“[T]o transform rather than describe”, Jane Rendell’s description of one of the goals of critical theory seems to nicely sum up much of the work and discussion in this week’s reading. Picking up where Debord left off last week, Rendell argues that the primary point of public art should be to create work that inspires people to question and change the world around them. I found her focus on public art (to the exclusion of art inside the gallery) a bit curious. By her omission, Rendell suggests that gallery art (insulated by the status quo of the art institution) is perhaps immune from the type of pressures that can turn a public artwork into an interesting spatial intervention. Can gallery art perform this crisis-making function, or is it necessarily limited? And given the high stakes that Rendell’s laid out, is making such work irresponsible?
Trevor Paglen does a nice job of tying the previous threads of Marx and Lefebvre into the context of contemporary geography. I’ll confess that I didn’t even know that geography was an active academic discipline (for all the reasons that Paglen outlines) until I started reading some David Harvey a couple of years ago. Still, I appreciated Paglen’s concise explanation of geography as a discipline whose two basic tenets—materialism and human spatial production—can be used to examine any field of human activity. By the end, he’s applied this method of critique recursively, arriving at many of the same conclusions that Rendell draws from the “self-reflective modes of thought” she discusses. Paglan is clearly dissatisfied with art that describes, rather than transforms—in his Art21 interview, he identifies this tendency as the major weakness he found with graduate art education. Quoting Benjamin, he discusses how it is impossible to create critical artwork “outside” of politics. Experimental Geography, then, is his approach towards an art practice that actively engages with politics by the deliberate creation of political space. It would have been nice if he went on to offer more specific strategies for applying these ideas, but he lays a solid intellectual foundation for reading his work and thinking about new work.
And besides, the Interventionists catalogue provides myriad interesting examples of artists engaging in all manner of active spatial practice. Although, I’ll admit that I struggle somewhat with how to unpack this sort of work. Reverend Billy makes sense as a stylized, but still pretty conventional protest, and the Yes Men have a clear goal of embarrassing the large institutions that take them seriously. But many of the projects seem caught between existing as sincere socio-political gestures, while being too abstract or esoteric to be viable templates for larger social action. Is Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle a call to action? A prototype? A design fiction?
To me, the work that seemed the most well resolved was either the work that had small stakes (such as Alex Villar’s videos where he disobeys the spatial logic of walls, fences, and railings) or appropriately audacious methods (such as Yomango’s shoplifting as a lifestyle practice). The work also makes me think of Institutional Critique, particularly Michael Asher’s work, though I worry that his work of modifying art gallery buildings falls prey to some of the pitfalls discussed above. I think his work does take seriously its own production of space, but strictly within an art context, perhaps too insulated from the way that context connects to the wider world. Perhaps that’s why I like it so much: when you’re exposing the historical logic of museum exhibition layouts, there are important ramifications, but it’s mostly a fun conceptual exercise. When you’re trying to tackle homelessness, or commercial exploitation, or surveillance, it seems like you should be taking things much more seriously.
But perhaps my desire to insist upon evaluating the effectiveness of these works as political gambits is misplaced. The focus on “tactics” and “experiments” suggests that these projects won’t necessarily work, and that that’s okay, but that each is an important step pushing toward a broader goal.
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