13/02/10 - 28/03/10
The art world is wrestling with the question of how to position itself in today’s economy. To take part or not – that is the question. An essay on the production of non-knowledge as a driving force, based on an exceptional exhibition at De Appel in Amsterdam.
‘Most of us have a lot to unlearn.’ – Daniel Birnbaum
1. The Discursive Turn
‘Art as a form of knowledge production’ has for some time been a very fashionable concept in an art world that wants to be a factor in today’s information society. Although the discursive encapsulation of art in explanatory texts, lectures and debates has come to be part of the fixed machinery of its public appearance, there is still a great deal of scepticism about art as a conveyor of knowledge, certainly in the Netherlands, where the art world has always been characterized by persistent anti-intellectualism. In the Netherlands – not by coincidence a cabaret superpower – the fine arts are more commonly portrayed as the fool than as the philosopher. For this nation’s cultural sector, lightness is an important mechanism for survival.
This is also true of museums, which in the Netherlands show less academic ambition than major foreign museums, whose operations are more still closely aligned to the nineteenth-century enlightenment ideals with which they were founded. Many museums, certainly in such important museum countries as the United States and Germany, rely on a certain encyclopaedic structure that continues to couple works in the collections to their historic classifications. In contrast, Dutch museums focus more on the experience than on the transfer of knowledge. It is possible that this is also the reason that the experience economy, which caused such an uproar a decade ago, had a greater effect in the Dutch museum world than elsewhere. The discourse still continues – note the fuss being kicked up by Erik Schilp and Valentijn Byvanck’s multimedia plans for the new National History Museum (the directors, in short, want spectacle, while theorists insist on the canon).
Thanks to this ‘unscientific’ Dutch museum culture, it is no wonder that in the Netherlands, ‘the discursive turn’ in the nineties, which made the debate about art as a producer of knowledge an international issue, primarily finds expression in areas other than the museums. It is best seen in advanced art education, which has for years been debating the idea of art as a form of knowledge production, in all kinds of theoretically supported curricula, masters’ programmes and now also PhDs. Recently, smaller art centres have joined in. They are in the process of positioning themselves somewhere between the art and the universities, with programmes consisting of various combinations of lectures, debates and workshops with graduate students.
It is primarily this institutional middle segment of the art world, supported in part by educational funding and in part by cultural funding, that grabs hold of any available opportunity to put art at the forefront as an important form of knowledge. Thanks to their ceaseless promotion, a sizable lecture circuit has evolved, with its own form of spectacle, including its star speakers (Boris Groys), who, as art historian Simon Sheikh wrote, can now make a career out of being panellists.1 Speaking in and about art is big business, in the process of becoming self-sufficient, separate from the various exhibition programmes. In the Netherlands’ small art world, we now have several major conferences, with speakers flown in from far and wide.
The level of knowledge produced by all this talking, if it can be measured at all, is extremely unreliable. This is probably related to the method of conveyance, whereby lectures are less and less frequently chosen, making way for panel discussions, which have surrounded themselves with a veritable cult following, with intellectual observations, exhibitions and whatever else it might entail.2 Unlike lectures, criticized for being paternalistic and didactic (let’s say ‘old’ knowledge, in the same way that we have ‘old’ politics), the conversation serves as a ‘new’, more open form of transferring knowledge. A panel discussion offers a speculative reconnaissance of the territory of art and its environs. It needs to rely on keen thoughts and speculative ideas, more than on thoroughly researched theoretical statements.
Emily Pethick, director of the Showroom in London and former director of Casco in Utrecht, is herself an enthusiastic producer of countless discussions of this kind. In a special text on the subject for the London ICA, she explained that, ‘Conversations generate forms of exchange that are not fixed or static, but rather sustain ongoing processes of engagement, responsiveness and change.’3 She based her argument on an analysis of the work of the Brazilian artist Ricardo Basbaum, with whom she had also worked in Utrecht. Basbaum claims that ‘Conversations are a way of thinking, where the self opens to the outside, producing a special social space where no single language of truth is prevalent.’
Conversation as the stimulator of motion, as Basbaum calls it, proves itself to be the ideal instrument of ‘the discursive turn’, in the definition that Liam Gillick gave it in his lecture, Maybe it would be better if we worked in groups of three?4 In this Deleuzian analysis of the development of art since the 1990s, Gillick sketched the rise of an art world whose objective is found neither in the art object, nor its presentation, but in an unending, collective critical reflection. This ‘discursivity’ is not so much aimed at determining the known, or at knowledge in the scientific sense, but at an analysis that serves to make new analyses and insights possible: ‘The focus within the discursive is upon permanent displacement.... The permanent displacement and projection of the critical moment is the political potential of the discursive.’ Or, as Gillick simply put it in his lecture: a ‘just-around-the-cornerness’.5
2. Knowledge is Power
Speaking whose most important objective is to generate even more speaking: one can be sure that in academic circles, the boundlessness of ‘the discursive turn’, its border-free methodology as Gillick calls it, has met with a lot of giggling.6 Sven Lütticken referred to the knowledge production of artistic research in 2008 as at best a parody of academic knowledge, failing to meet its standards. But because of that it could also give space to a questioning of its standards.7
Based on the essay collection, On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, from which Lütticken’s statement was taken and which was published in 2008 by BAK, Utrecht, following their series of talks, one would almost think that in the art world – quite at odds with ‘the discursive turn’ – there should at least be consensus about what kind of knowledge art actually has to offer. The question that BAK was putting to its speakers, about what the nature of this knowledge production in art actually is, almost consistently met with the same answer: art is no history book, no classroom lesson plan, no encyclopaedia. The only thing art can do is demonstrate the drastic limitations of all that kind of knowledge production. As Glenn O’Brien once poignantly wrote in an essay on Albert Oehlen, ‘I like the idea that you look at a picture and then when you've finished, you know less than you did when you started. That's a great picture!’ 8
In the BAK Reader, all of the invited artists seem to be enormously enchanted by this knowledge bankruptcy in art. As Matthew Buckingham claims in a voice-over in one of his works, ‘The unknown is more than an occasion for possibilities. It is a provocation that propels us on a journey, a route of unknowing, in which we experience many of the ways that we do not know something.’9 Take the Copenhagen Free University, for example, a now disbanded artists’ collective that infiltrated the educational system by setting up its own school: ‘Knowledge for us has always been something that is evaporating, slipping between our fingers. It is not something that we treat as a truth or a possession, but something living, a relationship between people.’10
In the best of the reader’s essays, Simon Sheikh demonstrates how art had already developed its somewhat undermining interest in knowledge back in the 1960s, in the days of conceptual art, when it moreover ran parallel with post-Fordist capitalism – the service economy – in which material labour is replaced by immaterial labour, or information-related services. Sheikh feels that artists have done precisely what the economic system wanted them to do. He claims that artists have let themselves be completely consumed by the information economy. As a representative of the system, the artist is in a certain sense the model citizen who, more than some workers, perfectly expresses the values of the contemporary information economy: virtuosity, creativity, performativity.
Sheikh nonetheless foresees an escape route out of the information trap of the economy. ‘Whereas knowledge is circulated and maintained through a number of normative practices – disciplines as it were – thinking is here meant to imply networks of indiscipline, lines of flight, and utopian questionings.’11 Sheikh points out that most knowledge has a limiting effect on people, in the sense that it keeps you inside the boundaries of tradition, within the parameters of what is possible, just the way the economy around us does. Thinking, including artistic thinking, in contrast, can serve as an opening, as long as one seeks ways of thinking that contribute to ‘a different score, different imaginaries’. He pleads for thinking that is ‘unproductive’.12
3. The black cat that isn’t there
Slowly but surely, it appears that the contemporary information offensive in art is beginning to resemble its opposite: an offensive to unlearn. What is being promoted is not so much a recognizable world, but an unrecognizable world, which by its very nature must remain unknown, with art in the role of the pestiferous question mark. In a certain sense, this offensive is age-old, but it has come back in force, thanks to ‘the discursive turn’. It has multiple proponents, each of which leaves an imprint of its own.
In February, De Appel will be welcoming one of its younger players, the American information sceptic Anthony Huberman, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in St Louis, Missouri, who has made a name for himself with several exhibitions along this theme. At De Appel’s new location in Amsterdam’s De Pijp neighbourhood, Huberman will present For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there, with work by Marcel Broodthaers, Mariana Castillo Deball, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, Falke Pisano, Giorgio Morandi, Patrick van Caeckenbergh and others. The exhibition will be held simultaneously at different exhibition spaces in different places around the world, including London and St. Louis as well as Amsterdam, and later Lisbon. In this sense alone, it is already obscure and unknowable.
The exhibition, whose title is borrowed from a comment attributed to Charles Darwin, presents, as the press release calls it, ‘the speculative nature of knowledge. What is crucial here is the concept that art is not a code that must be cracked.’ Instead, a form of ‘non-knowledge’ is offered, of ‘unlearning and productive confusion, as a condition for a better understanding of the world’.13
Huberman has principally turned against the soul-destroying information culture that perpetually implies that everything can be explained. Several years ago, in the London-based magazine Afterall, he wrote, ‘Information is the enemy’. Information may be necessary for a better understanding of the world, but in the way that it now dominates our lives, it destroys everything. ‘Like all drugs, information takes hold of everything, surrounds it, swallows it, clings to it, bludgeons it and spits it back out.’14
Museums are also intimidated by the information virus that Huberman so abhors. They have a tendency to want to make art understandable, anxious as they are about disappointing their visitors, or confusing them, or sending them home filled with incomprehension. As Huberman puts it, ‘The experience of art that museums everywhere want to create is, “I get it”.’ But what counts in art is something completely different: ‘Whether we understand an artwork or not, what helps it succeed is the persistence with which it makes us curious.’ 15
From the catalogue accompanying For the blind man…, some of the intellectual cornerstones of Huberman’s thinking are evident, running from Socrates (‘I know that I know nothing’), via Flaubert’s Bouvard & Pécuchet, the pataphysics of the poet Alfred Jarry and George Bataille’s ‘non-knowledge’, to Sarat Maharaj’s concept of avidya, which literally means productive confusion and which charts an area in which the knowable and the unknowable go hand in hand, and for this reason, where art feels very much at home – at least according to Maharaj and Huberman. Susan Sontag is also mentioned, specifically her essay, Against Interpretation, in which she refers to interpretation as ‘a hindrance and a nuisance, identifying the interpreter as someone who violates art by imposing an expectation of “content” and by making it something that is organised into a scheme of categories.’ 16
Amongst his most important soul mates, Huberman also claims Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, the creators of the most recent documenta. In this, the world’s most important exhibition, emphatic distance was maintained from all forms of didactics in an effort to allow art to speak for itself, and in the most idiosyncratic combinations. The team had previously produced Things we don’t understand?, an exhibition that, as a striking exception to the rule, was accompanied by a catalogue, with the advantage that we can now quote from it: ‘The fact that things exist which we do not understand need not necessarily mean that they must traumatically block our perception. On the contrary, such things may be viewed as a means of articulating the concept of liberation in relation to the existing order of society.’ 17
For the blind man… does not escape beyond the horizon in vague romantic presentations of an unknowable reality. It seeks out confrontation and shows work that demonstrably steps back from the information culture by creating a caricature of its methods. Marcel Broodthaers interviews his cat on the subject of painting, while the artist team of Rosalind Nashashibi & Lucy Skaer offer a spooky tour of the Metropolitan Museum by night with only a blinking pocket torch. There are nonsense diagrams by Matt Mullican, and Eric Duyckaerts recites illogical phrases. But Bruno Munari shows us better than all the other artists in the exhibition what it is all about. In a series of slides, we see how, in all kinds of impossible positions, he tries to read a book in an armchair. It is, as Huberman explains, the perfect motto for his exhibition: ‘Trying to find comfort in the uncomfortable.’18
For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn't there, from 13 February through 28 March 2010 at de Appel on it's new location: Eerste Jacob van Campenstraat 59, Amsterdam.
1. Simon Sheikh, ‘Talk Value: Cultural Industry and the Knowledge Economy’, in Maria Hlavajova, Jill Winder & Binna Choi, On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Utrecht 2008, p. 184.
2. See, for example: Monika Szewczyk, ‘Art of Conversation’, Part I & Part 2, e-flux journal, www.e-flux.com
3. Emily Pethick, ‘Resisting Institutionalisation’, http://ica.org.uk, London.
4. Liam Gillick, Maybe it would be better if we worked in groups of three?, Hermes Lecture, Den Bosch (NL), 2008.
5. Ibid, p. 28.
6. Ibid, p. 18.
7. Sven Lütticken, ‘Unknown Knowns: On Symptoms in Contemporary Art’, in: Maria Hlavajova et al., On Knowledge…, p. 85.
8. Glenn O'Brien, 'Indulgences: 95 Theses or Bottles of Beer on the Wall', Parkett, No.79, 2007, p.30., quoted by Anthony Huberman, ‘I (not love) information’, Afterall, London, No. 16, Autumn/Winter 2007 (see www.afterall.org).
9. Matthew Buckingham, ‘Muhheakantuck-Everything Has a Name’, in Maria Hlavajova et al, On Knowledge…, p. 33.
10. Copenhagen Free University, ‘When Thought Becomes Crime’, in: Maria Hlavajova et al, On Knowledge…, p. 42.
11. Simon Sheikh, op. cit, p. 196.
12. Ibid, p. 197.
13. Anthony Huberman, For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there, ICA London website: http://ICA.org.uk.
14. Anthony Huberman, op. cit., (note 8).
16. Susan Sontag, quoted in catalogue For the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat that isn’t there, Museum of Contemporary Art in St Louis, 2009.
17. Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, introduction to catalogue Things we don’t understand?, quoted in catalogue For the blind man…
18. From a conversation with the author in Amsterdam on 29 November 2009.