ARE RESIDENCY PROGRAMS THE NEW PHD?
AN INTERVIEW WITH SARA KNOX HUNTER FROM SUMMER FORUM
A couple years ago, Mike Wolf wrote an article about his experience with the space Mess Hall, in AREA Chicago called “Can Experimental Cultural Centers Replace MFA programs?”. It’s a really poignant account of how becoming part of that particular community at that moment answered his concerns about what kind of artist he wanted to be, and by extension, what kind of life he wanted to lead and it was happening outside of the traditional school environment. He talks about watching his friends getting disheartened by the professional field that they work within, and questions whether or not it’s really all that worth it. Mike says, It sometimes seems like teaching in the cultural field is becoming more and more like the bluechip art world, an economy that sets people against each other and can only support a fraction of the people who aspire to be a part of it. I think as far as answering our economic needs and the need for health security, collective creativity is needed. For those in the PhD and MFA camp, there’s no denying that getting your school credentials is really all you can do if you actually want to find a job in higher education but it’s also pretty scary out there once you’re actually looking to be gainfully employed. There is another dream out there to stop the demoralization and be an autodidact: unconventional residency programs. My experiences with the temporary communities built out at unconventional and artist-run residencies like Harold Arts and ACRE is that they give me the necessary space to think outside of being productive, where I get to know new networks of artists outside of school affiliations and nerd out with them in the spirit of the place. It’s very true that not everyone has the luxury of leaving their life to go commune in the woods for a while, but they are just one model out of many for people to figure out how to slow down and blur the professionalism boundaries. But Sara Knox Hunter has an answer for those feeling all fucked up about the real world and looking for an alternative educational experience, she launched Summer Forum for Inquiry and Exchange this last year and the first iteration is happening this July.
AS: Can you explain a bit about what inspired you to start Summer Forum?
Sara Knox Hunter: The idea for Summer Forum began to take shape during the fall of 2010 while I was preparing to apply for PhD programs in Comparative Literature but feeling increasingly unsure about the whole idea. Articles by William Deresiewicz, http://theamericanscholar.org/the-disadvantages-of-an-elite-education/, William Pannapacker, http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846, YouTube videos, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obTNwPJvOI8, conversations with friends in the midst of PhD programs, and my own experience pursuing a masters degree in Literature in the School of Continuing Studies at Northwestern University opened my eyes to some of the major limitations of the graduate school experience. In the pursuit of expertise, students often hyper-specialize to the point of isolation and lose the opportunity for dialogue, gaining instead self-doubt and insecurity. The myth of the plush, tenure track job opportunity still dictates much of the system so the eventual unveiling of the real, unsustainable job market leaves a trail of absurd politicking and unaddressed shame for those who end up on the outside. In such a system as that, education – learning, exploring, questioning, risk-taking – seemed a distant memory. While experiencing all of these painful revelations – I had wanted to be an English professor since high school – I was immersed in my own community, which happens to be the visual art community in Chicago. I loved the residency model where even artists working full-time throughout the year could take a week or two off to immerse themselves in their practice. If I couldn’t willingly participate in the current PhD system, or if I didn’t want to pay at least $20k for for another masters degree, I wanted to create a space to fill the void – a space for committed but generous criticality, interdisciplinarity, and most of all, dialogue. I realized that I wanted to be an English professor not because I necessarily wanted to teach 18-22 year olds but because I wanted a constant space for the exploration of culture and ideas. I believe that space can and should exist outside the traditional academic institution and while they have always existed, they are starting to become a greater force in the 21st century.
AS: What is the format?
SH: Summer Forum will consist of a primary and secondary discussion each day, along with evening programming provided by one of our five invited guests. A text or set of texts will be the basis of each discussion. All residents are encouraged to attend the primary discussions each day and those who are interested can return for a second conversation on a different text. We wanted to give people the opportunity to read as much or as little as they wanted depending on their needs and interests. The evening programming will be determined largely by the invited guests – Linh Dinh, Lucky Dragons, Timothy McCarthy, Marisa Olson, and Randall Szott – but most of it will take place in the Atheneum, http://www.usi.edu/hnh/atheneum.php, New Harmony’s Visitor Center designed by Richard Meier, thanks to a cosponsorship from Historic New Harmony and the University of Southern Indiana. In the mornings, residents will have the opportunity to share prepared responses to the texts if they’re interested. Plus we’re hoping to have a film screening or two, tours of New Harmony, canoe rides, and maybe even some downtime.
AS: How did you decide upon New Harmony?
SH: I was researching spaces to host the residency when a friend told me about New Harmony. He had taken an architecture class with Ben Nicholson at SAIC and Ben took the entire class down to New Harmony. I visited last spring and knew immediately that it work well for what I was trying to do. New Harmony is the site of these two failed utopian projects from the 19th century but I was especially interested in the second project started by the social reformer, Robert Owen. That community was committed to educational reform, scientific research, philosophy, and art – it seemed like the perfect place to try a similarly minded experiment almost 200 years later.
AS: Will the theme change every year and so will the location change or is New Harmony the site for Summer Forums of the future?
SH: I’m not sure yet what will happen with the Summer Forums of the future. The theme will probably change from year to year and I’m also hoping to eventually have a permanent space, whether that be in New Harmony or elsewhere. I would also love to see a network of Summer Forum type ventures pop up all over. I’m interested in providing different lengths of sessions as well for people who can’t afford to get away for a whole week and longer ones for people who have more time to invest. Perhaps a Summer Forum in Spanish, too?
AS: I love the Hearth and Shelf program as a way for people to show off and perform their favorite texts or their own idiosyncratic approaches to the books they collect. I’m a big collector, or at least I can’t throw anything away, and I attach a lot of significance to what I choose to display on my shelves (even if it’s just for an audience of me and my roommates). They’re like spirit objects for me. And I think about Hearth and Shelf as a way for people to talk about their favorite texts with a generous spirit of inclusiveness rather than needing to be an expert on what the book actually proposes to be about, which I think seems to be part of the spirit of the program. Can you talk about how that series fits into the larger program for you?
SH: Yes, I love your response. I think Hearth + Shelf is a part of this new criticality that I’m talking about that does not negate the personal even amidst intellectual pursuits. The books that we have and like are often valuable because of the way they have affected us personally. Giving a platform for these types of conversations, especially in people’s homes, provides a generous environment in which to create new ways of relating to each other without the pressures of professionalization. We walk away having learned something and it opens up the opportunity to learn more.
AS: Will their be creative re-readings of texts out on the farm this summer or what other kinds of “spontaneous collaborative scholarship” do you want or imagine happening?
SH: I am not entirely sure what to expect for the first residency. I hope that by giving dialogue so much focus and attention that the dialogue itself will be considered a collaborate work, operating as a creative and scholarly entity. I’m excited to see what each resident brings to Summer Forum, and what a space like New Harmony will do to all of us.
AS: If you were to do your own Hearth and Shelf reading, what would it be on?
SH: Good question! We own a lot of books but we have also moved five times in the past seven years. Each time we move I scan through our collection and cull out a box or two of books. After five moves, there is a specific reason for keeping every book. It might be fun to share some of those justifications along with the books themselves. I might end with a demo on how to pack the perfect box of books.
• 19 March 2012 • View comments
PWR Paper, no.2, summer, 2010
Spread across three tables, publications culled from around the world are surprisingly not rendered dead and embalmed under the vitrine coffin that most library material usually exhibits within, but instead can be found alive and well, waiting to be sifted through and handled. Curated by Rachael Morrison and David Senior, Millennium Magazines features magazines and journals spanning a broad range of subject matter including photography, art theory, design, architecture and social activism. Though diverse, each one encapsulates an experimental future forward ethos driven by an independent small publishing spirit.
The 102 featured publications begin from the year 2000 and feature familiar faces such as Fillip, Mossless, Triple Canopy and Bidoun but also include many burgeoning international winners such as White Fungus, PWR Paper, Institute for Social Hypocrisy and Junk Jet, to name but a few. Included also in the exhibition are monitors showcasing footage of the publishing process. The show continues online as well, featuring a website with links to each and every exhibited publication.
There is plenty of diversity here and one will surely find something new and refreshing, both content and design-wise.
Millennium Magazines is on view at the MoMA through May 14, 2012.
• 11 March 2012 • View comments
The study case was made for short trips to warm climates. Includes clothing, toiletries, water colors, pencils, paper, brushes, a journal and a camera.
• 2 February 2012 • 2 notes • View comments
Commerce By Artists
(ed.). Art Metropole
Commerce by Artists documents a fascinating and sweeping range of artists’ projects produced since the 1950s by Canadian and international artists who have sought to engage, rather than merely represent, the commercial world of which they are a part.
Encompassing canonical works such as Yves Klein’s Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1958), Seth Siegelaub’s Artist’s Contract (1971), and Lee Lozano’s Strike Piece (1969) — as well as innovative and rarely-documented works like Keith Obadike’s Blackness for Sale (2001), Kelly Mark’s In & Out (1997-ongoing until 2032), and Ben Kinmont’s Sometimes a Nicer Sculpture Is to Be Able to Provide a Living for Your Family (1998-ongoing) — Commerce by Artists is a comprehensive document of artworks that take the form of transactions and exchanges of value.
Edited by Luis Jacob
Includes contributions by:
agent.NASDAQ aka Reinhold Grether, Zeigam Azizov, Clegg & Guttmann, Carole Condé & Karl Beveridge, Isabelle De Baets and Hendrik Tratsaert, Jorge di Paola, Hu Fang, Elizabeth Ferrell, Gerald Ferguson, Andrea Fraser, Coco Fusco, Hans Haacke, Jens Hoffmann, Luis Jacob, Mary Kelly, Yves Klein, Jeffrey Kastner, Sina Najafi, Jane Crawford, Frances Richard, Richard Manning, Cuauhtémoc Medina, Helen Molesworth, Keith Obadike, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Beatrix Ruf, Andrea Rosen, Martha Rosler, Reid Shier, Julian Stallabrass, Julia Steinmetz, Heather Cassils, Clover Leary, Neil Thomas, Calvin Tomkins, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Cédric Villate
Art Metropole Toronto Canada
26.5 x 20.5 x 3 cm.
• 2 February 2012 • View comments
Image: George Schneeman and Bill Berkson: On the Offspring, 1969 or 1970; mixed media on illustration board; 12 × 12 in.
The Reading Room
January 15, 2012 - June 17, 2012
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
The Reading Room is a temporary project dedicated to poetry and experimental fiction offering visitors the chance to take home a free book drawn from the overstock collections of several noted East Bay small presses, including Kelsey Street Press, Atelos Books, and Tuumba Press. Books and catalogs from Small Press Distribution will also be available. In turn, visitors are asked to replace that book with one from their own library. We look forward to seeing how the character of the works on the shelves evolves over the course of the project!
Stop by The Reading Room during gallery hours to enjoy a comfortable reading area, listen to recordings of selected poets published by these presses, and view silk-screen prints and original works on paper created by George Schneeman in collaboration with poets Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, and Lewis MacAdams.
As part of selected Friday night L@TE programs throughout winter and spring, The Reading Room will be the site of literary readings (RE@DS) co-curated by poet/author David Brazil and Suzanne Stein, poet, publisher, and community producer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Guided and inspired by arts writer and poet Ramsay Bell Breslin and poet and UC Berkeley Professor of English Lyn Hejinian, BAM/PFA’s new literary project invites visitors to look, listen, share, and read in The Reading Room.
About the RE@DS Programmers
David Brazil was born in New York and lives in Oakland, California. With Sara Larsen, he edits the monthly xerox periodical TRY! In 2010, his groundbreaking anthology (with Kevin Killian) The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater:1945–1985 appeared to wide critical acclaim. He is active in the San Francisco Poets Theater and has co-curated a variety of local reading series, as well as the Poetic Labor Project’s annual Labor Day event, which has invited writers to talk about how they make a living as well as their involvement in political work. Forthcoming publications include Mina Loy Portal (Trafficker) and ECONOMY (Little Red Leaves).
Suzanne Stein is the author of Tout va bien (Displaced) and HOLE IN SPACE (OMG!). Poems, talk performances, and prose have appeared in War and Peace, On: Contemporary Practice, Counterpath Online; and at New Langton Arts, the San Francisco Exploratorium, The Poetry Project, and elsewhere. She is editor and publisher of the small, Oakland-based poetry press TAXT and was codirector and film curator at (f o u r w a l l s gallery in San Francisco. She works currently as community producer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, organizing a variety of talk- and conversation-based programs, and is editor-in-chief of the museum’s blog, Open Space.
The Reading Room is supported by a generous grant from the Kadist Foundation, San Francisco. Thanks also to Ross Craig, sound engineer, and to Meyer Sound for donating the speakers.
• 19 January 2012 • View comments
Image: Edible Estate Regional Prototype Garden #3: Maplewood, New Jersey, established July 8th, 2007 / before and after views
Interrogating Public Space
Nato Thompson interviews Fritz Haeg
Fritz Haeg is an architect and social designer. Born in 1969 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Haeg received his Bachelors of Arts in Architecture in 1992 from Carnegie Melon. Unafraid of multiple projects at once, he has initiated several initiatives, all of which have taken on a life of their own. Haeg’s ongoing project, Edible Estates, transforms front lawns into public gardens. For each “estate”, Haeg and his team of volunteers create an elaborate vegetable garden in a front lawn. These public displays disrupt the monotony of suburban landscaping and confound categories of public and private.
Other projects include the Fritz Haeg studio, which is devoted to creating architecture that relates to and interacts with the physical environment, blurring the boundary between interior and exterior spaces. He is also the organizer of a series of events in Los Angeles (where he now resides) known as the Sundown Salons. Started in 2001, these events take place in Haeg’s geodesic dome house on Sunday afternoons. The Salons have attracted a large cross-section of artists and community groups and have given birth to the Sundown Salon School House.
Nato Thompson: Gardening features prominently in your work. How do you see gardening in relation to the politics around public space?
Fritz Haeg: I have always been interested in plants and gardens, but it wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles in 1999 that I become truly consumed by it, and it found its way into my practice. I’m mostly interested in gardens for what they represent and for what they are uniquely able to do. A healthy edible garden in its truest form is one of the few places we see human need vs. natural resource reconciled with total clarity in front of us. We can see the fragile balance played out. I think highly visible and diverse gardens should be everywhere that people are. They keep us in check and remind us that we are entirely dependant organisms but also empowered custodians.
With the Edible Estates regional prototype gardens I am removing unused, toxic, polluting, water-guzzling no-mans-land spaces and replacing them with productive edible gardens. People are back on the streets reconnected to their local ecology, food and neighbors. I’m interested in what happens when a garden is placed in a location where it becomes a threat to the industrial/commercial system that we are embedded in. For some neighborhoods, it is a very provocative gesture that is upsetting. I think that a society that cannot grow it’s own food or that is threatened by a garden is in deep trouble.
NT: Not to be a complete Marxist, but it appears you are attempting to deal with the alienation one feels from being separated from the total outcome of production. That in growing a garden, one becomes in tune with the cycles of food production that keeps him alive. Along with the macro-political components, do you find this approach has personal therapeutic effects?
FH: I have very vivid and emotional memories of my first few months gardening in Los Angeles. I became extremely attuned to the local climate, geography, geology, flora and fauna. It was such a contrast to the New York world of people, commerce, abstraction and speculation that I was coming from.
Just the act of spending an extended period of time outside with your hands in the dirt is a profoundly “deviant” act today! There is no rational or practical reason to do it. We can get anything we need at the store, right? Why are we still mucking around in the dirt? There must be something we still need there…
NT: You have many projects going at once - your studio, Gardenlab, Sundown Schoolhouse, and Edible Estates. Why do you work in multiple forms and how does this assist your process?
FH: This diverse practice confused me when I lived in New York. I have since realized that these parallel paths are perhaps at the heart of my practice, and I have let it run its course. Now I just do what ever I feel like I need to do without worrying if I am ‘qualified’, or what it might mean to the rest of the work. It’s very liberating. I have no idea what I will be doing next year, and that’s fine.
Making buildings, dances, gardens, events, or a school may seem like a crazy mess, but recently it seems to me that the work is converging on a very focused series of thoughts about our relationship to each other and our environment at this moment in our civilization.
I guess it’s also like crop rotation. When I’m exhausted, I don’t sit around and wait, I just slide over to the next thing.
NT: I am clearly a fan of an aesthetic practice unafraid to take on multiple forms from community building to hermetic gesture to straight up classroom. These forms have a long history with grassroots activism. What are your personal inspirations for a multi-faceted practice?
FH: I believe that if I allow myself to surrender daily to what I am drawn to, no matter how confusing or strange, it will be good for me and my work. Mmmmmm, is that a lesson I learned from being gay?!
I want to wake up every morning and have a place in my practice for whatever it is I feel like I need to do that day: manual labor, writing, meeting people, dancing, drawing, computer work, gardening, traveling, making spaces… I want a practice that allows me to spend my time in an infinitely diverse way. I want to create a practice the same way that I would create any project. It should age well, evolve with my changing interests and obsessions, but at the same time maintain a conceptual and principled focus that transcends media or material.
Buckminster Fuller believed that specialization and trades were a form of slavery instituted by “the man” (he called them the pirates) to prevent any one person from seeing the big picture, which would be a threat to their power.
NT: If it is possible to not be careerist in one’s response to questions regarding his professional practice (the need to turn aesthetic ideas into money to live), how do you see your work in regard to paying the bills versus making meaning in the world?
FH: I am very interested in the real economics involved once you deviate from the commercial conventions of the art and design world.
Most of the work I have been doing never paid until recently. For years I supported myself mostly by teaching and some modest architecture fees for small projects. Now I teach occasionally and I support myself from (in descending order) architecture design fees from the few projects I do, artist commission fees from museums, occasional teaching salaries, speaking honorariums, writing, and a bit from the Sundown Schoolhouse. The amount I actually earn from any one of them varies wildly, so I do what I do and hope every thing balances out in the end. I’m always living right on the edge though. That uncertainty is the price of doing work that does not have a conventional market.
Along those lines, it is quite difficult to work with MFA students that will graduate $100,000 in debt. They enter into the world unable to take any real risks, or experiment in ways that may not pay off for years or have the luxury to fail spectacularly at something.
NT: What do you find to be the key issues regarding public space and how do you see aesthetic interventions being a benefit and a problem?
FH: Right now I am most interested in private spaces that have the capacity to be public. It’s not that I have given up on public space (though maybe I have!) but I do think that private property, and in particular the home, has become the focus of our society. We are obsessed with our homes as protective bubbles from the realities around us. Today’s cities are engineered for isolation, so starting a salon in your living room or growing food in your front yard become ways to subvert this. Perhaps at this moment working from private space out may be more useful than working from public space in.
NT: I find that answer quite interesting actually. There are more than a few who consider the entire concept of ‘public space’ as deeply problematic as it tends to legitimate a large portion of the planet as inherently private. I also know from working in a museum that there are a lot of different possibilities when one owns the space in which experimental gestures are attempted, which might not be feasible in public. Yet, surely there are plenty of folks who do not own their front lawns. What are your thoughts in regard to renters or those without any private property whatsoever?
FH: Conversely I am also interested in “public” space that can be claimed and appropriated for private use. I especially like the idea of taking the least humane, most neglected and visible spaces in our cities and repurposing them for intimate human activity or nature interventions. For example I am reminded of my friends who do the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest that had a birthday party in the parking lot of Ralph’s (a grocery chain in Los Angeles). They also organized a wonderful neighborhood project in L.A.’s Highland Park a few years ago called October Surprise where they “took back the streets” and staged projects all over town with local organizations.
I am very ambivalent about the ”community project” though. It is a delicate matter to go into someone else’s neighborhood as the “enlightened artist” and impose on them your vision of what they need. With the garden that the Tate Modern commissioned me to do in Southwark (just south of the museum), I worked with a local organization that is based in the neighborhood. They were a vital link to the residents of the council estates where we did the project. I went door to door with them to talk to everybody about the edible garden I was planning. Even still, on my first day of work on the land, a woman who has lived in the building for 37 years came up to me demanding to know what I was going to do to their last piece of green space. When she found out I was from Los Angeles, she got even more suspicious….like “ok, let me get this straight, you come over here to screw up our green space & then go back to California?”. But I went to visit her when I had finished the garden and she was really delighted with it. It turns out she is an amazing painter and is now working on a portrait of the garden.
NT: You are currently planting an edible estate in a front lawn in New Jersey, how is that going?
FH: I just finished three brutal days of manual labor, turning sod by hand, shoveling dirt, lifting rocks. Every muscle in my body ached this morning. Fortunately I had about 20 volunteers turn up over the weekend to help out. It was fun and I’m really happy with the way the garden turned out. On one side of the front yard we installed 15 raised beds of vegetables and herbs and on the other we planted a mini orchard of fruit trees and vines. The neighbor next door (on this street of meticulously groomed lawns) was upset as soon as she heard about the plan, so I knew I had picked the right spot!
NT: I love the look of community gardens but I can in my heart see why people hate the idea of gardens in their neighbor’s front yard. It clearly disrupts the sense of public/private and I think for many people, particularly in front lawn friendly areas, they have worked hard for their deeply regressive sense of the private. Do the edible estates have a community outreach component? Maybe if they received some free peas or something they would calm down.
FH: When you live on the street with an Edible Estate, you see the owners out there gardening every day. You get to know them better than those with the lawn. You talk to them about how the crops are doing. They can’t possibly eat everything they are growing, so every time you pass by they are trying to unload the latest harvest of tomatoes or zucchini on you. Just the act of witnessing a garden grow can have a profound effect. When you watch daily as seeds sprout, plants mature and fruit is produced you can’t help but be drawn into the wonder of it. By being a witness, you have become complicit and are now part of the story.
• 6 January 2012 • 3 notes • View comments
Image: Puerto Williams, Chile; The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006.
Interview with Pablo Helguera
by Bad At Sports
from Art Practical
The following is an abridged transcript from an interview at the Open Engagement conference, which took place from May 13 to 15, 2011, at Portland State University (PSU). Open Engagement is an initiative of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program that encourages discussion on various perspectives in social practice. In this conversation, Bad at Sports contributors Bryce Dwyer, Christine Hill, Abigail Satinsky, Duncan MacKenzie, and Brian Andrews speak with Pablo Helguera, who was a featured presenter at this year’s conference.
This presentation of the interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. You can listen to the full conversation on an upcoming episode of Bad at Sports.
Bryce Dwyer: I’m here with Pablo Helguera, who is one of the keynote speakers at Open Engagement this year and is an artist and arts educator. Welcome. I’ll just start off with a question. Interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary exists as this ideal for a social practice artist, but the actual qualities of the disciplines from which artists are approaching [social practice] get lost in this concept of being involved in all of them. The qualities of each specialization get lost in the idea of the artist who has a hand in everything. So maybe you could talk generally to begin with about this idea of the interdisciplinary as it relates to teaching artists how to be good MFAs in social practice.
Pablo Helguera: It’s actually very easy to see that this issue has always been present in the arts, and it’s been present in debates around reconfiguration of the art school curriculum. Because what you have historically is the academy model, which relies on a set of skills that you teach to people. Plaster casting and doing a nice still life and the human anatomy and all that. Then comes the Bauhaus model, which really relies on the whole notion of technique, but not simply maintaining some nineteenth-century model of craft. It’s craft in a more expanded sense. Technology as the craft.
Then we have the new reconfigured model, which is criticized as basically dismantling everything else, and then supposedly it doesn’t make you a specialist in anything. The difficulty with the programs that emphasize knowledge of a particular craft is that there’s a problem with development of a particular craft. Maybe you have heard this famous phrase by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes ten thousand hours to become an expert in anything.
The problem with art is that when you become such a specialist in a particular thing, you become a purist—let’s say, of photography or in bookmaking—and you start having a difficult critical distance from that particular medium. A photographic purist will say to an artist working with photography, but not a photographer by training, “You know nothing about photography. Under my standards, you’re nothing.”
BD: Like a virtuoso model.
PH: Yeah, like classical music, it applies very specifically because there is this form of art making that relies heavily on virtuosity. But in art, it’s a combination of being able to understand how a medium works and maintain a critical detachment to it. So the solution is not simply to emphasize a craft of any kind, but in my view, to teach the ways in which a variety of crafts or disciplines function. An architect is not required to understand all the specifics of plumbing or be an expert in welding. An orchestra conductor does not play all the instruments of the orchestra, or at least not play them as a virtuoso. There are many disciplines that don’t require you to completely master them in order to gain a certain kind of understanding of how they work.
This is where social practice finds itself right now. Where you are engaging with a variety of topics or areas of knowledge, and your challenge is to really understand how they behave to a certain extent and understand how people behave. There are disciplines that are particularly relevant to what we do, and it’s very useful to gain understanding of their tools and mechanisms. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to become professional sociologists or ethnographers or anthropologists to do what we do, but these kinds of expertise that we are developing [provide] some understanding of how they behave in the social realm, and how to utilize them. It’s like becoming a good orchestrator of these particular things that are constantly moving.
BD: In your talk, you staged that amateur position, not as a pejorative, but as something to be valued. The ability of the amateur to see a discipline in a different light than a practitioner.
PH: Paolo Freire said, “I’m an expert at not being an expert. I’m not claiming an expertise.” Meaning that for him, the core of education was to acknowledge a degree of ignorance in a variety of things, and that degree of ignorance was an acknowledgement of humanity. But I do know this amount of stuff, and I can communicate that. I can create a structure and you can come to the realization of your own knowledge. When I say I am a professor or a teacher, I’m not claiming that I know who you are or I know what you are, but I’m actually providing the tools for you to come to your own realizations about who you are. And there is a term, conscientization, which just means awareness when you reached that kind of knowledge. So it’s a combination of acknowledging your own limitations, but at the same time, acknowledging your responsibility in structuring a space where you can allow others to attain those awarenesses or realizations.
BD: I’ve been reading this book called Arts of Living [by Kurt Spellmeyer] that critiques what’s happened to the humanities since the Second World War, in which they’ve become more about specialization, in becoming an expert in whatever obscure text and reading it in a close and theoretical way. The argument of the book is that the humanities should be the space between all the other disciplines, the position from which you can view all the different relationships between the disciplines. It should also try and find a way to be more relevant to ordinary life in general, in the same way that philosophy shouldn’t just be solving analytical problems, but give ordinary people some way to navigate their way through their everyday lives. It seems that art as social practice is in certain situations aiming to be at this vantage point, where you can see all these different things and make the connections between them, and use expertise from these different fields to comment on all of them.
Calle 9 de julio, Ushuaia, Argentina; The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006. Courtesy of the Artist.
PH: You know, in truth, it’s not a new thing that social practice suddenly discovered. What I think is happening is an extreme reaction against modern and postmodern notions of the artist as this demigod who comes and reveals the truth to the world and becomes this kind of cult figure. So many people who are working in this realm of socially based work renounced that to the extent that nothing associated with that idea can possibly be admissible.
But this is what I was going to say: What happened is that we started treating social practice as something that’s not even art. Now, we don’t even say the word art. We say, “I’m a social practitioner.” I think it’s very meaningful that we have done that. We are trying to detach from the whole thing. We’re trying to turn it into a technique or maybe into a profession.
That’s a very contradictory thing, because on the one hand, we’re saying we’re amateurs, and on the other hand, we’re saying we’re professionals. The problem is that art just can’t be professionalized that way. Because art has a degree of ambiguity that cannot possibly be pinned down, ever.
PH (con’t): Whatever you do, what’s powerful about art is that it’s ambiguous. It’s something that has multiple values in different moments and contexts. I always remember what Matthew Barney said once, that “everything that I do, there’s a degree that I don’t want to know about.” I always leave a blank section of questionable aspects of the work that even I don’t understand—that viable room for not making it completely didactic, or completely spelling out exactly what it is.
And that’s a very important thing to preserve, and that is the one thing that no other scientific disciplines have. You don’t do physics just for free expression! The scientific approach is trying to prove something and going through these processes, but in art, you can just say, “I’m going to do this crazy stuff, and nobody knows what it means and it’s okay.”
Christine Hill: I think people keep going around and around a familiar problem, which is that nobody wants to have an MFA in Futility. I think sometimes it’s as if everyone is trying to find a way to feel useful, or that what they’re doing has use.
PH: I don’t know how this applies in Europe, but I feel that in American education, we still have a very consumerist approach, in which we feel that we are purchasing an education as a consumer. We don’t put ourselves in the role of “I’m constructing something for myself,” but more like, “I’m the buyer, and this is product, and you have to fill me with knowledge, and if I don’t have a real product coming out of it then this was a scam.” The most common MFA questions are, “Am I going to get in a gallery? Am I going to survive in the art world? Am I going to sell the artwork after I get this diploma?” They want to see concrete products out of these things.
CH: Look at how websites of some of the best art schools look. Who is the consumer—the student or the parent? They inundate you with pictures of techy looking labs and stuff that looks like your child is going to learn some hardcore stuff here. That’s not accidental.
PH: Yes, they’re selling. They’re definitely presenting themselves as businesses. Selling it like some sort of experience or that afterward, you’re going to become a member of an elite club with rewards.
Abigal Satinsky: I thought it was interesting when you laid out in your talk the uncomfortable position in which social practice artists now exist, that they’re struggling over the idea of authorship. So if we’re talking about how we’re not making things in particular, then what is it that we’re actually producing? This is the conundrum that everyone’s struggling with. I’d like to hear you talk more about that complex authorship position, maybe through The School of Panamerican Unrest, as well as about your own methodology, about the position in which you’re approaching your community, the position in which you’re negotiating with institutions, and how all these things come to be, and where you’ve placed yourself as an artist. You mentioned this idea of a stealth art practice.
PH: What I said about authorship is that essentially, among the many artists that do social practice, some create this sense they are not really doing it—that they are not being anything other than a facilitator. They are disowning themselves to create a situation and let it exist on its own. I say that’s impossible. I say an artist can never really disappear by the same principle that you alter anything that you actually come into, just by nature of entering it. You have to acknowledge that, and by the same token, you cannot renounce authorship away. We’re not talking about authorship in the sense of coming to sign the landscape; it is about assuming the accountability of what you are actually doing.
And also, it’s not very productive to demonize the art market when you are making a project, because, let’s be honest, we exist within the art market, even if you are not selling anything. There are other kinds of economies. There’s a reputational economy. Maybe you’ll give everyone a gift, and that’s your project, and then that’s a piece. You can say that it’s not an artwork because [you] didn’t sell anything, but no, it was actually an investment in your reputation. Because then, you are famous because you gave everybody a gift. That’s why I like very ambiguous things that are not really discussed. You might as well acknowledge that they exist and then see how you operate within them in an integral and decent way.
In doing the School of Panamerican Unrest project, I never really thought about what it was going to be. I’m still not sure what it should be in its final product. I think it’s going to be an archive. [These collages] emerged from the project that were personal and like a diary, but could be sold and collected or whatever. I don’t see any conflict with that and doing a social practice project.
You might call this accessorizing, and there are issues within that, but it’s not intrinsically a conflict by definition. I think it is possible to create a work as an artist that might have the components of sociability or ephemerality, and at the same time do something else that exists in a more conventional form.
Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003–2006. Courtesy of the Artist.
BD: I found your talk incredibly refreshing, in part because you dealt with questions such as responsibility for authorship, and noted that when we do these things, we are actually accountable to them and we are ethically responsible. You were sketching out a position that [acknowledges] the social practice side of things always wants to see itself as somehow off to the side, as not participating in your dirty money scene. People like Dave Hickey sketch out a far more cynical way of looking at it, which is to say that, “No, you are; you’re just making yourself available through a museum and not directly to the collector. This is just an alternative art economy, and it actually works really well for the museum, because the museum needs to collect things that collectors can’t collect by themselves.”
PH: Yes, tell me of a single recognized artist who does this kind of work who has not had any relationships with museums or foundations that have funded their work. Practically everybody who is here has done major projects for museums, for biennials, for foundations. They have received grants. You simply become a different kind of agent in the same system. There are biennial artists, there are gallery artists, there are public art artists who just create public sculptures for parks, and that’s how they make a living. Performance artists exist in another circuit of performance venues.
BD: I want to drag that back to ethical responsibility. Because it’s one of the things that you highlighted in your talk, and it was one of the things that I left last year’s conference with really mixed emotions about: the role social practice takes on ethically, and what ethics does it really represent.
PH: Well, that’s very hairy territory, you know? As you might have already guessed. You can get into really deep extremes. You can get righteous and have to ask everyone’s permission to do everything and you have to really go to all lengths—if you did that, probably nothing would ever get done. Because art by consensus is like death by committee, you know? Let’s just make the most boring art possible so that no one will be offended, and that is really the kiss of death for an artist. And that’s exactly what you see in most public art. Because when you actually propose a public art project for the city of New York or for [wherever], it has to go through committees of people who know nothing about art, whose concerns are so remote from what a possible art project may be that you end up presenting completely bland, horrible projects. They’re better not to be done than done the way that they are done.
So we must not forget that there has to be a degree of respect that also includes a level of challenging the audience. This is another thing I’ve learned from education; again, if you consider education as this service thing—educate me, give me this, give me that, as if you were a fast food restaurant. It does not work that way. The way it works is saying, “Yes, I’ll give you this, but you have to also reply to me.” It’s a dialogue. It’s an exchange situation. So audiences get something, but they also have to give something back, and that implies a kind of engagement that can be challenging. To me, any great art has the ability of giving you something, but at the same time hurting you a little bit. Like pissing you off a little bit, or putting you in a very strange place that maybe is not that comfortable.
We need to learn how to figure out a way to retain a certain degree of integrity in the way that we make works, but without becoming subservient to any sort of regulations that anyone might impose on us. That’s an unworkable situation. You cannot do it. Or you do it, and you will end up doing those community murals that are very pleasing and nice to the eye.
• 6 January 2012 • 2 notes • View comments
Christian Philipp Mueller
Campus Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson
As of May 2003
– Hudson Valley Tastemakers, 2003, steel, painted; six different types of soil from the
Hudson Valley, seasonal plantings; 59 x 1181 x 47 inches
– Watershed Tastemakers, three dinners at different locations: Chef Gray Kunz and his
crew at Dick’s Castle, 2002; Chef Mary Cleaver at Bear Mountain Inn, 2003;
Chef Peter Hoffman at Glynwood Center, 2004
Watershed is the name of a project initiated by Diane Shamash (Minetta Brook) in the Hudson Valley near New York. There, since May 2002, ten international artists have created conceptual works of art exploring the natural and cultural geography of the Hudson River. The year 2003 saw several important cultural institutions putting down roots here: Frank Gehry built a music theater for Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, and the Dia Center for the Arts moved into an old factory with 300,000 square meters of space in Beacon. This development was to have far-reaching consequences for the unstable economic situation of this area, which, since the demise of the brick-making and textiles industries, has been primarily dependent on tourism.
Hudson Valley Tastemakers is an earth sculpture erected by Christian Philipp Müller on the campus of Bard College. A thirty-meter long steel tub projects out of the earth like a wedge pointing towards the Catskill Mountains in the far distance. The tub has been partitioned into six separate plots, each sown with plants in the same relative proportion as those found on county farms of Putnam, Greene, Ulster, Orange, Dutchess, and Columbia in New York State. The seasonal variations in what the plots contain reflect a dialogue with local farmers on the potential of the soil and the microclimate of the valley. In search of a new, or perhaps a long forgotten taste of the Hudson Valley, Müller collected regional recipes, talked to farmers and innovative cooks as well.
In conjunction with his Hudson Valley Tastemakers, Müller also initiated three banquets: In 2002, with Gray Kunz at Dick’s Castle, in 2003, with Mary Cleaver at the Bear Mountain Lodge, and in 2004, with Peter Hoffman at the Glynwood Center. There are now plans for a cookbook featuring the recipes and the biographies of the Hudson Valley farmers and New York’s top chefs, together with views of the sculpture in each season.
• 5 January 2012 • View comments
Christian Philipp Mueller with Ursula Biemann, Tom Burr, Mark Dion
June 2 – July 30, 1995
Kunsthalle Zurich and Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Zurich
– Zelle des Mystagogen, 1995, concrete, scrap wood, silk, plastic; 98 x 154 x 166 inches;
courtesy of Galerie Christian Nagel, Cologne / Berlin
(Loggia / Alcove Tower)
– Betretbare Form, 1995, granite from the Maggia Valley
– Panorama (with Ursula Biemann, Tom Burr, and Mark Dion), 1995, adhesive letters,
In 1995, Bernhard Mendes Bürgi, director of the Kunsthalle Zurich, invited Christian Philipp Müller to exhibit there. Müller integrated three other artists into the exhibition — the Swiss artist Ursula Biemann as well as Americans Tom Burr and Mark Dion — and suggested a site-specific project focusing on Zurich’s “Platzspitz.” The Platzspitz is a central park in Zurich at the confluence of the Limmat and Sihl rivers.
Completely cut off from the city by the railway station and the Landesmuseum, the peninsula attained international notoriety in the nineteen-eighties as the site of the Zurich heroin scene, which subsisted there in a kind of hopeless but undisturbed half-legality.
From its almost utopian role in the tolerant drug policies of the nineteen-eighties, the Platzspitz was increasingly transformed into an island of misery adjoining the city. Finally, in 1992, it was closed and completely redeveloped. Due to the extensive fencing and surveillance resulting from the redevelopment as well as the regulation of access, the park’s previously utopian character was unable to be preserved. Platzwechsel explored the functions, possibilities, and limits of art in a given social context. Far from being able to intervene in a salutary way, the works of all four artists focused on the connection between the Platzspitz and the adjacent Landesmuseum in relation to the model of a public space under surveillance. Their individual investigations were brought together in the tower oriels of the Landesmuseum (the best observation points for the park), the central loggia of the museum, and the spaces of the Kunsthalle, an industrial building. The Platzspitz was analyzed with regard to its function as a public space from the Middle Ages through the nineteen-nineties, with the work Platzwechsel realized on multiple levels. The artistic explorations served, first of all, to transfer the park to the exhibition spaces, thus focusing attention on it; in addition, the works concentrated not just on those features of the park foregrounded by the political controversy, but drew aspects of seemingly secondary importance into the center of consideration.
Taking four oriels in a tower of the Landesmuseum as their points of departure, the artists adopted four different positions with regard to the park and the historical museum. Biemann critiqued the ethnocentric principles of Swiss national typology with its subdivision into various regional identities. Burr explored the history of the park from the perspective of gay politics, while Dion analyzed the natural history of the island. Müller established a connection to the park by erecting a platform from which the Platzspitz could be better observed. In the central loggia, whose tripartite arched windows look out over the redeveloped park, the artists installed a collaborative textual work. As a commentary on the view of the freshly planted rose gardens, multilayered captions on the glass panes in multiple colors and languages related some of the interpretations offered over the course of the centuries as to the significance and function of the park. The four artists met once again in the spaces of the Kunsthalle, where their individual projects were combined into an overall impression. In his installation, Müller brought together significant features of the Platzspitz, thereby undertaking multiple “changes of place” (“Platzwechsel.”) A concrete pedestal identical in size to that of the Salomon Gessner monument1 at the Platzspitz — a monument characteristic of the idealistic pastoral idyll of the eighteenth century — was installed in the Kunsthalle. The concrete pedestal in the Kunsthalle supported a replica of the guardhouse which, years before, had served for the surveillance of the drug scene on the opposite side of the river. Here, however, the little building was lined in delicate blue silk like a sedan from the eighteenth century and was set into the concrete pedestal in such a way that upon entering it, the visitor descended to the level of the museum floor and was seen as a bust from the outside, framed by the sculpture. “Platzwechsel showed the network of references and meanings woven through this identity, the places, and histories. And thereby they are presented not as something special or essential, but as a function or a process.” (James Meyer)2
1 Salomon Gessner (born April 1, 1730 in Zurich; died March 2, 1788, also in Zurich)
was a Swiss pastoral poet, painter, and printmaker, in whose honor the first
bourgeois monument in Switzerland was erected on the Platzspitz in 1793.
2 James Meyer, “Der funktionale Ort,“ in Platzwechsel, exh.-cat. Kunsthalle Zurich
(Zurich, 1995), p. 36.
• 5 January 2012 • 4 notes • View comments
Image: Maria Pask’s Beautiful City
The New Masters of Liberal Arts
ARTISTS REWRITE THE RULES OF PEDAGOGY
from Education by Felicity Allen
“How can you bring a classroom to life as though it were an artwork?” —FÉLIX GUATTARI, CHAOSMOSIS, 1992
Nestled in the Schlossgarten meadow in Münster, Germany, between George Brecht’s ThreeVOID Stones (1987) and Herman de Vries’s circular brick Sanctuarium (1997), now covered in graffiti, is a temporary settlement of tents surrounded by trees with colored mobiles hanging from their branches.
Produced by Amsterdam-based artist Maria Pask for the latest installment of Skulptur Projekte Münster (which occurs every 10 years), Beautiful City is maintained and populated by a different group of students each week. It also features a notice board announcing the latest events, a vegetable plot, and a makeshift shower; in the middle of these is a large white tent housing a library of books on various religious persuasions (including tomes on witchcraft and the theological musings of Derrida), some colorful rugs printed with the artists’ drawings, and a dodgy woven wall hanging of the world religious leaders conference in 2000.1 Inside the tent are lectures on Sundays at 2 PM, when a wide variety of speakers address the coexistence of different forms of faith in a modern age.
I managed to visit Beautiful City on a Sunday afternoon and found a Protestant Filipino lawyer in discussion with a Dutch Ph.D. student (also Protestant) on the role of religion in civic life.2 The debate was informal (meanderingly bad toward the end) and lasted for almost two hours, during which time the audience dwindled from about 40 to fewer than 10. The lecture didn’t quite come to grips with the privatization of religion in civil society, which had been its billing, but it did have the inadvertent effect of making me aware of how little I know about the history of world religion. Theology has a vocabulary as specific as that of contemporary art.
Pask’s project contains many of the features that can be associated with a pedagogic turn in contemporary art: a library-cum-reading-room, a lecture program, the artist as producer. It perhaps comes as no surprise to find that Pask teaches at two art schools in the Netherlands (in The Hague and Den Bosch), since Beautiful City seems inseparable from the history of alternative education. But with such a pedagogically oriented project presented as a work of art, it’s hard to know what exactly we’re judging: Is it the quality of the lectures, the curatorial selection of speakers, the books in the library, the social space, or all of this together? It’s precisely this openness and undecidability that Pask finds appealing, as visitors will never be able to see the work in its totality. Whatever my reservations about its homespun New Agey-ness, Beautiful City is led by questions rather than answers; as such, its scholastic attitude stands in contrast to more didactic works in Münster, like Trickle Down (2007), Andreas Siekmann’s diagrammatic critique of global capitalism.3
Pask’s project is typical of a rising field of art that engages with collective learning at the level of adult or higher education, in contrast to the children’s workshops that form the mainstay of so many museum-education programs. But why is this happening so conspicuously today? Art historically we could argue that it represents a development of the relational practices of the 1990s: giving content to conviviality, while aiming to produce a concrete intervention in the social field. This tendency also dovetails with the present decade’s mania for discussion in art, whereby no exhibition is complete without a symposium, conference, or webcast interview. This increasingly discursive and intellectual approach to exhibition making was set in motion by Catherine David’s Documenta X (1997), and now seems to have migrated into the work of art itself. But outside the artworld, we might equally see the pedagogic turn as a reaction to the neoliberalization of higher education, in which the continual withdrawal of public money has led universities and colleges to operate within a business framework. It is unlikely that artists such as Pask would regard themselves as consciously reacting to this ideological shift, but it seems difficult to view the two trends as unrelated.
Another artist who has frequently employed a educational framework is Thomas Hirschhorn. In autumn 2004, Hirschhorn organized 24h Foucault at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, a project that included an auditorium, library-documentation center, sound library, video library, exhibition, bar, souvenir shop, newspaper, and archive. The conceptual core of the installation was a 24-hour program of lectures over one weekend in October. Rather than producing a “straight” academic conference, after which one would be equipped to discuss the French philosopher’s ideas, Hirschhorn took an approach that was chaotic and multidisciplinary. Twenty-four philosophers, art historians, poets, artists, and musicians each performed for one hour within a specially constructed auditorium bearing the hallmarks of Hirschhorn’s sculpture in provisional materials: cardboard, photocopies, slogans, brown tape, and so on. Significantly, Hirschhorn operates from a position of amateur enthusiast rather than informed professional. “Concerning Foucault, I do not understand his philosophy, and I think that I don’t have to understand philosophy in general,” he said in an interview with FlashArt in 2004. “I am not a connoisseur. I am not a specialist. I am not a theoretician … I want to work as a fan.”
Both Hirschhorn and Pask represent an approach that differs distinctly from typical contemporary university pedagogy. Professional teaching is steered toward the production and measurement of successful results. Speak to any academic, and you will be swiftly inundated with groans concerning the administrative burden of today’s university education: learning outcomes and assessment criteria have become more important than imaginative content and delivery. These changes have been instigated by neoliberal economics: over the past decade, fees have been introduced in universities and colleges in Europe, and the ethos of education has changed accordingly-from freedom, discovery, and exploration to a financial investment (or crippling debt, especially for those studying the humanities). With students perceived as consumers, experimental teaching has been phased out and teachers have become accountable providers of knowledge. Whatever we think about the success of Pask’s and Hirschhorn’s projects as art, their freedom of operation represents an unthinkable autonomy and an unencumbered passion for knowledge.
Outside Europe, other artists have adopted a less event-based mode of educational engagement, often to compensate for the failures of art schools operating in their regions. Here the resistance is to traditional or outmoded ways of teaching, and promotes an integrated access to international debates. In August 2002, Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera established an experimental art school in Havana called Arte de Conducta, or Behavior Art. (Bruguera’s school is notably hosted by an accredited art academy, the Instituto Superior de Arte.) The first course began in January 2003, and the program is planned to last five years. Students come from a variety of disciplines, as do visiting lecturers. “We had workshops from a former prisoner, a mathematician, sociologists, architects, DJs, philosophers, writers, activists, political figures, historians, lawyers, and of course art critics! historians and practicing artists,” explains Bruguera. Workshops have taken place in a park, an office, a museum, a science lab, a conference center, private homes, and on city streets, reflecting the school’s philosophy of bringing art into engagement with society. It’s hard to understand Arte de Conducta from a distance, not least because there is no representation of it currently available. The only way to “see” the school-in terms of conventional art spectatorship—is to participate. Bruguera is adamant that the project be perceived as a work of art, but what differentiates it from works by Pask and Hirschhorn is her desire for art to be consciously “useful.” The aim is to effect long-term changes in the artistic production of Cuba, compensating for the shortcomings of official education provision and offering firsthand (rather than mediated) exposure to international artists and their work.4 By contrast, the works of Pask and Hirschhorn are less urgently connected to the provision of education and stand more symbolically for the creation of community through the energy of shared ideas.
A project comparable to Arte de Conducta might be Lia Perjovschi’s Centre for Art Analysis (CAA), based out of her studio in Bucharest. Perjovschi describes the CAA as a “museum in files”: the hundreds of boxes that line the walls of her studio, containing articles, photocopies, images, and so on. Unlike an institutional archive, the boxes are organized around an idiosyncratic array of themes and issues that have contributed to Perjovschi’s own artistic formation. Prior to the 1089 revolution, Romania had no access to such information. For Perjovschi, the ability to have a dialogue and explain art in her context depends on having a shared body of knowledge, and this starts with sharing a technical vocabulary of specific words (such as performance, institution, installation). For all its idiosyncrasy, the CAA is an important alternative resource to the Univeritatea Nationala de Arta (located in the same neighborhood), which still adheres to traditional-rather than conceptual-approaches to art. Perjovschi’s studio provides an informal haven and alternative pedagogic playground for renegade students seeking a more open frame of discussion.
There are important precursors to these efforts. Perhaps the most towering educator in recent art history is Joseph Beuys, whose legacy provides direct inspiration for Hirschhorn, Bruguera and many others. Significantly, however, he kept his commitment to free education at one remove from his sculptural practice. Arguably more relevant (and recent) precedents can be traced to the late 1980s, when Martha Rosler and Group Material produced groundbreaking exhibitions at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York that reconfigured the space into a social forum for critical thinking on homelessness and democracy, respectively. Their approaches anticipated what has been dubbed New Institutionalism in Europe: an attempt to broaden the remit of a gallery from an exhibition space to a center for the production of publications, archives, symposia, and residencies.5 Unlike Beuys, whose pedagogic performances invariably resulted in objects or installations, these contemporary efforts demote the art object to just one component of an integrated research project.
Other approaches may be as much about the artists’ collective research as they are about their learning. Polish artist Pawel Althamer, for example, realized Einstein Class in 2005 after being commissioned to make a work celebrating Einstein’s centenary. Althamer developed a six-month project in Warsaw to teach physics to a small group of juvenile delinquents, led by a rogue science teacher who’d recently been laid off. For another project, this time in Paris (Au Centre Pompidou, 2006), Althamer himself became the teacher, taking 10 students from different art schools to a secluded wood in Poland. The experience during the workshops on this trip became the basis for a collectively produced puppet show in Espace 315 at the Centre Pompidou.
More interesting than the final product of Au Centre Pompidou was Althamer’s professed desire to “study among students”: to explore, communicate, and continue the way of learning that he experienced in classes taught by Professor Grzegorz Kowalski in the late ‘80s. The so-called Kowalski Studio at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts rejected the traditional model of serving as “master” to student “apprentice.” Instead Kowalski taught through “visual games,” open-ended tasks that also functioned as a form of collective analysis, both critical and therapeutic. Many of today’s leading generation of Polish artists were taught by Kowalski, including Artur Zmijewski, whose video Them (2007), at Documenta 12, epitomizes this task-based way of working. In 2005, Zmijewski and Althamer revisited Kowalski’s approach in “Choices. pl,” an exhibition organized as a group studio for all former pupils of Kowalski. Constantly mutating, process-based, and chaotic, this exhibition-as- studio-laboratory spread throughout several galleries of the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. It was critically panned as incomprehensible, and even Kowalski sought to distance himself from what was being done in his honor.
Like many of the projects I have discussed, “Choices. pl” may not mean much to viewers anticipating a cohesive and completed exhibition. It’s more significant as an attempt to present a pedagogic process self-reflexively rather than by illustration. Althamer described the project to me as “therapy for artists”—in other words, as a liberation from the pressure of producing a packaged show for easy consumption. One has to admire the CCA Warsaw for allowing this experiment to take place, even while its communicability is less amenable to a general audience than the lectures organized by Pask and Hirschhorn. But what links all these projects, despite their disparate ideological contexts, is a commitment to experimental thinking about the relationship between art and society, and a desire to preserve a collective space of nonbureaucratized investigation. Their significance derives not from the issue of what it means to reimagine the work of art as education (because this would play into the hands of those who wish to instrumentalize art to socially useful ends), but to rethink the possibility of nonalienated learning through the lessons of artistic sensibility. This is what I understand to be the import of the rhetorical question, posed by Félix Guattari, that serves as the epigram for this essay. The straitjacket of efficiency and conformity that accompanies authoritarian models of education seems to beg for playful, interrogative, and autonomous opposition. Art is just one way to release this grip.
• 5 January 2012 • 13 notes • View comments
Performance: The Body Politic
Mierle L. Ukeles. Social Mirror, 1983; mirror-covered sanitation truck. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.
Art Practical’s Christina Linden talks with Shannon Jackson, UC Berkeley Professor of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies and Rhetoric, about her forthcoming book Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (Routledge, 2011) and the symposium “Curating People,” which she is coordinating for April 28 and April 29 at the Performance Art Institute and UC Berkeley.
Christina Linden: We first met last spring in New York after the conference “Audience Experiments,” organized by Pablo Helguera at The Museum of Modern Art. I had come straight from another conference at Portland State University called “Open Engagement,” and I was curious and also perplexed about the way those two conferences were looking largely at an overlapping body of works but were producing really different conversations.
One of the primary distinctions for me was that the conference attendees in Portland were largely from visual arts backgrounds, specifically from the three social practice graduate programs on the West Coast: here at California College of the Arts, at Portland State, and at Otis. In New York, there were quite a few professionals, like yourself, who come from performance studies or theater backgrounds. It was the first time that I had thought about that particular distinction and what different readings for social practice would be engendered by coming from either of these two directions, but clearly at the time you were already well into working on a book on the topic.
From the prologue to Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics: “To be reductive but rhetorical, we might discern a kind of experimental chiasmus across the arts; a movement toward painting and sculpture underpins post-dramatic theater, but a movement toward theater also underpins post-studio art.”1
Can you say a few words about how you came to identify this as a framework you wanted to explore in the book and also generally about how your interest in social practice first developed?
Shannon Jackson: Well, it is great to hear about your experience of those two conferences and some of the new thoughts they provoked. Even if all of us are interested in interdisciplinary art, I do think that we encounter work within inherited parameters that we may not always know that we have.
I received a PhD in performance studies. This is a field that integrates theater and dance and experimental performance art. It is also informed by more sociological, anthropological, and rhetorical orientations. We think about the role of performance in ritual activity and in organizing collectives and communities; we think about theories of performativity and how, as the speech act theorists say, we “do things with words.” Performance studies is thus a very large umbrella, but, as a result, different PS scholars have different frames that we use to analyze work. Being in performance studies, I became very interested in conversations where PS scholars and artists were learning from each other but also talking past each other. When I began to learn about the field of social practice and relational aesthetics, it seemed obvious to me that it bore a relation to performance. But I soon realized that it was not obvious to everyone else. So I started to teach myself new frames of reference and art histories that had been less familiar to me, in order to try to connect the dots.
Mierle L. Ukeles. Social Mirror, 1983; mirror-covered sanitation truck. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.
CL: One of the main thrusts of the argument you put forward in Social Works comes out of your position that looking at these perceptions and parameters “challenges our understanding of what is properly within the aesthetic sphere and what is heteronomously located outside of it…the Art/Life discourse has a different traction when we recast it as a meditation on the paradoxes of Art and its Support.”2 Can you expand on the traction you find in this distinction?
SJ: A certain kind of art-into-life discourse has had an enormous impact on performance studies discourse. At the same time, the Art/Life binary does not always provide a specific compass for doing an analysis, in part because the category of Life is so expansive and imprecise.
When Life is invoked in art practice, it is often equated pretty quickly with associations like “freedom,” “spontaneity,” and “disruption,” and I thought it was worth thinking about some other elements, especially the elements of the world that make Life possible. That made me interested in certain kinds of expanded art practices that not only celebrated freedom, but also explored interdependent relationships of obligation and care and sometimes even responsibility. If a political art discourse becomes too enthralled with breaking down institutions, then it ignores the degree to which we are in fact dependent upon institutions. Yes, the “institution” constrains; but it also sustains. Can we stay complicated about this? My hope is that by thinking about support as a complex system, as a social question but also as an aesthetic question, we can activate a different conversation.
Once I started to think about it, I really felt that we could start to link expanded art histories from the visual art world with expanded art histories from the theater world. In fact, if we think about Constructivism, Duchamp, or minimalism, if we think about Brecht and Meyerhold, there is a pervasive interest in the exposure of the support. Support is both a social question and an aesthetic pursuit in the visual arts and in theatre.
CL: How did you choose the primary examples you chose to discuss in the book?
SJ: I wanted projects where the relation between aesthetics and politics was complicated. I was less interested in projects that had a pre-determined sense of who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.
I also chose projects where I felt like I had more to learn. Most of the projects are those initiated by people who began in the visual arts. Since I am somebody who is coming from theater and performance studies, I was interested in trying to teach myself some new things by focusing more on artists who began in other forms.
Finally, every case study offers some kind of aesthetic inquiry into social systems and social structures. I tried to pick cases that showed a range of social systems and that also gave a sense of a history of innovation from the 1960s to the present. So Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work on public sanitation is in there along with very recent work by people like Paul Chan, Rimini Protokoll, and Elmgreen and Dragset.
CL: You write about the possibility of imagining sustainable social institutions as infrastructure. What already existing institutions do you find most valuable for experimental performance or social practices?
SJ: It’s hard not to be fairly literal in answering the question, but I think that obviously I have an investment in public education, being an employee of that system. Currently, the debates over education, health care, and public welfare are all examples of cases where citizens are debating the degree to which they want or need collective systems of support. I think that safety nets are important. All systems have the potential for corruption and for getting into actuarial problems that they had not anticipated. But I think that we all rely upon supporting systems—whether they are repairing our highways, picking up our garbage, installing our exhibits, or folding our socks—more than we realize that we do. Support is noticed less when it is working for you; it is more often noticed when it breaks down or is taken away. So drawing attention to our interdependence upon support is philosophically interesting. Some kinds of systems enable freedom and democracy, even if we would rather complain about how much they constrain us. I should say that I don’t think that the complaining only occurs in conservative circles. Some self-described Left circles are just as likely to promote an anti-institutional discourse as, say, Tea Party activists are now. The lure of an anti-system discourse actually makes for some strange political bedfellows.
CL: Do you think that the nature of the relationships to the state or other institutions is specific to the kind of experimental performance and social works we’re talking about here, or would you say this applies in a more blanket way to all artwork?
SJ: As to whether it applies to all artwork, I guess I would say that it does. Painting depends upon frames and canvases but also upon the gallery system. Theatre depends on stage managers and agents. But I do think that certain art forms are less able to deny that they need a supporting apparatus and that some have a vested interest in looking the other way. The works that I ended up selecting were all works that I think are posing questions about our relationship to interdependent systems, state based or otherwise. In some instances I’m really talking about places where a state-based mechanism did not come through. When Paul Chan began to work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, you could say that that is a situation where FEMA did not come through. It may be that the state did not come through because it had been defunded up until then, but Chan was pretty clear that there was a DIY quality to his work; the supporting systems were part of a very mixed economy that included private funding, community grants, philanthropic donations, and the gallery circuit, along with inadequate state funding.
CL: What about the way the institution of the museum is taking up these practices? Recently, the education departments are often the ones commissioning really interesting new work in this mode, and in some cases it operates as a kind of substitute for programming they used to produce more directly. Given the topic of the symposium you are organizing for April 29, I guess this must be on your mind?
SJ: You are alighting upon something that I hope we will talk about at the “Curating People” symposium in April. My hope is that we’ll have a continuous, wider Bay Area conversation about this. You spoke of the conference you attended at MoMA. Pablo Helguera, in the education department, organized that gathering. Why are education departments doing, as you call it, “substitute programming”? Education departments are interested in the experience of receivers. There can certainly be a didactic quality to that role. At the same time, artists who work in social practice and performance are also very concerned about engagement with receivers. If that it is your goal, it can be incredibly interesting to work with someone in education who thinks continuously about what it means to engage people, to address them, to challenge them. Supporting these new art forms begins to challenge the traditional divisions between the curatorial department and the education department.
I ended up deciding to focus on “curating,” specifically “curating people,” because the curators and the staff of the museums and theatre are in the trenches of all of this. We really get a complex picture of what it means to support interdisciplinary art when we think about the kind of work that curators, installers, and stage managers are doing daily. They’re living it every day and also re-skilling every day. A visual art curator might have been trained in a particular way, but then a certain kind of hybrid artist comes to town and needs you to secure a street permit or to do a casting call.
CL: That’s true; I’ve had to do a casting call as a curator…
SJ: Yeah, a casting call! Or the stage manager in the theater is being told that she has to set up an installation in the lobby; suddenly all of the ushers and box office managers have to be differently trained about how to run the house. So the staff members at the institutions are in a position to tell the most interesting stories about the institution and how its processes are getting revised. How do artists communicate what they need to their curators? And how do they interest curators in what they’re doing despite the fact that the processes required will be challenging?
Paul Chan. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007; stage set. Photo: Tuyen Nguyen.
CL: In your responses to a questionnaire distributed after “Audience Experiments,” some passages appear that ended up in a truncated form in your book. For instance: “To some, an explicit social mission redeems the art object; to others, it compromises it. For some, the social is figural, for others, it is literal. Conversely, the same interaction that reads as social engagement to one group might seem to be a narcissistic violation of social ethics to another.”3 It struck me that this was edited from the published text; I’ve spent so much time dwelling over questions about unequal access to capital—cultural and otherwise—that produce uneven stakes for different people involved and reproduce systems of hierarchy in social practice projects.
SJ: There’s obviously a really huge debate in contemporary art circles around the social turn, one that creates a polarization between aesthetics and politics. Usually it’s perceived to be a trade-off: “Well, if it is doing socially engaged, efficacious work, then the art isn’t as good.” And conversely, “If the art has some conceptual rigor, then it really isn’t doing anything transformative for society.” So I definitely wanted to find a way out of that polarization. This is a place where the language about support, I’m hoping, helps the effort.
I liked this sense that the exposure of the support could have a certain kind of political traction and expose that humans are interdependent on particular systems. But I also like the idea that the exposure could have a formal and aesthetic rigor. And I like the notion that aesthetic and social provocations could happen together.
At the same time I think that different people who come from different places, whether an art school background or a community organizing background, will still perceive each work differently. This brings us back to the question that you opened with. One thing might look conceptually interesting to one person and look narcissistic to another. A work might look overly literal to one eye and highly metaphoric to another.
I think that community art sometimes gets a bad rap because it seems under-complicated formally, and so-called avant-garde art gets a bad rap because it is not legible enough to be politically effective. My hope is that there could be a bit more tolerance and mutual education on all sides.
Elmgreen and Dragset. Re-g(u)arding the Guards, 2005; museum guards in empty gallery; number of performers variable. Courtesy of the Artists and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Photo: Thør Brodreskift.
CL: Does this play out differently with experimental theater projects as opposed to social practice projects rooted in the visual arts?
SJ: One thing I think that does happen in this interdisciplinary conversation is that the relation between the visual and the theatrical can get framed as a relation between the conceptual and the literal. If there is a question about who is conceptual and who is literal, there can be a tendency to feel that the theater side is on the literal, earnest, unironic end of the spectrum. In one of the chapters, I bring up the example of a debate that happened around the definition of “radical” in theater, around a community art theater group that would probably look “literal” to some visual art people: Cornerstone Theater. Cornerstone is an example of a certain kind of expanded theater practice that has a celebrated record of social engagement. I try to compare some different debates in visual art and theatre criticism in order to propose some different frames. Let’s say these are false polarizations, but misunderstanding them is one of the occupational hazards of bringing many perspectives together, especially since I am doing so as someone who began in the field of theatre and performance studies.
CL: Do you feel that, in making a connection between social practice and performance, you end up advocating for a new framework for performance?
SJ: Well, I would not say that it is a new frame so much as it is a different emphasis. I think that whenever people write about performance, we emphasize different qualities about it. Sometimes, we emphasize its artifice, some its temporality, some its embodiment, some its ephemerality, some its excess.
In this project, ensemble is the dimension of performance that I emphasize most. Performance has always been this highly coordinated event with multiple people; the systemic organization of people in time and space with materials has been its raison d’etre for a couple of centuries. How do we make an ensemble? How does ensemble make us? Those questions—with all of their histories and all of their headaches—resonate with the central questions of social practice now.
1. Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Public (New York: Routledge, 2011), 2.
2. Ibid., 28.
3. This is not in the published book, but appears in an unpublished document distributed to conference participants by email after the event. From page 3 of this document, it is in response to the question: “Is it necessary, or even possible, to define the term “performative” referring to art practices that involve performing? What would you consider an appropriate, or approximate definition of this term?”
• 4 January 2012 • 3 notes • View comments
Image by Tactica Dean
Venice Biennale, 2003
Curated by Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija
What is a Station?
During a debate with Theodor Adorno in 1964, Ernst Bloch, pushed to the wall to defend his position on utopia, stood firm. Adorno had begun things by reminding everyone present that certain utopian dreams had actually been fulfilled, that there was now television, the possibility of travelling to other planets and moving faster than sound. And yet these dreams had come shrouded, minds set in traction by a relentless positivism and then their own boredom. “One could perhaps say in general,” he noted, “that the fulfillment of utopia consists largely only in a repetition of the continually same ‘today.’”
Bloch countered. The word utopia had indeed been discredited, he noted, but utopian thinking had not. He pointed to other levels of mind, to removes that were less structured by Western capital. Utopia was passing less auspiciously under other names now , he remarked, for example, “science fiction” and the beginnings of sentences starting with “If only it were so…”
Adorno agreed with him there and went on. “Whatever utopia is,” he said, “whatever can be imagined as utopia, this is the transformation of the totality. And the imagination of such a transformation of the totality is basically very different in all the so-called utopian accomplishments –which, incidentally, are all really like you say: very modest, very narrow. It seems to me that what people have lost subjectively in regard to consciousness is very simply the capability to imagine the totality as something that could be completely different.” How to think utopia then? Adorno saw the only possibility to reside in the notion of an unfettered life freed from death. All at once the discussion of utopia expanded; it became not merely old, but ancient. It seemed to shed ideologies as if they were skins. Adorno declared that there could be no picture of utopia cast in a positive manner, there could be no positive picture of it at all, nor could any picture be complete. He went very far. Bloch only followed him part way. He summoned up a sentence from Brecht . He let it stand as the nutshell that held the incentive for utopia. Brecht had written “Something’s missing.”
“What is this ‘something’?” Bloch asked. “If it is not allowed to be cast in a picture, then I shall portray it as in the process of being. But one should not be allowed to eliminate it as if it really did not exist so that one could say the following about it: ‘It’s about the sausage.’ … I believe utopia cannot be removed from the world in spite of everything, and even the technological, which must definitely emerge and will be in the great realm of the utopian, will form only small sectors. That is a geometrical picture, which does not have any place here, but another picture can be found in the old peasant saying, there is no dance before the meal. People must first fill their stomachs, and then they can dance.”
"Something is Missing," the statement from Brecht. Typically when searching for utopia, one relies on the steps taken by others, for ever since its first formulation in 1516 in the book by Sir Thomas More, ever since its invention as the island of good social order, utopia has been a proposition to be debated, several speakers often pitching in at once. They bring thoughts, experience, the fruits of the past. For utopia is in many ways an ancient search for happiness, for freedom, for paradise. Sir Thomas More had had Plato’s Republic in mind as he wrote. By now however utopia itself has lost its much of its fire. The work done in the name of utopia has soured the concept, left it strangled by internal, seemingly fixed perspectives, the skeletons of old efforts which leave their bones on the surface of the body as if they belonged there. Has utopia been strung up? Or obscured by bad eyesight? Certainly it has gone missing. Utopia itself has become a conceptual no-place, empty rhetoric at best, more often than not an exotic vacation, the desert pleasure island of cliché. Abbas Kiarostami, when asked recently if he had any unrealized or utopian projects, refused the long perspectives of utopia altogether. He preferred to fix matters in the present, taking each day one hill at a time. We in turn have set our sights on the middle ground between the island and the hill. We will build a Station there and name it Utopia Station.
The Utopia Station is a way-station. As a conceptual structure it is flexible; the particular Station planned for the Venice Biennale is physical too. It will rise as a set of contributions by more than sixty artists and architects, writers and performers, the ensemble being coordinated into a flexible plan by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick. It has been important to all concerned that the plan not present itself as a finished picture. Let us therefore conjure up the Station by means of a few figures. It begins with a long low platform, part dance-floor, part stage, part quai. Along one side of this platform is a row of large circular benches sit, so that you can watch the movement on the platform or silently turn your back or treat the circle as a generous conversation pit. Each seats ten people. The circular benches are portable; as an option one could line them up like a row of big wheels. Along the other side of the platform a long wall with many doors rises up. Some of the doors take you to the other side of the wall. Some open into small rooms in which you will see installations and projections. The wall wraps around the rooms and binds the ensemble into a long irregular structure. Over it floats a roof suspended on cables from the ceiling of the cavernous room in the old warehouse at the far end of the Arsenale where the Station sits. Outside the warehouse lies a rough garden. Work from the Station will spill into it.
The Station itself will be filled with objects, part-objects, paintings, images, screens. Around them a variety of benches, tables and small structures take their place. It will be possible to bathe in the Station and powder one’s nose. The Station in other words becomes a place to stop, to contemplate, to listen and see, to rest and refresh, to talk and exchange. For it will be completed by the presence of people and a program of events. Performances, concerts, lectures, readings, film programs, parties, the events will multiply. They define the Station as much as its solid objects do. But all kinds of things will continue to be added to the Station over the course of the summer and fall. People will leave things behind, take some things with them, come back or never return again. There will always be people who want to leave too much and others who don’t know what to leave behind or what to say. These are the challenges for a Utopia Station being set up in the heart of an art exhibition. But in addition, there are the unpredictable effects, which Carsten Höller has been anticipating, the points where something missing turns to something that becomes too much. The doubt produced between these two somethings is just as meaningful as any idea of utopia, he believes. These tensions will be welcomed like a guest.
What does a Station produce? What might a Station produce in real time? In this produce lies an activity rather more complex than pure exhibition, for it contains many cycles of use, a mixing of use. It incorporates aesthetic material, aesthetic matters too, into another economy which does not regard art as fatally separate.
But what is its place? The discussion of this question has been opened again by Jacques Rancière, in his book Le partage du sensible, which in French has the advantage of having a partition and a sharing occupy the same word. What is sectioned off and exchanged? It is more than an idea. Rancière takes his departure from Plato, pointedly, in order to remind us of the inevitable relation between the arts and the rest of social activity, the inevitable relations, it should be said, that together distribute value and give hierarchy, that govern, that both materially and conceptually establish their politics. This theatre of relations wraps itself around visions of worlds, each of them islands, each of them forms, but all of them concrete realities replete with matter and force. This is a philosophical understanding of aesthetic activity; it extends materialist aesthetics into the conditions of our present; it is a book to bring to a Station. As we have. But, once released, a book too leaves its island.
The Utopia Station in Venice, the city of islands, is part of a larger project. Utopia Stations do not require architecture for their existence, only a meeting, a gathering. We have already had several in Paris, in Venice, in Frankfurt, in Poughkeepsie, in Berlin. As such the Stations can be large or small. There is no hierarchy of importance between the gatherings, meetings, seminars, exhibitions and books; all of them become equally good ways of working. There is no desire to formalize the Stations into an institution of any kind. For now we meet. Many ideas about utopia circulate. Once when we met with Jacques Rancière, it was in Paris last June, he spoke to the difficulties involved in putting the idea of utopia forward. He pointed to the line that says “There must be utopia,” meaning that there must not only be calculations but an elevation, a supplement rising in the soul, and said that this line of thought has never interested him. Indeed he has always found it unnerving, even irritating. That which does interest him, he explained, is the dissensus, the manner in which ruptures are concretely created—ruptures in speech, in perception, in sensibility. He turned to contemplate the means by which utopias can be used to produce these ruptures. Will it begin and end in talk?
On another occasion, in Poughkeepsie last winter, just as a blizzard was about to blow in, Lawrence Weiner reminded everyone present that the artist’s reality is no different from any other reality. Liam Gillick asked that we avoid utopian mirage, instead asking for utopia to become a functional step moving beyond itself. Martha Rosler told the story of going to see the space in Venice, arriving however as night fell to see only an interior of darkness, there being no lights. But utopia, she said, is what moves. Jonas Mekas warned of obsessions with ideas, since the dream, he said, could only succeed if we forget them. Leon Golub was apocalyptic. Allan Sekula, at our urging, showed the first five minutes of the tape he had made the day before during the peace demonstration in New York. Anri Sala showed us a tape of Tirana, where the mayor had painted apartment block walls into a geometric vision, a concrete hope. Edouard Glissant came. He spoke of the desire for the perfect shape, he spoke his language of landscapaes. Only by passing through the inextricable of the world, he told us, can we save our imaginaire. In that passing there would come the tremblement, the tremor being fundamental to the passage.
Nancy Spero sent a morphine dream. Agnes Varda sent us the song of the Cadet Rousselle. Together we read an article Etienne Balibar had written six years ago for Le Monde which proposed to take complete leave of utopia now, in order to return to the heart of the matter—to let the imagination free to accept the sudden emergence of subjectivity in the social field. Let us make a sudden rush, a place for the imagination to expand, a place of fiction, fiction in its fullest sense. Balibar sees fiction to be the production of the real, something stemming from experience itself, knowledge and action brought together so that they become indistinguishable, insurrection emptying into constitution. He used the thoughts to preface his Droit de cité. Another book for the Station.
It is simple. We use utopia as a catalyst, a concept most useful as fuel. We leave the complete definition of utopia to others. We meet to pool our efforts, motivated by a need to change the landscape outside and inside, a need to think, a need to integrate the work of the artist, the intellectual and manual laborers that we are into a larger kind of community, another kind of economy, a bigger conversation, another state of being. You could call this need a hunger.
Dare one rewrite a sentence by Brecht? Something we need is missing. Theman who, seventy years ago, wrote “Art follows reality” would surely not mind. Let us then take these words and press on. We need the words, old words and new words, we need the dance, we need the sausage, and still we need more. We have started, we meet in the Utopia Station, we start out again. The Station becomes a place to gather our starting points temporarily. It is primarily for this reason it resists capture and summary as a single image. Or is it the image of open possibility? The image of mixed use? Many things will happen there. And they will spark others.
Think of the Station as a field of starting points, many starting points being brought and offered by many different people. Some will bring objects now, others later. Each present and future contributor to the Station is being asked to do a poster for use in the Station and beyond: wherever it can hang, it can go. A paper trail for once goes forward. New posters continue to be added. In this way the Utopia Station produces images, even as it does not start with one. And a loose community assembles. It develops its own internal points of coherence, which shift with the times, as conversations and debates do.
Each person making a poster has been asked to make a statement of at least one and up to two hundred words. Independent of one another the statements collect. Stuart Hall and Zeigam Azizov elaborate upon a proposition: the world has to be made to mean. The bittersweet baked into hope, writes Nancy Spero. Pash Buzari sent a poem where darkness is dialed. Raqs Media Collective calls utopia a hearing aid. This probably will not work, Jimmie Durham cites the Cherokee, and adds that the “probably” keeps people active. There will be hundreds of statements like these in the end. They will branch out. As they do certain figures begin to repeat. Ships and songs and flags, two times potatoes, two times Sisyphus, figures familiar from the discussion of utopia forty years ago, but they have been assimilated rather than cited. Utopia becomes the secret garden whose doors can be opened again. Utopia becomes the catalyst that burns and returns. None of us can say we begin from scratch.
These actitivities imply an activism. For many who come to the Station, its invitation to self-organize speaks a political language already known to them and already being practiced. The proposal to build non-profit de-centralized units and make them become the underlying mode of production, fitting together through the real market (not the monopolistically controlled world market of the present system), has been made by Immanuel Wallerstein in his book Utopistics. It would eliminate the priority given to the endless accumulation of capital. Still another book for the Station.
As the catalyst burns, it fumes. For ours is not a time of continually same todays. When we met in Poughkeepsie in mid-February, around the world vast crowds marched for peace. Seven weeks later, when we met in Frankfurt, the Coalition forces were entering Baghdad. The days come like Kiarostami’s hills. It is not the continually same utopia. In the speech to the graduating West Point cadets in June 2002, President George Bush announced his policy of pre-emptive strikes and wars with the reassurance that “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.” The idea of empire has been receiving much scrutiny. But what about the other idea here, the refusal of utopia, the concept that presumes forward social vision? Is it not this refusal that gives us reason enough to revive the question of utopia now? Whether it comes as catalyst or fume, the word should be pronounced. And so we start.
Hans Ulrich Obrist
• 4 January 2012 • 42 notes • View comments