Monday, 12 May 2008


This weekend sees a half day seminar entitled Art Writing Beyond Criticism at the ICA in London, which, in the words of its own press release:

examines the problems of contemporary art criticism and alternatives to standardised forms of professional art writing. These alternatives include art writing concerned with fiction, performative or formalised writing processes and also subjectification and subjectivity. The event will focus on writing practices and artists' publications emerging from London that might be thought of as responding to a situation in which art is increasingly 'surrounded' by explanatory, judgemental or informative texts.

Whilst the debates about art criticism have featured predominantly in recent issues of mainstream magazines such as Frieze and Artforum, such debates and magazines remain committed to criticism principally as an art of 700 word reviews largely uniform in form and style. Recently, however, I have read a range of publications which offer a different model of criticism. In preparation for this weekends seminar what follows is a compendium of some of the strategies and editorial identities behind such publications.

Material, a journal of “Texts by Visual Artists”, is edited in Los Angles by Ginny Cook and Kim Schoen. Their first issue offers thirteen essays of mixed form and style, true to the aims of their own editorial statement, which quotes the American poet Robert Duncan:

We are a home for divergent opinions, uses, and appropriations of language, encouraging “speculations and appreciations, rantings if need be, phantasies, lectures, nocturnes… and inventions.”

With the exception of “Do something that is easy to do”, a handwritten text by Andrea Büttner that translates a text by Dieter Roth, most of the writing in Material is content with its status as writing somewhat removed from the process of art making and art objects themselves. This is not a boundary observed in the second issue of F.R.David, whose Winter 2008 issue is themed around “Stuff and Nonsense,” featuring many language based works conceived for or appropriate for gallery exhibition, and whose own editorial statement focuses on a need for:

Writing as a mode that informs and feeds, supports and describes, backs up and interprets, comments and reflects upon contemporary artistic production. Writing as “core material” of a number of visual artists but equally as a mode that exists parallel to or in service of the visual.

Both these magazines explore art writing through a focus on the materiality of language itself. Editing their inaugural issue, Cook and Schoen found “that an unintended web of connections emerged among works. Regardless of format or voice, many artists are investigating ideas about materiality in their work.” In F.R. David “language is no more than a material force we simply encounter and come across, much like stone or wood, paint or ink, or the play of shadow, light and sound.” If this seems to have moved too far away from criticism, then it’s interesting to think what critical position could be reconstituted out of a belief in the materiality of language.

Other magazines respond to the issues surrounding art criticism by taking on a more curatorial role, which often means not an abandonment of critical writing, but a cultivation of more sustained relationships with a small variety of artists, and the positioning of critical writing alongside interviews and projects by the artists themselves. This has perhaps been demonstrated most elegantly by A Prior magazine. In an editorial for A Prior 11 in 2005, the magazine presented itself as:

filling the space between the exhibition on a fixed location and the more broadly oriented (superficial), widely distributed, art magazines. Not to replace the exhibition but to create a different presentation platform for reflection and experiment, as well as both artistic and theoretical contextualisation in and for an international context… to remain a document of something made by artists and authors.

Similar concerns inform the recently relaunched Janus, whose own editorial statement - entitled “not just for intellectuals" - is a working through of the issues raised in different ways by all the magazines explored here:

In a conversation we had recently with the French philosopher Régis Debray, he confessed to us that he thought Janus was far too attractive and seductive, by no means could it be a medium for intellectual work. The artistic cover and the amount of images impeded him to write for it. Ironically some months earlier the Belgian curator, Jan Hoet, told us that the Janus was a very nice magazine, but that it should invest more on the visual side, with a greater focus on the artworks.

We enjoy being somewhere inbetween these two positions, as we believe that it is the place to be, especially for a young editorial board, moved by the perception that traffic here is dense, and still somewhat undeserved.

Our boldness is a
datum, that is not necessarily always welcomed, but is also a sincere invitation to play. A playfulness that helps us release the publication from the expectations of presenting discourses that must have an impact on a single specific field of research. We highly value such work, but we cannot manage to do it without being a bad imitation. We prefer a holistic approach. That is why Janus is not an academic magazine, as Debray would advise it to be, and maybe is not even an art one, as Hoet envisions it to be. To us it is a fold that for however much we cut open is never entirely unfolded. We want Janus to expose its unorthodox construction, and to follow the vanishing points, that its unusual perspectives open up.

Thinking of art criticism in spatial and curatorial terms, replacing review-based criticism with a project based approach, suggests the magazine as a form of institution. This is demonstrated most effectively by Metronome magazine, whose editor Clémentine Deliss, in her editorial for Metronome 11: What is to be done? Tokyo constructs the magazine as:

A conduit for….[the] process of reflection and in Lenin’s terminology a collective organiser. “It marks contours of the structure and facilitates communication between the builders [or artists], permitting them to distribute the work and to view the common results achieved by their organised labour.” (Lenin, 1901) In this way, Metronome takes on certain characteristics of an embryonic institution understood as the formalisation of human endeavour within a collective context. Central to this process are the reflections and on-going experiments by artists and theoreticians to configure new fields of enquiry that create relational nodes and motivate the transduction of existing meanings… [the research] is aligned to a rising interest in the development of new common spaces, of institutions both local and international that provide civic protection and enable intellectual heresy within the same environment… With Metronome there is no distance that marks the evolution of ideas, the modes of dialogue, the choice of formal parameters, or even the channels of distribution.

Speaking practically, Deliss concludes by advocating “ a critical thinking which takes more risks with the written and spoken poetics of theory, rides the broncos of translation into complex foreign languages, and changes registers more often: those of listening as well as speaking.”

In writing about these magazines I have focussed on outlining editorial intentions and strategies, rather than the strategies of funding and distribution which are also central to each of these projects. The aim here, thinking towards this weekend's Art Writing Beyond Criticism, has been to delineate a space for criticism about which it is possible to feel excited.