I met Lane Relyea, chair of the Department of Art Theory & Practice at Northwestern University and author of the recent book Your Everyday Art World, at the Edgewater Lounge on the north side of Chicago. While we talked, Brazil lost to the Netherlands 0-3, an event that neither of us commented on, although we did discuss the upcoming Germany-Argentina game. The bartender walked outside frequently to ask us if we were ok or to smoke. I had been wanting to talk to Lane since reading his book in the fall…
LR: A lot of the excitement behind the book was trying to use characterizations of information to start rethinking all these kinds of things you wouldn’t think of in terms of information. Information exists to be instrumentalized. I mean, you can think of knowledge as a thing that is instrumentalized, but information is the ur-form of instrumental knowledge. And it’s limited in that way: it’s only good in use. It’s just there to be handled, it pushes on you and you push back on it. The light turns green and you hit the gas, an email comes and it’s either saved or deleted or forwarded or file-name-changed, put in a certain folder, kept in this kind of file tree. It’s how Eve Chiappello talks about labor itself, it can be put on hold, it can be deleted, it can be retrieved instantly—that’s how I now see artists starting to operate more and more. It opened things up in terms of studio visits with my grad students or with artists I know, especially painters. Painters do blogs, they curate, they run an apartment gallery—painting is something that they get to when they can, you know? It’s one of the things that they operate in a field of instrumentalization. They’ll have a lot of things going on. And they’ll move them around and link them up in different ways. It’s a manipulation of spheres, activities, intersections, and so on. You really see its impact with casual painting, the new casualism that Sharon Butler talks about or the provisional painting that Raphael Rubenstein talks about. More and more LES shows are that kind of painting, and group shows are that kind of painting, and things in apartment galleries in Chicago tend to be that kind of painting, and in Bushwick, or in Memphis.
JW: Do you place a value judgment on that? Is it good or bad or whatever?
LR: Yeah, I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to judge it per se. It’s just characteristic of this moment. Any art that’s going to be powerful has to speak its moment, you know? It has to speak to present conditions of experience. Or else it becomes academic. That’s the problem with having a transcendent rather than an immanent critique, you start dismissing things categorically—the problem of these people who are like, “I’m still into modernism” or something. That’s like saying I’m going to make Carolingian art. That’s not a choice. We don’t live in that age anymore. So what you’re doing is just academic. Trying to hold onto values in some kind of pure form and move them back into time, rather than trying to convey or get into their state now. There’s this great Michael Fried line about Frank Stella’s paintings, like “he wants to be Velazquez, but he lives now,” you know? Unlike Velazquez, we have 18-wheelers that sometimes you walk in front of. We don’t have belief systems and so and so forth, we have material reality constantly almost running us over. With today’s sensorium, if you want to paint like Velazquez, you paint black stripes, because you can’t ring somebody’s bell under present conditions if you’re painting like Velasquez. We need a characterization of art today that feels more pressing and relevant. That’s what I tried to do in the book: you know, there was minimalism which exteriorized the art object so that it was now about the room it was placed in, and therefore about the institution that built that room, and there was the influence of conceptual art and its foregrounding information and circulation and systems of distribution and so on and so forth. Today you find these developments in their most advanced state in social practice. Instead of objects that are exteriorized, it’s subjects that are exteriorized!
JW: The person of the year is you.
LR: Yeah, the person of the year is you, and mobility is driven to an optimum condition as it nears the state of information, and people are about the most mobile heavy object you can find! They’re the most information-like object.
JW: The thing that’s always been exciting to me about social practice is that, whether a given project or artwork or whatever explicitly does so or not, social practice operates on the acknowledgement, implicit or otherwise, that social relations can and are being acted upon. So I can make a piece about how you can or should act, or how you are acting, in a given situation and it makes sense—it’s possible—because we’re used to the scenarios we enter determining the ways in which we act.
LR: The individual who’s interacting in social networks maps on really nicely to the way that people talk about minimalist objects being no longer about internal relations, like composition or whatever, but rather external relations, how it works with things around it. The individual goes from being a person with a core, an essence, to being somebody who is performative. I’ll be like this with you, now, in a half an hour I’ll be with my parents, and then I’ll go to my AA meeting, then I’ll go meet my parole officer, and then I’ll go to my Log Cabin Republican meeting—I’m no longer being ironic when I’m a different person in each situation. I’m just being exteriorized, performative, on-demand, just-in-time. I’m feedbacking with my context. And that’s the optimum, that’s what everything’s driving towards: optimal feedback within your specific context of the moment.
JW: The scary thing for me about that is that the way that each context exists becomes overpowering. I don’t like having these interviews in coffee shops because I feel I’m overpowered by the way I’m supposed to talk about art in coffee shops with another person. I talk in a different tone of voice, I can hear myself using the word “interesting” more than I usually do…
LR: It’s the story of the postmodern subject, where the exterior is more important than the interior. You’re defined within your contexts. But in an information age, that just becomes the contact point of operationality, manipulation, being a good worker. Having labor value means that you’re always plugged in. Most studios I go into now, they feel relevant partly because they have four or five things going on; their labor is fragmented, their identity is fragmented. They don’t talk about painting as an identity. It’s more performative, it’s like “sometimes I make paintings.”
JW: Well, I think it is an identity. I mean, it’s like “I am a painter” insofar as the painter now curates shows, goes to parties, looks at similar visual stimuli and responds in a similar way. It’s not for nothing that the paintings you’re describing as relevant are appearing in Bushwick, and LA, and Memphis, which are, you know—the weather’s different.
LR: This is precisely how the social identity of the painter can be salvaged and recuperated for today: by reconceiving it as the painter who always goes to parties, curates shows, writes a blog. Somebody who’s like, wow, when does he ever have time to make those paintings? And the paintings look like it. They’re small, they’re more sketchlike in a way. Did you want another beer?
[Lane goes inside to get a second round]
LR: The way that Boltanski and Chiappello talk about the new labor is much like how Robert Morris talked about his new artwork in ‘66. It’s not that the artwork is less important, it’s just less self-important. And that’s the new labor management idea: you transcend categories as your different contexts ask you to be different things. That’s a parallel between business literature and artworld discourse. The free agent and the social practice artist are both talked about as transcending categories, and the problem is—there are those people who get paid handsomely, who make a great living off doing that: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists. They’re the people that do precarity well and win at it, but it’s the same system that produces the people who don’t do so well. The hedge fund manager does a million different things and on the other side so does the person who works twelve different jobs in order to make one paycheck and has to be available 24/7 in case Walmart wants them to work the late shift or over the weekend. It’s precarity. Individuals who transcend categories are not only part of the system, they’re at the center of it. Then you’re not talking about the institution in the same way. In an information world, the institution is not brick and mortar. It’s discourse, it’s connections, it’s networks and moving around certain data in terms of its valuation—whether it’s hot or not or passé. If the old discourse about the old institution was about objects, if you came to terms with the institution by thinking about the context around objects, then the new primary unit is the subject, and you have to talk about the context around the subject.
JW: When you look at art, what are you looking at?
LR: One thing that I just wrote about on my blog was that I never get asked that question anymore.
JW: Really? It seems like a reasonable question to ask you. You’re an art critic.
LR: I guess the thing that I’m thinking is that there’s a way in which the ecology is more interesting than any one part of the ecology. A lot of times I’ll run into somebody and they’ll be like I’m doing this show, here, and the most interesting thing is like how the show was done, why it was done here, and how they reached that agreement. And then there’s artwork in it, but that’s maybe third or fourth down the list of interesting things about the whole project. There’s so much social labor poured into being an artist and reproducing the art world, whatever art world or art worlds you’re in, that the actual objects seem less interesting to talk about.
JW: Do you talk about the objects or the way in which they’re presented?
LR: One of the ways I’m talking about painting now is trying to talk about these little casual abstractions that look like something a painter could do when they can find a few hours in the studio when they can actually perform the role of the painter, instead of the residency-runner or the blog-poster. That’s talking about the work, but trying to talk about the work within its context. And more and more, the context tends to override the object. The object is “dividualistic,” to use the Deleuzian term, so you have to talk about its orbits, its intersections, how it differentiates, fragments, mingles horizontally…
JW: So why make an object?
LR: A lot of people don’t have to anymore! But I don’t even think that it’s a thing about objects not being necessary or whatever. It’s that the objects gain the same state of existence as everything else, which is existing like information, in the sense that an object is always a jigsaw piece that works with other jigsaw pieces at that moment, for a certain arrangement or performance or event. It’s always a part or a fragment. That’s why craft and material handling are not anachronistic or resistant to current conditions: information is nothing without manipulation. Communication is just manipulated information. The idea that the whole world of manipulated information is about an individual moving around a screen a digital hand with an extended finger that animates programs, and algorithms, that produces action, is exactly about the perfect intertwining of individual-based material manipulation and an information-heavy context. So the person who can go in and do a little kiln thing this week, and can go and do some rock-carving next week, that person chimes perfectly with a subject made for this kind of world we live in. Because the person is able to execute in a lot of different contexts.
JW: But how do you critique that? Do you just present it? Is presenting it enough?
LR: Well, one critique would be to talk about how that subject is produced by the society for its ends, rather than expressing some sort of heroic, romantic ability to transcend social determination. It’s a very determined subject, a subject that manifests the ends of that society—which are unfair, injust, so on and so forth. It’s not a condemnation—I think it’s very, very familiar. To go back to the Frank Stella black stripes thing, I think that those paintings are beautiful, but their beauty is not that they transcend present conditions, it’s that they express them. That’s beauty under current constraints. That’s beauty aware that it’s trying to define a moment of free expression in a situation of unfreedom. And that’s a basic art thing. Art is always supposed to be about free time. You just do things for their own sake. And that’s got a real labor aspect to it: who has free time to just do things for their own sake? You’ve got to pay rent, you have to eat. So painters have this problem, where you’re working for the system, in the system, but at the same time your whole identity is about living freely. So the social practitioner has this problem too. Why is that surprising? It’s to the benefit of all to acknowledge that contradiction. It doesn’t have to be self-defeating or annihilating.
JW: It’s annihilating to the concept of the artist as this mystical free agent who can drop in at will and relieve social problems…
LR: Yeah, but I’m fine with that going away. One of the few times Marx talks directly about art, he talks about the Greeks. Greeks had slaves, thus they had art. I’m sorry, but that’s how it works, the surplus time they got from having the slaves do all the work is what made possible the production of art. But maybe there could be a more equal distribution of the surplus. The Senate could have just voted to alleviate your student loan debt, but they didn’t, they sided with the banks—that’s an example of your self-contradictory existence as an artist. You went to a social practice program, you got a degree, and you went out in the world to be a free agent with your $85,000 loan debt. Welcome to freedom!
JW: It feels great.
LR: So of course we’re going to have art, because we’re a society of surplus, but we’re also always going to have art that talks about the inequality of the distribution of that surplus.
JW: I feel like I sometimes feel really bad about having gone into such deep debt, but if I had never gone to that school I would have never thought about or read. I’m much more aware of my position in the world than I was before, which I think is incredibly useful from a personal vantage point.
LR: Yeah, I can’t tell my students to not go to grad school. It’s how the system works. Who wants to martyr themselves on some kind of purity? You’d just be fucked, you wouldn’t be relevant at all. It’s about trying to resituate what counts as relevance, so talking up the fact that social practice is now producing young artists with huge student loan debt is not an argument for it to be shut down and banished from the face of the earth. On the contrary, that’s what grounds it, that’s what makes it of this society and of this world. It’s not a condemnation, it’s a description. Don’t you feel like, you know, in terms of being a subject—being an artist, so somebody who gets to think about their subjectivity—do you feel these problems in your bones? It’s not like you’re coming at it from some kind of theoretical space.
JW: It makes me feel incredibly bitter towards a lot of social practice.
LR: It also makes you incredibly representative, of not just artists, but of a larger society. And your bitterness can be politicized. It is political! You’re getting fucked! We all are! And then there’s this very small percentage of people skimming the surplus off who want to perpetuate this fucked condition.
JW: Do you feel that way? Do you feel these problems in your bones? You talk a little bit about being part of this adulation of a punk rock aesthetic in 80s and feeling a bit rueful about it…
LR: Oh yeah, I made some really bad statements. About some zone of freedom that people could inhabit if they just gave up Time magazine and primetime broadcast TV or museums, if they worked within small local communities, or within anarchistic self-organized postal art systems. Statements I made right in the teeth of the Reagan era of de-regulation, of cutting back on all sorts of social programs, of cutting back on the NEA, that was not so cool. But again, I didn’t transcend my time. Even in the past, whether writing about painting or not, I always wanted to see art in a social context. I never believed in or felt a real affinity with a kind of beauty discourse or aesthetic discourse. And it’s not that I don’t value beauty, I do, but my valuation is based on pop music. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My sense of beauty is based on bands, which always had a social context, just like books or movies. You never talk about a book or a movie being beautiful in a kind of thumbs up/thumbs down way, it’s beautiful partly because it expressed alienation or anxiety or brutality or it was absurd or it was tragic or comedic. It was never this kind of up/down, on/off switch, which so much art discourse is plagued by. There’s no modulations or modalities of beauty in art discourse.
JW: You just kind of say whether something is beautiful or not.
LR: Yeah, whether it’s beautiful or not. I’ve been working with SAIC’s painting department for about 15 years now, and I feel like the discourse has moved more towards a purely formalist kind of discourse. Paintings are beautiful or not, they’re tasty, they rock, or they don’t. I’ll be invited to be the guest at a critique or something and I’ll be like, what do you think is the social destiny of your painting? Where do you want it to show up, and how do you want it to function in that place? What does it do there? And they’ll be like, “I don’t know.” Not like, “that’s a good question but I don’t know.” More like “I don’t care.
JW: Why not? Why don’t they care? Do they ever say? Do you ever ask?
LR: Mondrian wanted to model a future socialist society. Ad Reinhardt did too. Morris Louis made paintings that were bigger than any wall any painting collector had in their home, and his dealers were like please make these things smaller so we can sell them, so they can fit in somebody’s house. He said no and it was a deliberate, conscious choice. And Chris Wool, who was just at the Institute, wanted to very deliberately bring a kind of painting into the museum that was centered not in easel-painting—I mean, they’re about easel-painting insofar as they’re all the dimensions of portraits—but he’s mainly basing them off of graffiti, sign painting, stuff that happens on the street. A mass, cheap, budget-engineered decor. That’s thinking of how you get the outside world into the painting, that’s how you get the painting to represent the conditions it’s made under. But when I bring this up at critiques, it’s like I’m speaking Swahili most of the time, I’m just irrelevant. Part of it is because the artworld imaginary right now sees artists making work not in society but in things that are more local and performative, more temporally local as well as spatially local—cliques, friends, hangouts—in the zone of everyday life, which relieves people of having to think of high and low, or about privilege and elitism. Which, in parallel, feeds the romanticizing that happens in social practice with the déclassé, with these pockets of dispossession that artists will come in and somehow alleviate or enlighten.
JW: But the everyday is not some neutral vacuum! It’s not devoid of privilege, of class, of hierarchical structuring elements….
LR: No! It’s like with Detroit now. Detroit becomes a big art city as soon as it falls off the class radar, as soon as it goes from being the biggest unionized town in America to being the Amazon.
JW: So a painter can make a painting and not think about the painting, or a social practioner can make some—I don’t know—benevolent gesture, and not think about who benefitted or on what terms. Or I can move to Detroit and not think about class. It’s just there.
LR: It’s its own form of casualism. If I was going to be judgmental, that’s an impoverishment. It’s an impoverishment in that these people don’t recognize that even their doing that, their making art in something nonchalant like everyday life rather than in some larger entity like society, that itself speaks to a social condition that is filled with tragedy, absurdity, comedy—but not so much romance. I just see a lot of practice undertaken with a real naiveté, and it is not good for the art being made.
Lane Relyea’s essays and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines including Artforum, Afterall, Parkett, Frieze, Modern Painters, Art in America and Flash Art. He has written monographs on Polly Apfelbaum, Richard Artschwager, Jeremy Blake, Vija Celmins, Toba Khedoori, Monique Prieto and Wolfgang Tillmans among others, and contributed to such exhibition catalogs as Helter Skelter and Public Offerings (both Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1992 and 2001 respectively). He has delivered lectures at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University, and the Art Institute of Chicago among other venues. After teaching for a decade at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he joined the faculty in 1991, in the summer of 2001 he was appointed director of the Core Program and Art History at the Glassell School of Art in Houston, Texas. He is currently editor of Art Journal and his book Your Everyday Art World was published by MIT Press in 2013.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighbourhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation. What We Want is Free: Critical Exchange in Recent Art (2014), for which he was an associate editor, is published by SUNY Press.