Transcript of the entire interview by Martin Krenn with Grant Kester, 10th December 2013, Belfast/San Diego
Krenn: What is your concept of dialogical aesthetics?
Kester: One way to answer this question, and a useful entry into the conversation, is to think about the concept of aesthetic autonomy and the way that it functions within modernism and in earlier avant-garde movements. The argument that I would make is that some of the key conventions and assumptions of aesthetic autonomy are being transformed or renegotiated in recent art practices, and that this transformation is occurring on two levels. The first level has to do with the relationship between artistic production and other cultural domains, other realms of practice. Typically in the avant-garde tradition the identity of “art” has been produced through an apophatic procedure, in which art is defined as the antithesis of some other, degraded, cultural form (advertising, propaganda, kitsch, etc.). This procedure combines a symptomatic anti-essentialism with a tendency to reify non-artistic cultural forms as intrinsically corrupt or complicit with instrumental reason or capitalism.
The byproduct is a critical discourse that is preoccupied with policing the perceived boundaries between legitimate art practice and some other form of cultural production that threatens to transgress this boundary and infect art. Thus we see a combination of a skeptical, or postmodern, anti-essentialism with the implicit claim that art nonetheless possesses an immanent identity or function, which is to serve as a privileged site of critique. The dialogical practices that I’ve examined take over the past fifteen years take up a very different attitude. We encounter overlaps between art practice and activism, environmental science, participatory urban planning, social work, ethnography, and so on. In all of these moments a kind of a transversal dialogue is taking place between artistic production and people working in other adjacent domains.
The second register has to do with the relationship of the work of art to the viewer. In conventional art practices the autonomy, we might even say, sovereignty of the artist is absolutely central. The artist serves as an external agent of critique or destabilization, who occupies a clearly differentiated cognitive field, while the viewer is defined a priori as the victim of a habitual form of thought that requires the experience of destabilization which the artist can provide. In a sense it reproduces the relationship between the work of art and it’s Other in terms of autonomy, critique and contamination. In dialogical practices this set of cognitive differentiations is more fluid; the artist is not always the one “presumed to know,” and the viewer qua participant is able to produce his or her own transformative knowledge. The subject positions, author and recipient of authored material, for example, and modes of agency, fluctuate through the course of a given project.
You see the implications of this idea—that the role of the artist is to systematically deconstruct the truth claims of all other disciplines—in conceptualism during the 1960s. We encounter a kind of generic skepticism within artistic production towards all other fields of knowledge production. In my view, this has really started to change, as the conventional concept of criticality in art has begun to change.
I’m thinking of the example of the artists Christoph Schäfer and Margit Czenki in Hamburg. They aren’t plagued by any great anxiety that they are somehow diluting the purity of their artistic practice by opening it up to elements of participatory planning. That doesn’t mean that they are not critical of the conventions of participatory planning, but that they are in dialogue with it. And this dialogue involves a reciprocal interrogation of both art and participatory planning, rather than identifying planning as the always complicit Other against which one levels a transcendent critique. Here criticality always involves a self-interrogation, of the institution of art, of the artistic personality itself.
Krenn: Although there are indeed elements of participatory planning in the work of Christoph Schäfer and Margit Czenki they remain very critical of this method at the same time. They think that participatory planning often excludes a substantial participatory process in an emancipatory sense. We were also discussing the term participatory in general and Christoph suggested that it were better to use the term platforms of exchange. I got the impression that both of them, despite being successful in the established art world identify much more with the left and autonomous kind of counter culture in Hamburg. More generally speaking, projects like Park Fiction are often publicly financed; nevertheless, the overlap of art with activism and other interdisciplinary approaches seems to lead automatically to a very critical understanding of public policies and the state in general. What do you think about this phenomenon?
Kester: I can say a few things about that. First this is a semantic issue. I have had some conversations with Christoph and also read his writings and I understand that he’s particularly concerned with distancing himself from certain forms of participatory planning that could be seen as in some way liberal, in the sense of a conventional notion of democratic state politics. The word participatory has scare quotes around it for many artists today for good reason. Exchange platforms sound more neutral. It sounds less contaminated by the language of a bureaucratic state apparatus that’s propagates pseudo-forms of participation. My point would simply be that what Christoph probably imagines is taking place in his platforms of exchange is precisely exchange as a form of participation and reciprocal involvement. Participatory planning itself began as a reaction to bureaucratic planning during the 1960s and ‘70s and subsequently underwent a process of political neutralization, so you could say that Christoph is simply seeking to revive or recover this lost potential. We’d also have to have a conversation about how he understands “exchange” and “participation”. Of course “exchange” carries its own ghosts, relating social interaction to the commodity form, so no terminology will be entirely neutral. There are other important semantic differences to be discussed here, but the fact remains that the activity that he is engaging in is very different from the conventional artistic gesture, in which the artist says, “I’m going to create a singular art object and I’m going to present it to a viewer as a fait accompli. I’m not really concerned with changing that object in any way in response to the viewer’s response or interaction”.
Christoph is operating in the context of a German society in which there is still some state or public support for things like urban parks and so on. There is still a residual welfare state that he has to contend with. So because of this context he has to be hyper attentive to differentiating himself from the ideological remnants of that welfare state. That’s a longer complex history, and I understand where the animosity comes from. However, I think, on an epistemological level, it is hard to avoid the fact that the Park itself wouldn’t have come into existence were it not for Christoph’s and Margit’s canny negotiations with state bureaucratic systems. They were engaged in a complex negotiation in which they had to be very smart and politically agile, and in the process they accomplished something quite remarkable. I understand the necessity of the push and pull in their relationship to the state; I just don’t think it changes my larger argument about how artistic practice is changing.
Krenn: I agree with you of course but I just wanted to point to Margit’s and Christoph’s background. Their whole project Park fiction, as you also have described it in your book, is based on the activities in the Hafen Straße against gentrification that happened long before Park fiction has started. In contrast to a kind of self-isolated activism of the radical autonomous left they tried to negotiate with state bureaucratic systems, as you said before, in order to create a thing that manifests in public space. Nevertheless, I think it is very important for them to see themselves as being part of the local scene in Hamburg but at the same time being critical of a radical position that opposes everything, which doesn’t fit in its belief system.
Kester: There has to be a moment of oppositionality or resistance in the practice. That’s how critique is often produced, through communities and constituencies that are engaged in specific, concrete, struggles. That activist component is central to so much of this work. And, as I said, it’s not surprising that we would find artists engaged in this work getting caught up in a kind of situational rhetorical politics, which has to do with trying to differentiate what they are doing from what are seen as the compromised operations of the state. Of course you have to remain critical of those mechanisms. My point has never been that one should encourage gentrification. Obviously not, my point is, in fact, quite different. I’m concerned with the forms of knowledge production that occur in this work, and the ways in which artistic production understands its connectedness to, as well as its difference from, other domains of practice.
Krenn: What falls outside the category of Dialogical Aesthetics? What are the most important criteria for you?
Kester: The first criterion is a different relationship between artistic practice and other modes of intellectual or cultural production, as I outlined already. There is quite a broad range of practice. Some projects are more overtly activist and others are less so. .
Second, there is a very different understanding of the relationship between the artist and the viewer. There is a commitment in this work to the forms of insight that are generated through processes of social interaction and intersubjective exchange, grounded in the context of resistance. Important forms of knowledge are produced through practice, about our capacities as social and political agents, about our ability to imagine the world differently, and about the values that structure our interrelationships with others.
So when I think about what separates the work that I find of interest from the broader field of “relational” art practices, it involves those two ways in which aesthetic autonomy is being reconfigured. The work that is associated with Nicholas Bourriaud is dialogical primarily at the symbolic level. The artist comes up with a concept or an idea that requires them to assemble the bodies of people who play some symbolic role or “participate” in some nominal way, acting out a prescribed script or set of movements. The bandwidth of that engagement is pretty narrow. This involves a kind of directorial notion of participation in which the artist remains the primary locus of creative agency.
Krenn: In your book The One and the Many you criticised Francis Alÿs’s When Faith moves Mountain as well as Thomas Hirschhorn’s practice. I think it is important to distinguish between their practice in which people mainly play a symbolic role and a dialogical understanding of art that takes people seriously as active participants of an art project. Your critique, as well as your theory of Dialogical aesthetics is also of great importance for my conception of my own art practice. From the very beginning I have been in contact with activists and immigrant networks and cooperated with them to a greater or lesser extent. Because of my practical experience the importance of different modes of communication as well as an understanding of the respective space became self-evident. Therefore it was somehow strange for me that critics as well as artists often overlooked the importance of these two factors in participatory art.
I observed that even openly declared non-political and non-dialogical projects were discussed as if they were political and/or participatory. One good example is Thomas Hirschorn’s admittedly impressive Bataille Monument at documenta 11. When I visited that installation, young immigrants who were involved in the project told me that they had to paint all the video recorders exactly in the way that Thomas Hirschhorn told them. What at first sight appeared as a potentially emancipatory space created for and with marginalised young city residents turned out to be an artificial space with real young immigrants whose presence rather than their creativity and conceptual involvement supplemented the artwork. There was this kind of aesthetics that seemed to come from below. But of course it was Hirschhorn’s aesthetics. Nevertheless, this project was widely viewed as being political as well as participatory although its conception was not based on exchange and discussion and the specific aesthetics of the project did not arise from the local people, they rather were controlled by the preferences of one single artist.
Kester: That’s very interesting. I think that makes a lot of sense. It is very hard for people to wrap their minds around what it actually means to produce a work that’s collaborative at a structural or organic level, and meaningfully surrenders some authorial autonomy to collaborators. . . It’s not a question of giving up all creative agency as an artist, simply of seeing the faculty of creative agency itself as a contingent factor in the work, and making the process of exchange an integral part of the creative practice.
Krenn: I would like to discuss with you the possibilities of autonomy in the context of Dialogical aesthetics. For me Park Fiction would serve again as a good example because it is based on autonomy although it’s a completely different understanding of aesthetic autonomy as well as social autonomy than normally encountered in art discourse.
Kester: The question of autonomy is really a complicated one of course. I think in the case of Park Fiction or probably most of the projects I write about, the artists are much less likely to conceive of aesthetic autonomy as a kind of defensive bunker that protects art from contamination by the outside world. Rather I think it’s refigured as a way to open a space within hegemonic cultures in which asking certain kinds of critical questions is very difficult, because the roles of those who speak and those who are spoken for are predetermined. Dialogical Art practices provide a space to formulate new ideas, to generate new insights, and to think critically and that’s what Park Fiction did. It allowed the people that were living in the area of the park to imagine themselves as urban planners, as having that level of agency and transformative power. It opened up a possibility that had not been thinkable before, which is that that space, that piece of land, could be turned into a park for the people and not simply a high-rise office development or condominium. That space of autonomy is in also a space of, and for, critique. It’s not an absolute or transcendent critique in the Kantian sense. It’s always provisional, always oscillating back and forth between the distance that’s necessary to achieve a critical or transformative perspective and the proximity to, or integration with, the processes of social action or resistance necessary to bring this perspective into practical existence. That’s a very difficult balance to maintain, but I always thought that Park Fiction did a terrific job of managing it.
Krenn: For me as a practitioner, what you said is particularly important because it leads to an understanding of a kind of autonomy that emerges in between dialogical art; which can go beyond it. I have experienced this possibility in my own art practice several times. A recent example is the on-going project Redesign of the Lueger Statue into a monument against anti-Semitism and Racism that I have developed together with a group of students at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna in the course of a seminar that I held about art interventions and history politics in 2009. Karl Lueger was the former major of Vienna from 1897 to 1910 and was elected because of his populist anti-Semitic agitation. The personality cult around Lueger can also be found in other places in the city. Even a section of Vienna’s grand boulevard the Ringstrasse was named after him as Dr. Karl Lueger Ring. Although his anti-Semitism is generally known, he still serves as a kind of father figure for Vienna and one often hears statements such as “he didn’t actually mean what he said” and an even worse argument: “You can’t reproach him for it really. Everyone was anti-Semitic in those days”. Our project had been conceived collaboratively as well as participatory. First we collaboratively worked together with activists and intellectuals on the whole issue and launched a website. Second we announced, along with the University of Applied Arts, an Open Call to re-design the Lueger Statue into a monument against anti-Semitism and Racism. Everyone was invited to participate with their ideas. After a lot of local, as well as international, media attention we received more than 220 proposals from all over the world, from amateur as well as professional artists, architects and even school classes. An independent jury chose the proposal by Klemens Wihlidal, which suggests tilting the statue by 3.5 degrees to the right in order to reflect, as well as question Vienna’s insecurity in dealing with Lueger as one of Austria’s first successful, anti-Semitic populist politicians. From then on we built up a pressure group and tried to convince the city to actually redesign the Lueger Monument. We also initiated an on-going discussion in the public discourse. First the city seemed interested but then they rejected it and to date they protect the monument against any intervention. But as a result of our initiative and pressure through the public discourse the city finally had to the rename the Dr. Karl Lueger Ring into University Ring. The University of Vienna simply didn’t want to be identified with the address ‘Lueger Ring 1’ anymore.
What is also interesting for me is how our project triggered other similar projects and this relates to the phenomenon of a special kind of autonomy, which can be set free by participatory and interventionist art. For example shortly after our press conference the grammar school Döblinger Gymnasium launched its own open call to redesign a war monument commemorating the Austrian and German soldiers of WW I and WW II. One has to know that numerous so called ‘war monuments’ still exist all around Austria, which were initially built to commemorate the victims of World War I. After 1945 additional text and names were added to remember and honour the German and Austrian soldiers who have died in WW II. So this school was inspired by our idea, made an open call and redesigned their small war monument in the entrance hall. Instead of glorifying the war, the new version of the monument reflects on the Nazi terror against Jews and other victims of the 3rd Reich. So our project triggered an autonomous school initiative that didn’t wait for the authorities to change this problematic war monument; they took it into their own hands.
I found another interesting development following our initiative today in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. It is an article about a new initiative of Africans in Vienna who demand that the Dr. Karl Lueger Platz, (the place where the monument stands), should be renamed Nelson Mandela Place.
Kester: That’s interesting.
Krenn: I think that there are similarities between the Lueger project and a project such as Park Fiction. It’s this mixture of a participatory process and a dialogical process and there are also a provocative utopian moments in it. Both projects follow an artistic approach that is working with contradictions.
Going back to the example of the African activist group: if one demands that the place around the Lueger Monument, and Lueger stands for Anti-semitism nowadays (though there are still some people who want to downplay this fact), if you demand that this place is renamed Nelson Mandela Place than this is a contradictory demand in itself. It is a productive contradiction in my view because it demands a paradoxical situation that opens up an important discussion. If the place sourounding the Lueger statue were called Nelson Mandela Place than this would symbolise the “openness of the city” and give “humanity a place in heart of Vienna”, as the initiative put it. This paradox addresses the dilemma of anti-Semitism as well as racism in Vienna, namely the actual discrimination and exclusion of African immigrants in Austria. It shows a connection between the past and the present. Lueger was the first European politician who won elections with his anti-Semitic rhetoric. Nowadays, one finds similar populist arguments against immigrants in election campaigns, which create a climate for justifying institutional racism.
I think there is a possibility to work with contradictions and to include these moments of “shock” and provocation as a tool to involve people in a discussion and a project. What do you think about that?
Kester: I think a few things. So one question has to do with the act of renaming the Lueger place as Nelson Mandela Place and the reaction it provoked. I haven’t researched this specific project of course, but I am familiar with projects that follow a similar trajectory in other places. I’m not sure that the reaction that is most likely to transform consciousness is shock per se. There’s a tendency to conflate antagonism, as an index of the willingness of a given work to confront dominant forms of power, with some form of cognitive violence enacted against a viewer, who comes to stand in as a surrogate agent of hegemonic power. There are many forms of shock or disruption that have the precise effect of arresting insight and cognition, rather than opening it up. Having said that, it seems clear that this project did disrupt the symbolic politics of the city. That seems essential, and I would also argue that there are moments of disruption in any dialogical project precisely because these projects are concerned with the actual process of exchange with subjects, contexts and situations that have the capacity to answer back.
My problem with the concept of shock has always been that I have yet to encounter a very convincing perceptual model to explain how it transforms the consciousness of an answerable viewer. There are plenty of very complex justifications offered by contemporary art critics, but they are almost always hypothetical and usually involve some convoluted projections about consciousness and affect that tell us more about a given theorist or critic than they do about the experience of an actual viewer. This project you describe is a very interesting. For some people in Vienna, probably for hard-core racists, the concept of re-naming this part of the city after Nelson Mandela would be shocking, it would be an outrage or perhaps an affront, but that shock is unlikely to lead them to be less racist, in fact it is probably going to reinforce their racism by making them feel beleaguered in their own city by the perceived intrusion of values that are alien to them. Their sense of racial entitlement would likely increase in reaction to what they might perceive as the normalization of a form of difference that they find threatening. I think the more positive outcome of the project would be to provide a point of solidarity and cohesion for those people in the city who are opposed to anti-Semitism and racism, and to demonstrate, in a concrete manner, that its possible to challenge the historical normalization of these beliefs and re-frame the city’s spatial narrative.
Krenn: I would like to point out that there are actually two groups, which are independent from each other. Our group made an open call to redesign the monument in 2010 and there is a new initiative, which wants to rename the monument location Nelson Mandela Place. I am living in Belfast and I’ve just read today in the newspaper about them. They have a FB site with thousands of followers.
Our project started with an investigation, we were talking with people sitting next to the monument and only a few of them knew that Lueger was an anti-Semite. So, one reason for doing this project was to create critical awareness about the anti-Semitic past of this city and racism today and how these phenomena are interrelated with each other. But I don’t believe that our project is changing the awareness of people, who declare themselves racists or neo-Nazis. Neo-Nazis are not open for such discussions. They have a strict believe system and a racist and violent attitude. Unfortunately, their public actions are visible in the media whereas nonviolent demonstrations of activist immigrant groups don’t get as much attention.
Now, I think the new campaign of the African community is really important, because it shows how anti-Semitism and racism is structurally interrelated. This new campaign pursues a strategy of over-identification that we often see in contemporary art projects. They said in their press release: this is a possibility for Vienna to show how open it is toward immigrants. The use “shock” and humour in their campaign. Humor and “shock” was also important for our project. The title of our Open Call was: Open call to redesign the Lueger monument into a monument against anti-Semitism and racism in Austria. For conservative people already the title was quite “shocking” others found it strange and funny. It’s also quite a long name for an open call but it was quoted by the media because of its irritating as well as unconventional message.
Kester: I think a lot of this has to do with the language that one uses to describe what’s happening. I suppose my discomfort with shock is that this term is so reified at this point and so caught up with a problematic set of assumptions drawn from the history of the avant-garde. As I already noted, in my view this tradition has largely failed to provide a convincing account of the experience of reception that could capture the complexities that you are describing in terms of the symbolic politics, the constituencies involved and so on. This is really a question about certain absences in art theory. Why is there so little work in contemporary art criticism and theory that can address the complexity of reception, that can talk about the different forms of affect that are mobilized in a given work, from irritation, to annoyance, to anger, to celebration and euphoria, whatever those might be along a continuum, and their relation to subsequent action or practice in the world? To me that’s an important question, and I’d be interested in seeing how it relates to a project like yours, which intervenes in the symbolic politics of the city in a way that has real consequences.
Krenn: I also think it would be important to have some parallel research and investigations of long term, dialogic, site-specific art projects. Maybe sociologists or people from political science – not only from art theory – would give interesting new insights. Such an interdisciplinary approach could help artists. Their practice would be taken seriously. Maybe, this should even be demanded as an integral part of so called “artistic research”. Although “artistic research” is a trendy term, it can be used strategically as a political term in the interest of artists. Especially, when one thinks back how this term was created in concept art in the 1960s. Unfortunately, in the last years it has become a trendy umbrella term. Although there are a lot of interdisciplinary projects the “artistic research” is often not more than a mixture of natural science’s research with some decorative components created by artists.
Kester: This occurs in the US as well as Europe. I think it’s related to a form of institutional pressure in universities, where you are encouraged to make art practice seem like a social science, and you have to employ the language associated with scientific research protocols. My problem with that is that the knowledge produced in the sciences has to be universalizable. It has to be replicable. And I think that the insights that you get in artistic practice are often singular, and the relationship between this singularity and a serial reproduction isn’t direct. As a result it’s really hard to shoehorn artistic practice into a scientific model. In some cases this connection makes sense, because you have artists that are doing things that really start to look like cognitive science experiments or application development, you see this a lot in new media. But in the kind of art that you are doing I don’t think it really applies. It’s an institutional convenience isn’t it? The other problem that I have with that is the fact that in art practice doctoral programs you often have to present a complete description of what you’re research is going to be before you’ve actually completed it. This is very different from the idea that research might evolve or be transformed by the experience of working towards a degree.
Krenn: In your book Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art you criticise the avant-garde discourse and an understanding of art as one whose “role is to shock us out of the perceptual complacency, to force us to see the world anew. This shock has borne many names over the years: the sublime, alienation effect, l’amour fou, and so on. In each case the result is a kind of epiphany that lifts viewers outside the familiar boundaries of a common language, existing modes of representation, and even their own sense of self.”
You describe this as an “orthopaedic” aesthetic and that this orthopaedic orientation preserves the idea that the artist is a superior being, able to penetrate the veils of mystification that otherwise confuse and disorient the hapless modern subject.
Despite your critique on shock in the art discourse that we also have discussed today I’d like to ask you about the possibilities of a historical re-reading of the avant-garde art. As a starting point I would like to talk with you about the position of Walter Benjamin, especially in his essay The author as producer. Although Benjamin’s use of shock is sometimes contradictory, I would argue that he defines shock as an inherent part of social change. In his essay he relates his ideas of art as a political practice to the idea of alienation by Berthold Brecht but he also refers to Sergei Tretyakov’s model of the operative writer. So I would say that this model of the operative writer as well as his art practice in the 1920s and 1930s were a kind of pre-dialogical art practice. Although there are some failures and contradictions in his book Feldherren, for example he talks about the peasants as Kulaks, a discriminatory term by Stalin to expropriate, deport and finally kill independent farmers, Tretyakov’s concept and practice also has a lot of emancipatory potential.
I would like to ask you if you think that these and other historical avant-garde concepts as well as practices are of interest for dialogical aesthetics, today.
Kester: That’s a very good question. I can recall the first time I read that Benjamin essay, many years ago. What I took from it was this idea that it is not enough to simply produce art that challenges the regime in some way symbolically, you have to rethink the way that art functions as an institution within a given society and a given mode of production, and it’s operation within concrete forms of political resistance. Heartfield is a good example of that. He is known as a formal innovator of the photomontage but at the same time his images were being distributed at a mass level by AIZ (Workers Illustrated Magazine), the largest working-class picture magazine in Germany at the time. They were not just on the walls and in galleries. For me, and I imagine Heartfield would have felt the same way, that integration with a broader social movement and context was key to what he was doing. The Dadaists used to walk through Berlin’s working class neighborhoods in a mock funeral procession carrying a plinth with copies of their journal to distribute. There is a performative dimension to their work, an integration with working-class politics, that’s central. But to abstract from this context, and to say Heartfield was a great artist simply because he made montages that can be linked with broader formal trends in avant-garde art at the time, to me that’s not the what Benjamin had in mind.
Krenn: Yes, the people on the street applauded them when they were walking through Berlin and commemorating the murder of Rosa Luxemburg. It was a political demonstration and a Dadaist paradoxical practice, which generated productive contradictions.
Kester: Tretyakov is really an interesting example. On the one hand you have this desire to challenge the division of labour and to appeal to a concept of concrete practice over the abstractions of theory. The writers have to go to the countryside to learn about the working class, because our material reality informs our consciousness, and they have acquired their knowledge of the world through an artificial, class-based experiential separation. You see that in Maoism as well. Mao early on produced some interesting writing on the relationship between theory and practice and he talks about how important it is for the intelligentsia to understand the nature of class struggle through an immersive experience. In fact I think when Mao was a librarian in Beijing in the 1930s he came across the work of John Dewey, the pragmatist philosopher, and there are some people who suggest that Dewey had an influence on Mao’s early writings. So you have this positive desire to break down some of the divisions between intellectual analysis and practice, but then it goes horribly wrong when you start to round up the artists and writers and send them to the collective farm for forced “re-education”. For me that history, unfortunate though it is, doesn’t mean you give up entirely on the need to critique these divisions, because they continue to plague us.
It’s important to question the division between theory and practice, or between analysis and political engagement, that is so typical in art theory. It’s also evident in the mythos of revolutionary politics, in which the Leninist leader returns from a solitary immersion in Hegel with the necessary vision to instruct the masses as to the proper form of insurrection. The idea back then was that after the revolution, after the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, we won’t have a separate class of intellectuals, and everybody will be an artist or a thinker. Today the reason to ask these questions has noting to do with some problematic historical teleology, but simply because, when intellectual production comes into contact with practice, you get more interesting results. It produces important critical insight.
I often talk in my work about the significance of duration and temporality over a concept of aesthetic experience defined by simultaneity. I would link this to the odd displacement that occurs as avant-garde art artists begin to appropriate the violent or aggressive rhetoric of political vanguards, so that the relationship between the artist and viewer is treated as a surrogate for, or instantiation of, the broader antagonistic relationship of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Of course the artist, in this mise en scene, takes up the position of the aggrieved agent of the proletariat, expressing anger or rage on their behalf against the viewer, who is cast as the embodiment of bourgeois indifference and privilege. This is is why art critics and theorists are so uncomfortable with projects that seek to break down the boundaries between the artist or the intellectual and the world around them. The “artist,” in this respect, is the last redoubt of possessive individualism and Cartesian self-identity. How would your ideas about art change if you didn’t assume that everyone around you, excepting yourself of course, was in thrall to some form of hegemonic control or unthinking habituation? What if human consciousness is more complex and more discontinuous within a given social system than this model allows?
I think that’s what you are describing with this sculpture project in Vienna. That’s a great example. There is no single dominant consciousness or belief system, there are multiple hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces at work in Vienna around the issues of racism and anti-Semitism. This doesn’t mean that we ignore the obvious forms of ideological domination that operate in the world, but that we develop a more nuanced account of how they operate to encourage belief, and that we question any model of artistic subjectivity in which a single, enlightened agent claims to have transcended these systems in order to show everyone else the truth. There is a homeopathic element to this belief, that a tincture of alienation in the work of art will allow us to somehow overcome the far more pervasive experience of alienation and disruption that defines capitalist modernity. There are elements of this in Benjamin, when he talks about the dialectical image in the Arcades Project, but at the same time he is sympathetic to Brecht’s collaborative theatrical projects with workers.
Krenn: How can dialogical art mediate as a translator from a conventional conversation situation which is influenced by the respective internal and external power relations to a kind of ideal speech situation?
Kester: In the art world, you often get these very reductive attacks on Habermas for postulating some sort of coercive concept of consensus. What he actually argues is that it’s necessary to have a set of norms that allow everyone an equal opportunity to express their views and opinions regarding political decisions. There’s no guarantee that these conversations will result in a universal consensus and, in fact, Habermas assumes that they will be characterized by disagreement and agonistic conflict. Neither does he argue that all forms of difference cease to operate in these exchanges. This is a normative model not a descriptive one. The “ideal speech situation” is unlikely to be produced in practice, but the idea of equal access to political decision making processes is a goal towards which we should aspire.
At the same time of course, there are valid criticisms that point to the ways in which an ideal speech situation is made impossible by the persistence of power differentials, and that any claim that one has actually, in practice, managed to create a space in which entirely unconstrained political discourse can occur need to be very carefully scrutinized, since this is precisely the scenario in which the repression of real differences in power is most insidious. So, given this reality, what can be accomplished in the real world, rather than the idealized or normative world? How do we optimize those conditions that can lead to exchanges that are the most open, creative and transformative, and that don’t claim to eliminate all differences of power entirely, but that thematize them in such a way that they can be acknowledged and addressed in the practical, real world contexts in which they are actually reproduced. How do you retain the ability to experience antagonism, vulnerability and disagreement, without devolving into fear or hatefulness? Habermas is primarily concerned with exchange or dialogue as a way to resolve political decision-making, but this ignores the generative potential of the exchange itself. This is why I find Bakhtin’s work so important. We don’t simply enter into dialogue with the intention of defending an a priori belief, but in order to experience an opening out to the other that has the potential to reconfigure our subjectivity in a profound manner. This is also why, in dialogical art practices, you often find a concern with the creative formation of the scene of dialogue itself.
I’m thinking of Wochenklausurs’ boat talks. There was an aesthetic dimension at work in their decision to uncouple the participants in the boat talks in Zürich from their professional identities, and from the kind of media attention that would force them to retract into their public selves. Those identities impose very specific constraints on what these people could and couldn’t say. Once they entered the space in the boat, with no recording of any kind, there was a provisional bracketing of certain forms of power and obligation related to their official or representative status. And that, arguably, is what made it possible for them to think, and agree to, things that they couldn’t have otherwise. They were able to appear to each other at an ad hominum level, through what Bakhtin would call the “non-alibi of being,” without referring every word and though to an a priori set of values or mandates.
Krenn: Adorno understands the aesthetic of an artwork as a special quality and possibility to have an “unreglementierte Erfahrung” an unregimented experience. The way you describe dialogical art projects reminded me of that. Several forms of dialogical art projects are based on the possibility of a kind of an “unregimented experience”, although it differs of course from Adorno’s conception of it in his aesthetic theory.
Kester: This is something I tried to address in the One and the Many, where I spent a lot of time in writing about the Dialogue project in central India,. I interviewed people, I had conversations—but a lot of my time was spent trying to be aware as possible, on a kind of a phenomenological level, of not just what people said but how they said it, their bodily gestures, the inflections of speech, the haptic experience of the space and the aesthetic organization of the water pumps and temples. What did it mean for the women in the village to actually inhabit the water pump site on a daily basis? How did they relate to other people as they moved through and around it? There is a whole domain of somatic framing going on in this project that isn’t recognized by most people as “art”. But I think it is fundamentally aesthetic in its nature. Because it goes to the question of how the self relates to the other in the world, and how semi-permeable spaces emerge that are both connected to the broader world and also discontinuous with it. That’s really at the core of the aesthetic. So, I think your point is very well taken about these things being aesthetic. It is important to foreground power differences, and that was a key part of my own interpretation, but it is also important to have a very broad understanding of the nature of inter-subjective exchange: verbal, nonverbal, physical, and gestural. It requires close attention to all of these levels to determine, even partially, what’s taking place when people sat down in the Wochenklausur boat, or when a villager in central India is using one of Dialogue’s water pumps.,
Krenn: So maybe we come to the last point that really concerns me and I would like your opinion. What structural change in the art system has to take place in order for serious dialogically and political engaged art to successfully emerge?
Kester: I was puzzling over that …
Krenn: … and what are the main prerequisites for improvements in the production conditions of participatory/dialogical art in your thoughts?
Kester: All right, I would frame my response to that question in the context of the commercial market for buying and selling contemporary art, which has expanded dramatically in the last decade. It’s a multi-billion dollar a year market and contemporary art, specifically by blue-chip artists, is seen as one of the most reliable investments. You’ve got a whole class of newly rich people around the world, as a result of the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth globally, and they have a lot of liquid capital that they want to invest. Contemporary art is increasingly becoming a ‘go to investment’ for these people. So much of the art world, especially the art world that is concerned with contemporary art, is sustained by the buying and selling of art. And there is, not surprisingly, a very strong desire among the curators, historians and critics whose professional identities are largely dependent on this world, to believe that the work they discuss retains some subversive, critical or antagonistic charge, while any work that seeks to operate outside of, or challenge, the ideological and institutional protocols of this world is naïve, politically misguided or sentimental. It’s hard to overestimate the pervasive influence the market now has on galleries, curators, consultants and advisors, and in many cases, critics, historians and theorists.
It’s unlikely that individuals who are invested in the world of biennials, art fairs, and blue chip galleries and museums will have much more than a token interest in art practices that are directly critical of neo-liberalism at anything other than a symbolic level. Santiago Sierra is a good example of this. He’s been successful in projecting an image of himself as an unsparing critic of the repression of the poor and working class while making a very comfortable living for himself and his dealer by selling limited edition prints documenting his performances to wealthy collectors for 50,000 euros each. If his work really constitutes a withering attack on the hypocrisy of art world liberals who remain indifferent to global suffering you have to wonder why they are so willing to pay large sums of money for it. In a way Sierra’s performances and installations, for all the shock and outrage they are supposed to generate, are really just a device that allows him to generate capital through print sales. There is a sizeable monetary reward available to the artist who finds the most effective way to “offend” the sensibilities of the rich without directly threatening their actual class status.
But the kind of work that you and I are talking about doesn’t exhaust itself in symbolic critique. It is work that actually seeks to engage specific social and political institutions associated with hegemonic power more directly and it often seeks to align itself with particular constituencies that are engaged in forms of political resistance or struggle. I don’t think we can, or should, expect a lot of sympathy from the mainstream art world for this kind of work. I think the more likely foundation of support will be in public universities and funding agencies and alternative educational or cultural institutions that are not entirely ruled by the laws of the market. Many of the projects I’ve written about are also supported in various ways by constituencies associated with activism, resistance movements of various kinds, and more progressive NGOs.
I don’t think that that the mainstream art world can really be changed at any deeper level: there is simply too much money at stake for the values that are propagated in that world to be really challenged. This doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been growing interest in various forms of socially engaged art practice over the last decade, although it’s usually presented in the neutered context of “social” art practice, since the concept of engagement or social change remains déclassé. At the same time, this has opened up access to institutional and discursive platforms that didn’t exist for engaged art in the 1980s. So there is some room to manoeuvre on the margins, but I don’t see any reason why the mainstream art world would ever offer unequivocal support for this work.
Krenn: Krenn: Yes, I understand that, and there are two things that I would like to add. First, I am from a slightly different cultural background because I am in a country where the society as well as the art system still supports conceptual art practices. In the regulations for public support for fine arts one criterion is to promote art projects that would have difficulties to be successful in the art market Nevertheless, it is very difficult to survive as an artist. And there is also this tendency towards privatisation and commercialisation of art in Austria.
So I would differentiate, although everything is interrelated, between the pure art market and the art system that is mainly financed by public funds: ranges from museums and galleries that are run by art associations to public art universities. In German there is the word Kunstbetrieb that is often used for this part of the art system. There is no direct translation for it but it stands for a kind of art system that is not mainly dominated by the art market. So, I think it is important to point out that there are main differences between a public art institution and a commercial gallery and that they have to have different objectives. I am in the privileged situation that I am represented by a private gallery (Gallery Zimmermann Kratochwill) that supports my conceptual art practice because they just believe in its artistic as well as political value and they also run a gallery in Manila that explicitly supports socially engaged artists there, but as far as I know this is rather an exception in the commercial art world.
And the second thing that I think, which is really important, is to criticize a simplified notion of ‘revolutionary art’, of a political art without any dialogical component in it, as you analyse it in your texts. This is often no more than a symbolic gesture. I think it would really be important to develop a language to describe that other type of politically engaged art, as you said before.
Kester: It is really interesting what you said about Germany and Austria in terms of a form of public policy in which the art that receives state support should be art that can’t find support in the market. That’s an open acknowledgment that the market system cannot solve all our problems. And that’s precisely the same kind of language that used to exist in the United States until about twenty years ago, in the rationales for public funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and state arts councils. Unfortunately the neoliberal imperative has moved so much more rapidly in the US that this concept is almost entirely alien here. It’s always refreshing for me to realize that there are still some countries that are willing to provide formal support for a public sphere that operates outside the logic of the market.