PRINT October 2007


What was once seditious is now ubiquitous. If ninety years ago Marcel Duchamp infamously claimed the products of industry as his own and a half century later Donald Judd furthered this scandal by directly co-opting the language of manufacture, today artists employ the hands and machines of others so commonly as to scarcely draw notice. A cursory survey of contemporary galleries, biennials, and art magazines reveals that a vast preponderance of artworks in our time—like the two dozen apparently disparate examples arrayed here—involve outsourced labor, industrial processes, and custom fabrication. An artist might visit a specialized fabricator to realize a technologically ambitious project; or employ an in-house design and production team to engineer an elaborate construction; or turn to a craftsman to commission a bespoke object; or simply order a laser-cut placard, neon sign, or oil painting directly over the Internet or phone. Such approaches are now so varied and diffuse that they nearly defy categorization. This special issue of Artforum aims to draw them into sharp, if wide-angle, focus, momentarily shifting attention from finished artworks to the often unseen processes that bring them into being.

The term fabrication may at first seem too restricted to describe these almost limitless phenomena. But it is meant here to encompass numerous practices beyond artists’ traditional reliance on studio assistants, print shops, and foundries to execute their work, just as it points beyond the simple use of readily available, store-bought commodities. The underlying impulse may be that of outsourcing, though the word risks implying too easy or literal a connection between a work’s conception and the complicated negotiations among artists, curators, fabricators, and patrons that attend its realization. Questions of authorship, engineering, financing, and labor relations, whether local or global, abound. The artwork in this context is conceived not as an individual’s production but as one that draws on the expertise, skill, and efforts of many others, some engaged intimately and collaboratively, some indirectly and from afar. In an era when the standardization of industrial production has given way to the illusion of infinite consumer choice and even customization, it should not be surprising, as several authors in this issue suggest, that artists would avail themselves of techniques and services that exceed their personal mastery.

Although its roots lie in the prewar avant-gardes, the flowering of this development can be dated to the mid-1960s, as Michelle Kuo argues in her historical survey of art fabrication sites, which inaugurates this sequence of articles. At that time, companies like Lippincott, Treitel-Gratz, and Milgo Industrial opened broad new avenues for artistic exploration, supplanting the old model of the foundry, which essentially translates a maquette from one material into another, with a new kind of interdisciplinary workshop that provides artists access to the resources and tools of industrial production. The approach these outfits pioneered, Kuo contends, only grew in scope and complexity, as evidenced by firms such as Carlson & Co. and Mike Smith Studio, whose expansive operations involve networks of multifarious vendors and information technologies. Following this overview, four essays elaborate the issue’s central theme. Caroline A. Jones pays a visit to the Berlin studio of Olafur Eliasson, whose collaborative practice both pushes and blurs the boundaries of diverse fields, including architecture, design, and engineering, leading her to conclude that the production of knowledge may be more central to Eliasson’s project than the production of objects themselves. Josiah McElheny proposes a taxonomy of “faking,” “borrowing,” and “stealing” to classify contemporary artists’ relationship to the readymade and its underlying industrial processes, while Pamela M. Lee looks beneath Takashi Murakami’s Superflat surfaces to locate the digital technics subtending his experiments in mass and niche marketing. Finally, Philip Tinari navigates China’s Dafen Oil Painting Village, which, as the world’s largest site of painting production, both confirms and belies clichés regarding globalized manufacture and that shopworn dualism of avant-garde and kitsch. In addition to the contributions of these scholars and critics, eleven artists spanning continents and generations offer their own personal takes on fabrication in a series of brief “Production Notes.” To cap the issue, Artforum convened a roundtable discussion including representatives from heterogeneous fields, the interactions of which are directly responsible for so many artworks today yet, like the means of production, ordinarily remain hidden from our view.

Scott Rothkopf, guest editor