why did you choose an American actor instead of a German or someone else?
a) Because it's autobiographical, in a way.
b) Two parallel trends under late capitalism are globalization and the growth of service industries. They generally effect different populations, but globalization is beginning to hit the service industry as well; and therefore the German farmer "performing German farming" for tourists stands a very real chance of losing his job to a foreigner who can do this kind of acting for less.
c) The reason it's an American is that American capital and American culture are the two huge forces everyone in Europe needs to contend with. Germany has a very strong social system that is very slowly being dismantled, in favor of a more "American" kind of state. Substituting an American Actor for a German Farmer just makes certain problems a bit more clear.
d) As I said, I wanted to find out what the limits of acting are (this is as far from the actor's normal world as you can get; and yet, in a play, we're always given just 3 1/2 weeks to learn enough to imply a lifetime of experience.) It's crazy; it's insanely optimistic; it'd doomed; it's noble....I wanted to frame that. So I built him a fake field in my New York studio (for practice....2 1/2 tons of dirt); had the play translated, used other actors, dramaturgs, ad's, the works....all to create the absolutely normal context for rehearsing a play--and then find out how far that kind of theater knowledge can take you under real-world circumstances. I wanted to find out if an actor is able to learn faster and more thoroughly than a civilian.
SR: You said that the particular farming method employed here is from the GDR (German Democratic Republic, a.k.a., East Germany). Why did you choose this method? How is that method distinct from others?
a) Farming poor is farming poor (and furthermore, if you're poor enough, you're always "eco"). The actor needs to build his role around a character. The play we used is set in the GDR (because that's the region we're in). The method isn't GDR specific; it's just what you do when you're poor.
SR: You said to me earlier that this is not theater and not art; it's farming. Why do you emphasize that? Why is it important to you that viewers see it as farming and not as a representation?
a) Because we want viewers to think about how they draw these distinctions; and the ways in which making those distinctions predetermine your experience of the piece; and the ways in which either term (art or theater) effaces the work that goes into making it. Of course it's not farming, any more than it is art or theater. But then again, he really is farming, and he really is acting, and the project really is both durational (the way Warhol and Abramovic are durational) and land-based (the way Smithson or Heizer were land-based).
SR: How would you describe the relationship between the Biorama project and the Bauerntheater project? What do you hope each will do for the other?
Sarah Phillips: For Biorama Projekt, the Bauerntheater project is a perfect presentation of a Land Art piece. The Focus of Biorama Projekt is to demonstrate art in the Landscape – when viewed from above (from the top of the water-tower), Bauerntheater is a beautiful sculptural piece in the Landscape, with the actor/farmer as the central object. When viewed from the ground on the edge of the field, the viewer has a completely different perspective of watching a man work, a creative presentation. It may also be seen as a performance, but the scene is not as immediately obvious as a performance as it is a man working in a field.
The Biorama project is also about providing a new perspective on the landscape – making people think differently about what landscape offers culturally and from a tourism aspect, which Bauerntheater does. It also crosses a number of bridges in that it brings the local/rural population close to a creative and cultural presentation as well as bringing the urban population into the rural landscape.
Finally, having the Bauerntheater project at Biorama continues our objective of presenting international artists in Brandenburg.
SR: Will the documentation of the project be accessible to the public at large? Will you put it on the Web?
DL: We are currently running a small exhibit simultaneously with the farming, where people can see excerpts of the rehearsal, actual artifacts from the rehearsal, etc. A video documentary of the piece will premiere in Germany in August (www.Rohkunstbau.de), and then in NY in the fall. A book of the project will be published in 2008. 100 harvested potatoes will be preserved as an edition.
SR: This project obviously seems both site-specific and season-specific. It would be a very different project if you chose December as the month instead of May. How does that specificity limit or enhance the project? What kind of parallel project can you imagine doing in other seasons?
SP: We are planting potatoes - that doesn't happen in December - only in April/May. I don't think there could be a parallel project!
DL: When it rains (i.e., when he can't plant), the actor is instructed to WAIT in character. I could imagine an entire winter's worth of waiting, the way a German farmer waits.
SR: Can you expand upon the part of the description of Bauerntheater that mentions "the troubled relationship of Endurance and Land Art to questions of authenticity."?
DL: Both movements (late 60s/early 70s) arose as a reaction to the perceived commodification of art and art objects. The idea was that if you made time-based art, or art out of land, or your own body, it wouldn't be saleable as an object. By evading market demands, you could get back to a purer place, and a purer motive, from which to make art. Of course, as Kaprow predicted, all that happened was that a new market grew up for photographic or video documentation of these performances, or earthworks.
As to endurance art, the idea was somehow that if you took it out on your own body, you were hitting a point where things couldn't be faked; where you had absolutely outwitted representational strategies, and had hit some kind of real. The idea of "acting," or "theater," was of course, utterly loathed.
Of course, if you come from theater, you know that as soon as you perform an action—even getting shot -- with a public in mind, you're acting, one way or another. Using an actor, acting, is a way of bringing this issue out into the open. It's a form of doubt (if it had been me, the artist, doing the farming, it would clearly have been an art project. But because I imported an actor, acting into the process, it becomes a project that, at least in theory, short-circuits the distinction. Because now his labor, his endurance, etc., are both real (he's farming) and unreal (he's acting). But it's also a form of hope, because under these circumstances, acting itself (or art-making generally) suddenly becomes visible as a form of endurance, as a form of labor.
Photos copyright Bauerntheater, by Joe Dillworth