Over the last eight or ten months, I have been taking advantage of the opportunity this space provides by interviewing people whose work I admire or whose organizations I am curious about. I have not had an explicit plan or frame for these interviews: for their structure, for the people I talked to, etc. I have been interviewing people who I like, people whose work I like, people who work for organizations I am interested in—often all three at once. Nonetheless, we often ended up talking about the same things: art’s supportive position in a brutally dehumanizing financial system, and the arbitrary nature of validating art as art.
It should not be surprising that art occupies a supportive position in today’s neoliberal market—art, particularly “fine” art, has always been made for or by those in power. The art market is sustained by financiers, venture capitalists, CEOs, etc. Art is either produced directly for this market or produced in some imagined resistance to it. Those who produce art or who engage in local or global art worlds are, by and large—including myself—born into some kind of wealth and afforded some kind of privilege. As Renzo Martens put it in my conversation with him, “half of the world’s population that never has a fucking cappuccino while thinking about one’s own ideas because they’re just working in mines and cleaning bedrooms and god knows what.” To be an artist or even an art enthusiast, you must be able to afford to work unpaid jobs, buy cappuccinos, and so on. This has always been true. Bach wrote for the Austrian royal court, Koons makes sculpture for the ultra-rich. The difference is negligible. When I talked to Keith J Varadi about my nagging suspicion that punk simply serves as the appropriate entropy for sustaining late capitalism, he mentioned awareness of one’s own position in the world as a key part of what, for him, defines punk. When you buy a used car and convert it to bio-diesel, he mentioned, you are still participating in the larger, exploitative economy: either mass deforestation due to the planting of GMO biodiesel corn or the international industrial-scale production and distribution of vegetable oil. When you become a freegan, you are still taking and using things that were likely made in horrific labor environments (most things are) or that were distributed along an international freight network, which itself is outrageously polluting and violent. Whether or not you pay for your shrimp is arbitrary: it has already been farmed in Laos or Thailand using slave labor and shipped in an airplane halfway across the world.
We make art, we think about art, we recognize the existence of art because we are rich, because we can afford to be interested in something, because we are not so exhausted from working in a mine or cleaning shit and vomit in a hotel or zigzagging across four part-time jobs that all we can do is pass out. Again, this has always been true. It is not interesting. What might actually be interesting is the validation of art: what makes art art. I have asked almost everyone I’ve interviewed what makes art art, and have received a surprisingly similar array of answers. When I interviewed Adam Overton in Januray, he recalled a quote by Allan Kaprow: “what if I were to think art was just paying attention?” Overton replaced think with believe: “what if I were to believe art was just paying attention?” It reminded me of a feeling I have regarding Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art,” namely that there appears to be no reason why the Van Gogh he is looking at gets to be art and not the hat or the rifle. Although Heidegger spends the whole essay explaining why the Van Gogh is art and the hat/rifle are not, the explanation does not actually have to do with qualities inherent to the work of art; rather, the idea is that what art does that other things do not do—the artness of art—is make the viewer aware of her own consciousness. For Heidegger, the shoes of the peasant girl in the Van Gogh (was it it even a Van Gogh? my books are in limbo, I have nothing to reference), caused him to realize that his opinion of peasantry, which he had never considered, was man-made, and that it existed in contradistinction to some kind of deeper truth about peasantry or humanity, that, further, truths in general exist in relation to some kind of deeper Truth, and that this Truth is neither moral nor singular—it is not explicit—but operates in a relation to other truths the way umami operates in relation to other tastes. In any case, there is no reason why the hat or the rifle couldn’t also be art, had Heidegger had a different sort of day or lived in a different sort of era. There is no reason why anything is or is not art, except for what we believe and how that thing—or experience, aural space, whatever—operates in relation to what we believe.
Similarly, when I sat down with Aandrea Stang, formerly of the MOCA, where she coordinated, among other things, a massive re-happening of much of Alan Kaprow’s work and Engagement Party, a four-year series of socially- or otherwise publicly-engaged work. She now runs OxyArts, an arts programming initiative at Occidental College, also in LA. I talked to her shorty after We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, conceived by Finishing School with Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher, had been installed in front of the school’s auditorium. WWSYFHD is a full-scale mockup of a Predator drone, covered in adobe in a simultaneously familial and antagonistic gesture over the course of three days by the artists and a smattering of the general public—the artists’ friends, some students, some people who happened to be there. I was curious a number of things: about the horizontal organizing structure of Engagement Party, which I knew nothing about and which seemed—and still seems—to be to be as exciting an artwork as any that happened as part of the series; about the drone; about what the hell OxyArts was supposed to be. Mostly I was curious about what drew Aandrea to this kind of work. “I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of one’s situation,” she said. “Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork.” Again, the aesthetics of one’s situation, as she succinctly put it, have to do not with inherent qualities but with validating systems, and encountering the former often includes recognizing the latter. A Donald Judd is a Donald Judd because it is a Donald Judd, and for no other reason. If it were not a Donald Judd it would be ductwork, or a box.
This is not a judgment. When I interviewed Conrad Freiburg—artist, musician, carpenter, man of the hour—he brought up the saying “art is as serious as your life.” Is your life serious right now? Will it be serious in five minutes, when you go to the vending machine? One’s life becomes serious because one decides to get serious or because something happens that one recognizes that something is serious. Seriousness is performed; so is art. We wondered—I still wonder, actually, and probably Conrad does, too, although we haven’t talked since he went to Ohio and I went to Mexico—if practicing not giving a fuck would be a way to catch oneself getting serious and have a chance to decide whether things were actually serious or not.
Maybe what is exciting or useful about art, if there is anything exciting or useful about art at all, is its ability to give a chance to decide if things are actually serious or not. Maybe looking at a Donald Judd makes us wonder why this piece of ductwork is art while that piece of ductwork is not, and maybe in our wondering we will wonder who or what decides that art is art and what their motivations might be. In March, after failing or forgetting to interview somebody in February, I met Renzo Martens at a cafe. I think Renzo thought I wanted to talk about Enjoy Poverty, because everybody does, but I actually wanted to talk to him about the Institute for Human Activities, a venture that rides some kind of line between being incredibly straightforward and incredibly surreal. The previous summer had seen the first summer of the IHA, an arts residency and “gentrification program” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had ended in the surprisingly violent suppression and removal of the Institute by a Canadian palm oil interest. Thinking of Adam, maybe, and myself, certainly, I asked Renzo if he considered the Institute art, and whether it mattered if the Institute was art or not. He answered, emphatically, yes, that it mattered that it was art because he likes art, because art is the rare form of expression that shows—or can show—its “suspending apparatus,” as Martens put it, that this dome above your head that you know is not a dome is not magic, but trompe l’oeil, a technique that is known and can be used, a machine for making a flat ceiling a dome or a wall an apple tree. For Martens, the Institute is an opportunity to be the machine, so to speak:
I told you the problem if I’m a critical artist and I do it from my studio in Brooklyn, for example, so if I don’t take into account the bigger economic structures, my work is just going to be a little thing in a machine, and it won’t reflect the machine itself, other than symbolically, and even that symbolic reflection will function in that machine, right? What I need to do is own the machine. That’s the level of abstraction we need to work on in order to generate knowledge about art and the machine. That’s why we can’t be an artist, we can’t be a curator, we have to be an institution, but even more than that, we need to be the economic forces that are derived from that institution.
That is to say, Martens is hoping that, by sincerely an unabashedly using the language and mechanisms of the larger economic system—in this case, the kind of art NGO that has been popping up all of the world in the last five or ten years—he can gain access to and leverage within that system and redirect some of the money that usually just circles around the system towards, for instance, paying exploited Congolese palm oil workers to do something besides work in a fucked up palm oil plantation. This is surely what the Canadian firm that pushed the IHA out of its original position was literally in arms over.
Lane Relyea has written extensively about artists becoming institutions and the economic forces derived from these institutions. The everyday, hailed as a sort of quotidian utopia by art discourse for the past century, is not so everyday at all. The everyday is structured, often dictated, by abstract forms of control: from implicit understandings and unspoken agreements of how to act in a given space to a labor system that reduces human life to automated workforce management. In Your Everyday Art World, Relyea picks apart institutions, artists, and artists who have become institutions to highlight the webs of finance and control that support them and point out that, regardless of whether or not an artist or institution or artist-institution hails itself as resistant or revolutionary, the artist/institution/artist-institution still operates in full support of and fully supported by the market it rails against. In our interview, I tried very hard to get Relyea to make a judgment about this. Is it bad that art is naive? Yes, Lane said, it is. But it is more than judging this or that painting or this or that social practice intervention, Relyea, pointed out, it is that
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.
Naive “radical” art blocks our ability to see the very things it is supposedly railing against. This is why it sells so well, why it is so well-supported by the global art world. This is, as Relyea put it, “an impoverishment,” a diminishing of the potential of art. If art has the potential to allow us a chance to recognize our options, as I would like to believe, then the legions of naive revolutionaries flying across the globe to make it to the next Creative Time Summit are drastically, violently reducing that potential. This is not to say that these people are bad people or that they are intentionally making bad art, although there are certainly assholes and bad art everywhere, but rather that the artworld imaginary is just that—imaginary—and should be recognized as such.
My last two interviews, conducted after I arrived in Mexico City, have elaborated on that point. As both Carla Herrera-Prats and Arturo Ortiz Struck pointed out, very nearly every single Mexican president—and most of the people that form the government of Mexico—come from wealthy families and have received graduate degrees from Ivy League schools in the US. These presidents, and their governments, apply the economic wet dreams of the neoliberal free market to an actual country—Mexico—with disastrous results. This is not necessarily because they are bad people, although some of them certainly are; it is because they are living in a reality that is abstracted from actual life in Mexico. For Herrera-Prats, this highlights that education is currency, that proof that one has attended a recognized institution increases one’s market value, and that, as such, the American Graduate Degree is one of the United States’s most powerful economic and ideological exports. For Ortiz Struck, the implementation of an economic strategy in Mexico that has very little to do with actual life in Mexico has resulted in a series of very real, very terrible structures being built for people who don’t exist, structures that ignore or obstruct human life.
In general, it is clear in Mexico that human life is not in the interest of the market, the government, or the narcotics cartels that the government colludes with. It is clear that recent reforms and public works are ploys to encourage further foreign investment which will likely never be enforced or built; it is clear that the government is ineffective and unaware—Ortiz Struck described the men and women of the government as not necessarily bad or evil people, just people who had no idea what was going on; it is clear that the police are corrupt, violent, and dangerous; it is clear that those born into poverty here will very lead lives of crushing that they will never be able to escape from. The clarity is refreshing. In the United States, as in Mexico, the government is ineffectual, the police are violent, and those born into poverty will never be able to escape poverty. The United States just has a better story, a better imaginary, a dream.
If you read about social practice or read about Silicon Valley, if you read the news or watch television, you will hear quite a bit about how you are part of some story: maybe your story, maybe the story. You will also hear about a game that you might be in, a game that is changing, because of this or that artist or because of this or that app. When you pick up your next bottle of Coca-Cola, your name or your friend’s name will be on the side of the bottle; when you request your next Über, you’ll be “evolving the way the world moves.” Indeed, Über’s corporate language is enlightening:
Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.
The language of Über, and increasingly the language of corporate marketing worldwide, matches the language of the contemporary artist statement. This is the language of meta-narratives, stories that have already begun sometime close to now and proceed into an ill-defined or permanently deferred future. By buying a Coca-Cola or buying the work of Theaster Gates, you are participating, changing, progressing, innovating, remembering, making, thinking, transgressing, transforming, evolving, -ing, -ing, -ing. You are a visionary, Coca-Cola is a visionary, you are a visionary for choosing to be part of the community of visionary persons who drink Coca-Cola. What such visionary projects do is enforce the idea that this or that imaginary is true, that it operates absolutely and without relation to any internal or external circumstances. In so doing, they impoverish or obstruct our ability to see, to recognize ourselves as participating in this or that system, that or the other imaginary.
These interviews have clarified something for me: I am against visionary art. What I like about art, what makes art worthwhile for me, is the opportunity it can afford to see myself, to hear myself, to catch myself or others. Visionary art makes it difficult to see, to hear, to catch myself or others; it sucks me into a story that I may not be able to get myself out of, a story that operates in total indifference to me, my particularity, what I think or believe or feel. As I’ve mentioned several times before, what struck me most about reading through the materials that eventually made it into the second edition of What We Want is Free was that, while almost all of the projects included had artist statements—meta-narratives—very few had descriptions of what actually happened: who came, what their names were, how they felt, what they wanted, how their face creased when they smiled or frowned. They operate and validate themselves using the same mechanism that Über or Cisco Systems uses to operate and validate themselves. Art must cease using this mechanism. Art is art because it says it is, and it must stop saying that it is visionary. If art is to be useful, if it is to have any effect on the calamitous state of the world, if it is to alter, in a real way, a city or a moment, it must stop being visionary. No more visionary art.
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.
Work by Regina Mamou.
City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower is located at 806 N. Michigan Ave. Reception Friday, 5:30-7:30pm.
Conversation with author Lane Relyea, moderated by Duncan MacKenzie with Shannon Stratton and Abigail Satinsky.
threewalls is located at 119 N. Peoria Ave. Reception Friday, 6:30-8:30pm.
Work by Rory Coyne and Lauren Levato Coyne.
Century Guild is located at 2136 W. North Ave. Reception Saturday, 7-10pm.
Work by Meg Duguid, Bruce Conkle, Micki Tschur, Paul Mack, Mariano Chavez, Sarah Beth Woods, Marie Walz, Scott Wolniak, Sabina Ott & Michelle Wasson, Catie Olson, Andy Pizz, Eyeball Mansion, Nick Drnaso, Sarah Leitten, Andy Gabrysiak, Scott Anderson, Taylor Hokanson, Paul Somers, Edra Soto, Ryan Standfest, Bert Stabler, Matthew Novak, Kevin Budnik, Jeffrey Boguslawski, Ryan Travis, Christian Lars, Bra Jim Zimpel, Tom Torluemke, Tim Ripley, Eric Lebofsky, Andy Burkholder, Erik Lundquist, Krystal Difronzo, Marieke McClendon, Lyra Hill, Alyssa Herlocher, Joe Tallarico, Chris Cilla, Andy Gabrysiak, Chris Kerr, Keith Herzik, Kevin Budnik, Jason Robert Bell, Abe Lampert, Ryan Travis Christian, Jo Dery, David Alvarado, Ryan Standfest, EC Brown, Grant Reynolds, Max Morris, Otto Splotch and Anonymous.
Antena is located at 1755 S. Laflin St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Curated by Ginger Krebs.
Sullivan Galleries is located at 33 S. State St. Reception Friday, 5-7pm.
Can I just say once again how grateful I always feel to people and organizations who post videos and/or audio of their panels, talks, conversations, etc. online? For near-agoraphobes like me, it’s a lifesaver. This talk happened locally at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago–although I fear it’s just another variation on the old ‘what does it mean to be a Chicago artist’ chestnut, hopefully it’ll be of interest to many of you who live outside our fair city as well:
Home Base: Michael Darling, Michelle Grabner, and Lane Relyea in Conversation
What does it mean to characterize an artist by where they live and work? And similarly, what does it mean for a collection to be of a place — to reflect a museum’s history and artistic community, to be shaped by the dynamics of a city, to be used by and be seen as part of the locale where it lives? The MCA’s new James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling, artist and writer Michelle Grabner, and critic Lane Relyea delve into these questions, looking at examples from the United States and internationally.
The MCA just made it available on their “MCA Interactive” page (where–I love this–they provide a helpful answer to the question ‘What is a Podcast’?). The talk is available in two forms – MP3 download and/or streaming media. Click here to access the download. There are a ton of other MCA talks and walk-thru type discussions on the download/streams page for you to peruse, as well.