Can an artistic practice meet normative criteria for success, such as exposure and public recognition, without reproducing the artist’s privileges or reinforcing the power structures in and around an art institution? In 2015 I began writing a text weighing up the limitations and possibilities that apply to artistic expression today.
One of the fundamental starting points for my deliberations was the fact that social, political and historic circumstances are not merely something that the artist can choose to point directly to as a theme (or omit in favour of a project more purely oriented towards form); rather, they are something in which the artist and work will always take part; something that situates the work. Such participation must be considered a main factor of the work’s effect. Your claims regarding what a given work is about are inconsequential if the work participates in circumstances that pull it in another direction. I considered the possibility of an artistic practice in which social inequality and political power structures are not only dealt with as a topic, but where you are also aware of your own participation and complicity in these circumstances. However, such situational awareness is a complex matter, for is it even possible to address something if you are simultaneously problematising the very position you take up as you speak?
I looked at different directions of artistic practice to examine whether the movement’s overall mode of thought appeared to be consistent with the situational awareness I was looking for. Institutional Critique offered an obvious starting point given that this genre is characterised by pointing towards the structures surrounding art. The movement has generated awareness of the normative values within which art institutions often incorporate works. But at the same time it seems to be a characteristic feature that the artwork of Institutional Critique is adopted by the institution – and what does it mean to be critical of a structure which expects exactly this form of criticism? It should be considered that critique is not the same as direct criticism; it is not necessarily opposed to the subject in question, but even so my main interest focused on the issues associated with an intended opposition. Especially today, as the critical artist has become canonized, such critique ties in well with the museum’s agenda. Perhaps artworks of Institutional Critique even give the museum an opportunity to offset such criticism, archiving it and incorporating it into its own cultural vocabulary without taking the consequences or launching the changes proposed. In the introduction of Miwon Kwon’s book One Place After Another – Site Specific Art and Locational Identity she considers works of Institutional Critique as integrated in the sense that their form and content is contiguous with the institutional situation of the work, but later states: ‘Artists, no matter how deeply convinced of their anti-institutional sentiment or how adamant their critique of dominant ideology, are inevitably engaged, self-servingly or with ambivalence, in this process of cultural legitimation’. The critical voice can be fended off and enfolded into the system it is critical towards. This mechanism is hardly alien to us in this late-capitalist era where punk can transform into fashion. The issue applies not only to artworks of Institutional Critique, but also to artistic practices that engage in critical art in a broader sense. Not only does the critical work run the risk of preparing its themes for archiving and levelling within the art institution; we also find that a critical voice, which takes it upon itself to explain a given matter to its audience, essentially positions itself as an active agent in relation to a passive recipient: a social micro-hierarchy.
I looked into Relational Aesthetics, where the traditional artist-audience relationship is disrupted. Here, artists will typically not work with a defined message, but regard the exhibition as a platform for social interaction and exchange, blurring the boundaries between artwork and audience. The spectator is part of the artwork’s situation, and in the field of Relational Aesthetics awareness is created on this social circumstance. Instead of proposing a social connection, it creates one, letting the work manifest itself through it. In the publication Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud suggests that this offers a solution to the question of the function of art: it can repair a weakness of the social bond. This is where I grew sceptical again. For what and who is repairing this social bond, solving problems for other people? Social transformation becomes the conceptual content of an artistic project and the artist is accredited for having created it. The question is whether social change can take the form of a service – arranged by an artist, aimed at a wider group – when the action in itself defines a social distinction, making the spectator a tool used to execute the artist’s idea?
Thus, I contemplated the subject of defined directions for artistic practices that incorporate an awareness of their own situation and experienced a conflict between the intention of the work and the terms and conditions the work has to accept in order to manifest itself as a work of art. The work’s overall mode of expression is a situated circumstance in itself; an action governed by the system from which that action arises.
At the lecture Why Games? (useful Games), Can people in the art world think? given at Charlottenborg on 7 December 2016, Hito Steyerl spoke about digital reality, online behaviour and strategies for identifying the digital consumer: when you reproduce the traits of the online profile you represent and have the same behavioural patterns as others with similar profiles, then you can be identified as a person (rather than a bot). It is the story of patterns: the importance of a given thing is measured on the basis of the ability to reproduce already existing narratives. Various settings and environments (local, professional, domestic, etc.) set out guidelines on the behaviour that is expected of you if you are to fulfil your potential within that given setting, and the art world is no exception. The guidelines established here are based on some of the same capitalist and social-hierarchical structures that apply within the rest of society. Structures that may seem neutral or natural because we are so many who take part in them and reiterate them. Structures that can appear to arise out of ourselves because they can accommodate, register and take control of our movements of behaviour. I don’t imagine that we can step out of these structures altogether, rebelling by opting out of our situatedness. Having that sort of agency remains an illusion. However, the awareness that the space we inhabit is not neutral may offer us an opportunity to navigate more purposefully within the given circumstances. In her lecture, Hito Steyerl did not suggest that we should abandon the digital space, but that we should be aware of the control exercised by the system and navigate less stereotypically within its framework.
I will return to the idea that certain expectations adhere to artistic practice. In my deliberations on Institutional Critique and Relational Aesthetics I pointed toward a conflict between the intention behind the work – be it critical or socially unifying – and the expectations to which that work submits: The work must have clear and obvious content, but this also means that such content becomes available for archiving within the institution. The work must have a sender, but this also produces an artist-subject that is then promoted. The art institution (museum, Kunsthalle, gallery, art fair, magazine, blog etc.) must justify its existence and budget by appearing as a site where some form of service is offered and where art can be recognised as art. In this process art can become a kind of prop for the institution’s agenda; the works must have content that can be condensed into accompanying texts, and exhibitions are curated based on reducing works of art to a series of manifestations of a particular overarching theme. One might speak of a kind of ‘meaning economy’ – works of art get distributed in accordance with the degree to which they allow the institution to brand the work as a product: a consistent œuvre makes for a strong brand identity; works based on specific themes can fit neatly into a particular model of explanation and/or collection, and if the work represents a particular point of view it may be easier to account for the function associated with the art. What is more, the art institution must reinforce the narrative about its own cultural significance by reproducing what can already be recognised as successful art. This may involve using aesthetics familiar from various acclaimed modernist periods, high production value or meeting the criteria of a particular artist myth – for example in the form of an artist-subject sharing the same ethnicity and gender as acclaimed geniuses of art history. The art institution is situated too, meeting expectations and requirements within a political reality where value is increasingly measured in terms of the ability to adapt to a market and where the use of commercial market strategies (or something resembling them) makes the art appear more relevant.
For me, the growing awareness of the circumstances that situate art emerged over a long period of time, and my initial confrontations with the accompanying sense of a lack of freedom and agency were frustrating. I suppose that I initially wanted to become an artist based on the ideology that this field of practice was a space for free, unfettered expression. I grew better at understanding the identity of particular materials, their inherent traits and features, and how to construct an experience for spectators by taking the entire space into account, but for a while the situated circumstances – the impact of institutional expectations, the ways in which I and my modes of expression were positioned within a social and political hierarchy – remained something I created my works in spite of. As if the ideology of freedom was an illusion that had to be maintained, with the consequence, that I could not protect my practice against being governed by the mechanisms in which I myself took part. Observing, listening, becoming aware is a tool. It is not about what shouldn’t be done by whom, but about the fact that there are things you can’t just do without implications: an action is affected by the identity of the person carrying it out and by the historic, political and social space in which it is carried out. This is where the restrictions reside. Not in censorship, not in ‘who’s allowed to do what’, but in an awareness that also the privileged point of departure is not neutral. Perhaps the opportunities open to us as Western artists do not reside in what we can actively change, nor in how we insist on our personal freedom, but rather in the awareness and attention we express. We are not cowed by political correctness, we are simply trying to listen to each other and the circumstances within which we are positioned. This awareness does not constitute the point from which freedom is restricted; rather, it is the point from which it begins.
This article was printed in the 2017 yearbook of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts