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WHAT IS VIOLENCE? WHY CURATE?
One of the things I enjoy when participating in a panel talk is discovering the exact points of agreement and divergence between the various speakers. In the instance of this discussion of 'extreme curating', there seems to be a considerable gap between my positions and those of the other panellists, partly because I wish to overcome capitalist canalisation and specialisation: and thus abolish separated roles such as those between curator, artist and critic; whereas it would appear the other speakers slot more easily into identifiable roles within the art world, viz that of the curator, critic, artist etc. I have also noticed a tendency among those who are happy in their role as curators to avoid the core issues relating to curation and instead to address art history when speaking in public. Perhaps this is because curators like their activities to remain largely invisible and thus uncriticised.
Artists often favour 'invisible' curation too because it creates the impression that their work arrives in galleries on its merit, rather than due to a rather more complex array of factors. Of course, most curators will happily talk about the technical aspects of installing an exhibition, whether it be a complicated mixed media show or a simple display of paintings; what they rarely, and often can't, openly address is the way in which exhibition programmes are arrived at and works selected for inclusion in them. This is not because curation is a singularly subjective activity (although it is often nepotistic), since it patently incorporates ideological and financial considerations; such as who might sponsor a show, and which works and artists are likely to attract and repel specific sponsors. Many, perhaps the majority of, sponsors are either corporate or else cultural institutions (funded by assorted governments), and all of them are looking for ideological and/or financial returns under the flimsy veil of 'philanthropic' concern. So, for example, in recent years there has been an increase of programmes in London's major cultural institutions featuring work from those former Eastern Bloc countries that are now members of the European Union, and this is because through various Eastern European state sponsored initiatives (i.e. national cultural institutes), these ex-Soviet satellites are buying their way into the international art 'market'.
For me, and for many other people I am sure, the coupling of the term art with violence immediately conjures up the futurist movements of the early twentieth century, and more specifically Marinetti's 1909 First Manifesto of Futurism, which initially appeared as an advert on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro. In this text Marinetti writes of 'war as the world's only hygiene' and rhetorically invokes the destruction of museums and the old masters. Politically Marinetti and his Italian futurist followers combined anarchism with support for Mussolini's fascist regime. However, as Andrew Hewitt eloquently argues in his book "Fascist Modernism", the actual practice of Italian futurists often contradicted and subverted their alleged ideological allegiances.
The aesthetic and ideological positions espoused by the Italian futurists were in part inspired by the writings of the key theorist of (anarcho)-syndicalism Georges Sorel, and in particular the selection of his work brought together under the title "Reflections On Violence" (1908). While violence tends to be denounced by most commentators as something that has a negative effect on the world (or by defenders of popular culture as being merely cathartic in its spectacular – 'representational' rather than 'real' – forms, i.e. in movies and video games), Sorel saw violence as an educative and moral force that would save humanity from what he viewed as decadence in the forms of pleasure and consumption. Sorel believed that the bourgeoisie had become soft and violence was needed to harden class antagonisms and regenerate the world. There are innumerable ways in which one might understand and define violence, as Sorel's problematic take on it illustrates. Regardless of what one thinks of Sorel's politics, he does have the minor merit of defining what he means by contentious terms such as 'violence' relatively clearly; whereas all too often what is meant by this particular term – and its rhetorical opposites including 'democracy' (perhaps the most over used word in the lexicon of demagogues like George Bush) – is deliberately left ambiguous because these words are used to signify good and evil. In relation to this it is already a cliché to state that figures as diverse as Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela have been simultaneously described as both freedom fighters and terrorists; seen as embodiments of democratic aspiration, as well as evil advocates of mindless and destructive violence.
Moving on, Derrida among others has observed that 'extremism' is relational and not rational. Something can only be 'extreme' in relation to something else. Therefore the programming of a curator putting on durational live art in galleries might be viewed as 'extreme' when compared to someone putting on displays of abstract expressionist painting, but the former cannot be understood as 'extreme' when considered alongside the cultural practices of those who reject the notion of curation altogether. As a result I find the use of the term 'extreme' in the title of this panel talk rather problematic.
Some of the preamble to this session addressed the work of Gustav Metzger, and in particular the "Destruction in Art Symposium" he organised in 1966. Rather than celebrating violence, Metzger used aesthetic representations of it as a kind of inoculation against the brutality he saw in society; Metzger's early 1960s activism in The Committee of 100 is indicative of his intransigent opposition to war. This not only illustrates the gap between Metzger's positions on violence and war, and those espoused by the Italian futurists, but also the importance of correctly locating the artists and works we are dealing with theoretically, aesthetically, politically and historically etc. While both Metzger and the Italian futurists invoked notions of violence in their work, they did so from opposed positions, and one of the many factors playing a role in these differences is that the futurists established their positions prior to World War I, whereas Metzger's practice was formed at the height of the cold war, when he was one of many people appalled by the prospect of immanent nuclear annihilation.
I would like to return briefly to curation, because in my experience most contemporary art curators do their research by going to exhibitions rather than combining this with any kind of thorough trawling through libraries and archives, and as a result not only is their practice completely different to that of museum curators, but it all too often lacks proper theoretical and historical grounding. To me contemporary art curation appears closer to the activity of so called 'fashionistas' who follow trends in the rag trade, than that of museum curators whose activities still bear traces of their dusty professional origins as 'keepers of antiquities'.
The fashionistas of contemporary art curation tend to obscure Gustav Metzger's opposition to the gallery system as it exists both today and in his work of earlier decades. With curators, one often gets the feeling that as soon as they've heard of something, then they think they possess it. Indeed once again tonight I heard a curator add the term 'famous' to Metzger's art strike! When in the mid-1980s I came across Metzger's proposal for an art strike in the 1974 catalogue for the ICA show "Art Into Society/Society Into Art", it was an obscure text because no other artists had supported this call to destroy the commercial gallery system. Metzger is very clear about the fact that the art strike I declared between 1990 and 1993 was quite different to the one he proposed be held between 1977 and 1980. I saw the 1990-93 art strike as an opportunity to make propaganda against art and artists; Metzger wanted to smash the gallery system so that artists could seize control of the display and distribution of their work. When Metzger announced his art strike in 1974 it was a serious proposal intended to inaugurate the destruction of the gallery system (as it existed then and, indeed, as it continues to exist now). While not explicitly framed as a critique of curation, Metzger's art strike can be understood as implicitly critical of the role of the curator (since it was designed to empower artists and free them from dependence upon the institution of art). While over the years I've been told by a number of curators that they took up this 'profession' because they wanted to help artists, Metzger understood the anger that curators and dealers roused in his peers (but not, it seems, the mixed sense of powerlessness and opportunism many artists display when confronted by the institution of art – this should not be taken as criticism of Metzger, he is probably the least cynical artist I've ever met).
Metzger's announcement of an art strike can only be understood in the context of its time; in 1974 the immediate overthrow of capitalism felt very tangible to many people, and it wasn't at all clear that the onset of the oil crisis was to mark the beginning of more than thirty years of ongoing defeats for the working class of the overdeveloped world. There was also much militancy on the periphery of the art world; parts Fluxus (at that time an obscure tendency that was completely eclipsed by the Happenings movement), were abandoning the institution of art completely as they coalesced with other groups and individuals into what became the global mail art network. Rather than using galleries, mail artists simply sent each other their works in a process of collaboration and free exchange; and when these artists elected to make public displays of each other's work, they developed the slogan 'no jury, no fees, no returns' to describe their intransigently anti-curational stance.
The phrase "From Violence To Endurance" which is the title of tonight's talk, I understand as a 'curational' gambit; in other words it is a way of moving from Gustav Metzger to the activities of the other two panellists on stage with me tonight who aren't curators, Stuart Brisley and Mark McGowan, and whose activities might be understood as durational performance. Market research indicates that it is adult women under the age of thirty-five who make up the bulk of the audience for exhibitions at the larger London galleries, and this bias appears to be reflected in the gender make up on curation courses at institutions such as the Royal College of Art (although there is also a glass ceiling within the London art world, which means that men are still over represented in top curational positions). Thus it is interesting that the three female panellists up on the platform tonight are being presented primarily as curators/educators, while the male panellists can be taken as being cultural practitioners. Of course, this is a simplification since Stuart Brisley taught fine art for many years at The Slade, and this series of talks has been organised and introduced by Ben Canfield, but then he's not actually sitting on the stage. Curators, and particularly London curators, are on the whole poorly paid, but then so are the overwhelming majority of artists, thus it is the relative prestige (or cultural capital) associated with these different roles that I see as accounting for the gender splits between them.
Returning to the notion of endurance, in the preamble to tonight's talk it is configured as being a means of making contact with 'reality' and counterposed to the idea that venues such as the ICA were designed for play (and linked notions of humans as 'homo ludens'). Aside from the problematics of defining what 'reality' is (an issue the author of the pre-amble is clearly aware of), I see this as a false opposition, and so would some of those such as the various members of the Situationist International, who have played with reality at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (cf. their 28 September 1960 talk at the ICA as described by Guy Atkins in his monograph "Asger Jorn: The Crucial Years 1954-1964", Lund Humphries 1977). The more sophisticated elements within the Situationist International and Fluxus would have understood that the institution of art and its functionaries (both curators and artists) inflict a very real violence on us all. The artist functions as a kind of specialist non-specialist, both a deformed pre-figuration of the truly creative individuals who will make up post-capitalist society and a perfect representative of alienated (wo)man; while the curator acts as a gate-keeper, deciding who can and can't take on the simultaneously privileged and degrading role of 'successful' 'artist'. I am not saying people shouldn't take on the roles of artist or curator in an alienated society, since we will all continue to live out the contradictions of capitalism (and thereby produce and reproduce our own alienation) until we succeed in creating a new world, and all of anarchism can be found in the idea it is possible to live differently in a pre-revolutionary situation. But when taking on such functions (i.e. that of artist and/or curator) we should simultaneously be working towards their abolition. And if as the preamble to tonight's discussion seems to suggest, the presentation of reality is the aim of works premised on endurance, then they must be opposed to curation which is necessarily a process of selection (but once again I'd see this as a false opposition, and personally I'm quite a fan of selection when it is removed from the violently distorting influence of the institution of art).
It should go without saying that contemporary art suffers from massive blindspots, and on the whole shows little self-understanding. Violence of both a conscious and unconscious kind forms an integral part of the contemporary art world. I'd like to illustrate this with just one example, the installation "To The Memory of H. P. Lovecraft" by Mike Nelson on as part of the exhibition "Psycho Buildings" at the Hayward Gallery here in London this summer, but first shown at the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh in 1999. The most direct sources of inspiration for this work are reproduced in the catalogue for Nelson's 2001 ICA show "A Forgotten Kingdom", viz the short stories "The Rats In The Wall" by H. P. Lovecraft and "There Are More Things (to the memory of H.P. Lovecraft)" by J. L. Borges. The villain of the latter piece is Satanically inspired and is described as 'a whelp of a Jew' (on page 109 in Nelson's catalogue); whether this is anti-Semitism on Borges part or simply a burlesque by the Argentinean writer of Lovecraft's racism is difficult to discern on the basis of the story alone, or its reproduction by Nelson in his catalogue. Lovecraft's piece as reproduced in the same catalogue is unambiguously racist, but Nelson refrains from addressing the problematic nature of the material he's appropriated in this publication (I suspect because he is either unaware of the issues or else doesn't think they merit addressing).
Michel Houellebecg in "H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2005), celebrates this American horror writer's nihilism in a manner that reminds me of the way other 'intellectuals' have acted as cheerleaders for Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Nonetheless Houellebecg still manages to address what he labels Lovecraft's 'racial hatred' under the main heading of 'Holocaust': "According to those close to him, when he crossed paths with members of other races Lovecraft grated his teeth and turned rather pale, but would keep calm. It was only in his letters that his exasperation poured fourth – later it showed up in his stories and, and eventually became something of a phobia. His sight, nourished as it was by hatred, grew into paranoia and eventually his gaze was actually deranged, portending the verbal hyperbole of the 'great texts'." (page 106). In commenting on a passage from Lovecraft which Houellebecg describes as a 'magnificent invocation', this French 'critic' comments: "Lovecraft goes back to a very ancient source of horror where Evil is the product of a carnal union against nature. This idea fits his obsessive racism perfectly; for, to him, as to all racists, it is not one particular race that represents true horror, but the notion of the half-breed. Using both knowledge of genetics and his familiarity with sacred texts, he concocts an explosive synthesis of abject, unprecedented force…"
I am not against a figure such as Lovecraft being invoked, appropriated and (re)presented within contemporary culture. But I do think there is a violence in Nelson's use of Lovecraft, since it appears to have been made without a suitable critical framing. This problem is by no means unique to Nelson, and I have used him to illustrate something that can be found not only in the art world but in much popular culture too. For example, when visiting The Devils’ Museum (Žmuidzinavičius Museum) in Kaunas (Lithuania) last month, I was immediately struck by the fact that the overwhelming majority of folk representations of The Devil gathered from across Europe appeared to depict Satan as being of stereotypical Jewish ethnicity (and this was in sharp contrast to folk representations of The Devil from Africa).
From Violence to Endurance – Extreme Curating. ICA London, 24 September 2008.
Ben Cranfield, pre-intro talk series contextualisation: As has been previously discussed in this series (of talks about curation), from its inception, the ICA has often been conceived of as a place of 'play': whether as the ICA's first President Herbert Read's adult play centre or former ICA exhibitions director Jasia Reichardt's cybernetic fantasy. It may therefore seem strange that in 1964 the ICA presented an interdepartmental series on the theme of Violence in Art, Society and Nature. The sudden interjection of violence into a playful concept of experimental artistic practice may, however, give pause for thought. Was it, perhaps, the pervasive background of violence which made the idea of a Homo Ludens so attractive to Herbert Read in the first place? Furthermore, should the experimental be seen as related more to violence than to play? Experimental master John Cage declared in an interview in the ICA bulletin of January 1968 that he was not interested in the concept of play and did not believe in a homo ludens. Cage was, furthermore, uninterested in anything which removed the individual from an awareness of reality. It was perhaps as a bulwark against the repetitive violence of contemporary society that the experimental could function.
In 1966 an announcement appeared in the ICA bulletin for an event entitled the Destruction in Art Symposium taking place at the Africa Centre. The event was orchestrated by Gustav Metzger whose manifestos on Auto Destructive Art had impacted on the art world in the early 60s. Like Cage's concept of the experimental, Metzger's Auto Destructive Art was articulated as a practice radically engaged in the violent reality of society and not as a distraction from it. Metzger proclaimed "Auto-destructive art is an attack on capitalist values and the drive to nuclear annihilation." In the age when McLuhan stated that the medium was the message ADA demonstrated that the underlying or overlying violence of society had to be made explicit in the very manner of the artistic act.
The need for an engagement with something which might be called reality has pushed artists from Cage and Metzger to Throbbing Gristle and Franko B to use extreme methods of presentation, framing, unframing and engagement in order to move beyond the recuperative spaces of artistic presentation towards another kind of place. Should the curator consider their production of space in similar terms? Can curators and artists draw attention to the 'facts' of an often violent world through extreme methods of curation? Is it possible through innovative or extreme methods and content to avoid mere spectacle within the gallery?
London Art Tripping (psychogeography of 50 years of bohemianism)
Andre Stitt (live art and shamanism)
How To Improve The World (Hayward show of Arts Council Collection)
Performance artist turns up at ICA unsure of how to use toilet shock!
As far as I could tell no one else in the room aside from me and Barbara Schurtz (who works alongside Brener, and did so in this instance by throwing peanuts at people on the podium) knew who the man exhibiting his distain for curation via public defecation was; and since Brener had in certain respects illustrated what I'd planned to talk about, I felt it was useful to provide a thumbnail sketch of the man, his activities, (bowel) motions and notions. I'd recognised Brener when he came into the room and nodded to him, and as soon as I'd clocked him I'd expected an 'intervention' of the anal variety.
I'd already heard that Brener was as pleased as punch over his newly acquired skill of defecating on demand; apparently the development of this trick had required an iron discipline, with Brener going through agonies while he 'shamanistically' trained himself up in the art of anal retention by holding off from shitting for days at a time. This information had been conveyed to me a month or so before, alongside a recycled joke that supposedly explained Brener's attachment to both his own poop and his role as an artist: "When Alexander Brener was a baby his mother always told him what a clever boy he was when he took a shit, and so Brener had thought if I can get praise for that then life has got to be a doddle!"
While all of those present at the ICA on 24 September 2008 must have known what shit looked and smelt like, this didn't prevent sections of the audience consuming Brener's frolics as spectacle. Although I view retreating into ever more passive modes of spectatorship as backward, I was nonetheless intrigued by the fact that there appeared to be blood in Brener's poop; when he put his turd into Brisley's drinking glass the blood swirled around the water faster than the shit, causing some beautiful changes of colour. I mentioned this from the podium, and also speculated about whether Brener was wiping his arse too hard and causing it to bleed.
Even in the bar after the event I wasn't able to discuss curation, or artistic and other forms of opposition to it. Instead we speculated on just how bad the skidmarks on Brener's knickers must be when he pooped and then pulled up his underwear without wiping his arse; we also wondered if he suffered from acute skin rash as a result of this, and whether this was some sort of sexual fetish (possibly also involving spanking) that appealed to his partner Barbara Schurtz. Likewise, I wondered whether I should break into a rousing rendition of Lobo's early seventies hit "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo", with the lyrics changed to "Me and You and Brener's Poo", but refrained from this indulgence. Needless to say, one wag coming back from taking a leak suggested I might want to check out the Gents, since "like wow, someone is taking a crap in there!"
Debate about Brener's poop continued the following day, with a source close to him confirming that he suffered from haemorrhoids and this was why his shit was streaked with blood, which shot down an alternative theory that he'd eaten a lot of beetroot and that accounted for why his poop was so red.
And all that said, this was by no means the most ridiculous 'intervention' against one of my appearances at the ICA, since despite being low-grade it was still considerably better than what Larry O’Hara and Michel Prigent did 1996.
An artist asks his dealer if his work is selling. The dealer says there is good news and bad news. The good news is a man asked if the artist’s paintings would go up in value after he died, and when he was told yes, he bought 15 pictures. The bad news is the man in question is the artist’s doctor.
I had a lot of trouble buying a curator a present. What do you get someone who thinks they are everything?
Q. How many artists does it take to change a light bulb?
A real curator is someone who walks in after everyone else has walked out.
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