Monday, 23 February 2009

By way of responding to some, if not all, of the excellent points being raised in the blog so far, I’d like to begin by thinking about one of the points raised by Peter Gorschlueter’s in his most recent talk (17/02/09)

For me, one of the most interesting things about Peter’s talk was his attempt to situate/contextualise the recent Fifth Floor show at Liverpool Tate within a more general set of shifts which seem to be underpinning the art world at a fundamental level. For example, to see that Tate has aspirations to become an ideas led (rather than collection led or exhibitions led) institution gives quite a lot away about developments in contemporary art practice. I guess the argument would go something like this – that ‘relational aesthetics’ (or whatever you’d like to call it) is less of a ‘flash in the pan’ or ‘fashionable’ way that artists are propagating local, national and international practices and more of a symptom of deeper underlying changes within our culture. These changes would include, of course, the whole issue of globalisation and the new roles and functions that culture (and by proxy art as we know it) are undergoing within a neo-liberal economy of exchange. (So far we have been re-looking at the term autonomy and, as primarily artists, this has led us to consider the possible autonomy of individual or group practices. However, these debates would/should also include – perhaps - notions of art itself as an autonomous practice; as a practice which could, in an ideal world, continue to operate over and against the insturmentalised mechanisms of capital).

This leads us back, immediately, to the common assumptions (which Catherine points to in her ‘It’s a Doing Thing entry: 18.02/09) that we tend to share about art and autonomy – namely, that at the core of any useful debate about autonomy lies the argument concerning the possibility/impossibility of art’s or the artists separateness from a common world of everyday life. Whilst this seems a rather over dramatic schism (and equally naive from our oh so informed standpoint of the postmodern), it actually arises from the deepest philosophical problematic of Enlightenment thought – that of the (mainly Cartesian) subject/object split that underpins the shift towards a secular and science based epistemology; a world view that sees ‘Man’ as the centre of the world, capable of measuring all he purveys in ‘His’ own image, a world view that premised ideological and technological advance on the ‘Truth’ of Scientific ‘Fact’ – a Scientific Fact that was, itself, underpinned by the guarantee of ‘Objective’ observation. Although such a world view has, over the last 40 years, come under sustained critical, theoretical and philosophical bombardment (and the Foucault that Catherine usefully quotes is a major player here) as being a fundamentally white, western, male and historically specific world view, it still leaves us with a fundamental problem - that of the split between an observing and isolated subject and a supposedly exterior and observable object. It was the problem of the subject/object split which drove Kant to propose the aesthetic as a kind of universalising - and autonomous - experience which was capable of resolving (or at least pointing towards/suggesting) some kind of ideal community/consensus beyond this divisive dichotomy.

So, fast forward to a post-autonomous age of instrumentalised reason which now sees its apogee as the relentless, promiscuous, disingenuous, adaptable, permeable and liquid form of the commodity. A world in which objects, whether they be sweaters, CDs, paintings or footballs, only have meaning in so far as they can function, at least temporarily, in a consumer driven of kaleidoscope of shifting meaning and exchange. A world in which one longs for the comfort of an object (let’s call it ‘art’ for arguments sake) that could resolve the irresolvable – but we know that such an object will immediately be insturmentalised by its very existence as a site of exchange and not necessarily by the heavy hand of political interest. (I’m thinking of Zizek’s critique of ideology here, or at least his critique of a post monopoly capitalism where ideology works far below the surface of the skin of a political body which is controlled by consensus).

One argument is to say that there simply is no longer an inside or outside to this new form of spectacular society. This is a line followed by Baudrillard in a series of essays/talks surrounding 9/11 (published by Virago as ‘Degree Zero’) Baudrillard saw/read the atrocity (and others like it) as forms of globalised suicide, a kind of protest/fracture from within. He was morally and politically suspicious of the Bush administrations attempts to re-engineer a ‘them and us’, ‘good guys and evil doers’ dichotomy which typified the so called ‘Cold-War’ (or World War Three as Baudrillard would have it). Whatever one thinks of Baudrillard (and I, perhaps un-trendily, have a lot of time for his thought) this poses an interesting set of questions (ones that have underpinned my thought and work for over a decade). What if one simply accepts that there is no longer any possibility of stepping outside the world of the commodity form? What if we are all encoded to our roots by its language and discourse? What if art, as we know it, and museums and galleries, as we know them, allow no real possibility of a theoretical, political, moral ‘safe-haven’ from which to quantify, objectify and critique the world of commodity controlled insturmentalisation? What if the real site for experience of art is what was once called its ‘legacy’ i.e. journals, articles, images, websites etc? What if artists and art works are no longer points of contradiction to the flow of consumer society? Does this mean all is lost? Or can we accept that artists (as we know or knew them) make art works (as we know or knew them) as nodal points within a constantly shifting network of provisional choices and refusals?

This would perhaps begin to make sense of a more general shift towards the concept of art as ‘knowledge production’ (Sarat Maharaj vie Feyerabend) and a world in which Tate sees itself as an Idea – led institution (with Tate Online functioning on an equal footing with its physical manifestations). This would also still enable us to conceptualise/critique a world in which high profile artists made high profile art objects for high prices (because, as we know, the commodity form finds no intrinsic value in ‘objects themselves’, the artists ‘name’, ‘reputation’ or ‘brand’ is what sells here). It would also allow us to begin imagining a continually negotiable production of art works/projects which may work in many different ways and across many different platforms (one of the problems, ironically, with the ever so post ‘relational aesthetics’ is its commodified collapse back into a ‘one size fits all’ kind of Modernist art form/commercially viable entertainment – well, everybody’s doing it/showing it aren’t they?)

Beginning to think this way – having not inside out or outside in – allows us to start thinking of relationships, and potentially autonomous circuits/communities of relationships, in potentially different ways. It also enables us to begin thinking about and mapping lines of resistance in different ways and new places. Having no inside out or outside in also enables us to begin thinking of a range of contributory factors, which go towards making up that thing called art, as essential to the production of possible meanings (in this way, audiences and the art market will always play a crucial role in the production and analysis of art works – their role may shift in a kind of topological kind of way, but they will always be there). Thinking this way also allows us to decentre the role of the artist – or even individual artistic agency for that matter – without running the risk of losing a concept of autonomy (or at least of a project/possibility of autonomy). Of course, autonomy in this sense would have to be continually negotiated and, ipso facto, ideas would be at the centre/driving force of art production – but we would gain the possibility of re-engaging critically with the instrumentalising forces of the commodity form across and within the very fabric of its mechanisms.

I hope these propositions, rather than questions, can provide us with a bit more food for thought (and latitude for experimentation) in our discussions. Perhaps people could also begin to look at examples of their own or other peoples projects (call them art if you will) that enable us to unpack and elucidate these ideas. I’ll attempt to do this also in future entries.
John Byrne 23/02/09

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

'One Place After Another' by Miwon Kwon

I found this a valuable read for its exploratory questioning. It raises questions about the underlying assumptions in the way artists, institutions, groups, society at large operate. A liberating read, it really underlines the fact that we are all small cogs in a very big machine.

Here are some questions which cropped up for me to think about further:

Community 'values' are open to question. However inclusive or tolerant a community aims to be, it is by definition an exclusive organisation - a 'club' or a 'tribe' - with its own rules of membership. There is a conflict between establishing identity (through ground rules) and realising the optimum development/evolution of the group. What part can a community artist play in this? What are the risks that the artist's involvement entrenches perceptions, keeps underprivileged communities 'in their place' by identifying them as such - rather than improving their possibilities? Can an outsider of the community in question operate effectively in that community?

The Power of Money
How much of contemporary artists' involvement with 'the community' is the result of public funding of the arts? Does this funding come with a price - that the funding of the artist must be justified in terms understood and imposed by those investing the money? So that, far from offering the possibility of new or alternative understandings, at one level publicly funded projects are at risk of becoming embroiled in maintaining the status quo?

The Elsewhere and The Other
How much of current practice relating to site, location, community and identity is a reaction to demographic change and the advance in communication technology? In our reaction to this, to what extent do we 'reinvent' the past, imagining the best of how society used to be (in the good old days) and set that up as a mythical (unrealistic) aspiration? How many of our aspirations for the future are based on a romanticising of the past/the elsewhere/the other?

Competing Understandings
What is most liberating about this read is that it advocates taking on board competing definitions and understandings (eg about what is understood by 'site') and seeing them as not mutually exclusive. Rather than using a reductive analytical approach,  Kwon opens up the idea that there are many possibilities.

It's A Doing Think

Here are a few thoughts and questions of my own in response to our seminar with Charles Esche and John's opening comments. They are just the beginnings of some threads of ideas prompted by our talks, which I've tried to break down into bite-size chunks.

Beginning with John's question:
"Is it possible to comprehend (or imagine) kinds of art practice which are capable, sophisticated and dialectical enough to conceive autonomy and engagement as interaction? As necessary conditions of extended practice?"

My first question is what do we understand by 'autonomy' and 'engaged practice'?

What is understood by Autonomy:

Based on our recent discussions, it seems to be generally accepted in current thinking that the modernist 'privileging' of the autonomous artist or autonomous art as being something outside the realm of everyday life (something on a higher plane) is an undesirable myth. Post-modern thinking, it seems, has sought a more direct involvement at grass roots with the world in which we live.

Questions around the accessibility and inaccessibility of individual and collective vision and thinking seem to be at play. Thinking about the impossibility of seeing through the eyes of another, as well as the impossibility (and undesirability) for the artist to be positioned outside the environment in which he works, I am reminded of the thinking of Michel Foucault, who was at pains to point out that we cannot deny the impact of the environment (cultural, political, social, emotional, intellectual) in which we operate - and the limitations that that can place on our vision. This takes us all down a peg or two, and points out to us that, although we might be aware of the existence of 'the bigger picture', as individuals, we will never actually be able to see it.

"The thing that by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that." (M Foucault 'The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences' 1970)

I think that as an artist, I am always looking for the 'blind spot' in my own vision - as a means of improving that vision and my scope for thinking. The idea does, of course, have the de-stabilising implication that I might not know what I think I know. Always a tricky one to deal with!

The positive flip-side to this is that it offers us the awareness that there are very many different individual visions to enrich our outlook and potential as a society.

Autonomy and Authorship

Another question which arises (which hasn't been touched on directly but which is linked I think) is how questions of authorship link with the developing ideas of autonomy. I am thinking of contemporary artists operating anonymously (Banksy) or as collectives of unidentified individuals (Guerilla Girls) or under pseudonyms. In these practices the identification of the individual artist ceases to be important. In fact it is important that it is absent - as a strategy for operating beneath the radar?

A Sense of Self

Perhaps for the individual practising artist (whether operating individually or collaboratively) the focus needs to be on personal integrity rather than autonomy. It is important to remain focused about our own motivations, what drives us to work (in private and in public) and be clear about the rules we make for ourselves in practice. Some sense of conviction is vital, whilst remaining open to whatever the experience of our practice might reveal to us.

Maybe in response to some of the criticisms levelled at the perceived insularity of artists in the past (?), Barbara Hepworth commented (1937): "[Art] is no escapism, no ivory tower. It is an unconscious manner of expressing our belief in a possible life." This speaks of what motivates and engages the artist in his/her practice. Surely for art practitioners that engagement between the artist and the work must be the starting point of any consideration of an engagement beyond this, between the work and the wider world? Our discussion so far does not seem to have touched much on this consideration of 'engagement'.

To what end does the artist work? It seems to me that the view of Hepworth here is looking to some kind of engagement with the wider world as essential for there to be any point in doing the work (or, rather, in making the work public). Maybe it's just how we now think that the engagement with the wider world might be achieved that has changed?

Art and Politics

To my mind, meaningful work is always politically engaged if it calls into question our thinking. I distinguish between work which is political in the sense of being motivated by a personal conviction which challenges established thinking and that which is overtly issue based. For example, Cornelia Parker makes a point of saying that she does not do issue based work, but I would say that her work is politically engaged because it tries (albeit subtly) to unsettle accepted ways of thinking. Her work 'Brontean Abstracts' at the Bronte Museum in 2007, for example, simultaneously attaches itself to and challenges the cultural institution in which it is located, challenging our accepted perception of the role of the museum.

On the Question of the 'Instrumentalisation' of Art

By the term 'instrumentalisation' I understand 'ab-use' or 'manipulation'. According to Charles Esche in our seminar, art (or anything else for that matter) is always open to manipulation to some extent by social/political institutions or others. It is the inevitable consequence of putting anything into the public domain. Once it is handed over, its original control is lost. The material might be used by others with their own quite different agendas. Robert Smithson makes some interesting observations on this issue in his essay 'Cultural Confinement' (1972): "Some artists imagine they have got a hold on this apparatus, which in fact has got a hold of them." (pp. 970-1 Art in Theory 1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas Ed. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, 2003).

First published in Artforum in 1970, 'The Artist and Politics: a Symposium' (pp.922-6 ibid.) offers very varied responses from different artists to the question "What is your position regarding the kinds of political action that should be taken by artists?" The variety of responses here might offer some openings to what might be understood by 'engaged practice'. I'd like to see it kept as broad as possible.

My particular favourite, perhaps because of the terms in which it expressed, is Smithson's reply: "Sooner or later the artist is implicated or devoured by politics without even trying. My 'position' is one of sinking into an awareness of global squalor and futility. The rat of politics always gnaws at the cheese of art . . . One keeps dropping into a kind of political centrifugal force that throws the blood of atrocities onto those working for peace."

How is this to be managed by the artist, who, up until the point of publication, largely makes up all the rules in the process? One response has been to try and engage directly with the public, rather than via the medium of the gallery, agent, critic or other middleman.

Engagement of Others

In thinking about how our practice might engage others, what is the risk for the individual art practitioner that, rather than opening up possibilities, we fall into the trap of simply working on the terms of others? "The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist." (The Soul of Man Under Socialism in The First Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde, 1908-22). I think the idea of 'supplying the demand' is the critical bit to take on board - as something to be wary of.

The Shifting Locus and Understanding of 'The Work'
Participation & Creation Beyond the Control of the Artist

Traditionally, when we talk about 'an artwork', we understand the locus of the artwork to be in the product of the creative process undertaken by the artist: 'the painting', 'the installation', 'the film', 'the performance'. It has also been suggested that the work (or maybe I need to find a different word her?) also continues, or is re-invented, in the perception/reception of that product - in the eye of the beholder, if you like. Germaine Greer has commented: "The true field of art is the mind of the beholder . . . You can only remember it. You can't collect it . . ." (Guardian 23.10.2006: Here's a message for the art mafia in their black Bentleys:the really good stuff is uncollectable). So, the viewer/recipient is necessarily implicated in the work itself.

Ryan Gander made similar observations in a presentation of his work which I attended last year, after which I was left far from certain whether 'his work' was what appeared as imagery on the slides he showed. or was in the dialogue which took place during the actual presentation, or was the seed of some other thought which I took away to develop myself. When asked about the audience with which he seeks to engage, his response was to say he believes he has 'a good one', by which I understood a receptive and responsive one. (It was notable during the same presentation that he also spurned the political agendas underlying Arts Council and other public funding).

Perhaps the next logical manifestation is the actual participation of the public, the viewer becoming actual participant. This was highlighted in the talk by Peter Gorschlueter, curator at Tate Liverpool, talking about Tate's "Ideas Taking Space" on 17th February.

Where does this leave the question of autonomy? Maybe what we end up with is a very large melting pot of individual outlooks? Or is the artist really still directing the participation of others (albeit from some distance)? The fact is, somebody is still making the rules for participation, aren't they? And the participants (knowingly or not) are falling in with those rules.

'Engaged Autonomy' or 'Negotiated Autonomy'

As far as the ideas of 'engaged autonomy' (to use Esche's term) or 'negotiated autonomy' (John's term) are concerned, I think they go right to the core of how we understand ourselves as individuals and how we position ourselves in society as a whole. What contribution do we have to make as artists? The conundrum of how we exert our sense of individuality and recognise our part in all rubbing along together is one of life's perpetual dilemmas and riches.

Personally, I think that the practice of the stand up comedian offers an illustration of what might be termed 'engaged autonomy' at work. Something akin to the Shakespearean Fool (but without the tag of insanity or stupidity), he/she is very much a part of the fabric of our popular culture, simultaneously entertaining us and holding up to us a mirror which at times can reflect some uncomfortable truths. It's a fine line. He'she gets away with subversive observations by making us laugh at ourselves. Perhaps we have something to learn here.

And Finally

To come back to John's question.

I am struck by how much these debates come down to dealing with a definition of the parameters of our understanding, when those parameters are changing all the time. This is what makes such discussions so slippery - and more productive of questions than answers!

I don't know that it is ever possible to say in advance how art practice might evolve, though I suppose we can have some objectives in mind. At the core of my own art practice, I am conscious of a making, an un-doing and a re-making process which goes on ad infinitum.  There is a critical intellectual process which runs in parallel, but the outcome in the practice is very much the result of some action or experience on my part. Art practice is a 'doing think'.

Any thoughts, anyone?

Kathryn Oubridge
18th February 09

Sunday, 15 February 2009


Hi All.
Firstly I want to thank John for creating this blog. I'm sure it will be a very useful forum for the MAFA and undergraduate students. Although we covered autonomy with regards to the state or institutional museums, I'm interested in the role of private collectors and galleries. Do these show similar or different ideas behind autonomous art practice? Also the role of the curator, how autonomous are they, and is the rise in biennials etc curating by committee? Sorry to kick off with questions, hope there is going to be some interesting discussion. 
Tim Fielding.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Autonomy, Collaboration, Place and Craft - Charles Esche Talk

Hello all,
Welcome to our new critical blog – Autonomy, Collaboration, Place and Craft – which will run parallel to the lecture programme we have devised for this semesters Masters in Fine Art course at Liverpool School of Art and Design.

This blog is in direct response to requests from a range of post and undergraduate students who attended the Charles Esche seminar on Thursday 12 Feb 09.

Just to remind you all, we agreed to a rather altruistic blog, one in which we’ll all be able to post and edit – as well as respond. The hope was for people to start communicating their ideas and experiences about the themes and issues raised in the talks and how they relate to/impact on our own working practices and relationships to shows and exhibitions we see, articles we read etc.

Ok, to get the ball rolling I’ll recap briefly on Charles’ talk last night.

Initially, Esche outlined a history of galleries and museums in relation to our contemporary perceptions of art. We were usefully reminded that Art, as we know it in the West, is a bourgeois construct that developed hand in hand with the growth of the very class with which it is most usually associated. From the Louvre onwards, Esche argued that galleries and museums functioned as much as a space for the bourgeois to gather and reaffirm their own class identity and status as they were spaces to appreciate artworks that satisfied the bourgeois’ own ideological world view. This was an important point, as it immediately reminded us of the active role played by art and culture in the inscription and construction of world views – thus guaranteeing a kind of agency for art practice as opposed to a conception of art as a purely passive reflection of a dominant ideological viewpoint (as it became in more crude Marxist analysis of culture).

This instrumentialising role of art re-emerged – all be it in a more aggressive and didactic manner – in the cultural policies of Soviet Russia, Fascist Germany and Communist China. In the Cold War period which followed the Second World War, a Western bourgeois notion of art became enshrined in the white walled gallery spaces of New York’s Museum of Modern Art as the only viable cultural alternative to the intsturmentalising propaganda of Eastern Block Socialist Realism. This was evidenced by the CIAs involvement in promoting the new post WWII culture of Abstract Expressionism. It was at this point – during a period in which arts self-referential guarantee of ‘purity’ was, in fact, the equally instrumentalised rationale for its identification as ideological credibility (in the West at least) – that Adorno began to make claims for the Autonomy of Art. Adorno, however, was acutely aware of the political and bureaucratised role that art, galleries, museums and culture could play in a new consumer driven society. Adorno’s point was to rescue a kind of space for Art which would both guarantee it an autonomous space beyond the insturmentalisation of capitalist culture whilst, at the same time, allowing it to be inherently critical of that culture – even if that critical opposition was simply based on offering a glimpse beyond the kind of society which was rapidly developing in the West at the time. In this case, abstract or non-referential artworks could be seen to ‘negate’ the ‘affirmative’ culture of capital – pointing, in some ways, to the possibility of ‘imagining the world otherwise than it is today’ (to use one of Esche’s phrases). The redemptive faith that Adorno put in Art – its capability, as he saw it, to offer us glimpses of ways to change the world – was to become one of Arts burdens in a postmodern and post-autonomous world. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Art lost its place as an ideological guarantee of freedom against the more obviously coercive social policies developed in the Eastern Block. Instead, art began to take on a new and equally insturmentalised role as a social glue in a new globalised neo – liberal and post-capitalist society. Governments, especially Blair’s in the UK, began to expect art to act as a focal point for social change in an increasingly fractious and under resourced ‘community’. As such, relational, dialogic, socially engaged practices (which had developed on a principal of moving away from the now rigorously corporatized ‘autonomous’ art object) became increasingly embroiled in a Beinnial led world of spectacle and show. Museums and Galleries, for their part, began to be regulated by the demand for audience figures and the high turnover of ‘annual reports’. Artists, art organisations and community groups began to be curated by proxy as the applications they had to make and the funding they received was closely regulated and dependant on particular types of ‘outcomes’.
In this post-autonomous art world, the landscape began to look increasingly bleak.

However, within the last couple of years, the problem with autonomy has re-surfaced (as Esche pointed out, post-autonomy has an indelible relationship to the very term it once wished to exceed). How do artists produce work which isn’t immediately instrumentalised within a globalised culture of specatacle and display? How does art become critical of neo-liberal centralised politics without falling into the trap of seeing itself as somehow separate from (and therefore able to externally critique) this culture? How do we enable artists, both practically and conceptually, to exceed their insturmentalised confines without re-rehearsing the clich├ęs of the artist as shaman – of special individual who is capable of simply seeing the world in a different way? Is it possible to make works which decentre the authorial processes of the individual which, nevertheless, engage full bloodedly with the particulars and generalities of social, political and economic circumstances? Is it possible to revivify Kant’s notion of the Aesthetic (as a kind of experience – not just offered by art) which enabled us to imagine a world different from what it might be today) without merely allowing artists to produce dissociated and dislocated proposals for utopian impossibility? To this end Esche suggested the term ‘negotiated autonomy’ (signifying a concern with both the internal structures of art and a critical relationship to the political realities of its production) as an alternative to the more binary and limiting post-autonomy. This seems an interesting point to start. Is it possible to comprehend (or imagine) kinds of art practice which are capable, sophisticated and dialectical enough to conceive autonomy and engagement as interaction? As necessary conditions of an extended practice?