Social Intersections 02 (four issues)

Let’s also begin by listing four key issues and points of access:

  1. questioning the autonomy of art: this relates to the tradition of avant-garde efforts to re-integrate art within life, to question its notional autonomy (as theorised, for instance, within, Kantian aesthetics). Start typically with Dada and Russian Constructivism, leap ahead to Situationism, Cage, Kaprow, etc. Also worth drawing in Benjamin, Adorno and Burger (The Theory of the Avant-garde). May also be worth sketch a more general context – the notion of aesthetics in Baumgarten’s Aesthetica (1750), denoting a form of non-intellectual judgement. Aesthetics designates the problematic sphere of sensory experience – fundamental to human life and yet awkward to intellectualise. Here aesthetic theory gains an affinity with efforts to theorise the terrain of everyday life. Both forms of theory describe a field vital experience resistent to abstract conceptualisation. Ben Highmore emphasises this correlation when he draws upon the notion of the aesthetic as a means of exploring fundamental features of the everyday.
  2. alienation and the problem of conceiving the everyday: this is a more general, less specifically art focused, tradition of debate. The first volume of Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life draws heavily upon the Marxist notion of alienation. Alienation is a complex concept. At one level it denotes a form of misrecognition, in which aspects of labour and lived experience are detached from genuine interests. In this guise, it appears as a kind of ideological Plato’s cave in which the capitalist subject inhabits a realm of shadows and is unable to properly recognise authentic material relations and interests. However, alienation also represents the nagging awareness that this is the case – the dreamer’s sense that they are dreaming, their nagging sense of emptiness, futility and fragmentation. Lefebvre acknowledges the force of alienation but insists that the only true terrain of existence is within the everyday. There is nothing outside the cave. There is no alternative site of true experience. Apart from whatever revolutionary (non-everyday) dimensions of social change that can be wrought, there is a need to somehow re-imagine and rework the conditions of actual existence. The problem then is of how to re-interpret the everyday – how to think and perceive it. All efforts to render the everyday statistically, or in terms of some particular political, cultural or sociological lens, end up missing the opaque, discursively silent character of the everyday. In later volumes of the Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre drops the concern with alienation. The problem is no longer conceived in terms of the standard opposition between truth and illusion, but in terms of the need to evolve effective means of thinking the real, inherently resistive and intractable nature of the everyday.
  3. representing the everyday: art then emerges as a specific means of engaging with the everyday – initially of making it visible. One of the main techniques, for instance, is the Russian Constructivist notion of ostranenie (defamiliarisation or ‘making strange’) (Shklovsky). The photographic work of Rodchenko provides a classic example, with its disorienting angles, dynamic compositions and foreshortened scales. It is interesting to note that ostranenie bears a close resemblance to the very phenomenon it sets out to resist. The Marxist notion of Entfremdung (alienation) can also be translated as estrangement. So the alienation that holds people in systematic thrall becomes, within the sphere of art, the means of enabling a transformation of perception. Many other strategies, of course, of representing the everyday emerge. The work of Georges Perec, for instance, provides a whole catalogue of alternative possibilities – from the flat and idiosyncratic observation of An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris to the subtle mediation of personal and popular dimensions of memory in Je Me Souviens. Perec employs methods of wayward ethnographic fieldwork and mobilises all kinds of literary constraints and devices to facilitate often indirect means of insight into the all too present, all too invisible aspects of the everyday. The paradoxical issue here is of discovering effective means to represent the unrepresentable.
  4. intervention – modeling sociability: we move from the problem of representation to that of intervention. Linking back to the avant-garde effort to re-integrate art within life – or to use art as a means of reinventing life, or life as a means of revitalising art – the issue here, in the same instant, is to transform both art and life. The twin Situationist strategies, for instance, of the derive and detournement are not about representation, but about transforming experience itself. They take emblematic form in the practice of psychogeography, in which absurd rules for navigating urban space enable a radical re-appropriation and re-articulation of the contours and possibilities of urban cultural experience. It is these kinds of strategies, but with much less sense of cynical antagonism and revolutionary hope, that inform 90s relational aesthetic and current social-practice based art. In his description of relational aesthetics, Bourriaud positions this practice as a means of relocating contemporary informational-networked forms of production within art, removing them from their directly technological context and turning them to the task of imagining and projecting new models of sociability.
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