“Let’s break loose”

“Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?” Chicago based curator Mary Jane Jacob asks in her contribution to What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art (2005). To ask this question means that the equation of generosity with reciprocity is not that self-evident. It is a question. What is actually the relation between generosity and reciprocity? How can they go together?

Since two decades through collaborative, participatory art projects situations have been created in which both artists and audiences give and receive. Time and again these situations produce a strange incongruity. Through these practices artists strive for generosity, for giving, for art-as-offering. They do this by inviting the audience to participate. Because of this invitation reciprocity is stimulated, the urge to make a return is enforced. Consequently the offer is no longer unconditionally generous, it asks for a response, expectations come up, the gift gets compromised. This strange, paradoxical effect is in fact the underlying issue that Mary Jane Jacob addresses with her question mentioned above: “Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?”
When she formulated this question, in 2005, a long-term project just had come to an end, titled Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness, which Jacob co-organized with Jacqueline Baas. In this project artists, curators, critics, and philosophers explored a framework of thinking and practice in which the question “Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?” would evaporate. A like-minded, recent project is the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit, co-initiated by artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert, of which a laboratory is running these months at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In these projects interconnectedness is explored, a key Buddhist concept, which according to Jacob “provides space for situations that are not “either/or; it permits coexistence” (Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, p. 168). Simultaneous, even conflicting or contradictory states are embraced instead of opposed, she explains. In this framework of thinking reciprocity as the urge to return a gift, back-and-forth between people, is cast off as it were as an illusion. The same happens with the idea of opposition between generosity and reciprocity. Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija: “Not having expectations, not wanting to predetermine, trying to be blank. You can receive more if you are empty” (ibid., p. 173).

Jacob, Tiravanija, and Lertchaiprasert form part of a wider tendency in art theory and philosophy to try to go beyond oppositional, either/or, dualistic thinking. Dutch philosopher Ilse Bulhof told me in an interview I had with her about art-to-encounter: “Let’s break loose from all those interpretations and judgments. A decreation, run-down, to become empty and open”.
This requires a radical shift of mind for some. For others it is already in line with their current practice. Whether you’re Buddhist or not, these thoughts indeed stimulate to think in a different way about the question if generosity itself can be a reciprocal practice. Maybe indeed the answer lies in trying to step out of the framework of thinking that makes us ask the question.

Mary Jane Jacob, Reciprocal Generosity, p. 3-10 in: Ted Purves (ed.), What We Want is Free : Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art. (State University of New York Press, Albany, 2005).

Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) gives an impression of the Awake project (Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness, 2000-2004).

Follow the activities of the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit at: 31century.org/in-chicago-eng


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Identity Exchange

We had our symposium yesterday and there is much to say about it. Let it suffice, for the moment anyway, to say it was great and excellent and I, at least, really enjoyed everything people discussed and presented. Before writing more about it, I wanted to connect a piece I wrote for BadatSports about the American Folk Art Museum. It seems like it might have some bearing here, on this site, because I try to talk about what it means for an institution to have a collection–how the collection and the institution mutually define one another with, say, a reciprocal exchange of identity. You can check it out by going here.

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When Teenagers Had Hyphens (1955)

The first teenagers emerged in the 1950s when mothers gave their offspring pocket money. In an audio article I listened to this weekend, it was parents reacting to the stiff regime of their war-torn youth which led them to encourage their own children to enjoy themselves, to express themselves. According to this documentary, it was those same children who supported and thereby facilitated rock and roll and the market for 45″ records. Back then, the documentary says, teen-agers had hyphens.

What is interesting to think about is the reciprocal relationship between market economies and teenage-hood. The categories become self-referential, as kids start buying their own clothes, choosing their own haircuts, style becomes emblematic of cultural positioning. The rebel defines himself by purchasable signs that enable a distinction between the self and the rest of a conservative world. This isn’t new of course–it’s all part of what followed punk rock conversations in the 80s: when Converse got bought out by Nike or when the GAP made Kerouac their poster child for khaki pants.

Nevertheless, I started thinking about how the age of the teenager seems perpetually pushed back. Teenagers get older and older, as more and more young adults resist or put off conventional responsibilities–mortgages and children for instance. The artist seems right in the eye of this storm: while traditionally poor, we still exercise an expendable income, save up money for periods of leisure (the artist-residency, for instance) which while integral to the production of creative work nevertheless defies conventional uses of time. As individuals so often peripheral to real economic power, it is curious to recognize how we might inadvertently continue to support they very systems of capital that subjugate us.

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Artists in the Forest of Arden

“Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love. / And thou, thrice crowned Queen of Night, survey / With thy chaste eye, from thy pale sphere above, / Thy huntress’ name that my full life doth sway. / O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books / And in their barks my thought I’ll character, / That every eye in which this forest looks / Shall see thy virtue witness’d everywhere. / Run, run, Orlando! Carve on every tree / The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she” (As You Like It, Act III, scene ii, l. 1-10).

I visited ACRE–a cooperative artists’ residency in Wisconsin–last weekend. We stayed three days and two nights; on the second night I played a show with my band, Lady Rollins. While I want to write more about the residency experience at some point, I was immediately drawn to reflect on the relationship between the woods and the city–particularly how that relationship is embodied by the artist. While much of ACRE held an aura of 60s-like idealism, I found its inception intrinsically connected to the city, particularly (though not necessarily) Chicago.

As is the case with many of Shakespeare’s plays, the setting of action in As You Like It takes place in the forest of Arden. While characters within the forest are still subject to the laws and politics of their court, (for instance, Rosalind has fled for political reasons), the forest enables a kind of metaphorical experience. Rosalind transforms herself into a man creating an overarching and poetic tension  around gender relations. In similar ways hierarchical power is unsettled, as are the characters’ relationship to their environment. The context of the forest highlights a separate kind of truth, one which is then, eventually, brought back into the city, to re-inform its civilization.

I want to suggest that ACRE boasts a similar potential: as an off-site summer space where artists are reduced from the particulars of their (generally) urban environments. Practically they have fewer clothes to choose from, their meals take place at the same time, they eat the same foods in the same place. A level of day-to-day distraction is impeded. There is no cell phone reception and in order to access the internet one must sit in the main lodge; the front porch offers the strongest band width. Otherwise one creates work, attending what group activities might be available from lectures, artist talks, to dance parties, screenings and music performances. Here too the culture is economically reduced from outside influence; what cultural experience is available comes from members of the community. One might ask: why not live this way forever? There is something ideal about this paired-down, cooperative existence. I overheard more than a few conversations that addressed that same notion, acknowledging the “reintegration period”–a somewhat painful prospect of re-entering the city with it’s more conventional/regulated daily rhythms.

Nevertheless, ACRE is not a utopia exactly, because it is contingent on the very system it sets itself apart from. During the year it hosts weekly exhibits in the city, showing the work made in the woods over the summer. Even beyond this, though, it is essentially connected to the city because it is seasonal, impermenant and cyclical. The significance of the experience stems from an interruption of the cement-laid streets we are so easily accustomed. As the characters in Shakespeare must always return to the courts, so too we must always return to the city, acknowledging in some way the essential failure to ever fully escape systems of capital. Rather than balk against that failure, trying to evade it, the application of forest sentiments softens the stark vertical lines of buildings–some respite at the very least, and maybe fuel for a later, bigger rebellion.

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Nosing Towards Aesthetic Equality

In Christoph Menke’s essay Aesthetics of Equality (Hatje Cantze, 2011), he quotes Renée Descartes,

“Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters do not commonly desire more of it than they already possess. It is unlikely that this is an error on their part; it seems rather to be evidence in support of the view that the capacity of forming a good judgement and of distinguishing the true from the false, which is properly speaking what is called Good Sense or Reason, is by nature equal in all men. Hence too it will show that the diversity of our opinions does not proceed from some men being more rational than others, but solely from the fact that our thoughts pass through diverse channels and the same objects are not considered by all. For to be possessed of good mental capacities is not sufficient; the principle matter is to apply them well.”

When I describe my efforts discussing art work, I expect a shared reasoning style–a style based on experience both contemporary and canonical. Nevertheless, the more I go on within a contemporary art world, the more specialized my experience becomes. The network of informing associations grows ever more complex, complicit with and substantiated by established routes of judgement and critique. Standing in stark contrast to Descartes, Menke quotes Artistole’s claims that some of humanity is naturally slave-like while another group possesses inborn and independent leadership ability–in Aristotle’s version those who are enslaved do not possess reason. “For he is by nature a slave who is capable of belonging to another (and that is why he does so belong), and who participates in reason so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it” (Aristotle, Politics). Menke draws the conversation farther along, suggesting the sense of inequality stems from variant educations. According to Arendt, we aren’t naturally imbued with slavery or leadership; rather those traits are contingent on a civilization–relative to a common, self-organized structure. “Equality existed only within this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons…Neither equality nor freedom was understood as a quality inherent in nature.” We might therefore arrive at a new, political equality through an education of aesthetics, but that equality will always be contingent on the circumstances of its sociopolitical (and economic) context.

I love this idea, but wonder after the iconoclasts–the bastions of community who reject conventional ideas about what is good and what is bad. There is something significant in the sign of their gesture–a punk rock rebellion poised to force consensus to question itself. Even the artist residencies in the woods–communities pitched in the middle of the nothing; they go there to create new bodies of work outside the usual confines of everyday life. While their interruption is transitory–an impermanent rebellion–it is still a kind of rejection, perhaps an attempt to shed the education of urban civilization (what is so often the site for contemporary art practice). Such a gesture seems important as a challenge of power; I can’t help think it most successful when it is informed (not only brutish), and reflective (not only impulsive), and open (not simply intimidated). This even seems to be Menke’s point, “In aesthetically transgressing our social experience we experience that we are equal. Political equality is an aesthetic effect. We make ourselves aesthetically equal; aesthetically, we make ourselves equal.” Still, the resulting hypothesis is so interesting to me! Somehow through a shared education and rebuke of hierarchy embedded within that education, we can experience equality.

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Face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder

On a fine, windy Summer day in 2008 Swedish artist Tobias Karlsson invited me to sit with him in one of the three cubicles, mentioned “Untitled”, which he presented as part of his graduation show at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Karlsson had emptied a huge classroom at the top floor of the academy building. The cubicles were placed just in front of the windows, and they were made of white-washed wood. Each cubicle was so close to the window, one had to squeeze oneself between the wooden panel and the window frame in order to gain access. Each cubicle was empty, except for two chairs placed next to each other, facing the window.

Untitled, Tobias Karlsson, 2008, at Gerrit Rietveld Academy

Karlsson sat down on one of the chairs and asked me to sit on the chair next to him. In the small space the chairs were so close that we were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. We were cut off from the graduation buzz. There was a self-evident intimacy, which had an inviting impact, either to talk, or to be silent and just watch the sky above Amsterdam. We did talk a lot. About his work, about my work, about his life and plans, and about mine. Our positions and roles were different, remained different: he a graduating student, I an external examinator. Yet, then and there, we were on the same level, physically attached, shoulder-to-shoulder. What we were there for, the graduation, didn’t matter anymore.                                                                                                                                             Once in a while we did look at each other. Our eyes did meet, but they didn’t have to meet. Most of the time we both looked towards the windows, watching the passing clouds against the blue sky. On exchanging our thoughts, we gazed outside too. Not for a moment I had the feeling to ‘participate’ in an art work, rather the opposite. Far behind was the world of art, to which we literally had turned our backs. It was the outside world, which was present in our gaze. As if to remind us not to close ourselves off, not to put down the shutters.        After having stepped out of the cubicle, I noticed I had to make an effort to step back into the world of the art academy, to adjust to my role of external examinator again, this person presumed to focus on the art works, judging them as proofs of the artists’ competencies. This world full of expectations and judgements suddenly seemed superfluous.

My encounter with Tobias Karlsson popped back into my mind when I recently came across an article by art philosopher Arthur Danto in the Opinionator of the New York Times, titled “Sitting with Marina”. Danto describes his experience of a performance piece by artist Marina Abramović, which formed part of her retrospective “The Artist is Present” from March through May 2010 in the MoMa in New York. This piece was enacted daily by the artist herself and visitors of the museum.                                                                                 As Danto describes, the work consisted of Abramović seated in a chair placed on the floor of the museum’s atrium, across from an empty chair, in which anyone could sit for any length of time. Each day Abramović took her place just before the museum would open, and she would only leave well after the museum closing time. During the day hundreds of people lined up to sit across from Abramović.                                                                           Some visitors chose to sit across from Marina for hours, others chose to return to sit multiple times. Visitors sat for an average of 20 minutes. Each sitting visitor was portrayed by a photographer. People who sat long enough, approximately 10 minutes or more, were interviewed after their session by a film crew. The work proved to be “a succès fou”, as Danto states. “The possibility of sitting with Marina ignited in the public imagination the idea that one can do more than passively experience works of art, that one can be part of a work of art for as long as one is willing or able”.                                                                       Danto himself also took the opportunity and sat across from the artist for some ten minutes. Poetically he describes his experience of “becoming part of a work of art”. Abramović kept silent. It was “a dialogue de sourds – a dialogue of the deaf”. Danto writes how she had gone into her “performance mode”, entering “another state”, “a shamanic trance”, which he values as one of her gifts as a performer. Acknowledging the fact that each visitor who “sat with Marina” must have a had a unique experience, different from the experiences of all the other visitors, Danto concludes that in the end for all it was magic, that Abramović and MoMA “have brought back into art”.

Comparing both pieces, Abramović’s and Karlsson’s, the participation of both the visitor and the artist is required. The piece can’t be ‘present’ without these two persons. Both pieces also are reciprocally structured. Both create an intimacy between visitor and artist. And in both cases this is happening within an art institution. There are also  differences, which spring into the eye. The intimacy between Abramović and her sitting visitor is being watched by hundreds of people, the intimacy between Karlsson and his visitors is closed off from sight. And, indeed, big is the difference between sitting across from the other one, or sitting shoulder-to-shouder!

Most striking is the fundamental difference between the two pieces which can’t be made visible, but can be deducted from their ‘appearance’.                                                          Abramović took on her ‘performance mode’. “Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain”, Arthur Danto writes. She, the artist, is the one who plays her shamanic role, who raises expectations of magic, in which the visitor, sitting across from her, might partake. “Sitting with Marina” testifies of the urge of Danto and so many visitors of the MoMa to become part of art, to experience something ‘magical’, whatever that may be.                                                                                                                                                Karlsson’s piece also testifies of a longing, but of a different orientation. Karlsson’s “Untitled” testifies of a longing for less magic, for a casting off of roles, for an intimacy which is there already but covered under the dust of expectations. This intimacy is not the outcome of an effort to become part of art. Karlsson created a niche within the art institution, an inside balcony, from which to orientate towards the world outside together.


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The Position of Criticality

Predictions: The Pair of Swords is for the self image in the Fine Arts. Even-though criticality and self-reflective strength is useful tools in the arts it might even cause some trouble when you over-smart yourself. The balance is divided so to speak as its confronts with the danger of lack of feeling and sterile life. The Three of Cups is for the Contemporary Art-Composers dilemma and prognosis. The area have great flexibility to move wherever is like to be, increase of a general youthful movement, increase of joy, companionship, good combination, emotional strength might serve as splendid starting points to the interchange with other domains. (see website for more)

I continue to think about AS220, specifically about what it means to create and support work in a defiantly non-critical environment. AS220 is, of course, not the only space that fosters, first and for most, the creative impulse but it’s the closest experience I’ve had with such a place. As I might have mentioned, anyone can exhibit in its gallery–you need only sign up. It’s a fiercely democratic position, one touted with great pride. In a conversation with Founding Director (and artist) Umberto Crenca, he said “We don’t decide who’s talented and who isn’t. We create the opportunity for talent to exhibit itself.”

Immersed in this environment, I was surprised to find myself both elated by the vision and connected to the very criticality such a vision eschews. I am interested in curatorial visions, and perhaps especially as an artist rely on outside validation/reproach. What happens when you take that authority away? It’s an interesting experiment and, based on the dirth of energy around AS220, it works. (How much its success has to do with its specific socio-geographical context within Providence is also worth considering). So what is it about critical dialogues that I am so married to? Why does it have such a significant (and yes, reciprocal) relationship to art?

I always consider the relationship between what one makes and what was made before. No doubt this stems from a difficulty relating an aesthetic experience (i.e. the experience one has beholding/apprehending a work of art) to others. In trying to relate such an experience, I look for shared footholds which can be discussed–tangible, objective land lines by which a shared appreciation of meaning and consensus can be achieved. It is a pleasurable discourse for me, one inextricably bound to my more abstract appreciation of art. While I don’t think anyone would begrudge me that enjoyment, it often leads to judgement, whereupon it is decided that this is good vs. that which is bad–a kind of map making which would discount certain efforts while celebrating others. A preferential hierarchy emerges from such a discussion. The value of one project is ensured as another is devalued–as though the work of cultural capital were a zero sum game. These preferences influence others to follow suite or rebel against the expectations therein defined; both actions reinforce the stability of our aforementioned hierarchy. Defining preferences this way seems ultimately complicit with and nourishing to an economic market, because the work preferred can be assigned a value in league with its status as an ideal object. From here, the value is further supported as the object is institutionalized into the canon of museums. Suddenly, thinking of critical dialogue in this way, it seems to produce an exponentially convinced scaffold of aesthetic lineage.

Perhaps a non-critical openness is the most unconventional, iconoclastic position. Perhaps it provides an interesting upturning of what has so far been taken for granted. I’m only not sure of this: then what?  And it is really possible to let criticality go? How do we create a common ground (a shared mythology) without it?


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