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The Escapologist. Rasheed Araeen and the transformative potential of art beyond art


Rasheed Araeen's Art Beyond Art belongs to that select category of artists' writings that includes Allan Kaprow's Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Martha Rosler's Decoys and Disruptions, Robert Smithson's Collected Writings, or Jimmie Durham's A Certain Lack of Coherence, which at once stake out irreversible art-historical positions and exemplify the full heuristic power of theory when pursued as a full-fledged practice. The practice of theory, of course, has never been a sideline pursuit for Araeen, the founding editor of Third Text -- a journal whose purpose and accomplishment it was to eke out a space of possibility for practices that actually existed but had no oversight on their conditions of visibility. Third Text's controlled coefficient of specific visibility as a collective, conceptual artwork situated it in the "art-beyond-art" category -- that is, of practices whose self-understanding is as art, but which manage to avoid being performed as art, somehow foiling the powerful apparatus of performative capture within what Araeen calls "the legitimising prisonhouse" of bourgeois aesthetics. Though Third Text, as we know, has since been captured by those very forces it had set out to challenge, Rasheed Araeen, we can be sure, eludes capture.

Art Beyond Art is made up of a dozen or so occasional writings (manifestos, project proposals, polemical pieces) where Araeen's personal narrative is intertwined with what he likes to call the "journey of the idea" -- by which he means the process through which initially inchoate ideas progressively become aware of themselves as part of a bigger picture, as they change shape, take on disguises, suddenly drop off the radar, resurfacing intermittently in the most unforeseeable settings. Ideas do this in order to dodge what Araeen calls the Obstacle -- the polymorphous antagonist of the unfettered idea that the Obstacle is forever trying to stop in its tracks, lure into pitfalls and not so much eradicate as domesticate. The good news is, as the introduction's subtitle serenely proclaims, "The Idea Moves On, Regardless, Without Any Complaint or Resentment." (It's well to announce this at the outset since readers could be forgiven for mistaking Araeen's acerbic attacks on neocolonialism, the narcissistic ego and the institutionalized forces that police the artworld, for complaint.) But Idea and Obstacle find themselves in a dialectical relationship, as a quote from Slavoj Zizek at the beginning of the essay "Obstacles, Obstacles and More Obstacles!" is mustered to explain: "If we take away the obstacle to fulfilment, we lose fulfilment itself."

Well, that's all very logical, but it sure doesn't always feel that way when obstacles get in the way, as is their wont. Araeen's own journey as an artist began in 1950s Karachi, where one obstacle was access to knowledge about radical modernist practice that could structure his own intuitions; when he arrived in London in the 1960s, the obstacle had morphed: suddenly, like so many others, he was facing the hegemonic power of a Western canon, finding his minimal artwork being adjectivized as "Pakistani," at once insufficiently and excessively "other," assigned to an imaginary identity by a benevolent arbiter. A particularly deadlocked obstacle, since it presented a choice between institutional policing or self-policing. The idea "must however struggle persistently, internally and externally, against whatever prevents it from continuing its journey. But the journey can be and is stopped when the narcissism of the ego demands that it should consolidate and celebrate whatever it has so far achieved." Not something that Araeen has been prone to. Black Phoenix, and later Third Text, provided an escape route from this dead end -- one which the Obstacle had not envisaged -- prying open a space where there had previously been no room for one. "The idea could bypass the obstacle, but which was the other path it could have taken? There was no other path... So the idea had no choice but to manoeuvre its way through the obstacle, to penetrate the obstacle, intervene in its structure and transform it so that it was no longer an obstacle."

The struggle between idea and obstacle produces paradoxical byproducts, because of course opening a new space is a gamechanger for everyone -- which is precisely what allows for retroactive posturing, including the loathsome, counterfactual claim one hears these days that an exhibition like Magiciens de la Terre "challenged the Western art system from within," as the publisher of the recent Making Art Global has contended. If anything, that exhibition was a façade which covered up the frontal challenge that had already been mounted from without, and instead created a system which would accommodate artists from outside the West, but without their claim for recognition in mainstream modernism and its history -- it being of utmost importance to protect the history of modern and avant-garde art for the exclusive privilege of the last great "magicians" of the Occident.

What's most important about Art Beyond Art, though, is its discussion of the obstacles art faces today, and how it might elude them. Given Araeen's experience in escapology -- not of the Harry-Houdini variety of cuffs and chains, that wouldn't be his style, but in escaping institutional, epistemic and performative capture -- he has some important points to make. Here's how he sets the stage:

"At the end of the sixties there emerged a concept of art whose true significance has not been generally and fully understood of recognized. Its significance was not in its newness or innovation, but what was cocneptually a radical shift from art as displayable objects that can be looked at and contemplated -- painting, scultupre, installations, photography, etc -- to art as a process of transformation within the everyday. Historically, it was a movement of the idea that entered human imagination with a consciousness that sought integration of art with life, so that it would by becoming part of life's everyday energy and creativity join its journey towards what for Hegel was its ultimate fulfilment. But this was not to happen. The journey was halted as it entered the cultural citadel of bourgeois captialist society to seek legitimation. And, as it succumbed and capitulated to the privileges that the bourgeois art institution offered, the idea became trapped with in the logic of the very institutional space it was allowed to enter and occupy."

The infinitely benevolent obstacle of the Museum... In removing objects from the realm of usership, it places them squarely in the hands of spectatorship, expert culture and ownership. The conceptual escape route, Araeen argues, is what he calls "nominalism." It's a rather slippery concept in his usage, but to simplify refers to: (1) the act of naming; (2) named things; (3) trifling things that exist in name alone. With a certain amount of conceptual brinkmanship, Araeen superimposes those three overlapping -- but not entirely compatible -- meanings for the following purposes: to nominalize the power of the art institution (rather than enjoying ultimate legitimating power, it will possess only nominal power), while allowing nominal things and activities (like collective farms and dam-building projects) to be named art, by being conceived and understood as such.

"What is fundamental to my suggestion is the idea that it is possible to perceive or produce art in a radically different contet, an art which locates itself away from the bourgeois institution and is not necessarily dependent on its mediation and legitimation." This involves, amongst other things, making theory a practice, wresting it away from the academy: "It is with the imaginative power of art that I want to move forward; with a proposition that may lead to a new kind of thining and produce a new kind of critical practice, out of which may also emerge a revolutionary concept of art based on the nominalism of the everyday work carried out by people themselves or their material production." In other words, the point is to ensure that usership is not removed from everyday life processes and reified as an aestheticized experience. Most of Araeen's discussion of nominalism focuses on a very specific proposal, which he lays out in an essay called "Return to Baluchistan. Nominalising Bourgeois Aesthetics," where he begins by relating a kind of epiphanic experience he had that would lead to a radical critique and extension of Land Art:

"During the early 1980s, or maybe late 1970s, I was travelling in Southern Baluchistan, once of the most dry and arid areas of Pakistan. As I looked out of the window of the bus, I was overwhelmed by the landscape. As an aesthetic experience this was not a new thing for me, as I had always been attracted to the raw and crude beauty of this landscape... But this time there was something profoundly different, as I was suddenly struck with an idea. I said to myself: 'why can't this be or become a work of art?'"

Of course, like anything else, it could be proclaimed art in a superficially nominalistic gesture. But actually being or becoming art would require institutional recognition and legitimacy -- just exactly what Araeen wanted to avoid. "I could have turned to art history, as I had been aware of Land Art of the late Sixties... and produced something new that went beyond what had already been done. But there was a very difficult problem: how could I go beyond those who had been established as historical precedents without considering the ideology that had legitimised them as canons of art history?  (...) If art could not function as a social process of transformation within this context, then art had to free itself from it in its attempt to find an alternative." Araeen's escape hatch, then, was to propose to build a dam on the arid land -- itself a sort of obstacle to the escape of the monsoon flood waters, which would allow the land to be arable year round. Not as an altruistic gesture -- the kind that motivates so much sanctimonious community-based art projects these days, which invariably collapse when the artist's residency comes to an end or the artworld funding dries up -- but as a way of escaping the legitimating prerogatives of the mainstream artworld: a collective, everyday eco-initiative of this kind could provide its own art-sustaining environment.

When I first read an earlier version of that essay in the pages of Third Text a decade ago -- long before the editorial putsch that turned the journal from a platform of dissent into an obstacle in its own right -- I wrote to Araeen to ask "why we would need the intellectual creativity of artists to conceive and manage dam-building projects." I was hoping he might have some thoughts on what specific (in)competences artists might bring to the round table of nominalism. His answer though, fleshed out in "Beyond the Altrusim of Collaboration," stressed something else entirely, which is really the essence of what he means by Art Beyond Art: art, he writes, "must lead a double life." "On the one hand, it is a conceptual artwork but, on the other, its material form must become independent of whether it is a work of art or not. Only when it can escape from being merely an art concept or form that it can avoid itse reification, and only then can it continue to maintain its transformative function within the productive force of everyday life."

Still, the work's double ontology notwithstanding, his desire to see art ramped up to the 1:1 scale, involving collaborators unrelated to the artworld who will also form the artistic ecosystem for its legitimation, this whole line of reasoning begs the question as to art-beyond-art's function as an agent of material change in society. Araeen sums up his thoughts in a single, pithy paragraph:

"Although what I propose as a collaborative practice results in a material form -- it may be a farm, a factory, a supermarket, a transport system, etc, collectively run and owned by the workers themselves -- I continue to call it a conceptual artwork. Why? Because it is not possible to get rid of art as a special category or completely dissolve it in other things so long as there exists capitalism and its division of labour. The complete dissolution of art into life so that art loses its identity as art will deprive it of its transformative function. If it is allowed to become like any other thing, without maintaining its specific non-instrumental imaginative power, art will not be able to act upon those things which are the products of consumer culture and turn them into a critical force capable of confronting the bourgeois society. In other s words, art's function as a liberating force is dependent not only on its becoming somethign other than art but also maintaining its identity as a specific material as well as a symbolic practice."

In essence, art secretes a kind of invisible but conceptual otherness within the everyday life processes that it permeates. Acting as a kind of yeast, the idea of art brings about a minimal shift within sameness. Though its dissolution into life may be impossible, it may act like a solvent upon ontologically stable relations. Like mycelium in a mineral, the idea steadily, "without complaint or resentment," dissolves the obstacle.

Stephen Wright