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Sub specie artis

Sunday, 10. June 2012 | 00:00 (tz: Europe/Amsterdam)

Collaboration, if it is to be fruitful, must be founded on an initial diversity. Though it may feel more natural to collaborate with individuals or groups with whom we have much in common, collaboration itself has little to gain from that commonality – for neither party really has much to offer the other and collaborating soon appears unnecessary. Today, when “interdisciplinary” collaboration has become a fact of life in the self-reflective world of research in academia and beyond, this has become more than a theoretical issue: it may even make such initiatives a smithy for testing larger-scale modes of community building. Needless to say, developing a collaborative community on the basis of difference rather than sameness poses some significant challenges. Yet it is relatively straightforward for open-minded members of one discipline to engage in inter- or transdisciplinary collaboration with similarly unbiased colleagues from another: biologists, like sociologists, mathematicians, philosophers and historians work within disciplines with an established canon of texts and references acknowledged by their scientific community. One may certainly contest the paradigms and even the canon as a whole (indeed to some extent, one is expected to) but if one is to be taken seriously, one must engage with them critically.

Art, on the other hand, while not exactly undisciplined – as is sometimes suggested by those who are apt to dismiss it as a mode of knowledge production – is not a discipline. Indeed art almost constitutionally resists attempts to discipline it. While it has its internal rigour, and a history, in fact many histories, this does not make art a discipline the way art history is. All of which makes collaboration between art and academic disciplines or activist practices, indeed between art and anything including other art, both particularly interesting and singularly ticklish. For though there has been a commendable tendency to promote collaboration between, say, art and economics, the fact that art stands outside any constituted discipline means that this mode of collaboration can only be explicitly extradisciplinary, that is, beyond the confines of any discipline. Extradisciplinary collaboration is inherently experimental, because each initiative must generate its own methodology. But above all, it is premised on a unique dynamic of skill-crossing and sharing – one that would seem outlandish in any field other than art. That is, on the fundamental equivalency between competence and incompetence. Only in an extradisciplinary framework could one lay claim to such a provocative equivalency principle, adapted from Robert Filliou’s, but whose conditions of possibility lie in the radical deskilling that has characterised art of the past century. Extradisciplinarity, then, concerns not only art’s engagements with partners extrinsic to it; but also, and above all, names the horizon of collaboration between artists and art-related practitioners themselves. It is only when challenged by an incompetence (what is a question if not an often calculated incompetence?) that a competence is called upon to question itself, raising the exchange up a notch. In this respect, extradisciplinary collaboration is a deliberative form of community building and knowledge production – and a genuine alternative to expert culture.

We could, of course, leave it at that – for it is a controversial claim, even a program, and in art-historical terms stakes out a position for an art practice whose still-unknown form remains to be invented. No one has any clear idea what such a mode of doing art (rather than making it) should look like, which is itself cause for hope. But it is obvious that the existent conceptual and physical architecture of the artworld – premised as it is on Kant’s double imperative of “purposeless purpose” and “disinterested spectatorship” – is not adapted to hosting it. Spectatorship, however “emancipated,” names a form of relationality quite at odds with the hands-on, user-generated form and content of extradisciplinary collaboration. How, then, can it be performed as art? How, in other words, can it come to gain either the specific visibility enabling us to see it sub specie artis or, better still, its coefficient of art, enabling us to feel its intensity? This is where the document becomes crucial – for only through performative documentation can this coefficient of art be measured. The fact that ever more practices are embracing their constituent extradisciplinarity in lifeworlds beyond the field of art no doubt goes some way in accounting for the sensationally inflationary use of the document and documentation in contemporary art over the past decade, though these performative documents which change the ontological status of what they document (as opposed to documents of performance which do not) remains dramatically under-theorized. The danger, which the artworld does not appear to be avoiding with much zeal, is that these documents, and indeed the extradisciplinary input of the non-artistic collaborators in general, end up being aestheticized – science, protest, cognitive forms all and sundry made art. How unsurprising; indeed, it is precisely what institutional theory and critique would predict.

There is an opportunity, however, to proceed differently. Art’s predatorial logic – predating on other lifeworlds, gleaning their treasures, such as they are, and repatriating them into artworldly frames in a perversely strategic use of the extradisciplinary moment – is premised on the fact that art is rare, in scarce supply; and that this scarcity is what upholds its value. Since, by definition, documents are not rare, they become a crux of contention. Though they can be rarefied, reified, fetishized and commodified – just like artworks themselves – they don’t lend themselves easily to that purpose. Indeed, their defining excess and proliferation, their easy dissemination, their infinite reproducibility, tends to tease out the lie of artistic scarcity, showing it up for what it is: a trumped-up, artificial scarcity. For art today is anything but scarce. When Jean-Luc Godard famously quipped that “culture is the rule, art the exception,” he was merely turning modernist doxa against itself. It is predictably traumatic for art at large – not to mention for the institutions that manage and police it – to acknowledge that art has by now lost that status of ontological exception it enjoyed throughout the twentieth century. But the signs are hard to stifle: the radical deskilling within art is the correlate of a massive diffusion of formerly art-specific creativity throughout society. The intercerebral collaboration characteristic of contemporary work and play has exacerbated a development that reverses twentieth-century logic: for to be an artist today – that is, to use and to do art – is to belong not to a minority, but to a majority. All the physical and conceptual safeguards in the (art)world are dwarfed by this properly sensational reversal. Different typologies of coping with this phenomenon are emerging everywhere: the hysterical insistence on “intellectual property rights” is one particularly preposterous and ultimately cognitively lethal example; withdrawing from the attention economy altogether toward the shadows is another; there are others that, elsewhere, it will be instructive to document, but for now, the (in)competence crossings of extradisciplinary collaboration seem a good option.


Short excursus on mapping

The concept of mapping is decisive in this respect, for the rise of cognitive-mapping practices over the past decade goes hand in hand with the shifting role of the document and the broader usership-propelled challenge to expert culture. Mapping is a form and technique of attention getting, and since there is little point drawing specific attention to that which is already basking in it, cartographers tend to focus on the invisible or barely visible. Yet mapping rarely sees itself as antagonistic to what goes on in the shadows; it fancies itself as aiding the invisible in gaining the visibility it lacks. Does mapping aspire to a perfectly luminescent, shadow-free world? Perhaps – though there is certainly a ways to go in a world shrouded in covert data accumulation and concealed agendas, which is what makes the spread of intelligent data gathering and display over the past ten or twenty years such a compelling critical by-product of contemporary political and artistic culture. However mapping’s white dream inevitably encounters its own blind spot: for, like all refracting and occluding devices, maps, too, cast shadows

This particular dialectic of enlightenment has considerable consequences for contemporary art. Indeed cognitive mapping may be seen as contemporary art’s ultimate attempt to save representation, to assert the critical potential of mimesis. As we have argued, art practice appears to be moving away from reduced-scale representation toward a regime of full-scale extradisciplinary collaboration whereby art does not depict something but is actually at once that something, and a proposition of it: increasingly, art operates on a 1:1 scale. What sorts of mapping projects can be envisaged on this real-life scale? What kinds of contemporary practice are based on data aggregation and how can they themselves be mapped? A little-known text by Lewis Carroll, from 1893, provides an unexpected insight. In Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, Carroll tells of a conversation between the narrator and an outlandish character called “Mein Herr” regarding the largest scale of map “that would be really useful”:

“We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile! (...) It has never been spread out, yet... the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So now we use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

Isn’t this precisely where we’re at today in the open labyrinth of artistic practice – seeking to use the country, as it were, as its own map? Any documentation, by this reading, would merely testify to our hit-and-miss attempts to find our way in a 1:1 practice. Carroll’s text anticipating the shift underway in contemporary art practice opens three parallel lines of enquiry: 1. How does one go about using the country itself as its own map – ie. what are the conditions of possibility and use of 1:1 scale? 2. Were the farmers right – does such mapping actually shed more shadow than light? 3. What recourse to critical cartography and documentation can be envisaged after the end of the regime of representation – a recourse respectful of shadows?


Documents as ontological shifters

The document is at once a symptom, an engine, and well… a document of this shift. A symptom inasmuch as it undercuts mainstream art’s aristocratic claim to exception, scarcity, distinction, to which it offers itself as an alternative. And an engine because it has a hand in bringing about the very process of which it is a recording. As an active, albeit secret agent in the process, the document occupies a crucial position: it is common to both practice and theory, a crossroads of the vita activa and the vita contemplative – the heuristic place where one becomes the other. Performative documents enact the discursive, narrative or sensorial life of what is documented, in ways that autonomous artworks cannot. This is the document’s use-value – that it can, and does, enable connections with what it references – for the simple reason that it is never an end in itself.

Documenting performatively can bring about an ontological shift – a little document can literally change the ontological status of what is documented, conferring upon it the specific visibility of art. From a theoretical perspective, this paradigm of performative documentation draws upon the sophisticated frame theory developed by such theorists as Danto, Bourdieu and Goodman, but radicalizes to some extent their perspective inasmuch as a document is not associated with validation and legitimation by “the” artworld. Documents are artworld-neutral, as it were, and versatile enough to function in a variety of contexts or artworlds, plural.


Duchamp's orphans

However, performative documents need not bring about an ontological shift, but merely operate as attention-focusing or intensity-magnifying devices – elastic shifters capable of performing ties between lifeworlds. In this case, it might be more exacting to speak not of performative but rather operative documents, grasping them from the pragmatic perspective of their usership – how they are used, and by whom – cobbling together a conceptual vocabulary to understand their workings from the writings of an otherwise unlikely cluster of thinkers including Foucault, Wittgenstein and Lefebvre. This approach would take as a given that contemporary ontologies are inherently unstable – either because they are depleted or multiple – and that some coefficient of art is to be found in all symbolic activities and configurations. In endorsing a radical pragmatism of this kind, we are perhaps in danger of losing “art” altogether as an ontological category; yet at the same time this experimental approach to the document is in keeping with the growing mass of experimental practice that is at best phlegmatic (if not downright inimical) toward institutional recognition, for it is otherly occupied with inventing its own proto-institutions. From the perspective of the practice of theory – and its consequences – this is an acute difference; one that no doubt needs to be sharpened further. The issue is this: using a document to reontologize a proposition as art inevitably requires acknowledgement of the dominant conceptual institutions to which recourse must be sought for validation. Perhaps this is not a bad thing – these are, after all, public institutions, which change over time and indeed solicit change; they have the resources to archive documents performatively, ensuring that these reontologized practices are not lost to posterity; and to forsake them is to leave the monopoly on how they operate in the hands of others whose conception of art we find so uncongenial. It is at any event a question that cannot really be sidestepped, given the gravitational pull of institutional frameworks. However, there is also a strong case to be made for recasting the issue in different terms, inasmuch as art appears to be reinventing itself outside the established institutional architecture and theoretical frameworks developed to cope with the legacy of Duchamp’s irreversible break with the fine-arts tradition. Somehow, though, art-historical movement is never lineal; if anything, it seems avunculineal (based not on progenitorial lineage, but the looser inspiration drawn freely from those bearing some family resemblance) moving like the knight on the chessboard, one step to the side for every two steps forward. Lateral shifts do indeed appear to be taking place on the art field, and we may sometimes feel more like Duchamp’s orphans than his nieces and nephews as we totter between the still solid, but now receding ontological footing of institutional theory and critique, and the unmapped but enticing ground of radical pragmatism and worldmaking. Whose move is it? One way or the other, the document is the constantly reterritorialized and reterritorializing site of this dissension; documents themselves seem to be busy seeking new occupations. Occupy the document!