A talk in three voices
A: We were asked recently to provide an account of our experience with respect to the contemporary art museum. In responding to this request we found ourselves addressing and attempting to describe "a plethora of unwanted and unbearable determinations" that now bear down upon our work and our regard upon it. We face two particularly besetting tendencies: first the development of a corporatist knowledge culture which has flattened literature, art and the rest of the so-called Humanities into information; second, the development of an analogous but distinct corporate culture as the culture of the art world. B: One of the effects of this latter development is a middle-brow vacuity that perfectly fulfils the purposes of corporatism as a form both of production and of consumption.
C: Regarding the first of these unbearable conditions, the American writer Alan Liu has offered some powerful theorisations. His specific concern is with the problem of the erasure of the literary from the Humanities, and indeed from literature itself. "Wherever the academy looks in the new millennium", he writes, "it sees the prospect of a world given over to one knowledge – a single, dominant mode of knowledge associated with the information economy and apparently destined to make all other knowledges, especially all historical knowledges, obsolete. Knowledge work harnessed to information technology will now be the sum of all worthwhile knowledge – except, of course, for the knowledge of all the alternative historical modes of knowledge that undergird, overlap with or – like a shadow world, a shadow web – challenge the conditions of possibility of the millennial New Enlightenment."
A: In his book The Laws of Cool what Liu seeks to describe is a "truly new art" propagating within the corpse of the avant-garde. The mark of this new art as he conceives it is a "viral aesthetics that at once mimes and critiques knowledge work so as to circumvent the corporate tumour that "creativity" has become. Viral aesthetics", he claims "invents an alternative mode of productivity resident within the other dark lobe of contemporary creativity – to coin a term, destructivity."(p 327)
C: We need to bear in mind that Liu remains resolutely within the ambit of the Humanities as they are more or less conventionally taught and studied in universities and similar institutions. As a consequence of this, he has a necessarily limited view of the art world, and of the second set of determinations that are associated with it. Indeed, he retains a somewhat romanticised picture of such notions as creativity and its cognates. B: What he proposes is a recast version of Philip Sidney’s "diviner, soldier and critic", adding to this triumvirate the figure of the "hacker". The examples he cites as instances of "creative destructivity" are, if we understand his metaphor correctly, only too vulnerable to being redescribed as mere excrescences of the corporate tumour. C: Far from reducing it, in their various ways they add to its mass.
A: Liu’s declared influence is Dario Gambini’s The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution. Gambini’s argument is a familiar one - at least as propounded by Liu. Strangely, as things develop into "auto-iconoclasm", Liu’s precursors of the viral are largely taken on trust from his reading and consist of a few well- organised neo-Dada gestures (Rauschenberg), some self-mythologising near bullshit (Picasso), some whacky machines (Tinguely), and some self-regarding spectacular mad-art with all the appropriate "Nach Auschwitz" dramatics (Metzger). C: His later examples furnish a late-Fluxus, mimimalist, systems-art conservatism: art-school computer art with the virtue of psychedelic light shows: among those whose work he discusses in depth are Joseph Neckvatal – who uses high-tech procedures to produce conservative-looking semi-abstract art - and the more interesting Belgian Combo Jodi, whose work does at least possess a high degree of surprising and risky indexicality. A: It is difficult to dislodge a suspicion that it is in the safely enceinted circumstances of the university or similar institution that Liu’s "destructivism" is imagined , and that it is only within such circumstances that the value it represents is actually to be realised. Grant-aided destructivism has something of the category mistake about it, like British Surrealism or French rock 'n roll or disinterested academics.
B: Liu makes reference to the current corporate aspect of the avant-garde. It should be noted, however, that the incorporation of the avant-garde can in fact be traced back at least as far as to the high modernism centred on New York in the 1960's, when the forms of Institutional critique and institutional ratification associated with Minimalism and various kinds of Conceptual Art offered new opportunities for corporate and managerial agencies. The dialectical ideology of change and innovation that had been the critically enabling motor of the avant-garde had already by the late 1960's been transformed into a series of expansionist and imperialist prescriptions. There was more to come. The avant-garde had always depended for its critical and progressive power upon the existence of a set of normal conditions – a mainstream conventionality that was largely defined in technical and material terms, by reference to specific genres, media and so on. Against this background – a background in relation to which it possessed historical transformative agency - the avant-garde was able to renew and to redefine itself.
C: Now, as Conceptual Art supplanted the idea of a material and technical limit or tradition, the gate opened and the corporate barbarians were admitted. Among those who lent their weight to the opening of the gate there were no doubt many who saw themselves as serving the ends of generosity and inclusiveness – as helping to bring about an art practice that would be emancipating from unwanted restraints. But among those favoured by the resulting changes were the manager and the curator, who were now able to operate with increasingly first-order artistic agency - even to act as incarnations of the artist; and they brought the corporate interest with them as part of their own material culture. B: In other words, the supposedly radical critique of the institution had actually increased the power of the institution by empowering those best equipped to further its interests. The later developments in the discourse of business that Liu surveys were thus actually anticipated by the post-modern settlement of the avant-garde.
A: However, Liu does seem to be saying something that matters. The Barcelona critic Carles Guerra has described the practice of Art & Language as a self-critical, self-destructive – and indeed self- annihilating - practice. Can such a practice be critically connected to Liu’s concept of destructivity? We do not fit the profile that Liu conjures. At the same time, we want to say that he has suggested something that has resonance for us. For all that his proposal may be backed by the rather dubious "influence" of Gamboni, it still remains a call to answer. So when we talk of "self- annihilation", of "destructivism" as attributed to us by Carles Guerra, what is it that both connects this to and distinguishes it from what Liu has in mind?
B: On the one hand, there is certainly something to be made of the idea of hacking, as an analogy for aspects of Art & Language’s practice. Guerra quotes from our libretto for the opera Victorine: Some of these visages will have been masks. Disguise is the first of the plotter’s tasks. C: On the other hand Guerra draws attention to a conversational activity in which those who subscribe to the talk are never sure of what they may obtain from it. Of our indexing work he suggests that it is only in denying its own completeness that that work may be useful. What Guerra is concerned with, we conjecture, is not a single exemplary work by Art & Language, but a set of relations and processes between the works themselves and the conditions of their production. In short, something like an essayistic practice – a description we have often applied to ourselves.
A: An essayistic practice renders unnecessary certain post-structuralist – indeed post-modern – models which argue for a constant process of reconfiguration and remaking. We might also say that it renders them "wrong" – and we mean wrong both morally and theoretically. The most telling point, however, is that while the artist’s traditional type of practice could be seen as diagnostic, or in the modernist model as critical and analytical, it has been almost entirely supplanted by the type of a complex practice folded in the powers and agendas of what are now called multi-media agencies. The upshot is that almost any form of work is the public creature of a multiple agency which handles and controls its distribution. Our work is not composed of self-certifying gestures intended heroically to confront this corporatist expanding world. It may nevertheless somehow act within and upon that world in such a manner as to trouble it. What kind of action might this be?
B: In our recent paper "Voices Off" we attempted a reconstruction or revaluation of the principle motifs in writing about post-minimalist and Conceptual Art. Inter alia, we tried to describe the kinds of development or action by which our own contribution to Conceptual Art might be characterised. We may now have to ask whether or not there remains any hint of the social development involved or of the form of production to which it gave rise. C: What we wrote was this:
As the discursivity of the text increased, so the remaining sense of it as "readymade-by-description- or-ostension" weakened still further. Similarly, as the text ceased to function as a form that usurped the place of painting on the gallery wall, in the manner of one of Kosuth’s "Definitions", so the legacy of the containing frame also diminished. As both effects weakened, so did the power of those formal constraints on the length of the text that characterised the "definitive" post-Minimal genres of Conceptual art as they were established in New York between 1967 and 1969. It was our experience at this point that the lack of formal constraint on the extent of the text allowed the mechanisms internal to its discursive production to take over. What drove the discourse in practice was not now the need to produce the brief illusions of transparency, but those recursive and dialogical processes by which the discourse itself was pursued and continued. This was a crucial moment in the establishment of what might be described as a new genre ...
Consider then, the idea of the work of art as an essay that gives voice – often a ventriloquist’s voice and form – to a project. Consider further that this form is a fragment lopped off from a conversation – a performance of sorts that is always under the pain of erasure, conceived as both form and social reality. Finally, consider the possibility that ‘“This is the work.” “I don’t think so”,’ is the work.
A: This certainly does go to the idea of a kind of self-critical and potentially self-destructive process and morale in practice. It is not such, however, as can be mapped tidily onto the kind of "destructivity" on which Liu’s somewhat idealised hackers are engaged. It may be that the institutional gestalt that Liu possesses is one which we do not. As we have suggested, his artistic examples are more or less domesticated to the artistic post-avant-garde of the university. Indeed, a great deal of what concerns him is within the orbit of the teaching of literature, and the development of an aesthetic – albeit in some forms an institutionally negative aesthetic – that can be viewed with a certain propriety by the academic. B: We do not find ourselves entirely in the same institutional frame. While one of us is indeed an academic frequently bothered and enraged by the besetting violence and absurdity of a managerial culture, and while we all, from time to time, find ourselves at some conference, or engaged in the preparation of an essay or paper addressed to the institutional domain of the academic, academia is not the source of our Weltanschauung, such as it is, nor does it provide much in the form of a material base for Art & Language. C: Liu sees the artistic as a possible resource for the Humanities in salvaging the literary. While we do not go so far as to see the injection of art as a means of salvaging the Humanities in general, or Art History in particular, we would agree that the opacity of the aesthetic offers some much needed resistance to the kinds of transparency increasingly demanded in so-called "knowledge work". Thus, while the university, the art school and other academic circumstances may compose one of our institutional frames, it is principally the art world on which we have our eye (and often, unfortunately, much more than our eye). The two are, of course, connected, but while their values may frequently converge, they are also logically and practically quite separate.
A: Perhaps it is in virtue of this second institutional frame that our own "destructiveness" is to be identified - if we keep up with terminological fashion, we would have to call it "destructivity". While we have in common with Liu a concern at the growth of what he calls the corporate tumour, from a perspective distinct from the Humanities department of the university, his tumour looks much like the Gesamtkunstwerk into which a significant proportion of our production is inescapably uttered. C: The Gesamtkunstwerk is a condition of something like cultural heat death. This is to say its accomplishment signals the coming of a circumstance in which distinctions lose all meaning except as the ornaments and instruments of corporate interests – a process certainly commensurate with the flattening- out of knowledge culture. That all we do may simply feed this Gesamtkunstwerk is one of the most besetting of the unbearable determining conditions we referred to at the outset. It is not something we do, rather it something that is done to us.
B: How then, are we availed of any possibility of resistance? If it is indeed the case that there is nothing the Gesamtkunstwerk will not accommodate, then the time has come, as Niklas Luhmann has suggested, to tighten the criteria. A: To put the matter bluntly, when it seems that there is nothing that cannot be art, the possibility of progressive critical activity will depend upon significant acts of negation. It may be said that under our present circumstances the aspiration to tighten the criteria looks distinctly unpromising, given the virtual certainty that it will involve some reinvocation of the necessity of genre – since how are exclusions to be made without generating some formal grounds of distinction? It has to be acknowledged that any call to tighten the criteria is liable to be interpreted either as a rappel à l’ordre, or as emanating from some kind of private and probably complacent retreat, or both. But the kind of activity we have in mind is neither a matter of rallying round a different flag, nor of an impossible freedom from implication in the dominant order; rather it is one informed by the kinds of alternative historical modes of knowledge that Liu refers to, and that occupies something like his proposed shadow world or shadow web. C: To recall an earlier big moment in the analysis of such matters, while the practice in question may not be a "subversive refusal of the established codes", it is certainly one that continually runs the risk of "failure to signify". There is thus a limit on the security to be found in any prospective genre.
A: One of the characteristics of the genres that emerge from an essayistic practice is that they are discursively trammelled. They are also inflected both by the informal or "private" history of the dark space in which they are formed, and by the organised or ‘public’ history to which they have heir-lines and by which they are overdetermined. The public history in question is of course just as dark and as inscrutable to the Gesamtkunstwerk as is the private indexicality.
B: What we have in mind as "genres" are ways of going on that count among the hypotheses of a practice sufficiently agile, complex and, crucially, independent to be resistant to absorption. It should be clear that what we must be talking about here is something determined by or as a social formation of some kind – not so much a way of making art or literature or whatever, as a way of living. One way in which we have striven for independence on behalf of our practice is to assure it of a foot in both camps, or perhaps rather of a foot in each of the doors – to the art world and to the university - that might always be slammed in its face. A: Our relative distance from Liu, then, is not a matter of our pretending to cleanliness in either respect. Indeed our impatience with university art and university art history has much to do with the stultifying propriety of both. Our practice is not the product of any kind of interdisciplinarity that might be conceived in an academic profile or curriculum. Rather it is made from the varied economic, professional and other contingencies of our lives. If there is a resource of actual resistance anywhere to be discovered, it is not such as can be embodied in the bounded singularity of any artwork, or in any object, or in any iconoclastic gesture. What is clear is that the means of resistance can only be sought in the form of a practice which hacks into or pollutes the very corporate tumour in which it is embedded. B: This is the best we can make of the requirement of independence. It is under these conditions that we hypothesise genres, as more or less informal ways of organising activity that may become both the forming conditions of practical work and the necessary points of reference for discussion and criticism.
C: We should now try to make some connections. We have argued for the need to tighten criteria and have suggested that this entails the reintroduction of some sense of genre. At the same time the genres in question are no more than a set of hypotheses advanced within an essayistic practice. They furnish a formal and sometimes material discipline that functions, without exhausting the discourse, as a sort of critical reason within the work. The tightening of criteria is ipso facto resistance to the effects of the Gesamtkunstwerk, insofar as it requires that distinctions and interpretations should, as best they can, be "work driven" rather than merely submitting to the contingent corporate interests represented by the Gesamtkunstwerk.
A: In a certain sense, then, there is destruction here, and it is not just self-destruction. The destruction involves both a theoretical and a practical refusal of the imperatives of the Gesamtkunstwerk. However, we need to get from this to a description of the practice that shows how the indexicality of the work is complex, and, in being complex, historical. There are three aspects under which the potential of the work might be apprehended: as an index of the discourse, and of the other productive processes – both negative and positive – that compose its genetic character; as an index of the developments in the Gesamtkunstwerk which the work also to a degree embodies; and as an index of the "historically well formed", or even of the history of forms of which the work "speaks".
C: As to self-destruction: as Carles Guerra has observed, the work – and we don’t just mean the artwork – is always radically incomplete. It tends to present itself as something cut-off - something potentially capable of re-absorption into the discourse, which may be of dialectical interest only in virtue of its effacement. At the same time, this dialectical provisionality is a real, that is to say an involuntary and non-arbitrary content, that the work possesses. B: In order for this to be true, a number of conditions need to be met; among them that there be enough work to make for a complexity to which the work can veridically attest, and by reference to which it can act as the arbiter of any interpretation of it or any claim regarding its significance. The work has to be complex, as well as the practice that puts it out.
A: The art work of Art & Language is uttered and displayed as material for exhibition in art galleries and museums. It may contribute a presence to the fun of the art fair. This is clearly work that lives by and in the art-world and is fed to its Leviathan. The work of Art & Language also appears in the form of essays and articles, many of them for the academic press. And it also takes the form of talks, lectures and related performances addressed to a largely academic milieu. These facts account for the existence of two types or forms of work. They describe necessary but by no means sufficient conditions. Some other conditions are supplied by the practice that we have called "essayistic". The work that this practice produces is often not what it seems to be, whether it appears in the form of the artwork or of the written article or other publication. We do not need a version of the day-to- day life of Art & Language in order to describe how this comes to be the case. C: Mind your own business. Destruction requires a certain privacy. A: Rather we need to say what sort of entity Art & Language is – what sort of "space" relative to those institutional forms that supply necessary conditions for the existence of the work itself.
B: Our having a presence of some sort in two milieus or camps may confer a degree of independence. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the art- work of Art & Language can be unambiguously winnowed-out from the "written" material published by more or less conventional means. The relation between the two is problematic and non-hierarchical. We do not, for example, submit to the delusion that we conceive of the work in some literary or theoretical genre and then go on to "make" it. Indeed, the literary-theoretical stuff is often driven by the need to consider the implications of what may have been made. A: The production of Art & Language that is uttered into the art-world remains, however, relatively distinct from that which is uttered into an academic domain. It would not be easy, for example, to characterise the crossover points as though they conformed to a model such that a certain aspect or fragment of the one finds itself "influencing" or bearing upon the other. Neither is our written work ever intended merely as a report or explanation of our art-work, even in circumstances where our art-work would tend to claim a clear degree of priority. B: In fact, there is a pretty good argument to support the following claim tout court: that we utter or publish work of both kinds in both camps continuously, notwithstanding the distinctiveness of the means either of production or of delivery. Our essay "Voices Off", for example, appeared both in the academic journal Critical Inquiry and on the painted surface of an art-work that takes the form of a chair. In one sense the academic discourse is infused with an intractable aesthetic remainder; in another the academic discourse furnishes an unconsumable component of the art.
C: A chair with forty thousand tiny words of occasionally intemperate "theory" enters the institutional milieu as a sort of conceptual-art-ish structure possessed of a certain consumable virtue. B: (A Belgian Wittgenstein fanatic acquired one because he saw it as a fine-art encapsulation of the philosopher’s sense of the design well made.) C: Once discovered, the content of the theory – indeed the very presence of the theory – is a horror that renders the chair unassimilable to the institutional circumstance. The work is thus effaced. A: There will, however, be viewers who see that the chair’s guise and its talkative content may be grounds for unease and for some work of inquiry, and who may be moved to take a look at - and possibly take a part in – the content of its index. The institutional guise is thus annihilated, and the chair takes on a new social and aesthetic role.
B: Similarly, the article which the chair so decorously reproduces has appeared in an academic journal. The production of the article with all its arguments and constructions goes to and is an organic part of an artistic practice that misuses it on a chair. From an academic perspective this is evidence that sufficient intellectual distance has not been achieved. The article is thus impoverished and is easily dismissed. A: Alternatively, from another reader’s perspective, the fact that the article is firmly part of the chemistry of an art practice is a theoretical and historical enrichment.
C: As we have seen, the work risks annihilation in both milieus, either, first-order, in terms of the sub-aesthetic discourse and practice of the institution, or, second-order, in being an object that involves aesthetic work that that institution has all but prohibited. If there is destructiveness here, it is also in virtue of this dual presence that we draw destruction down upon us – and are in that sense self- destructive. It is in this manner that we obtrude a frequently negative practice into the theory of the institutional describer, and a negative theory into the practice of the institutional producer (allowing, for the moment, that it is in general the academy that describes and the art-world institution that produces).
B: It might be asked how it is that we have come to understand our position in this manner, and how it is that that understanding is sustained. C: The answer is perhaps that since the 1970s certain "social" forms have been created within the practice of Art & Language, and that these social forms are autopoietic – self-generating. Among their self- descriptions are shadowy representations both of the academic world and of the art-world - representations which look to neither for confirmation or sustenance. Though the resulting social formation - or set of formations - is historically and discursively made, what results is not an overtly quantified or declared "alternative space". (A: Alternative spaces were usually artist-run galleries and talking-shops that sought to replace or supplant the official sites and relations of art distribution.) C: For want of a better term, we might refer to Art & Language as a "dark space" - dark not because it is a world apart, but because it is unamenable to scrutiny by the very forms and institutions of which it is in various ways a partial isomorph or via negativa. With Liu in mind, we might call it a hacker’s space. What this means perhaps is that the resulting production – both the artwork and the written work – enters the circumstances of the public display and consumption opaquely, or in some sort of (dis)guise.
B: As we have said, Art & Language is not an "alternative space" in the conventionally understood sense, nor is it a self-help group or a barn-raising collective. The empirical truth that Art & Language’s work is done by two individuals professionally quantified as artists and a third quantified as an art historian does not account for the fact that the work is inserted into both art- world and academic milieus. It is rather the nature of the work that these agents produce that requires and holds open the possibility of activity in both modes. That we face the various quantifications concerned with a measure of distaste and discomfort is also attributable to the nature of the work.
A: In order to be uttered in the two domains, the work must be put together in the appropriate forms. These forms are guises which permit their institutional inclusion and transmission. That the forms themselves are guises does not, however, imply that they do not have to answer to strong public requirements of adequacy and of surface cultural competence. These are not casual disguises but forms in which the work must be prepared to live permanently, or from Art & Language’s perspective must permanently risk a certain failure. B: To give a rather meagre example, we have produced an apparently black and blank painting which actually contains a text denouncing a certain curatorial initiative; a framed text that accompanies the painting on the wall endorses the same initiative. It is a requirement of the relationship between the two texts that it should amount to a successful crank of the handle of a painting that itself travels in disguise, just as the crossing of the work in some guise or aspect into a published text must amount to a more or less successful and "normal" academic exposition. The requirement on the resulting form is that it be an instrumental value both for the type of the corporate institution displaying the work and for Art & Language.
C: From time to time we have described some of our work as "traps" – or as "traps for the unwary". This may serve as an adequate passing theory in the course of their devising, but it does not quite carry the sense of how the works operate in the world to which they may have been transmitted. They are better seen as deceptive things, whose discovery in the institutional context is, in one respect at least, always catastrophic.
A: On grounds such as these, then, we might indeed argue that we operate in the space of the hacker as conceived by Alan Liu. For the viewer who finds resistance to the institution, the hacking is always, in Carles Guerra’s sense, "incomplete". For such a viewer the task is one of redescribing in the index, as a contributor to some index of artistic practice, and as a contributor to the practice itself. This is potentially an additional but uncompletable task of hacking-in. Under the present dispensation, such an eventuality would amount to the tightening of aesthetic criteria, even as it expanded a critical discourse.