Friday, 23 May 2008


Art Writing Beyond Criticism, ICA London, 17 May 2008

If there is a crisis in criticism, then it wasn’t the framework for this one day symposium. Art writing, suggested organiser David Burrows in an upbeat introduction, had the same energy, creativity, and self-directed means as artist run spaces in the 1990’s. He suggested the symposium as something that didn’t capture or describe but called forth practices. It didn’t, he said, create a community but sought to establish a collection.

Art-critic, suggested Jennifer Thatcher, chair of the panel “Art Criticism Beyond Criticism”, was often a dirty word, associated with male patriarchs who saw the role as one of judgement through staid, tired, pseudo-academic prose. In contrast, Thatcher suggested, younger writers saw criticism as part of a dynamic field that also included curating and making art. David Beech, for example, had started writing inspired by heroes such as Art & Language, for whom writing was a way for artists to take control of the reception of their work. Later, hid criticism came out of a frustration that work in artist-run spaces was not being reviewed; and also that reviews were limited in style and format. Beech felt his tag line as an artist gave him a broader permission to write in a variety of styles: emphasising all that he was thinking at the time, feeling free to write without mentioning the works at all if it seemed appropriate. He said that, recently, he had come to think of each piece of writing as a campaign.

Sally O’Reilly similar combines art criticism, curating, and self-published projects, such as the journal Implicasphere. Her presentation focussed on criticism as an engagement in a broader history of ideas; giving shape and focus to a love of writing and ideas otherwise almost silenced by a surfeit of possibilities. O’Reilly questioned whether the critic had any power, but she shared Beech’s desire for new forms such as the mock-interview, again because of the sense of freedom they contained. She cautioned against an over-reliance on historiography and description, seeking an act and a text of criticism possessed of “pub conviviality.”

The panel's two remaining contributors offered different models again. Cedar Lewishon traced his origins in art criticism to art school projects parodying the genre, that drew in method, style and attitude from the cut-ups of William Burroghs and the gonzo journalism of Hunter S.Thompson. He, too, had created self-published fanzines, and spoke of wanting to disrupt the conventions of art criticism - citing an interview in Flash Art with Tim Noble and Sue Webster where straightforward criticism gave way to a mock fight with Noble. Underlying all these strategies, Lewishon said, was a concept of text as a fictional way of describing the art work. Patti Hunt, meanwhile, suggested the crisis of criticism was a PR problem. She suggested replacing art critic with the term spin doctor. If her writing derived forms and influence from a range of popular culture and literature, her sense of the critics role also saw nothing wrong with being an extension of marketing, and advertising. Enamoured of the art market, Hunt felt critics exerted power through catalogue essays, positioning and shaping the context through which an artist was perceived.

Hunt’s views prompted a lot of the following discussion. Sally O’Reilly countered that it was important to fight writing as marketing, that the reason behind projects such as Implicasphere was to reposition the critic in the history of ideas, away from an endless focus on single artists and new objects. She also felt Hunt was failing to take responsibility. Instead of questions of power, David Beech talked of critics participating in “a discursive formation that determines visibility.” Responsibility thus became a matter not of the so-called truth of ones critical opinion but to a particular context and way of working. In retrospect, this was the most focussed session of the day because ideas and practices were always related to specific working contexts of magazines, catalogues and self-publishing.

The next panel – “Fictionalising Practice and Politics” - began with John Russell, who outlined a strategy of “fictioning” and of an art writing inhabiting a space “before ideas became ideas.” Russell traced how his ideas had emerged from following threads of cultural theory from J.L.Austins speech acts, through Judith Butler to Deleuze and Guattari, sketching out an attitude in which language had the substance of an action; was collective rather than individual. For Russell, art writing connected to notions of performativity, language shifting between territorializing and de-territorilizing, between a language that commands and one that replaces a concern with truth with its own presence as gesture. It was a theory for the individual writer, as it was for the broader editorial strategy behind Broken Tears, the three 900 page volumes of art writing that Russell has edited.

Maria Fusco, editor of Linguistic Hardcore, said she had talked too much recently, both about the Art Writing MA she organises at Goldsmiths College– she hoped someone in the audience could suggest a different term – and her practice of fiction as a critical strategy. So she read a story. It was simply and directly written, evoking allegory and fable, and as she read I was reminded of Borges or sections from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In this context, however, I felt a tension between experiencing the story as story and translating it into an art writing methodology. Fusco herself was aware of these tensions, of the vulnerability in choosing to communicate through story telling. In the discussion she spoke of the danger of producing “crap fiction and crap theory,” but asserted that fiction was the best tool for a cultural activism of “prodding.” In an article in Fillip 6 Fusco relates her interest in fiction to a stategy of “anti-suspense” which breaks with expectations of character and causal connection, replacing them with a “cruising the surface [of text or artwork] in whatever combinations prove to be the most satisfying, useful, and most importantly precise at any given reading”.

Finally Simon O’Sullivan spoke of art writing needing to avoid Lyotard’s “interpretosis.” O’Sullivan’s texts for artists Cathy Wilkes and DJ Simpson wrote with and parallel to the art work, not interpreting but finding an appropriate style through which the writing could have some of the “affective charge” of the work itself. O’Sullivan’s theoretical framework positioned art writing as an example of Deleuze and Guattarri’s minor literature, which, like Russell, saw art writing as engaged with a collective, political sense of language undermining and defamiliarising dominant forms and styles. Particularly interested in nonsense, stuttering and stammering, O’Sullivan also saw art writing converging on performance as it sought to operate on the edge of what is see- and sayable.

The third and final panel – “Speeding, Cutting and Correction Fluids” - pursued art writing to the point where it dissolved almost unidentifiably into an eclectic range of cultural and artistic practices. Paul Buck offered his artistic autobiography in which, as a writer, he became frustrated by the lack of opportunities to practice a writing attentive to the visual and spatial properties of language, turning to the art world as a space where “you can do anything.” He suggested that engagement with a diverse range of artistic practices – Buck cited Victor Burgin, Leo Kosuth and Pina Bausch – could produce a more direct, engaged, immediate writing. Embodying this, Buck walked around the space as he spoke, scrawling notes on large sheets of paper, tearing up newspapers and sellotaping them to the doors. He wanted to write on the wall, but didn’t feel it was permitted at ICA.

John Cussan presented an introduction to the work of Bughouse, an artists’ collective much interested in intersections of technology and spiritualism. As regards art writing, Bughouse highlighted issues around the generation of masses of material and the difficulties of collective editing; between the desire for crafted, finished objects and texts remaining open, whose status as collectively produced makes them resistant to such desires. As an example Cussans presented a project in which Wikki page served as a forum for a synchronous reading of Deleuze's Difference and Repetition. During Cussan’s talk I noted a whole set of productive ways of thinking about art writing that none of the days other speakers had mentioned: a practice based around key words such as obsession, surveillance, addiction, the play between “real politics” and “fantasy politics” and, erm, insects.

Finally, Neil Chapman read a text similar in tone and presentation to Mario Fusco’s, around an invented person entitled Jimmy Chism. Comprising number sections, its sections offered a variety of forms: fable like stories; quotes from George Perec and Alain Robbe-Grillet; extracts from the diary of Jimmy Chism; re-workings of found text; proverbs. It was an engaging form, constantly moving between language situations, demonstrating a fluidity between experience and commentary; observation and self-reflection. Such movements were also those of the day as a whole, which was provocative but deliberately left unanswered awkward questions concerning the viability, possibility, and desirability of the diverse collection of practices its contributors called forth.