Kerstin Mey (Seminar 1 Q&A)

What qualifies these transactions as art in your view?

Kerstin Mey, University of Ulster 

Kerstin Mey (core group): I would be interested to know whether you think these transactions that Superflex engaged in would necessarily have to be described within an art domain at all, or whether it isn’t the art institutional framework that provides a validation mechanism for that kind of practice for want of another mechanism – as there are perhaps no other outlets at that current moment in time that would validate these kind of engagements. What qualifies these transactions as art in your view?  Is it the specific production or is a qualifier located within the area of discourse and institutional structures?

Grant Kester: There are two ways to respond to that. One is the more philosophical response, which would be too tedious. The pragmatic response makes note of the fact that there is a range (a vast range, really) of artists and groups working around the globe in this manner and insisting that their practice is an art practice. They come from backgrounds in art practice and were educated by and large as artists, yet they work in these interstitial ways.  So, as a critic and a theorist, my tendency has been to accept that claim and see where the thought experiment leads me. I think that is ok because I think (perhaps naïvely and as I tried to outline in my talk), there is a kind of shift going on in the self-understanding of art. This, of course, is in the very nature of modern art – to regularly undergo the process of standing outside its prior condition and reflecting back on it, before moving again in some new trajectory. Let’s think of some examples: In the early 1930s, when the Dadaists were distributing AIZ (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeiting or Workers Illustrated News of the German Communist Party) on a plinth, walking through the streets of Berlin in funeral coats doing performance art about the death of the German bourgeoisie – was that art or creative advertising? Or, when Tatlin was designing gliders, was that art or engineering? Did it matter?

During these transition moments, these hinge moments if you will, you see a proliferation of border-crossing like that. Art displays a certain porosity or permeability.  It becomes open to other areas of practice and so, the projects I tend to be attracted to, just on a level of personal passion and commitment, are often located in those boundary zones.

Part of the anxiety that this work produces for critics who are more closely identified with the mainstream art world is, of course, understandable. This comes back to Suzanne’s question. There are a lot of people in the art world and art history departments, journal editors and so on who are invested in particular genealogies and particular versions of the history of the avant-garde. When art practices emerge in the contemporary scene that seem to deviate from this canon, or it’s core assumptions about the work of art, audience, and so on, they tend to produce a sacrificial response (“thisisn’t art”) or an impulse towards domestication.

I also think this work produces some anxiety because of the issue of ethics.  I will give you an example:  I discussed some of this work (not these projects in particular, but related work) at a very prestigious art institution and there was a small audience of academics and people that were of the cultural intelligentsia, so to speak. There was one senior individual associated with historiography of experimental film.  As I was describing the projects, he became more and more visibly agitated. I was not trying to sell anybody on this work, I was simply describing it. But the mere description of this practice as art seemed to produce a kind of gag reflex, like the abject in Kristeva.

I have encountered that with a lot with people, that this is a bridge too far; I cannot accept this as art. In a history of modern art that is nothing if not an accumulation of transgressive acts, it is interesting to me which boundaries we are encouraged to cross and which we are policed.

I think that this work provokes anxiety because it seems to overtly acknowledge the ethical nature of art. Ethics is the hidden secret of modernism. In the teeth of incipient modernity we celebrate the non-instrumental and non-rational, we define the imagination as the domain of a liberating play; we privilege forms of pre-industrial labour; whatever it might be. These are all profoundly ethical gestures, but I think this aspect of modernism is seen by some as an embarrassment. There is a certain decorum that one must follow in which you acknowledge the ethical only obliquely.

This dynamic goes back to Schiller, if not earlier. Schiller begins life as a populist poet.  He wants to reach the new German reading public but unfortunately he can’t sell his poetry. It’s only after his failure to reach the public that you see a kind of sea-change in his writing about art. It’s at this stage, around the time of his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, that he begins to denounce the average reader who wants to go to the library and check out romance novels and ghost stories and is unprepared, in a way, for the gift of advanced art. As a result, art must remain aloof from the average reader.  It must give the public not what it wants but what it needs.

All of these ideas about the need to sequester the work of art, the autonomy of the aesthetic and the adjudicatory relationship to non-specialist viewers are really set in place quite early on. This is two centuries ago – but these ideas are clearly evident in very contemporary criticism, which is anxious about socially-engaged art. It has been a very effective tradition because there is reason to be anxious about appropriation and co-optation by all kinds of forces: advertising, and propaganda, and so on, but it’s also exerted a very conservative effect on contemporary art criticism and theory.

What is particularly promising about work that is being produced right now, is that you see a kind of relinquishing of that reflex in practitioners – and younger practitioners, all over the place, in South America, South East Asia, in Europe etc. At the same time, it is clearly linked to a longer tradition that goes back 30 years or more. It is evident in Suzanne’s work, or Helen and Newton’s work, among many others working globally.

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