Sunday, 8 March 2009

Mark Leckey, Carey Young, A Couple of Juries and Nicolas Bourriaud

I wrote the extract below (after the dotted line) for another blog-thing about a month ago after having been to see Mark Leckey (last year’s Turner Prize winner) give a ‘performance’ at the ICA.

I didn’t post it here because it was only meant to be a springboard for a discussion about the uses of narrative within the unit I am attending at the AA, but Ive been thinking alot about the performance, and the thoughts it brought up, since reading about the aggressive responses that Nicolas Bourriaud’s exhibition (and accompanying theory) on the Altermodern at the Tate (Alter?)Modern have been receiving from the British press. He is apparently being called everything under the sun (thank you Momus for the lowdown), but a lot of the criticism seems to revolve around his stance supposedly 'not being subversive', and the quality of not being subversive seems to be being unquestioningly allied most often with adjectives like ‘boring’, ‘conservative’, ‘passé’, ‘flaccid’, ‘indulgent’ and ‘meaningless’, which I guess means that if you are subversive you are exciting, rebellious, fresh, erect/vigorous, tough and meaningful.
More After The Break...
Upon reading this I was transported back into the quivering me that had stood before his panel of critics at several university project presentations last year, and had been left speechless and unable to respond to two types of question; those aimed at revealing the ironic positioning which they assumed must be lurking behind the work, a distancing tool that would transform what I had made from a dangerous act of will and convention, into a knowing wink of elevated connoisseurship between the critics and the maker who would treat the material as an archive of objectified elements digested and commented on, but ultimately external to himself; and then there were the comments and suggestions which demanded that the work “do” something, that if it were not an ironically framed catalogue, then it needed to be a biting and subversive form of satire, it needed to fundamentally question, reveal, rupture and transgress the conventional frames of accepted meaning in which it operated, whether that be done through exaggeration or parody. I was designing a ‘church’ at the time, and I had no interest whatsoever in either being subversive, satirical, or of being critically detached from my material like some sort of post-critical anthropologist. I was eagerly, and rather joyously ploughing my way through the velvety sea of Catholicism, collecting strange specimens as I went, putting them together in my wunderkammer, studying them, forming slow and deliberate conclusions as to their origin, meaning and nature, and attempting to fashion their equivalents, their replacements, their genetically transformed progeny using all the tools at my disposal. It was like the reverse of discovering advanced alien technology and trying to replicate it with our backward capabilities: I was sitting at my desk everyday with these ancient constructs, trying to resuscitate them with a word processor, 3dimensional scanning equipment, STL printers, CNC mills, modeling programmes, image processing software, and DV cameras. I couldn’t reproduce what I found and instead strange things happened. The wunderkammer began to come alive with velvety androids and bionic spirits, and I was constantly exhilarated by their presence and as they multiplied I tried to trace their history, frame their existence, and build a space for them. I wasn’t in any way, at any point, thinking of undermining the places from where all those ideas and items had come; but I was also not blind to issues inherent in the subject (religion in this case, specifically Catholicism), and learnt as much as possible about them, and included them in the creative process as an integral part of life, as a part of any activity that the human hand puts itself to, a part that is natural and normal and not to be ridiculed whether it be a tendency towards formalized tradition, strict dogmatism or ritual condemnation. I could not answer those questions because they were looking for the revelation of an end towards which I wasn’t moving, in fact I was going somewhere very different, trying to get to a place that I am now seeing hidden inside more and more people as I get older, somewhere equal to, but separate from, the stance of ironical distance (questioning?) or the critical attack of a subversive intelligence, a place of positive construction, a gathering together rather than a tearing apart, an immersion rather than an observation. Mark Leckey seemed to be doing it, Carey Young was talking about it (as I saw it) at a conversation at the ICA a few months ago on ‘Institutional Critique’, and she said something quite lovely. There were two men and a woman next to her, two critics and a philosopher, who talked a lot and spun beautiful webs of theory around the notion that the duty of an artist is to be critical, radical, revolutionary and political. They all lamented the lack of such powerful artistic activities in today’s scene, to the point that they were arguing with each other as to why this wasn’t happening (never questioning whether such activity was or was not the desired outcome of artistic energy), even becoming so roused as to stop looking at each other while directing stingingly bitchy attacks at their opponents via the audience. When it finally came time for the only artist on the panel to talk, she (Carey Young) showed some videos of businessmen reciting lines in an empty office, a business lady sitting on a couch remembering advertising slogans about creativity, and as they concluded there was a palpable feeling in the room that this artwork was risible, that coming after the whole preceding argument they were precisely the kind of art that the philosophers had come into the room to deride: they didn’t undermine, they didn’t subvert, they didn’t even precisely question, they were simple and ambiguous and their indistinctness was only exaggerated by Ms Young’s refusal to talk very much about them. But she was confident, and as the conversation once again spiraled away from her towards Karl Marx and modes of production, she became agitated when one of the men on the panel used her work as an example in one of his arguments, and interjected asking firmly that if her work was to be discussed she should be allowed to position it correctly.
She explained that she understood the issues they were discussing perfectly well (summing up eloquently in two sentences what they had been ranting about for an hour), but her work was not aiming to achieve anything related to those issues. It was more about illumination than revolution, and since she was confronted by the blank faces of the other three on the panel, she proceeded to elucidate her interests with an example. When going to the Police protest outside Whitehall last year in which the British Police were demanding a pay-rise, or else would strike, she was totally taken aback by the moment when a series of Police cars drove past the protest in what would normally have been a threatening movement, but instead of being shouted at or jeered or even just ignored, were followed by a huge and spontaneous wave of cheering that followed them down the road like a Mexican wave. I found the example to be a revelation, especially following the elaborate asphyxiation of the previous discussion, a liberatory hole through which she offered the audience a way of seeing things, and while maybe being fully aware and even critical of what is going on, looking for and finding the positive poetics in a given situation which sheds new light on it with a searching sensitivity rather than a cutting abstraction. The other three on the panel looked at her the way a parent would look indulgently at their child, after they had said something amusing but stupid and irrelevant during an adult’s dinner. Quite a few posts back I quoted Cildo Meireles, and I’ll repeat it here: "In some way you become political when you don’t have a chance to be poetic. I think human beings would much prefer to be poetic." The rest of the panel were definitely not in a poetic mood. I have not seen Altermodern, I hope to see it next Sunday, but somehow I get the feeling that Bourriaud is walking in a place that many critics don’t understand either. From what I have read he is trying to forge positive roads and an expansive new framework for current creative endeavours, and whether the exhibition is boring or not, those extreme critical reactions against it make me want to see it far more than I ever would have otherwise. And incidentally I read less aggressive, but similarly dismissive (boring, dull, empty etc etc) reviews of Mark Leckey and the Turner exhibition in general last year. If art is getting more boring, how come I am enjoying it more?

I just want to add that the day before the Leckey performance, I had been on Windmill street to pick up an old Majolica frame into which I had had a mirror put, when I noticed a man standing on the edge of the pavement calmly surveying the street with a slightly theatrical stillness. Without thinking, I had stopped and looked at him, which I quickly realized was rude -and compromising if the man noticed, so I quickly scuttled off wondering what he had been doing. Was he being filmed, or just waiting for a cab and feeling very good about himself, and so watching the road in a quiet and lordly manner? I found out that evening, just before the start of the show, that Mark Leckey lived on Windmill street, and as he came out onto the stage I realized that it had indeed been him. He had just won the Turner prize and so I am guessing he had every reason to be looking at things, even the street outside his front door, with new and excited eyes. I haven’t seen him since, but I always imagine him there, still and slightly comical, in the corner of my eye as I am walking down Windmill Street.


Originally posted on AAIS group:

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending an event in which Mark Leckey presented a display that veered between a university lecture, a magic show, a fringe play put on by eager but underfunded students and a poetry reading; it was a choreography of representational types that was simultaneously generalised and diverse, as were the issues with which they dealt, namely the magic and power of representation itself and its indefinite expansion. He tied together discreet historical artifacts (from Felix the cat, the Long Tail Theory, to the Cloud Server and the Linked Lonely Individual) whose unique and objective place in history he explained with the verve of a scientist, but whose resonance and potency we were made aware of by the manner in which he linked them with each other in an unbroken chain of hypnotic reasoning. Incommensurate items from our shared history; incommensurate forms of representation; each standing apart discreetly and emphasised as separate units, whether by the use of momentary black-outs, sound effects or shifts in position on the stage, an aggregate in every respect the show’s various parts, its various bits of technology and pieces of theory were pulled up into one complete figure (like the various moods and opinions, unrelated and incoherent, which we nonetheless accept as a person, as resolved by virtue of being in a human body), into the monotonous voice, the affable normality of Mark Leckey, pulled up into a personal narrative which while always proffering facts as bait for our credulity would instantly pull them back into its own subject’s trajectory, dragging the audience along with him. It was the slow, quiet strength of his subjectivity which left me pleasured, the way that he drove through all the facts and forms of display with due attention and seriousness, but ultimately pulled them along with him in a considered interpretation, in an interpretation which did not get caught in any web of structural proofs for any of its facts or parts, but also managed not to, in fact didn’t get any where near an ironical rift between a constructed work and its distanced narrator who knows the piece to be just one of many possible interpretations: it seemed as though Mark Leckey was being EARNEST. Of course he is no doubt aware of the multiple nature of interpretation and of truth, but as he so beautifully stated at the beginning of the ‘show’, (something along the lines of…) “there was something magical about the change of an image from one medium to another, a kind of transubstantiation, for me at least, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since,” in other words he knows it to be his obsession, but he takes it seriously, he creates his narrative with an un-dogmatic belief which he attempts to share as best he can, but which he will never impose nor become critically distanced from. In the same monotone, at the end of the hour-long presentation, Leckey leaves all facts behind, lets go of all references and begins to speculate on an intriguing world which is the resolution to the Nth degree of his narrative’s tangent: it is a strange and wild proposition, but because it was delivered in the same voice, by the same hairy man, it fits.
I mention Leckey’s lecture-thing here because it ties into a way of dealing with narratives that transcends the post-modern paralysis of an infinite fragmentation of identity and markets, under the only possible unity of capital; as in the only possible narratives being that of a universal and disembodied rapacity, or of describing an infinitesimal sub-genre/group on its own. He deals with forces of the most general kind, but instead of assuming the impossibility of constructive critique and falling back into a satirical or ironical mode, he seems to assume the possibility of a poetic embedded in the system, of an archaeology, a gathering together of facts and theories aimed not at solutions or critique but rather at creating an acceptable and even beautiful mythology which offers a way of connecting back to real events via a journey through the system, a constructive, liberatory narrative through it, rather than a stinging and bitter commentary.


nicolas bourriaud said...

Many thanks for your point of view.
I only wanted to ad the following : I don't know where this "stance of not being subversive" comes from... I never said or write anything about me or the show being "subversive" nor "not subversive". It is just ridiculous. Sounds like a bad Dave Beech line.

All the best,
Nicolas Bourriaud

Adam Nathaniel Furman said...

thanks for commenting. I was reffering to a rather dizzying and exhaustive list of responses to the Tate show that were compiled on Click Opera ( for a series of posts that Momus was running on Altermodern, and definitely not to anything that Mr Bourriaud had said or had released himself about the exhibition. There was no intended implication that any intent had been aimed at either being subversive or not, only that amongst the people who had reviewed the show, some had partially judged it valuing that quality highly. Apologies if it reads diferently.