Interview with Julian Stallabrass

Q: In your book ‚Art Incorporated‛, you quote Adorno: ‚absolute freedom in art, always limited to a particular, comes into contradiction with the perennial unfreedom of the whole.‛ In a complex society that is informed by free trade, what does a term like ‚free art‛ stand for? What is its current potential or would you rather argue for a change in concept?

A: The book is arguing that we need a change in the concept of free art, of the notion of a free art lies deep inside the art world and its relationship to other elements of society. It is a deeply unexamined ideal of free art as offering a repository for our free subjectivity and human agency both as artists and as viewers, as followers of art. And that ideal is deeply under pressure in various ways, particularly as museums become more commodified and branded spaces. Also because, as we have seen over the last five years or so, contemporary art has become the most extraordinary business. There are many people who move into it for purely instrumental reasons such as investment. The state also looks to art for various tactical and instrumental gains including the attempt to civilize the socially excluded … When art is plainly turned to use, the ideal of its freedom becomes more fragile and also perhaps more visibly absurd. So, I wanted to take a cold look, I suppose, at the ideal and what its current state of health is and also to argue that to hold on to that ideal in these circumstances is to play along with one of the ideological cloaks that the system uses to conceal its operations.

Q: What would be alternatives? If you say that free art is something we have to think about and work out a different concept if the relation between free art and free trade is very fragile and free art as a symbol does not work anymore. Do you see an alternative way?

A: I think there are certainly alternatives. One kind of alternative is found in what is broadly called ‚tactical media‛, particularly with collective online groups of art workers making interventions together. But there is no pretence there that the interventions are of a highly mysterious or ineffable kind. They are playful, tactical interventions in a mobile, changing field of business. Those groups that emulate and undermine corporate models, such as etoy and RTmark are examples. Another kind in an extremely different field would be, say, Sebastiao Salgado’s work for the landless peoples’ movement in Brazil, the MST. At that point, Salgado very much placed himself to the service of the movement and made work in large print editions that he sold to raise money for it. So he placed his very considerable photographic skills not to make an art of individual subjectivity but into making things which are very complex form of propaganda.

Q: When we look at these practices and the people involved—especially when it comes to new media, digital and documentary forms—it seems that many, if not to say the majority of proponents aren’t artists really. Actually, they don’t call themselves artists and don’t want to be called that way. So, what is the role of the artist in this respect? Do we need art at all, what is the necessity of art here? And somehow contrary to that in Salgado’s position, if it wasn’t for the brand, the celebrity status of the artist, what would happen in this case? What does this tell us?

A: That’s a very good question. I think a lot of the early net artists in particular played with their art status. Many made works that were certainly not for the art world and not seen in art-like spaces in that time. There was a great deal of debate about what it would mean, especially as the dotcom boom got going and museums became more and more interested in these kind of works. What would that appropriation into the art world of this material might mean? You find that there are many artists or online workers who are ambiguous about the art world and about the term ‚artist‛. So someone like Vuc Cosic would say to you simply something like

‚Well, I use the term because girls like it‛ or ‚I’ll show in museums because it pleases my mother,‛ as a way of trying to say that he doesn’t assign too much importance to it. Such practices lay somewhat within and without the art field. And maybe the part which lies outside the art field is in a way the more important part. Those who make such work use the art world as a way of getting invitations, get their work shown, online and in the gallery.

Q: So can we see the art world as an institution? If you don’t see yourself as an artist you could still use the art world as a global system to actually transport what you want to say, to make people aware of it, they use the structures of the exhibition, the museum, of magazines, etc.?

A: Yes. In some way yes. Let me just go back a moment. I heard Geert Lovink talk about tactical media and professions for such artists recently at an art fair. And one of the things that was interesting, was that he was still very much attached to that ideal of free play and free expression and free subjectivity. So, we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which—although the ideal is under pressure—it is still a powerful attraction to many people. It offers a model of unalienated labour and still has much power.

Q: Is the art world as a whole becoming an institution?

A: It isn’t singular—you can look at the huge national differences, those between localities, how different art institutions are even in the same nations and the same city, and look at the personalities that run these institutions. But I do think that is it important to take one step back and look at the broader picture, especially as the art world has become more global in many striking ways in the last twenty years or so, and to ask what the broad tendencies are.

Q: Uncertainty is a very central concept to modern society. It relates to freedom and free art, in playful ways, in contrast to its relevance for game theory and economics. So, there are these two traits. Does the economic and financial realm today succeed in transforming this ‘last bastion of playfulness’ into a game, a set of rules to be played by?

A: Part of the answer to that question might take you into Boltanski and Chiapello’s ‚The New Spirit of Capitalism‛ (1999) where they say that capitalism takes on very seriously the kinds of critique that were mounted against it as a part of the events of 1968 and becomes rather more creative and art-like in response. And indeed, the interest of many corporations and businesses in contemporary art may be seen as a way to inculcate in their workers some of the values of the field of contemporary art. Playfulness and free play of creativity and self-fashioning, too, would be very much a part of that. I guess that one of the uses of that book that it allows one to get a handle on it why it is that celebrity culture is so prevalent now: it’s all about making yourself and re-making yourself from moment to moment in order to accommodate to the rapidly changing circumstances and uncertainties you talked about.

Q: When we look at the fact that more and more corporations are collecting art and that this happens on a global level, it seems obvious that they don’t collect the way an individual person would, by choosing what they like. They need ‘slots’ – definitions, strategies, roads that are paved. In your view, is there something like standardisation developing in art and the business of art?

A: The whole post-conceptual consensus about what is taken as an art object forms a standard. Fairly recognizable forms and symbols are recombined in familiar ways that allow the viewer no easy analysis. A lot of the standardisation that you suggested in your question depends on the destination of those art works. Are they destined for millionaires’ living rooms? I think we are all very familiar with the kind

of spectacular, slightly extreme conversation pieces that meet that need. And then there is the standardisation that comes about as nations are branded in the global art marketplace, so that artists have to perform their nationhood on the global stage.

Q: We talked about alternatives before. Do you see developments that artists and art movements proceed in a ‘useful’ way – in contrast to the uselessness of art that you wrote about? Is there a need for a use, a function? Are we witnessing such developments today, such as a new kind of applied art or other more virtual forms?

A: Certainly, some of the products that came out of recession in the past showed a move towards applied and decorative arts. That was true for the Great Depression in the 1930s in this country because a lot of the middle class was less affected, and many of them had new homes that they wanted to be decorated in a more modern style, and artists started to cater to that need. The market for high art was also part of the investment bubble and fell apart entirely in the 1929 crash. So artists had to make knick-knacks for middle-class homes. So that may happen again. I guess the huge thing that has changed is what has been called Web 2.0, and the idea that not only the means to create cultural products but to publish them, to network them and comment on them and get into dialogue with others has become available to most people in developed nations. And that seems to offer a huge arena for – I wouldn’t say cost-free but a relatively cheap and dematerialised light form of art production in which nevertheless you can do interesting things and have an audience for it. Also, in some of the art schools, there is some thinking about environmental issues in the arts which I think has very profound implications for the way the art world operates. So much of what the art world does has to do with creating large, expensive, rare objects which are flown around the world to be shown or sold to people, and has to do with creating events, artists interventions but also the presence of people that have to travel there, and this is not even to talk about the collectors and the major curators who fly around in private jets to Basel and Kassel and Beijing. So, what you

arte talking about there is on one level catering to the superrich and this kind of culture club of culture consumers and one which is deeply environmentally damaging.

Q: In a simplified way one could say that we see iconic, very polished, simplified objects and works of art to be sold and on the other hand there is this highly complex situation of dematerialised, democratic, communicative approach to art. Is there any path that connects these kinds of art production, that brings them together? A combination of dematerializing and materialising productions, so to say?

A: One of the paradoxes of contemporary art production is that an increasing amount of it is essentially dematerialised. A Gursky photograph, a Matthew Barney video—these are data. They might be materialised in certain ways but fundamentally they are data. Both of them are very popular artists and there is something about that popularity that goes way beyond the restricted products the artists end up selling. So, Barney for instances makes a version of Cremaster 3 that is 30 minutes long and has sold it as an unlimited edition on DVD. But you can’t get the whole thing because that’s restricted to collectors who are willing to pay for it. But you can find Barney videos circulating on peer-to-peer systems, and this is obviously illegal, but it is also the place where they should be. And also, these things are dematerialised but then they take a materialised form in a particular display mode. So you could say that the display of a particular Gursky photograph on my monitor at home is a form of materialisation of that image. As many people have more large screens at home, the demand for and high definition files of paintings, photographs will increase. The control of these data files is going to be a very interesting issue, as it has been for music and film.

Q: Is this comparable to music and pop culture? Such as, if you have a large screen you can buy a collection of all kinds of paintings and other works of art of the last 3000 years and zap to whatever you like. Might there be hit parades one day?

A: Yes, there are very profound and interesting implications. One may also think of the model of just-in-time publishing, of printing one-off copies of books for sale and more generally the whole idea of the long tail as well. Things which used to be commercially unviable to produce become viable.

Q: To stay with the example of music, where even radical approaches, e.g. in hiphop, play with the genre and its reality as a market, where there are hit parades not only for the very commercial styles but also for other forms of music – can we see such a multiplying of proliferation where many market situations evolve, where many new forms of communication that are, dependent on their agenda, more market and money related or less will flourish? Is this an option, a road that art might be going?

A: Absolutely, and I think it is a very interesting one. In the pop world now there are plenty of bands that are making a quite considerable sums of money without ever been played on the radio, without a record contract, without going through all the usual procedures of getting established. And this might relate to art.

Q: Is art then becoming a mass culture?

A: Well, it could be when it is not tied to mechanisms which assure its exclusivity. I suppose the interesting thing here might be to break the link between some of the determinants of how we recognise something as art how it is written about and the mechanisms of institutional assurance of what we’re looking at as art, to greatly broaden the kind of cultural products that we are prepared to treat in an art-like way,

and within that broader frame, to see the regularities as much as the oddities, the mass as well as the individual.

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