Saturday, 20 October 2012


Being Clueless

I'm in Seoul, been here for 24 hours to work with some friends and colleagues at Kookmin University here, and also to visit Guangju and Busan Biennials, along with Seoul Media City, if at all possible in a short timescale.
However, I haven't been out of the hotel yet, due to various work committments. One of which was the urgency of the demand to get some of my work up on the University Repository. Like keeping on top of blogs, such as  this, sometimes it feels like time may be better spent.
Having said that, I just came across this, something I did for a conference a while back in 2010 I think. Its still not ready to be 'published', all sorts of opinions and loose ends, but I thought it might be interesting to one or two people. Especially if they get as lost as I do sometimes.
here we go.....apologies to the purists, and I'll sort the references out later.

'At a recent gallery opening of the work of Terry Atkinson as part of Lanchester Gallery Projects in Coventry in the UK, I got talking to an artist friend, lets call him, ‘M’, and both of us were singing the praises of a certain mutual acquaintance, lets call him ‘D’, who happened to be ‘cropping up’ all over the place, in shows, in magazines and his writings and even his teaching was also being talked about.  Whether it was a genuine pleasure to see our friend doing so well is a another question, but when my friend ‘M’ made the point that ‘D’, “was really focussed and knew what he was doing”, then adding slightly mournfully, “I wish I did, I feel utterly clueless most of the time”, I pricked up my ears. What struck me firstly was the fact that I thought the work of ‘M’ was far better (by that I mean, more interesting, more compelling, more complex and more difficult to grasp) than the work of ‘D’, and secondly, that I felt an immediate sense of empathy with this sense of ‘cluelessness’. It seemed entirely appropriate that we would have this conversation within the context of work by Atkinson who has recently described the art world as a kind of ‘swamp’ and his own practice as a ‘practice of unease’[1], both terms which signal somewhat turgid, foggy, cloying or sticky processes and environments.

At first I thought that perhaps when we said that ‘D’ really “knew what he was doing”, we had momentarily lost track of exactly ‘what’ D was really doing (in terms of practice and in terms of what I thought ‘M’ did better), and had been seduced by how well ‘D’ was doing it (in terms of career trajectory and what ‘M’ was probably doing quite badly). In other words the line between ‘the work or the practice’ and ‘the career’ had somehow become muddied.

With the benefit of hindsight I started to realise that the reaction wasn’t simply just a ‘practice’ v ‘career’ stand-off (as very nicely outlined by Atkinson in the accompanying publication to his exhibition), though undoubtedly this will have been part of the issue, but that there was also a deeper tussle going on which felt like it could be termed either an affliction or acondition or indeed a symptom of cluelessness when it comes to a some contemporary art practice because I confess too to often feeling utterly clueless in my practice.

This cluelessness is often made evident by the strategic employment of a range of approaches and tactics within the practice and a palpable sense of dynamic tensions in the studio and in the installations themselves. It often seems as if there is no focus at all, only a series of collaged ‘events’, be they photographs, texts, sound works, drawings, animations etc which seem to float from one to another in what at first glance would seem and arbitrary and pointless manner. Yet, the idea of my work being ‘lost’, or ‘uneasy’, or ‘unfocused’ doesn’t worry me. Quite the opposite, it quite excites me. As does the work of others which seems to me to be existing in a dynamic of what Julian Stallabrass termed 'flickering perceptual states between' ………… when describing the impossibility of really pinning down the work of Liam Gillick, for example. I could even say I feel liberated by my condition. Think of Gillick for example, or Fischli and Weiss, or Arakawa and Gins, all of whom seem to operate on what could be called ‘borders’ of classification, moving in and out of positions of focus as is they were weaving a bike through traffic.

Of course, within the context of the academy this unruly methodology may be a problem, this apparent lack of direction and blundering around may indicate an absence of something necessary, and this could be altogether more serious, a lack of a sustainable intellectual argument perhaps, leading to the academic threat of the loss of esteem as a pre-conditioned reaction to a practice which does not appear to contribute to knowledge despite the fact that it is hard not to recognise that knowledge itself could be said to be in crisis.

But currently, even more withering than the threat of academic peer dismissal, might be the accusation of a shortfall of ‘artistic ambition’. It seems that neither the careerist artist nor the academic know quite what to do with notions of waywardness, complexity, tension, confusion, and contradiction as legitimate areas of exploration presumably because both ‘camps’ are built around an attitude of measurement and competition, be it the research council or the Turner prize and of course, measurement and competition are both games which Cluelessness doesn’t need to play.

It reminds me somewhat of Don Dellio’s “the names”, set here in Athens in fact, in which the lead character confesses to enjoying being a tourist because it is a licence for him to be an idiot and thus get to where he needs to go.

Perhaps this condition of apparent stunned perplexity for want of a better phrase is inevitable. As I am an artist, one half of the collaborative duo Dutton and Swindells, and a Professor in practice, I say what I say because I have a practice out of which emerges a recognition that it us important that the research driven academic community is also opened up to practice in much the same way as the practice community has been opened, and closed, by research agendas. Is it then not surprising then that the artist/academic is reduced to state of continual bewilderment as he or she stand at the cross roads of two very different approaches to ‘knowledge’, neither of which actually reflects what Gunthar Kress recently described as a ‘life –world’. That is, the suggestion that ‘society’ has been replaced by ‘life-world’, which is then defined by ‘life-style’. I.e. knowledge is that which I need now, which solves a problem for me.[2]

Cluelessness might well be an understandable, if slightly stupified, response to contemporary crises, political, economic and epistemological, a little like the rabbit caught in the glare of the headlights, stunned, transfixed, hypnotised by the oncoming truck. But unlike the rabbit that doesn’t know what’s coming, the artist is made clueless in realising quite how much he or she doesn’t know, and can only stare back in state of mute anticipation of oncoming forces. This is Cluelessness as a kind of dawning awareness of just how bad things are and thus a natural reaction to it. A kind of impasse.

But lets take it a step further. What if the condition is less an automatic response of ‘shut-down’ when faced with the complexity of everyday life, and something more a reactive means of survival? Less of a symptom and more of a mutation or evolution?

For example, should an artist admit to their wayward processes resembling some form of modus operandi then he or she is entirely ‘knowing’ about what he or she is (not) doing? In which case the artist is finely performing a lack of ‘performance’, focusing, via the invocation of diverse and contradictory strategies, on precisely this lack.

This brings us back to the notions of the ‘practice’ and the ‘career’. If the confusion in my original conversation with ‘M” is anything to go by, what may be suggested is a turn toward the foregrounding of the career as being central and I would suggest this to be vast oversimplification of practice.

A career has a trajectory, a practice expands. By virtue of the career dissecting the expanding sphere of the practice, the career is one-dimensional, the practice, multi-dimensional. And it here I am reminded of Paul Virillio’s model of knowledge; that of the expanding sphere. As the sphere of knowledge gets larger and larger, the surface area, which stands between what is known and what, is not yet known also increases.

In other words, the more we know, the more we know how little we know.

Cluelessness then, far from something to be ashamed of, may well be the first step towards developing a methodology of engaging in an extraordinary complex world in a new way, a way of opening up possibility, malleable to new forms and instructions. It is a the beginning of a potential proposition in the world which does not strive to reduce the world to over-simplified terms and effects, sound bites of modules of knowledge (and in this sense if profoundly non-representational).

So what might this really mean in practice? How do we think of this confusion and contradiction as a methodology of creatitivity? There would have to a tactical approach introducing malapropisms, mistakes, confessions, slippages, assemblages, reversals, blunders and blockages into the hyper smooth formations of contemporary knowledge production and production of the self.

If we take Ranciere’s notion of “aesthetic acts as configurations of experience that create new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjectivity”[3] it may be possible to consider cluelessness as attitude, or stance, rather than condition or symptom. As the fertile ground upon which, or space within which, these new modes of sense perception may start to flourish.

Cluelessness as a knowing refusal then, as opposed to a condition of helplessness, pre-supposes an end to what Ranciere calls the “unsatisfying mise-en-scene of ‘the end and the return that persistently occupies the terrain of art, politics and any other object of thought”[4]in that it is neither progressive or regressive. It is simply concerned with developing a language of movement in the here and now.

As Judith Butler suggest,

“There will be no meta-language- it will be the labour of transaction and translation which belongs to no single site-but is the movement between languages and has its final destination in this movement itself. Indeed the tasks will not be to assimilate the unspeakable into the domain of speakability in order to house it there, (as we must within the ‘research culture’) within the existing norms of dominance, but to shatter the confidence of dominance, to show how equivocal its claims to universality are and from that equivocation, track the break up of its regime- an alternative version of universality wrought from the work of translation itself.”[5]

To wind up.

David Bohm, in On Creativity suggests that we must ‘give patient and sustained attention to the idea of confusion’. 

Ultimately my argument is for a small scale re-aligning of what we mean by the term ‘practice’, particularly within the contexts of research driven agendas of the Art and Design Institutions and career orientated ‘business studies-fine art degrees’. That Practice would become the process within which conceptual models and propositions proliferate meanings and non-meanings, confusions and complexities to exist as and be understood as aesthetictensions, which are in turn attempting to exist outside of, or at least form some resistance to, and/or meaningful dialogue with, the ever encroaching realm of the neo-liberal simplification and commodification of cultural forms and processes, whilst simultaneously also beingimplicitly sceptical (by being in practice ) and resistant to the fetish of progress which drives the idea of ‘knowledge’ as defined within the contemporary Research Culture. In other words, a practice, which is defined by the line, it draws in its constant dynamic motion and tensions between the dominant spaces of culture and knowledge production.

Thinking once more about the words of Jacques Ranciere, ‘Aesthetics is the ability to think contradiction[6]’. Is there an argument that refuses to isolate waywardness or incomprehensibility or cluelessness as a lazy or uncritical approach, and indeed, on the contrary to suggest that such an approach is engaged, possibly politicised and recognises such attitudes as contradiction or confusion of as an aesthetic, libidinal and political forces.

If so, is it possible to argue that this impossibility (or difficulty) of classification, (which applies first and foremost to what we think we are doing, hence, if we don’t now what we are doing we are ‘clueless’), this refusal (or inability) to ‘focus’ is in itself a highly charged force which, at their centre promote a deeply profound and necessary critical distance and attempt at detachment in order to play within what could be seen as the atomising effects of the twin neo-liberal obsessions of enterprise and innovation, to the extent that an art practice can present another model of confusion, in which tensions and stresses, contractions and disturbances, mistakes and malapropisms have aesthetic and dynamic dimensions and effects which may experienced as a form of deep critical ‘pleasure’ and effect?

In the words of the Raqs Media Collective[7]
“The tree of life, and therefore of art, would be barren were it not for the fruit of occasional misunderstandings”.'

[1] I need to chase this up, but I found it in some of Peter Suchin's writing about Terry I think.
[2] Gunther Kress, Professor of Semiotics and Education at a recent ESRC funded conference on the Multi-modal Doctorate
[3] From the forward of the politics of aesthetics, Jaques ranciere, first page. Continuum books.

[4] Ibid
[5] Judith Butler ‘Open’ p69
[6] the politics of the aesthetic, first seen in Claire bishop article the social turn? Art forum..
[7] in E-Flux Journal no 14..

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Art School and a forgotten territory

Jon Thompson comes out with some really wonderful turns of phrase and insights in 'Collected Writings' ( p. 407 ed Akerman and Daly ). He's generally writing about the differences between images and texts, practice, art and research. All the stuff that's occupying my own thoughts at the moment, along with the usual existential tensions, lesions, and what Peter Sloterdijk described at the Tate on Saturday as the 'cult of unhappiness' ( i.e. that which binds people who have little into communities ).
Anyway, Thompson's writing says this about when a painter stands in front of a canvas
"...when the artist is preparing to invade the mysterious ontological territory where all works of art must find themselves."
This particular peice was written/presented in 2001. Thompson gives three books he believes any 'serious artist' should read ( he acknowledges he did this 'provocatively' ). The three books were, Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace, and Blanchot's, The Writing of the Disaster.
Well, lets just say that The Writing of the Disaster has been in and out of my head, off and on my bedside table and on top of or at the bottom of a pile of books since I first came across Blanchot over  25 years ago. Seeing it mentioned here by Jon Thompson threw me a little as I realise I've been edging closer to it again recently without really knowing it.
Where this book once had huge significance to me, I had forgotten that it still does, becuase of the constant return to seeing, imaging ( as cadever ), writing, living and dying, and 'the ontological territory where all works of art must find themselves".
Neverytheless I couldn't help but think that such thoughts about an essential( ist) aspect of art seem almost anachronous in the context of today's enterprise, research, career driven art school culture. It seemed like a very vague memory ( yes, actually dream like ) until I picked the book up again. And I guess that's the  point I'm trying to make ( if only to myself ). That it seemed like a memory until I picked it up again
As Thomspon goes onto say  "the chief subject of art's address- is to report on the conditon of the human soul and to do so in a manner  which is intelligible to its own time" ( my italics ).
So, I guess, the trick is to pick it ip again because the 'territory' is still there, its just that the Art School has forgotten how to get to it.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Artists don't need PhD's but PhD's need artists. Perhaps.

A while back there was a heated exchange within the letters pages of Art Monthly, involving Peter Suchin, Elizabeth Wright and J.J. Charlesworth. I wrote the following over the period of the three months during which the letters were published. I then submitted it to Art Monthly but it wasn’t published. In hindsight I was relieved about this as I guess the argument had been going on too long and also I was worried about sticking my head over the parapet, and maybe it just didn’t make much sense. Nevertheless I think it may be of interest to some artists who are considering doing a PhD, or actively considering NOT doing a PhD.


The dialogue between Elizabeth Price and Peter Suchin concerning Suchin’s article, “Rebel without a course” in AM 345, appeared to have come to and end. However, JJ Charlesworth’s contribution in AM 353 expands the field further in his conclusion that the challenge lies in “reclaiming the academic context in order to remake it”.

I couldn’t agree more. For my part, while it might be generally acknowledged that some of the divisions between what would traditionally be understood as an art practice on the one hand and research on the other may have become more permeable in the last decade or so, what is frequently revealed in this more open environment is the lack of institutional capability to respond effectively to these new complexities and dynamics.

Although much work has been done to look at multi-modal tools and/or non textual tools for enquiry and representation at Doctoral level (for example, through the ESRC new forms of doctorate seminar series 2008-10), these welcome innovations rarely touch upon, never mind disrupt the institutional/political status quo.

The co-existent, yet distinctly uncomfortable relationship, between the ‘cultures’ of research-as-knowledge and art-as-practice still often provokes debate, sometimes in the pages of the art press, often in the seminar room and in the studio but, I suspect, perhaps not often enough within the higher echelons of the Higher Education sector. It is this lack of impact of the complexity and fluidity of some cultural practices at policy and management level (Research Excellence Framework pun intended) which leaves art, education, knowledge and research the poorer.

Despite these difficulties however I’m not convinced that PhD students are as fixated on institutional validation as Suchin suggests. When Suchin illustrates his position by citing Patricia Bickers’ comment, “I am not opposed to a PhD in Fine Art per se”, but that “in order to fulfil the criteria for a research-degree in any meaningful way, the fine art researcher will almost inevitably be drawn away from meaningful practice,” there is a suggestion of a lack of a nuanced understanding of what is really going on within practice-based PhDs in many art schools in the UK.  Many PhD students/artists work in or across areas which may be unhelpfully termed as art, art research, criticism, teaching, creative practice, writing and/or curation in some way or another. This is a fertile environment; to imply that artists occupying multiple roles and positions automatically risks a dilution of meaningful practice is plainly odd. These interstitial operations and blurrings of positions may have come to the fore precisely because they provide a more complex and rich ground from which to work in whatever form or method that is, in the context of a response to increasingly limiting and reductive instrumentalisation; a response which occupies a place or places where such work becomes a field of operations, critical positions, strategies and subjectivities which prove harder to gather, or master, than any one method, position or discipline.

While Suchin rightly points out that there is a “danger of submitting one’s practice to the bureaucratic and critical scrutiny of an academic institution” which may “distort or radically re-inscribe the candidate’s practice” he perhaps misses the crucial point that the institutions may also have to accept the ‘danger’ of submitting their bureaucracies and formulaic methodologies to the candidate’s practice. In other words, perhaps in an engaged art school it would be a two-way street. To some extent what might be at stake in a PhD via art practice could be seen more as a collaborative and continual re-thinking, through practice, of what might constitute knowledge and artistic research in the first place, rather than a weak (or optimistic) desire on the part of the candidate for institutional validation.

What seems to be missing from much of the discussion around art/PhD/research anxieties is the question of the capability of the institutions to work with art’s work, in which it might be possible to tangle with the question of how an art practice can affect a relationship to knowledge as well as the other way round.

Realistically speaking, I suspect many artists who also work within art schools may not consider the PhD as the most appropriate vehicle for the purpose of a highly advanced art practice. However, as it stands, if artists inhabit the PhD rather than submit to its institutional force, then perhaps something will emerge which can accommodate and do justice to the multifarious and inter-connected forms of practice and knowledge production which surround us. The implications of positively encouraging or even insisting on active institutional engagement with art practice as an on-going, yet productive, series of predicaments rather than as a progressive drive towards knowledge, might result in a re-thinking of what artists and art educators mean by the conceptual and practical frameworks of art practice, research and knowledge.

Seen in this light, perhaps an artist’s intention when approaching a PhD is often less a means of achieving some form of academic validation than of contributing to the increasingly amorphous, awkward and fluid practices which might constitute an art-practice in the first place. One might even go as far as to suggest that such a contribution has significant implications for how we understand and work with, in, without, and/or against the institutions and cultures which produce us and are produced by us.

Written Feb 2012

Friday, 18 May 2012

the beginning of the ends

'end of ends' opens tonight at Bend in the River's x-church space in Gainsborough. Its a weird piece of work and of course it's still growing all the time. It's VERY physical. Neil's been working through nights to flesh the sound out and then strip it back again and the sound, indeed the space, is immense. The potential too seems immense. I don't mean that in any sense of  careerist potential as an art work,( that's a totally different thread ) but as force of potential in itself. That's what's so odd in that there is a direct (inverted) correlation between the fact that the more it mines the sense of things closing down, winding up and finishing the more it opens up the possibilities (  as idea ) of new forms, new forms of anything and everything. Its a curious thing.  I think it might be sad, hopeful, funny, detached and terrifying in equal measure.