“I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA…”

November 22, 2013 · Print This Article

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.