The collective as an escape and a monster 2012
The kind of artistic collaboration or collective practice that I will speak about is that of a heterogeneous and self-sceptical authorship. I will speak about collective experiments that were initiated by art students in Copenhagen in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and about the self-critical investigation of the provincial condition that motivated these experiments. I will do so by pointing at conditions seated in the usage of language and indigenous to the organisation of discourse particular to this province. And I will focus on the discursive investigations of art students, as these often have a self-formative approach that goes far beyond what it is possible to realize in artworks or elsewhere. Rather, these investigations are related to the learning and unlearning of authorship, and what I am speaking about here, more precisely, is a situation where art students taught each other authorship.
Just to give you a picture of the situation as it was experienced by young people who were becoming artists at the time, you had an educational and institutional system that was aimed at preserving The Middle-aged Male Painter/Sculptor as a role model. Despite the obvious symbolic inflation of this figure, everything belonged to him: the artwork, the signature, the exhibition space, the collections, state funding, art history, teaching, the public voice of the artist, everything, and yet he seemed to care about nothing other than maintaining his privileges.
So, the question was not if but how this symbolic and political stronghold, this Society of Imaginary Fathers, could be subverted. Deterritorialized. Dislocated.
The provincial location
To characterize the given location, I will have to speak of a topographic and symbolic ambivalence. The context of Copenhagen was central in an art world defined by the nation-state, but marginal in an art world defined by Modern Art. It was, in other words, simultaneously a strong and a weak location. It was strong on account of the nation-state which, in a symbolic and political sense, functioned like an immune defence system. It was weak in regard to the topographic and discursive centralism of Modern Art. In this context, authority was established within a topographic and symbolic ambivalence.
When characterizing Copenhagen as a provincial location, it is important to say that I am neither trying to qualify nor to disqualify this type of context. Nor am I confronting its ambivalent characteristics with conceptions of universality or transparency. I am speaking of the provincial context as a social and cultural condition. And I will speak about a self-critical investigation of this type of location, which went hand-in-hand with collective experiments regarding a heterogeneous and self-sceptical authorship.
It is important to mention that this period was affected by the rudimentary forces of Globalization. These forces not only contributed to destabilising the cultural and political authority in a provincial context, but also gave rise to new conceptions of universality, transparency, and centralism. At the time, though, Globalization was first and foremost apparent as a destabilizing force within the situation that I am trying to highlight here.
So, because I indicated an aim to subvert, to deterritorialize, and to dislocate the power base of The Society of Imaginary Fathers, I am compelled to add that the known qualities of provincial authority were, at the time, always already in a state of implosion due to the forces of Globalization. This is what I meant when I spoke of the symbolic inflation of the Middle-aged Male Painter/Sculptor. In their self-centred attempt to preserve their privileges, the Society of Imaginary Fathers sort of turned their back to the future, and thus produced a vacuum. A futurity of silence and blindness. What art students did in the situation was, first and foremost, to take advantage of the situation – to make use of this sudden vacuum of authority.
This was a situation where art students taught each other authorship, initiating alternative classrooms based on a self-critical investigation of the provincial condition. In the following, I will try to represent the means and ends of these investigations.
Usage of language
Language is probably a more significant location than that defined by a topographic rationality. A province is marked out by a usage of language different from that of the centre. This is not only a matter of languages foreign to that of the centre, or of dialect, which is a matter closely related to a topographic rationality. No, it is a usage of language related to certain discursive modalities, which I am thinking of. In order to gain access to a centre, it is not crucial to master the grammar and vocabulary of a central language. What is decisive, though, is to reproduce the discursive organisation and rhetoric of that location.
Thus it is possible to speak of discursive centres and provinces located within the usage of language. In that sense, discursive organisation is actually capable of producing topographic rationality, which is one characteristic feature of Globalization.
An investigation of a provincial usage of language therefore has to do with the ways in which the language in question is related to, and is affected by, the usage of central languages. A self-critical investigation locates these matters in the processes of self-identification and self-formation.
In order to render what I am thinking of more clearly, I would like to make two remarks regarding the significance of translation in a provincial location.
First, it is apparent that when text or speech is translated, language is being negotiated. The original text or speech affects the organisation of the secondary language into which it is translated. Not only does the secondary language adapt itself to the grammar and vocabulary significant of the original text or speech. It is also a matter of appropriation of style and rhetorics. A language like Danish, which is read and spoken by 5 million people, has largely survived due to its ability to evolve by absorbing the formal and structural characteristics of so-called foreign languages. Danish is something like a plasma-language. An echo chamber. A Massa Confusa.
Secondly, the text or speech that is translated is being re-contextualized. It is given a significance that is frequently quite different from what is the case in the original’s context. You could say that the translated text or speech is being re-authorized, and that a certain type of authorship is significant to the agency of translation. In the process of translation, a new sub-text is being inscribed. This sub-text has to do with the anticipated effect of the translation. How a translation might affect the usage of the secondary language is obviously a basic motivation for the initiation of translations. Thusly, economical, ideological, and political interests are inscribed through the process of translation. Especially in the period before the Internet, when access to text and speech in foreign languages was extremely limited as compared to now, translation mediated or inscribed these interests in a provincial location.
So, when considering the usage of language in a provincial context like Copenhagen at the time in question, this usage was largely characterized by the re-authorization and re-contextualization of usages of language that originated in central locations.
Such a usage of language, a plasma-language, is not well qualified for sustaining discursive organisation based on rationality or logic in the idealistic sense. Rather, this is a usage of language which qualifies a pragmatic and practical instrumentalisation of rationality and logic. It aims at the possible and at the practical forces of expedient structures.
This type of discursive organisation is, in other words, based on the reason and logic of consensus. That which is agreeable to most people makes sense. If consensus can be thought of as idealistic, it represents the idea of an all-inclusive situation in which all voices are heard and taken into account. But, on the other hand, consensus is always already also a steady gravitation towards the equilibrium of sameness.
Consensus discourse is thus reasonable as well as entropic. It aims at the possible and at the reality principle of most people. It can work as a shield for difference, and as a force of sameness. Consensus discourse can frame the social multiplicity of most people and produce a normative standard for all.
This ambivalent logic is also at work when it comes to art. Art can be a shield for difference, and a force of sameness. The artist can be a singular figure within the social multiplicity of most people and the artist can be a normative standard for all.
A consensus discourse is double-barrelled, in other words. It makes it possible, on the one hand, to include artistic practice within the multiplicity of social practices. And, on the other hand, it synthesizes artistic practice and human creativity in general.
The alternative classrooms were situated within these ambivalent conditions of language and discourse. Plasma-language and consensus discourse. It was as if you had two options: either you could refuse the whole thing and turn your attention to central locations, languages, and discourses. Or you could take on, and intervene in, the conditions of a provincial location, language, and discourse.
In the following, I will focus on the latter option: intervening in the provincial condition.
When speaking about the aim of intervening in the provincial condition, I am speaking of a self-critical investigation of the preconditions to authorship. This was an attempt to read, question, and articulate one’s social and cultural self-formation, you could say.
The self in question was the author-self. The signature. The social and cultural signification of an artist. This self-critical attitude was one that aimed to read, to question, and to articulate the social and cultural sub-texts of an artist.
This self-investigation was fuelled by a suspicious view of the artist in a way that did not anticipate any other option for the signature than to be a social and cultural effect. There’s no way out (of the groove), to quote a house-music track from 1989. At least that was how the situation was experienced: there was no way out (of the signature). It was not possible to negate the signature and still claim the social and cultural significance of an artist. As an artist, you were always already part of the problem, in other words.
It is therefore more appropriate to speak of a self-sceptical attitude. The act of intervening in the problem, or in the irony, of self-identification, with a signature, could be carried through with no ambitions about solving or controlling this problem. Instead, the ambition was to think and articulate this problem as a basic condition related to the locations, languages, and discourses within which authorship comes into effect.
Until now, I have been speaking about the usage of language and the organisation of discourse in relation to a provincial condition. Importantly, however, central locations, languages, and discourses were also engaged in this form of self-questioning, and such efforts were read with great interest in the provinces. When a central structure questions itself and the ways in which it concentrates and exercises power, it indirectly articulates the condition of a province.
To give you an example, I will ask you to read the first few lines of the American artist Cady Noland’s essay, Towards A Metalanguage of Evil, which she initially wrote in 1987 and then rewrote in 1992, as part and parcel of her installation piece with the same title, which was shown at Documenta 9:
There is a meta-game for use in the United States. The rules of the game, or even that there is a game at all, are hidden to some. The uninitiated are known as naïve, provincial, suckers or liars. To those unabused by an awareness of backdoor maneuvering, a whole world of deceit remains opaque. Those in the dark are ripe for exploitation.
I would just like to interpose two remarks about how this text was read, or mis-read, in the province of Copenhagen.
First, we read it as a discourse in affect. A voice affected by a symbolic violence that comes into being through the text. A text-voice. This is not a human voice but a monstrous and symbolic voice of social and cultural affect.
Secondly, we read Noland’s essay as an articulation of the violent self-destruction within a central location, language, and discourse. A violence which, in Noland’s text, is articulated as a death drive of power that becomes a social and cultural condition. A centre is thus characterized by a self-destructive concentration of power that affects the reality principle of its location, language, and discourse.
Just as a text like Noland’s was read with interest, so were artistic practices emerging at the margin of the provincial important at the time. You could say that such practices represented a sub-provincial location, situated in the blind angle of central locations.
I would also like to give you an example of this kind of sub-provincial practice. The following comments are taken from an interview with the Moscow-based group, Inspection Medical Hermeneutics, which was published in Flash Art around 1990. The people in IMH were the youngest and final practitioners related to the so-called Moscow School of Conceptual Art. This school was an underground network of artists, active during the late Soviet era, which became known to the art world as the Soviet Union imploded. On the question of what Medical Hermeneutics means as a concept, they reply:
The collective mentality constantly refers consciousness to both marginal and extreme regions, whether these involve ideology, criticism, or again, ideology. Such vacillations back and forth appear not as an evolution, but rather as a form of illness, i.e., as something that should be cured. In the process of such a cultural therapy, things may appear that no longer refer to the above-mentioned set of problems, and in some respect, elude its frontiers.
We read a statement like this as a method by which power is not confronted directly but is rather diagnosed and treated in a therapeutic manner. Indirectly. Here, power is thought of as a problem concerning a collective mentality and its relation to consciousness. In its prescription for a collective cure of cultural self-therapy, IMH addresses the ideological gravitation of the collective mentality and the problem of self-identification.
It may, of course, seem ironical that the self-questioning of centralism and the indication of a sub-provincial situation were made available by central locations like Documenta and Flash Art. But it is also an illustration of the situation I am trying to raise here, where the province did not regard itself as an anti-centre. Rather, the provincial location was characterized by ambivalences that one might find ironical in a perspective of universality or transparency. But in the situational context, it was exactly such connotations to the artist that were looked upon with scepticism. And the idea was that a self-sceptical investigation of the provincial condition might be a way of escaping and deviating from the universal and transparent significance of the artist. A mode of operation which, in a broader sense, was also thought of as a way of escaping and deviating from the authorship of Modern Art.
When authorship is thought of as a social and cultural effect, the conception of the artist as an origin, or as a first principle, is, of course, radically questioned.
In the alternative classrooms, it was all about reading, learning, and unlearning the social and cultural preconditions to the signature. Consequently, what was being considered was how authorship might be established through reading, and by the authority of the reader: the force of reading.
Just so you don’t get me wrong; when I speak about reading, I am speaking about an attitude that found any phenomena to be readable: the welfare state, hedonism, and the nuclear family were read, as were any types of text. Also, a wide range of reading modes came to be tried and tested out: feminism, psychoanalysis, and esoteric procedures were used in these experiments of reading.
Eventually, the different modes of reading came to mark divisions between the alternative classrooms. These divisions, or micro-schools, gathered around a variety of project spaces and collective practices. And bars. But it was not until later, from the mid-1990s and on, that collective practices were explicitly engaged with the framework of self-organized schools or universities, and the enclosed discourse of didactics. At the time in question, the divisions into micro-school-situations were caused by the reading, the questioning, and the articulation of the social and cultural sub-text of the artist.
The Collective as an Escape and a Monster
A self-sceptical investigation of the social and cultural signification of the artist aims to address the precondition to any signature. The subject of such an investigation is therefore collective by logic.
When art students taught each other authorship, the collective was therefore always already the subject in question: both as a discursive precondition to any signature and as a challenge to the social and cultural significance of the authorship of Modern Art.
A collective authorship was not thought of as a solution or a cure in itself, though. A collective practice was rather regarded as a necessary basis for the investigation of the preconditions to any signature. If it took its own self-formation into account, that is. To question any positive or corporate signature, a collective practice had to pursue a heterogeneous and self-sceptical authorship.
A collective practice thus had to be a deviating occurrence within the usage of language and the discursive organisation particular to its own self-formation. And it had to be engaged in a steady escape from any positive or corporate signification of authorship.
At the provincial location of Copenhagen at the time, the express aim was to produce monstrous occurrences within the discourse of consensus. In order to affect discursive organisation in ways that were not agreeable to most people. And in order to question the social and cultural sub-text of sameness.