Back to School

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I’m taking a few classes through the New Centre for Research and Practice, which I would describe as an online collective of philosophers, social theorists, and programmers offering classes via Google classroom in an entirely democratic way. Here’s how the Centre describes itself on its homepage.

The New Centre for Research & Practice is conceived upon the idea that the space of knowledge is a laboratory for navigating the links between thought and action. Our pedagogical approach bootstraps the conventional role of the Arts and Sciences to construct new forms of research and practice alongside, within, and between the existing disciplines and technologies. The New Centre’s aim is a constructivist one, to assemble an environment, both virtual and actual, that inspires our members to invent alternate understandings that can be put into collective practice.

Boom. Wow. You got me.

I first heard about the Centre through Larval Subjects, the excellent blog of the philosopher Levi Bryant, whose developing work in what he calls ‘Onticology’ is refreshing and bold, and, for me, promises a new way to consider art practices and the nature of the art encounter. Levi is offering a course called “The Anarchy of Objects” at the New Centre, that presents and seeks to (re)locate and develop the ideas in his book The Democracy of Objects. The fresh air for me in Democracy of Objects is Bryant’s effort to bring together the liberationist projects of contemporary continental philosophy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the project of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology, which for the last decade has reconsidered the nature of objects as more than constructions of human thought.

It’s a tough task, and what I admire about Levi is his willingness to continually question and refine his own objects of thought – his ideas – and reformulate his positions as his wide ranging research brings new evidence and insights to light. I have never witnessed him stubbornly stuck in an idea, and frequently witnessed his free and stringless abdication of earlier ideas that later research showed were wrong, or needed refinement. Case in point, Levi is thoroughly rethinking the ideas of Democracy of Objects, and working it through the diverse and divergent student ideas encountered in the seminar. The seminar, then, feels and acts more like a collective agency or object developing its own ideas. While loosely sticking to the exegesis of his own text, and deploying his precise knowledge for support, Levi is creating an opening for thought to emerge – instead of lecturing from a place of supposed mastery.

What I intend to write for the coursework is a more detailed and thoroughgoing investigation of the ideas I present on this blog; here’s the way I described it in a post to classmates on the course stream –

“What excites me about a robust ‘realism’, as an artist, is that it seems to promise a path through what I see as the strict and limiting correlationist modes of representation, signification, and discourse at the center of the encounter with contemporary art. To paint with a 4″ brush, we tend to ask ‘What does the artwork mean (for me)?’ prior to asking, or investigating, or allowing the open question ‘What is it?’. This seems to severely curtail the art object’s potentialities. The norms of discourse around meaning not only take precedence in what I am calling the ‘art encounter’ but often seem to want to eclipse the object and those potentialities altogether. I share Levi’s caution in this observation, as the dominant mode of this discourse (since at least 1960) has involved a liberationist project that I believe has been quite successful: examining and critiquing modes of representation and power that have in turn exposed cultural and societal blind spots and prejudices, particularly in the ways groups and voices are marginalized and muffled by those structures. However, it has often struck me that the discourse itself, in leaving the object itself behind, marginalizes and muffles its potentialities. So I want to open up this question, examine my assumptions here, and ask if the art object itself can mount an effective critique (perhaps via the liberation of its perhaps anarchic potentialities?), of the very structures of discourse and power that seem interested in confining it. Historical precedents like Dada and Fluxus come to mind, as well as the current move to less and less object-oriented and more ephemeral art making and encountering modes.”

Talk about a tough task (and for a non-philosopher!). I am not sure I can tackle all of that in the truncated timeframe of the course, but even addressing the outlines of the question What is an art object? seems a poignant piece of research. Levi describes objects variously as ‘machines’ or ‘assemblages’ or (currently) ‘networks’ that incorporate in their objecthood their relationalness and potentiality, as they take their place with, are influenced by and influence, and cohort with other such objects. To think an object, then, is not to think a thing in isolation, but to consider its thingness as the product of the relations and histories, together with the as-yet encountered potentialities, all forged and created in the realtime contingency of its varied encounters with other things – encounters that are not solely the product of human consciousness, but that don’t exclude it either. What we think of as the art object, for example, could be a network or assemblage that includes the artist, the materials, where and how the materials arrived, the conditions for production, the mindset of the artist at any given stage of making, the ideas and intentions that drive production, and where THEY were forged, etc., all the way to the capital and institutional systems and structures that enable viewing and consideration of the artwork, to the power systems that encourage some in their capacity to engage the object in encounter, and limit or forbid others from that same engagement. My own thinking has changed in this way: the ‘conceptual regime’ that I have named here (as, above, the tendency in artworld thinking to ask what it means prior to engaging what it is) is not merely interested in limiting the interpretation of the object for meaning’s sake – it is interested in preserving the status quo of a system of privilege. Artworks produced for and by this system cannot help but support and encourage its continued dominance, and the marginalizations the system, in turn, produces.

As I get ready to have some new works considered in Miami in December, I contemplate what my participation really entails – not what it means, but what is it really producing.

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About jeffperrott

Artist and writer on art
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