Need a Little Time: Art’s Political Capacity. A dialogue between Thomas Gokey and Mike Watson.

TG: Andy Warhol famously said that “business art is the step that comes after art.”

This is normally read in the context of the culture industry, but today I’m seeing a lot of artists start businesses as works of art in their own right. We can read Paul McCarthy’s “Chocolate Factory” as one response to Warhol, in this case interrogating some of the formal aspects of businesses. The most important thing about “Chocolate Factory” is that it loses money as a business and
whichever collector buys the piece (I’m not sure if anyone bought it or not) they are supposed to run it at a loss, if they don’t they destroy the piece.

In 2004 Daniel Pink wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the MFA was the new MBA and that Fortune 500 companies should start hiring artists as general purpose “creative problem solvers.” This is another way that business art can be said to be the step that comes after art. There is something really defeatist feeling about this to me, yet there is also something that gets me kind of excited. Artists really are good general purpose creative problem solvers. And we certainly have a number of pressing problems today. As I
mentioned in my last e-mail, lately in my own studio art practice I’ve been mulling over certain big problems and wondering how to solve them.

For example, just yesterday the state of Arizona passed what can only be seen as a blatantly racist law. This law doesn’t just legalize racial profiling, it actually forces police officers to profile even if they are opposed the the law (and indeed many police unions have come out against it). Starting this summer Arizona police officers are required to ask anyone they suspect might be an undocumented worker for their papers. If they cannot produce papers they are to be arrested, fined and forced to pay for their own incarceration, even if they broke no law and just didn’t have papers on them at the time. What would cause a police officer to suspect that a person is undocumented? How could it be anything other than the color of their skin? Even the governor of Arizona, just after she signed the bill, said that she didn’t know what an undocumented worker looks like (you can see the video of her here ).

So on hearing this news my first thought is how do we solve this problem? How do we thwart this law? I don’t have particularly good ideas just yet, but the first ideas that came to mind was what if white US citizens started wearing tee-shirts or buttons that said “I’m an undocumented worker” which would have to be viewed as an invitation to be questioned. If the police don’t question them despite
the shirt, it exposes the law as racist in its application and opens up civil rights legal action. If they do question them they will be forced to needlessly question everyone and this would dilute force of the law. Now I don’t actually think that this idea is very good or will actually work, but this is the thought process and I feel confident that there are some real creative responses out there that will make the law unenforceable.

I just recently learned about the Transborder Immigrant Tool which was created by a group of artists to help people crossing the Mexico/US border navigate where they are. A large number of people have died crossing the border after they get lost and dehydrated. The Transborder Immigrant Tool can help direct you towards water caches. The artists who created this project are
currently under investigation and in danger of losing tenure at UCSD for their political activities. You can read about it “here(gokey3)”:

What interests me about projects like this is that they seem like good successful solutions to a real pressing problem. They use general purpose creativity rather than a more specific artistic creativity. A project like this doesn’t need to be created by artists, it could have been created by anyone. But I don’t think it is a coincidence that it was a group of artists who were able to do this. An MFA is the new Masters of Political Science.

All of this is by way of introduction to the questions I would like to ask you. We are in a very interesting time period historically. Today it only takes one person with one great idea to talk about it online and that idea can spread and gain momentum. To me this seems to change the relationship artists can play in shaping society. I think it is always important to keep our ears to the ground
and listen to the “why” questions that people ask each other. Why is school so expensive? Why are there no jobs? Why are all of our leaders from a different economic class than us? As you talk to artists and as you theorize about art yourself, what have been some of the pressing questions that you hear people asking? What are issues that really bother people’s imaginations? And what are
some of the creative responses that you’ve heard floated?

I guess some other general questions I would like to ask you are about your perspective on the changing landscape of the culture industry itself. Are there any new cracks in the way political and economic systems are structured that you think artists can slip into and exploit?

MW: I think erosion of freedom is one of the really pressing issues in the two countries I have knowledge of and work in, Italy and the UK. I was born in England and moved to Italy two years ago. It seemed initially like a haven compared to the UK, a country then party to the worst imaginable kind of politics, a sort of Stalinist-Capitalism: people being fined for over filling their waste bins by a couple of inches is no joke, it is the tip of an iceberg. In Italy things are rather different, there is less surveillance, less enforcement of what laws exist, less ‘control’ in a word. Yet there is a political hegemony maintained by fear – albeit, more a fear of what the neighbours might think or say – and by a massive wealth inequality. In both countries there is genuine risk of freedom being further eroded in the years to come, though in the UK it seems that the old methods are being re-adopted by the Tory-Liberal coalition. Unfair spending policies will maintain control – perhaps as a side effect, perhaps intentionally – where surveillance systems are unpopular or too costly. The Conservatives have always ostensibly been for greater freedoms, and their scrapping of the compulsory biometric ID scheme is to be applauded, as is the scrapping of controversial police stop and search powers – but I feel this won’t spell greater freedom overall, especially considering the raft of controlling laws bought in under Labour which will not be revoked by the Conservatives. At the least, they are unlikely to continue bringing in such laws now that the economy is in such a dire state and therefore comes as a priority, but their natural favouring of the wealthy is cause for worry at a time when household spending margins are so low as to make tax increases and welfare cuts punitive and prohibitive: for the very poor further financial strain may break the barely existent will to oppose political wrongdoing. Finally, on this note, proposals to set up a kind of compulsory kid’s training camp seem, frankly, embarrassing. If it gives the kids something to do, fine, but I think it’s unlikely to instil good manners in the most deprived. It’s like applying a band aid to an oil spill, when the cause is neglect (financial and otherwise).

Art, of course, always seems more ‘free’ than other disciplines… it doesn’t have the commitment to truth that politics, law, science and religion have. These other disciplines are deemed to fail when they ‘lie’, whereas art is all about deception, which means it may be able to resist an unfree society, even in spite of its own unfreedom (whereas Democracy, Science, Religion, Philosophy and Justice do have that commitment, and so are rendered either accessory to the totalizing affects of Capitalism or are simple rendered as interesting asides, curiosities – ones that even draw many adherents).

I see a lot of artists working with these concerns, though in terms of pressing and real solutions to the problems outlined above, I’d have to say that what I see is, on the whole, disappointing. There is a lot of ‘look at me’, and ‘screw you’ in the Art scene, and unfortunately many people see this as a positive inheritance from Dada, Futurism, Fluxus, and, indeed, from earlier movements and artists; The Secessionists, Courbet, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, etc. Yet this is not the only aspect that can be usefully inherited from Art’s past. Right now it seems that artists conduct themselves much like the people they wish to politically critique. It is ‘me, me, me’, whilst, at the same time, Left wing positions are mimed only as fetish. Everyone wants to be a comrade, so long as they get to wear the gear. Though even this is not enough, everyone wants to be the ‘first comrade’. This is the downside of Art’s deceptive capacity – it often empties the critical import it mimics, for the fact that only mimesis is deemed to be required. Real enactments of the political postures that are adopted are often absent, and for that we might even be thankful, given the dearth of political savvy at large.

Unfortunately, I have seen this with my own eyes, and I feel I should describe it, even though it will make a great many people uncomfortable. Artists risk seeming not only selfish, in light of the fact that they deny the free capacity of Art as it might be best utilised, towards a constructive realignment of power in society, via critique, and empowerment of the individual (who, utilizing Art’s capacity to lie can claim themselves as ‘free’ despite their real lack of freedom), but also risk seeming at odds with society: Contemptuous of it, the artist makes fun of its faults, the ‘solutions’ for which only serving to increase the artists’ standing in the art world.

Mark McGowan recently implored people to vote Conservative in the UK election, as an ‘art stunt’. This caused a real furore, as can be seen on his facebook page, and on Dave Beech’s facebook group page – set up in criticism of McGowan – ‘Mark McGowan is a Tory’. The volley of abuse between pro McGowan and anti McGowan camps appeared akin to political sparring, particularly for the fact that McGowan’s position was so deliberately misleading. This goes to show precisely how closely Art can mimic politics, and could do all the more effectively as it has no obligation to truth, allowing for a caricature capable of homing in on hidden political excesses. Unfortunately, many people at the time of the performance got caught up in the usual political-emotional responses, testament to how deep the polarities between Labour and Conservative run, even when the parties differed little on crucial policy matters. The political potential of the piece – of ‘Art’ – was lost as people rushed to denounce McGowan, often, surprisingly, for supporting ‘Thatcherism’.

I think Art need mimic the machinations of power, and of protest, but always as ‘Art’, removed from the system, and not as something embroiled within the system. The old embattled forms of protest merely rub up against each other. Maybe we can short circuit these forms somehow utilising Art’s ability for detached mimesis, and I think this might best start with a mimesis of the education system, undertaken outside the system, because education is where change is rooted.

TG: Your response at first seems odd to me because you see art as a mimesis of politics, whereas the artists I am around strongly favor direct engagement and interventionist practices. But if I think about it a little there might actually be a fair amount of convergence between us.

Here is one way to think about art: All of us play a role that we did not create and live in a world that we did not create. There is a kind of tension between the role society imposes and the role we are trying to create for ourselves. Part of this role-creation involves lying to ourselves about ourselves and trying to get other people to recognize us the way we would like to be seen. Art is a special kind of lie that tells us the truth about ourselves (to paraphrase Picasso). When we confront a work of art we are denuded and we see the gap between who we are and our social roles. Art is where humanity can encounter itself.

Certainly some art works this way. When the history of early 21st century art is written will we be able to find a more successful performance than Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents Dinner? Here the one “fake” journalist was able to tell the truth about Bush in front of a room full of “real” journalists who couldn’t. These journalists and politicians failed, as you say, because
they lied. And here we have a performer who is able to expose the truth because he occupies a special structural position where he is free to say what others are not allowed to say. This is similar to the structural position that the court jester or fool used to play in medieval society. This, to me, was the most interesting aspect of your response: “in a completely unfree society nothing can resist truthfully, yet this does not present a problem for art, which has no commitment to truth.” As I tell my students, who are all
first-year students, when I introduce them to performance art, you have to be willing to look foolish. The one time when all of us are willing to play the fool is when we fall in love. This is why I tell my students they must be willing to fall in love with something, a person, an idea, a color, in order to make art.

The problem is that the role of an artist can also function as merely one more social role among others. This is how I understand your lamentation of the selfishness of the artist. When someone tries to assume the role of “art star” they end up in the same position relative to truth as everyone else. This is certainly a big problem in the art world in the US, and I think it is especially a problem in England where the art world also just one more facet of tabloid culture.

But there is also a certain truth in direct intervention. What could be more honest than sabotage? What is more truthful than actual stick that we can put in the spokes of the actual wheel or an actual shoe that can be placed in the gears of an actual machine? It also struck me as odd that you view artists as irresponsible. I feel an almost frightening weight of responsibility! The responsibility of the artist was really drilled into my classmates and me in school.

The main area of convergence comes at the end of your comments. We need to challenge the university system, which I think is clearly entering a crisis. We can see this coming to a head especially with cases like the willful destruction of Middlesex University by its own administration. But at universities all across the world it seems like everything is upside down. Even universities don’t value education anymore; instead it has been restructured according to purely corporate values. I’m trying to address this with three current projects.

I’ve started my own school. I don’t have a name for it yet so I am calling it “The University Without a Name” for the time being. I am the only student and the sole administrator. I’m trying to create a course of study that is roughly equivalent to a Masters of Philosophy at a “real” university. I have no particular talent for philosophy, but I am immensely interested in it. Here is
how my school works: I find a subject that I want to study and then I start e-mailing scholars who work in that area. I explain my project to them and ask them to design a course of study for me. I listen to lectures on-line, do the reading, and write a paper. The faculty grades the paper (I tell them to take it seriously, to grade harshly, not to hold back). In return I pay them some
form of tuition. This tuition might be an agreed upon sum of money, something that I can afford on my current salary as an adjunct, but also something that respects the amount of time and effort I expect from the faculty. Tuition might also take the form of bartering. I might be able to teach my collaborator something that they want to know, or I might be able to render some service for
them. I am also willing to create a work of art as tuition.

Due to my already busy schedule I am only able to take one class at a time and at this rate it will probably take me four or five years to complete the course. When I am finished I plan on creating some form of thesis. I’m not entirely sure what form this will take, but I am leaning towards the creation of my own class. I would present my ideas as a series of on-line lectures on a yet to be determined topic. These lectures would be available to all free of charge. If there is anyone who would like to treat this series of lectures as a course of study for themselves then I would be willing to come up with some kind of mutually defined relationship with them. I see it as an opportunity to come up with a series of collaborations.

The big unresolved issue is how to make sure that this education is recognized as such. I have a number of ideas about how to do this, but the more I think about this problem the more I think that accreditation is the weak point in the current university system. We must attack accreditation, find alternative ways to accredit education, or make accreditation irrelevant. There are a number of
legitimate accreditation agencies out there. Perhaps I could get one of them to accredit my school. Or, maybe I could convince an already existing accredited program to count me as one of their students in some kind of special extension program. But the path that I am leaning towards currently is to just start my own accreditation agency. We have this silly series of legal fictions at work in education. The student does some kind of work. The teacher evaluates this work and the school offers credit for completing the course. The school notarizes the whole process in the end with a diploma. The school in turn is accredited by an accrediting agency. But who valorizes the accrediting agency? I have an artist friend who wants to become a notary public as part of her practice. I think I will ask her to form her own accrediting agency and accredit the ‘University Without a Name’.

I came up with this idea in the winter of 2008 but I’ve only just completed my first class this spring. I’m in the process of lining up a class for the fall. When I came up with the idea I wasn’t aware of other attempts to do something like this. But just this April a new book came out, “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education” by the education policy expert Anya Kamenetz who documents a number of other similar schools that people have come up with for themselves.

In addition to creating my own school for myself, I also want to create a new school for my students. The sticker price for one of my classes is $4,400. When you factor in grants and scholarships the actual price on average is around $2,800. I have 17 students in each class I teach. Syracuse University pays me $3,300 to teach each class. Both my students and me are getting ripped off. It
is the corporate mediator of the university, which doesn’t add any value to our student-teacher relationship, but certainly knows how to extract value from my student and me that makes this so expensive and unfair. I am currently writing a proposal to create a class that examines how the university functions. We would negotiate tuition ourselves. In order to make the class valuable for the
university we would study how money functions at the school and suggest ways of reorganizing it that would save the school money. For example, our school pays money for trash collection by weight (we can throw away as much as we like, and we throw away a TON, but we pay for trash collection by the pound). Much of the weight from our various dining halls comes from food waste. I am proposing that my class create a campus wide compost system. This would accomplish multiple worthy goals, including saving the school money. Hopefully it would save the school enough money to justify letting my class meet “off the books” as it were.

But the project that I am most exited about is the creation of a new zero-interest bank to finance education loans. This project is too complicated for me to describe here, and I’m still working out the details in conversation with a number of other people. But I hope to launch this project over the summer.

What I like about these projects is that they don’t mimic other systems so much as they show that we don’t need those other systems. The banks have screwed us all. But we don’t need these banks. We can do it ourselves. We can recreate banks under a different set of values. Our schools don’t value education. But we don’t need these schools. We can educate each other without them. Would you
really call this mimesis? The problem I have with mimesis is that it is too entangled with what it is imitating. A certain about of rivalry is welcome, but only of a healthy kind, the kind that can leave its rival behind as something it no longer needs to bother with.

MW: I think the key here is that something that mimes something is not that thing. So Art can either mime politics deliberately, and in so doing can point to its difference from politics, and therefore its potential to act differently from politics, so long as a viable different way of acting can be devised, or it can be seen to mimic politics inadvertently in that many of the postures that art assumes in supposed contradistinction to gestures played out in mainstream society are really no different from those played out politically; for gain, for recognition, in conflict, often with an ‘other’. It is the former type of mimesis that I am arguing for here.

Put another way, if I copy politics and say I am making a ‘new politics’ I may well just end up rehashing the old politics, as happens with every new government ushered in. If I say that I am going to claim to create a new politics, but that I know cynically that this will fail, so I am going to merely conceive this politics as a parody of real politics, aware of all of its faults, then I have no cause for adherence to a model that is politically ‘right’. Then I can start breaking rules, and making new rules, and in that sense a breakthrough may be achieved. And I think that is maybe what art can do, if it first understands that it usually fails where it thinks it is ushering in a new politics (as with activist politics, as with the usual Old – or ‘New’ – Leftist stance of the artist).

I similarly advocate a de-centralised and new form of education and I certainly would be interested to collaborate with you on your project in some way.

When I talk about the selfishness of the artist I don’t really talk in a personal way, in terms of people and how they interact. Though, admittedly the way artists interact can be cringeful. I am more interested in how something is kept for oneself. Art is kept for the artist, so that paintings, appearances, shows, happenings, can be amassed as attestations to their worthiness. The intention is rarely to genuinely share art. Further, a certain pressure is generated within the arts scene. The pressure to perform routinely, creating a problem of quantity versus quality. This seems to happen on a wider scale, institutionally, as Art holds back from taking a final step, a subsumption into life; a kind of mimesis which involves Art losing itself in a questioning of that which it mimics, whilst always holding on to its unique facets (its lack of responsibility to truth, ad lack of responsibility per se) so that it can justifiably resist a total subsumption into the tainted politics that its mimesis enables it to question. Institutions guard their cultural credentials, jumping over themselves to become part of this or that trend. ‘Relational’ art is the new byword. Everything must have a degree of audience participation, so long as the audience go away knowing who curated and sponsored their experience. I think that political artists kid themselves they are not part of that artistic selfishness so long as they play out the same post-dada gestures, or, indeed, other gestures, so long as those gestures don’t further art’s cause. But it depends what they do. All is not lost. Setting up a loan free bank, as art, sounds refreshing. That is the kind of thing I’m guessing at, when I suggest artists should take these approaches.

TG: I would love to collaborate in some way. A lot of my studio practice lately doesn’t involve actually making things so much as it consists of writing proposals, most of which don’t go anywhere. I’d like to improve my rate of projects that actually do get of the ground. Instead of making art myself, I’m starting to view my role as being similar to a movie producer. I come up with a
lot of proposals that I don’t have the knowledge or skills to realize alone. So maybe my role will become an organizer of like-minded people who do have these skills. I’ve been really interested in the” Diaspora*(gokey4)”: group
and the model that they’ve used. It almost doesn’t matter if these students have the skills to realize their idea. They articulated the idea and now people with the requisite skills are coming to them. This is the model I would like to employ with the bank. So my practice is become more and more a method of talking to people and convincing them to work with me on something.

I am fascinated by mimesis, but I’m not sure I share your faith it it’s ability to open up alternatives. I tend to think of mimesis as something that happening inside of an all encompassing political and economic system. Mimesis is to static of a thing. Instead I think that time has more potential to create spaces outside of our current situation.

I do think that an avant-garde is impossible right now, but in the past there really were alternatives, the avant-garde did exist, and I think it could exist again in the future. The future offers us an outside to our current state of affairs. The future is the only avant-garde we have left. But whatever alternatives there are have to be birthed from our present circumstances. What I like about the future is that its potential is unforeseeable. Even though the situation seems dire, even though we cannot see any way out, it is precisely
this inability to see the future that makes it possible for the future to be different.

Like most people I’m often in utter despair about our present situation, but at other times I get glimpses of hope. I can sometimes almost imagine what a post-capitalist bank would look like. I also think that our material conditions are shifting quickly right now. I think we might be in a holding pattern where the current state of affairs is a kind of log jam, but the tectonic plates are
moving underneath us and this might free things up which seem immobile now.

Think, for example, about how the internet has democratized information. On the one hand the internet is no threat to the current system. The fact that most sites are dotcoms shows how the internet could be flooded by commercial interests. But everything that we can turn into ones and zeros is now free. News is freely produced and freely consumed. I think education can move in this
direction too. But the real hurdle left is physical matter. When we can turn physical matter into digital information then almost the whole world will enter a post-capital marketplace. I find that I truly love the idea of a marketplace, a place where people can create and exchange value. The problem is when the market is structured by capital. But imagine a world where you can print any
physical object you can think of. You can print food and buildings and artworks and things of any shape or size or material you want. In such a marketplace everyone must become an engineer or designer or artist. If I see something that you designed that I want, I can just download your design and print it.

Such a marketplace remains in the future, but maybe not as far off as we think. Scientists are already able print out human organs using simplistic 3D printers (sometimes by just modifying ink-jet printers). Today software and music and text are free. Soon physical things may be as well. I really think that Second Life is test driving the future. In Second Life anything you imagine you can
model in 3D in a virtual space. These objects can be bought and sold or given away inside its own economy. But soon we will be able to bridge this gap between virtual 3D modeling, and physical 3D objects. When this happens all of the bizarre things we see in Second Life be unleashed into the great outdoors.

I’ve gotten a little off track here, but the point I want to raise is the relationship between mimesis on the one hand and time on the other. I think that time does for me what mimesis does for you.


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