Saturday, October 17, 2009

About not making happy-clappy novelty art

Amy and I were chatting over Skype the other night, and our conversation about how the project is developing in Yogyakarta brought up a whole lot of questions and thoughts about our work that I know we've grappled with before, and which I think we're a long way off resolving.

When I sat down this afternoon to write something for the blog, this is not what I meant to write. But it's here now, and in it's own rambling way it's part of an attempt to think about some of the things we were talking about...

One of the things we’ve talked about a lot with our work is about not wanting to make gimmicky work. What we’re trying to do through our practice, I think, is create critical aesthetic spaces which both make possible transgressive encounters, and are created themselves through those encounters. What we don’t want to do is make happy-clappy novelty art.

I worry about this a lot. In part it’s a response to the way that I often see relational or social art being read and responded to — as ‘fun’, or ‘quirky’, or ‘cute’. I have no problem with fun or quirky (I’m undecided about ‘cute’), but I get frustrated when responding to social practice art in that way becomes a way of dismissing it.

Like, ‘it’s cool, yeah, but it’s not art is it? I mean, it’s not like they’re making anything.’

For all the incredible artists and theorists who’ve been associated with the development of social practice / relational aesthetics / post-autonomy /situational art / interventionist / whatever-you-want-to-call-it art, the orthodoxy is so bloody persistent, and so bloody hostile to the idea of art being possible outside the white cube or the stage. I get frustrated with feeling like the bastard child of ‘real art’. I mean, really, just because you're dressed like an air hostess...

If I’m being honest, though, my anxiety about being read as some sort of novelty side-show has as much to do with our own practice as it does with the boring conservatism and short-sightedness of the art orthodoxy. That is, I think that the kind of work we are trying to create could so easily collapse into gimmicky banality. Not that I’m suggesting it does, or is, (I’m not Amy, I’m not!) just that there’s a fine line and we walk very close to the edge sometimes. The question for me is how we hold onto a sense of play, and irreverent performativity (yes, the fun and the quirky and perhaps even the cute), without sacrificing the critical edge in our practice?

Thursday night, in a jumpy pixelated exchange over Skype, Amy was recounting part of a conversation she’d had with Nuning about an Indonesian reality television show premised on people swapping places. In this show, for example, a rich person and a poor person swap lives for the day. We laugh at the poor person who doesn’t know how to work a dishwasher, and at the rich person getting dirty having to wash the dishes in a bucket (which is really another way of laughing at the poor person again). It’s banal and cheap and exploitative and gimmicky, and it’s so fundamentally counter to the sort of work we want to create, and the reasons why we want to create it.

The difference is the critical aesthetic space, but what I want to know is how we keep that space open, and how we nurture it? My thinking around this is confused and messy, but I want to put out a couple of ideas … that it’s about an ethics of engagement that takes seriously a commitment to respecting the agency of people who we involve in our work (and I think that this has potentially far-reaching implications for thinking about authorship and creative control) … that it’s about focussing on the encounter and not on the documentation of it (that is, what we don’t do is use people instrumentally for the sake of getting a good photo or story) … and that it’s about creating a consciously self-reflexive practice.


1 comment:

  1. There is also a reality TV show similar to big brother, except the whole thing is staged and scripted (!) to _look_ like a reality tv show, but actually isn't a reality show at all. Everyone is in on this, but no one seems to mind. Very odd.