21 sept 13 Essex reading

1 - Excursus – a bite out of Grant Kester's external image arrow-10x10.png "The One and the Many" [see also below]
2 - “Metamute” review of new “Collective Actions” external image arrow-10x10.png
3 - Gabriele Detterer, “Spirit and Culture of Artist-Run Spaces” (interrupted)
4 – more on Kester; bad dreams
5 – on method: “hit the (picture) books!”
6 – back to G. Detterer (abandoned)

1 - Excursus – a bite out of Grant Kester's book "The One and the Many"
I am reading also in Grant Kester's book "The One and the Many." Stevphen liked the writing on Francis Alys' action "Moving a Mountain," so I thought this was important to read. Kester is an aesthetician, intent on the long-familiar project of deconstructing, nay, demolishing edifices of isolationist formalism. That is the edifice of critical theory and (mostly, I think) practice that sidelines ethics and politics from consideration as “serious art.” The newest formalist doxa he detects -- (although he does not so call it, except by inference, that is, comparing it to his deconstruction of classic Greenbergian formalism in his earlier book "Convesation Pieces") -- is a kind of learned, insistent, systematic helplessness inherent in many variants of post-structuralist theory. He tracks this back to Schiller, his "Sentimental Education," written for an aristocratic patron, and thoroughly elitist in its suppositions. Because the revolution of May '68 did not succeed, Kester maintains, the French thinkers of that generation are vested in the idea that no revolution can succeed before all Western thought is taken apart, all settled identities disrupted, and so on (Kester's taxonomy is thorough). More than the conventional indictment of "post-structuralist relativism," Kester accuses the doxa of contemporary criticism of responsibility for the isolationist trope of artistic autonomy itself. Alys' work, then, is invested with a kind of intention to prove, through poetic metaphor, not only the Sisyphean nature of collective work itself, but the hopelessness of Latin American relations to modern development.

There's some nice explication of the work, a close reading that I especially liked for Ruby888 pointing out the social circumstances in the frame of Alys' picture – the shantytown in the background, started by refugees from the Peruvian civil war who came to this area outside Lima. The residents were not involved in the project – the “hands” were imported from a university, mostly engineering students. But their settlement was used as scenery. Kester's writing is nice and dense. Somehow I had only felt when I saw this work of Alys, or a picture of it, that I didn't like it. I didn't go into the “why” of it. I just wasn't interested. I am much more interested in Shirin Neshat's work of the same kind – filmic installations of “ones and manys” which I don't understand, as opposed to this one which I might conceivably “get” if I excavated it as Kester does.

Finally, unfolding all the passages of the concept of collectivity – as process, as metaphor, as constitutive of artistic identity, as working procedure – is not so very interesting to me. I am more specifically interested in it as a practical matter, from the point of view of strategy, as Kester at one instant has it. How collectivity works, how it doesn't work, why it has to be employed, why we need it and why we don't – this matters more to me than the vast metaphorical, ethical and political desert that unfolds from Kester's work, however slowly and meticulously he traverses Royal1688 it.

He likes art, creative work, that engages actual issues of actual peoples, not stuff that makes poetry in the desert with a lot of “hired hands,” even if they be volunteers. I got it.

What does engage me is the work of creative professionals – trained artists – in social reconstruction, change, and revolution. That is why it is important to figure out how collectivity works and doesn't work, so that artists can build these units, do this work, and not fall into repetitive errors.

2 - “Metamute” review of new “Collective Actions” book
Note: We heard in our interview with the WH&forW group that the Russian group Collective Actions was a principal inspiration for their work when it began.

Somehow much more interesting than Kester right now – (ah, distraction!) – A review on (meta) “Mute” of a external image arrow-10x10.png on the Russian Collective Actions group of the '70s. The introduction is titled, “'Dive-Suits of Factography: Audience Recollections as Documentary and Action Genre,” and the book consists of roughly contemporaneous audience reflections on their actions, which are not theoretical but accessible texts. [The tag here is not “artists' collective” but “participation” – but the name of the group, and the relation of artist and audience is consonant with all this stuff.]
It's also about work in the Soviet era -- “This report gives a sense of how work during the Stagnation period was experienced (by Monastyrski): lengthy, tedious, mysterious and seemingly pointless.... Because unemployment was illegal, work placements were overstaffed. People had to go to work even when there was nothing to do. Alexeev's image of Soviet work is also one of Empty Action, involving lots of people pointlessly hanging around, senselessly shifting around materials.”

Okay. Let us leave the empyrean realms of critical theory, and return to writing about groups of cases, and “sectors of the creative economy.”

3 - Gabriele Detterer, “Spirit and Culture of Artist-Run Spaces”

I like this “communitarian” thesis, and that these spaces link “self-help culture and progressive aesthetics.” My issue – “autonomously organized” are not necessarily “collectively run.” Many of these are one-person crusades.
The next day, I began, and then abandoned, a careful critique...

filename:22 sept 13 Essex run

This concerns the question I posed, or statement I made, at the beginning of the seminar, that for me the key question now was not collectivity per se, but the question of social practice in the arts, and how collectives relate to that.

4 – more on Kester; bad dreams

I awake this morning thinking about Grant Kester and all, his battles with Bourriaud and Claire Bishop over critical definitions, and how subtle his mind is, and how complex his arguments and propositions. But, finally, what is it all about? To build edifices of critical thinking around social practice art by collectives with particular populations, yes, but – why are they fighting? They are fighting over access to institutions, to scarce financial support for art and cultural projects. Bourriaud and Bishop are trying to hold the line, carve out some space for social initiatives in an artworld that doesn't give a shit, in the main, that is doesn't value that stuff.
It's entertainment – as Bob Dylan said, I'm not a prophet or a social commentator, “I'm an entertainer.”
So constantly novelty and experiment, subtle interlacing of all areas of human interest into one weirdly reflecting mirror ball of wax is going to enchant art “patrons,” or audiences. “What can you do that's fantastic?” (Frank Zappa) What have you learned that is new? Just helping out under-privileged people is boring. That's the work of NGOs, and for social scientists to figure out how to do. We want juice, story, excitement, diversion! This human impulse, the consuming impulse, just doesn't go away.

5 – on method: “hit the (picture) books!”

Notes On Method – Against Theoretical Generalizations Using Historical Movements

Epidemic in many online texts... If you are thinking about something where you are depending on references to “classic avant-gardes” – it always helps to avoid banal generalizations if you can get as close as you can to the actual artifacts and events and the ephemeric surround of documents and remains without of course consuming too much time or vanishing in the minutiae. (The minutiae, however, reveal always how complex any particular aesthetic movement or artworld moment is in reality; a taste of that is always good, so, if you are serious, be sure to hit at least one archive, a box, not a vitrine display if you can.)

When I was prepping to teach classes on these movements, I would always go for the biggest, fattest, most lavishly illustrated catalogue I could find in the library, preferably two or three of them. That way I have a lot of background images and information in my head as I trundle through the very few artifacts I am able to present and discuss. (That skimming research also informs my choices from amongst the canon.) As well, it is important to dip into period literature and autobiographies of artists, again insofar as you can. Huelsenbeck's “Dada Almanach” is indispensable (and as glossed in the later '90s by an important Dada scholar) – an inside account of the Berlin Dada gang and their numerous hi-jinks which didn't get made into museum objects. Big historical show catalogues, like on Weimar-era Berlin, and thematic catalogues like “Le Tumulte Noir” about African presence in external image arrow-10x10.png in the modernist period can be super revealing about the cultural context of the art.

I am a big fan of piles of books with lots of pictures. It is one thing to read in some general history or theoretical take-out that Dada arose more or less simultaneously or sequentially in New York, Paris, Zurich, and Berlin, and another to browse some of the catalogues of shows dedicated to those movements in those cities. (Of course, the piles need to be chronologically arranged; western scholarship and museum exhibitions on avant-gardes in the socialist countries were often radically skewed to the right during the cold war period, i.e., before 1990. You have to be attuned to what isn't being shown or said. And, always, it is the thing itself and the institutional holdings of the things that condition exhibition catalogues – that is, collecting prioritiies and market realities. “Interest” too often = money value.

Of course, thoroughly understanding any historical art movement is a lifetime project. (I spent only a few of graduate school years looking into Dada.) So the tendency is to go to those who have devoted themselves to it for an informed opinion. Even so, even this, kind of “tourist”-ing through a big pile of books, is going to help writers to avoid piling up dry, airless uninformed generalizations which totter one atop the other uselessly, and are far removed from any substantive understanding of their subjects.
Back on the regular track of the reader now... AAARGH! I can't stand it. I have to go to the last day of the art fair, if only for a couple of hours...
6 – back to G. Detterer (abandoned)

Gabriele Detterer, (2012) “The Spirit and Culture of Artist Run Spaces,” in Artist-Run Spaces. Ed. Gabriele Detterer and Maurizio Nannucci.Zurich: JRP/Ringier.

This is a long and very systematic text which has many virtues. But let me go through and point out problems. In general (executive summary) – My chief disagreements with this lie in what I take to be its naivete and idealization of artist-organized spaces which I think leads to a blind faith and a flawed systematization. In my view, every one of these spaces is very specific in terms of their local conditions, that is, the specific artworld in which they come up. They are also specific in the ways in which they negotiate global art business and institutional culture, which plays a determining role in artistic reputation and economy.
Now I go over the text page by page:
(P. 12, into 13) “These organizations can be defined as collectively run, non-commercial associations founded by artists.” No they cannot be defined as “collectively run.” Many, maybe most, are run by single individuals or partners or tight groups (okay, collectives). But this mode of organization is never closely examined, which needs doing. “Among the models of a successful interlinking of a self-help culture and progressive aesthetics” are blah blah blah – this is something she doesn't come out and state, but it's an implicit faith in the link between progressive social movements and artists' spaces. This needs to be closely examined, not alluded to again and again as if it were self-evidently true. (P. 15) Bronson – the only surviving member of the General Idea group marriage (something more than a collective) calls Art Metropole a “simulacrum of the (art) world”. It's a cosa nostra – our thing, a refuge for a group of gay artists away from a homophobic outside world. It's a defensive collective, i.e., a very specific kind of group formation.
(P. 16) I agree that “collective publishing” is fundamental to these places. (There is a large literature on artists' books and publishing which examines this specifically; some critical perspectives would come here; see also Craig Saper's book on correspondence art – these are mechanisms, like the internet, for building collectivity.) But what does that mean, “collective publishing”? No idea. You couldn't walk into these places, volunteer your labor and print your book. No. But maybe you could! Her description of Kaprow's exploration of “the principle of the unpredictable and an unspecialized form of creativity” is very promising to understand the ambience of an active, pre-institutional artists' space.
(P. 17) In which we see that collective necessity, the needs of a community of artists, drive the creation of artists' spaces. And also that Nannucci speaks very good English for an Italian guy, and looks north and west, not south or east in terms of the linkages he wants to cultivate. An issue Deterrer never addresses – what kind of “internationalism” are we talking about?
(P. 19) Printed Matter is described as “an art space and publishing and distribution community,” but if you walked into their space when they started, and now, you'd find yourself in a bookstore. There was an international network of artists' bookstores. The people who ran them also did other things, but you couldn't walk in and find them doing those things. Unlike, say, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis, which is as they say a “place to feed your curiosity, stretch your creativity and get your hands dirty! [To learn] the traditional crafts of papermaking, letterpress printing and bookbinding to non-traditional artmaking and self-publishing techniques employed by contemporary book artists.”

(P. 20) – “Described in part as 'social artworks'” – actually, only some of the spaces and then only some of the time considered themselves or were considered artworks. To make over a space in a totally artistic way, as apart from using it to make an installation, or to mount a show, is something very specific and needs careful examination. The rest of the generalizations in this paragraph seem okay.
(P. 21) – Heavy dose of creative economy buzzwords, “high-risk,” “rational economic strategies,” “creation of added value,” “social and cultural capital that resulted” – it is written in Switzerland, after all. Also, “self-help culture” being “traditionally firmly anchored in the USA and Canada” needs a lot of examination. There was no state support for culture in these regions (Canada?) for centuries, so artists built their own institutions. They built them on European models, however.

Reading this, I was reminded of this important theorist of artists' books who died young – Carrion made the first clear relation between the book and physical space... I downloaded this which I haven't read in many years...
Ulises Carrion, The New Art of Making Books.pdf
at: http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/faculty/reese/classes/artistsbooks/Ulises%20Carrion,%20The%20New%20Art%20of%20Making%20Books.pdf

no more reading notes until later