Friday, June 30, 2017

The Art of Withdrawal

 A talk for Patrick F. Durgin’s “Poetics of Agony” course at The Art Institute of Chicago, 10-29-2015

I. Questionnaire (in the spirit of Ben Kinmont)

[Write about each of the following prompts for 5-7 minutes]

1. What are the limits of what we can call “art”? Can art be anything, or do you draw the line somewhere?

2. Have you ever attempted to make art and realized you were making something that was not art? If so, explain. Conversely, have you ever done something that seemed independent from your art practice and then realized it was art?

3. Have you ever made art with a particular community or with collaborators? What did this involve? Did working with others present moral, ethical, or sociopolitical challenges that you do not normally encounter when making art? If so, please describe.

4. To what extent should the artist be considered a worker?

5. What is the relationship between art and value? What values should art have that do not obtain within our current economic and social conditions?

II. Withdrawals

This talk attempts to contextualize a book that I have been working on officially for the past year and a half, and unofficially for much longer than this, at least since 2008, when I was starting to think critically about what Ben Kinmont’s calls “alternative economies” for art and poetry. The “Art Strike Anyone?” piece published at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet weblog, that some of you may have read for today, came out of this period as an attempt to catalyze poets to think beyond existing institutional frameworks and formats for poetry. At the limits of this thinking was the poet’s “withdrawal”: not just the withdrawal of their work and labor power, a gesture explored by artists’ strikes such as that undertaken by the Art Workers Coalition in 1969, but also their withdrawal from poetry as a habitus limiting what poets can do to effect social change through their work. More than anything else, I wanted to stop making poetry for the page and for public recitation and do something else as a means of experimentation with my own sociality and the possible sociopolitical functions of my vocation. If I stopped writing poetry (and all the other stuff that comes with being a poet: editing, curating, scholarship, teaching, etc.) perhaps I could do something else of value, which might also transform how poetry was valued. The trouble is, when one does something like this, unless they have already produced a recognizeable body of work, the decision to withdraw is not valued. What did it matter whether or not I, a veritable ‘nobody,’ withheld? Nevertheless, this was what I was interested in doing, if only hypothetically. And it is still something that interests me very much, as a limit or horizon of my art.

I have a number of different points of entry into this problem of withdrawal. I’ll describe a few of them briefly, in order to move more quickly to the substance of my talk, which revolves around the artists Lee Lozano and Ben Kinmont. At the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics Program, which I attended with Patrick [F. Durgin] from 2000-2005, I encountered the work of numerous poets who seemed to withdraw at different stages of their careers. Laura Riding Jackson, a contemporary of Gertrude Stein and many others, published hundreds of poems only to declare her “renunciation” of poetry, after which time she wrote philosophical and linguistic tracts that sought to articulate linguistic essence, the essential meanings of words. I often wonder if these subsequent books do not extend the poetry in vital ways, getting to the central pursuit of the poems themselves (truth, or the ineffable) by other means? Might these books in fact be a kind of poetry, though they would purport to be philosophical and linguistic tracts? The status of Riding’s body of work in relation to questions of genre and supplementarity (how the poem itself is added to by other modes of written and spoken discourse) is one that persists. We might call her work an early instance of “poetry in the expanded field,” whereby poetic works encompasses other disciplines and discourses resituating poetry discourse in the process.

Another poet who was important to me at this moment for countless reasons was George Oppen, who famously stopped writing poetry for 25 years while he fought in WWII, worked as a labor organizer for the Communist Party, and eventually fled with his family to Mexico during the McCarthy era. Most of Oppen’s poetry in fact comes after his 25-year hiatus, producing a strange temporal effect within his body of work, much of which looks back at that unaccounted for time when he was not writing. Another poet who we may talk about in terms of poets’ withdrawals is Arthur Rimbaud, who at the ripe age of 26 emigrated to Africa to become an arms traded, dying only a few years later. Rimbaud’s contemporary, Stéphane Mallarmé, compared his renunciation of poetry to an “amputation.” The literary theorist Maurice Blanchot was fascinated by Rimbaud’s withdrawal from poetry, as it indicated to him a disavowal of the poet’s vocation: to encounter the “impossible”:

The other side is that the artist who willingly exposes himself to the risks of the experience which is his does not feel free of the world, but, rather deprived of it; he does not feel that he is master of himself, but rather that he is absent from himself and exposed to demands which, casting him out of life and of living, open him to that moment at which he cannot do anything and is no longer himself. It is then that Rimbaud flees into the desert from the responsibilities of the poetic decision. He buries his imagination and his glory. He says “adieu” to “the impossible” in the same way that Leonardo da Vinci does and almost in the same terms. He does not come back to the world; he takes refuge in it; and bit by bit his days, devoted henceforth to the aridity of gold, make a shelter for him of protective forgetfulness.

Blanchot’s Rimbaud presents a case of the poet whose work has taken them to a limit where they can only attempt in vain to recover some sense of “identity” and protect themselves from the demands of continuing to work, which for Blanchot entails an ongoing encounter with death as the ultimate “other.” Kristin Ross, a scholar of Rimbaud’s work and his milieu, offers a quite different take on Rimbaud, whose withdrawal to Africa is for her a physical-geographical extension of the lines of flight that appear throughout his poetry. For Ross, Rimbaud’s poems were always “out of work” as they sought from the beginning to disrupt the poet’s labor as an activity autonomous from the production of a social body that would resist the dual processes of expropriation and colonization. As Ross writes of her book, The Emergence of Social Space: Arthur Rimbaud and the Paris Commune: “My study began with Rimbaud and what I took to be Rimbaud’s flight from l’être poète: a flight that took shape, as I came to realize not with his famous silence, his departure for Africa, but in 1870 when he wrote his first poem. Rimbaud left literature before he even got there.” [my italics] Furthermore, in the chapter of her book entitled “The Right to Laziness,” Ross writes:

“Workers” in this identificatory structure are not those whose time/space is rigidly defined and allotted by a dominant class; they are people who have become aware of their position in a structure of oppression. Rimbaud’s identification is with a group-subject whose joint activity is not work but in this case combat. “I will be a worker”: it is only at some future moment when the project of new social relations, a radical transformation in the structure of work, has been achieved that Rimbaud will be a worker; now, however, he refuses work. But the refusal of work is not an absence of activity, nor, obviously, is it leisure since leisure reinforces the work model by existing only with reference to work; it is a qualitatively different activity, often very frenetic, and above all combative. (59)

To write a poem for Ross’ Rimbaud was to combat an existing system of labor based on surplus value and commodity fetishism. It was also to do battle with the idea of aesthetic autonomy that would reify artistic labor as discrete or independent from a collective social body. To write poetry was to deregulate (or derange) a value system based on the commodity and the subservience of one’s social being to surplus value. Rimbaud’s attack on aesthetic autonomy and the system of commodity exchange which it serves is paralleled in contemporaries such as the painter Gustav Courbet, who stopped painting to undertake administrative work crucial to the functioning of the Commune. Courbet’s withdrawal from painting—the fact that he stops painting to administrate for the Commune—like Rimbaud’s taking leave of literature, effects a negation of art’s presumed autonomy as the artist is figured simultaneously as specialized laborer (artist) and communard (member of the social body). The fact that Courbet leaves art, creating a hiatus within the production of his ouevre, forces one to reevaluate the artist’s social function bringing to the foreground possible relationships between the artist’s painting practice and his sociopolitical commitments and actions, where these two realms can no longer be maintained as independent. In the work of the poet Brandon Brown and others with whom I was corresponding when I wrote many of the poems in Withdrawn (the book of poems which precedes the book I have been referring to in this talk), Courbet appears an untimely contemporary in relation to the events of 2011 on—namely, the Arab Spring, Greek Summer, and American Autumn/Occupy Movement—as he prefigures a poetics of sociopolitical forms, demanding that the artist reconfigure and withdraw their practices in response to the emergence of social movements.

Many of the artists whom I write letters to in Withdrawn a Discourse have been identified with “socially engaged art,” “social practice,” “participatory art” and other labels for recent aesthetic practices that have prioritized their social character and have attempted to intervene in various sociopolitical contexts, using art as both a medium and a platform for social change. One of the letters is to Beka Economopoulos, of the New York-based art collective Not an Alternative, who appeared in a panel in the spring of 2011 on “useful art,” for the opening of Tania Bruguera’s Immigration Movement International storefront in Corono, Queens. Economopoulos’s presentation made an impression on me for its discussion of “useful art” (Brugeura’s term for art that performs a specific social function) in relation to questions of authorship and the reproduction of capital within art discourse. One of the strategies she identified as being necessary for Not an Alternative’s practice is the withdrawal of the group’s name from certain works, a prophylactic against any credit or capital that could be generated from the authorial attribution of their activities. Economopoulos said that it was necessary to withdraw their names to guarantee the success of certain social actions, where claiming the action as their own, and thus inscribing the work within art discourse, would compromise its efficacy. The withdrawal that Economopoulos identified through Not an Alternative is one that is crucial for understanding what Ben Kinmont problematizes as “an ethics of project art,” of which I will speak more about shortly.  

Not long before this, Primary Information published the notebooks of Lee Lozano, from the period in the late 60/early 70s when she was transitioning from her “Wave Paintings” to the writing, performance, and exhibition of her various “Language Pieces.” And not long after, in the fall of 2011, I encountered a retrospective of Ben Kinmont’s at NYU’s Fayles library. I will speak about their work together now as a means of organizing some thoughts about artists’ withdrawals in relation to the problem of aesthetic autonomy and radical practices in contemporary art discourse.

III. From Dropout Piece to On Becoming Something Else (Lee Lozano & Ben Kinmont; Ben Kinmont’s Lee Lozano)

My reasons were to offer another reading of Lippard’s idea of conceptual art as a dematerializarion of the art object and, instead, suggest that perhaps, for some, it was actually not so much about the art object but about life, about a materialization of life.

—Ben Kinmont, from “The Materialization of life into alternative economies”

Lee Lozano’s oeuvre continues to exert much influence and fascination in both the poetry and art ‘worlds’. I will not rehearse the history of how she came back into the fold of art history, which is often pinpointed by the publication of Helen Molesworth’s article “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out: the Rejection of Lee Lozano,” in the Winter 2002 issue of Art Journal. The fascination that Lozano holds for artists and poets alike is symptomatic of a time in which many artists wonder whether any ‘outside’ exists to neoliberalization and the subsuming of ‘progressive’ and ‘revolutionary’ art practices and discussions by a marketplace. I think it also has to do with a widespread anxiety since the 60s about the “dematerialization” of the art work, especially where political and economic claims continue to be made for this dematerialization following Lucy Lippard’s coining of the term [site work by Lippard]. Additionally, we might say that there is a kind of fetish for the ‘dropout’ in art discourse. Which is to say, a fetish for failure, negation, exit, and “exodus” (Paolo Virno’s term). In many ways this fetish, what we might call the failure fetish, marks the avant-garde since its inception inasmuch as avant-garde discourses and communities are reproduced through transgression and negation of their own protocols and the compulsive testing of what art can be and who can be counted as an artist. In this way, the avant-garde coincides with political economy, in which value is created and reproduced through the rejection and overturning of previous values, forms, and products. Ultimately, Lozano’s Dropout Piece continues to hold fascination for scholars, critics, artists, and poets alike because it marks a limit of the avant-garde’s quintessential movement, its dialectic if you will: whereby what art is becomes visible through the fact that is ceases to be; that it is declared “not art,” or where its value as art becomes contestable among those who would count themselves or be counted as artists. When in doubt, artists have relied on this dialectic to renew artistic value (with or without an object). It is also through this dialectical movement that historically art’s autonomy has been challenged, as art discourse competes with, and is infrequently eclipsed by, other disciplines, activities, and modes of life.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s quotation of Marcel Duchamp at the beginning of Lee Lozano Dropout Piece gets at this idea: Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? The central antagonisms of the avant-garde, the kernel of its dialectical movement, revolve around this question. And I believe that this question has been complicated by the role of the marketplace since the 70s, when, not coincidentally, Lozano and others from the New York art scene, to lesser and greater extents, dropout. Forty years after Conceptual Art and its various progeny—institutional critique, project art, relational aesthetics, social practice, etc.—anxiety about when one is “in” and when one is “out” of art discourse is amplified as the result of the collapse of modes of life and political economy. One could narrate this history through Michel Foucault’s notion of “biopolitics,” where politics has become a matter of managing “life,” a project which overlaps with a 20th century avant-garde’s attempts to collapse life and aesthetic practices and the penchant of post-Conceptual artists towards forms of administration and management. One could also narrate post-Conceptualism’s history through the history of the Italian Workerists and Autonomists, who in the wake of 60s and 70s political struggles, and in the wake of post-Fordism, anticipate revolutions in labor and social relations that continue to shape our world. That many of the most radical strategies of the Workerists and Autonomists have been adopted by capital from the 80s on—namely, its trans-disciplinarity; its tendencies towards non-specialization, de-skilling, and ‘just-in-time’ production models; and its dependence upon “immaterial” and “affective” labor practices—echo the cooptation of critical art strategies since the initial moment of “dematerialization” identified by Lippard.

Lozano’s Dropout Piece, as Lehrer-Graiwer discusses in her book, also anticipates the art world’s convergences with various theatrical practices in the 70s. There is Performance Art of course, but there are also many artists working between art and downtown theatre, such as those highlighted by the Whitney’s 2013 show, “The Rituals of Rented Island,” curated by Jay Sanders. Additionally there is punk, which while being a pop cultural and subcultural discourse is also very much in dialogue with an historical avant-garde and contemporary art discourse. Inasmuch as Lozano ‘stages’ her dropout through the use of notebooks and through her undocumented appearance in the downtown culture of shows and parties following her departure from the art scene, Dropout Piece resembles a work of theater. Without the ‘drama’ provoked by these artifacts and the scale of her gesture (dropping out at the height of her notoriety), arguably the Dropout Piece would not exist, which is to say, it would not be visible through its consequences—the felt absence of an artist’s presence and influence among her peer group.

Lozano’s Dropout Piece marks an apotheosis of (avant-garde) art discourse because the work itself is fulfilled through the indexing of the non-presence of the artist. Withdrawal here becomes a positive quality, a substance or material to be nurtured and maintained. Without this maintenance, the sustained commitment Lozano demonstrated towards her renunciation, the work would not only not be a success, it could not exist. Which is to say, it could not become signifying or indexical in relation to its rehearsal (the previous “Language Pieces,” and especially those which also refer to forms of withdrawal and negation: Withdrawal Piece, General Strike Piece, and Boycott Piece, in particular, all of which precede Dropout Piece). That Dropout Piece may also have been conditioned by mental illness, which is widely speculated about but by no means sufficiently documented, in fact draws into question the agency of Lozano in the making of the work, calling into question an ethics of the work’s reception. Can we, scholars, critics, interested artists, in good faith say that Dropout Piece is a work of art where it is conditioned by mental suffering and economic hardship, such as that Lozano experienced in Texas following her departure from New York? Likewise, can one in good faith call Boycott Piece a work of art, where it is complexly bound up with her ambivalence towards social workers, who, as Ben Kinmont and others have underscored, tended to be women?

In the mid-90s, during a time when it was unfashionable to do so, Kinmont took an interest in Lozano’s notebooks. As he writes in the forward to Project Series: Lee Lozano, a pamphlet published by his Antinomian Press, which includes transcriptions of Lozano’s journals:

Then, in 1996, while working on a project with James Rondeau and Andrea Miller Keller at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Lozano’s name came up again. But this time, I was able to look at a photocopy of her lab books and read over what can only be described as a treasure-trove of work virtually unknown. Months later, James introduced me to Jaap van Liere and Barry Rosen, Lozano’s gallery representatives, and a series of conversations began around which a new appreciation and understanding of art practices in the 1960s and 70s started to emerge. Other artists usually not included in the histories, frequently edited out by even those who remembered them, began to call for comparison. People such as Stanley Brouwn, Lygia Clark, Chris D’Arcangelo, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Ian Wilson were those that came to my mind, resulting in the possibility for an interactive model in light of current activities in the 1990s. On a more personal level, I was also immensely relieved and pleased to have found earlier examples of an artist’s practice which considered issues of generosity, commitment, and dialogue, and, as if it wasn’t enough, all supported by her own careful documentation.

Kinmont, who participated in the Parasite group with Andrea Fraser, Renee Green, and others from 1997-1998, a group largely concerned with curating and documenting post-Conceptual Art practices, finds in Lozano a kindred spirit, someone with whom he feels affinity as a fellow “art dreamer.” Like Lonzano, since the late 80s Kinmont has been intensely involved with what we might call a “meta-discourse” of post-Conceptual Art and of a 20th century avant-garde more broadly.

Through various projects, Kinmont revisits the quintessential question raised by Duchamp: Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? Only we might say that Kinmont’s central question concerns what it matters whether something is called art or not, and at what point it is crucial to identify something as “not art,” inasmuch as art creation inflects a certain system of value and can alter the lives of those who participate in its discourse. Whereas Duchamp’s question is one of ontology (what art is?, what art can be?, who can be called an artist?) Kinmont’s is ontological and ethical (onto-ethical?): What does is matter what is called art? Who is affected by this nomination? For whom and what does this description create value?

One of the most poignant examples of Kinmont’s onto-ethical art is a project called “On Becoming Something Else,” in which he created a series of dinners, both private and public, in which chefs were commissioned to make dishes based on works of art by artists who in their careers “[became] something else.” These original dishes were made after the tradition of pièce montée (culinary dishes as sculpture). Preceding the creation of the pièce montée and subsequent organization of various dinners, Kinmont produced a broadside documenting his research regarding artists who transgressed the boundaries of their discipline to a point where what they were doing could no longer be considered “art,” i.e., “[became] something else”. Some of the artists Kinmont identifies in the broadside simply move into different professions through their art practice. For example, before Lygia Clark gives up art making to pursue a psycho-therapeutic practice, she is making art works and performances that draw extensively upon psycho-therapeutic techniques and discourses. In a similar manner, before the artist Hans de Vries becomes a farmer, he is making works with plants and investigating ecology. So there are also artists who become something else by embracing other disciplines and practices for particular projects (Carol Gooden and Gordon Matta-Clark become restaurant owners and managers for a brief time through their restaurant project, Food, for instance). More poignantly, Jon Hendricks and Jean Touche of Guerilla Art Action Group, while petitioning on behalf of political prisoners make a point to declare that their legal advocacy does not constitute an art work, thus marking a limit to the reception of their action within art discourse.

To become something else, one must withdraw. There must be something at the level of meta-discourse that marks a threshold between what is and is not art discourse, locating an “outside.” Curiously, when I asked Kinmont a couple nights ago if he considered Lozano an artist who became something else, he said that she “was not going towards something else” but “leaving [art discourse] to define what the discourse could or would be [without her?].” (my brackets)

There are many other instances in which Kinmont tests the thresholds of art discourse. He does so early on in his work when he washes dishes for people in their homes, as an exploration of the place of domestic labor in his society and its relation to art and performance practice. In multiple works he asks bystanders on the street and others from whom he has enlisted participation to consider whether a “conversation” can be art. He also asks the students in his social practice courses, as I have done here, what if anything they would not consider to be art, publishing surveys of their responses. In Ssshhhh, a work that he “reactivated” for the 2014 Whitney Biennial originally produced in 2004, he asks families to have a conversation and to mark the time and the day when the conversation took place. He then produces a certificate documenting the time and day of the conversation, the content of the conversation remaining private, withdrawn from any one other than the family. In founding Antinomian Press, Kinmont likewise raises the question whether the press is an art project or a publishing vehicle, and whether it matters how it is defined. In creating a functioning business, Ben Kinmont Bookseller, and categorizing the business in his archive under the ongoing work, Sometimes a nicer sculpture is to be able to provide for your family, he makes visible his own becoming something else as well as the ways that a business may be coextensive with one’s art practice. Like Lozano before him, who before Dropout Piece explored a series of “dialogues” with fellow artists as a means of “saying goodbye” to her milieu, many of Kinmont’s works effervesce as dialogues and conversation, much of which would not have a life as art works without their documentation within an archive. It is arguably through the archive that Kinmont constructs his own ‘stage’ for his works, a misc en scene for an art of threshold, meta-discourse, and leaving art, which is to say, withdrawing.

Before I conclude, I want to discuss one more project of Kinmont’s, which seems particularly relevant to the question of onto-ethical in art discourse, or what I have called elsewhere, in an essay I wrote for the Kadist Foundation about Kinmont’s work a few years back, “practiceable utopias.” Responding to the emergence of social practice in the 2000s, Kinmont drew-up a list of items for practicing what he calls “ethical considerations in project art.” It is still interesting to consider these items with regards to the evolving category of “social practice” as it becomes institutionalized and coopted by urban developers and the academic MFA mill. At their core, they may help us to think through the implications of withdrawal and becoming something else. One of the main criteria is one that has become widely recognized as a criteria for successful social practice projects, namely, the time involved in the work. Quantity of time becomes qualitative when working with communities in need, especially where abandoning a project prematurely can leave community “participants” and “collaborators” in the lurch, further compounding despair.
(Compare, for instance, the successful community projects initiated by Theaster Gates, Tania Bruguera, Mark Bradford, Rick Lowe and others, with other projects labeled “social practice”). Echoing Beka Economopoulos’s remarks regarding the withholding of Not an Alternative’s name from their work, Kinmont writes in a statement for his project “The Digger Dug”:

Looking back at myself, I wondered if it was possible to help others through an art practice and how a move outside of the institution might benefit or complicate the effort. So I spoke with a friend who was a social worker to ask for her thoughts on this question, and to hear what she saw as the difference between a professional social worker and an artist who wants to help someone through their work. She answered that it was actually difficult for an artist to help another because the concept of authorship was an obstacle: nobody participating in a project would want to be “authored” by another, no matter what the purpose.

At the limits of art discourse, and of social practice as a meta-discourse of Post-Conceptual  art practices, is the function of naming and of how the nomination of something as “art” creates value and therefore inequalities between those who have ostensibly withdrawn to become something else and those whom they would ostensibly wish to serve. What then continues to be the value of nominating what one does as “art”? If the artist’s purported goal is to “help people,” as Kinmont’s often is, at what point must the artist relinquish the category of art in order to benefit others? To what extent does their ability to help people depend on the maintenance of their artist identity in relation to a system of value? To what extent is the logic I have followed to its end fucked-up, to the extent that there are artists and art worlds that remain unrecognized and un(der)valued? Where are the “alterative economies” and invisible commons that render art history and its metadiscourses null and void, truly collapsing “life” and “art” through the practice of a social body “within but not of” our current socio-economic system?