Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Very Short Critique of Relational Aesthetics, Radical Culture Research Collective (RCRC)

Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du réel, 1998; English translation 2002) undeniably has been an effective generator of debate. In the wake of critical responses by Claire Bishop (in October in 2004 and Artforum in 2006) Grant Kester (in Conversation Pieces, 2004, and in Artforum in 2006), Stewart Martin (in Third Text in 2007) and Julian Stallabrass (in Art Incorporated, 2004), the strengths and limits of Bourriaud’s book will be no secret. Our remarks at this point will not be new, but we think it may still be helpful to formulate some critical propositions with a sharper political orientation.

Bourriaud champions art that understands itself as an experimental production of new social bonds – as “the invention of models of sociability” and “conviviality.” (“Rirkrit Tiravanija organizes a dinner in a collector’s home, and leaves him all the ingredients required to make a Thai soup. Philippe Parreno invites a few people to pursue their favorite hobbies on May Day, on a factory assembly line.”[pp. 7-8]) His case for what he calls the “art of the 1990s” is a great improvement over discourses fixated on more traditional, object-based artworks. There of course are risks involved in gathering diverse practices into this new category of “relational art.” Some differences in political outlook and position – those between a Philippe Parreno and a Vanessa Beecroft, for example – are no doubt lost in the reduction. Nor is it self-evident that these practices and Bourriaud’s characterization of them always correspond as seamlessly as is usually assumed. That said, Bourriaud has been an effective advocate for the contemporary tendency to emphasize process, performativity, openness, social contexts, transitivity and the production of dialogue over the closure of traditional modernist objecthood, visuality and hyper-individualism. The fiercest enemies of relational art, after all, are conservative critics of the “back to beauty and painting” kind. Bourriaud’s preemptive defense of Tiravanija, et al. has to be understood in large part as a blast against Dave Hickey’s influential Invisible Dragon. Forced to choose between Bourriaud and the new Dave Hickeys, we’ll gladly take the former.

If in the end we can’t take him either, it will be for different reasons. Bourriaud claims that the new relational models are principled responses to real social misery and alienation. But he acknowledges that the artists he writes about are not concerned with changing the system of social relations – capitalism, in our language. Relational artists tend to accept what Bourriaud calls “the existing real” and are happy to play with “the social bond” within the constraining frame of the given. Bourriaud tries to put the best face on this kind of practice, characterizing it as “learning to inhabit the world in a better way.” (p. 13) But in spite of his approving allusions to Marx, there is no mistaking that this is a form of artistic interpretation of the world that does not aim to overcome the system of organized exploitation and domination. At most, relational art attempts to model the bandaging of social damage and to “patiently re-stitch the social fabric”: “Through little services rendered, the artists fill in the cracks in the social bond.” (p.36)

It would be one thing if relational art claimed to be no more than a production of modest alleviative or compensatory gestures. As such, it would reflect the “end of history” common sense dominant in the 1990s and would exemplify neo-liberal strategies for outsourcing managerial innovation and “human resources” research in conditions of post-Fordist production, as well as processes of privatization with their accompanying rhetoric promoting “community,” voluntarism and the “third sector.” But Bourriaud goes much further, positioning relational art as the heir to the twentieth century avant-gardes: “Whatever the fundamentalists clinging to yesterday’s good taste may say and think, present-day art is roundly taking on and taking up the legacy of the twentieth-century avant-gardes, while at the same time challenging their dogmatism and their teleological doctrines.” (p. 45)

At stake, then, is the whole legacy – and so also the present and future – of the avant-garde project. This legacy being one of our passions, we can’t be indifferent to Bourriaud’s claim. Leaving aside our suspicions that many relational artists evidently couldn’t care less about the avant-gardes and would not subscribe to Bourriaud’s use of this term, we’ll address the argument for what it is: a claim about the historical importance of relational art as the new cutting edge of politicized cultural practice. The assumptions behind this claim are clear enough. In Relational Aesthetics, we are in the register of post-structuralist commonplaces: Foucault’s “technologies of the self,” Félix Guattari’s delirious subjectivity machines, Michel de Certeau’s “Practice of Everyday Life,” micro-bio-politics as an ethic of love and a technic of living – an orientation rather easily deflected in practice into what Stuart Hall has called “adaptation” as opposed to “resistance.”

The old avant-gardes, Bourriaud tells us, were oriented toward conflict and social struggle; relieved of this dogmatic radical antagonism and macro-focus on the global system, relational-alleviational art “is concerned with negotiations, bonds, and co-existences.” (p. 45) The new relational avant-gardistes “are not naïve or cynical enough ‘to go about things as if’ the radical and universalist utopia were still on the agenda.” (p. 70) We would put it differently. Precisely formulated, relational aesthetics represents the liberalization of the avant-garde project of radical transformation. In 1998, Bourriaud saw this as a virtue. Today, we see it as the main limitation of relational art – and one that negates any claim it makes to the legacy of the avant-gardes. While we would defend relational art from its conservative and reactionary critics, we would also insist that it not come to stand in for the radical project it falls short of – and indeed refuses. Undoubtedly, the avant-garde tradition continues to be transformed by its own process of self-critique. But it does not give up the radical, macro-historical aim of a real world beyond capitalist relations. And it doesn’t settle for the experience of gallery simulations.

It’s not that experiments in forms and models of sociability are not needed today – they certainly are. But to be politically relevant and effective, such experiments need to be grounded in (or at least actively linked to) social movements and struggles. (And there is no social progress without contestation and struggle: this for us is a basic materialist truth that makes any blanket refusal of “conflict” problematic.) As a gallery-based game, relational practices are cut off by an institutional divide from those who could use them. Who are the consumers of relational art? The cultural élite of the dominant classes, primarily, supplemented by the socially ambitious layers of a de-classed general public – the “culture vultures” and would-be cultural élite who form the crowds passing through the big biennials and exhibitions. (And this is a very different demographic from those marginalized communities whose members are sometimes enlisted for roles in relational works, such as those by Superflex or Marjetica Potrc.) In general, this audience does not tend to overlap with the people actively attempting to generate pressure for deep social change. There are exceptions, we know. But this is how the disruptive utopian energies that do exist in relational art are managed and kept within tolerable limits: the social separations, stratifications and (self-)selections of the art system enact a liberalization – that is, a de-radicalization – of social desire.

Meanwhile, the radical processes of social experimentation are taking place elsewhere: in the streets and squats and social forums, in the communes, like Oaxaca, that flare up in struggle, and in the ongoing work of creating counter-publics and counter-institutions – in short, wherever people are trying to organize themselves to find a way beyond the system of exploitative relations. The politically salient site where non-capitalist social relations are modeled today is not the gallery or exhibition-based relational art project; it is the activist affinity group – and the popular assemblies, forum and network processes, activist camps and mass mobilizations that articulate it with larger social movements and emergent struggles. We’re sure effective collaborations between artists and social movements are possible. But we don’t think such collaborations need the neutralizing institutional mediations implicit in Bourriaud’s relational art. Although “institutions” in the sense of organizational infrastructure might be necessary from a pragmatic perspective, we question the assumption that art institutions are the most productive or appropriate form of institutionality here. We put no faith in the trickle down of sociability from the art world; what we see too much of is the appropriation and displacement of social desire from the streets into the aesthetic forms and affirmative circuits of administered art.

Debates about relational aesthetics were at times heated in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and provided a focus for those oriented to “progressive” cultural practices, after YBA (“Young British Artists,” known critically as “High Art Lite”)and before the current proliferation of art fairs. Now that these debates are winding down and their shape becomes clearer, we can ask what was occluded and think about where these discussions could go. The main responses to Bourriaud’s book – and Claire Bishop’s have certainly been the most visible – somehow managed to leave the impression that this is as interesting and “political” as it gets in mainstream art discourse. For us, what these debates around Relational Aesthetics most of all reveal are the potentials and limits of art discourse itself, as it is developed in magazines and journals such as Artforum, October and Art Monthly. The more vital convergences of culture and social transformation still form a glaring blind-spot of these and other market-oriented “art world” publications.

Above copied from:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Before the Art of New Media, Lidija Merenik

The restaging of Tendencies 4, the 1968 Zagreb based exhibition series and colloquium, in the recent show bit international – [New] Tendencies – Computers and Visual Research does more than deepen and internationalise our understanding of computer art’s early history. It also presents an opportunity to revisit the cultural landscape of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Here Lidija Merenik considers the show in Graz and [New] Tendencies’ unique engagement with international avant-gardist concerns, technology’s utopian potential and the socialist cultural landscape of ex-Yugoslavia

Even though they have been reviewed extensively in historiographic terms, primarily in the work of Professor Jerko Denegri, [New] Tendencies were the subject of their first serious retrospective: bit international – [New] Tendencies – Computers and Visual Research at the Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz this summer.[1] Curated by Darko Fritz, the show was comprehensively prepared in cooperation with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb,[2] which possesses a major collection of [New] Tendencies works, and the Neue Galerie in Graz. Like all pioneering projects, this exhibition comprehensively follows the genesis of [New] Tendencies, offering a lot of art works rarely seen or not exhibited until now. The curatorial rationale lies, it seems, not only in the need to mount a ‘pioneering’ retrospective, but also in the actual logic of the progressive developmental phases of [New] Tendencies. Without the representation of its early stages, it would be impossible to understand the group’s ultimate achievement – its movement towards computer art and its final exhibitions in 1968/69 and 1973.

However, it must be said that the importance of this exhibition lies not only in its comprehensive approach – which sheds light on a little known phase of a strong international movement of post-war avant-garde – but also in its highlighting of a unique moment of artistic, ideological and ethical opposition to the ‘liberalised’ modern art of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Indeed it provides us with insight into [New] Tendencies as a sort of [un?]proclaimed ‘dissident’ art of the socialist era.

Knifer, untitled 1978
Julije Knifer: Untitled, 1978

The genesis of NT begins with the first exhibition, held in 1961, which coincided, in terms of time but not language, with the European post-art informel situation. The ultimate aim of the 1961 project, on the international not local level, was to transcend, through a pronounced emphasis on discontinuity, the crisis of art in the process of ‘overcoming informel’ and to establish a different artistic philosophy and ideology. The first exhibition was revolutionary in every respect, and is as important as the exhibitions Monochrome Malerei (1960), held in Leverkusen, and Bewagen-Bewegung (1961), held in Amsterdam, in the sense of a shift from painting towards object, or as a shift from art towards science and new technologies (in an essentially synchronous connection with Arte programmata e cinetica (Programme and Kinetic Art). Hence we perceive a succession of apparently heterogeneous concepts, from Piero Manzoni, through Piero Dorazio and François Morellet, to Julije Knifer and Ivan Picelj, which were unified, however, through the idea of the need to create, as stated by Morellet, ‘a revolution in art that will be equally great as the one in the sphere of science’. It is clear that this first segment of development contains the seed of the future kinetic, and subsequently, computer art, but it is not differentiated in this respect and is primarily founded on various notions of the spiritual and the experimental circulating in the early ’60s and underlined by this exhibition underlines. The ensuing [New] Tendencies exhibitions (1963, 1965) mark one progressive development path of not only the Croatian but also the European avant-garde as well, aspiring to create a great international movement.

In the course of this process, the actual artistic ideology of the artists gathered around [New] Tendencies was defined: team artistic work, the grand entry of science into art, a pronounced anti-commercial attitude, exploring new artistic values, visions, if not utopias, about art – as MeÅ¡trović states, needing to be ‘an entirely sober, aware and precise voice of the emerging world’. In the catalogue of the second (1963) exhibition, Getulio Alviani wrote: ‘convention has always been very important in history, and it (convention) should be abolished.’ In this respect, [New] Tendencies are indeed a form of concrete utopia, for they argue in favour of the realisation of the ‘constructivist project’ in the society of the 1960s, which was obviously moving fast towards uniting science, technology and art, to effect what MiÅ¡ko Å uvaković has called a ‘rationalisation of art through scientific methods and an aesthetisation of science through artistic visualisations.’[3] For, both the second and the third (1965) NT exhibition give priority to experiments with new technical and technological media (for example: Alberto Biasi’s Light Prisms; Grazia Varisco’s Schema Luminoso Variabile; Bridget Riley and Gruppo MID’s work... ). Their ensuing research elaborated on the chromo- and kine-visual which also clearly referenced inherited artistic tendencies such as constructivism, kinetic art, concrete art, fully acknowledging Malevich, Mondrian, Nicholson or Vasarely.

IvanPicelj, [Nove] tendencje 4, 1969
Ivan Picelj: [Nove] tendencije, 1969

A significant turnaround occurred with the symposium and the exhibition entitled NT 4 Computers and Visual Research, (1968/69), whereby [New] Tendencies defined the meaning, ideology and purpose of the experiment they had been running from the very beginning. The period until NT 5 (1973) was almost solely focused on the achievements of computer art. After Tendencies 4 and the first international colloquium [New] Tendencies, and until 1973, when the Tendencies 5 exhibition was held, the above mentioned vision entirely turned not only towards anticipating but also taking some of the first steps in computer art; a dialogue between art and ‘machines’ capable of creative activity.

That same year marked the establishment of bit international, a periodical arguing for a ‘symbiosis of art and machine (computer)’, an organ of ‘information theory, exact aesthetics, design, mass media, visual communications and related disciplines.’ It was certainly a very exclusive periodical, and the only one of its kind in Yugoslavia which, along with texts by Abraham Moles and Max Bense, published papers dealing solely with the relationship between computers and visual experimentation. Evidently, then, in that period the role of computers in the visual media was not the sole issue for [New] Tendencies; it is a radical, and we can now say, premature concept of Gesamtkunstwerk based on a vision of a high-tech world. The Graz exhibition is focused precisely on this, the most revolutionary phase of NT, and effort has been made to present a documentary film about NT 3 and digitally restored audio recordings of four NT symposia held in Zagreb (1968-1973).

At the Graz exhibition my attention was drawn by Vladimir Bonačić’s Computer-Controlled Light Installations (1971). In a photograph depicting Bonačić’s experiment in the centre of Zagreb on the NAMA department store, (NAMA standing for 'narodni magazin’ [people’s store] and representing Yugoslavia’s first well-stocked, Western style socialist department store), one can see a giant billboard placed on the city’s main street. It reads: ‘Citizens, extend a loan for the building of the Zagreb-Split highway.’ Such an almost bizarre combination of avant-garde artistic practice and the environment of socialist-populist self-management was characteristic of art in Tito’s Yugoslavia in general. More precisely, of the period from the political break-up with Stalin in June 1948 to Tito’s death in May 1980, designated as ‘socialist modernism’.

Vladimir Bonacic: DIN. PR 10 [NaMa II], 1971

Vladimir Bonacic: DIN. PR 10 [NaMa II], 1971, computer-controlled dynamic object / light installation at the storefront of NaMa in Zagreb, Ilica Street

On the other hand, two decades separate this work of Bonačić’s from the advent of the seminal Zagreb group EXAT 51, and five decades separate it from the advent of the first international Yugoslav avant-garde movement (then designated as the Zagreb-Belgrade avant-garde), Zenit (1921). Mentioning Zenit and EXAT ’51 now presupposes a necessary understanding of the continuity in the establishment and operation of the few, albeit strong, international avant-garde movements in the former Yugoslav artistic space whose shared point of origin was Zagreb.

We are thus faced with at least two possible levels of reviewing [New] Tendencies. One pertains to the political and culturological climate of Tito’s Yugoslavia and Tito’s ambivalent attitude towards what he called ‘Western tendencies’ in art. The other is the line of continuity of avant-garde movements, so few and far between and so little understood, in ‘the first’ Yugoslavia (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, 1918-1945) and ‘the second’ (Tito’s Socialist Yugoslavia) alike. Naturally, the last but not least aspect of this is the specific character of the radical modernist expression and avant-garde tendencies occurring in Zagreb after 1951, which were immeasurably different from the modernisms of other Yugoslav cultural centres and divergent from the climate of ‘socialist modernism’, ‘traditional modernism’ and ‘socialist aestheticism’.

How come, then, that ‘socialist modernism’ was the dominant climate of creative work and a cultural policy supported by the regime, one from which [New] Tendencies so greatly differed? Primarily politically motivated, the break-up with socialist realism (which was in full swing from 1945 to 1949/50) in Yugoslav art and the shift towards international modernism would not have been possible (or the process would have unfolded much more slowly and with difficulties, as in the USSR and most Eastern European countries) had it not been for the official break with Stalin, the Comintern, USSR and the Eastern bloc countries in June 1948. An essential factor in this complex history, which cannot be dealt with in any great detail here, was purposeful action in the sphere of culture. Namely, the education of artists from the early ’50s primarily by means of efficiently organised grant schemes directed mainly towards the USA (Fulbright) or Paris. Tito’s policy aimed to shift art to the other side of the ‘Iron Curtain’, to the very heart of the mainstream – abstract expressionism and its affiliated artistic languages.

The early 1950s were also characterised by the beginning of Tito’s policy of ‘sitting on the fence’ between the USA and the USSR (the ‘Western’, capitalist bloc, and the ‘Eastern’, communist bloc), which would intensify after Stalin’s death in 1953. This also marked the beginning of the era of 'socialist modernism'. Even though the Cold War was at its peak then, Yugoslavia solidified its international position, and culture became an important and obvious link with 'capitalist countries', the most visible and symbolic representation of that policy. The regime paid particular attention to various forms of the modernisation of art, for such art, characterised by a changed ideological key, could represent a clear signal to the new ally, the West, not only of a changed semantic landscape but also of the seriousness with which Tito’s regime was undergoing change.

Still, this desirable pro-Western art was subject to certain forms of political control from the shadows. Speaking of the attitude of the state/Party authorities towards the liberalisation of culture, one should have no illusions about their tolerance, and in particular about the possible visual literacy of the Yugoslav politicians of that time. Judging by the views expressed in the course of the 7th Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia we can conclude that, in the 1952-1958 period, the Party’s tolerance of modernist trends was most likely strategic in nature. The Yugoslav situation was unique, 'softer' than in the Soviet Union, especially when the socialist realist dogma was abandoned and new, not so easily discernible and more intelligent criteria were established. As opposed to the Soviet brand of dogmatism, where the bureaucracy ordered artists to do things in a particular manner, in Yugoslavia the political establishment made unofficial agreements with artists or gave recommendations against doing something.

In post-war Yugoslav art, 'socialist' modernism played two historically vital roles. The first one consisted in liberating the fine arts from the direct influence of the Party’s ideology of socialist realism in the period after 1949/50. In this respect, its effect was highly evolutive, visionary and progressive. The second role, under the given political circumstances, had to be shared with the political establishment willy-nilly. Here modernism played the politically useful role of providing an enlightened 'civilisation wrapper'. Socialist 'underdevelopment modernism' unfolded on the loose foundation of a society which, although unprepared and in the midst of its own contradictions, very quickly turned away from real communism and socialist realism towards the acceptance of Western models of living, working and creating. The high modernism of Yugoslav art was a symbol of Tito’s Yugoslavia and a half-real, half-virtual modernisation; it was eventually institutionalised in the sphere of the official Yugoslav culture of enlightened socialism as 'socialist modernism' – a symbol of the new state, just like other inventions including socialist democracy, the self-management system and the non-alignment movement.

It is clear that EXAT ’51 – a group that, today, can be considered the ideological and linguistic precursor of [New] Tendencies – was not built on similar foundations and did not please the Party ideologues who liked 'recommending' an acceptable 'modern' manner of expression. A polemical climate was created as early as 1951/52, mostly to do with EXAT’s activities. Abstract (that is, non-objective) art was sharply criticised, first of all as an art whose 'ideological basis was vague and uninvestigated', as being 'hermetic', and as a consequence of uncritical acceptance of 'foreign' influences (Tito was fond of using the term 'Westernisation'). EXAT was the earliest and the most consistent proponent of the supremacy of abstract art and of a new profile of art and the artist; a synthesis of 'pure' and 'applied' art. Also, it would be more correct to view EXAT as a project or concept of the modernist total work (as evidenced by the Manifesto of 1951) than as a group pursuing a conventional course of artistic action attempting to effect changes within a single area of practice. In this respect, EXAT was a multidisciplinary (‘total’) project. The abolition of the allusive and the associative, as well as the destruction of principles such as the harmony of painted elements in a 'composition' (more precisely, the rejection of the heritage of L’Ecole de Paris and the principle of 'push-and-pull' composition inside the 'frame' unique in ex-Yugoslavia’s modern art), certainly must have disturbed an establishment used to a 'feeling of harmony' and to that 'soft' modernism that provided a warm, conformist shelter through its elegant aesthetisations. In this sense, the advent of EXAT does not only represent a watershed for Croatian art, but a generator of tectonic disturbances on the Yugoslav art scene at large. It is also one of the rare movements that clearly broke with the convention of 'composition', that is, the deeply rooted heritage of French modernism, cultivated to the level of a cult.

Despite the historical classification of EXAT, as well as various subsequent 'new tendencies' in Croatian art, as 'abstract' and 'geometrical', neither the truth about them, nor their essential historical significance, lies in their morphological structure. Their prime significance, I believe, lies in their overall ideological weight and ideas of progress that lift them above the modernisms of their contemporary national culture and, essentially, single them out as strong international avant-garde movements within a primarily European cultural space. Geometry, then, is a tool. Progress, then, is the goal. The 'bit international' concept is actually the only Yugoslav project of yearning for an electronic age, a kind of reverie about the computer as the most perfect, impersonal artist; a wake up call to computer art.

It is therefore the art of its European time, but art outside its socialist Yugoslav time and particularly outside 'socialist modernism' and its status quo aesthetics. I imagine that Tito’s diatribes 'against abstraction' (1963, 1964, 1966) may have been provoked by works that irritated him, such as Knifer’s Meander (the Graz exhibition shows a historical specimen dating from 1960, when Knifer 'invented' the Meander), or works by Picelj, Aleksandar Srnec, Vjenceslav Rihter, Vojin Bakić and Vlado Kristl dating from the late 1950s or the first half of the 1960s. Judging by some of Tito’s speeches (which, however, had no political consequences for the artists concerned due to the image of tolerance the Party was cultivating), this is quite certain. Excerpts from various speeches he delivered in the course of 1963 clearly show a considerable degree of ambivalence, if not the outright schizophrenic nature of the above-mentioned 'sitting on the fence':

[...] In literature especially, and in art generally, there are a lot of foreign elements, irreconcilable with our socialist ethics, something that is attempting to divert the course of our development from the one determined by our revolution. These are various decadent phenomena, brought in from abroad. We must fight against them; however, we must do it not always by resorting to administrative measures but through political action. [...] I am not against creative searching for the new [...] but I am against spending our community’s funds on some so-called modernist works that have nothing whatsoever in common with artistic creation [...]. [4]

Also, it is clear today that, as Professor Denegri remarks, EXAT was better known outside Yugoslavia, so that no particular echo of these innovative initiatives was felt inside the country, not even in Zagreb itself. However, the situation changed with the first [New] Tendencies exhibition, the groundwork having been laid by people who were aware of EXAT’s contributions and their possible further consequences, such as Vjenceslav Rihter, Radoslav Putar, Božo Bek, Matko MeÅ¡trović and others. 'Exatians' also joined [New] Tendencies. Knifer and Kristl, for example, strongly influenced the shaping of the earliest phase of NT, which was founded on various non-gestural, 'pure' and primary, geometrical, visual structures. Picelj, on the other hand, worked on the level of optical, kinetic-visual constructions. Until 1968, that is, when NT entered its most original phase and began gathering around the ideas of bit international, one should not underestimate the impact of EXAT which was much deeper than it initially appears

Even though they were, without doubt, of paramount importance for radical modernism, and outside the context of 'socialist modernism', I dare say that NT achieved their true aim with artists like Vladimir Bonačić. He (otherwise a PhD and an electronics engineer) first hit upon the idea of visually generating the scientific results obtained while working with computers: 'This was’, he said, ’best evidenced when, researching polynomials, we got pictures that also expressed certain aesthetic values'. This paved the way for his creation of the first light-kinetic objects, whose screen displayed a sequence of over 65,000 differently structured visual situations (obtained researching Galois fields). But he did not wish his scientific, visual investigations to be a mere aesthetic object placed on a pedestal in some museum or other. He therefore produced ambient installations or temporary installations in situ (where the architecture of the building was used as a ‘host’ for the computer controlled experiment with light, visible from outside and together comprising a giant ‘sculpture’). in the centre of Zagreb (the NAMA department store and Kreditna banka). These Computer-Controlled Light Installations completely integrated the formal-aesthetic aspects established in the early phase of NT with his scientific, visual and early electronic investigations – a special form of 'electronic iconics' which produced the NT 4 emblem. Bonačić developed this concept further by means of very complex audio-visual and kinetic constructions (GF-4 32/71, 1971, today located in the UNESCO building). Proceeding from his visionary works, authors like Tomislav Mikulić, not being content with the possibilities of computer graphics or objects, arrived at the first Yugoslav computer generated cartoons (Mikulić’s Random, 1976).

Tendencies 5 (1973), even though it was the last exhibition of its kind, opened the door to the coming phenomenon of neoavant-garde, conceptual art (John Baldessari, Giuseppe Penone, Sol LeWitt, Endre Tot, On Kawara, Goran Trbuljak, Braco Dimitrijević, Iannis Kounellis, Giulio Paolini...). As a linguistic and aesthetico-technological art practice, but also as an ideological and ethical construct of sorts, in the period between 1961 and 1973, NT found themselves 'squeezed' in the European cultural space between two dominant artistic poles. They stood in antithesis, on the one hand, to Art Informel, the painting of matter and gesture, and, on the other, to that trend of conceptual art embodied by the Turin Arte Povera circle around 1968, which notionally refused any form of technical, technological craftsmanship or aesthetic determinants. NT were also 'squeezed' in the Yugoslav cultural space between the politically acceptable 'socialist modernism' with its mostly non-experimental models of a work of art, and the radical artistic action and behaviour that appeared in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, gathered around the Belgrade and the Zagreb Students’ Cultural Centres, whose prime exponents were Marina Abramović and Braco Dimitrijević. By the time of Tendencies 5, Belgrade’s Students’ Cultural Centre was already engaging in radical international projects; the Centre was headed by its spiritus movens Biljana Tomić, one of the greatest Yugoslav gallerists of avant-garde and neoavant-garde movements, educated, small wonder, though the exhibitions and colloquia of Zagreb’s [New] Tendencies. That was how, in symbolic terms, a series of uncompromising artistic concepts came full circle – from Zenit, through EXAT and [New] Tendencies, to Belgrade’s April Meetings: concepts, projects, action, creation and conduct that paid no heed to the dead end street of socialist modernist aestheticism and the unbridled era of happy consumption, characteristic of a cushioned, neither-socialist-nor-bourgeois state.

This invisible line of continuity, which we can understand today owing to post festum insights, including, among other things, the Graz exhibition, could not be as pronounced in the 1970s. Indeed it remained submerged until the mid-1990s, with NT’s efforts languishing in the bywaters of local art the way the avant-garde efforts of ZENIT and EXAT had done before them, and seemed irretrievably lost, first in the inarticulate climate of transavant-garde tendencies of the 1980s, and then in the brutal political and merciless wartime climate of ex-Yugoslavia. A visible inrush of 'new tendencies' into the ex-Yugoslav cultural space occurred in the latter half of the 1990s, owing to the influx of contemporary digital technologies and the possibilities of artistic expression they afforded, conducting the process of artistic creation outside the domain of matter and the material. However, the lines of development of recent art directly connected to digital technology are numerous and conceptually and ideologically diverse in each of the former Yugoslav cultural centres (Zagreb, Ljubljana, Belgrade, Skoplje, Sarajevo, Podgorica), and truly constitute a separate subject for consideration. Let us just add that today, the contemporary artists of ex-Yugoslavia are collecting the shards of that world of concrete utopia, one of the main advocates of which was none other than the [New] Tendencies project.

Lidija Merenik, PhD, is a Professor at the Department of Modern Art History of the Faculty of Philosophy of Belgrade University


[1] J. Denegri, Apstraktna umjetnost u Hrvatskoj 2 [Abstract Art in Croatia 2], Split 1985

[2] Ex-Gallery of Contemporary Art

[3] M. Šuvaković, Pojmovnik moderne i postmoderne likovne umetnosti i teorije posle 1950 [The Terminology of Modern and Postmodern Fine Arts and Theory After 1950], Belgrade 1999

[4] J. B. Tito, Govori i članci [Speeches and Articles], XVIII, Zagreb 1966


bit international – [Nove] tendencije, Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, 28 April – 26 August, 2007,

The above copied from:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The rise of climate-change art, Madeleine Bunting

Artists are waking up to climate change. But what good can they do – and how green is their work? Cornelia Parker, Gary Hume and Keith Tyson reveal how they're dealing with the threat of catastrophe

Image - Biospheres - Tomás Saraceno's Biospheres at the Rethink exhibition in Copenhagen. Photograph: Anders Sune Berg

A floating plastic bubble, so hi-tech it is lighter than air, is attached by ropes to the walls of the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen. As I step gingerly on to its see-through floor, I can peer down at the gallery 100ft below. When I'm joined by one of the museum staff, I become unsteady. We crawl around this airborne plastic yurt like babies and then, feeling giddy, stop to sit and talk about how our children might end up living in a city of such bubbles, sealed off from a contaminated earth; about who might be lucky enough to have such a refuge; how they might sing their children lullabies of a lost earth. It's an eerie conversation to have with a stranger, both of us imagining a deeply tragic future that seems highly plausible.

This installation, by Argentinian architect-artist Tomás Saraceno, is the biggest in Rethink, a series of contemporary art exhibitions taking place across Copenhagen ahead of next week's climate change summit. When I tell Saraceno of my experience in his bubble, he is delighted. "Perfect," he laughs. This, he says, is the role art has to play in tackling climate change. "Art is about trying to rethink the things you take for granted."

Saraceno is one of several artists appearing at Copenhagen and in the Royal Academy's Earth show, which opens in London this week. Some activists have wondered why the art world has been slow to grasp the significance of climate change, so you could argue that these exhibitions represent a dramatic awakening. Curators on both sides of the North sea say the response from artists has been so enthusiastic that they could have filled their spaces twice over. And both report unusually enthusiastic support from governments: the Department of Energy and Climate Change has paid for a free guide for every visitor to Earth. It's as if politicians, recognising the limits of their ability to engage the public on this issue, are turning in desperation to other means of communicating the enormity of what is at stake. "I didn't want penguins or icebergs," says Kathleen Soriano, one of Earth's curators. "There's nothing literal. We're not offering information – if visitors want that, we have a website. We wanted people to have an aesthetic response."

That emphasis is evident, but with the beauty comes a sinister undertow. In Copenhagen, Acid Rain, by Bright Ugochukwu Eke, consists of 6,000 hanging plastic bags. They sparkle, grey, clear and black, like Christmas decorations, but they contain carbon dust – currently choking the inhabitants of the delta region of Nigeria, an area of massive oil exploration. At first glance, the work of the Chinese artist Yao Lu appears to be an idealised landscape of mountains and clouds, but look more closely and you'll see that it's an urban waste dump.

A chilling lecture at Cern

Gary Hume's work, The Industrialist, is a lead tracing of a factory chimney billowing smoke. He calls it an epitaph for industrialists, but admits he finds the brief a challenge. "How do you depict global catastrophe?" he says. "I'm too selfish to describe the world's dilemma, so I describe my own paltry dilemma of what it's like to be alive."

Hume describes his involvement with Cape Farewell – an initiative to bring artists and scientists together, in Hume's case on a trip to the Arctic – as "completely beautiful, [but] hard to relate to my life". He recycles, grows vegetables, has made his house fuel-efficient, but acknowledges painful contradictions. "The people who do the most damage [environmentally] buy my work, and I'm not using ecologically sound paint. I feel like apologising – I can't help the world. Climate change is too big for my art. My painting is a small thing, like a child might do." Hume talks of the possibility of millions dying, but he is wary of visual art's long-held fascination with apocalypse. Nature's indifference to human survival has left him with no grand ambitions – only a modest, if deeply uncomfortable, determination to offer "solace".

Keith Tyson echoes this notion of humility. Nature Painting, an intense work on show in Earth, was made by mixing toxic chemicals with pigment, echoing natural forms such as cell formations. "Nature has an intelligence far greater than us," Tyson says. "We talk about saving the earth, but we're really talking about saving ourselves. The earth can look after itself." Tyson attended a lecture on climate change at Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and home of the Hadron Collider: "It was a scientist talking to other scientists and it was horrific – far worse than people imagine. Terrifying."

The experience clarified his sense of the artist's role. "It is not to advocate solutions. It is something much deeper and more subtle – to make us reflect and rethink what it is to be a human being in the 21st century. We don't have that much power. It's nature that creates us. That's the kind of education too subtle to put on a syllabus: that's the important role of art."

Curator Soriano was aware of these competing perspectives when she put Earth together. "I didn't want to be preachy," she says, and is nervous of any suggestion that the exhibition is the most political the Royal Academy has mounted. In fact, says Anne Sophie Witzke, Rethink's project manager, the galleries involved in Copenhagen have been cautious: no one wants to be accused of propaganda.

This timidity is a source of frustration for the arts group Platform, which for over 20 years has worked to marry art and activism. "The arts stumble along the fault line between representation and transformation," says the organisation's James Marriott. "But, until 50 or so years ago, all art was about transformation and persuasion. Look at Goya: he wanted to persuade you of the horrors of war."

Art, Marriott thinks, is rediscovering a sense of purpose. In the last 50 days, Platform has curated 100 events at the Arnolfini Centre in Bristol; many of the featured artists will be joining activists in Copenhagen during the summit.

Huge carbon footprint

Marriott is delighted that climate change is finally attracting the attention it needs. "The more the merrier," he says, rejecting the criticism that artists are climbing on a green bandwagon. He is scathing, however, of the continuing blindness of artists, curators and institutions to their own enormous carbon footprints. "They lug lumps of wood around the world for exhibitions. Printing a catalogue on recycled paper is pathetic tokenism – no FTSE company would get away with that." Contemporary art is an expensive, global business. Artists, curators and the works all end up flying, while galleries themselves require expensive climactic conditions. Indeed, curators in London and Copenhagen admit they have no idea of the carbon cost of their exhibitions.

Charlie Kronick is the senior climate change adviser at Greenpeace. "The real role is not about using artists to leverage our message up the agenda," he says, "but for the artist to make this agenda their own. It is important they maintain their authenticity." Campaign initiatives have made a big impact on a number of artists (Ian McEwan and Antony Gormley have spoken enthusiastically about their Cape Farewell experiences), but many, such as Cornelia Parker, feel daunted by the need to respond to something so huge.

"I try to do my bit," says Parker, "as a citizen, an artist and in my everyday life." She has cut down on flying and offsets the flights she takes. But she confesses that her piece for the Earth show, Heart of Darkness, carbon frag-ments of a forest fire, was not originally about climate change; she was thinking of Al Gore's election loss and the hanging chads scandal. Now it is being co-opted into the climate change narrative. Similarly, Field, by Gormley, takes on a new meaning here: the frightened, gormless crowds of humans spill out of their room at the Royal Academy, not knowing where to go.

Parker's work has long had a preoccupation with the apocalyptic, but it was while listening to scientists recount their struggle to communicate the scale of climate change to politicians that she realised art had a vital role to play. She describes this as "a call to arms", but isn't keen to be associated with a single issue. She says she has done only one piece of work – a filmed interview with Noam Chomsky, showing in Copenhagen – that deals with climate change, and even then the interview covers a range of issues.

"It was intentionally propagandist," she says, adding hesitantly that perhaps this is what is required. "After all, the first world war artists were recruited to help fight the war – and this is the equivalent of war."

• Earth is at the Royal Academy, London W1, until 31 January 2010. Details: 0207 300 8000. The Guardian is a media partner for the exhibition. Rethink runs until 5 April and will tour next year. Details are at

the above copied from:

Drifting Through the Grid: Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure, Brian Holmes

Great social movements leave the content of their critical politics behind, in the forms of a new dominion. This was the destiny of the revolt against bureaucratic rationalism in the sixties. The Situationists, with the practice of the dérive and the program of unitary urbanism, aimed to subvert the functionalist grids of modernist city planning. They tried to lose themselves in the urban labyrinth, while calling for the total fusion of artistic and scientific resources in »complete decors« –»another city for another life«, as the radical architect Constant proclaimed. With the worldwide implementation of a digital media architecture – and the early signs of a move toward cinematic buildings – we are now seeing the transformation of the urban framework into total decor (Lev Manovich: »In the longer term every object may become a screen connected to the Net, with the whole of built space becoming a set of display surfaces«. What kind of life can be lived in the media architecture? And how to explain the continuing prestige of Situationist aesthetics, in a period which has changed so dramatically since the early 1960s?
Today, the sensory qualities of the dérive are mimicked by hyperlinked voyages through the datascapes of the World Wide Web. The decades-old imaginaries of the Silver Surfer still permeate our computer-assisted fantasies. Within this commercialized flux, the proponents of »locative media« – like Ben Russel, the developer of, or Marc Tuters, of – propose to add a personalized sense of place, a computerized science of global ambiances, using satellite positioning technology. In this way, the »geograffiti« of GPS waypoint marking seeks to promote a new kind of locational humanism, tailored to the worldwide wanderer. »Know your place« is the ironic HeadMap motto. But what would it really take to lose yourself in the abstract spaces of global circulation?
Not long ago, utopian maps portrayed the Internet as an organic space of interconnected neurons, like the synapses of a planetary mind. Data-sharing and open-source software production have effectively pointed a path to a cooperative economy. But a contemporary mapping project like »Minitasking« depicts the Gnutella network as a seductive arcade, bubbling over with pirated pop tunes and porno clips. The revolutionary aspirations of the Situationist drift are hard to pinpoint on the new cartographies.
In the wake of September 11, the Internet's inventors – DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – conceived a new objective: »Total Information Awareness«, a program to exploit every possible control function that can be grafted onto the new communications technology. Here's where the innovation lies: in »Evidence Extraction and Link Discovery«, »Human ID at a Distance«, »Translingual Information Detection«, etc. Fortunately for American civil liberties, Congress still had the constitutional power to quash this distorted brainchild of a convicted political criminal, the retired admiral John Poindexter. But the Pentagon has clearly caught up to the commercial surveillance packages that took the initiative in the late nineties: workstation monitors, radio tracking badges, telephone service recording, remote vehicle monitoring (advertising blurb: »From the privacy of your own computer, you can now watch a vehicle's path LIVE using the new ProTrak GPS vehicle tracking device«). Military strategist Thomas Barnett has learned the lesson of the freewheeling 1990s, when individual autonomy developed at the speed of high technology: »In my mind, we fight fire with fire«, he says. »If we live in a world increasingly populated by Super-Empowered Individuals, then we field an army of Super-Empowered Individuals.«
In »The Flexible Personality« I tried to show how networked culture emerged as a synthesis of two contradictory elements: a communicative opportunism, bringing labor and leisure together in a dream of disalienation that stretches back to the 1960s; and an underlying architecture of surveillance and control, made possible by the spread of cutting-edge technologies. The contemporary manager expresses the creativity and liberation of a nomadic lifestyle, while at the same time controlling flexible work teams for just-in-time production. The Yes Men have made this figure unforgettable: impersonating the WTO at a textile industry conference in Finland, they unveiled a tailor-made solution for monitoring a remote labor force, what they called the Management Leisure Suit. The glittering lycra garment might have recalled what NY Times pundit Thomas Friedman once called the »golden straitjacket«, forcing national governments into the adoption of a neoliberal policy mix; but the yard-long, hip-mounted phallus with its inset viewing screen is just a little too enthusiastic for private-sector discipline! Transmitting pleasurable sensations when everything is going well on the production floor, it allows the modern manager to survey distant employees while relaxing on a tropical beach. The conclusion of the whole charade is that with today's technology, democracy is guaranteed by Darwinian principles: there's no reason for a reasonable businessman to own a slave in an expensive country like Finland, when you can have a free employee for much less, in whatever country you chose.
What happens when the freedmen revolt? Today all eyes are on the soldier. Thomas Barnett has drawn up a new world map for the Pentagon: it divides the »functioning core« of globalization, »thick with network connectivity,« from the »non-integrating gap« of the equatorial regions, »plagued by politically repressive regimes«. The gap is where the majority of American military interventions have taken place since the end of the Cold War. It's also where a great deal of the world's oil reserves are located. And it's mainly inhabited by indigenous peoples (in Latin America) or by Muslims (in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Indonesia). Barnett's solution: »Shrink the gap«. Integrate those people, by force if necessary.
Jordan Crandall seems to grapple with this question of integration in one of his installations, »Heat Seeking«. The piece is full of menacing violence; but one scene shows a passive, unconscious woman being fed, apparently under the influence of a radio transmission. This disturbing image gets under the skin of the new media architecture, exploring its relations to psychic intimacy. What kind of subjectivity emerges from exposure to the contemporary networks?
I think we should conceive the worldwide communications technologies as Imperial infrastructure. These are systems with strictly military origins, but which have been rapidly liberalized, so that broad sectors of civil society are integrated into the basic architecture. Everything depends on the liberalization. The strong argument of Empire was to show that democratic legitimacy is necessary for the spread of a reticular governance, whose inseparably military and economic power cannot simply be equated with its point of origin in the United States. Imperial dimension is gained when infrastructures become accessible to a new category of world citizens. The effect of legitimacy goes along with integration to the »thick connectivity« of which Barnett speaks.
What happens, for example, when a private individual buys a GPS device, made by any of dozens of manufacturers? You're connecting to the results of a rocket-launch campaign which has put a constellation of 24 satellites into orbit, at least four of which are constantly in your line-of-sight, broadcasting the radio signals that will allow your device to calculate its position. The satellites themselves are fine-tuned by US Air Force monitor stations installed on islands across the earth, on either side of the equator. Since Clinton lifted the encryption of GPS signals in the year 2000, the infrastructure has functioned as a global public service: its extraordinary precision (down to the centimeter with various correction systems) is now open to any user, except in those cases where unencrypted access is selectively denied (as in Iraq during the last war). With fixed data from the World Geodetic System – a planetary mapping program initiated by the US Department of Defense in 1984 – you can locate your own nomadic trajectory on a three-dimensional Cartesian grid, anytime and anywhere on Earth (Defense department dogma: »Modern maps, navigation systems and geodetic applications require a single accessible, global, 3-dimensional reference frame. It is important for global operations and interoperability that DoD systems implement and operate as much as possible on WGS 84«).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this satellite infrastructure is that in order for one's location to be pinpointed, the clock in each personal receiver has to be exactly synchronized with the atomic clocks in orbit. So you have an integration to Imperial time. The computer-coded radio waves interpellate you in the sense of Althusser, they hail you with an electromagnetic »hey you!« When you use the locating device you respond to the call: you are interpellated into Imperial ideology. The message is that integration equals security, as exemplified in the advertising for the Digital Angel, a personal locative device pitched to medical surveillance and senior care. It's a logical development for anyone who takes seriously the concept of the »surgical strike«: give yourself over to the care of the machines, target yourself for safety.
In light of all this, one can wonder about the limits of the concept of conversion, developed extensively by Marko Peljhan in quite brilliant projects for the civilian reappropriation of military technology. Can we still make any distinction between a planetary civil society articulated by global infrastructure, and the military perspective that Crandall calls »armed vision«? The urgency is social subversion, psychic deconditioning, an aesthetics of dissident experience. Most of the alternative projects or artworks using the GPS system are premised on the idea that it permits an inscription of the individual, a geodetic tracery of individual difference. The most beautiful example to date is Esther Polak's »RealTime« project, where GPS-equipped pedestrians gradually sketch out the city plan of Amsterdam, as a record of their everyday itineraries. But the work is a fragile gesture, fraught with ambiguity: the individual's wavering life-line appears at once as testimony of human singularity in time, and proof of infallible performance by the satellite mapping system.
All too often in contemporary society, aesthetics is politics as decor. Which is why the Situationists themselves soon abandoned Constant's elaborate representations of unitary urbanism. »Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence«, wrote Althusser. It's what makes you walk the line, to use his image. Has the ideology of our time not become an erratic, wavering pattern of crisscrossing footsteps, traced in secure metric points on an abstract field? The aesthetic form of the dérive is everywhere. But so is the hyper-rationalist grid of Imperial infrastructure. And the questions of social subversion and psychic deconditioning are wide open, unanswered, seemingly lost to our minds, in an era when civil society has been integrated to the military architecture of digital media.

An initial version of this text was presented at the RIXC »Media Architecture« conference in Riga, May 16-17, 2003.

-Constant, »Another City for Another Life«:
-Lev Manovich:
-»Utopian maps...«:
-Total Information Awareness:
-The Yes Men, »Management Leisure Suit«: (click first link at the top)
-Thomas Barnett:; also see the book, The Pentagon's New Map (Putnam, 2004)
-»The Flexible Personality«:
-»Heat Seeking«: (Stills: colonia.01)
-World Geodetic System:
-Marko Peljhan:
-Esther Polak and Den Waag, »Amsterdam RealTime«:
-Louis Althusser: Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), p. 119; pirate version of the paper on »Ideological State Apparatuses«:

Above copied from:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Maurizio Cattelan, interview by Michele Robecchi

Best known for his facetious art productions, which are as surprising as they are unsettling, Maurizio Cattelan is the ultimate sideliner artist, poking holes in art, art history, monumentality, and nationalism. Take, for instance, Daddy Daddy (2008), the sculpture that Cattelan exhibited last winter at the Guggenheim in New York. A life-size, 3-D version of Disney’s Pinocchio floats face down in the museum’s rotunda pool and, in one gesture, seems to mock the forced optimism of the art world and the authoritative status of the museum. Of course, the 49-year-old Italian artist, who currently lives in New York, has been up to his tricks for quite a while. He described his co-curation of the 2006 Berlin Biennale, which involved looking at 700 artist entries, as an experience akin to “having a gun pointed to your head and smiling while waiting for someone to pull the trigger.” Cattelan speaks here about why the current political and economic climates could surprisingly turn into an opportunity for artists to reclaim their destiny.

MICHELE ROBECCHI: It seems like we’re living in a time where it’s essential to develop a strategy for survival. What’s yours?

MAURIZIO CATTELAN: I don’t think that the big crunch should be seen as a menace, but rather as an opportunity. It’s one of these times in -history—and we have plenty of examples from the past—where it’s possible to really make a difference. And if art is serious about claiming a central role in today’s society and culture, this is the best chance it’s had in ages. The current climate doesn’t represent a threat to the production of art but to the market. I think it’s time for artists to get over auction houses, galleries, and high-production-value exhibitions and start using our voices again.

ROBECCHI: Now, when you say exhibitions and galleries . . .

CATTELAN: I’m not talking about the intrinsic value of exhibitions. I’m criticizing the way they are perceived. I was going through a book of Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s 1970s performance work the other day. These people did two, even three Documentas or Venice Biennales over the course of a decade without any fuss. They would just treat it as any of their other engagements, with the same level of dignity and commitment they’d reserve for a one-day event in a small gallery on the Austrian mountains. Today, large-scale exhibitions are overrated. I’m not saying the 1970s was a golden age—I don’t believe such a thing exists in art . . . It would be like talking about a golden age of science. But it’s true that those were slightly more ideological times, and the relevance of artists wasn’t established by their CVs but by their work.

ROBECCHI: I agree about the market becoming too predominant, but at the same time, don’t you think artists could be partially responsible for this? After all, it takes two to tango. If the system was so rotten, you could have refused to play the game a long time ago.

CATTELAN: Part of the blame can be put at the artists’ door, too—no question. But I see our involvement more as a consequence. When there is too much money at stake, the whole system gets corrupted. Artists can be very vulnerable to these mechanisms.


CATTELAN: It’s in our nature. If you are a plumber, there is an objective way to establish whether you put together a great piping system or not. Art is a bit more slippery than that. So, when you fill a gallery with dirt and someone comes along waving wads of bills, it’s difficult not to take them because they become a tangible acknowledgement that what you’ve been doing actually makes sense.

ROBECCHI: Do you see this vulnerability as a relatively recent phenomenon? Or is it something in artists’ DNA?

CATTELAN: I think it’s genetic. Even during the Renaissance, it was all about where -artists were hanging out, who they were associated with, who would get the biggest commission. There are no exceptions. It’s pretty much the same with everything else, from architecture to sports. The only difference is that art, unlike sports or architecture, is not about supremacy or practical living. Art should be able to be innovative without compromising itself. That’s why I believe artists should have bigger pre‑occupations than checking the price tags on their work or becoming curators’ darlings.

ROBECCHI: How about curators? The way the art system is structured today, many people think that they’re the ones in a position to truly generate a change.

CATTELAN: Undoubtedly, artists have let curators take part of the burden off their shoulders over the years, but it’s a bet that doesn’t seem to have paid off. Because of their position, which is to act like some sort of catalyst between an institutional and a visionary world, curators cannot bring themselves to do the job. There are a few exceptions, of course, but in general, the vast majority of curators are more focused on the definition of their role and what this entails than anything else. Ninety percent of the panel discussions or round‑tables these days are all about formats. Have you noticed that? What’s the meaning of curating in the new millennium, what’s the role of a collector, how art fairs or biennials should be . . . They only talk about structure—almost nobody is talking about theory. And since nobody else is doing it, I think artists should. Who knows, maybe it’s time to write a new manifesto.

ROBECCHI: You sound very passionate, which is sort of a new color for you. How do you think that an experience like co-curating the Berlin Biennale in 2006 helped in shaping these ideas?

CATTELAN: Curating the Berlin Biennale with Massimiliano [Gioni] and Ali [Subotnick] was an eye-opener but not necessarily for the reasons you are suggesting. It was something completely new because of the level of organization and bureaucracy involved and because it allowed us to explore areas where we’ve never been before. But stepping out of the so-called limitations dictated by being an artist or a curator wasn’t a novelty for us. From The Wrong Gallery [a mini-gallery in Chelsea that Cattelan co-founded] to Charley [Cattelan’s art periodical], we always tried to do something different.

ROBECCHI: You just said the current economic situation should be seen as something liberating. When you started as an artist, at the end of the 1980s, a similar scenario presented itself with the art market suddenly going down the drain. How did you see it at the time?

CATTELAN: Looking back, it was a sobering moment as much as a missed opportunity. But I wasn’t so involved as I am now. I was too busy dealing with personal issues to focus on those themes. Here I was, in my late twenties, with no art education or anything like that, desperately trying to come up with something clever without making a complete fool of myself. I was so afraid of doing something wrong that I ended up spending a lot of time on my own. It was a character-building experience. I didn’t even consider myself an artist. To a certain extent, I still don’t. And I’m sure I’m in good company!

ROBECCHI: What makes you see it as a missed opportunity?

CATTELAN: The fact that, what we were going through in the ’90s was mainly a generational change, which was exactly what happened when Arte Povera tried to take over 20 years earlier, at the end of the ’60s. There was a group of new artists and new languages emerging, and the old guard was not very welcoming because of the threat they represented to their world. The difference in terms of economy and style was a big contributing factor in accentuating it, but, at the end of the day, what was happening was nothing new. It was just another generational turnover.

ROBECCHI: Well, there are some differences. In the 1960s, the generational turnover you are talking about wasn’t confined to art. Society, too, was deeply affected by this alternation. The 1980s were a relatively quiet time in comparison. Maybe the ’80s artists were rebelling without a cause.

CATTELAN: Opulence alone was clearly not a good enough reason to start a revolution. The art world was quite marginalized before the 1980s. Suddenly everything was going great, and I’m sure the last thing people wanted was to hail a Robin Hood free-for-all kind of character criminalizing success and fortune. It’s an awfully simplistic position to hold, too, unless you do it with intelligence or humor or some aplomb. Why would you want to be a party-wrecker? It’s more fun to try to hijack the party than to spoil it. And I found out very early in life that people tend to prefer the class clown to the class nerd.

ROBECCHI: Not to mention that sometimes the line between being a soldier and a revolutionary can be very thin.

CATTELAN: Yes. What I realized at the time was that there are three different kinds of revolutionaries: those who want to change things; those who are into the fight but couldn’t care less if things change or not; and those who work following their instinct, responding to a situation in a personal way that can end up having collective results—and that can affect the world a lot more. That last model is possibly the one I’m interested in most. Look at Gerhard Richter. Or Andy Warhol. Warhol was proof that you can be revolutionary without being militant.

ROBECCHI: Warhol certainly wasn’t an apolitical artist, as a lot of people would love to believe. Yet I’m not sure if his acceptance of certain values, like celebrity, was revolutionary in the way that you mean.

CATTELAN: In the long run, he was more revolutionary than a lot of artists who were openly championing the very same values that he was incorporating into his work. In Warhol’s work, serial repetition acts as a depowering or destabilizing force. He knew that believing in art as a society-changing weapon can be detrimental. There must be more to it than that. It has to be sensual, or witty, or visually appealing. The worst possible thing is when ideological art becomes didactic. What you get as a result is little more than propaganda—and then it doesn’t matter which side of the barricade you’re on.

ROBECCHI: How about your sculptures of John Fitzgerald Kennedy [Now, 2004] or Adolf Hitler [Him, 2001]? Aren’t these works plainly political?

CATTELAN: What I’m interested in are images. I’m sure you can tell. Who in his right mind would deliberately represent the pope struck by a meteorite in order to deliver a political message about the church? Or a hooded kid nailed to a school desk? It takes a very deviated and imaginative mind—say, Roger Waters in his The Wall period—to conceive something like that as a critique of the educational system.

ROBECCHI: And Lullaby [1994], the bags containing rubble from the bombing that struck the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea in Milan and killed five people? Wouldn’t you characterize that as a strong political statement?

CATTELAN: It got out of control. That piece was for a solo show in London—my first exhibition outside Italy, as a matter of fact. My initial idea was to present it like a snapshot of a determinate time, a modern postcard from Italy, if you like. It attracted a lot of criticism from the press, mostly because I was accused of airing the country’s dirty laundry in public. I was particularly stung by one piece in a national newspaper. It was written by an artist, someone you would expect to have a higher degree of sensibility on the subject, but his views were as poor and reductive as a tabloid commentator’s. His biggest concern, it seemed, was the good reputation of contemporary art.

ROBECCHI: He was probably thinking that your work was about being provocative or simply trying to cause a scandal.

CATTELAN: There are times when being scandalous or provocative can help bring focus to issues of major concern.

ROBECCHI: This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto. Many people consider futurism and surrealism as the ultimate art movements that made a genuine attempt to change society. Both movements were masters at provocation. Where do you think they failed?

CATTELAN: Did they really fail? I think they are still very relevant today. Surrealism, and also dadaism, were pure gold. Maybe they got a bit carried away. Futurists were fundamentally fanatics, but I acknowledge that, in their madness, they anticipated a lot of what is going on today. Their blind faith in progress presents a lot of resemblances to all those people who are advocating a change through extreme ideology. What I find really funny is that futurists would be allergic to all these commemorative exhibitions that museums and curators are throwing for them. It is precisely what they were fighting against. The best way to honor their heritage would be to do something a little more outrageous and out of control than caging their art in a museum.

ROBECCHI: Many think that their supporting the war was their epitaph.

CATTELAN: Yes, but their concept of war was different from the one we have today. If you think about it, World War II was the first time in history where civilian casualties were more numerous than the military’s. Historically it was a massive turning point. It possibly set the model for all the wars we are witnessing today. The futurists were fantasizing about airplanes and missiles, but I don’t think they were fully aware of the implications. Their actual idea of war was very naïve and old-fashioned.

ROBECCHI: Right—horses and steel.

CATTELAN: Exactly. The people who were running it were total Evelyn Waugh characters. Nothing like what you would see today. War, like everything else, has become much more professional.

ROBECCHI: So you don’t think we are about to witness something similar to what happened in the 1930s?

CATTELAN: I don’t think the two decades are comparable. I don’t see the current crisis degenerating into a proliferation of totalitarian regimes. The crash of 1929 was a first. Unlike the current crisis, which was a long time coming, it was totally unpredictable. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Today we know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long it takes to walk through. All we need are exceptionally inspired people to set an example and guide us through the dark.

ROBECCHI: How do you perceive the wave of optimism following Barack Obama’s election running parallel to this fear of the crisis?

CATTELAN: It’s certainly an event of historical proportions, although a part of me can’t help thinking that we’ve all been mesmerized, that what is happening is the result of a mass hallucinatory phenomenon, and that, sooner or later, something dramatic is going to happen. I suppose it’s the pessimist in me. But if I should make an effort and be an optimist, I see Obama’s win as proof of what we were just talking about. It’s a return to more ideological values.

ROBECCHI: There are massive expectations.

CATTELAN: Yes. It seems like the whole world is lining up outside the White House holding bread and fish, waiting for him to perform a miracle. In a way, it’s a bit scary. But, at the same time, it’s kind of exciting, too. It makes you look forward to the future. You don’t get the opportunity to do that very often these days!

Michele Robecchi is a writer and curatorbased in London. He is also a contemporary-art editorat Phaidon Press, and a visiting lecturer at Christie’s Education.

above copied from: