AUTONOMY, ANTAGONISM, AND THE AESTHETIC
FROM TEXT TO ACTION ---1
Augustine writes in the Confessions, "What is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is: if someone asks me, I no longer know." Here Augustine suggests that the moment that passes between posing a question and receiving a reply is marked by both risk and possibility: the risk of doubt and uncertainty, and the possibility of an opening out to the other. Paul Ricoeur, in From Text to Action, uses Augustine's quote to illustrate a familiar poststructuralist parable, as our "confused, formless ... [and] mute temporal experience" inevitably succumbs to the instrumentalizing grasp of narrative discourse. However, this passage carries another, equally subversive, message. Knowledge is reliable, safe, and certain as long as it is held in mono-logical isolation and synchronic arrest. As soon as it becomes mobilized and communicable, this certainty slips away and truth is negotiated in the gap between self and other, through an unfolding, dialogical exchange.
The Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky reiterated Augustine's famous query in the early twentieth century: "When someone would ask me what 'Art' is, then in that moment I do not know what it is. But when I'm not being asked, then I know what it is." Lissitzky's paraphrase neatly conflates two of the central tenets of the modern avant-garde. First, avant-garde art constitutes a form of critical insight; its task is to transgress existing categories of thought, action, and creativity (beginning with the definition of art itself), to constantly challenge fixed boundaries and identities. And second, the formation of an artistic subjectivity capable of such insight requires a process of withdrawal and defensive interiorization. The uncertainty that the artist experiences in responding to an interlocutor is presented as a barrier and a constraint, while the certitude of his own, internal, definition of art is a necessary precondition for creative practice. It is precisely in not attempting to define or fix the meaning of art for the Other that the artist is freed to act with the greatest creativity, even as his own self-understanding provides an infallible compass. It's symptomatic that even in the midst of a Constructivist movement notoriously hostile to traditional notions of self-expression, we encounter this conflation of the task of modern art (the generation of counter-normative insight) and the experience of subjective individuation (the isolation of the artistic personality in a sequestered zone of autonomous self-reflection). For Lissitzky, the artist requires mono-logical clarity, needs to "know" what art is, precisely because he is challenging bourgeois tradition, popular opinion, or other forms of collective or cumulative knowledge, which are understood as intrinsically compromised. Armed with this wisdom, incubated within the far recesses of the self, the artist creates physical manifestations, works of art, designed to variously provoke, reveal, expose, and transgress.
At the same moment, Lissitzky was acutely conscious of the new demands placed on artistic subjectivity by the Constructivist movement and the necessary contradiction between the imperative to subvert conventional knowledge, on the one hand, and the use of conventional forms of authorship to produce this subversion, on the other. "What is needed is a cooperative," he wrote in a letter to Jan Tschichold in 1925. "But there is still too much subjectivist leaven in us, since every attempt fails." Writing seven years later, Lissitzky reflected on the impact of the avant-garde assault on conventional artistic production: "We fought against 'art,' we spat on its 'altar'—and we got what we wanted. Now, of course, we need no new art monasteries and sacred groves, but, even flying through a storm as we are, we would like to be able to achieve a little more concentration and to carry our offspring to term." This ambivalent relationship between individual and collectivity identity, between the work of art as experiential process and final product, is symptomatic. It isn't a question of privileging one term over the other, the collective over authorial sovereignty, or self-expression over the constraints of popular culture, but rather of recognizing the interplay of these ostensibly divided terms as a key nexus of creative action.
The tension between artistic and normative models of subjectivity was central to the development of modernist art over the past century, and continues to inform contemporary art practice and criticism. The persistence of this dynamic is understandable. It was set in place initially by the overt hostility that greeted modernism's earliest outriders (the Romantic painters, the Realists, the Barbizon school, Der Blaüe Reiter, etc.) as they did battle with the still resonant forces of the salon and the academy. Withdrawal into the fortified enclave of the group or movement, and doughty faith in the integrity of one's personal vision against the grain of an art establishment mired in neoclassical repetition, were necessary for survival. The risk of significant ostracism and hostility has long ago subsided, but the Weltbild remains, a residue of modernism's initial struggle for legitimacy, internalized now by young artists at the earliest stages of their careers.
There is, of course, much at stake in the effort to preserve a cultural space that allows for critical reflection. Despite its many positive contributions, the impact of modernity on human subjectivity has also been profoundly damaging: the violence of industrial production, the brutal means/ end rationality of the market, divisive class structures, the displacement or outright destruction of indigenous cultures, and oppressive forms of political totalitarianism have all diminished our understanding of what it is to be human. The history of modern art can be viewed, in large measure, as an ongoing struggle to develop a compensatory cultural response to the destructive and dehumanizing effects of modernity, whether this is done through the agency of a well-crafted object, paintings of bucolic Polynesians, or the therapeutic disruption of the viewer's perception. The artistic personality itself is perhaps the most symptomatic expression of this struggle. It exists as an explicit rebuke to the complacency, compartmentalization, and depersonalization imposed by the contemporary social order. Modern art has come to function as a privileged site of reflection on the forces of modernism—a quasi-autonomous space of commentary and engagement, whose critical optic has been made possible precisely by art's gradual displacement from its previously integral cultural role within premodern society. Now occupying the margins of society (in terms of broader cultural relevance if not its status as a signifier of class hierarchy), it exists at a critical remove, allowing the artist the distance necessary to recognize the flaws and limitations of modern life and consciousness, and to reveal those constraints to the viewer.
The modern artist's attack on society and societal norms has most often been mobilized through a critique of representation (or, more recently, "signification"). It was the way in which society chose to image itself, the fawning idealization of wealth in Baroque painting, the sentimentalization of bourgeois privilege in the nineteenth-century salon, and later an entire mass cultural apparatus predicated on illusion and manipulation, that provided the axis of attack for the modern avant-garde. In response, artists deployed a range of counter-representational strategies (the disruption of academic conventions governing the use of color, facture, and composition; the turn toward abstraction; and eventually a full-scale attack on the very principle of mimesis in visual art), calling attention to the mythifying powers of the conventional image and holding open space for a more complex aesthetic experience, capable of catalyzing self-reflection rather than Pavlovian consumption. The result was a modernist discourse centered on the theatrical struggle between good and evil images, and defined by heroic acts of exposure and revelation against the nefarious forces of duplicity and reification. Artists would wage war on the instrumentalizing powers of representation on behalf of the chaotic integrity of lived experience. This remained, of course, a deeply and self-consciously ethical tendency: a battle for the heart and mind of the modern subject. It sought to produce viewers more sensitive to the singularity and difference of the world around them, and less reliant on simplistic or reductive systems of meaning in trying to comprehend that world.
These two characteristics—the inviolable autonomy of the individual practitioner and a mode of ethico-representational engagement—remain an article of faith in even the most ostensibly participatory or interactive works of contemporary art. Consider curator Lars Bang Larsen's account of Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset's Cruising Pavilion (1998), a cube-shaped space designed to facilitate public sex in Denmark's Marselisborg Forest:
In a way, queer space is being queered; the codes and routines that hold it together as a cultural arrangement are worn thin. This is in keeping with a process that implicitly questions what can be particularly "gay" about any representation, when gay culture has gained relative access to the mainstream.... To find yourself in Elmgreen and Dragset's displaced ambiences is to feel the pull of your identity, whether you are straight or gay.... Space is fucked up because function is fucked up. "What are you about?" the work seems to ask. "What does your desire hang on to?" On the one hand, there is the suggestion of a fading "we" that refers to the loneliness of violently separate identities: on the other hand, the sense of a failure to condense things into a representational logic that can speak for the coherence and relevance of group identity.
Larsen's talk of "codes" and "representational logic" is symptomatic. Confronted with a site whose inhabitants are already engaged in the creative deconstruction of conventional systems of meaning (subverting the public park into a space for proscribed forms of "private" sexual interaction), the artist's only conceivable option is to engage in a further act of deconstruction such that (ostensibly "mainstream") queer desire itself is problematized, interrogated, and challenged. Visitors to Elmgreen and Dragset's "fucked up" space are in familiar avant-garde territory. Larsen's description echoes Ad Reinhardt's famous cartoon of the philistine viewer chiding the abstract painting ("What does this represent?") only to have the painting spring to life, jab its anthropomorphic finger in the viewer's face, and demand in turn: "What do you represent?" The artist is responsible for arranging and administering an experience of therapeutic dislocation directed specifically at the representational matrix of identity, but it's a dislocation that remains strangely abstract. It's unclear whether gay (or straight) Danes need lessons in queer representation or identity politics or help in finding spots for public sexual encounters, but this question is really beside the point. The function of this project, in Larsen's view, is less to engage the actual inhabitants of Marselisborg Forest than to constitute an ideal formal manifestation within which engagement could, hypothetically, take place. It is an architectural symbol of this dislocation, a conceptual provocation that gains its aesthetic resonance from the juxtaposition of sterile minimalist form and the physical actuality of queer sex (the structure is replete with glory holes) (see Plate 1).
The works that I'll be discussing here challenge this paradigm in a number of ways. Most importantly, the various social interactions that unfold around a given project, rather than being ancillary to, or collapsed into, the a priori formal structure or design of a physical object (Elmgreen and Dragset's Pavilion, for example), are openly and often independently thematized as a locus for aesthetic practice. I'll be tracing a shift from an aesthetic discourse centered primarily on questions of visual signification to one concerned with the generative experience of collective interaction.
2 — PARK FICTION, ALA PLASTICA, AND DIALOGUE
We believe that the interesting and relevant art projects at the moment are developing new ways of cooperation and always build platforms of communication and exchange with others as well. We would go so far as to say, that this is a change of paradigm and that these collaborative qualities signify a new kind of avant-garde. CHRISTOPH SCHÄFER, PARK FICTION
This experimental engagement with new forms of collectivity and agency is evident in Park Fiction's work in Hamburg, Germany, where they reinvented the process of participatory urban planning as an imaginative game. The speculative quality of this work is literally embodied in their name (the "fiction" of a park), and in the audacity necessary to imagine a public park in place of the high-rise apartment and office buildings that were being proposed by the city's development community. Rather than simply protest and critique the process of gentrification that was beginning to unfold around Hamburg's waterfront (an area with a diverse, working-class population), Park Fiction organized a "parallel planning process" that began with the creation of alternative platforms for exchange among the area's existing residents ("musicians, priests, a headmistress, a cook, café-owners, bar-men, a psychologist, squatters, artists and interventionist residents"). The element of fantasy is apparent in the proposals already completed for the park, including the Teagarden Island, which features artificial palm trees and is surrounded by an elegant forty-meter-long bench from Barcelona, an Open Air Solarium, and a Flying Carpet (a wave-shaped lawn area surrounded by a mosaic inspired by the Alhambra). Park Fiction combines this whimsical spirit with a well-developed tactical sensibility and a sophisticated grasp of the realpolitik involved in challenging powerful economic interests. They were able to build on a tradition of organized political resistance in the area around Hamburg's harbor that extends back to the occupation of the Hafenstraße (Harbor Street) neighborhood during the 1980s, when local residents took control of several city blocks and effectively halted the city's efforts at eviction. The residents of the Hafenstraße employed street theater, pirate radio, mural painting, and other cultural practices during the occupation to challenge the police, gain media attention, and encourage a sense of solidarity and cohesion within the embattled neighborhood. Park Fiction member Christoph Schäfer describes the leverage this history provided in the process of bringing the park into existence:
The location for the park is directly at the river. It's a very expensive, highly symbolic place, where power likes to represent itself.... To claim this space as a public park designed by the residents really meant to challenge power—it's not an alternative corner or a social sandbox the parents can afford to give away. The resistance could only be overcome by a very broad and clever network in the community, by a new set of tactics, trickery, seduction and stubbornness and an unspoken threat lingering in the background of all this: that a militant situation might again develop that would be costly, and bad for the city's image, and deter investment in the whole neighborhood.
It was necessary for Park Fiction to develop a close rapport with activist groups and organizations in the neighborhood. As Schäfer describes it, they only collaborated with institutions that had local "credibility." These included a community center, which was known for providing free and anonymous legal services, as well as a school that had supported the Hafenstraße squatters during the 1980s.