Wednesday, October 20, 2010


The chance meeting of worthy objectives.

One, the major art gallery wanting to transcend its depressing raison d'être as trendy gift boutique and extension of Helvetica coffee culture, a status it shares nowadays with most all other galleries. Two, offering people an alternative to the stultifying prospect of another Booze Britain Friday night. Three, finding something you can actually do with philosophy, the ancient intellectual discipline, ever since it made that terrible pact to become part of organised religion otherwise known as academia.

Robin Mackay's Urbanomic and Tate Britain thus staged one of the regular monthly Friday evening themed specials together, bringing together an enticing variety of artistic stimulation under the theme of Speculative Realism. And people turned up in their hundreds. In addition to the chance to wander around the beautiful building, there were video installations, sculpture, sound performances, a symposium, and a set of 'complimentary' (sic) picture captions responding to the paintings in the Tate's Room 9 Sublime collection. My own contribution being an opportunistic, if not mischievous, exercise in dark post-hypnotic suggestion.

Even though the UK's ingrained weekend drinking habits probably once again triumphed over all three above-stated goals (mostly thanks to the Tate's bright yet flawed idea of setting up a bar in the Octagon), there was really lots to like. The discussion on Speculative Realism featuring the excellent Mark Fisher (K-Punk) and Iain Hamilton Grant seemed to be well-received by the multitude and Hecker's sound piece was a typically abrasive delight.

The picture labelling experiment felt like a glorious opportunity missed. The new captions supplied by the Urbanomic team were certainly infinitely more coherent than the typically tired vacuous bullshit art-speak of the juxtaposed originals. However, by again buying wholesale into the traditional academic referential paradigm, along with all its wearying baggage, they betrayed the potentially subversive intent of any radical philosophical notions promised by Speculative Realism.

Too timid given such a glorious opening. Surely this must be about more than competent enhancement? Otherwise, philosophy is stuck in an abyss of despair in the form of university and college classrooms and hallways whose only escape route is by forming a diabolically exciting cult or new religion. Time for a re-read of Collapse IV: Concept Horror.



RM said...

The 'academic' tag is a familiar tactic, mostly from writers in The Wire. What exactly is it about?

Since neither any members of Urbanomic, nor the main writers of the labels at Tate, nor their main 'canonical' references (Freud, Bataille, Ferenczi, etc.) have any academic affiliation, the problem can't be resentfulness of salaried academics; it can only be referring to the content, either 'takes some effort to understand' or 'refers to other texts' - meaning in either case that it is somehow excluding to re-exploit what's been thought before (because of some problem of proletarian access to books, or because people should be spoonfed, or what??? --It should be added that Speculative Realism has grown up in non-academic contexts, and the materials are available online to all...)

So is it a call for personal spontaneous authentic response? - but what would be the product of such a response, in the context of something like the Room 9 relabelling? 'This picture makes me feel all funny'? The whole point of the relabelling was to inquire into the reality of the sublime by circumventing the repetition of the sentimental sublime response.

Used easily like this, the dismissive 'academic' tag is a peevish irrelevance that creates unnecessary conflicts between individuals engaged in material and conceptual research. It's embarrassing, over-defensive and self-defeating enough in the sphere of music – when it appears in The Wire, it invariably seems patronising to the magazine's intelligent and curious readers, and disingenuous on the part of its well-informed writers. But it's surely even more so in the case of philosophical research (and remember, this project, drawing mostly on our own research and not on canonical sources, except where it resynthesised and rethought them as the result of this research) was part of work in progress, not the presentation of some evil new would-be master narrative). As an experiment in compressing centuries of thought plus original reception of it, in reference to the paintings, into 100 word chunks, I think the labels managed to reach a reasonable level of accessibility, and we certainly worked hard to do so.

Thomas Bey William Bailey said...

I'm a week late to the party, unfortunately. However, as someone who has been labeled as both 'academic' and as lowest-common-denominator crap (presumably for my interest in 'noise' as art), this is an issue that interests me.

Robin- I understand your aversion to 'academic' as being shorthand for 'exclusive and intentionally obfuscatory.' That said, is "this picture makes me feel all funny" an invalid response because it's inarticulate? I don't think a response like that would automatically preclude a lack of further interest, or a fear of conducting further research and having one's closely held ideals exploded. It may be a 'sentimental' reaction to the 'sublimity' of the work on hand, but it's not one that implies a permanent state of confused resignation.

I may be misunderstanding you, but I don't think that an altruistic attitude of making ideas "accessible" means much if there can only be certain acceptable reactions generated in the wake of that accessibility.

RM said...

I wasn't using 'sentimental' in a simply pejorative sense, btw. I was referring (and this was one of the points of the work) to the fact that in trying to describe sublime feeling, or works that evoke it, one often creates further sublime feeling - it has a 'viral' effect. This was after all what those artists programmatically set out to do, to manipulate representation so as to reproduce sublime feeling. What would we be doing if we in turn tried to manipulate language to give an 'image' of the feelings those paintings create in us...?

The point of taking an analytical approach, using resources from outside the descriptive, the emotional, and the art-theoretical, is to cut through this viral repetition, and see whether something can be said _about_ the sublime that is not _of_ the sublime (either as a reaction to it, or a relaying of its effects). This would be a 'speculative realist' treatment of the sublime rather than a further 'conducting' of sublime effect through language.

Of course, I don't want to nor can I restrict how people may or may not react to what we did! But I do feel compelled, in order to justify (to myself not least) the fact that I'm publicly presenting something, to ensure that it is maximally dense, problematising, and challenging to 'natural' or default reactions. So, it's not that 'it makes me feel X or Y' is an invalid response, but that as mere individualised description, it's just quite uninteresting, and I for one would feel - and I think any curator or artist working today would feel the same - that I was wasting peoples time if I was showing work documenting or based solely on 'my feelings'!

... if I overreact to 'academic' a little, it's because I've gone through so much shit, and expended so much energy, in order NOT to be academic. But this involves prising ideas out of the control of the time-serving bureacrats, not renouncing them! Ideas themselves cannot be 'academic', only their usage... they just need the dingy bathwater of academia to be drained off...

(inversely, I acknowledge that there are people inside academia who somehow miraculously manage to produce work that isn't 'academic'; but I think there will be less and less of these, and frankly I think that's a good thing, it draws the battlelines more clearly.)