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ISSUE 1 FALL 2008 CITIZENS
Publisher Impulse Society For Cultural Presentations Editor in Chief James Gunn Executive Editor Ben Prus
ART 4 24 28 55 68 70 83 4,5,6 Micah Lexier Multiples Derek Sullivan Post-Postproduction Ben Prus Saddleweb Rirkrit Tiravanija Keyhole Guy Maddin Beauty at a Proper Distance: In Song Suzy Lake Honesty is the Best Policy Terence Koh
Part 1 Start: to begin; to position; to adjust; to change; to modify; to posit; to place (as a bet); to venture: to walk (or hobble) toward the white-haired heads of congregation/ with the hope of un-embarrassment/ with an embarrassment of riches tucked inside lint-lined pockets/ with a nagging hunger, clutching hidden snacks, pitted against etiquette/ with the mass of creation/ with the will to deliver something new. Part 2 A Chorus— in an age of arduous grave-digging contrasted by a tireless reinvention of budding stalk— Possible Titles for the Beginning: 1. The Big Drip 2. Particles: Maybe? 3. One Long Knife Scrapes the Plates of Royalty 4. My Pink Shoulder 5. Rain Wasn’t Known Yet, But If It Were There’d Be Sheets of-6. Been So Long: The Frightening Story of a Shoe Untied 7. From Now On: An Anthology of Taste 8. In a Room, Over a Garage: When & Where, Then and There 9. Is This Seriously the View They Were Talking About? 10. Try Me 11. Leaking Cartons and the Birth of a Culture 12. Triangles Made by Squares Formed by Circles Designed by Lines Fixed by Points in Need of Community, Seeking Light Outside the Void.
Advising Editor Eldon Garnet Contributing Editors Tyler Kowalchuk Catherine Miller Julie Robinette Operations Nadia Alam Sarah Zaft Design Milan White-Garnet Web Design Kevin Chia Acknowledgments One Hour Empire would like to thank the following for their generous support: Sara Diamond - President of OCAD University, The University of Ottawa Visual Arts Department, Edward Burtynsky, Ananda Shankar Chakrabarty, Andrea Fontana, Sue Lloyd, Amish Morrell, Noel Harding, Ian Carr-Harris, Suzy Lake, Micah Lexier, Nick & Sheila Pye, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Mysterion: Dr. of Mentalism, Skin Tight Outta Sight Rebel Burlesque, Goodhandy’s Toronto and all our writers and artists.
INTERVIEWS 8 12 84 Sheila Heti & The Art Fag Karim Rashid The Piracy of Art Mark Kingwell & Sylvère Lotringer
ESSAYS 16 40 72 78 The Social Impresario Citizens of Iraq, Portraits of Exile Sonic Intimidation: Santiago Sierra “For Internal Use Only” Canadian Accents & Affirmative Action in Art History
FICTION 58 Hotel Theory | Hotel Women
One Hour Empire [ISSN: 1918-2074] ISSUE 1 FALL 2008. Copyright is shared equally between the authors and the publishers. Contents may not be reprinted without permission. 86 Nassau Street, Toronto, Ontario, M5T 1M5 www.onehourempire.com Subscription inquiries: email@example.com
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Front Cover: Suzanne Opton, Citizen: Ghada, 2007 Back Cover: Suzanne Opton, Soldier: Jimenez, 2005 Photographs courtesy of the artist.
The Artfag is the enfant maudit of Toronto art criticism (although, in Toronto, everyone loves an enfant maudit). He is the Masked Avenger in pink sunglasses and an Hermes scarf. He is the sole author of ARTFAG: A Cahier of Criticism and Witticism, an independently “published” and “distributed” ‘zine and a charming little website (www. artfag.ca). He much prefers writing in the first person plural than the third person. Mark Cheetham is a professor of visual
arts at the University of Toronto. He has written books and articles on abstract art, the reception of Immanuel Kant’s thinking in the visual arts and the discipline of art history, on art historical methodology and on recent Canadian and international art.
Eldon Garnet is an artist and writer based
in Toronto. He exhibits his photographic and sculptural work internationally. He was the editor of IMPULSE, an international magazine of art, ideas and fashion. His most recent novel is Lost Between the Edges published by Semiotext(e), MIT, New York.
Terence Koh works in numerous media
producing handmade books and zines, prints, photographs, sculptures, performances, and installations. His art uses queer, punk and pornographic themes. Koh is represented by Javier Peres of Peres Projects Gallery in Los Angeles, California and Berlin, Germany. He participated in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2007.
Micah Lexier is a conceptual artist living and working in Toronto. Lexier has built an international reputation working in a variety of media including sculpture, photography, drawing, printmaking, and installation work. Interested in expressions of time passing and age, Lexier’s work is often numerical in its themes. Sylvère Lotringer is professor of French literature and philosophy at Columbia University and general editor of Semiotext(e). He frequently lectures on art. His recent publications include Chaosophy, New Edition: Texts and Interviews 1972–1977 (editor) and Pure War (coauthor with Paul Virilio). Guy Maddin is a screenwriter and
director of both features and short films. His most distinctive quality is his fondness for recreating the look and style of silent and early sound era films. In 2007, Maddin became the first artist-curator of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Also in 2007, Maddin’s film My Winnipeg won the Best Canadian Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Suzanne Opton is a portrait photographer
based in New York. Opton’s work has been exhibited worldwide and has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine. She is the recipient of grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Vermont Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Matthias Herrmann was born in Munich,
Germany in 1963. He currently lives and works in Vienna, Austria. Herrmann’s unabashed photography blurs the boundaries between subject and photographer, art and porn.
Wayne Koestenbaum is a professor of
English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Koestenbaum is an art critic and writes frequently for numerous publications. In Hotel Theory, a critical discussion of the meaning of hotel life, and the aesthetic implications of such isolation, runs concurrently with a fictionalized account of a hotel encounter between Liberace and Lana Turner.
Ben Prus is an artist/writer and executive
editor of One Hour Empire. His book/ performance, Post Postproducion, is a material specific textual critique of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Postproduction.
Derek Sullivan uses drawing and sculpture, in addition to producing various ephemeral conceptual projects, to explore an interest in reinterpreting familiar forms as new areas of inquiry. Sullivans’s work was featured in The News at Five at the 2004 Toronto International Art Fair and most recently in the international exhibition Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening at the Power Plant, Toronto (2005). He recently completed projects for the Art Gallery of York University and Optica in 2007. Team Macho is a collaborative illustration
and fine art effort composed of Lauchie Reid, Chris Buchan, Nicholas Aoki, Jacob Whibley, and Stephen Appleby-Barr. They currently occupy a large studio in Toronto, Canada where their joint efforts are divided equally between illustrating for very fine clients and preparing gross quantities of highly imaginative artwork for galleries in Canada and abroad.
Sheila Heti was born in Toronto. She
studied playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal, and philosophy and art history at the University of Toronto. She is the author of the story collection The Middle Stories and the novel Ticknor. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire and Brick. Heti is also the creator of the Trampoline Hall lecture series, at which people speak on subjects outside their areas of expertise.
Jim Drobnick is a critic, curator, and
Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at the Ontario College of Art and Design. His recent publications include the anthologies Aural Cultures (2004) and The Smell Culture Reader (2006), as well as catalogue essays for Aernout Mik, Su-Mei Tse and Carolee Schneemann. He co-founded the curatorial collaborative DisplayCult, which has organized CounterPoses and Museopathy among other exhibitions.
Tyler Kowalchuk is a contributing editor
to One Hour Empire.
Karim Rashid is a leading figure in the fields of product, interior, fashion, furniture, lighting design and art. Rashid was an associate Professor of Industrial Design for 10 years and is now a frequent guest lecturer at universities and conferences globally. Vanessa Reiger is a graduate from the
Ontario College of Art and Design. Become a Neighbourhood Watcher is part of her ongoing exploration on the sociodynamics of neighbourhoods.
Suzy Lake is known for her large-scale
photography dealing with the body as both subject and device. Lake’s work continues to use references to the body as a means to investigate notions of beauty in the context of pop and consumer culture. She has a long exhibition career in Canada, and has also shown her work in Europe, the United States, South America and Asia. Lake is represented by Paul Petro Contemporary Art (Toronto).
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy
at the University of Toronto and a Senior Fellow of Massey College. He specializes in theories of politics and culture. He is the author of numerous books including Nearest Thing To Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams (2006) and Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City (2008).
Darren O’Donnell is a novelist, essayist,
playwright, director, designer, performer and artistic director of Mammalian Diving Reflex. His latest book Social Acupuncture, A Guide to Suicide Performance and Utopia was published in spring 2006 and prompted the Globe and Mail to declare, “O’Donnell writes like a sugaraddled genius at 300k/h.”
Rirkrit Tiravanija in his practice explores the social role of the artist. His internationally exhibited installations often take the form of stages or rooms for sharing meals, cooking, reading, and playing music. Tiravanija is represented by the Gavin Brown Gallery in New York.
Andrea D. Fitzpatrick is assistant professor, history and theory of art, at the University of Ottawa. Research interests include the aesthetics, ethics, and politics of contemporary lens-based art. Current publications involve Andres Serrano’s The Morgue series (in RACAR, Vol. 33, 2008), and a memorial portrait by AA Bronson with Jorge Zontal (in the ‘death issue’ of BlackFlash, October, 2008).
SHEILA HETI & THE ARTFAG
The Artfag: Darling, you have an exquisite knack for phrasing a question; a veritable minefield of tacit snares and booby traps lingering under the dark brush of implication. We are thrilled, and shall do our level little-girl best to hopscotch our way through. Onward! Sheila Heti: Why isn’t Toronto the greatest place for art in the world? The opening gambit, phrased in the negative, like a neat shot of scotch! In fact, Toronto is better than most places for art in the world, a banal qualifier, to be sure, but necessary nonetheless. Let us fence no further; we shall down your shot of scotch in one go: Toronto isn’t the greatest place for art in the world because it’s in Canada, thus hampered by geography and crippled by a colonial cultural persona content with cautious advancement. Is there a city that the artfag would be happiest in? A curious query, darling, as it implies that we are not as happy in Toronto as we could be. Au contraire, we enjoy ourselves tremendously here. In many ways, this city suits our endeavour to a “T”. The Toronto art scene is a strange beast, by far too happy with itself. It is not that it lacks a sense of boosterism, but rather, its sense of ambition extends no further than Lakeshore drive; on rare occasions, it makes a spasmodic stretch to Buffalo. As such, it is of perfect size and temperament for an individual such as ourselves to take to task. We could not perform our task in a city like New York, say, for the simple reason that its ambition is imperial, and its means are likewise. To be sure, New York engages in the same follies and is host to the same heights of obtuseness as anywhere and everywhere else; but when the New York art scene declares that it is the centre of the universe, it is because, on some level, it truly is; its sense of contentment is not only historically earned, but is also (and more importantly) tempered by a restless and promiscuous appetite for novelty. Not so in Toronto. Toronto’s recent attempts to nestle in its own contentment, at the Power Plant, and then at MoCCA were marred by bluster, and what is worse, provincialism. We are needed in Toronto, darling, as a corrective to its poorly conceived self-congratulation. And thus, we are happiest where we can be the most effective.
Do you write about art in order to have an effect on the art that is being made, or something else? No, we do not write about art in order to effect its production. We are a critic, not a propagandist. We write about art because no one else in this city is currently doing so to our satisfaction. We write about art because we love art, really and truly, and believe in its intrinsic value. Lord knows we don’t write about art for the money. And can art criticism make any difference? If so, what and to whom? We doubt it, and it shouldn’t. If its effectiveness lies anywhere, it is not with the artists, but with the public. There was a recent article that polled American art critics (of the daily paper variety), the results of which were that most believed that art criticism is meant to educate the general public about and foster appreciation for art. This is a half-truth, dangerous for what it omits. In fact, criticism (like art) should never be designed for consumption by the general public. Criticism is for a specialized public, for those who care. And criticism should indeed educate and foster, but not in the museum-docent sense laid out in this poll. Criticism should educate its public as to how to look at art, and in turn, what to demand of it.
Images by Team Macho
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Does the Artfag ever intend to make any work of his own? Darling, our little endeavour is work enough, and we can’t even manage to produce that on a regular basis. What would be the artistic discipline most suited to the Artfag? Hmmm…performance perhaps, à la Andrea Fraser? Sound work, à la early Janet Cardiff? In a few sentences, can you outline the Artfag’s idea of what things are good and worth doing (artwise) and what things are not? Well, darling, anything is worth doing, art-wise. Why do people keep doing those things which are not -- according to the Artfag -- good and worth doing? Again, your knack of phrasing a question continues to delight. Your line of inquiry implies an equation of failure with lack of worth. We can think of almost nothing that isn’t worth doing; we can think of very many things that fail, and fail utterly. And there is little difference between one kind of failure or another. We hear a great many people pour forth on how failing excessively is better than a simple failure, for, one assumes, an excessive failure demonstrates ambition. This is a homily, poorer than most; and like most homilies, it is tedious, empty wordplay designed to highlight the epigrammatic cleverness of the speaker. Certainly, excessive failures are more amusing to behold, but any endeavour is motivated by ambition, and thus, any endeavour is worth the undertaking. And this is why people keep producing despite continued failure: ambition. In fact, the redemption of a failure lies not in its type or degree, it lies in whether or not the failure acts as a deterrent to its producer. If one’s ambition is unseated by failure, then, and only then, has one been spending one’s time doing something not worth doing. Does writing criticism make the Artfag happy or more despairing? Happy darling. Always happy.
What makes fags better at writing and thinking about art than macho straight men? Ah well, there’s a question, to which we must add a qualifier: fags as opposed to gays – the gays aren’t very good for anything. But, in answer: a lifetime’s predilection for the realm of the aesthetic, perhaps? An affinity for the still and the probative after a youth spent avoiding physical education, with its attendant cannonade of hurtling spheres? The promise of spiritually elevating nudity? What is the most beautiful thing in the world? A sense of discernment, properly exercised.
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Julie Robinette: How are you, as a designer, able to communicate with a broad spectrum of people? Karim Rashid: First of all, design is a faction of mass commodity. So we have to engage the broader audience. It’s a given. Design is not art. JR: What do you think are the key elements for designing for everyone? Well, I think it is twofold. I think a designer has to have individual expression, but at the same time address a very large audience. So there’s a kind of balance that one has to think about. That balance is critical in a way because if you provide too much of a service you lose your identity, your position and your individual stamp. Vice-versa, if your stamp is too individual, and not tinted enough for a broader audience, than you start to lose your audience and become more of an artist. For me, I kind of walk that thin line because a lot of the time I think I should actually be an artist, but I’m working in the world of mass-production. So, I have to realize that I can only go so far on the pendulum. JR: What tools are needed for a designer to reach a mass audience? The biggest tool is communication, to be able to talk to people and explain your idea. You have to talk to your people. Talk to your client. It’s amazing how many artists would say ‘well the work speaks for its self.’ The reason is because they don’t want to talk about their work. As a designer you have to be able to talk about your work. If you can talk about your work then you can convince others what may be appropriate or right. Catherine Miller: Picasso never ‘defined’ his work but still managed to build a place for himself, he’s connected to our ideas of modernity. Yeah, it’s a good thing that you say Picasso because when I talk about pluralism in the world I always talk about people like Rodchenko, Le Corbusier, but my father’s favorite was Picasso. CM: Is your father an artist? He’s a painter.
CM: Oh really? Yeah, he loves Picasso, but he always hated him too because he thought that Picasso did everything. Picasso would beat him to everything. Like when my father was working on something, Picasso would already be there. As a child I never saw more Picasso books in my life. So, he had a great influence on me. And the reality is the guy was a very brilliant man because he evolved and changed contextually, and didn’t allow himself to get pulled back by periods or by history. He just kept moving and moving. I mean there are two types of artists in a way. There’s the Picasso type that is someone who’s always changing, and then there are the artists who find one program or one idea and stick with it all their lives. Like Richard Serra or Mark Rothko who had a pattern all the way. I don’t think that one way is better than the other, but I’m kind of the other one. I’m totally impatient and completely dissatisfied and need to constantly experiment. CM: This connects, kind of, to the idea of innovation and the constant demand for it. Well it comes from the platform of where you are now. If you’re really hypersensitive to where you are in this moment you’ll probably be innovative. CM: People have a demand for what is next. Artists and designers are always trying to create something new. I don’t think so. I think that the world is on auto-snooze. I wish that everybody were creating newness. CM: Right now designers have to be environmentalists as well. It is very trendy. You know what’s funny, in 1978 I went into my undergraduate and the first book that we had to read was Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek, which is totally about the state of the ecology. The late 1970’s was all about that. It’s like there’s nothing different. We’re almost talking about the same thing here. The sad thing about the earth, about humanity, is that we’ll be talking about this for a long time.
Celebrity-designer and brazen self-promoter Karim Rashid was in Toronto on November 9th, 2007 giving a lecture at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Catherine Miller and Julie Robinette met him during an afterparty at some exclusive club to launch Rashid’s lusciously pink Clicquot loveseat. Before finagling an interview they had managed to finagle a fair amount of champagne…
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JR: Would you say that you as a designer work from one place with a set manifest? I don’t know. That’s for you to answer, that’s a tough question. I believe in what I do. I’m very rigorous and very disciplined in what I do. I’m a workaholic and I stand now 25 years in this profession, so with all that said of course I have developed a lot of theories and ideas and a kind of philosophy to what I do. But this has all come about in the last two years. You know I remember that my father said when he was 47 he stopped going to museums and galleries, and looking at other artists work. He felt like he had spent his whole life doing that and it was enough. Now he has to concentrate on himself. And 2 years ago I stopped looking at design magazines and stopped looking at design shows and I just decided that I had to concentrate on what I do. If I feel as though I’ve learnt enough, then it’s time for me to do, not to observe anymore. JR: As a designer, you have a certain responsibility. You have a Coca-Cola project coming up. What do you think that responsibility is? I think it’s a whole chain. In fact, the sad part about big business is that they make the consumer feel like the responsible one. We’re all worried about recycling and using the same bag all over again, and we take on the burden that they should be taking on. This is a big mistake because we all walk around feeling guilty, when actually all these massive companies are the ones that should be feeling guilty. With that said, I work with all the companies of the world and I know that they’re becoming more responsible. Things do change.
CM: When did you notice the shift? In maybe the last 9 or 10 yrs. A lot of companies are changing much more than we want to believe or think. For example, in 2010 GM is going to have a hybrid car. Nissan will have one in 2011. So, with everyone talking about how the automotive industry is in bed with the oil industry… it’s not true at all. JR: Is there a strong consumer market for that yet? There is a market for everything. We are informed. We know what’s going on. We are beyond the manufacturers. The problem with the world is not politics; it’s with the consumers. If we all decide tomorrow to stop buying crap then things would change. All I know is that the expression ‘You Can Change the World’ has proliferated like crazy ever since I put the book out. Bruce Mau copied it. CM: I consider this comodified compassion. I think it’s antsy, and not our responsibility. It’s the brand’s responsibility to know where things are going. What is the real impact? Where are the results? It’s hard to know. It’s a vague entity, like UNICEF. I read that with every dollar given to UNICEF only three to four cents gets to anyone. I don’t think it’s corrupt. I just think that the entity has become so bureaucratic that the results are not as clear.
...design is a faction of mass commodity. So we have to engage the broader audience. It’s a given. Design is not art.
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THE SOCIAL IMPRESARIO
IKE SO MANY OF US IN THE CULTURE INDUSTRIES, I am pulled by two seemingly conflicted concerns: I want my work to be politically engaged, ameliorating aspects of this horrible world and making it a better place, but, on the other hand, I want to be rich and famous, an ALister with tons of power, glory and influence. Initially, my method was to oscillate neurotically between these two poles, trying to nurture one while obliterating the other. Then there was the more successful attempt at synthesizing them to produce art in response to the problems in the world, in a have-cake-eat-too strategy. This was pretty good, it worked for a while and it won me points in the local entertainment weeklies. There was a big temptation to stop at that point, resting on the belief that working with political content is the same as political engagement, perhaps some of the insights of contemporary physics having convinced me that witnessing is doing. And, maybe in some cases it is but, for the most part, it’s not. So rather than trying to overlap these two concerns by creating responses, I’ve decided to conflate the two to create interactions. My own understanding of my identity within this undergoes a shift by accept my dueling desires, I don two masks at once: the social worker and the opera impresario leaving to a new figure: the Social Impresario, an individual who shamelessly, flamboyantly and aggressively promotes socially ameliorative acts for the expressed purpose of making MY world a better place. But, if done ethically, the selfishness of this actually leads to more honest and effective results.
Case Study: The Floating Curator In my own practice this has yielded a series of events that I term social acupuncture, small interventions that attempt to disrupt or redirect social flows. With much of my work in this realm, it’s important to note that small, intimate projects possessing aspects of my intentions serve as the basis for larger-scale events that bring the ideas more fully into fruition and, in turn, feedback into further experimentation. Components are tested in isolation, with full appreciation of the incompleteness of the event. While this might sound like I’m apologizing for the shortcomings – and I am a bit – it’s important to understand the event as part of a group of events and always as research for other events. You don’t design a car and a stereo at the same time but when they’re combined you’ve got a nice set of wheels. I also want to point out that I create this work with the confidence that not only does artistic meaning occur during the actual event but that, because of the conceptual simplicity, the event easily continues in conversation and in my documentation and analysis. In other words, I consider this article as part of the performance too, and without it, the work loses a crucial dimension. This would be the concern of the press-obsessed impresario. The Floating Curator brings together the social worker and the impresario by creating a highly charged event where social fortification is combined with conceptual aggression and flamboyance in one of the smallest, intimate and most socially charged dynamics: communication and friendship between a stranger and a child. The Floating Curator was undertaken for curator Christine Shaw’s Public Acts project, which assigned the themes of the 29 issues of the cultural theory quarterly Public Access to artists across Canada. In the summer of 2006, Shaw traveled the Trans Canada highway to document these twenty-nine public acts. (http://www.publicacts.ca/). I was assigned Public Act 21 (http://www.publicacts.ca/act21/), Childhood, and in an act of childish mischief, I designed a project that placed the onus squarely on Christine, using her as the subject of a social experiment.
Capitalizing on the desire to be remembered for as long as it takes wood to rot
Text by Darren O’Donnell Images by Vanessa Reiger
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2. The Curator shall not be accompanied by any friends or associates and will only bring a towel and sunscreen onto the pool deck. All reading material is forbidden. 3. The Curator shall spend as much time in the shallow end of the pool as is comfortable. 4. Wrinkling fingers shall not constitute discomfort but shivering shall. 5. The Curator shall initiate a) extended conversations with the children playing in the pool, b) convince them to take her photo, c) spend some time outside the pool with at least one child first met at the pool and who is of a different race than The Curator and c) attempt to be photographed with said child. Each of these activities is assigned a percentage value. (See 14.) 6. An extended conversation shall be defined as an exchange lasting more than one minute and in which the child asks The Curator at least one question. 7. The Curator shall keep track of her daily and accumulative totals and submit a daily email or phone report to The Artist. 8. In the daily report The Curator shall inform The Artist as to when on the following day she shall be at the pool. 9. The Artist shall make occasional and unannounced checks to confirm that The Curator is at the pool during the stated times. In the event the Curator is absent the contract is void. (See 11.) The concept was simple: I drafted an airtight contract that required Christine spend an hour-and-a-half per day, for five days in August, floating in the shallow end of the Alexandra Park outdoor pool, approaching children and becoming their friends. Marks were assigned for – among other things – participation, convincing the kids to take her photo, time spent with the children outside the confines of the pool area and connecting with kids of different races. If Christine did not achieve a mark of 50% or more, she had to remove all traces of the project from her website and accompanying material and, when referencing the 21st Public Act, she had to declare: “Children do not exist.” The Contract 10. The Curator shall score at least 50% or more. The Floating Curator is an artistic contract between Christine Shaw (hereafter referred to as The Curator) and Darren O’Donnell (Hereafter referred to as The Artist). 1. Over the course of August 3, 2006 – August 7, 2006, The Curator shall spend 1.5 hours per day (5 days) floating in the shallow end of the Alexandra Park outdoor pool located at Bathurst and Dundas, Toronto, ON. 11. In the event The Curator scores less than 50% the contract shall be considered void and The Curator shall be forbidden to speak, document or refer to the contract/ project/Artist with respect to the contract/project in any way and must erase all traces of the contract/project/Artist from any previously written material concerning the contract/project including any blog, proposals, suggestions or any other material pertaining to The Curator’s Public Acts project.
12. In the event The Curator scores less than 50% The Curator shall write “Public 29: Childhood. Children do not exist” in any and all instances where the details of The Curator’s Public Acts project is mentioned when those details necessitate the inclusion of the 29th Public Act. 13. In the event The Curator is successful The Curator shall have the right to document the contract/project in a manner that is acceptable to The Artist. The Artist shall not unreasonably withhold consent. 14. The Curator shall give copies of all documentation to The Artist. 15. Whatever The Curator scores, The Artist reserves all rights to the contract/project and may document and/ or reference it in any way, in any media throughout the universe and in perpetuity. 16. The activities and their value: Activity Value Daily % Total%
1.5 hours of floating per day. An extended conversation with a child a day for 5 days A daily email or phone call to The Artist for 5 days A photo of The Curator at the pool taken by a child. Out-of-pool social time with a child first met at the pool
Photo of The Curator with the child outside the pool The child is a different race than The Curator Total =
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Needless to say, Christine was angry and nervous about being perceived as a pervert. I sympathized but felt that, at worst, they would think she was a batty lady and, in the event they did vilify her…. well, what can I say, art is risky and there’s nothing romantic about taking a risk.
the shroud of “art” is draped over the activity, it becomes the easiest thing in the world. What is art, then, that it can so easily yet so radically change the terms of social engagement? The first thing the social impresario needs to examine is where the project sits along the continuum stretching between the two prevailing imperatives that culture is currently being subjected to. First, there’s the move by the state to put culture in service of the community, thereby forcing artists to fix social problems by engaging youth and other under-serviced communities. (In Ontario, funding to arts programs in education has been cut at the same time as arts organizations are required to include a youth component in their work. A crafty move – artists are cheaper than teachers – we’re accustomed to working without benefits, for next to nothing.) Second, artists are being asked provide content and activities to keep the information-age rolling in large-scale spectacular art events like Toronto’s Nuit Blanche and the whole Live with Culture campaign. So we see the artist being deployed as cheap glue for the social fabric and cheap grease for wheels of the economy. The need to conflate these two is what the social impresario attempts, looking to bring the community into the realm of the spectacular and vice versa. Public Acts was a national event, involving over 30 artists from Victoria to Halifax and included public works that were intended for wide participation and more intimate events. With The Floating Curator, intimacy was pushed to the limits, the social aspect of the agenda taking precedence over the impresorial except with the conception itself, which was relatively obnoxious and flamboyant. This is where I locate the showmanship of the work: in the very idea of pinning someone down and demanding that – in order to retain the project – little kids would have to be approached in the pool. But once we get over the irrational stranger-danger, all we’ve got left is an earnest attempt to make the social sphere a more generous place. The Social Impresario is concerned with diversity for the same reason that everyone is concerned with diversity: fairness. However, that’s just the social side of the equation, the impresario also understands that it makes good business sense to involve and attract a diversity of participants. But cold hard capital is only one consideration; the impresario also appreciates the social, cultural and emotional capital that is generated in creating diverse
If you could have peered into my apartment the weekend you emailed me The Contract you would have seen me pass through a whole range of affective tonalities: anger, fear, sadness, tenacity, resilience, joy, will, determination. I think I might even been heard muttering “Bring it on, Darren.” Needless to say, you and this contract got under my skin. I was immediately aware of the potential risks and receptions involved as soon as I received the contract that night back in June: perversion, repulsion, anxiety, alienation, social fatigue, insecurity, vulnerability…1
I was impressed with Christine’s strategy – she simply went up to the staff at the pool and explained the whole project. Even when approaching the kids she, again, thoroughly outlined the premise. I thought this was the best and certainly most respectful approach, assuming a sophisticated understanding on the part of the kids. On the second day she met Elise, an 11-year-old who lived near the pool and spent nearly every day there. They hit it off and I joined them, the three of us spending portions of the rest of the week as an ad hoc family, chilling together outside the pool, going for dinner, playing in the park and spending time with her parents. The only consistent contact kids have with the world outside the institutions of family and school are almost exclusively with the consumerist world of corporate visual culture: films, the internet, television, pop music. The Floating Curator invokes the notion of the uselessness of art, of art as completely devoid of any instrumentalism and, in so doing, was able to sneak past one of the most rigid social prohibitions: children talking to strangers. Like a magic cloak of invisibility, the diaphanous shroud of art can be cunningly instrumentalized, turned against the culture’s dominant economic imperative. By contemporary social codes, the situation we created is atypical, yet when
introduce stability and normalcy and, rather than disrupting social flows, helps others to swim along more comfortably with the prevailing current. Not always, of course, but even when working with clients for whom conforming would mean death, there’s still a disavowal of antagonism. The impresario, on the other hand, knows that antagonism sells, but not just any antagonism, fruitful ones where friction and tension are triggered and the ensuing dynamic examined in a performative arena and under the gossamer shroud of Art, where all is easily forgiven. The impresario, being the ever-alert opportunist, looks for ways to maximize antagonism, turning to accepted hierarchies as a way in. In this, the two figures find agreement, with the social worker, too, struggling against the effects of hierarchies. In the Floating Curator we have the fruitful antagonism of the nice curator approaching children in the pool combined with the nervousness and weakness she feels, where, ultimately, the kids have the power to blow the whistle on this aberrant behavior.
2:22pm – The Curator sees that the boy has finally settled into the pool and is having fun with his father. She approaches them to introduce herself. The boy’s name is Ryan. The Curator tells the father about the Floating Curator Contract. He is at first guarded because he thought The Curator meant she wanted to take pictures of his little boy. She clarifies, “No, I want him to take pictures of me!” He likes the idea but defers to his wife, “You need to ask her. She is very sensitive about this sort of thing.” 2:29pm – The Curator…shows the father how to use her camera thinking he might want to explain it to Ryan. Ryan grabs the camera from The Curator with his tiny hand and immediately shoves it in the Curator’s face, toggling the zoom and clicking the shutter. The Curator is stunned: “He knows how to use it!” She laughs, in amazement. His tiny hands clasp the camera as it dangles over the water. The Curator is a bit nervous and controls her impulse to suggest that Ryan move away from the water. The camera is about 6 inches away from her face. The father, The Curator and Ryan hover at the pool edge while Ryan shoots many, many pictures of the Curator”2
networks, the possibilities that are created by encounters with difference. This, the impresario undertakes strictly to make himself a better person, in a proudly self-serving gesture. Including diversity in the contract with Christine was intended to make the world a better place, Christine a better person, but also to enrich my social circles – the impermissibility (for obvious reasons) of me playing with the kids at my favourite outdoor pool a yearly source of summertime frustration and sadness. The impresario, then, relies on atypicalness, of generating unusual and flamboyantly charged encounters that produce new and meaningful contexts, questioning current social flows and throwing things into as much turmoil as possible. This, in contrast to the social worker who tries to
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Social assumptions were materially addressed in the doing of this project. The pool staff who were approached by Christine, the parents who fielded her requests to play with their children and the children themselves had to face common (and in my mind incorrect and damaging) assumptions about the safety of the social sphere. A realistic assessment of the risk to kids reveals not so surprising facts:
occurring in private. The Social Worker, however, wins this round, trumping the impresario with the fact that – in the long run – the public realm is the place where all the power is located. This is an act of faith; not the impresario’s strong suit. On the other hand the public field does provide the opportunity to engage and entice additional participants, providing an opportunity for wider involvement in the project. In the case of the Floating Curator, the children who were approached got involved, contributing insights.
Criteria to determine Beautiful Civic Engagement 1. Gluing the Grease and Greasing the Glue: conflating the imperative to grease the wheels of commerce with the imperative to glue the social fabric; in other words, hauling the community into the commercial and the commercial into the community to spread, or equalize, power. 2. Diversity: age, race, sexual orientation, religion, occupation, etc. 3. Atypical Encounter: people doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, or would ordinarily do but in an unordinary context with people they wouldn’t ordinarily do it with. 4. Inversion of Hierarchies: those who normally have the power give it up, or participate in service to other less powerful participants. 5. Offering Agency: creating a context that provides agency to those who would not ordinarily have it. 6. Questioning Social Assumptions, Imperatives: creating a context where taboos are challenged by actions that reveal the taboo to be based in social control. 7. Atypical use of public and public/private space: playing where we’re supposed to work and working where we’re supposed to play. 8. Fruitful Antagonisms: triggering friction, tension, and examining the ensuing dynamic in a performative arena where all is easily forgiven. 9. Volunteer Ownership: providing opportunities for volunteers to participate to foster a wider sense of ownership. Examples. 10. Blurring of Roles: passersby become observers; observers become participants; participants become collaborators and volunteers become creators. 11. Generating Buzz: where the media is on par with other aspects of the project; the media as collaborators— slippery collaborators—but collaborators, nonetheless.
A full account of the Floating Curator can be found on Christine’s blog: www.publicacts.ca/act21 Notes: 1. Christine Shaw, “You Think This is Easy?” (http://www. publicacts.ca/act21/) 2. Christine Shaw, The Floating Curator, Daily report #3, (http://www.publicacts.ca/act21/) 3. James R. Kincaid, “Little Miss Sunshine: America’s Obsession with JonBenet Ramsey,” slate.com, August 2006 http://www.slate.com/id/2148089/) 4. Christine Shaw, The Floating Curator, Daily report #1, (http://www.publicacts.ca/act21/)
Five hundred thousand kids every year are classified as “throwaways” (children whose parents or guardians will not let them live at home, as distinguished from “runaways”). As many as 800,000 are beaten horribly. Even more are subject to emotional abuse and neglect. How much attention do they get? Instead, we focus our attention, almost all of it, on strangerdanger: things like abductions, of which there are between 100 and 200 annually. Our carefully controlled outrage is generated for our own purposes, certainly not to protect the children.3
3:20 – The 2 people swim towards The Curator. The Curator asks, “Are you kids? Do you think of yourselves as kids?” They laugh. The female replies, “I’m not a kid.” The male replies, “I’m a kid. I don’t have to pay rent yet!” 3:25 – Together they begin to talk about the concept of “youth,” what constitutes being a kid and how it is an abstract concept. Donna (16 yrs of age) refuses to be thought of as a kid and reiterates once again that she is not a kid, without explanation. Tyson (15 yrs of age) tosses out a range of different examples that trouble the concept of childhood and youth. They all laugh together4
The Social Impresario provokes a performance in which social assumptions are turned on their head so that everybody is confronted by the visceral and undeniable fact that the assumptions are baseless. Christine and I became friends with Elise, and spent time with her parents and family friends outside the pool, creating a new social dynamic that had much in common with the notion of the past as a place when things were simpler, kids were free to roam and pervert didn’t exist. Well, they did exist but no more than they do now, the fetish for safety more a disguise for social control than any mechanism to protect the children.
The Social Impresario uses the social sphere as the venue for activity, trying to bring the spectacular out of the realm of privatized entertainment and into the public, but always – as dictated by the social side of the duality – with ameliorative effects in mind, contaminating the grease with the glue. Situating the activity in public proves a challenge to the impresario, who knows that cache is developed by increasing demand by decreasing access – to a point – and that public transactions are harder to meter than those
The Social Impresario, then, is keen on generating beauty and amazement, wanting to dazzle, but seeking the civic sphere as the challenging arena for these encounters, anxious to make the world a better place while still providing the requisite thrills, spills and chills. I adopt this identity as an experiment, developing and testing criteria, wanting, ultimately, my neighborhood to be a better place, even as I yearn for a statue to be erected in my honor. But it will be a wooden statue; only around long enough to inspire a generation or two before it’s absorbed back into the same ground that will devour me.
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by Ben Prus (after Nicolas Bourriaud)
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CITIZENS OF IRAQ, PORTRAITS OF ExILE
“. . . although the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace – a perpetual and universal peace outside of history.”— Hardt and Negri, xv
Text by Andrea D. Fitzpatrick Images by Suzanne Opton
UCH IS THE CLOUD OF HYPOCRISY THAT FRAMES contemporary wars perpetrated by empire, suggest Hardt and Negri, whose view certainly applies to the current Iraq conflict led by the world’s only global superpower. Against such a discourse (or double-speak), one must contend with the ‘casualties’ of empire: the exiles, witnesses, and survivors. Their names are Raja, Zuhair, Mohamed, Hussain, Thabit, Rafah, Yada, Bassim, Nasir, Ghada, Saad, Enas, and Dr. Hadi1. They are doctors, aid-workers, graduate students, professionals, artists, teen-agers, gallerists, and writers. Their ages and social class vary but they are, uniformly, devoted members of extended families, neighbourhoods, communities, of a culture thousands of years old at the cradle of civilizations (the Assyrians and the Sumerians, among others). They are educated, articulate, opinionated, and often ambivalent. These individuals, each with compelling stories and faces, are all citizens of Iraq. Some have borne witness to the abduction, torture, and murder of family members, colleagues, and neighbours. Others have experienced grenade attacks, home invasions, and threats of assassination directed against themselves and their family members. Due to the incessant violence that began to permeate their environment since March 2003, they have fled the comfortable and successful lives they once led in Iraq. They are now exiles of the sovereign nation that has been under siege since the U.S. military launched its invasion unilaterally, without sanction by the United Nations, and blind to the global demonstrations that vehemently denounced it (Retort, 1-5). Now, because of the blatant imperialism of the United States government, these citizens of Iraq have become a diasporic people among neighbouring Arab countries, with little legal, social, or economic status. The flight of Iraqis from their homes is a humanitarian crisis, not only for them but also for those countries like Jordan that are accepting them by the hundreds of thousands, because social services, local economies, housing, and employment markets are all pushed to their limits. Their portraits were photographed by the New York-based, American artist Suzanne Opton during the summer of 2007 in Amman, the capital of Jordan, one of the countries (along with Syria and Lebanon) to which Iraqis have been fleeing for their safety. The results of Opton’s project are simultaneously familiar and novel. In its themes of mourning, loss, and exile, it contributes to contemporary art dealing with postcolonial issues and global migrations (the work of Mona Hatoum and Vera Frenkel come to mind). The Citizen project takes advantage of an aesthetic of quietude and dignity, as well as the concern for identity, all prerogatives of the ‘traditional’ portraiture genre.
Suzanne Opton’s intentions are not to mount a political critique of U.S. policies, but to bring forward the faces and stories of those implicated by them, to personalize these portrait subjects in a way that fosters rather than forecloses openness and access. A caveat is therefore in order. While Opton does not consider herself a political artist, I am (for better or for worse) a politically-oriented writer. Taking advantage of my position as a Canadian academic (and the obvious freedoms that come with that), and despite the risks (which are always present in art historical writing) of an interpretation that causes friction with the intentions of the artist, I acknowledge the following politicization of Opton’s work2. My goal is to situate the issues raised by her work within a war of images used, historically and in contemporary times, for competing ideological and propagandistic purposes. Despite its restraint, delicacy, and the neutrality of its political perspective, Opton’s project is, I propose, bold in its courage to wade into these areas with such directness. Opton conceives the project as a dialogue – a visual and humanistic engagement – with her previous series of photographic portraits of American soldiers who had just returned from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Disarming in their humanizing intimacy and the subtle way she reveals the vulnerability of the soldiers, Opton’s series forces an awareness not only of the US’s controversial involvement in these countries but also the tragedy for Americans that the number of soldier casualties has surpassed 4000. On her website and in a conception for a forthcoming artist’s book, Opton has paired the Soldier (2005) and Citizen (2007) portraits so they be compared face to face in immediate contact. This bringing-together is provocative from a geopolitical standpoint as it allows the contemplation of two, seemingly incomparable sides of the conflict. The gesture could be seen as problematic in formal and conceptual terms for the very reason that it seems to present the conflict and those involved as two sides, in a simplistic or binary structure (East and West, American and Iraqi, soldier and citizen). The fault lines, of course, run along complex and fractious religious, local, and international levels3. Can one, as Susan Buck-Morss has urged, break out of the mentality of ‘sides’ that stultifies, polarizes and paralyzes not only international relations in the “global public sphere” but also cultural theory, i.e. the Western versus ‘non-Western’ jam that cannot, often enough, manage to find points of strategic commonality? It is precisely the notion of confrontational sides, as if the U.S. and Iraqi positions are cleanly oppositional, that Opton is addressing. Because I have discussed the Soldier series at length
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Former art gallery owner, financial consultant 61 years old Left May 2006
...in June 2005, American Special Forces invaded my house. They came by helicopter.
They blew open the doors.
I CRY WHENEVER I TALK ABOUT IRAQ. I start crying even though I’m 61. I want my ground. I want to know, when I walk, that this is my country, to wake up in the morning and go out in my garden for a cup of coffee. To have the neighbor come and say, Assalamu alaikum, and then you offer him a coffee and then a cat jumps in your lap. I lived it. I lived that. I was a sociable man. I would open my house to everybody. I used to put plastic chairs on the sidewalk in front of my house, where I planted some flowers. I miss watering my flowers. I had two or three kidnapping attempts. I had a bomb thrown over my fence. And in June 2005, the American Special Forces invaded my house. They came by helicopter. They blew open the doors. We were sleeping. They were looking for somebody called Karim. They were so stupid. They threw the satellite antenna from the roof to the garden. They took all the linen from the cabinet and walked all over it. What kind of civilization does that? They know I am a Muslim but they brought a dog into my house. For the first time I began to hate them and know they were occupiers, not liberators. They took me to a camp and when they released me, they apologized and gave me a bottle of table wine and $500. One day I was walking down 14th of Ramadan Street. A
Humvee came and crushed into a car. They killed this guy and this guy was probably feeding six or seven people. OK, you liberated us. OK, you’ve done your job. Now get out of the street. Another day I was driving with my wife and all of a sudden a tank was coming toward me, with a guy on the back shouting, ‘Clear the road, clear the road.’ But there were cars on both sides of me. I didn’t know where to go. Imagine a speeding tank coming toward you! When they first came they would use this sign for stop, with their hands. We didn’t know it. We thought it meant hello. A lot of people got killed because of this. So I started to really hate them. Then I said, they are not worth it to be hated. So my feeling became nothing. I didn’t want to waste my feelings. I had more important things. The future maybe will be better, if the Americans leave, and if Iran takes its hand out of Iraq and so does Israel. I don’t have proof that Israel is there, but I’m convinced because the kind of retardation that Iraq has experienced could only be done by master brains. Now people are saying, divide the country. That’s what they want, too. They couldn’t do it in 1921 and so Iraq became strong. This is just what is said in the Jewish testaments, the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion]. Have you read it? It’s very important to read it. It explains everything. It’s all about money.
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in another Canadian context (Border Crossings, 2006), the primary focus here will be on the Iraqi Citizen series. They too merit close attention. One important component that Opton brings to the Citizen series are the testimonials of those Iraqis she photographed. In collaboration with Susan Sachs, who was the New York Times Bureau Chief at the start of the invasion, and with Iraqi translator Arwa Mustafa, Opton conducted the interviews in Amman over one month. The resulting testimonials describe the experiences of being uprooted, forced to flee under the threat of immanent, acute violence, and the qualities of life they left behind. As such, they comprise a significant historical, cultural, and political record. Further, they augment the Citizen portraits to personalize Opton’s subjects, and offset a binaristic or monolithic understanding of the issues. With the biographical uniqueness of their stories and the individuality of the Citizen faces, one is presented with multi-faceted views of the dimensions of loss endured by the Iraqis, as well as unexpected moments of beauty. One citizen, Haider, talks about his need to hold onto the key to his former home, so that one day he can return there, a desire mirroring that of many uprooted Palestinians of the 1948 Nakba (the catastrophic invasion of their neighbourhoods by the Israeli army, which caused their exile by the tens of thousands). While the testimonials comprise an urgent discourse from the margins, of the displaced and disbursed Iraqis, one also wonders: what force can these testimonials exert? Are they merely personal tales of loss or can they constitute a rebuttal to whitewashed and premature reports of success about Iraq emanating from White House mouthpieces? bell hooks considers “marginality as much more than a site of deprivation” (341). She also points out the hypocrisy of ‘progressive’ or ‘multicultural’ social tendencies (i.e. involving the privileged stance of a sympathetic cultural gate-keeper) to elicit stories of ‘the Other’ that only describe painful experiences, which only reiterate a vulnerable and oppressed place in society: “No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way” (343). This, hooks points out, is merely another form of colonization. hooks is raising the thorny issue of representational politics, which is at stake in Opton’s project because not only does she photograph vulnerable subjects, she uses the medium so often prone to charges of representational violence (Solomon-Godeau). In seeking to document and present to North-American audiences the experiences of Iraqis in times of exile, mourning, and innumerable losses,
Opton’s project runs the risk of reifying an image of Iraqis as circumscribed by pain, as emblematic of it. Yet the testimonials enrich the photographs and are unexpectedly filled with the joy of meaningful social networks, gratifying family ties, professional accomplishments, the cultural commitment to art and literature, as well as spiritual depth. The testimonial stories of the Iraqis also animate the stasis of the photographs. Some of the sensual, intellectual, and emotional pleasures of remembered life in Iraq are as poetic as a cat jumping into Bassim’s lap while drinks morning coffee in his garden, in the company of a neighbour. Ghada speaks of the magnificent date palm tree, planted by her father that grew in the courtyard of her family home (certainly a metaphor for the social roots her family nurtured in Baghdad). Despite surviving a home invasion, Razika speaks more of the simple pleasures of cigarettes and female gossip that sustained her old age, including the house that was her “kingdom.” For Madhat, pride came from his personal library, collected over decades, of hundreds of books in Arabic, English, and French. Ragheed delighted in friendly relations with neighbours and relatives, who were always welcome to a house where the doors were left open, and where the garden had swings, flowers, and fruit trees. Widad boasts of the art gallery she launched twenty-five years ago and continued to run, despite the wars: first the Iran-Iraq war that lasted eight years, and then the Gulf War of “Bush the father.” The gallery housed poetry readings, lessons in European languages, and musical concerts. An optimist, she boasts how the candles she lit when the electricity went out made it “feel it’s a party.” All the testimonials, in fact, are balanced by large doses of poetic beauty, and an emphasis on family and community ties. This should be highlighted to North-Americans, lest one imagine the solitude and alienation of life in Amman be familiar, easy, or glamorous for exiled Iraqis. The process of exile is less one of safety than severance from remaining family members. While solitude and alienation are tropes of urban life that arose concurrently with modernity in the West, and have been celebrated by artistic bohemia, they are not cultural norms for Muslims, for whom family life and the individual’s cohesive situatedness within it is paramount. The remarkable aspect of the testimonials is that they balance stories of recent violence with memories of pleasure, and provide the details to make more nuanced, familiar, and full the richness of these lives and the extent of their losses. One is surprised by the familiarity of the citizens’ faces and dress; as ciphers of the Middle East and the West be-
come intermingled, they resemble Canadians in so many ways (including the veiled women). One also finds uncommon sensuality drawn out by Opton’s focus on the skin surfaces of the young and old (decorated by the minutiae of wrinkles, capillaries, scars, birthmarks), and by the silky textures of the women’s hair (sometimes veiled, sometimes voluptuously loose). The warmth of colour emerges from a subdued palette, especially in the fruit-shades of the backgrounds that frame the faces, in the makeup and hair of the women, and in the variations in skin tones, from pale and translucent to ruddy and bronzed. The exceptional beauty of Ghada, a pharmacist from a prominent Baghdad family, is as striking as her upside-down disposition (meant to reflect, according to Opton, the overturning of her life by the process of exile). Ghada’s chestnut hair offsets the black of her chiffon silk blouse, open at the neck to highlight an elaborate diamond pendant. Her gracefullyarched eyebrows form parentheses around smoke-coloured eyes, and her rose-painted lips reveal perfect white teeth. Aside from her anxious expression (is she crying?), this could be a glossy advertisement for high-end jewellery. Shatha’s metallic eye-shadow expertly compliments her lip gloss and softens her domineering expression, at once proud, skeptical, and sympathetic. Yada, a writer for a children’s magazine, has cascading hair that is bright blond at the bottom and brunette at the crown. The Western trope of blondness is clearly an icon of femininity for some Middle Eastern women. The abrupt contrast between the blond and brunette hair suggests a marker for a major biographic rupture, the way rings in a tree trunk indicate environmental change. A near-death experience was, in fact, described in Yada’s testimony. On her way to the British Consulate to seek a passport for her husband (who had received repeated death threats), she was kidnapped off the street, tortured, held in a secret detention center for days, and released only because one of the teenage guards recognized her as a friend of his mother. While many of the women photographed by Opton present aspects of normative Western femininity, others are veiled. The dark brocade of Ibtisam’s veil offers Baroque folds to frame the resolution of her pursed lips and the consternation of her downcast eyes. Rafah is a stunning, earthly Madonna who wears a pristine white veil and a black smock adorned with needlework. Her hands, folded to her chest in a plaintive gesture, convey as much emotion as the humility of her prophet-like gaze, whose concern is directed beyond the frame. As for the men, the complexity of Hussain’s expression is gentle and thoughtful despite the pulsing veins in his temples. His face is traced with a hint
of a smile and slightly squinting eyes that, in an instant seem to alternate from wisdom to the tear-filled regret of a father who had to identify and witness the condition of his two sons’ corpses in the morgue after they were abducted and tortured to death. In an unsettling juxtaposition on her website, Opton has coupled Hussain’s image with the portrait of the young American soldier Keith, whose placid face, unscathed by worry, is caressed by the hands of a woman. Although the face of Keith’s partner remains outside the frame, the soothing gesture of her hands suggest that he is clearly in intimate, supportive contact with her. Hussain’s wife, on the other hand, “who lost something of herself” after the death of her sons is “almost blind from crying all the time.” Hussain’s present limbo in Amman, away from his wife and four daughters who remain in Baghdad, is suggested by the pain in his eyes by the way his hand grips his shoulder, as if steadying himself to the irresolvable conundrum of his present reality: unable to return to Baghdad because of death threats by the Mahdi army; unable to bring his surviving family to Amman because the Jordanians won’t let them enter. But what, if anything, can the appearances conveyed by silent, singular photographs tell us about the incommensurability of suffering? Opton’s dialogic strategy is not intended to present a hierarchy of victims and perpetrators but to confuse, if not dissolve, these categories. Paired on her website with Ghada’s portrait is that of American soldier Alex Jimenez and his wife Yarderlin, both immigrants to the US from the Dominican Republic (the soldier a legal citizen, his wife, not yet). Both portraits have a certain opulence because of the diamond jewellery worn by the women. Although Jimenez’s expression is serious, Yarderlin’s seems as affectionately proud of her husband as of her engagement ring, which she displays as if to show the reciprocity of his affection. While the portrait of this couple exudes the plenitude of material and emotional wealth, it must now tragically be seen as a memorial image. Opton explained to me that Jimenez went “missing” (the euphemism for abducted and probably executed) while in active service in Iraq in May 2006, the year after he was photographed. Although his platoon, the Tenth Mountain Division from Fort Drum, New York, and the replacement troops stationed in Iraq searched for him, neither a trace of Jimenez nor his remains were ever found. After this, the Department of Homeland Security tried to deport Jimenez’s wife, who had not yet achieved citizenship before he left for his second tour of duty in Iraq. Only through the advocacy of Democratic Senator John Kerry was she granted a green
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Doctor, radiation oncologist 50 years old Left June 11, 2006
You must leave the country. We know where you work. We know you are a doctor.
We know your family.
I WORKED UNTIL 2005. I kept on working and it got even worse in 2006. It was like hell. I had to change roads to work every day, sometime take taxis and buses. It’s never been said that as a doctor, you couldn’t trust even your neighbors. And things got worse and worse. I worked 20 years as a doctor. I was in the army in the Iran war and in Kuwait. Only a few Sunni doctors were left at my hospital. There were 14 at the beginning, then only eight by the time I left. Working in hospitals became very difficult. It was very dangerous to move around and go to hospitals or clinics. We could be kidnapped at any time. I got a note in June 2006. It was thrown in front of my house, with a threat saying, ‘you must leave the country. We know where you work. We know you are a doctor. We know your family.’ Other doctors were kidnapped and some were killed. If I go back to Iraq now I’d be in serious danger. So we packed up the house. My sister’s family was forced to leave their neighbor
hood and go somewhere else because those people said they wanted to make that a Shia area. My colleague and dear friend was kidnapped and killed six months ago. My neighbor Karim, a civil servant, was kidnapped and killed. My nephew is a student. At the university they would set up a blockade and kidnap people. He was kidnapped and we still don’t know if he was killed or where he is. My wife’s family was forced to leave their house. One of my brothers got a threat and had to leave to Syria with his family. My brother-in-law also got threats and left. It’s all coming from Iran and Syria because an Iraqi Shia would never kill an Iraqi Sunni. And now Sunnis have no one to support them. I miss my mother. I can’t bring her. She’s an old woman of 85 and it’s difficult for her to leave. I have four children. I put some of my kids in private schools and others got help from Caritas. In Baghdad, I had an apartment, a car and a clinic. Here in Jordan I work temporarily here and there. I am spending from my life savings.
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card. Ghada was fortunate enough to be granted legal status to stay in Jordan, while Yarderlin, on the other hand, is now widowed. If one is inclined to imagine Iraqi exiles as worse off than American soldiers or their families, one soon realizes that relativistic comparisons prove only to be pointless and inhumane. The aesthetic beauty of the photographs would appear to be at odds with the trauma of the sitters’ experiences. Yet, this strategy neither exploits nor dismisses the sitters’ situations, although critics have accused other photographic artists (Nan Goldin for one) of profiteering from the suffering of her vulnerable subjects, as if beauty and an ethical engagement were incompatible. These crucial questions – involving the nexus where aesthetics, ethics, and the graphic reality of war images collide – form the crux of Susan Sontag’s concern in Regarding the Pain of Others (to which this essay is deeply indebted). The aesthetics of honour and the beauty of Opton’s series are entirely significant in the present political context, and must be situated within the current “imperatives of the image-war” being waged in the global media (Retort, 36). The geographic scope of this media war is, of course, broader than a domestic concern and, as identified by Re-
tort (the Berkeley-area collective of writers and activists), this “battle of images” involves the competing sides of the American empire and Islamic jihad, whose characteristics, they note, are strangely parallel from a certain perspective: both are equally militaristic and fanatically conservative, both take recourse to mass communications technologies and the seduction of spectacles of terror to recruit followers, sway public opinion, and disseminate their message (7). Both empire and jihad, as Retort state, are squarely enemies of the critical, secular Left in the U.S. and, I would add, of the majority of moderate international Muslim communities. Where, if anywhere amidst these two competing forces – both involving ideological propaganda and terror – can Opton’s work be situated? Admittedly, while speaking of empire and jihad in such a brief manner risks reproducing stereotypes as pernicious as any other, Opton’s Citizen project and the Iraqi voices that contribute to it present a stance far removed from the bombast of both Bush’s military policies and revolutionary, extremist Islam. One should keep in mind that, by the similarity of their views to the present violence, the majority of U.S. citizens who oppose Bush’s presidency and this war are brought into proximity with these Iraqi citizens. While the testimonials present outspoken opinions, Opton’s portrait images avoid overt condemnation in favour of recognition: by the simple act
of looking into the eyes of one Iraq Citizen at a time, their solemn agency is met by our respect. The quiet, studied elegance of the Citizen portraits offer a gentle surface of contemplation to arrest the steady flow of media images of Iraq that bombard Westerners with endless acts of violence. The prolonged temporality of the Citizen portraits is in stark contrast to the photojournalistic images of grieving or hysterical Iraqis taken when they retrieve the remains of loved ones at the morgue, or of the chaos, exploded vehicles, charred human remains, and fragmented detritus that have erupted so regularly on the streets of Baghdad4. Here, the thesis in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) on the barbarism attributed to non-Westerners by the colonial powers of the nineteenth century – constructed not only as a cultural foil to the West but also as ideological justification for invasion, occupation, and oppression – has never been more salient. Despite the common ability of most people to deconstruct media images, one shouldn’t underestimate the lingering influence of Western stereotypes about the Middle East as irrational, superstitious, un-modern, hyper-sexualized, fundamentalist, misogynist, violent, and the source of terrorism. In a 1996 interview, Said stated, “The West’s almost obsessive emphasis on terrorism and fanaticism in the Arab world is a form of exorcism. They see it in Islam so they won’t have to recognize that same elements exist in their own societies, and in alarming levels” (Shulman, 116). More recently, Retort remind us of the persistence of Orientalism in the barely-hidden imperatives of current neo-colonial powers: “It was predictable that, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, the public airwaves would be filled, not with a debate about the role of America in the world or the conditions producing political Islam in its most militant forms, but with the tired Orientalist litany: Islamic terror and Islam’s bloody borders, Muslim rage, the Green Peril, barbarians’ hatred of freedom, and the new Crusades” (133). In this regard, what cannot be overstated is the importance of the testimonials that complicate Opton’s photographs, to offer a richer spectrum of information about the individuals, which refutes such stereotypes and the demonizing rhetoric of the U.S. Government. The testimonials describe lives of refined intellectual, emotional, and cultural concerns. While they contain stories of violence, the Iraqi perspectives are, in every case, protestations to it rather than justifications for it. What emerges in the testimonials is not only the love of family and community, but the cultural concern to save, document, and protect national and personal artworks, stu-
dios and archives, holy sites, monuments and sculptures, library collections and musical recordings, in short, the cultural history of a nation. What emerges from the Iraqi perspective is how their highly civilized nation, especially in the form of its cultural legacy, is under threat. Mohamed Ghani, one of Iraq’s most famous sculptors, gave heartbreaking account of the extent of the cultural destruction (which was also reported in American news media, and for that reason, further tragic because it was known and preventable):
I have fourteen open-air monuments in Baghdad. No one protected them. It is the duty of the Americans to protect, to save our museums, save our culture. They destroyed everything, and five or six pieces of my things were on the street. I found one in the market. Thousands of pieces from our national museum were there. I saw thieves and they were selling our treasures. I bought some myself. And our rulers, the Americans, they didn’t buy anything back. ‘We don’t help thieves,’ they said.
Soldier: Jimenez (2005)
Citizen: Ghada (2007)
Citizen: Mohamed (2007)
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Children’s magazine writer 36 years old Left Novemeber 11, 2003
...it was, either you accept our offer and be a member of the organization
or you will be slaughtered in your house.
I AM ORIGINALLY FROM SULEIMANIYA in northern Iraq but I lived in Baghdad since I was two. I write children’s stories and children’s songs, and I wrote for an Iraqi newspaper and a Kurdish magazine. I wasn’t a Baathist, but my husband was a Baathist. He worked for Iraqi TV. I wasn’t afraid really after the war, even though we had worked for the government media. I hoped that things would be better with Saddam Hussein gone. But we were attacked in our house. The first time they were just robbers. The second time they were Baathists. They wanted my husband to cooperate with them, and said he should think it over and either help them or die. Then he got a threat in an envelope. Again, it was, either you accept our offer and be a member of the organization or you will be slaughtered in your house. My husband was high in the party. He was known and talked about in the news. He used to have cars and bodyguards. Then he had a third threat, from the Shiites. I said we have to leave because I am in constant fear. But he had no passport, so I went to the British consulate on Haifa Street to ask for help. A man followed me and when a white Land Cruiser drove up, he put a gun to my ribs and pushed me inside. We drove, the roads were bumpy and I had a cloth over my eyes. Then they shoved me into a room and locked the door. The windows were painted shut from the outside. Inside there was an elderly man, a young man who was an interpreter for the Americans and a girl who said she was
a cleaner for the CPA. Every now and then the man who was called the ‘sheikh’ would come in and kick and spit on the old man, and call the girl bad names. I remained there for 17 days. All we got was bread, often bad bread. We had no electricity or lights in the room. One day we woke up and saw that the old man had died. Then they shot the translator in front of us and pulled him from the room by his feet. And they didn’t even clean up the blood, maybe to frighten us more. They pulled the girl out by her hair, I heard her pleading for her life and I didn’t see her again. I said I was just a housewife, but they called me a liar and said I was working for the Americans because I spoke English. They said they would let me go if I gave them 15 names of Iraqis working for the British or the Americans. They tied my hands to the ceiling and burned by left arm, my stomach, my back, my leg. I told them my husband was dead. Sometimes they would say I was going to die and sometimes they would say I was going to be released to my family. You know, they were kids, 15, 16 years old. Their ‘sheik’ was about 23 years old. Then, one day, this ‘sheik’ came in and a boy came with him, and he looked up at me and said, ‘Sheik Omar, that’s Auntie, we know this woman, she’s a friend of my mom’s.’ His mom used to help me as a cleaner, doing ironing and washing clothes, and helping with the family. So they let me go. And two or three days later we left to Jordan. We left together but then we ran out of money, and my husband went back to Baghdad in December 2006.
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Clearly, Orientalism continues to involve processes of distortion and homogenization, whereby Iraqis (and the country as a whole) are viewed through the lens of violence as a foil to the “civilization” of the West, for political, military, economic, or other instrumental purposes, the primary one being, of course, the justification for the current war. What is revealed here is the callousness of the American military to cultural monuments and, in effect, the barbarism of the United States’ political agenda, which was trained only to recognize the richness of the country’s oil fields rather than its artistic culture. Such testimonials as Mohamed Ghani’s help counter the West’s centuries-old Orientalism of images of the Middle East as without civilization, secular concerns, or the commitment to peace. The dignity surrounding the Citizen portraits is a significant rebuttal to the orientalizing tendency of media images. This is a point made clearer by considering the sadistic excesses of the Abu Ghraib photographs. Taken by the American guards of Iraqi detainees subject to painful and humiliating tortures at the notorious military prison, these images are the most publicized from Iraq to date. These illicit photographs and the illegal acts they depict (emblazoned in collective memory) are viewed on the Left as a searing indictment of the brutality and extensive war crimes perpetrated by the US military, supervised by a corrupt Bush administration (Retort, Eisenman, Parr). Yet, as Stephen Eisenman notes, one must also acknowledge the representational violence that is inflicted upon Iraqis and Islamic culture by their creation and circulation. Further, Eisenman interprets the Abu Ghraib photographs within the art-historical legacy of images of war and conflict in the West that, since Antiquity, have been ruled by an aesthetic known as “the pathos formula,” where the violated bodies and facial expressions of the conquered and vanquished seem to authorize, if not endorse, their own punishments and humiliations (16). The sadism inherent to such art-historical representations is a construction of the artists for the agendas of their patrons, and in no way a realistic document of the experiences of the subjugated bodies so depicted. Eisenman makes an important connection between the Abu Ghraib photographs (staged for the delight of the guards, and meant to inflict pain on their charges) and the many images commissioned by Papal powers during the Italian Renaissance that debase Muslims and take part in the pathos effect. He also makes a distinction between those images that perpetuate the pathos effect (as an endorsement for the military exploits of successive Western Christian rulers) and the political art of the modern tradition that protest such abuses, namely,
iconic artworks such as Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (1814), and Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which Eisenman calls, “weapons against ignorance, injustice and inhuman cruelty” (19). Despite the superficial visual parallels between the Abu Ghraib photographs and artistic depictions of torture meant to elicit outrage (in particular, Goya’s etchings in the Los Caprichos, Disasters of War, and Inquisition albums), each body of images must be seen as categorically distinct. While both art streams show paradigms of extreme figuration, their purposes are diametrically opposed: one stream involves the antiquated patroncommission system that makes artists complicit in the representational violence of war propaganda and endorses cruelty for empire, while the other stream involves modern, independent artist-activists and denounces cruelty. To extend Eisenman’s critique, I’d like to point out the ethical dead-end whereby any critique of the power structures of the West that are conveyed by the Abu Ghraib photographs are also carried on the naked backs of those bound, hooded, restrained Iraqi bodies whose obscene exposure must be seen (through the rampant dissemination of these images by Internet, television, or other technologies) in order for such a political critique to function. It is not merely the issue of reportage versus reification. With this horrific genre of images, never meant to be seen, unintended consequences occur; groups with conflicting purposes can exploit the Abu Ghraib images. On one hand, a critical public can appreciate the crimes of the U.S. Government (which can become a symbol, from a conservative Islamist perspective, that inflates to encompass the corruption and decadence of the West in general). On the other hand, the suffering inflicted upon the Middle East is perpetrated as visual propaganda. If the goal is to avoid repeating exercises in degradation, my question is as follows: is there a means in art or visual culture (if not also in photojournalism) to critique, question, or explore the US-led war in Iraq without reproducing the pain of those who have already clearly suffered by it? Opton’s project can be understood to counter the dominant news and media imagery that constantly subject the Iraqi people to the representational violence of Orientalism and the pathos formula. Yet Opton’s art is one of subtleties, one that negotiates a different path from the polarities identified by Eisenman, without taking recourse to extremes: neither to the political propaganda of endorsement, nor to the modernist reification of cruelty as protest. In contrast to the frenzied pace of political turmoil, assassinations, exilic flight, and the overall urgency that insis-
tently code images of the war in Iraq, Opton insists that these Iraq citizens have the dignity of time. The extended temporality that is a special prerogative of portrait photography is put to the challenge of slowing down the viewer’s look, while simultaneously animating the life stories of the portrait subjects. These citizens enjoyed the luxury to compose, prepare, and present themselves, to groom and dress according to their own wishes, unlike the hasty departures from their home country, “as if someone was chasing you away,” according to Ghada. The viewer of this series is granted the pleasure of extended looking, the ability to scrutinize, read, and reflect upon these personalities during moments of thoughtful reflection rather than anguish. The dignity that ensues from the portrait structure is partly the result of Opton’s delicate handling of her subjects, the unwavering seriousness of the mission, the intensity of her focus (suggesting at once curiosity and appreciation), and the consent implied by their captivating (rather than captured) gazes. Opton is not the sole author of the Citizen works, as all portraits (with the exception of post-mortem photographs) are to a greater or lesser degree collaborative. It is ultimately the citizens, rather than Opton, who are the authors of their own unshakable (at times inimitable) poise, despite the concurrent vulnerability, resignation, and sorrow that is also palpable. Opton’s work – obsessed with the uniqueness and expressive potentiality of the face, to the exclusion of the bodies (which are, in any case, clothed in civilian garments) – is a striking inversion of the media images of Muslims that have become emblematic of the present Iraq conflict as well as searing assaults on Islamic culture: the faceless, objectified masses of naked flesh in the Abu Ghraib photographs, and the orange-suited, hooded, nameless, ghosts of Guantanamo Bay. Judith Butler, reflecting on the aftermath of September 11, developed a cultural theory of intersubjectivity with global reach, an ethics founded upon the experience of mourning (national, collective, and individual) in which the self, through the experience of vulnerability to mortal violence, recognizes what is human in the other. The exposure of U.S. vulnerability (seen, for example, in Opton’s Soldier portraits, images of the Twin Towers falling, and the face of Daniel Pearl before his execution) should not invoke fear, hostility, lead to the instant walling-up of defences, or to an aggressive military offensive. Vulnerability can be productive. Butler proposes, “[. . .] to consider a dimension of political life that has to do with our exposure to violence and our complicity in it, with our vulnerability to loss and the task of mourning that follows, and with finding a basis for community in these conditions.” (19) Vulnerability is
the contemporary cultural condition that, according to Butler, can prepare one to recognize the humanity of those who suffer globally from violence (and even those who perpetrate it). Butler inquires as to how representations can contribute to or detract from this aspiration towards a mutual recognition of the losses of the West and the Middle East, so that the humanity of particular groups is not automatically denied: “The media’s evacuation of the human through the image has to be understood, though, in terms of the broader problem that normative schemes of intelligibility establish what will and will not be human, what will be a livable life, what will be a grievable death. [. . .]” (146). Butler’s use of the term “human” is, on one hand, not surprising for a thinker of her compassion (and in this case points to the influence of the ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas on her thinking). Yet, it is startling for the cultural theorist whose feminist/queer position was so radically constructivist towards identity categories in the nineties that she challenged even the term “woman” as essentializing or restricting one’s performative capacity. Butler’s recent use of the term “human” (without gender, nation, colour, or allegiance) indicates a striking response to the current situation facing us all in the Middle East (not only Iraq but also Palestine and Israel), so that one can’t necessarily entertain the postmodern mandate for specificity and infinite differences in identity to the same degree as before September 11. A humanizing tendency now seems rather urgent, at least in representations, if this cannot yet be achieved as a political reality. The humanistic impulses of Opton’s project are intended to blur the initial clarity of many important positions: selfother, America-Iraq, West-East, soldier-citizen, victorvanquished. Exposed in unexpected areas are the mutual losses, moments of vulnerability and agency, pleasures and pains. This results in the various parties implicated by and invested in this conflict looking much more similar and interdependent, which is not to homogenize the cultural specificity of Iraqis, but to forge some proximity, familiarity, and commonality with them.
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Works Cited Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. Buck-Morss, Susan. Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left. London: Verso, 2003. Eisenman, Stephen F. The Abu Ghraib Effect. London: Reaktion Books, 2007. Fitzpatrick, Andrea D. “The Silent Dialogue: Portraits by Suzanne Opton,” Border Crossings, 25.4, Issue 100 (Winter, 2006): 38-45. Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2000. Hooks, Bell. “Marginality as a Site of Resistance,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Ed. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West. Foreword Marcia Tucker. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990. 341-343. Opton, Suzanne. Website: www.suzanneopton.com. Parr, Adrian. “Abu Ghraib: Reconfiguration of the Social Field,” Drain: Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture (Cruelty issue), 2007. www.drainmag.com Retort (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts). Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War. London: Verso, 2005. Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage – Random House, 2003 . Shulman, Ken, interview with Edward Said, “Roots of the West’s Fear of Islam,” Interviews with Edward W. Said. Ed. Amritjit Singh and Bruce G. Johnson. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2004. 115-117. Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. “Who is Speaking, Thus? Some Questions about Documentary Photography,” (1986) Photography at the Dock. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991. 169-183 + notes 299-302. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador – Farrar, 2003. 1. Most of their surnames cannot be published for fear of reprisals against family members still living in Iraq. 2. Lest this essay be taken as facile anti-Americanism, I note that my outlook was nurtured in the United States (for which I hold an endearing affection, and where my family still lives). My formative years were spent in the BostonCambridge area and in New York City at a time (the 1980s) when these cities were centres of Left-leaning intelligentsia and radical politics. 3. In addition to the presence of the US military as “foreign occupiers,” one must consider the implications of the divergent allegiances of Sunni and Shia families to distinct neighbourhoods, and the Madhi army, whose goals are often at odds with the West-supported national government, the uncertain but continued presence of the former Baathists of Saddam’s regime, and the deadly infiltration of Hezbollah militants supported by Iran and Syria. In the United States, views on the war in Iraq vary from state to state, and from household to household. 4. The horrible present-day irony is that the suicide bombings, abductions, corpses found tortured and mutilated (which numbered over fifty per day during an extended period in 2006), are so commonplace that front-page, illustrated newspaper headlines have, in recent months, been reduced to brief, un-illustrated notices in the World sections of broadsheet newspapers.
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HOTEL HOTEL THEORY WOMEN
CHAPTER SEVEN FAMOUS BUTTOCKS
DEFINITION OF HOTEL WOMAN A fugitive sensibility or character, often “feminine,” reprieved from the rigors of fixed address. LIST OF THE ECSTATIC LIABILITIES OF HOTEL CONSCIOUSNESS Transience, shiftlessness, languor, depersonalization, drift, despondency, trance, effeminacy, boredom, sitting, satiety, repetition, retirement, imprisonment, hypersexuality, prostitution, shame, addiction. WHY CHOPIN’S MUSIC EMBODIES HOTEL CONSCIOUSNESS His work gives place to the hermaphrodite, the has-been, the miniature, the foreigner, and the fairy (as musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg notes in Chopin at the Boundaries: Sex, History, and Musical Genre). Chopin’s small forms (nocturne, impromptu, waltz, mazurka, scherzo, ballade, prelude) are rooms, single-occupancy, open to hauntings. Chopin assists my quest to imagine a vocation of pleasure, and to find value in the tiny, the out-of-date, and the wrong. HOTEL HEMINGWAY In The Moveable Feast, Hemingway remembers staying in a luxurious hotel in Lyon and reading “the first volume of A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev.” The hotel’s luxury he calls “unaccustomed”; there, he shaves before breakfast. (Sexy image?) In Austria, he stays at a “good, year-around hotel called the
Lana Turner swam freestyle in Hotel Women’s large periwinkle-tiled three-lane indoor pool, on Mezzanine, beside Imperial Hall. Whitehead lifeguarded: today, only one swimmer, Lana. Presiding in high chair, Whitehead gave lifeguarding his full attention, without book’s or radio’s distraction; he didn’t want Lana Turner to die on his beat.
Text by Wayne Koestenbaum Images by Matthias Herrmann
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Taube”; the rooms contain “big stoves.” For three people, the price is two dollars a day. Sexy thrift? BAUDELAIRE, BY CHANCE Baudelaire in his prose poem “Plans” notices that maximum pleasure derives from the hotel accidentally stumbled upon, rather than the hotel acquired through wearisome prognostication: “Pleasure and happiness are at the first inn reached, at the inn of chance, so fertile in voluptuous pleasures.” COOL MYLES HOTEL Poet Eileen Myles knows hotels in San Francisco where hasbeens dwell; in her novel Cool for You she mentions “hotels on Castro full of queens,” filled with the aura of “old starlets.” Boardinghouses in Massachusetts, too, have “rooms full of beads and old clothes and pictures of men”: fragments of a missing life that no amount of writerly labor will reconstitute. Myles knows that the Charles River “exists to have hotels on its bank.” More restful than nature, the presence of hotels stabilizes the eye, though mourning remains my point. THE OBJECT OF BEAUTY In this film, John Malkovich and Andie MacDowell stay indefinitely (without the funds to pay for it) in a London luxury hotel. Malkovich, a speculator, says, “Prison is one way of cutting down our hotel bills.” No anterior: no sense that Malkovich lived anywhere before. Holed up in a hotel, they wait to become “liquid” again––a cocoa shipment due. Oddly, the management
While Lana continued to crawl, she contemplated Liberace’s neglible chances of comeback. Too late, she thought. I, too, could go downhill, if I don’t swim every morning, under Whitehead’s unnerving aegis. When Lana reached pool-edge, she complained to Whitehead. “Something’s wrong,” Lana said. “I swear it.” Whitehead dipped his hand in, tasted chlorine. “Perfectly non-toxic, Miss Turner.” “Do you mind if I take off my bathing suit?” She removed her V-neck skin-tone one-piece, dove back in, and swam more laps, while Whitehead, not unmoved, watched. He regretted arguing with Lana. Don’t be illogical with stars. Whitehead decided that Lana’s buttocks equaled his recent illogic. Lana climbed out and stretched on periwinkle tiles. She touched her toes. Lana’s aura dwindled, in Whitehead’s suddenly skeptical eyes. I’m sick of prowess, he thought. But if I remain morose at heart, will I be forced to work at Hotel Theory? Will I cease to bewilder guests?
doesn’t evict them, though it threatens to. The hotel extends a generous or confused armistice–– doesn’t even downgrade them to a less elaborate suite. They continue to order room-service meals. A case of Perrier after midnight: Andie MacDowell parades nude in front of the guy who delivers it. Malkovich, from the hotel, telephones his father, calls him “Sir.” The hotel offers no familial comfort––except for their suite’s cream-white telephone, paternal prosthesis. Sheiks in the lobby, or men wearing what I ignorantly categorize as sheik habiliments, advertise the fiscal internationalism of hotels. Malkovich and MacDowell fear being caught in the lobby, its revolving door an economic metaphor. The hotel, fancy but not beautiful, an interregnum of waiting-to-sink (“A great hotel is like an ocean-going liner”), lacks soul: it has no before. HOTEL DUCHAMP Marcel Duchamp’s equation (“a guest + a host = a ghost”) admits that a hotel is always haunted. Guest and host, two parties to a transaction, erase each other’s bodily surety. HOTEL SEEK
Liberace sat poolside and watched Lana Turner swim. If only I knew how to butterfly, he thought. Mother never taught me. Liberace watched Lana turn underwater. What skill. Lana got out and lay beside Liberace on white Hotel Women towels.
In Denis Johnson’s Seek, he describes being the only resident at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Kabul. The staff, however, continues to work. He hears the “silence of all the people who aren’t here.” In Mogadishu, he notices the Al Sahafi Hotel ——anachronism, chronicle, sore
“I dreamt of tiny men entering my vagina,” said Lana. “Miniature ant-soldiers. But then they turned into ex-husbands. Some toy soldiers entering my vagina were faggots, and some were regular men. I let them all in.” Liberace gazed up at Whitehead, who had brought over his lifeguard’s chair and placed it behind her towel. “I’ve never been competently psychoanalyzed,” said Lana. “It’s slow,” said Liberace. “I’m in analysis,” said Whitehead. “For special problems?” asked Lana. “Guys beat me up sometimes,” said Whitehead. “I know that pickle,” said Liberace. “Me, too,” said Lana. “Stars get beat up?” asked Whitehead. “Every day,” said Lana. “Our boyfriends trash us.” “Agents have given me black eyes,” said Liberace. “Do you feel outside yourself when you get slugged?” asked Whitehead. “I feel like I’m flying,” said Lana, “staring down at my body.” Whitehead, from his seat, observed Liberace dive in and swim. Lana watched, too. She wanted to grovel before Liberace’s watery adventure. She worried that Liberace needed acting work and that unemployment explained his protracted stay in Hotel Women. Was it appropriate for him to reside here? Lana Turner thought there were too many male guests; she’d sought temporary exile from men. Liberace surfaced, shook his canine body dry, towel-wrapped his middle, and sauntered over to Whitehead’s perch. “Pardon me, but it smells funny,” Liberace said. “Underwater.”
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thumb. At the Intercontinental Hotel in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, he stays in a room “small and very clean and wetlyair-conditioned, faintly mildewed and dimly lit by a circular neon tube.” In Danané, on the border of Liberia, he intends to “rendezvous with a man named Winston Holder” at the Hotel Lianes, “an adobe place in a dirt yard, very inexpensive.” So unfathomable is the locale, “it was impossible to tell who among the shadows wandering around might be Winston Holder.” The hotel situates disorientation, gives it harbor. HOTEL VEGAS John D’Agata, in Halls of Fame, collects Las vegas hotels. Riding a tour bus, he hears a guide point out “the Flamingo Hotel where Elvis Presley owned a floor,” and “the Mirage Hotel where Michael Jackson owns a floor.” D’Agata sees the Luxor Hotel, billed as “The Next Wonder of the World,” and checks into a sleep clinic, whose pamphlet calls its facilities “very homey and comfortable, something like a hotel room.” In vegas, he notes the “highest building west of the Mississippi, the Stratosphere Hotel.” I have never been to though as a child I visited Reno for vacation, and stayed at a motel whose proprietor called my little sister “Calamity Jane.” CHOPIN ORNAMENTS Within a Chopin nocturne’s melody, the ornament is the guest (the hotel woman), the malingerer, the cause of malingering in others. The ornament behaves like a supplement––added, like a wound, when the melody repeats.
“Sulfur,” said Whitehead. “Harmless.” Water, three inches below its normal level, quivered in glaucous light. Fire bell rang. “I’m tired of all that racket!” shouted Lana. “Let’s go upstairs. Come on, Liberace.” Liberace followed Lana to Hotel Women’s elevator, flip-flops making munching sounds on tile floor. Liberace, alone in his room, lay nude in bed. He poured straight bourbon and slowly drank it. Lana, in her room, bathed, soaping herself with mint gel, watching white suds develop. Her underarms felt irritated. She would ask her beautician to recommend another cream.
Possibly the ornament endangers the health of the melody, causes it discomfort. The ornament may not be wanted; it courts eviction. It has no way of paying its bills. The ornament sustains the culture of the nocturne but also signals infection in the tune.
stood up, penis semi-turgid, either from dreams or from lying on his stomach. “Do you want me to help you towel off?” asked Whitehead. “No, thanks. I’m plenty dry.” Whitehead returned to his room and lay despondent in bed. His left eye was red and blurred from cataract surgery, some vision lost.
HOTEL IDLENESS I don’t know if there were hotels in fourteenth-century Japan, but the Buddhist priest Kenko, in Essays in Idleness (composed circa 1330), seems to be describing a hotel woman when he mentions a lady “living alone in dilapidated lodgings.” A male visitor notices “the forlorn appearance of the place,” pitiable; and yet then he discovers that the dwelling’s interior has “charm.” Where a woman lives (or how she manages to live) is a spooky phenomenon in certain men’s eyes. Kenko’s devotion to idleness––and his use of “essay” as a mode of idle speech, directionless thinking––belong to the domain of hotel consciousness. SCANDAL HOTELS Fatty Arbuckle was accused of the death (ruptured bladder) of opportunistic starlet Virginia Rappe––mayhem and orgy in a room in the Hotel St. Francis, San Francisco. Monica Lewinsky, scarlet woman, was needlessly interrogated at the Watergate Hotel, already notorious for Republican illegalities. CHOPIN’S STORMY MIDDLES I consider the roiling middle sections of Chopin nocturnes to
Liberace lay poolside; Whitehead lifeguarded. After awhile, Liberace stripped off his bathing suit and turned over onto his stomach. Too bad Lana Turner isn’t here, thought Whitehead. I’m appreciating Liberace’s ass, but Lana would appreciate it, too, and then he’d be getting double plaudits, man’s and woman’s. Whitehead climbed down, approached Liberace, and gently touched his buttocks. “Hey,” said Liberace, sitting up. “I just wanted to see if you were still awake.” “What time is it?” “Six-fifteen,” said Whitehead. “El Salvador opened for dinner fifteen minutes ago.” “Jesus. I’m late.” Liberace
In sunshine, Lana Turner entered Hotel Women’s roofdeck and was excited to discover Liberace. Lana’s perversion lens, wide-angled, enjoyed distractions of many flavors. Recently she had spilled hot coffee on herself; her hands and arms still ached from second-degree burns, concealed with bandages. Standing between orchidpatterned chaise longues, she removed her Hotel Women terry robe to reveal her new, modest suit. Life at Hotel Women was too fast-paced. Lana wanted it to slow down to studio tempo. “Liberace,” said Lana, “I’d like to hear your feedback about my nerves. I’m fed up with studio execs.” “Your mood might change,” said Liberace. “Consider tonight’s festivities in Imperial Hall. Open bar, dancing.” “Live band?” asked Lana. “Hawaiians,” said Liberace. “I like Hawaiian music,” said Lana. “My college roommate was Hawaiian, but then she killed herself.” “Can we talk about going downhill?” asked Liberace. “I liked that conversation better.” “Liberace, we can’t jump back
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be hotel spaces, where the composer takes pleasurably improper liberties with aesthetic form, and where guests (melancholy, angry, labile, foreign) manufacture refuge. HOTEL ANTERIORITY Baudelaire’s poem “La vie antérieure” describes a former habitation––a marine grotto, where a straggler received care, where a loser languished (languir). To let language languish is hotel prose’s aim. Whenever I hear the word “hotel” I think of Baudelaire’s enshrined “anterior”––blue voluptuousness, pregnant odor, waving palm fans, marine sun, and the sensation of being refreshed by nothing, by a room one merely imagines. HOTEL GIBBS Contemporary British artist Ewan Gibbs made ink drawings of hotel rooms, images borrowed from ads and brochures, images he reconfigured into a “lexicon of dashes, circles, and dots,” formed into grids (as in Chuck Close’s portraits). A hotel room comes disguised as a nonsensical, abstract pattern of hieroglyphs. For another series, Gibbs took photos of hotel facades in Iceland and Germany and transformed them into drawings composed of little circles organized into grids; to make the drawings, he used five different pen nibs, producing varied degrees of light or darkness. Only from a distance can the eye understand that these images are hotel signs. Within the grids, zeros rehearse transience, purge identity. The zero is the
to earlier topics just because of your nerves.” “This strong sun’s burning my back. Mind putting lotion on me?” She rubbed it in loose circles on Liberace’s back, scarred from former acne. She pitied pock-marked men—including that fat screenwriter who’d molested her. As Lana lay back down on her chaise longue, she thought, What if MGM fires me? How would I support myself, once residuals peter out? “May I take off my bathing suit?” asked Liberace. He inched his trunks down and lay nude, facing up, on chaise longue. Tanning lotion’s application did nothing to arouse him, thanks to strong anti-aphrodisiac medications, which many stars took religiously. His urge to lie nude beside Lana Turner had nothing to do with lust. He simply wanted to get three-dimensionally tan. “Do psychiatrists make you analyze everything?” asked Lana. “They harry me night and day,” said Liberace. “Do their questions help you improve?” Curious about Liberace’s moral purge, she planned to stage hacienda rehabilitation-sessions after her Hotel Women stint ended, to cure herself as well as Cheryl. “Improvement is slow but total,” said Liberace. “MGM’s shrinks are incompetent.” “Stars probably freak them out,” said Liberace. “Is your moral rehabilitation succeeding?” “For now,” said Liberace. “Next week my parents will come visit from Modesto. I’m curious what they’ll think of my development.” “Were your parents upset when you went into decline?” asked Lana. “My parents are matter-of-fact about most problems,” said Liberace.
hotel resident. Gibbs pursues a hotel practice: making obsessive hand-drawn marks on grids, the artist builds a time-room, duration itself a cell of dwelling. He spends ten hours a day inking in the dots: assiduous artistry mimics hotel-room confinement. Names of hotels in Ewan Gibbs’s series of “Facades”: Hotel Adlon (Berlin), Hotel Unter den Linden (Berlin), Hotel Hardenberg (Berlin), Hotel Bristol (Vienna), Hotel Geysir (Iceland), Hotel Holt (Reykjavik), Hotel Hofdi (Reykjavik), Foss Hotel (Reykjavik). Circles in the grids––Ewan’s meticulously crafted zeros–– look like small windows onto the impossibility of seeing. TOWARD A HOTEL-ANALYSIS OF CHOPIN NOCTURNE #3 AND SCHERZO #1 A hotel-analysis will notice that in the nocturne (Opus 9, No. 3), a melancholy and nostalgic (but not quiet) passage plays host to a tempestuous (minor-key) passage, and that in the scherzo (Opus 20), an angry frame (oftrepeated) extends welcome to a sweet-tempered (major-key) interior. Chopin tampers with host/guest relations. Nostalgia hosts (or buries) a tempest; anger (virtuosity, puissance) hosts a backward-looking guest, improperly curious about the past. Hotels raise but cannot settle the question of the anterior. Poetry––with its repetitions, its cadences, its abruptness, its invocations of presence, its situations of immediacy and of idiocy––is
“My mother is schizophrenic,” said Lana. “Is that genetic?” “Environmental.” “What are her symptoms?” “She wants to follow me everywhere,” said Lana. “She’s staying here at Hotel Women.” Talk of schizophrenia made Liberace hard. He turned over on his stomach and rubbed tanning lotion on his buttocks. He reminded himself to shave them tonight. Hotel languor was no excuse to let personal grooming slide. Lana lowered her butter-colored bathing suit to her navel. She rubbed oil on her breasts in tight circles. Liberace reached over and touched Lana’s right breast. “Do your burns still hurt?” “Hands especially,” said Lana. Liberace stopped caressing Lana’s breast. Now it was her turn. She reached over and started rubbing Liberace’s nipples. “I feel out of my element,” said Liberace. “Just relax,” said Lana. “Go with it.” “Go with what?” asked Liberace. “Is war approaching?” asked Lana. “Against China?” asked Liberace. “No,” said Lana. “I think we’re going to attack Russia.” “Are you in favor of bombing?” asked Liberace. “We need to keep America powerful,” said Lana. “We live in dangerous times.” “I’m peace-loving,” said Liberace. “War makes me nervous.” “Politicians should decide. I don’t want needless suffering, but if our elected representatives think we should bomb Russia, then I’m all for it.” “You’re patriotic,” said
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reason-seeking prose’s anterior. I propose hotel as the desired elsewhere to my dismal location.
Liberace, groggy from Lana’s special attention. “Is this combatting your downhill feeling?” asked Lana. “Yes,” said Liberace. “I don’t think I’m going downhill anymore.” “We’re back to our earlier conversation,” said Lana. “I’d rather you stop now,” Liberace suggested. “I think stars should be allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies,” said Lana, “and with their time.” “They punish us for it,” said Liberace. “Punishment eventually ends, unless it’s capital.” Lana and Liberace restored bathing suits to decent levels. Despite medication, he continued to experience arousal. “Look,” said Lana, pointing toward ocean, some blocks distant. “Angry waves.” “My eyes are bad,” said Liberace. “I need binoculars.” Faintly she could see pounding waves. She worried about her two albatrosses, Mildred and Cheryl. Lana and Liberace walked downstairs, and, before parting, paused. “I feel changed by our little experience,” said Liberace, “but we’re not beginning any new phase.” “Absolutely not,” agreed Lana. “We’re right back where we started.” “No, we’ve advanced.” “By how much?” asked Liberace. “Development isn’t measurable,” said Lana.
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SONIC INTIMIDATION: SANTIAGO SIERRA
NOWN FOR ANTAGONISTIC ACTIONS WITH controversial ethical complications, Santiago Sierra strategically intervenes into the everyday operations of power. His unnerving spectacles expose systems of marginalization and exploitation that are, for the most part, implicit and underacknowledged. Many of his works deliberately test the limits and tolerances of authority, to the point that adversity – including shut-downs and refusals – is integral to the logic of the work. As the artist candidly confides, “I want to create nervousness and problems [for] institutions.”1
Sound has served a particularly useful medium in Sierra’s troubling of institutions. Annoying, loud, out-of-place or otherwise noisome intrusions perturb both the quietude central to disinterested notions of aesthetic perception and the mythology that the artistic economy operates benignly or separately from the economy as a whole. A pair of blind street musicians in Two Maraca Players (2002), for instance, performed their instruments in art gallery, though in an amplified and grating manner. Although the artist ensured that they earned a better wage than begging on the streets of Mexico City, the ethical issues raised by their placement in a gallery subverted the ideology of artistic autonomy. Viewers were sonically confronted with the economic and class disparity structuring their “pure” aesthetic experience. Shots (2003), exhibited at the Basel art fair, likewise interrupted the smooth functioning of the business of art. Recording the New Year’s Eve celebrations in Culiacán, Mexico – which featured the crackling of small guns and the thundering sounds of heavier firearms – Sierra replayed the clamour on a mammoth 5 x 10 meter wall of speakers. The sounds of gunfire, accompanied by the wailing of car alarms and ambulance sirens, disconcertingly introduced references to violence and war into a country renowned for peacefulness and neutrality. The Displacement of a Cacerolada (2002) also adopted the methodology of relocation, this time with the clangorous protests (caceroladas) of demonstrating Argentinians. Furious at the peso’s devaluation and resultant bank closures, citizens of Buenos Aires raucously banged on pots, pans, and the banks’ own corrugated metal facades. Sierra taped some of these actions, burned them onto several thousand CDs, and then made the protests available to individuals in American and European cities such as New York, London, and Geneva. The instructions were simple: at a synchronized time, participants in all of the cities positioned their speakers in windows and simultaneously played the CDs at full volume. Thus the economic hardship of those
Text by Jim Drobnick
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thousands of miles away would be brought to the origins of their distress – First World financial capitals that set injurious global monetary policies. The commotion aimed to vex the tranquility of international financiers who tend to be deaf to the adverse, local consequences of their economic decisions.2 The association between sound, protest and financial power continued in the performance El Degüello (2003), which I will discuss here in more depth. Originally planned to occur facing the New York Stock Exchange, El Degüello was a twenty-four hour performance by a series of trumpeters playing the eponymous melody non-stop. Given the post-9/11 climate of security in lower Manhattan, near the site of the former World Trade Center, permission by the New York City Police was denied. Undeterred, Sierra relocated the trumpeters several blocks away to Battery Park, a congregation point for tourists and commuters catching ferries to Staten Island and Ellis Island. The point was clearly made, however, that the machinations of capital on Wall Street were not to be discomforted, even by the presence of an ostensibly musical performance. The work’s title, El Degüello, referred to the tune played by the Spanish military variously translated as “No Quarter,” “No Mercy,” “the Cutthroat Song,” or, most threateningly, “the Slaughter Song.” Sierra’s statement about the work identifies an interest in the song as a form of sonic and psychological warfare, one famously used by General Antonio López de Santa Ana and the Mexican army at the 1836 Alamo siege during the battle for the territory that is now Texas.3 The playing of the song signaled to opponents the lack of mercy to be shown to those who survived the attack – even if they surrendered, all would be killed. Such audio terror is not only a maneuvre of the past, however. The U.S. military today draws on music – in this case deafening volumes of hard rock, pop and children’s songs – as a method of interrogation and torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.4 In Sierra’s performance, twelve buglers took shifts playing El Degüello continuously from noon one day to the next, repeating the song ad infinitum. The shift in context was a haunting one: from a nineteenth-century territorial war conducted at the limits of the frontier to an artistic skirmish launched at the very centre of twenty-first century finance and global power. Instead of a brick and stone missionary building, Sierra’s trumpeters confronted steel and glass skyscrapers. As for the targeted audience, financiers, accountants and upscale condo dwellers replaced the
bedraggled, outgunned and now heroicized Alamo defenders. There was also another competition of sorts at Battery Park, one for sonic supremacy as the trumpeters performed amidst a cacophony of boomboxes belting out top-ten hits, rollerbladers roughing up the benches, cyclists hurtling along the boardwalk, and conversing passersby. The variably talented players – some gifted enough to do jazzy improvisations, while others were obvious amateurs – demonstrated that virtuosity was not a determining factor in the recruitment of performers. The sonic threat posed may have been minimal and somewhat absurd, but the commitment of the participants to reiterate the plaintive tune and to endure the hot afternoon sun and bleak night hours lent the activity an unexpected gravitas. El Degüello’s dimension of ideological critique became evident when the video documentation scanned the surrounding context of Battery Park, providing views of the Statue of Liberty, the American flag, the shipping yards of New Jersey, and a series of leisure and tour boats plying the Hudson River. As these icons of freedom, nationalism, industrial strength, and prominent wealth were foregrounded, the comparative resources of the trumpeters, and by allusion Mexico and the rest of the Third World, seemed paltry indeed.5 The sense of futility actually increased the symbolic weight of Sierra’s gesture of resistance. First World political and economic power was here challenged by a series of buglers that referenced geographically and temporally displaced others: Santa Ana’s mighty but ultimately vanquished army, as well as the vast number of impoverished, marginalized workers around the globe who are for the most part invisible to neo-liberal policymakers. The voices and needs of these workers, excluded from the decisionmaking processes of transnational corporations yet subjected to their imposition of racial hierarchies and economic injustices, were trumpeted back to the source of such disempowerment. If the repetitiousness of the music was considered annoying, it was all the better to aggravate the complacent acceptance of Third World exploitation. The melody El Degüello used in Sierra’s performance bore a conflicted creative trajectory. Rather than choosing the version employed by the Spanish/Mexican military, the artist selected the theme song appearing in the soundtracks for Rio Bravo (1959) and The Alamo (1960), two classic Westerns starring John Wayne. For these films, composer Dimitri Tiomkin reinvented the slaughter song instead of using the original, though keeping the Spanish title. In so doing, he effectively erased the song’s historical ac-
curacy and cultural specificity, even as his score increased popular knowledge of the song, which has since become one of the most memorable in the Western film genre. Its recognizability was attested to in the video documentation when a bystander identified the tune and retold the story of the battle for the Alamo, without awareness of the composer’s musical appropriation. The colonization implicit in Tiomkin’s act thus mirrored real-life events, namely the motives and actions of the Alamo defenders at the time of General Santa Ana’s attack. The defenders were not preserving the integrity of the United States, as is so often assumed nowadays; they were claiming Mexican territory in an act of blatant and illegal acquisition. Here, the spectacle of Hollywood cinema and music supplanted historical reality, a fact which Sierra both exposed and redirected for his own purposes. El Degüello once again served as the theme for a soundtrack, not for a film justifying and valorizing American aggression, but for a performance video that articulated a symbolic response from all those in the Third
World who have been and continue to be disenfranchised. Sierra’s sound works are continuous with the critical sensibility and major themes prevailing in his overall artistic practice: unsettling artworld ethics, challenging institutional authority, underscoring First World/Third World inequalities, and generally politicizing what is often considered “business as usual.” His noisome fusillades provoke much like the abject, noxious materials do in his performances, sculptures and installations. Yet the sound works are also distinctive. In addition to being site-specific, the sound works embrace reproduction and transportability. Not only are they effective in their original context, for the dissonance of maracas, gunfire, caceroladas and sonic warfare can also be employed to intervene in other, more dispersed situations. While a number of Sierra’s projects defy institutional assimilation, his sound works pose a perpetual threat.
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Notes This text has been adapted from my curatorial essay for “Listening Awry,” an audio art exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, May 31–September 1, 2007. 1. Santiago Sierra, quoted in Mark Spiegler, “When Human Beings are the Canvas,” Art News 102: 6 (June 2003): 97. 2. See Cuauhtémoc Medina, 20 Million Mexicans Can’t Be Wrong (London: South London Gallery, 2002), 2–3. The descriptions of Two Maraca Players, Shots, and The Displacement of a Cacerolada are adapted from my essay in Aural Cultures, Banff/Toronto: Walter Phillips Gallery Editions/ YYZBOOKS (2004), 274-5. The anthology’s accompanying CD also includes audio excerpts from these three works. 3. According to the artist, Santa Ana’s buglers played El Degüello for thirteen days before the fort was taken, see http://www.santiago-sierra.com/200308_1024.htm. The strains of are reportedly still heard by some at the Alamo historical landmark – a form of aural haunting – although sources do not specify whether the melody is the original or the Tiomkin version. See http://www.legendsofamerica. com/Tx-AlamoGhosts2.html. 4. See Suzanne G. Cusick, “Music as Torture/Music as Weapon,” Revista Transcultural de Música/Transcultural Music Review 10 (December 2006), http://www.sibetrans. com/trans/trans10/cusick_eng.htm. The timing of El Degüello’s performance, six months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, implicitly connected American aggression upon Mexican territory in the nineteenth century with its current invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. 5. Sierra’s video also sympathetically documented, in passing, the underside of the American dream as well: the drudgery of a sanitation worker cleaning out the waste bins, a homeless person camping behind the performers, and lonely night owls hanging out and listening distractedly.
Captions: Santiago Sierra, El Degüello, 2003, performance stills, Battery Park, New York, United States, October. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London.
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“FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY?” CANADIAN ACCENTS & AFFIRMATIVE ACTION IN ART HISTORY
Text by Mark Cheetham
RT HISTORIANS NEED TO RE-THINK THEIR USE of the nation as a default category. It’s not just in our immediate field that we find the unproblematized use of this worn concept. Most of today’s prestige, permanent international art exhibitions are labeled by city, yet organized by national pavilion and national participation: the Venice Biennale, the Sao Paulo Biennale, the Biennale of Sydney and many others follow this pattern The nation – if not nationalism - is clearly dominant even in these hyperglobal events. Art fairs may be different from these venues in many ways, but they can follow the old pattern too. At Paris Photo 2007, for example, Italy is the special guest this year. The promotion continues: “The 2007 selection will be one of the strongest ever with eighty-three international galleries selected among 300 applicants. In addition to the 18 French galleries, the largest contingent of foreign exhibitors comes from Italy (16), followed by the USA (15), Spain (7), Germany (6), the UK (5), Holland and Japan (3 each), Finland (2) and one representative each from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Luxemburg, Portugal, and South Africa.” Many artists find it limiting to be thought of as contemporary Canadian practitioners, though it’s probably all right, for awhile, to be working in Montréal or another “in” city. Regionalism – once a powerful organizing principle in contemporary Canadian art – gets little press these days. As a tour through most University course listings will reveal, we are expanding the canons of categorization, but the nation and its cognates remain fundamental. We all know this: the question is, should we accept the status quo? Perhaps there is a way to acknowledge our numbing, habitual recourse to the nation as art-historical shelving system yet also to jolt the category into usefulness. It is a commonplace that contemporary Canadian artists often explore nationhood thematically. This is one good reason for keeping the rubric. A practical but more consequential reason is that the work of most artists in Canada will not be discussed at all without affirmative action regarding their nationality. The downside of nation-language is that identity issues, ones that pertain to the nation question beyond this country, burden it. What is Canadian about Canadian Art? Why study it, even if we define what “it” is? If I may be Toronto-centric for a moment, in Nathan Philips Square, is Pachter’s amusingly clichéd moose more Canadian than Moore’s Archer? Brian Jungen’s sports materials in Prototype for a New Understanding are commercially available across the western world (that’s the point), yet his roots are in First Nations
traditions. Is this Canadian? Richard Attila Lukacs’s image here is about Berlin skinhead culture. Should we nonetheless call him a contemporary Canadian artist? Let me quote artist, curator, writer Ken Lum (who, I read recently, is “Canada-based”) on these issues:
What lacks in our scene has much to do with what has exercised many artists and art historians for decades: the problem of defining the place of art in Canada, its practices and projections, in all of its possible relationships. There is too much ignorance regarding the contextuality of historical events and practices in Canadian art. Efforts have been made to address the problem of ignorance, but then the problem becomes one of forgetting or not remembering. So the recent history of art in Canada remains a largely uncontested field of sporadic formation; there is so little theoretical accounting, negative or positive, of what has transpired that history becomes hypostatized, locked in some clockless environment. Any attempt to dislodge from this hapless position requires Herculean courage and perseverance 1.
The category of the contemporary is more difficult to negotiate than one might expect. In everyday parlance, we use it to mean “now,” but not in any literal sense. There is also a connotation of value in the term, as in contemporary thought or contemporary design, where contemporary = current and that’s a good thing. A conference last month at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany pertinently asked Where is Art Contemporary? The assembled museum professionals sought to understand The Global Challenge of Art Museums, and “to debate the concept of art following its globalization, which has produced entirely new developments outside western civilization” (Press release). I would argue that globalization makes important differences to the way we understand contemporary art within western societies too, and most importantly for this setting, that it matters where one is within the contemporary.
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Contemporary art, as that period designation following on “modern” in the field art history, is supposedly marked by its internationalism. Yet strictly defined according to the nation model, there was only 100 years of Canadian art, from Confederation to Expo ’67. Art prior to 1867 was largely defined by American, British, and French trends, each typically seen in its own national frame. After 1967, or perhaps 1980 (the date arbitrarily assigned at the Art Gallery of Ontario), convention has us speak of contemporary art in an international context. Strictly speaking again, there should be no contemporary Canadian art (or that of any other nation) because the contemporary supposedly transcends the confines of the state. I expect that we could all add to my quick survey of the problems and paradoxes attending national identity in the visual arts. I’d like to be more positive and practical by largely sidestepping these concerns. The category of contemporary Canadian art is worth saving and refining, I believe, because without it, the hype of internationalism will obliterate from discussion and posterity almost all of the work done in this country (a quick example: I took a poll in the graduate course I’m teaching this term: only 2 / 15 students had heard of the N.E. Thing Co. Of the 13 who had not, most were born and educated in Canada). What we need is a notion of the contemporary that accounts for place, even the place of the nation. An internationalism that elides cultural specificities is pernicious, designed, I suspect, to facilitate “free trade” rather than to develop an ideal of cosmopolitanism.
Terry Smith’s recent article “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity”2 offers a sustained analysis of many of the issues I want to address. It’s also a symptom of the problem of the nation when it comes to Canadian Art History. Smith says that it won’t do to think of all production “today” as “contemporary”; what he colourfully calls “this pluralist happymix” is “illusory”3. For Smith – often worth quoting at length:
Ouch. What he wants as an antidote to the seamlessly marketed superficialities of the contemporary is art that “grows out of the complexities of contemporaneity”5. Thus for Smith:
Contemporary art, as a movement, has become the new modern or, what amounts to the same thing, the old modern in new clothes. In its most institutionalized forms—from the triumphalist overreach of the Guggenheim Museum’s global franchising through the Old Master elegance of the installations at Dia:Beacon to the confused gesturing in the contemporary galleries when the Museum of Modern Art, New York, reopened in 2004—it is the latest phase in the century-and-a-half long story of modern art in Europe and its cultural colonies, a continuation of the modernist lineage, warily selected not least in an attempt to preserve this cultural balance of power. Official contemporary art resonates with the vivid confidence and the comforting occlusion that comes with it, taking itself to be the high cultural style of its time 4.
[What] constitutes truly contemporary art [is] that which emerges from within the conditions of contemporaneity, including the remnants of the cultures of modernity and postmodernity, but which projects itself through and around these, as an art of that which actually is in the world, of what it is to be in the world, and of that which is to come. Its impulses are specific yet worldly, even multitudinous, inclusive yet oppositional and anti-institutional, concrete but also various, mobile, and open-ended6.
His list of examples goes on for two pages. One of Canada’s most internationally celebrated artists, Jeff Wall, is mentioned, but no others working in or hailing from this country make the cut. Presumably there are a few in “the thousands more” of whom Wall is a representative. Tellingly, Smith speaks exclusively of individuals. He gets away from the nation as category. While this is a relief in some ways, it’s also revealing that only Wall figures as truly contemporary. Smith is extraordinarily well informed and astute, yet he can only come up with this, the best-known name. Does this matter? I think it does, both in Smith’s own terms and in others, to which I’ll now turn. Smith emphasizes that “all of the artists mentioned, and the thousands more of whom they are representatives, focus their wide-ranging concerns on questions of time, place, mediation, and mood.” If we are truly interested in time and place in their specificities, we cannot also say that these are universally translatable categories. When and where one works has to be at minimum potentially important to an understanding of the contemporary. What Smith inadvertently and ironically supplies in his lists of artists – and what I think most of our students get in courses in “contemporary art” and in many of the MOCAs around the world – is akin to the “international” version of newspapers, both print editions and on line. Many of these courses or sites would include Wall’s photography. Would they discuss N.E. Thing Co., Greg Curnoe, Joyce Wieland, or any of the other more recent Canadian practitioners (Pascal Grandmaison, the Royal Art Lodge, Camille Turner, Robert Houle, Isabelle Hayeur … we would all have our own lists) whom we know to be significant in just about any terms one can elaborate? What we need I think is an elastic category of contemporary Canadian art, at least for internal edification. You might grumble that I’m presenting a circular argument, that my conclusion – that in Canada we should know about and discuss contemporary art produced here – is one of the premises I begin with. If that’s the case, I start with this belief for several less than metaphysical and less than nationalistic reasons. Our students and the public generally have more access to local work and producers than to international art. We shouldn’t therefore replace one with the other, but if understanding materials and ideas in contemporary practice is a good thing, it’s an idea to look at what is nearby. I would make the same point anywhere else in the world. I have also come to believe that locale makes quite a difference, potentially, to what work is produced and what we might take it to mean.
Now while it would be instructive to examine Smith’s examples of artists practicing a true contemporaneity, I want to focus on his stated principles as a way to return to my question about the nation as a place for the contemporary. Smith claims:
[that] at least four themes course through the heterogeneity that is natural to contemporaneity. All of the artists mentioned, and the thousands more of whom they are representatives, focus their wide-ranging concerns on questions of time, place, mediation, and mood. They make visible our sense that these fundamental, familiar constituents of being are becoming, each day, steadily more strange. Nowadays, the list looks more like: (alter)temporality, (dis)location, transformativity within the hyperreal, and the altercation of affect/effectivity. Within this contemporaneity, they seek sustainable modes of survival, cooperation, and growth7.
Jin-Me Yoon, Group of Sixty-Seven, (detail). 1996-1997
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“Obviously,” you might say, but this assumption does not aid the ready exchange of art on the global market. To find out about specific meaning, one has to do research, ask questions, and know a little history. Lest anyone think that I am promoting obscure artists with my call for affirmative action, let’s look at much-exhibited and much written about work, that by Jin-Me Yoon. In the 1990s – especially in Souvenirs of the Self and The Group of Sixty-Seven – Yoon evocatively addressed issues of personal and national identity through one of the most identifiable, and biased, historical attempts to forge a Canadian identity. She recalled but transformed both the Group of Seven’s and Emily Carr’s attempts to see Canadian-ness through myths of the wilderness. As Lynda Jessup points out in her article “The Group of Seven and the Tourist Landscape in Western Canada, or the More Things Change…”8 the Group viewed the west not as “a place of productive labour, nor a permanent home, but rather a place of recreation …”9. It was an Ontarian’s and a tourist’s view, one very much complicit with the establishment of Banff and Jasper parks as tourist destinations at this time. Carr’s relationship to the natural environs and peoples of the North West was certainly different, but it nonetheless came to form an ideology of solitary looking that Yoon revisits. Yoon’s work explores the specifics of tourism and identity. She understands that seeing is in some ways collective and pre-established. To be what Terry Smith calls truly contemporary, one has to be local but not parochial. I am not criticizing Smith for neglecting Jin-Me Yoon or forgetting to mention Canada. Looking again at his laudable definition of the contemporary, however, I’d say that tourism is one of those authentic themes that are in the world. But to say that tourism is everywhere is to say little; it is in the world in specific places and ways. For example, while desired - and supported by an infrastructure built with forced labour - it nonetheless doesn’t exist in Myanmar these days. Tourism at Niagara Falls isn’t unique but neither is it divorced from the specificities shown by Fern Helfand, for example, or in Shelley Niro’s film “It Starts with a Whisper” from 1992, a contemporary but also mythical vision of a 1st Nations’ voyage of discovery. Neither of these important takes will make it to the international edition of the contemporary art news. One remedy to the elision of this and so much other worthy production is to focus on contemporary Canadian art as a category. It isn’t necessary to essentialize the nation, to decide what constitutes Canadian-ness or even to
think there might be such a thing. Loose parameters work fine and can be redefined. I mentioned at the outset that many important international art exhibitions are organized both by city and by nation, more or less like having the UN in New York City. Art fairs seem to be city oriented for the most part. So might it not be better to forget about the nation as a category and think in terms of cities? This already happens, for example with the “Vancouver School” of conceptual photography. For teaching purposes, where we have serious responsibilities to scholarship and to the even-handed exposure of art, however, I think the city emphasis will predominate on its own and within the rubric of the nation. Thanks to concentration of population and the infrastructures of education, marketplace, and critical reception, most art will be produced and discussed in large cities without anyone’s help. Antonio Gramsci wrote in The Prison Notebooks:
The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. Such an inventory must therefore be made at the outset10.
With its pretensions clipped yet holding fragments of the archive of its potential history in view, the nation as a category for art history offers a practical conveyance for the discussion of contemporary art produced in Canada. Without the nation as an organizing receptacle, like the tree falling in the forest, much of this work risks remaining unheard and unseen in this country.
1. [“The Artistic Scene in Canada,” Canadian Art. Vol. 18.2, (Summer 2001) pg. 44; expanded with KL’s more recent comments: MC]. 2. Critical Inquiry Volume 32.4, (Summer 2006) 3. Smith 683. 4. Smith 688. 5. Smith 690. 6. Smith 692. 7. Smith 700. 8. Journal of Canadian Studies. 37.1 (Spring 2002) 9. Jessup, 146. 10. http://www.marxists.org/archive/gramsci/prison_notebooks/ reader/q11-12.htm
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THE PIRACY OF ART
Eldon Garnet: Minor probes into the human psyche, cartoons, studies, unresolved thoughts, questions, satisfatory in their own way, but not really substantial. Yes probes, what is now called art: cultural, humanist, anthropological, more clever than anyone else. Art they would call it in the twentieth century, but haven’t we noticed yet? Five years into the new millennium, don’t you think “Teeny” it is time? The old boy has to go. But dear but dear, do you know what you are unleashing? It’s only form, relax, let her caress your old skin, pleasure in the line of her firm marble. So nothing remains, you kill the old man, and you are left with landscapes, waves washing on wrecked romantic shores. I propose to both of you: what does if mean if we throw the body of Marcel Duchamp overboard. Do you think he will sink, or float? Sylvère Lotringer: I think that Duchamp is still to come. I mean that his gesture may have been more radical and eternal than we expected. In a capitalist society, things get deterritorialized, and Duchamp deterritorialized what we understood by art: visual, historical, etc. He suddenly pushed the difference between what is art and what is not art. It was not that he put art to an end, but he just questioned whether there is an art that is still possible. Of course what happened over the last century – because we are in the next one – is that it has been covered, reterritorialized, recodified, turned into a new paradigm. He has been enshrined for reasons that he himself would have laughed about. So in a sense we still have to learn from Duchamp, but not what we have learned. Mark Kingwell: I am prepared to agree with part of that: there has been a kind of reinstitutionalization, or rather the institutional energy has a vested interest in accommodating anything that arises under the rubric of critique. I think that is right. But I think that maybe a different way of seeing it – and I would argue a better way to see it – is not to take this point as forcing the question: is art still possible? Because I think art is demonstratively still possible, but to force a different question, which is: when is art? Now once the point is made that anything can be art, the more interesting question is: when are we having an aesthetic experience? Or when are we in the presence of the work of art? And you can credit Duchamp with part of that insight.
SL: I couldn’t agree more with you, to the point that I’ll say it’s not when can we have an art experience, it’s when can we avoid having an art experience. Art has been too successful; art has invaded everything. Art has polluted everything and everything has polluted art, so that we constantly have an aesthetic experience. Now, what is art in this aesthetic experience is the problem. Is there a possibility to claim that art has a specific region of this aesthetic experience, or is it that it has diffused so much in society, in politics, technology, biology, and everywhere, that really we make an incredible effort to maintain the privilege and the possibility of something really called art? MK: We hear this point a lot: the overwhelming quantity of visual culture, that visual culture in inescapable. It is often made ally with the position that there is no distinction between art and any other kind of visual stimulus. I don’t know if I have any ironclad argument as to why I want to resist that allusion, but I do. And I wonder if you have that desire to, whether you think that there is such a thing as art distinct from other forms of visual culture? SL: Well that’s the million-dollar question. The thing that I myself would question is the idea of desire, whether this desire we have for art is really our desire, because desires have been produced. Consumer society produces not objects but desires. So we still desire art, but it doesn’t mean that art has a reason to exist because we have produced a desire to like its existence. MK: I want to distinguish between two kinds of desire, because I think that one kind of desire is susceptible to that kind of criticism (the production of consumption), and that is a desire for specific kinds of art, or specific branded forms of art. That’s the sort of thing we would all be prepared to analyze as the valorization of specific figures within the art world, which in effect become consumer brands. But my desire, distinct from that, is simply that there be something that isn’t just the same as every other form of visual culture, another desire. I don’t think this desire is part of the consumer logic. SL: No it’s part of the conspiracy. Paranoia always invents things that exist.
Mark Kingwell & Sylvère Lotringer in Conversation
Moderated by Eldon Garnet
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MK: If we have conspiracy we have negative connotations. In ‘conspiracy theory’ someone is secretly plotting, there are forces beyond our knowledge, the opaque ‘they’. But conspiracy literally means ‘breathing together’. So what if we choose to breathe together? Then the conspiracy in consensual. SL: Well that is what we do. MK: Then what is the problem with consensual conspiracy? SL: The problem is what it produces; capitalism is a conspiracy. So to think conspiratorially just means you just look at the society the way it is. But no one is responsible. Conspiracy assigns a point of origin, a center, a mastermind behind it, but there is no mastermind to capitalism. So what Baudrillard is talking about is really the fact that art is not foreign to capitalist logic. We want it, that is our desire. We think it is special. Everyone in the art world thinks that they are being special, but in fact we are not being special. MK: Okay, let me press you a bit on that one. I think there is a difference between saying art is not foreign to the logic of capitalism, and saying that it is – as many people in the art world would, I think, wrongly insist – somehow essentially anti-capitalist or that it is the essential critique of capitalism. But there is a middle position, there may be many middle positions, which is that it is neither reducible to capitalism, nor is it trying to maintain a position critical of capitalism. SL: In 1967 when Baudrillard published The Consumer Society he showed that basically what we desire is not something that is original. We want something to be original because it is different from the others, to give it a value, but in reality there is an evaluation going on, neither objects are really new. Whether it is a Jaguar or a Corvette, it is really not the Jaguar or the Corvette for art’s stake, it is the fact that there is difference that is established as status and value. Now I’m not questioning the fact that in the art world there are differences between the various forms of art, creativity, and productivity, but it’s just that the overall context is such that now originality and creativity work as a difference. So there is a pollution of value, which is no different than the rest of society.
MK: But what I want to resist here – and again I am just acknowledging frankly a desire – is the reduction of all goods to positional goods, because whatever Baudrillard said about consumerism had already been said onehundred years before by [Thorstein] Veblen. Veblen is far more reductive about aesthetics than even the most astute Parisian critic of the late twentieth-century. Every aesthetic judgment for Veblen reduces to the establishment of position vis-à-vis other people competing for status in a Capitalist system. But you can play that analysis on anything if you want. The question then becomes: well let’s say that everything can be reduced to positional goods, they are still goods; we still make valid judgments about better or worse. SL: Yes, but we have to stop trying to evaluate them in terms that belong to art history, with notions of genius, creativity, or specificity. There has always been an art of the market, but now every art is an art of the market. So what do you do? It is like the question of Baudrillard: What do you do after the orgy? You know, the orgy of art. Within that you find things that are more valuable than others, but the overall context is still one of exchangeability. So my question is not whether there is good art and bad art, which is not a good question because there are differences, but whether there is, within the context of capitalism (the globalization of exchange), a possibility for a form of art that would really be critical or different from it? Because within the context of art, we criticize, we contort ourselves into having a nice position in relation to what is happening outside, we feel good about it, and that is what critique is about. This is very legitimate, I am not denying that a critique is legitimate, but it doesn’t change anything. MK: The premise of that position is what needs to be examined: art’s desire to escape the logic of capitalism is itself a kind of conspiracy. Perhaps we could simply turn back, turn back on ourselves, and say that – as I suggested earlier – we should take responsibility. Not trying to exit the economy, because the economy can’t be exited, the economy is overweening, it will outrace us at every moment. Once a specific institutional critique is leveraged, the consequences themselves are not institutional, they are personal, about us as viewers, and how we now have to force ourselves to confront, which is our own response: what wonder does the work excite in me?
SL: Of course you cannot look at art from outside [the economy], but you also have to in order to know exactly what the work is about. So the question for me now is to figure out if art was always a response to a certain way of exploring the various paradigms that were available. I was recently reading about the Futurists, about Apollonaire, they felt science was the real adversary, the real challenge, before that it was perception, etcetera. So what is our challenge? We don’t even know what our challenge is. At this point our challenge is to survive, to still have aesthetic feelings in relation to art. So maybe what could make art special is that we could take time to look at it, but we don’t. The whole society is living in real time, and art is also being consumed in real time. MK: Right, but then – to speak in Heideggerian language – maybe the work of art is one that forces me to tarry, to spend time, instead of consuming it, passing over it. I quite agree, I mean to the general logic, the work of art is the thing that stands out as unassimilable. SL: There are some works like that, that point to some direction that should be explored. I am not saying that there is no possibility. I am just saying there is too much of a good thing. Okay, so we did it, and we still do it, we still appropriate, we auto-reference. We keep justifying the fact that art has to exist, but what if we go ahead and say: what if it was all a passion spent? A passion that was not even ours, which had been bequeathed by generations and by a whole historical context that has disappeared. What if we let art be what it is: a career, a place where subjectivity can express itself, where form can be found. But maybe this isn’t what art should be. I am saying it would be interesting to wonder what art could be in a context outside the total saturation of art and aesthetics, and no one has an answer. But it is still interesting to raise the question, because if we still maintain a position of interiority in relation to what is totally external then we really miss the only chance we have that Duchamp saw in his time. There was a window of opportunity, he took it and he broke it, but then we turned it into the new “scream”. We need to have a break from art.
MK: The idea of the post-historical moment is to the point here. Danto’s idea that the narrative of art history has reached a conclusion from which it cannot extricate itself. There is no further move to be made. He picks Warhol as the groundbreaker, but you could reference it back to Duchamp as well, and certainly the continuity runs from Duchamp to Warhol. But art doesn’t stop, the history of art stops, because there is no narrative, there is no meta-narrative that makes sense in the movements, they have run their course. That should be an opportunity though, and I think maybe this is a moment of agreement between us, that this is a moment of opportunity, and I think that there are artists who are seizing this opportunity. EG: Let me just paraphrase what you have been saying and rephrase it as a question. What you are talking about is the over-popularization of art, that it has reached a position of obesity. What I feel more than the obesity and the prevalence of art, and the aesthetic confusion because of that prevalence, is the hijacking of art by the notion of the spectacle itself. We have entered into a culture of Hollywood, a popular entertainment culture. Do you believe art too has entered and become transfixed by considerations of spectacle and entertainment?
A conspiracy literally means ‘breathing together’. So what if we choose to breathe together?
conspiracy is consensual...
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SL: 1n 1978 an interview was conducted with Baudrillard about the Beaubourg [Centre Pompidou]. At that time it was about a pedagogical attitude towards the masses: the masses have to be given art. He said forget it, the masses are going to come and destroy everything. Now the masses are the mass of artists. They are just coming and they create some sort of fascination. Baudrillard said: “the masses are flocking here according to the principles of fascination, and it affects a domain that in principle should remain unaffected by fascination.” I think now we are all fascinated by art, and that is what the conspiracy is about. No one is conspiring, we are all conspiring, basking in this mixture of fashion, glamour, aesthetics, the whole conglomeration of things that makes art. It is no longer just art itself, the art itself is but one of the components of something that has become a constellation that is social, political, economical, etc. and that is why it is so difficult. The conspiracy is that there is no conspiracy, if there was one we could do something about it. MK: That’s right, but I want to twist that and say the conspiracy is consensual, and once we acknowledge it as consensual, and maybe the orgy was consensual too – that would be a good thing – then we can focus on specific experiences. SL: Yes, but that is an individual thing. MK: But what is wrong with that? If I am in a confrontation with the work, if the work is opening me up, cleaving my chest open, why can that not be the legitimate value of the work. SL: Because our chest does not belong to us, it is a war chest. Deleuze talks about the passage from the society of individuals to the society of “dividuals”. Basically we have to be different than what we are because what we are is in actuality what society has made us. More than ever we are a product of this society. So our own reactions, our own desire, are not really our own. That is what the situation has already tried to realize, in some paranoiac way. Okay, we are totally invested and infested by the spectacle, by images, but how can we get out of it? We are going to drift to the city; we are going to try to clean our head. It is like reprogramming after being programmed by the society, how can we reprogram ourselves? Art can be one of these things, but it happens very rarely.
MK: But that is not what I am saying. As I suggested before, this logic of trying to reprogram the programming, or trying to outdistance it will fail. But the failure should suggest not that we give up, or that we reduce, but rather that we try to find some sense of ourselves, acknowledging all those structural forces, nevertheless entailing responsibility. I think this idea of responsibility is not reducible, even under the structural analysis of how we come to be how we are. This “I” may be the result of all kinds of conditioning and social programming, but the “I” is still reducible, and the responsibility is first of all to acknowledge that and take it on, and perhaps even to explore its uniqueness, and this uniqueness, which I don’t want to oversell, is at the very least the fact that it belongs to me. SL: I am very doubtful about the “me”, but not of the experience. I don’t want to romanticize art, but art was a certain dedication of an entire life to something that was futile and overwhelming. Artists would try to go beyond what they are, beyond themselves, try to reach out for something they don’t understand or know. Now people don’t give their life, they expect a lot of gratification along the way; they are being predicated by the existence of the whole sequence of events that create a career. But the risk is not just to be poor, the risk is just to dare to imagine things that would surprise themselves, and that would surprise the world. There is now an urgent need for something to happen, and it is happening in small ways here and there, but the industry is like that of Hollywood, the industry is churning, all of the art fairs and biennials are drowning everything, and it is very difficult for people to sustain. We are becoming either the traveling salesmen of art, or the tourists of art. At university it is the same thing, people go, there are all these useless conferences, your life is eaten up, you are physically part of this exchangeability. MK: Yeah, but why is that a problem? I hear you saying two things: one that I agree with, which is the case, and we know it is true for architects, for academics, for artists, this global economy that has created this frequent flyer manifestation of all these professions. At the same time I hear you saying that there is possibility still – and that is what I want to insist on – that the initial analysis doesn’t entail that there is the impossibility of the genuine work of art.
SL: What you are saying is that there is a personal responsibility, you can meditate in front of artwork. This is true, you know, slow down. If you slow down enough, you start to see things, you see them differently, but if you go faster than the system, overdoing the system, pushing it to the point where the system doesn’t want to go, then there is also possibility. The system has limits, the art world has limits, and the industry has limits. So it is a bit like the paradigm I liked with Baudrillard and Virilio, the extrapolating. We know what the capitalist system is, we know the consumer society, we know we are going to be consumed, but we are not consumed enough, because we consume according to the rules that are being dictated by us. The system reterritorializes everything very fast, instantaneously, so you have to deterritorialize everything you do, constantly, and that is part of art. A real artist is one that doesn’t wait for people to tell him what to do. MK: We have now, and if you don’t mind me saying so – maybe you wouldn’t agree – but I think we have come back to a point of total agreement. Because I think that deterritorialization is exactly what the best kinds of art do. SL: Yes, but you don’t do good art that happens to be in a context that is bad, in other words territorializing. You need to constantly create the possibility for this work to keep deterritorializing. Never has the fight against the capitalist system been more acute then when there is nothing to do about it. Maybe art can do something, but not to just criticize in your armchair and feel good about being right, because we can be right, but to be to the point is really more difficult, and there is no recipe to it. There are little points of deterritorialization here and there, but the system is too fast to not recognize it and to accept it, or to expel it. Baudrillard said, already in 1967, that there was no real possibility for criticality. It is tough, because we want criticality, we desire criticality, we have political position, and we want to believe that there is still a possibility of changing that world, but at the same time how does that system work? Capitalism works through obstacles, you present an obstacle and it overrides it. Take Italy, the Italy of the workers, the capitalist system invented machines, so the workers had no more reason to rebel, and that was consumer society. So the system doesn’t just work by canceling things out, the system needs resistance. So what can we do?
MK: Well, we can shift our notion of criticality from one of resistance to one of evasion, or play. The promising root doesn’t try to either stand ground where standing ground will be assimilated, or overrun, or to outstrip simply as a matter of velocity, the speed of the system. There has to be obliqueness as our forms of evasion. That is what I call responsibility. SL: Yes, there is still a possibility of thinking things through, and I think there is not enough thinking going on. We are not psychotic enough. We have an identity as a means of exploring worlds, not as a way of hanging on to it. That is what psychosis is about, and the system is psychotic. The system couldn’t care less whether it is this identity or that identity, everything is interchangeable.
Maybe art can do something, but not to just criticize in your armchair and feel good about being right, because we can be right, but to be to the point is really more difficult,
and there is no recipe to it.
overleaf: Terence Koh, Honesty is the Best Policy, 2007. Courtesy Peres Projects, Los Angeles/ Berlin
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