Copyright © 2008 by Lauren Rosati
Readers may wonder why I have chosen to focus on the city of Providence, Rhode Island in my investigation. To be honest, I spent several of my adult years living in the city and with some of the artists quoted in this book. I have chosen it for my familiarity with the underground, but also because I literally could not have written about any place else. There are many small cities that have a similar regional art scene to the one I describe, but the factors that make the Providence underground possible — the development market, infrastructure, geographic location, pool of artists, etc. — does not and cannot exist anywhere else. It is due to a unique series of events and conjunctures that the underground community exists as it does. It is my task to explain those circumstances.
I am Providence.
– H.P. Lovecraft
TABLE OF CONTENTS i
CHAPTER ONE: Not in Utopia (an introduction to contemporary themes) 5
CHAPTER TWO: Subterranean Fields, Or some secreted Island 21
CHAPTER THREE: Heaven knows where! (But in the very world, which is the world of all of us) 41
CHAPTER FOUR: The place where in the end we find our happiness 55
Endnotes: or not at all! 64
CHAPTER ONE: NOT IN UTOPIA (AN INTRODUCTION TO CONTEMPORARY THEMES)
In Providence, Rhode Island, 1982, a group of artists dissatisfied with the then-current situation in the arts wrote the “New Challenge” Art Manifesto, a short but potent statement that damned “the prevailing order,” hierarchical institutions, and the repression of uncensored expression. At the close of the manifesto, the artists, Umberto “Bert” Crenca, Martha Dempster and Steven Emma, wrote:
This statement seems to imply that art, if taken out of a societal situation and relegated to private process, deprives art of its meaning and threatens the survival of culture. It seems then that the aforementioned artists desired the reverse, the integration of art into society, and experimentation with conventional practices.
That same year, in 1982, Crenca founded AS220 as the physical embodiment of his written ideals (the AS stands for Alternative Space and 220 was the number of its first address at 220 Weybosset Street). With $800, Crenca illegally moved himself and a few of his friends into the space on Weybosset Street, setting up a hotplate to cook food, and running electricity from the room next door. The space was bare: exposed wires and beams; no insulation; cement floor. Yet, day after day, Crenca and his friends would congregate at AS220 to make art, collaborate, work and live together.
At the time, spaces like that one were not hard to find. By the 1980s, Providence had become a virtual graveyard of empty buildings; but to understand the cause of this, one must look back to the industrial history of the city. Mills and manufacturing companies began popping up in Providence and the surrounding neighborhoods during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With a river running through the center of the city, the conditions were right for mill operations to flourish. Eventually, textile mills, especially those harnessing steam power, put Providence on the industrial map. Immigrant populations from Europe began pouring into the city to fill the jobs
created by the mills and, by the turn of the 20th century, little Providence was one of the industry capitals of the world. But when the industries started to decline some two decades later, mill workers, fearing a labor crisis and the injurious effects of the Great Depression, moved away from the city, forcing many of the operations to close. Decline steeped rapidly and, by the 1960s, most of the mills had shut down completely, leaving their brick monoliths vacant for decades. iii In the late half of the 20th century, artists, attracted to the large, light- filled space, and the raw beauty of urban decay, started to inhabit these buildings, creating micro-communities and essentially keeping the buildings clean and functional when they would have otherwise deteriorated.
That is where the story of AS220 begins, in a vacant squat at 220 Weybosset Street, founded on the principles of uncensored expression, experimentation, and a collective approach to art-making. Still, Crenca wanted to open up his space to the community in Providence and provide a larger, safer and more legitimate place for artists to convene. He was eventually able to purchase a building at 115 Empire Street and renovated it to create a bar, community darkroom, screen printing studio, several galleries for exhibitions, performance
space, twelve heavily-subsidized live/work spaces for artists, and office space for several full-time employees. Since moving to that location, AS220 has purchased a second building that now contains over two-dozen more subsidized live/work studios. These affordable live/work spaces are central to the mission of AS220. In an interview, Crenca explained:
Perhaps taking the cue from Crenca, enclaves of artists started amassing in old mills and factories all over Providence and the surrounding neighborhoods. Olneyville, a poor town on the skirts of Providence proper, emerged as a nexus of artistic activity and the center of a burgeoning underground art scene that included comics, noise music, screenprints, and sculptures of recycled materials. The Olneyville aesthetic came to be defined by this synthesis of media and by the collectives of artists who worked with them.
Olneyville lies at the center of a historically and geographically defined area that was once the Indian settlement of Woonasquatucket, “at the head of the tidewater.” Roger Williams acquired the settlement from the Narragansett Indians to establish Providence Colony in 1636. In the early 1700s, families started settling there and roads were built to connect the Woonasquatucket River Valley (as it was known) to the center of the city. It wasn’t until 1785, though, that Olneyville was named as such by Christopher Olney, a prominent and enterprising industry-man who lent the village his name. Various industries spread throughout the area with paper and textile mills popping up along the Woonasquatucket River. The addition of railroads and electric trolleys allowed for direct access to the mills and made the area more desirable for people to settle. Plants like Providence Bleaching, Dyeing and Calendaring Company and Atlantic Mills profited and the all-powerful textile mills maintained Olneyville’s status as a center of industry in Rhode Island, well into the 19th century. After World War II, though, the fortunes of the industries declined steadily, mills moved operations to the South or closed altogether and people fled the neighborhood. This left most of the mills and industrial buildings vacant and the neighborhood nearly
deserted; the population of this area has been steadily declining since the 1970s and contains, as of 2007, a population of just over 6,000. v
The population of greater Providence has seen the same trend, but has been declining even more steeply; its current population of 170,000 equals that at the turn of the 20th century, down from 260,000 in its heyday. vi
Driving through Olneyville in the mid-1990s, one would never know that artists lived by the dozens inside the old buildings of industry, quietly flourishing: creating art, installations, and secretly hosting performances. Artists working in various media would inhabit one loft, sometimes turning most of the livable space into studios for printing, sculpture, puppet making, painting, et al. The living area was a working area, and vice versa, and rarely did space go to waste. Often, artists would turn the guts of the structures into massive installations; at a space on Troy Street, that had housed an office long ago, the old checkbooks, invoices, ledger pages and vinyl siding became an art installation in a musty room. Most of these spaces took on alias names, like Red Rum, Pink Rabbit, Hilarious Attic, and Canada; when a show happened inside one of the buildings, these names were
advertised in lieu of the addresses so as not to draw unwanted attention from the police. But one space in particular became the center of attention for other artists in the know.
In a building in Eagle Square, an historic area of Olneyville that contained the Americana Flea Market and seven or eight vacant brick structures, four former students from the nearby-Rhode Island School of Design were living together and creating art and music that would eventually make waves outside of Providence. As soon as the artists — Mat Brinkman, Brian Chippendale, Rob Coggeshal and Freddy Jones — moved in, they selected a name: Fort Thunder. The origin of that title has been disputed – some have said it is related to the fact that the isolation of the space allowed music to be played at a “thunderous” volume vii
– but the implications the space has are definitive. Fort Thunder began as a boy’s club, a clandestine home, but the influence it had on the world outside of it was, to say the least, loud. Artists, musicians and members of the regional art scene who were clued in to the Fort started attending performances, parties and, sometimes, just showing up. It became a sort of micro- community: the space that was available was shared; members and visitors collaborated on big installations and music;
visiting artists from out of town ended up crashing at the Fort. Over time, Fort Thunder became as much of a legacy for its collectivity as for its output of comics, live music and art. But locally, Fort Thunder was known as the anchor of the Providence underground from its beginning in 1995 until the artists’ eviction in 2002 viii.
The end of Fort Thunder was a cruel twist of irony, as is often the case with gentrification and the urbanization of small regional communities. In Fort Thunder’s case, as with many others, the artists were evicted to make way for condominiums and goods-based businesses. Yet this procedure, of selectively extracting artists from the spaces they inhabit to make way for high-priced housing, is antithetical to the supposed goal of Providence’s Arts, Culture and Tourism Department: to make affordable living space available to artists as a way to preserve the “vital” arts community. ix
Crenca explained that affordable space seeds a “thriving living art community, [a] bacteria, and when suddenly things start to gentrify, which inevitably happens, and artists haven’t taken any ownership, they move to another community where those opportunities exist.” x
Providence has long gained national recognition as an “arts
city,” and in recent years, the city government capitalized on that reputation by declaring a Providence Renaissance. Sara Agniel, a former gallery owner and long-time Providence resident, explained that despite the “arts city” concept, most artists could only afford to live in unsafe, illegally zoned buildings outside the city center. “If this is the underpinning of the Providence Renaissance…‘Then what we’re selling is a concept that doesn’t exist.’” xi
Artists are the great shepherds of the real estate industry; they find an undesirable area of a community that they can afford to inhabit and move in, making that area culturally important, and signaling other members of the community to inhabit it as well. As soon as that happens, the city government takes notice and develops the vacant space, hoping to initiate a reverse economic development where the sparkle of a new community will attract residents and renewed commerce. In turn, the rising cost of living forces artists out of the neighborhood. It’s an age-old story, where gentrification turns blighted areas into economic hot spots while out pricing and displacing people in the process xii, and Fort Thunder was not spared from that same fate. Yet its legacy remains fixed in the minds of people who went to the Fort, and more so in the minds of those who didn’t make it in time. In 2003, Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Journal wrote an extensive article on Fort Thunder and its members. Spurgeon wrote: “The stories of Fort Thunder haunt younger fans that did not get to visit — cartoonist Sammy Harkham calls missing out on seeing the place ‘one of the most disappointing things in [his] life.’” xiii
Fort Thunder existed as a brief realization of the “New Challenge” Art Manifesto, written over a decade earlier, though on a smaller scale. I have already said that the Fort operated as a collective, with ‘members’ cycling in and out and sharing the available space. The word ‘collective’, though, implies simply a collective of people, but that is not the only meaning of the term that I wish to address. The ‘members’ of the Fort lived and worked collectively, as individuals, but they also shared a collective space. Fort Thunder, thus, was the name for an aggregate of individuals but was also the name given to the singular space in which they existed. It is fair then to call the Fort a community and to hold it to the standards of the Manifesto. Fort Thunder was able to fully integrate art into its micro-society, so much so that those elements had to coexist in order for the Fort to sustain itself. Had the Fort’s members ceased to produce work, the need for the space and its legacy as an underground art mecca would have been rendered irrelevant. Conversely, the artists that started the Fort had to live together, temporally and geographically, in order for Fort Thunder to exist as it did. The works that the Fort members produced also fulfilled the Manifesto’s statement to avoid the processes that lead to the production of bland, pedantic and meaningless works of art. Rather, the work was freestyle, unforced, and an experiment in living. Walking through the refrigerator door (that acted as an entrance to the Fort) one might see a detritus-strewn interior landscape, bikes and bike parts piled up in a front room, a back room full of couches and homemade zines, screen printed posters drying all over the place, toothpaste tubes stapled to the bathroom wall, a wrestling match, a mask-wearing noise band, comics tacked up on the walls, etc.
The Fort was a theatrical place, described by one writer as “a world unto itself, unrestricted, an idyllic haven for artists and musicians to do whatever they wanted, part funhouse.” xiv But the liberty to do whatever one wanted at the Fort did not come out of force or prodigality, but rather out of unfettered freedom and autonomy. It existed as an enclave separated from the local cultural scene and was, instead, a collective culture unto itself. What I have called a micro-society, then, could also be called a micro-utopia; Fort Thunder sought to create a collective understanding of art practices and social exchange in which everyone produced art for the sustenance of that co-operative system and the interactivity it allowed. But the reverse is also true: the very existence of the collective encouraged that sociability and gave the underground project a literal space to evolve.
Just two years after Fort Thunder had taken root in Providence, a young critic from Paris published a book describing his ideas about artistic production in the age of information. The critic, Nicolas Bourriaud, noted the symbiotic relationship between art and the micro-community that places like Fort Thunder had made manifest. He wrote that in the 1990s, interactive technologies developed at rapid pace, encouraging artists to explore “the arcane mysteries of sociability and interaction.” xv Bourriaud goes on to explain that today’s art “encompasses in the working process the presence of the micro-community which will accommodate it. xvi Bourriaud’s observations reference the effects of information culture and digital production in the nineties. While new technologies proliferated, artists retreated to restore old-fashioned means of sociability, namely face-to-face, community-oriented interactions. But in the second part of the above quote, the “micro-community” he mentions is not the same as the community he alludes to in the first sentence when he talks about sociability and interaction. This latter kind, the “micro- community”, does not refer to a community that exists in order to produce works of art, but rather it implies a community that gathers around works of art and whose presence is required by the work through “its method of production and then at the moment of its exhibition.” xvii
Bourriaud was not familiar with Fort Thunder, nor its members, and was probably unfamiliar with the underground art scene in Providence altogether, for that matter. And though Bourriaud’s theory references an international style, and his comments about the art of today refer to specific works that engender a community, they can still be applied to places like the Providence underground and the micro- communities that accommodate it.
Bourriaud’s idea about this emergent artistic trend in the nineties was coined “relational aesthetics,” which also became the title and subject of his first book in 1998. He defines relational aesthetics as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context rather than the assertion of an independent and private [sic] symbolic space.” xviii By Bourriaud’s own definition, then, the application of his theory to the underground micro- communities in Providence that I have described seems to be a relevant and sound interpretation. Fort Thunder et al. were concerned, at the base, with human interaction and relationships as the foundation for their artistic ecosystems; this intersubjective approach to art-making is thusly shared both by Bourriaud and the underground. It is not a one- directional approach however, as critic Claire Bishop noted: “relational art sets up situations in which viewers are not just addressed as a collective, social entity, but are actually given the wherewithal to create a community, however temporary or utopian this may be.” xix To reiterate, I have said that Bourriaud’s definition of relational aesthetics refers to “an art” generally, which I interpret to mean “a work of art”, more specifically. To elucidate that phrase, I do not mean to imply that Bourriaud’s theory encompasses only objects, and especially not just physical objects; a work of art to Bourriaud can take this form, but the spatial, temporal and situational structures are also crucial. I do posit, however, that his definition can extend beyond the work of art to include the whole of an artistic ecosystem, or a collective, as the basis for relational art and that the underground culture of Providence is one example of this relational ecosystem at work.
In terms of Claire Bishop’s critique of relational art, she addresses two issues that have great implications for the underground in Providence: the temporal and utopian nature of the micro-community that exist simultaneously, and sometimes at odds, for the avant-garde utopianism of the micro-community in Providence is the very condition of its temporality, and almost always a casualty of it. On the one hand, the underground exists as a loam for interactivity and the collective production of creative works and manages to maintain a relatively idealized existence without much disturbance. But, on the other hand, that existence can only be maintained as long as the micro-community, or the space in which it resides, can be sustained. And, of course, the problem with a utopia is that it is often imagined and too good to be true, so to speak, but that is an issue to be dealt with in another chapter.
Bourriaud wrote, quoting the Ramo Nash Club: “Art is an extremely co-operative system. The dense network of interconnections between members means that everything that happens in it will possibly be a function of all members.” xx It can be said, then, that the history of art is the history of relations, between artist and subject, artist and idea, artist and medium, work and viewer, etc. So how is this new theory, this “relational aesthetics”, any different? And how can it function as the apparatus for understanding the underground in Providence and its motivations? This is where we begin.
CHAPTER TWO: SUBTERRANEAN FIELDS, OR SOME SECRETED ISLAND
Bourriaud writes: “Relational aesthetics does not represent a theory of art, this would imply the statement of an origin and a destination, but a theory of form.” xxi This seems to be true, though it reads as confusing to his thesis. For shouldn’t his theory of ‘aesthetics’ be concerned with art? It is, but for Bourriaud, ‘relational’ is the operative word. He goes on: “Form can be defined as a lasting encounter.” xxii So relational aesthetics is not simply concerned with art — the image, the object, the artist — but with the encounter between artists, artwork and viewer, etc. It is a socio-anthropological theory of what constitutes art.
This idea, though, of ‘the lasting encounter’ is still somewhat vague. What is being encountered? Where and by whom? And why does it last? There seems to be a clear answer: relational art seeks to produce an encounter between the artwork and the viewer that is sustained by allowing the viewer to exist in the space opened up by it. To paraphrase Bourriaud, relational aesthetics attempts to decode the relationship that the work of art produces. The audience is not simply viewing an image or an object, but participating in the process of its creation, and in the relationships that it makes apparent. Relational aesthetics, then, is a distinct segment of art history because it understands not only the viewer’s relationship to the work, but also the reverse, and because it establishes intersubjective encounters, rather than individual ones.
But what makes ‘the lasting encounter’ of relational artwork different than any other encounter produced from human activity? For one, it is able to exist beyond a mere physical presence. This transcendence is something that Bourriaud calls “transparency.” xxiii The nature of transparency is that it reveals the structures that make something possible; in the case of a successful work of art, transparency allows the work to eclipse its physicality and to create a dialogue with the viewer, opening up its historical context, its production process and its producer to the beholder. The transparent nature of the relational artwork is directly related to the concept of art as a good. All goods must have an exchange value, as we know from Marxist theories, and by entering into an exchange, goods take on a social function. The same is true for the relational artwork. It enters into a social exchange whereby it makes its history, context, etc. transparent to the beholder and allows itself to be “bartered” with, discussed, and questioned. It is important to understand however that the specific exchange value I speak of, in relation to artwork, is not referring to the monetary value of a work of art but its value as a tool for exchange. This brings up a good question: how can one measure the value of a relational artwork? For one, by the quality of the relationships it produces. Quality is difficult to define in this instance but to first quantify it, I basically mean that the multiplicity of relationships produced by an artwork, the sustainability of those relationships, and the depth of social exchange make up ‘quality’. But relational work can also be measured by its monetary value; Bourriaud quotes Marx when he says that art is the “’ absolute merchandise’, because it is the actual image of the value.” xxiv He means that the exchange value of the art object is regulated by itself and not by currency, and that it represents, through itself, its own monetary value. Bourriaud aptly uses the word ‘commerce’, in both its definitions, to describe the exchange value of the relational work: its value is defined by its ability to be both bought and sold (exchange commerce), but is also characterized by its social relationship to people (social commerce).
So what is the artist’s role in this? It is his practice that “determines the relationship that will be struck up with his work. In other words, what he produces, first and foremost, is relations [sic] between people and the world, by way of aesthetic objects.” xxv Bourriaud’s words are true, but slightly misleading. I have already said that Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics encompasses only works of art identified with objects and avoids situations. To clarify that statement, I mean to say that Bourriaud identifies works of art that result in, or require the use of, an object of some kind. Though he is primarily interested in situational art, he does not name a situation itself as the work. The very phrase “relationships by way of aesthetic objects” makes that clear. And this seems to be damaging to his theory. For how can a theory of relationships and social exchange via artworks fail to include situations, performances and encounters? That is a glaring misstep on Bourriaud’s part. He names several key figures whose work can be identified as relational artwork — Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ installation of candies, free for the taking, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s soup kitchen, Liam Gillick’s colorful walls — but only ever mentions objects that these artists created and not the numerous relational works themselves. True, for Bourriaud, relational art practice leads to objects, what artist Philippe Parreno calls a “happy ending” xxvi, but it is not the primary concern of these relational artists. I only mean to say that Bourriaud’s words are misleading and sometimes lead the reader to believe the contrary.
This is not to say that art can be easily categorized as only “sculpture”, “installation”, or “performance”, for instance; that goes without saying. Art is sometimes most provocative when it combines those elements. I also do not mean to suggest that relational art must be purely relational, on a social level without objects, but that it can be extended to include that type of work. But I am exaggerating the point to make a point. To be fair, Bourriaud does address this. He writes:
Bourriaud suggests that objects can be immaterial and that objects are basically a physical symbol for the relationship to that object. He also seems to imply the opposite, that purely relational works can be material, like perhaps Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation in which she shook the hands of 8,500 New York City sanitation workers. I agree with the argument that an immaterial social artwork can be rendered material; it’s an idea that was first introduced with conceptualism. But I don’t buy the argument that material objects can be rendered immaterial; true, the relationship to the object exists, but its very objecthood, its physicality, preserves its materiality. To Bourriaud’s credit, he makes this comparison in order to justify the exchange value (and here I refer to the monetary value) of the relational work. He means to say that though the purchase of a relational work may be ideologically difficult (for how does one buy a relationship?), it is just as “concrete” a work of art as an art object. I agree with this assertion, as it is rendered true by the monetary and critical successes of relational artists in the past ten years (for instance, in 2004 and 2005 alone, Tiravanija won the Hugo Boss Prize, had solo retrospectives at the Museum Bojmans Van Beuningen in the Netherlands, the CMU Art Museum in Thailand, the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in Paris, and was involved in over 25 other solo and group exhibitions). xxviii
In order to understand Bourriaud’s emphasis on social interaction and collective participation, one must probe the historical precedents for relational aesthetics. To start, Bourriaud himself tries to locate his theory in the project of the 20th century avant-garde (which he defines as the period from Dadaism to the Situationist International xxix ). He suggests that the modus operandi of this avant-garde was dually emancipation from the rationalist, modest ideals of the 18th century and the development of an experimental and participatory model for the integration of art into all human activities. It is in these approaches that relational aesthetics takes its cue. Bishop also names Fluxus, along with Happenings and performance art of the 1970s, as a historical precedent for the integrated and participatory model that relational aesthetics considers. For example, Fluxus, launched by George Maciunas in 1961, was seen as an assault on art and culture and took as its project the fusion of them into a single practice. xxx Author Stewart Home also explained that Fluxus, “like other utopian movements, engaged in speculation about possible improvements to the immediate environment.” These goals were furthered with the creation of Maciunas’ utopian “fluxus co-operative building” in 1967 at 80 Wooster Street in New York City, which he invited other Fluxus members to move into. xxxi The aforementioned goals were both the impetuses and conditions for Maciunas’ experiment in co-operative living. Fort Thunder and the other collectives in Providence seem to be operating on much the same model.
Guy Debord and the Situationist International shared concern for the improvement of the immediate environment. In an essay in which he outlined his theory of constructed situations, “participatory events using experimental behavior to break the spectacular bind of capitalism,” xxxii Debord argued that integrated (read: “collective”) environments and the passionate fulfillment of life were means through which the improvement of life could be achieved. He explained that an individual environment is restrained and limits the enjoyment of life, whereas ‘collective’ situations oppose that tendency. Though Debord’s comments fail to detail how collective environments improve life, it can be said that his reasons for favoring them are sympathetic to Maciunas.’ Both seem to imply that a direct engagement with other individuals, either in the co-operative situation that Maciunas describes or in Debord’s more ambiguous ‘constructed situation,’ is a way to integrate sociability with artistic practice. Most interesting is that both Maciunas and Debord, and other members of post-war avant-garde movements, seem to be grappling with the idea of establishing utopian communities but systematically avoid using that word to describe their projects. On one hand, giving in to the idea of utopianism virtually condemns a project to nonexistence; Sir Thomas More introduced the word ‘utopia’ in 1516 to describe a perfect but unattainable no-place, thus cementing its nomenclatural usage. On the other hand, by skirting around the issue, yet implicating it, these artists made it possible for their micro-communities to exist.
Claire Bishop edited a collection of essays on participation and socially engaged art, aptly titled Participation, which described some of these aforementioned historical precursors for relational aesthetics. The book also contains a contemporary essay written for the occasion of the 2003 Venice Biennial in which three curators re-examine the idea of utopia. They too describe the social and anthropological practices that make relational aesthetics possible. Yet they are notably more candid about utopia than Debord or Maciunas. They write:
It can be said that there is a continuous line of thought about utopianism from the pre-war avant-garde movements to contemporary times. But perhaps what the curator/writers of the above passage meant to indicate is that there is a new sense of optimism about the creation of a utopia, which does not have to be thought of as an unattainable abstract concept, but as a concrete space or perhaps even a “micro-utopia.”
But despite all of the historical precedents for relational aesthetics, and similar themes in pre-war movements, Bourriaud cautions that relational art “is not the revival of any movement, nor is it the comeback of any style. It arises from an observation of the present and from a line of thinking about the fate of artistic activity.” xxxiv The passage above is an indication of that kind of thinking.
I would also caution, though, that it is not wishful thinking for the future; as Claire Bishop has said, relational art did not hope for a utopian future, but sought to create a micro- utopian present. Yet, in a footnote, Bishop astutely points out that there is essentially no difference between a utopia and a micro-utopia expect for the degree and scale of perfection. xxxv
The difference is that, as we have just seen, if a micro-utopia is created in the present, than it exists and is not an imagined state of perfection but a real state of idealization. Her point stands true for imagined utopias, but not for present micro-utopias. Yet, despite her pragmatic attitude towards utopias, Bishop seems to hint that relational aesthetics comes close to achieving a small-scale version. She explains: “this DIY [do-it-yourself], microtopian ethos is what Bourriaud perceives to be the core political significance of relational aesthetics.” xxxvi This is where my project fits in.
Historical precedents aside, it is relational aesthetics itself that I intend to resolve. To describe a recent example of relational aesthetics, I look to Rirkrit Tiravanija. For his retrospective at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (2004), the artist wrote a script that he read for the audio guide in which he discussed his work in the third person. When describing his work untitled (free) at the 303 Gallery, New York (1992) he said:
This description delineates untitled (free) as a social work under the rubric of institutional critique; it is intent on providing a literal space for people to congregate, interact and share a meal together in an institution where those actions do not usually occur. The set up of the work — with cooked food, tables, chairs — encourages that sociability. But the artwork’s position in a gallery setting already predicates the interaction. People go to a gallery with the intention of looking at (or being involved with) artwork. The participation is already fixed. Yet while Tiravanija’s description is specific to this work, it could also be used to describe an any-day at a collective artist space. The mutual experience of preparing and sharing a meal together in a designated space is typical of the artist collective; it too is a social, participatory event. Yet these two instances are different. In Tiravanija’s case, we have a relational artwork placed in a public institution, and in the case of the artist collective, we have a relational experience in a private institution. Is the relational experience of the collective different because of its situation in a lived space? No. Can it be seen as an extension of relational aesthetics, or is it purely living? I argue both. Social relationships and interactions are an inherent part of cooperative living; but they are also symptomatic of an environment that integrates art and life. The group meal at an artist collective is not an artwork, but it is an example of a consciousness that every action, relationship and interaction in an artistic ecosystem has the potential to be one.
Here it is important to clarify that the specific mediums, forms and structures that relational works employ are inextricable from the conceptual framework and physical manifestation of the work itself. The Tiravanija piece I have just mentioned is one example; the materials that constitute the work, and the institutional structures in which he grounds it, produce a relational space of exchange and make it what Bourriaud deems to be a ‘work of art’. But Bourriaud provides other examples. For one, he describes a work of art that consists of a tall stack of blue paper with white piping acting as a frame around the edge. The credit information reads: “Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Blue Mirror), 1990. Offset print on paper, endless copies.” Visitors were allowed to take a piece of paper away with them, effectively diminishing the stack of paper throughout the exhibition. Bourriaud asks: “What process would cause the piece to change and then vanish?” He goes on to say:
It is “the form of its presence” that I want to call attention to because Bourriaud has touched on something deeply intriguing. Here he refers to human nature; the work itself refers to our social behavior. The work does not involve a performance or hand-out because it doesn’t need to; the form of the work predisposes it to relational interaction. The fact that the pile diminishes in size is almost irrelevant; more important is that the medium of the work and the structure the artist has set up directly engage social behavior and encourage a relationship. In this way, the work is appealing to the viewer’s sense of responsibility while asserting the robustness of its own structure. If the physical work diminishes to nothing will its conceptual form diminish with it?
Now, we must investigate further the elements that distinguish relational artworks from other artworks. For one, relational artworks differ from other artworks in terms of their spatial and temporal relationships. Our relationship to a “traditional” sculpture or a painting can be defined spatially in terms of our physical distance from the work and the ability to choose that distance. For instance, one can view a painting on the wall from up close, with one’s nose near the surface, or from the back of the gallery. Both angles give a different sense of the work. In terms of temporality, there are two items to think about: the temporality of the object, and the temporality of the viewing. Objects, generally, are created to last. To give a few examples, marble sculpture is built to last because the material itself is so robust. Photographs are printed on archival paper to prevent the deterioration of the image and to prevent the paper from aging. Site-specific works, too, are often intended for a particular place. That’s not to say that these objects are permanent, but that the materials and intentions of the artist generally render them semi-permanent. The beholder of an object can also choose the length of time he wants to view that object. He can walk out of a video screening, or stand in front of a painting for two minutes or two hours. There is no prescribed length of time. Performance art is a notable exception as it is marked by specificity, or a limited viewing time. Once the performance is finished, the documentation is the only thing that remains. This kind of contract, between work and viewer, is presupposed by the work itself and requires that the audience view the work for that particular length of time. Relational artworks function in a similar way. They are not open to the public for viewing for long periods of time, but elapse within a truncated time frame. The audience is “summoned by the artist. In a nutshell, the work prompts meetings and invites appointments, managing its own temporal structure.” xxxix The relational artwork, in addition to managing its temporal structure, manages its sociability by clustering people around it and by promoting an extended social interaction. The public is “summoned” by the work and to the work and, in turn, fulfills the relationship necessary to complete it. The ‘aura’ of the artwork (to use a term from Benjamin) is no longer within the work, its form, or in front of it, but “within the temporary collective form that it produces by being put on show. It is in this sense that we can talk of a community effect in contemporary art.” xl
But is relational art compatible with the artwork of the Providence underground? Can the materials and forms be reconciled? These are difficult questions. To start, the materials and conceptual bases are vastly different. Relational art relies heavily on material and situation to support its social exchange, as evidenced by the aforementioned Tiravanija and Gonzalez-Torres pieces. And the mediums employed by relational artists are markedly different than those used by artists in the Providence underground. Gone are the DIY, screen printed, hand knitted, funhouse performance styles of the latter; the materials used by relational artists are sometimes polished (Gillick’s walls), ephemeral (Philippe Parreno’s project to occupy “two hours of time rather than square metres of space” xli) and sometimes physically absent altogether (Jens Haaning’s broadcast of stories in Turkish through a loudspeaker in a Copenhagen square). xlii The actual materials themselves are not easy to pigeonhole, as they vary greatly in both cases. And though the works created by relational artists and underground artists are not compatible, their function is the same. To quote Bourriaud, the “various ways of exploring social bonds have to do with already existing types of relations, which the artist fits into, so that he/she can take forms from them.” xliii Both groups create art that prompts social exchange by working with existing social models; the materials used and the physical and conceptual forms the works take are dependent on socio-economic and cultural structures specific to each group. To be brief, relational art operates within the art market and is dependent on its economic, critical, and institutional scaffolding; it is not a localized movement, as the Providence underground is, but an international one. Conversely, the underground operates below mainstream society, and below the market, and is indeed critical of the systems that relational art is so dependent on. Yet despite the seemingly expansive rift between these two groups, relational art and the Providence underground are acutely sympathetic to one another, in project, intention and indeed in the micro-communities they seek to establish, among other things.
So, how can one map the sociability of contemporary art onto an artistic ecosystem like Fort Thunder? Bourriaud has said: “Any artwork might thus be defined as a relational object;” xliv and I have mentioned that the history of art itself is the history of relations. But one can go a step further than that. Writing about art history, Bourriaud explains that art originally had a transcendental function as a means for the artist, and the beholder, to communicate with a deity. Art eventually abandoned this goal, however, exploring instead the relationship between man and the world; but Bourriaud posits that this goal shifted once again in the 1990s when the artist set his sights on exploring the “sphere of inter-human relations… [and the] relations that his work [would] create among his public, and on the invention of models of sociability.” xlv It seems then that the history of artistic relations shifted from a microcosmic sphere (Man and God) to a large, complex structure of relations (Man and the World) before shifting again in contemporary times to focus on human relationships to the work and to one another (Man and his Public).
To return to Bishop, I have mentioned that she names the “DIY, microtopian ethos” as at the center of relational aesthetics. It is also at the center of the extension of relational aesthetics that I have proposed, the artistic ecosystem in general and the underground collective in particular. Both of those instances produce models of sociability that exist temporally and spatially within themselves, much like the conditions that Bourriaud describes for relational artworks. But how can we map the DIY, microtopian ethos of relational aesthetics onto an artistic ecosystem like Fort Thunder?
In an article in Providence’s independent newspaper The Phoenix, one can find some answers:
The structures that make the underground possible, and the spirit that infuses it, both require and produce social interaction.
CHAPTER THREE: HEAVEN KNOWS WHERE! (BUT IN THE VERY WORLD, WHICH IS THE WORLD OF ALL OF US)
So why Providence? How is this DIY micro-utopianism able to exist in the underground? Crenca gave a romantic answer: “Providence is divine, divine providence.” But the practical answer is more complicated than that.
A better first question is this: what is the ‘underground’ exactly, and why have artists migrated there? In a famous lecture from 1961, the artist Marcel Duchamp asked, “Where do we go from here?” The last sentence of the lecture was, “On the fringe of a world blinded by economic fireworks, the great artists of tomorrow will go underground.”xlviii For local Providence artists, it is the capitalist real estate economy, and the elitism and high-prices of the commercial art world that they have shunned; the underground is a more comfortable space. Seen another way, as one writer from Providence noted, the hidden nature of the local art scene is exactly what helps it to survive.
In order to investigate the underground more thoroughly, I must first define what I mean by this term. ‘Underground’ implies a sort of sub-society, “hidden” or inaccessible to the larger society and critical of its established systems. Underground art communities operate in much the same way, remaining separated (often both geographically and ideologically) from the mainstream art populace while critiquing its project. The underground art scene can then be viewed as a subculture, one separated from commercial culture ideologically (as we have seen) and geographically (Olneyville, the nucleus of the Providence underground, is a town on the outskirts of Providence proper). Yet another important thing to remember about underground communities is that they exist perhaps more readily, and with tighter-knit interpersonal relationships, in a smaller regional area than in a larger urban center. This is not to say that major cities are without underground communities, just that they are less apparent than in regional towns where the size of the population, and the area itself, makes that faction of the community easier to identify. In the Editor’s Introduction to an essay taken from Dick Hebdige’s 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Simon During outlines the circumstances under which subcultures can exist: “Subcultures form in communal and symbolic engagements with the larger system of late industrial culture.” He explains that subcultures are often organized by age and class and are expressed in ‘styles’ produced around “historical and cultural conjectures.”xlix The circumstances defined here form a milieu in which the underground art scene can be placed. When we uncover the definition of a utopian community, the elements that constitute it again seem to parallel the underground art scene. The sociologist Edward W. Gondolf described the utopian community as one established with distinct physical boundaries and a clear set of ideological principles and cultural practices, “including a self-reliant economy and shared living arrangements.”l The community at Fort Thunder that I have described fits into this methodology.
The art that local artists make critiques the capitalist art market. For more than a decade, the leading figures of the Providence underground have worked primarily in screenprinting, an inexpensive medium produced in multiples, allowing for greater accessibility. This cheap art is a reflection of the DIY ethos and an example of capitalist and consumer critique. Paradoxically, it is also perhaps the medium best suited to meet market demands; with a low production cost and an infinite number of prints, the art could be disseminated and sold widely. Yet the Providence artists shun the profit potential of screenprinting and instead opt to tack up the posters throughout the community, allowing anyone to take a copy. The artists are not precious about the work; but there is a sense of ownership, that what belongs to the community stays in the community. So it was funny when the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum, Providence’s largest and most commercial art museum, mounted an exhibition of this local screen printed art in the autumn of 2006 titled Wunderground: Providence Poster Art, 1995-2005. It’s a telling paradox, an underground art exhibition in an above-ground museum, and one that did not go unnoticed. Did the above-ground museum finally give some mainstream validity to the underground art? Or is it the other way around?
It comes as no surprise that the artists involved in that exhibition li critiqued the sudden institutionalization of the underground themselves. At the entrance to the part of the exhibition titled Shangri-La-La-Land, lii a sign made by Pippi Zornoza, a member of the Dirt Palace, hanged above the door: ‘Welcome, please enter and see the begining [sic] and the end of everything. Shangri La La Land.’ The sign might be commenting on the micro-utopian nature of the underground by likening it to the mythic Shangri-La, and by suggesting that the underground is confined to a beginning and an ending time. Or perhaps it suggests that underground art, when it is institutionalized in that way, is in fact dead. Raphael Lyon, an artist and long-time Providence resident, had this to add: “It is the artist that gives the museum legitimacy and not the other way around.” liii Almost all of the people interviewed for this book were excited about the exhibition and the chance to see a decade of local posters under one roof. But despite all of the enthusiasm for Wunderground, and the comprehensiveness of the show, some people saw it as problematic. Artist Linsey Wallace criticized the curatorial decision to collage the posters on the walls, mimicking the multi-layered, wheat-pasted installation in warehouse spaces or on the street. The removal of a poster from its rightful place and subsequent placement in an alternate context was, to her, ineffective and irresponsible. Matt Obert, in an essay for the independent radical paper The Agenda, jokingly explained that the sculptural installations inside Shangri-La-La-Land imply that Providence underground artists inhabit “a whimsical, colorful and friendly Smurf Village, presumably located somewhere in Olneyville.” liv Here again is criticism of the alternate context; by removing the work, and the artists themselves, from their underground spaces, the museum relegates them to mainstream critique. But, like the extension of relational aesthetics that I propose, Wunderground was not necessarily about the works on display. Judith Tannenbaum, the contemporary art curator at the RISD Museum, and the organizer of the Wunderground exhibition, provides an explanation: “It was more about the whole activity and not the exhibition.” lv
For all of Wunderground’s problems, it did not pretend to act as a substitute for the locations on the posters, the Fort Thunders and Pink Rabbits and Munch Houses, the places that had been shut down. In the end, it wasn’t even about the posters themselves. It was about the history behind them, the hands that crafted them and the people who saw and collected them. The activity of producing the posters, the activity of compiling them, and the ten years in between, is what Wunderground sought to represent.
It is important to note however that the Wunderground artists are emblematic of two oft-seen trends in the Providence art scene: the straddling of multiple media, and the interconnectivity of underground culture. Brian Chippendale, for example, lived and worked at Fort Thunder. Notorious for his comics and screenprinted posters, he is also renowned as one-half of the noise duo Lightning Bolt. Chippendale lived at Fort Thunder with Mat Brinkman who founded the free comic zine Paper Rodeo (which has published many Chippendale comics over the years). In addition to Lightning Bolt, Chippendale is a member of several other bands, including Black Pus, Wizards and Mindflayer (of which Brinkman is also a member). Brinkman is also part of the group Forcefield — a collective of artists known for their experimental music, neon-colored knitted costumes and installations — that also includes Fort Thunder artists Leif Goldberg and Jim Drain. Having two or so degrees of separation between individuals, which makes multiple collaborative efforts possible, is not uncommon in the Providence underground and is in fact a condition for much of the activity that takes place.
Aside from capitalist critique, other factors also contribute to the underground movement of the arts scene. Perhaps the most important are the low rent spaces in neglected mill buildings and warehouses that make cheap live/work space available and help to seed collective creative communities. The tight-knit fabric of the local community is another draw. “This utopic world that we’re building towards is not here, but we’re learning how to scavenge and build and create and support one another and that’s beautiful,” Wallace said. It is not hard to imagine, then, that these same circumstances that make the underground possible provide the basis for its DIY, micro-utopian ethos.
The notion of DIY, and what it represents, is easy to grasp; it makes sense to apply its ethic to the Providence underground. But the concept of a micro-utopia is more difficult and calls for further investigation. It seems that the integration of art and life, collectivity, autonomy from societal infrastructure and literal distance from the society’s center all help to create this sense of utopianism. But for most people it remains just that, a sense. Writers attempting to describe the Providence underground have called it Utopia, Shangri-la and Valhalla. lvi While they all have the same intention — to describe an eternal state or place of perfection — and while the sentiment is engaging (Could such a place exist?), they are only grasping at the root of something much larger. For all its grandeur, and its implications, Utopia cannot exist on earth; but I posit that I micro-utopia can.
The micro-utopia of the Providence underground is one that is transitory, but tenacious. As artist J Hogue put it: “Because these places are under the radar, they have to do what they can and maybe they have to shut down for a while, but they open up again someplace else.” In many ways then, the artistic ecosystem of the Providence underground is organic and expandable. Artists carved out their own spaces in industrial factories, attempting to create, and live in, an alternate world. Agniel, in an essay written for the Wunderground catalog, pointed out: “I think all that anyone was ever really trying to do was make, on his or her own terms, a better version of the disappointing world we live in today.” lvii
The transitory nature of the underground is a direct result of gentrification, which is at once the cause and the solution to the problem of artist housing. The vacated mills have long been the most viable option for local artists, but when the mills are opted for development, artists have few places to turn. Often, they move into another illegal mill space, which in turn gets flipped. It is no surprise that most artists are resentful of this forced nomadism, but the situation is emblematic of something much larger. Developers in Providence, eager to preserve the arts community that is so vital to economic development, must find a viable and sustainable model for low-cost artist housing. Some are skeptical. Brain Chippendale, one of the founding members of Fort Thunder who was evicted from that space in 2002 and again from his next space in 2004, explained that when it comes down to a vibrant subculture and high-profit development, “The two things don’t go hand in hand.” lviii
It seems then that perhaps the happy medium is artist-owned space. That was a lesson learned by many artists after the leveling of Fort Thunder and the rest of Eagle Square; if artists don’t take ownership over the buildings they live in, they, and the structures they inhabit, will disappear. J Hogue and Bert Crenca are both advocates for artist-owned space, and they have the credentials to prove its efficacy. J Hogue is the proprietor of The Grant, a former WT Grant department store turned hip-hop mall turned artist studio/office building in Pawtucket, RI. Hogue credits Crenca, the founder of AS220, with helping to make artist-owned space in Rhode Island a reality. “It’s a little easier because of AS220. You can use them as a model and say ‘We’re trying to do something like that.’” lix For many artists with an already-low income, owning space seems like a distant dream. But Crenca urges that artists can learn about the processes towards ownership and council others to grow the base of artist-owned spaces “to have permanence and continuity.”
But I digress. In order to get the full scope of the Providence underground, we cannot rely on the example of one micro- utopian community — Fort Thunder — as the paradigm for the total function and project of the underground scene. We must look to other examples. The Dirt Palace, for example, is both a feminist art collective and a location, housed in an abandoned library at 12-14 Olneyville Square. Seven women artists working in a variety of media, from printmaking and painting to puppetry and lace making, share all of the live/work space. According to the website for the Dirt Palace, the co-operative is intended to foster individual growth and to provide “an environment conducive to challenging thoughts and radical actions.” lx The Dirt Palace, at the time of writing, has managed to survive for almost eight years amidst a rash of evictions in the Olneyville area. Xander Marro, one of the founding members of the Dirt Palace, explained that it operates very organically, with residents moving in and out on a semi-regular basis, but that a consistent thread of consciousness can be found in all residents past and present. Marro clarifies that everyone involved with the Dirt Palace has the same goal in terms of maintaining and contributing to a collective live/work environment, but that they must remain cognizant of the temporal nature of such a community and, specifically, the threat of eviction.
A more recent, and much more hidden, example of an underground cooperative is “The Apartment in the Mall,” as it was dubbed by the news media who covered the discovery of this secret space. In 2003, according to an article by the Providence Journal, artist Michael Townsend found a 750-square foot loft above an unused storage room in the Providence Place Mall, a massive indoor shopping center in downtown Providence. He and seven other artists co-opted the space, eventually carting in over two tons of construction materials and furniture to turn the dusty concrete room into an apartment, complete with sectional sofa, coffee table, dining table and chairs, a hutch, paintings and a video game system. The artists stole electricity by running an extension cord to an outlet in the storage room. They lived and worked in this space, on and off, for four years, unbeknown to mall staff and security. But in late 2007, on a routine round of the facilities, a security guard discovered the door to the room ajar and let himself in. Townsend was arrested and charged with trespassing. The artist defended the action, explaining that the illicit project was meant to explore the “phenomenon of the modern enclosed American mall, its social implications, and his own relationship with commerce and the world.” lxi
Again expounding on the idea of utopianism, Bourriaud writes:
This statement again reflects the parallel reality of utopian living experiments and artwork as social interstice within which these experiments can exist. This is the model of the Providence underground and the basis for the theory of relational aesthetics that I extend. What does this mean for Bourriaud’s theory? And what are the implications for Providence?
CHAPTER FOUR: THE PLACE WHERE IN THE END WE FIND OUR HAPPINESS, OR NOT AT ALL!
Arthur C. Danto, in his book After the End of Art (a rather appropriate title for the purpose of my investigation), wrote:
This passage brings up some very important themes that will help to make connections between the underground and relational aesthetics. For one, Danto outlines an institutional critique: the museum is somehow distanced from its public by failing to intimately, and directly, connect with people. Danto seems to imply that only art removed from institutional rigidity can adequately reach its audience. The contemporary trend that he designates, therefore, must take place outside of the museum. The branch of relational aesthetics that I have identified is one example of this renewed art.
The rhizomatic sociability of underground art would not be possible in the divorced artist/viewer relationship set up by the museum. It depends instead on modes of interaction established by the collective production of art and by the collectivity that this art encourages. In this way, the underground differs from relational aesthetics; while its activity is directly and purposefully out of market, relational aesthetics operates within the rubric of institutional market structures. Yet though the underground’s critique of infrastructure is glaring, relational aesthetics still provides a pointed, though more subdued, institutional critique. In these ways, relational aesthetics instead resembles the model for the avant-garde, a framework that Peter Bürger described in his book, Theory of the Avant-Garde. According to the foreward of that book, by Professor Jochen Schulte-Sasse, the avant-garde’s attack on the institution of art opened up the possibility for art to be considered “as a model for new modes of interaction and as a ‘public sphere of production’ for the understanding of experience.” lxv Essentially an institutional critique is necessary because it opens up the potential for art to be analyzed as a relational and, indeed, as an intersubjective approach.
The avant-garde was interested in the attack on institutions, plural, and not solely on the art institution. Members of the avant-garde also sought to dismantle the bourgeoisie, whose attitudes resigned art to an autonomous status. Autonomy is a functional apparatus that, according to Bürger, detaches art from the praxis of life and “releases art from the demand that it fulfill a social function.” lxvi This predicament has big implications for relational aesthetics, since the autonomy of art renders it separate from society and, therefore, renders it devoid of any social purpose. Yet, this ineffectual social function, as outlined by the bourgeoisie, does not only stand for art as a system, but also for individual works of art. The bourgeois uses this l’art pour l’art theory to justify the status of art as autonomous.
Who produces an autonomous work of art? Bürger names the individual. The avant-garde instead posited a “radical negation of the category of individual creation” lxvii by blurring the notions of authorship. Bürger uses the signature as an example and specifically Marcel Duchamp’s replication of Fountain and his signature as ‘R. Mutt’ on all the copies. This was an early and provocative critique of individual creation and of the originality of the work of art. Yet Bürger explains that the avant-garde “not only negates the category of individual production but also that of individual reception.” lxviii The avant-garde sought to disassemble the notion of artist as producer and the artist-viewer relationship in favor of a collective producer and audience. These similarities — of institutional critique, new modes of interaction and collective participation — lead me to compare relational aesthetics to the avant-garde. But I hesitate to make a direct connection based on these principles alone; that would require further explication.
Yet, it is important to view the avant-garde as sympathetic to relational aesthetics, or vice versa. The historic avant-garde signaled a major shift in the artistic tides, something that Bürger and many other cultural critics have written about extensively. Most interesting though is that Bourriaud and his contemporaries seem to be signaling relational aesthetics as another major cultural and artistic revolution. This “transformation”, to use Danto’s word, is a prescription for the necessity for immediate human contact and is a direct response to the failed attempts by the museum, and other institutions, to do so.
In short, the recent emergence of relational aesthetics could be a fulfillment of the three transformations that Danto names: of art, its infrastructure, and its audience. But it is important to connect this all back to the Providence underground. We have said that relational art deals with sociability, human interaction and a collective approach to art making. And we have discussed Bourriaud’s interpretation of this theory to include only art works and artists working within this theoretical framework. But Bourriaud’s ideas can be extended to include artistic ecosystems; the underground spaces in Providence are a clear example of that.
In addition to an allegiance to intersubjectivity, the Providence underground and relational aesthetics share a common utopic ideal. While the underground seeks to locate itself in self-sustaining, micro-utopian communities, relational aesthetics breeds micro-utopic relationships in the interstice opened up by the work of art to the viewer. These concepts of utopia have an inherently social component, for the notion of ‘the other’ is embedded in them. A micro-utopian community — be it a literal area for people to commune or a metaphorical area opened up by a work of art — requires other people to exist in that community. That is the nature of relationships. So for this reason, and for others we have named, one can look to sociology to analyze and better understand relational aesthetics and participatory practices.
To further expound on this idea, it is important to recognize that utopian communities, whether micro or macro, are identified in sociological terms. They are established intentionally and in contrast to mainstream society by people with explicit ideological principles. They are also organized with the common goal of creating a new society that betters the group whole rather than the individual good. According to Gondolf, “the utopian society, in this vein, is considered to be a veritable social experiment with implications for society at large, rather than a mere side show for the American mainstream.” lxix
This is the connection I have tried to make. The Providence underground can be seen as an extension of Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics because it shares the same project. It is concerned with institutional critique, social experiments, with the sociology of human interaction, and with the relational context of art. In this contemporary age of information, that makes a disconnection from sociability so easy to maintain, this renewed interest in creating social relationships is a retreat to a time before recent technological innovations. These artists are interested in creating social environments or social spaces in which they, and their audience, can exist together. This need for sociability, however, is an innate and instinctive behavior of humans. We have always been social beings; relational aesthetics is just one way to draw out that nature.
So what are the implications for Providence? Bourriaud offers a critique that may provide an answer. He explains that relational practices are often criticized because, when they are resigned to institutional spaces, they undermine “the desire for sociability underpinning their meaning.” lxx But the main and most scathing argument against relational aesthetics, he writes, is that it represents “a watered down form of social critique.”lxxi What these critiques fail to address is the potential for a socio-anthropological reading of relational practices, which I have outlined in these chapters. As Bourriaud notes, the desire for sociability is already inherent in relational practices; keeping them “bogged down” in institutions or assigning them to non-institutional spaces will not contradict that desire.
The relational practices of the artistic ecosystem, its reintegration of art into life, and its retreat back to social relationships and interaction, could not happen in a bourgeois society or in the space of institutions. It must happen underground.
Lauren Rosati is a Brooklyn-based artist, curator and writer who has worked with composers, curators, artists, audio engineers and writers on international projects. She is the Assistant Curator of Exit Art and the co-curator of ((audience)), a traveling, international festival of 5.1 surround sound art works to be screened in cinemas through 2010. She is the writer of an essay in the recent book PERFORMA, on the 2005 performance art biennial of the same name and is currently writing a book on an under-recognized Abstract Expressionist painter. Other recent projects include Ice Cream Headache, a five-borough audio tour in which reinterpreted ice cream truck jingles were broadcast to an unsuspecting public from a Mr. Softee truck, and LOUD5, a sporadic sound art magazine which she co-curates and publishes.
In the first few pages of “The Paradoxes of Political Art,” Rancière discusses how art is returning to politics, and the “political capacity of art” is taking on many forms (134). He goes onto list types of artists who test the the political possibilities of alternative artistic practices. It’s easy to pin a contemporary artist to each of his caricatures:
"Some artists make big statues out of media and advertising icons to make us conscious of the power they have over our perception" (134).
This quickly calls to mind Martha Rosler with her video-performances such as Vogue and Semiotics of the Kitchen. In the former, she vigorously critiques the articles and advertisements in an issue of Vogue while being broadcasted on national television. In her seminal work Semiotics of the Kitchen Rosler assumes the role of an anti-Julia Child—appropriating and transforming the institutionalized idea of a kitchen tutorial. She voices the name of classic kitchen utensils and then performs their normative “use” in a flagrantly absurd manner that questions the mythic connotations of domesticity and social roles that become congealed in commodities.
"Some artists, using false identities, crash the meetings of big bosses and politicians to make them look foolish"—the BHQF and its collective anonymity in tandem with its absurd interventions into professional business meetings such as during their reinterpretation of Joseph Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, entitled Explaining Pictures to a Dead Bull (text documentation attached).
"Some [artists] use the space of the museum to demonstrate the functioning of new ecological machines, others lay out small stones or erect signs in disempowered suburbs with the aim of re-creating the environment and engendering new social relations" (134). This citation alludes first to artist Tino Sehgal and second to Rick Lowe, founder of Project Rowe Houses. Sehgal reappropriates the museum space in order to spark a new ecology of affect and relational exchange, such as during his relational piece at the Guggenheim in 2010 In Progress. Lowe completely disavows the museum space and instead channels his artistic sensibilities into collaboration with artists and Texan locals to completely reconstruct a historic black subdivision. The environment certainly “engenders new social relations”—it puts single mothers in dynamic dialogue with resident artists and provides the community equal access to multimedia and performance rooms. Here, art is the vehicle for strengthening social bonds and performing a micro-community of indiscriminate collaboration and collectivity.
But Rancière’s primary concern is “art’s efficacy.”
"Art is presumed to be effective politically because it displays the marks of domination, or parodies mainstream icons, or even because it leaves the space reserved for it and becomes a social practice" (134-5)
According to Rancière, art assumes “that it mobilizes when it itself is taken outside of the workshop or museum and that it incites us to oppose the system of domination by denouncing its own part in that system” (135). To Rancière, this presents a problematic “relationship between cause and effect, intention and consequence” (135).
—>I intend to further interrogate this problematic. Does Rancière take issue with the assumptions of social practice that its self-alienation from the conventional art market and institutions genuinely mobilizes the audience to oppose the dominant infrastructure of art circulation?
Rancière practically paraphrases Claire Bishop’s closing remarks during her May 18 talk at Cooper Union as a part of the Creative Time: Living As Form Summit: “art practices have to be re-situated interminably, placed in ever new contexts” (135).
Rancière notes how many artists and critics argue that “late capitalism, or economic globalization or computer communication and the digital camera” demand that we “completely re-think the politics of art” (135).
—>This segment directed my mind directly towards Tiziana Terranova’s Network Culture as well as her essay on “Sense and Sensibility” that discuss the politics of cultural production in the digital era. This could definitely be a productive textual juxtaposition to pursue.
Rancière notes that “The logic of mimesis consists of conferring on the artwork the power of the effects that it is supposed to elicit on the behaviour of spectators” (136)
—>What is the role of mimesis in participatory artistic practices that posit the artist as the artwork, or rather, the nexus around which a participatory network is formed. In a manner, the artist confers on the artwork (himself) “the power of the effects that it is supposed to elicit on the behaviour of spectators”—in this case, improvisational and dynamic participation.
Turning to Rousseau, Rancière discusses the quest to construct “the collective body of a city that enacts its unity through hymns and dances” (137). For Rancière this introduces the second great paradigm, which is a another mimesis that takes the form of an Archi-ethical paradigm of representation:
"the stake here is not to improve behaviour through representation (pedagogical mimesis), but to have all living bodies directly embody the sense of the common"—subsequently "framing the community as artwork" (137).
This brings us to Rancière’s term “anti-representation”, or “art turned into its truth, the framing of the fabric of sensory common life—a model that is still with us” (137). He goes on to say that we continue to assert the need for art to disavow the art world, so that it can “be effective in ‘real life’” (137). According to Rancière we are perpetually trying to inverse the classic “logic of the theatre” by activating the spectator and transforming the art space into “a place of political activism or by sending artists into the streets of derelict suburbs to invent new modes of social relations” (i.e. Project Rowe Houses) (137).
After isolating the “representational mediation” of more conventional object-based artistic practices from those of “ethical immediacy”—such as social practice, which seeks to “create action in the ‘outside’ world” (137).
On pg. 138, Rancière gives his definition of “Aesthetic”—for him, it “designates the suspension of every determinate relation correlating the production of art forms and specific social function” (138).
—>This is what leads us to categorize relational aesthetics and social practice as anti-aesthetic in the context of Rancière’s discourse.
—>I’d also like to further unpack what Rancière means when he attributes a “conflict between sense and sense” to the efficacy of dissensus.
Speaking on politics, Rancière claims that they invent “new forms of collective enunciation” (139). “[Politics] re-frames the given by inventing new ways of making sense of the sensible, new configurations between the visible and the invisible, and between the audible and the inaudible, new distributions of space and time—in short, new bodily capacities” (139)
—>These quotes could definitely also be linked to Terranova’s discourse on the “virtual”—the zone of rupture and cultural/network redesign—being reached by constant re-assessments of the “given” possibilities.
Within Rancière’s discourse, it is dissensus—”a dissensual re-configuration of the common experience of the sensible” that bridges the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics (140). Indeed, it is the politics of aesthetics that frames new forms of individuality (possibly Terranova’s the pre-individual and collective)…It does not give a collective voice to the anonymous. Instead, it re-frames the world of common experience as the world of a shared impersonal experience…help[ing] to create the fabric of a common experience in which new modes of constructing common objects and new possibilities of subjective enunciation may be developed that are characteristic of the aesthetics of politics.
—>But what exactly does he mean when he says, “This politics of aesthetics, however, operates under the conditions prescribed by an original disjunction. It produces effects, but it does so on the basis of an original effect that implies the suspension of any direct cause-effect relationship? What’s at stake here in this potential cause-effect relationship?
"What comes to pass is a process of dissociation: a rupture in the relationship between sense and sense, between what is seen and what is thought, and between what is thought and what is felt" (142).
—>What do these two senses represent? Where is the split exactly? Does this have to do with affect and its occurrence as a sort of event that precedes emotion, thus destabilizing the senses?
"What comes to pass is a rupture in the specific configuration that allows us to stay in ‘our’ assigned places in a given state of things…These sort of ruptures happen anywhere and at any time, but they can never be calculated" (this phrasing almost directly mimics that of Terranova when describing the rupture into the “virtual”) (143).
A quote to end this aesthetic musing: “relational art: the desire to create new forms of relationships in museums and galleries, as well as produce modifications in the urban environment in order to bring about change in the way it is perceived” (146).
Since when did artists drive around in armored trucks. Mel Chin’s Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill is a socially engaged art project that traveled “over 18,000 miles during the 2009/10 school year” in an armored truck visiting schools and encouraging students to create over 400,000 fake 100-dollar bills. These “Fundred” dollar bills will be presented to Congress this fall—hopefully in exchange for the necessary funds to “remediate the extreme levels of lead pollution in New Orleans.” Mel Chin’s assistant Amanda Wiles described the project as “network-oriented” and characterized Chin as a “connector—pulling from different disciplines”, including art, science, and education. Unable to classify the project as art or environmental activism, Amanda termed it a “hybrid art project.”
Documentation of this project was showcased at LIVING AS FORM, an exhibition of documentation of over 100 socially engaged art projects. Creative Time—a nonprofit dedicated to bringing art to the public—organized this curatorial intervention of the Lower East Side’s historic Essex Street Market between September 28 and October 16. Like Mel Chin Studio, Chief Curator of Creative Time Nato Thompson acknowledges that socially engaged art works “defy easy categorization, and raise issues of authorship and traditional notions of art…often hav[ing] more in common with guerrilla and urban gardens, alternative economic and education experiments, and civic-minded, nonprofit organizations [sic]”.
LIVING AS FORM showcased twenty years of socially engaged art documentation in tandem with live performances and workshops that aimed to surpass visitors’ participation thresholds. Complementing the colossal collection of such documentation were participatory workshops on issues of artistic exchange and alternative economies, exploratory tours of the Lower East Side, collective lunches at a nearby pop-up restaurant, and five new site-specific installations. The exhibition provoked visitors to embark on a participatory and relational exploration of “hybrid” artistic practices that bridge the gap between art and activism, art and everyday life.
The indoor exhibition space took the form of a media archive turned labyrinth. Architectural firm Common Room designed the space—comprised of stacks of concrete blocks, rigid metal shelves, and low, provisional dividers reminiscent of a construction site or military bunker. Erratic rows of TV monitors (equipped with headphones) displayed video and textual documentation of actions, interventions, and general processes of a myriad of socially engaged artists.
Art collective TIME SERVICES set up Market, a relational installation in the form of a central kiosk of local vendors within the exhibition space. All the vendors were mom-and-pop shops and studios providing the Lower East Side community with public services such as printmaking classes.
LIVING AS FORM was a multimedia playground. The logic behind the exhibition’s lack of structure—with no delineated starting or ending points—was to influence the visitor to create his or her own path. Whether to keep straight, head right, turn left, or maybe even do a preliminary lap. The second most influential crossroads was whether to participate in collective workshops and tours, or to remain a passive, anonymous spectator who denies his invitation to the exhibition’s relational network.
Creative Time had no expectations of any one participant. The exhibition gave viewers the agency to explore and to choose. Certain pieces had to be skipped in order to focus on others. No two people could experience, or even traverse, the exhibition in the exact same manner. Following different paths, attracted by different media, each participant’s mind recorded an idiosyncratic narrative of the event.
Socially engaged art—also referred to as social practice, relational aesthetics, dialogic arts, and even new genre public art—is a pervasive and divisive trend in the 21st century art world. Practitioners of socially engaged art collaborate with participants and often times disavow artistic authorship in favor of collectivity. They collaboratively realize projects set out to strengthen social bonds, explore the possibilities of improvisational interactions, and attempt to ameliorate social and environmental injustices.
One example, OurGoods—self-identifying as a “barter collective”—seeks to initiate “action oriented discussion about value and mutual aid in the arts.” The collective’s installation-performance piece, HOW MUCH IS OUR WORK WORTH TO EACH OTHER, transformed a pocket of the exhibition space into a platform for collective exchange (words, goods, services). Body-size bulletin boards covered with “HAVES” and “NEEDS” fliers marked the space OurGoods demarcated as “a gathering place for personal messages and informal exchanges.” Each weekend of the exhibition, the collective hosted workshops on how to survive as artists, while eluding the capitalist market, through bartering, collaboration, and solidarity. Like many of the projects in the LIVING AS FORM archival exhibition, the members of OurGoods facilitate art networks sustained by imaginative dialogue and cooperation.
The nearest bathroom was located next door at Olympic Restaurant—a small diner that has been a local institution since it opened in 1989. There, SUPERFLEX has permanently installed POWER TOILET/JPMORGAN CHASE, an exact replica of the executive’s restroom at JPMorgan Chase. SUPERFLEX had a two-fold intention by installing the restroom in the diner: “provid[ing] an essential service” and prompting visitors “to contemplate the structures of power that become so imbued in even the most unassuming architectural spaces.” This simple gesture of installing a toilet expressed the transformative possibilities of socially engaged art.
THE SPECTRE OF SOCIAL SCULPTURE
Rick Lowe was also a contributing artist, with an installation hidden behind four stone cubes and two curved barricades. Lowe is the founder of Project Rowe Houses, an exemplary model of social practice; the program takes an artistic and alternative approach to social activism, focusing on public housing.
The late German artist Joseph Beuys’s concept of ‘social sculpture’ influenced Lowe to transform a dilapidated, historically black region of Texas into an ongoing relational (and humanitarian) piece, Project Rowe Houses. This collective artwork includes renovated homes for single mothers and exhibition and multimedia performance art spaces where families can interact with resident artists. Lowe’s process-oriented project speaks to the possibilities of aesthetically charged mentorship, communication, and pluralistic collaboration. Through imaginative exchange, the artist and participants—co-producers—can alter their spatial reality. This is the goal of socially engaged forms—to gradually improve life; to progressively intensify social interactions; and to improve daily life on the daily basis.
BISHOP AND HER DISCONTENTS
In the months prior to the opening of LIVING AS FORM, Creative Time held a series of public dialogues discussing, analyzing, and evaluating contemporary social practice (and hyping the exhibition’s opening). Claire Bishop, Art historian, critic, and author of Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, gave an astute survey of the catalysts, tensions, limitations, and possibilities of socially engaged art during a talk on May 18 at Cooper Union, entitled “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?”
Standing within eyesight of Nato Thompson and a panel of socially engaged artists, Bishop was not afraid to voice her skepticism and suggestions regarding social practice. She announced her distaste for the catchphrase ‘social practice’, arguing that its elimination of the word ‘art’ or ‘aesthetics’ from socially engaged art forms symbolically relegates artistic discourse and in turn valorizes social discourse. Bishop expresses discomfort about the proximity of art and community work. Yes, they can be in dialogue, and yes, they can collaborate, but for Bishop, artists and social workers should not be synonymous terms.
One of Bishop’s first remarks during her speech was that the most frequently asked and agitating question she hears is, “Surely its better for one art project to improve one person’s life than to not happen at all?” She said she can never manage to formulate a response.
Joseph Beuys, however, would have presumably said yes—believing that every dialogue is a worthwhile artistic endeavor. His theory of social sculpture is reflected in the work of many contemporary relational artists and participants in LIVING AS FORM. He declared that “EVERY HUMAN BEING IS AN ARTIST”—it is through diverse communication and indiscriminate collaboration that art can reach its total transformative and revolutionary capacity. LIVING AS FORM sought to affirm this declaration.
STILL LIVING AS FORM
The Essex Street Market was gutted of its glory at the show’s closing on October 16. The participation continues on Creative Time’s website with its very own YouTube of socially engaged art. And it doesn’t stop there: LIVING AS FORM is only part one of Creative Time’s mission to bring participatory art and affective socially engaged media to the public.
What began in New York City is traveling the globe as LIVING AS FORM (THE NOMADIC VERSION). Nato Thompson, wielding a portable hard drive with 50 projects from the original exhibition, will curate site-specific exhibitions of socially engaged work at international host institutions that will activate each rendition with a unique participatory project. Thompson will hunt for undiscovered socially engaged projects and groups throughout his voyage—uploading documentation to his hard drive. LIVING AS FORM has become a socially engaged project of its own, linking participants, artists, and diverse workers for social change in a collaborative and process-oriented network of social practice.
Network Aesthetics is a tumblr-based blog that documents my research process as I organize a spring 2012 exhibition of relational art. As the title suggests, the exhibition will showcase the work of artists who adapt a network-oriented model in their artistic practice. This network-oriented model often involves the disavowal of authorship, direct dialogue between the artist and the spectator-turned-participant (even if the dialogue is mediated by a screen or projection), and a focus on process and collaboration versus the production of a finite object. Documentation of works by artists whose performances and socially-engaged activities blur the line between artist and spectator will be showcased in the exhibition.The exhibition will consist of textual, video, photographic, and audio documentation of diverse relational practices. It will also incorporate live relational performances within the space. The dynamic and interdisciplinary exhibition layout aims to actively engage the spectator with the concepts of social sculpture and relational aesthetics. It raises tensions regarding the ramifications of presenting documentation (video and otherwise) of site-specific and ephemeral works. Can a relational work be effective when taken out of context. Can it have the same affective influence on the spectator without the actual physical presence of the original performers and participants? The exhibition aims to valorize documentation’s performative capacity to re-imagine, reinterpret, and redistribute the affect and participatory impulses of the original piece.
The research presented in this blog is not entirely linear. Although I plan to frame Joseph Beuys and his concept of social sculpture as the catalyst for proceeding socially-engaged artistic practice, I will not be taking a chronological approach to the social medium. Instead, I will be writing blog posts that respond to and analyze exhibitions, contemporary dialogic artists and their process, and critical texts on participation and network culture.
In Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, Tiziana Terranova characterizes contemporary culture as one of affect, impulse, improvisation, and dynamic communication facilitated by an overflow of information and images emitted, appropriated, edited, and redistributed by various parties around the world. The resurgence of participatory art forms in the 90s, concurrent with the publishing of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, is uncannily contemporaneous with the emergence of new media technologies that provides a platform for collaboration and collective communication that Beuys could have only dreamed of.
The network demands participation; it cannot exist without it. Similarly, relational performances appear futile without an audience. But can dialogic practices be successful in the absence of engaged spectators? Or, is it possible to perceive simply the attempt to create an open space capable of generating productive discourse amongst a network of strangers a successful artistic gesture in itself? And even if the artistic dialogue is not interpersonal, is it possible that a spectator can hold a visual conversation with the relics—imagining himself as an active agent in the construction of the work? And even if critics who consider relational aesthetics to be completely bogus and devoid of any actual aesthetic quality, engage nonetheless in critical contemplation of the art form’s legitimacy. And even if a patron refused participation in a gesture of utter apathy, can it not be argued that the spectator’s detachment and indifference is too an affective byproduct of the work. Participatory art evokes affective responses—rather they be positive or skeptical, active, or passive.
But what is the role of the curator of an exhibition of relational art work? It is impossible to foresee the patrons’ demographics, backgrounds, and their willingness to openly engage with the art. It’s a nebulous task to assess the success of an exhibition of participatory art (and documentation). Perhaps this aspect of curatorial improvisation is in itself a relational practice—attempting to organize an aesthetic space where people are stimulated and charged to explore and participate; to form and be formed by their cerebral, sensory and social experience. According to Beuys, the true sculptural materials, the most productive medium is that which is already in us. In this context, the goal of the relational artist and the curator of participatory art is to make the spectators aware that they are more than viewers; they are artists wielding invisible materials—thought and speech—which are capable of continuously altering the artwork by virtue of individual introspection and collective exchange.
My [works] are to be seen as stimulants for the transformation of the idea of sculpture, or of art in general. They should provoke thoughts about what sculpture can be and how the concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone:
Thinking Forms—how we mould our thoughts or
Spoken Forms—how w shape our thoughts into words or
SOCIAL SCULPTURE—how we mould and shape the world in which we live: Sculpture as an evolutionary process; everyone an artist.
(citation excerpted from an interview conducted by Volker Harlan in 1979. Published in What Is Art? Conversation with Joseph Beuys)