I’m on the editorial panel for an upcoming conference, The Second International Conference on Transdisciplinary Imaging at the Intersections between Art, Science and Culture (22-23 June 2012, Victorian College of the Arts (, which aims to explore “the theme of ‘interference’ within practices of contemporary image making”. Describing a general cultural context of image proliferation (“pollution”) via “machinic interpretations of the visual and sensorial experience of the world”, it sets out to explore the potential for art to “interfere with the chaotic storms of data visualization and information processing”, “disrupting and critiquing the continual flood of constructed imagery”. The alternative to the “tactic of interference”, the conference call suggests, is that art ends up “merely euologizing contemporary media.”

Here are some very preliminary thoughts.

Firstly, the description of the alternative interests me. Why “eulogizing” and what precisely is being eulogized? Is the eulogy for prior forms of more restricted, humanly based forms of media, which are somehow swamped by the deluge of contemporary image-making, or is the eulogy for the sense of utopian, critical hope once associated with mechanical and electronic image modes of image production and dissemination, or could the eulogy perhaps be for the image itself, as something that can take constitutive form as piece of media, that has not simply been absorbed into intrinsically mediated everyday life? In relation to the latter interpretation, Siegfried Zielinski argues that the concern with media belongs to the last century:

The twenty-first century will not have the same craving for media. As a matter of course, they will be a part of everyday life, like the railways in the nineteenth century or the introduction of electricity into private households in the twentieth. 1

This idea of relating media to everyday life – of the problem of the everyday, following the tradition of work, for instance, of Baudelaire, Breton, Shklovsky, Lefebvre, Blanchot, Debord, Certeau, Perec, etc., etc. – seems very interesting, particularly because it acknowledges the opacity of media, the awkwardness of critical apprehension:

[W]e swim in it like the fish in the ocean, it is essential for us, and for this reason it is ultimately inaccessible to us. All we can do is make certain cuts across it to gain operational access. 2

This sense of the aporiatic character of media – its intimate necessity and the correlative blindness that this entails – has implications for conceiving interference as some kind of critical-aesthetic tactic of resistance. In what sense can art lay claim to interference? In what sense can it be positioned as a critical-aesthetic tactic? I am thinking, for instance, of how Serres describes interference – in the sense of noise and parasite – as generally constitutive of communication. Interference, for Serres, is not something applied from without to media but is instead fundamental to media itself.3 So then, at the very least, we would need to find means to distinguish between deliberate interference and the interference that is already shaping contemporary image-making. I am not sure that is possible without falling into the trap of envisaging art’s potential to facilitate a neatly privileged critical perspective, to somehow remove itself from the problem of media opacity. The kinds of local level tactics that Certeau envisages in his conception of everyday life – arise within the texture of street-level interaction.4 They are a function of the passage of any general productive strategy through the realm of the lived – via idiosyncratic implementation, slight deviation, entropic repetition, etc. Above all, they are distinguished from simply oppositional strategies, which share the same globalising tendencies as the productive forces that they set out to resist. The notion of interference – critical-aesthetic interference – seems to waver between these two poles, between appearing as a strategic perspective and risking its dissolution, its critical opaqueness, as a form of tactical interaction.

  1. Zielinski, S. 2006 Deep Time of the Media, MIT Press, Massachusetts, p.33
  2. ibid.
  3. Serres, 2007 M. The Parasite (translated by Lawrence Schehr), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
  4. Certeau, M. 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life (translated by Stephen Rendell), University of California Press, Berkeley
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Social Intersections 00

Social Intersections is a new subject running this session exploring notions of art as social practice. Practical creative work is informed by an examination of contemporary relational aesthetic practice and a broad survey of various traditions informing contemporary efforts to re-examine and re-vitalise the relationship between art and everyday life. In preparation for the latter, I have been doing my best to acquaint myself with the standard canon of sociological, cultural-ethnographic, philosophical, literary and art-theoretical readings that reflect on art and everyday life. My aim here in this series of posts is to sketch a rough overview of the field, mapping out key readings, arguments, issues and themes. There will be many blank patches, smudges and distortions, as well as overly thick and whispy thin lines.

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Social Intersections 01 (the reading list)

So let’s begin with a very meagerly annotated reading list. Some of the annotations, I’m afraid, will be very brief indeed. I will make no effort to distinguish between different disciplines or even between critical and literary sources.

  1. Bakhtin, Mikhail 1993 Rabelais and His World Indiana University Press, Bloomington
    Originally published in 1941, this work represents a veiled critique of Stalinism. It examines how popular medieval traditions of carnival – as evident in the work of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantegruel (16th century) – worked to resist the dominant power of the Church. Rather than directly resisting this power, carnival demonstrates strategies of inversion, parody and material, bodily humour, manifesting an alternative, experientially grounded, profoundly playful, creative and participatory, conception of life. The underlying suggestion, applied in the modern context, is that regimes of autocratic state power can never entirely dominate popular culture.
  2. Voloshinov, Valentin 1973 Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Harvard University Press.
    Written in the 1920s, Voloshinov’s work is relevant in terms of his argument against Ferdinand Saussure’s concept of language as an abstract, synchronic system. Instead language is conceived as a material social process, embodying aspects of class struggle. This can be likened to notions of the way in which everyday life, although shaped by conditions of power and ideology, acts as a terrain of micro-level contestation and tactical resistance (see, for instance, Certeau). Some critics argue that Volushinov was a nom de plume for Mikhail Bakhtin.

More soon.

[Ludicrous, will move to a separate doc.]

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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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Social Intersections 03 (simple definition)

So what is the everyday? Leaving aside the long tradition of theoretical inquiry into the nature of the everyday, there would seem to be a need for some simple effort at definition, whilst also, of course, acknowledging the notion’s resistance to definition.

The everyday is anything that you wouldn’t be bothered photographing, that you wouldn’t even think to point a camera at, or to describe in a story to a friend. You might instead refer to it negatively, as in saying that “I have done nothing all morning.” In other words, nothing worth mentioning, just the usual. Just that which can be assumed, that which we have in common.

The everyday does not take shape as a significant event. It is not the assassination of a president or revolutionary struggle in the streets of Cairo. It is not anything that warrants a place on an historical timeline. Of course, within the texture of historical events, the everyday can also appear – as the banal, as dead time, as the intrusion, weight or surprise of normalacy.

The everyday is also not a family birthday party. It is not a trip to Europe. It is not your first day at school. It is the ordinary time between, or at times within, those special events. It is the time where you spend most of your time. It is the background time that enables special events to gain their distinctive identity.

In geological terms, the everyday can be likened to sedimentation and to weathering. It is not the cataclysmic event – the volcano or the earthquake – but instead the slow, imperceptible laying down or wearing away of deposits.

The everyday affects the structure of cities, of homes, of bodies, but never takes the form of a visionary plan or a blueprint. The everyday is linked to micro-level decisions (what Certeau calls “tactics”). It has emergent properties, but these are never directly highlighted or reflected upon. When emergence takes shape as an event, it is always beyond the contours of the everyday.

The everyday appears in league with the habitual, but the repetition this entails, however apparently secure and seamless, is always imperfect, always subject to the exigencies of particular moments of performance. The everyday, despite its predictable character, is never a space of absolute determination. It undoes the absolute less by explicitly resisting it than by setting it in place, setting it in motion.

The everyday is the unremarkable dimension of life, yet it is life precisely, and in this sense remarkable – even if there is no adequate way of making this apparent, even if the everyday is bound to a contract with blindness.

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Social Intersections 04 (ignorance and illusion)

The theme of human ignorance and illusion:

In his cosmological account of the universe and the Greek gods, Theogony (circa 700 BC), Hesiod writes of living as a shepherd in the mountains and learning the story of the world from the Daughters of Zeus (the Muses of Olympus). Their first words to him are:

Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.1

Hesiod is in no position to perceive the cosmological truth himself. The Muses regard him as a low, morally reproachable and merely appetitive being. He lives, but without any capacity to lift himself from the ignorance of sensate life. The Muses know the truth, yet they can always lie and dissimulate just as well as communicate the genuine nature of things. Humanity then inhabits a space that is removed from the truth, that is beneath it – inferior to it – and characterised by the blindness of ordinary perception. Any access to the truth is only available via the whim of the gods, and there is no certainty that the truth obtained is truth as such or only illusion.

Hesiod’s cosmology is 2,800 years old, but the essential contours of its epistemological vision remain relevant today. Here I am interpreting the Muses not literally as divine beings, but as representative of a truth separate from the messy terrain of lived experience. They can serve as metaphors, perhaps, for forms of knowledge – and systems of knowing – that contrast themselves to the blindness of ground-level existence. Apart from all manners of species of science and religion, this would also include, paradoxically, systems that explicitly privilege material life. I’m thinking of those species of Marxism that stress our ideological relation to the world, our incapacity to perceive real material relations. Stuck within the space of capitalist induced misrecognition, alienation and illusion, Marxist dialectical materialism must come to our aid, make sense of the world and encourage the potential for revolutionary transformation. It is not that I particularly want to contest this view. My aim here is to simply indicate a fundamental dilemma: our space of actual life is cast as ignorant and illusory. It is conceived as a well of darkness that only the (more or less) external agency of critical thought can illuminate.

  1. Hesiod 1914 Theogony (Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White,, originally circa 700BC
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Social Intersections 05 (strategies/tactics)

I have already mentioned Certeau’s distinction between strategies and tactics.1 Strategies depend upon a sense of macro-level perspective – they are clearly delineated plans for action. On the contrary, tactics relate to the sphere of ground and micro-level decisions – they are developed in the midst of battle and represent cunning responses to immediate circumstances. Certeau associates strategies with the realm of what Adorno would call “instrumental rationality” – regimes of power and distanced rational analysis that comprehend and manipulate material things and cultural fields in order to attain specific ends. More specifically, Certeau relates strategies to the sphere of production, while tactics evolve within the sphere of consumption. Certeau is interested in the various ways in which consumption eludes determination, escaping a passive and derivative relation to production. Through processes of tactical inflection, consumption demonstrate dimensions of opaque, indirect resistance.

I summarise all of this again to raise the issue of aesthetic tactics. Or should that be aesthetic strategy? The problem is precisely how to conceive the position of aesthetic engagement. Does it represent a space of counter-strategy or of local-level tactical subversion? It quickly becomes evident that these alternatives are too extreme, that the relationship between the strategic and the tactical can be more complex and nuanced. Consider, for instance, Situationism, which appears at one level – perhaps most vividly – as a coherent cultural movement, deliberately (strategically) opposing contemporary consumer society. However the actual aesthetic techniques it advocates have a clearly tactical aspect, or, more accurately, they entail a strange dialogue between the strategic and the tactical.2 The derive, for example, involves re-articulating our relation to urban space – not, however, by a straight-forwardly productive strategy of urban renewal but through the defamiliarisation of existing space. The focus is very much on the terrain of consumption – upon transforming its conditions and diverting it from its proper ends. In this respect, there is a sense of both the strategic and the tactical. Furthermore, within the context of the specific practice of psychogeography, the derive has a double aspect. It combines explicit, deliberately absurd and anti-functional algorithmic strategies (following the knight’s move through a city, navigating the streets of Paris via a map of Rome, etc.) with idiosyncratic, tactical dimensions of choice. Psychogeography plays upon the need to always interpret the algorithmic instructions, to make sense of them within a specific space and to twist them as necessary. Similarly, the technique of detournement represents both a strategy of appropriative reconfiguration and a tactical response to the oppressive weight of existing produced things. It reconfigures production as a parodic form of consumption and consumption as a parodic form of production. Now while the aesthetic techniques of Situationism clearly precede Certeau’s distinction between strategy and tactics, they provide a clear sense of the complex relationship between dimensions of strategy and tactics in critical-aesthetic practice.

Of course, the use of strategy itself – the very deliberate creation and implementation of a strategy – can itself represent a tactic, a ruse for turning strategy against itself, for revealing its limits. In Situationist terms, the development and adherence to an arbitrary aesthetic system works to detourn the force of the systematic and to set it adrift (derive). Take, for example, the system which informed Georges Perec’s unfinished Lieux project. During the course of twelve years, he planned to describe twelve Paris locations that had personal resonance for him. The description would involve two processes – firstly one of fieldwork, in which he would describe whatever it was that he encountered in simple neutral terms, and secondly one of more subjective memory, in which, away from the place itself, he would describe recollections of spatially associated people and events. He planned to write about two places each month and place each finished bit of writing (and documentation) in a numbered envelope. The actual order in which places were to be addressed was to be determined by a mathematical algorithm.

By the end of twelve years Perec anticipated that he would have the contents of 288 envelopes to examine (some containing a few photographs and stray memorabilia such as bills and tickets), and would be in a position to observe a triple ‘vieillissement‘ (ageing): the way the places had ‘aged’, the way his memories had evolved, and the way his manner of writing had changed. Rather than restore lost time the texts would provide concrete evidence that it had passed. 3

This elaborate schema would seem to have two objectives: firstly, to provide an impersonal device, a machine for writing, with the capacity to prompt, precisely through its systematic objectivity, a framework for approaching aspects of memory and the everyday; and secondly, to highlight the artifice of the system, to push it to a point of blindness and collapse – to establish a tension between the perfection of the strategic system and the contingent and unrecoverable character of experience. In this manner, both as perverse productive device and as aporiatic system, the schema appears as a tactical appropriation and reflective engagement with more general social regimes of systematisation.

  1. Certeau, M. 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life (translated by Stephen Rendell), University of California Press, Berkeley
  2. see Knabb, K. (ed.) 1995 Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley California
  3. Sherringham, M. 2006 Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p.258
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Social Intersections 06 (project)

Ridiculously humid tonight. No possibility for thought, but may manage some typing. Not really very pertinent, but I recall that Truman Capote once famously said of Jack Kerouac that he was not a writer but a typist.

Here really just a long quote from Francois Maspero Roissy Express: A Journey Through the Paris Suburbs (1990). A book that, to be honest, I haven’t read but that has a strangely extensive preview available on the Google Books site. Roissy Express describes, and photographically documents (Anaik Frantz), a month-long journey through the Paris suburbs, following the RER train from the northern station of Roissy to the southern station of St Remy les Chevreuse. Sherringham discusses it as an example of ethnographie proche (ethnography of the near) in his Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (2006). Rather than focus, in typical ethnographic style, on tracing the cultural landscape of the exotic other (the nomadic hill tribe, the ‘archaic’ jungle dweller, the picturesque remnant of ‘ancient modes of being’), Maspero and Frantz turn their attention to the prosaic and everyday Parisian world that surrounds them. However, they deliberately avoid the methodology and language of ethnography. Instead, they adopt the role of interested travellers. Each day they travel to the next station on the line, find a place to stay and then tour around the place, exploring things that interest them and interacting with the locals (particularly via Frantz’s photographic approach, which avoids the usual strategies of secrecy – of life caught unawares; instead she asks permission of her subjects and allows them to choose how they would like to pose). Anyway, I found this early quote explaining the original motivation for the journey. Maspero had just farewelled a friend jetting off on an international trip from Charles de Gaulle airport (Roissy is (or was?) the closest railway station to the airport):

And it was on the return journey through grey rain, feeling abandoned in the empty off-peak carriage, that he suddenly had the idea for this journey – it seemed so obvious – because he was looking though the RER window at the shapes of the suburbs, his eyes aching with loneliness, staring at the dead landscape of that winter’s afternoon, because he was looking at it like an outside world he might have crossed in a diver’s mask. That was that: he’d had enough of great intercontinental journeys; enough of clocking up the miles without seeing any more than you would through the misted-up windows of the Trans-Siberian Express; enough of droning through skies above the clouds and oceans. All the journeys have been done. […] Secret places were there before his eyes, waiting to be discovered, unknown even to those who travelled through them daily and often to those who lived there; incomprehensible, disjointed spaces which used to be pieces of geography which we really must try to rewrite.1

  1. Maspero, F. 1994 Roissy Express: A Journey Through the Paris Suburbs, (Trans. Paul Jones) Verso, London, p.8
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Social Intersections 07 (an example)

At the center of his short ‘story’, The Madness of the Day, Maurice Blanchot describes a minor occurrence:

Outdoors, I had a brief vision: a few steps away from me, just at the corner of the street I was about to leave, a woman with a baby carriage had stopped, I could not see her very well, she was manoeuvering the carriage to get it through the door. At that moment a man who I had not seen approaching went in through that door. He had already stepped across the sill when he moved backward and came out again. While he stood next to the door, the baby carriage, passing in front of him, lifted slightly to cross the sill, and the young woman, after raising her head to look at him, also disappeared inside.1

This very ordinary event prompts a profound moment of realisation:

This brief scene excited me to the point of delirium. I was undoubtedly not able to explain it to myself fully and yet I was sure of it, that I had seized the moment when the day, having stumbled against a real event, would begin hurrying towards its end. Here it comes, I said to myself, the end is coming; something is happening, the end is beginning. I was seized by joy.2

The scene and its interpretation take shape as a kind of Zen koan, a conceptual puzzle that pushes beyond the limits of rational explanation – somehow both asserting the revelatory potential of the everyday and acknowledging the absurdity of revelatory investment in ordinary happenings. Notably, there is no effort to properly account for the event’s perceived significance. The narrator himself cannot adequately explain the association. In this manner, the passage establishes a curious tension between a sense of poetic possibility and a sense of radical incommensurability – indeed the two become entwined and mutually imbricated.

  1. Blachot, M. 1981 The Madness of the Day (Trans. Lydia Davis), Station Hill Press, New York, p.10
  2. Ibid.
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Social Intersections 08 (art is social)

Art is inevitably social. If traditional art revealed its social dimension through its integration within the social life of the community, modernist art reveals a more perverse social relation. In Adorno’s terms, the more that modernist art insists upon its notional aesthetic autonomy, the more clearly evident is the social fissure that underlies this demand. The socially inscribed character of aesthetic autonomy demonstrates the limits of art’s claims to freedom, but also, for Adorno, opens up the potential for art to model alternative (social) possibilities:

By emphatically separating themselves from the empirical world, their other, they bear witness that that world itself should be other than it is; they are the unconscious schemata of that world’s transformation.1

So if now contemporary art makes a more direct turn to the social (with, of course, many precedents within the history of avant-garde practice), how can this dialectic be maintained? Does ‘art as social practice’ project an illusory reconciliation between the aesthetic and the real, or discover new terrains of tension, ambiguity and exchange? The issue is perhaps how to retain an aspect of autonomy – of distanciation – within the texture of exploratory, non-autonomous practice. Or could it be to pursue a point of oblivion, in which both autonomy and its antagonistic social frame are equally put at risk?

On the issue of autonomy, Adorno is emphatic:

Yet art’s autonomy remains irrevocable. All efforts to restore art by giving it a social function – of which art itself is uncertain and by which it expresses its own uncertainty – are doomed.2

  1. Adorno, T. 1997 Aesthetic Theory (Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor), Continuum, London and New York, p.233
  2. Ibid. p.1
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Social Intersections 09 (against autonomous art)

The European avant-garde movements can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society. What is negated is not an earlier form of art (a style) but art as an institution that is unassociated with the life of men.1

In his mid-1970s Theory of the Avant-Garde, German art theorist, Peter Burger, stresses the avant-garde critique of autonomous art. Here a set of quotes from various artistic manifestos that demonstrate aspects of this critical stance.2 They indicate the key avant-garde interest in pushing art beyond its accepted boundaries, finding means of linking it to the turbulent flow of modern life.

We want to sing about the love of danger, about the use of energy and recklessness as common daily practice. […]
We wish to destroy museums, libraries, academies of any sort […]
We shall sing of the great multitudes who are roused up by work, by pleasure, or by rebellion […]
(F.T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto”, 1909)3

Living art draws its life from the surrounding environment. Our forebears drew their artistic inspiration from a religious atmosphere which fed their souls; in the same way we must breathe in the tangible miracles of contemporary life – the iron network of speedy communications which envelops the earth, the transatlantic liners, the dreadnoughts […] (Umberto Boccioni (and others), “Manifesto of the Futurist Painters”, 1910)4

Freedom: DADA DADA DADA, a roaring of tense colours, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE (Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto”, 1918)5

Worth noting that in Dada there is not only the critique of bourgeois art, but also of the rational system of industrial modernity which produces, for instance, the First World War. In this manner the Dadaist critique appears more complex than the Futurist critique. It assaults both autonomous art and the insanity of the lived world. Dadaist anger, irony and absurdity draws from the energy and twisted logic of contemporary experience in order to both scandalise art and criticise modern society.

The word Dada symbolizes the most primitive relation to the reality of the environment; with Dadaism a new reality comes into its own. Life appears a simultaneous muddle of noises, colours and spiritual rhythms, which is taken unmodified into Dadaist art, with all the sensational screams and fevers of its reckless everyday psyche and with all its brutal reality. (Richard Huelsenbeck, “First German Dada Manifesto”, 1918)6

This works less, however, to confirm the character of the existing world than to throw it into doubt (to “defamiliarise” it, in the terms of the Russian Formalists).

Dada passes everything through a new net.
Dada is the bitterness which opens its laugh on all that which has been made consecrated forgotten in our language in our brain in our habits. (Tristan Tzara (and others), “Dada Excites Everything”, 1921)7

The rejection of autonomous art is particularly prominent within Russian Constructivism.

Today we proclaim our words to you the people. In the squares and on the streets we are placing our work convinced that art must not remain a sanctuary for the idle, a consolation for the weary, and a justification for the lazy.
Art should attend us everywhere that life flows and acts…at the bench, at the table, at work, at rest, at play; on working days and holidays…at home and on the road…in order that the flame to live should not extinguish in mankind. (Naum Gabo and Anton Pevzner, “The Realistic Manifesto”, 1920)8

This also represents a rejection of traditional artistic means and materials.

A mug
A floorbrush
A catalogue
And when a person in his laboratory set up
A square,
His radio carried it to all and sundry […]
(Aleksandr Rodchenko, “Manifesto of the Constructivist Group”, 1922)9

Very interesting this mix of everyday items and then the abstraction of a square. Evident, perhaps, is the utopian hope to bring alien layers of experience into dialogue – to not dumb down, belittle or patronise the everyday, but to open it up and to position the everyday itself as an opening.

Surrealist art, in an initial phase, involves re-conceiving reality in terms of the logic of dreams:

I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality. (A. Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”, 1924)10

And this quote indicates the fundamental paradox of critical, avant-garde art – art needs to be autonomous in order to retain its critical perspective, but this autonomy is itself fundamentally problematic – socially disabling:

The independence of art – for the revolution.
The revolution – for the complete liberation of art!
(A. Breton, D. Rivera, L. Trotsky, “Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art”, 1938)11

Situationism, once again, calls for a reintegration of art and life:

Against the spectacle, the realised Situationist culture introduces total participation.
Against preserved art, it is the organisation of the directly lived moment.
(G. Debord, “Situationist Manifesto”, 1960)12

Within Fluxus, this shifts to a very explicit risking of the terms of art:

Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON-ART REALITY to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.
(G. Macunias, “Fluxus Manifesto”, 1963)13

  1. Burger, P. 1984 Theory of the Avant-Garde (Trans. Michael Shaw), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p.49
  2. Danchev, A. (ed.) 2011 100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, Penguin Modern Classics, Great Britain
  3. Ibid. pp.4-5
  4. Ibid. p.11
  5. Ibid. p.144
  6. Ibid. p.147
  7. Ibid. p.200
  8. Ibid. p.193
  9. Ibid. p.221
  10. Ibid. p.247
  11. Ibid. p.301
  12. Ibid. p.350
  13. Ibid. p.365
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Walking (or running)

I recently spent a week walking in Southern New Zealand. I did two of the popular “Great Walks” – the Kepler and Routeburn tracks. They are fairly gentle, well-trodden tracks, involving 4 to 6 hours of walking each day and comfortable nights in well-appointed (though noisy) huts. I hadn’t done multi-day walks for many years and was surprised how strongly the experience affected me. It was like rediscovering some vital aspect of myself that I’d somehow, in slow, imperceptible increments, forgotten. I can’t really offer any adequate justification for the pleasure I felt walking each day. I am well aware how critically suspect this pleasure can appear – solitary engagement with ‘wild’ nature is regularly positioned as a reactionary sphere of consolation and mystified authenticity. But it is not only the sublime encounter that matters, but also the rhythm of walking, the challenge of maintaining a pace, of moving quickly through forests and across the cold, high tops. It is the sense of being in a place, but only just – only in terms of moving forward, towards the next step, the next twist in the trail, the next sudden change in scene. It is the experience of a motion that does not subsist, that does not cohere, that is manifest as dissolution, momentum, trajectory.

In any case, since getting back, I’ve been keen to keep up the practice of walking continuously for several hours at least once per week. Actually, not just walking, but also running. I believe the term is ‘trail-running’. I walk 5 minutes, run for twenty minutes, walk another 5 minutes, run for another twenty minutes, etc. Sometimes the pattern changes a bit, particularly after a few hours when I’m getting tired. Then I may walk up a hill because it is just as hard as running on the flat, or I may shorten the walk run intervals, or do whatever is necessary to finish without collapsing. This is the pattern I have established, but I’ve actually only done the walk-run twice. Funny that the rules for this activity have already become so clearly delineated. I have made the walk/run along the same track each time. I go from Otford along the Coastal track to top of the large headland north of Garie beach and then back. Covers about 20k altogether and takes a bit over three hours. It involves everything from leafy forest trails to rocky scrambles, steep ascents and long, sandy, beach slogs.

Now here is the dumb question that I want to pose: is there some way of pitching this activity not simply as a form of weekend exercise, but as an artistic practice? What is that distinguishes my walk/runs from art? Without wishing to insist upon some clear definition of what properly falls within the purview of art, I feel inclined to say that my walk/runs are not art. Why? Because the process itself takes precedence and does not produce any kind of remainder to be reflected upon. Because the activity is not coherently directed to either posterity or a public. Because it does not normally even consider a public (except here in the context of this blog entry). It is simply an absorbing action that exhausts itself in the process of its undertaking, providing a context for private reflection, but summoning nothing else. The experience gains meaning partly in its contract with oblivion, which involves an acceptance of a reduced cultural status – as leisure, as exercise, as agonistic ritual.

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Social Intersections 10 (contradiction?)

I draw a diagram of the notion of autonomous art, but not in clinical, neatly delineated manner. Instead, I depict ‘genius’ and the various enclosed spaces of canvas, frame, studio and gallery in messy, sketched terms. In this manner, I rely upon the language of individual sensibility in order to depict the latter’s limitations. A blatant contradiction, or perhaps an indication – and an acknowledgement – that there is no pure and uncompromised standpoint from which to mock the notion of autonomous art?

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Walking in New Zealand (photographs)

Some years ago I spent a couple of weeks driving around the South Island of New Zealand in a rented car. I was following the fictional journey of three ghosts. I won’t say anymore about the underlying concept since I never finished the written portion of the overall project. I did, however, produce a visual record of the trip. I lugged around a heavy, old-fashioned, medium format camera (with a determined sense of anachronism), taking photos in, for example, Christchurch, Arthur’s Pass and Punakaiki. I took some of my best images on the Avalanche Peak walk (Arthur’s Pass), which starts just behind the park visitor’s centre and then heads up very steeply for some two thousand metres or so to the summit of a low alpine peak. Looking back, the point of all this, for me, is that the walking was oriented towards an imaginative idea. It was a real means of discovering the contours and scenography of a fictional narrative. It involved actual walking, but the experience was directed towards something else – towards realising an image that was to be positioned elsewhere. Quite simply, art took precedence – the activity of walking was justified in terms of the interests of art. Nothing wrong with this as such. If anything it lent the walking a sense of illicit pleasure, which if placed in a more primary position it possibly may have lost.

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Walking in New Zealand (drawing)

I returned to go walking in the South Island recently. This time I made no effort to provide an aesthetic alibi for my actions. I was going to do the Kepler and Routeburn tracks. I bought myself a waterproof pack, a new sleeping bag, various eating utensils and all the standard stuff people carry to make these oft-repeated ‘tramps’. In the interests of keeping my load light, I deliberately didn’t take a decent camera. All I took was my mobile phone and a sketchbook. The phone died after a couple of images (for some inexplicable reason), so I was left with just the sketchbook. Without allowing the process of drawing to interfere with my walking, I tried to do a few sketches each day – chiefly in the late afternoon once I’d finished walking and there was little else to do but laze around the hut. I had not drawn properly for many years but was not overly concerned about my ineptitude. If anything, it emerged as a positive value. The images are of standard views – clouds in a valley, mountains above a lake, an alpine pass, a mossy bit of forest. Art here deliberately (but also, in my case, unavoidably) adopts the guise of an amateur. The point is not the quality of the drawings as such, but the mode of attention and engagement that they entail. They indicate a concern with the problem of time, scene, motion, reflection and memory that is integral to my experience of walking. So, more or less despite myself, and less in the sketching as such than in its relation to the conceit of the overall walking holiday, strands of aesthetic implication become evident. My initial failure to fall into line with the interests of art becomes, paradoxically, a point of artistic purchase.

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Walking in New Zealand (abstraction)

And then, of course, I can’t resist taking the images into one of my old software drawing programs, Um, and seeing what happens – how pixel based abstraction mediates my already distanced meditation on the real.

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50 Walks

  1. Walk somewhere dull as though it were it interesting.
  2. Walk without any rules whatsoever. At the end of the walk have you discovered, despite yourself, a set of rules?
  3. Walk only uphill, or only downhill, or only on the flat.
  4. Walk with increasingly long steps as far as you possibly can.
  5. Walk in the direction that you least want to go.
  6. Walk backwards for a minute and then forward for a minute. Repeat, adding a minute in each direction each time until you have walked for half an hour precisely. Where are you standing?
  7. Write down a sentence on a page. Walk the sentence on the ground at a significantly larger scale. Draw a map of how the sentence relates to the ground.
  8. Walk halfway out of a room, then halfway again, continue until you fail to exit the room altogether (thanks Zeno).1
  9. Walk from darkness until dawn.
  10. Select a straight road with streetlights. For ten days straight walk along the road, making sure to observe the moment when the street lights go on and off.
  11. Walk into the fog.
  12. Walk in the rain until you are thoroughly wet.
  13. Walk down Al Rasheed Street in Baghdad playing a ukulele (or maybe not).2
  14. Catch a train away from the center of a large city – to a place where the highest central skyscraper is still visible. Now find your way back on foot to the center of the city without consulting a map and in the most direct manner possible.
  15. A group of people select a first and a last person to undertake an unknown walk. The two are formally introduced to one another and then the first person departs on foot (in whatever direction they wish). When the first person is just at the point of passing out of view then a second person sets off. The latter’s aim is to follow the first person without themselves being observed. Then a third person leaves, with the task of following the second person. Continue in the same manner until all the participants, including the person designated as last, have departed. When and if the first person encounters the last person then they should warmly embrace. Alternatively, the first person may prefer to pursue the last person intently.
  16. In a group of however many, walk in a single file, leaving a defined gap between each person. Do not speak.
  17. With a few others, on first a windy and then a windless day, walk in road-cycling style echelon formation.3
  18. Walk at a pace that is just uncomfortable to you. Maintain that pace for three hours.
  19. Document everywhere you walk in a day, from when you get up to when you go to bed.
  20. Document any walks that you make in your dreams.
  21. Go on a long walk through the suburbs. Shortly after you finish, lie down on the ground, close your eyes and go through the whole walk in your mind. Try to recall every detail. Can you spend just as long recalling the walk as you did walking it?
  22. Go on a long walk with somebody else, talking about anything and everything. Record the moments when the conversation lapses.
  23. Go to a busy street in a large city. Walk down the sidewalk without being noticed – that is without causing anybody to alter their path or to explicitly regard you as an obstacle. What kinds of technique are required? List them.
  24. Again on a busy city street, walk back and forth along a block at different paces. Is there one pace that is most efficient? Is there one pace that brings you into alignment with the mass of people? How are you aware of this?
  25. Walk down several blocks of city streets while never veering from your path. Walk in a straight line the whole way. Diagram the line that you actually walk.4
  26. Stop in the middle of a long walk. Do not continue.
  27. Walk through the supermarket collecting various items. Then walk back through the supermarket, returning all the items to their original places.
  28. Purchase an expensive air ticket to some exotic place. Go there by yourself for a five day walk. Refuse to talk about the experience when you get back.
  29. Document an imaginary walk, but one that could possibly be real. Worth providing tangible evidence for the walk – worn shoes, a smelly tee-shirt, illusory snap-shots along the way.
  30. Walk up and down a mountain once per day every day for a year. Document the view from an identical position at the summit on each occasion. If not the view, then the sound, the humidity, the barometric pressure – or your immediate thoughts.
  31. Avoid walking anywhere for a week.
  32. Avoid stepping on the cracks in the pavement, because, of course, beneath the cracks are bears, lions and tigers. Draw sketches of these animals, preferably from life.
  33. Avoid stepping on a single insect.
  34. In a manner similar to walk 27, collect every piece of trash that you find on a walk in a large plastic bag. The next day repeat the walk, returning all the items to where you originally found them.
  35. Walk up a steep hill without allowing yourself to catch your breath.
  36. Draw diagrams of your common daily walks (around the house, through the supermarket, etc.). Can you recognise any characteristic shapes, any clear geometrical figures? If so, assemble these into an overall composition in which the experience of walking is only abstractly legible.
  37. Draw up a list of all the possible items that you may need on a walk. Go for the walk, making sure you take none of the listed items with you.
  38. Walk along the bottom of the ocean in water that is over your head.
  39. From one headland to another, follow the footprints of another person along a beach.
  40. Arrive drenched at a dry section of pavement on a sunny day. Walk along the pavement until all trace of your drenched state disappears. Alternatively, linked to walk 12, arrive at a wet section of pavement on a rainy day. Walk along the pavement until all trace of your dry state vanishes.
  41. Walk until the moment that you discover that you are not thinking about walking. Keep a record of all of your ostensibly walking-unrelated thoughts and then map them to your actual path.
  42. Read the whole of a large, classic novel only while walking.
  43. Go walking with somebody, but with the understanding that you will each arrive at the start of the walk separately, proceed at your own pace and leave on your own. Naturally, you are welcome to text one another during the course of your walk together.
  44. Focus on the air closing behind you as you walk.
  45. Go on a weekly walk through a forest, checking the state of specific trees each time.
  46. Over the course of a year, collect the material stuck to your shoes at the end of any given walk. Bind this material together into a cube.
  47. Walk across your house from your front yard to your rear boundary in a straight line. Do not deviate. Do not attempt this if you live in an apartment – or, better yet, come up with some other way of accomplishing much the same thing.5
  48. Walk an almost unbearable distance in one direction and then walk back again. Continue for an equally unbearable distance in the opposite direction and then return to your starting point. Has anything changed?
  49. Blindfolded, walk along the beach as though it were the Arctic tundra – or possibly, if this proves inconvenient, walk blindfolded across the Arctic tundra as though it were the beach.
  50. In a standing position, grasp one of your feet with both hands and step upwards to walk at waist height across the room.
  1. see Wikipedia info on Zeno’s paradoxes:
  2. see Wikipedia info on Al-Rasheed St:
  3. echelon explanation:
  4. the insistence on the straight line suggests La Monte Young’s famous conceptual art instruction: “Draw a straight line and follow it.”
  5. another La Monte Young inspired piece, with a smattering of Gordon Matta-Clark depending on how things go
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Run around a local field nine times early in the morning. Take a photo of the field from the same place at the end of each lap.

The aim was to position my activity (running) as an ellipsis, as an invisible element that defines the temporal interval between one photo and the next. The running disappears. It is bound by a relation to oblivion.1

The curious thing was that on the first lap I encountered something even more closely bound to oblivion. Half way around I noticed that there was a full moon just setting on the Western horizon. Three-quarters of the moon was still visible. So I rushed back to get my camera, thinking that I could record each lap with the setting moon in the background. It took me only a few minutes to return to the place where the moon had been visible, but by then it had disappeared altogether. It was not even possible to record its disappearance.

  1. see Auge, M. 2004 Oblivion, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
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Looking Towards/Away

Art → The Social
Getting closer by:
dumping the studio;
dumping standard techniques and materials;
shifting from observation to participation,
from representation to event,
from the rarefied space of autonomous art
to the realm of lived experience.

Yet this is also a kind of fantasy
of genuine encounter and
authentic life,
of somehow discovering a
proper path to these things; one that renews
life and art at once.

(It is also the dream of drawing
together the immediate and

In opposition to this relentless
effort to strip away all signs of
distance, one might argue that
the present moment itself – the
intimate space of the social – is
ruptured from within, that it is
never simply itself, that it is always
inevitably veiled, that the apparent
distance and separation of art is
actually indicative of the complexity
of social experience, of its passage away
from any possibility of essential,
truthful appearance.

This is to acknowledge
the veils of art and the veils of lived
experience, suggesting that
every motion of revelation is also, equally,
a motion of blindness
and disguise.

So it may be that the moment of
acknowledging the social, of approaching
it closely, of swimming within it, is
also a moment of looking away from
the social, of withdrawing from it, of
remaining perfectly dry.

Both engaging and disengaging – the
necessity of indirection.

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From Version 1.0 to 2.0


The artist ventures out into the world
They observe or imagine
They come up with an idea (or are invited to come up with or implement an existing idea)
(They may apply for an Australia Council Grant)
They withdraw to their studio
They make an art work
They exhibit it (probably paying for the privilege)
(with the support of the almighty gallery director)
The audience looks at the work
They praise, criticise or ignore it
They may even buy it – and, if well connected,
support the artist in their pursuit of a grant, a residency or
a teaching job


The artist experiences the world
They participate, observe, imagine
They come up with an idea (in collaboration with others) (or are invited to come up with
or implement an existing idea in collaboration with others)
(They may apply for an Australia Council Grant or pursue a research scholarship)
They engage with the world in terms of some set of artistic rules
They document the process
There is no material art work – only the event and its documentation
They figure out some way of installing the latter (probably paying for the privilege)
(with the support of the almighty curator)
The audience may have been participants in the work
Or continue to be participants in the work
Or they may come to engage with the documentation
They praise, criticise or ignore it
They are offered crafty ways to buy it, or accept that
buying is not possible – and, if well connected,
support the artist in their pursuit of a grant, a residency or
a teaching job

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Other Side

Come rain or shine, come fair weather or foul, whether the wind gusts or nary a leaf stirs in the trees, still you keep walking; whether dawn switches out the streetlamps or dusk turns them on again, whether you are swamped by the crowds or alone in a deserted square, still you keep walking, drifting.

You devise complicated itineraries, bristling with rules which oblige you to make long detours. You go and see the monuments. You count the churches, the equestrian statues, the public urinals, the Russian restaurants. You go and look at the major building works on the banks of the river, at the gates of the city, and the gutted streets that resemble ploughed fields, the pipe-laying, the blocks of flats razed to the ground.1

The central figure in Georges Perec’s second novel, A Man Asleep (1967), wakes up one morning to realise that he does not and will never know how to live. He gives up his studies, breaks off all relations with friends and family and spends his days playing solitary games or wandering about the place. Here, very plainly, walking about in the world does not foster association, interaction, communication; rather it manifests indifference – a lack of contact, a lack of engagement. It seems to me that this paradoxical form of worldly and yet socially distant practice seems to have been largely forgotten within the context of contemporary relational aesthetics. These days we can recognise all kinds of neat and smiling conceits for re-modelling the social through participatory interaction, neglecting that these artistic rules, these earnest or obsessive scenarios and schemas can have darker implications as well. Historically, the artistic re-working of dimensions of social interaction emerges not simply from optimism – the belief in art’s capacity to mend and restore the social bond – but also from the experience of alienation. From this perspective, these gestures, actions and interventions obtain a crucial ambivalence, arising as much from the experience of distance, separation and a sense of the failure and impossibility of sociality, as from any confident presentiment of authentic community.

  1. Perec, G. 1990 A Man Asleep, (first published 1967), David R. Godine, New Hampshire, p.172
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Zola’s The Fat and the Thin

And Florent gazed at the vast markets now gradually emerging from the gloom, from the dreamland in which he had beheld them, stretching out their ranges of open palaces. Greenish-grey in hue, they looked more solid now, and even more colossal with their prodigious masting of columns upholding an endless expanse of roofs. They rose up in geometrically shaped masses; and when all the inner lights had been extinguished and the square uniform buildings were steeped in the rising dawn, they seemed typical of some gigantic modern machine, some engine, some caldron for the supply of a whole people, some colossal belly, bolted and riveted, built up of wood and glass and iron, and endowed with all the elegance and power of some mechanical motive appliance working there with flaring furnaces, and wild, bewildering revolutions of wheels.1

Emile Zola’s 1873 novel The Fat and the Thin (or The Belly of Paris) deals with the social world of the Les Halles markets, just after they were rebuilt in the 1850s. It tells the story of a gentle and ineffectual revolutionary, Florent Quenu, who makes a clandestine return from penal exile on Devil’s Island, French Guyana, to discover a transformed Paris. Despite his native ‘thinness’ – indicative of his hunger and idealistic character – he becomes embroiled in the visceral and down to earth world of the new markets, only to eventually fall foul of the law again; undone by local gossip, the acquisitive, small-mindedness of his petit bourgeois family, and his own, relatively harmless, predilection for subversive plotting. The pathos and bathos of the story, as well as the general thematic conflict between craven, bloated complacency and principled hunger, is closely related to the market setting. Indeed the setting figures less as a passive background to the human drama than as a dominant narrative force. The descriptive passages extend well beyond the immediate needs of the relatively lightly developed dramatic action. They position the market itself, in all its rich complexity, in all its variety of smells, colours and textures, as the main protagonist and focus of interest.

Les Halles (1865)

I am interested in this apparently excessive effort at description. It indicates, if nothing else, Zola’s intimate knowledge of Les Halles. Much of the writing resembles a painter’s plein air sketch of specific places. It is very evidently the work of a highly observant flaneur. Zola seems to write less from a distanced space of recollection than one of immediate observation and note-taking. Despite the fictional central story, the markets themselves are described in a closely-detailed, documentary fashion (in the manner in which the so-called “city symphony” documentaries of the 1920s and 1930s portray the distinctive life of Berlin, Paris or Moscow).

Closely allied to this documentary spirit, a compellingly modern feature is Zola’s interest in the near cosmological scale and emerging social implications of the new Parisian markets. The massive steel and glass superstructure encloses a complex and highly differentiated field of hyperbolic material existence and market-based social relations. Over half a century prior to Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, Zola presents a sophisticated meditation on fundamental currents of change within European society linked to the growth of market capitalism. Especially interesting is the curious balance that is maintained between the human and inhuman dimensions of this transformation. The markets are still peopled. They produce distinct, representative characters – characters that can take an active place within a narrative. There is little sense of the anonymous throng, or mass-produced produce or alienated consumption. For example, the central character, Florent, despite his inclination, cannot disappear, cannot meld into an indistinguishable urban crowd. He is obsessively observed by the spiteful gossip, Mademoiselle Saget. Not a detail of his current life or past history can pass unnoticed. At one level this may seem to signal new regimes of urban surveillance, but at another level it links back to traditional forms of village life, in which everybody is known, in which anonymity is not permitted. Zola’s portrait of Les Halles seems to indicate a point of social simultaneity, when aspects of the old (material-craft based production and identity, visceral capitalism and local social relations) come to be housed within a new superstructural frame (the steel and glass edifice of Les Halles, the emerging universe of consumption).

  1. Zola, E. 2006 The Fat and the Thin (translated by Ernest Alfred Vizetelly), Project Gutenberg,
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Three Paintings

No need to restrict our focus to contemporary art when thinking through art’s relation to the broader world. It is not only through rejecting mimesis, embracing the ephemeral event and modeling exemplary forms of social interaction that art comes to obtain a relational dimension. The relational is evident even within art that involves oil paints, brushes, darkened studios and galleries. A multiplicity of relations to the external world is apparent, for example, within the traditions of Classicism, Romanticism and Realism. No scope to develop this into a coherent argument here – instead just some notes on the relational character of three particular paintings.

[I realise that I am stretching the concept of relational art beyond Bourriaud’s sense of modelling literal social relations, emphasising instead a more general notion of relationality implicit within any work of art.1 Here the relation that concerns me is that between art and the natural and social worlds. This be can just as dynamically realised by gestures of distance and withdrawal as by efforts at ostensible engagement.]

Watson and the Shark (John Singleton Copley, 1768)

Watson and the Shark (John Singleton Copley, 1768)

In 1749, at the tender age of 14, the future Lord Mayor of London, merchant sailor Brook Watson, was attacked by a shark in the waters off Havana, Cuba. In an initial foray, the shark removed a portion of Watson’s right calf. It then returned and bit off his right foot cleanly below the ankle. Fortunately, before the shark could do any more, the young teen was plucked to safety by the crew of a small boat. This is regarded as the first “fully documented” shark attack.2 Later in life, a peg-legged Watson befriended the American painter, John Singleton Copley. Based upon Watson’s account, Copley painted three versions of the horrific story. The most famous version is shown above. What interests me here is the sense of a real event transformed and embellished. Copley paints vividly, yet with no first hand experience of the event. He listens and imaginatively renders Watson’s story. The malevolent flared nostrils of the shark and its curious angled lips indicate only a marginal understanding of the relevant piscine anatomy, and the Havana background resembles more a picturesque Venice than any genuine conception of an 18th century Cuba. None of this prevents the image from containing many well-observed and compelling details – the wild eyes of the pikeman matching the wild eyes of the shark, the various pathetic and heroic poses of the rescuers, and, of course, the immediate, vulnerable terror of Watson (here resembling a figure from Dante’s vision of Hell). Crucially the artist conveys the fascination of a real event through intense, imaginative visualisation. Remaining in his studio, Copley engages with the real by keeping the real at a distance, by transforming it into the language of myth.

The Raft of the Medusa (Theodore Gericault, 1819)

The Raft of the Medusa (Theodore Gericault, 1819)

Gericault’s famous painting, “The Raft of the Medusa” (1819) depicts a maritime tragedy, the final days of the wreck of the French ship, Meduse, which ran aground off Mauritania in 1816. The crew spent 13 days floating around on the increasingly beleaguered craft prior to their rescue. During that time, lacking food and water, they endured terrible hardship and descended into madness and cannibalism. Of the 147 crew, only a handful survived.3 The painting has been read as a metaphor for the incompetence of the post-Napoleonic regime. However, unlike, for example, David’s “Oath of the Horatii” (1784), the metaphor is not drawn from classical myth or history, but from the field of contemporary events. The painting focuses on the immediate tragic experience of ordinary people. In this sense, alongside its status as a founding work of Romanticism, it also reveals a vital orientation towards the real. Furthermore, alongside its theatricality and the classical lineage evident in its posed figures, the work is also based on intense naturalistic research. Gericault traveled on ships to gain an understanding of storms, sketched real corpses to learn about death and created an accurate scale model of the wrecked ship to assist in the development of the overall composition. Having done all this preparatory work, he then withdrew to his studio, shaved his head and methodically developed the painting to completion. These paradoxes and passages back and forth between engagement and withdrawal, sociality and solitude, reality and a heightened imaginative vision are constitutive of Gericault’s approach and indicative of the motion of indirection that is characteristic of modern art.

The Artists’s Studio: A Real Allegory of Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life (Gustave Courbet, 1855)

The Artist's Studio (Gustave Courbet, 1855)

Courbet is, of course, a major figure within 19th century Realism. He famously turns away from the theatrical fare of traditional salon painting to focus on the common, everyday and unadorned world. He paints in plein air, taking a keen interest in the actual appearance of things, and figures as a key inspiration for Manet and the Impressionists. Yet the painting above, one of his most famous, complicates things. It is not a straightforward image of the real world. It is an allegorical self-portrait. The image reflects on Courbet’s experience of art itself. It addresses fundamental issues of the artist’s relation to society and life generally. The artist paints a landscape, but the landscape is not there literally. The suggestion of a landscape plays across the screen of the rear wall. What is the status of this wall? Is it a wall or a screen? Is it a permeable membrane or a barrier? Is the image of the world that appears on its surface an illusion or a pressing reality? If it is real then why is it so vague and indistinct? Why can only the artist clearly see it? At the artist’s shoulder is a nude model from a standard historical painting, but here less idealised and positioned outside the frame of the depicted landscape (as a comic reference to the generic nude?). There are friends and supporters on the right and a panoply of stock everyday figures on the left (yet why the scull, the harlequin figure and the tortured nude?). I have no wish, and no informed capacity, to attempt a detailed reading of the image, but can easily recognise the main dilemma – the awkward, complex, undecidable relationship between studio, artist, imagination, world.

  1. Bourriaud, N. 2002 Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses Du Reel, Paris
  2. Wikipedia entry:, accessed 11 March 2012
  3. Wikipedia entry:, accessed 11 March 2012
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In my recent post “Run_1” (8th March 2012), I went on a nine lap run around a local field, taking a photo at the end of each lap. An obvious difficulty with this approach was that it interrupted the running activity itself. Every lap, I had to stop, pick up the camera, turn it on and take an image. The experience already had a discontinuous aspect in that it was broken up notionally into laps, but the recording process made this discontinuity all too disruptively literal. So this morning, I arrived at a different, more simple strategy – to record only two images; one at the beginning and one at the end of the activity. The differing position of the waning moon and the differing quality of the dawn light indicates the interval between the start and the end of my run.

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Another moon interval sequence. Friday morning. Mown lawn. Much easier.

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