The RDS of OLS for OPC
“I think this group activity, this gathering together, is a symptom of fear.”
-David Hare, “Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35,” April 21, 1950
This all began when I responded to a colleague’s paper on Hollis Frampton by suggesting that it would be great to hear more from her about the “rich discursive scene” that was the art world of the sixties and seventies. A few weeks later I was asked by the OPC to report “on the RDS [i.e. the “rich discursive scene”] that may or may not take place at the Our Literal Speed conference.”
By RDS I meant to signal the fact that artists were, by the late sixties, officially swimming in discursive production—reading it, producing it, incorporating it, arguing over it. In the early sixties Irving Sandler described the discursive space within which postwar art was inevitably produced and received as a kind of confessional culture, which he traced back to the New York School and their compulsion toward group discussions and publications. By the late sixties that causal marriage of art and discourse had become institutionalized. Artforum moved from Los Angeles to New York, art journals in general—Art News, Art International, Arts Magazine—began, with the help of an influx of private money, expanding their circulation and reaching out to a younger audience, and artists started moonlighting as art critics. Which is to say, distinguishing the non-discursive product from its discursive reception was becoming increasingly problematic.
That artistic production cannot and should not be extricated from its institutional, discursive reception seems to be a key conviction at work in the constellation that is being called “Our Literal Speed”—OLS for short. For, despite the multiple disagreements and mutual skepticisms that were expressed during the conference, the people who gathered for OLS—scholars, artists, activists, students—seemed committed to the idea that what we say about art, how we present it to each other, what kinds of public statements grow up around it actually matter.
Rather than reporting on each of the details of the three long days that comprised OLS in its Chicago manifestation, I’d like to say a few words about what it was like to experience OLS’s RDS—what it was like to swim in it.
“My anxiety about this event has already started”
-Gregg Bordowitz, OLS, April 30, 2009
OLS did a good job on the first evening of marking out who was and was not in-the-know—or at least of creating the illusion of such a marking. The conference opened with a talk by art historian, “David Joselit”, played, to everyone’s surprise (or so I would later learn), by the performance artist Mary Ellen Carroll. But you had to know who both were in order to know that what you were watching was a performance by Mary Ellen Carroll and that what you were hearing was an actual paper written by Joselit, who sat silently in the second row (http://www.flickr.com/photos/artoridiocy/3490753490/).
Joselit’s paper was a pretty typical jab at corporate capital and the ease with which images of all stripes play into its agenda. The paper told of how the “art world”, encompassed in what Joselit named the “blockbuster-museum store-art magazine matrix,” acted as an “accomplice” to the “image production and consumption” that characterizes our “mediated” public sphere. By subjecting images to his own discursive matrix, Joselit (in the guise of Carroll) demonstrated images’ powers as well as their stupidity. Things fell apart, however, in the question-answer period, when “David Joselit” was unable to explain some of the most questionable of his claims—such as that images produced in the world of art and those produced in and for the world of politics function with little to no difference. When Joselit refused to step in, in any form, to explain himself, the audience was unable to offer a rejoinder to his polemical talk. Instead Joselit continued to sit quietly in the second row, sometimes scribbling notes, while his avatar fielded any dissension (most of which came from Anne Wagner and Tom Mitchell).
It was then that whatever demarcation of togetherness had initially been achieved in distinguishing a group in-the-know from one not in the know—students, non-art historians, those of us who did not attend the first iteration of OLS at Karlsruhe, Germany—quickly disintegrated. For one began to wonder, as Gregg Bordowitz stated, who exactly was the target of this gag. The tone was set that first night as tense and cautionary, though there was an excitement too. People were talking and perhaps with more freedom than they would have if Joselit had been at the podium. As the days progressed I began to wonder whether the kind of community forged out of that initial pulling-apart wasn’t actually something very like togetherness after all. No one said that togetherness was supposed to feel good.
“The notion of a shared project makes me nervous. We’re all in different worlds.”
-Juliet Koss, OLS, May 1, 2009
The second day of OLS was 14 hours long. It began with some very sound art history—delivered by Juliet Koss and Eve Meltzer—went through a few moments of awkward confrontation and ended late, with two somewhat self-indulgent statements by Alexander Dumbadze and Art & Language (performing in absentia).
The RDS on display on the second day might be characterized as “self-indulgent” overall. In that it was, by turns, self-referential, theory laden, and attention grabbing. There were moments, as on the first day, when a group of insiders seemed to be gestured toward. But there were also moments when, I can only assume, the majority feeling was that of the outsider. And, indeed, the possibilities of coming together, of sharing a discursive space or creating one seemed constantly in question.
What words we decide to use in common and whether such a decision is required or even possible was a sticking point, for example, in the morning session, which led to the further question of who “we” are and what right we have in incorporating others into our first-person claims. This question applies directly to how art historians and artists configure their lines of critique—whether, as Bordowitz reminded us, we describe culture’s relation to (ostensibly) extrinsic structures, such as capital, as ideological or hegemonic.
I take such a question to have been behind Tony Cokes’s decision to conclude his joint presentation with Andrew Perchuk with passages taken from Thomas Frank’s “Bush, The Working Class Hero” (http://www.newstatesman.com/200408300012). Frank asks in his essay, which tries to explain the irrational choice made by Kansans to vote George W. Bush into office, “How could so many people get it so wrong?” Frank distinguishes a “we” in his text—a group of rational thinkers capable of properly making decisions based on “our” best interests—from another, less rational group, i.e. Kansans—I’ll admit to being among this class of people—whose decisions often work against their best interests (i.e. in their supporting a party that regularly organizes against working-class interests). Cokes’s inclusion of the Frank text in his presentation acted—in my reading of it anyway—as a reflection on how we treat our “objects” of study, as well as how we figure or define the rational versus the irrational in political (as well as cultural) decision-making (http://supervalentthought.com/2008/11/09/political-happiness-or-cruel-optimism/).
While the conversation that followed the morning’s presentations did, as I’ve already noted, address the question of “we”—“who we are” as art historians and how that inflects our decision-making (Koss), whether we are “working on the same problems” (Bordowitz), what our “responsibility” is to establishing a language in common (Joselit)—these questions of group identity were never connected to the questionable incorporation and disincorporation of a group of rational thinkers at work in Frank’s project. Understanding that Frank’s confidence in distinguishing his rational from others’ irrational decision-making is related to our own approaches to art making and art writing would have required us to think in greater detail about what our responsibilities are to each other and the subjects we seek to engage. As the day wore on, however, the persistence with which this question was evoked—the question of how and for whom we write about and produce art—made me wonder whether somebody weren’t, consciously or not, trying to make a point.
“Um. I don’t have an avatar. I don’t even know where to get one.”
-Hal Foster, OLS, May 2, 2009
We (some of us anyway) learned during the first session of the third day that what had been an extraordinarily participatory experience during a session with Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn the evening before actually came with a hitch. Organized by artist Tania Bruguera, Ayers and Dohrn spoke to a large group gathered at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart about activism, optimism for Obama and our responsibilities as individuals at this moment and in this country (Ayers: “Obama’s not going to save us, but with any luck we can save Obama.”). The conversation was lively, conversational and at times confrontational. Two young men were particularly disruptive, shouting from the audience and demanding that Ayers and Dohrn take into account the ever-expanding conditions of global capital and acknowledge the waning effectiveness of in-the-street activism and individual choice. There was also a middle-aged man who demanded to know what we would to do with all the loosed “killers” if the kind of prison reform supported by Ayers and Dohrn were fulfilled. Other audience members joined in—Hamza Walker put the middle-aged man against prison reform to bed, others were confessional, didactic, angry. Things got dialogical. At least that’s how it felt.
During the question and answer period after the morning’s session the following day, however, Rainer Ganahl stood up and said he wanted to discuss what had happened the night before. It appears that after the event at the Merchandise Mart it was revealed (to some but not all) that several of the audience members who had responded to Ayers and Dohrn had been planted by Bruguera—I’m guessing the angry young men and the gentleman who expressed doubt about the practicality of prison reform, but what do I know.
We spent some time that morning discussing how this revelation made us feel and the value that it may or may not have for us. The discussion followed well from a lecture delivered that morning by Carrie Lambert-Beatty on the “para-fictional” in art and its Milgrim-esque overtones. We seemed to have returned to Bordowitz’s fear, expressed that first evening, of being the butt of a joke. But, the point was made, would any of us have raised our voice to Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn without the confrontational plants? That is, could the alienating tactics to which we were subjected have actually engendered a kind of dialog not otherwise possible? And could these recursive and tentative gestures toward the possibility of community and conversation be the RDS that OLS’s organizers, with their enthusiasm for the present, the literal and the non-functional, were reaching for?
“How imaginative have we been?”
-Darby English, OLS, May 2, 2009
Among the many performances and lectures that comprised OLS only Darby English’s attempted a non-discursive intervention. His “performance,” as it was termed in the program, was an automated Power-Point presentation of a series of images interspersed with questions and statements, written, it is presumed, by English. The images came mainly from two sources: scenes that looked to have been taken from the Civil Rights movement—the burnings buses of the Freedom Riders—and installation photos of an exhibition that may have taken place a little later in that same decade—an exhibition of “post painterly” abstractions and proto-minimalist sculptures. The sparse text that accompanied the images expressed an impatience for overly skeptical receptions of art and critical stances that assume themselves to be above rather than enthralled with the illusionistic. And then the question: “How imaginative have we been?”
Again a “we” is designated. We who share a common obligation to each other and the objects we study/produce; we who cared enough or summoned enough curiosity to gather together for these three days of comedy, abuse, didacticism and, at times, inspiration. How imaginative have we been? The images on display in English’s presentation—burning buses, minimalist paintings—put the question to us as well. Have we been imaginative enough to think past the given-ness of representation? To not simply reject our illusions, but to seek, jointly, to create new ones? To risk our lives for the most pedestrian of freedoms? To abandon medium specificity and its histories as an assurance of meaning? To believe in the power of symbolic action? To imagine that there could be a real, shared commitment between the burning buses of the Freedom Riders and the abstractions of the late sixties? To discover and describe the rich discursive scene that gave birth to both?