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Be for Real: the Usership Challenge to Expert Culture

One of the questions I struggle with most regarding art is whether or not to continue using the word at all. On the one hand, it designates an amorphous set of symbolic configurations and activities by and large so at odds with what I refer to when I use the term, I wonder if I would not be well advised to look for a different word. Yet on the other hand, I am loath to yield the monopoly on the use of that term to those whose usage I find so uncongenial. Admittedly, the word’s usage has shifted considerably over the past 30,000 years, but at present the balance of power is so squarely in the hands of the molar worldart artworld (institutional market, museum-based production and other such normalising institutions of expert culture) that molecular (or minority) practices seeking to bring some heterogeneity to bear are condemned to marginality. Indeed they are relegated to parasitical status; uninvited guests at the table of the host whose values they abhor. So I am torn by a reasoned and almost visceral desire for exodus and a no less heartfelt and stubborn desire to hold my ground. Can anyone help?

Maybe there is no squaring this kind of logical circle; maybe it’s just a sociological fact that all fields of human endeavour are conflicted with competing power structures and disparate and shifting scales of legitimation. If that is the case, one might argue that the two fundamental catapults of creative action are precisely marginality and irony (inherently parasitical on central meaning and power). And of course the ultimate use value of catapults is as levers of exodus. But how is one to give thrust to marginality and irony? One embodiment I see is the user; and in the following, taking up cues from both Mia Jankovicz and Thomas Burghuis, I hope to make a case for usership as a form of subjecthood incarnating a challenge to expert culture generally and to the dominant artworld regime of spectatorship.

In doing so, my concern is to accompany those art practices which seek to wrest themselves free of a predetermined assignation in terms of visibility. And that are prepared to do so at the expense of their standing in the reputational economy. As Lawrence Weiner once put it (though he’s one to talk!): “sophistication / incompetence = sphere of influence.” Or similarly, “lack of finesse = expansion of the sphere of influence.” In other words, the higher the expert-defined coefficient of “incompetence,” the more restricted the conventionally coveted sphere of influence; and the greater the finesse, the more that same sphere of influence tends to downsize. And that’s just my diagnostic: we need way, way more of less. Including less art, needless to say. In the face of now consummately privatised culture, I want to open a fissure in the almost automatic identification of art users with art consumers, while at the same time only slightly straining usage by holding art up to a higher standard – the standard set by the most contemporary, that is the most creatively idle and expressively indolent practices today.

Creative idleness, expressive indolence certainly do not preclude art from sharing the desire to “revive art’s transformative potential within the broadest possible frame,” to use art-historian Alexander Alberro’s expression – quite the contrary, they aim to do just that. But to see how, we first need to consider what, exactly, is to be understood by “the broadest possible frame.” What lies beyond the frame, even in its broadest possible extension? Is there any art out there, any potentially transformative art, beyond the broadest possible frame? The frame, let us suppose, is the performative frame, which enables those symbolic activities and configurations known as art to appear as such. For without that frame, of course, those activities and configurations might well be visible – their coefficient of visibility might indeed by very high – but not as art per se, at least not according to current conventions. In the absence of a performative frame, objects and actions are ill inclined to change their ontological status and to become art; only the presence of that frame can coax them into being something other than the “mere real thing,” as analytical philosophers rather facetiously put it. It is tempting to see this sort of frame-legitimized sea-change as one of the last remaining acts of magic in an otherwise thoroughly rationalized society – so counter-intuitive it is that something, anything can change its ontological status at the snap of a performative finger, upheld by the presence of the frame, however broad. Yet that frame, like any frame, is also a limitation… a limitation, above all, to art’s transformative potential. When we say, unaware that the frame is in place, we didn’t “even” know something was art, the adverb is very telling: in order for something to be perceived as art, it must be framed as such; more importantly, the more distinctly framed, the more incisive it is considered to be. This is a highly dubious claim, however, for we can just as easily say, once we are aware of the frame’s invisible but powerful presence, that it is “just” art. There too, the adverb is revealing: just art, not the potentially more transformatory, corrosive, even censorship-deserving real thing. In short, then, while the frame is an almost magically powerful device, it is also a debilitating one. And this may well be the reason that an increasing number of art-related practitioners today are seeking not to broaden the frame still further – thereby pursuing art’s already extraordinary colonization of the life-world – but to get outside of the frame altogether. Every year, more and more artists are quitting the artworld frame – or looking for and experimenting with viable exit strategies – rather than broadening it further through predatory expeditions into the life-world. And these are some of the most exciting developments in art today, for to leave the frame means sacrificing one’s coefficient of artistic visibility – but potentially in exchange for greater corrosiveness toward the dominant semiotic order.

An ever growing number of artists and artists collectives are questioning the need for art to heed the frame, however broad: in the place of the sacrosanct artwork, some are favouring an art which remains open and process-based, showing scant concern for the usual criteria of showing and disseminating, refusing to subordinate process to any extrinsic finished product; others (often the same), challenging the artist’s expert-like authority, have come to advocate coauthorship, broadening responsibility for the creative process to all those taking part; still others (invariably the same), instead of contributing to an art whose legitimacy relies on recognition by the spectator, refuse this conventional division of visual labour (whereby subjet1 produces an object for delectation by subjet2), preferring interventions, which, though not exempt from the exigencies of the public sphere, have only a negligible coefficient of art-specific visibility. Such practices undermine positions of authority and diminish the remit historically attributed to experts of expression.

Envisaging an art without artwork, without authorship and without spectatorship has an immediate consequence: art ceases to be visible as such. For practices whose self-understanding stems from the visual arts tradition – not to mention for the normative institutions governing it – the problem cannot just be overlooked: if it is not visible, art eludes all control, prescription and regulation – in short, all “police”. In a Foucaldian perspective, one might argue that the key issue in policing art is the question of visibility. As Jacques Rancière put it in his frequently cited but nonetheless thought-provoking definition in La Mésentente,

“the police is, in its essence, the law which, though generally implicit, defines the part or lack of part of the parties involved…. The police is thus above all a bodily order that defines the partition between means of doing, means of being and means of saying, which means that certain bodies are assigned, by their very name, to such and such a place, such and such a task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable, which determines that some activities are visible and that some are not, that some speech is heard as discourse while others are heard as noise.”

The art police acts tacitly, its hidden injunctions only becoming perceptible with the benefit of hindsight, when the shape of an era or movement slowly comes into focus. Rancière’s analysis applies not only to art, but more generally to the partition of the real between places and non places of knowledge, visibility and legitimacy, and enables us to better see how actions and words are distributed in keeping with a line that has been defined a priori, an always shifting line of partition between practices that are admitted and those that are discredited, between what must be said and what cannot be said (socially mandatory and forbidden speech).

Rancière’s use of the word “police” to refer to the forces that maintain a semblance of self-evidence in the existent perceptual order is useful because it draws attention to the fact that this order is enforced. Not by truncheon-wielding wardens of the law, of course, but in a far more sophisticated way, by controlling what can and cannot be said, heard or seen. This becomes particularly evident with respect to frame-related discourse and the sophistication with which framing devices function. One particularly telling example of this can be found in the notion of the user and of usership in general. For this reason, it is worth devoting some attention to unpacking some of the embedded suppositions and values that can be found in the semantic field associated with the notion of the user and usership.

I have noticed, over the past few years, a steadily growing usage in public discourse of the category of the user. Despite, however, this ongoing extension and expanded usage of the term, there are clearly limits to its usage. We readily speak of art practices, for instance. But art usage? Art lovers, yes, but art users? However, I consider myself to be an art user – and, almost by definition, anyone reading a text such as this is also in some way, shape or form an art user too.

There is a definite correlation between frame-related discourse and expert culture. By and large, discussions of relationality in art have taken for granted a highly differentiated artworld increasingly dominated – like all other fields of activity in contemporary society – by expert culture. Those experts of expression, display, interpretation and appreciation known respectively as artists, curators and critics all jealously preserve their specific spheres of expertise. In France, the Ministry of Culture has gone so far as to create a new socio-professional body mandated to regulate the allocation of public resources in the artworld: the Inspector of Visual Arts... However, as in other realms of social action, the division of labour behind this expert culture, and its afferent privileges, have been brought into question by the emergence of a new category of social actors, which contests expert culture not from the standpoint of some competing expertise but from the standpoint of experience alone: the political category of the user. We are not accustomed to speaking of “art users” – and indeed, the fact that the term smacks of philistinism says a great deal about the lingering aristocratic values which continue to permeate the artworld and make a mockery of art’s claim to having much transformational potential or will.

Art users are not passive consumers, nor merely even viewers. Rather, the term refers to a broad category comprising all those people who have a stake in art taking place; the broadest possible category of the framers of art, who ultimately generate its relationality. Usership breaks down obsolete binaries between authorship and spectatorship, production and reception, owners and producers, publishers and readers, for it refers to a category of people who make use of art and whose counter-expertise stems from that particular form of relationality known as use-value in their life-worlds. Like consumer-protection groups, citizens’ initiatives, neighbourhood associations and so on, art users experience the use-value of art directly.

The mounting challenge to expert culture due to the expanding semantic field of usership in contemporary public discourse is by no means homogeneous. It is only appropriate to approach the phenomenon through the use of the pragmatics of language (stemming philosophically from Dewey and Wittgenstein), where meaning is determined through usage. Let us take a look at some principal instances of usership today.

The growing current interest in participatory democracy (if not yet in anything but a defanged way) provides a first example. But it is merely part of a broader shift of user-driven initiatives focusing not on claiming individual freedoms but on defending uses and usage. The reference to users is increasingly generalized in a political context where legitimacy is measured by the ability of the governed to appropriate the political and economic instruments made available to them. This is of course a double-edged sword: on the one hand, public services – anxious to uphold their regime of exception with respect to the market-driven private sector – are quick to point out that they serve users, rather than customers or clients; and on the other hand, they are the first to again uphold their exceptional status by stigmatizing users (or consumer advocacy groups) as the Trojan Horse of this same market-driven logic…

One of the most incisive theorists of the notion of usership in recent years is of course Michel Foucault, who developed it above all in the second volume of his History of Sexuality, sub-titled “the uses of pleasure”. In his “usage,” so to speak, usership at once designates the site where individuals and their comportments and needs are expected, where a space is available for their agency, both defining and circumscribing it; and it refers to the way in which these same users surge up and barge into a universe, which, though accustomed to managing their existence, finds itself thrown off balance by their speaking out as users. In other words – and this is related to Foucault’s theory of political action – it is not as if users burst forth in places where they are not expected, but rather that they emerge exactly where they are expected, meaning that their presence is ambivalent, and cannot be reduced to a progressive recognition nor to a mere cooptation by the powers that be. Governance, control, disciplines of all kinds, produce “users” and not just rebels or automatons submissive to an exterior norm. I am drawing here on the insightful work of Mathieu Potte-Bonneville on Foucault’s concept of usership, which he has argued – experimentally but convincingly – is a key category of contemporary subjectivity. His book co-authored with Philippe Artières, D’après Foucault, is essential reading.

There are other, still more interesting cases of usership. Drug users, for instance. To use drugs is to know something about drugs and their use that the medical experts, and the legislators whom they advise on a purely prohibition-authorization basis, do not and cannot know. It is a form of experience-based knowledge.

Similarly, the British Disabled People’s Movement, has developed a wonderful watchword, particularly eloquent in its experiential challenge to expert culture: “We are the experts of our own condition.” In making this argument, such movements lay claim both to equal access to care and to more autonomy of individuals in the decision-making processes that concern them. In this respect, to define oneself as a user is at once to refuse to dissolve into a mass and to identify oneself in an abstract individualism.

Or parent-teacher associations… In a recent case in Britain, parents were being brushed off by the teaching staff, who dismissed the parents’ experience as being merely “anecdotal” rather than establishing evidence. The users’ response came in the form of a disarming question: “How many anecdotes does it take to become evidence?”

An extreme example of usership occurred several years ago when the prisoners of France’s highest security prison at Clermont-Ferrand, contending unexpectedly though irrefutably that they were “users of the incarceration system”, demanded that the death penalty be meted out to them, rather than remaining their entire lives in prison without any prospect of release… In a country where the legitimacy of the current polity is founded upon the abolition of the death penalty, this challenge to broad-based expert culture from within the life-world of the prison system is terribly poignant.

All of these typical examples, Foucault would no doubt argue, underscore an interesting characteristic of usership: its immediacy. Users take on those instances of power closest to them. And in addition to this proximity, or because of it, they do not envisage that the solution to their problem could lie in any sort of future to which the present might or ought to be subordinated (very different in this respect to any revolutionary horizon). They have neither the time to be revolutionary – because things have to change – nor the patience to be reformists, because things have to stop. The radical pragmatism of usership struggles then have this specificity that they renounce power in the name of power. “We are all governed, and as such in solidarity”: such is Foucault’s conception of usership as a model of political agency and action, setting aside both a horizon (in the name of the present alone) and sovereignty (that it, the ultimate identity that he saw between traditional resistance movements and the power which they contested and wanted to replace).

Usership, however, also stands opposed to another form of authority: ownership. Ownership is the most complete – both all-inclusive and exclusive – right that one can hold or exert over an object. One can literally do with it as one will, regardless of what those who may also use it have to say. This is of course something which has been fiercely contested by since the nineteenth century writing of Marx and particularly Proudhon, the former developing his philosophy on the idea of use-value and the second on the notion of the right of use (droit d’usage) as a way of contesting ownership (which Proudhon flatly described as “theft”). In a world where privatization is rampant, usership is a burning issue: how is ownership to be brought into check before it ends up shutting down the system altogether? How can the rights of usership be formulated in a way that is adequate to new modes of production and circulation of immaterial goods? A recent example, amongst many others, was the legitimate hue and cry raised by the readers, writers and other users of the Montréal-based contemporary art magazine Parachute in the face of the director’s and board’s unilateral decision to “suspend” publication – apparently forever – without any consultation, turning a deaf ear to the needs and wishes of that loose-knit community based on common experience that clearly understood itself as the magazine’s usership. Ultimately, though, in this case, usership proved unable to mount a viable challenge to ownership: the board staunchly upheld the director’s exclusive proprietary rights to the title; more importantly, the usership was unable go beyond a certain threshold of – often pointed and vigorous – critique and to take the sort of audacious collective action that would have been required to bring about a genuine shift in the power relations with ownership, potentially giving the publication a renewed lease on life. Here usership suffered from the drawbacks of its constitutive qualities: loose-knit, and involved in overlapping user groups, it was all too easy to lapse into a deadening logic of competing for limited resources.

This implicitly raises an accessory question: that of alternative terms to users and usership as part of a diagnostic to the plight of contemporary relationality. One term that has been used a great deal in the wake of the success of the counter-globalization movement is that of the “multitude.” The term is felicitous in one respect, because it does describe what is most constitutive of contemporary intercerebral collaboration and networked knowledge production, no longer based on a relationship to the means of production (as was the proletariat) but on a more open or at least loose-knit network of brainpower. But it has the disadvantage of being untethered to any unifying experience or common life-world. Which is why the category of intersubjectivity one finds in usership strikes me as eminently worth exploring, particularly with regard to the sort of experimentation with subjectivity one finds in art and art-related production. Usership stands in opposition to expert culture in general; but if it is true that usership is indeed a key expression of political subjectivation in society today, then one should also find instances of it in the artworld. This doesn’t immediately appear to be the case, but upon closer consideration, we may see it at work in a deep ongoing shift within the dominant regime of visibility; and particularly in the challenge to what is perhaps the dominant meta device of contemporary artistic convention – that of spectatorship.

To an even greater extent than objecthood or authorship, spectatorship continues to enjoy almost self-evident status in conventional discourse as a necessary component of any plausible artworld. The critical sermons of contemporary art are rife with celebration about free and active viewer participation. Yet is there not something almost pathetic about such claims at a time when ever more practitioners are deliberately impairing the coefficient of artistic visibility of their activity, challenging the very regime of visibility designated by the collective noun “spectatorship”? When art appears outside of the authorized performative framework, there is no reason that it should occur to those engaging with it to constitute themselves as spectators. Such practices seem to break with spectatorship altogether, to which they prefer the more extensive and inclusive notion of usership. Is the current mainstream focus on spectatorship – as a number of recent theoretical publications suggest – not merely a last-ditch effort to stave off a paradigm shift already underway in art? Why and when in the history of ideas did spectatorship – let alone disinterested spectatorship to use Emmanuel Kant’s paradoxical term – emerge as the linchpin institution of visual art? And above all, what alternative forms of usership of art are today being put forward to displace and replace it?

One recent, ongoing project whose underpinnings challenge spectatorship in the name of usership is the Martha Rosler Library, a project co-authored by Anton Vidokle and Martha Rosler. I choose this example because it doesn’t quite suit my purposes – it’s not a tongue and groove fit with my reasoning – and thus brings some of my argument’s potential weaknesses into view. The artist’s extensive library – comprised of some 8000 volumes, few of which have anything ostensible to do with art – is made available to the public in spaces generally reserved for exhibition, not as something to look at, nor a convoluted portrait of the artist, but at once as a working public library and as a proposition of a working public library. In philosophical terms, a project of this kind has a double ontological status: it is both what it is and a perfectly redundant proposition of that same thing. Redundancy is usually considered to be depreciative, a term used to discredit something – be it an activity, phenomenon, object, or utterance – whose function is already fulfilled by something else. But given the number of practices adopting a logic of redundancy today, it may well be emerging as the single-most useful focusing tool in understanding the dynamics of forward-looking art today. These practices, however, though they refuse to embrace existent conventions, do not – as so many vanguard practices of the past century did – engage in a frontally antagonistic relationship with mainstream institutions and practices. On the contrary – and this is where redundancy comes into the equation in an invisible but powerfully tangible way – they do indistinguishably what is already being perfectly well done in other realms of human activity, yet they do it with an entirely different self-understanding. Redundancy is perhaps the single best concept to describe non-mimetic, or post-mimetic art that is deliberately and perfectly redundant with respect to what it also is. One could always say that a Rembrandt was both a picture and an ironing board (to quote an example chosen by Marcel Duchamp to instantiate what he brilliantly called the “reciprocal readymade,” no doubt because ironing is so ironic). However, the type of work I am referring to here as redundant inverses the primary-secondary logic: it is first of all a library, painting business or anything at all, and only in an accessory way a proposition of a painting business, street or whatever the case may be. Whereas art used to dream of becoming non art, it now appears to have opted for a more caustic form of calculated redundancy.

The Martha Rosler Library has travelled extensively on both sides of the Atlantic and has drawn a heterogeneous usership – prepared to envisage art in terms of its use value. The conventions of spectatorship, however, are not so easily thwarted and cannot be wished away. The fact that the project sits uneasily with our contemporary horizon of expectations suggests that we may be in the throes of an art-historical paradigm shift, where such notions as usership and redundancy are at work but are not yet entirely audible. A critical appreciation of the Paris edition of the project is worth considering in some detail:

“The name itself (not Martha Rosler’s library but the Martha Rosler Library) gives some indication of the library’s playfully ambiguous status and of the visitor’s uncertain relation to it. While there is the temptation simply to use the space for personal study or relaxation, pretend for a few hours that it really is a library, the notion of it being also an “art project” makes the library equally something we are summoned to survey, interpret or read in some way, an urge which inevitably cuts across its proposed functionality. While the formality of the name might suggest a disinterested bequest, “Martha Rosler” as sign and symptom of a particular order and distribution, not to mention “ownership” of discourse, a particular memeplex, keeps getting in the way of any common (commons) reader’s agenda, just as the constant background “dumbiance” of National Public Radio, which Rosler apparently has on all the time at home, persists as index of the artist’s phantomatic self-presencing. As a result of this, and also because of the deception the installation perpetrates in posing as a more permanent structure, one you imagine returning to again and again, feeling it will continue to exist into the foreseeable future, the Rosler library continues to oscillate, one might even say flicker, imperceptibly between public and private domain, a tremor that makes concentration, whether as reader or viewer, difficult.” (Graeme Thomson & Silvia Maglioni, “Better Read than Dead: Visiting the Martha Rosler Library,” text originally published in the online journal Cluster, January 2008. http://0rhizone.wordpress.com/art-in-the-library/)

At issue here is not so much whether or not the artist’s name over-determines the project to the detriment of the reader – a very dubious line of reasoning at best, for ultimately there would be no book in the world free of the “phantomatic self-presencing” of its owner, or author, leaving us with an impossible imperative of what Nietzsche sarcastically referred to as “immaculate knowledge” acquisition. Fundamentally, the question is whether art can have use value without becoming instrumentalised; or more precisely, whether something useful can also be art without yielding its primary status. Ever more examples suggest that the long-term answer is Yes, but the consequences for art as we know it – and above all for the conceptual and physical architecture of the museums, galleries and other places that make art visible as such – are almost incalculable.

The beauty of the Martha Rosler Library is that by its very nature as a reading room it links the challenge to spectatorship to a parallel challenge to expert culture. With respect to contemporary art and art-related practices, usership as a challenge to expert culture can follow two different vectors: challenging expert culture within the artworld frame itself, in the lineage of institutional critique; or lending art-derived, art-specific and art-engendered competence to other user-initiated and user-driven challenges to expert culture in other walks of life outside of the broadest possible frame of the artworld, collaborating with citizen’s initiatives, amateur scientists’ projects, and so on. Ideally, of course, the deployment of usership by art practitioners would do both, unleashing the tautological imperative (that conceptual art always held tethered to the art sphere alone) on expert culture and its consequences inside and outside the frame. Using the tools and acquisitions of conceptual art to expose and undermine the privileges of expert culture found in other fields of human endeavour.

Usership I believe is a new and extremely relevant category of relationality and political subjectivity with respect to contemporary art-related practice and the conceptual and physical architecture of the places where its users converge. What do we use exhibitions for? And art journals? How, why and when do we use the word “art”? And who are “we”? The experts have their answer, and the users have theirs – necessarily conjugated in the first person plural. Users comprise a loose-knit, unselfconscious community based upon common experience. The bedrock of human relationality. “Just be for real,” urges songwriter Leonard Cohen – I think that’s a piece of wisdom that all too often falls on deaf ears in the artworld. All bad art is creative, expressive and sincere, and the way the experts talk about art, you’d swear it had to be that way. But don’t let them browbeat you into talking that way. “So you see I’m not naive. / I just would like to believe / What you tell me. / So don’t give me the world today / And tomorrow take it away. / (…) / Just be for real…”



Thank you for proposing this thought-provoking notion of 'art-user'.

In China and Hong Kong, it is not uncommon to see exhibiiton-goers taking snaps of themselves – flashing simling faces and/or posing - in front of certain artworks on display. I am always confused re. their movtiations: why they choose this form of 'engagement' with those artwork/s. To me, the act suggests embrace (spectatoship /consumption) as well as subversion (the art /artwork forms the background of my photo) at the same time.

Perhaps by taking consideration of your idea of 'art-users', these acts start to make more sense to me.