Why do I give a shit about art?

February 25, 2015 · Print This Article

Zona MACO and Material, the fairs that ran more or less concurrently the first week of February here in Mexico City, helped synthesize a number of threads floating around in my mind since arriving here. Those threads: Boris Groys’s essay “On Art Activism,” published in e-flux shortly before I moved, a talk by Donna Haraway that a friend e-mailed to me, and the thought, in general: why do I give a shit about art? Do I even?

We arrived at Zona MACO an hour before it shut. I was surprised that I was there: a few days earlier, in an impassioned speech to Andrew Choate, I had said something like, you know, this fair is in this posh neighborhood that you have to own a car or a chauffeur or have a chauffeur who’s driving your car or whatever to get to, it’s only accessible to the very rich, fuck the rich and fuck their art, they can keep it. So anyway, there we were, at MACO, the phenomenal lighting making the average MACO-goer’s Lacoste polo shit look gorgeous and my oil-stained clothes look ratty as hell. We moved fast, visiting only galleries where one of us knew somebody. I didn’t think about anything or really look at anything: Maurício Ianês at Y Gallery was visually striking but maybe a little hamhanded, but then again given the subject matter maybe it’s ok to be hamhanded, maybe nothing else will ever work; Debora Delmar Corp at DUVE Berlin was actually kind of beautiful in person, although I guess I can see why some jackass gave it “worst of MACO,” because, I don’t know, no marble? no expressionist lines? who cares, I’m sure that guy would prefer a show of staircase pineapples thickly streaked with paint or blood in a really emotional way; at Chert, Petrit Kalilaj was a little scattered, but also maybe hilarious and heartbreaking; I heard a funny story at Gaga and wondered how Labor won the 1800 Tequila prize and what that meant—how it would affect my life. Then we left past an army of art handlers ready to pounce.

some furniture at MACO

A few hours earlier I had been at Material, the satellite fair that first happened last year. I had no thoughts at Material, either, I was too hung over and tired. I didn’t have the coffee I needed until after I left. I talked to people, which I usually don’t. I talked to Aaron Harbour and Jackie Im and liked how weird and gross but also really appealing Chris Hood’s paintings were; I talked to Steve Kado at Kunstverein Toronto and was totally freaked out by how similar his speech pattern is to another Canadian I know; I talked to Travis Fitzgerald and Josh Pavlacky at American Medium, who were extremely congratulatory and very friendly about a performance I had done at Bikini Wax the night before, two stories above a great video by Skip Arnold—not the one below. It was also the only show/booth/experience I spent more than ten minutes in during the entire week. Anyway, I didn’t talk to anyone at Queer Thoughts, but I wondered if their desk was intentionally positioned in their booth such that you couldn’t really look at David Rappeneau’s drawings without putting your ass in someone’s face. Everybody I talked to, well not everybody but a sizeable sample, mentioned that both sales and attendance had been slow, and either Travis or Josh said something like, “I don’t know why they even call this an art fair, they should call it something else.” For this sizeable sample, it seemed like the opportunity and experience to meet other people interested in similar art, to talk and hang out and party or decide not to party, was as or more important than actually selling anything. Then again, everybody needed to sell things.

I guess it’s kind of like how it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends than go to your mind-numbing day job. Or how it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends than stab yourself in the eye. How it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends and talk with them like they’re people you want to talk to than it is to have a drink with your friends and talk to them like you want them to buy something from you. People who I either knew or had established a friendly-level acquaintanceship with apologized for “giving me the spiel,” which I identified with, having worked for a year selling wine, which involves a similar kind of activity.

Wine is vastly more enjoyable, or more able to be enjoyed, if you know what the hell is going on with it: where it came from, what grape(s) it’s made out of, what year it’s from, what things taste like from that place, from that grape, from that year. It helps also to know how it was made, using what process, where the winemaker used to work. You have to spend time reading, learning, tasting, feeling like an asshole for not knowing, feeling like an asshole for knowing, that kind of thing. It’s certainly possible to have a good time with a glass of wine knowing nothing at all, but in order to have a great time, to have an interesting perceptual experience or a moment where you feel like you are suddenly the fucking king of everything, a feeling which wine is uniquely qualified to deliver, you have to know stuff. Sometimes it’s also nice to know little narrative bits, too, you know, how these winemakers make a big deal out of paying their grape-pickers fairly, or how this is the only woman wine-maker in her region, so on and so forth, but this sort of narrative is usually reserved for the selling of wine, by winesellers like I used to be, and is usually delivered in the same tone of voice, with the same cadence, as the art spiel.

This champagne is really good

Which I guess is why I’ve been wondering: what differentiates a photograph from a bottle of wine? A painting from an antique chair? Why do I think that an artwork is different, exists on a “higher” plane, than a humidor? A year ago, I badmouthed an LA gallerist for having a side business selling antique furniture. I perceived the proximity of the antique furniture practice and the gallery practice as some kind of affront, some kind of insult to art. Like art belongs in a different moral/ethical universe than chairs, or wine, and treating it as if it were the same kind of lifestyle commodity is somehow dirty. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s a good dirty.

In “On Art Activism,” Boris Groys draws a distinction between the aestheticization art performs versus the aestheticization design performs. For him, design takes the tools—a hammer, a speech, whatever—of the status quo and makes them more attractive, more usable. Now you, too, can get rich making videos on YouTube advertising our products! That kind of thing. Art, on the other hand, takes the status quo and presents it as a relic, as something already dead, useless. For Groys, this lends art a degree of political agency insofar as it treats the status quo, which is always impossible to imagine ending, as already over, a fossil. In Donna Haraway’s conception of our current epoch, the “capitalocene,” ruled and primarily defined by the processes and logics of capitalism, the production and exhaustion of fossils is paramount. What for Groys is the possibility of political action for art against the status quo, is for Haraway is the very fuel for the status quo. I’m tempted to believe them both: while art has the potential to cause problems within the status quo, it is ultimately an integral part of it, consumed, traded by, conferring status upon a small superrich class that controls the vast majority of the globe’s wealth, right alongside furniture (also a part of Zona MACO), boutique alcohols (also a part of Material), and so on.

Donna Haraway

Donna Haraway

I’m wondering, actually, if maybe this idea that art has some kind of actual political efficacy, that it can “change the world,” is maybe the last vestige of the sort of 18th/19th century romanticism that moved art somewhere—up, definitely—different than, say, furniture or wine, that it delivers something different, something more, something to do with morality, something to do with ethics in a conception of “the world” that assumes it to be homogenous, somehow able to benefit uniformly from a single given action or idea that moves—ineffably, certainly—from the particular to the universal, a movement governed by a set of rules, standards of taste, beauty, and judgment, that it was assumed every “good” work of art, or “good” person, could be shown to follow.

At the outset of “On Art Activism,” Groys dismisses claims that activist art is bad because it is “bad art” — that is, it looks bad or doesn’t exhibit technical mastery. “In the twentieth century,” he writes, “all criteria of quality and taste were abolished by different artistic avant-gardes—so, today, it makes no sense to appeal to them again.” If MACO and Material made me feel anything, it is that I hope that the avant-gardes of the twenty-first century can make equally obsolete the idea that an artwork can or should have some kind of ability to move itself and/or its viewers into some kind of universal realm of political agency, because there is no “universal” any more than there is “the world,” and any politics that depends on the universal—”the world”—is necessarily self-defeating. I hope that we can forget the Enlightenment and become total fucking idiots or squids or cyborgs or really anything non-Enlightenment-human, and try something else, because that shit did not work at all.

“I’ve been for a walk on a winter’s day…”

October 18, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Jacob Wick.

So far, the things that have made the most sense in Los Angeles to me have been the things that make no sense at all. I’m writing about Juliana Paciulli‘s recent solo show at Greene Exhibitions, “Are you talking to me?” and Andrew Choate‘s poetry, like this one from Stingray Clapping:

more nipple than fig
more fig than nipple
dress up as fig
for Halloween
dress up as
nipple for birthd

Choate sings his poetry, or singsongs it, more of a sprechstimme than a musical. I’ve never seen him read the poem I have placed above, but there’s probably a tune it goes along with, and somebody always snickers at it, as I have seen them snicker in, now, several situations in Los Angeles. It’s the same kind of snicker, or nervous laugh or outright laugh, perhaps if one is confident, that happens at a total failure of communication, when there is some kind of sudden – perhaps sudden, perhaps dramatic, possibly completely banal, like being hungover or otherwise exhausted – breakdown in a conversation or scene.

A scene perhaps like that in the title video of Paciulli’s exhibition. A teenage girl, wearing a sagging black American flag as a cape, stands in typical suburban house – indeed a suburban house so typical it played Ferris Bueller’s house in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - rehearsing De Niro’s famous scene from Taxi Driver. She raises her gun; the shot centers on it: it is a yellow watergun (full disclosure: my yellow watergun; fuller discloser: John Paul Glover’s yellow watergun), apparently empty, or mostly empty. The shot returns to the girl’s face; she finishes the scene, pauses, says “oh, ok,” and looks down and away. A housecat jumps over the flag/cape, which has apparently fallen off.

More forceful, adjacent to the sags another black flag, printed on bamboo twill, with a banana-yellow QUACK printed across its lower third. The flag might signify something, maybe national pride or Jasper Johns or Black Flag, a band I very unfortunately saw recently – a bunch of pathetic, ridiculous old men prancing around the stage like a bunch of assholes, which they certainly appeared to be – but the QUACK arrests its signification in the act, leaving the viewer speechless, in the strange afterimage of a short-circuit of meaning.

Quack, 2013 Archival pigment print on bamboo twill Edition 1 of 3 (+ 2 AP) 40 x 56.5 inches

Quack, 2013
Archival pigment print on bamboo twill
Edition 1 of 3 (+ 2 AP)
40 x 56.5 inches

It has been important, certainly since the turn of the 20th century, to ask what things – not just art, everything – mean. What does this abstract painting mean? What does this realist short story mean? What does this rock mean? I learned at the Santa Monica police station, from an incredibly chatty technician who gently rolled my finger on the scanner, that the print on my left index finger is of the sort that less than 1% of people have. I asked, laughing, but not really, I felt pretty serious about it – it was my first thought – “what does it mean?” She said, “oh, probably nothing.” If I look it up online – I think it was a double loop or a Peacock’s eye or maybe a tented arch, I wish I remembered or wrote it down, but I didn’t – it might mean that I’m a perfectionist, that I’m indecisive or diplomatic, that I’m independent and inflexible, or that I am “fiery.”

The trouble with asking what things mean is that they often mean nothing, and those things that don’t mean nothing often could mean many things along a varying scale of possible validity. I once wrote a review, for a class in undergrad, of that Ann Hamilton piece that is a bunch of white shirts, seams opened and singed, on a table. I wrote that it “meant” something about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. You know: sewing machines, fire, melancholy, death, feminism. It’s certainly possible that the piece meant something, and that that meaning had something to do with about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but it’s equally possible it meant something about self-image, about burning or singing the demand to appear a certain way, or even the privileging of appearance (it’s on a table after all). I point this out not to champion a wry, pseudo-“ironic” approach, an approach that I find vapid and profoundly irritating – and completely dissociated from the actual function of irony, but that’s another story – but rather to wonder if it is not more interesting, or exciting, or even relevant, to ask what things do, rather than what they mean. In the case of Choate and Paciulli, their work could mean a variety of things, doubtless some of which are fascinating, but what is most important – to me at least – is what they do: they short-circuit or gag the transmission of subjective information. In so doing, they resuscitate the possibility of gesture.

What is gesture? Giorgio Agamben, in his enigmatically unfinished “Notes on Gesture,” refers to the ancient Roman philosopher Varro:

The third stage of action is, they say, that in which they faciunt “make” something: in this, on account the likeness among agere “to act” and gerere “to carry or carry on,” a certain error is committed by those who think that it is only one thing. For a person can facere something and not agere it, as a poet facit “makes” a play and does not act it, and on the other hand an actor agit “acts” it and does not make it, and so a play fit “is made” by the poet, not acted, and agitur “is acted” by the actor, not made. On the other hand, the general [imperator], in that he is said to gerere “carry on” affairs, in this neither faciti “makes” nor agit “acts,” but gerit “carries on,” that is, supports, a meaning transferred from those who gerunt “carry” burdens, because they support them. (57)

The three categories of action are, then: to make or produce; to act or perform; to carry on or support. Agamben identifies gesture with support, with gerere, to carry or carry on. The error that apparently was being made in the first century BCE, that of confusing performing with supporting, is simply exacerbated in the twenty-first century CE, where that which is supporting simply disappears. We see the actor perform, and admire the poet who made, but we miss, or fail to focus on, the gesture that supports: the tone of voice, the rise and fall of an arm, a certain tenseness or relaxation. It is the gesture that finally closes the act of signification, and for Agamben, this carries tremendous weight. As that which supports or endures, the gesture “opens up the sphere of ethos as the more proper sphere of that which is human” (57). It is not – or should not be – the sphere of production, nor the sphere of praxis, that determines one’s humanity, but rather the manner in which one supports or endures, one’s gestures. It is in one’s gestures that one’s character appears.

“Notes on Gesture” tracks the disappearance or capture of gesture from the late 19th century to the present. Beginning with Gilles de la Tourette’s catalogue of irregular gestures, which became the basis for what is now called Tourette’s disease; to Tourette’s catalogue of normal gestures, which he describes with pre-cinematic relish. According to Agamben, after numerous cases being reported in the late 19th century, cases Tourette’s disease “practically cease to be reported” from the beginning of the twentieth century until Oliver Sacks reportedly noticed several apparent cases of Tourette’s while walking down a New York street in 1971. Agamben suggests, somewhat amusingly – a nervous laugh, a snicker – that this could perhaps “in the meantime ataxia, tics, and dystonia had become the norm and that at some point everybody had lost control of their gestures and was walking and gesticulating frantically” (51). The reemergence of Tourette’s in the 70s signals not a sudden gaining of control of gesture, but perhaps the moment when the obsession over gesture – as one obsesses over anything one has lost, as any lost thing becomes transfigured into “destiny” – reached some kind of mark.

In any case, the desire to reclaim gesture or the nostalgia for gesture propels cinema. Extending Deleuze’s term “movement-image,” which implies that cinematic images are themselves in movement, Agamben writes:

Every image, in fact, is animated by an antimomic polarity: on the one hand, images are the reification and obliteration of a gesture (it is the imago as death mask or symbol); on the other hand, they preserve the dynamis intact (as in Muybridge’s snapshots or in any sports photograph). The former corresponds to the recollection seized by voluntary memory, while the latter corresponds to the image flashing in the epiphany of involuntary memory. And while the former lives in magical isolation, the latter always refers beyond itself to a whole of which is it a part. Even the Mona Lisa, even Las Meninas could be seen not as immovable and eternal forms, but as fragments of a gesture of as stills of a lost film wherein only they would regain their true meaning. And that is so because a certain kind of litigatio, a paralyzing power who spell we need to break, is continuously at work in every image…

Cinema seizes and redeploys gesture, and as such “belongs essentially to the realm of ethics and politics” (55). For cinema suggests or imposes character, characters, ethos. For if it is through cinema, as Agamben so eloquently writes, that we dream of gesture; the question then becomes how to “introduce into this dream the element of awakening” (56). How do we, how can we, pinch ourselves back into awareness of our own gestures?

For Agamben, the key is to forget, or to remember, or to forget to forget, to forget to remember. Gesture appears involuntarily, in moments when we lose our track, when we are gagged, “indicating first of all something that could be put in your mouth to hinder speech, as well as in the sense of the actor’s improvisation meant to compensate a loss of memory or an inability to speak” (59). Perhaps this is what Cage dreamed of when he asked for silence. When we are gagged, when we forget suddenly or witness a forgetting – for the gag is more than the actor forgetting, it is everyone in the theater witnessing that forgetting, participating in it – we witness gesture as pure means, dissociated from production or praxis.

And if cinema is the tool by which we dream of gesture, then Hollywood is the capital of dreams, of dreams suggested or imposed; and if we consider gesture to be the sphere of politics, as Agamben does, or if we consider gesture to be the support or character of ideology, as I do – or both, for that is perhaps two ways of saying the same thing – then Los Angeles becomes perhaps the ideal place to think about gesture, or to focus on work that brings forward the possibility of gesture, work that stops us from explaining what it means and forces to encounter what it does.

Jacob Wick is a conceptual artist based in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info.