Impossible Understanding

Steve Lambert states that we are combining a bunch of thoughts and extrapolating them to something, “at least I, didn’t say. ‘Instrumentalize, popularize and standardize’?” If this tendency had been outspoken, we would not have pointed it out. And that is what the discourse boils down to: “to talk about some bigger ideas – being legible to larger audiences, working with intention” (Lambert). Submitting art to the demand of being legible to larger audiences leans toward popularization (in line with neoliberal cultural politics). This idea is supported by another one: Having a clear purpose, not an interest, should shape the relation between the artist and his or her practice. Lambert states: “It’s well established that focusing on outcomes and creating clarifying goals works for athletes, businesses, communities, and us in our every day lives.” This is a form of standardization, shaping art practice to have the same form as other activities in professional or everyday life. This standardization comes together with an instrumentalization of art practice, as a pure means to realize a “clear purpose.”

While the question of who is giving the goals to art is not raised, a purpose for art, one that is not born out of the actual art practice in question, does imply a tendency towards (external or self-) instrumentalization. This is not necessarily a bad thing—it depends on whether it adds to the work’s significance as art or not. That cannot be our task here, but it should be called by its name: instrumentalization. [1] Even experimentation should be subjected to this purposiveness of art, Lambert says, and we may add that it seems to be out of the question in his discourse that art could actually create new purposes that would not have existed without a purposeless artistic practice.

We do think Lambert is correct; art would meet a larger audience if artists would start to relate to artistic practice the way an athlete relates to his or her task (purpose first), and if this practice were instrumentalized as a means to that end. Artists would no doubt be able to communicate to a larger audience and popularize their art – the question is if they still have anything interesting to say. This might be a way for artists to become more powerful, but we think it also can deprive art of its power.

To be clear: Our intent is to address the discussion and the examples mentioned and to point out a general tendency that we are not entirely comfortable with. So far we have not really speaking about communicating to laymen or to professionals, rather to those who are involved and those who are not—officially or officiously. We don’t think of the public as professional or not, but as attentive and concerned or not. Our point is quite simply that the way we can change the current situation is not necessarily by finding new means for artists to use their power based on our individual moral concerns. We should look to the possibility for artists to stop constraining and placing enormous demands on themselves by defending the zone of ambiguity which they have to work in and the power that they already have within that zone.

Returning to the distinction between real world and art world problems, and the capacity for the latter to reflect the first, let us not confuse the power of artworks with the power of artists. The unique thing about the power of an artwork is that it can often attain its power through the artist’s lack of power. An example: Many Syrian artists are at the moment either incapable of leaving or incapable of returning to their home country. Recently the Syrian gallery AllArtNow from Damascus hosted an exhibition at an artist-run fair presenting work by two artists on either side of this predicament. Artist Muhammad Ali made a drawing every day of 2012 reflecting his situation and depicting his experiences in Syria, while artist Nisrine Boukhari wrote a letter every day from Vienna to the city of Damascus. Boukhari also made a separate video work where footage of the view over a desolate and grey Vienna is paralleled by a narrator describing Damascus—at times the narration seems to refer to what we are seeing, at times a juxtaposition arises between what we see and what we hear. Neither of these artists are being “Syrian artists” nor positioning themselves politically (in the mediated sense of the word) through the work. But the work is truly political in terms of localizing and making evident the powerlessness of their situation, channeling human experience and expressing a whole array of mixed emotions including the impossibility of truly communicating them. Artists on both sides of the situation are dealing with it through the medium of art. What is being expressed can only be expressed through art. They can impossibly understand each other. We can impossibly understand them. They understand that they impossibly can understand each other (and we them) yet they choose to focus on this impossible dialogue in their work. It is not necessary for an artist coming from Syria to choose a side in the conflict. Not as an artist. Making art in a situation like that is political in itself: Making art that speaks beyond the political, addressing existential questions and the impossibility of communication is political. In the ambivalence of their work and this paradox of impossibility, which solely functions in literature and art, we find the possibility of art to address real world problems.

A letter between two cities / Damascus – Vienna 2013 from Nisrine BOUKHARI on Vimeo.

There are many faults in the systems of art. It is our responsibility to address these faults. But it is this system that defines what we are doing as art and, at times, art is worth defending. Whether we like it or not, it is from this stage and this scene that we can speak. Critically, of course—but having said that, the notion of criticality today probably has a similar status as the word “revolution” had in the late sixties and early seventies. Around that time John Cage said that instead of imagining the revolution as attacking an established from from the outside, it should be thought of as a potential resource, a self-transformative art that comes from within. Revolution, he claimed, hand in hand with evolution, creates a balance that is neither locked in or explosive (in The Future of Music). Perhaps this comparison can teach us to voluntarily give up our patterns of power and enhance a desire to work together toward change.

Participation, collaboration and sustainability are buzzwords in contemporary politics and art. In this dialogue, we might have given the impression of arguing in favor of white cube art objects and against socially engaged art. This is unfortunate, since our discourse is not about promoting a certain kind of art, but rather a certain way of understanding art, of any kind. If anything, the art we have been working with is to a large extent collaborative, public space-related and sometimes illegal. Furthermore, our writing, as in this case, is from time to time collaborative. That’s our horizon in speaking about collective forms of production or action. We don’t regard it as the final solution to a particular problem of production or action; it is something that comes with certain ideas, ideas that are quite often fuzzy to us, or even murky from the outset. If we find that both of us are pacing around with a similar unclear idea which we find good or bad, there is a particular synchronicity and evaluation that can make it quite stimulating to try to work out the idea in a process involving a social element which does not appear in a solitary working process. What is a bad idea on a personal level might very well turn out to be a good one when it is realized through a social process. Collaboration is thus not a solution, nor a requirement for brainstorming, but a change and a new environment for an idea. Indeed, our writing this together is an example of the “third position,” which represents neither of our individual positions (preceding this dialogue).

Collaboration and working in groups are not answers in another sense, too. The question of collective work is still pertinent, for instance, in addressing the ways in which the history of art tends to be written around named individuals as a result of the art world’s fixation on singular authorship, often denying credit to other artists responsible for making the work. Working in a group is not an antidote by default. This is obvious from the history of the avant-garde. Frequently these groups turned into schools or movements with one trailblazer and a lot of exclusions. And from everyday experience, we are pretty sure you all know champions of collective processes; people who might claim that this is the solution and the only way to go, with whom it simply is impossible to collaborate because the social is, according to them, “their thing.” And the other way around, you probably know one or two highly egocentric artists that are really smooth in running every collaborative situation. In fact, Rasmus Nielsen from the Danish artist group Superflex has even argued that individuals can be seen as groups, just as a group can become an individual: “The weird part here is that when we create a ‘group’ […] or ‘legal body,’ we might even risk ending up with what we were trying to avoid. That this new avatar ends up being extremely selfish and confirmative—all the traits we were trying to avoid in the first place.” [2]

Another issue is whether, or when, activist art should to be labeled as artwork. We think this is not first and foremost an ontological question, but one concerning the efficiency of the work. Some groups might choose not to call it art, or say that sometimes it is art and sometimes it is not (for example Anonymous). And The Yes Men said, at least a decade ago, that they maybe would label their actions as art in Europe, but that they don’t want to do it in the USA, because no one would take it seriously—and it would simply be taken as another art prank.

At the moment, we are leaning to towards a position where all kinds of art are significant as art (and for life), not as morals or as politics (for society or for the market or academia). Bad moral or bad charity work might well be good art—just as a successful social intervention may or may not be. But we think that this probably depends on the conditions of efficiency for the particular work at hand. [3] If The Yes Men are better off without art, that does not mean what they do does not have any significance as art; and if a work of “art funded activism” is better off claiming to be art, this does not automatically entail that it is noteworthy as art. We think everybody is welcome to call his or her activism art or non-art, and that the choice might be important for its efficiency. A successful choice will also contribute a bit to its significance as art, whether you choose to call it art or non-art. We believe activist art should aspire to being as efficient as possible in the social or political field, and also have significance as art.

It is obvious at the moment that this significance is difficult to determine. And this difficulty is probably the reason why many art critics resign to do so, and choose to talk about ethical values instead (rather than about politics). There is indeed a problem we’re facing today when it comes to collective, political and activist art. In art discourse, these works are mainly received, evaluated and interpreted in moral or ethical terms instead of political ones. And since critics do not grasp the politics at the core of these processes, they can’t even start to reflect on their significance as art. It will take more to solve this problem than just speaking more frankly. We probably have to return to a question that contemporary art has not asked for the past 10-15 years, at least not since 9/11: What is art, what is the efficiency and agency of art as art; what is art, not in its essence, but in its existence? This time around, perhaps the question should be reconsidered at the point where it converges with politics, specific situations and with some kind of collective process as the model for its subjectivity.


[1] We might need to stress the difference between the artist and their work here. There are numerous contemporary and historical examples where this might be a relevant strategy, not least from Eastern Europe. Also through withdrawal and open letters (recently in Manifesta and the Sydney biennale), and it is definitely the case there is a hegemonic (formerly Western) discourse around art which has a hard time treating strategies dealing with specific environments – but that is a perhaps a different discussion, as each example needs to be contextualized in order to make any sense.

[2] In Dependence – Collaborations and Artists´ Initiatives (ed. Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Torpedo Press) Torpedo Press, Oslo, 2013, p.133

[3] See for instance Beyond Dichotomies, towards ambivalence. Interpretations of Soviet art in today´s Lithuania, Linera Dovtdaityté, Recuperating the invisible past, The Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, 2012, pp. 75-85


Read more from Growing Dialogue: No Longer Interested

“No Longer Interested” by Steve Lambert – April 1, 2014

“Difference Not Indifference” by Mary Mattingly – April 2, 2014

“In Defense of Interest” by Harrell Fletcher – April 3, 2014

“The Strategies of Artspeak” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 4, 2014

“Sleight of Hand” by Jim Duignan – April 7, 2014

“What Do We Really Want?” by Steve Lambert – April 8, 2014

“Breaking Out of the Studio/Gallery Paradigm” by Harrell Fletcher – April 9, 2014

“Protecting Ambiguity” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 10, 2014

“Collective Power” by Mary Mattingly – April 11, 2014

“Time Traveling” by Jim Duignan – April 14, 2014

“Why Are You Avoiding the Question?” by Steve Lambert – April 15, 2014

“Taking On the World at Large” by Deborah Fisher – April 16, 2014

“What Artists Think Is Possible” by Harrell Fletcher – April 17, 2014

“Exploring the In-Between” by Jim Duignan – April 18, 2014

“Impossible Understanding” by Jonatan Habib Engqvist & Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen – April 21, 2014

“Inventive Contradictions” by Mary Mattingly – April 23, 2014

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Jonatan Habib EngqvistLars-Erik Hjertström LappalainenNo Longer Interested
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