Facebook tells me to go, so I won’t.

All images are my own. Used with permission from Hester Lyon.

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There is a sense of pride in accumulating events on Facebook.

 

A quantifiable claim to social capital.

 

An accessible, clickable dose of self-worth.

 

 

Endless exhibition openings, book launches, academic lectures, and artist talks fill the virtual calendar. Conveniently subordinated to the category of ‘INTERESTED’ (or perhaps ‘dis-interested’ would necessarily complicate the futility of this action), these events become reminders of self-preservation: an ode to non-commitment. ‘GOING’ would prove far too committal. It would too closely align the real and the virtual self with the autonomous click of a button. It would propel you into a pool of professional envy: at once distant and close.

 

There is rarely an intention to actually go. Or to even try and convince anyone else of actually going.

 

As Geert Lovink identified in his essay ‘What is the social in social media?’ “social networking is experienced in terms of an actual potentiality: I could contact this or that person (but I won’t).” It is a potentiality that maintains the façade of professional hyperbole. The administrative reminders become personal reminders: to keep up, to maintain ambition, to cultivate envy, to be harder on oneself.

 

[I hope to become the professional peripatetic; the perfect student; the future self.]

 

‘GOING’ connects the online self and the real self.

 

‘INTERESTED’ conveniently suspends them.

 

Accumulating ‘interesting’ events on Facebook is a genuine project towards the cycle of personal expectation and subsequent failure. The project of professional betterment both welcomes this disappointment in oneself and acknowledges its capacity to stifle success.

 

[My Facebook self is my future self,

my better self,

my more ambitious self that disables pride in my actual self.]

 

In a lecture at New York’s Artists Space, cultural theorist and contemporary art critic Suhail Malik defined a similar logic of contemporary art’s self-sabotage.

 

Malik problematizes contemporary art’s future by exposing it’s idealist obsession with betterment, removed from its actuality. In an attack of artist Dan Graham’s definition of the artist’s dream to do “something that’s more social, more collaborative, more real than art,” (Bishop, 2012, p. 6) Malik critiques the institutionalisation of contemporary art’s ambition and failure.

 

In an argument for a return to the present, Malik declares “art observing its maxim condemn its current actuality in order to recover its better self.” The harmful personal outcomes of such a fixation on the future dream are no more poetically interrogated than in writer Heather Havrilesky’s advice column Ask Polly.

In a recent edition titled, ‘How Can I Make Art or Write When So Many People Expect So Much Greatness From Me?’ , Havrilesky appeals for the return to the creative process of making, rather than a fixation on future outcomes, for self-preservation. This is not a proposed fetishization of the present (which would further perpetuate the instrumentalisation of a future) but the acceptance of what already is. It is a plea to let go of, what Havrilesky perfectly phrases, the “escape fantasy” to accept creative fulfilment in the process of making, doing, seeing, reading, listening, and asking.

 

[I accept the impulsive, endless accumulation of ‘INTERESTED’ events in my Facebook calendar as definitive of this process.]

 

The ambitions of contemporary art are the same as human anxieties: to fixate on what we will become, on what will be more social, on what will be more correctly political. Just as contemporary art institutionalises its own ‘maxim’ (as Malik defines it), Facebook institutionalises our own expectations and failures. The indeterminacy of the institution (for Malik, contemporary art; here, Facebook representing contemporary art) enables a secret operation of power: the power to dictate professional self-worth. An operation perpetuated because its users allow it to.

 

But no matter how digital our experience of art seems to have become, a shallow commitment to attending exhibitions is a reminder of the importance of experiencing art in situ. It is a reminder of the boundaries of architecture to provoke critical engagement. It is the potential transcendence of physicality. Because the overwhelming boundarilessness of the Internet is given form in the gallery. A deep cynicism for the Internet’s capabilities (validated more often than it should be) is humbled by the experience of interacting with objects and the conditions of their display in real time.

 

The gallery should be the architecture for contemplation – solemn, violent or otherwise. The gallery should be the architecture for actuality not escape.

 

The power relations of administrative structures, of audience demographic, and of art historical precedents are not readily attained with the impulsive click of a button.

 

[The exhibition event, a vital and necessary tool for marketing becomes a vital and necessary tool for self-sabotage.]

 

 

Hester Lyon

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Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso Books, 2012.

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Beyond ‘The Field Revisited’: Reflections on the Curatorial Agency to ‘Re-’

At the start of this year, the National Gallery of Victoria ‘restaged’ its inaugural exhibition as The Field Revisited. After fifty years, ‘restaged’ became the official institutional framing in an attempt to uphold the NGV’s ideology of curatorial objectivity. As an institution that rarely attaches a single author to an exhibition the implicit powers of selection in transposing an exhibition from one historically moment to another were glossed over. In an attempt at exactitude, the curatorial ambition was undermined by a lack of transparency. For all its attempt to expose new audiences to a canonical exhibition it did not go far enough to critically engage in the complications of re-instatement.

 

Historical discourses are not wilfully and objectively mobilised in contemporary contexts. They are citations: sets of languages that, since their first use, have gained political, social, and cultural momentum. They are constructs and phenomena that have found refute, rebuttal, and reinterpretation with the complex and layered multiplicity of art today.

 

As The Field Revisited somehow failed to admit, the terms of use in 2018 are not the same as they were in 1968.

 

It is the term ‘recurating’ that better implicates such criticality. And so maybe The Field Revisited doesn’t deserve the privilege of a term that summarises it shortcomings. Clearly, with educational intent, The Field Revisited was an exercise in looking backwards, in re-displaying a historic moment. But how does this exhibition get away with not acknowledging the conditions of its contemporary display?

 

This was a task that smaller institutions took up in adequate responsiveness, creating a satellite of critical engagement. Charles Nodrum Gallery somewhat rectified a stark gender imbalance in Abstraction 17: A Field of Interest, c. 1968, an exhibition that took a broader approach to include woman and lesser known abstraction artists of the period. In Abstraction TwentyEighteen – a series of exhibitions programmed across the Justin Art House Museum, Stephen McLaughlan Gallery, Deakin University, Langford120 and Five Walls – emerging contemporary artists sat alongside artists from the original Field exhibition. Rex Butler responded with a critical review, a panel discussion was propagated by Memo Review at Westspace, and at bookcoffeeprintworkshop the publisher and designer discussed the exhibitions catalogue in Making and Remaking (Together): On Books and Exhibitions.

 

Whilst these satellite programs asked questions of The Field Revisited that the NGV didn’t, it is interesting to reframe its ambition and speak broadly on the outcomes of institutional semantics.

 

The attempt to expand curatorial agency beyond the terms of ‘restaging’ is symptomatic of a broader tendency in contemporary art. It is a return to appropriation (devoid of passé connotations) with greater ambition to critique the uneven distributions of power that govern the production, selection, and display of contemporary art. It is a tendency that champions precedents, values substantiation and recognises the now conventional cycles of reuse enabled by the Internet. Contemporary art and curatorial discourses, whilst distinct, have converged in the recognition that originality no longer relies on the newness of ideas but the newness of its context.

 

Appropriation’s literal meaning has become so complicated in contemporary practices of cultural exploitation that it no longer maintains its linguistic clarity. The persistence of twentieth century aesthetic projects to collage and recontextualise artistic, historical, and political material has morphed into the everyday ripping and downloading that defines digital communication. The decision to ‘re-’ (terms such as reuse, repurpose, restage, reify, recurate, reconstruct, repeat, re-present, represent, that are proposed by Martha Buskirk, Amelia Jones and Caroline A. Jones in their 2013 Artforum essay ‘The Year of the Re-’) has become so innate through the immediacy and accessibility of our digital image culture that it confuses the actual operations of personal agency. As Claire Bishop declared in her (much scrutinised) essay, ‘Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media’, “faced with the infinite resources of the Internet, selection has emerged as a key operation: we build new files from existing components, rather than creating from scratch.” And so, curatorial practices are not immune to an increasingly favoured, almost omnipresent, lean toward critical re-engagement with artistic and curatorial histories. In an uptake of such reuse, curatorial ambition should move beyond the mere reinstatement to interrogate persistent power structures that privilege certain voices over others. Unlike the NGV’s The Field Revisited, when historical curatorial projects are delivered with necessary contemporary criticality they can provoke just as much thought, if not more, as any new exhibition.

 

Hester Lyon

 

 

Episode 1: Agony Arts Podcast

Pedagogical Tweets: The Unassuming Power of Twitter in the Arts

A conversation with Dr Rachel Marsden.

Audio was recorded with the permission of the interviewee.

 

TRANSCRIPT

[Intro music]

Hester: Hey and welcome back to Agony Arts. This week I’m talking to Dr Rachel Marsden. She holds a PhD in Contemporary Chinese art and recently lectured in Art Curatorship and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne. We talked about social media in the arts and the power of Twitter to connect.

[Intro music]

H: Seeing as you’re the most active person on Instagram in my Instagram feed, I thought you’d be the perfect person to ask about social media and the role it plays in arts education, and what role you see it playing as a tool or just a personal kind of platform?

Rachel: As part of my PhD I started a blog and that was pretty fundamental to the development, not only of my research, but also Twitter, which I know a lot of you of a different generation don’t really engage in.

H: So how did that factor into your research?

R: Well, I think, something that I found quite interesting, from when I was teaching at the University of Melbourne, is that, I gave a questionnaire out to the Exhibition Management students at the beginning of semester, and as part of that I asked what your social media presence was, just to find out the best way to communicate with students. What I found interesting was actually how little students are engaging with social media, more than, yeh, I’d say five years ago. Or maybe in the Australian context different platforms are a focus, very much that it was Instagram, was the main platform, then Facebook but Twitter was barely mentioned and barely used, which for me, I’ve found, in my career a really useful tool to, I suppose, keep up with a more socio-political perspective of the arts and cultural field as a way to find out information and find articles but also to connect with people. It’s been a really good way to connect with other professionals and other academics. I would say linking information, that’s what it’s so quick to do and so quick at providing, to automatically build networks from which you can expand your field and range of research because you are automatically plugged in to who other people are talking to and connecting to you. And its very instant in that way, and certainly since they’ve expanded the number of characters, as well, you kind of get this different narrative that comes through because people obviously have a lot more space to voice. It’s also, I’d say more than any other platform, and more than Instagram, the one where you’re most likely to get hard and fast negative response if somebody disagrees with you or disputes what you’re saying – more than any other platform. So it’s kind of double edged in how you use it and what for, I think you have to be more careful with it as a platform.

Thinking back to my arts education at your stage, we didn’t have social media when I came out of my undergrad – it wasn’t there. So we didn’t have this accessibility to I suppose a digital art world in the way that we do now. You can find out and see what everyone is doing. Most galleries and artists have a presence and profile. It’s that kind of instant, and also accidental component, as to how you come across information.

[Outro music]

H: Thanks for listening. See you next time on Agony Arts.

 

Hester Lyon

‘A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness,’ Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 7 July to 16 September, 2018. Curated by Hannah Presley.

The inaugural exhibition for the Victorian Government’s Yalingwa initiative, A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness, is boundlessly entertaining. Ten new works from southeast Aboriginal artists, commissioned by ACCA, emerge from aesthetic endearment to force critical contemplation. Driven by Presley’s curatorial passion, the exhibition’s unassuming modesty masks its subversive agenda.

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Tiger Yaltangki, TIGERLAND, 2018. Synthetic polymer paint on linen and plywood cut-outs. Installation view, ACCA. Image courtesy of author: Hester Lyon.

I must start with a disclaimer.

 

I am not an Aboriginal person and do not claim to represent the experience of these artists. I do not claim to comprehend the continued struggle for self-determination: a right that is systemically undercut and culturally sabotaged. But, I do challenge myself to understand the histories of repression (particularly within the art museum) and my role in advocating for structural transformation. And this exhibition has challenged me to reframe that sustained struggle in a more joyous light.

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Peter Mungkuri, Alec Baker, and Mr Kunmanara Pompey, Never Stop Riding, 2017. HD Video, 10:26 mins. Still from installation view, ACCA. Image courtesy of author: Hester Lyon.

In fact, my disclaimer signals the exact history of ownership that Presley works to destabilise: the museums ownership of colonial trauma; the medias ownership of Aboriginal experience; and fundamentally, the White ownership of Black histories. When expectations pervade our ability to interpret anew, these expectations must be problematized, or better yet, rejected for their insatiable silencing of racial politics to construct an imagined ‘other’. And this term ‘other’ has led to a defiant and rich lineage of Aboriginal cultural critique that refuses to accept what Aileen Moreton-Robinson defines as “the whitening of race” (Moreton-Robinson, 2004). Throughout history, the museum has become an infrastructure to exercise the privileging of Anglo non-Indigenous voices in the telling of First Nations history. Not least at the level of collections, but in systemic infrastructural exclusions that have enabled and defended marginalisation, and continue to do so.

 

I recently discovered Nathan ‘Mudyi’ Sentance’s blog Archival Decolonist [-O-] . Nathan, a Wiradjuri man who grew up on Darkinjung Country, NSW, is the project officer in First Nations programming at the Australian Museum. I would hope that he would praise ACCA’s current exhibition. His essay titled, ‘Your neutral is not our neutral,’ encapsulates the success of A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness. Prescriptive and defiant, Sentance calls out the assumed neutrality and myth of objectivity in cultural institutions, declaring that “museums are not f**king neutral.” (Sentance, 2018) It reminds me of artist Richard Bell’s influential essay ‘Bell’s Theorem,’ dogmatic and humorous in exposing the West’s construction of Aboriginal art.

 

Subtle in its delivery, ACCA’s exhibition does not shy away from the same political agenda.

 

I do wonder though, how many people have missed the profound complexity of these works in a dismissal of their aesthetic modesty. Vicki Couzens’ Djawannacuppatea (2018), for example. Often reliant on found objects and basic, household materials, these works represent distinct personal narratives, but gain cultural and critical momentum in their assemblage. An ambitious representation of joy, humour, and cheekiness, Presley helps artists navigate contemporary issues of gender identity, political instability, and self-determination refined engagement.

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Vicki Couzens, Djawannacuppatea, 2018. Plywood, kitchen table and chairs, lamp, woven woollen matt, woven framed photographs, anodised aluminium teapot, personal collections, sound. Installation view, ACCA. Image courtesy of the author: Hester Lyon.

I am reminded of Tracey Moffatt’s 1997 video work titled Heaven. In a comic exposition of Bondi’s surf culture, Moffatt inverts the voyeuristic male gaze and historically racialised privilege of looking and researching. Subversion is dealt with cheekily and the resultant dichotomy is dramatic. Moffatt is anthropological in her methodology and expository in ambition. The juxtaposition, and reclaiming, of historically White frameworks of scientific knowledge (executed in the documentary style to reflect upon degrading 18th century ‘scientific’ research of First Nations people during invasion), focuses our attention on the iconic Australian act of removing a wetsuit to emphasise cultural histories of exclusion.

 

It is precisely the shifting of power relations and institutional tone that is so important. With the infusion of joy and humour, Presely’s exhibition becomes a radical proposition for ACCA’s future.

 

 

Hester Lyon

_________________________________

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004.

 

Nathan ‘Mudyi’ Sentance, ‘Your neutral is not our neutral,’ Archival Decolonist [-O-], May 30 2018. URL: https://archivaldecolonist.com/2018/05/30/your-neutral-is-not-our-neutral-2/.