PRINT September 1999




To the Editor:
I read George Baker’s review of my show [April ’99] at Max Protetch with interest and learned something from it. Since I like to communicate I thought I might take the unusual liberty of writing back. I’d like to make two comments where I think there is a misunderstanding. First, my “seminars/lectures” series are not isolated. They come out of the “reading seminar” works that I have been pursuing since 1994. I have conducted numerous other seminars—as an art practice—when invited (sometimes at art events, but also at purely academic events, in which there is no “art context” involved). In fact, I have taught in Geneva for more than two years solely to maintain a seminar. Intellectual labor has been central to my work as an artist from the beginning. (It was thus a bit astonishing that Baker cited Christian Philipp Müller, of whom I am very critical, since I became involved in teaching and working in classrooms many years earlier than he.)

The second remark is about my “unexamined ‘theory tourism’”—it has been examined from the very start. I have written about it, using that very term, so I am well aware of this spectacle. But Baker is incorrect when he writes that I fly back and forth between CalArts and NY: I’ve never gone anywhere specifically for a conference or a lecture. Actually, it’s the other way around—when my exhibition schedule brings me to a town, I also try to check out the university circle. In fact, there are people I would like to have visited and photographed but haven’t—precisely because I refuse to travel somewhere just for the sake of photographing them. Keep in mind that the images were taken over a span of almost five years. What is really worth addressing is the travel and airport “activism” of contemporary artists (an activity in which I am complicit). At any rate, my “s/l” series is more a travel log of my art activity than the other way around.

Finally, I’d like to comment on what Baker describes as the “chilling passivity” aspect of the work. My project is an autobiographical account—it involves people I read, people I like, people I have identified with. The camera is that of an involved person and not just some formal framing device. In many of the seminars I also spoke and participated where it was permitted. I actually attended some for more than one lecture. The point is not to approach the photo formally (something Baker slightly insinuates) but more as an “index.” Also, I stress the fact that in the end this will prove to be a historical record—i.e., to give information we don’t really know yet in all its details.

Rainer Ganahl
New York

George Baker responds:
It may be “unusual” for an artist to reply to a review, but it is certainly welcome. Knowing Rainer Ganahl’s work as I do, and appreciating its challenge precisely to the division of labor between artist and critic—between object and discourse—I hoped for, even expected, as much.

My review was driven by the belief that the function of the critic should be neither pure affirmation nor self-aggrandizement (the common spectacle of the knowing critic spanking the ignorant artist in public), but that criticism should be most severe, that it should raise the most questions, precisely in front of the work that one deems the most important.

I am fully aware that the “s/l” series emerged from Ganahl’s “reading seminars.” But the separation of the two in my review only echoes Ganahl’s own separation of the work as presented at the Max Protetch Gallery. The “s/l” series, no matter its origin or links to other aspects of Ganahl’s project, was presented on its own, as a self-sufficient piece. As such, it must stand on its own. So I do not think here that I “misunderstand” Ganahl as much as I attempt to highlight a potential problem caused by his own splitting off of the series within the context of a gallery show.

As the most active critical advocate of Christian Philipp Müller’s work, I do not think it should surprise anyone that I mention a piece by him in my review, and I would be interested in hearing why Ganahl is “critical” of this work. But as always the question of priority remains profoundly uninteresting. Pedagogy has been a crucial aspect of his work since his first “tours” in the early ’80s, but pedagogy has been a crucial issue for contemporary art since the inception of Conceptual art at least, and of modernism since the time of David. At any rate, my inclusion of Müller in the review was not intended as a point of comparison or claim of filiation, but as a testament to a structural transformation in which both would be included—the relation of art practice to the academy, and to pedagogy—a transformation whose full exploration, no doubt, would have to include Ganahl’s work as one radically reconfigured option.

As for “theory tourism”: The phrase was put in quotes in my review, where, due to space considerations, it was not acknowledged that I was in fact quoting Ganahl. So I am of course aware that this phenomenon has been a subject of (often eloquent) examination in Ganahl’s writings, a fact that does not necessarily translate into a parallel examination in his images. One of the unstated assumptions of my review—in fact, this again was cut due to space restrictions—posits a historical transformation in archival photographic projects: Organized during the modernist period around a scientific model of empirical objectivity, such archival projects today inevitably present us with a model of subjective fragmentation, a model organized around the chance occurrences of flânerie. Ganahl’s intentions seem to be to resurrect the older archival model. This may or may not be possible; at any rate, intentions are not the issue here.

My criticism aims again at a structural transformation and its logic: My comparison of Ganahl’s images with Struth’s or Gursky’s would thus obviously be invalid on the level of form, but perhaps not on the level of production. It is the old problem with photographic work: Context is everything, the caption counts. Roland Barthes taught us this, and Walter Benjamin before him. “To bring a camera into a classroom tells you almost nothing about what happens within that classroom”: This line from my review was a reference to Brecht’s maxim that “less than ever does a simple reproduction of reality express something about reality,” with Brecht’s example being that a mere photograph of the Krupp factory in fact tells you almost nothing about this institution. Like all critical projects, Ganahl’s must participate in the very phenomena he wishes to critique; without enough work on the signifier, however, such critique runs the risk of devolving into complicity.

“I actually attended some [of the seminars] for more than one lecture.” This sentence seems to me the most telling in Ganahl’s letter; for him, it is a defense, but for me it can’t help but come off, at least in part, as an indictment of the project’s superficiality—this insertion of the camera into academic space, this reduction of pedagogy to a series of images. For I was there, and indeed, there I am—two hairstyles and three pairs of glasses ago—in the background of at least one of Ganahl’s photographs, a seemingly quiet participant in a 1995 seminar directed by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. So Ganahl and I have been sharing some of the same academic spaces of late, but in vastly different ways. To criticize that for which one cares the most: I cannot help but recognize this as one of the motivations behind the full scope of Ganahl’s larger artistic project. I hope the artist will recognize the same motivation in my criticism. I am glad that a dialogue has begun. For there is no law stating that the critic must have the last word. And given the strengths of Ganahl’s work, I fully expect that such will not be the case.



To the Editor:
David Rimanelli claims my book It Hurts: New York Art from Warhol to Now is full of things that, in his words, are “simply untrue.” In a bid to back up this claim he refers to a passage in the book about Warhol’s film Lonesome Cowboys that says the film can be rented from Blockbusters. Rimanelli claims he went to Blockbusters and was told they didn’t have it: They only had Andy Warhol’s Dracula. Rimanelli claims this is a good example of the book’s failings. In fact, Lonesome Cowboys is available on video at all Blockbusters throughout Britain. I rented it two years ago from a Blockbusters on Seven Sisters Road in North London. Flesh, Trash, and Heat were also available. I can’t answer for the Blockbusters on Eighth Avenue, but I believe Rimanelli is quite clear on the fact that I am British rather than American and he can therefore probably work out that I live in London rather than New York.

Rimanelli makes this Blockbusters fiasco the cornerstone for his edifice of misrepresentations, misreadings, and misquotations, and ultimately his weird ire. “Too bad the Blockbusters anecdote sets the real tone,” he writes, after describing in possibly inadvertently self-revealing detail the kind of character he supposes I am trying to pass myself off as—the reliable, plain-speakin’ older brother Rimanelli perhaps never had. Or did have. But who maybe pinched Rimanelli under the table one too many times and turned out not to be all that reliable after all.

In Rimanelli’s imagination I am supposed to be aping the tone of suave nineteenth-century British authors who comment in a “wearily tolerant” way on “the mores of upstart America.” At the same time I’m supposed to be aping the “gee, umm inarticulate-but-on-point manner” of Warhol himself. Behind all this aping I’m supposed to be busy “merely” confirming “art-world consensus.” I think I must be really tired out by now, whoever I am.

Rimanelli is cross that the book is all stories. In case this sounds too exciting he tries to take over the stories. “Schnabel marries a model” is how he sums up one of them. But he knows this to be deliberately misleading. Or if he really believes this is the story of Schnabel that the book tells then that’s certainly a problem, but not so much a problem of the book.

“A mix of correct and wrong would better suit the overall Collings manner,” Rimanelli writes, no doubt with some kind of important point in mind. He asserts that the book is based on a “strong current of animus” but his quotes from it don’t immediately demonstrate animus. His longest quote does demonstrate a certain inarticulacy but this might be because it is ever so slightly misquoted, with the word “in” substituted for the word “an.” I only point this out because I know Rimanelli doesn’t like “slipshod workmanship.” He is OK about reverse interpretation, though. The words “I never particularly identified with him,” in connection with Warhol, appear on the first page of It Hurts. Rimanelli unpacks this to mean: I make every effort to “explicitly align” myself with him.

Rimanelli may be suffering from BIMS (Blockbusters Impaired Memory Syndrome). “A certain tone of glib inaccuracy characterizes the Collings style,” Rimanelli has already announced—and he starts a crescendo of confused thundering against British crustiness and provincialism and Swinging London. Falling back exhausted, he becomes morbid and starts to hallucinate dreadful sights. He imagines he sees pathologists (I have the approach of one) and autopsies (I think my book is one). “The autopsy is incomplete,” he moans. “It won’t do. It will have to be done all over again.”

Blimey! How could I do it all again? What was it I was doing anyway? “Maybe one can start by correcting the consistent misspelling of artist Gregory Green’s name,” Rimanelli perks up, referring to the single instance that the name appears in the book—a last demonstration of the Rimanelli unique “correct and wrong” dialectical-critical method.

Matthew Collings

David Rimanelli responds:
I find it easiest to respond to your letter on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis:

¶1: Concerning the availability of Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys at the “Blockbusters” [sic] on Seven Sisters Road, I owe you an apology; indeed, the movie is in stock there—evidently the UK branch of the Blockbuster chain is more “mod” than its parent. And I should also thank you. Researching the availability of early Warhol films on the Internet, I came upon an e-company, VideOzone, founded in 1997, which now offers eleven early Warhol titles for sale. I purchased some of them, including Lonesome Cowboys.

¶2: Regarding my older brothers, I cannot say whether or not they are “reliable” and “plain-speakin’,” but doubtless they would prove useless to anyone looking for a guide to the New York art world.

¶3: I never say that your excursus on Rirkrit Tiravanija “merely” confirms art-world consensus, but that it finally does.

¶4: On the contrary, I like the stories. But I don’t think that skipping willy-nilly from tale to tale with no structure whatever provides a good overview. Isn’t that what you were after, a lively, informal, yet pointed overview?

¶5: I regret the printer’s error that occurred in a quotation from your text. Such errors drive me crazy—but, as the former editor of a magazine yourself, you must be aware that they happen all too often, even after the most sedulous proofing of a manuscript. I was even more disturbed by a glitch that you kindly overlook: the first paragraph of my review, where reference is made to only six of Warhol’s ’60s films being readily available on videocassette, when it should have said ’70s (Trash, directed by Paul Morrissey, appeared in 1969; Bad, directed by Jed Johnson and concluding Warhol’s cinematic endeavors, appeared in 1976).

In closing, Mr. Collings, I hope that you might join me in regarding this exchange as an educational experience for both of us, and I leave you with the words of that suave Irishman, Oscar Wilde: “A poet can survive anything but a misprint.”