The Double Agent – FIRST DRAFT, NOTTTT REFERENCED PROPERLY
How artistic collectivism and interventionist collaborative practices can be a confident move from Aesthetic autonomy to engagement with the social, the work place and the community.
“Despite the [above] reservations a community still seems the only means by which we can overcome the extreme isolation of our vacant subjectivity, and begin to deal with the larger world. Such form the basis for the de-structuring of the present artworld; its institutions and authorities.”
Karl Beveridge, 1975 Art & Language
Recession continues to loom above our heads, the house prices are crashing faster than Air France planes, whilst the Exchange rate on the Euro is just about equal to the Sterling Pound and people across the Western world are loosing jobs. All the while, London Olympics 2012 is tragically economically raping the Arts Council funding, which typically would help the small artist organizations within the UK. Things look bleak, but surprisingly, it’s not as bleak as a family holiday to Margate on a rainy day.
This paper may come across like I have over romanticized the idea of collectivity and the autonomy of the individual. Perhaps I have? But if art history, and inevitably life experience, has taught us anything it is that to get through depressions, recessions, and oppressive situations that there is power in numbers. Collectivity.
We can see that over the past 30 years or so, socially engaged artists have made ‘work’ that is, distributed into the public sphere using various mediums including, more recently, the internet (Yes Men, The Thing, etc). Although it usually holds no dominate place within collections and museums, it’s important work as it radicalizes the individual from precarious artworld viewing traditions such as the White Cube space and allows an unknown recipient to carry out the act of the street (or other space) intervention without necessarily recognizing its place within the field of art.
The list of artist collective groups is endless but for referencing points we can look to artists who have a heavy history linked to interventionist practice within art: Art&Language (NY); Artists Meeting For Cultural Change; PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution); Fluxus; Red Herring; Group Material; ABC NoRio; REPOhistory; Temporary Services; Anarchitecture; Yes Men; The Thing, etc. They all have the same thing in common; A belief that through a collectivity, a collective unity, art as a communicative activity has the potential of disclosing hidden structures and power relations and repression within systems that rule our society (artworld and non art world).
Interventionist art is varied and wide, even though, many still consider it to be ‘outsider art’. This would be a mistake to believe this critical brush over. There are many dominant key figures who have been individually, or more usually, collectively engaged in a practice that sometimes operates within an interventionist’s field – often for more political / social engagement, which that of the gallery can not offer. Theorist Stephen Wright describes the interventionist as an ontological secret agent who is forced to don multiple identities: artist/activist, theorist/practitioner, participant/viewer, organizer/organized. No doubt the interventionist curator will find such ontological fabrication indispensable, such as the street or publications apposed to the institution.
We know that the autonomy of art is a debate all on its own that deserves a separate paper on such a topic. The grounding for the ideas behind the autonomy of art can be found in Kant’s propositions about art’s ‘purity,’ and its total disengagement from practical concerns, such as commercial, ethical or religious. At the level of production, Aestheticism, l’art pour l’art, most fully embodied this vision of art’s autonomy. And at the level of the consumption of art, the autonomy of art suited the evoloving structures of bourgeois society. While art’s status of autonomy keeps it ‘pure,’ it also effectively prevents art from influencing the way people live their lives, and indeed, the way they might change their lives – and society – for the better.
However, ultimately as Joseph Bueys said, “ Everyone is an artist.” This creating of meaning in the intersection of our individual being and the rest of the world is not limited to specialists like “artists”. It is part of the human condition, an existential need and challenge we all deal with continually in one way or another. Together we created a shared world. Art, it could be argued, is the result of a successful coming together, through a back and forth process of dialogue, between oneself and the surrounding world. The success of autonomy is experienced as meaning, and it depends on the ability to explore and create existing and new connections. Instead of the individual opposed to the collective or the artist deciding to work with the “community,” my contention is that “collectivity” in one form or another is virtually an ontological condition of modern life, thus autonomous.
This then, is a catch 22, art could be a pseudo-autonomous discipline limited by its own ideology, stuck in its own Kant paradigm. Art history and theory define or imply a field of interest. Anything that happens outside this realm is not considered relevant. Art establishment intellectuals are quick to realize aesthetic potential, but everything within their scope reaffirms what they already know. The establishment academician recognizes art for its relevance to a historically developed view. She sets new art and new meaning in an academic context that justifies continued faith in the truisms of the prevailing institutions.
Unfortunately, the facts are that we are living in a leading global operating business world, where profit over takes the needs of the individual. This is becoming problematic in matters linked to the social and economic environments of which we surround ourselves with. Living in such a crude marketing and privatizing culture leaves little room for true education, free healthcare and other necessities for living, where the institution leads!
For example, we can think of the issues surrounding the ideas of gentrification and regeneration. Gentrification is a young word that refers to the transformation of neighbourhoods from low value to high value. This change has the potential to cause displacement of long-time residents and businesses. Gentrification is a housing, economic, and health issue that affects a community’s history and culture and reduces social capital. Ultimately it is an aggressive process of the displacement of the poor working class residents and culture at the detriment to city culture. But this, folks, is just neo-liberal capitalism.
Ranciere’s text on the Politics of Aesthetics is a key text for any artist working today whereby he differentiates the different regimes of art, trying to link the worker with philosophy and the history with the process of theories of the art world. These ‘regimes’ of course are Ranciere’s versions of Modernism. His cleverness persists as he links history with the history of labour. This is where it gets interesting. Ranciere believes that art is granted its own sphere with its own rules, and is somewhat superior to those of common craft. Politically, this second way of thinking about art objects corresponds to the bourgeoisification of the artist, her transformation into a figure with her own freedom and independence, elevated above the demands of common labor.
“The absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroy[ing] any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity. It simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself.” (p.23)
Interestingly, Gregory Sholette (co-founder of PAD/D) asked in his article for Documenta 12 Whether it is too much to expect to ask why it is relatively easy to visualize political dissent by artists and art institutions, and so difficult to imagine radical social change in one’s workplace, neighborhood, or nation? Indeed.
The group PAD/D (Political Art Documentation/Distribution) is a great example of this. The place, which they felt that they wanted to locate their political practice, was to the side of the institutional art world mixed with radical left politics. A key project that they lead in the mid 80’s due to this rise in business culture, thus gentrification, was the NOT FOR SALE: A Project Against Displacement, which attempted to rebel against the gentrification and displacement of the Lower East Side community. A group of 40 something artists got together and diffused art and community meetings in order to stop the displacement, to let LES residents understand their tenancy rights and so forth. They sorted to try and recreate an alternative, progressive art network resembling those of the 1930s. Whilst this project was successful, the group died-out in 1989. However they inspired other groups such as ABC NO-RIO (which is still alive today) and The Real Estate Show by COLLAB all dedicated to stopping the negative effects of Gentrification. This would be an autonomous and ontological drive, as it required dialogue to move it forward. Furthermore, activism is fascinatingly an action for its own sake, close to the sentiment “art for arts sake”. The second is antagonism, an oppositional stance and combative action directed against traditional aesthetics and social norms, which neatly sums up in two phrases the history of the avant-garde. Both of which are two key elements of collective art groups such as PAD/D.
As we head to our own existential crisis of the early 2000’s with recession and conservative governments, many groups/collaborative efforts have appeared proving that socio-political crisis’s are part of our environment, hence forth in the make up of our autonomy, and thus art.
Ironically, PAD/D’s work now has its very own collection at the MoMA, NY dedicated to social, and political activism art of the 70s and beyond. In spite of this, here we see that Art’s supposed autonomy is a sham that defuses and absorbs revolutionary art forms before they can effect the status quo. Greg Sholette also writes about this issue, referring it to the “dark matter of the art world”.
“… when mainstream cultural institutions try to incorporate transient forms of art, or devise terms like relational aesthetics to package it, the result typically comes off as so many frozen assets, so much art world real estate plopped down on the multi-billion dollar monopoly board … one eye scanning the next investment opportunity in Asia or Africa or Latin America.”
Much recent writing about artist group activities employs some of the most impractical academic theory and language, an approach that belies the cooperative tradition that many groups attempt to engage within their daily practice. There is a sensitivity that emerges for those that learn to work and enjoy working in a group; and rely upon group work. It’s an action that shows a down to earth homage to groups before that reveals itself through the very act of choosing to work with others.
The hyper-individualism, upon which so much of the art world relies, is part of a capitalistic strategy used to produce money, sex, power and of course exclusivity with it’s middle class elitisms. Collectivity is autonomy that strives to be honest about the human costs created as a result of the production of art, and about the existence of underlying power structures within all of our relationships. To be in a team, a collective is a very special act. To be in a team that wants to better the world, to make a positive difference, to help others and not just as a career boosting object is a rare phenomenon and should be celebrated, and taught and re-lived and be an inspiration to not just artists but all people.
In time, the triumvirate of art, trophy collecting and capital elitism will succumb to its own exclusivity, and art will be liberated from its servitude to an exploitive ideology. Rather, as art critic Michael Corris said, “it is offered as a reminder that the conditions of freedom are always in need of reconstitution.”
What ever happens, I’m sure the double agent will be ready for it.
 Stephen Wright, unpublished paper presented at the Townhouse Gallery, Cairo Egypt, December 13, 2005.
 Sholette, Gregory. Documenta 12 http://magazines.documenta.de/frontend/article.php?IdLanguage=1&NrArticle=643