Seminar 3 Question and Answer Session

Seminar 3: Quality and Imperfection

Lead Response

Grant Kester Thank you, Simon, very much. I really enjoyed that presentation. I would like to raise a couple of thoughts.

I was trying to pick up on the question of defining the public and I will bring the discussion back just a little bit to issues of contemporary art practice, especially collaborative or collective art practice and the construction of the public.  I just want to put on the table a couple of registers – ways to maybe orientate us to thinking about the construction of the public in art practice. I think of these as a kind of analytic continuum, a set of factors that we can use in assessing this question of quality and imperfection.  Maybe this can provide a starting point for our conversation about metrics.

The first would be the continuum that exists between the micro and the macro level in a project.  When I refer to the micro level I’m thinking about are the very specific situational processes that take place in a given work, the subjective ethical considerations, for example, that take place in negotiation with a particular audience or community or a context, the nuanced language of haptic physical experience and discursive exchange and the way those are handled and modulated in a project. The macro level of analysis also operates within a continuum. You would have the broader political context, say, in the case of the work that I discussed in Aberdeen, that would have been a discourse of neo-liberal economic theory, related to the operation of NGOs and development agencies in countries such as Africa. The political horizon lies in the way in which a certain terminology, a certain set of implicit understandings, pattern the kinds of knowledge that can be produced locally or situationally. I am interested in understanding the macro and the micro as they are related in working through a project. Of course, really productive work is conscious of both of these factors in the way that the work is modulated relative to larger political concerns or debates.

I am thinking of people who work in urban spaces, who might want to be conscious of the politics of urban development and regeneration at a national level in a country like the UK.  What are the stakes of investing yourself in a neighbourhood in terms of things like gentrification?  If you are a thoughtful practitioner, you have some knowledge of the ways in which gentrification and regeneration are operating nationally and then how those ramify into the local context.

Then the second register would be the register between what I understand as the work-as-prototype and the work-as-readymade. I think of the ready-made as a more conventional art category. A readymade, as with Duchamp, seeks to produce a profound rupture in the discourses of art. But the readymade can’t be replicated. As soon as you make a second toilet (as in Duchamp’s Fountain) and put it in a museum, then the disruptive power has been betrayed in some way and the work has been enshrined in the institution.  The prototype is a very different model.  An idiosyncratic example would be Tatlin’s Tower, which only ever existed as a little maquette that was towed around Moscow in a horse-drawn trailer because there were not enough motorised vehicles to display it in a city.  And yet Tatlin’s goal was for the monument to be reproduced on a mammoth scale.  As a prototype it presented itself as something that was eventually meant to be re-integrated and actualized. It represents a very different understanding of how the work of art functions vis-à-vis social and political context.

Both of these registers, obviously, impinge on the construction of a public, an audience, and spectatorship.  I just lay those out very briefly as just some thoughts that popped into my head as Simon was speaking. I’ll conclude with a couple of questions for Simon, and then everybody can join in.

I will just make it one question because they are kind of related:  You mentioned the idea that the work needed to create a different imaginary. My question would be – How do we understand the orientation of a different imaginary?  For example, if my different imaginary is a theocratic regime in which I have absolute control over non-believers, how do I differentiate the ethical orientation of a different imaginary? I raise this question because that conceptual framing seems to have the effect of deferring the question of the ethical orientation of a new kind of imaginary.  Maybe you can respond to that a little bit, about how we understand one orientation as better than, or preferable to, another one?

Simon Sheikh If we look at Castoriadis’s work, he basically tries to discern between two types of societies.  One is autonomous and the other one is heteronymous.  Heteronymous would be, as you mentioned, where its beliefs are founded on something outside of itself that is supposedly bigger, which is a kind of ordering, basically, from God.  The autonomous society is the one that is aware of its own self-institution.  So, I think, that would be the starting point.  He is mainly known as the philosopher of autonomy.  That would be, for me, the kind of route to follow which is, I hope, a little bit different than exactly this kind of post-political line Laclau has, where it is about articulating existing elements in a different way.  I think that happens all the time.  I do not know what that means. Does that mean then, in order to reform society, that let us say, for instance, the left should also use racist arguments?

This has been done now, of course, to some extent by Oskar Lafontaine in Germany.  He is saying that the problem for German workers is immigrants.  The Socialist Party got a lot of votes and won elections by catering to that sentiment. These kind of ideas are actually heteronymous. They are saying there is something outside of the institution of society that is holding society together as a symbolic order whereas questions of immigration and unemployment are not instituted outside of the society but instituted through the institutions of society.

Robert Livingston Can I open up to the floor then?

Multiculturalism as a different imaginary

Chris Fremantle This is not a question, exactly, but more a thought that was going through my head which is that, in a sense, in the UK, the discourse on multi-culturalism started in reaction to the neo-liberal agenda as an alternative imaginary.  It maybe has something to do also with fragmentation and trying to find a way to deal with the fragmented nature of the public.  It has become absorbed and is now almost an agenda about integration.  I just found that quite interesting in relation to what you are talking about – that, actually, the one can become the other simply because of a changing set of circumstances.

Simon Sheikh I agree, integration has really very little to do with multi-culturalism. That is exactly where we can see a lack of imaginary. All over Europe immigration is perceived as a problem, regardless of your political position. Some say, ‘Kick out the people who immigrate into our pure country’. Others say, ‘No, we can’t do that.  That’s not nice.  We have to integrate them.’  That tends to be the right and left-wing divide at the moment, but it might as well have been completely the opposite. No politician today will have the guts to say, ‘Immigration is great.  Let’s open our borders.’ I think that would be an interesting position.  I do not know where it would lead to.  That would be a different imaginary for me.

Agonism and Public Art

Sarah Munro, core group I was interested when you were talking about the notion of agonism. It made me think that one of the problems in this field is often consensus – particularly with funders and all the rest of it, that they want a very consensual view of what public art is.  I just thought that those notions of agonism which break that down, and agree to differ – I just wondered if you can expand a bit on your feelings around that notion.

Simon Sheikh Yes, that is difficult because I am beginning to be unsure.  I used to think that this could be a very productive term to try and counter official cultural policies, but I do not know any more if it is so useful. It has been picked up in all sorts of ways. Chantal Mouffe mainly has advocated turning antagonisms as a fundamental condition of human society to agonism.  I find that maybe not so useful any more, because I have seen a lot of projects that end in this way – ‘We have to give equal space to everyone because that is democratic, so let’s bring the immigrant and the racist together in a room and see what happens.’ Then you just, once again, give representation to a certain script.

I would rather see my kind of projects as part of another debate, rather than an agency that facilitated the debate.  I mean, I would not be interested in giving space to a fascist but a lot of people have done that, curators for example.  They think it is very interesting to have them on panels.  I do not see why they should get yet another public space, because they have so much of the public space already.

How do you define public art? How do you transform or translate the notion of ‘imaginary’ into a practical context?

Ed Carroll This is a pretty hard question for me to ask because this is the second time, Simon, I have heard you speak. I was down in Clare when you were in Ireland. It is great to hear you speak again, and to have that chance to try and understand what is coming through in your perspective.

There is a whole range of questions that come up for me based on your presentation and you have set these questions yourself. How do you define public space?  How do you define public space on the one hand when we are locked within this notion of liberty, freedom, personal freedom, and then security. There is a sense in which public space is eroding. It is being held up.  That for me is a question that comes out.

The other question:  Tonight was about quality.  I was trying to think of someone who works in terms of trying to understand the question of quality as it relates to collective practice or collaborative practice – all these words! How do you transform or translate some of the things you have been saying into the practical context?  That is another question, for me.

And then, I suppose, the main question that comes out for me: maybe it is more an anecdote, but it is interesting.  Recently I was reading this very interesting story, I suppose, between Emmanuel Levinas re-speaking some of the historical moments.  We are in a very particular, interesting debate between Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer in 1932.  It is called ‘The Devil’s Debate’. Levinas was a very young student at the time, listening to these very interesting different perspectives. There is something in your reading of the horizon of the imaginary that veers towards a Heideggerian notion of subjectivity that resists definition, but also resists any sense of naming the notion of the idea and the ambition and the visioning.  I am interested because Cassirer, in that debate, very strongly felt that there was something about cultural production that had to project a notion of ideal and of real as opposed to an imaginary.  Coming out of that debate in an interview in 1982 (I think it was withLe Monde), Levinas remembered going to visit the widow of Cassirer and said to her, ‘I really apologise’. He wanted to do so because after that debate he had made little of the fact that Cassirer was presenting a notion that was different from the Heideggarian vision that had become very dominant in ’32 when a very strong social realist rationality had taken over – and we know where that led to.

I just wondered: maybe it is completely off the wall, but I just wonder whether there is something of that re-verb to a sort of a Kantian interpretation that sits within your perspectives around notions of horizon and imaginary and questions of quality being something that is imagined rather than quality as something that we have a social responsibility towards.

I finish up with a last little anecdote which is in a talk with Krzysztof Wodiczko recently where he really laid out the responsibility of art to, not just respond to public space, but to generate public space by ventilating the experience of the Other more strongly than that tradition of Levinas, more than a conceptual notion.

It is a long-winded way and I am just sort of grasping a little bit in the dark to try and project something to …
Simon Sheikh I had not thought of any possible Heideggerian aspects.  I certainly will have to try and get rid of them.  I mean, when I talk of the imaginary in the sense of Castoriadis – it is not in opposition to what is real.  It is rather the way something appears as real; the way we agree that something is real, is part of our imaginary.  It is not about a fantasy.

I can see that the notion of horizon might be seen that way.  Why I am interested in it in terms of false or artistic production is that perhaps art is the place where we can really try and put up some horizons that are not realistic (as we are always asked to be realistic), to put up some goals that are not realistic in order to achieve something.

It is more that I have this feeling (but I might be wrong), this is the idea I have had and this is also where it relates to the other question. If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have said, well, it is very important to stress works should not create consensus and it is very good that not everyone likes them.  I still believe that, to an extent, but I do not know if I think that that any longer works in an argument with the ‘realpolitik‘; with real politics; with funders and so on.  I am not sure it works any more.  It might have worked a few years ago – exactly because of the first thing you mentioned which is the security discourse is now over everything else.  So, actually, you have to have a kind of consensus because these things could go against security and security is, strangely enough, what guarantees freedom. In order to achieve freedom, we are willing to give away a lot of freedom for the other to secure our own freedom, and even freedoms of our own.  This is interesting.  I do not want to lose a sociologist’s truth value because sociology, again, imagines something that is produced through its mode of address.  But no-one seems to mind all the surveillance of public space everywhere. People think it is great.  When you ask them, they say, ‘If you have nothing to hide, what is the problem?’ However, it is not a question of what you have to hide, it is rather a question of how you have become visible and how you then become instituted as a subject through that surveillance.

In the last part you mentioned about the Kantian aesthetics. I am also not sure about that. I think it is certainly interesting that a lot has been forgotten in the Kantian aesthetic. It is a very political notion.  It is very undemocratic.  The reason why you say something is beautiful, and what you choose to say is beautiful is to demand consensus.  Otherwise it is an unimportant statement.  So there are ethical and political implications of the Kantian aesthetic.  That, I think, is interesting to think about in terms of a politics of aesthetics, to say that, actually, the Kantian is not something that is often used that stands in opposition to the political.  It is a very political idea.  So, abstract works, works that claim to be Kantian, claim to be working with the sublime, are very political in their distribution of the relationship between the work and the spectator; their relationship to power and knowledge and through history.

Robert Livingston Particularly when they are being funded by the CIA.

Simon Sheikh Well, yes, there is that aspect, yes.

Ownership, Affection and Subversion in Public Art

Jenny Hardie All the time that you were speaking, I kept getting this one image which has to do with the Angel of the North which is probably one of the most enormous and iconic public art projects to be done in Britain for a century.  Within about two months of it having been opened and inaugurated and left on its own, person or persons still unknown went to enormous trouble to put it into a Newcastle United football shirt.  As far as that was concerned, it had to do with ownership; and it had to do with affection; it had to do with the fact that the thing actually succeeded.  But, surely, when you put a piece of art into the public arena, you are starting a discourse; you are inviting a whole lot of other imaginations and other horizons which, in this case, happen to be to do with its particular location and football shirt and everything else.

It is rather like, when The Daily Mail got very upset during a demonstration around Parliament where somebody gave Churchill a green Mohawk with some grass.

But again, there is an element of affection.  It was Churchill.  You are inviting a discourse and you are inviting subversion – possibly even of your own idea when you put it there.  I am sure the football shirt was the last thing in Antony Gormley’s mind when he designed the Angel of the North.  He is particularly vulnerable to it, actually. His men on the Liverpool coast have also had football shirts put on them.  But, you invite even the subversion of your own ideas, surely?  That is partly what it is about.

Robert Livingston When I saw the Angel of the North last year a pink Duracell bunny was climbing up the back of it.  It was doing quite well: it got 18 feet up and was still going!


You have five minutes to come back on that one, Simon, if you want to!

Simon Sheikh If we look at monuments, they are often placed from the top down, and not the other way round.  That does not mean that you cannot do things with them.  You can do a lot with them, exactly because of their sign value.  The Little Mermaid is a significant sculpture in Denmark, in Copenhagen, and it has been subject to quite a lot of artistic interventions.  Famously, the first time it happened a situationist cut its head off in the 1960s and stored it somewhere.  It has not been found.  Later on, there were many beheadings.  Someone put it in a burka recently which I thought was a really great intervention considering there has been a huge debate around the burka in public space in Denmark recently – and many other things.  They are a side, of course.  But that is only a temporary intervention.  It is occupying a space of the other, and then retreating again, which is a more tactical than a strategic move.  So even those things that one would maybe feel least connected with at times are actually exactly the places where one can intervene in a symbolic battle – if you will – symbolic struggle.


Kate Foster, core group I am a bit hesitant since I am a novice in the literature that you are describing but looking around this room for a horizon – I can’t see one when all the curtains are drawn.  Perhaps you will forgive me for mentioning the public sphere is very much shared with other species.  And perhaps you can comment on the idea that, in terms of ethics, one factor or one thing to consider is the sustainable use of material resources.

Simon Sheikh Yes.  I hear you.  Yes – absolutely.  It is interesting, actually, to return to this.  How can one think of instituting that in artistic practice – and actually, they are starting a new art school in Tromsø, which is northern Norway.  They are starting it from scratch.  When they were announcing the post there, they said, you should apply with what you think a contemporary department should be.  This friend of mine – I don’t know if I should mention her name because I do not know if she has got the position yet – but someone told me!  But when she applied with this great project which was about … she said, ‘Ok, it should be an art department for feminism and sustainable development.’  This is that department.  What it will be, I do not know.  I do not think she hardly knows because she was saying, ‘I do not know – but these are the things that interest me.  Let’s make an institute of that.’  So we will see how it goes.

Robert Livingston The imaginary horizons that have been opened up (despite the curtains) could clearly keep us discussing for a long time yet but, sadly, we have to draw things to a conclusion for this evening.

Can I thank all our speakers on your behalf this evening for widening our horizons very considerably and for opening up many new areas of thought.

Thank you very much.

%d bloggers like this: