Archive for May, 2011

Art For The Artists’ Sake

May 27, 2011

           In my inbox appeared the Opening Press Release for the Sculpture X show at the Sculpture Center in Cleveland Ohio which included the following:

“Guest curator David Carrier writes about his selections, made from 75 entries from 35 institutions:

This recent art made in our region builds upon the achievement of post-minimalism in the ways that acknowledge the achievement of Jessica Stockholder, Jackie Windsor, and other post-historical sculptors. Employing banal materials to achieve aesthetic results, these artists mostly avoid direct figurative references. Often employing a grid to structure their works, frequently making architectural references these artists are interested in what you find at the intersection between nature and the urban environment. Without making explicit political statements, they all are connected to demonstrate how three-dimensional visual art can be critical of our everyday worldview, as manifested in visual structures. In that way, I believe, they are heirs to the minimalist tradition of the 1960s. What aesthetic experience is possible, they are asking, in a country that, though no longer so arrogantly self confident, has a rich artistic tradition upon which to build. (October 2010)”

            Almost makes you think this was an on-air basketball commentary with all the “post” talk, doesn’t it? One is struck by the reliance on elision in this description (dare I say representation?) of contemporary art- “mostly avoid”, “without making”, “heirs to the minimalist tradition” (there was a tradition?), and finally “though no longer”. I doubt this is an exercise in what Badiou would describe as “subtractive” reasoning. The writing makes what appear to be definite representations but without specific commitments (the absence of commitment in contemporary art culture addressed in The Trope Of Meaning 4-2-11). These apparitions of representation imply without the dreaded nexus of authorial accountability (post-death of the author, huh?). It is his final line that reveals the most telling implication.

            It is a curious art that Mr. Carrier lauds in his representation (description) of overall selection. The final line implies a historic dominance from whence the arrogant self confidence. Subsumed in this implication is the connection between that history and the “rich artistic tradition”. Face it, this guy loves tradition. And no wonder, for it perpetuates the modernist myth of the continuous line (Seth begat…who begat…etc.) so convenient to art historical treatise.  This all is somewhat at odds with “post” thinking (no, not Phil Jackson’s game in basketball) which assumes an end to the great continuous line and approaches time spatially. Carrier’s final line makes the art represented by his selection all the more curious in that he would like one to believe that it hearkens traditional art, the art of the history of the west. That art was intimately bound up with the occurrences of the day, the matters of concern. One finds this in Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Delacroix, Rodin, the French Impressionists spawned by the leisure time “thing” of the bourgeois, the German Expressionists by the political economy of Europe, the Dadaists by the First World War, etc. Yet, here is an art, the implied continuation of this western tradition, that elides any connection with contemporary matters of concern (“mostly avoid direct figurative references”, “Without making explicit political references”). It is an art primarily of abstract composition, one that subsumes matters of concern within the trope of meaning (hence the elision of any commitment). It is an art that appears to be “critical”, yet somehow avoids entering into the messy fray of the assembly committed to matters of concern. Its commitment is primarily to the art itself, to a separation, much as the abstract artists of the 1940’s through 60’s imagined it. Its retro reappearance becomes one of art for the artists’ sake.

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Ding Politik

May 24, 2011

            In 2005 Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel curated/put together/promoted a show at the Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe Germany entitled Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Maybe “promote” is the appropriate word as these things are presented much as a professional fight, with multiple approaches and perspectives. The catalog for this event is the size of a bible. At least Gideon manages to keep their editions at handheld size. This volume even comes with an “olde” ribbon bookmark, much as a bible or dictionary. But it is chock full of various essays and well worth the read (if you can get your hands on it, literally).

            Ding politik centers on the word “ding” which (Latour points out) in German can have various slants or perspectives of meaning, going back to one origin, which is that of assembly to determine matters of concern. So “ding” or thing, can be considered as a matter of concern. Hence, GM agricultural products can be considered as a “thing” (matter of concern) as well as an “object” (matter of scientific inquiry or outcome). Object (in the Latour/Weibel sense) almost borders on the ancient definitions of matter – the something “out there” that the mind operates on to determine what it is, how it functions, interacts, etc. Physical sciences deal with objects, the social sciences deal with things.

            The show was crammed to the limits (and more) with various art pieces, texts, performances and interactive media works dealing with this inquiry. Each of the submissions was part of the “assembly” that congregated in order to distinguish this matter of concern, this thing (Making Things Public). In this way, it was providing an Atmosphere of Democracy, but not necessarily in the Rancierean sense as here the various interpretations and perspectives of the matters of concern account for the “democratic” element as opposed to a dissensual power dynamic.

            This creates an interesting line of inquiry. If the works promoted (as elements of this assembly) were to continue on in their merry way, after the calendar end of the show, and not live on merely as residue in the catalogue, what are we to make of them? Are they “things” or are they “objects”? The assembly is integral to the determination of thing. During the show, this was indeed the case. But as the works detach themselves from this assembly, and find themselves isolated or in conjunction with other works not from this show, would they not be “objects” much as the stuff of the physical sciences? Would they not be approached and critiqued as “something out there”? If one of these works would show up at The Wexner, would not a context immediately be provided for it by the Wexner staff in order to give it relevance to the Wexner visitor? Would not an artist bio likewise accompany the contextual essay in order to give it credence? And would not all of this be supplemented by an informative text enlightening the viewer as to what it is they are looking at? How does this differ from a scientific account of “something out there”?

            This all becomes intriguing when considered within the current disposition toward what makes for art. As Robert Morris points out in The Idle Idol, or Why Abstract Art Ended Up Looking Like A Chinese Room (archival post From The Archives: Making The Signifier, 12-3-09), currently works find themselves circulating through a “community” of  folks who claim production of art. These folks don’t necessarily identify themselves as artists, though they can enter in and out of artistic productions, individually or collaboratively. When the “assembly” requests, demands, requires, solicits, needs art, these folks provide a response. This is all well and good and elegant. But it is also oblivious of the obsessive compulsive nature of art creation (at least historically as presented by social science studies/critiques of art involvement). To say that within the political economy art is a supplement is one thing, but to assume that someone consumed by making music will dismiss this passion in the absence of communal space is suspect. Indeed, some say that the art production IS the production of this very space. Of course, one could say a community is always available (though always accessible?) but historic circumstance appears to bear that out. In short, the production of art, within the process, places it where? As object or ding? Or indeterminate, that is, simply as activity that has the potential of becoming object or thing? If so, then we find ourselves back with the ancients and their description of matter.

The Undocumented Life

May 14, 2011

            The art project is to consist of experiencing and “discovering” detritus left on the curb for pick up, incorporating it into the craftsman’s process, and then reconnecting the finished product with the original owners of the trash. “Will you be documenting this?” Yes, that’s a big part of it, the documentation of the finds, the interviews with the owners and their reconnection with the recycled discards at the show’s opening. That documentation would then be used to supplement the showing/create a new piece.

            “Your documents, please!” This authoritarian imperative sent many a shiver through residents of Europe during the first part of the 20th century. It was accepted practice, the norm, for the state to demand legitimacy of those within its territory. Today there is an ambivalent reticence to emphasize this imperative, as much out of memory for the historic abuse as well as the need for internal security controls.

            Walking along the side of a two lane rural road at the fringes of a “town” comprised of scattered residences and a convenience store was a young man carrying a bottle of sport drink in one hand, with a cell phone between the other and his face. He was totally oblivious of the traffic passing him by. The next day finds him walking to the store with only the cell phone held to his ear. This scenario is not isolated to country settings alone. It is ubiquitous.

            Independent Lens did a video piece on Marwencol, the backyard town/artwork of Mark Hogancamp. One of the repeated sequences is of Mark walking to the store along the shoulder of a wooded highway pulling a 1/6 scale jeep filled with heavily armed figurines. The connection he has with these figures makes him feel much more confident and secure knowing that they are along fully armed.

            Although the young man isn’t living in Marwencol, and isn’t accompanied by a jeep load of armed GI Joe type dolls, his walk to the store is more similar to Hogancamp’s than is readily apparent.

            To all appearances in Europe, during the first part of the 20th century, the young man would have been considered to be simply acting alone. His legitimacy could have been ascertained by a demand for his papers. Analogous to Hogancamp, he is accompanied by his electronic appliance which contributes to his sense of confidence and security. The young man really believes that the electronic appliance, like the heavily armed dolls, will somehow “connect” him to something other than himself that will look out for his best interest. Indeed, there was an incident in Canada in the past year where an unfortunate student was murdered while video conferencing with her boyfriend in China. The boyfriend was able to “connect” with Canadian authorities that her life was in jeopardy. They, in turn, were able to discover her lifeless body.

            Electronic communication devices are touted as the new social networks, media of connectivity, facilitators of new allegiances and loyalties. Essentially, bio politics has spawned a new form of “documents”, complete with individual ID numbers, immediate access, and tracking mechanism, all voluntarily self imposed at that. In the 20th century, before the existence of these devices, papers were the documentation that actually legitimized one’s place in the overarching society, the state. Today, the handheld electronic communication device is the documentation that legitimizes one’s place in an imagined society not dissimilar to Hogancanp’s Marwencol, a village of one’s own making. It fulfills the need to be legitimate. Unlike Sartre’s Roquentin “But you have to choose: live or tell.”, the imperative today is document or don’t exist. To be recorded is to exist. The unrecorded life is not worth living. Electronic communication appliances record, even if unintentionally. Live or tell stories has morphed into record or don’t be at all. The hand held electronic communication appliance is this kind of perpetually being composed headstone for the living dead. While being recorded, the emphasis is always on “making the recording”. In that sense, though the activity being recorded has the semblance of living, it is always a performance by which to be remembered.