Dienstag, 17. Mai 2011

Real life has no place in an art gallery

7pm, Tuesday 24th May 2011
Kunstmuseum Bern
Hodlerstrasse 8-12
3000 Bern 7, Switzerland

This debate takes place in the context of the exhibition Dislocación

Four cultural experts in two opposing teams debate and discuss what belongs and does not belong in a gallery. Each participant has been assigned a position opposing or defending the motion, and each has five minutes to argue their case uninterrupted. Thereafter the speakers challenge each other, and the audience may in turn question the speakers. The event ends with a vote for the more persuasive team.

This is a forum for discussing culture where the unspeakable may be said. Each speaker must play his or her assigned role, regardless of whether they agree or not. Speakers benefit from temporary immunity: what they say during the debate is not necessarily their opinion and they cannot be held to their word afterwards.

Art + Argument is an itinerant event bringing together exciting minds from the Swiss art scene and beyond. To know more, write to aoiferosenmeyer (at) gmail.com

Dienstag, 10. Mai 2011

Art + Argument at Galerie Edwynn Houk: the results

On a busy night for the Zurich art scene, a crowd of keen thinkers assembled at Galerie Edwynn Houk to debate the motion: Art is the world’s lingua franca.

Martin Jaeggi opened the case for the motion, citing the rapid global expansion of the art world in the past two decades, “so obviously art answers needs or is understandable worldwide”. Art is not the one-way street of popular culture, and one of art’s interesting qualities is its ability to absorb the forms and thoughts of other disciplines. Art “becomes a kind of meta-language that manages to synthesise influences from a rather broad range within culture, both western and non-western culture. So… I think this type of being a meta-language qualifies it in my eyes as a kind of lingua franca.” Against charges of elitism in the art world he noted firstly that the energy devoted to education and outreach programmes, not to mention publications of all degrees of complexity, proved this to be false. What is more: “this reproach [that art is elitist] just masks certain ideological prejudices: on the one hand, a very classic populist anti-intellectualism; on the other hand the sort of old Marxist, bourgeois-baiting with the attendant veneration of the working class who are supposed to be the scale that measures everything.” And with those fighting words Martin laid down the gauntlet to Nick Micros.

Nick created a moment of clarity in what was a dense debate by defining lingua franca, a second language for communication between communities, today English being used for international business, technology, aviation and culture, the term originating in the eastern Mediterranean region in the Renaissance era. The first lingua franca was primarily Italian, as Italian speakers dominated seaborne commerce in the Ottoman Empire. “So here we have a sense of lingua franca as a kind of lingual imperialism, something belonging to a dominant culture or society, imposed on other, weaker ones.” His statement was clear: “art by its very nature and because of all the things we desire from it, as well as the current state of affairs, never was and can never be a lingua franca, or a common language that bridges borders between nations and cultures.” In our times, “art can be defined as the intellectual and aesthetic investigation by individuals of the nature of existence. Its creators and supporters are mostly confined to a highly educated, informed elite with free time and money on their hands.” Nothing new here, as art has long been the property of the wealthy and the powerful, who have used it to their own ends. And that to the detriment of art itself. “Even today, culture is used improperly as an arm of the state. These may be unpopular views but still need to be stated.” But art itself is the key reason why it cannot be a lingua franca: “high profile art today has fallen into an overly conceptual, academic and conventional rut instead, cut off from all real feeling and mutually understandable aesthetics and thought. This reactionary isolationist movement has created a tremendous gap of understanding and resentment between the art establishment and the general viewing public.” Art has huge potential, but in its complexity, its fragility and its challenges to the norm, it “requires a different, more private, and frankly elitist kind of approach to presenting and viewing to preserve these necessary mysteries.”

The Border Crossed Us, a temporary public art installation by the Institute for Infinitely Small Things, Spring 2011, image John Solem

Emily, speaking despite a cold that nearly took away her voice entirely, opened by acknowledging the ability of some art to be hermetic and exclusive. “However, a dynamic set of new artistic practises, among the most exciting in recent years, in my mind, flips this scenario inside out, by placing dialogue itself centre stage. Tonight such work is my key evidence in arguing for art’s communicative and boundary-crossing powers.” She cited four examples: an alternative school set up in a non-profit gallery space in Los Angeles, whose success bred further schools elsewhere; Mark Dion’s archaeological investigation of the River Thames commissioned by Tate Modern; the replica of the USA/Mexico border constructed by the Institute for Infinitely Small Things on the UMass Amherst campus (and associated activities); an artist’s mapping of urban green spaces and poster campaign to facilitated access to them; and a familiar-sounding series of debates in Switzerland about the value systems underpinning the art world.

Whether these projects qualified as art was of little import to their initiators, but Emily suggested they were demonstrative of artists’ communication skills and the unique position from which they operate. Their profession affords them mobility and manoeuvrability, “a liberty to enter into new terrain or subject matter and to emerge with speculative observations or representations”. They are accustomed to reinventing their working methods continually, and finally, their conclusions tend to draw attention to things, “rather than forwarding concrete and didactic truths”. She closed by positing “that in the strongest cases artists are not only expert communicators but produce necessary forms of communication which aren’t merely straightforward solutions-oriented, results-based or profit-driven, but rather have the potential to uniquely bridge communities, open dialogues and stir debates.”

Debating under the eyes of a lady of Morocco by Lalla Essaydi

Nika Spalinger approached the same subjects from the angle of linguistics. “The language of visual art and its structures are extremely complex,“ she opened “and on top of that visual expressions are always – due to their nonlinear way of reading – ambiguous. That makes visual art in no way adequate as a lingua franca.” Design, in comparison, reduces complex, seeking “recognition and sedation of the spectator”. Design as a lingua franca is a poisonous element that by its immediacy enters the human unconscious and emotional sphere, and there “kills the faculties of differentiation which are the base of every culture”. She concluded “it is my conviction, that the future of mankind – sorry womankind – lies in the capability of translation, of the capability of being able to use and decipher the largest amount of different languages and to develop the utmost flexibility and sensibility needed for the translationary act. Therefore I also plead for a ‘translational turn’.”

The intense debate that followed touched on whether art itself communicates, or whether it requires mediation; whether if politically a hot potato art is nonetheless destined to be misunderstood; of art becoming popular culture; of art as an active or a passive entity; whether icons are universal or specific; and many other points. A growing consensus opinion of the ideal communicative role of art catalysed the vote, which the opposition, Nika and Nick won, though several members of the audience abstained.

Many thanks to all the debaters and to the audience for listening intently, and particularly to Galerie Edwynn Houk for generously hosting the event.