In “An Interview with Greg Kester”, he identifies 3 ways in which labor is typically conceptualized in modern art, which he calls:  Spectacle, Symbolic and Semantic. He wants to reconceptualize labor in a fourth way as well: as co-laboring. Using what he says in the reading on page 47, show that you understand the ways that labor has been conceptualized according to Kester AND bring an example of a socially engaged work that you think exemplifies what he means by co-laboring.

In a paragraph or two, answer this question:

An Interview with Grant Kester

Author(s): Tim Stott and Grant Kester

Source: Circa , Autumn, 2006, No. 117 (Autumn, 2006), pp. 44-47

Published by: Circa Art Magazine

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c. Tim Stott

44 An interview with Grant Kest er

Art historian and critic Grant Kester has done extensive research into socially engaged art practice, the visual culture of American reform movements, and the relations between political and aesthetic theory. Between 1990 and 1996 he was editor of visual and

media-arts journal Afterimage. He continues to publish essays and books, his most recent being Conversation pieces: community and communication in modern art, which outlines a critical framework for recent art practices based on performative interactions with participants outside of normative art contexts. He is currently researching a book that will examine the different categories of labour present in these art practices.

He was recently invited to Dublin by City Arts to give an introductory lecture on this latter subject. A couple of days later, on 11 June 2006, he agreed to be inter viewed for Circa.The following is an edited version of our conversation on the day and as it developed subsequently via e-mail. An extended version will appear on recirca.com in the near future.

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TS First of all, you talked yesterday about there being a paradigm shift Could you describe the basic characteris tics of this shift?

GK Yes, this shift is taking place on two, related, levels. First, there is a shift towards collaborative or collective approaches in contemporary art. And second, there is a shift towards participatory, process-based experience, and away from what I’d describe as a ‘textual’ mode of production in which the artist fashions an object or event that is subsequently presented to the viewer for decoding. This shift is evident across a wide range of practices, from neo-conceptual, biennial-based works by figures like RirkritTiravanija and Thomas Hirschhorn to more recognizably ‘activist’ projects by groups like Park Fiction and Ala Plastica. The breadth of this shift is

somewhat unusual. During the 1980s, the last time that activist work was on the radar screen of the mainstream

art world, there were obvious methodological differences between the collaborative projects of groups like ACT-UP, Group Material, or Border Arts Workshop and the recognized avant garde represented by Neo-expres sionist painting and postmodern appropriation, which both remained mono-authorial and fairly traditional in terms of media.

Today the boundaries between socially engaged art practice and the avant garde are harder to determine, with mainstream artists like Hirschorn, Santiago Sierra, and Liam Gi I lick working in public space, engaging social networks, and so on. This has led to a certain anxiety among writers and curators who identify themselves with the canonical model of avant-garde art that dominates contemporary criticism, and which is rooted in the rapprochement between post-minimalism and continental theory. We might say that the concerns with public space and social networks that motivated previous activist art have undergone a process of ironic appropriation. In this process the traditions of activist art have been subjected to a conceptual reif ication and are made to stand in as the naive, unref lexive, and moralizing antithesis to the cosmopolitan, disruptive, and self-reflexive advanced art seen on the biennial circuit. This tactic runs across the divisions that

otherwise separate a figure like Nicholas Bourriaud from one his more thoughtful critics, Claire Bishop. It’s symptomatic of a struggle to confine the current proliferation of art practices within a narrative that privileges the work of art as a kind of deconstructive machine whose primary function is to symbolize or insti gate a therapeutic dislocation of traditional identities.

TS Also, on the back of that shift you get this tendency towards the hyphenated artist – the artist-participant, the artist-activist, and so on. With so many hyphens, how do you demarcate an autonomous space in which this work

can be made? You talked about the traditional autonomy of the art-object or of the artist as a privileged creator, but now you claim that autonomy is linked to the ‘permeability of art’… Could you expand upon that?

GK Yes, I’ll try to unpack this argument about autonomy a bit. I would contend that the core function of art

changes quite dramatically in the modern period. As early as the mid-nineteenth-century art is beginning to abandon it’s traditional function of transmitting and idealizing dominant forms of power, whether religious or secular, and begins instead to take on the role of disrupting or destabilizing them. This agonistic posture changes art’s self-understanding, its ontology, if you will, as well as the kinds of knowledge that it produces. First, modern art begins to define itself in opposition to, or as the negation of, certain characteristics identified with the dominant culture. Early on this ‘other’ was provided by academic painting and later it became consumer culture. By the post-WWII period contemporary art was sufficiently institutionalised and capitalised that it’s survival was no longer at stake. The previously exter nalised threat represented by the salon or kitsch was internalised in anxieties about the proliferation of rogue tendencies within contemporary art itself. Michael Fried establishes this pattern with his attack on ‘theatrical’ art in the 1960s, but it’s been manifested ever since in fears over installation, performance, and activist art. This approach lends itself to a hygienic attitude on the part of the critic, who must defend art from contamination: a fear that art will lose its specific identity if it becomes too permeable to other areas of culture.

The second feature of this agonistic model involves art’s relationship to the viewer. The appropriate response to the work of art is no longer veneration or obeisance, but discomfort, rupture or an uncanny derangement of the senses. I’ve written about this elsewhere in terms of an ‘orthopaedic’ model of the aesthetic in which art seeks to improve the cognitive or perceptual capacities of the viewer, who is constructed as always, already in need of correction. I would argue that these provocations often perform an affirmative function; verifying the pre-existing self-image of art world audiences. Or they are consumed rhetorically as the viewer identifies, in a self-congratulatory manner, with the subject position of the artist rather than the hapless implied viewer. In fact, one comes to the space of art prepared for precisely this sort of provocation; disruption is, in a way, expected and even savoured. What is happening today, in my view, is a certain disenchantment with the existing parameters of avant-garde practice and an attempt to rearticulate the specificity of the aesthetic in relationship to both the viewer and to other cultural, and political, modes.


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TS Indeed, it can be something of a one-way street. But there remains the question of autonomy. It has been claimed, by Bourriaud in particular, that relational works still have a kind of formal autonomy. And it’s this that gives you space to manoeuvre: artists can use dispersed networks to move into areas previously unavailable to them, but they maintain autonomy throughout because

you have this shifting of their work between utilitarian and aesthetic functions. This shifting allows participants to see what they’re doing as a form to be employed in different ways.

GK That seems like a useful formulation to me; it essentially replicates the long-standing argument that avant-garde art performs an optical function, allowing participants to take up some critical distance to existing conventions, to see what was natural as contingent and subject to change. But the concept of distance is more complicated than this, we tend to collapse together the cognitive distance necessary to denaturalize and re-imagine social reality into the discursive and institutional ‘distance’ that separates art from a given social or political situation. My point isn’t that art is no longer autonomous. It’s simply that the nature of this autonomy, relative to the social and political, is being renegotiated. The binary oppositions that have defined avant-garde art in the past (art vs. kitsch or the political; the artist vs. the viewer) are no longer so compelling for younger practitioners. Of course you’d have to begin with some discussion of what the ‘political’ or the ‘social’ means now, but let’s take the work of Park Fiction in

Hamburg as an example. Here’s politics with a capital ‘P,’ they are dealing with struggles over the control of valuable urban space. The traditional approach would insist that art must insulate itself from direct

involvement. It can encourage a critically self-reflexive contemplation of the political situation that might reveal the unacknowledged ideological grounds of the struggle, and so on, but it’s forbidden from open participation in the circuits of political and economic power that structure the development process itself.

The members of Park Fiction didn’t sequester themselves from the political, but they didn’t fully collapse the separation between the aesthetic and the political either. They operated through a principle of what I term adjacency. That is, they worked adjacent to or alongside political systems through a parodic re-enactment of planning that nevertheless had a pragmatic effect. They didn’t begin by assuming an agonistic or adversarial position based on direct confrontation: marching in the streets or territorializing space, naming an enemy. Instead, they operated through the dislocation of the political through the cultural. They didn’t come onto the scene and announce their intention to fight real-estate developers or challenge private property,

but their work ultimately had that effect. They accomplish this through a very subtle understanding of the relative permeability of the cultural and the political, as they touch on and interact with each other. As Park Fiction argued, in the Hofenstrasse “art and politics made each other more clever.”

HP But only by rubbing up against each other, and in order to do that they must remain separate.

@M Separate, yes, but connected at the same time. That ambivalence is manifested in the liminal nature of

the artist’s identity: artist/planner, artist/youth worker, or artist/not-artist.

Wl In many ways, as a critic or cultural historian, or however you wish to approach it, the material is already there. For instance, Jacques Ranciere talks about politics being theatrical, performed between proper places: it’s a matter of setting up an impromptu stage, improvising and appropriating roles, parodying figures of authority, and so on.

WM Yes, but Ranciere still operates within a fairly conventional avant-garde framework. In a recent letter exchange critic Claire Bishop concludes with a quote from Ranciere’s The Politics of Aesthetics along the lines that “suitable” political art must be premised on “a sensible or perceptual shock caused … by the uncanny, by that which resists signification.” This is hardly an innovative claim, given the long history of alienation, estrangement and defamiliarisation as avant-garde tropes. While I would agree with Ranciere’s estimation of the necessary tension between the aesthetic and the political he misses entirely the decisive shift in the way in which autonomy is being redefined relative to the viewer; the movement away from the rhetoric of rupture and provocation and towards reciprocal, durationally extensive exchange.

HP But, following Alain Badiou, is it not precisely those events which emerge unexpected and unannounced from within a given situation which then provide points of condensation for those who identify and remain faithful to them? I don’t see any antipathy between an event and the extensive exchange carried out by those who build upon it: strictly speaking, without the latter, the former does not happen. This all seems rather appropriate to Park Fiction: improvised identities brought into play; the filling-in of the void of power that this play discloses; fidelity to a series of disclosures or events. And if it’s a question of autonomy, is this not primarily achieved by marking out a field of play, firstly by naming and secondly by remaining faithful in one’s play?

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Wi That’s useful as far as it goes, but it amounts to saying that the work of art-as-event has the capacity to catalyse new perceptions and new modes of thought in a given situation. This is comparable to Ranciere’s

assertions regarding art’s relative autonomy. I would agree with both wholeheartedly. The heavy lifting, however, involves the question of how, precisely, these new perceptions are catalysed, and how we define autonomy in specific practices. Further, the very language of the ‘event’ carries with it certain

connotations of simultaneity: the event as a singular, temporally condensed, consciousness-altering encounter. This is the legacy of the generation of French thinkers who have dominated Anglo-American art theory for the past two decades. They have, for better and for worse, tended to universalise the events of May ’68, in all their mythical immediacy and spontaneity, as the only acceptable template for all subsequent political transformations. I think what transpired in Park Fiction’s work in Hamburg, and in projects by Ala Plastica in Argentina, Huit Facettes Interaction in Senegal, and Jay Koh in Myanmar, is better understood through the language of process and an expanded sense of time.

WB& You also mentioned new notions of labour: labour

which is an aesthetic process, durational, extended in time, not teleological but open-ended…

KM Yes, I believe duration and labour are connected in collaborative practice. Labour has traditionally been figured in three ways in modern art. First we have labour as spectacle, from Courbet’s Stonebreakers to Sierra’s Workers Who Cannot Be Paid (2000). Here the labouring body is presented to the viewer as a kind of calculated affront. Then we have symbolic labour, in the Arts and Crafts movement for example, where the well crafted object is understood as registering a protest against the dehumanising mediocrity of mass production. Finally you have semantic labour. That is the labour that’s demanded of the viewer, once the ‘difficult’ work of art is set in

place before him. The viewer must work through the semantic and cognitive baffles put in place by the artist, and in the very labour of decoding the work a new subjectivity is produced; they become more thoughtful and self-reflexive.

I think there’s a fourth way to conceptualise labour that is evident in some collaborative art practices. That is, a co-labouring of sorts that occurs in shared praxis and that has the capacity to transform the consciousness of its’ participants and to disclose new models for being together. It occurs through the thickly textured haptic and discursive exchanges that unfold in these projects, often over a period of months and even years. This accounts as well for the proliferation of the ‘workshop’ as a methodology, which we see in the projects of Huit

Facettes, Ala Plastica and others. We can’t rely on the usual critical theory suspects to pursue this line of analysis because of the privileging of simultaneity, and the implicit disavowal of duration, in the poststruc turalist tradition. This is a question I’m working on for my next book project. It requires a re-articulation of labour, outside of the productivist tradition that extends back to Locke.

TS* So this is as much about proximity as productivity.

#M Yes. In fact proximity is a word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: the proximity of bodies in space.

TH It’s contagious in some way. This co-labouring marks out a rhythm of imitation and variation, around which the group organises itself. It also suspends the habitual discomfort of reciprocal touching and the closeness of strangers. But this process of rhythmic imitation is not necessarily of the order of quiet and cosy interaction; it can just as easily be raucous and volatile, such as when a crowd gathers.

SK Absolutely, It impinges on research in psychology into the ways in which the body carries trauma, as well

as bio-aesthetics. At the same time, this ‘micro’ level of analysis needs to be combined with some understanding of how these projects relate to broader political shifts. Especially relevant here is the dangerous bifurcation between forms of solidarity based on religious faith or nationalism, on the one hand, and the rampant self interest encouraged by the rise of neo-liberalism on the other. What does it mean to think collectivity differently today? This context makes these collaborative experiments particularly compelling.

1 Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004

2 I would like to thank Ed Carroll

and Jane Speller of City Arts for their kind assistance in setting up this interview and Grant Kester himself for gen erously sharing his knowledge.

Tim Stott is a critic based in Dublin.


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  • Contents
    • 44
    • 45
    • 46
    • 47
  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Circa, No. 117 (Autumn, 2006), pp. 1-106
      • Front Matter
      • Editorial [pp. 22-23]
      • Update [pp. 24-25]
      • Correction: Some Sonic Activity [p. 24-24]
      • Letters [pp. 27-28]
      • Obituary: John Kelly 1932 – 2006 [p. 29-29]
      • Obituary: Noel Sheridan 1936 – 2006 [pp. 30-31]
      • Circa: Around, about and Very Much Still There [pp. 34-37]
      • Splish Splash: Baths-Time Fun [pp. 38-43]
      • An Interview with Grant Kester [pp. 44-47]
      • On Sound [pp. 48-55]
      • Reviews
        • Review: Conor Kelly: Aerophone, Frédéric Bonnet, Green on Red Gallery, Dublin, March – April 2006 [pp. 58-59]
        • Review: Mike Nelson: After Kerouac, Sinéad Halkett, Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, Barcelona, March – June 2006 [pp. 60-62]
        • Review: Brendan Earley: Towards a Large White Building, Gemma Tipton, Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, Dublin, April – May 2006 [pp. 63-65]
        • Review: Linda Quinlan: It’s Good That Life Has Many Circles, Sheila Dickinson, Fenton Gallery Cork, May – June 2006 [pp. 66-68]
        • Review: Work [W3:K]: Aspects of Work in Art from 1970 to the Present, Fergal Gaynor, Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork, May – August 2006 [pp. 69-71]
        • Review: David Sandlin: Wonderfool World, Ruth Devine, Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, May – June 2006 [pp. 72-73]
        • Review: Arno Kramer: Over the Shadows, Marianne O’Kane, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, May – June 2006 [pp. 74-75]
        • Review: Caroline McCarthy: Grand Detour: Vedute and Other Curious Observations off the Grand Route, Joseph R. Wolin, Parker’s Box, Brooklyn, May – June 2006 [pp. 76-77]
        • Review: Patti Smith, Jason McCaffrey, Model Arts & Niland Gallery, Sligo, May – July 2006 [pp. 78-79]
        • Review: Anglomania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion, Tim Maul, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May – September 2006 [pp. 80-82]
        • Review: Angela Darby and Robert Peters: The Rumour Mill, Karl Harron, Ards Arts Centre, Newtownards, June 2006 [pp. 83-85]
        • Review: Daniel Figgis Doppler, Isobel Harbison, Beaconsfield Gallery, London, June 2006 [pp. 86-87]
        • Review: Maurice Doherty, Slavka Sverakova, Catalyst Arts, Belfast, June – July 2006 [pp. 88-89]
        • Review: Ellen Gallagher: Salt Eaters, Cherry Smyth, Hauser and Wirth, London, June – July 2006 [pp. 90-91]
        • Review: Sarah Pierce, The Meaning of Greatness, Tim Stott, Project Arts Centre, Dublin, June – July 2006 [pp. 92-93]
        • Review: Better than the Real Thing? Paul O’Brien, Four Gallery, Dublin, June – July 2006 [pp. 94-96]
        • Review: Fresh, Re-Imagining the Collection, Karen Normoyle, Limerick City Gallery of Art, Limerick, June – August 2006 [pp. 97-99]
        • Review: Paul Greengrass: United 93, Aileen Blaney, on General Release, Summer 2006 [pp. 100-101]
        • Review: Samuel Beckett: A Passion for Painting, Judith Wilkinson, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, June – September 2006 [pp. 102-104]
      • Project
        • Thesaurus-Generated Text Loops [pp. 105-106]
      • Back Matter