Text of talk for the Royal College of Art by way of an introduction to Kristen Ross
What makes Kristin’s work so compelling and useful is that throughout her writing the cultural aspects of emancipatory events are given their due weight. And in particular, her writing is sensitive to the fact that just as emancipatory events involve the destruction or breakdown of erstwhile social habits and structures, something very similar happens to art. Or perhaps we should say that art is not immune from the transformations set in motion by the emancipatory event.
The following comments – which, I hope, will give a framework for reading Kristin’s work as a contemporary artist – are gathered under four slogans – which, I hope, is appropriate.
the difficult task is not simply learning something new but unlearning what we already know (or think we know).
Slavoj Žižek made this comment about reading Kafka:
Reading Kafka demands a great effort of abstraction—not of learning more (the proper interpretive horizon for understanding his work), but of unlearning the standard interpretive references, so that we become able to open up to the raw force of Kafka’s writing.
Reading Žižek’s comment reminded me of something Jonathan Franzen wrote about The Trial: he says:
I thought I’d read every word of the first chapter of The Trial twice, in German and in English, but when I went back now I realized I’d never read the chapter even once. What was actually on the page, as opposed to what I’d expected to find there, was so unsettling that I’d shut my mind down and simply made believe that I was reading. I’d been so convinced of the hero’s innocence that I’d missed what the author was saying, clearly and unmistakably, in every sentence. I’d been blind the way K. himself is blind.
This blindness, I think, shows that it is not as easy as it might sound to see what is there, rather than what one expects to find. Unlearning can be traumatic – involving letting go of one’s erstwhile attachments. This is why, I think, Žižek frames it in terms of abstraction – of removing oneself from what is familiar.
One of Kristin’s most fundamental tasks, in all her work, has been to release our understanding of events from their subsequent containment in various narratives – of unlearning what we think we know. In terms of the Paris Commune, for example, the two dominant narratives which corrupt our understanding are those of 20th century soviet communism, on the one hand, and the republicanism of the French State, on the other. For May ’68, it is the individual accounts of a few participants who have become media celebrities, on the one hand, and the platitudes of sociology about a revolt of youth, on the other.
For us contemporary artists, there is a particular point and a general point about the need to unlearn things.
The particular point is that Kristin’s work allows us to see what really happened to art and culture during the events she writes about. In writing about the Commune, for example, she gets away from the obsession with Courbet’s role, to highlight the Commune’s own perception of the importance of culture and art and the extraordinary existence and manifesto of the Artists’ Federation.
The general point is that art-history operates with the same kinds of narrative closure in relation to art as those describes by Kristin in relation to radical events in history. As artists, we must unlearn what we know about art-history – about Dada, Surrealism, Conceptualism, Malevich, etc., etc…
The Revolution Must Strike Twice
In order to bring about a new society the values of the old society must be destroyed, not simply its power structures. And these values reside in the everyday habits and customs of society: in its culture.
In the heat of the moment, the combatants of revolution are often keenly aware of the importance of the cultural and symbolic. Kristin demonstrates this with her account of workings of the Paris Commune.
A central example is the destruction of the Vendôme Column, built by Napoleon. Kristin notes that most commentators routinely contrast the certainty of this act with the hesitancy with which the Communards approached taking the National Bank. In The Emergence of Social Space, she quotes Engels:
The hardest thing to understand is certainly the holy awe with which they remained outside the gates of the Bank of France. This was also a serious political mistake. The Bank in the hands of the Commune—this would have been worth more than 10,000 hostages.
From the point of view of political economy, the Communards wasted time in destroying cultural artefacts when they could have been taking concrete political and economic action. But the Communards did not see the political and cultural spheres as necessarily opposed in this way. Kristin writes:
To view the Commune from the perspective of the transformation of everyday life would demand, then, that we juxtapose the Communards’ political failure or mistake […] with one of their more “monumental” achievements: the demolition of the Vendome Column. […] On the one hand, a reticence, a refusal to act; on the other, violence and destruction as complete reappropriation: the creation, through destruction, of a positive social void, the refusal of the dominant organisation of social space and supposed neutrality of monuments.(38-39)
The most striking example of the transformation of art – as part and parcel of the transformation of everyday life – was the formation of the Artists’ Federation and the publication of its manifesto. Undoing the finely tuned hierarchies of established art, the Federation was open to everyone, encouraging anyone who wanted to, to call what they did art without any concerns about quality, skill, appropriateness, and so on. In the words of one Communard,
“The results of the manifesto’s propositions were enormous, not because they elevated the artistic level … but because they spread art everywhere.”
This spreading of art everywhere is not the old art in new locations but a different conception of art arising when everywhere had been transformed.
In other words, a different conception of social space emerges in the events Kristin writes about. This is worth remembering that social space is not all the same, at a time when contemporary art is dominated by myriad forms of ‘social practice’ – which seek to inhabit the public sphere or engage the public in various ways.
The radical openness of the Artists’s Federation is also instructive. Any artist who has been part of a contemporary artists’ group is surely aware of the enormous effort that goes into patrolling boundaries – certifying quality, confirming membership, authorising behaviour and so on. For example, the Precarious Workers’ Brigade have a code of ethics. I imagine few people would want to be part of an unethical group – but there is a kind of ideological trap here. Not only is a code of ethics the kind of thing we might expect from a large corporation but drawing up codes of behaviour in the present is limited by what is thinkable in the present.
Art Must Be Transformed
In May ’68 and Its Afterlifes, Kristin writes:
May ’68 was not itself an artistic movement. It was an event which transpired amid very few images […] Only the most “immediate” of artistic techniques, it seems, could keep up with the speed of events. But to say this is already to point out how much politics was exerting a magnetic pull on culture, yanking it out of its specific and specialised realm. (15)
She soon goes on:
The incommensurability or asymmetry that seems to govern the relation between culture and politics holds true for the ’68 period in France. In fact, that incommensurability is what the event is about: the failure of cultural solutions to provide an answer, the invention and deployment of political forms in direct contestation with existing cultural forms.(15)
Here, I think, we need to make a careful distinction: the contrast set up is between radical, emancipatory politics, on the one hand, and conservative, instituted culture, on the other. If May ’68 was no place for art as it was established and instituted, this is not the only possibility for art.
Just as Kristin describes how the working existence of the Commune produced its thought – rather than simply being the putting-into-practice of pre-existing thought – the unfolding event enables the invention of new things to do, as an artist. As Kristin writes, one of the new things artists started doing in May ’68 was making posters:
The “message” of the majority of the posters, stark and direct, was the certification, and at times the imperative, that whatever it was that was happening—the interruption, the strike, the “moving train”—that it simply continue […] Nothing, that is, in the message aspires to a level of “representing” what was occurring; the goal, rather, is to be one with—at the same time with, contemporary with—whatever was occurring.(15)
This, to me, sounds like a particular form of the general avant-garde desire to merge art and life. This desire must be understood as the merging of a new art with a new life: it is only in a radically transformed social space that art can become something else.
So I think it is not so much that art is pulled out of its place by the politics of the event but that those elements within art which wish to overthrow the hierarchies, divisions and absences of art are given the possibility of doing something else in the moment of the event.
But this “doing something else” must be collective action. The Commune, for example, was only able to spread art everywhere because this spreading was part and parcel of a transformed public sphere.
Art is a site of conflict and division
The recovery of moments of true equality and freedom are vital in showing what is absent in the present: the division and exploitation which flourish in the absence of true equality and freedom. The present is a site of conflict.
It is my contention that something similar holds for art: that the divisions of a divided society are present in art – as elsewhere – and that the recovery of moments when these divisions are overcome is vital in showing us that art, as it is established and instituted, could be transformed into something else.
Unlike 19th century France, today art is not directly controlled by the State. Nor is art directly commodified by the capitalist mode of production – the artist is rarely a wage labourer. Yet the values of our current society penetrate and reside in art’s everyday habits and the pragmatic action artists must undertake. They are present in art’s dominant institutions and discourses – which is to say art is underpinned by assumptions which often go unquestioned.
Today, we should note, working in the public sphere is a normal thing to do. ‘Social practice’ is part of the dominant culture of art – accepted and unremarkable. This is to say that the contemporary spreading of art everywhere happens in a very different conjuncture to that of the Commune; social practice with its various forms of participation and action is what is expected of contemporary art, over and above forms of representation. This is art as entertainment, decoration and social emollient.
But any dominant conception of art, however insidious, does not go uncontested. There are always alternative institutions, different discourses and other practices. Which is not to say that it is possible to transform art in our present conjuncture simply by doing something else – but rather that art itself is always a site of conflict. And today, this means that social practice is a site of conflict in art – not a solution to something.
One of Kristin’s strategies when reconsidering the historical events she does, is to extend the received temporalities of an event: on the one hand, to trace its beginnings back before the start of the action, so to speak, to the conditions of antagonism, the discourses of conflict and the life of precedents in the culture of the present. And, on the other hand, to trace the afterlife of the event, the way it lives on in memory and in theory. And this is useful for us, as artists: if we can not pass straight to the transformation of art, we do live both in the afterlife of past artistic events and in anticipation of the future. We can, on the one hand, keep alive the transformative moments of the past and, on the other, agitate the repressed divisions and contradictions of the art of the present.
From the point of view of those wishing the revolutionary change to art – for which I use the name avant-garde – those few, precious moments when art becomes transformed are of the utmost value. They are confirmation that a different art is possible – or, better, that art can be transformed into something else. The point is, the idea of something can precede its actuality, even if what will come from the idea remains unknown. In Communal Luxury, Kristin says, “it was the reunions and the clubs that created and installed the idea—well before the fact— of a social commune.” Needless to say, this idea must contain the refusal or negation of the present social settlement.
The lesson for contemporary art is that it must contain its own moment of refusal or negation. If art is co-opted by its everyday habits and discourse, rather than the commodification of what it produces, then we need to question the most basic assumptions about art. This means seeing art as limited by what is absent from it. And this might seem a strange idea at a time when ‘anything goes’ in art – but the point is, the one thing which cannot be questioned in art is the social role of art as the discipline where anything goes. In other words, art maintains its speciality to absorb and reproduce anything and everything else.