As a close friend and colleague of Open Spatial Workshop I was privy to some of the discussions and hard-fought decisions made surrounding the exhibition title at MUMA. As I am writing this I can’t recall what they settled on, even after having a good look at the exhibition poster and being on the receiving end of emails coming out of the university museum. This could mean a number of things: I have the memory of a sieve; it’s not very memorable; the poster’s disturbing image dominates to the point that any text recedes in importance; or it really doesn’t matter. Even though I stepped on a few toes with what I thought was some innocuous feedback––never get entangled in a threesome––I thought surely OSW was beyond this. Yes, titles have always provided context and interpretive handles for an audience long before the curator’s wall label and the academic’s exegesis. Ignoring the discursive rigour that grounds the individual art practice of each member of OSW, I thought that OSW privileged the production of meaning through the actual experience of an exhibition above all else. An exhibition title wasn’t worth the distracting division that this decision was causing. Fast-tracking a title early in the project’s production was pandering to some institutional PR machine, I thought. Why not just self-title the exhibition? With that suggestion I naively felt I out-manoeuvred the museum’s publicity machine. No-one even knows what the acronym OSW stands for, let alone whether Scott Mitchell is a member. OSW is the modus operandi isn’t it? There needs to be better ‘brand’ recognition I thought. But as the deadline for this roasting-charade-turned-puff-piece approached I realised the set of problems associated with the open, the spatial and the workshop. This was not a good idea.
The qualifier here is that my critical approach works against the resolutely expansive quality of these three terms. While OSW grapple with how to present a perpetually generative process to an audience, I am seeing the limits, closing these terms down, raining on the parade. OSW take the discipline of sculpture only as a starting point, allowing it to be informed by divergent contexts, arbitrary processes and knowledge from other fields. I pull the project back to the field of art, and like a conservative, draw a single line through a project that for the past 15 years has been more interested in “lines of flight.” This is no gotcha moment though, OSW are also problematising the terms of engagement. Every decision made is a difficult one – they’re actually creative. Clearly a back-handed compliment, it gets to the crux of our differences. While Adam Cruikshank and I attempt to flip existing forms as a counter-measure to dominant paradigms, divesting aesthetic decisions to others, arguing that it’s reflexive, others seeing it as myopic. OSW are problem-solving their way out of that one-way street. Sometimes their lateral decisions don’t work. But this difficulty, for lack of a better word, is the value of their project. Resolved outcomes, after all, don’t need and don’t stimulate this type of critical attention.
It feels like the world is closing in on us, because a certain comfortable liberal milieu just started paying attention – it has always been closed. The rhetoric of freedom has collapsed because that rhetoric was always weak, it just was promulgated by those with power and influence. It is the “parochialism of the present” that Owen Harries describes as the delusion that what is happening today is somehow more prescient than in the past.2 I am mindful that the actual political machinations of international relations are somewhat distinct from aesthetic fields. I am also wary, however, that any disentangling of art from regimes of power is ignoring the analogous demonstration and perpetuation of that power through art and its institutional supports. By extension, any allusion to aesthetic openness and autonomy is fraught. Whose script is being played? What are the political conditions it is being interpreted and played in?
In 2005, OSW won the inaugural Melbourne Prize for Urban Sculpture with the project, Groundings (2005). At Federation Square, the group proposed a huge, slowly moving disk of lawn for the Alexandra Gardens in Melbourne. The lawned disc that is inset and flush to the surrounding parkland was proposed via: a stop motion video of friends and family picnicking in the gardens; an architecturally scaled model; and, intriguingly, a pair of huge green helium filled balls. Like an inversion of Piero Manzoni’s Socle du monde (Base of the world, 1961), an artwork that reimagined the underside of a bronze plinth as the space to present the globe, the floating balls site the picturesque landscape within the same macro-perspective. A realised version of Groundings does anything but float. The elevated balls are an abstract model that imagine the grassy discs as actual slices of the earth-at-large.
This idea for this landscape folly is a good case for entering an art prize – it won. Whilst my experience of the prize can probably be interpreted via the moosh of sour grapes (I entered in 2008 and 2014), my observation here relates to the corporatised quality of the city’s public square the prize is hosted by. During the 2014 iteration, I was minding my artwork one afternoon whilst also being an audience to Geoff Robinson’s winning project 15 locations/15 minutes/15 days (2014). Here 15 performers strike hand bells in an open and improvisational manner for 15 minutes across the site. Somewhere between the accidentally melodic and the discordant, the bells reverberate through the square, projecting a complex network of sounds through and between the 15 coloured bell posts, ultimately producing a pause in your attention within the busy site. On this afternoon I watched security guards tussling with volunteer bell ringers, intimidating them to cease the performance due to a clash with another paying event. The week prior, management had double-rented out half my space and all of the space for another’s artwork to craft market vendors, later to learn that in previous years an ice-tea promotional tasting station had set up shop in the space granted to another art-work. Every square metre of the ‘public’ square is accounted for and monetised, that simple. So the thing that trumps “you have to be in it, to win it,” is “a who pays wins” mentality. And whilst I knowingly embedded a critique of the corporate in relation to the representation of community within my project, the reality still made me seethe. ‘How dare they?’ I thought, walking off to the nearest hip eatery in the area to soothe my nerves.
On the 4th of May 2016, Hamishi Farah interrupted the opening proceedings of the MUMA exhibition, Borders, Barriers, Walls. The group exhibition was curated by Francis E. Parker and included a number of Australian and international artists. Between Charlotte Day’s Acknowledgment to Country and the human rights lawyer and executive director of Refugee Legal, David Manne’s opening remarks, Farah used the time that was unexpectedly allotted to him to question whether the agency of the ‘black person’ was being represented in the exhibition. I am cautious of gratuitously representing this event as some affront to my polite and privileged sensibilities, an issue that pales in any significance to the issues that both Farah and the exhibition sought to engage. I am cautious of representing this at all. As surely part of Farah’s very pertinent point was asking who had the right to represent the politics of subjectivity and inequity that underpin any notion of free and open movement of people across the globe. Brian Holmes calls this representational quandary “picture politics” for the “worst type of audience.”3 This relies on thinking about the artist’s proper-name in relation to the cultural capital accrued from an association with politically engaged projects. What is wrong with losing your proper name to the “vortex of a social movement?” Holmes asks a room of artists turned small-business operators. Farah’s protest ultimately lead to an impromptu forum, which saved us all from engaging in the fey platitudes and banal chitchat of the opening. But the presentation of Farah’s ideas was gut-wrenching. Not only because of his pointed critique of aestheticising inhumane border control as a momentary game or abstracted delight through the architecture of the museum; not only because underneath the gutsy swagger of the action were the raw nerves of putting one’s ideas on the line in front of the “worst type of audience”; not only because Farah, in fighting one fight, didn’t acknowledge the intersection of identity and disadvantage being played out in the exhibition; but because the space between the well-meaning interlocutors of Holmes’ quandary were never going to reconcile their difference within the space of the museum.
When I was at art school, studying in a painting department in mid-to-late 1990s, the installation as a form reigned supreme. In this context the most spatial the practice of painting could become was via its expansive application of everyday house paint.In hindsight and without an inch of regret, I diligently learnt how to use a roller and some masking tape, whilst hoping I didn’t leave an aberrant mark on large expanses of flat colour that were determined by colour matching programs at paint-shop counters. A common euphemism was that your artwork “wasn’t very spatial.” This was code for unsophisticated or at the very least an observation that perhaps your installation (or intervention) was not disrupting an audience’s predictable passage through space. The spatial goes from being a general characteristic to becoming a value. This isn’t an unfamiliar strategy within art history. Here, however, it is a curious move, as it has more ordinarily been associated with creating limited and closed definitions for artistic practice, rather than a term so expanded in its scope.4
You could begin with the daunting idea that the spatial can include everything. In the case of OSW it would be fitting to characterise this as nebulous. Or is it more specific – or specific about the nebula? Rather than everything, which opens up too many ontological questions, grappling with how art might approach the everything narrows, only slightly, the terms of engagement. Although, for advocates of the trans-disciplinary this caveat is part of the issue. Paradoxically and without pretence, this could be another way of talking about the mediums used in art. On a rudimentary level, it was always sculptural practice that did the spatial. Not far from this presumption was the demonising of image culture and the elevation of experience. 5 But following this logic only aligns with a traditional turf war between the mediums. After all the complex coding of space and an engagement with the total human sensorium can be found in most art forms. Regardless of which medium silo the term spatial originates in, it probably resists a type conservative containment that is easy for an audience to deal with. This gets us closer to the quality of the everything and how, as Alex Potts might note, this everything is “staged.”6
The spatial, of course, is not defined by a series of prescribed materials, processes and instruments like painting, sculpture and photography. The spatial resists this type of reduction. The everything (a pronoun) of the spatial (an adjective) doesn’t at first allow for an understanding of the term as a mediating force (a verb). Jacques Ranciere understands the word medium as both “participating in the configuration of a specific milieu,” as well as an “intermediary, as the means to an end or the agent of an operations.”7 How does the spatial become this agent? The idea takes up space – it invariably expands from a type of immaterial nothing to orientating itself across time and space. Yes, all mediums are expansive these days (e.g. this painting is a series of choreographic movements) but the ‘imperative’ of the spatial is to take up space, to expand.
The line that runs through much of the discourse associated with the critical value of expanded practices relates to gatekeeping at the boundary of the discipline.8 The question is always: how does the value system used by the artist, curator or art historian, remain relevant if there are competing criteria from other fields?The other given is that these boundaries invariably shift and once these boundaries are laid––with a set of essential and specific criteria for inclusion––these discourses fall apart. If this observation feels tired, that is because it is a part of perpetual cycle that motivates a curatorial rationale for exhibitions like Photography is Dead – Long Live Photography, Sculptural Matter and, more recently, Painting, More Painting at ACCA. What sits within the boundary and what is out?
It’s easy not to care about the boundary when a set of art history references will only be partly relevant when addressing gravity, meteorites, the suburbs, science-fiction, geology, galaxies and mining. Jack Burnham’s System Esthetics in the late 1960s critiqued prior dominant models of medium-specificity with an argument for inter-disciplinarity. 9The artist Hans Haacke (Burnham’s then poster-child) would note: “art does not reside in material entities, but in relations between people and between people and the components of their environment.’10 This movement would invariably cross disciplinary boundaries. As Pamela Lee asserts in Chronophobia: On Time in Art in the 1960s, this complex intersection of disciplinary relations (propelled by the ecological movement of the time) was in response to the failure of science’s specialised silos to both talk to one another and avert the “technocratic reason” behind the catastrophes of war.11 And whilst the utopian, romantic and totalising tendencies of a project like the Whole Earth Catalogue only asserts the sheer impossibility and arrogance of capturing all those inter-relationships, from today’s perspective, give me complex and idiosyncratic material and ideological relations over simplistic click-bait headlines anyday. My questions for an artistic field, is to ask what our role in this disciplinary exchange is? Is there a meaningful collaboration between the disciplines? Is our tried-and-true representational game all we have to offer?
It is questionable whether the value of workshopping or exposing the process of art’s production is critically exhausted. Acknowledging that on a historical level, exposing the value of the workshop has been a space for art to grapple with its role within a broader social and political framework. Here I am thinking of the legacy left by Russian Constructivism’s notion of tectonics and the pedagogical imperative of Bauhaus. In a latter translation of this mode, process-driven art in a post-1960s context resisted the commodity status of the fixed and stable art object through the ephemeral, the scope of audience participation and challenges to singular conceptions of authorship. As Robert Morris would note “the artist has stepped aside for more of the world to enter into the art. This is a kind of regress into a controlled lack of control… Automating process of the kind described open the work and the artist’s interacting behaviour to competing forces beyond [their] total control.”12 To some degree the argument that capitalist regimes co-opted these critical tactics is over-stated. Admittedly readily acceptable to the point of orthodoxy and stylistic convention in theory – how many Australian art institutions are putting their money where their mouth is? Admittedly this by no means is the only marker for the distribution of ‘capital’ within contemporary art.13 However, does this acceptance of form underpinned by process mean we go back to a status-quo when things were apparently my stable and fixed?
In a ‘conservative turn’ Hal Foster recently declared that he just wanted artists to finish the artwork. He’s had enough of audiences filling in the gaps for an artist’s lack of material resolve. Where is the artist’s critical position?, he asks, “Might it be that the critique of authorship as authority has done its job, even done it too well?” 14 At the same time as he dispels the misconception of an inactive audience for a fixed and stable artwork (fair enough), he also begrudges the artist when this activation is “too great a burden to place on the viewer.”15 Like a scattered work from the late 1960s, Foster argumentation goes from challenging the progressive politics ascribed to process-driven work; the lack of clarity as well as a singular viewing experience; to the diminished attention levels of an audience. After all, if the artist couldn’t be bothered finishing the artwork – you couldn’t expect the audience to care. Putting aside the sanctimonious tone of this position, well-suited to an audience development survey, Foster seems to have abandoned any consideration the value these practices might provide to the field of art itself.
As someone potentially (too) interested in the institutional machinations of an artwork’s production and politics, it won’t be surprising that I value exposing the labour relations of artistic production or what Morris described as the artwork’s “submerged iceberg.” 16 Too often there is an expectation that an artwork emerges––like magic––into a museum with little compensation and interest in how artists work-something-out. For OSW, this work is done within a group. Putting aside that I think OSW cancels out the more superfluous elements of the individual practices by Terri Bird, Bianca Hester and Scott Mitchell. The social (and therefore, work) dynamic of the collaborative group in art is often reduced to a one-liner. It is either a much-maligned cliquey cognoscenti; a beacon of virtue; a type of performative pantomime of itself; or an angry group of antagonisers. Between these reductive framings of the group, we have forgotten that most everyday labour-relations constitute the group as a far more complex entity. The group works things out. There is, of course, still a privileging of singularity, not only through the solo artist, the solo artist not acknowledging a team of assistants, but also of the group represented via the single mouth-piece. I am wondering why the audience and the institutional management can’t grapple with ungainly decision making that comes with divergent positions. Have they seen the making-of documentary of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album? OSW are not a rock band yet and one suspects that a precedent like the Occupy movement and its engagement with consensus decision making has something to do with the difficulty in exposing this social exchange – who has the time?
How does museum culture host this type of research-based aesthetic enterprise that accounts for its social and material production? How does it do the workshop, privileging the research as opposed to over-determining the workshop’s aesthetic? Whilst there are occasional exceptions like the physicist’s Anton Zeilinger unpacking in theory and in model the quantum science of ‘entanglement’ at dOCUMENTA in 2012, the GOMA-fication of the museum leaves little space for this type of expansive sense of production unless it’s a children’s education workshop. In 2002, you would often find OSW trying to work-something-out at CLUBSproject Inc., an artist-run initiative above the Builders’ Arms in Fitzroy, Melbourne. OSW would book the project space gallery for a couple of weeks, experimenting with tape-measures, dowels + camera dollies, ladders, tennis balls and resuscitating dead fish. It was a difficult time for everyone – not least the audience who had access to the workshop on Saturday afternoons. It would be too easy to align this strategy with Foster’s denouncement of the ‘opaque’ and ‘arbitrary.’ 17 But this was rigorous artistic research that didn’t misappropriate other fields’ discourse, bend over backwards to ‘link’ with industry partners and need an illustration caption for an exegesis. This activity didn’t enact an exchange in values based upon a calculation of commercial imperative and conceptual convenience––it was neither cute, pedestrian nor photographed for Contemporary Art Daily.
I feel old
In 2002 when Open Spatial Workshop was forming I was 24 years old. As an artist I was living through my entitled and prolonged adolescence, it seems like I had more time on my hands. With that time, I, along with OSW, would spend a few hours discussing a single artwork and think nothing of dragging an audience through the most convoluted organisational structures for an exhibition. Time has passed and OSW are now observing the trajectory of comet and not a tennis ball––I realise that I have missed the point of the current exhibition, Converging in Time at MUMA.
It obviously didn’t take long to look up the actual exhibition title but I wanted to keep the sham going. After writing though the issues of the nomenclature, I realise what I need more of is time. Not only to finish this now tardy essay but to overlay how the temporal is an essential component of the three terms discussed. Whilst I am hoping this doesn’t sound like a plea for the ‘slow-food movement’ and/or the romanticisation of the local, through gritted teeth I remember the relevance of a quote by the curator Nicholas Bourriard. In 2009 he noted that “artists translate and transcode information from one format to another, and wander in geography as well as in history. […] Our universe becomes a territory all dimensions of which may be travelled both in time and space.” 18 We don’t just need more time, we need this time to converge. More time to overlay heterogeneous histories; more time for our very conditional (and aspiring) autonomy to be understood through shifting cultural contexts and the political temperature; time to create meaningful relationships with other fields and communities of knowledge; more time to read something more developed than a twitter feed.
I am writing this on the 26th of January 2017: Australia Day. Two things cross my mind today. The first relates to a marked difference in how this Australian public holiday registers to a broader public, resolutely not a day of celebration but a shameful marker of a systematic colonial violence. The second thing is an image published yesterday of a group of men surrounding an American President signing an executive order, ceasing the aid associated to the reproductive rights and health care of women across the developing world. These select moments of closure are rife across history – 2017 is no different. ↩
Owen Harries, “The Parochialism of the Present,” The Australian Financial Review, 16 September 2005) ↩
Where would dogma be if it weren’t inconsistent and overly romantic? Taking into account that he now exhibits in blue-chip galleries, the artist David Hammons once noted, “The art audience is the worst audience in the world. It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s out to criticize, not to understand and it never has any fun… So I refuse to deal with that audience, and I’ll play with the street audience. That audience is much more human, and their opinion is from the heart. They don’t have any reason to play games, there’s nothing gained or lost” in Brian Holmes, “Liar’s Poker Representation of Politics/Politics of Representation,” 16 Beaver Street. May 5, 2004, http://www.springerin.at/dyn/heft_text.php?textid=1276&lang=en (accessed February 6, 2017). ) ↩
For your formalist fix get into Clement Greenberg, “Necessity of ‘Formalism’.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 3, no. 1: 171-75; and Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.) ↩
This critique held lingering vestiges of Guy Debord’s Situationist politic but also resonated in the art writing at the time. W.J.T Mitchell notes “everyone knows that images are, unfortunately, too valuable, and that is why they need to be put down. Mere images dominate the world. They seem to simulate everything, and therefore they must be exposed as mere nothing” in Mitchell, W.J.T. “Addressing Media,” in What Do Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images, 201-221. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. On the other hand, the installation form was just as prone to the capitalist bogeyman. Rossalind Krauss used Frederic Jameson to posit that the installation was not resistant, it was the progressive face of high capital, international tourism and leisure culture. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 56.) ↩
Alex Potts, “Installation and Sculpture.” Oxford Art Journal 24, no. 2: 7-23.) ↩
Jacques Ranciere, “What Medium can Mean.” Parhesia 11 (2011): 35-43) ↩
A chief example of this challenge to the field of Modernist art was played out by art forms that were constituted by performative, social and temporal tendencies in the 1960s. The aesthetic judgement used to critique painting and sculpture weren’t appropriate anymore. During the ‘Relational Aesthetics’ furore of the early 2000s, a residual aspect of this boundary walking was still at play, but by no means as reductive. While the critic Claire Bishop uses the political theory of Chantal Mouffe to critique Nicholas Bourriaud, she still relies on accounting for the right place for the aesthetic in her analysis of Oda Projesi, a pedagogical project based in social housing of Istanbul. Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents,” Artforum (February 2006): 179. The art historian Grant Kester on the other hand highlights practices that, while not negating their artistic identity, also claim to be forms of social activism. Kester has no problem focusing on the social consequences of a project as opposed to finding any overt aestheticism. Kester affirms projects that slip between fields as part of their strategy of being effectively critical; they deploy the term art only when useful for the overall social cause. Grant Kester, “Another Turn: Letter,” Artforum (May 2006): 22; Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 56.) ↩
Jack Burnham, “System Esthetics,” Artforum (September, 1968) 30- 35; Jack Burnham, The Structure of Art, Edited by Charles Harper and Judith Benjamin. New York: G. Braziller, 1971.) ↩
Pamela Lee, M. Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960’s. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004, 64.) ↩
For Morris, the focus on art’s process was not only a record of “mutable stuff which need not arrive at the point of being finalised” but of the forms of “behaviour aimed at testing the limits and possibilities involved in that particular interaction between one’s actions and the materials of the environment,” in Robert Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of making,” in Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris (Cambridge: MIT Press, An October Book, 1993), 87.) ↩
A detailed account of Bourdieu’s account of cultural, social and symbolic capital can be found in Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 229-231.) ↩
Hal Foster, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency (London: Verso Books, 2015), 256.) ↩
Ibid., 257.) ↩
Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated,” 73.) ↩
Foster, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, 254.) ↩
Nicholas Bourriaud, “Altermodernism,” in Supplanting the Postmodern: An Anthology of Writings on the Arts and Culture of the Early 21st Century, eds. David Rudrum and Nicholas Stavris (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).) ↩