28 August 2013

Canon Fodder, Pt. 2: Farewell to an Idea?

David Maljkovic - Retired Form,  2008-2010

As far as the possibility of a condition of art being lately preoccupied with its own past, Dieter Roelstraete made the stronger case back in 2009, with his e-flux essay "The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art":
"In the present moment … it appears that a number of artists seek to define art first and foremost in the thickness of its relationship to history. More and more frequently, art finds itself looking back, both at its own past ...[A growing number of artists] either make artworks that want to remember, or at least to turn back the tide of forgetfulness, or they make art about remembering and forgetting: we can call this the 'meta-historical mode'" [...]
Elaborating later:
"In their cultivation of the retrospective and/or historiographic mode, many contemporary art practices inevitably also seek to secure the blessing (in disguise) of History proper ...Time, literally rendered as the subject of the art in question, easily proves to be a much more trustworthy arbiter of quality than mere taste or success. Hence the pervasive interest of so many younger artists and curators in the very notion of anachronism or obsolescence and related 'technologies of time' ...meant to convey a sense of the naturalization of history, or of time proper."

Unlike Cotter, Roelstraete provides specifics, citing a number of projects that illustrate the argument. What’s more, he theorizes that this condition might be indicative of "the current crisis of history both as an intellectual discipline and as an academic field of enquiry." As such, he describes the retrospective tendency as being melancholic in character, adding the caveat that it might be "potentially reactionary," as well.

* * * *

A similar argument emerges in Claire Bishop's "Digital Divide" Artforum article from autumn of last year, overlapping particularly on what Roelstraete describes as the "technologies of time." Bishop writes:
"The fascination with analogue media is an obvious starting point for contemporary art's repressed relation to the digital. ...Today, no exhibition is complete without some form of bulky, obsolete technology -- the gently clunking carousel of a slide projector or the whirring of an 8-mm or 16-mm film reel."
By Bishop's reckoning, this deference of the present amounts -- in some respects -- to an an abdication of responsibility, a failure to fully engage in contemporary cultural modes of social relations. But as far as this matter or interventionary agency and cultural imperatives is concerned, there might just as likely be someone lurking in the wings ready to issue the counter-thesis: Art is not a gadget.1

* * * *

Tacita Dean, from the series The Russian Ending

Amid all this talk of returns and regressions, I find myself experiencing a sense of déjà-vu, like I’ve heard all this discussed and diagnosed somewhere else at some early point. Sure enough, Bishop mentions in passing one of the texts I have in mind – Hal Foster’s 2004 essay “An Archival Impulse.” In that essay, Foster examines the work of artists Tacita Dean, Sam Durant and Thomas Hirschhorn, and how the work of these artists often coalesce around a similar theme; how they “share a notion of artistic practice as an idiosyncratic probing into particular figures, objects, and events in modern art, philosophy, and history.” Artists working this vein are “drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects – in art and in history alike – that might offer points of departure again.” In this way, such work points to lapsed, overlooked, or abandoned histories – failed or unrealized futurisms, endeavors left in limbo. Or obscure artifacts and objects which, in the case of Tactica Dean’s film about the sound mirrors of Dungeness, “serve as found arks of lost moments in which the here-and-now of the work functions as a possible portal between an unfinished past and a reopened future.”

Much of this, by Foster’s account, takes the form of projects that strive (in Hirschhorn’s words) to “connect what cannot be connected.” However “tendentious” or “preposterous” such an undertaking might seem, Foster sums up the character of the exercise thusly:
"This not a will to totalize so much as a will to relate – to probe a misplaced past, to collate its different signs (sometimes pragmatically, sometimes parodistically), to ascertain what might remain for the present. ...By the same token,...the art at issue here does not project a lack of logic or affect. On the contrary, it assumes anomic fragmentation as a condition not only to represent but to work through, and proposes new orders of affective association, however partial and provisional, to this end, even as it also registers the difficulty, at times the absurdity, of doing so."

Gabriel Orozco, Island Within an Island, 1993

But perhaps the more incisive text to refer to in this instance would be another Foster essay, written several years later, "This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse".2  At this point, Foster expands on the thesis of "An Archival Impulse," steering its focus away from various wayside microhistories, and toward the legacies of modernism and art itself, as they've been addressed in the work of recent artists. To this end he discussed the versions of an "end of art" scenario as declared in the past half-century by various parties (e.g., pluralistic, post-structuralist, Marxist), arguing that these accounts – out of "triumphalism, desperation, or melancholy" – perhaps "concede(d) too much too quickly." And that if we see a backward-gazing trend in some strains of contemporary art practice, it might be the result of different attempts at reclamation for a critical enterprise that had not fully run its course before being issued its last rites.3

What then comes after death, after all these alleged ends, when certain forms and legacies and discursive modes continue to linger in a supposed "posthistorical" limbo? Foster lists a variety of practices that constitute a type of "living on" or "coming after," which he categorizes into four designations, each serving as a type of "mnemonic strategy." These strategies Foster delineates as: the traumatic, the spectral, the nonsynchronous, and the incongruous – each engaging the past via practices involving methods of recovery and re-engagement, "ghostly" shadowing, juxtaposition, or hybridized "dislocation and dispersal" or the highlighting of temporospatial disjuncture.

It is in the third of these strategies – the nonsynchronous – that we find the use of outmoded technology (a la Bishop) come into play. To some degree, Foster allows that the use of such things (film, say) might be intended merely as a material riposte to "the presentist totality of design culture." Otherwise, he considers it a practice more in keeping with Surrealist tactic of utilizing "displaced forms." Making his argument by way of Walter Benjamin’s writings, Foster offers:
"Such a weird array of things is not the stuff of a renewed medium; on the contrary, it is part of the Surrealist project to 'explode' conventional categories of cultural objects. ...There is the further dilemma that 'the outmoded' might now be outmoded too, recuperated as a device in the very process that it once seemed to question – the heightened obsolescence of fashion and other commodity lines. Yet one aspect of the outmoded is still valid…and Surrealism is still a touchstone. 'Balzac was the first to speak of the ruins of the bourgeoisie,' Benjamin writes... 'But only Surrealism exposed them to view. The development of the forces of production reduced the wish symbols of the previous century to rubble even before the monuments representing them had crumbled.' The 'wish symbols' here are the capitalist wonders of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie at the height of its confidence, such as 'the arcades and interiors, the exhibitions and panoramas.' These structures fascinated the Surrealists nearly a century later – when further capitalist development had turned them into 'residues of a dream world,' ...According to Benjamin, for the Surrealists to haunt these outmoded spaces was to tap 'the revolutionary energies' that were trapped there. But it may have been more accurate (and less utopian) to say the Surrealists registered the mnemonic signals encrypted in these structures – signals that might not otherwise have reached the present. This deployment of the nonsynchronous pressures the totalist assumptions of capitalist culture, and questions its claim to timeless; it also challenges the culture with its own wish symbols, and asks it to recall its own forfeited dreams."

In contemporary work that engages the nonsynchonous, Foster asserts that the use of outmoded form and tech serve as a reminder that "'form' is often nothing more than 'content’ that has become historically sedimented."4

* * * *

Tacita Dean, Bubble House, 1999

Hal Foster, interviewed in The Platypus Review, excerpts:

BS: "...What are the 'objects of resistance and reaction' for contemporary art? Are artists reacting to or cohesively resisting anything? Is an organized resistance or reaction still important for an art in the culture industry?"

HF: "In The Anti-Aesthetic I argued that there was a shift from the transgressive to a resistant model of the avant-garde. Maybe that language needs to be revised. For several years now there has been talk about the post-critical, but I do not buy it. The young artists and critics I know are very concerned with critical projects. They simply approach the critical in different ways.

"On the one hand, it is a moment to insist again on the semi-autonomy of art as a basis of critique, and to find, in art making, models of subjectivity and sociality that are blotted out elsewhere in the culture. That seems crucial to me: There are sensuous and cognitive experiences that art still allows and that screen culture does not. On that score, then, art now and art forever. On the other hand, one might argue that all this does not matter anymore, that all that is left to art is to use art as a disguise or ruse with which to do other things — to be activists or educators or hackers or whatever. That argument makes sense to me too. And no doubt there are positions in-between. But unless young artists, critics, and curators develop the terms for these options, nothing much will be developed at either extreme or in the positions of mediation in-between. [...]"

BS: "...What are the possibilities for art to have a purchase on the present? How far removed are we from the historical possibilities presented by past avant-gardes?"

HF: "It is easy to make claims about the end of this, that, and the other thing. That kind of nondialectical dialectic is very seductive because it is, weirdly, very triumphal in its defeatism. Certainly, innovative art, if not radical art, is not as central to the society as it once was, but that does not mean the project is kaput. The forces of amnesia have not won out altogether! I do not think this project is dead, by any means. I would not continue to do what I do if I did. There are art practices that do have effects beyond the art world. I think there are exhibitions that have effects that cannot be anticipated. It is what artists want to make of those historical episodes, if anything at all.

"Another opposition we talked about that seems really crucial is, to what extent is it important for contemporary art to be reflexive historically, to draw on the past, and to transform the past. I think either position could be argued right now. It should be argued right now. And if these debates could be articulate enough, there will be effects. Not only in art, but elsewhere."

* * * *

(Top) Art & Language - "Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock," 1980-ish;
(Bottom) "Walter Benjamin" - Mondrian '63-'96 lecture, Ljubljana, 1986 

Returning to where we began, with Dieter Roelstraete, who revisited this same topic again in a slightly later edition of the e-flux journal. With “After the Historiographic Turn: Current Findings,” Roelstraete aimed to delve further into the question of why – by his reckoning – art in the 'Noughties sought to neither explore outward (so 19th century), nor inward (very 20th), but rather opted to instead go backward. The crux, for Roelstreate: "There have been many good reasons to indulge in the escapist fantasy of historiography, the most convincing probably being that the world has been a rather dismal, depressing place for the last decade or so."

Firstly, one might detect signs of trouble when an author frontloads an essay with an extended quote from F. T. Marinetti's testosteronically chest-pounding Futurist Manifesto. The quote in question concerns Marinetti’s rants against museums and reverence for the classical canon, proclaiming them to be part and parcel of a cult of death. "How genuinely out of sync these pronouncements now sound," Roelstreate admits, particularly in the face of certain "necrophilic" contemporary art practices. From there, Roelstreate drifts into dicier waters, wondering if it embodies an "escapist" reaction to certain geopolitical factors that ushered in the new millennium – specifically, the 9/11 attacks, and the resulting war on terror. "This 'new historicism'," Roelstreate asserts, "is really nothing other...than the art of the Bush era." He further wonders about the possibility (or unlikelihood) of some new era-defining –ism to emerge in contemporary art, one that will "embody the now" and look to the future. What's more, he speculates that the maybe – one can always hope, can’t they? – the crisis resulting from the 2008 economic meltdown might help bring about those circumstances:
"As Isabelle Graw, Stefanie Kleefeld, and André Rottmann state in their preface to the most recent issue of Texte zur Kunst, ironically as well as dramatically dubbed 'After the Crisis,' 'if market conditions change, nothing less than a redefinition of the concept of art is up for debate. For this reason, every crisis is also a fine hour for criticism that productively discusses what "Art" is to be understood as.' And this obviously is a matter of (re)imagining both the present and the future, a matter of trying to figure out what art is (present), might and must be (future) — all of which may eventually force us to look back upon recent and contemporary art history as instead frivolously, irresponsibly obsessed with the past."
That was four years ago, and since then the art bubble has continued to inflate, unfazed and uninfluenced by the realities that befell the broader economy. So who's to say, just yet?

At any rate, I’m still unconvinced that the situation is as prevalent as Roelstraete makes it out to be, if it merits such hand-wringing examination. If it’s a trend in contemporary art practice, then it's still a fairly minor one (not only that, but one likely to exhaust itself soon enough). And despite all my own misgivings on the matter, I find myself wondering if the Marinetti quote is telling in another way, at least in the way it might prompt thought back to the state of the early part of the previous century. Perhaps a fair share of early Modernist activity could be attributed to some variety or another of Dawning of a New Era enthusiasm. The Futurists had their love of acceleration and war and all things (including pollution) having to do with the Mechanical Age. The Russian avant-garde had the hope and promise of a new, more egalitarian political future in the form of the Soviet Revolution. And Kandinsky, Mondrian, several among the Bauhaus crew, and several other artists of the period were Theosophists – believing that humanity was on the cusp of some sweeping spiritual transformation that would deliver all and sundry to some next level of consciousness, and that their pursuit of means of pure abstract expression would somehow help guide the way to enlightenment.

Given that array of New Age optimism, one can’t help but wonder by way of comparison – were we to take Bishop’s thesis to a perverse conclusion – what might the next Whitney Biennial have to offer that Chatroulette hasn’t given us already?

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1.  For Bishop this ultimately boils down to more than a mere positioning of old-versus-new, by how these two forms of media connect with considerations of social practice. "Obsolete" analog media, of the sort favored by certain contemporary artists, is discursively monodirectional in format; as opposed to the interactive or communicative potential offered my the interface-enabling capacity of digital platforms. Which leads Bishop to pose the question: What forms might constitute the basis of a communicative aesthetic?

Bishop couches this query in Nicholas Bourriaud’s writings on Relational Aesthetics. On this topic, see the interview with Hal Foster (cited later in the above post), in which Foster observes:
One thing that strikes me about relational art is that it treats art spaces like a last refuge of the social — as if social interaction had become so difficult or so depleted elsewhere that it could only happen in the vacated spaces of art. It was such a sad take on the state of sociability at large. I also felt that, for all its worthy attempt to work against the spectacular basis of contemporary art, there was a way in which it posed participation as a spectacle of its own. I suppose I am more interested in practices that use art as a guise or ruse for other practices altogether, such as pedagogy, say, or politics.
Curiously, this perhaps overlaps with Roelstraete’s comment in "The Way of the Shovel" about the "messianic" expectations with which certain art practices saddle themselves, particularly with how it pursues a "hallowed tradition of critique and the practice of critical thought, as well as its share in the business of shaping the future—preferably (and presumably) a different future from the one that we knowingly envision from the vantage point of 'today.'" The implication here, it seems to me, might be that Roelstraete is subtlely raising the question as to whether this notion isn’t itself mired in a certain type of nostalgia for "vanguardist" practices of an earlier era.

2. Republished recently in Foster's Design and Crime, originally (and somewhat ironically, given the context for the first post on this topic) in the French publication Harald Szeemann: Individual Methodology. As far as the title is concerned -- yes, Mekons reference.

3.  To this effect, one might note that similar "coroner’s inquest"-type projects emerged as soon as painting, modernism, and art in general were declared kaput. For instance, Art & Language’s activity throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as the appearance of Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air in 1983.

4.  Foster cites Derrida's theory of "hauntology" at one point in the essay, aligning it with the second strategy -- the spectral. However, one might argue that the notion also carries over into the category of the nonsynchronous, particularly in light of how ideas of the hauntological have been applied to music in recent years.

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