Ruth Barker (Q&A)

What is art and what is not art? What might be art? 

Ruth Barker, Glasgow based artist and writer

Ruth Barker (core group): I was really interested to hear you talking about that kind of negative ontology of art – that art is the thing that it is not exactly anything else.  It’s not social work; it’s not city planning. It was making me think of Kosuth and Art after Philosophy where he defines this art ‘condition’ in terms of what is art and what is not art, and what is it that is not art that might be art. I’m interested in the significance to this discourse of the idea of the conversation, or of the discursive or of the dialectical. [laugh]  In ten words!

Grant Kester: Yes!  As it relates to conversation – yes – I have to think about that.  maybe I can come at this question from the issue of duration. The duration issue is interesting to me because there is a paucity of resources in the canonical sources of art theory, which are primarily drawn from a post-structuralist tradition. That tradition places such a heavy emphasis on simultaneity – on immediacy.  All you have to do is consider the ways in which this tradition writes about May ’68 as a singular, epoch-making event. In these accounts May ’68 was unplanned, uncoordinated, spontaneous, it happened in a moment, there was an attempt to elude rational thought or political calculation, etc, etc. That’s been a very strong tradition. We see that replicated in Jean-Luc Nancy’s work and a lot of other places, more recently. It stems from a discomfort with temporally extensive interaction and the transformative effect that durational experience can produce. It lends itself to a quasi-religious model of the transformation of thought or self as epiphany, like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus struck down in an instant. You see this in all sorts of places, even Michael Fried’s work when he talks about art as a state of grace, for example.

There is so little in the way of a theoretical framework to talk about duration and time as anything other than chronology, history, narrative with a beginning, and a middle and an end; fixity, predictability and so on. When we try to address duration from the point of view of art practice it’s very difficult to come up with a language.  It is something I’m struggling with, actually, for this book – which is why I can’t actually answer you directly, but it is something that I am pre-occupied with.

It also has to do with rethinking models of cognition, I suppose. I’m trying to develop a concept of labour, not in the Lockean sense of externalising your will in the transformation of the natural world, or even in the Marxist sense, but labour as a kind of co-labouring of bodies together in space. There is something about the proximity of bodies in space – the haptic register of that experience, that I consider important. The traditions of European art history and theory impose a dividing line between modernism or advanced European art and pre-modern, especially non-European art traditions. Riegl defines this as the shift from the haptic to the visual. We go from those pre-modern cultures that were so ontologically insecure they had to touch everything, to hold onto it, to the Renaissance and the ‘triumph’ of distanced, detached perspectival mastery. So much of the way the history of art is written, involves a privileging of the optical over the haptic. One of the things I’m trying to work out is how haptic or bodily experience, outside the domain of vision, functions to produce knowledge of the world. There isn’t really a language for me to talk about that in art theory and criticism, so I’m trying to cobble something together.

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