Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Morality and responsibility, by, for and to whom?

Hello everyone!

Jeremy Biles (writer, editor, SAIC grad advisor) has written a wonderful response to Kathryn Hixson's Trash/Spectacle talk. Anne Wilson and I agreed that this would frame a new blog and be a conversation starter. The first part of the blog is Jeremy's
text which is followed by my response to his. LOts of contested ideas about what is 'good' art, morality, experience and questions of taste. Enjoy and get scribbling in those ideas while the summer explodes into just too much heat. AND I understand that Shinique Smith podcast is now on-line so no excuse for not getting those comments in. Happy writing,

From Trash to Spectacle

I enjoyed Shannon Stratton's and Kathryn Hixson's "From Trash to
Spectacle" lectures, not only for their many insights, but also
because they each provoked so much afterthought in the weeks since
their presentation. For the moment, I want to focus on Kathryn's
talk, and in particular her various definitions and characterizations
of "art." They raise a variety of interesting questions that I hope
others might take up and respond to.

I think we can discern in Kathryn's lecture at least five distinct
ways of defining/describing art that should be kept in mind in
considering the questions I raise below:

1. Art defined by its location: "art itself lies in the continuums
existing amongst all of these polarities" (that is, the polarities
"between art and craft, tradition and the new, art work and the
commodity product, modern and postmodern, the disciplines and the
post disciplinary" and "BETWEEN the concept, the materials, the
process, the art object" and "the mind and the body").

2. Art defined by its constitutive activity: "art is the very
creation of those continuums."

3. Art defined along ethical lines, according to its moral
potentiality: art is "the possibility of responsible confluence...."

4. We also find not a definition of art, but a description of a
specific kind of art, namely "satisfactory" or "successful" art:
"What we parse out as art's constituent elements -- concept,
materials, process, craft, making, context, and content --
in a satisfactory or successful art object come together, are
aligned, fall into place, make 'sense' -- viscerally, conceptually,
emotionally, and above all RESPONSIBLY-responsible to the individual,
the social, the historical" [my italics; I've also altered the
punctuation slightly for clarity].

5. Finally, a description of "Good" art according to its
constitutive activity: "Good art is that which directly engages with
the moral complexity of life, now." [Is "Good" art synonymous with
"satisfactory or successful" art?]

This rich variety of definitions and characterizations of art raises
a host of questions. The ones I want to raise here have to do with
placing the concept of "responsibility" within a definition of art --
or at least Good/satisfactory/successful art. So here are a few
questions to which I'm hoping readers might be willing to respond:

1. In precise terms, what defines responsibility? And in relation
to this, who adjudicates responsibility? Responsibility, according
to Hixson, is an essential component of satisfactory/successful art,
and thus presumably Good art -- but what precisely defines
responsibility? What criteria need to be met to count as
"responsible"? Who gets to decide on these criteria?

2. Who is to take responsibility for art (who is the responsible
moral agent)? The artist? The audience? What about the
market/museum complex? Or curators? And must the artist remain
"vigilant" (to use Hixson's term) after the creation of his/her work
and its release into the world? And what about once the artist is
dead? Who takes responsibility then? Is the artist responsible for
his/her work for all time? Should the artist only create and release
into the world work that he/she is certain is and always will be
"responsible"? (Is the artist in any way morally obligated only to
produce responsible work?) See question 5, below.

3. How exactly does responsibility relate to "moral complexity"? Is
it the case that responsibility is simply (which is not to say
merely) an engagement with complexity as opposed to, say, the fascist
eradication of complexity?

4. Good art may engage moral complexity, but that doesn't mean it
will lead its audience to do so. (E.g., just because Holzer's art is
morally engaged doesn't mean its audience will engage it or the world
morally.) Who is responsible for this? Surely the artist can't
ensure that the audience, through a given piece of art, will engage
life in all its moral complexity, even if the art itself does. So
where does this leave the artist with regard to the moral imperative
to create responsible work? Is good art intrinsically good, or good
only insofar as it stimulates a certain kind of reception? Is
good-ness in the art or its audience?

5. "Good art is that which directly engages with the moral
complexity of life now." I'm interested in how the word "now" works
in this definition. "Now" is what linguists call an "indexical"
term, as it points to a particular state of affairs. And of course
"now" changes each time it's uttered. (The "now" I uttered 10
minutes ago is not the "now" I'm uttering now.) So what does it
mean, precisely, for a work of art to engage the moral complexity of
life "now"? Does that mean in the moment of its creation? Or does
it always refer to the present moment? Is it possible that a work of
art might engage with the moral complexity of life at the time it's
made, but not a decade later? (Probably.) If so, is that work no
longer "good"? Is it possible, on the other hand, for a work to be
not good at the time of its creation, and then, someday, to become
good? And how exactly does the concept of responsibility relate to
this "now"?

--Jeremy Biles, May 2009

How does responsibility relate to now?

There are several ‘types’ of experience that may or may have already characterized the dominant modes and discourses of contemporary creative art practices. There is a new moment for the conception of spaces for exhibition, of assemblies, and of public demonstration as well as public display. This includes the idea of the spectacle. Who is taking part, who are the things that will be exchanged or will invest and divest of the transfer? What is at stake in their being in the moment of the art situation? How do we measure their effectiveness as an evidence of our partcipation and potential interactivity? How do we subscribe to an ideal responsibility for such artwork situations and to whom are we appealing to take this responsibility.

Therefore, how do we measure the responsibility of the viewer, an assembly, of a crowd?

What we are witnessing, what we are constructing, are parallel systems of the artist user and the audience user. They are users of some shared, and some distinct entities. On the part of the artist, he or she is engaged with the institutional host and the limitations of the platform that the host presents to them. In the extravagances of the production budget and the network of supporters, critics, and various patrons are disillusioned to such limits.

In the case of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in the Tate’s Turbine Hall we might imagine the rotation of sitters across from his brunch table in the Tate Modern staff room. The emergence of the Turbine Hall with the Weather Project concerns the assembly as a crowd and no longer only a single spectator and no other. This also situates Eliasson as an event-a stage-a spectacle. Who was asking what questions and at what point in the duration of preparing the installation did these conversations take place? It distinguishes his own risks and triumphs from those who use and enjoy his work. It locates the various aesthetic or conceptual issues as in the work, or conversely, from the work. It creates for us as spectators the elimination of all but the working of the human subject in the space of the encounter. It provides an opening into such a space where we decide upon the human subject to become a subject-or-rather-to enter into the composing of a subject and in the event in which we are asked to perform.

The people have come. Do they know what they want, and do they know what to do? For what is the art task that needs to be completed? It needs the validity and the articulation to construct active subjects through a directed transmission of the conditions for production (a sensation of the conditions of production). With this the political task of art practices co-produced in relation to the visitor or viewer can go through a constant process of renewal. For sociologist and curator Bruno Latour (1993), the art encounter is an entaglement with the nature of human subjectivity, for Pierre Bourdieu (DistinctionA Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), it is about taste.

"Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed."

Whose responsibility is this now?

I don’t think this has anything to do with morality but rather how we become human, social subjects who make judgements, not according to scientific experiments in a lab, but in the strange environments of spaces and spectacles which mingle with our bodies, mess up our minds to betray what we think we know.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Altermodern: Movement or Marketing?

How was the last lecture yesterday in the series? Hope there will be some comments to share.

I am looking forward to hearing the podcast so I can engage with the content of the talk.

In the meantime today's contribution is to get us all to think about is the thought provoking
essay called

Altermodern: Movement or Marketing?

By Nickolas Lambrianou

Is the concept of 'The Altermodern', which organises Nicholas
Bourriaud's Spring art blockbuster at Tate Britain, anything more than
re-spun curatorial spin? -- asks Nickolas Lambrianou

Here's the link

Notice the number of textile metaphors used.

An interesting challenge to what is becoming an increasingly dominant orthodoxy in what to show and how to show
a diverse range of contemporary practices.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Textures of the everyday and the paradoxes of survival

It is great that Syvnia's comment and response to the blog of today notes the paradox and the excitement of re framing the everyday and the overlooked, the organised chaos and the textures of how 'we' might live (and indeed survive) in a our globally anxious world.

Any other comments here? Seems to have touched a nerve?. What do our anchors become? How do we maintain them?

continuing the blog but not the bog of yesterday

Shinique Smith's "Good Knot" exhibition was shown at the Yvon Lambert gallery in London, UK last December. I was interested in press release which announces that the ways in which she uses twine, ribbon, and string attempts to compress the lives of the objects she ties together—clothing, textiles, shoes, stuffed toys, and other materials often overlooked within the canons of high art and culture. It appears that some of these materials may also have sentimental value for the artist, who has spoken of taking elements such as sheets or handtowels from her grandmother’s house in Baltimore, USA. Perhaps she will speak about these experiences in her lecture tomorrow? I observe from the images of her work that, Smith’s bundles range in scale from human-sized towers to smaller and more portable assemblages. The assemblage gathering connects to yesterday's citation of Sze and Wilkes. Does anyone agree?

Quoting the Lambert gallery press release, "The sculptures reflect on the economies of excess and need within objects from 'everyday' life". Do people agree with this? According to Michel de Certeau, everyday life is distinctive from other practices of daily existence because it is repetitive and unconscious. His most well-known and influential work in the United States has been 'The Practice of Everyday Life' in which he develops a theory of the productive and consumptive activity inherent in everyday life. de Certeau makes the claim that, "everyday life works by a process of poaching on the territory of others, recombining the rules and products that already exist in culture in a way that is influenced, but never wholly determined by societal rules and products".

This got me thinking about the themes of the lecture series and the blog. If there are art works, like Smith's, that refer to 'everyday' life, how conscious are 'we' in our making of poaching and raiding the territories of other practices, like craft to shift the rules of what can be overlooked?

Returning to Smith's ' Bale Variants' series of works, do they refer to the inequities of a global economy? How far does the throwaway clothing from First World countries shipped in bales to the Third World countries, make a political statement?. How readable is this? What kinds of knowledge production might we need in order to decode the message or is it obvious to all?

Is it possible to say that there is an aesthetic combination which results in a controlled chaos in Smith’s work?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Everyday Trash

I have been quiet with my blog contribution since April not least due to family moves in London. The last lecture of the series is 22nd so hope there will be lots more posts after the talk.

In the last discussion on April 7th there were lots of observations about the value of skill and crafting which may seem to be in opposition to the idea of trash and spectacle. We talked about Mathew Barney and his spectacular, interdisciplinary work. I would be interested to know what other bloggers thought about Sarah Sze and Cathy Wilkes. Sze appear to make something marvellous out of everyday trash. Precariously towering and sculptural structures are constructed from the stuff some of us might chuck in the trash can: lengths of old rope, paper scraps and all manner of plastic containers. There is a childish sense of fun in her work; as her forms appear just about to topple, they also start to levitate with all kinds of mischief. Perhaps the uncertainty of what she makes is as thrilling as it can be dreadful. It is something we haven't touched on in the blog before, the ideas of fun and mischief? On the other hand last year's Turner Prize nominee, Cathy Wilkes picks up detritus and carefully arranges it to form sculptural assemblages. Could look like a monumental disaster has occurred but we don't know why or where from.

So, are we talking about skill as a set of conceptual moves through the selection of the right kind of trash to be made into assemblage form? How far does fun and mischief enter the work? For a very different set of ideas about skill see: Fort example see Peter Dormer, ‘Thoroughly Modern Making’ in Arts & Crafts to Avant Garde: essays on the Crafts from 1880 to the Present, published in 1992 by the South Bank Centre, London, to accompany the exhibition, Arts & Crafts to Avant Garde, held at the Royal Festival Hall, London, UK, 1-31 May 1992 and David Pye, designer and woodcarver, analysed the confusion between moral and craftsmanly principles in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

David Pye’s 1968 text, which struggles with the meaning of “handmade” and “machine made” and opts instead for the “workmanship of risk” as opposed to the “workmanship of certainty.” Williams argued that Pye sets out , unconsciously, to propose many possibilities and starting points for critical making practices. This is embodied in the application of process and material revealing core territory of debate. Pye’s ideas led him to consider that extreme cases of the “workmanship of risk” are those in which a tool is held in the hand and no jig or any other determining system is there to guide it”. What is being drawn on here? Perhaps it is Pye’s notion that work depends on judgement, dexterity and care as opposed to predetermining results in advance of something being made.

Another set of ideas about skill and the arguments that it causes can be found in Christopher Frayling and Helen Snowdon in the UK magazine called "Crafts" No. 56 in. 1982. All the essays are republished and can be found in Harrod, ed; Christopher Frayling and Helen Snowdon , 'Perspectives on Craft," ... Craft Classics, UK Crafts Council, 1997.

What do people think?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

From Trash to Spectacle

This has been an interactive session to contribute to the blog. Questions, comments and images have come from the 12 advanced and material studies class at the Art Institute Tuesday 7th April 2009. The questions emerged from the lecture series and round table sessions that have happened over the last week in the School. It has been a great and informative session which we hope will continue with new posts and comments, web links and other images so that this interactive and collective enterprise continues.

With thanks to Amy Honchell and Karen Reimer for engaging in this process and to all the fibre students who directly participated.

Brain drain: Interdisciplinary Fashion/Fiber studies in the US

Why do conceptual fashion/fiber students have to leave the country in order for advanced wearable studies? Why is New York our only domestic option? Why are fiber and fashion departments so segregated at US art schools?



What makes trash a spectacle?

Come on.

Isn't everything DIY at art school?

Post-BFA: What do they want from me??

What should BFA graduates do before applying to an MFA program? If you're looking at applicants, what would you want to see? What's overrated?

- NV


Is sloppy craft considered and respected as much by the viewer?

The value of work

Does work have any inherent value?
how do we know what skill is?

Minimal Spectacle?

Can a minimal piece be more of a spectacle than a busy piece?
Everything from vegetarian recipes to building your own medieval gauntlet: DIY instructions to suit your every whim.

Posted by Anne Chino

Authenticity: "Outsider" vs. "Trained" Craft artist

Q: Is the craft of an "outsider" artist more true than that of a "trained" craft-artist?

Craft International

Are similar conversations about craft happening internationally?
what is the connection between skill and concept?


Photography, identity, self representation, sameness vs. individuality, dress and garment.

Cole Chickering posted this, okay?

"Pure" Craft

Question: Can craft exist as "pure" craft without any negative repercussions/connotations?

"Intentional" Sloppy Craft

Question: How can you tell "intentional" sloppy craft?  

Gender in Craft

Is gender still a relevant part of the craft discussion?

The "Hand"

Question: When does the "hand" need to be seen in artwork?
Do you think your earlier experiences with craft have colored how you aproach craft now?

Hand vs. Machine

What changes when a machine is used to accomplish a project? Does craft become compromised?

Matthew Barney - Spectacle or what?

Q: Where does Matthew Barney's work fit?

Da Rules

Does one need to be an expert at something, like painting, in order to deviate from the rules?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Missed the first Trash Spectacle lecture by Glenn Adamson? Want to listen to it again?

Listen to the podcast at Scroll down to the podcast link provided under the lecture description .

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The value of Craft and the crafting of Value

In The Craftsman (2008), Richard Sennett expresses the view that craftsmanship has not disappeared, rather he says that craft belongs to the category of "social capital": knowledge and skill that are accumulated and passed on through social interaction, and which are easily lost when social customs change. Social capital is an example of what the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi called "tacit knowledge": knowledge that exists in a social practice, but is not detachable from it. Sennett argues that craft does not need to be reinvented. It needs to be recognized.

Craft is something that is learnt by doing; it is essentially an adult extension of child's play. Sennett does not stop at potters making mugs or Moroccan leather grainers, though such people do come into it, but extends his warm embrace to the crafts of making music, cooking, the bringing up of children (let me say he is not particularly concerned with gender and always writes he never he/she).

Throughout The Craftsman, Sennett points to the importance of religion and ritual in the transfer of tacit knowledge, and he recognizes that the great craft cultures of medieval times, in which the legacy of tacit knowledge was kept in place by the self-policing guilds, went with a form of life that we, in the western hemisphere, can no longer recuperate. Civic pride counted more than domestic contentment, and the crafts themselves were fully incorporated into the religion of the town, taking their place among the rituals and sacraments whereby the community renewed its sense of legitimacy and its devotion to God.

Sennett's book is about perfectionist skills, the desire to do things well that (he thinks) resides in all of frustration, the damage and us once these urges are denied. The best craftsmanship relies on a continuing involvement. It can take many years of practice for complex skills of making to become so deeply engrained that they are there, readily available, almost without the craftsmen being conscious of it. An obvious example is the glassblower, dependent on tried and trusted ways of using tools, organizing body movements, understanding his idiosyncratic raw materials with a depth of involvement so complete the process of making becomes almost automatic. The same total mastery of technique can apply to music making, ballet dancing, writing. But our lives (in the metropolitan centre of the West) are so fragmented that it is becoming rare.

Sennett views the satisfactions of physical making as a necessary part of being human. We need craftwork as a way to keep ourselves rooted in material reality, providing a steadying balance in a world, which overrates mental facility. He traces these ideas back to 18th-century Enlightenment perceptions. Diderot's Encyclopedia presents manual pursuits as on a par with mental labour, describing the lives of artisan craftsmen to illustrate good work as source of human happiness. Here's a quote I often use:

CRAFT: This name is given to any profession that requires the use of hands, and is limited to a certain number of mechanical operations to produce the same piece of work, made over and over again, I do not know why people have a low opinion of what this word implies; for we depend on crafts for all necessary things in life.

-Diderot's Encyclopedia (1751-80)

How does Sennett's view of the Crafts differ or augment that which Glenn might have taken up in his March 5th lecture?

Sennett's ideas about the Crafts would appear to be very different from those expressed through Spectacle and Trash, a hands on rather than recognising conceptual strategies?

I took my own MFA students last week to explore:

Nicolas Bourriaud's
Altermodern - Tate Triennial 2009 at Tate Britain
4 February - 26 April 2009

Bourriaud (Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Paris; Les Presses du Reel, 2002) is like Sennett as sociologist and is currently affiliated to the TATE as a Gulbenkian Fellow in Curating. In his press release he suggests that a new modernity is emerging, reconfigured to an age of globalisation -- understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodern culture. This is due to increased communication, travel and migration that affect the way we live since, he argues, daily lives consist of journeys in a chaotic and teeming universe. What Bourriaud detects is that multiculturalism and identity are being overtaken by creolisation: Artists are now starting from a globalised state of culture.

"Today's art explores the bonds that text and image, time and space, weave between themselves.

Artists are responding to a new globalised perception. They traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs and create new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication".

Sennett's appears rooted in the primacy of skill and labour, meaning and value and what he describes as the transfer of tacit knowledge. Does this have any connection to globalised perceptions and knowledge exchange or are we over taken by creolisation? And what do you think he might mean by this term? Does this notion have any connection to the themes of practice you are engaged in or participatory networks which you might pursue?

In Relational Aesthetics (2002) Nicolas Bourriaud stressed that current practices are governed by a concern to 'give everybody their chance'‚ through forms which do not establish producer over consumer, but rather negotiate open relationships to it. 'Giving everyone their chance' implies a rethinking of the participatory and performance art works produced in post war art practices.

Is this approach simply a characteristic of performative practices seeking collective engagement?

Does this methodology reach the limits of art to have a social effect?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Shift from the conceptual to the material...

In an interview with Iwona Blaswick, Director of Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 2002 the artist, Claire Barclay, commented about her own practice that:

My work is about a shift from the conceptual to the material. More and more, though, I'm realising that I don't really have that sort of conceptual practice. There's a certain amount of research which runs parallel and it controls the work in terms of what materials I'm using or what reference points I might have. Basically, though, I really do work in a more hands-on way. It's much more about making -- about getting materials, doing things with them and the surprises that occur. Rather than try to mould things to what you want them to mean conceptually, you allow them to dictate to you.

It's important to me to make things myself. Some things are obviously more hand made and this is important to me. I don't know if that's because I enjoy making the work, I've realised that I have a belief that crafts are vital within society, the idea of making something yourself with love, or having something that somebody you know has made for you.

There are lots of issues here about working in a hands-on way and letting material lead you. Do you identify with this kind of practice?

Do you think that conceptual processes and material practices can be connected? How do you think you do this in your work?

For some contemporary practitioners the idea of making things with love is a bit too romantic and a more activist or participatory model is pursued. Do you think that participation and engagement with different communities is something you want to engage with when thinking about material? Or do you always want to make things yourself?

There are many web based DIY projects drawn from street activity, a performance of making if you like. Is this something that appeals to your activism?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Trash/Spectacle an Introduction

At the end of 1967, Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem in The Revolution of Everyday Life presented the most elaborate expositions of Situationist theory, which had a widespread influence in France during the 1968 student rebellion.

In their analysis, the Situationists argued that capitalism had turned all relationships transactional, and that life had been reduced to a "spectacle". The spectacle is the key concept of their theory. The worker is alienated from his (and it is in the masculine) product and from his fellow workers and finds himself living in an alien world: The worker does not produce himself; he produces an independent power. The success of this production, its abundance, returns to the producer as an abundance of dispossession. All the time and space of his world becomes foreign to him with the accumulation of his alienated products....

The increasing division of labor and specialization have transformed work into meaningless drudgery.

"It is useless," Vaneigem observes, "to expect even a caricature of creativity from a conveyor belt." Or we might add a call centre.

What emerges from this discourse is that in order to ensure continued economic growth, capitalism had to create "pseudo-needs" to increase consumption. Instead of saying that consciousness was determined at the point of production, they said it occurred at the point of consumption. Modern capitalist society is a consumer society, a society of "spectacular" commodity consumption. Having long been treated with the utmost contempt as a producer, the worker is now lavishly courted and seduced as a consumer never more than in the credit crunch, the economic downturn or more directly the collapse of the global economy.
At the same time, while modern technology has ended natural alienation (the struggle for survival against nature), social alienation in the form of a hierarchy of masters and slaves has continued. People are treated like passive objects, not active subjects. After degrading being into having, the society of the spectacle has further transformed having into merely appearing. We then are transformed into a world of mere appearance, the fa├žade of glass and mirrors.

The result is an appalling contrast between cultural poverty and economic wealth, between what is and what could be. "Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation," Vaneigem asks, "entails the risk of dying of boredom?"

You can argue that one of the ways the Situationists sought to pursue action was to transform the here and now of everyday life. To transform the perception of the world and to change the structure of society was the same thing. By liberating oneself, you could change power relations and therefore transform society.

The Situationists have undoubtedly enriched anarchist theory by their critique of modern culture, their celebration of creativity, and their stress on the immediate transformation of everyday life.

This may seem to be a detour to a commentary on the Exhibition "Reskilling" (Nov 29 - Jan 10, 2009) Guest curated by Shannon Stratton and Luanne Martineau that is part of the reading TRASH/SPECTACLE LECTURE SERIES this Spring but reflecting upon their statement that “artists now revisit craft as a place from which to critique or react to the post-digital, consumerism, condensed time and globalism. But now, rather than embody a medieval utopian fantasy, nostalgia for the more recent 1970s, its politics and rebellion, prevails. ”

It strikes me that the issues, ideas and actions as explored by the Situationists and Debord’s work on The Society of the Spectacle inform the various methodologies that many activist practitioners working in and on craft subscribe to. The celebration of creativity in the every day, the reaction to global commoditisation and consumerism and a concern with how people get rid of their things, or other people’s things reveals a concern with thinking through things, and in terms of the materiality of things and their temporalities and spatialities and how we consume the practices of things.

You can argue that ‘old materials never die’, they are transformed, mutate and are morphed into other things, made out of the trash of the world. What we witness in many works that deploy craft's techniques and mediums is a kind of ethnography which shows why material culture is often an ideal conduit for conveying how essential, ordinary, mundane and therefore often quite overlooked practices are central to the normative form of everyday life whether through activist DIY culture or through artists raiding the streets of the garbage and carnage cans of the world’s waste.