PRINT Summer 2008


“Our Literal Speed”

CHAIRING A TALK at the Frieze Art Fair in London in 2006, art historian and critic Claire Bishop observed that the live panel discussion had, in recent years, replaced performance art as the home of “authenticity.” Paradoxically, her comment put into relief the performed quality of the thoughts being articulated by the panelists surrounding her on the podium, making it seem that Bishop was very much aware of the theater at play in such an impression—especially as the live event in question was a supplement to the nakedly transactional character of an art fair. It’s very often that the academic symposium or conference within which this kind of discussion takes place is a frustrating experience, divorced from any direct encounter with art and comprising the straight reading of written papers—harder to listen to than to read—or, marginally better, the repetition of a well-rehearsed lecture form, followed by elaborately rehearsed questions. Perhaps only the woeful exposure of a speaker’s inability to “perform” reveals true authenticity. In any case, these situations frequently fail to meet their “relational” potential, and the fact of our mutual live presence is robbed of significance.

Apparently seeking to tackle some of these inadvertent blurrings of art and life within institutional convention, “Our Literal Speed” stepped into the breach. Bravely advertised as a “media pop opera,” a “pedagogical concept album,” and a “discursive laboratory,” “Our Literal Speed” was a weekend-long conference, of sorts, held this spring in both the lecture and media auditoriums of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany. Organized by ZKM in cooperation with the University of Chicago and Los Angeles’s Getty Research Institute, the event boasted an impressive lineup of artists and academics, including Sharon Hayes, Tania Bruguera, Art & Language, Tino Sehgal, David Joselit, Miwon Kwon, Anne Wagner, and W. J. T. Mitchell. It carried an elaborate mission statement that proposed to consider how “the ‘aesthetic’ has become discursive and ‘discourse’ has become aesthetic” and promised “non-formulaic, experientially vibrant and theoretically precise responses to the modes of distribution, consumption and circulation that drive contemporary art.” Although the “experiential” goals were as hard to pin down as the event’s many-layered descriptions, two of the important things that “Our Literal Speed” seemed to attempt were to yoke “exhibition” and “education” modes together in a unified space and to force an examination of what the act of traveling, gathering, and becoming a temporary community—a common phenomenon in a globalized art world that regularly communes not only at academic conferences but also at biennials and art fairs—means for our current understanding of “art,” positioning that community within wider social and economic spheres.

The collapse of viewing and discussion spaces has been experimented with in exciting ways in recent years: in the symposia staged alongside the umbrella event project “If I Can’t Dance I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution” based in the Netherlands, 2005–; in Barbara Clausen and Achim Hochdörfer’s 2006 “Wieder und Wider: Performance Appropriated” at MUMOK in Vienna; and in the Live Art Development Agency’s “Live Culture” at Tate Modern in London in 2003 (which contained an otherwise silent William Pope.L’s brilliant phonetic impression of a “lecture”). From the advance flyer, the experiment at ZKM at first seemed slightly pedestrian by comparison, apparently featuring a program of straight lectures decorated with some performances, films, and a small temporary exhibition. As “Our Literal Speed” unfolded over the course of the weekend, however, it became clear that, whatever its stated aims, it was complexly operating on several broad, and not wholly compatible, levels.

First, there was the event’s billed content, which, via its curatorial juxtapositions of films, performances, artworks, and papers delivered with various degrees of experimental risk, posed big questions about the relations among the art object, criticism, and the market; our ethical relationship to the image; the corporatization of the art world; art’s constant state of circulation; “sincerity” and the place of political activism. These themes were woven together with the help of bits of music (used between presentations in a manner akin to the scene-changing interludes of a Wagner opera) and an event sound track provided on an accompanying free CD. At a second, highly significant level, the conference created a creeping disturbance of presumed relationships between appearances and underlying intentions that was performed through its organizational makeup. This approach developed a momentum of its own and also reflected back on the primary content, resulting in an unsettling atmosphere of disorientation. Amid the more conventional academic papers, for instance, art historians Matthew Jesse Jackson and Christopher P. Heuer presented an infomercial-style lecture per- formed by actors who resembled typical American newscasters (a serious man in tweed and spectacles and a young, good-looking blond woman). The audience was also seduced by an intimate and compelling meditation on “desire as disturbance” in a fictional love-letter-as-monologue by the artist Sharon Hayes.

If, as Baudrillard proposed, Disneyland represents the obvious simulacrum that distracts us from the simulated nature of America as a whole, then the presence of flagrantly staged “performances” among apparently straight papers was the distraction from an all-pervasive atmosphere of theatricality here. The particular framing and mise-en-scènes of this event—effected through its statements, architectural settings, and use of music and actors—set in motion a virulent hyperconsciousness of theater. It was not the kind of boundaryless theatricality that the work of Paweł Althamer activates in his Film, 2000–2007, for example, in which one begins to perceive a romanticized theater of the everyday. Rather, it was a specific zone of disturbance in a ritual setting that stripped the habits of convention so as to remove the usual separation between “art” and “not art,” or creation and critique, and to fragment the unity of its participants by problematizing any taken-for-granted notion of “we” among speakers, performers, and audience members.

At one level, such theatricalization lent a forgiving sense of intentionality to the slightly shambolic switchings of the timetable, interruptions, and interferences that plagued the three days, exposing the choreography of the organizational labor happening off the intellectual stage. At the same time, the event’s manifold use of substitutions, actor stand-ins, lip-synched voices, overlapping voices and text projections, and presentations in absentia displaced our sense of literal, implicated presence and made it impossible to grasp. Instead of engendering a sense of direct contact, this gathering was striated by an administrative perversion of Brechtian “alienation effects.” If this was an “opera,” who was its director? If it was a “discursive laboratory,” why did the advertised post-presentation discussion sessions involving audience members never actually take place? Curiously, nobody apologized, and nobody complained. Except for the conference’s closing hour and the excellent live conversation between David Joselit and Tino Sehgal, in which Sehgal confidently performed his unease with the conventions of public speaking—pointing out, also, that much of the fast-paced academic jargon, spoken in English, might be lost on the German audience (at least)—“discussion” was only presented as a premade object, rehearsed as a petrified repetition of found art- world dialogue by the Jackson Pollock Bar, a theater collective.

Such was the intoxication of this blurred disciplinary space that the closing discussion, in which all of the participants (speakers and audience) gathered in a large circle, and which ought to have been the “masks off” face-to-face, plunged us deeper into a mimetic mise en abyme. When, in response to a scripted statement from a woman claiming to speak on the group’s behalf, Sharon Hayes asked, “Who is the ‘we’ of the Jackson Pollock Bar?” and was refused a reply, Hayes was told by Mel Ramsden (of Art & Language), “You’re talking to an actress.” “How do you know that?” Hayes shot back. Yet, when she continued, complaining of the disturbing conflation of different performance modes in a single space—of the confusion of “performance and respeaking and acting,” which ought to be treated as precise disciplines—and, proceeded to label it as “obfuscation,” the protest began to sound as though she too were reciting lines straight from the writings of Bertolt Brecht, cited in an earlier lecture. If this truly was a Gesamtkunstwerk, suddenly it seemed alarmingly feasible that every detail of the entire “live” event might have been prescripted.

In such an arena, allegiances both onstage and off were hard to discern, identification with speakers’ “beliefs” became difficult, and the very idea of truth, suspect. It would ordinarily be assumed that the critical language constituting the “world” of the conference is quite distinct from theater’s “suspension of disbelief”—the necessary buy-in that allows an audience to become immersed in the fictional world of a play. Yet the weirdly enchanted atmosphere of “Our Literal Speed” challenged such certainties. While there seemed to be bonds formed among the speakers who had put themselves through the sacrificial burn of public speaking, it appeared also that at every level, both “they” and “we” were somehow being framed (although, given the absence of authorial claim, it was not clear by whom), and not only in the benign art-conceptual sense: To wit, W. J. T. Mitchell’s invitation to extend the group conversation after his talk on images of Abu Ghraib was cut short by the upbeat electronic interlude music, much to his irritation.

It was at these metalevels and via the attitudes or gestures through which our sense of collective participation was pointed out, brought into being, problematized, or negated—as the audience itself became a part of this “total artwork”—that the experience was operating. Who “we” were, and what “our” role in this representation of a conference was, became progressively more elusive. At moments, especially by the end of Saturday’s thirteen-hour session, the experience had something of the modern-day self-help cult that attempts to dissolve individuals’ senses of self before starting work on reshaping them. And being a part of this small audience bound together by such particular enthusiasms, cheerily putting up with delays and uncomfortable seats, reminded me, as well, of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s deflating characterization of the art world as a “youth club.” But when Sehgal’s endorsement of the market economy prompted Art & Language to walk out of his talk, it felt as though we were witnessing the first tremors of an important cross-generational schism; at the same time, we seemed involved in a highbrow parody of the real-life melodrama on Jerry Springer.

Yet the following morning witnessed a new “genre” when, in a move that called to mind Hollywood stars who, on the whole, do not make it to the UK to pick up their BAFTA awards (the considerably lower-budget British equivalent of the Oscars), it was announced just before Miwon Kwon was due to appear that she was not able “to be with us.” Instead, she had written a presentation that was to be read by Sharon Hayes, with some accompanying pictures. It was a long way to travel, she explained, and to a cold German town in February (cue photo of her blue-sky, palm-tree Los Angeles view), leaving not just her work but her dog and her garden. She wanted to resist the professional logic of “fragmentation and dispersal”; “she want[ed] to embrace slow; she want[ed] to be home.” Kwon’s supersharp and enviable intervention (though not unlike one that Frances Stark had made for a conference in Amsterdam last year, speaking on the phone with her four-year-old son in the background) assured that her professional star remained undiminished (Kwon appeared on the publicity; her piece had impact) and simultaneously got her off the hook. Her contribution most acutely pointed to “us” not as the universalizing “we” of spectatorship so often talked about in art criticism, but as all those people who were actually present, prompting reflection on what was at stake in our having made the physical journey to participate. In one sense, Kwon’s piece had a surprising honesty that, more than anything else, placed participants and audience on the same level. In making a feature of her absence, however, it felt as though we were being addressed as her fans.

Nevertheless, by not traveling to Germany, Kwon underlined what might have constituted an ambiguous third layer to the event: its problematic staging of Americanness. In parallel with the way in which the neutral machinery of the conference’s organization was theatricalized, a brand of American universalism was performed and simultaneously critiqued. In the closing debate, Art & Language’s Charles Harrison pointed out the narcissistic attitude implicit in the many American participants flying to Germany to speak in English about their “guilt.” The entire conference (one or two sentences aside) was conducted in English, and what was spoken was a particular brand of superconfident, American-accented academic English into which globalized American media catchphrases like “the war on terror” and “9/11” were repeatedly mixed. Alongside these seemingly unconscious biases and privileges were Jackson and Heuer’s knowingly critical “professionalized” presentation, which began “We are Americans” and quoted Joselit’s characterization of the United States as a “neoliberal military entertainment complex”; Porter McCray’s analysis of the genesis of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and its subsequent government-aided domination of the accepted Western history of modern art; Tania Bruguera and the Weather Underground’s proposition for a new law giving every country with a US military base a right to vote in the 2008 US elections. Bruguera’s decision to “present” real activists in the context of art-world discussions of political agency through aesthetics opened up a whole other perspective on the question of authenticity. Yet, in turn, the Weather Underground’s own contribution of an “expressive” reading of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, staged alongside the talk, unintentionally flagged the narrowness of a certain old-school American idea of radicality. The question of the organizers’ attitudes to these aspects of the program crept insidiously around its edges.

The messy, unresolved productiveness—at times brilliance—of “Our Literal Speed” lay in its complicated challenge to the neutralizing assumptions about a “community” constituting an artwork peddled by and after relational aesthetics. Like the shipwrecked sailors cast ashore up on Prospero’s island in The Tempest, the group of participants in this three-day event (the first part of a planned three-year project with future iterations at the University of Chicago in 2009 and the Getty in 2010) were subjected to deliberately dislocated approaches to familiar critical concerns. We found ourselves in a liminal space that forced a renegotiation of perceived connections among image, object, thought, and action, and of the much-feted idea of “participation.” In simple ways, certain moments within “Our Literal Speed” visualized protopolitical and aesthetic positions as straightforward relationships between bodies in space. As they were about to begin their presentation, Andrew Perchuk and Anthony Cokes sat down at their laptops and then, without saying anything, manifested an apparent change of mind by switching places. Rainer Ganahl’s welcomely unpredictable presence throughout the conference was mirrored perfectly by a video he showed, documenting his wobbling attempt to cycle, without holding on to the handlebars, against the flow of oncoming traffic in a busy Manhattan street. At other times we were picking our way through a pathless state of distraction effected by multiple parallel strata of signification, as in the performative overlay of image, text, and spoken word created by Joselit for his discussion of art’s circulation. And yet the whole slippery experience was played out as a mix of art, entertainment, and belief. That this “total artwork” was imagined within a highly contaminated space, collapsing sincerity, politics, and criticism with pop media, theater, and mimetic representation, seemed at times highly abrasive. But it began to form a picture of how art might get out of its cul-de-sac as critique and away from its typical attitude of “blaming” mainstream culture. In his conversation with Joselit, Sehgal challenged the lazily comfortable art-world contempt for the market economy, proposing that one ethical approach might be to separate the notion of the “commodity” from the material object so as to make it possible to think, alternatively, about the kinds of cultures and experiences that we want and could evolve nonmaterially within capitalism; this might in turn challenge the hierarchies at play between our current annulment of the powers of “discussion” and “artwork” as they circulate in separate spheres, both within the market and the art institution. Indeed, one of the major strengths of “Our Literal Speed” was the way that the conceptual frame demarcating “art” was temporarily stretched to accommodate all of the event’s manifestations. Although a group of works by participating artists was exhibited for display, these usually valuable and static trophies around which discussion circulates were here significantly revitalized by being positioned as just one moment in an intricate network of conversations.

The Wagnerian mystification and Brechtian alienation of “Out Literal Speed” created multiple perspectives on how a nonunified “we” might negotiate relationships via art, and what new aesthetic and political forms we might make. A complex piece of theater, it created an image of a contingent community of interest, bound by shared qualities of enthusiasm, desire, and imagination, separated by attitudes to the world “out there.” If the role of mimetic representation has been to imitate reality in such a way that we are able to perceive it anew, by showing rather than by telling, then its performative application here drew attention to many previously invisible habits and conventions that block the institution from becoming a real space for exchange. “Our Literal Speed” did not bring that potential into being; its radicality was in making us—audience and performers alike—see it. At the end of part one, that potential remains, poised upon a question Cokes and Perchuk’s presentation repeated: “What shall we talk about here?”

Catherine Wood is curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern, London.