Art can be such a slow thing

vidokle portraitАnton Vidokle We were sitting in the early morning in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel, where Art Arsenal is putting up all its guests for Arsenale 2012. Enormous crystal chandeliers hung above us, the marble shined softly and griffins smiled slyly under the table, while serious businessmen in gray suits and bright ties actively and loudly drank coffee. We talked about how it all began in a New York City hotel room, about the homogenization of art and the need to change the very notion of it.   

Anton Vidokle - one of the founders of the largest art newsletters in the world – e-flux, co-editor of an online journal by the same name, artist, curator and writer – is probably one of the most interesting people you can talk to about the changing notions of art. His work is the very creation of the state, conditions and landscapes in which art can happen, posing questions to itself and to its boundaries and territories. He talks a lot about the fluidity of the meanings and definitions of art today and how hard it is for him to explain what e-flux is and what he considers himself to be.    

This is why I had wanted to talk with Anton for such a long time, particularly about what it is during the course of constant change and artistic self-reflection that makes art art and whether there can even be any limits to it.    

Kateryna Botanova: Quite naturally, my first question is about e-flux, a unique art-information service that is not just the largest database of event and institutions, but also a one of a kind business model. How did it start?

Anton Vidokle: It was almost an accident. I was collaborating with a couple of friends in 1998, both of them were unemployed curators and I was an unemployed artist at that time. I wasn’t working with a gallery, so I did not have very many shows. We were looking for possibilities to do things outside of the existing art structure in New York, which at the time appeared somehow constipated. It was really difficult to get a public institution to do a show becauseeverything was planned years in advance, leaving no possibilities for amore spontaneous types of activity.

К.В.: Was it because of NY or was it a more general situation?

A.V.: I think it was NY. Of course, there were many galleries that were much more spontaneous, but they did commercial exhibitions. Public institutions, although there were a lot of them, were so large and bureaucratic and the decision-making process went through so many committees that it could take years. So we were a bit frustrated, because we were developing a lot of ideas for a different kind of practice, but did not see any possibilities to realize them at that time.

Our solution was to use the entire city as a space for art. And it did not matter where we did it –it could be on a street, or in a parking lot, or park, or a hotel room, or in my apartment. We wanted to try to reimagine the city not as a closed space, but as a space with all kinds of possibilities.

One project that we did was a one-night exhibition in the Holiday Inn hotel in Chinatown. We had only $250 for three of us, which was just enough to get a hotel room, but not enough for posters or invitations. The name of this show was The Best Surprise is No Surprise, which was a Holiday Inn slogan from 1970s. Because we did not have any money to promote the show and I had just opened my first e-mail account on Hotmail, I decided to e-mail a pressrelease to a few friends. Very few people had e-mail at that time, so I may have sent 30-40 e-mails to people that we knew.

Something really strange happened that night.The show was happening from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. and about 500-600 people tried to get to that hotel room in the middle of the night. It was very strange and we got quite nervous, because we thought the hotel might ask us to leave. So we went to the reception and lied, saying that we were casting for a film, and the film is about the art world, so everyone would be dressed in black, and it’s being directed by this very eccentric Japanese director who isin NY just for one night and that’s how he wants to do it. It somehow made sense to them, so they did not bother us. Except in the morning, when the hotel clerks knocked on the door.But it turned out they wanted to audition for the film. So our lie was exposed, but it was already 10 am and the show was over.

Who was in the show?

A.V.: There were 3 artists: the great French film makerMichelAuder, one of the first who started using video.He was close to Andy Warhol and started using the video camera as a kind of diary. He was filming everything from very mundane activities to the birth of his daughter, to having sex and doing drugs. The sound installation was by German artist Carsten Nicolai, who’s from Berlin. He makes very ephemeral subtle sound sculptures, using ultra-low and ultra-high sound frequencies. So you feel them more than you hear them. Japanese artist Tomoko Takahashi, who at that time she was making incredible installations. They looked like a hurricane went though the room and destroyed everything, creating an increadible mess, but it had a very precise order. So that was the exhibition.

The next day I started thinking, how it was possible that you e-mail 30 people and end up having 500. And I thought of how to develop this possibility into a resource that others can use - independent curators, galleries, artists, artist-run-spaces - everybody who does not have a massive promotional budget. So with another group of friends that were actually all artists, we decided to start e-flux.

К.В.: Why e-flux?

A.V.: I don’t even remember. It wasn’t my idea and I thought the name was horrible. But you know, when you collaborate with a group of people, you have to negotiate and accept certain things that you might not even like. But this name stuck and worked somehow.

К.В.: You said that the e-flux was created for independent initiatives that did not have big budgets. Now it seems to work rather for big institutions and well-known biennials.

A.V.: I don’t think so, maybe the big things are more visible. Of course, e-flux is not cheap, but we have different price levels and scales for different types of institutions. It’s significantly more affordable for non-for-profit and public institutions thanfor an art fair. We also offer a substantial discounts for institutions from countries that are not first-world economies. There is a sliding scale.

On the other hand, when you have 70,000 readers you start to wonder what is relevant to them. Whether we should post a small local event that nobody will ever visit or something more publically visible...

And e-flux still is in development. When people ask me what it is, I don’t really know what to say, how to define it. It’s not a one thing or a singular activity.

К.В.: Then there appeared the Journal: when and why?

A.V.: For me personally the e-flux journal is a continuation of the Unitednationsplaza project. Through this project a group of contributors - artists, writers, curators, theorists - was formed. They are very interesting in the sense that they are all quite multifaceted people - they make art, write, they don’t differentiate between making a film or an art object, putting on workshop or writing an essay. It’s all one thing. So basically thisgroup of people forms were something like a nexus for the publication.

We started the journal in 2008, when I met Brian Kuan Wood who was a participant in the New York version of Unitednationsplaza project. Somehow our ideas  just clicked and, together with JulietaAranda, we started the publication very quickly. It also was a perfect overlap with what e-flux was already doing. The Journal brought a discourse that underpinned conceptual frameworks of exhibitions and artworks that e-flux was announcing. An interesting thing is that in fact the readership for the journal already existed even before the journal has started. Usually you have to go exactly the opposite direction, but we already created the readership and just needed to create the publication for it.

К.В.: In fact you created a model for an intellectual journal, when you already had readership and money to do what you wanted to do.

A.V.: Yes, this allows us to publish what we find interesting without making compromises to attract readers, sponsors or advertisers. It’s a very unusual situation with the kind of independence that rarely exists for publications.

К.В.: How would you call what you are doing in the journal? It’s certainly not art criticism any more.

A.V.: You know, it’s funny, because in the beginning, when we started the journal, we thought it was going to be a fairly traditional art journal – with reviews, essays about artists and artworks, etcalbeit published online. However, we simply couldn’t find texts that we would be excited to publish. So somehow it took quite a different direction with the texts on theory, cultural criticism, social criticism, and with very few essays that aredirectly about works of art.

The journal is intended for an art readership. It has a huge readership among artists. I think they use it as a source of inspiration, maybe education of a kind, something that gives them ideas.But there are no reviews of exhibitions and very rarely texts that focus on individual art-works.

I think there is definitely decline in art criticism. I think a lot of things changed since the peak of influence of art criticism, from the 1960-70’s or even 1940’s. In the current economic conditions the position of the writer has been greatly marginalized and undermined. It’s almost impossible to make your living from writing alone. You have to curate, you have to teach, advise, do all sorts of things that compromise your position as a critic. For example, how can you write a critical text on a show at some museum when at the same time you hope that you can curate a project at that museum or get a job there.

I also think that in North America there is also a problem ofa canon in art historyand critical writing – a specific approach to understanding the history of art that is perhaps too predictable. It seems to me that the majority of young people who start to write on art these days, all go through the university Ph.D. Programs that are dominated by a very specific ideology - a mixture of Western Marxism and psychoanalysis as a way to understand art. I think this is a very limited type of approach.

К.В.: The same applies to artists and curators...

A.V.: I think it is a problem of professionalization that’s dulling so much in the world of art these days. Everything becomes so homogenized. So the result is a strange deja-vu feeling, like when you go through a biennial or an artfair and you feel like you’ve seen everything there already, maybe under different names.

К.В.:  How do we get out of this homogenized artistic nightmare? Is there a way out?

A.V.: Of course, there’s always a way out! [laughing] This is something that I wanted to talk about in the lecture tonight. There are a lot of things that can be done both on the level of the individual artist and on a more systematic level. We are dealing with the necessity of transforming the very notion of art.

К.В.: I believe what you are doing is a way to such a transformation. You create different environments, recreate different types of relations and links around yourself, changing the relation between people and art and artists themselves.

A.V.: Maybe, but I do not have these ‘relational’ brackets, I’m from a slightly different generation. Many of the people that I collaborate with, in particular Liam Gillick and RikritTIravania, have been really shaping influences in terms of developing my practice. So the idea of transformation and transformative ability or function of art is something of a central importance to me.

К.В.: You tried to transform a biennial at Manifesta 6 in Nicosia that never happened. And that project transformed itself into the Unitednationsplaza. Now when you look back at the conflict that happened then, do you think a positive outcome was possible? A compromise of a sort?

You see we were placed in a very complex political situation and maybe it was unfair to put us in that position from the start. I think the Manifesta Foundation should have done a lot more research. They were way too naive and optimistic. And we (curators) came into a project, when the contract was already signed and it hardly gave the Manifestaany effective power vis-?-vis local authorities. Art institutions can sometimes be quite superficial, they don’t want to know too much about political reality. 

The intellectual framework for this project was developed in such a way that it was not possible not to involve both of the communities of the island: the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots. To not do sowould have completely underminedthe premise of this cultural event.  But one of the sides, at least on the official level, did not really want to involve the other in a substantial way.

I never realized how intertwined the idea of nationalism and the idea of culture are. For Cypriot government officials it was as thoughthe survival of the Greek-Cypriot nation was at stake in this show, while for us it was hard to see Manifesta as something more than an international art exhibition, no matter how complex or experimental.

К.В.: How did that idea travel to Berlin?

A.V.: I literally took all of the ideas that I developed for Manifestato Berlin. The difference and a fortunate situation was that instead of doing it for a couple months as it should have been in Cyprus (which really might not work), we could take the whole year to develop this project and not to cramp it into an exhibition duration, but have the whole year of activities.

К.В.: In one of your interviews you said that you are interested in “the notion of exhibition as school, or how to structure a visual art institution that does not privilege display. In this sense the project is more of an „alternative“ exhibition model rather then an „alternative“ educational model. Why is it so important to you to shift accents from display to contextualization and discussion?

A.V.: I like looking at art, I like exhibitions. The problem I see at this point is that it seems that art almost doesn’t exist outside of the context of being exhibited. After Duchamp the difference between an art object and non art object is demonstrated only though the context in which they are placed. So it’s almost like the exhibition itself produces art works. Otherwise art is unintelligible and cannot be recognized as art. This becomes a very limited situation for artist, because exhibitions are controlled by others in the field of art –curators, institutions, galleries and so on. Artists often feel like pawnsina chess game.

I suspect that the situation may have been better in the 19th century, when there was still the space of a bourgeoisie home and not that many exhibitions happened. Art could still be recognized as such without being displayed in a gallery or a museum.

К.В.: In the 19th century there were more formal criteria for art…

A.V.: Oh yes, it required a frame to say: this is art and this is the wall.

К.В.: Is it so important today to distinguish between art and not-art?
A.V.: I like the description of the future society in Marx’ writing- a vision of a social space where identity is not tied to the professional activity: for example,today you can be a journalist, tomorrow - an artist, and then a bartender. Identity in this case can be something very fluid as you move through different occupations and social roles. I think that if this could be the case, life will become very beautiful, an un-alienated experience that is also aesthetic, so  that art in the sense that we know it now - as something distinct and separated from other spheres of life –will not be not necessary any more.Art will simply dissolve in everyday life.

This vision is very appealing to me artistically. I think that art needs a way to be as real as other things in life. In an exhibition context it exists in a kind of a suspension of the real, like in a theater play, where an actor can scream “Fire!” but nobody runs because everyone knows its only art.

Anselm Franke,a writer and curator,has been doing a lot of research into pre-rational societies. He has a theory that contemporary exhibitions - not just art exhibitions, but any type ofexhibition - are the place where the irrational is allowed to exist without being a subject of immediate persecution and termination –without being committed to psychiatric hospitals, punishment or execution. Irrational is allowed to exist in exhibitions, films, theater, etc on the condition that it is not real, that its art. But, of course, for artists, thinkers, writers these premises are so deeply problematic.

For me it is important to imagine a context where art can exist and circulate without exhibitions, without institutions, , without work.

К.В.: The world you are describing now is very peaceful in a sense..

A.V.: Why? Because there is no power struggle?

К.В.: Yes.. No valuation, no power struggle..

A.V.: Well, this process requires a complete restructuring of your practice, and this is very difficult: you have to turn inside out to imagine art differently. Imagining anything differently can be a violent process. Intellectually, if not physically.

К.В.: What about restructuring society that can accept this kind of practice?

A.V.: Maybe the restructuring of art could suggest a way for a non-violent restructuring of society.

К.В.: I now think of ArturZmijewski and his vision of restructuring art and society that he recently stated in his manifesto for the 7 Berlin Biennale, where he shows his disappointment with powerlessness of art professionals. And he’s calling artists for more direct action.

A.V.: I haven’t read this manifesto. And I think it’s very strange to judge an art project before it actually happens. Let’s see what happens in Berlin.

К.В.: Zmijewski is working within the framework of biennial - a very conservative structure in a sense. Do you think it is possible to perform some radically different action, political action within biennial?

A.V.: I think it depends on how we understand the agency of art. One thing is an activist approach that demands immediate action, immediate impact. But the other side of this is that art can be a very slow thing. One tends to forget this,because today everything is more and more instantaneous. Time is flowing faster and faster.

Once you put something out in the world, others will encounter this work in contexts and temporalities that you cannot foresee. There have been books, paintings, ideas that did not make an impact until hundreds of years after they were made. By focusing solely on immediate social impact you radically disempower the other type of agency that art has: onethat is very slow, that has a long shelf life.

К.В.: Are you saying that art should not deal with realpolitik?

A.V.: I’m totally opposed to thinking in prescriptive terms: what art should or should not do. The interesting thing about art is that it can be just about anything - it’s the one thing in our society that still has this quality: the quality of not being completely subjugated, completely instrumentalized.