Grant H. Kester on collaborative art practices in the interview with Piotr Juskowiak and Agata Skórzyńska
Polskie tłumaczenie wywiadu ukazało się w: „Kultura Współczesna” 2013, nr 2 / The Polish translation of the interview was published in: „Kultura Współczesna” 2013 vol.2
Piotr Juskowiak, Agata Skórzyńska: We would like to begin our conversation with a question about the situatedness of your book. Would the current changes that we’re observing in the field of art have been possible without parallel transformations taking place in the field of capitalist mode of production? We are thinking here of processes such as the dematerialization of economy, growing importance of cultural factors, knowledge and communication, deregulation, flexibilization and precarization of work etc.
Grant H. Kester*: I’m not sure I would agree that the factors you mention (the “dematerialization” of the economy, flexible forms of labor, etc.) are necessarily a recent phenomenon. Post-Fordist forms of production emerged over fifty years ago, and the conservative sociologist Daniel Bell famously identified many of these same issues in 1973 In The Coming of Post-Industrialization. Barry Bluestone was analyzing the already well-established “deindustrialization” process in the U.S. in the early 1980s (The De-Industrialization of America). The first US off shore sourcing factory was created by Hewlett Packard in the late 1950s. It’s not uncommon among art theorists to attribute a dramatic, transformative potential to shifts in the mode of production that are entirely consistent with the longer cyclical nature of capitalism. In the US for example, with the exception of a roughly two decade period following WWII, temporary, provisional or insecure forms of labor have been the norm rather than the exception. This doesn’t mean that various forms of “immaterial labor” haven’t grown as a proportion of broader economic activity, but I would be cautious about ascribing some sort of programmatic or direct relationship between this long-term shift and recent developments in artistic practice
I think it is equally likely that a decisive factor leading to a renewed interest in collaborative, socially-engaged artistic practice was a shift in the perceived horizons of political change that has occurred over the past twenty years or so. This shift has coincided with the rise to dominance of neo-liberal economic policies in Europe and the Americas, leading to a dramatic erosion of various forms of “public” provision in education, healthcare and so on. The resulting class tensions and austerity measures have led to new forms of protest and resistance, but the telos of this resistance can no longer be comfortably identified with the examples of state socialism or communism. Post-Maoist China has emerged as a leading exemplar of a party-driven hybrid of socialism and capitalism, giving further proof, if it was needed, that democratic forms of government have no necessary correlation to actually existing socialist or capitalist systems.
The result has been a kind of re-coding many of our a priori assumptions, at least within the art world, about the pragmatic and the teleological orientation of political change. I think we have been accustomed for some time to a kind of melancholic view, in which a handful of events (the Paris Commune, May ’68) are presented as quasi-aesthetic moments of revolutionary purity, against which all subsequent struggles are measured and found wanting. Their perceived failure is, in a way, simply a further demonstration of their purity. The endless ritual evocation of May ’68 or the exemplary virtues of the Situationists, has had the effect of arresting our imagination of what change might look like for us, in our own time. The result has been an extremely narrow, and frankly Eurocentric, perception of which forms of political and cultural resistance are acceptable and efficacious, and a tendency to reject out of hand any form of praxis that doesn’t coincide with this model. I believe this has started to change in the past ten to fifteen years, as artists have come to terms with the specific political and economic effects of neo-liberalism today. In the process they have begun to re-think what “being together” means at the most basic level. These practices run along a continuum, from extremely small-scale experiments, involving only two or three people, to projects that involve networks of dozens or even hundreds of participants.
PJ, AS: You’ve written about two decisive shifts that determine the shape of contemporary artistic practice: a) a growing interest in collectivity and cooperation, b) moving away from textualism and “movement toward participatory, process-based experience”. At the same time you assume the “increasing permeability between art and other zones of symbolic production”. Are we dealing here with an overall change of paradigm? If so, what was the role of art in bringing the society to this moment?
GK: I do think there is a paradigm shift occurring, specifically in the way in which we understand aesthetic autonomy. This isn’t simply a shift in the content of work, but in the underlying formal organization of artistic production. Conventional aesthetic autonomy has operated at two different levels. The first is in the relationship between the artwork and the audience. Here the artwork is a thing crafted by the artist and subsequently set in place before a viewer. In this schema “artist” and “viewer” are each assigned their proper roles and the artist, and the act of artistic production, remains entirely separate and autonomous. This segregation is tied up with the longer history of the aesthetic within modernism, in which the viewer or audience is understood as the product of a system of ideological programming that the artist seeks to disrupt through some form of cognitive shock or discordance (there must always be an “admixture of poison” in the aesthetic encounter, as Adorno writes). As a result the artist and the viewer occupy two distinct cognitive fields.
A related form of autonomy pertains in the relationship between artistic practice and other fields of cultural production. Here art retains a skeptical relationship to other disciplines, which typically become targets of critique or subversion. Both of these forms of autonomy are being transformed in contemporary art. I’ve written a good bit about the movement from a custodial relationship to the viewer, in which creative agency resides solely with the sovereign personality of the artist, to practices in which creative agency is mobilized and provisional within a network of actors. At the same time there has been a parallel transformation in the relationship between artistic practice and other cultural fields (design, urbanism, theater, education, etc.), in which we see a convergence of interest around collaborative or shared forms of creative production.
These changes aren’t occurring simply because artists are asking different questions about their own creative practice. Rather, they reflect a broader, trans-disciplinary interest in collective knowledge production. I believe the most promising direction for new research lies in the opening up of a dialogue with thinkers and practitioners in adjacent fields. For some commentators this is problematic for two, related, reasons. First, the distinct identity of “art” is threatened by opening up to other disciplines, which might subsume it. This is the old modernist fear: that art, having lost it’s essential social function in relationship to the authority of the church or state, has become vulnerable, and can only maintain it’s independence, and even it’s existence, by differentiating itself from competing cultural forms. The second fear is that if art opens up to practices of activism, ethnography, pedagogy, design, and so on it will lose its critical functionality within society. This fear is based on the belief that art’s primary role is to serve as a repository of pure critique or negation, revealing the contradictions of other ideological and discursive systems, and standing as an implicit challenge to the conformity of a hegemonic culture. This entails a Manichean view of society, with art positioned as the lone sentinel of independent thought against an undifferentiated flood of instrumental cultural practices.
PJ, AS: How, then, would you explain the rearticulation of materiality and restoration of meaningfulness of place, which are typical for collectives such as Dialogue? It seems to us that Richard Sennett refreshes the category of craftsman in this context, which enables the realization of Fritz Lang’s old dream – namely a reunion of head and hands in the democratic process of work and production.
GK: Conventionally modern art has been defined through a process of displacement that is both spatial and temporal. At the temporal level it addresses a viewer yet-to-be, rather than actual viewers here and now. This dimension is evident in the speculative, hypothetical models of reception apparent in most contemporary art criticism. At the spatial level it has involved the sequestering of the work of art in a protective institutional space, the museum or the gallery or the biennial, which provides a kind of physical expression of the principle of aesthetic autonomy, and which contexualizes the work it contains as always already “art”. As a result its art status as such is guaranteed a priori, rather than produced situationally. I think the interest in “place” evident in the work of groups like Dialogue or Park Fiction or Ala Plastica is evidence that these forms of displacement are being re-considered. This work might also be seen as a reaction to the normative temporality of the biennial commissioning process. This process imposes a very limited concept of duration on artists, who find themselves traveling the globe to be inserted into complex geo-political contexts with the mandate to produce a meaningful work or project.
I would also stress here that it’s inaccurate to define these shifts in terms of a simple “de-materialization” of the artwork. This is an old modernist dream, extending back to Lessing and the fantasy of a work of art that breaks free from the stultifying grip of material reality and ascends to a realm of pure thought or contemplation. We see a similar trajectory in the evolution of art history, with Riegl’s differentiation between advanced, retinal art forms in Europe, such as painting, and primitive, “Asiatic” cultures that depend on the reassuring physical presence provided by “haptic” forms of art. The projects of the groups I mentioned above all revolve around a process of physical production and fabrication of some kind. At the same time materiality is also being re-articulated in this work, through recognition of the plasticity of various social protocols
PJ, AS: How would you define socially engaged art? What is its role? You’ve criticized, in this context, the polar opinions on participatory art proposed by Nicolas Bourriaud and Claire Bishop.
This is an extremely diverse field, and I’m not sure that it’s possible or prudent at this stage to offer a single, fixed definition. I think the more pressing problem facing art critics and historians is the lack of proper research methodologies and analytic tools to simply describe what this work does. Many of the projects I discuss unfold over weeks, months and even years (as in the case of Project Row House in Houston), and their spatial contours or boundaries typically fluctuate, expand and contract over time (as is the case with the work of Ala Plastica in Buenos Aires). As a result, these projects confront the critic with a very different set of questions. When does the work “begin” and when does it “end”? What are the boundaries of the field within which it operates, and how were they determined? At the most basic level, can we even agree as to what constitutes the object of criticism? I think the first stage, before we become too concerned with definition, is to simply learn how to describe this work as a practice. Meaningful definitions may eventually emerge out of this process, but they would then have the virtue of being rooted in a deep engagement with the practice itself.
There are also significant geographic differences at work. What someone in the US, for example, understands as “engaged” art or “social” practice, etc. is often very different from what someone in Ecuador, Egypt or Estonia understands by the term. There’s been a rush in the past several years to institutionalize this practice that is especially pronounced in the US, leading to the formation of purpose-build MFA programs, survey exhibitions and so on. This is not entirely surprising, but it can also be viewed as something of a mixed blessing, as it’s leads inevitably to a drive to codify a field that is really incipient. I think the confusion of terminologies and the lack of definitional fixity, or at least the proliferation of multiple definitions, is not such a bad thing, and reflects a genuine diversity of values, attitudes and beliefs in relationship to the broader shifts around aesthetic autonomy that I discussed above. My concept of a “dialogical” aesthetic wasn’t intended to encompass the totality of collaborative, socially engaged art practice. It simply marks out a particular aspect of this area of practice that has been difficult for many critics to recognize, due to its deviation from existing models of avant-garde art. In this respect I don’t really view Bishop and Bourriaud as polar opposites. In fact, both still tend to focus on monological artistic practices in which the artist retains sole or primary creative agency, and in which there is limited potential for participatory interaction to inform the evolution of a given work at the formal or operational level. We might say that they are each concerned with projects in which the artist engineers a different affect generation scheme. The specific form of affect being delivered can vary (conviviality, discomfort, etc.) but the underlying schema of the work remains consistent, involving a set of fixed subject positions (“viewer,” “artist”). My primary interest is in projects that seek to organize and disorganize previously sovereign forms of agency and subjectivity in the work of art, intervening at the structural level of reception and production.
PJ, AS: Among the many descriptions of contemporary public art, such as relation (Bourriaud), participation (Bishop) or community (Miwon Kwon), you’ve decided to speak about its collaborative aspect. What are the main advantages of this choice?
GK: Clearly all these art historical or art critical narratives overlap in certain ways, and they all suggest that social interaction of one kind or another has become a key theme in contemporary art. “Participation” or “Relationality” in this sense can either be produced in a given work, with varying degrees of self-reflection or criticality, or they can simply function as the subject matter of a given work, in which case the artist creates a project that is intended to reflect on the status of sociality or collective experience as a key feature of contemporary life. These can overlap in any given work, of course. In the latter case the underlying structure of a “textual” paradigm may remain intact, or the artist might allow a narrow spectrum of viewer involvement, usually in the form of some nominally interactive physical gesture. For me it’s important to understand the generative nature of inter-subjective exchange and distributional agency in this work, so I have tended to use the term “collaborative,” but I’m not overly concerned with semantics here. In fact, all of these terms suffer from a similar problem; any one of them can easily enough be applied to conventionally-authored art works. Certainly I have a “relationship” with a painting or staged performance, and I “participate” when my consciousness or perceptions are acted on by a given work of art. The point to be made isn’t that previous works treated the viewer as entirely passive and that collaborative practices today somehow “activate” the viewer. We can easily enough stipulate that all art forms activate the viewer in some way. The key question is far more specific: what form does this activation take? What assumptions does it make about the viewer or the work itself? How does it inform the actual structure of a given work over time? And how does it engage actual, rather than hypothetical, viewers or participants?
PJ, AS: In Poland, the term “collaboration” acquired unequivocally negative associations. First of all, it brings to mind a cooperation with „enemy occupation forces” (e.g. the Nazi occupation of Poland), but it also refers to the co-optation by the security services (during the Polish People’s Republic period). The ambivalence of this key concept is also strongly emphasized in your book. What is „the dark side” of artistic collaboration?
GK: I discuss this a bit in the introduction of The One and the Many. The example of Nazi “collaborators” is salutary, but it can also have the effect of naturalizing a perception, not uncommon in the arts, that privileges the monadic singularity as the only legitimate locus of aesthetic experience. The individual, shorn of any troubling forms of collective identification, is the liberated political subject par excellence. By extension, collective forms of social experience can only ever be oppressive, defined by a nested series of dominating institutions, from family to community to nation state. Community or collective identities can certainly be coercive, but one could easily enough reverse this analysis and argue that because fascism is based on the rule of a charismatic sovereign leader, all forms of singular artistic expression have at their root a lurking fascist, scheming to transform the world in his own image. One way around this impasse is to re-think our models of subjectivity and identity, outside the reductive opposition between a desiring subject and an implicitly totalitarian consensus. This is why I find Bakhtin’s work useful, as well as figures like George Herbert Mead, who offer another way to think about the relationship between the individual and the social. As is always the case, the construction of this tension, between the individual and the collective, is highly context-dependent. In Poland, for example, your unique history is going to inform the particular meaning that collaborative artistic projects generate there.
PJ, AS: In Conversation Pieces: Community + Communication in Modern Art, the book written seven years before The One and the Many, you demonstrated the advantages of the dialogical approach, which allowed you to capture, perhaps better than the more antagonistic attitudes, the artistic turn toward community and communicational practices. In your current research, dialogue has been replaced with collaboration. Is this transition solely a result of some kind of a shift in the field of public art, observed by you in the recent years (which is followed by a replacement of historical labels – moving away from modern art and toward contemporary artistic practices) or is it rather an effect of a change of perspective, influence of new books and ideas, disappointment with dialogical perspectives etc.? Finally, do dialogue and collaboration present themselves as two different forms of interaction or, rather, as complementary modes of being-with?
GK: I talk a bit about collaboration in Conversation Pieces, and I discuss “dialogical” aesthetics in The One and the Many. My current research returns to Bakhtin to further elaborate a theoretical model for artistic practice, based on dialogical concepts. All that is to say that I don’t think dialogue has been replaced by collaboration. Nor do the two terms reflect my sense of any broader shifts in the field of artistic practice. Rather, the two terms inform each other. I developed the concept of a dialogical art practice to account specifically for projects that circulated around the act of conversation (Wochenklausur’s “Boat Talks,” for example). I think there are lots of forms of collaborative practice (Gilbert and George, Christo, etc.), but I would assign a more specific meaning to dialogical practice, within the broader continuum of collaborative work. In dialogical practices the act of collaboration is more extensive, and involves a conscious effort to thematize creative agency. Dialogical practices also involve a more fluid or open understanding of the work of art as a finished product (you can “collaborate” on a painting, for example). To some extent what I do as an art historian is impose arbitrary categories on artistic practices that are always more complex than these categories suggest. The concept of dialogical practice simply captures one dimension of the works I write about. I consider it to be an important element, and one that has been largely ignored due to the limitations of current art critical paradigms, but any given project will operate on multiple levels, outside my own relatively narrow focus.
PJ, AS: What kinds of activities fall within the scope of such broad ‘label’ as collaborative art? Does it indicate a normative model of art practice? Or, perhaps, we could easily distinguish a set of elements or modes of artistic production which would allow us to identify a particular project as „collaborative”? Could you give us some examples?
GK: I address some of these questions in my previous answers. I do believe that “collaborative” art, or whatever other term we might use (relational, participatory, social, etc.), does signal a significant change in the nature of contemporary artistic practice. As with all paradigm shifts, it didn’t emerge sui generis. There is a longer history of collaborative production in the arts that informs current practices. At the same time, I don’t believe this concern with distributed creative agency has been quite so widespread in the past. I would just reiterate what I noted above, which is that these changes reflect a fundamental re-thinking of norms of aesthetic autonomy across a broad range of artists and collectives, working internationally. It’s entirely possible that this participatory fever will subside in a few years and the traditional, canonizing drive of art history will reassert itself, leaving a handful of recognized collaborative practitioners safely ensconced in the pantheon of contemporary art. In part this is a materialist question. Is there an economic model to support the ongoing production of this work, aside from the commitment of individual artists and collectives? Quite literally, how will they survive? And how will this work relate to the rather well-fed elephant in the room, which is the multi-billion dollar annual market for contemporary art sales? In my view the art market exerts a disproportionate influence on curatorial practice, critical writing, and the broader discourse of contemporary art. If you’re Santiago Sierra survival is a relatively easy matter; you can sell limited edition photographs of your performances to collectors for 50,000 Euros each. But most of the groups I write about view the international circuit of art fairs, biennials, commercial galleries, and art/fashion magazines as another world entirely. In rejecting or questioning this version of the art world they aren’t rejecting “art,” simply the intense monetization of artistic production that occurs there, which still depends, above all else, on singular models of authorship and creative agency. How else can a painting by Gerhard Richter be “worth” $37 million? As this example suggests, the economic value of artistic production is very much linked with conventional notions of aesthetic autonomy.
PJ, AS: Collaborative art is increasingly considered to be the new mode of knowledge production, alternative or competitive to the more conventional or traditional ones. It may serve, on the one hand, as a critical examination of conclusions drawn by contemporary political philosophy, often unsupported or unverified empirically. On the other, it can provide valuable findings on several important issues, such as social exclusion, ethnicity, social or political position of minorities, social reproduction etc. Do particular collaborative art projects show us new directions that, for instance, cultural studies should undertake?
GK: I wouldn’t say that collaborative art constitutes a new mode of knowledge production, to the extent that collaboration has long been a (repressed) subtheme within modernism (David Alfaro Siqueiros’s “polygraphic team,” Die Brücke, cadavre exquis, etc.), but the singular focus on collaboration in contemporary art is certainly new. I think your point about the relative abstraction of contemporary political philosophy is well taken, and I do think there is room for a productive dialogue in the relationship between artistic practice and philosophical thinking. For most art critics theory functions as a self-contained and self-evident apparatus, which can be brought onto the scene of critical engagement to perform the work of deep analysis or political de-mystification, but which is never questioned in turn. I’d like to see a more reflective and reciprocal understanding of the relationship between theory and practice in art criticism. In this scenario theory can bring insight, but it can also be challenged in turn, perhaps by the ‘empirical’ experience of practice itself. As to your broader question, I suppose it is possible that collaborative art projects can suggest new directions for cultural studies research. By “cultural studies” do you mean the academic discipline of “Cultural Studies” (extending from the Birmingham School) or simply general academic inquiries into the meaning of culture? In either case, I would agree that there is room for disciplinary exchange here as well, with the fields of Cultural Studies, Ethnography, Anthropology, and so on. It would be equally important for artists to encounter new directions for their own research through their interactions with practitioners in these disciplines.
PJ, AS: The question of autonomy is a highly significant topic of your research. You discuss this issue with reference to a very problematic conceptual framework of modern art theorists and poststructuralists but also in a lively dialogue with Claire Bishop and Jacques Rancière. You suggest, nonetheless, we should not overestimate the impact of the global economy transformation on the “collaborative turn” (to use a term proposed by Maria Lind) in contemporary art. It may indicate that you still recognize the artistic production as relatively independent from the influence coming from other areas of social practice. How would you approach the problem of aesthetic autonomy?
GK: As I noted in response to the first question, I think it’s always problematic to try to read off cultural effects too directly from economic conditions. Are they related? Certainly. Inter-determinant? Of course. But this relation and inter-determinance is generally quite complex. Art is no more or less autonomous from capitalism than stand-up comedy or professional football, but the particular form taken by this quasi-autonomy has traditionally been endowed with a heightened symbolic value within bourgeois culture. Here I think it’s necessary to think autonomy on multiple levels. At the materialist level we have to ask again about the economic basis for the “collaborative turn”. In many countries of the European Union this work emerged, in large part, through various forms of public funding provided by state institutions, such as art schools, public art programs, and bursaries for artists. While this funding appears to be gradually drying up, it provided a system of patronage for a whole range of experimental social art practices over the past two decades, outside the specific constraints of the private art market. In most other countries this form of funding either never existed in the first place, or began to disappear some time ago. Thus we find artists relying on hybrid public/private forms of support, such as Dialogue in India, which was established with the help of the India Foundation for the Arts, but survives through the sale of works by collective members. Or we find projects being supported by various public or private foundations or other non-profit institutions within the so-called “third sector”. In some cases artists fund projects out of their own pockets. It goes without saying that the function of institutions that operate in some way “between” the state and the market is extremely complicated. None of these systems of economic support is free from potential compromise, any more than the private gallery sector. Each site of patronage structures autonomy differently, and each carries it’s own forms of complicity.
“Autonomy” is simply a way of describing the capacity of a given system to be separate and self-determining, but of course, no system is entirely self-determinant. Historically the capacity for an aesthetic autonomy performed an ameliorative function by bridging two opposed elements; simultaneity and totality in Wolff, subjective experience and the supersensible in Kant, feeling and reason in Schiller, the sensuous and Geist in Hegel. In more recent critical theory, Ranciere for example, rather than bridging two opposed concepts the aesthetic simply points to their contingency by standing ambivalently between them. In each case, however, we have to begin this exercise by postulating a binary opposition that doesn’t reflect the empirical complexity of actual practice. In Rancière’s case we have to imagine the existence of two diametrically opposed camps within artistic practice; one devoted to entirely dissolving the specificity of art through it’s sublation into life, and the other devoted to a kind of hidebound art for art’s sake position that was rare even in the nineteenth-century. So long as we conduct our discussion of autonomy at this level of abstraction I don’t see the discussion moving forward. It requires us, in each case, to ask how this generic principle becomes operational in specific contexts, against specific sites of resistance and accommodation.
PJ, AS: Could you refer to some cases of recent collaborative art projects carried out in post-socialist countries? How, if at all, do they cope with the real-socialist rhetoric, for instance the inherited meanings of collectivity, cooperation, internationalism etc.?
GK: The focus of my research is generally quite narrow. I tend to examine a relatively small number of projects in depth, rather than working through a more synoptic understanding of the broad range of collaborative practice today. I think the contextual specificity of this work makes that kind of synoptic approach problematic for the critic or historian. And speaking more practically, the field of social art practice has expanded so dramatically over the past decade that it’s difficult to keep up. All this is to say that I’m not that familiar with work being developed in post-socialist countries. I can recommend the research of a terrific young historian and curator named Izabel Galliera, who has just finished a dissertation on the past twenty years of socially engaged art practice in Central and Eastern Europe (Reclaiming Public Life, Building Public Spheres: Contemporary Art, Institutions and Exhibitions in Post-1989 Europe). Izabel addresses precisely this question of the “inherited” meanings of collectivity in a post-socialist context and her work deserves wider attention.
May 27, 2013
* Grant H. Kester is Professor of Art History in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego. Kester is one of the leading figures in the emerging critical dialogue around “relational” or “dialogical” art practices. His publications include Art, Activism and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage (Duke University Press, 1998), Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (University of California Press, 2004) and The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (Duke University Press, 2011). His curatorial projects include “Unlimited Partnerships: Collaboration in Contemporary Art” at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, New York in 2000 and “Groundworks: Environmental Collaborations in Contemporary Art” at Carnegie Mellon University in 2005. Kester’s essays have been published in The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945 (Blackwell, 2005), Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1945 (Blackwell, 2004), Poverty and Social Welfare in America: An Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2004), Politics and Poetics: Radical Aesthetics for the Classroom (St. Martins Press, 1999), the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 1998), and Ethics, Information and Technology: Readings (McFarland, 1997) as well as journals including Afterimage, Art Journal, October, Variant (Scotland), Public Art Review, Exposure, The Nation, Third Text, Social Text and Art Papers. He is currently completing an anthology of writings by art collectives working in Latin America, in collaboration with Bill Kelley.