AAA Corp, TransmissionTour, The Wages of Fear #01

The Use-Value of Art

There must be something to Jung’s idea of synchronicity. Or did my brain store away some dim memory of a press release? In any case, after last week’s exposition of my categorical risk concept –inspired by the Lee Lozano exhibition at P.S.1 — here is an exhibition on related matters, “The Future of the Reciprocal Readymade,” curated by Stephen Wright for apexart (291 Church St., south of Walker, to April 17.) Yes, there is art outside of Chelsea. This nonprofit in Tribeca specializes in guest curators who produce thematic shows, often of dubious thematics but sometimes very interesting indeed. The current show is exceptionally adventurous. You should also know that the subtitle, “The Use-Value of Art,” refers mostly to Duchamp, not Marx or Hegel: specifically the great Dadaist’s 1916 note to himself to “use a Rembrandt as an ironing board.”

“Reciprocal Readymade” consists of works by eight, relatively anonymous art collectives. The curator claims they produce works that, though informed by art competency, are usually not perceived as art. I say “relatively anonymous” because in two cases you can go online and find some names.

How does the curator gets around the paradox that he is showing works of art that are not meant to look like art, in an art gallery where they are, of course, perceived as art, or at the very least as art proposals? Critical Art Ensemble’s Contestational Biology Project has already been on view at the Corcoran in D.C. in 2003. Although it is not clear if the piece was actual discarded gasoline containers and/or photographs of them, xurban‘s The Container Uncontained was included in the 2003 Istanbul Biennial.

Here’s the solution: Wright cleverly writes in the glossy apexart four-fold that the exhibition is intended as a resource: “…What should a project that sees art as a latent activity, rather than as an object or a process, physically look like? More like a walk-in toolbox than an exhibition; like an open toolbox, full of the ways and means of world-making.”

Taking a cue from the Rembrandt ironing board idea, which suggests that art can be made to have uses other than the standard ones, I’d say that we have already been here before — for example, with Hans Haacke’s real estate analysis and art-system documentation pieces, not that these ideas cannot be further explored. More problematic and more inspiring is the apexart essay subtitle “Art Without Artists, Without Artworks, and Without an Artworld.”

In some cases, we have art that is so much like political protest that it partakes of categorical risk. It becomes art by calling into question whether it fits into the art category. I am thinking in particular of Critical Art Ensemble’s attempt to reverse-engineer genetically modified canola, corn and soy plants. Critical Art Ensemble also publishes somewhat opaque books of the philosophically anarchist sort, but maintains a nonsaboteur, non-eco-terrorist stance they prefer to call Fuzzy Biology Sabotage. The Flesh Machine, available free on their website under Book Projects, is here the most relevant.

A second example of categorical risk would be the giant poster handout produced by Bureau d’etudes (Paris). It maps all kinds of international “world government” connections. World government means “an intellectual complex, which is able to coordinate, accumulate and concentrate the means for defining the norms and determining the development of capitalism.” It’s a huge and detailed flow-chart that links governments, corporations, families, think tanks, etc. It’s free; the shock here, I imagine, would be receiving it free on some street corner. You certainly couldn’t take it all in, but it would have a certain weight.

Third, I would select Grupo de Arte Callejero (Buenos Aires) for their genocide project maps, and stickers pointing out the homes of the still surviving and, one assumes unpunished, government participants in the disappearances that took place during the late dictatorship.

I have already mentioned above the problematic nature of the work(s) of (Turkey). Their website, proclaiming that it is an Istanbul/New York portal, documents the trail of illegal petroleum containers. The giveaway is the reference to Foucault, which means the site is too fashionable to be art that tackles categorical risk. Communication does not equal art.

AAA corp. (Saint Etienne, outside Paris) makes patched-together mobile radio studios and silk-screens to advertise the station and the programs, reminding one of hippie or guerrilla theater. Therefore, whatever they are doing can’t really be art, can it?

The Yes Men(Paris) are represented by a dumb deck of cards: George Bush Sr., Rupert Murdoch, Saddam Hussein, Michael Powell (head of FCC), Thomas Hicks (vice chairman of Clear Channel), and others. The Yes Men website is even more fun if you want the call-for-proposals for new coin designs issued by the U.S. Treasury Department or need to know exactly what to do on international Phone in Sick Day. Anticorporate pranks? Can’t be art!

Most moving, however — yes, even reciprocal readymade art can be emotional — is a video piece by The Atlas Group (Beirut). Their website proclaims the group was founded to document the contemporary history of Lebanon. Hostage: The Bachar Tapes is admittedly a fictional recreation of an interview with an Arab hostage. But I Only Wish I Could Weep by Operator #17 is sheer poetry, whether fictional or not. The tape was supposedly sent to The Atlas Group by Operator #17, who was employed in 1992 as one of the camera operators secretly filming people walking along the Comiche, Beirut’s seaside walkway: “the favorite meeting place of political pundits, spies, double agents, fortune tellers and phrenologues.”

Operator #17 was caught panning to sunsets instead of staying focused on the people, seen here mostly as silhouettes against the sea and sky. He was fired, but allowed to keep his sunset footage, which is what we are shown.

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Art without artists is Outsider Art, Group Art or Collective Art

Art without artworks is leaflets that are all given away; ephemeral art; performances and Streetworks, but only if undocumented.

Art without the art world is unassimilated, non-European art and anonymous folk art, liturgical or meditational art; personal art and amateur art.

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Is what we see at apexart art disguised as a radio station, a contemporary history archive, a flow-chart, an oil container, sprouting seeds, political slogans, a deck of cards? Or are we really looking at a radio station, a contemporary history archive, a flow-chart, an oil container, sprouting seeds, political slogans, a deck of cards pretending to be art?

In other words, are the works political agitation disguised as art or art disguised as political agitation? Which work belongs to which category?

Finally, one might wonder if it is really necessary to view this exhibition. You need to see Ensemble’s pots of dirt, see the Bureau de’etudes handout on the wall — and take one from the giveaway wall-sleeve. Although the exhibition format provides a context of thought that the internet would not, most of these works could probably do just as well on the net. I don’t think its any less boring to read something on a wall label than on a computer screen. We know a photograph in a magazine or a book is different from one on a wall, but an image on a computer screen is different from both. Think about it. A computer screen is more like a lightbox than either a page or a picture on a wall.

If it weren’t for the fact that the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Dia Foundation, the Walker Art Center, the Whitney Museum of Art and other stately venues already offer art made specifically for the internet, one could say that internet art approaches categorical risk. It only does so when it doesn’t immediately look like art.

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