Guest post by Jacob Wick.
Towards the end of The Function of Criticism, Terry Eagleton suggests that the “role of the contemporary critic,” which is of course a different thing than the function of criticism - right? a role and a function are different things, but of course the function of something might be to provide a role, or a role might be to serve a function, in both cases it seems like function is greater than, trumps or possibly dictates, role – is to reconnect “the symbolic to the political,” by which he means “engaging through both discourse and practice with the process by which repressed needs, interests, and desires may assume the cultural forms which could weld them into a collective political force.” He is emphatic in pointing out that this role, this idea, is not new at all, but – like many ideas around a libertory role for art, theory, etc – harks back to an earlier historical moment. Eagleton tracks the formulation of what would eventually become criticism to 17th and 18th centuries and the publication of pamphlets like The Spectator or The Tatler or the slightly later Rambler, and posits the function of this publications as the creation of publics against authoritarian rule. It was these publications, Eagleton argues, that began to bind together the bourgeois public sphere as such, and that would later provide foment for this public to assert its hegemony over autocratic rule. It is worthwhile pointing out here that the focus of The Function of Criticism is very, very narrowly trained on England; although in the colonies, I’m sure the publication of the Federalist papers and the myriad pamphlets that fluttered up and down the Atlantic coast would be a decent analogue. In any case, Eagleton’s estimation of publication meaning the creation of the public jogs handsomely alongside Matthew Stadler’s estimation of publication (Stadler is, of course, a former BaS star, on an interview that I was privy to in a relatively non-participatory, hungover fashion). The function of criticism, though, is slightly more pointed than the formation of a public around a text; it is the formation of a demos around an intertext or series of intertexts that weave(s) through contemporary cultural production. In my view, this amounts to provoking and/or fostering the articulation of a local discourse in relation to a larger discourse that supersedes it, for it is around this localized discourse that a public or counterpublic might begin to recognize itself in context.
The not-so-recent hullaballoo over the use or misuse of English in e-flux press releases, which started with the dubious assertion that a language separate from English was being used in the online listserv/journal in Triple Canopy and fizzled out with an entire issue of e-flux journal dedicated to half-assed rebuttals of that thesis provides some useful fodder. e-flux is a listserv that serves some 90,000 readers across the world, and to which are submitted press releases from everywhere, all of them in English, some of them in better English than others. These press releases are generally written in a similar tone and register, a tone and register that is relatively uniform throughout early 21st-century art writing in English. These press releases, because they strive to make sense with and to each other, constitute a discourse. This is not in itself a problem. Neither is the quality of English in use, nor whether this use constitutes a separate language – which of course it doesn’t, that’s ridiculous, if anything it might constitute a sociolect (unless we are going to start talking about International Baseball English or something) – or even that English is being used (lingua francas are important if a global discourse is to be established, right?).
The problem is twofold: first, that this global discourse is directed, at least in part, by the e-flux journal, a monthly publication usually consisting of around 7 articles generally written by a relatively small pool of artists, curators, etc that are recognized by the selfsame global discourse as important, and who are in general from a relatively narrow geographical context. This journal responds generally to the global discourse that is in part produced and supported by the e-flux listserv. The views of this journal, which are not necessarily bad, but generally do not address specific local contexts in any way; to do so in a monthly publication of 7 or so articles would be impossible. Because this extremely limited journal exists in a feedback loop with the global listserv, however, a rather distressing situation arises whereby the narrow view of the journal is regurgitated unproblematically into local contexts, without a consideration for whether or not this discourse is pertinent, or even relevant, to said context. Thus, an informal contemporary art space in Shenzhen might feel the need to publish a press release, in English, on e-flux, in order to participate in a global discourse, but in order to participate in this global discourse it might also feel the need to articulate itself using the tone and register, even the current relevant topics, of that discourse, set by the e-flux journal. The local tone, register, and topics of Shenzhen would then be reoriented in some way towards this strangely narrow global discourse in such a way that what is happening at the informal contemporary art space in Shenzhen reads exactly like what is happening at, say, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. This does not make sense.
A global discourse does not make sense without the existence of local discourses that challenge or at least interact with that discourse. If New York used to be the center of the art world, the Internet is the center of the art world now. This is not an oxymoron; we should drop the tired hat of insisting that the Internet will make us free, is devoid of hierarchy, and so on. Packets of information float horizontally across a non-hierarchical field for a while, yes, but in order for them to be legible they are converted via Internet Protocal (IP) into the hierarchal tree of the Domain Name System (DNS). If you’d like to read an entire book about this, please consider Alexander Galloway‘s Protocol. If you wouldn’t, read this 7 or 9 page gem by Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” In societies of control, power exists in the form of internal and/or internalized functions that corral anarchic forms of life into easily-policed norms. One of these norms might be the notion of “our global society,” the general assumption that we live in a world where we are all flying to Mumbai or Vancouver or Philadelphia whenever the latest investigation of you know, whatever, that we are all part of an abstracted society of global travelers (for more about this, check out Lane Relyea’s book Your Everyday Art World, which I haven’t finished at all, in fact I’ve barely started it, but he writes about this stuff immediately and in a very engaging manner, like in the first chapter or possibly even the introduction). The problem with “our global society,” of course, is that it doesn’t exist, or that it only exists to those who have tremendous wealth or privileged access to tremendous wealth. I live in Los Angeles, for instance, and occasionally am able to access wealth in the form of grants, paid travel by host organizations, etc. I may have been “global” from 2006ish – 2009ish, while I was living in New York and playing relatively regularly with a trio I had with two Irish musicians. My residence in our global society ended abruptly with the crash of the Celtic Tiger. Anyway, the point is that our global society doesn’t actually exist, and by endlessly repeating how it exists, and how great it is, how revolutionary for all of us, local contexts lose the ability to recognize themselves.
For instance, Southern California! The California-Pacific Triennial, which closed recently at the Orange County Museum of Art, made an attempt to at least slightly narrow California’s global context to the Pacific Ocean, rather than across the continent to New York or across a continent and an ocean to Europe. This seems exciting and it probably is, but to be honest the show generally seemed directed at the nonexistent global public I have discussed above, not towards a discourse that exists between or among Pacific art scenes, probably because that discourse doesn’t actually exist. This discourse also does not appear to exist – at least not to me, and I am certainly new, but isn’t that at least sort of the point of this series of blog posts? – in the City or County of Los Angeles.
Last month, I went to an opening at Honor Fraser for Dawn Kasper’s THE ABSURD show. The opening featured a gospel choir of that sang and danced in the space between the PA, pictured, and the two platforms, also pictured, leaving almost no space for an audience. The choir was incredible, really, it reminded me of Andrew Hill’s gospel music, it reminded me of Don Byron saying in 2008 or 2006 or whenever that was that gospel music is the most interesting improvised music happening, the room – an art gallery, seriously – a huge mass of people feeling very intensely, sweating and confused, rich collectors baffled at why they couldn’t see better, everybody looking very confused and happy, some dancing or trying to dance, the singers occasionally falling down from the Spirit. The whole thing felt to me a bit like a gag in the sense that I described in my last post, the gospel choir wrecking the scene of the art opening in a positively heroic fashion. At the post-opening reception a man next to me gushed to the man next to him that he tries to visit New York City once a month for inspiration.
The County of Los Angeles sprawls across 4000 square miles and holds 9.8 million people in fifteen cities speaking something like 200 different languages. In my neighborhood, I hear Tagalog, Spanish, Korean, and Bengali regularly: what are they talking about? What is their discourse? According to the listing at LA Art Resource, there exist at least 50 artist-run (maybe 85) initiatives in the City of Los Angeles (one of the fifteen cities in the county), located in phone lines, apartments, the Internet, lofts, and so on. What are they talking about? What is their discourse? Are artist-run initiatives speaking Tagalog or Korean, Bengali or Thai? Are they speaking to each other, in English, or in Spanish, about their local contexts? What the hell is going on in Burbank or Lancaster, Pasadena or San Gabriel? Surely not nothing. And if nothing is happening, then shame on us allowing that narrative, that public, to disappear from our discourse.
The setup, or lack of setup, of the City of Los Angeles, a setup that Brecht derided in the early 20th century as a collection of culturally vacant suburbs haphazardly roped together under a dubious civic entity (a situation only slightly ameliorated by the Interstate system) might prove actually beneficial to the development of a sort of critical ecosystem, a local discourse that might operate as the conglomerate of a series of hyperlocal discourses. Perhaps it is beside the point to fret about what Los Angeles’s unified cultural identity is, and instead ask what the cultural identity of Koreatown is, and how that relates to neighboring Mid-Wilshire or Historic Filipinotown. What is happening in Los Angeles is not what is happening in New York, but it shouldn’t be, namely because Los Angeles is not in New York. But what is happening in Los Angeles surely has the potential to be absolutely fascinating and exciting, if – maybe only if – we can get a little critical.
Jacob Wick is a conceptual artist living in Los Angeles, CA. For more information, please visit jacobwick.info.
“Courage is the great enabling virtue that allows one to realize other virtues like love and hope and faith. To have courage is to be willing to look unflinchingly at catastrophic circumstances and muster the will to overcome the fear, never to fully erase and eliminate the fear but overcome the fear, so that fear does not have the last word or so that fear does not push one into conformity, complacency or cowardice. ”- Cornel West
I don’t know how to be courageous. I don’t think that I am now but I know, at least I feel, that I must be in order to make it through this moment. Recent months have seen us, as Americans, wrestling with the baseline hatred and oppression that we had so naively believed we had moved beyond, a desire we know now to be a desperate fantasy. I believe Cornel West to be true when he tells us that courage will lead us to other virtues, other strengths that might enable us to not only make it through our time but to imagine a real alternative, a utopian dream no farther than our beds. What I mean to describe here is not a kind of free imagination but, as Žižek has described, “a matter of the innermost urgency”, an imagined alternative to a situation whose solution is so far outside the coordinates of the possible that one is forced to imagine an alternative space.
There is a courage to performance, as there is a courage to poetry and criticism, to those forms whose goals, from the outset, are a freshly imagined future. Not just the courage of those taking to embodied action but a courage to witness those acts. A willingness to be changed by something, to allow oneself to feel what John Martin calls muscular sympathy. A kind of sixth sense that gives the viewer access to the work through the performers body. Not simply the courage of the stage but the courage of the street and bar. The courage to stand beside one another, to allow oneself to feel responsible for each other, for ourselves. Too often the heady dialogues surrounding the production of aesthetic experience call to mind a kind of aimless drifting identity. An abstract subject, tethered to nothing and no one, submerged in the machinic realities of our time but this is not true for all of us. For those of us operating from a place of difference, whose lives are not simply shaped but are out right controlled by social and economic oppression, there are other ways of being. New ways to gather, to love, to share. New economies. Strategies of resistance. Alternatives simultaneously imagined and enacted between sweaty down beats on crowded dance floors in rooms that are forced to accommodate us as we are.
I wish that I could tell you how to be courageous, that I had some great strategy for us, but I don’t know. All I have is a feeling of urgency, a sensation that drives me towards hope, towards an alternative. I can tell you that the work will be courageous and that with it so will we. I can tell you now that we will be in this together, as a community, as a collective. We who feel strongly, we will be the ones to make a practice of resistance. To turn ourselves towards a tumultuous present of catastrophic circumstances, where revolution and change are palpable events, the tyranny of unaccountable elites runs rampant, and the violence of our city howls just beyond our walls. We will be the ones to turn towards this moment, our moment, to face our oppressors courageously for each other.
“Who will fight the bear? No one? Then the bear has won.” - Bas Jan Ader
The second edition of “Fielding Practice,” a podcast produced for our Art21 column Centerfield: Art in the Middle with Bad at Sports, just posted today. On this episode, Duncan MacKenzie, Dan Gunn, and I are joined by art critic, blogger, and ArtSlant’s Chicago editor Abraham Ritchie to talk about the rise of CSAs (Community Supported Art), which are art subscription programs that foster new collectors while supporting local artists; we dish about the art writers “strike” at the Huffington Post and we review Mindy Rose Schwartz’s solo exhibition at ThreeWalls, which recently closed. Plus: previews of the most anticipated Chicago exhibitions and events happening over the next few weeks. Click here for the podcast and related links, and thanks for listening!
Kate has done her 30 days, she has her $10,000 and I am sure a stack of non-disclosure agreements signed. The experiment is over and so begins the postmortem. The irony is it is almost pointless doing a review of the job that Kate McGroarty did over the last 30 days (much to her joy I am sure) since she did an affable job at saying nothing. That’s the place to start with this review for me, in that regardless if the Directors of the Museum of Science and Industry didn’t allow her to be open, she wisely decided there was little to be gained from being objective and human or worse there is really nothing to be said about the Museum that isn’t sterile and devoid of saccharin but regardless there was little said and even less done over 30 days.
How do you measure success in a project like this?
Is it success in the social media arena? If so it was an abject failure since the twitter feed had at most 1,800 followers (less then 300 more then @badatsports and no one works that as a full time job) & 4,126 fans on Facebook (which is pumped by the fact that they initially linked the like button on the site and not the actual Facebook page) but if I was the Director I wouldn’t measure it by social media since that is only a single and rather small apple in the larger marketing & PR bushel.
Is it press coverage? Well that was stilted in the bigining with the media’s interest in the human story of 1 person trapped in a
mine museum which quickly dried up and the press didn’t know how to grab onto the story by and large. Kate was a mascot, she put a ribbon on everything that didn’t have one and cut the ones that did, cheered for the home team and had a free smile for anyone that wanted one. She was in essence the Ronald McDonald clown in a orange countdown shirt and she did it well from day 1 to 30. The problem is from a press angle there is no story to tell.
Success can be measured by ticket sales? That may be true and as I am sure I will never know the performance of foot traffic over the course of that month in comparison to the previous 30 days or same time last year but if that is so then she was part human oddity exhibit/part greeter.
I can go on but this turned out better then I expected since I was afraid if they didn’t get the perfect marketing spokesperson and that live mic was handed to them you would have a mixture of silence from editorial indecision and exasperation as the thirty days came to a close. Not constantly but eventually it would slip out. They avoided that by getting the perfect person for the role, someone who was willing to take what they gave her, put a fun spin on it and make two posts and four tweets a day about it (300 in total but many are replies to others). Also I don’t know what the travel and official work schedule was like for Kate but the volume of posting, tweeting and documentation seemed a bit (honestly considerably) low for someone locked in a building 24×7. The average blogger does 2-3x as much if its a full time gig and many even more then that.
I am not a negative person and more so hate reviews or critics that tear down and don’t build or at least offer constructive direction and honest review. If you live in Chicago you want the Art Institute, Museum of Science and Industry, Museum of Contemporary Art, Field Museum & others to grow, flourish and succeed. At its core this is a good idea, at its core this is what social media was built for and at its core this is why social media will fail. Since the 1980′s (and even before but it really came to it’s own then in my view) there has been a top to bottom clamp on message and public image. Gone are the days where Grocery stores would have homegrown competitions and promotions on the store level, gone are the local town commercials where a franchise owner would speak directly for his/her business or brand. They were all removed so that you could control the message nationwide and eliminate potentially expensive missteps. Social media though flourishes on the human voice, insight, personalization, inclusivity and minutia; the very things that contemporary marketing fears most and actively looks to either eliminate or synthesize artificially in a controlled manner (think bad viral ads or national campaigns exactly the same just customized by local age, race, sex, sports affiliation or celebrity).
In order to succeed you need to make social media a part of your PR team (key point to remember, PR is not marketing and never the twain shall meet) have someone daily write, photograph and honestly talk about all the great aspects, locations & touchstones of your group in such a way that you don’t visit the museum to learn about them but to finally see them in person. People don’t visit the Louvre in droves to see this “Mona Lisa” for the first time but to write the final chapter that image has had in their life by seeing it for themselves, outside of books & film.
The web, where pages are free to publish is the prefect place to build a trap for the human imagination so it can roll around joyfully in subject mater of individual pertinent interest like a pig in mud and learn, celebrate and know as much about your product as possible. Its not a billboard, its a quilt as I presume Kate McGroarty’s wise mother knows all too well. Woven with history, personality, flaws & perfection. Thats how social media works and without it that is how it fails.
Social Media I said in May of this year quietly to whoever would listen was dead, by that I meant its growth had hit a plateau and it had come to the crossroads in its life as so many good ideas have. Those ideas and the people that advocated them always knew what the right path was, without exception they knew it. But they never took it. You know WHY? Because it was TOO damn hard (thank you Bo Goldman). Social Media is a dual edged sword that no one wants to swing no mater how sharp it can cut to the truth since no one has faith in the knight swinging it to not cut themselves or the royal family. Until that paranoia or risk calculus changes as a whole you will get performances like the Month at the Museum, all pomp and no circumstance.
Nothing really said or done, nothing to get excited about and worse yet nothing shared about a beautiful gem locked away that only few get to see and one got to live but can never truly tell about without breaking a presumed confidentiality agreement.
In short, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I’m off this week on vacay to sunny Sarasota, Fl., hometown of the Ringling circus and Pee-Wee Herman, too. Someday, there will be a museum dedicated to Pee Wee, and its curators will write sober wall text on the semiotics of the Big Shoe Dance and the erotics of chairy. But not today. Today, I bring you this video, which hopefully will not feel too much like a homework assignment. I personally was psyched to find it, anyway. Over the weekend, that ol’ leftie-pinko group the Platypus Affiliated Society sponsored an all-day conference called What Is Critique? Two School of the Art Institute critical-types, James Elkins and Chris Cutrone, were on panels, and though the ensuing discussions were predictably jargon-ridden, they were also pretty meaty. How do I know this? The organizers were nice enough to put the second of the panels on U-Stream, which I’ve embedded for your link-free viewing pleasure directly below. Enjoy. A brief description of the event follows.
What is Critique? is an all day symposium that consists of panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students city-wide that investigates the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day will focus on the nature and function of art critiques as a form criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day will be a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and art reception.