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Dilettantism and extradisciplinary artistic collaboration


Both Ingrid Commandeur has already alluded to something like what I'm about to talk about, and so has Stephen Wright. Though here I've divested it of its locational/global factor, it still relates somewhat to territory. In this post, I'll describe some practices I'm attracted to in relation to this discussion. In the next post, I'll propose one hypothetical exhibition strategy, or non-exhibition strategy, produced in response to the wish to work with such practices.

In the instrumentalised UK arts funding landscape, much is made about collaboration between artists and other fields, in a manner which operates under the romantic assumption that the 'artistic' is a quality in itself (conveniently impossible to define, of course) that can be sprinkled like fairy dust over some other, sadly less glamorous field of endeavour. All too often, this results in the aestheticising of the visual by-product of said field, or in some kind of gee-whizz philosophy-lite distillation of the knowledge of the professionals the artist is 'working with'. The trade-off is simple: the artist gets to be mistaken for someone who knows about stuff (other than art), and the non-art collaborator gets some value-laden by product of art's glamour or presumed humanism. To an extent I feel like this can be an unfair assessment, as there's an awful lot of strong works made in a collaborative bent - I'd point you towards the depth of scholarship involved in Camila Sposati's research at London Metropolitan University (and I mean research in the actual, rather than in the press-release sense) into entropy as physical, chemical, and social processes; or the simple but valuable oral history piece made by Rosanna Greaves (Everybody Wants to be a Milkman, 2008) interviewing a milkman about his dying trade. But where extradisciplinary collaboration disappoints is when it claims, and then fails, to step outside of art's methodological, formal or representational boundaries (often reinforcing them in the encounter); it simply drags the most easily assimilable factors of other fields directly into the existing artistic lexicon.

Running concurrent to this art/extradisciplinary field of collaboration, a fashionable word in critical media practice has been dilettantism, which I have only heard used to describe conscious, playful, and constructive amateurism. It seems distinct from artistic extradisciplinary collaboration in that it is just as curious, but follows the principles of self-organisation and self-sufficiency. Not so much wandering with full institutional permission into another profession's playground to see what's shiny, but as an unpermitted, implicitly politicised reaction to the institutional cordoning-off of 'expertise' as an ideological part of the process of knowledge enclosure.

With this in mind I want to highlight certain artistic and critical media practices that are so closely involved with pre-existing infrastructures and diffused flows of goods, knowledge, and information, that they are more or less not recognisable primarily as 'art'. Working from the maxim that there is no 'outside', the artist working in this way is less interested in making a work 'about' or shallowly 'researching' her phenomenon, but instead simply participates in it in a way that is often idiosyncratic, potentially parasitical, morally ambiguous, and implicitly critical.

Kate Rich runs the product line Feral Trade. As an artwork, it constitutes not much more than its functions and products, which makes 'trader' the best description for Rich. (However, as it's mostly cultural initiatives that take an interest in her practice, and because as a curator I gain a lot from being able to drag Rich into my professional economy, adding '...and artist' to her professional description is, I suspect, a nice transaction for everyone.) Feral Trade is a product line traded globally using the surplus freight generated by artistic and curatorial travel, the conditions of the goods' conditions of production and movement being fully documented at every stage. The documentation exists not to provide heartwarming breakfast reading, but to bring the kind of accountability to the movements of global products that we expect in the documentation of, for example, ingredients. Feral Trade's best-selling product, its ground coffee, was sourced and negotiated by Rich and continues to be distributed only via the empty space in the suitcases of Rich's globe-trotting curatorial friends. Each product is selected on the basis of its contextual significance as a commodity, and is found as a result of various wildly differing investigations. Feral Trade is, by proxy if not by intention, a moralistic project that presents a clear critique of the inadequacies, banalities, and representational fetishes of Fairtrade, and also of the contradictions of the carbon-footprinting of the Guardian-reading*, mildly leftist UK curator. Not intending to grow beyond its obvious limitations, Feral Trade cannot and isn't intended idealistically to present a viable mass consumer 'alternative' to Fairtrade.

Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, working as Goldin+Senneby, manage to slipstream so quietly into the circuits of operation that interest them, that the presence of an artist or a work is rarely perceived. What is registered instead is generally a brief tear in the ideological fabric of their medium, which is generally infrastructural. A holistic perspective on the authors and intentions of every aspect of their current project Headless (2006-ongoing) is difficult to obtain unless one is working with them, and even then you have to pay attention. Currently, though, they are researching the offshore company Headless Ltd, and here 'research' is quite literal: hiring a private detective to report on its activities, as well as sending the novelist John Barlow to the Bahamas to attempt to find out as much as he can (his progress is reported in his blog). Their interest in this company began from the name, which they share with Bataille's surrealist publication Acephale, but simultanously reflects their wider interest in the operation of immaterial financial and representational value. Like a game of representational tit for tat, the offshore company with its highly functional myth has become a muse of sorts, for the Da Vinci Code-style novel that Barlow will eventually publish. Headless Ltd have already reacted legally to the novel's prologue, asking the author to remove the name of an employee to whom Barlow falsely attributed authorship. The novel itself is about a writer who has been commissioned by two artists to investigate Headless Ltd, and is being sent a cease-and-desist because the company realises someone is trying to write a novel about them... The project, while invoking so much mythology that it almost (but not quite) disappears into its own constructions, could arguably be described as responding like-for-like to the strategies of the offshore company.

Which is where the next post comes in.

*centre-left UK broadsheet


...and artist

I await part two of your proposal with bated breath. What I enjoyed most in reading your (nicely written) post is that the strategies you mention entail displacing rather than merely reproducing or (worse still) expanding what you call the "existing artistic lexicon." I've written about similar collaborative endeavours in a like-minded way:


The trick is to draw attention to the "double ontology" of these "redundant" initiatives without bolstering their deliberately impaired coefficients of artistic visibility, thereby reframing them as "just art" and betraying their very thrust. (I say "redundant" inasmuch as they are what they are and propositions of that exact same thing.) This is why I at times avoid giving examples. Yet I realise that if we are to accompany the paradigm shift in artworld practices that such practices seem to be pushing for, we need to show the critical mass of the likes of Feral Trade and Headless.