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reviews


"Buff – A Workout Project", performance at Momenta Art  

Aron Namenwirth and Jesse Bercowetz: Buff – A Workout Project

I decided conclusively that I hate the New York City Marathon this past November 7th, when I woke to the sound of an excited radio news reporter gushing over how many millions of dollars the event brings to the city's businesses. The Marathon never sat quite right with me in the first place; a race in which athletes get standing ovations just for participating seems more appropriate for preschoolers at a backyard birthday party than for grown men and women. One sports web site summed up the spirit of the Marathon with this insipid remark: "John Bligen, age 52, finished in 31,807th place. His time: 9 hours 59 minutes 58 seconds. And you know what? He was a winner, too." With all due respect for Mr. Bligen's effort, having thirty-two thousand people cross the finish line before he does not qualify him as a "winner" by any legitimate standards. Most bothersome, however, is how these feel-good sentiments have become entwined with product plugs to the point where the idea of an actual race taking place is the last thing that matters. An audience of "Highly Motivated Purchase-Oriented Consumers" who are predominantly "young, "educated", and "affluent", is what the New York Road Runners Club, which organizes the Marathon, promises to provide potential sponsors as it courts them in its literature.

So when it comes to personal-best style athletic events, forget the New York City Marathon; I'll take "Buff". "Buff" is a performance project in which two Brooklyn artists have committed themselves to an ongoing health and fitness regimen. On the day of the New York City Marathon, while the first wave of runners hit the home stretch down Fifth Avenue, these artists were running in the opposite direction. They were completing their own self-designated Marathon that stretched from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg to the uptown Guggenheim museum, ending at the top of its famous spiral.

For the past year, Aron Namenwirth and Jesse Bercowetz have been "pumping themselves up" with a program that involves running, weight lifting, and yoga. Along the way, the two artists have collected around them an enormous network of local artists who participate in the workouts, offer fitness and diet counseling, and construct special athletic suits and equipment for them. For its fans, the "Buff" team offers a homemade line of T-shirts and Jerseys bearing the "Buff" logo. In place of product endorsements, which they haven't quite achieved, they offer their own personal cocktail of "Bottled Sweat".

I'm convinced that Aron Namenwirth even sleeps in his bright red "Buff" jersey, because I've never seen him not wearing it, even when I've bumped into him accidentally in a public place. Despite this kind of commitment, it's easy to see that "Buff" is first and foremost intended to be about fun. It certainly has been a blast; the continuous event that "Buff" has become, bulging with young artists who are invited or simply hazard into the project, recalls the freedom, spontaneity, and collective effort of a 1960's Happening or Fluxus event. Anchoring this chaos by basing their art making/self making process on a repetitive, everyday system–in this case, a program of self improvement–recalls strategies of artists of the same period. I always wished I could have been around to receive one of Vito Acconci's monthly reports informing the art public of his daily progress in repeatedly climbing a step stool. Now, 30 years later, I almost get my wish; regular e-mail updates fill me in on the current size of Jesse Bercowetz's biceps.

Though their strength and endurance has most certainly improved over the past twelve months, the "Buff" artists have failed to achieve the kind of external body-beautiful and healthy glow of a Bally's Fitness advertisement. At the outset of their project, the pair enthusiastically proclaimed "The program will come to completion as Jesse and Aron reach optimal physical condition". But in a recent "Buff" newsletter, which updates their audience about future events as well as provides specs on their progress, we discover that poor Aron Namenwirth has actually gained a few pounds in the last few months; still "husky", still sporting generous love handles.

Despite the fun, there's something distinctly pathetic about the whole program. It doesn't seem to be able to shake the rough and unwashed aura that clings to Williamsburg, a semi-industrial neighborhood that is as much a home to the city's dumped trash as it is to its young artists. At a special "Buff" performance, Aron, Jesse, and friends put on a pumped-up display of weight lifting, set to a driving techno soundtrack. But the glamour went only as far as the crumpled aluminum foil that they decorated their barbell weights with, and their glued-on glitter accessories, could take them.

In fact, their program suggests a metaphor; the Williamsburg art scene is chasing after Manhattan's, or invading it over the East River bridges. In a recent article comparing Berlin to New York, Christian Viveros-Fauné laments that, unlike its Teutonic brother, "Manhattan as yet refuses to embrace it's own artist's Bohemia in Brooklyn." On several occasions the Buff crew have plotted a jogging or bicycling course that led from a Williamsburg Gallery site to an established art space in Manhattan. The run to the Guggenheim began at a ridiculously small artist-run gallery that is, unbelievably, a prefab garden shed, the kind in which suburban families keep their lawn mowers. Their training has left Aron and Jesse able to conquer the Williamsburg Bridge, like mortals crossing the great divide. They wind up in the land of the Gods, the land where Mount Guggenheim-Olympus sells $12 tickets to holiday tourists. But our two athletes come off as devious interlopers once they get there, revealing the spiteful bad attitudes of aging artists who have been working on the fringes for too long. At the Guggenheim they left word with guards that several men had urinated on the floor at the top of the spiral, implicating themselves in the rumor and spreading panic. On another trek across the bridge that ended at White Columns, they left their sweaty, smelly shirts tacked to the wall of this increasingly exclusive "artist's" space.

Everyone knows that Aron and Jesse will never reach "optimal physical condition", just like most of us sooner or later come to terms with the fact that we'll never get anywhere near the Guggenheim as anything other than paying customers. Unless, of course, we break in–which is what Aron and Jesse did, in a way. Watching them jog up Frank Lloyd Wright's glowing white spiral, leaving Clemente paintings and bewildered guards in their wake, it was easy to pretend that the crowds outside cheering hysterically for the New York City Marathon runners were actually cheering for "Buff". I realized that Jesse Bercowetz and Aron Namenwirth weren't waiting around any longer to be discovered, that they had shown their work at the Guggenheim, whether the Guggenheim liked it or not.

John Giglio

New York, New York 2000