Everyone’s a Critic

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on “Critical Machines” in Beirut

Left: Bidoun senior editor Negar Azimi with writer Rayya Badran. Right: Art historian and October editor David Joselit. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

ALTHOUGH IT SLIPPED into the same week as the Whitney Biennial, the Armory Show, a fistful of ancillary fairs, and the start of the spring season for virtually all of New York’s galleries and museums, the opening of “Critical Machines,” an exhibition and conference on the future of art magazines (in print and online), faced its toughest competition from none of those mainstream art-world monoliths. What pulled people away from an otherwise erudite encounter with the editors of October, Cabinet, Bidoun, e-flux, Ibraaz, and Red Thread, among others, was a single political protest, which brought several thousand demonstrators to Beirut’s National Museum to show their support for legislation against domestic violence in Lebanon. Cross five thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean, Iberian Peninsula, and Mediterranean Sea, and you’re a world away, not only in terms of geography but also with regard to how art, politics, and activism are calibrated in relation to everyday life.

It should be said from the start that “Critical Machines” was not really about criticism, narrowly defined as the thing writers do for the arts pages of daily newspapers, monthly magazines, or quarterly journals (often in the midst of other things such as old-fashioned storytelling and fact-finding reportage). Nor was it really about criticality, that elusive quality of an artist’s method that makes his or her work seem rough, urgent, and relevant, as opposed to pretty, soothing, or palliative. Rather, the show (featuring two collectives, four artists, seventy-nine books, and thirty-six magazines, manifestos, and digital files) and the talks (four panel discussions covering sixteen publications and twenty-four speakers) were more vaguely about critique in the Kantian sense.

Perhaps that makes it sound like a dreadful endeavor, but it wasn’t. It’s just that the whole thing was most illuminating and insightful when it wandered off course and bumped into other issues. For instance, how have writers, editors, and publishers been dealing with contemporary art in the midst of revolution and counterrevolution in Cairo? One answer came from the tough-willed journalist Lina Attalah, who started the online newspaper Mada Masr when her former employer pulled the plug on Egypt Independent, the English-language edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm. What about before and after the Gezi uprising in Istanbul? Here, Erden Kosova, an articulate critic and former anarchist who worked on three issues of the WHW-founded journal Red Thread, described collective attempts to bring contemporary art and radical politics together as a total, unmitigated failure. Or in close proximity to the civil war in Syria? Delving into that dilemma were the artist and critic Roy Dib, who writes for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which tends to side with Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in everything but its cultural coverage, and, somewhat more subtly, Anton Vidokle, through the experience of e-flux journal taking up temporary residence in Beirut.

Left: Mada Masr editor Lina Attalah. Right: Critic and Red Thread editor Erden Kosova.

A number of the usual binaries—global and local, center and periphery, modern and contemporary, leftist and neoliberal—by necessity broke down. And not for nothing did the organizers, Octavian Esanu and Angela Harutyunyan, note the definition of critical machines (machines designed to monitor and report on other machines in a given industrial production process), and then say of their subject: “Art criticism needs to introduce a degree of foreignness, an alien element—be it in the form of new discursive units, critical approaches, or reference points—precisely in order to guarantee” that the various systems we have for the production of meaning will function better, and, if we are lucky or smart, in constantly self-adjusting, self-improving ways.

The exhibition component of “Critical Machines,” with works by Art + Language, the Freee Art Collective, Burak Arikan, Vadim Zakharov, Khalil Rabah, and the pseudonymous Janah Hilwé, opened at the American University of Beirut on a quiet Thursday evening, and the conference spun quickly through the next two days. A decent-size crowd drifted in and out of the discussions but never quite reached critical mass—in part because the overlap of artists, students, and activists is, locally speaking, considerably bigger on the Venn diagram of women’s rights than it is for academia, but also because for everyone but students, teachers, and staff, AUB’s campus is technically closed. One of the most beautiful spots in all of Beirut, it is a lush green lung for the city perched on a hill overlooking the sea. AUB has seen plenty of learning over the 149 years since its founding, but it was a highly politicized, often volatile place during Lebanon’s civil war. (In 1984, the university’s president, Malcolm Kerr, a renowned scholar, was assassinated outside of his office. In 1991, a huge car-bomb blast destroyed AUB’s main administrative building and iconic nineteenth-century clock tower.) Look the part, pretend you own the place, and usually, you can walk right in, regardless of your affiliation's being formal or not. But on days of heightened security—many in Lebanon of late, given the rash of recent explosions—it can take a doubled-down effort to argue your way past the guards. That, over time, makes for a not insignificant psychological barrier, fortified, of course, by perceptions of wealth, privilege, and class.

Left: Artist and Al-Akhbar critic Roy Dib with Cabinet editor D. Graham Burnett. Right: Artist and Gahnama-e-Hunar editor Rahraw Omarzad.

With not that but other, equally complex and traumatized histories of, say, postwar American and European modernism in mind, David Joselit set the tone of the conference with a lively, clear-sighted, utterly fair defense of October—what it does, how it works, and why it lasts. “I am a child of October,” confessed the art historian and AUB professor Rico Franses, before paraphrasing another panelist, Sven Spieker, of the journal ARTMargins, and adding, “but it seems October is the father who must be killed. Do we all need to go against October?” To which Joselit replied: “We’re associated with a certain power structure in American academia, and that’s why there’s a certain Oedipal pushback. At any American academic conference you hear a certain vilifying of October. And that’s fine. But there’s also a constant necessity to think and revise what serious scholarship of the modern means. A lot of artists, critics, and art historians,” he added, think that bashing the art-historical journal of record gives them “a free pass to forget about the past.”

Spieker addressed how his journal has picked up the story of modernism’s diverse and uneven development abroad, outside of the US and Europe. Vidokle spoke of the many desires to escape the art world’s market-driven structures, and illustrated almost as many strategies for doing so (covering e-flux journal’s annual budget of $350,000 exclusively through the e-flux announcement service—no subscribers, no advertisers, no mercurial patrons, no restrictive grants—being among the most impressive). In the end, he said, “Art doesn’t produce value so much as consciousness.” Vardan Azatyan, meanwhile, of the Yerevan, Armenia–based magazine Arteria, developed his own theory of “the romanticism of necessity and the necessity of romanticism,” particularly in the face of a sizable (meaning total) funding gap.

Left: ARTMargins editors Sven Spieker and Angela Harutyunyan. Right: Artist Dmitry Vilensky of Chto Delat? with artist and e-flux founder Anton Vidokle.

And so, money and funding. To what extent do they determine the format of art magazines today? To a very large extent, it seems, particularly if you are an academic journal supported by an academic press. “Being a nonprofit doesn’t mean you are free,” said Joselit. “With that kind of funding model, you are limited to a certain kind of writing, academic writing,” said Spieker, which is a problem if you are trying to foster other kinds of writing. “Once you step outside of academia, it becomes exploitative,” Spieker explained, because ARTMargins, like most academic journals, doesn’t pay. Likewise, everyone who works for October, with the exception of a part-time managing editor, does so as a volunteer. “But all of our editors have good academic jobs,” Joselit stressed. E-flux, by contrast, makes a point of paying everyone, from writers and editors to proofreaders.

The conversations got slightly less structural and more narrative from there. The Palestinian artist Shuruq Harb, who had to Skype in from Amman, Jordan, when a visa for Lebanon proved impossible to attain, told the story of Art Territories, an online journal that follows a chain of associations and interviews among artists, exclusively. Attalah told the story of Mada Masr (including what sounded like a mind-blowing workshop with the artist Adelita Husni Bey on the trickiness of terms and naming conventions, i.e., call it a “revolution” or “coup”?). Negar Azimi told the story of Bidoun (to disclose, a magazine I’m part of and consider my home). And then Rahraw Omarzad told the pretty incredible story of Gahnama-e-Hunar, an Afghan art magazine that came into being after Omarzad, a painter, started to write, got arrested and thrown in jail, sought refuge for years in Peshawar, opened an art space in Kabul, and started a publication for the primary purpose of giving artists a space in print to tell their friends and colleagues that they were still alive. To a few of our cynical questions about Documenta 13’s tourism in Kabul, he said with sincerity that the workshops were great, as was the attention for something, anything other than war.

D. Graham Burnett, a history of science professor at Princeton, pegged the founding of Cabinet to a famous rift between André Breton and Roger Caillois over a handful of Mexican jumping beans that Caillois wanted to cut open. (Breton refused, citing the need to save their magic and mystery.) Dmitry Vilensky gave an account of Chto Delat?’s newspaper (also called Chto Delat?). Kosova described the rise and fall of Red Thread, and deemed contemporary art a lost cause. “I don’t know how we should continue,” he said of the journal, which is effectively dead. “We definitely need a revision in our structure and a deep labor in our thinking.”

Left: Anthony Downey of Ibraaz with art historian and AUB professor Rico Franses. Right: AUB Art Galleries curator Octavian Esanu.

Then, with much humor, Esanu stepped in and stunned everyone by saying: “Chto Delat? does this militant, Bolshevik, fuck-you kind of art. Art Leaks,” from Romania, “is like Occupy. Change. Obama. Red Thread is a mess. Art and the Public Sphere is responding to Thatcherite England.”

“I’m a Marxist,” quipped Mel Jordan, who edits Art and the Public Sphere.

“You also say you’re an artist,” said Esanu. “Marx said you have to be a farmer during the day and a poet at night, so this thing about being an artist makes no sense.” Addressing everyone with equal parts challenge and mischief, he asked: “Are you connected to any political avant-garde? Or are you just the avant-garde for the art world?” Jaws dropped. Then, just as playfully, Vilensky asked: “Do you see any political avant-garde in evidence? Does it exist?” No one needed to say no. The answer was there, thick in the room.

After “Critical Machines” was over, I lingered for a while on the steps of Ada Dodge Hall with the writers Rayya Badran and Ghalya Saadawi, the curator Amanda Abi Khalil, and the artists Haig Aivazian and Roy Dib. As we tried to make sense of a garish new building on the AUB campus by Zaha Hadid (an esteemed alumna who majored in math), which is perched somewhat awkwardly among historical structures, the prospects seemed dim for finding a political avant-garde close by. “How come there weren’t more artists here?” I asked of no one in particular. “They’re all at the protest,” said everyone all at once, as we squinted at the sea, shifted our weight, looked down at our feet, and frowned.

Left: Designer and AUB professor Reza Abedini with anthropologist and AUB professor Kirsten Scheid. Right: Curator Amanda Abi Khalil.

Left: Critic and Umělec editor Palo Fabuš. Right: Artist Ali Cherri with writer Daniel Berndt.