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Audience

“Submitting to a voice”- me listening as part of an artwork at Liquid Architecture exhibition Eavesdropping at Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, August 2018

I’m reading the introduction to the book Locating the Producers: Durational Approaches to Public Art, 2011 (edited by Paul O’Neill and Claire Doherty): it takes big steps – from willing to commission dynamic “place-based” art, understood as constellation of social relations, –  to open-endedness of process to defy instrumentalization of art [1]. However, with parameters such as  “place-based” art and “public art” taken as genres, impacts, and meanings, there is a kind of mindset and text already elaborated – from which it is perhaps too hard to jump out anyway. How to handle the big claims of “public art”? Perhaps, scale down to a situation, a project and art work, but also make them even bigger thinking “public” in  the sense of humanity. This makes me think of the manifesto-like Theory of the Minor by curator Chris Sharp. There he defends the rights for art to be “minor” and so to be against what is called “major.”  The major/minor contradiction is one reflexive mechanism that simply displays the question of art autonomy on the banner and provocatively asks – hey, what about art just being itself?  In Chris Sharp’s words –

“the major, like allegory, instrumentalizes. [..] Seeking the lowest common denominator, which is often found in either spectacle, topicality, or use value, it continually asks what art can do, as opposed to what it is or can be, which  it almost always takes for granted” [2].

The reality is  specific. The  art world is composed of people: artists, audiences, and other agents. Reference systems and policies are language, voices, that come through our own words and mold our thinking, perceptions and emotions. Some sort of voice or rhetoric “often” resonates the value with leaflets, FB posts and information panels. People require and expect translations. In reality, the institutions are made of people, and policies are drafted by (mostly) passionate art-loving and practicing people. On deeper level, there is no contradiction between groups of agents, and there is a “common interest” overarching the whole “art field” including practitioners, insiders-politicians, producers and organizers. Making a separation between information and the field of reality can be a methodology.  What if we read through/behind buzz-wordy statements that claim the use value of the arts sector and rather locate people, human beings separately. What if we reshuffle and deflate the focuses on “public art” and “place-based art”.  The point is – isolate the language and ask – who is speaking, or – where does it come from, “whose” voice is it, what process is behind?

Cutting through the icing of the cake when dealing with language as text, information, words, is not idealistic but practical. Being in the shoes of a producer of information and translations, I find it interesting and fair that the speaker identifies themselves, or maybe manifests their absence. Authorization is transformed into communication between agents.

 

[1] Paul O’Neill  and Claire Doherty (eds.), Locating the Producers: Durational Approaches to Public Art (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2011).

[2] Chris Sharp, Theory of the Minor, Mousse Magazine, 57, 2017.

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A link to source: transmediale 2018 exhibition “Territories of Complicity” documentation website (Sprawling Swamps); via a still image of Sprawling Swamps (2016-ongoing) by Femke Herregraven – installation, interactive 3d environment, video, audio.

Let’s continue the discussion from the previous post, where I observed recent transmediale, in particular, its last panel ‘Confronting Social Cybernetics’ that revisited Marshall McLuhan’s legacy and catalysed transmediale’s self-criticality. As mentioned in the post, one participant from the audience suggested to look for alternatives for the discussion, and drew attention to the activity of ‘doing.’ In this respect, there are two truths. As moderator Baruch Gottlieb noted – the festival is a ‘structure’ and a ‘product’ as such, and at the same time, if we look at the website information, it is clear that the work of the whole transmediale collective is enormous research and through that – translation.  So, if ‘doing’ is interpreted as aesthetics, discussion – as translation,  how to compare aesthetics and translation?

The meaning of aesthetics is diverse. Aesthetics can characterise any thing, it can be immediately related to art, but let’s ignore this and apply a more theoretical parameter for a start – aesthetics as opposite in nature to activity of translation. The difference is that ‘translation’ is considered transparent – it draws attention to something else such as knowledge; but we call something ‘aesthetics’ when it has intrinsic value of reality within itself. Even though translation can be thought to be minor, it is obviously very demanded. Often it is important that aesthetics is translated or discussed. But if something that is expected to be ‘translation’ and subject matter is aestheticized then its reception can be mixed. For example, professor Dave Harris has devised youtube series – Deleuze for the Desperate to give resources and tips to those students who need to come to grips with the popular Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari which is considered difficult by any standard. But the language of Thousand Plateaus, as Harris confirms, is ‘deliberately rambling.’ [1] So on the one hand, aesthetics presents challenge, on the other hand, Deleuze & Guattari insist on experiencing aesthetics rather than clarity/translation. Where is the balance?

tansmediale is translation only to an extent; its quality as translation is absorbed within aesthetics of the whole event, and particular artworks. Art that occupies itself with research and translation prioritise aesthetic rights. During the panel ‘Extracting Hi(stories) of Complicity’ at transmediale 2018, Femke Herregraven was questioned in relation to her work of visual mapping and imagery that pointed to exploitation of natural resources through infrastructures of capital. The question was about where she situated herself between aesthetics and activism, and I think ‘aesthetics’ was used in the sense of beautification. The artist noted that one way of communication is through an article, but artist operates differently, and if images can attract attention then it is considered effective.

The audience comment above also evokes that activism is more closely related to what is considered translation, not aesthetics. If I remember correctly from transmediale 2018 discussions, a comment was made at some stage that aesthetics was not necessarily good, meaning that perhaps it was not necessarily effective. Even though the spirt of transmediale is that of activism I think it is wrong to disconnect aesthetics from activism. A discussion is activism, not because it is a discussion but because it presents itself as an aesthetic form of resistance. It is already the activity of ‘doing.’ In fact, translation and aesthetics are entangled.

Perhaps the distinction between what is considered activism and aesthetics is so strict because the current tendency of activism is focused on the strategies of subversion, confronting and negation as demonstrated by transmediale. The radical spirit for social change needs to be negating (violent, as McLuhan would say) but the classic avant-garde had the capacity to be affirmative in its nature. It has been interesting to follow e-flux collaboration with Boris Groys as they recover materials and previously overlooked histories of avant-garde – just this month  e-flux journal (#88) ‘Russian Cosmism’ has been published. The world-building idea of this classic avant-garde seems to be different from, for example, transmediale. I think excavation of avant-garde is very timely to glean from, and I am convinced that it is effective to apply active aesthetics as world-building.

But it can be also sensed, that there is a need for ‘building.’ As I mentioned in the previous post, during the Confronting Social Cybernetics panel Jonathan Beller deliberately appropriated the ‘negative’ voice which could be seen very much in consistency with transmediales overall tone. But he weakened negativism and perhaps in a much more McLuhanist way highlighted the idea of ‘re-organizing imaginaries’ with the awareness our distributed personhood. And it feels that re-organizing imaginaries is reliant on concept of building (innovating?) rather than destruction. A form of violence as world-building is possibly the only real form of violence. 

 

[1] Dave Harris, Deleuze for the Desperate #1 Introduction, published January 31, 2016, YouTube.

Marshall McLuhan Speaks, image by cea+. Sourced from Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.

Sunday night, on the 4th of February 2018, I could stay awake: at 5am in the morning (Melbourne time) I was still happily watching the streaming transmediale in Berlin. I was drawn to the last panel ‘Confronting Social Cybernetics’ due to its cultural angle and determination to revisit Marshall McLuhan. After a video fragment from McLuhan’s famous debate with public in the 70s Katerina Krtilova in the panel suggested: the same Luhan’s statement ‘the medium is the message’ is to be reformulated for today with the focus on ‘message’ rather than the medium. The shift is clearly expressed by words in the title of the panel (Confronting Social Cybernetics). But armed with this very claim for confrontation under the overarching trope/ McLuhan’s legacy – ‘technology is not neutral,’ the session turned into a self-critical transmediale.

Ewa Majewska put forward ‘counterpublics’ and passionately talked about the criteria – counterpublics is embedded and contextualised in the production. Jonathan Beller deliberately took a ‘negative’ world-view that resonated with the title of his newest book The Message is Murder: Substrates of Computational Capital (Pluto Press, 2017). Yet the provocation that was leading to forum and self-criticality came from the moderator: Baruch Gottlieb in his flexible and rather light style (with inspiration from McLuhan?) picked a mirror image by pointing to talks of ‘cocktail parties’ and scholarly circles who were ‘well-fed’ by the conference, and at the same time, he enquired into failures to ‘accomplish social change.’

Soon a voice from transmediale’s audience reflected upon alienation by the language and gathering of the agents of language who seemed to congratulate each other.  One participant wanted to do ‘stuff’ with people in the room and proposed to look for alternatives to the ‘aboutness’ of the discussion format. Another suggested being ‘present’ because the criticisms at transmediale, such as ‘one cannot see art’ stressed that we were too hung up on the form of something. Yet another participant insisted to forget about McLuhan and cited a couple of German news reports about transmediale that were predominantly interested in form:  not about medium-as-message, but the form in the festival – good-looking audience and hipsters. Then, another member of the audience appreciated that transmediale had put the chilling issues like current rise of fascism on the table so they can be addressed.

The commentary resembled the genius question to McLuhan included in the historic video that was played at the start of the session. In 1977, McLuhan debated live on Australian TV before a large audience; the lady featured in the video phrased her question this way: ‘If the medium is the message and it doesn’t matter what we say on TV, why are we all here tonight and why am I asking this question?’ (see Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977  07:06).

This self-reflective point from public enquires into the value and meaning of social activity and agency when the social environment is shaped by media complexes. Even more so, the question started echoing the very theme of transmediale 2018 ‘face value.’ The notion ‘face value’ indicates the problem of misleading value perceptions, according to what is printed or what appears to be, and points to the invisible side of media systems from Wall street finance to extreme right-wing ‘counter-cultures.’ Is it also a question about what transmediale itself appears to be and is? And how it accomplishes the ‘message’ of confronting?

But there is more to say about the video, if you continue watching the compelling documentations of The McLuhan Project on abc site. McLuhan talked about the concept of violence. Violence as encounters and self-expressing quest for identity, and media as a massive way of identity making: ‘Today when you trigger these vast media that we use you are manipulating entire population’ (see Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977  08:30).

Thus, violence is the principle of media activism and ‘counter’ movements for social change. Dealing with violence amounts to enforcements of (new) identity and shaping of ‘the message.’ Violence also characterises criticism. All instances of journalistic – including art – criticism and reviewing tend towards violence, and that is – expression of their identity through their particular perspective. I do not believe that Art Review (artworld’s flagship magazine) would be more empathetic in its approach to transmediale than German mainstream newspapers. When asked, McLuhan replied that the alternative to ‘violence’ is ‘dialogue’ [1]. If the logic of dialogue is replaced by media activism (confronting) and is rather hard for criticism, it should be the defining logic of social activity, and what the transmediale participant identified as the need for ‘being present.’

Image: Marshall McLuhan Speaks, image by cea+. Sourced from Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.

[1] Marshal McLuhan ‘The Medium is the Message’ Part I, Monday Conference on ABC TV, 27 June 1977

Ant in Amber (under magnifying glass), Sam Noble Museum. Photo credit: fine_plan. Creative Commons licensed. Sourced from Flickr.

I would like to pick up from the previous post, especially with regards to the importance of waiting areas preceding the experience considered as strictly “art experience.”  Whether we are reading labels or instructions there is no reason to differentiate and leave outside the “art experience” any elements, any modes of communication and constitution of exhibition. Perhaps such split of the wholeness of “experience” is not only unnecessary but also impossible. All associated activities and communications – such intense social acts as opening and closing drinks, could be measured within the framework of “paths” that constitute an exhibition experience. Even if one is encountering that experience as mediated by personal media, in a real-world situation. It is like we are seeing our bodies moving through the space and with this feeling of distance our condition is similar to that of the entanglement of ants in amber.  Then, the question is – how does this awareness change exhibition making?

Such view of curatorial methodology has been exercised in relation to museums. As Terry Smith has pointed out in his analysis of contemporary curatorial thought and types of exhibitions, the experience of museum architecture constitutes the event of exhibition. The most eminent case is of course Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. If architecture manifests as exhibition, what other things should be counted into the constellation of exhibition experience? Because museological perspective is naturally focused on the figure of viewer, the formulation of “exhibition anthropology” could emerge. Erkki Huhtamo has insisted on exactly this approach considering structural, ongoing and variable (viewer-related) constituents that are present to shape the experience. To explain the exhibition anthropology approach which comes hand in hand with close observations, Huhtamo has noted: “The approach should not be conceived of as purely empirical, focused on case-by-case analysis. My basic idea is to treat the museum as a kind of experience apparatus – a combination of material features, social roles, and institutional practices and policies that provide a framework for visitors’ experiences.”  [1] The continuation of this thought is particularly interesting: “Understood as an apparatus, the museum is a system of anticipations and regulations visitors are supposed to follow. One of its functions is to analyze potential deviations from its norms (including transgressive actions).”  [2] It is perhaps through these “transgressive actions” that we can detect the workings of exhibition apparatus and generate experiences specific to a particular moment. In 2015, I curated an exhibition in George Paton Gallery (Melbourne) that I started with a vision of a cafe as an implant into the gallery room – a different kind of exhibition context, enabling the space of communication, and sympathetic in relation to busy eateries and cafes on the ground floor. By the end of this project I had witnessed that the gallery walls were not, metaphorically speaking, a blank canvas – they contained the social relations of the art establishment.  This gallery-cafe was perceived through the experiences of individual visitors depending on the interplay of their interpretation and memory or knowledge of this gallery as a space to come to see art exhibitions.

The notion of museum as experience apparatus aligns with Gilles Deleuze’s assemblage theory. The metaphor of ants in amber, a view of the whole, including ourselves within the entanglement of all elements, serves well in relation to the materialist social ontology, from which the concept of assemblage extends. As Manuel DeLanda notes – “our minds need to be there”, but social ontology, “is independent of the contents of our minds” [3]. In Deleuze’s concept of assemblage, each part stands in active relation to others, whereby the emergent properties of the whole cannot be reduced to its parts: a horse, warrior and weapon is an example of assemblage – “each part amplifies the other parts”  [4].  Therefore, for Deleuze, the key to assemblage is that the warrior is a skilled user or connector in relation to horse and weapon (and we should assume that the horse and weapon are functional, and so forth), alternatively, it would be a mere collection of things rather than an assemblage [5].

And yet – why not use the assemblage to explore possibilities? For example, thoughts, are usually mere collections, but, what if they are treated as assemblages? Art often presents methodologies of collection, to the extent of absurd, yet with the claim of assemblage – active insistence on meaning even though there might not be any. We can also think of an artwork and a viewer as an assemblage. Thus, this theory is attractive through the potential of tension between its realism and “idealism”: awareness of entanglement and the potential of relationships.

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[1] Erkki Huhtamo, “Museums, Interactivity, and the Tasks of “Exhibition Anthropology,” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 272.

[2] Erkki Huhtamo, “Museums, Interactivity, and the Tasks of “Exhibition Anthropology,” in Museum Media, ed. Michelle Henning (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2015), 272.

[3] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

[4] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

[5] European Graduate School, “Manuel DeLanda. Assemblage Theory, Society, and Deleuze. 2011” (online video) accessed March 23, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-I5e7ixw78.

Brevard Zoo. Viera FL. Photo credit: Rusty Clark. Creative Commons Licensed. Sourced from Flickr.

Quite often the strategies of exhibition making in the field of contemporary art prioritize an approach of multiple entries and thus a possibility for multiple perspectives and journeys within the space of exhibition. And yet this democratic and empowering model poses a challenge in the form of the gap that exists between the potential of experience and physical traversing, or walking through in the time between “in” and “out.” Also, we should not forget about the sharp change to be dealt with by the viewer (and the exhibition maker) characterizing the transition from the outside world to the space of art. Perhaps the most difficult (and rightly criticized) dilemmas for exhibitions are presented by video and film works: screens next to each other offering narratives impossible to grasp unless one spends hours in the gallery room. If screens and their moving contents are not intended to deliver dramaturgy of the space then it seems rather logic to wish that the whole content of a film or video is presented as a spatial object to be walked around and perceived in its totality.  Of course, such solutions as embedded cinemas, bean bags, used extensively in contemporary Kunsthalles and art museums are helpful. While being engaged with the format of visual art, I have been enjoying (not without envy) the theater and other forms of performing art that possess viewers’ time and bodies.

On the other hand, an inscribed path and direction of viewing attracts with the possibility to consolidate the space of art with its experience. At the recent 20th Biennale of Sydney (18 March-05 June 2016) one of the most demanded art experiences – as evidenced by queues – seemed the works by Cécile B. Evans within the Cockatoo Island’s Dogleg Tunnel.  Preamble to a Prequel (of Sorts), created for the Biennale, was an audiovisual walk through the tunnel, a walk “inside” the digital video played back from a smartphone integrated in a headset. This journey transitioned gently at the end of the tunnel into an intimate spectacle of another dreamy and surreal digital narrative – Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen (2014). All this preparation – waiting one’s turn, receiving service and instructions from staff while adjusting the headset, was important. There is certain weight in the role of lobbies and waiting rooms (bright in my memory is an event about six years ago when in a soft-spoken way I was offered a seat and a cup of tea in a “living room” arranged in a youth theater, at the entrance….). The whole experience of Cécile B. Evans work was complete. Visitors (and myself) took their time to lie and watch the second video in the chamber-like space at the far end of the dark tunnel.

I recalled my Dogleg Tunnel experience just few days ago upon another striking but different and deeply personalized event – Gardens Speak  by Tania El Khoury in Adelaide festival. Joining a group of ten in a guided ritual within a somber space I uncovered, as I dug in the soil and attached my ears to the ground and listened to the voice speaking in the first person, the life story of an ordinary Syrian man who lost his life during the brutal and still ongoing conflict. Relating to the concept of path for experience – interestingly, or coincidentally, the grand exhibition at the gallery of South Australia, Versus Rodin (04 March – 02 July), in which curator Leigh Robb has weaved a cluster of narrative lines by thoughtful and tightly knit compositions of modernist and contemporary works, includes a room with walking “tunnels.” In this room, objects are placed on shaped floor structures elevated to the eye level.

“From labels to instructions” can be thought as a provocation that sets a direction towards awareness of the viewer’s bodily experience in frames of exhibition making. It appears to add to the critique of the label (for example, Jon Ippolito in his article Death by Wall Label referred to the use of classic wall labels; in the case of new media artworks requiring active rather than passive preservation this is problematic enough to signify their death). It is of course impossible to eliminate labels altogether and re-orientate to performative aesthetic positions. Ironically, instructions accompanying works of art appear as labels generating, again, an imperative to read. A path through or “instructions” is an offer that can benefit the experience of art in pursuing narratives or as one is invited to construct a narrative of her/his own.