PRINT Summer 2004




To the Editor:

For those who crave cultural distraction without the heavy intellectual price tag, now comes a pack of new and inscrutable art collectives offering colorful, guilt-free fun. Forcefield, Dearraindrop, Paper Rad, Gelatin, the Royal Art Lodge, hobbypopMUSEUM: Their names flicker impishly across the otherwise dull screen of the contemporary art world, invoking the loopy cheer of techno music and its nostalgia for a make-believe 1960s epitomized by LSD, free love, and Day-Glo—but not civil rights, feminism, or SDS. Yes, artists’ groups are hot. Or so chime the harbingers of art-world value production as its symbol-producing machinery gears up to meet a still-speculative demand. As Alison M. Gingeras tells us in her feature on hobbypopMUSEUM [Openings, March 2004], this new collectivity is not at all solemn; it is “insouciant.” It eschews the “sociopolitical agenda typically associated with collective artmaking” and reflects a “juvenile disregard for historical veracity.” And all that is fine because its indifference “mirrors the times.”

What times, I ask? The United States has tossed international law to the four winds and invaded another nation using the most transparent of pretexts, global capitalism has penetrated every corner of life, including art, education, and leisure time, and meanwhile the art world carries on, business as usual. Those times?

One thing Gingeras does get straight, however, is that radical politics were very much a central concern for collectives in the ’80s and ’90s—among those I knew and worked with were Political Art Documentation and Distribution (PAD/D), Group Material, Carnival Knowledge, and REPOhistory—as well as those that came before and after, including Artists Meeting for Cultural Change (AMCC), Art Workers Coalition (AWC), Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG), and Paper Tiger, and more recently Dyke Action Machine, Guerrilla Girls, Gran Fury, ®TMark, the Yes Men, Sub Rosa, Critical Art Ensemble, Yomango, Whisper Media, and Temporary Services. If group anonymity permitted these art collectives to boldly challenge the status quo, might it not just as easily provide a mask for the antisocial cynicism of the new who “stake their identity on a certain strategic frivolity”?

So why this sudden rush to revamp the political rebelliousness of group artistic practice? To repackage it as “tribal,” “exuberant,” “insouciant”? Because compared with almost every previous collective and many new ones, the recent crop of gallery-sponsored art groupettes is unmistakably a product of enterprise culture, which, as put forward by historian Chin-tao Wu, is the near-total privatization of everything up to and including that which once stood outside or opposite the reach of capitalism, including avant-garde and radical art. Therefore, if egalitarian collaboration runs directly opposite individualistic greed, enterprise culture will not aim to overtly repress this tendency but instead seek a way of branding and packaging such contradiction in order to sell it back to us. No surprise, then, that this new collectivity is organized around fashion, with hobbypopMUSEUM’s members sharing “nothing more than vacant facial expressions and good taste in casual clothes.” Thus these groovy new art groups not only appear freshly minted but, thanks to an endemic historical amnesia on the part of curators, art historians, art administrators, critics, and sadly even artists, they actually appear—choke—radical, well, at least from within the circumscribed horizon of contemporary art.

My advice? Perhaps it is time to engage in a bit of reverse engineering. If the prestige and financial power of the art world can be mobilized to authenticate one rather anemic form of collective practice, then why not use that breach to leverage more challenging and socially progressive collaborative forms as well? And why stop at the museum? What about workplaces, schools, public spaces, even the military? The challenge, therefore, is to concoct a countervaccine that renders administrated culture defenseless before a self-replicating, radically democratic, and participatory creativity—one that is every bit as playful and nimble in its own passionate way as so-called insouciant collectivity. Any takers?

—Gregory Sholette, New York

Alison M. Gingeras responds:

Gregory Sholette’s letter and my article are written in two opposing “languages.” His is a language invested in an ideological vision of criticism. All resistance (whether cultural, political, or social) must take the form of opposition, negation, and denunciation. Mine is an intentionally slippery parlance. It does not espouse a view of criticality in terms of cause and effect. Artists and critics who “speak” this language employ strategies that might seem to affirm the status quo, while in fact they question or at least try to play with it. The quarrel between Sholette and me boils down to outward resistance versus crypto-collusion.

In my opinion, it is most productive to acknowledge the present impossibility of mediating the gap that separates these two positions. The nature of this conflict seems—to borrow a title from a famous yet controversial German book—beyond good and evil.


To the Editor:

There’s an error concerning my piece Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow in David Joselit’s review of the Whitney Biennial, “Apocalypse Not” [May 2004]. Joselit writes: “Like its literary model, Smith’s work adopts an episodic structure through its arrangement of 755 page-size drawings in a grid, but the connection to Pynchon is largely metaphorical. While adopting different visual idioms ranging from cartoons to modernist abstraction, Smith’s subject is apparently his own private milieu.”

The connection to Pynchon’s text is by no means “largely metaphorical”; it is in fact meticulous, exact, and quite literal. As the title states, the images correspond, in the order presented on the wall, to each page of the novel—the first Viking edition, to be precise. (See, for instance, in the detail reproduced in Artforum, the image in the bottom row, far right, which corresponds to page 536: “He beams at Katje, a sunburst in primary colors spiking out from his head.”) The images required hours of historical research and are as true to the descriptions in the text as possible. If there’s a B-52 in the fiftieth drawing, it’s because there’s one on page 50.

While I can only guess what insights Mr. Joselit may have into my (admittedly rather limited) “private milieu,” I assume I will be believed when I report that it is utterly devoid of V-2 rocket strikes, sentient lightbulbs, and paranoid men in pig costumes. All of these do, however, appear in Pynchon’s book.

—Zak Smith, New York

David Joselit responds:

I am sorry for any inaccuracy in my characterization of Zak Smith’s work. However, I remain convinced that the relation among his motifs, his formal realization of them, and the profusion of pages that constitute the piece place the viewer in doubt over how systematic the project is. It seems to me that, like Gravity’s Rainbow, this artwork is meant to embody a system in the process of its own undoing. To my taste—and I’m afraid I can’t cite any higher power than taste—Smith’s network of text/image somehow needed to read more forcefully qua network in relation to its literary analogue.