Wednesday, 24 September 2008


Spread throughout the current issue of the excellent art writing journal F.R.David are a number of a short texts by artist Michael Stevenson and writer Jan Verwoert, with titles such as "The Bull and the Beginning of the World", "The Shareholder and the Jackal" and "The Lizard and the Eagle."  The first of these provides a taste of what such stories involve:

Leaving the pastures one evening the Bull came upon The Beginning of the World resting peacefully in the fading light of the day.

"Who are you to sit in my way!" roared the Bull as he stamped the ground with his hoofs. "Move, or I will end your miserable life with the powerful thrust of my horns!" 

"Do as you please," The Beginning of the World replied calmly. "But behold that when you do to me what you are threatening the end of this day will be the end of your days too, for never again will there be a new beginning." (19)

In an accompanying letter that Stevenson sent to Will Holder, one of the journal's editors, he explains some of the rationale behind the stories, and his own reading of the above tale:

[These] were written for my project at the Kröller-Müller, Lender of Last Resort. They encourage a more metaphorical reading of the installation - that is their most basic usefulness - Beyond this they are specific descriptions of the situation with the Kröller-Müllers - between patron and state and the enveloping financial crisis - very contemporary one would have to admit - I think the most beautiful is the first fable - for us the bull is the bull market - the beginning of the world is a Brancusi piece from the Kröller-Müller collection from 1924 - the year of the crisis - but it is also of course some kind of description of the original creative act - so creativity and the market - you could write volumes on this of course - (18)

Stevenson's letter  highlights a number of the ways in which such storytelling has become a prevalent contemporary methodology. It's a notion borne out by numerous other publications. Writing of her own practice of written storytelling within an art context,  Maria Fusco has outlined a methodology of "anti-suspense" - which both seems a little removed from the imaginative excess of Stevenson and Verwoert and seems to articulate such of the tension and resistance such a form deploys.  

As opposed to traditional narrative structure and its components of plot and character, Fusco talks of writing that enacts a "relief from plot" and can be:

... invested with a new life or critical trajectory, and a more profound cathetic and critical immersion, in which the spectator is encouraged to be always in the present rather than wondering what will happen at the end... [through] non-sequential narratives effectively reintroducing the reader/viewer to closer looking and calling for his/her presence in the present. (fillip 6, 22)

Last weekend I also picked up a copy of The Great Method/Casco Issues X (2007) a themed issue of an annual magazine produced by the Casco Office of Art, Design and Theory in Utrecht. It's a fascinating project in which artists including Martin Beck, Falke Pisano and Stuart Bailey are invited to "address the question of method (and methodology) in artistic practice, raising questions about its presence or absence, its ideological connotations and historical backgrounds, in order to examine some of the issues around creative production." (4)

The central source for this book-project connects it to the stories in F.R.David.'The Great Method' is a reference to the doctrine taught by Me-ti as it was described by Bertolt Brecht in the untranslated Meti, Book of Changes or Book of Twists (Me-ti, Buch der Wendungen, Surhkamp, 1983), a book of aphoristic dialogues that posit The Great Method - a name CASCO cannot but embrace with some irony - as 'the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process, and acceptance of the inevitability of change." (6). Or, as the artist Stephan Dillemuth puts it, in his essay on Brecht's book: "It seems he wrote it to demonstrate dialectics at work, and to negotiate his own doubts." (21)

Whilst there's a danger of conflating dialogue, fable, and conversation into a single genre, I do think, as the following example demonstrates, that Stevenson and Verwoert's  short stories and Brecht's use of Me-ti, are being evoked by contemporary artists because of some perceived shared methodology:

A student said to Me-ti: what you teach is not new. Ka-meh, Mi-en-leh and many others besides them have taught  the very same. Me-ti answered: I teach what I teach because it is old, i.e. because it is forgotten and because it is seen to be valid allegedly only for the past times. Isn't there a great number of people for whom this is totally new? (20)

So why use such methods? At first I thought of it as being a logical outcome of a meeting between storytelling and a participatory or relational impulse in contemporary art. The mode of address of such stories involve the sense of intimacy and participation of the traditional storyteller, but have none of its implied "we" or shared communal values. There's also - at least until everyone starts doing it - a sense of distance that comes from the insertion of such a form and style in an art magazine or gallery context. 

I also found it useful to think of such texts as a contemporary version of the minimal, fluxus scores by the likes of - amongst others - George Brecht, Yoko Ono, and Alison Knowles. Whilst those often comprised a single word or sentence, these new fables have a similar function but are more expansive, suggesting a willingness to engage with certain notions of subjectivity, whilst maintaining a certain distance and discipline shared with the earlier pieces. Fables also, I think, function as scores, acting out a perceived complex of issues and contexts, but perhaps more for their creators than for any audience. 

But above all - and it was rather startling to realize this - the use of such stories also addresses a need for a strategy of secrecy and subterfuge in the addressing of power. The different voices in Brecht's rendering of Me-ti enabled him to conduct a written dialogue with Leninism, Stalinism, and Socialism. Stevenson and Verwoert's tale's perform a similar function with regard to the different aspects of power in the art world. More broadly, they  speak to a cultural need to engage with culture through forms of projective, imaginative, ventriloquism, where broader public debates are replaced by a theatrical mono-dialogue conducted by different spectres of the self.  

Nor is this just something that effects these individual pieces of writing. One of the pleasures of F.R.David is that it explores such issues on the level of the magazine as whole, setting up a whole series of connections with the novel, both unifying the diverse contributions to each issue and compiling ever expanding agglomerations of voices and strategies.