maanantai 12. marraskuuta 2018

WRITING ABOUT ART TODAY MEANS BEING WRITTEN ONTO

What to say with an exhibition?

If there's one tired maxim that I used to swore by but have since lost my faith in it, it's this: The medium of art exhibition is an ineffective way to disseminate information.

It's true in the sense that I don't usually go into exhibition spaces in order to learn something. But these sorts of jaded rules are meaningless in reality. Life is not some game theory field into which we project our strategically perfect moves. What is learning anyway?

Things are also curiously hard to keep apart. You deal with your breakup in doing your performance piece and the other way around. And if you're an artist who's given an exhibition space and, coincidentally, got stuff to say, why wouldn't you utter it through your exhibition?

Of course you know it's not ideal or the most effective way, but nothing ever is. Maybe an exhibition can thus be seen as the outcome from a crude equation of Life divided by Conditions times Chaos? You already know from the get-go how puny your influence over the end result could be.

In some cases, the exhibition format is simply hijacked for more desirable use. Think of Forensic Architecture and how they turn the contemporary art space into knowledge center about brutal incidents such as political assassinations. Even more fitting example is the Argentinian collective known as Tucumán Burns that challenged all bourgeois notions of art and what we should do with it, to the degree that even today the projects made under its moniker are hard to categorize and authorize (see: Artist as Curator, Issue #2, Mousse 43).

When writing about a show, as I do sometimes here, should I try to suss out the formula I mentioned above? Should I be aware of what were the conditions of production? I should, but sometimes I wonder if that isn't taking away the power of the artist to present us with the works only, without needing to point toward interpretative devices lurking somewhere next to them, the institution hosting the exhibition, or the world at large?

Or is there another formula at play, one in which your need to say “I did this, not some imaginary community” derives from an equation of Privilege times Ego minus Urgency plus Charisma? Ok this is getting a little fuzzy.

It's true that privilege allows you to think you're doing it all by yourself, and that those least vulnerable are least dependent on self-sustained communities. But the formulae above still feel like that tired teaching bit I began with.

The white cube with its modernist autonomy might be problematic, but I bet many artists long to be left alone and show their work in the way they want to, independent of who they are (another question entirely is should society promote and support these activities of self-expression).

But being able to control your creative output and own it is crucial to many, especially when it's the only thing under your control, as Olivia Laing, in their book The Lonely City, makes clear when writing about the artist Henry Darger who was alone for most of adult life, creating a dizzying visual world of drawings, paintings, and text, only unearthed posthumously, in a cramped apartment with very little means.

Perhaps that's why legendary recluse artists such as David Hammons (or any of the artists presented in Martin Herbert's book “Tell Them I Said No”) refused to open the proverbial door when fame was knocking. It would've meant other people stepping all over your process.

Community

Then again, rejecting all communal notions from one's practice cuts to the core of the history of Western modern and contemporary art, which is carried by the idea of autonomous works that happen in a kind of vacuum, devoid of outside world.

It's usually people who have safety nets and feel secure enough to express themselves that do not need a community (and on the other end, those who are too scarred by past trauma to give themselves to people again). Why would you want to rely on such a messy thing if you really don't have to?

This is Nordic welfare society at its utopian best: everyone is taken care of and given equal opportunities so no-one is dependent on their friends or families.

But then this is reality for less and less people, all the while art is becoming more and more the place where community-building takes place. This happens partly because conservative austerity politics needs a band aid (UK is a deeply unsettling example of this), but also because contemporary art practices are changing from within.

Public has become the primal form of new art, and exhibition the secondary one. The word public here is a (suboptimal) placeholder for assemblies, collectives, public gatherings, non-patriarchal familial constellations and so forth. It makes sense that the latest Helsinki-based art organization born from the ashes of Checkpoint Helsinki (which, fittingly, came into existence to oppose the building of a museum) calls itself Publics, produces mostly talks and hosts events, and seems not to be producing exhibitions anytime soon. Another new enterprise, Museum of Impossible Forms, is operating on a similar vein while referring in its name to the concept of museum, which the art historian Camiel van Winkel calls the end destination for all things avant-garde.

What was once the fringe program (talks, workshops) is now the headliner. When I look around, I can see some people having not really realized this. Others are angry, even. “Why is art about the other stuff nowadays?” This is another way of saying “I''m white and feel like I can't get enough exposure.”

In addition to how petty such a statement rings, it's mindless to get riled up for all the retreats and workshops and complain how art itself has been forgotten (not to say anything about all the other things you could be doing if art doesn't pull for you). These events are what art is today. It's not about some limp relational turn anymore, but moreso that art is now being done by people who might possess different needs from those who came before, ie. basically white privileged men. Although in most cases this change hasn't reached the highest offices of art power.

The point is obviously not to say that what non-white artistic practices add up to is some delightful communal picnic, but because art in the West needs to be rebooted if we want it to be more inclusive and equal. And in order to do that, you need to retreat, take stock, plan, discuss, build a strategy, gather the troops, care for others and stay warm.

The shock that well-off, liberal white people are currently channeling by accusing identity politics (which more and more has come to mean “not white hegemonic culture”) is the direct result of feeling like outsiders in the plethora of communal activities taking over especially in the local nodes of the art world.

For example, check out Katerina Gregos telling us, amongst other audacious claims, that reverse racism is a thing. I don't think Gregos is truly angry at identity politics taking central stage: They're angry because professional exhibitions will need to fade out in turn. They're afraid for their livelihood, which is very understandable. Soon, no one might need Gregos' politically tinted, overwrought exhibitions concepts anymore.

intermission: a talk

By the way, If you want to know how Modern art gave us Conceptual Art gave us Contemporary Art and the aforementioned exhibition practices with its formal straitjacket, watch this talk by Camiel van Winkel, from 1:15:30 onwards.

Also worth witnessing on that video is the moment, later on at around 1:48:30, when van Winkel questions the reasoning behind museums resorting to pedagogy in order to make conceptual art understandable to audiences, and after that someone refers to a project by curator Guillane Désanges (who is in the room) in which children were made to perform classics of performance art. Désanges then defends themself by saying “it was not interesting for the children […] I used the children.” It is jaw-dropping to see the self-flagellating mental gymnastics Désanges performs only to protect themself from the charges of pragmatism or pedagogy. Art as autonomous practice must be protected by all costs.

Will anything change, tho?

To be honest, the change will never be black and white. White male painters following the macho-mythical abstract expressionist credo still seem to sell just fine, and formalist exhibitions will be a thing for decades to come in some form or another. Again, life is not game theory and there are many worlds. Personally, I am still doing exhibitions because I haven't figured out anything better and because I mostly do that which is possible and can sustain me somehow.

Usually people in leading positions don't give up their power, either. So instead of institutions changing their practices from hiring to bathroom policies and from curatorial thinking to their relationship with the state, new institutions will pop up, as is perhaps could be said was the case with Publics and Museum of Impossible Forms.

Anyways, yes, the fruits of conceptual art are still very much edible. But if we think about the leading critical discourse, the most on-demand artists, or the most talked-about art-related books currently published, then in that realm doing exhibitions today is getting close to proclaiming you're a Cubist.

In a country like Finland with considerable support for art abound, the community-building in art sometimes result in a group of well-funded and -meaning artists creating images of how such an activity might look like, usually for an institution who wants to be seen as Ethical. Thus art becomes a rehearsal for life, somewhat removed from any other agency than art's need to seem like it's renewing itself to suit the times. But perhaps this is needed, as well. They are stories and we live from stories.

Many of us might still feel disappointed after these social art-gatherings because they are simply followed by another one on a different topic, and then again another one, all the while we try to keep our own careers afloat. We might do less modernist exhibitions, but we still have busy, precarious, and very modern lives. That's how art happens today to the people who live it: through an endless, drowning stream of deadlines and unmissable events.

Unfortunately, whatever's the theme of the day, art will most likely always be exploitative in some way. Artists won't be paid, producers will, or vice versa. Only selected few will succeed, even if the selection criteria changes, and the many left behind should shut their traps and be happy that at least someone is finally getting that extra funding.

There's nothing so ethical and urgent that we artists couldn't turn it into blatant careerism. And you can't really be angry at that. As I said earlier, life is not ideal. Rent is rent. We do what we can, under circumstances we can't fully control. Good intentions vs. needs we can't surpass, all that.

Managing a nuanced perspective on things is particularly vexing when you're feeling overwhelmed by the extreme, life-destroying urgency of climate change, for example. Often, you can catch an artist having gone through these motions and realizing that, say, flying to biennials is bad for the environment and a grueling way to live, too. So they turn their own realization into a dictum and hold everyone up to this standard of their own making. This is, apart from being grossly self-centered, uneven, because everyone has different reasons for doing what they do. We can't force each others as individuals to do things in a different way just because that way fits us and our abilities.

Conducting change is a complicated affair that certainly requires listening and calmness. Mostly nothing about the art world caters for such qualities, which is why we have the kinds of lives we do. Hence infrastructural change in contemporary art couldn't be more urgent. We are finding ourselves currently in a paradoxical situation: Artists are engaging in new kinds of thinking in settings that are, at their core, hostile to the idea of sustained attention.

What is perhaps not always understood is the magnitude of this approaching change. Most art institutions, in Finland at least, think they can go about their business as usual just as long as they cherry-pick a more “diverse” set of artists for their events. But you cannot simply include people who've been marginalized by the state and hegemonic culture into the inner sanctums of art and expect they wouldn't or shouldn't turn around the very structures and ways of doing art.

This much is clear to most people working in the lower confines of the art world where everything still isn't about pleasing your donors or Ministry of Culture, but even so the larger cultural change is still happening slowly. I could argue that, collectively and maybe even unconsciously, we still regard the solo exhibition or the museum group show to be what contemporary art looks like.

The archetypes and the unconscious blueprints haven't changed yet at large. This is why we all still talk about museums although a growing number of us artists work in a way that has little connection to what happens within those walls.

Everything is still in relation to the old models, or simply just made in the same way but with a different topic, which means that a way of life an exhibition tries to depict is not really meant to enter the building. Think of it like this, for example: Queer art should be presented in a way that is inviting to queer life.

Consider also how European Futurism and Surrealism looked like white boys with rich parents fooling around. Art is how you live. So what would art spaces look like if their very infrastructure would be changed to reflect this inclusive turn that is already nascent in artist selections? What if those spaces wouldn't look like the lives of upper-class people, with designer glass at the museum café, expensive jewelry at sale in the museum shop, and the exhibitions spaces made to look immaculate?

As I already mentioned, it's still very likely that the people who are accepted to Mount Olympus come from, for most parts, rich families and a world of connections. Contemporary art has never been about class revolution, but the cementing of its horizontal power structure while adding a new coat of paint on it. There's a very real risk that nothing really changes at the structural level.

Before depression hits, let us return to the question of reading a show, and to a compound issue, that of subjectivity.

That subject-object thing

Do I look at the artwork without any “external” explanation? And is it really a matter of either-or: Either I look at the works only, or I take into account everything else? It's not. Things bleed and stick to each other. I find it impossible to take anything apart from another thing, without at least a thread still hanging between them, holding up a connection. You can try it yourself. Imagine a box with a lid and try now to remove the lid.

Is the name of the artist in the title of an exhibition anything more than a placeholder for the fact that we are still simple creatures who cannot think in more fluid ways about object-subject relations and multiplicity of agencies? Or, we can think about them, you know, pick up a Karen Barad book and such, but we're still seemingly far from such boundless thinking changing the way our world works, a little like the situation with exhibitions and the new, much-needed modes of producing and experiencing art?

Even though we know it's not the artist who, in this multi-actor sense, does a show on their own, we still insist on placing the artist's agency above anyone and anything else's.

Is there a threshold in having an agency in something? What still counts as influencing a work of art?
The line is impossible to draw. Paraphrasing Iggy Lond Malmberg from their solo performance Boner (Baltic Circle, 2014), perhaps we perform Hamlet so often because the crown in the storage of a theater wants us to do so.

Free, individual will is getting to be a thing of the past, and perhaps this mythical freedom has been unfathomable to almost everyone except for the ones who came up with it, ie. the men in charge. So how should we begin to write about shows under this new sun of intra-agencies, where we are constantly pushing and pulling each other unknowingly, blurring the lines that used to separate me from you or from a thing?

This stimulating yet confusing problem of multiple agencies simultaneously in play has always existed in our attempts to say something. When you try to express yourself, you end up bringing so many other things to the forefront. Our bodies emit all kinds of data from smells to affects, and our words and actions carry infinite interpretative possibilities.

Maybe the exhibition, then, is not at all any worse communication platform than, for example, talking to another person. To write about an exhibition is to unearth both what I assume the show is trying to say, but also what it's saying regardless its makers' best attempts. This is the case with any human communication.

Here, we need to make a decision. It's up to you to choose whether you want to believe the human or a thing (artwork) in front of you or not. If you don't, you can read them in the worst possible way. Sometimes that's healthy, sometimes highly cynical.

You could say noise is always there, surrounding the signal. The receptor can, by all means, concentrate on the noise only and deem the message meaningless, or to excavate the signal out from the static and consider its intent. Again, the noise is at times more exciting than what is being communicated, so the choice is not so clear-cut.

In informal art discourse née bar talk née. the talk that actually molds our attitudes much more than any seminar or book can ever do, we often look for problems in something we've just experienced together. The show was horrible, the talk was sub-par, the event was pointless, the commercial galleries in our home town are all crap. This is how many of us talk (kudos to you if you ever don't).

What is it in the structure of our art worlds that make us retort to this conscious amplification of noise and diminishing of signal? I think it's a question worth pondering. Is it the precariousness? That we're all scared for our livelihood and/or legitimization, and so we want to drag other initiatives down to level the playing field?

Is it because there's so much oppression, racism, and patriarchal disavowal around that it drains most us from seeing any hope in anything that can be rhetorically or directly connected to these abusive power structures (ie. something is horrible by association), while sticking to the things (friends, comrades) we know for sure to be on the same side with us? The last bit sounds somehow too simplistic already so I'll stop this free-fall jabber here. But I still wonder wherein lies the lure of targeted misunderstanding, something I'm sure I've practiced in this text, too.

Conclusions

To conclude, these are the two main trajectories at play in art today: The fundamental change in the very forms of how art is done, experienced and presented (for whom and by who), and secondly, the revolutionary expansion of agency, which will sooner or later change our understanding of authorship and creator-mediator-spectator dynamics.

So how to write about art events today? One tactic could be to think growingly about who is this for. If this is not for me, what am I doing here? Furthermore, if this thing here leaves me absolutely cold, why wouldn't I go somewhere warm (although sometimes it might prove wise to test different climates)? But for the third time, these maxims become meaningless in life, where choices are rarely binary. And sometimes there is no choice. You just are somewhere.

black and white image with following text on each four corners respectively: for the content and to be social, not for the content but to be social, for the content not to be social, not for the not to be social I need to be here. In the midlde a bigger text: "why did you come?"
Kim Modig: Social Anxiety Matrix #2 (2017)

I could also propose we start from an understanding that being in the same space with artworks is not a one-sided affair. When entering an exhibition, you might want to ask yourself: Who is this "I" today that is hanging out with the exhibition here? Thus the chameleon I am, and we all are, once again faces the choice between a reflexive urge to fuse in with the surroundings, or a Promethean obsession to challenge your environment. You are marking the space with your energy. Is it healing, antagonizing, wobbly, or dry kind of energy?

This unbound and always changing multiplicity is who I am, and it's what an artwork with which I'm spending time has to deal with, too. And how it conducts that dealing reverberates back to me. I am not only writing criticism about artworks: The works are writing on me.

I'll continue from here next time by writing about some shows I've seen lately. 

sunnuntai 21. lokakuuta 2018

SUOMALAISESTA KOKOUSKULTTUURISTA

This one is in Finnish, apologies to non-Finnish speakers!


Kulttuurialan yhdistyksen hallitustyöskentely Suomessa, mustavalkoisen opetusfilmin muodossa:



Kuvio menee yleensä niin että toiminnanjohtaja kertoo mitä tehdään ja hallitus hyväksyy sen sillä kukaan ei ole jaksanut perehtyä mihinkään tai ymmärrä riittävästi kokonaiskuvaa ja budjettia. Puheenjohtaja on paremmin perillä. Hallituksen muiden jäsenten tehtävä on täyttää suomalaisen yhdistyslainsäädännön muodollisuudet, kuten mielenosoittajat jotka muistuttavat kohteliaalla seisoskelullaan että meillä on täällä demokratia ja sananvapaus.



Puheenjohtaja saa palkintonsa näkyvämpänä asemana taidekentällä. Se konkretisoituu säätiöiden ja muiden rahan polttoa harrastavien tahojen ”dinner”-kutsuina. Hän voi halutessaan kirjoittaa kolumnin jossa todetaan että taide vastaa jopa kolmea prosenttia vientituontiBKT-höpömittarilukemasta ja me julkaisimmekin juuri tällaisen numeroiden ryydittämän selvityksen alastamme kuten olemme tehneet joka vuosi mutta huom! taidetta ei tietenkään saa mitata.



Aina on se yksi hallituksen jäsen joka pitää kokouksissa kärttyisiä monologeja lievästi asiaan liittyen. Hänet saadaan tyytyväiseksi muuttamalla joku sanamuoto toimintasuunnitelmaan, tiedotteeseen tai nettisivulle. Tosiasiassa hänelle voisi vain sanoa että minä näen ja kuulen sinut, se riittäisi.



Toisinaan pitää kuunnella myös yhdistyksen muita jäseniä. Jäsenpäivään käytetään 615 euroa, se menee cateringiin tai Woltille ja kolmen litran punaviinibokseihin. Jäseniä tulee paikalle neljä, yhdellä heistä on jäänyt toimistolle hanskat niin hoituu sekin samalla. Ruokaa jää yli, se annetaan tukityöllistetylle tupperware-boksissa kotiin vietäväksi. Sovitaan että pitääpä tehdä joku kiva proggis ja että palataan tähän syksymmällä, kaupungilta saisi varmaan tukea kun tämä voisi olla myös nuorille.



Jos on oikein epäkelpo hallitus, niin jäsenet ajavat kokouksissa omia projektejaan läpi ja ne toteutetaan yhdistyksen rahoilla ja toiminnanjohtajan ja muiden palkollisten työajalla. Tämä ei ole ydintoiminnan kannalta niin paheksuttavaa kun voisi luulla, onhan taideyhdistysten tehtävä joka tapauksessa puhaltaa valtiolta ja yksityisiltä tahoilta rahaa omille jäsenilleen. Mutta koska se kuulostaa pahalta, on katsottu parhaaksi kuluttaa 67% tuloista kaupungin keskustan kiinteistövuokriin ja henkilökuntaan. Ja ei saa sanoa tulo vaan varainhankinta tai avustus.



Toisinaan yhdistyksen pitkäaikaiset jäsenet eivät ole löytäneet elämälleen muuta tarkoitusta kuin yhdistyksen perustajajäsenyyden tai wanhan wiisaan roolilla ratsastamisen. Kaikki toiminnanjohtajat vihaavat sydämensä pohjasta vanhoja jäseniä jotka eivät tee mitään, mutta kertovat mitä pitäisi tehdä tai valittavat kaikesta. Heitä kuunnellaan koska toinen osapuoli saa yksipuolisesta keskustelusta rahallisen korvauksen.



Strategiatyö on sitä että keksitään mitä kivoja arvoja me edistettiinkään ja sitten niitä muotoillaan suuhun sopivaksi muutaman kokouksen ajan. Näissä kokouksissa on yleensä paremmat tarjoilut kuin tavallisesti.



Nämä arvot muuttuvat aina aikojen ja rahoittajien toiveiden mukaan. Tänäkin sunnuntaina jonkin pikkuruisen taideyhdistyksen hallitus pohtii miten sisällyttää ihmisoikeudet ja ilmastonmuutoksen vastustaminen toimintasuunnitelmaan, joka muilta osin sisältää kokeellisen sirkuksen yhden päivän festivaalin, seminaarivierailun pj:lle ja Karen Barad -lukupiirin.



Yksi asia ei ajan tuulien mukana heilu: Kaikkien yhdistysten tehtävä on lisätä oman alansa rahoitusosuutta sillä Suomi ei tulisi toimeen ilman taidemuotoa X. Siksi sovitaan tapaamisia ministeriöön ja vuosien työn jälkeen saadaan tuhat euroa lisää rahoitusta kun luvataan ministeriölle että hyppäämme mistä tahansa hulahula-vanteesta läpi kunhan vain osoitatte sormella sitä. Toisinaan joku voi miettiä että ehkä taidekentän tilanne on niin ankea koska me suostumme mihin tahansa jos joku mainitsee sanat rahoitusosuuden lisääminen mutta se on sellaista negatiivisuutta johon meillä ei yksinkertaisesti ole varaa. VOS jotain jotain.



Jos kaaokselle annetaan vähän enemmän tilaa eikä toimintasuunnitelmasta jakseta kovasti välittää, niin pitkin vuotta kehitetään kaikenlaisia hankkeita koska jollakin säätiöllä on haku auki mikroautoilua hyödyntäville hankkeille ja kyllähän me tavallaan ollaan myös mikroautoilijoiden asialla.



Sitten tulee uusi toiminnanjohtaja ja hallitus joka moralisoi aikaisempien kollegoiden töitä hovikelpoisin sanankääntein ja päättää siivota pöydän, sillä nämä mikroautohankkeet ovat tukkineet flown. Tehdään strategiatyötä. Ehkä palkataan halvin mahdollinen graafinen suunnittelija tekemään uusi ilme joka kommunikoi paremmin edistämistyötämme. Google Driveen tai Officeen tehdään kansio jossa lukee ulkopuolisen viestintäammattilaisen suosituksesta Benchmarks eikä kukaan uskalla kysyä että mitä se tarkoittikaan.



Erityisen tärkeää on että pj & tj kokoustavat ihan kaikkien mahdollisten sisaryhdistysten kanssa koska mikään ei ole niin suomalaista taidemaailmaa kuin se että samat ihmiset päättävät keskenään toistensa asioista objektiivisuutta, vertaisarviointia ja asiantuntijuutta performoiden. Kiinnostavampaa kuin taide on taiteen edistäminen ja edustaminen, siitä tulee olo että me ollaan kuulkaa ammattilaisia jotka arvonsa ansaitsevat. Silloin ei myöskään tarvitse miettiä koskettaako tämä edistämämme taide sielujamme vai ei, pakkohan sen on olla arvokasta kun sitä niin edistetään.



Jos ry-larppaus on päätetty viedä ns mestaritasolle, niin hallitus asettaa erilaisia työryhmiä. Kaikkien helpoin tapa päättää jokin asia on perustaa työryhmä tai valiokunta, joka esittelee ideansa hallitukselle joka taas haluaa kahvinousuissaan puuttua asiaan. Sitten tätä esittelyä ja selvitystä ja kommentointia voidaan jatkaa niin kauan kuin roolipeli maistuu. Useimmille se maittaa 1-2 hallituskautta sillä elämä on lopulta kovin lyhyt.



Tärkeintä on että aikuisille taiteilijoille järjestetään jokin toimistotyön ja siten normaalin elämän mieleen tuova tila johon kokoontua töiden jälkeen jotteivät he koko ajan pyörisi ylihintaisilla studioillaan miettimässä että miksi minä valitsin taidealan.



Yhdistysten keskeinen tehtävä onkin estää hallituksen jäsenten sosiaalista syrjäytymistä omasta viiteryhmästään. Aikuiset eivät voi sanoa ääneen että haluan olla ihmisten seurassa ja kaipaan hyväksyntää enkä oikein muutenkaan tiedä onko tekemisissäni mitään järkeä. Siksi on päätetty perustaa yhdistyksiä (ja työpaikkoja) jotta näistä tunteista ei koskaan tarvitsisi puhua suoraan. On aina helpompaa asettaa työryhmä kuin kysyä läheiseltään että haluaisitko viettää kanssani aikaa.


a collage of texts and images depicting on-trend concepts and keywords
Back At The Desk, 2018, digital image

Kirjoittaja on toiminut useissa hallituksissa sekä työskennellyt toiminnanjohtajana. Hän istuu parhaillaan Teatteri- ja mediatyöntekijöiden liiton ja Suomen valo-, ääni- ja videosuunnittelijoiden hallituksissa ja pitää toisinaan kärttyisiä monologeja saadakseen huomiota.

sunnuntai 2. syyskuuta 2018

GO DIRECT YOURSELF


Directors in theatre - why are they there?

Recently, a theatre play titled Turkka kuolee had its premiere here in Finland, surrounded by considerable hype. It's based on the writings and interviews of people who were in the orbit of one of Finland's most sadistic and notorious theatre directors. As much as I learned from listening to those stories, I found myself hoping the creators of the play would've looked into the root of the problem, which is the education offered in Theatre Academy and the ideological basis for the role of a director.

People, especially journalists, like to wonder out loud how it was possible for one person to acquire such unchecked power. It's like asking how Trump can do all those horrible things. The answer is simple: the system was designed that way. We simply trust that elected people or art school professors wouldn't take advantage of their position. Put differently, we sort of rely on luck. But to paraphrase the infamous Jenny Holzer line, abuse of power should come as no surprise. 

The laws and regulations also restrict what should and can be tolerated at any workplace. But sadly, more often than not, making theatre with a group of people is more akin to hypnosis or religious cult than a day at the office (but then, isn't all work like that?). Without dwelling too much on the theoretical or spiritual root of theatre, the need to believe takes in not only the audience of a play but its makers too. 

There's a way of talking, taking place between theatre professionals honing together an upcoming piece, that I haven't witnessed anywhere else. Every gesture, scene, object, word, is forced to carry extra meaning, which gives for an especially pompous rhetoric. 
All the stage actions and tryouts during a rehearsal can be analysed endlessly, usually to prove yourself to the director (something sound/light/set/costume/etc designers are inclined to do) who then decides whether your interpretation is correct. A great deal of belief in telepathy is needed to convey the ideas of a director into reverberant sound effects, dramatic backlight, epochal dresses, or the quivering movements of an actor. Or, if you zoom out a little, the day-to-day operations of a theatre house at large.

All of this is ideal breeding ground for sectarian autosuggestion. What follows is paranoia: am I not part of the in-group? What are the director, dramaturg, and video designer rattling on over there? What if I'm not deep enough, like my co-actor who everyone says transcends the script?

People have vastly different experiences from working in theatre, too, of course. What I'm aiming at here is some sort of generic idea that seems to always lurk in the background when people do theatre. It's the relative of the ghost that keeps appearing when paintings are hung: are these worth something? What if the painter really is talented? Am I not getting it? Is this image very deep but I'm not?

Almost all the major theatrical productions I've worked in, or rehearsals I've visited, have included shouting, belittling, and/or other behavior gone entirely unredeemed save for the "you know I'm under a lot of pressure" hail mary muttered as an afterthought during a break. This behaviour is almost solely coming from the representatives of one profession alone: directors. And usually no one wants to stand up to them. This will all be over soon, they are just having a bad day, it's nothing serious, we're all tired today, we tell ourselves.

But why do we have directors in the first place? Surely there is no god-given blueprint for how theatre must be done? Having said that, it's worthwhile to remember our theatrical tradition was founded by a society of men who favored slavery and strict hierarchies (OK I have no business lecturing anyone on Ancient Greece, so take this with a barrel of salt).

When I was studying sound design in Theatre Academy, in Helsinki, I constantly wondered why actors and designers needed someone to tell them what to do. You have the text in front of you, the stage is there, don't you wanna figure it all out on your own or with your friends?

And how is it possible that we still buy the line, often repeated by our professors in the academy, that you can't really do theatre without someone in charge? During my time (2003-2009) there were of course collectives or (a word I prefer over the former one) working groups making works without a director, but these were always dismissed in school as "experimental", "fringe", "artistic", and thus not Real Theatre.

In my decade of being an artist, I've never had the need for a director personally, as in I've never worked on a performance or whatever and thought if only there was someone here giving me stage directions and texting me in the middle of the night with notes. I haven't really seen any basis for their existence, ever. 

I used to be more nuanced about this for the sake of some sort of perceived civility, as in "of course there are many ways to do art and being led by a director is one possible way and I'm sure it's a good thing." I'm tired of saying that. I've been doing this now long enough that I can say this with at least some sort of experience: directors should for most parts be a thing of the past, or at best a marginal profession.

Everyone has ideas. Anyone can tell other people what to do. A director is validated through the labor of others. Yes, you can do beautiful things from that position: you can make other people shine and help them find their strength, you can see what's going on in the stage and where the problems in the dramaturgy might lie, you can handle all outside pressure, you can bring people together to achieve something. But we could all do that to each other. There's absolutely no need to institutionalise this role. For all its issues of abuse, ie. its dangers, the directorial model should be a marginal mode of working, not the primary one.

Here's a more black-and-white way of stating it: If you wanna help a group of actors and designers, then help, but don't take credit for it. If directors would be called assistants and paid accordingly I wouldn't have any beef -or I would, because I don't believe in that sort of hierarchical justice either, and I'm not here to punish anyone by turning competitive workplace games against them.

Don't tell me what to do

In June, I was visiting a workshop that consisted mostly of dancers. I talked about my survival strategies in art and shared my stories. We were talking about our experiences in the field when one of the participants said this thing that left a lasting impact on me. The way they said it was matter-of-fact, yet kind, and very reflective. "I don't understand why a choreographer should tell me what I must do with my body." 

There you have it. What does it say about our values, ethics, and worldview, that we have created a system in which one person (typically/historically a masculine man) tells others (typically feminine people, plus less-paid staff and technicians, latter being usually working-class men) what they should do? 

I get having someone in charge makes sense during a catastrophe or, say, surgery. There are situations where having a director for a play is appreciated, perhaps when one works with a group that benefits greatly from overall guidance, say, with children. In general, I can see it also comes useful in a factory, or a battle, too. But why have we copied this system into art, which is a fun human act that can literally be anything? 

Why settle on the most uninspiring model, even or especially so because it's the one that "drives home the results"? Why should making films or theatre be modelled after military regiment or industrial labor? 

You could say that if artists do not want to work with directors they can go and do what they want. That's cute, but the funding of stage arts here in Finland is based on established theatres getting most of the money so they can pay salaries. The financial system in arts upholds the traditional hierarchy of labor. If that's not enough, the unions will make sure this system stays intact. So really we're married with this system, and only way to bring it down is to tore it apart on all levels, from education to funding. 

Full disclosure: I am sitting on the board of Trade Union for Theatre and Media Finland, which is funny since I strongly oppose this static division of labor in arts. That being said, I'm always interested to hear other views, and one reason for my joining the board was to understand theatrical work better from inside a system that protects this division. Another reason is to be able to slide in a discussion about basic income, but that's another discussion.

Where does this anti-director hyperbole leads into? 

Of course, you can't make "Apocalypse: Now" if you don't have unchecked power and you're not on a narcissistic bent fuelled by drugs or whatnot to turn the world onto your own image. Is the world worse off without works of art that only an unhinged director can produce? 

These works are very important to a lot of other people, but take stock: do you find it impossible to think you would've loved something else if those works would have not existed? There's no need to stop loving those works, but there's also no need to repeat the formula that created these masterpieces of megalomania and resulted in abuse in so many cases. Why make art with a tool that's bound to hurt someone?

We all understand that works of art are, in a fundamental sense, of both equal and incomparable value: a short poem is not less or more meaningful than a 2-hour symphonic composition. As a society, we want to archive the big, popular, well-known works, as well as the so-called folk art that's meaningful for a given community. 

Furthermore, if we would cease to produce, for example, video art, we would do something else. Art as phenomenon wouldn't really lose or gain anything by video art's extinction. In terms of art's meaningfulness, there are no better or worse ways of making art. You can create great things by a multitude of ways that are in no way tied to any material pre-requisites.

The issues we should consider are the conditions in which artistic labor takes place. Who has access, who decides on this access, how are people or other living beings treated within a given production, just to name a few possible and very real concerns. 

These are tricky issues, because such concerns are also endemic to controlling artistic expression as a by-product of advancing much-needed workers' rights. This is precisely what unions do, even when they don't want to -by fighting for substantial pay, they end up reinforcing certain ways of working as fundamental to artistic practices. 

This leads to a situation where people are being educated in a theatre school to become actors, set designers, sound designers, directors, and so on. A production becomes something where everyone sticks to these roles and learns to speak as the representative of their profession. 

Additionally, this is why I've found it hard to defend certain core contemporary issues in art, from more funding for arts, to artists' associations' demands for more professional conditions for their members. I absolutely understand and respect these needs and have fought for them, but more and more, I see them reinforcing a hierarchical system where being an artist is a prized position instead of a fundamental right and a source of joy, and where artistic work is being kept in a petty, middle-class zone of harmless symbolic decor by placing artists in the creative class. 

But if I'd utter such things, I'd rub backs with some questionable people and political parties who are doing what they can to privatise the cultural sector and get rid of any kind of subsidies for artists. 

Directors keep on being directors

What happened with this one sadistic director in the past decades in Finland is not an exception to the rule. I've heard similar stories multiple times, and the accused of these stories are currently running city theatres, holding professorships, and acting as respected members of their artistic communities. I've heard people explain away the sexual misconducts of their actor peers as "actors simply being that way". My designer friends in theatre take constant shit in the form of slurs, shouting and now-I'm-your-friend-now-I'm-your-boss type of erratic, arbitrary behavior models when they work for directors. People who sign off are oftentimes cast either as privileged, preppy, or weak.

And it's not that you couldn't ask other people to help you in the actualisation of your artistic idea. Of course you can and quite often you should. I've worked as an assistant, stagehand, designer, co-creator, and in other such roles successfully and I've enjoyed a bunch of those experiences. 

I'm not saying, either, that a directorship is some cursed profession that turns you instantly into a monster. But how come we let this system stay afloat when it's entirely based on luck, ie. let's hope this director is nice and doesn't abuse their power? 

Afterword

Perhaps the idea of a director is tragically tied to the idea of infinite growth. We can always do bigger, greater things! More cowbell! More everything! Push it to the limit! When I think of the sickening projects I've been in where the director tried to "save" the piece by demanding we work longer days, rehearse more, do more of everything, this theory does feel right to me. 

What kind of worldview we are feeding with such a method of making art?

***

Lastly, I am sending much love to all my dear friends who are directors. I'm not against you, I just needed to say my piece. This is not a closed text, it's too full of holes for that, but a conversation starter, if anything. If you're a director and felt a sting, remember you are more than your assigned role. We all are.


the author lying on stage
Image description: the author, wearing blue pants and a shirt and sneakers, lying on the floor of an almost empty stage, with a coffee mug close to their body. From documentation shot by Christopher Hewitt. New Performance Nights, Tehdas Teatteri, Turku, 2016.


lauantai 23. kesäkuuta 2018

Willing it: On Elina Minn's "Hydra"


image of a vegan sushi meal
Image: A plate of vegan sushi that has nothing to do with the article. From Makimaki, Münster.














A dozen or so people are sitting in a rehearsal room in Theatre Academy, Helsinki. I'm here to experience a performance of which I didn't read a line of information beforehand. I simply wanted to see what a friend of mine is doing nowadays. As usual, I'll try to find that out by going to see them work.

Hydra, which premiered on the 5th of June, is dubbed in the handout text as a "speculative fiction about future bodies", which I can attest to is true. Hydra is directed, written, and performed by Elina Minn, and realised together with a group of artists and designers, who are all sitting in the ring with us.

One of them is Markus Lindén, perhaps one of the most adventurous sound designers I know. Every time I go see a performance they are part of (which I have done all too seldom), I am expecting to be taken to a ride, and I was not disappointed this time either. 

If somebody would turn a theatre festival into a catalogue raisonné of Markus' works, it'd be pretty amazing; to trace that one journey. I say this also because I am saddened by the amount of work we all do, only to see all these performances disappear without anyone tying them together onto their many histories and lineages. To borrow a sound-related concept, we don't generally need more premieres, we need longer sustain times.

After the performance, upon walking up to say hi to Markus, who looked exceptionally focused behind their gear, I noticed that the trance-y, percussion-led techno we've been listening to post-performance was not them jamming on their computer, as I've thought, but a Youtube clip of a Finnish DJ playing. I found it extremely hilarious and spot-on. It works so why not.

Elina Minn, whom I've known from early 2010's onwards when we both lived in Turku, addresses us wearing an octopus-shaped, funny-looking hat, courtesy of designer Pauliina Sjöberg who also acts as a guide of sorts, along with set designer Eeti Piiroinen, whose holistic vision has stayed in my head ever since. It might be the first instance of me longing to return to a set, like a tourist, unless Half-Life 2 counts as a stage.

The way Elina wears the octopus hat could be best described as uncanny yet mundane, as if the world has permanently given up on obsessing over reason. This, to me, might be the undercurrent of their artistic practice. The funniness of the hat is the sort that makes you grin like you're at a party surrounded by people alien to you & have no idea what's going on, but decide to nonchalantly enjoy it nevertheless. 

Elina's presence is very calming, even grounding at times. To be precise, it isn't them addressing us sitting in the room, but a hybrid life form from the future who was just borrowing Elina's body for the occasion. Before long, we are escorted to another room to try out inter-cellular existence in groups of threes.

The second room is strikingly beautiful. I immediately begin to hope the school's technicians would never take down the set. This is what a space for radical learning must look like. What on other days passes as a lecture room had been transformed into something magnificent and powerful, yet calming and approachable, like a yoga center doubling as martial arts training site for queer resistance. 

With its printed stone patterns covering the sides of small, makeshift water basins, the pale-shaped drapes and exercise mats, the place reminds me of the post-internet epoch. It was actually pretty great in terms of aesthetic appeal. And now, after everyone has stopped caring about day-glo installations combining Nike shoes, Axe spray, and climbing gear, we get to enjoy the aesthetic without the sickening sarcasm and the all-encompassing twin shadow of self-importance and self-hatred, emanating from the very real need to be successful.

Seven or so years ago, Elina was my link to the Anglo-European post-internet art scene that lurked in Facebook groups, Berlin, hard drives of displaced artists endlessly uploading visual tropes online which then more successful Western artists could exploit for profit, and artist-run, DIY galleries. 

I saw Elina perform for the first time in Stockholm, at a gallery of the aforementioned type. The place was called Detroit (I will chance it and guess that the space had nothing to do with Detroit). In there, they gave a hilarious monologue in front of an anxious, young art crowd. It was about a Seinfeld episode titled The Marine Biologist in which Jerry claims falsely that George is what the title says.

Fast forward to 2018, and I'm being gently touched and taken care of two other audience members -or just people, really, since the performance is as practical and no-bullshit as attending a yoga class. As they feel around my legs, hair, arms, and torso, they both feel very careful and concentrated. I've long forgotten this is art I'm experiencing here. 

Next to us, on a suede cushion pile, there's a text by Donna Haraway available for reading and an iPad with headphones, should one of us participants feel like not doing the group exercises. As with everything in Hydra, this option is explained to us in a perfect balance of dignity and muted mirth.

Nothing in this space seems symbolic: everything is real, which makes the exercise -an attempt to feel the similarities between sea sponges and the cells in our bodies, so as to get an understanding of the future where species are all but hybrid- feel like a walk in the park. This is normal, this is how we spend our time. Cut the bullshit and co-exist. 

I can't overstate how much I appreciated the care which was put into making Hydra a kind experience, and how giving it was, instead of draining one of energy, which usually happens when I'm expected to just forgo social power dynamics during a performance and convince myself to be equal with the artists and other audience members as if by a wave of a magic wand.

After the performance, or the exercise, is done, we talk about our experiences within the group of three of which I had been part. It seems we all enjoyed it. There would've been ways to communicate mixed feelings during the haptic exercise (which once again were offered in a very clear way), but none of us did so, which of course doesn't mean everyone felt OK in the end. I did have a feeling everyone found it exciting yet soothing. 

We keep talking for a bit, say hi to friends, drink some homemade kombucha offered to us by the working group, and leave. On the way home, I become more aware of my body in relation to the world and its many layers and materials.

At home, I look for a recording I made of Minn's performance in Stockholm back then. I do find the file, but the audio quality is weak. You can barely hear what is being said. There's lots of nervous, knowing cackling. Somebody is shouting from another room. I can recognise the laughs of people I used to know. 

On the recording, Elina seems jumpy, just like anyone who is sort of riffing on a subject and wants to keep their bit more or less informal. The piece is only 6 minutes long. The performance consists of Elina going through the content of the episode. It's entertaining to hear the storyline explained, as it's arguably one of the most memorable Seinfeld episodes.

In the episode, George says: "So I started to walk into the water. I won't lie to you, boys, I was terrified! But I pressed on – and as I made my way past the breakers, a strange calm came over me. I don't know if it was divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I tell you, Jerry, at that moment – I was a Marine Biologist!" 

Elina recites this passage to the audience, along with some information about the production of the episode, available in its Wikipedia page. Minn draws a connection from George's epiphany to how it feels like to be an artist: You simply just believe in the fact you're an artist. Elina says thank you. Everyone claps enthusiastically. 

Indie pop of the day begins to blast from the speakers in the gallery space, which leads to my recording clipping. People chat intensively. The distortion of the recording makes it seem like it's the 70's and I'm listening to my parents having a good time.

What has changed since Stockholm? On the other hand, we're back in the water, attempting to understand sea creatures, while trying to expand the notion of what we can be. But we're not pretending we have a job. Who wants to work anyway when we can rest together, as we did in the Hydra performance.

What has stayed the same is that art is still seen as being about a kierkegaardian leap of faith. Ultimately, it works if I believe in it. But this time around, in Hydra, the transformation was real and not a comic relief. I left the performance changed. No one laughed knowingly;  most of us smiled in understanding.

After reading an article by Minn about ecosomatic practices, published in the Mustarinda online magazine, I realise how my fleeting experience is far from the deep knowledge they've reached with these methods (that I haven't explained at all here). 

The article is an interview of somatic activist Satu Palokangas who teaches and does research on ecosomatics. Palokangas explains how ecosomatic thinking and practice for them is "asking about yourself in relation to ecological, social, and political events, which are highly acute. How do these events affect us mentally?"*

Later on in the article, Elina describes how "my body is the most intimate part of nature", which, along with the final line uttered by Minn in Hydra, "Lastly, we will practice an important future civic skill: resting", are lines I want to keep with me. They are now my lifelines.

*all translations from the Mustarinda article and the performance by me.




torstai 31. toukokuuta 2018

YOUR COLLEAGUES ARE THE PROBLEM



If there's a rule I think applies to all creative work, it's this one: don't be part of a scene. 

If you do, or you're being put into one because you're X or live in Y or whatever, you shouldn't be the one who affirms their beliefs. We all need affirmation, but consider if that's something you want to deliver & what's the price you pay for labouring away on it.

No one who's in a scene would ever say a bad thing about it (publicly). Its practitioners will tell you how dismissing a whole medium is such a lame opinion, and how you should check out this or that artist. 

They say these things because they need to say that. Their justification for their practice stems from the practice itself which is a somewhat problematic point of departure for any kind of creative endeavour. Obviously there are situations where you need to conserve a practice, but for the sake of argument etc.

The people running an artists' association need to be into all the nauseating art done in the name of the genre or medium they are representing. Artists following the doctrine of the day will always be lumped together in group shows with other such artists, which in itself makes it harder to make anything worthwhile since you're now stuck making sure your work doesn't say anything that's outside the norm.

A lot of it has to do with reputation. You want to make sure people take you seriously. Serious behaviour is being highly regulated, as our understanding of truth is dependent on us taking each other seriously enough to trust one another, something I derived from philosopher Gloria Origgi. (Here's a nice podcast about their latest book.) Reputation is an avatar you tend to with your life.

Reputation leads pretty quickly into informal consolidation of acceptable gestures: How to say things, and what things. We check each other to see what passes today.

This leads to every musical sub-genre producing infinite amount of identical tracks. It explains why we always already know what we're gonna see when there's an exhibition done under a given topical theme. And it lends itself to understanding why the most visible artists are all raving about the same cultural objects, from books to TV shows.

You could say that's a good thing: It's delightful to see art that reflects its times. And it kinda is. That's how you'll know what's going on. But there are so many other ways to feel the tremors of the day. Like by living today? Maybe we should make sure everyone can do that?

Art mirroring its times is the trope by which vanilla art becomes histrionic: it's the stuff that's most exciting for future researchers who try to decipher a time long gone. It's just extremely rare that those historical works would carry any ideas worth exploring. I can still remember how it felt to be shoved tedious Dadaist art down my throat without anyone explaining why those works should mean anything to us anymore, other than that they "reflected the tumult and promise of the new century." I must add that being forced to attend an intonarumori concert should be a police matter.
venn diagram showing how very few artists do groundbreaking work while adhering to given ideals
image description: venn diagram showing how very few artists do groundbreaking work while adhering to given ideals.
Courtesy of my Instagram.


























Is art pointless then?

Doing art is selfish. Reconciling for this fact with political flag-waving will never produce anything I want to see. Exciting ideas do not equal nice ideas. 

I haven't seen almost any art or entertainment that truly grabs me and infiltrates my worldview, my attitudes, my way of being in the world, while serving the goals of a given community. Although when that happens it's profoundly moving. But in most cases, if anyone cares about most cases, the creation of resonating work requires some sense of disengagement. 

This doesn't dictate what you should do as a citizen, by any means. This is not some backhanded way of defending inexcusable bad-boy behaviour in art, or saying artists must be narcissistic assholes by design. What I'm after here is charting my own experiences as a spectator, without mixing the artist and the work.  

If you feel that making art is pointless and you should spend your time helping others, you're probably right. All the culture we produce as a civilisation is based on plunder and exploitation. That same plunder makes possible both ice hockey matches and critical performance art. And doing the latter doesn't make the imbalance tip back. It doesn't mean we should give up, either, only sober up, and be real about the effects and ineffects of our activities.

Can you name a useful idea from the past 20 years that originated in art and become widespread? I couldn't come up with anything. Then, I'm not too educated or experienced. Still, I have never witnessed any proof that ideas in art done in my time would have traveled into the mainstream, or almost into any other realm, save for fringe parts of humanist studies. Maybe they have and we'll notice it later. 

And maybe, in general, it's better to see yourself as part of a grey mass than as some key individual who will save us with their latest art project. The fact that art is so drastically rooted in the personality of a singular artist is one of its key obstacles in inflicting any kind of change.

I've stopped going to art-related talks and lectures with pressing political themes in their titles. Those conversations are exactly what art anyways is: artists talking to each other, with an affirmation-hungry, educated audience watching from the sides. 

Lastly: there are, of course, artists deeply embedded in community work. I don't think it's a stretch to say they're doing that although they're artists, not because of it, as such work goes against the fabric of the art world. You could change those foundations, possibly. But then we're back at institutional critique as I wrote earlier.

INTERLUDE: badmouthing

Here's some paranoid subtweeting for you all: I could name people from the Helsinki scene who, if they'd read this, would chuckle and think "oh my god Kimmo is so clueless have they not heard about this-and-this Soviet-era art movement in Eastern Europe that, really, was so bold and transgressive." No, I haven't. No-one else has, either. I can see how unearthing such stories can be empowering and exciting. I love reading about that stuff. But make no mistake, no one outside our circle of colleagues will learn about it.

What do we experience?

Art has changed me tremendously but it has never taught me anything. That change has taken place in a hard-to-map, structural, even molecular level. My outlook has changed. 

You could say it's particularly interesting when artists tackle real-world subjects with poetic license, or meld art with science. But why would I want to listen to an artist talk about science? Like, what, you completed a PhD on the flight over here? 

I do want to see the foundations of Western scientific knowledge being interrogated, but I have very little hope that we'll get anywhere with that by curating group exhibitions about epistemologies.

It's just that I hear all this talk about all these issues, and all these names of authors being thrown in the air (season 2014-2018: Karen Barad, more on that here), but no one seems to catch them when they fall. I've been chasing that space of reflection literally all my life. I really wanna talk about the experience of coming together and what happens there. 

But the situation of art as a site of knowledge is rotten at the core: someone is always getting paid or advancing their career by organising the event or being vocal. The agency is always hijacked before it is set. So I've given up.

What happened there at the event at the gallery you just went to? Did you really experience intra-agency or was it just a mess of materials splattered across the space that everyone tried their best not to touch? Do I feel closer to other species after imagining I'm an amoeba for the duration of a performance, or could it be that such cognitive transformation would take hundreds of years? 

As we all know, it's way more complicated than the snapshot I'm giving to you here. I admire shows that make me face this problem in an inspiring way, like this show did.

Obviously, if an art event about co-existing with plants makes you feel the things you wanna feel, that's amazing, and I'm genuinely happy for you. It just hasn't happened to me yet. 

I have good reason to believe a lot of people silently feel the way I do. We are not getting anything out of this apart from learning to signal we sort of get it. Hence art is like social media: I am afraid I won't get the references if I step out. But maybe talking without reference anxiety is a goal worth pursuing?

Nice people

Scene-cultivation and reference nit-picking will only hold us down and demand we follow the party line. Of course no one really demands anything because we're all nice people with manners. But no seriously, your colleagues are the problem. Hanging out with other artists makes you produce the kind of work that you think people would like to hang out with. 

I'm too scared and tired of trying to disagree in public so I'd rather withdraw and do my work in stealth mode and deliver the goods when the time comes. When you can afford to choose it, being aside has nothing to do with a romantic loner pose. It's a strategic move.

***

Lastly, I wanna thank everyone who has read my blog posts and commented IRL or online. I would not do anything without those fleeting moments of affirmation and exchange of ideas. Here are top 5 most popular posts so far (note: only one exhibition review made the cut)
screen shot of my top 5 blog posts by pageviews
image description: with 1775 page views, this blog post has been most popular so far.


torstai 3. toukokuuta 2018

ART TODAY EXPLAINED

Today, there is

1. art that's directly tied to real issues, thus equipped with urgency and agency, and
2. everything else, ie. empty representation & bandaid for liberal capitalism.

Unfortunately, almost all the exhibition spaces and art institutions follow the logic of category 2, so even when they show work from category 1, it will mean or do nothing.

=

What is needed are art spaces with urgency and agency, directly tied to real issues.

maanantai 9. huhtikuuta 2018

THREE QUESTIONS TO PEOPLE DOING EXHIBITIONS UNDER CAPITALISM


Exhibition spaces, from tiny galleries to major museums, all fail under the same basic conditions. I've outlaid those conditions here though three questions. If an exhibition can't give a meaningful answer to these questions, it's doomed.

1. Who loves this?

Museum exhibitions rarely response to this most fundamental question. If no one who did the show loves the show, why would anyone else want to see it?

You could consider the concept of self-love or self-care here, too. If an exhibition space doesn't love itself, ie. care for itself, why would we? Although it is usually we, the audience, who is made to perform the labor of care. 

This self-lovelessness leads to emotional labor on the part of the body visiting an art space. I have to partake in its activities to make the space seem alive, I have to talk about it because its directors don't want to engage, and it is I who must find something worthwhile in the art works as if experiencing art is an emotional riddle akin to a confusing Tinder date. 

The latter point comes out pretty clear on art world related ad campaigns and PR talk where the idea "all interpretations are equal" is always being cherished. This is not inclusivity, but irresponsibility: we don't know what we've done, tho maybe you like it? This is how male privilege also works: You just do stuff and other people are forced to make sense of it, but they are not rewarded for the meaning that arises from their work; you are.

Sometimes artists don't love themselves but hope that curators would, with the chorus from Evanescence's "Bring Me To Life" ringing in artists' heads (or if it's 2015, in their video works). 

Just like art spaces, artists are not sure if what they do is valuable to anyone, but because they have their MFA degree and their exhaustive run as a tireless go-getter networker, they can't stop to contemplate how they really feel about their own workings but keep on offering it on autopilot to curators and directors and journalists to suss out. 

Self-love is not only self-care but respect towards other people. if you show us things you don't love, you're asking us to do the work, to carry your problems, to do your dirty laundry. 

2. Why here?

The second point is made of two equally important words. Sometimes the "here" part boils down to nothing but random professional reflexes. This art is here because I, the director, met someone at a bar during my trip to an art fair and they gave me an offer I couldn't refuse: Say, a dirt cheap touring exhibition by a celebrity artist or a famous dead painter. 

Or maybe it's just capitalism. You need to produce something all the time, and there's never any time, so you're left to operate on your survival instinct, a peculiar state for producing something (art) that fundamentally does not need to exist in the same non-negotiable way as nutrition or clean air. 

We humans are great at putting ourselves willingly into situations where we feel we don't have any other options. Art can be literally anything, but artists, or anyone working in the art industry, tend to produce work that requires way bigger budget than the one they have. 

When a government official, usually completely unaware of the more exciting avenues of contemporary art thinking and doing, instruct directors of art institutions to provide meaningless data or perform cuts or adhere to a new neoliberal trope such as participatory art or ecological art or art and science or artists as entrepreneurs, no one ever declines. We just tint our CVs to match the job description. We think the hoop-jumping is worth it, but six months later it's all we talk about to each other, complaining about the exhaustive, maze-like policies in which we need to navigate.

We never form a front and work collectively to say no, but simply leave each other to deal with the ever-changing, neoliberal, austerity policies on our own. Best of luck & see you in Venice if you still have a travel budget.

We could begin by asking why: Why are we committing to a series of perpetual compromises to secure funding for something that will burn us all out? You could say "because of our livelihoods", but I'd rather not begin this discussion by encouraging everyone working in the arts to find a new profession. 

Instead, we could talk about what could be done differently. The answers are highly different for everyone, depending on the country and context you're working and living in. This could provide an ample opportunity to say no to each other, too. If an artist suggests something ludicrous, maybe our first instinct is not to find a way to accommodate their ideas, but to ask why would you want to do that. 

Now we can move to the "here" part of the second question. If the "here" equals an art space belonging to the official contemporary art world (ie. able bodies having gone to prestigious art school proving themselves to each other), it means that whatever is shown there, it will be experienced through passive consumption as part of a larger economy targeted to exploit our desires and leisure time. 

You can show the most jaw-dropping, ultra-critical work, but if it's shown in an art space, it will only mean that you & your institution are now seen as "progressive" or on the right side of a symbolic battle that is rhetorically tied to concrete battles, while being made possible by capitalist logic itself. And the same goes for the audience: by witnessing highly political work, I am rendered political. There is absolutely no initiative to do anything. Art could thus be renamed to lip service industrial complex.

People like myself, the privileged ones who have time and resources to think about things and the power to choose how to spend their time, know so much yet do so little. It is true of experiencing art, as well. Imagine you see a politically charged work at an art space. You see it, greet it with your emotions, and move on. It can have a temporary effect, but without repetition, it is as memorable as a one-time ad campaign on the metro. Nothing really happens "here".

For example, as undeniably important as the work of Forensic Architecture is, I'm not sure if seeing the documentation of their cases in an art space is any different from seeing neon-colored plastic poles laying diagonally in a stack on the floor because some artist couldn't think of anything else to do and so decided to cherish their confusion as a guiding principle. I dislike saying this because I admire their work so much, but when I saw the FA show at ICA in London, I couldn't help thinking about the gruesome flattening effect of the exhibition space, or any art space. 

It's not the fault of anyone really, that's just how these venues function: more often than not, it seems to treat everything as same. These spaces or display practices strip objects and actions in them powerless. 

You could argue that maybe this requires pack-of-wolves style anarchist thinking, in the style of Federico Campagna's The Last Night, ie. FA is using the resources they have to gather more attention and thus funding for their work which then leads to them being able to take in new cases, and sort of bypassing the question of artistic merit. In this case, the exhibition is a showcase or an ad campaign, which is a more sober approach than the wishful thinking exhibition-making usually is tied with (ie. let's hope these objects together magically mean something to someone). And I think that's 100% legit tactic, as well.

disclaimer: I do feel like I'm looking at this the wrong way, but for better or worse I wanted to explain how I feel about these things, for what it's worth.

Before I carry on, it's worth sitting on the idea of repetition and its power for a bit. 

Art today is broadly based on the idea of individualism. It means every artist has to do their own work and then copyright protects other artists from continuing the work of that former artist. Since there are a limited number of things you can do to stand out, it has been decided that the best way to stand out is to be yourself, ie. turn your unique identity into a brand. This logic is then scaled to fit institutions alike. 

For this reason, nothing in the art world resembles what an international boycotting campaign or a general strike does. The latter two bring people with wildly different opinions together behind one shared cause, then a form of action is chosen and the activity repeated to use the power of mass and repetition against, say, a corporation, or a state. 

By design, artists and people in the art world can not do that, as long as they adhere to the basic tenets of modernism: individualism, autonomy, objective taste. We can't repeat a message because our careers and existence is based on the idea that we all have an individual message in the marketplace of ideas where we compete for attention. 

So if we want to change things, there's no way around it: We need to change the conditions under which we experience and produce art. It's not a matter of what kind of art is being shown if the prevailing logic of display stays the same. And yes, this change would mean that we can't just be producing work independent of each other, coming together only for a thematic group show.

Homo sacer

Think of the ancient Roman concept of Homo sacer as made popular by Giorgio Agamben. Homo sacer is a man who cannot be sacrificed but can be killed without consequences. This is what art means in society: its funding cannot be entirely cut to serve some other purpose, and we cannot sacrifice its freedom of speech, but the ideas it spawns can be killed immediately by anyone. 

At this point, those ideas don't even need to be killed because nothing art produces lives long enough to impact anything. Which is why we need to churn out new concepts, themes, and trends season after season, only to replace them with new ones as soon as everyone has lost interest with whatever it was we were talking about last Fall. 

And to add to that, just like Homo sacer was first banished from society and then labelled as sacred, artists are respected as special creatures whose actions do not really have any real meaning in the society other than to perform the role of something sacred.

So why is this here? Is this the place where these ideas will generate most impact and resonance? Should we really be here in the first place? What happens when we are here, in an art space? Rather than beginning with thinking about what kind of art and artists you want to show in your space, consider this first: How does this space works and what could & should be done in it?

3. For whom, by whom?

This last question is tied to the previous one but highlights a more broader issue: Who has access to this show? People running exhibition spaces are usually nowadays aware of physical access, so they inform visitors about stairs, bathrooms at use and other such issues. Still, we never talk about mental or societal obstacles. 

I could think of who is able to be aware of my blog, and then read or listen to this text, and finally to make sense of it. While making an exhibition, one could think of the same questions. But for some reason, we show contemporary art as is, as if you could just "get" it, simply by coming in.

We won't tell people that, really, you should've read at least three Sternberg Press releases, seen a handful of exhibitions showcased in Contemporary Art Daily, and gone to a university to study art history if you want to get something out from this exhibition. And of course you need to speak English and have the other capacities and resources required to having consumed tons of culture.

This issue is very hard to address. Which is way the art world has chosen to talk about how everyone's interpretation is as correct as someone else's, as I mentioned earlier. This is of course as far from the truth as possible. 

Contemporary art, for most parts, is made for other people in the art world, and the non-art people who come to witness an exhibition is regarded either as collateral or a force of nature one needs to deal with, even though we'd rather not. 

Just like everyone else, most of us working in art-related jobs would rather be just left alone to do our thing with like-minded people. And just like every other human on the planet, for most parts, we drag ourselves into the world to deal with other people so we wouldn't seem so selfish. This is a caricature but I trust you understand what I'm after here.

Artists who have figured out the repressive structure of art-making usually end up choosing more intuitive approaches, or working with spiritual concepts, or whatever feels like the most suitable way out from the exclusivity that informs one's becoming of and being an artist. Even if you start making work that doesn't require those things I mentioned, it's still taking place in a context that is fully informed by such logic. 

Such transcendent approaches might create hope and offer a place of rest for both the artists and the (professional) audience, and I've truly felt that hope myself, too. But we can't not to note that for an artist to be able to make such choices, you usually need a considerable amount of funding and career pedigree to feel like you can exchange career survival for a more laidback position.

And since we live in predatory capitalism, any practice with the best of intentions can be co-opted and turned into a careerist format in a split second by someone willing to do so, as happened with relation aesthetics in the 90s. 

Lastly, since art is about individualism, usually all practices and gestures get "trademarked" in an unspoken way, as in burning candles in a gallery "belongs" to the artist most visibly and successfully practicing it. Which is why none of our aesthetics approaches ever have any real power because no one else can't pick them up lest they be guilty of imitation.

Maybe if we begun from admitting artists are just as horrible as anyone else, and our motives are just as low as other people living under capitalism, we could get rid of the idea that art is inherently good, because this aura of righteousness that surrounds art also stops it from having any real societal power. 

The fact that art is deemed good by default makes you seem good by simply consuming it. It's akin to the problem of ethical consumption: people who buy an expensive "CO2-neutral" electric car are said to then fly carelessly because they've done the good deed already, ie. I saw an exhibition dealing with a real issue, I'm now aware of the problem, so please leave me alone.

Capitalist realism

Art still comes down to "something by someone special to someone less special", and it's this line that provides us with the real challenge. Can we change that formula? We badly need new narratives and relations, since everything we do now falls under the grinding logic of capitalism, where all our activities are measured and then turned either into profit or loss, ecstasy or guilt, inclusion or disavowal, heroes and losers, makers and consumers. (pls don't mention prosumers pls)

Of course, I can't or wouldn't want to say for certain whether this or that exhibition is "doomed", as I claimed in the first paragraph, it's just how I feel nowadays when I visit any kinds of exhibition spaces. There are no better or worse exhibitions, since all art today is capitalist realism, just like all art under Soviet rule was socialist realism (unrelated to Mark Fisher's use of the term, or might be related, I don't know tbh, unfortunately I haven't read the book by the same name).

Even the most transgressive, critical work simply provides the state, or some other entity that is allowing for art to happen, with a license to carry on the wars for freedom, to destroy everything that is not bending to its ideology and will. Maybe the only way to fight against this hegemony is to challenge the very foundations of our production of knowledge ie. what is meaningful, what is "good", what is worthy, what must be seen and what will be made invisible. Or even better, to think of new things to desire for.

I don't know how to do it but I'd love to do it with you since today I am still failing and I'm alone.


p.s. A friend referred to me this thoughtful piece by Lucinda Bennett, and I truly recommend you all read it. Whereas in Finland the problem sometimes is the lack of love due to our love of bureaucracy and empty representation originating in nationalist self-image paranoia, it's good to remember that oftentimes the idea of "loving what you do" is greatly exploited to justify precarious working conditions.

an image of a beetle sculpture sitting atop a square pedestal, with the text Culture is a curse sprayed on the pedestal
Graffiti somewhere in East London. pic by me.