Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Measuring sticks

Back in April I wrote a review for the reincarnated Glasgow Review of Books. The piece covered Mark Fisher and Justin Barton's On Vanishing Land, and Jessica Warboys's film Paegant Roll. There is some great writing on the blog, which anyone would do well to have a look at.

Friday, 1 February 2013


I submitted this piece, which in many ways ties in with the review posted below, to the Frieze Writer's Prize competition last year. I suppose it was quite an unambitious exhibition to review, and the style is a bit sober for the length of the piece (limited to 700 words), but I do still think that Keiller's work, in terms of its critical reception, needs to be pulled in some new directions. He's certainly a comfortable artist for many (and no doubt my own writing shares a relation to his work that lacks a sufficiently disjunctive tension). The winning entry was very good and you can read it here.

Patrick Keiller, The Robinson Institute
Tate Britain, 27 March – 14 October 2012

The peculiar situation of Tate in the nexus of ‘contemporary’ art – at least as that concept functions as a coherent critical category – is that no Tate Contemporary exists. Yet this absence of any explicitly institutional embodiment of the contemporary as a temporal category leaves the Tate collection itself open to any artistic, critical or curatorial agency that might contemporize it appropriately. It seems that this is what Patrick Keiller has attempted to do in The Robinson Institute, which spans the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain. The success of this first Tate Commission lies in its construction of a set of conditions for contemporary art, and in its appropriative embodiment of the idea of the contemporary itself.

 The fatigued suggestion that Keiller’s work gains its productive potential from failure or absence will weary those familiar with the body of films for which he is most famous. Nonetheless, in this commission, Keiller adapts some of the strategies pursued in his cinematographic work to enormously intelligent effect. Notably, Keiller’s use of fictionalization pits this commission on the same level as the work of groups as diverse as the Bernadette Corporation, The Atlas Group, and Claire Fontaine – fictional collectives (or collective fictions) whose precarious existences nonetheless figure something of contemporary experience itself, given that this category – spanning the spatial and temporal disjunctions produced by globalized capital – is always, necessarily, something to be constructed.

Keiller’s films stage models of collectivity at the smallest level, the coupling of Robinson and an unnamed narrator, a strategy that allows the structural significance of correspondence to manifest itself clearly. This reveals itself in the first of Keiller’s ‘stages’ at Tate, entitled ‘Robinsonism’, although a further, retroactive fictional twist is the Institute’s presentation as the somewhat ecstatic findings of a group of researchers. These stages – some of whose titles (‘1795’, ‘1830’) bear meaningful comparison to the ‘plateaus’ of the second volume of Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia – certainly fulfill the exhibition’s promise to manifest new relations between disparate historical, scientific and artistic phenomena, yet Keiller’s strategy rejects, or successfully ironizes, this often consensual framework.

The fourth platform (‘The non-human, the post-human’) hints at a disposition verging somewhere between the respectful and the pathological in its invocation of Robinson’s ‘Biophilia’. If this concept somehow displaces Deleuzo-Guattarian ‘vitalism’, Keiller appears to be hinting that a conscious ironization is the only artistic means by which to approach life’ and ‘the molecular basis of historical events’. Here, the curatorial juxtaposition adds a necessary dose of what the artist-critics of Jena romanticism – to which Keiler is indebted – theorized as Witz: a non-eidetic flash of ironic understanding that nonetheless held in check its etymological other, Wissen (scientific-poetic knowledge).

The Institute’s final stage, whose accompanying text deals most explicitly with the present financial crisis, also appears paradigmatic in the role it accords to text itself. In this context, all of the potentialities and ambiguities contained in Braco Dimitrijevic’s This Could Be a Place of Historical Importance (1972) congeal, harbouring the concomitant dialectic of melancholic resignation and tautological hope that characterizes contemporary practice. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Quin Morere (1991) and Turner’s proto-abstract An Imaginative Historical Subject (1827) offer further textual ruminations on history, whilst Jiri Kovanda’s Two Little White Slats and Three Little White Slats (1980) figures the critical model of art history that Keiller’s whole project seems to valorize.

The Robinson Institute’s somewhat arbitrary ‘destination’ focuses, however, primarily upon the area of urban studies (via Debord and a video about Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon) in which Keiller has emerged as a somewhat canonical figure. The fundamental concerns of Keiller’s commission (whether explored through history, biology, astronomy or agriculture – or Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit, for a final, conceptual throw of the dice) are articulated by Henderson and Paolozzi’s Untitled (Study for Parallel of Life and Art) (1952), a collaborative work made for an exhibition at the ICA, only six years after its foundation, in which the artists acted as ‘editors’ alongside civil engineer Ronald Jenkins and architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Keiller hasn’t in mind postwar brutalism’s nostalgia for the future and its own ‘contemporary’ situation, however. The exhibition’s anti-clockwise ‘journey’ is a subterfuge: visitors are drawn towards the pleasingly open reading space at the gallery’s centre, in which the truly contemporary, geopolitical resonances of Keiller’s engagement with writing are to be found.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

An old review

This is a review I wrote in the last year of my undergraduate degree, for the impossibly fleeting Glasgow Review of Books, which is due an exciting resurgence I'm told. I cringe a little reading some of it, but it was written with a genuine sense of excitement, fuelled by a mixture of ridiculously unstructured theory-intake and the heady air of the 11th floor of Glasgow University's library near exam time, which I've come to miss against all expectations. It also reminds me of meeting some lovely people and friends - which rather saddens me, as I've been terrible at keeping in touch.

I've only edited one part, where I accidentally referred to Sylvère Lotringer as an 'artist'. I never saved it, but a commenter retorted from LA correcting me and, in that strange genre of personalized spam, criticising the whole review's naivety (which was partly intended I'm sure), and Kraus herself. Around the same time, coincidentally (or perhaps not!), I received an email from the author, who somehow stumbled upon the review and offered some extremely kind words. There are quite a few things I'd do differently were I to review (or indeed read) this book today, but I suppose that's always the way.

Chris Kraus, Where Art Belongs
Semiotext(e), 2011

Glancing over the titles and subtitles of the four essays which comprise Chris Kraus’s Where Art Belongs, one could not be blamed for hastily situating the text within a discourse of epistemic lassitude: ‘You are invited to be the Last Tiny Creature’, ‘No More Utopias’, ‘May ‘69’, ‘The Failed Collective’. A professor at the European Graduate School, Kraus is also a film-maker and author, whose publications range from the epistolary novel I Love Dick to the reader Hatred of Capitalism, which she co-edited with Sylvère Lotringer (a protagonist of this text also). Where Art Belongs is the eighth in a series of semiotext(e) ‘interventions’, the first of which,  The Invisible Committee’s Coming Insurrection, carried a revolutionary, declarative impetus that seems a far cry from the not entirely dissimulating sense of ennui readers initially encounter here. Yet Kraus’s writing ruptures the linear temporality of artistic and theoretical historiography. Whilst manifestos play a central role in connecting the seemingly disparate projects that the book attempts to coalesce, their role is not necessarily that ineluctably performative and creative one that engendered so much activity in the wake of The Coming Insurrection.

In the opening essay on Tiny Creatures, an influential Los Angeles gallery that enjoyed a brief and prolific existence between 2006 and 2009, an artist, analyzing the project’s denouement, explains to Kraus:

You know the book Auto-Dissolution of the Avant-Gardes by René Lourau? Instead of publishing the manifestos written when they start, he compiled the manifestos of why they need to end their projects. I don’t know. I remember feeling sad about it that night – like, that’s the last time I’ll be young, and I mean by that a more ambiguous relationship with time and productivity.

‘Time and productivity’ are indeed central themes throughout Where Art Belongs. A defamiliarizing temporality is part of its strange economy of intratextual and extratextual dynamics, which see the book commence: ‘In the winter or spring or maybe the summer – depending on who and when you ask – of 2006, Janet Kim moved into the storefront at 628 N. Alvarado that would become Tiny Creatures.’ One might justifiably contest that such ambiguity already appears nostalgic, if not affected, in an era in which social media relentlessly records every semblance of an ‘event’. If art should exist or ‘belong’ to the world, however, the role that Kraus assigns it here is one that accords a singular degree of autonomy, from the constraints of everyday time as well as from our long-standing preconceptions about the roles or responsibilities of art’s makers. An essay on the collaboration between fashion photographer David Vasiljevic and artists involved in the Bernadette Corporation - a protean collective working collaboratively behind this fictional, corporate façade - discusses a project where ‘cut adrift from their commercial function, the images matter-of-factly expose fashion photography’s potent but limited bag of tricks for conflating youth and “lifestyle.”’ It’s a conflation that Kraus’s prose delights in, albeit one that can appear slightly dislodging when, after reading the book’s blurb – an excerpt from Kraus’s description of a Vasiljevic fashion shoot (‘the white girl’s clothes are arranged to display soft bulges of fat’) displayed, like a context-less art object on the book’s neon cover – one encounters in the opening pages the idiosyncrasies and hedonism of LA’s art and music scene in the late 2000s. Nonetheless, Kraus’s prose itself - sometimes detachedly laconic, occasionally joyously visceral - is always alluringly anecdotal and self-reflexive, harbouring quotations from Wikipedia and details of the author’s Googling habits alongside elongated treatises on film, illness, homosexuality, and globalization. Although, as Anne K. Yoder noted over at The Millions, less personal than her previous collections of criticism, the style of Where Art Belongs, with its sudden changes in tone, perspective and tense, embodies that ‘ambiguous relation’ mentioned initially, that acts as a harbinger for Kraus’s analyses of a dozen or so projects from the last decade. The fourth, last, and shortest essay, appropriately entitled ‘Drift’, ends the book - save for an extremely short but important addendum on the impossibility of ‘a failed utopian community’ – in diary form, mimicking the textual dynamics of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When we remember that the initial version of Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel took the name Stephen Hero, this structural allusion highlights the theme of heroism, pertinent throughout Where Art Belongs, a topos that is, in the realm of aesthetics at least, inextricably bound up with a distinctly non-standard time.

The Bernadette Corporation’s collaborative ‘epic’ poem, A Billion and Change, provides a model that delineates the book’s most pertinent themes. Investing in a definition that she takes from poet Eilleen Myles – ‘the world is an epic poem’ – Kraus suggests that ‘the job of the poem […] is to describe the present’, aligning her project alongside a continuum of modernist writers, from Baudelaire to Bergson to Badiou, who have conflated ideas of the epic and the subjective immediacy of the present moment. For the author, a transposed fashion shoot, or ‘art direction’ in general, can similarly accede to heroic novelty through the instantaneous coherency of the camera’s ‘freeze’. Although Kraus’s title is never explicitly alluded to, those approaching Where Art Belongs from a literary background will perhaps deduce that it is literature, and more specifically poetry, that finds itself torn asunder from its comfortable habitat, and transposed into the distinct otherness of the gallery space. Kraus relates how the Bernadette Corporation alienated friends and supporters with their intransigent refusal to capitulate to poetry’s mapped boundaries in the twenty-first century, boundaries which reside not in physical books, of course, but in the deterritorialized space of instantly available, repeatable, and distributable texts: ‘No press copies, no posting online, no Xeroxed handouts.’ The format, which the artists hoped would prevent, ‘that effortless transmission’ belies a strategy that is more adherent to the necessary and arguably ‘emancipatory’ distance between artwork and audience outlined by Jacques Rancière’s recent writing, than the vigilance against ‘consumption’ preached by his Situationist predecessors, Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, that has dominated efforts to break down barriers between artists and audiences in recent decades. Contributor Antek Walczak reminisces that ‘a lot of people weren’t sure if it was an art object, and that was good’. Although deliberately designed to evade genres, however, the poem does not seem to strive towards the elevated status of Gesamtkuntswerk either; poetry’s engagement with art has less lofty implications. Ever weary of the quotidian reality behind epic heroism, Kraus contests that art criticism – more precisely, ‘churning out art reviews and catalogue essays’ – is a primary source of income for contemporary poets and writers of fiction, a pragmatic reality that she herself evidently faces.

The ‘where’ of A Billion and Change is located precisely in its conceptual existence within ‘The Complete Poem’, the exhibition presented at New York’s Greene Naftali gallery in 2009, or – even more closely – in the tables on which the 130-page manuscript was displayed. Extending the locus of art and literature into the sphere of commodity marketing represents a break from a merely critical or ironic syncretism of these domains. Kraus traces the pivotal influence of Mallarmé in the work of the Bernadette Corporation: ‘In its 2001 videotape Hell Frozen Over, critic and theorist Sylvère Lotringer stands on a frozen mid-winter lake describing the white space of Mallarmé’s poems while the image-track cuts to a fashion shoot in a loft and this is never ironic because all forms of blankness contain some kind of beauty.’ This axiom of ‘never ironic’ permeates the projects appraised (or at least informs Kraus’s readings); indeed it often appears, less as a manifesto for engaged or committed art, than a precondition arising from the always-already secondary nature of these artists’ sources. Marginal texts of the nineteenth and twentieth century avant-garde are more often than not the explicit influence for the installations scrutinized. The indebtedness of the Bernadette Corporation to La Dernière Mode – Mallarmé’s enigmatic fashion magazine - is highlighted, as is the influence of Walter Benjamin’s correspondence with Gershom Scholem on contemporary photographer Moyra Davey. This definition of ‘texts’ appropriable for modern art stretches beyond written material, incorporating (highly aestheticized) lives themselves; and again it is the marginal that attracts both Kraus and the artists subject to her exegesis. Inspiration is found not least in failed, quasi-imperialist misadventures. The work of Austrian self-portraitist Elke Krystufek is read in light of a structural myth of modernity, the ‘romance of disappearance’: she draws on Bas Jan Ader’s vanishment at sea in 1975, the German Expressionist Max Hermann Pechstein’s exile to Palau following his banishment from the Berlin Brucke group, and Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘literary suicide’, his personal embodiment of his own poetic maxim, ‘I is an other’, during his years spent as a ‘trader, explorer and Arabist’ in North Africa.

Kraus’s hostility to the ironic distancing that marks melancholic and disengaged late-capitalist critique extends to a passionate defence of sixties counterculture, in which the author once again centralizes the prominence of time. After May ’68:

Structural change of course proved impossible. What remained was a widespread desire to reclaim the personal freedom inhaled – first-hand or vicariously – during those days, over time, outside the tempestuous bubble of revolutionary action/reaction. New modes of living were needed, new definitions of “normal”. [Emphasis in the original]

This historiography finds reflection in Kraus’s somewhat irresolute antipathy towards psychoanalysis, that couches a concern for the virtual vanishing act performed by anti-psychiatry and its protagonists (R.D. Laing, David Cooper, Félix Guattari) from the theoretical scene. ‘What would happen if people took sex less seriously?’ is a question whose evaporation Kraus laments, at the same time as she rues the closure of the universe of discourse surrounding the issue of liberation: ‘Why is it that to this day every sexual libertarian movement in history is viewed with a wink, if not a chastising sneer?’ In line with her insistence upon returning to the aporias and vacillations present in marginal texts, Kraus finds in the short-lived magazines of the late sixties effective models of resistance, whose strategies are again laid out in resolutely idiosyncratic manifestos. Of a special issue of Recherches, entitled ‘Three Billion Perverts’, Kraus tells us that ‘no one will ever be sure if the drawing of a penis wrapped in a turban was made by Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Fanny Deleuze, Jean Genet, Guy Hocquenghem, or one of the less well-known contributors whose names appeared on the masthead.’ Kraus pays fidelity to these sexual revolutions with her own performances during the Sex Workers Art Show, to which she dedicates a chapter of the book. Here, poetry, art, performance, and sex work infiltrate each other in a mutually destabilizing way: Kraus describes one act as ‘a very pure form of the V-effect’, and asks of her own literary piece (she was herself a topless dancer), ‘Where else except, perhaps, pre-glasnost Russia or Poland could a writer of literary fiction read to standing-room only crowds of 600 people?’, a pressing question in the age of e-readers and online reading groups. Kraus regards the perennial question of ‘Are you for or against sex work?’ as absurd (‘It’s like asking if someone is “for” or “against” global capitalism’): we can deduce that, in the cultural conditions of neoliberalism, art can belong in unfamiliar and unwanted places, the residue of a heroism of liberation never fulfilled.

Although privy to the almost ubiquitous whitewash of the radical and theoretical projects of the sixties, Kraus is willing to qualitatively differentiate. She is critical of the Situationist dérive (‘rather programmatic and dry’), and stresses the limitations of the methods of institutional critique pursued by the New Left. One is reminded that Rancière, whose recent publications have focused heavily on contemporary art, turned away from the scientific Marxism of Althusser, largely because of his former master’s reluctance to support the spontaneous eruptions of May ’68, and from the pedagogically restrictive conditions that arose in the aftermath of les événements. Perhaps the most vital essay from Where Art Belongs is Kraus’s engagement with Moyra Davey’s photography and writing. Kraus witnesses in Davey an active alternative to what she perceives as stale Situationism: her works ‘insert the psycho in psycho-geography.’ Describing Davey’s work as ‘a kind of gestural poetry – an ability to respond to the present – that can be expressed in various media’, Kraus traces what is also, demonstrably, a novel ability to respond to written texts. Davey describes her Cage-inspired reading practice as ‘flânerie’, and the results garnered appear as a truly exciting antidote to the stagnation that can occur, particularly perhaps in the locus of literature departments, when texts are sanitized, if not canonized, within a coherent and teleological history of ‘theory’. Kraus maps the contours of the photographer’s obsession with one particular letter of Walter Benjamin’s in which he admits ‘I now write only while lying down’, and appears fascinated by a clock. Recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the image instigated Davey’s ‘work about writing, illness, sleep, and the view from the window’. Whilst most will be familiar with the Benjaminian impetus to turn the past into ruins, to make it other in order to recognize it as the past and engage with it as such, Kraus suggests the need to recognize – in, for example, ‘the promise of a permanence that never arrived’ that she witnesses is Benjamin’s ‘Unpacking My Library’ - these lost visions of the future in a way that is subjective, active, and engaged. In other words, she emphasizes ‘correspondence’ as ‘the aspect of Benjamin’s work I see transmitted most clearly in [Davey’s] epic, heroic writing.

Kraus assigns contemporary art with a central role, rather than a marginal or secondary one. Describing Krystufek’s ‘commitment to forging continuity between disparate, disjointed systems’, Kraus deduces that, ‘in this sense, she’s a philosopher, pushing the situations that she creates towards a zany syncretism.’ To read Where Art Belongs is to witness this procedure in action. Unlike The Coming Insurrection, we will probably never see the book being waved deliriously by Glenn Beck, as footage from rioting banlieues competes for screen space with flashing headlines about imminent urban collapse. Kraus’s text is not a collective call to arms, but an incitement to find art, to read in a heroic way, to create a moment – as an individual or within a group – where one’s relationship to the past is dictated only by the chance nature of what the present has thrown at you.