What confronts you, what are you taking on, if, irrespective of medium, media, or ‘art form’, you are a maker who tries to hold to ‘Art’ as the destiny of the things you make and do? To commit yourself to ‘Art’ is to have recognised that you will live and struggle with the tensions that define Art’s contemporary plight. The life-defining challenge and question is how to hold to Art’s ‘promise’ (plight-as- pledge) while having to engage with the contextual conditions that constitute the making situation (plight-as- predicament, a threatening risk). The texts gathered here seek to explore implications of these context-defining tensions for the contemporary art-making venture. For the latter now seeks to survive under the rule of an ageing modernity. All relations of power in this late-modernity (the means of controlling the dynamic of everyday life) now pass by way of the interdependent interests of capital and technoscience. Foremost among these interests is the global development and controlled rule of a specific mode of representation. Power passes by way of a complex machinery of representation that is itself now entirely reliant on the controlled conversion and distribution of energy.
Life in the info-spectacular world finds, founds, and represents to itself whatever commonsense it generates through its complete dependence upon the managed, seemingly endlessly sustainable, flow of electricity. The motif and ‘point’ of the representing machinery – now digital – is to ensure the repetition ad infinitum under a specific form of representation of anything ‘present’. Whatever ‘exists’, whatever appears to and for us (the arts included), is there to be represented, and subsequently archived and made routinely available for repetition without end.
How might making-for- art respond to these tensions and survive within this commonsense world?
Can it still hold to and display in its performances its ‘difference’, its pledge to art and to itself to be ‘other to’ everything that is?
What is its relation to its own ‘past’, to the tradition of art-making that now includes the legacy of a fast-fading ‘modernism’?
How might it relate to the changes that mark the surrounding permeating culture’s experiences and senses of ‘work’, ‘time’, ‘place’, ‘language’, and ‘embodiment’ under the rule of technoscience?
In exploring making’s trajectory the writings gathered as ‘Art’s Plight’ try to hold to those questions which making has to put to itself and generate answers to in order to keep going. Such answers, of course, occurring in and as the event of making, constitute every making- performance. And the residue of each performance is the very ‘thing’ we conventionally refer to as ‘the work of art’! The paradoxical relation between making-for- art and ‘work’ in contemporary culture thus recurs in diverse ways across the texts.
Issues makers may have to confront, however obliquely, in the course of grappling with the arts’ appropriation by the machinery of representation are broached throughout the sequence. Moving across different ‘voices’ the texts seek to share the interests of making-for- art as it tries to sustain and suspend itself in that no-place – a zone without boundaries – somewhere between the culture’s knowledges and making’s idiosyncratic ‘know-how’.
Intrinsic to this writing’s effort and ‘point’ is the attempted avoidance of any sense of being taken as either making’s representative or an analytically grounded base for some knowledge project external to Art’s Body. Its sole concern is to offer a hopeful questioning exploration of making’s fundamental urge: how to generate singular gests-for- art that, seeking to hold desperately to the possibility of Art’s ‘difference’, site themselves precisely beyond representation in any other terms.
Thus the themes and terms offered in ‘Art’s Plight’ seek to track aspects of making’s passages through and out of culture without claiming to be their representative. They have emerged from and hope to be responsive to the ways that the gests of specific makers (of poems, novels, objects, paintings, films, theatrical/dance/ musical performances, and digital compositions) offer the possibility of withdrawal from the authoritative voices of both commonsense, instrumental reason, and the necessary restrictions of analytical methods and discourses. The writings here follow no single sense of accounting or narrative. Aside from all models of critique and disciplinary grounds they intend solely to write for Art by tracing possible pathways through making’s plight towards culture’s ‘outside’.
The transformation of every languaged communicable human ‘product’ into the form of digital representation inaugurates our aeon-defining rule: turn every such codeable product into reproducible information for endless instant electronic repetition, transmission, reception, and manipulation through machines operating at post-human speeds.
Under this rule the possibility of a global culture is now dependent on the relation between the control of energy resources for electronic power and the constitution and dissemination of digital information. In its displacement of the analogical this revolutionises all our relations, the arts included, to representation (thus to each other), to ‘matter’, and to ‘mattering’ – to whatever ‘matters’ to us.
Hopefully the writings will be relevant to all zones of making-for- art. The materials discussed are drawn mainly from the visual arts, poetry and literature, and music. The contention throughout is that, irrespective of Art ‘form’ or ‘medium/media’, making is a ‘performance’ that generates ‘gests’ opening onto the epochal life-defining quality of technoscientific representation in ways that are quite aside from the interests of ‘knowledge discourses’ (both the formal knowledges of academic disciplines and the commonsense knowledges of everyday life). As a celebratory quest for ‘otherness’, making-for- art entails the decreative suspension of the knowledges that inform actions and relations in the everyday world. Thus while I do draw selectively from the writings of a range of thinkers who approach art-making as an irreducibly autonomous activity (including Agamben, Blanchot, and Irigaray), my over- riding interest is in taking the gests and writings of makers themselves as the defining guides to making’s response to the demands of its context.
As the writing opens out its defining themes I take gests and moments from, amongst many others, Artaud, Beckett, Celan, Duchamp, Jarry, Kafka, and Mallarmé. I follow these as guides to making’s tactical engagement of the fate of its embodiment under the appropriative work of the encasing technologies of representation. Themes (such as making as a ‘syntactics’, makers’ relation to ‘waste’, the performing body as makers’ prime material resource) are elaborated in the course of responses to particular gests. The latter are approached through a consideration of makers’ idiosyncratic tactic of an attentive perception that leaps out of everydayness in the course of confronting their own embodied absorption by the infiltrating techno-context.
I consider a wide range of material from the visual arts, including gests by Francis Bacon, Helen Chadwick, Marlene Dumas, Mona Hatoum,, Jean Luc Tuymans, Orlan, Cornelia Parker, Stelarc, and Cy Twombly.
In poetry and fiction, I explore amongst others, the writings of Paul Auster, Christine Brooke- Rose, William Gaddis, Alfred Jarry, Linton Kwesi Johnson, J. H. Prynne, Laura Riding, W.G. Sebald, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf, and Louis Zukofsky. In an extended discussion of the relation between musical performance and its recording, I consider some possible consequences for the musical experience for both performers and audiences of the recording’s availability for instant and endless ‘repetition of the same’. I pay particular attention to both improvisation in jazz and compositions by Nancarrow, Messiaen, Scelsi, and Harvey.
Throughout, my concern is with exploring the ways in which every performance that commits itself to strive towards ‘Art’s Body’ (always ‘over there’…) condemns itself simultaneously to taking on the powerful forces that carry out the ‘placing work’ of art- appropriation and -management. In the later sections I focus specifically on the ways that the digitisation of representation simultaneously makes explicit and complexifies making’s contemporary situation and thus its founding, guiding dilemma: how to hold to and embody Art’s ‘otherness’ while gripped and permeated by the socio-technical machineries of extreme representation. The shift away from makers’ traditional commitment, particularly in the visual arts, to the material constraints of a single ‘medium’ is explored through the emergence of multi-media gests and the becoming-hybrid of medium itself. Makers seek to open alternative ‘spaces’ for Art’s ‘otherness’ between the complex mediating machinery of popular entertainment and the tradition’s disciplinary medium-separation.
I hope that the writings gathered under ‘Art’s Plight’ will engage the concerns both of those contemporary makers across the arts who seek to sustain their making projects through a commitment to Art’s difference, and, more widely, of readers interested in exploring the relations between contemporary art-making and the surrounding permeating machinery and processes of electronic representation.
While themes are developed idiosyncratically and cross-referenced across the sequence, the intention is that each text can be approached independently of the collection. The possibility of downloading each text as an independent PDF hopefully facilitates access to the sequence.