June 14, 2010

One Project Spurs Two Controversies:

Is art work?

And is ART WORK "art"?


For most of my life, I have not been a fan of overtly political art (although I happen to think all art works {as well as other expressions} have at least indirect political implications, by omission or otherwise). So why did I take on this project?

First, I did connect to the politics of Temporary Services' ART WORK newspaper. Society benefits tremendously from artists' efforts, yet very few artists make a living at it; indeed, many whose works are in major art museums need dayjobs to get by.

But more importantly, artists could be poster-kids for the lower and middle classes in general. People in the U.S. work at least as long, hard, and efficiently as workers anywhere in the world. Our productivity has doubled, but our inflation-adjusted incomes have actually declined. The quality of life for most of us as measured by important criteria has fallen dramatically since the 1970's and earlier (see Elizabeth Warren's brilliant presentation; see also here), and it's substantially below that enjoyed in many other developed countries (see here; see also here).

Meanwhile, the rich have grown vastly richer, and the gap in wealth between the top few percent and the rest of us has skyrocketed to an all-time high (see here; also here). As Warren Buffet's said, "It's class warfare, [and] my class is winning, but they shouldn't be." (CNN interview).

If there's been one good result from our tribulations during the last ten years, it's that many more of us have realized we simply cannot afford not to pay attention to political and economic matters, and that things probably won't get much better so long as we continue to allow the few who control disproportionate wealth to make all the big decisions (see, e.g., here).

But while the rest of us have overwhelming numbers, we remain powerless unless we understand what's going on, and organize, at least for certain purposes.

Most of us have been operating as individual entrepreneurs for years now, and there are benefits to that approach. But it's left us atomized and isolated from one another. Maybe we're ready to put our heads together to think about ways to have our entrepreneurial cake and still put food on the table.

Change for the better may not be easy – destruction is easy; creation is hard – but I happen to believe with Andy Warhol, Margaret Mead et al. that it can be done (hey, if we can change Earth's climate as a mere side-effect of other efforts, imagine what we could do if we actually tried).

But that was not the only reason I got involved in the ART WORK project.

During the last few years, I'd become aware of the terms, "relational art," "littoral art," "discursive art," "participatory art," etc. These terms have been used by various writers (Nicolas Bourriaud, Grant Kester, Claire Bishop, Liam Gillick, et al.) who define them in distinctly different ways, but there seems to be some overlap in the kinds of art they're talking about. I've found these terms to be powerful tools for thinking about a trend I personally, roughly describe as art in which the artist's main focus is the production or modification of relationships among people, as distinguished from the production of some other art object. That is, while the project or practice may yield material artifacts, or involve performance, the construction of an environment for viewers, or other things or activities we've recognized as art in the past, what's new-ish is that the artist's principal preoccupation seems to be with the creation or modification of relationships, rather than any object, environment, or even performance – i.e., arguably, the principal art "object" is the relationships formed, or the modifications made to them, in the course of the practice.

(Writers discussing the relational trend disagree intensely about the best ways to define it or to evaluate the works it might include. Such questions go beyond what I can address in this post, but they'd be part of conversations I'd like to have.)

Much of the art I've found most exciting during the last decade and more arguably falls into this "relational" category, as defined in the way I currently find most interesting. I'm thinking of, e.g., Rotozaza's GuruGuru (discussion here), Cao Fei's RMB City (see also here), Meiro Koizumi's Art of Awakening and Human Opera XXX (here), eteam's Second Life Dumpster (see also here), Graffiti Research Lab (see also here) and at least some of Good/Bad Art Collective's projects (see here; and other highly-respected artists associated with this trend and whose work I admire or find interesting include Marina Abramovic, Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, and Phillippe Parreno, to name a few).

Temporary Services' project is definitely relational. They didn't just produce a newspaper; they recruited people nationwide to help distribute it, and they invited everyone interested to take the ball and run with it – to use the newspaper as a springboard to create their own exhibitions, discussions, or events. Their goal is to create and modify relationships – in particular, to inspire us to combine our creativity and other strengths to bring greater fairness to art workers and others, creating or modifying relationships not only among ourselves but within society at large.

(Temporary Services' project may also be related to trends having to do with collectivity and socially-engaged art practices generally, which have their notable practitioners and theorists, as well as to conceptual art. I also find it interesting that the artists chose to distribute their publication in the form of hardcopy newspapers, at a time when print is on the ropes, as well as via the project's website. The collective has been described as "working out of a Situationist tradition"; their work or publications have been been featured at Mass MoCA, The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the Smart Museum of Art, and elsewhere.)

But although relational art and theorizing have been around for some years (Bourriaud's seminal Relational Aesthetics was first published in French in 1998 and discusses work created in the 90's), we've seen relatively little of this kind of work in the Dallas area (Good/Bad was a brilliant, early instance; but I know of few others); and I'm aware of even less public discussion here of relational (or of socially engaged) practices.

So another motive for turning Temporary Services' project into an occasion for an exhibition, etc. was to bring more of this kind of work into view here and perhaps inspire conversation about the ART WORK project as art – relational or otherwise – or not-art.

The work shown in the main gallery at CentralTrak "present[s] projects that propose solutions for contemporary artists seeking to work outside of the 'white box' to secure greater economic autonomy during this post-market-glut economic correction" (see CentralTrak); i.e., works reflecting artists' responses as individuals (among other things). This portion of the exhibition was organized by Kate Sheerin, Director of CentralTrak, and includes works by Richie Budd, Gary Farrelly, Thomas Riccio and Frank Dufour, Ludwig Schwarz, Marjorie Schwarz, and give up. The opening reception also included "Son of Trunk Show," presented by Shelby Cunningham and featuring eight other artists.

The materials in the CentralTrak corridor focus on collective efforts (among other things). This portion of the exhibition was organized by moi and includes the ART WORK newspaper plus materials on works and/or writings by Gregory Sholette, Harrell Fletcher, Liam Gillick, Not an Alternative, Mel Chin, Lize Mogel, Maria Lind, Research and Destroy, Robert Projansky and Seth Siegelaub, W.A.G.E., Michael Corris, Hollis Frampton, Don Celender, and Julius Getman.

I think the two areas complement one another in interesting, even provocative ways.

Is ART WORK "art"? After viewing the show, one prominent local critic told me I should be an activist – implying that I should stay away from art. I suggested there could be no greater art project than to help make a better world (to which s/he objected, "[i]sn't that terribly self-absorbed?" I replied, how is that more self-absorbed than building a company or having a family?)

So yes, my own working hypothesis is that, to some degree or in some sense, ART WORK is art.

And you don't have to like ART WORK, or agree with its political orientation, or even agree that it's art, to agree that now is a good time for us to talk about those questions.

For more info about the ART WORK in dallas event series, see my previous post, or click on the "ART WORK in dallas" label below.

(The image top right is of a naturally-occurring fractal in the form of a Romanesco cabbage, from "Fractal Food." The image center left is of Tracy Hicks' Moose, from the National Academy of Sciences Online via Mutable Matter, and the image bottom right is also from Mutable Matter, apparently by the blog author – thanks, Angela!)

UPDATE: Great review of the show by Erin Starr White in Art Lies, Fall 2010.

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