Today, during Claire Bishop’s discussion of her much talked about new book “Artificial Hells”, at the San Francisco art space Kadist, I asked her a question that went something like the following:
“What aesthetic void does the colloquialism “Social practice” fill ?, And by the way, what the hell does “Social Practice” mean? Where does this word come from? Resembling the word “social work” it seems at best irrelevant and at worst offensive. The efficacy of it’s impact? What does this “social practice” impact? Nothing! It seems but a mere semblant of participatory actions and happenings of the past. What are the ethical connotations of calling it this?”
She responded with a humorous remark that she didn’t think she would run into someone even more hostile to these practices than herself, and how she now found herself ironically defending the practices a bit.
I do not have a good enough memory to recount her main points during her fascinating talk, and did not take notes, so I will not try to report on her talk in much detail or her book, for which I have not read a page. Instead, I would like to reflect on what I believe is the “void” that participatory art has tried to fill. I want to try to answer my own question.
If we are to make an over simplified genealogy of modern art, I think it is fare to say that there are marked differences about the 21st century that beg new questions or suggest a new epoch, no matter how trite that epoch may be. Seemingly bored with trying to improve upon the lineage of the modern paradigm, art unconsciously expunged itself from it’s own heritage. It reached its tipping point, it’s own “end of history” with symbolic events like the purchase of Damien Hirst’s piece of taxidermy in 2004 for an amount of money reportedly over 8 million dollars. This is but one example but the point remains the same. The bubble burst, financially and ideologically. This purchase was widely acknowledged in commonplace tabloid papers across Europe, and some in New York, and finally set in stone the sentiment that many dissilussioned adults and all grouchy old Republicans already knew: that (to use the theoretical terminology) art nowadays is pretty much complete bollacks. Ironically ofcourse, like so much of pop culture, once something is deemed vulgar and obscene by the public, it only becomes more popular. And now everyones into art. And so the artworld dug itself out of the surface level of mass taste and made itself a new grave.
Bishops new book, “Artificial Hells” (after the Breton essay criticizing DADA), I hope delves into that grave and excavates it’s walking, zombie like corpse for good. That walking, stale old corpse is “participatory art”, or “relational aesthetics”, or “social practice”, or what you have to do to get into hip artist residencies, or that last night-club at Documenta, or whatever you want to call it.
But I have digressed, let’s go back to it’s causation.
With art, or specifically, the art market, enjoying some time in the lime light, came a conundrum that art circles and it’s intelligentsia can’t live with on a fundamental level, for which there is some logical reasoning: the acceptance and enjoyment of contemporary art among the masses. Art circles, especially in the US where we have a lack of culture historically, always will moan about the publics misunderstanding of them, but ofcourse, the last thing the American art scene would ever want is for the mainstream to “understand” art, or more fundamentally, understand them.
The artworld unconscious makes a demand- This won’t do!! Repent. Retreat! And so the artworld invoked a classic defense mechanism, sublimation. Art being revealed for the hoax it had become, a mere additional finger of lavish consumerism, it’s impulses guided it to displacing this unacceptable outcome into an existence it could find palatable. A way to bring art back off the grid.
And thus we have the explosions of the incomprehensible, inpenetretable, curator-centric biennale, the decentralization of art via “global” fantasies, (inturn making a fetish out of it’s inverse, “provincialism”), the out of no-where interest in dance, the research project as art piece, the bookmobile as art piece, the dance party as art piece, the lecture as art piece, the political act as art piece, the tweet as art piece, the hot dog stand as art piece, the artists novel not as literature but as art piece, and most confounding of all- the dropping of the word “artist” all together. We now have “cultural producers” and “social practice” practitioners, you guessed it, producing “art”. All in the name of repudiation of the acceptance of art and a naive rejection of the art object and the larger art object of the gallery. (It should be noted that while the art gallery may have become not so cool, these same artists still did not reject the art gallerists)
So let me say it- the revolutionaries that are the impresarios of these “participatory” forms of art are about as revolutionary as the teenager who tells his parents that “I hate you!” The juvenile parties that have been happening under the rubric of “social practice” and “relational aesthetics” have nothing to do with utopia except in so far as they enunciate the utopian axiom of Capitalism, the dictum that always calls for MORE. That insatiable urge for saturation. This product must run faster, must be different, must be replaced by a new version, the moment you buy one computer, or handbag, or in this case- idea, it is already obsolete. It is the cruel irony of power structures in general that often, the will to power is also the will to invention. The problem is, no invention is taking place.
Dont get me wrong- these forms of art DO LOOK inventive and utopic in the socially ethical way , but only in so far as we apriori expect utopic movements to look and feel. In the same way that shiny chrome space capsules still LOOK like the future, when we see them in cold war propaganda rolls or in Méliès films. Bishop rightfully pointed out obvious antecedents to these varied practices,the futurists, DADA events, the situationists, American happenings, some Czech wedding, various movement in 1968,the brilliant 60’s Russian group that was one of my favorites from Venice last year ( if only I could remember their name), Jean-Jacques Lebel, and something that warmed my psychoanalytic heart, the mention of Oscar Masotta (who did not pretend his events were art, I imagine). Additionally she brought to light some of the labor issue underpinnings which would logically make sense in our current zeitgeist of turmoil. She elaborated on these tropes of “participation”, of groupings of people or participants, on the paying of workers by artists, and the erasure of notions of sole authorship- as a way to reinforce social inclusion or talk about social injustices, that participation elicits democracy, the opening up of the public sphere, it’s supposed Marxist tenets, etc. and so on and so forth…
In short, she pointed out participatory art’s evocation of the historic legacy of the avant garde . Albeit, in a “different etiologic context” as she said.
But, can I say what I think is the honest truth?
The art scene does not care for revolution, what the art scene cares about is a quick answer to its symptom. And this is why the popularity of ”participatory” art does not continue on the usual lineage that happens in both art and technology- that is, of competition, of improving previous forms or inventing something new out of repudiation for the movement or time that preceded your own. “Social practice” or “participatory” art seeks not to expand on art but to liberate itself from itself, in other words, destroy art. It is the artworld’s impulse towards the death drive.
With few exceptions, the hippest and sharpest of art students no longer desire to be artists, they want to be sociologists, they want to be civic planners, they want to be theorists, they want to be politicians- but for some odd reason, they want to do all these things from the confines of the art world, those curious confines where there are no rules, no standards, no measures, and most importantly, no repercussions. They want to be everything but artists in the traditional, some would say romantic sense, but they forget that the exact purpose and importance of these artists were that they were NOT sociologists or scientists or writers or activists, that what is of importance to society is PRECISELY THAT ARTISTS ARE NOT THESE THINGS, but something radically different.
One moment of the speech that I really loved is when Bishop mentioned in passing Adorno’s wish that the artistic be separated from the pedagogic and how there is importance to this. She thought the work of Paul Chan, especially the “classes” he did alongside, but seperately from his rendition of “Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans, (a piece I liked) was an especially good offering that exemplified the importance of both flexible mediums and of critical dialogue without trying to hybridize the two.
This motion of Adorno’s, to separate the pedagogical and the instrumentalized from the aesthetic, is one I really appreciate, and I think it needs a better look.