• Two new Drawing Papers…

    …are now available at The Drawing Center: Matt Mullican, A Drawing Translates the Way of Thinking, and M/M: Just Like an Ant Walking on the Edge of the Visible.  (Click on the images below for links to TDC’s publication pages.)

    The Mullican DP contains a great new interview between Mullican and the show’s curator, Joao Ribas, as well as transcriptions of pages from two of Mullican’s early notebooks.  Anyone interested in Mullican’s work will definitely find this DP illuminating, particularly for the epistemological questions that are central to the artist’s practice, and not just in drawing.

    The M/M DP is the first of our more experimental layouts.  It’s less a catalogue than a creative accompaniment to the conceptual issues that inform M/M’s work in general.  Short texts by Joao Ribas serve as meditations, or prompts for further thinking, on philosophical, literary and psychoanalytic concerns with language itself.

  • “The Problem of Consciousness,” and posting to resume shortly…

    Travel and other writing engagements have kept me from keeping up appearances here, but that should change shortly.  In the meantime, have a look at this video of Alva Noe discussing “The Problem of Consciousness.”  Noe is one of the more interesting of the philosophers of cognition out there, and we’re eagerly awaiting his new book, titled Strange Tools.

  • AWS post “Considering ‘Relational Aesthetics'”

    A good discussion has been mounting on Artworld Salon pursuant to my post on the Guggenheim’s theanyspacewhatever show, which just opened this past weekend.  Here I wanted to continue one more thought:

    Regarding Ina Blom’s concept of a “style site,” which she elaborates in her book of the same name, and which I have to admit I have not read, I can’t help seeing her analysis as an extension of critical accounts of Pop art, such as Hal Foster’s or Thomas Crow’s.  Whereas Foster and Crow keyed Pop to the unconscious structures and latent mechanisms of the then nascent consumer culture that was gaining traction in England and the US, Blom sees the “participatory” practices as a kind of Pop art of our nascent media culture.  Instead of the Pop image, however, now we are confronted with the “styled” environment (the exhibition hall, cafe, conference room, hotel lobby, etc.).

    If participatory practices can claim any kind of semi-autonomy as an art form, then it must come from the aping of these designed and designer environments, and not just in appearance alone.  Whatever the work of art, it is clear that, to be effective, it must work on the kinds of interactions that are facilitated or determined by these “sites.”  In this, I don’t see a problem with Blom’s analysis, except that it places work of the relational persuasion in a line with, and as an extension of, Pop; and I wonder if this is the antecedent that this work requires let alone deserves.  As Alex Alberro pointed out in his talk, there is “another relationality” out there, the new-concretists in Brazil: Lygia Clark, Helio Oiticica, Cildo Miereles and others.  These are figures of some standing, and given their historical adjacency to Fluxus in the US, and Situationism in Europe, I think it would be wiser to locate the radical anti-spectacularity of much relational and participatory work with these developments.

  • An emerging revolution…

    About ten days ago I gave a talk at an SVA ATOA panel on which I was to speak on the waning influence of art critics as compared to the rise of curators and collectors.  Shortly I’ll post a revised draft of that talk on my ‘Essays and Talks’ page, but here I want to return, if however briefly, to something I broached toward the end that talk, which, for me, is the importance of the concept of “emergence.”

    I was reminded of this today by an Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes that challenges the conventional wisdom of “market equilibrium” when it comes to thinking about just how we find ourselves faced with the current financial shit show.  The author of the piece essentially espouses the practice of agent-based market modeling, which “builds” or “grows” models of market behavior, rather than working from first principles–e.g. equilibrium–and then deducing from there how things “should” work.  In discussing a Yale economist’s model of credit levels and market stability, the author offers this key passage:

    …the model also shows something that is not at all obvious.  The instability doesn’t grow in the market gradually, but arrives suddenly.  Beyond a certain threshold the virtual market abruptly loses its stability in a “phase transition” akin to the way ice abruptly melts into liquid water.  Beyond this point, collective financial meltdown becomes effectively certain.  This is the kind of possibility that equilibrium thinking cannot even entertain.

    What is being described here, of course, is emergence–that is, the emergent behavior (which can tend towards order or disorder depending upon which direction one is moving) of a collection of independent “agents.”  These can be people with individual economic interests or, as the ice-to-water example demonstrates, even atoms or molecules.  What matters here is that emergence is opposed to a kind of reductionist thinking which believes that if you understand the behavior of a single agent (homo economicus for econmics; a point particle for physics) then you can understand everything.  (The billions of dollars spent on the LHC at Cern is a large and expensive demonstration of the power of this kind of reductionist thought).

    Now, why might the concept of emergence be important for art, or for art history, criticism and theory no less?  It seems like a silly question to be sure.  After all, we’re talking here about economics and physics, fields which always seem to bear a bit more urgency for everyday life than do the arts as we confront them today.  But here are some initial thoughts: in terms of history, the concept of emergence recasts our understanding of the shift from modernism to its subsequent iterations (postmodernism or what have you) as a shift away from aesthetic reductionism.  Understanding those subsequent iterations, then, would benefit from an understanding of emergence in all of its varied interdisciplinary manifestions.  (That P. W. Anderson’s “More is Different,” perhaps the seminal text on the dialectic of emergence and reduction, appeared at the very moment–1972–as debates were raging over the fate of modernism in the arts, gives the concept a very attractive historical specificity as well.)

    In terms of criticism, emergence would require that we begin to look at entire populations of agents and objects rather than continuing to focus on those agents and objects alone.  This may seem anathema to what art critics do, which, on the standard thinking, is to write about, assess and judge works of art.  But it should come with little suprise that I find this notion of criticism obsolete.  It is “art writing,” not criticism, and yes, it has its place and function, but we should not fool ourselves that it is “critical” in any rigorous or robust sense of the term.  Though it takes literature as its object, Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (Verso, 2005) offers a promising example of how an emergence-based criticism would look in practice.

    But if we are faced with confronting individual agents and objects, which is to say art works and artists, emergence offers us not only a framework but an incredibly versatile conceptual tool with which to approach the job of building and defending arguments about the work at hand.  I have tried to do this through a comparison of certain of Tara Donovan’s sculptures to installations by Sarah Sze.  Some, but by no means all, of Donovan’s work not only illustrates certain principles of emergence but also restages the negation of artistic subjectivity–think John Cage–which played such a large role in the demise of modernist aesthetics.  Sze, on the other hand, offers only the “appearance” of emergence–in the form of complex, artificial, biomorphic “worlds”–without any of the underlying dynamics, and so puts into place an updated but no less mythological, and outmoded, image of the artist as Creator.

    Finally, from a more purely theoretical perspective, emergence offers us a way out of the genesis/structure aporia that runs through philosophical phenomenology (Husserl) and structuralism (Saussure) to deconstruction and beyond.  The figure of the “symmetry breaking phase transition,” which is central to emergence, is a figure of the pure “event” which arises not in spite of, but as a fundamental feature of, a given dynamic system, be it physical, economic, social or historical.  Of course, the work of Gilles Deleuze has probably done most to stir this pot, which is why thinkers such as Brian Massumi and Manuel Delanda have gone very far in articulating general theories of emergence.  Nevertheless, one cannot begin to understand the full ramifications of this powerful idea without the incomparable efforts of Stuart Kauffman.

  • The NEW Drawing Papers…

    Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Demonstration Drawings and Kathleen Henderson’s What if I could draw a bird that could change the world? opened last week at The Drawing Center, and along with them, the first two of TDC’s fully redesigned ‘Drawing Papers’ catalogues are now available.

    The Demonstration Drawings catalogue contains two excellent essays: one by Joao Ribas, TDC curator, and one by David Rieff, New York Times Magazine contributing writer and author most recently of Swinning in a Sea of Death, a memoir of his mother’s illness.

    No. 80, Kathleen Henderson’s What if I could draw a bird that could change the world, contains an extensive interview between Nina Katchadourian, curator of TDC’s Viewing Program, and the artist.

  • Five fallacies of art criticism (2nd fallacy)

    That the writing should provide insight into the work or show that viewers can go and see on their own–i.e. that it must give them something to”acknowledge” or “recognize”  or–more to the point–“verify” from their own experience of the work or show.

    We might call this the “verificationist fallacy” for short.  It is committed by the critic who is expected to provide something like a guide to the art work under discussion, a focus on just what it is that one will see when experiencing the work for one’s self.  There are a number of problems with this approach, the least of which is the presumed likelihood that the readers of criticism will inevitably be first-person-viewers of the art.  It goes without saying that the critic of contemporary art has the advantage of occupying this position; her authority as a critic derives, in part, from the reader’s trust that what she has to say about a work of art comes from some first-hand experience of it–though, I will argue, this does not hold in every case; as they say, it is sufficient, but not necessary.  Nevertheless, it is exactly that trust which obviates the necessity of writing as if the reader will, at some point in the future, share that same position.

    Additionally, the geographical reach of the contemporary art world in particular creates an environment in which discourse increasingly comes to stand in for the work (which, of course, raises issues that exceed those germane to the verificationist fallacy on its own).  One cannot hope to “verify” a critic’s words when the work under discussion is on view half-way around the world; nor, given the volume of current production, can one hope to see everything for one’s self.  So a form of criticism that succumbs to serving as a “guide” to the work of art is, at bottom, a provincial criticism, one that trades in the authority of critical insight for that of physical proximity.

    The problem with the verificationist fallacy is brought into sharper relief when we translate this stress on physical proximity into one on temporal proximity, which brings us to the (equally specious) division between history and criticism.  All writing categorized as art historical does away with the verificationist fallacy pretty much by definition: history being a discursive entity to begin with–i.e. one does not experience history first-hand (no matter how much one might feel it “in the making,” so to speak) except in its telling (and subsequent retellings).  Criticism is no different, and thus it need not, indeed it should not, find itself pressured to find its “completion” dependent upon the reader’s ability to go out and see just what it is that the critic was talking about in the first place.

  • Jack Goldstein roars…

    The minds at Rhizome consistently make me proud.  Here they’ve linked to a YouTube video of Goldstein’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1975).  Goldstein is an underappreciated member of the ‘Pictures’ group; it’s excellent to see him getting the play, and the reach, he deserves.

  • Five fallacies of art criticism (1st fallacy)

    Over the next couple of weeks I will outline five fallacies of art criticism as a lead up to a talk that I will be giving at an SVA ‘Artist Talk on Art’ Panel, which will take place on September 19th. (The panel itself will address ‘Art Criticism Today’, and I will have the great honor of being joined by Robert Ayers from Modern Painters and artinfo.com. More details on that to come.)

    1st Fallacy of Art Criticism:

    That the writing should only address what’s “in” the work–i.e. what can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, etc. in the work itself, which is understood in this scenario as necessarily and wholly ‘autonomous’.

    It is a common swipe, often leveled at younger critics by elder practitioners, but just as often voiced by someone who is unhappy with something they label as ‘jargon’ or other unfamiliar language. Why, the unhappy party asks, must the critic make reference to some ‘ism’ or another, or some set of concepts, or theories, or whatever, which, from this perspective, seem extraneous to The Work?

    Autonomy, of course, is not the problem here; it’s the confidence the unhappy party has in just what constitutes The Work, which is. As those familiar with the landscape of contemporary art are certainly aware, The Work, is not as stable a term as it sounds. In many cases, there is nothing “in” it at all. Arbiters of conceptual and performance art liked to call this the condition of The Work’s “dematerialization.” Though it is a foolish description, the sensibility is correct. To treat certain works of art as “aesthetically robust” is to miss their import: think of Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning (1953), or Robert Morris’s Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal (1963) or, for that matter, Koons’ Balloon Dogs (1993-).

    Elsewhere I’ve discussed Gedi Sibony’s activity as one that walks the line of artistic “legibility”–indeed, I think this is its “content,” but it’s hardly a content that can be found “in” the work itself, as if some kind of “close looking” at Sibony’s surfaces of cardboard or drywall could reveal something more about its ultimate meaning. (And I don’t place much store by the idea that Sibony’s configurations are so carefully composed as to harbor some sort of subjective interiority; like any readymade, the gesture suggest it, but there is no subject there–though neither is it really an object either.)

    The call for the critic to “treat” what’s “in” The Work alone stems from a presumption of what Work can stand, properly, as a Work of Art, which gets us into the business of asking, What is a proper Work of Art?–and that’s not interesting, nor productive, at least from my critical perspective. For something to fall under the critic’s gaze, it must have gained already some kind of (semi)autonomy; whether it did so through a convention or an institution or a theory (i.e. it qualifies as a Work of Art under some shared notion of what that is, or it qualifies because some institution with invested authority has ratified it as such, or because it achieves ontological status as a Work of Art under some transcendent definition) is of little concern, unless , of course, the critic takes it upon herself to make this (semi)autonomy a point of inquiry. (More critics should.)

    Ultimately the call for paying closer attention to what is “in” the work itself has less to do with the Work than it does with the position of the critic: to place full trust in the “aesthetic” experience of the critic is to miss the fact that the function of the critic has always been to leave behind aesthetics for discourse, which is also to leave behind the personal for the public, the social, even when the language is dressed up in the rhetoric of one’s own opinion and judgment. If Wittgenstein taught us anything, it’s that the language is never our own…

  • Clay Shirky on “Gin, Television and the Cognitive Surplus”

    If this isn’t the best defense of Facebook, I don’t know what is:


    If there is a problem here it’s that the notion of the “cognitive surplus” that Shirky promotes privilege the idea of pure production over consumption or, more favorably in my view, observation. Shirky likes very much the idea of people doing and making as opposed to watching, and I think that’s a good point; but isn’t one of the issues that we run into the stratification of these kinds of making and doing? It’s a different kind of sociability, to be sure, but the original technology for that sociablity was the city itself, and we have yet to perfect it; in other words, gin might still have a place in the system, even if TV doesn’t.

  • American activist artist detained in Beijing…

    As a fellow Parsons instructor I feel it necessary to help spread this: From Boing Boing: GRL’s James Powderly detained in Beijing for planning pro-Tibet “L.A.S.E.R. Stencil” art protest.

    Whether it was a “smart” idea to provoke the Chinese, given the incredibly conciliatory and turn-the-other-cheek coverage of the Olympics, it seems reasonable that someone should push the boundaries. Kristof in the Times took a different tack, suggesting that the fact that Chinese officials are even paying lip service to the idea of protests is a step in the right direction, even if the persecution of dissenters of any stripe remains both tenacious and completely hidden from outside scrutiny.  Let’s hope that James finds his way home unharmed.

  • Art work revaluations on the rise…

    A senior executive in fine art and title insurance at one of the major insurance companies told me this morning that she has been contending this August with a flood of clients asking for revaluations of works and even of entire collections.

    This is usually a step people take before consigning work to auction, but it can also signal potential estate plan restructuring. Either way, if there is a glut of good work trying to find its way onto the block, we can be sure that auction house egos will rise even further than they have. Let’s hope that American consigners can continue to find European, Indian and Asian buyers.

  • “Considering ‘Tino Sehgal'” @ AWS

    We’ve initiated a new series of discussions over at AWS called “Considerations.” The first one asks readers and commenters to consider Tino Sehgal’s work.

    From my own perspective, there’s an interesting copyright issue–i.e. none of Sehgal’s work is fixed in a tangible medium in any way, either the work itself or documentation of it–which means that it stands solely as an idea. You can’t copyright an idea, of course, so Sehgal’s claim to authorship, or ownership, of any of his works, relies almost exclusively on the strength of his own personality, or identity, insofar as these are recognized by others. In fact, one could argue that that strength is a function of its recognition by others, which would seem to resonate nicely with his work–i.e. they pressure that moment of a viewer’s recognition that what they are seeing, or participating in, is not just some random encounter with other people in other places.

  • “Photography as a Weapon”: Errol Morris and the photographic image

    After his film Standard Operating Procedure, and its accompanying book, co-written with Philip Gourevitch, it’s quite possible that Errol Morris may be responsible for having initiated the next sustained meditation on the cultural status of photography and the photographic image. This dialog with Hany Farid certainly suggests that Morris may be next in line to inherit the legacy of Barthes, Sontag, Bourdieu, Solomon-Godeau and others who have addressed photography as a complex theoretical object with no insignificant political dimension (perhaps even one that outstrips its aesthetics).