Nov 22, 2008

Art Research Reading Group at New Museum


I went to the inaugural meeting of the Art Research Reading Group at the New Museum on Thursday. The reading group is led by Sabrina Locks, and is part of the Museum as Hub program. Texts for the series are drawn from a published collection of essays: Artistic Research (Lier en Boog: Series of Philosophy of Art and Art Theory, vol. 18), eds. Annette W. Balkema and Henk Slager. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004.) Available online here.

While I was at Goldsmiths College, they renamed their woodshop the "Woodwork Research Laboratory." I asked a staff member how a woodshop is a research laboratory, and he explained that the rebranding was part of a broader effort to raise the college's research profile, in turn to help with fundraising. I wonder if "artistic research" is another kind of branding effort. More in a followup post...

I raised some of my concerns during the Art Research Reading Group, and was pleasantly surprised by the conversation that followed. One attendee (still getting names straight) suggested that art is being framed as "research" partly because aesthetic accounts for art no longer make sense. I agree with this. The implosion of Modernism and the collapse of the radical left created a vacuum. Art research can be seen as an alternative narrative to fill this vacuum, one that is not directly linked to aesthetics or critical theory, but which skirts the social practice / relational aesthetics debate.

Update: I just read this interview with Jörg Heiser, where he is asked "to what extent ... do debates on ‘artistic research’ count among the ‘things that matter’ in contemporary art?". Jörg replied:

It’s a little tricky. Research as such is not an achievement, and artists impersonating scientists, ethnologists or sociologists have to be careful not to a) underestimate the discourse in these respective fields they are tapping into, and b) keep in mind what they do their research for. Like one could get carried away with self-referential questions of the specificities of a medium – ‘New Media Art’ that becomes techy-nerdy in an unproductive, or even oppressive way; or abstract painting that becomes merely tautological and plainly dull – it is equally problematic to be absorbed by the mere aura, or political gravitas, of the material one encounters in the course of one’s research. You can see the effect of that in press releases that highlight that an artist explored this social context or did research on that obscure 1950s phenomenon, without bothering to argue whether the artist then managed to do anything productive with that artistically. If an artist did great research, say, on a case of corruption, why don’t they – to put it very bluntly – do a good reportage rather than a crappy installation, i.e. chose the appropriate context and method to communicate? A productive methodology would be then to remember what really mattered, which I think (in generalising terms) is to remember what art can bring to that research; a sense of form, of perceptive qualities, and conceptual reflection – which would be precisely its political stake in this.

To give a recent example: Duncan Campbell has made a fantastic film, Bernadette (2008), about Irish dissident Bernadette Devlin. The material he did four years of research on, ploughing through the archives of film stations around the world, is in itself fascinating. Devlin – who was the youngest Member of Parliament at Westminster at the age of 21 – was an amazingly self-confident and charismatic activist. One wonders immediately, however, what the artistic ‘surplus’ is in terms of the way he treated the material, as opposed to just feeding off its aura. In the end, Campbell succeeds because he refrains from the well-trodden ground of the conventional biopic, and – as one would expect of a good, auteur film essay for that matter – instead opts for surprising juxtapositions of uncommented material, amazing footage - like a journalist rehearsing the questions he wants to ask Devlin. It is, again, method and contextualization that make the difference, not just research as such relying on biography and medium.

This idea of artistic 'surplus' seems crucial here. Artistic research only makes sense if it is not about research, but about something in addition, the surplus, which transcends the research and offers new insights and perspectives. However, the term "surplus" may not be the best word for this other thing that is art. As we have seen in the economy, in difficult years the first thing that is cut is the surplus.

Nov 17, 2008

Cory Arcangel at New Museum


Here's the blurb:

According to the artist: “This performance is going to be about ‘Continuous Partial Awareness’—a phrase that was first described to me as meaning ‘you know, like, when you have three IM windows open, two e-mail in boxes dinging away, are texting five different people, and also have five tabs open on your browser, each with updated content.’ It is about paying attention to everything all the time, but not really concentrating on anything. It is different from multitasking, because with multitasking, one actually is expected to concentrate on tasks at some point, even if in small doses. ‘Continuous Partial Awareness’ is the eroded degenerate modern version of multitasking. I still don’t know how this performance will take shape, it might be a lecture, a music show, a broadcast, a chess game, etc., but what I do know is that the feeling of ‘non-concentration’ that has seeped into today’s life through our flat-screen displays and Wi-Fi will be its starting point." -- New Museum website

And here's what happened:

Cory gave a fast-paced lecture, fifty PowerPoint slides in 40 minutes. Each slide presented an idea. Most slides had pictures, many also contained video or audio snippets to explain the idea. Some ideas were things Cory had done, others he was thinking about. As he flicked through the slides quickly, he gave a running commentary, including jokes and stories.

Some sample ideas:

  • Make a music video that sets U2 to video images of the Berlin wall coming down
  • Create an art audio tour using time scaling so the narration goes really slowly
  • Give an lecture with a laptop whose battery is about to run out
  • Give an artists lecture using a voice box effect
  • Auto-tune a song so that it shifts pitch ever so slightly
  • Make a blog that collects posts with "sorry I haven't posted in a while" in 'em
  • Create a fake structuralist film
  • Create some pretentious CMYK prints
  • Make two computers email each other "Out of office" emails all day long

The last three are included in his current show at Team Gallery. (Cory said he would post the 50 ideas, I haven't found that link yet)

If my description sounds cavalier, I doubt Cory minds. His attitude these days is all shoot-from-the-hip. From his press release:

Arcangel states: "Imagine me buying some video equipment off of eBay, turning it on, pressing some random buttons, and then calling whatever comes out my 'work.' This mind-set is the spirit of "Adult Contemporary". In contrast to some of my older work, which exercised a somewhat subversive use of modern digital tools, the pieces in this show are inspired by the idea of using technology exactly as it was designed, although in a manner best described as "non-expert." What if the possibility of using a system poorly in an uneducated manner were celebrated? What if I, as an artist, attached my name to the aesthetics of different eras of technology without really bothering to do my homework or even reading the manual (so to speak)?"

I have no gripes with this. I enjoyed the talk immensely. Cory is an excellent presenter with a good sense of comic timing. Towards the end, Cory noted that the first question he usually gets is "How do I get away with this." When an audience member dutifully asked "how do you get away with this?" Cory replied "Look in the mirror, you are the ones letting me get away with this, you tell me."

Cory's humor, jokes and self-deprecation are a strength, a way to avoid falling into the trap of over-intellectualizing the work.

One thing puzzles me, however. When Cory talks about his art, it is all very lighthearted, jokes and puns and fun. But when you see the work at the Team Gallery show (see here for more images), the objects themselves are sincere, even austere.

Cory Arcangel, courtesy Team Gallery.

The two computers emailing each other "Out of office" emails are two Apple computers on separate desks, running Microsoft Entourage. The CMYK prints are serious looking prints in frames. The films are abstract and provoke a certain distance.

In other words, although Cory's presentations rely on affect and pop entertainment, his art objects do the opposite. They appear cool and conceptual. Where's the fun gone? The "wink wink" is not in the art, it happens outside.

Looking at his structuralist film, for example, Cory stated his intention was to make a fake structuralist film, almost as a joke. But did he end up making a structuralist film? The only way a viewer could know the difference is if she knew how it was made, if she had inside knowledge about the fact that the piece used digital technology to simulate a film effect.

So, my questions are - does it matter if the way an art practice is talked about and the way it appears are so different? And is it an effective strategy to create works that appear Modernist or Structuralist, but that differ only in intention?

One final observation. Cory relies heavily on pop culture in his work, which appeals because it is accessible to all. Yet understanding Cory's work requires a lot of arcane inside (often technical) knowledge about how the work is made and how that is significant - an elitist tactic. I think there is something in this clash between populism and elitism, I just haven't figured out what yet.

Government 2.0


Every street in Manhattan is watched by a dozen computerized surveillance cameras. Meanwhile, in a city not so far away, the president works in an office devoid of laptops, Blackberry's and iPhones. He relies on printed documents and verbal communications. The president has the power to avoid surveillance. But to do so he must also give up using Internet toys.

The abstinence of technology in the oval office may be about to change. Obama is reported to be quite fond of his Blackberry, and may look for ways to introduce a laptop to the Oval office.

The topic was recently raised on Slashdot, which asked its readers how to build a web 2.0 government?

InKubus gave one insightful response:

I would like to see some good version control. If you look at the congressional record, it's full of crap like "Strike out the sixth sentence of chapter 12, paragraph 348, replacing with: 'b. except where already addressed under USC 90.01.23'"

WTF? I would like something like Trac where you can click on ANY statement in the US Code and see instantly:

  • What changes have been made, over time
  • Who sponsored the changes
  • Who voted for, against, present
  • Links to related code, as needed
  • Public opinion related to the law
  • Press releases by public offices/personel about the law

All with a nice Google timeline kindof interface.

Version control is one of the secret sauces of the software industry. It tracks every change to a codebase, and lets programmers see who made which changes, and to easily compare different versions of a document.

So far, very few people outside the code world have heard of tools like SVN, a powerful version control application. I agree with InKubus that adopting such a tool in congress would be a major shift in governance, and one I would welcome. Obama, you said you would bring change. How about tools to track those changes too?

Nov 9, 2008

A few days back I found myself wishing Obama would apply the grassroots techniques he adopted so successfully in his campaign to the office of the Whitehouse.

Now, with the release of, Obama has made it clear he intends to do this. That is exciting.

I was struck by how has a notice at the bottom indicating it is a "501C(4) Organization." The office of President Elect is a non-profit? In that case, shouldn't that be ""? How can a branch of the government declare itself tax exempt? Aren't they the folks that collect the taxes?

It reminded me of something I saw earlier this summer:

Why do the Marines use a ".com" suffix? They get the ".gov" suffix, but the office of the president elect could?