Friday, November 30, 2007

Anthony Gardner & Justine Clemins in conversation

‘Rigorous Mundanity, or “Artists of the World, Connect!”’
Anthony Gardner: If we are going to talk about art and politics, let’s begin by asking whether this is just barking up the wrong tree from the start? Yes, art has clearly turned or returned to politics in the last few years. In the ‘90s, art was often about fashion or advertising or film – different uses of the image. So far, the 21st century seems to be very much about “politics”, or at least that’s what seems to be the case for journals like October, Artforum, or even more conservative press like Art and Australia.

Justin Clemens: Which we both helped to push!

Shall we start off from that idea of whether something like art, which is perhaps inherently bound to commercial practice – whether that be 15th Century artists and their patrons, 1960s’ Conceptual Art which was very much about immaterial labour, immaterial capitalism, the fixation on and reification of corporate identities and ideologies – so, is this return to “politics” really an attempt at legitimising a practice that is collapsing under its own weight? Basically, is art fucked?

My own view is that we’re not necessarily in a period of crisis, but of rank obscurity, such that we don’t really know what art is. There’s no particular form, place, personnel, techniques, materials – anything that was traditionally the zone of art no longer holds. It can now be anything, which we’ve seen for many years in any case. It’s part of the implosion of “art” in a globalised field. Which leads to the question: what is art? Is “art” just a name, is “art” a thing of the past, as in fact modernity began by saying? This is, bizarrely enough, Hegel’s statement in the early 19th century, which was that art is literally a thing of the past. The great era of the past, in which art bore the brunt of historical import, is now over. That doesn’t mean that there’s not still artists, or there aren’t still practices which are denominated as “art”, but they just don’t bear any historical importance. They’re just another little thing that people do with no particular import. They’re not particularly political, they’re not particularly economic, they’re just another anthropological practice.

So leisure time with a price tag?

But leisure always has a price. So why not art, why not any other form of entertainment in a generalised field? You might as well read a book, or go to the movies, you might look at porn on the Internet. In some ontological sense, there’s nothing special about art. If that’s what you choose to do, then good for you.

So another form of niche marketing, perhaps. But going back to the links between art and politics in the 21st century, does that mean that art just accepts its own entertainment value, or that art’s turning politics into an entertainment value? How do we assert this link when entertainment is the be-all and end-all?

In the sense maybe that art, or what’s left of it, is so desperate for some sort of grounding, or some sort of import, that it desperately insists on its political character. At the same time, though, it forgets that politics itself has become obscure. People ask the same thing about politics. What is politics? Is it environmental politics, which isn’t any traditional sort of politics? Is politics just another specialised class of people, doing parliamentary politics in our democracies? When it’s not that, it degenerates into warfare or tribal conflict. What politics is has become a haphazard, amorphous entity, that risks being reduced to global economics or techno-science.

Should we then be starting off with semantics? We started off with the question, “What is art?”, and thought that art has become imploded. Now we’ve asked the question “What is politics?” and politics is sort of imploded, something that Slavoj Zizek has called the ‘post-political denkverbot’. So do we still need to define what we mean by “what is art, what is politics?”, which sounds a bit like “Art and politics 101”. Do we still need to do that, or can we just accept the implosions that environmental politics is politics, that activism is a form of politics, that sitting in your studio and painting flowers is also a form of politics?

Even if it’s still a form of micro-politics, we can still insist on calling it politics. That’s possible, but I think one of the problems with this implosion – what makes it seem different, although maybe it isn’t – is that even going through the semantics a priori seems to have failed. It seems to be a recipe for failure. Once you start looking at it, you realise that nothing’s going to stop the slide or dissolution of these terms into an amorphous wash of rubbish. I don’t know. Do you have that feeling too? I’m not sure that this is true, but there may be a general feeling that what counts as art is irremediably obscure, and what counts as politics has suffered a similar kind of diminution. And where art and politics do still seem to have some meaning, it may just be a fantasy that we’re caught up in. I’m thinking of the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas in Bamiyan – my God, why would anyone take art that seriously? And then you think that that’s not even a political act, it’s more a religious act.

So we become aware of art and its politics in their own death? That’s kind of like Jean-Luc Nancy’s idea that death allows you to understand the limit cases of a term, or a discourse, or a practice.

Art is only evident now in the fantasies of art that others have in their over-evaluation of certain types of images, for instance. That’s sort of in that framework, isn’t it?

Yes, which makes me think that if that implosion occurs, what we end up with instead – and this is something that both Terry Smith and Claire Bishop have picked up on – are practices and discourses of ethics, responsibility, morality. These very large-scale philosophical, almost enlightenment terms return to replace so many terms that, in the ‘60s, were being questioned but also valorised, like “art”, like “aesthetics”, like “politics”. And that instead of going back to those terms, what we need to think about is: are we engaged ethically in a practice? It doesn’t matter whether it’s art, sitting in Parliament or eating a hamburger; that could be self-reflexive, it could be self-determinative, I don’t know, but it becomes a different series of practices or playing-fields in which individuals operate.

That’s a standard account: What we now have is ethics in the wake of the collapse of any sort of mass politics on the order of the French Revolution, on the collapse of the post-Romantic aesthetic dispensation. With these views collapsed, what we are left with now are ethical actions. In fact ethics becomes the major category or the secret category that emerges after the dissolution of all other categories. We’re in completely heterogeneous fields, nothing particular links them. We just do what we do, and the thing is to do them well, or to do them virtuously, or to do them to the best of our abilities, or to transform or become something else. These practices are no longer the simple creation of products or simply going through established forms of life, but are actually about changing one’s life in accordance with the demands of the place you find yourself. What we get caught up in is just a small version of this literally ethical turn.

The question I would then pose is, is that helpful in terms of thinking about what we do, whether it be art or politics or literature? Is that release of ‘the secret’, as you said, helpful in terms of what we think and what we do? Because it could, on the one hand, allow for interdisciplinary networks – to use more buzzwords – whereby art can connect with sciences, can connect with writers and so on, so you end up with these secret networks that are almost like rhizomatic tunnels of connection through these ethical fields. Or does it just excuse or validate the dissolution of disciplines?

One of the things I was talking about with my friend Oliver Feltham the other day was the problem with thinking generally of relations these days – whether under the heading of these rhizomatic networks, or systems, or other sorts of open-ended connectedness and connectivity. The very injunction to maximise connectivity, to maximise linkages between zones that were previously considered to be heterogeneous or irreducible is itself a type of contemporary capitalism: don’t sleep, don’t get a rest, just maximise connections. I was thinking about this recently because I got just onto Facebook, which is a horrific, narcissistic and heavily imagistic forum. Everyday, someone I vaguely know asks me to be friends with them, and everyday I ask someone whom I vaguely know to be friends with me on this network. I think it really is one of the injunctions of contemporary globalised capitalism: maximise, maximise, maximise your potentiality; and your potentiality in this case is nothing other than the proliferation of relationships, which are themselves established and sustained by economics, and by these techno-scientific toys.

Which makes me think about when Paolo Virno quotes Marx, and talks about the ‘commerce of potential as potential’. But instead of being about work labour – and Virno is clearly aware of this – is that this commerce is also about friendships and relationships, and there’s still this injunction of ‘only connect’. But to return to the art practices that are being talked about these days internationally: is this kind of imagistic, immaterial hyper-capitalism that we might see with Facebook the same kind of connectivity that we might see with groups like Oda Projesi in Istanbul. After all, Oda Projesi is similarly dealing with networks, operating in a much more material environment, but similarly trying to create relations that have some social benefit. This could be housing the homeless, feeding the poor or whatever. Is that therefore doing the same thing as Facebook? Can we push that into the same category of ethics or inethics, or do we still have points of differentiation?

It would be insane to say that the new forms of organisation that are possible are all subject to Facebook’s capitalistic contingencies, though it’s also true none of them can entirely escape that circumstance. So looking at groups that try to forge new kinds of organisation that actually have an inherent utopianism about them, like everyone should be fed, everyone deserves to be treated medically and for free, and that try to establish new ways with all of the tools at our disposal no matter where they come from, some might traditionally be considered aesthetic, some might traditionally be considered economic, some strictly political, to actually try to create new forms of organisation that aren’t quite the same as anything that’s gone before in a genuinely utopian way. That’s definitely something, but I’m not sure whether it’s art. So there are processes which are certainly different and important, but that doesn’t mean that my judgments about them are political, my attitude toward them is political, my feeling about them is political. If I sent a cheque to one of those groups, that wouldn’t necessarily be a political act. If I made an inspirational artwork with those intentions, why would that even necessarily be art either? This goes back to the semantics we were talking about before. Why not just call it a new life, a new beginning....

Or New Age, which returns us to that hyper-capitalism. So if someone like Jacques Rancière is talking about the aesthetics of politics, would you say that he is dealing with similar kinds of ideas?

I see his practice in probably three ways, all inconsistent in fact with each other. One of them involves him trying to find a way through this debate. At the same time, he might still seem to be caught in the dreams of a previous era, in the ghosts and residues of a previous era, the aesthetic era of modernity (which I date from the late-eighteenth century, the standard Romantic epoch). He’s still caught up in those dreams. And thirdly, I’m not sure about the relationship between his own work – even though it’s explicitly about art, and explicitly about politics – whether what he’s doing is indeed either of those things. They’re the three things. Firstly, he’s sort of out-of-date and impotent; he’s dealing with something that no longer really at the cutting edge of whatever is happening to us now. Secondly, he is trying to find a way through contemporary problems. And thirdly, I’m not sure where his own practice sits with respect to art and politics: is the self political – maybe; is it a self-aesthetic – not really.

Is it self-help?

Then we’re back to another form of ethics – proliferate connections, but also remember the injunction that we’ve got to be happy. Happiness is social, not just a matter for political institutions; if you’re not happy, you’re the problem – you’re actually a problem to yourself, to the people around you. You’re not connecting properly, you’re not happy with your connections – what’s wrong with you? This is a correlate of hyper-capitalism, which is hyper-ethical attention around the problem of narcissism, à la Facebook. Surely Facebook should make you happy – look how many friends you have! Everyone who joins can see how many friends you have; and so the more friends you have, obviously the happier you should be. And if you don’t feel that, then there’s something wrong!

Exactly – you’re unproductive and you haven’t got the smile. So why would someone like Rancière be so popular – certainly among art writers, rather than artists.

Because, after all that I’ve said, he’s fantastic. His redescriptions of dispensations of art are compelling. His interpretations of particular artworks or particular phenomena are sometimes fabulous and extremely striking. There’s no question that he’s intelligent and committed, and he also offers genuine hope for our existing dreams like art and politics. There are obviously a number of reasons for why he is so popular: he’s a good writer, he’s clear and he gives you tools.

But in a sense, though, those reasons recirculate what we said before. You’re saying that there’s a certain obsolescence about him, and it may not be “obsolescence” in the same productive or constructive way raised by Walter Benjamin. It’s a less canny, less cunning obsolescence, a cardigan-based obsolescence….

And thinking about this with respect to theories of art that are extra-aesthetic in some way, like Giorgio Agamben’s theory of art that essentially comes down to this: art is something that has no particular qualities to it, but nonetheless something that is done in and to a situation, using all the tools of the situation and that actually totally fucks that situation for a minute – things can’t go on as they were. And the emblem of this is his re-reading of the novella Bartleby the Scribner. Bartleby famously has this formula of “I would prefer not to” when asked to work by his employer. And that completely stuffs the legal office for a short time. The employer says “Work!” and Bartleby responds with “I would prefer not to”. Is that a yes? Is that a no? No, it’s a suspension, as Agamben makes clear in his interpretation of the novella. And it’s precisely a suspension through a standard phrase. It’s not at all agrammatical, it’s not nonsense, it’s not mad. Anyone could say it in such a situation. This enigma is proffered, which then totally transforms all of the agents in that situation and stops business-as-usual. The more popular term for it would be culture jamming. That would be one way in which I see another limit of aesthetic theory today, and another theory of art, which is that art will be whatever is done in a situation that transforms its agent and that transforms the situation. It can’t last, it can’t sustain itself, it doesn’t necessarily deliver any lasting forms for reuse elsewhere, but it somehow finds that point of a situation and produces an enigmatic deadlock within it, even though it’s not necessarily in itself inexplicable.

Is that hope or is that nihilism?

It’s kind of a nihilism – is that the best you can hope for, to work against absolute business-as-usual or a small cessation of activities?

And from that suspension, something hopefully, maybe will come about.

A kind of messianic redemption or redemptiveness or flicker or gleam.

So instead of walking on water, we’re treading water.

Treading water till you sink, which eventually we all will.

Sounds like a potentially dire situation.

Perhaps we should consider, then, whether there are instances of contemporary art we could talk about that link up with politics – like some of Vanessa Beecroft’s recent performances about Darfur or the protests in Genoa in 2001.

That’s perhaps more about opportunism. If we are going to be thinking about art practice, that’s something that we still need to consider. With this discourse of art and politics, if we do turn back to Rancière or Badiou or whoever, we do tend to ghost the contemporary, particularly considering those philosophers for the most part – Rancière is probably the biggest exception – return to modernist artworks and precedents….

To slip in with their own modernist philosophical sensibilities. Perhaps then we should have a look at work – and we don’t necessarily have to like it – or a practice and try to analyse it, to see whether that’s a better way to start thinking about art and politics today. From that thing called art or formerly known as art, rather than these generalities or theories.

When I’ve been thinking about trying to diagnose or categorise or even pathologise contemporary art in relation to politics, there are perhaps three or four categories that keep recurring. One is opportunism; we can talk about Beecroft vis-à-vis an opportunistic relation to “politics”, which also contains within it a rather narrow, almost desperate idea of politics being geopolitics or meetings of people who wear business suits and earn billions. We can come back to Beecroft in a moment. The second category might be neo-romantic, which could be this hopefulness or utopian gesture: Rirkrit Tiravanija, Hans Ulrich Obrist constantly talking about utopia in his interviews (which are like artworks in themselves). So there is a neo-romantic hope that perhaps art can create a shift in the subject through the action itself.

Thomas Hirschhorn would be another example there.

I disagree. From my own research, I see Hirschhorn as very cynical on the one hand, and yet also maybe fitting into a third category which is not utopian, but more a rigorous mundanity. That’s about getting in there and doing something – not so much the Bataille Monument, but a work he did after that (which isn’t talked about as much) which was the Musée Précaire Albinet. It took place in the suburb he lives in, Aubervilliers, and he worked with people that a lot of people might consider “disadvantaged”, as well as the Pompidou and another art space called Les Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, to set up a series of exhibitions, where people could work for art. It wasn’t about asking what art could do for the residents of Aubervilliers, but about what they could do for art. This isn’t necessarily the neo-romantic view of “what can art for society”….

It’s not art in the service of the revolution, but the revolution in the service of art in fact.

And also not buying into this utopian dream that emerges because, as neoliberal capitalism has shifted away from social welfare, art plugs that gap. This is an idea that George Yúdice has talked about in depth, which is that neoliberal capitalism leaves the field of the social, leaves the field of welfare and art tries to maintain some kind of socialist dream by tapping into that process….

In the evacuation of capital itself.

Exactly. And the idea of art being an aesthetic of feeding the poor, clothing the homeless is a case of art plugging the gap in neoliberal society, which therefore reinforces the status quo. Neoliberal capitalism can go off and do its thing; art with its poverty will try to work through it.

So, so far you’ve got three categories. You’ve got opportunism, neo-romanticism and this neo-arte povera or rigorous mundanity.

Can you think of anything else that might exceed this categorisation, which is problematic in itself – to contain and categorise practice.

I guess a fourth one wouldn’t fulfil any of the criteria you’ve outlined, but would be business-as-usual: the standard places where we expect art, the standard sorts of things that we expect from art – and now, that would be installation or video art or other forms of neo media art. They’re still not really doing anything; they’re still something you go and see, or say “that’s very intelligent” or “I love that”. That would be a fourth category, of art that just keeps plugging away in the grand old style. Which doesn’t have necessarily the same aggressiveness as the other three categories that you’ve outlined. There’s a manifesto element to them. Even with Beecroft, that opportunism is a very declarative, insistent, loud, in your face opportunism. The same for the neo-romanticism: not being able to stop using the word “utopia” in interviews is one symptom of it. Or indeed your third category still has to be pretty aggressively pursued: you go out, you do a lot of work, you do broadcasts – that’s all part of it, again linking in machines that help you to make better connections, for better dissemination, a better spread. They’re quite manifesto-like without any particular content.

It’s that push that’s the content, or replaces the content. And in that fourth category of business-as-usual may be the most surprising, because sitting in the studio and creating figuration or pretty pictures of flowers may be the most interesting of practices despite itself because it rejects this demand or this imperative to be contemporary. And this goes back to Rancière: that which is apparently not contemporary may be the most contemporary art form of all. That which is asynchronous may have the most contemporary “value”.

In which case, the most important, powerful, forceful art is what we don’t know about, it probably doesn’t even know itself and maybe we won’t ever know anything about it. It’s just out there, working away quietly, unconsciously, unknowingly.

Which then returns us to category one, because Beecroft is doing precisely that, but giving her art the label of politics. Her tableaux – and she’s talked about this a number of times – are pretty pictures, whether that be her work in the ‘90s and the supermodels, through to the recent work with the Sudanese women standing or lying on a white ground seemingly smeared in blood. Again, the idea of these beautiful people and beautiful images – whether it be people or flowers – wilting.

And that’s one of the things that you’d have to say about Beecroft: she’s a symptom of the collapse between the animate and the inanimate, between humans and other animals, between humans and non-organic things. In fact you organise people just as you would dispose of the colours from a palette. Everything’s material, including human beings. What you, the artist, insist is a striking and insistent image is enough. And that itself has some sort of political force, because what you’re making is making something perceptible in a new way, This brings us back to the amorphousness with which we started: it doesn’t really matter if these materials are living human beings or chemical paints. They’re just more material for your delectation and practice.

And self-reflexivity about that. Again, Beecroft is very aware that she is being opportunistic and she will unfold, unfurl and unravel that opportunism at the same time as she engages with it.

So artists of the globe connect; they have nothing to lose but a lack of reflexivity or something. Reflexivity is, as you say, a crucial element of this. Imagine Beecroft doing her work in a completely naïve way, of wanting just to show dead people. Could you imagine?

She’d probably sell more!

She probably would! Think of Damien Hirst and his platinum skull with diamonds!

Again, though, we could go back to his idea from ten or twenty years ago that all art is advertising anyway; a contemporary version of Benjamin’s point about how we ritualise and enjoy our own destruction. The key though, it seems, is to be reflexive about it – that suggests an ethical approach that can also be seen as political. It’s a lot like hamsters on a wheel, constantly circulating through connections.

So maybe art and politics aren’t very useful categories or points of connection in the first place. Maybe we need to make our own fifth category, a fifth way with its own manifesto – a fifth columnist, in our case. So no to art, no to politics!

image: Christian Capurro from the series 'Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette' (1999-2007), showing Justin Clemens speaking at the Albert Road Clinic South Melbourne 29/1/05 (photo credit Anthony Gardner, Capurro's installation at the 51st Venice Biennale)
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Business as usual and the ongoing, unknown is what fuels the curious to make the discoveries, so this is a feeder to the future for art. The fact that art has become harder to define could be people enabling art to be "unknown" in order to give artists a place to keep trying

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