Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On the challenge of co-existence.

Paul Carter writes about his book Meeting Place, in which waiting, meeting,
non-meeting, and communication have possibilities in unexpected manifestations.

RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia

Meeting Place is like its subject: where people meet, there are always many voices and views. So Meeting Place brings together stories, insights, beliefs and experiences from many different times and traditions. And what counts in understanding the growth of sociability is not just the mystery of how different people communicate and translate their desires: it’s how they get there. Some people expect encounter; others are surprised.

Sometimes there is a wonderful convergence; sometimes we remain locked in our conceptual capsules.

Writing Meeting Place, I realized that I was part of this crowding world and my take on life’s central experience (meeting) was just one thread through the labyrinth. Instead of standing outside, I had to weave threads of my own. So Meeting Place is also the story of one person’s encounter with his place in the story. Living in Australia, I was struck by the fact that, while European and North American cultures encourage traveling, mingling and congregation, Australian Aboriginal cultures see meetings primarily as mechanisms for not meeting.

Meeting and the city

Meeting Place is a personal book in another way: it begins with a non-meeting at a railway station. Like a work of fiction, the story fans out from the emotional void experienced when the person one waits for fails to turn up. But I find meaning in this. As such, the book is structured like a city, with streets, clubs, woods, airports and museums. I encounter a host of thinkers and artists who believe, paradoxically, that the desire bound up in meeting only survives so long as meeting is deferred. Perhaps the true Eros, whose desire is never satisfied, is the modern Internet-doubled city.

By staging an encounter between Australian Aboriginal cultures of place-making and metropolitan theories of cultural progress, this book is able to attend to the desire of meeting and to see that what counts is a capacity to interact wherever one is, to improvise and by copying the gestures of those around to build a new, joyous sense of place and self. Such an emerging awareness expresses itself in a reinterpretation of Giacometti’s iconic sculptural groups.

Cities have layers: it’s an illusion to think we live in the present. Meetings are always returns because we confront our hopes and fears. Meeting Place is constructed in the same way. Some of these same ideas have appeared in my other books, but in Meeting Place they meet as never before, like returning to a city and coming across familiar places. In other words in this free, essay-like cultural writing there is a history as well as a geography.

Most of the very short chapters have titles taken from graffiti tags. This symbolises the way meeting is preceded by a desire of encounter: besides the official signs there are unofficial ones, leading into the labyrinth of desire, where, sometimes, we need to get lost.

When I wrote this book, I imagined readers who juggle texting, emailing, Facebook, navigating traffic, fitting in study, listening to music: we are distracted by the amplified opportunities for meeting and connection. Attention spans are shortened. Responding to this new environment of reading, I wanted Meeting Place to be a parcours of the terrain, a speed read which captured the challenge of co-existence in a world where everyone is connected and fewer and fewer people know how to relate.

On correspondences

One of the secret pleasures of books, at least for the author, is the other meetings they produce. After talking about Meeting Place at Edinburgh University at the end of last year, I got into correspondence with one of the researchers there. The immediate rapport and the range of things we’ve got to talk about are a complete surprise. Meeting Place discusses the idea that only true strangers can truly meet. But readers and writers constantly have the experience.

In a way correspondences between book and life remind me that most writing, well mine at least, is, or aims to be, prophetic: I mean it is a gathering place of testimonies from the past, but why are they collected? Because of a design on the future. I found this in the past because I was looking for it in the future. Books that ‘work’ fulfill their own prophecies.

An extended email correspondence is a stretched-out-in-time meeting place, as other emails from strangers get mixed up in it. A PhD student writes to me this week about her work on representations of massacre in Palestinian refugee camps: she’s been ‘grappling’ with a book of mine published a few years back, Dark Writing. Too dark, maybe: at any rate, I think the essential paradox of the eye-witness is explained much more simply in Meeting Place. Meeting Place was intended to be a gathering place for themes that always seemed on the edge in earlier books. In a way, getting to grips with the essential evasion at the heart of meeting through Dark Writing makes her a fellow traveler, and it’s a reminder that the neophilia of publisher’s lists (where every publication is entirely new) has to be resisted.

Meeting is a bit like migration: it can take a lifetime; it’s an attitude of revisiting what has been done and said, and sifting through it for the other interpretations. When I am lucky enough to hear from readers who have, like the PhD student, been ‘living in close contact’ with my work, it’s confirmation of what Meeting Place claims: that there is never one author but always a host of secret correspondences that lift ideas into being and support their circulation.


On March 27th, the Melbourne launch of Meeting Place will happen at The Board Room in Federation Square at RMIT University. More information or to RSVP: ehbitto@unimelb.edu.au.


Paul Carter is professor of design (urbanism) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is author of Meeting Place: The Human Encounter and the Challenge of Coexistence and The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History.

"Paul Carter's commentaries on cross-cultural encounters have long been philosophically sophisticated and deservedly influential. His new book raises the question of what the value of meeting is, in whose terms. It takes us to the very heart of the histories of encounter and confrontation that have proven so intractable for so long in Australia and elsewhere."
—Nicholas Thomas, University of Cambridge

"The Meeting Place, Carter’s latest foray into colonial and postcolonial encounters of peoples, epistemologies, and longings, exposes what he foregrounds and reiterates as a ‘meeting place’ of desired belonging and social union. It is an imaginative, referentially capacious, formally demanding, as well as theoretically inventive book."
—Rob Wilson, University of California, Santa Cruz

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Who cares if you look? Participatory art and the act of interpretation. (Part III of III)

Portrait of Tristan Tzara, 1927. Participatory aesthetics
loom large in Tzara's infamous "Dada Poem" from the
"1918 Manifesto."

Part I

Part II


Emory University

Consider, finally, the case of Dada more generally. Tristan Tzara, for instance, another presumed progenitor of participatory aesthetics, in his 1916 “Note for the Bourgeois” describes “a poem based on new principles.” These principles “consist in the possibility of letting each listener make links with appropriate associations. He retains the elements characteristic of his personality, mixes them, the fragments, etc., remaining at the same time in the direction the author has channeled.” Or consider Tzara’s infamous “Dada Poem” from the “1918 Manifesto”: “Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem. Cut out the article. Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag. Shake it gently. Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag. Copy conscientiously. The poem will be like you.” Here, a set of ideas that seems to indicate how chance procedures produce non-intentional results ends up stating something like the opposite.

Or consider from the same moment, Berlin Dadaist Johannes Baader’s 1918-19 letters to Raoul Hausmann’s wife, which have recently been claimed by Brigid Doherty as the origin of transactional or relational aesthetics. Baader opens the letter work to a range of rather new and seemingly chance phenomena: “The individual situation of the receiver, the addressee, the reader, the viewer, which assumes various forms according to mood, atmosphere, and time, was,” he says, “from the outset taken into account, and that expanded all the more the richness of what was being communicated.” How it is possible to take the reader’s “mood” into account when making a work is rather difficult to construe, and it shows the tension behind any notion of the “open” work, but that this Nietzschean “Super-Dada,” as he called himself, thought that he could is crucial to his claims and to Dada more generally.

Following Baader, Walter Benjamin began to think of the reader/viewer as a producer, someone who makes the work in receiving it under new conditions of production. Technical reproduction, he writes, “can […] place a copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain. Above all, it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of a gramophone record. The cathedral leaves its site to be received in the studio of an art lover; the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the open air is enjoyed in a private room.” Nothing about this account, it should be clear, suggests that the original has actually changed its meaning in the reception; the artist’s work is just received by a whole new audience. But Benjamin does introduce something new when he writes in “The Author as Producer” that “a writer’s production must...place an improved apparatus at the reader’s disposal.” “This apparatus,” he continues, “will be the better...the more readers or spectators it turns into collaborators.” The notion that a reader is a collaborator is, I would suggest, a rather different claim from the one made by Mallarmé or Dada, and it finds its real inheritance in the work and writings of Duchamp.

“In the creative act the artist goes from intention to realization,” Duchamp explained in his 1956 talk called “The Creative Act.” The artist’s “struggle toward realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions which cannot be fully self-conscious.” The artist, that is, through the struggle with his medium, gets lost on the way to expressing his intentions. “The result,” Duchamp concluded, “is a difference between the intention and its realization.” It is in this space of difference between intent and realization that the audience becomes a creative agent. When the artist is unable to express his intentions, the audience is able to express theirs; the audience, that is, fills in the gap supplied by the artist’s unrealized intent. That is why Duchamp said the “creative act is performed half way by the public or the spectator.”

But as Duchamp quickly realized, there was a logical flaw to this “half way” position, one that gives equal share to artist and audience. Because if the artist was even half right about what the work meant, then any number of creative acts on the beholder’s part could be seen as creative in the bad sense, that is, simply mistaken. Duchamp’s commitment to the logic of participation went much further than his Symbolist models. Under a new set of terms Duchamp described the audience and the artist on the same level as creative receivers, neither one of which was interested in what the artist originally intended before he made the work. On this model, because an artist could not securely transmit his intentions to a beholder, his works functioned as nonintentional vehicles of “connotation—meaning that according to the observer’s imagination, he can go into any field or any form of imagination and associations of ideas he wants, depending on his own reactions. It was a sort of catalytic form in itself, ready to be accepted by everybody, or to be interpreted by the different temperaments of all the spectators.” There is a vast but unacknowledged gap between Duchamp’s initial claim that works of art are positioned “half way” between artist and audience and the one he came to make that the spectator was the work’s creator. So even though Duchamp invented, or nearly so, the audience as producer position, his primary claim about the “half way” status of art between artist and audience is as basic to modernism as the strong claim to autonomy cited earlier.

What is common to Fairey and Eliasson, Cage and Rauschenberg, Benjamin and Duchamp, and uncommon to modernism, is a view of the world oriented around individual, affective response, one that in Branden Joseph’s words, “makes each beholder aware of the role played by his or her individual history and subject-position.” For those individual viewers, Rauschenberg says, “Every minute everything is different, everywhere. It’s all flowing. Where is the basis for criticism, for being right or wrong, without blindly or deliberately assuming or affecting a stop?” Participatory art imagines a world where every act of interpretation, an arbitrary stopping of the flow, is a violent act. For modernists like Babbitt, to whom the audience response didn’t matter to the meaning of the work of art, one could be right or wrong about its meaning, as that meaning doesn’t change with one’s response to it.

Babbitt offers an allegory about the limitations of the Cagean commitment to affective response. He describes a situation in which a concertgoer emerges from a performance and declares his dissatisfaction: “I didn’t like it.” Given the nature of social conventions, the concertgoer is not pressed to provide reasons for his response. He then offers a different but related scenario. “Imagine, if you can, a layman chancing upon a lecture on ‘Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms.’ At the conclusion, he announces: ‘I didn’t like it.’” Unlike at the concert, where no one is pressed to support their evaluations of a performance, after the math lecture you are asked to justify your distaste. The layman is forced to publicly disclose his reasons for his dissatisfaction and this is what he said: “he found the hall chilly, the lecturer’s voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner. His interlocutor,” Babbitt concludes, “understandably disqualifies these reasons as irrelevant to the content and value of the lecture, and the development of mathematics is left undisturbed.” Babbitt imagines works of art as kinds of objects to which your response is irrelevant to its meaning. The meaning of his compositions doesn’t change in your experience of them. Which is not to say, of course, that response doesn’t matter, only that it does matter insofar as your response was something the artist could have intended. On the other hand, chilly halls, gravelly voices, and what you had for lunch are as much a part of the meaning of 4’33” as they are of Eliasson’s Weather Project, because nothing is not part of their meaning. Then again, meaning is exactly not the word to describe what is happening at these events. After all, meaning can be disputed, while your digestive system cannot. And because nothing is not part of your experience, anything that would disqualify certain affects—such as meaning and interpretation—are replaced by differences—differences without disagreement.

Perhaps then the problem with participatory art is not that it produces a world without disagreement but that it imagines that the world we live in is anything other than that.


Part II (previous)

Part I (beginning)


Todd Cronan is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. He teaches modern European art at Emory University.

Who cares if you look? On the artist and the spectator. (Part II of III)

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, Marcel Duchamp.
Duchamp famously declared that the artist decided what was art,
not the public.

Emory University

If Lazlo Moholy-Nagy has recently emerged as the forgotten hero of participatory art, then the more traditional hero of the story is obviously Marcel Duchamp. The central feature of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even of 1915 to 1923—a glass surface—literally made the audience part of the work’s meaning. And if it was only part of the work’s meaning for Duchamp in 1923, by 1956 he came around to “attach[ing] even more importance to the spectator than to the artist.” Allan Kaprow, writing in 1973, got it right when he said that the “best part” of The Large Glass was that it was “a windowpane to look through; its actual configurations are forced into accord with the visual environment beyond them, for instance, a chocolate grinder superimposed on a kid picking his nose.” Then again, if Kaprow could still strike a cynical note about the value of including all of the “environment” into the work, participatory artists and writers have positively reveled in the spectator’s incorporation into the work.

If Moholy found his counter in Malevich, so Cage’s vision of “nonint-
entional” music was contested by a range of modernist composers. Most notoriously, Milton Babbitt, in his 1958 High Fidelity article “Who Cares If You Listen?” took the opposite tack from Cage. For Babbitt, audience response was irrelevant to his or any work’s meaning. Babbitt called for the “total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from the public world” and the “complete elimination of the public and social aspects of composition.” Babbitt’s disinterest in audience response was really an update of what Arnold Schoenberg had maintained in the 1920s. Schoenberg, Babbitt’s immediate model, made it clear that “one may not leave gaps in the action, during which many of the audience would have to think out for themselves what was missing. All the conclusions the listener is to draw must be explicitly stated, clearly and at length.”

Then again, he said if we have to address ourselves to the audience, then “it is only out of acoustical necessity, since a literally empty concert hall sounds even worse than one full of ‘empty people.’” Schoenberg was in fact responding to Piet Mondrian’s criticism of his Three Piano Pieces of 1911. “‘Silence,’” Mondrian wrote in 1921, “should not exist in the new music. It is a ‘voice’ immediately filled by the listener’s individuality….The new spirit demands that one should always establish an image unweakened by time in music or by space in painting.” It should be clear that neither Mondrian nor Malevich nor Schoenberg nor Babbitt were interested in refusing or cancelling or resisting audience participation. And while I don’t have the time to explore this point here, I would say that the central modernist paradigm of autonomy bears little resemblance to the version described and defended by T. W. Adorno or by the New Critics. That is, autonomy for Mondrian, Malevich and others, is not a disguised critical gesture toward the audience, not some kind of mimetic exacerbation of conventions, but rather the belief that meaning is something ontologically immune to audience response. Nothing about your response to a work of art determines the work’s meaning. Moreover, it is my contention that virtually everything that has been traditionally cited as inspiration for contemporary modes of participatory aesthetics—Mallarmé’s Symbolism, Futurism, Imagism, Dada, Surrealism—stands much closer to the Babbitt model of artistic autonomy than the viewer-driven aesthetic embraced by either Duchamp or the minimalists.

Consider, for instance, a key work in the history of participatory aesthetics: Umberto Eco’s “The Poetics of the Open Work,” which was given new attention recently as the opening essay in Claire Bishop’s 2006 Participation. Eco looks back, along with Roland Barthes and Duchamp, to the moment of Mallarmé as the “first occasion when a conscious poetics of the open work appears.” The “search for suggestiveness,” Eco writes, “is a deliberate move to ‘open’ the work to the free response of the addressee.” So how free is it? As Eco makes clear, this is “not an amorphous invitation to indiscriminate participation.” Far from it. “The author,” he writes, “does not know the exact fashion in which his work will be concluded, but he is aware that once completed the work in question will still be his own.” For Eco, every response “always remains the world intended by the author.” Mallarmé’s “suggestions,” Eco concludes, “are intentional, [they are] provoked...always within the limits fixed by the author.” The “audience’s capacity for response” has been “directed and controlled by the author.”

Eco’s account of Mallarmé is vastly different from the one offered by postmodern critics. It was Mallarmé, Roland Barthes declared, who inaugurated the “creative” turn from author to reader, work to text. As Mallarmé translator Barbara Johnson puts the matter: “It was largely by learning the lesson of Mallarmé that critics like Roland Barthes came to speak of ‘the death of the author’ in the making of literature. Rather than seeing the text as the emanation of an individual author’s intentions (always a probabilistic and speculative enterprise), structuralists and deconstructors followed the paths and patterns of the signifier, paying new attention to syntax, spacing, intertextuality, sound, semantics, etymology, even individual letters.”

So what does Mallarmé say? As he famously wrote it in “Crisis of Verse,” “The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields the initiative to the words.” Mallarmé rejected what he called the “respiration perceptible in the old lyric breath” and the “enthusiastic personal direction of the sentence” by the poet. But it’s hard to see this as a gesture directed against authorship itself, and more against faked emotions. Moreover, as Mallarmé further described his “very new poetic” of suggestion: “a verse must not be composed of words, but of intentions, and all the words should efface themselves before the [poet’s] sensation.” As the poet disappears into his words, the words are effaced by the poet’s intentions. In terms of the other half of the equation, the reader’s creative action, this is what Mallarmé says when writing about the spiritual nature of the Book: “when the reader takes up a book from here or there, with its varied melodies or figured out like an enigma, it is almost remade by them.” Almost, because, as he writes in the next sentence: “The folds...invite one to open or close the page, according to the master” (Johnson removed the last phrase from her translation of Divagations, a clear example of her point about the reader as producer). And it is this twofold stance—a solicitation of the beholder to engage with the work, beginning where they might, and a framing of possible responses in terms of the author’s intentions—that inaugurates what I would call the first or even false genealogy of participation.


Part III (next)

Part I (previous)


Todd Cronan is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. He teaches modern European art at Emory University.

"Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. In the first place, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary esthetics, whether or not a beholder’s exper¬ience of a work of art can properly be understood as affective rather than as cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of various writings by Henri Bergson—whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse—with respect to that and related issues, showing in the end that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position, he never quite definitely succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitivist viewpoints in the theory and practice of one of the great painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse; this sets Cronan on a collision course—from which he does not flinch —with the almost uniformly affective bias of recent Matisse criticism. Against Affective Formalism is a major achievement, and I look forward with fascination to its reception by a field that is likely to be transformed by it."
—Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University

Who cares if you look? On internal and external relationships with art. (Part I of III)

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

—Lawrence Weiner, “Declaration of Intent” (1968)

Shepard Fairey's OBEY sticker craze captures
the core terms of any viewer-driven aesthetic.

Emory University

“The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings,” writes street artist Shepard Fairey in his 1990 Manifesto.

Fairey is of course most well-known for his HOPE poster of 2008, but for my purposes he is interesting for his ability to capture the basic terms of any viewer-driven aesthetic. The logic of his claim is clear: “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.”

These are the terms, as I see it, that any viable account of viewer-driven aesthetics must accept. That only a few artists and critics actually accept all of these terms is not my concern, but the reticence on the part of artists and critics to accept these terms either points to something central about their project—that they actually don’t care about response—or a failure of nerve, that response is the key to their project, even if they can’t come out and say that.

And if Fairey* hasn’t quite entered the art historical canon, an artist like Olafur Eliasson certainly has.

Speaking of his Weather Project exhibited in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Museum, Eliasson said, “I see potential in the spectator—in the receiver, the reader, the participator, the viewer, the user.” Eliasson’s sextuple commitment to the audience, the necessity for the audience to produce the work’s meaning, here through an elaborate steam and mirror system, is part of a basic trend within artistic, art historical and art-theoretical work over the past thirty years called alternately dialogical, relational, transactional, conversational, interactive, participatory, receptive or affective aesthetics. Of course the larger shift within the humanities, the shift away from artistic intentionality and toward audience reception, a shift codified but not invented by Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay on the “Death of the Author,” was firmly established as a goal in the work and writings of the minimalists in the 1960s.

Consider Robert Morris’ foundational assessment of the “new aesthetic” in “Notes on Sculpture”: “The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision. The object is but one of the terms in the newer aesthetic....[O]ne’s awareness of oneself existing in the same space as the work is stronger than in previous work, with its many internal relationships. One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.”

Morris’ basic distinction between works driven by internal versus external relationships is fundamental to any postmodern aesthetic. Internal and external relationships are the aesthetic terms for an even more basic socio-political distinction between an art rooted in subjective inner experience, a commodity predicated on privacy, and objective public experience rooted in a vision of the social collective. Of course a problem immediately emerges into view when we come to see how Morris’ so-called public meaning—meaning that occurs in the changing experience of the viewer’s embodied perception—bears a striking resemblance to the privacy Morris and the minimalists were committed to destabilizing. Because space, light, and field of vision are different for every viewer at every moment, while the internal relationships intended by the artist are fixed and singular (no matter how broad that singularity might encompass), it is hard to see how those perceptual differences Morris encourages amount to either public or private meaning, and not something closer Wittgenstein’s lamented “private language” (although language might be exactly the wrong word for the kind of privacy described here). After all, one can be wrong about what an artist intends, what was meant by a work, while one cannot be wrong about one’s experience.

More recently, advocates for participatory art and a related philosophical commitment to object oriented ontology have assumed a more critical stance toward minimalism. Why? Because the modes of spectatorship projected by the minimalists are limited to those generated by the perceiving body. Space, light, and field of vision are restricted to the human perceptual apparatus, even if the perceiving self is not that of the artist. The more rigorous advocates of participatory art model their practices on the non-humanist claims of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Cage, for instance, a few years prior to Morris’ “Notes,” described Rauschenberg’s White Paintings as “airports for [the] lights, shadows, and particles” of the space around them. Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, like Cage’s own 4’33", were vehicles for audience response, what he called “nonintentional” artworks.

“What…nonintentional music wants to do,” Cage said of 4’33”, “is to make it make clear to the listener that the hearing of the piece is his own action—that the music, so to speak, is his, rather than the composer’s.” If the object and the gallery were still fixed terms of the minimalist experience, Cage and Rauschenberg imagined a wider set of terms, ones which in principle could exclude nothing from the artistic event. The wider, non-human, terms are literalized with Rauschenberg’s Growing Painting and Dirt Painting (for John Cage) of 1953. “The message is conveyed by dirt,” Cage wrote of them. “Crumbling and responding to changes in weather, the dirt unceasingly does my thinking.”

Response, here, is no longer limited to a perceiving body but to distinctly non-human temporalities, durations, and modes of experience.

The new fascination with non-human based modes of experience explains a renewed interest in the work and writings of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, an artist who deeply shaped Cage’s thinking. Writing in 1927 of Kasimir Malevich’s White on White of ten years earlier, a picture which is a clear model for Rauschenberg’s white paintings, despite its lingering commitment to internal relations, Moholy described them as “an ideal plane for kinetic light and shadow effects which, originating in the surroundings, would fall upon it….These actual reflections and mirrorings bring the surroundings into the picture….The surface becomes part of the atmosphere, of the atmospheric background; it sucks up light phenomena outside itself—a vivid contrast to the classical conception of the picture, the illusion of the open window.” If the classical conception of the picture projected the illusion of a unified space containing man and nature, then Malevich’s White on White absorbed the literal environment into itself, incorporating not just the beholder’s body but also the non-human space around it. Of course for Malevich, as opposed to Moholy and Rauschenberg, White on White was an image of absolute perfection, “outside movement and dynamics, outside space and time, it is immutable.” Malevich made an ontological distinction between works that occurred in time, and those out of time: “Each thing determined by social conditions is temporal,” Malevich wrote, “but works arising from sensations of art are outside time….; regardless of the changes in social life works of art are immutable.” 


Part II (next)

Part III


Todd Cronan is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. He teaches modern European art at Emory University.

"Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. In the first place, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary esthetics, whether or not a beholder’s exper¬ience of a work of art can properly be understood as affective rather than as cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of various writings by Henri Bergson—whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse—with respect to that and related issues, showing in the end that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position, he never quite definitely succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitivist viewpoints in the theory and practice of one of the great painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse; this sets Cronan on a collision course—from which he does not flinch —with the almost uniformly affective bias of recent Matisse criticism. Against Affective Formalism is a major achievement, and I look forward with fascination to its reception by a field that is likely to be transformed by it."
—Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University


* A note from the author: My thanks to Catherine Barth for bringing Fairey's writings to my attention. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Notes from a reluctant memoirist.

The second annual Dyke March goes international on June 25, 1994.
More photos in the Lesbian Avengers image archive.

Independent journalist and blogger

I didn't mean to write a memoir. I'd been documenting the Lesbian Avengers for a couple of years already, and thought I'd pitch a popular history, just get the facts out there. I'd been shocked at how little people knew, even though we'd had sixty chapters across the world, and gotten tens of thousands of people in the street.

But popular histories about lesbians are still unpopular, and when one gay editor lamented, "If only it were a memoir… I would have snatched it up," I decided to give it a try.

It was harder than I had thought. I've always played around with autobiography, spilling my guts in poems, or ripping off gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson. But this was much more intense, like that dream when you get caught half naked in a stadium full of people. Except in a memoir, if you do it right, you're not just exposed to the public, but to yourself, too.

I tried to write pretending no one would read it. That's how I usually do my columns. No readers. No hate mail. No self-censorship. You can pursue any train of thought you want. Unfortunately, writing a book takes so much longer that the trick doesn't always work. My own brain would start in with the doubt and snide comments. During rewrites, especially, I was tempted to clean up the things that would make me look bad, instead of just showing my flawed self, and throwing myself on the mercy of the reader.

The worst part, though, was trying to figure out an ending to the book, and what it all meant. It was a memoir, after all. Mary Karr had the good sense to finish her childhood before she wrote about it in The Liars' Club. I was essentially writing the story standing in the middle of it, all the bits and pieces up in the air, not knowing where they would fall. Every time I wrote another draft, I'd change the ending, depending on how things were going in my own life. Or what was happening to queer people. Some of the versions were absolutely dire when I felt all those years of activism were a waste. And what did I have to show for it?

But one of the great things about writing a memoir, especially in book-length form, is that the process itself forces you to look at things as a whole, not just a series of events with each one getting weighed on a scale of success or failure. Every now and then I'd think about that Audre Lorde poem where she declares she was never meant to survive. So maybe for some of us, persistence and survival are reason enough to declare victory.

Writing this memoir transformed how I saw my life. Especially regarding the Lesbian Avengers, which for me had ended traumatically. Following their trajectory, putting things in context, let me recognize just how amazing it was they existed at all.

My vision of the book itself changed when I realized the potential of what I was doing. I wasn't just serving up juicy bits of my personal life to get something published about the Avengers; I was writing History with a capital "H."

Until then, I'd often dismissed the whole genre of memoir because it tends to be swamped with annoying tell-alls. In fact, it has radical potential. Imagine. The world does everything to force us into tidy little boxes, but in memoir you're writing about your own life from your own point of view. Its meaning and size is up to you. If you want to, why not sneak yourself into the bigger stories of your world? Anybody can be an archetypical figure. A hero. Why should it always be some John Wayne and not a Lesbian Avenger?

At some point I remembered how in the movie, Forrest Gump was photo-shopped into all those famous historical scenes with JFK or whoever, and I thought it wasn't entirely a joke, because half the people in the Big Picture are only there because their friends are the ones recording history, or stage managing it. Memoir gives us a chance to do it for ourselves.

So in the same way I claimed Fifth Avenue as an activist, I decided to insert my life, my lesbian life, into the bigger narrative of America. I started with the Avengers, putting them into the story of U.S. culture wars of the 1990s. And after that I slipped us dykes into the emerging story of new media. Then the history of the Bush years, and 9/11. It was a way to unravel the threads of citizenship, and our relationships as individuals to all this stuff swirling around us.

I could do all that because I was the one telling the tale. Now, after a reluctant beginning, what can I say, but "Long live the memoir!"


Kelly Cogswell is an independent journalist and blogger. She is author of Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger.

“To have a volume about lesbian activism that focuses on the most effective, most publicized and controversial group, the Lesbian Avengers, is almost too good to be true. Eating Fire is an intimate activist handbook that offers a generous ‘us’ and we can happily enter the space of it from so many angles.”
—Eileen Myles, author of Inferno (A Poet’s Novel)

“Activist histories of social movements are rare yet essential to understanding how social change actually happens. Stories of lesbian activism are even harder to find. This unique, evocative, and fascinating memoir tells both a personal and a community story of creativity, political commitment, grief, and the love that motivates it all.”
—Urvashi Vaid, author of Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Olympic architecture and a lost opportunity in Sochi

Fireworks over the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Professor of art history at University College Dublin

After last week's closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics, many of the athletic performances will be remembered for a long time; not so the architecture. The Winter Olympics seldom produce the outstanding architecture that has characterized many Summer Olympics, especially since the games were held in Rome in 1960. But at a reputed cost of $51 billion, many times that of the London Olympics of 2012, one might hope for buildings as distinguished as the Bird’s Nest Stadium (Beijing, 2008), or the facilities that made the Rome, Tokyo (1964), Mexico City (1968), Munich (1972), and, although to a lesser degree, Barcelona (1992), so memorable.

At their best the Olympics have provided architects in the host countries with the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to create undivided clear spans. These doubled as dynamic spaces in which to bring together an international community of athletes, spectators, and journalists. Although he did not design the main stadium, which was already in place, Pier Luigi Nervi’s elegant domes for the Palazzo and Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome were among the most admired engineering feats of their day. Four years later the suspended roofs of Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium demonstrated that technology did not preclude an appreciation of the local vernacular in a structure whose dramatic profiles simultaneously invoked the profiles of traditional Japanese farmhouse and modern suspension bridges. The tensile structures designed by Günter Behnisch and Frei Otto for Munich offered a vision of joyful transparency unfortunately not borne out by actual events. More recently, Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre was one of several standouts in London.

Today, however, large corporate practices dominate the design of Olympic architecture. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Sochi. The narrative of Russian nationalism so often told about these games unravels when it comes to architecture. The Fisht Olympic Stadium was designed by the same American firm, Populous (formerly HOK Sport), that was responsible for its London predecessor (albeit in that case in association with Peter Cook, once one of England’s most radical architects).

The Fisht Stadium is not, however, an example of so-called “starchitecture,” a term that describes the work of a handful of international figures who jet around the globe designing possible tourist attractions that double as local cultural or corporate infrastructure. The success of corporate practices like Populous is instead a case of highly technical specialization pushing aside the possibility of an architecture that emerges out of challenging local experts to perform to global standards. Italian, Japanese, Mexican, and German architects, as well as Ai Weiwei, who shared credit for the Bird’s Nest with Switzerland’s Herzog and de Meuron, achieved widespread recognition through the creation of Olympic buildings that, while triggered by local architectural concerns, proved nearly universal in their appeal. By resorting to a narrow functionalism, the organizers of the Sochi Olympics created a competent effort that says nothing about the host country and contributes little to the development of its architectural culture.

Throughout history, the best buildings have fulfilled their function in ways that enrich daily lives. From at least the time of the Roman Colosseum to the present day, they have done it regardless of whether their purpose was principally pragmatic or also expressly cultural. Many of the organizers of earlier Olympics have recognized this and commissioned buildings that continue to be admired, and in the best cases also used, long after the games have ended. Tange’s celebrated National Gymnasium will be reused for the 2020 Olympics. Behnisch and Otto’s stadium, still in use today, was the site of the 1974 World Cup soccer final in which West Germany defeated the Netherlands to win its second world championship.

Sadly, the missed opportunity in Sochi is not unique. Too often buildings for major events and institutions are physically as well as intellectually isolated from even the best locally designed contemporary architecture of the places in which they sit so awkwardly. At the worst they are seen as images on the Internet rather than spaces to be inhabited, delighting us by being crafted with an attention to detail, and orienting us by catching light and shadow in ways that mark the time of day and the change of seasons.

The buildings for the Sochi Olympics are some of the most expensive ever realized; they should also have been some of the best.


Kathleen James-Chakraborty is author of the newly released Architecture since 1400 and editor of Bauhaus Culture (Minnesota, 2006).

"Kathleen James-Chakraborty’s Architecture since 1400 deserves the widest possible readership. This is a brilliantly conceived and beautifully written book that presents an original analysis of notable buildings around the world."
—Dolores Hayden, Yale University

Architecture since 1400 is a mature, impressive work—truly a global history of architecture. It is hard to imagine a more teachable book."
—Nancy S. Steinhardt, University of Pennsylvania