The Inclusion Interviews Valerio Rocco Orlando
The Inclusion: The role of exchange is fundamental to your work. Can you explain how you understand this concept within the field of art? When and why did it start shaping your practice?
Valerio Rocco Orlando: I think art is about desire, participation and inclusion. Given the historical moment in which we live, we have no choice but to be present. Present in our own way, through an inevitable and subjective process of reconnection with reality. Shifting our focus from the work of art to the artist’s role in the evolution of culture, it is clear that the artist can become a central player in the relational dynamics of society only through an honest and lasting engagement with others, both on an individual and a collective basis.
Regardless of whether it is a book, a film or an installation, the methodology I have developed over the past ten years includes an initial phase of collecting materials on the field, and a second one of dramaturgical rewriting and final editing. If at the beginning I stay as open as possible, afterwards my aim is to reassemble the multiplicity of points of view in a sole personal perspective. The choral exchange with the different subjects is as important as the need to make the work accessible in its final synthesis through the filter of individual authorship. The spirit of reciprocity that characterizes the whole process is also essential at the time of exhibiting, when the public has the opportunity to create a new, direct and unique dialogue with each of the individuals involved in production. In this way, if an active and mutual relationship can be established between the artist, the participating community and the public, I believe that the work of art can respond to its function of radical education.
The Inclusion: In the past, you have articulated your projects as an examination of “the mirror game between oneself and another.” How might this dynamic continue to be reflected in your current practice?
Valerio Rocco Orlando: For the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, “what art can convey is a certain formation, configuration or self-perception of the contemporary world.” Participation and knowledge through images are therefore simultaneously instruments and targets that today we absolutely have to take into account. ‘Universal’ means going in the same direction, conjugating theory and practice without distinction, and in this sense sharing through trust, not only of the other but also of the same social bond, is one of the principles of my community-based projects. Ever since my first series of video and film works, I conceive a portrait as a mirror, a human face as a wide window open to everyday life, a relationship as a chance to understand more about ourselves and learn from one another.
I am now leaving to go to India, where I will continue and film the third part of What Education for Mars?, an ongoing cycle initiated in 2011 concerning students’ relationships with teachers in different school systems around the world. After Rome and Havana, in Bangalore I will be part of the community living in the Valley School of the Krishnamurti Foundation, exploring the complexity of relations coexisting in that specific context in person. Regardless of whether I am interacting with students, artists, friends, lovers, children or older people, I always put myself in the position of listener and observer, collecting stories, points of views and perspectives in order to build up a personal group portrait that reflects on what can be a better society in the future.
Valerio Rocco Orlando (Milan, 1978) received a BA in Dramaturgy from Università Cattolica Milan and an MA in Film from Queen Mary University London. His solo exhibitions include: The Reverse Grand Tour, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome, 2013; ¿Qué Educación para Marte?, Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese, 2013; Quale Educazione per Marte?, Nomas Foundation, Rome, 2011; Lover’s Discourse, Momenta Art, New York, 2010; Niendorf (The Damaged Piano), Galleria Maze, Turin, 2008; The Sentimental Glance, Galleria Maze, Turin, 2007. Among his group exhibitions: The 338 Hour Cineclub, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, 2013; XI Bienal de La Habana, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, Havana, 2012; Neon. La materia luminosa dell’arte, MACRO Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome, 2012; Nurture Art, Chelsea Art Museum, New York, 2011; videoREPORT ITALIA: 08_09, GC. AC, Monfalcone, 2010; Emerging Talents - New Italian Art, CCCS, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 2009. In 2009 Valerio Rocco Orlando won the Iscp New York Prize promoted by Parc/Seat/Gai and in 2011 he was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship in Visual Arts. valerioroccoorlando.com
Adelita Husni-Bey shares an interview and a report from the Modern School Archives
The Inclusion: In the course of your text “A Holiday from Rules” (Mousse, 2011), in your recent London exhibition, Playing Truant (Gasworks, 2013), and on many other occasions, your practice has exhibited a profound interest in radical pedagogy as a foundation for alternative social imaginaries. Throughout, you have helped visibilise under-represented communities whose very existence calls into question the inevitability of dominant structures of governance. We would like to ask whether you have found it possible to foresee a systematised framework that could better evaluate and remediate our understanding of these organisations’ singular approaches and contributions? If so, how might this look?
Adelita Husni-Bey: I should preface this answer by saying that I am wandering through it as I would be in a jungle, it’s clearly at the core of my practice and thus continuously preoccupying me and continuously remaining in question;
First and foremost we must address the question of visibility. Visibility for whom? In what context? Precisely in order to evaluate and understand these ‘under-represented communities’, their ‘approaches and contributions’ we must firstly ask ourselves what type of visibility producing an artwork can offer, and I am afraid this visibility is limited. Let me develop this further: if I envision my practice as a counter-hegemonic project, as a way of ‘calling into question the inevitability of dominant structures of governance’ how does producing an artwork speak to this idea? An artwork lives within a specific set of codifications, and has a specific public, which is dictated mostly by the space within which the work is shown, virtually or physically. It is mediated, understood and circulated within a particular framework that pertains to a ‘primed’ public (i.e., mostly aware of how and what to expect). Thus, the issue of dissemination (how the work circulated) vis-à-vis the question of visibility (who gets to see the work) becomes central.
I am saying nothing new, of course. Institutional critique has long preceded me, but I think one cannot speak of rendering visible without questioning how, through the very production of something that is defined as an artwork, a particular type of visibility is inscribed upon it. This is why I am attempting to address the question of dissemination whilst also thinking about how to re-frame what I do, through, for example, the production of radio programs, books, and archives that proliferate methods of visibility. I cannot tell you I have found one particular way of addressing this issue, but—project by project—I am not only asking myself: what medium should this idea speak through? But also, should this be an ‘artwork’? Should this research/collaboration/experiment live in the gallery or institution and be circulated through it, or can it and should it insert itself elsewhere?
On the other hand, what can the field of art offer pragmatically that other fields cannot? Producing an artwork does indeed offer the possibility of creating a methodology for envisioning which can speak to questions pertaining to research and representation already present in fields such as visual anthropology, investigative journalism and radical pedagogy, but which may have never met before under the same ‘roof’ in that particular way. So for me it is interesting to think about how to use a certain legitimated capacity to move between fields of critical analysis and representation, something which would be difficult to do otherwise without being called to respond to a particular ‘science’ and its positivist conditions of practice. Nevertheless, I know that the possibility of moving in-between fields does not neutralize the ‘codes of practice’ that exist within the production of cultural objects. Crucially, it is these very ‘codes of practice’, which allow a cultural object/project to signify. This turns back, possibly unanswered (!), to why I am trying to question, each time I work, which field to inhabit and how the work is framed.
I also want to problematise further the question of ‘under-representation’, for it is true that I often work with ‘suppressed histories’ (as Hal Foster would define them), narrations that have escaped the meta-narrative, possibly because they could cause a systemic ‘identity crisis’ (why does the system we operate in work the way it does?). Nonetheless, these histories are vehicles. If what is relegated to being forgotten is brought back, it is in order for it to become a question. What if a particular instance such as an anarchist school or a cooperative knocked down to make way for the 2012 Olympics, originally written into the ‘unattainable’ or the ‘unnecessary’, were the key to analyze critically what we inhabit, namely neoliberalism? What is crucial resides not only in ‘seeing them’ or ‘hearing their voice’ but also in understanding the way in which they operate, which in turn calls into question how we operate. This is a particular type of ‘visibilising’. In this sense, the under-represented is not so much the specific historical event or those who can lay a claim to that experience. Instead, it is that which has been suppressed systematically as it does not fit in neatly in the neoliberal vision of reality.
If schooling in neoliberal societies is also predicated upon the reproduction of a competitive, efficient and productive workforce (which it does not always succeed in providing); what happens if we look at a school that claims education should not produce competition, one in which there are no exams, for example? Does it put the way we view our schools into crisis? Does seeing this ‘suppressed history’ engender a will to question our meta-narrative on schooling? This is not to say that those specific suppressed histories are irrelevant. Of course, they are the very epicenter of what is rendered ‘visible’; but, put simply, within them and through them there is an attempt at envisioning another way of relating to one another and to our surroundings.
This re-tooling of our criticality wants to contribute to a larger counter-hegemonic process. It does not want to assign a notion of nostalgia to these experiences but one of possibility. By thinking through other socio-economic systems and what they can/cannot offer with those who practice them, the idea is not to ‘give them a voice’ (as I feel they have a voice and an ability to use it and to decide when and how to do that) but rather to ‘borrow it’, to articulate how their queering, (to use Judith Butler’s term), their moving away from the established norm, can be inscribed into a larger project that questions how we operate as a society in specific fields such as labour, housing and education.
Now, back to thinking through a possible systemized framework; I feel you rightly point to how pedagogy could speak to this. In particular, it would be interesting to think of the distinction between pedagogy and didactics in relation to producing a critical cultural object. If the didactic is to entertain and inform whilst moralizing, a pedagogical model encompasses questions of how and what it means to ‘teach’, thus how to impart or question and change a norm. Teaching here is not understood as a way of neatly dividing a knowing and an unknowing subject (a teacher-artist and student-audience, so to speak) but the offering of a set of ‘building blocks’ to an audience who experiences the work only by putting these ‘blocks’ together. This is not to say that the work has no direction, but rather that it offers no ‘knowledge’ in the positivist sense. It offers no immediate answers but only examples of what could be done differently and what the complications of these scenarios entail.
It is very difficult for me to envision a ‘system’ which has persisted in all of my recent work, although I hope the considerations above have shed some light on my position. A framework would require me to have an extremely lucid position in relation to what a continuing counter-hegemonic cultural project looks like, and I feel that this is still shifting whilst I am learning both about the system we inhabit and about systems which have caught my eye as possible alternatives as I continue to be here.
The Inclusion: How do you envisage the relation between your artistic practice and research? Could you give us some examples of how research influences your practice and vice versa? Are these two processes independent from each other in some ways, or are they always mutually-informing?
Adelita Husni-Bey: I think the main question here is what kind of distinction there is between the two. Methodologically-speaking, I am researching in the initial phases of a project: I look at a particular history, I delve into its archives, article clippings, I try to meet those involved in that or similar experiences. Research is the point at which I begin to formulate something beyond an interest. I then ask myself what part of that particular venture is ‘urgent’ today? What does that particular struggle which appears largely forgotten, that ‘suppressed history’, speak to?
In this sense, the research and practice are mutually informing. I would not study in order to practice, if practice itself were not a form of learning, of learning to answer these questions. Recently, I have been experimenting more and more frequently with this idea on a material level. For instance, when I began to look at radical education I drew from various resources: not only reading Colin Ward’s lectures on education, looking at the history of the Modern School through Paul Alvrich’s writings and through the extensive archives at Rutgers University, but also collecting didactic films from the 50s which were originally shown in schools.
One of these films had a particularly strong impact on me. It’s title is A Holiday from Rules, and it dates back to 1959. The short film opens with a group of four children debating what ‘rules’ are for—declaring themselves tired of parental diktats and codes of conduct. A soothing adult voice, a narrator, interrupts them suddenly and offers them the possibility of living in a place where ‘there are no rules’. The children accept excitedly and soon they are flung to another side of the studio, dotted with cardboard palm trees burdened by coconuts and plastic leaves. In the fifteen minutes following their arrival on the ‘island’, the children go from a rather civilized conversation and game to tearing one another’s clothes, trampling one another’s seashells (or ‘possessions’ as the rhetoric would suggest), taking food out of one another’s hands. Everything that could possibly fail fails, and one of the boys sustains a serious injury whilst attempting to tear a ‘coconut’ from a ‘tree’. When asked by the narrating voice if the children want to leave the island the children have no doubts: “instead of making up a lot of rules, why don’t we go home where we already have them?”.
What was clear about this piece of research was that it was foundational in understanding how ideological manipulation occurred within schools. The temporal distance that separated us from its production did not take away from its poignancy, its urgency. When shooting Postcards from a Desert Island (a quasi-ethnographic film of a workshop in a self-run school in Paris) I wanted to respond to this didactic film in particular. I wanted to create the conditions to re-live that ‘studio’ setting with one crucial difference: the children I would work with would not be directed, their school had no headmaster, they were thought to resolve disputes through dialogue (without calling an adult into the picture) and exams had long been abolished. With such a radically different scholastic experience and no script to follow, what society would the children attempt to create? What would their relationship to rules be?
A Holiday from Rules (the didactic film) was brought back into the actual exhibition space and worked dialectically as an unedited ‘research document’ within the display, alongside ‘Postcards from the Desert Island’. This happened again during the same exhibition when I decided to include an excerpt from a documentary by William Tyler Smith on Summerhill’s struggle for recognition. Here, alumni from Summerhill (a libertarian school established in 1921 in Suffolk) recalled how the UK government body Ofsted had threatened their closure in 2004 based on their failing to meet ‘standards’, in particular the lack of lessons. The attempt was to retain certain elements of research as dialectical pivots (accredited to their authors) around which the rest of the project could orbit; and, in this sense I attempted to blur the distinction between the research and practice within the exhibition space. Yet these are very practical, almost technical considerations, and I think, ultimately, it is most interesting to see practice and research as part of the same process. ‘Practice’ should not imply having ‘settled’ an issue (having gone ‘beyond’ research) but just extending research into and beyond the limitations of a display.
Audio: Judith Malina (The Living Theatre) reading a report from the Modern School Archives, Rutgers University.
The Modern School (1901-1956) was an anarchist school based on Francisco Ferrer’s principles of a rational, anti-clerical and pacifist pedagogy. First established in Barcelona, it was active in New York and, finally, Stelton, New Jersey.
Adelita Husni-Bey (b. 1985) is an artist and researcher. After studying Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design, she received an MA in Photography & Urban Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her present research involves autonomy, micro-utopias, pirate-utopias, the ‘Land Issue’, collective memory (the production of), dissent and control, anarchist pedagogy and free-schools. She is currently a Studio Program Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP), New York.
Per Hüttner shares an interview and his essay “Never Forget Temporality”
The Inclusion is very pleased to publish an interview with Per Hüttner conducted via email on Friday, 4 January, 2013:
The Inclusion: From the beginning, your practice has been characterised by a web of continual collaborations with a most diverse array of people (artists, educators, curators, but also physicians, architects and so on). Your collaborations have also been highly variegated with respect to their sites of activity – extending, as they have, from São Paolo to Shanghai. Can you try to explain what collaboration means for you? In particular, what are the edges/limits of a practice that can be called collaborative?
Per Hüttner: In 1992, I published “Begrepp – en Samling” (“Concepts – a Collection”) together with biochemist Elias Arnér. In his text about Nobel Laureates in the sciences, Professor Rolf Luft writes that there are two kinds of artists. There are those who try to perfect the field in which they are working. And, there are others who try to expand it and find new ways to further their practice. To prove his point he included two paintings from the Renaissance: one icon-like and two-dimensional; the other, one of the first attempts at using single-point perspective. The stance is, of course, simplified, as each of the two “extremes” includes its own paradox. In order to perfect a technique or working process, the artist needs to break with what is accepted by his/her peers. In order to expand the boundaries of what is accepted, the creator needs to have an intimate knowledge of that which constitutes the boundaries of his/her field of practice.
Nonetheless, Professor Luft hints at something that is essential to our lives. He indicates the constant need for creativity and signals its movement along two interconnected edges/limits: tradition and invention. But most importantly, he emphasises that these edges/limits remain in constant flux themselves. Tradition and invention exist in continuous dialogue, like the dialogue of past and present in Bergson’s famous cone––a figure that illustrates that all past presents are contained in the present moment. Otherwise, Bergson avows, language would be impossible.
For artists who whose practices are concerned primarily with challenging the boundaries of art, it is natural to meet thinkers and practitioners from related fields. For instance, if you work with performance, you will most likely encounter creators in theatre and dance (many of whom, themselves, look to art to expand their practices). In my search to understand and expand the field of art, I have met predominantly with scientists and architects. The latter was natural, since when I went to art school I selected to work with the American sculptor Bernhard Kirschenbaum, rather than a local painter who was my appointed professor. Kirschenbaum was an architect by training who had started his career building Buckminster Fuller’s first geodesic domes. With him I learned many things that remain at the core of my practice. He also taught us that architecture is the nature and canvas of the city and forms an important part in shaping our lives.
With this in mind, I started dialoguing with architects and scientists in my early twenties. I was struck by the fact that they had very different working methods from artists. They worked in teams whose discussions never ended, and they focused on discovering rather than conveying a given idea. They were dealing with problem-solving both on practical and conceptual levels. I also saw that their respective disciplines were conservative and inhibiting in ways that were uncommon in the art world. In other words, it was through collaborating with other disciplines that I learned about art – about its nature and its boundaries. I found the tools that I needed to develop my practice and to expand the field in which I was working.
I also understood that making sense of the world around me was contingent on a continual investigation of the differences and similitudes between fields. I needed to see knowledge as something that can travel both in time and through different cultures, whether geographical or disciplinary. Or, phrased differently: what is the difference between production and invention? What does repetition mean in the context of creation? At first glance, these seem to be easy problems. But once we look closer at the questions, a greater complexity emerges. Something is always different in relationship to something familiar and known. We can establish the difference between a horse and a cow. But how do start to define what the difference is between a colour and a whale, or between jealousy and a galaxy?
The Inclusion: Many cultural practices that explore transdisciplinary encounters run the paradoxical risk of fortifying the very same institutional boundaries they may have set out to make more porous. Moreover, the introduction of conflict into a specific disciplinary field often presupposes and consolidates the recognition of normative forms of expertise. At the same time, advocating for an amateur relation to knowledge often corresponds to the hampering of an insider’s potential for specialist action. With these problemmatics in mind, we wish to ask: how do you define the expert? What role might this term play in your practice?
Per Hüttner: First of all, the process of a higher specialization is inevitable and will not be halted in any foreseeable future. We cannot return to the Renaissance, where a single person could contribute to art, science and technology in the way that Leonardo da Vinci did. Those days are long gone. Today’s research and production in a single field is so immense that it is impossible to have an overview of all the exploration that is being undertaken.
So, we have to accept that art is art and science is science. They are both tools to make sense of the chaos that surrounds us (and that sometimes grows in our inner world). But even when the two address the same problems, they do so in very different ways. To start with, we cannot understand art. We can appreciate it. We can derive knowledge from it. Art provokes thinking in its audience. But this does not mean that the audience understands what they experience. It does not even mean that the creator fully understands the finished work. The artist’s relationship to the artwork changes over time. The works that we produce are like friends from whom we learn and among whom we develop over time. They are not fixed, they shapeshift. As artists, we co-create poetic knowledge together with the audience in the process of producing and living with our work. We cannot overemphasise how art’s modes of production and functionality differ with respect to other processes found in contemporary society. Yet, this does not mean that art is disconnected from the worlds of commerce, science and technology – quite the opposite. It functions according to another logic.
When we evaluate art, the only measuring principle at our disposal rests in seeing how the artwork affects its audience and to what degree it provokes thought in the individual who experiences it. A work of art that can be understood by its audience is at best a decoration or a distraction. If artwork could be understood, people would not stage Shakespeare, write books about Shenshui paintings or read Icelandic sagas centuries after they were created. These would be forgotten. This difference is also the reason why dialogue between genres remains essential. It allows us to stay focused on what we are doing. If you ask me what an artist is, a good answer could be “a person who continuously leaves his/her comfort zone.” Maybe that goes for all creators? Dialogues between genres remain essential because they force us into a continual departure from what we know and remind us that we have to deal with the fundamental paradoxes of our lives. Not an easy task, but a deeply inspiring choice of life!
When the dialogue in a genre or discipline becomes too self-contained, it is bound to go stale. When we move outside our comfort zones, we become aware of our own vulnerability – and I mean this in the best sense of the word. We become aware of the limits of our knowledge and working methods. We have to remain far humbler when we approach another genre or discipline. Maybe, being a devoted contrarian from the country of Linnaeus has made me a convinced Leibnizian who always chooses principles over compartmentalization. The former allow us to go on developing, while the latter will eventually lead us down a blind alley.
The life of the artist has a poetic twist to it. We are always trying to undo what has been done before and to push the boundaries farther. But being an artist is a proposition, an evasive state/role that is activated like flashes in a thunderstorm. We cannot reduce “I travel” to “I am a travelling being” anymore than we can interchange “I think” with “I am a thinking person.” Thought is not a constant. It is a predicate that passes ceaselessly from one thought to another. The artist not only thinks and provokes thinking in his/her audience, but also activates his/her body and sometimes produces objects. There are no rules to how we can activate our audiences, and there is no guarantee that who produced something of importance yesterday will also do so tomorrow. As a matter of fact, what was important yesterday does not necessarily carry the same weight even today.
What I do know is that dialogues between disciplines have, throughout my career, been extremely important to furthering my knowledge and to finding new solutions to existing problems. We do not know which problems will have to be addressed in the future. There is no point in worrying about that either. This is because as long as we encourage difference and diversity and focus on the true problems at hand, creativity will get us out of all the jams that we can get ourselves into.
But in order to be prepared, we have always to return to compossibility. What would the world be like if Adam had not sinned? What can we learn from the Stoics about how to undo Platonism, even knowing both to be impossible? Phrased differently, we all have to go back to Hades to try to bring back our own and private Eurydice.The fact that we look back (and if we remain curious rather than idealist we will always turn around) we reveal our humanity and nothing could be more important and beautiful.
This is why I am extremely weary of experts. They tend to try to remove what is human in the world and turn it into a clockwork universe. But then what is the point? If the universe were mechanical, we wouldn’t have had a big bang. Following from this, we wouldn’t have a universe at all. I suspect that second-rate experts are too scared to reveal their humanity and that they use information to shield themselves from the world. Experts do bring back Eurydicefrom Hades, but they learn nothing in the process. I am always more than happy to turn around. I reveal my curiosity and my humanity in doing so. I am proud to be a lover. I am proud to fail. I am happy to fail as long as I learn something in the process.
Per Hüttner has been exceptionally generous to share with The Inclusion an essay entitled “Never Forget Temporality,” which will be published in Vision Forum Film - Three Film Collaborations between Sweden & China, available February 2013. For additional information, please visit: http://www.visionforum.eu/
Never Forget Temporality: Three film collaborations between Sweden and China
How to Start a Dialogue between Cultures?
In Effektivia, a partially Chinese crew filmed the Swedish world, and in The River an entirely Swedish team depicted the meeting of traditional and contemporary China. It is through this dialogue between the two countries that the project has been able to engage young people in reflecting on how globalisation operates and how it infiltrates and slowly alters our daily lives. They had the possibility to see how dissimilar and yet identical the lives of people are on the other side. The political systems remain different and the value of human lives remains profoundly unbalanced.
But the difficulty of shaping one’s own life remains the same. The political, economic, and social pressures alienate us from our own lives in similar ways. The three artistic propositions that make up this project agree that a meaningful existence can never be created in solitude. It has to be built in dialogue with the surrounding world. But how can we do that when all attempts at talking, sharing, and loving lead to further misunderstandings, new conflicts, and a deeper solitude?
As absurd as it might sound, it all started with the signing of a legal document. The signing of a document that we have never seen and whose magnitude and complexity we can only imagine. The discussions with director Jesper Frilund started with him saying that it was Ford who first bought Volvo Automotive, but when it was sold to Geely it was taken over by the Chinese. (For those not familiar with Sweden, I need to point out that the Volvo car has been an important symbol of the country’s engineering skills and visionary technical advancement. I cannot tell you how many times I have met foreigners who talk ceaselessly about their beloved Volvos when I mention my country of origin.) It was this difference in phrasing that first sparked a dialogue about Effektivia. A company was not taken over by another company, but rather by an entire nation, and an extremely foreign one as well!
Frilund teamed up with a long-time collaborator, scriptwriter and director Marcus Fernstad, and a series of sketches quickly began to take shape about temporary workers in a factory in small-town Sweden that is bought by a faceless Chinese conglomerate. One scene led to another, and before we knew it we were looking at something that could be both a script for a feature film and the pilot for a TV series.
Effektivia is a profound journey into the human psyche and our contemporary situation. At first glance, the film appears to be a happy-go-lucky comedy about life in a small town in Sweden. But it gradually surfaces that it deals with darker and far more complex issues. How do we deal with the unknown? How can we grapple with life-changing events like a divorce, an unknown culture, new political and economic situations and new technologies? Every character in the film sees the world from his/her own perspective and they all remain unable to understand each other – simply because they can never leave their own point of view. It is their own inability to see or consider each other’s perspective that renders them lonely and unhappy. The sadder they get, the more they have to convince their surrounding community about their own success and joyful existence. Their insecurity makes them hurt each other unintentionally and end up snaring themselves in an intricate net of well-intended actions that always have the opposite outcome.
During the long and particularly enjoyable working sessions in which we developed the details of the script, Marcus Fernstad made us laugh so much that it hurt when he read the lines. His interpretation of “Maggan,” the chain-smoking woman who defines both Effektivia and the village of Gusum, was too good to be ignored. So we decided to allow Marcus to fill her shoes – which he does so magically that few people even realise that it is a man who plays the part. Again, the more we pushed the film into paradoxical absurdity, the more it made sense.
It is exactly the absurd that is the core of Frilund and Fernstad’s endeavour. It looks at how humans are willing to accept some of the most oppressing absurdities and fight with great fervour against trivialities in their surroundings and yet refuse to see the central issues in life. In Effektivia, no one takes on the world or fights back. The characters accept the unfairness of the world. They only fight each other, while lamenting the injustice of their predicament.
Retrieving Corpse for Money, 2010, by Zhang Yi
A controversial documentary photograph, Retrieving Corpse for Money, was the inspiration for The River, a fictional drama with a starting point in true events. Focusing on the coming of age of two boys, the film takes place in a small village on the banks of the Yangtze River in Sichuan Province. It suggests that a fisherman uses local teenagers, who are good at swimming to lure tourists into the water. The tourists attempting to save the “drowning” children die of exhaustion. The local children, familiar with the undercurrents in the river, survive. The old man fishes the victims’ bodies out of the river and returns them to their mourning relatives. But in order to get the bodies, they have to pay him a fee. It is important that we never quite know what happens; this ambiguity allows the film’s director, Yang Tingting, to paint a vivid picture of human struggle without losing the story’s poetic side.
The River was shot entirely with local amateurs as actors and extras. Yang worked closely with the amateurs and developed the characters in close dialogue with a group of teenage boys from the small village in Sichuan. In her text about the rehearsal process, she states that in the end she was unable to distinguish fact from fiction. When she writes this, it is not a reflection on authenticity. What she so accurately pinpoints is that the story connects back to the everyday life of its audiences – whether they are European or Asian. It deals, in an engaged and critical way, with the world that surrounds us. It is here that we find a parallel with Effektivia. Neither of the two films creates a shared phantasm. They allow the viewer to draw knowledge from the events depicted on the basis of his or her own background. Both films are investigations into how we struggle with problems in our daily lives and at the same time deal with timeless issues like greed and fear of the unknown. They reflect on the here and now and how we relate to the lives of other people around us. Both films transgress routine and compel us to face our own lives and how we deal with situations of conflict.
The River, just like Effektivia, circles around interpretations of the law. But the small village is far from the political centre in Beijing.
“We fish out the bodies of the river and ask a small fee for our labour. It is totally justified,” Uncle Decai, the fisherman declares. It is impossible to disagree with what he says, we cannot take sides. The characters operate according to their own logic. The film is not about good or bad, but about the human condition and the conflicts that mark our daily life.
The film examines how globalisation puts pressure on the young and creates ethical conflicts between the community and the individual people and families that make up the smallest cells of our societies. But as Yang Tingting says, it is not a story about China. It is a story about greed, and it could happen anywhere. But she has to tell it in the country where she grew up – because it is only there that she knows the details of how people act and react. Yet the fact that the story takes place in China brings us back to temporality. Changes happen so fast there that, from one generation to the next, there is an abyss that renders communication extremely difficult and fraught with dangerous traps.
The video work by Shanghai-based artist Li Xiaofei forms a part of a series in which he mixes images of machines in full production mode with interviews with different people who work at the factories depicted. The work poses questions that are central to the project and connects with the other two films. What is the difference between production and invention? What does repetition mean in the context of creation? At first glance, these seem like easy problems. But once we look closer at the questions, a greater complexity emerges. Something is always different in relationship to something familiar and known. We can define what the difference is between a horse and a cow. But how do start to define what the difference is between an amoeba and a whale, or between jealousy and a galaxy?
All of us are dealing with mass-produced objects on an everyday basis. We use and individualise our computers and eat chickens that come off a production line. But we do so without necessarily thinking about the sites of production and the people who are involved in these processes. The work of Li Xiaofei closes this gap, and Assembly Line changes the parameters of how we perceive mass-produced goods and the individuals who interact with them.
In an art context, it is impossible not to ask if art has become inscribed in this production-line mentality. To what degree has it become acceptable that the artist is a producer of semi-original objects whose primary purpose is to build on his/her brand name and the vanity of the collector? And can this activity inspire thinking in the audience that visits the exhibition where these objects are shown? Or formulated differently: Is art so convinced of its own good nature that it rarely provokes thinking in its audience?
Li Xiaofei leaves the camera running before and after he has asked his questions, and this allows him to capture the humanity of his interviewees. When they are not “performing,” something different, poetic and unexpected seeps out of the depicted factory workers. It is in its musicality that Li Xiaofei’s videos make sense. What the interviewed workers say is as expected as the sound that the machines make. However, the importance is not in what they say, but rather in the pauses and hesitations that reveal their humanity and make us feel empathy with them. It is that fraction of a second when we understand something that goes beyond words, images, or cultures.
We tried to get Li Xiaofei to film in three factories in Sweden. All three negotiations started with great enthusiasm on behalf of the people working at these corporate sites. But in the end we were met with the same negative answer. We have no possibility of knowing what turned the enthusiasts into the realm of negativity. But we cannot ignore that the fear of industrial espionage appears to be enormous when it comes to Chinese citizens. Can we really trust this stranger? In private companies, fear of the unknown is bigger than the curiosity to discover something new. (It is interesting, because it sounds like Effektivia.) The interest of the individuals working at these companies was clearly quenched by the ink of the higher administrators. We cannot avoid asking if an American, German or English artist or filmmaker would have been met with the same suspicion? We are brought to raise the question of whether the direct censorship in China finds another form of secrecy that unveils fear for the unknown in the West. This is not an oppression from the outside, but a self-imposed restriction that mushrooms in our inner worlds.
The Importance of International Dialogue
Vision Forum’s working processes address the need for alternative forms of education and knowledge production – accommodating multiplicity and embracing invention. In order for this to work, we need to find ways to enrich our daily lives through meaningful dialogues with people in our immediate surroundings and through that to also enrich the lives of others. We have to overcome our fears of the unknown and find the poetic in our everyday experience.
Vision Forum has developed strategies to allow artistic practices that exist between genres and disciplines a space to breathe and develop. With Vision Forum Film we produce work that creates dialogues between visual art and film. It is hard to imagine three film projects that are more different from each other than Assembly Line, Effektivia, and The River. And yet they are held together thematically. They all provoke a dialogue between east and west, and also challenge their audiences, compelling them to reflect on the world that surrounds them.
There is a special magic in what film can capture that is inherent to the medium. A good example is the way that the middle-aged characters Maggan and Berit look at each other while they sweep the floor in silence in Effektivia. The words they utter tell us how they arrange the practicalities of their lives with razor-sharp precision. But their eyes tell a different story. The sequence captures their respective inner worlds, something that can only be expressed through the poetic.
Similarly, the gazes of Yu Xin and Qin Chuan, the teenage protagonists in The River, speak a universal language that holds a complexity that cannot be retold or explained. It has to be seen. And it has to be seen in the context of the story that unravels or that they unfold through their actions. The two boys look at each other before Yu Xin throws a Molotov cocktail. They perform this act with the naïve intention of setting straight the injustices in this world. This action is a gesture of hope that the violence that they have been subjected to all their lives will go away and their anger may be forever stilled. But instead their action pulls them deeper into a vortex of escalating brutality and crime.
Taking Control of Your Own Life
All three film projects portray characters that struggle to regain control of their lives. They describe how these people cope with the chaotic world that surrounds them. In Effektivia, a Swedish company that has been family-run for generations is taken over by a Chinese conglomerate; decisions about the employees’ uncertain futures are all of a sudden made on the other side of the planet by faceless corporate men who know nothing about the lives and values of the Swedish workers. In The River, it is unclear if whether the fishermen do to sustain their livelihood is illegal. But the central events in the film revolve around the negotiation between money on the one hand and human values on the other. In Assembly Line, the interviewees talk about how their employment or entrepreneurial endeavours in factories are related to financial decisions that are made elsewhere and about how each individual person is affected by these legal and financial decisions.
Each of the three film projects, in its own way, forces us to deal with the unknown – deliberately confusing its audiences. But it is through this confusion that they make sense, because confusion is productive and creative. It is the unknown that inspires us to move on, and the comfort of the established that make us lazy and complacent. What is counterproductive in confusion is our inability to deal with the situation, because we feel scared or insecure when we are confused. So we have to ask ourselves how we can develop strategies to ensure that any meeting with the unknown can become something positive. What can we do to stimulate situations where confusion does not necessarily lead to a feeling of fear or insecurity? How can we inspire confidence and through that a sense of renewed potential?
It is the meeting with the unknown that allows us to move beyond the rigidity of the wor(l)d of law, the ideal, and to open the gates to the kingdom of poetry: a place where “what does it mean?” has no bearing, but rather allows us to move on, and to further our existence through a dialogue with the world and the people around us. So it is essential that we do not lean too heavily on single ideas and focus on knowledge that can travel in space in time. When our world becomes mono-cultural, we will lose our potential to inspire thinking and lead meaningful lives.
We cannot rest or put up our feet. Because once we stop, complacency catches up and our brains grow numb. All art is resistance. It is resistance against our own apathy and laziness. It is resistance against norms that are taken for granted. It is resistance that forces us to think. It is the resistance that generates pleasure in our existence.
The great Russian Filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky writes about this in Sculpting in Time:
“Time is necessary to man, so that, made flesh, he may be able to realize himself as a personality. But I am not thinking of linear time, meaning the possibility of getting something done, performing some action. The action is a result, and what I am considering is the cause which makes man incarnate in a moral sense.”
Nothing can compel us to think more than meetings with the unknown. The unknown is all around us. But sometimes we have to travel to the other side of the planet to be able to see it in our neighbour and appreciate its beauty.This is what the Chinese experience teaches us from the I-Ching to today’s bustling mega-cities – there are appropriate times to ford the river. Never forget temporality.
Per Hüttner, 2013
The Inclusion interviews Pablo Helguera
The Inclusion is very pleased to share an interview with Pablo Helguera conducted via email on Sunday, 9 December, 2012:
The Inclusion: The caricature of the art world through ironically charged images creates a gap between a straightforward critique addressing the perceived sociology of art and pure amusement. How do you think the cartoons in Artoons talk about the art world and where do you inscribe these images in relation to your own personal world?
Pablo Helguera: First, in regard to how I see Artoons in relation to the rest of what I do: pretty much since I started my art career (working simultaneously as an artist and as an educator) I have commented on the social context around art. This has taken a myriad of formats, ranging from a satirical etiquette manual for contemporary art (The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style), plays, scripted panel discussions, exhibitions by fictional artists and so forth. Artoons is only a further exploration of these same issues but in a different genre. I should add that I don’t consider them my main work, but rather, a side project that tends to be pulled to the foreground —which makes me have a complicated relationship with them and partially accounts for the fact that I have slowly been phasing out of making them. (Right now I am actually making more cartoons about classical music, another area relatively unexplored by cartoonists.)
Artoons emerged as almost an accident of circumstances, mainly due to the arrival of social media. I have made cartoons ever since I was a child—only that I had never made them public other than to family and very close friends. I felt that if I shared this aspect of myself professionally I would never be taken seriously as an artist, mainly because I believe that the art world has a very ambivalent relationship to humor. Irony is welcome, but cartoons tend to cross the line. Yet when I joined Facebook in 2008, making them felt the right thing to do. I was looking for a form of communication that would be immediate and yet hopefully provoke a reflection that would go beyond the one-liner. I was interested in the fact that the cartoon about the art world made from within the insider perspective is a rarity, and there was much to explore in that regard: I am fed up with the naïve and cliché perceptions of mainstream media about the art world as a universe populated by insanity or depravity. At the same time I wanted to make drawings that point to awkward social details that generally are familiar to those of us in the art world, while also bringing larger issues into the conversation.
For example, there is a cartoon where a number of depressed people are sitting in a circle, support-group style, and one of them is saying, “my name is Kurt and I am a mid-career artist.” Amongst artists the prospect of arriving at that moment when one is not young anymore and yet not old enough to be either retired or fully established is packed with anxiety, a sort of existential limbo. There is much to discuss about this topic, and I feel a cartoon is an effective way to initiate that kind of discussion. The other aspect about cartoons is that they are socially disarming—generally the reaction to them, when they work, is a combination of recognition and cathartic relief (we see ourselves in them, recognize our own anxieties and affirm our exasperation with the foibles and quirks of others). I have said this in many places before, but mainly I think that the reason why something like this works is because the art world is a surprisingly self-repressed society—for the most part we consider ourselves very free, but we actually spend most of the time restraining ourselves—our emotions, our true feelings about things. This may sound very strange, but these ideas I am talking about I have learned the most from studying the Latin American soap opera industry (I did a project in 2002 entitled Instituto de la Telenovela). The narratives that the soap opera constructs basically exploit the viewer’s hopes, fears and anxieties, becoming a catalyst for them. This is mostly an unconscious process.
The Inclusion: Your recent writing has explored how art’s valuation is contingent upon collectively performed sequences of interpretation that both iterate and reinforce ‘social scripts’. From the perspective of your own transdisciplinary background as an artist and museum educator, which interpretive paradigms do you see as inflecting most actively the reception of your project The School of Panamerican Unrest?
Pablo Helguera: I would first like to clarify that I try to never use my own works as “exhibit A” of the ideas that I develop and argue for in connection to socially engaged art or, as in the topic you are referring to, the valuation of art through our acting of social roles within the art scene. Doing so, I think, undermines any potential persuasiveness of the argument as it can easily be dismissed as a subjective theory that only applies to a specific work — in this particular case, to my work. The last thing I want those ideas to be interpreted as is as an artist’s “statement of purpose”. And I firmly believe that the arguments I am constructing in my two recent books, Education for Socially Engaged Art, and Art Scenes: The Social Scripts of the Art World, do apply to contemporary art practice in general, not just to a small province of it.
But at least in the sense on how the experience of working “in the field” has helped me arrive to the conclusions that I did, I can certainly say that The School of Panamerican Unrest brought me two crucial realizations about art making that I didn’t quite grasp before. One of them, and perhaps the most important, is that the various philosophical dilemmas that we often get stuck in when we discuss the “effectiveness” or “agency” (or, most fashionably today, “usefulness”) of a socially engaged work and on whether it can still function as an artwork, and how it can or should be critiqued or evaluated, we depart from an assumption about the work that is altogether incorrect because it regards the work as a fixed quantity. This means that the work is regarded as either art or not art, either instrumental or not instrumental, overtly declared or implicit/invisible, etc. But all this reasoning completely falls apart when you have a work that moves through a different set of social environments and circumstances, as the SPU did through 20 thousand miles across the continent. The project was all those things and none of them at any given time. What makes art so hard to define today is not that we are having difficulty agreeing on a set of pre-existing expectations about what art should be or should do. It is hard because artworks, when they exit the traditional boundaries of the museum or the gallery, become living organisms of sorts that morph and change identities unpredictably, depending on the social contexts they are entering, making them sometimes exist within the realm of art and sometimes outside of it, and sometimes both things at the same time. So in the case of the SPU the project was at any given time perceived as a public art project, a school, an evangelical enterprise, a Guiness-world record effort, a colonizing intrusion, a therapeutic program, and even a church and an eye doctor (someone thought we were giving eye exams).
The School of Panamerican Unrest in Gautemala City
The second realization has to do precisely with the big question that such fluidity presents: how should we adjust our thinking about artworks that exist in simultaneous registers (aesthetic, social, etc.) and what are the implications for the regulating forces that try to make sense of these works: art criticism, art history, museums and so on. It is, in essence, a problem of valuation. We have long ago, I believe, abandoned the problem of whether something can be declared art or not —calling something “art” is not a nobility title that is hard to attain. What is really at issue is the kind of criteria we need to apply to create categories of these works in such a way that: a) we can see them with greater clarity and arrive at a consensus as to which are more relevant than others and why (that is the critic’s, and, ultimately, the art historian’s, problem), and b) what is it, in today’s world, that makes one work in particular more valued over others (and that’s the philosopher’s, problem). This second part of that question is what concerns my book Art Scenes.
The range of perceptions and debates provoked by my itinerant schoolhouse in the Americas made me realize the extent to which the meaning—and ultimately, the value—of the work was constructed by a group of local participants who in turn were responding to it through the negotiation of their local (social, historic, political, aesthetic) circumstances. The project was not quite a blank screen, but it offered an infrastructure open enough to have others read and interpret it in ways that often provoked strong reactions. In places like Venezuela, for example, I was simultaneously accused of being an instrument of the Bush administration (being a U.S.-based artist coming into Latin America in what was perceived a condescending fashion) and an apologist for the Chávez regime (which has used the notion of Pan-Americanism as a demagogical tool to implement an authoritarian rule). At every city I was ever more amazed by the various reactions, which said more about the local interlocutors than about me or the project itself. The school house was mainly a symbolic stage on which very real confrontations of values were being enacted by the locals.
In Art Scenes, I argue that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to fixate on the art object to understand the role of art in society; this may have made more sense a hundred years ago; but not in the period that has fully absorbed the legacy of post-modernism and the seismic changes that the 1960s brought with the dematerialization of the artwork. Instead we need to turn our eyes to ourselves, the people who are giving meaning to those objects. An artwork may be a masterpiece, but strictly in terms of the construction of its value, the process that it has to undergo essentially is predicated on it being the topic of conversations that collectively encumber it over others. Needless to say, this becomes even more clear now that art works are sometimes entirely context-dependent, when making something immaterial, replaceable, reproducible, experiential, etc. has become more and more the norm, instead of the exception. So this book is grounded on the perhaps counter-intuitive idea that if we want to attain a better sense of why some artworks become more important over others at a particular place and time, the art object is a less stable indicator of clues than the ephemeral, subtle social actions that we collectively conduct around them, which, I believe, tend to be fairly consistent and conform to patterns that aren’t that difficult to discern.
Pablo Helguera (b. Mexico City, 1971; lives and works in New York) is an artist, writer and educator. From 1998 to 2005, he was Head of Public Programs in the Education Department of the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Since 2007, he has been Director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Helguera is the recipient of a Creative Capital Grant, a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, among numerous other distinctions. He was pedagogical curator of the 8th Mercosul Biennial (2011). His most recent book, Art Scenes: The Social Scripts of the Art World, was published in November 2012.
Images (top to bottom): excerpt from Helguera, Pablo. (2009) ‘Artoons Vol. 2.’ New York: Jorge Pinto Books, p. 109; Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamerican Unrest in Guatemala City. All images courtesy of the artist.
The Inclusion interviews Luis Camnitzer / “Codes, Languages and Dialects” by Luis Camnitzer
The Inclusion is very pleased to share an interview with Luis Camnitzer conducted via email on Monday, 22 November, 2012:
The Inclusion: You have written of drawing inspiration from a memorable neologism spray-painted on a wall outside a university in Bogotá: educreation. We occupy a moment at which economies of cognitive labor are increasingly efficient assimilators of the creative potentials of, and within, education - evidenced not least by the rampant proliferation of privatised schooling and concomitant bureaucracies of academic capitalism. In this climate, do you feel it remains possible to eke out stimulation from this expression?
Luis Camnitzer: Before answering, I want to note that educreation actually was sprayed on a wall completely unrelated to the university and therefore appeared as totally out of context. The interesting thing was that I saw it about thirty years after I had seen another word sprayed on some other out of context wall. That earlier word was educastration. Both times I was on the way to give a lecture at the same university. The second time I mentioned both the coincidence of finding inspiring words for my lectures in this university and the optimistic trend implied in their (correct) sequence. After my second lecture, a couple of students asked me to have coffee with them next morning to discuss more issues. We met at a Starbucks- equivalent and suddenly someone waved wildly to somebody behind me. A guy approached our table and greeted the waving student who then proceeded to introduce me mentioning names neither of us knew what to do with. Once the guy left I was informed that it was he who, as a biology student, had written educastration on the wall thirty years earlier.
Unfortunately, educastration is still implemented today, mostly because the word education is used for training and not for critical thinking. In an anachronistic manner, this training is based on a crafts approach and on stressing the accumulation of data. This was good for an employment market that functioned on the basis of discrete disciplines. But even from the point of view of a capitalistic market that thinks little beyond crude slavery, what seems to be needed today is flexibility in the acquisition of knowledge and adaptation of a quickly changing reality. Hence, education would be more useful for both capitalist survival and social progression were it to focus not on data but on how to acquire data as well as how to make new connections that generate knowledge. This would allow the new professionals to be creative yet retain their choice of ideology as regards how society should evolve. So, yes, educreation seems to point the finger to the only pedagogical approach with some chance at current relevance, unless we really want to pursue the neo-feudalist trends that pose the danger of becoming prevalent today.
The Inclusion: On its facade, DRAF is presently exhibiting your text piece entitled “The museum is a school: the artist learns to communicate, the audience learns to make connections.” Your conception of this work as a contract with the audience disturbs relationships between the artist, visitors and the museum. The pedagogical role of the institution becomes an imposition by virtue of your expression’s quasi-legalistic format and the direct way in which you phrased it. The message is clear: it’s a statement you cannot escape. Why a contract? And, how do you think this work affects both the institution where it is installed and the audience of that institution?
Luis Camnitzer: The “contract” part is only there to force accountability. It empowers the public to tell the institution: “Hey, you say that on your façade but then you are not really doing it.” By having the institution proclaim it, I’m hoping to force it to check critically on its mission and its ways, and to revise these if needed. If it doesn’t do it in spite of the statement, the institution will be exposed as a hypocritical entity and hopefully dutifully punished as such. For the public it is a warning that the expectation is not to consume art, but to use it as tool for empowerment. In a museum world where the exhibition places measure their success by the numbers of people coming to the building instead of by the amount of activated minds, I think this is an urgent shift for to look. Museum education today seems to be a synonym for public relations of shows organized without having real education and empowerment in mind. Art is seen as a form of production and not as a method for cognition. The legalistic and declarative format of my statement is designed to call some attention to the problem, and if unable to achieve agreement, to at least elicit some thoughtful argumentation so that things are not taken for granted.
Luis Camnitzer has been exceptionally generous to share with The Inclusion an essay entitled “Codes, Languages and Dialects,” first delivered during the symposium After Midnight: Indian Modern and Contemporary Art, 1947/1997 at the Queens Museum of Art in New York on 26 October, 2012. The symposium was a precursor to the exhibition The Rising Phoenix: A Dialogue Between Modern and Contemporary Indian Art curated by Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala and scheduled to open at the Queens Museum of Art in 2014-2015.
- Codes, Languages and Dialects -
Esperanto, the international language Ludwig Zamenhof invented in 1876, was consistent with his anti-nationalist ideas. He declared: “I am profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness… It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples – as a natural self-defensive reaction – is much more excusable than the nationalism of peoples who oppress; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other…” Zamenhof dreamed of a world united by one common language, a language that would erase all conflicts. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize, but didn’t get it.
In 1936 there was an attempt to include Esperanto in the curriculum of New York’s secondary schools. The petition was rejected with the argument that Esperanto is a code and not a language, and that therefore it didn’t qualify. Code here meant the form information may take regardless its effect on communication, and that is how I will use it here.
The rejection was polemical, I don’t know the exact arguments, nor do they matter here. What interests me is the difference between code and language and when the decoding of the information present in a code ends its reference to the original language to, because of translation, install itself in a new language.
The original language has collective tacit understandings that express shared intuitions. A code may represent those understandings but won’t generate any, at least as long as it doesn’t become a language. The borderline between code language is blurry and fragile, hence the polemic.
It could be said that when a second language is acquired one has to go through a period of learning a code. Words don’t have meanings or resonances; they are objective signs. They remain as shells until they are translated into the first language of the learner. Only later, with fluency, the second language becomes independently coherent and may reflect collective subjectivities.
All this, in a more complex fashion, applies to art. Art is often referred to as a universal language similar to Esperanto. We often make art as a form to codify ideas and meanings that are alien to it. Maybe that is why we often don’t know exactly what the hell we are doing and don’t know how to classify it. It is then when we tend to attribute everything to intuition.
Some time ago I was invited to talk to a group of students. I was asked about my opinion in regard to the assertion that Latin American art is a minor manifestation of the arts made in the hegemonic centers (this being a euphemism for New York). I said that I thought that this was fine. That what surprised me was that in Latin America nobody talked about the art of the U.S. as a minor or inferior manifestation. The student of course thought that I believed that Latin American art is better than U.S. art.
It doesn’t really matter what my opinion is about superiorities. I explained that in that statement we were comparing two preciously wrapped packages and only discussing the wrapping paper rather than what was in the packages. This formalist approach makes us believe that art is a universal language. If we were to look into the packages we would realize that art, at least to a great extent, is a local affair. That is, art in its point of origin is a language. Once it travels it becomes a code, to then possibly become a language again. But by then it doesn’t necessarily return to the original language. More likely it becomes a dialect. The new version will have idiomatic deviations and won’t reflect the collective subjectivities of its origin, but instead those of the new location. In this new place the art object loses any interest. What matters is the whole in which the object articulates and is articulated.
Maybe this explains why perfectly good foreign movies are redone, mostly in a degraded form, to have a broader audience thanks to the inclusion of local tacit understandings. It’s surprising that nobody thought of painting a new version of the Mona Lisa for better consumption. It is a fact however, that the original understandings in as much they may be hermetic, distract from the narrative power.
When the Mona Lisa was shown in the New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1963, Macy’s sold bath towels with a reproduction. It was a low-resolution image limited by what the fibers of Egyptian cotton might allow. Today the resolution is probably much better. One now is able to buy a, quote, “soft and absorbent hand towel made of 100% polyester microfiber which is completely durable. Your towel won’t fade, crack or peel. The color of the hand towel is white. Great idea for gift and promotion!” for 19.97. It is, again I quote, “Carson’s Collectibles Hand Towel of Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (Extremely High Quality, Licensed).”
The point is that foreign tacit understandings in an original piece may remain perceivable in the new setting but not be very useful. By remaining beyond comprehension and staying in the code stage, they distract from the work’s narrative power. Though not fully, we understand Mona Lisa’s smile. We also get the landscape. Then the info, like the way she is dressed and holds her hands, tells us that she is from a different time and place. We know some of the history but empathy is highly reduced. Would we date her? I really don’t know. Does the painting expand our knowledge and enrich our culture? I doubt it. And yet, is it expensive? For the trip to NY the insurance was 100 million dollars, today the equivalent of 743 million dollars. Did Duchamp help us any in all of this? Definitely, he took her out of the code and introduced her into contemporary language.
The discussion of what is in the package allows us to understand that in art we are not really facing an object but a problem that was formalized and solved in the object. This makes “objectivity” here not only a pun, but something very relative and possibly out of reach. At the same time it is this objectivity, as opposite to subjectivity) what would be needed to achieve a universal language.
It is here where the difference between language and code comes in. I believe that when there is a genuine aesthetic, one relating to its environment and achieving full communication, we are in the presence of a language. When the formal aspects of an aesthetic come to other places or publics where they are only understood as forms, we are in the presence of a code.
As an art student during the fifties they tried to convince us abstract art was the inescapable symbol of the avant-garde. The hegemonic centers already had their “informalism”, “art autre” or “abstract expressionism.” These movements introduced much complexity and confusion to the topic, but our discussion continued along the simplistic lines of figuration versus abstraction. In a school that faithfully followed the French Academy, abstraction was not just equivalent to rebellion. It gave a way out from the pedagogical prison. That sign of liberty allowed keep art categories on a level of banal generalization as well as keeping an irrational mixture of aesthetics and political ideologies leading to contradictions that nobody discussed.
Thanks to U.S. decisions during the Cold War, abstraction was to be seen as an anticommunist aesthetic. It didn’t matter that the Utopian ideals of abstract art were much closer to an egalitarian society than figuration. While figuration told stories to a passively listening public, abstraction hoped to engage individuals in looking at things different and creatively. But the actual social relation established by either abstract or figurative art didn’t matter either. After all, Hitler, Churchill and Eisenhower were all united in their active love for figuration, and Andy Wyeth was the blockbuster artist of the period.
So, the condemnation of figuration was not really because of its looks. It was because of the stories it told. If the stories were propaganda for something they didn’t like, it was bad. If Andy Wyeth’s Christina had dragged a red flag while crawling towards the house on the hill, he would have been damned. The code would still have worked, the understanding would not, and the language would have been inappropriate.
In that sense the only artistic style that came close to an international language probably was functionalism. Practical necessities generated a clear code, and since those necessities were shared internationally and regardless ideologies, it also became an accessible language. The most lasting lesson came from the understanding that functionalist architecture and design were addressing a clearly formulated problem and solving it elegantly without any interference or need for local taste or understandings.
In spite of the internationalist ambitions of European avant-gardist movements, many initial abstractionist works were the result or mere illustrations of mystical beliefs. Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian among many, followed principles of theosophy and made programmatic works that maintain the split between code and language and are not universally understandable. The mixture of visible objectivity and underlying obscurantism may confuse the public even more than figuration. Figurative work at least expresses its obscurantism openly.
Mysticism is not necessarily defined by outright cults and may confine itself to definitions that one way or another just try to transcend material presence. Many U.S. conceptual artists were looking for some kind of spiritual essence of art. They tried to integrate code with language and resorted to tautology. The confirmation of auto-existence excluded poetry and performance as interferences that prevented that integration. While theoretically sound for an international language, the premise itself was not shared. Local needs and crises demanded political applications. Conceptualism in other countries already was and sometimes became a very different language, even when sometimes it looked like the code was being shared.
When European abstraction “arrived” in Latin America, it did so in appearance but without the theoretical background that had generated it. And even that appearance was distorted in many cases, since the vehicle was magazine reproductions. There is the well-known case of the disappointment of an Argentinean artist confronted with an original neoplastic painting by Mondrian. He discovered that the painting was not as industrially perfect as the reproduction had promised. Not only was the hand made quality visible, but it also was important. As much pro as against, the suggested slickness of the reproductions had a great stylistic influence on Argentinean abstraction.
When code and language are imported instead of originating locally, the seduced artist has to decide how to handle it. In terms of abstraction, some decided to continue playing with composition, others gave more or less hidden meanings, and yet others recycled the package for other purposes. But I believe that no Latin American artist became a theosophist in order to make abstract paintings.
Sure there are universal themes in art, the same as there are in science, and they have to be generic enough to stand apart from localism. In art they tend to be so general that they become trivial. In figurative art there were things like love, maternity and death or, if the wish was to avoid drama and have some freedom: still life and landscape. In abstraction we have either a selective coding of reality or a pure formal composition. The first is close to stylization. The second comments on art issues. Locality, however, tends to contaminate anyway. In Uruguay, Torres García believed that pure abstraction belonged to “cold” cultures. In Chile, many years later, Vergara Grez created the “Andean Geometry” movement. By means of “the extension, the silence and the void” he searched for “trascendence and spirituality as opposed to atheistic technomerchandise.”[i]
In 1951, Max Bill, a typical internationalist artist, exhibited in Sao Paulo and then also received the Grand Prize at the Sao Paulo Biennale. His piece was the Tripartite Unity of 1949, a take-off from the Moebious strip and based on the mathematics of non-oriented surfaces. In its moment it was considered as an emblematic example of an art without borders. Max Bill greatly influenced the work of Brazilian artists. A classic piece in Brazilian art history, and product of this influence, is “Caminando” (Walking) by Ligya Clark in 1963. Clark picks up on the Moebius strip, but deviates from Max Bill in many fundamental aspects. The piece takes the shape of a disposable bracelet that is simultaneously worn by two people. Thus the piece leaves the field of mathematics to become a symbol of affective relations.
However, the problem when we do this type of analysis is that we base it on biographical observations and compilations of anecdotes. In the narration of the history or histories of art, these anecdotes are coupled with very individual cases that aspire to be exemplary. In the case of Clark, as well as that of Helio Oiticica, we have an example of the “anthropophagi” theories proclaimed in Brazil some thirty years earlier by Oswald de Andrade. While this might be true, it is also incidental. What really matters here is that broader dynamics like recycling and syncretism always were an important part in dependent cultures. The fact if Clark and Oiticica did or did not continue Andrade’s thoughts does not really affect the evaluation of the social and cultural impact of their work.
To start the study of culture from individualized anecdotes inhibits the understanding of what real energy the artist used as an activating lever. We can tell from were influences came and where they went, but the results from that study remain in a very narrow and relatively incestuous field. At the end of the research we have a net of biographies and a collection of works coordinated with that net. And that net continues to depend on hegemonic criteria, not on local ones.
Maybe more than other places, Latin America is in an odd position. It is part of the so-called Western culture and yet it is kept separate. A culture heavily subject to colonizing influences, the information about hegemonic processes affected artistic production. The unidirectional flow of information, and the temptation to measure up with and in the centers, unavoidably had an impact on a great number of artists. But on the other hand, local conditions were also nourished by that flow, or the flow created new needs. This ambivalence leads to a lot of musings about identity and the role of locality.
Some months ago I read a book on experimental philosophy. The authors in the anthology spoke very critically of what they called “epistemic romanticism.” With the term they refer to the belief that the knowledge of correct epistemological norms that lead to “justified belief” are wired in our brains and that by using certain strategies that may be discovered. These strategies are based on intuition. A critique of this position is supported by several studies that prove that intuitive processes are not constant, but vary from culture to culture. The most apparent difference is in the use of causality among Western cultures compared to holistic connections used in Eastern cultures. [ii] Although these studies don’t refer to art, it is in art where intuition is referred to the most and questioned the least.
In its normal use, intuition is a rather mysterious and unexplainable instrument, but nevertheless a source of certitudes. According to some authors, intuition is a skill that helps to make decisions based on pattern recognition and the comparison of configurations.[iii] In other words, it is a process of re-cognition, not of cognition. This explains the speed of intuition, since the reference pattern and the new pattern to be compared are taken in as a whole and not through time-bound reading. There is a popular intuition and an expert intuition. It is particularly popular intuition that is subject to affects and contextual influences, or to be “primed.” Being a skill, intuition may be developed and refined. It is the expert intuition we invoke in the search for truth, but they are truths that remain culturally conditioned.
Artists clearly belong to the more expert class of “intuitors,” but we can’t lose sight of the fact that this skill does not lead to absolute truths. It is an expertise that functions to access certain truths that are true within some cultures but not within others.
Without being an expert in these topics, it would seem that the belief that artistic values have universal validity is based on “correct epistemological norms” imposed by hegemonic cultures. By referring to these cultures, these norms create a platform for action that becomes the “correct” one at the detriment of others. Dominant expertise then develops within this platform and its assumptions.
In a world where information still flows in one direction, it is this notion of what is correct, and this expertise that establish themselves as a reference to evaluate other forms of expertise. It makes me think of vegan hamburgers. Taste and texture is compared with real meat hamburgers rather than with other vegan concoctions, and where the name already implies subordination to the dominant meat culture. Within the dominant culture these values become self-evident, and self-evidence is an intuitive act. And within other cultures they try to become self-evident as well.
There is a self-evidence of originality and first-ness that makes us feel that intellectual production is a race. Histories of the avant-garde movements seek to find first dates so to declare everything after as derivative when not directly as copycats. This is not only a privilege exercised by the cultural centers. Although a symptom of the insecurity of the cultural centers, the race is played with equal intensity by cultures on the periphery that forget that it is a hegemonic game.
Some time ago I speculated about what the cultural impact would be if we erased Picasso or Michelangelo from art history, from museum holdings, from phone books. What would happen if any trace disappears, how and why would the world be poorer? I’m afraid that the impact wouldn’t be as great as common assumptions and the market would like us to believe. However, if we lost those artists who are able to stand behind us, the ones we don’t necessarily see as individuals or find out their names, those who don’t care about themselves, but those that understand us and lead us to make new connections we wouldn’t have found alone, well, that impact would be enormous. That’s not bad.
Luis Camnitzer, 2012
Fig.5: An Academy, an Opera and Other Fictions
Fig.5 exists as part of the exhibition A House of Leaves. It arises from DRAF’s continuing interest in testing various modalities of knowledge-production within a contemporary art institution. We make explicit reference to the model of an academy because it invokes a space in which to dwell while emphasising educative potentials.
We wish to question the constitutive elements of DRAF in order to expand and interact with our environment. This is not a self-serving project but a self-analytical expression through which to connect artistic routes with education – co-producing shared occasions for heuristic action.
Fig.5 actively negotiates with emancipation, collaboration and the idea(l) of potential. It is understood as a situation for the making of fictions. We resist institutionalisation by legitimising our position as an academy in crisis – one that unflaggingly questions and challenges its identity within DRAF. Fig.5 aims for the consolidation of a self-critical structure inviting unpredictable conjunctions between communities and structures of learning.
Fig.5 articulates the exhibition space as a forum. In fact, the exhibition (as articulated across areas both intrinsic and extrinsic to DRAF’s venue at Mornington Crescent) could be regarded as a classroom in itself. Quite simply, the space of the exhibition doesn’t necessarily mean the space in which art is displayed. Instead, it can be imagined as a location for ‘conjecture, for rethinking and rearticulating the structures of the art school based on group dynamics rather than individualism, integration rather than exclusion, hybridism rather than purity, exploration rather than interpretation’ (Haris Pellapaisiotis, Speaking Thoughts: On an Art School, 2006).
Fig.5 is free, and participants are able to attend as many courses as they desire. The courses differ with respect to approach and structure, and each is guided by a course organiser.
Forthcoming posts on The Inclusion are organised in conjunction with contributors active across a broad array of arts organisations and communities. Future collaborators include: Luis Camnitzer, Form/Content, Per Hüttner, Milika Muritu, Paul Pieroni and Fatos Üstek among numerous others.
1) The DRAF course.
The DRAF course seeks to offer a broader configuration of what constitutes DRAF’s identity: a collection, an exhibition space, and an active programme of external collaborations. We provide a research context, an informal location for the production of ideas, a situation, and a platform for discussions. The guests involved in this course are asked to engage with DRAF’s approaches to diverse concerns including but not limited to: renegotiating issues of representation, questioning the institutional model and stimulating interdisciplinarity.
FormContent’s course explores issues within visual language that lie at the core of its ongoing programme It’s moving from I to It. Within the framework of a class run by an artist, a performer and an academic, each mode of thinking and working is presented indistinctively in a knowledge-production setting.
3) Vision Forum.
Vision Forum invites you take part in the production of an Opera in Five Acts. Our core group, composed of eight curators, artists, writers and composers, invite you to join the processes of producing the five components that form Acts of an Opera - deriving its content from the exhibition at DRAF. The process will reflect on how time, narrative and change can be woven into the fabric of an opera for an exhibition. Enrollment is required in advance of participation. Please RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org
15th November 2012 (Launch of Fig.5)
17th November 2012
15th December 2012
19th January 2013
9th February 2013
23rd February 2013 (Finissage)
For each of the above dates, the schedule will be:
FormContent: 1pm - 3,30pm
Vision Forum: 4pm – 6pm
DRAF course: 6,30pm – 8pm
The courses are free and open to everyone, yet places are limited.
RSVP essential: email@example.com
Our special partner for education is Cura Magazine