Sunday, January 18, 2009

International Necronautical Society (INS) delivers keynote declaration on Inauthenticity, Tate Britain 16:30-18:00, 17 Jan 2009

The INS take the stage, All photos © Miranda Gavin, 2009

The INS Chief of Propaganda Anthony Auberach issues me with a pass and a manila folder containing the press briefing. Minutes later, one of the officials, suitably dressed in a grey suit, offers the following instructions:
You have a seat reserved and can move freely around the auditorium to take photographs. And flash, yes, feel free to use flash. In fact, should you wish, you can go up on stage and shoot from there.

Freedom in the Tate's Clore auditorium to be visible and mobile? Now that makes a change. At this point it becomes clear that nothing is what it seems. The polished surface, the meticulous attention to detail and the Press cards, all of which are issued with an identical number 170109, indicate an elaborate staging; a happening presented using the aesthetics of a political address, a la The White House.

But who is this Tom McCarthy taking the stage in front of the podium? Is he a doppelganger or simply a man sharing the same name? What did I expect when the theme is inauthenticity and the declaration, according to the INS propaganda machine is "a compelling critique of the notion of authenticity in art, literature, philosophy and politics". The Joint Statement issued by INS General Secretary Tom McCarthy and Chief Philosopher Simon Critchley sets out to summarise the key points of the declaration (first published in December 2007). It also warns that "unauthorised recordings and transcripts" in cyberspace "cannot be authenticated and may be unreliable".

Beware, the truth is not out there. But then neither is it in here. Truth is simply a five-letter word and sometimes it hurtt(s).

"For us, all forms of periodisation suck. We have no idea when modernity is meant to have started and no clue when it might end."

"Today we want to advance a set of proposals, of numbered theses, that will state categorically - catechistically even - some core elements of INS doctrine. These statements, like all INS propaganda, should be repeated, modified, distorted and disseminated as the listener sees fit."

OK, I hear you. So, to hell with formality.

The two men dressed in grey suits and shiny shoes take their places at the podiums. A UN-like insignia flashes up behind the two men (Reagan eat your heart out, Arnie take a look). The logo is composed of a globe-like graphic with a sponge-like inside oozing from its perimeter. Both are enclosed by a laurel leaf-like wreath crowned by a coyote-like dog. The two men are personas non gratis. As they each read from the prepared statement, I pick out some buzzwords: materialism, postmodern, Heideggerese and other heavily encrypted phrases and names, laced with at-tension:

Jean-Francois Lyotard, Socrates, Plato, Copernicus, Ernest Shackleton, Aristotle, St Paul, Maurice Blanchot, Marquis de Sade, Casper David Freidrich, Bataille, Frankenstein, Mark E. Smith, Wile E. Coyote.

In amongst these heavy-weight titles some women are mentioned. However, they are, for the most part, fictional creations positioned in relation to their male creators. There's Racine's Phaedra, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Ibsen's Hedda Gabler... now her(e) comes another, Joyce's Molly Bloom.

This is a man's man's man's world
But it wouldn't be nothing
Nothing without a woman or a pun.

So where are the Hillarys, the Condoleezzas and the Barbaras?

Everything feels unstable with language at the helm.
"for the world is not perfect, n'est-ce pas?"
"homo viator"
"das Dass seines Da" which, I read later in the press briefing, is related to Heidegger. Later, I ask a German friend about the phrase. He is baffled, the syntax confuses him. I still am.

Then, it's question time, my favourite part. The audience's chance to interact. I note down part of the third and last question:
"You mentioned Warhol, I'm waiting for him to appear... I'll ask a very simple question and I'd like a very quick answer..." The answers have been scripted and the question is left hanging. It doesn't matter what you ask, you'll always get a set answer.

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

If I say it often enough it becomes a mantra. If I do it often enough it becomes a habit. In fact, this theatre of the absurd could go global, especially if McCarthy's desire "to franchise it as a cultural event" takes hold.

The I.N.S. - Coming soon to an institution near you.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Landmark Exhibitions – a report from 10 & 11 October 2008

As blog mechanisms usually load up the most recent post first, so I have chosen to write this report in a manner to reflect that: to report backwards through a packed two-day conference at Tate Modern, centred on the idea of the landmark exhibition.

Fittingly, Saturday ended with Reesa Greenberg on memory as replica, riff and reprise, and a call for greater use of the internet to act as a repository for archival information about exhibitions. She spoke of ideal metasites where the wealth of digital information could be collected and stored, and I was mindful of the words I would write here as another layer in her idea of a public rather than private vault.

Twinned with this was Walter Grasskamp’s presentation about the various documentary strategies for Documenta and Münster sculpture projects, and the separate ability of each project to include their own histories within their displays. His memories of discovering filing cabinets full of non-annotated material at Documenta were evocative, particularly so when he described the journey of a single unnamed photograph. Able to identify the year and position of the photographer by means of the painting visible in the frame, it was only on publication that the person behind the camera – Hans Haacke – came to be known. Haacke was the conference’s own riff.

Preceding this session was a discussion of the biennial as a landmark phenomenon, chaired by Sebastián López. Chin-tao Wu’s stark graphical representations of the power implications of the biennial according to nationality and residence (and as a bonus slide, gender), helped to sharpen ideas about globalisation in international exhibitions, international curators and the locality of a biennial’s site. Recalling the development of the biennial from the earliest biennale ‘mama’ (Venice, of course), Carlos Basualdo suggested a return to the origins of the biennial to provide a clearer sense of where we find ourselves today. In her comments, Lynne Cooke reminded us of the unique perspective of each biennial, suggesting the Sydney biennial or Carnegie international to illustrate her point. The breadth and depth of this panel was extraordinary – each response to a question from the floor was met with many examples from actual experience. During the discussion I was distracted by the idea of ‘elsewhereness’: how ‘elsewhere’ can become is a criteria in its own right. I kept retracing Chin-tao’s graphs.

The entire morning session on Saturday was devoted to Lucy Lippard, introduced by Teresa Gleadowe. Adamant of her status as writer (even her self-titled ‘compiler’) rather than curator, Lippard nonetheless spoke of her close relationships with artists and exhibition-making. She described how her exhibitions were a response to a particular situation, often a political situation – this is the continuum between the 1969-74 ‘number’ projects in which she has been involved, but includes the 2007 exhibition Weather Report: Art & Climate Change at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. I was interested in her roots: a photo of herself when she was working within the library at MoMA was another of this conference’s representations of personal histories that formed a continuum between the speakers. It was here where she talked of the idea of the suitcase exhibition – one that could easily be packed up and shipped out for display elsewhere. Her later c7500 show was, she says, almost a suitcase show, centered on women in conceptualism. She made particular mention that it was rare for curators to travel with their exhibitions – this was quite a contrast to the ease with which the idea of curating on a global scale was to be discussed later that afternoon.

The previous day’s sessions concluded with Koen Brams’ detailed contextualisation of Jef Counelis’ 1960s film of Daniel Buren. This archival film was the focus for widening ripples of influence and interrelationship, of carefully constructed and deconstructed representation.

Daniel Buren, Linda Morris and Guy Brett were the preceding panel. Chaired by Chris Dercon, I watched the audience shift towards the edge of their seats. For me, Buren’s presentation captured something of the tautness of his work, stretched around, between and in front of the frame of the institution: it was seamless and provocative. I noted his line: “Inside the museum you are very free, outside it’s a different story.” Linda Morris’s presentation on the relationship between museums and dealers pinpointed something of another ‘different story’: her call for an analysis of these relationships as the basis for curatorial study refreshingly shifted a focus to a very relevant market-related subject. Guy Brett’s reflection on the ephemera of the exhibition was also a call, this time for the stories of memory and experience.

Immateriality continued in the day’s second session, centred on Les Immatériaux (an acknowledged landmark exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985). John Rajchman spoke of the freedom that this exhibition gained from the history of art and a critical theory, enabled by a new relationship with philosophy. Reflecting on the interdisciplinary nature of the Centre, Nathalie Heinich talked about the exhibition’s innovations, particularly the survey, which she pioneered using sociological methodologies. Throughout this series of presentations, Les Immatériaux’s catalogue – or album – was referred to in its capacity as re-orderable sheaf of information. Also I recall Heinich’s explanation of the audio-guide as an epitome of innovation and the unfamiliar: the guide was triggered by a visitor’s movement, but most visitors wouldn’t move until the guide started… I imagined a gallery entrance clogged with bewildered headphone wearers, shuffling the loose leaves of the catalogue. In Suely Rolnick’s focus on Cildo Meireles' Red Shift, there was an intentional sense of a loss of reference through the seemingly illogical progression through this particular work – a personal experience acting as metaphor for a political meaning. The discussion, led by Anthony Hudek, worked around the lessons of Les Immatériaux, not only in the way it existed in its own right, but also the legacy of debate triggered by its activities.

Hans Haacke began the day with a photograph of a red rose – saturating the screen of the famously red Starr auditorium. Pervasive in his presentation was the remark that art is produced in a 'continual social universe'. Haacke’s rigorous research is evident in the confidence with which he articulated the continuing contexts for his work. His keynote paper and conversation with Tate curator Achim Borchardt-Hume set a tone for the two days of good humour, openness, challenge and change.

And so to the beginning. Nicholas Serota’s introduction touched on the way in which the definition of exhibitions and curators have moved away from traditional meanings. It was another riff for the conference: the ability of exhibitions – and those who make them – to deal with a constantly changing (and broadening) context, and ways with which we can recall the importance of those moments of shift.

Landmarks are something we steer by, and this conference went some way to helping provide a map. Or, at least a key by how we might be able to recognise a landmark when we encounter it: a tricky thing to do without a historical perspective. Which of our landmarks will endure?
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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Landmark Exhibitions – Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968

Hans Haake (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)
Welcome to a new contributor Oli Harris, a London Consortium student, who was at the Tate's symposium Landmark Exhibitions – Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968 to cover the first day of the two-day event for The Forum.

When does an exhibition become a landmark? Well, if people are still talking about it twenty-three years later, the chances are it deserves some historical reckoning. Jean-François Lyotard’s and Thierry Chaput’s 1985 exhibition for the Pompidou Centre, Les immatériaux, dominated the first morning of the Tate’s symposium. It has enjoyed a recent resurgence of interest – a ‘reactivation’ in John Lajchman’s words -and it is easy to see why.

Les immatériaux is perfect for those building a history of the exhibition as intellectual discourse, and the curator as auteur. Lyotard attempted to engineer an unapologetically philosophical experience. He chose Les Immatériaux as a tool with which to bring visitors ‘into the dramaturgy of postmodernism’, throwing together signs, sounds and technological artefacts as part of a bewildering display. Visitors were left with no clear route to follow. They wore headphones through which the voices of leading theorists provided a counterpoint to the visual exhibits. Guide sheets were unbound so you could shuffle them, guided tours replaced by group discussions outside the exhibition. ‘The exhibition is exhibiting itself,’ in the words of one excited commentator.

So Les immatériaux was a landmark, but was it any good? Whether it hung together internally seemed less certain by the end of the morning’s session, with Nathalie Heinich conceding how badly some of its concepts had aged. In retrospect, the following year’s less showy ‘Vienna, Birth of a Century’, proved the more ground-breaking exhibition. Les immatériaux could be seen as merely a logical extension of the Centre Pompidou’s own multi-media ambitions - and its labyrinthine structure. ‘Good for those with a cultural frame with which to orientate themselves; disorientating for the uninitiated.’

Nathalie Heinich (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)

One of the biggest problems, it seems, were the headphones, which just confused most visitors. From what I could gather, these picked up short-wave signals according to where the visitor moved – a piece of technology that brought back fond memories of Rock Circus, Madame Tussaud’s ill-fated, musical spin-off. Visitors to Rock Circus were also given headphones, which operated on identical principles to Lyotard’s - a thought-provoking chain of influence to research.

The Centre Pompidou inspired Jean Baudrillard’s essay on the ‘Beaubourg Effect’, his vision of a museum-world of endlessly reproduced simulacra. John Rajchman suggests that the ‘Beaubourg effect’ has been well and truly superseded by ‘the Bilbao effect’. Bilbao stands for the very real way in which contemporary art can make an impact on the world – if not by its content or message, then by its sheer existence within a glittering new institution. As a tool of urban redevelopment, art still lends immense geographical status, as it has long leant status to corporations and brands.

John Rajchman (photo Miranda Gavin, 2008)
Hans Haacke touched upon the recent use of biennales as a political statement in Johannesburg and Guangiu, South Korea. The issue of ‘artistic capital’ and its exploitation proved to be the theme for Haacke’s retrospective talk, as it has been for much of his career. Haacke led us from the 1959 Documenta exhibition, in which he was the unwitting pawn in Cold War culture wars, to the day’s symposium itself, in a museum whose ambitions are unimaginable without corporate funding. [See Martine’s post on 23/5/08: ‘Why has ‘commodity’ become a dirty word?’ ] Haacke conceded, however, that institutions were in a bind, dependent upon more funding than they would ever receive through public channels.

Talk of the US’s use of Abstract Expressionism as an unthreatening symbol of political freedom made me wonder how safe and apolitical much British conceptual art is today – and how convenient this might be for collectors. Haacke spoke of his 1984 show at what was then the Tate Gallery, in which a Victorian-style portrait of Thatcher incorporated a list of Saatchi & Saatchi advertising accounts. Among these were the Conservative Party and the South African Nationalist Party. The piece may or may not have had something to do with Charles Saatchi resigning his position on the museum’s Patrons of New Art Committee one month after the show’s opening.

There is something crucial missing in current narratives of contemporary art, Lynda Morris argued: the role of the dealer. Morris placed this traditionally shadowy figure at the centre of conceptual art’s development. Using an impressive array of statistics, drawn from research conducted by the late Sophie Richard, she sought to demonstrate that between 1967 and 1977 galleries were less concerned about which artists they were buying, than by who they were buying from. Konrad Fischer looms largest, an artist-dealer-curator responsible for 31 percent of the conceptual art sold to public galleries in Northern Europe at one point. Though not that financially successful himself, his sales to other dealers, and the shows he curated, paved the way. Morris: ‘We urgently need more study of how contemporary art accrues value’.

Conceptual art is surprisingly expensive, she argued. Conceptual Art was also the first movement since 1945 in which US and European artists were treated equally. Figures like Fischer connected Europe and the States, establishing the prices of radical artists across continents.
Lynda Morris, (photo Miranda Gavin 2008)
Here’s one theory: the dealer becomes more important in proportion to the experimental nature of works. As the artistic value of a piece becomes less clear to those outside the scene, dealers step in as essential guarantors of financial worth. The rise of Conceptual Art occurred at a time when the experiments of a previous artistic generation began to fetch serious prices. ‘Difficulty’ was now an indubitable sign of modernist credentials. But the more works challenged the boundaries of gallery and museum, the more an intermediary figure was needed for all those collectors who saw investment potential but had no idea which was the right installation etc to buy. Some conceptual art is expensive, as Morris’s survey showed, but it is a tiny fraction. Who decides this fraction?

...Since 1968’. The year loomed large over these discussions. How could artists exhibit in an institution, when art was a weapon to bring institutions down? Daniel Buren provided a breath of fresh air, as his witty minimalism has done for four decades. His ‘what is this “institution”?’ sounded like the most radical question of the day. As Buren points out, they wanted change in the art world and things did change. It can feel like some in the art world have been fighting for so long they’ve forgotten what they were originally up against. The symposium highlighted a masochistic loop - a very restricted loop – that sees the art world enjoy flagellating itself over its own success.

Daniel Buren, (photo Miranda Gavin 2008)

Buren has a history of side-stepping complacent idealism. He was careful to note that after the 1971 Guggenheim International, in which he was asked to remove his 65 by 32 foot banner with trademark stripes, he declined the assistance of various ‘anti-establishment’ art collectives, as he didn’t subscribe to their agenda. The banner was intended to bisect the architectural space of Wright’s museum interior. An inoffensive work in itself, it turns out the controversy was stirred up, not by curators, but by Donald Judd and Don Flavin, who felt it interfered with their own displays. It was a US/French stand-off that still rankles, if the tone of a recent New York Times review is anything to go by.

Text by Oli Harris
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Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Transatlantic Art Conversation: A Serial Discussion

Noah Purifoy's place, Joshua Tree, Inland Empire,
All photos © Miranda Gavin 2007

In what will become a series of free-form conversations, I'm hoping to take some discussions further afield and use cyberspace to connect across continents with artists of all persuasions and backgrounds.

For the first in the series, I would like to welcome Johnette Napolitano to The Forum. Johnette was the lead singer and bass player for LA bands Concrete Blonde and Pretty & Twisted (with the late Marc Moreland of Wall of Voodoo). She is currently a collaborator in the UK group Catfish Scar. Johnette composes music for films, is an environmental artist having studied in Mexico with Juan Quezada, and has also studied Flamenco dancing and singing in Spain.

Johnette, I’m just going to start with a quick fire succession of questions. Feel free to Answer, Ditch or use as a Springboard. I guess what would be interesting is your take on the street art situation in Los Angeles. First, what does Street Art mean to you? Is it Public Art? What about tagging and graffiti? And, is something lost in the transition from the street to the gallery when work is decontextualised?

I'm from LA which has a long urban history of public art that I attribute to the Mexicans, the original Californians...the first street in Los Angeles, Olvera Street, has a mural by one of the most important Mexican artists in history David Alfaro Sequiros. It was whitewashed back in the day for political content. It's more popular knowledge now that Diego and Frida Kahlo Rivera were just as well known for pissing off people with their art as they were for the art itself, probably more so.

The first thing that comes to my mind before anything is preservation and the way they've built a glass dome over Old Las Vegas, as if the whole world's about to blow like in a Ben Elton novel and we're designating biospheres and now 'culturespheres'. Art is always a matter of taste, so right away you're bound to have a problem.

They just busted somebody out here in the desert for tagging the Coachella Music Festival. For the last few years, the guy put it all up on YOUTUBE. Ah! vanity, my favorite sin. He owes lots and lots of money for damages… You know, there are so many reasons why street art exists, it really would be a regional study, and depend very much on the local history. Street art has been downright necessary and downright a nuisance, but there you have it, it’s the perception thing. Like a tattoo is a badge, a symbol of a tribe; a 'tag' was marking territory.

What about the readymade type found art that you showed me in Joshua Tree, Inland Empire, California? Is the definition of the work to do with the location of the work or is it about an attitude? Why do people create this type of work?
Now you bring up Noah Purifoy's place out here in Joshua Tree. There’s two acres of a man's vision. Again, it’s a matter of taste. I would take Noah's over any museum in the world; but to others it's junk. Nowadays outsider art and reclaimed art are more mainstream. Today you can find Howard Finster's work in galleries... and it's great. I'll bet that walking through his place in Athens, Georgia, is even more amazing, but how many people will have that opportunity? I remember a discussion with someone I was working with once and they had issues with the internet and art, virtual tours of the Louvre, etc...

Of course, immediately, I remembered when we were at The Louvre and what was much more interesting than the postage-stamp sized Mona Lisa were the surrounding throngs, gawking, and flashing their cameras... ouch! The Mona Lisa is pretty much better on any postcard than in person. So you have to concede that seeing anything.... even a penguin, for that matter in its natural habitat would be a whole different thing than seeing it in a zoo. Then again, you have a panda or a polar bear or platypus and you are lucky to see it at all, we just have to accept where we are in whatever cycle we're in. I thought that was elitist. If a kid sees a piece of art on the internet, and in fact that is the only chance in his life he will get to see it at all, I will be very grateful. Art, being organic, is threatened, like everything else organic. Because human beings are organic. So far, except for a few tits here and there. Which are also Art. So there we go…

Finally, can you tell me a little about your work Saints & Crosses which will be on show next month in California?

This is work in wood and tin. I’ll be shooting and describing some of the pieces online so if you don’t live out this way and are interested you can view. If you visit the gallery over the course of the month bring a photo of a loved one for the Dio de los Muertos altar. Nothing irreplaceable, obviously. Live flamenco music and dance, and the gallery features a biodiesel station in the back,"

Johnette will be exhibiting this work at Art Queen, Joshua Tree, Inland Empire, CA on 4 October at 20:00.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Photography and Film

Photography © Kevin Linnett

Katherine Leedale, a participant in the Photography in Film & Film in Photography workshop, displays the piece she developed over the 2-week course.
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Taking the street out of Street Art: Part 2

Photo credit: JJ Charlesworth, 2008

Photo credits, all above: JJ Charlesworth, 2008

Thanks to JJ from Art Review for allowing us to post the photos he used in his presentation at the Tate's Collecting Street Art talk (see earlier posts). Since the talk, I keep coming across street art, for example, the work below which is outside the National Union of Journalists HQ in King's Cross. The woman working on the reception desk of the offices where it is located wondered if it was a Bansky (I said that it was very unlikely as he uses a stencil technique). She then added that she watches people who are walking by and a lot of them stop to look at the work more closely. Later, she sees them smiling or chuckling to themselves. Now that's what I call fun.

By the way, who is the artist and are there any more works like this around?

Photo credit, above: Miranda Gavin, 2008

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Monday, July 28, 2008

The Streets are not safe

Street Art
Installation View 2
2008© Tate Photography

Can the art that was commissioned by Tate Modern to adorn the river facade of the building displayed until the 25th of August be considered “street art”? Well, it's not in the street, it's not the result of a spontaneous initiative, it didn't appear overnight without permission. The works might have been assembled under the name Street Art, but that's just the title of an exhibition of murals from artists who have been known to paint in the streets but who are also represented by galleries and make a living out of painting on more market-friendly surfaces than walls. This is certainly not an invitation to urban artists to use the walls of the Tate as a wall of fame.

Pure Evil summed it up best – as you would expect from pure evil – during the talk on Collecting Street Art: When street art is not in the street, it's just art. Is the Tate perhaps hoping to attract a new audience or to appear more dynamic and open to all cultures by creating a somewhat contrived association with counter-culture? read more