Brian Grassom (Q&A)

Does Levinas’ notion of the unforeseen, the indefinable or unpredictable as an ethical event, fit into this type of artwork?

Brian Grassom, artist and post doctoral researcher

Brian Grassom: My question touches on the previous question but one (Ruth Barker). Paraphrasing Adorno, he said that art is defined in relation to what is not. I’m thinking of that indefinability or unpredictability that seems to inhabit art.  There seems to be something that comes spontaneously, and we don’t really know where it comes from. We may be speaking of the unconscious.

I believe you’ve written about Levinas in one of your books. How does the ‘event’, which Levinas defines as unforeseen and ethical in itself, fit into some of the models that you’ve shown us tonight?  Does it have a place?

Grant Kester: Yes, it’s a good question. Badiou’s work on ‘event’ reiterates this to some extent. It is a very productive concept, going back at least to Georges Sorel’s notion of the ‘act’. What I find most useful about that as a framework, is the idea of ‘event’ as a moment at which consciousness is radically transformed, that causes one to move outside of self. What does Adorno say in Aesthetic Theory?  In a section called Black as an Ideal, he argues that blackness or opacity is the ideal form of art because black absorbs meaning, it resists it and holds the viewer at arms’ length. The work of art must forestall understanding by constituting itself as a series of cognitive or perceptual baffles that prevent the viewer from grasping it. The cognitive will of the viewer will be frustrated, and in that act of frustration, the viewer becomes self-conscious of their own conatus, their own drive to possess and know, and they will be in a way chastised for it.  In an entire culture of semantic promiscuity, art will remain the one domain that withholds ‘easy’ meaning; that defers or challenges your totalizing desire to grasp and know the world. For Adorno that is how you provoke movement outside of self.

This is a very venerable tradition in the history of the avant garde.  I would simply contend that there are other ways to transform consciousness, and this goes back to the issue of duration. There are ways in which consciousness can be transformed that do not have to rely on a kind of chastisement or refusal of the viewer, but instead an opening up to the viewer. Another approach is possible, a more participatory or immersive approach that produces unexpected results.
Wochenklausur’s Boat Talks in Zurich provide a very straight-forward example.  When I talked to Wolfgang or some of the other group members about this project I don’t think they necessarily expected that they could get all of these people to sit down and agree to fund a boarding house for sex workers in conservative Zurich, but that’s exactly what happened. That was an event, so to speak, but that event extended over a period of eight weeks. That is what interests me about coming up with a language to talk about the transformation of human cognition, self-consciousness, the movement outside of self and fixity which takes place through extended exchange and interaction.

Grant Kester: … yes!  And I don’t know what the answer is yet, but that is something I’m interested in, yes.

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