Provoking and disrupting discourse
Re-negotiating the situation of the artist, curator and spectator in the work of Thomas Hirschhorn
Truth, knowledge, information, opinion and speculation – this short sequence of words provides a basic taxonomy of the appearance of thought in public. Operating as distinguishing categories that seek to parcel up thinking, this taxonomy is embedded with value judgments. Speculation is rarely taken as the truth of something, whilst opinion is not generally regarded as knowledge. But in a contemporary culture that is regularly characterized as being without a stable or solid ground, as in a recent essay by Hito Steyerl which opens with the line 'Imagine you are falling, but there is no ground'1 the categorical terms of truth, knowledge, information etc. still echo with the possibility of a sure footing.
It is this curious mismatch between an experience of the contemporary as groundless and unstable and the paradoxical persistence of a tacit order expressed in the delineated roles ascribed to artists and curators, that this short essay will seek to open up by folding truth, knowledge, information, opinion and speculation into a single term: discourse.
The etymology of discourse provides a useful means to begin this folding movement. Embodying the meaning from middle French of a process of understanding and reasoning and of being conversation and speech, discourse also develops its meaning from Late Latin, which positions it as an act of running about. These origins of discourse as speech and running about provide an ideal mean to approach thought and its articulation in artistic practice as an endless process of negotiation and the staging of open questions that inherently provoke and disrupt categories.
One of the crucial and defining characteristics of contemporary arts practice is that it is widely acknowledged to be trans-categorical and that the time of it being segmented into distinct mediums is past2, which has led to contemporary art being regularly described as 'post-medium'. Echoing this shift, which Peter Osborne in his recent book Anywhere or Not at All defines as a fundamental ontological shift in the status of art, is a recognition that the clear historical divide between the work of the artist and that of the curator has also become permeable, with artists appropriating the methodologies of curators and curators poaching the practices of artists. What draws these different shifts together is the foregrounding of discourse as both method and outcome and the transformation of the art work from being a distinct 'object' to being a discursive field composed of different processes and mediums. The art work is no longer understood within the confines set by it being an object – whether a sculpture, a painting, a performance etc. which are all essentially categorical terms – instead the art work is the 'distributive unity' (Osborne) that confers visibility and legibility upon a set of practices and folds them into a perceptual unity.
To bring this, by necessity, initially theoretical discussion into the space of contemporary arts practice, I will focus on two works by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn; Bataille Monument3 and Its Burning Everywhere4. These two works offer insights into how the changed paradigms of artistic and curatorial praxis operate as a discourse that freely 'runs about', trampling categories of truth, knowledge, information, opinion and speculation.
Bataille Monument and Its Burning Everywhere raise a murmur of questions -- how did these art works appear? What are the creative and cultural pressures that led to their apparition? Who really made these art works? These questions problematize the conventions of authorship, cultural validation and spectatorship, which underpin the division of roles between artist, curator and spectator.
The wide ranging work of Thomas Hirschhorn is saturated by the background hum of innumerable people speaking from multiple positions and a kaleidoscope of discourses colliding and cross fertilizing. In this respect Hirschhorn's work operates as a field recording of this murmur, notating the tones and intervals of incident and event that fold contemporary art practices into a multiplicity of discourses. A critical aspect of this folding movement, implicit in artistic practices that foreground the production of discourse is their relation to the social fabric. Often framed, albeit in a limited sense, within the phraseology of participation (traces of this participatory dimension are inscribed within different art histories).
'We will never be able to know what we give.'
This quote from a letter exchanged between two artists Lygia Clark5 and Helio Oiticica in 1968 voices one of the recurring characteristics of participatory artworks, namely that the artist will never be sure of the extent and effect of their actions upon others.
There is a trace of melancholy in what Lygia Clark has written; an expression of regret at not knowing. Hirschhorn's Bataille Monument and Its Burning Everywhere leaves the same taste of regret; it is impossible to know all that has happened during the many discussions, activities and moments that constituted these two expansive projects and no one can fully know their effect.
These are the limitations that this piece of writing sits within, but they are not detrimental borders in any sense to an opening up of discourse, rather they operate as indicators of the sheer complexity of connections, encounters and exchanges that distinguish Thomas Hirschhorn's encounter with discourse.
'I know that the gap between the event and the words given after the event is part of the event,'6 In her letter to Tehching Hsieh7, the art theorist Peggy Phelan8 extends the boundary of an event to include the subsequent act of writing about it. Hirschhorn's two works which almost overwhelm an encounter with them, sit within her idea of an ongoing event. The accumulations of cardboard, brown tape, TV monitors and photocopied texts and images which constitute Bataille Monument and Its Burning Everywhere behave as an ever expanding wake trailing behind the thoughts, discussions and activities inherent in Hirschhorn's practice. There is a palpable sense of something unfinished, perhaps irresolvable, as if the artist has decided the impossibility of being able to wrap the works up and define an endpoint. And if the thinking expressed by Peggy Phelan is followed through to its conclusion how can it be known when the final 'words given after the event' are spoken or indeed how can we find the edge of what Osborne defined as the 'distributive unity' of an art work and consequently the horizon of its particular discourse? I raise this idea of an 'ongoing event' to indicate that this text could be posited to occupy a position within the discourse that is a Thomas Hirschhorn work, and that it extends the discourse or pushes at the edge of its 'distributive unity'. But unlike the delineated space of writing and its various domains of publicness, Bataille Monument and Its Burning Everywhere are not constrained by their identification as instantiations of media or curatorial methodologies, they are intrinsically live works, still developing, still growing and not easily constrained within the apparent clarity of a printed page.
Most examples of contemporary art practice fall into easily identifiable areas or genres; installation, performance, video or sound work, to name a few, but Thomas Hirschhorn occupies a distinctive position. His projects by virtue of their form, placing and aims, straddle three different disciplines, each of which have specific and nuanced natures and intentions; Public Art, Community Art and Relational Aesthetics. Hirschhorn's practice can be understood, if desired as interdisciplinary, as it features and adopts multiple genres, but to see his work within the confines of a gallery space is not to see an aggregate of singular paintings, objects, videos and installations interrupting and jostling each other. Instead the disparate and dense collections of materials which make visible Hirschhorns practice do not indicate an interdisciplinary approach, but lead to something else altogether; an 'Intensive encounter' with thinking and its mediation into a perceivable discourse.
'Intensive encounter', is a quote from Relational Aesthetics, a book written by the French curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud9 Published in 1998, it sought to establish criteria, which could analyse specific forms of art practice that had developed through the 1990s. The artists10 he focused on shared a common approach in that they created the conditions, through objects, installations or live processes, for actual social environments in which people could come together and participate in a shared activity11.
Since its publication, and subsequent translation into English in 2002, Relational Aesthetics has had a significant impact on the discourse and practice of participation in contemporary art. It has generated a particular terminology to describe activities and process that were already partly embodied in some forms of Public and Community Art.
But I am not about to describe Bataille Monument and Its Burning Everywhere as relational art works, they are not, although it is possible to identify elements in them and apply a relational label to them. Instead I wish to propose that Hirschhorn's entire practice is itself one extensive relational event. If Bataille Monument or Its Burning Everywhere is considered only as an exhibition in a gallery or as part of a city wide showing of public art, then the most cogent and critical dimensions of the two works would be missed.
Running throughout Hirschhorn's different projects is a persistent characteristic; the sustained and deliberate construction of contexts that are irredeemably social and which are predicated on notions of exchange. This systemic framework continually raises and reiterates the same key questions applicable simultaneously to both artistic and curatorial practices; who is an artist, who is the public, what is the artwork, how is it produced and where is it located? Each of Hirschhorn's works operates explicitly within this area of concerns and each collaboratively dismantles the assumptions which commonly greet these questions.
If the work of Thomas Hirschhorn is understood as a single ongoing event or process, which includes the commissioning process, the setting up of convivial relationships between the commissioners, the curators and the hosting venues, then the work of Hirschhorn can be, as alluded to earlier, described as a field recording12. A 'field recording' that offers up a snap-shot of how the roles of the artist, curator and spectator are currently understood and perceived, outside of the legitimating architectural context of the gallery and the studio.
Public Art, Community Art and Relational Aesthetics are each discreet spheres of activity within contemporary art, which at times can appear to be if not essentially the same thing then very similar; Bataille Monument or Its Burning Everywhere are not an amalgamations of these three genres. They are instead a genuinely collective and collaborative undertaking that, through their different methodologies and aspirations, offer up a bustling crowd of thoughts, involvements and dialogues which problematize the professional boundaries that construct the activities of artist, curator and public.
In process-led, participatory and socially engaged practice, how the different individuals and groups present in the work are described varies widely and reflects different models of practice and agendas. In this instance when I refer to those present in the work, I do not only mean the 'participants'; a term that is commonly used to describe an actively engaged rather than a passive viewing public, in this instance I am referring to the individuals involved in the actual production of the project, the technicians, the curators, the coordinators, the owners of the venues and so forth.
This group, which I shall call, the ancillary authors must be considered and fore grounded as significant authors, because without them, Hirschhorn's practice could not exist. Moreover, if we are to consider Hirschhorn's oeuvre as a single extensive event, then these ancillary authors assume a leading role. The underlying ethos of Hirschhorns practice lies in its initial assumptions and expectations and it is these which set the projects in motion and to a large extent determine their future course, development and wider public perception.
During the life time of projects like Bataille Monument and Its Burning Everywhere, it is probable that the personnel involved in the production will change. People will leave and join, but more importantly their roles and tasks will shift as the projects develop in response to what does or doesn't happen and also in response to obstacles that are encountered. The necessary flexibility that this process entails permeates all aspects of these works and highlights a key tactic: negotiation.
Negotiation colours the entirety of Hirschhorns work, it is the overarching mode of his events and one which all the participants and authors subscribe to. The meanings of ideas, the purpose of activities, the stating of social positions and articulation of public identities, are negotiated and exchanged in each and every moment. It is within this discursive process that a specific and nuanced re-definition of the purpose, potential and social value of the artist in the public domain is being articulated. This re-defining unsettles the cultural sector's stereotypical definition of the artist as the star or primary author/instigator. In Hirschhorn's projects this popular version of the artist, is unpicked and deconstructed under the aegis of apparent participation and social engagement. The artist becomes a representation which is re-performed and re-made through live and collaborative activities. But the outcome of these activities is not a product or a new artwork in a traditional sense, though these do of course emerge, but instead the most tangible outcome is the democratisation and thus the politicization of the role of the artist as principle mediator of discourse.
This politicization offers a space in which to re-consider and re-invigorate the wider civic realm. Public art as a form, particularly if predicated on engagement and participation can put forward a space where the public can enact or perhaps recall the potential of civic engagement. In this context Hirschhorn's practice, when understood as a single event, provides an addendum to the social contract of the public realm. But as Hal Foster points out 'if participation appears threatened in other spheres, its privileging in art might be compensatory' and he concludes that this participation is only 'a pale part-time substitute.'13 This sentiment is echoed by Nicholas Bourriaud who states that 'the artists fill in the cracks in the social bond'14. But, if we can step beyond the cracks in the social bond, Bataille Monument and Its Burning Everywhere can provide a discursive means to re-position the public as a viveur or 'one who lives'15.
Earlier I suggested that the artist operates as a representation, a performative role which is utilised to democratise creative behaviour. Claire Bishop a leading theorist and critic of relational aesthetics16, wrote a text in 2006 called Viewers as Producers17. Bishop's text outlined the prevailing critical thinking on participation, but what interests me here though is her title. If the viewers are the producers, what becomes of the artist and the curator? One way of beginning to answer this is to consider Hirschhorn's practice as a mode of social activism. Bataille Monument can be easily contextualised as a discursive process that generates new and unexpected social relations in which existing hierarchies of viewers and producers are overturned and disrupted, opening up new situations in which to problematize the relations between what is thought and said, and who thinks or speaks.
Echoing this disruption is a second key characteristic present in Hirschhorn's work, one that is related to the idea and purpose of the artist's studio. Whilst to a degree Hirschhorn reject's the classic artist's role of creating distinct objects or performances within a hermetic studio location, the site of production is none the less important in all of his works. Daniel Buren in his 1971 essay The Function of the Studio suggests that artistic work be carried out permanently in situ, 'the definitive place of the work must be the work itself'18. The artists' studio, in addition to its widely understood role of being a site of material production, is also and more importantly a site of reflection, a social space19, and an exhibition space in its own right20, throughout Hirschhorn's career, the idea of the studio has been consistently deployed as a device to unpack, demystify and disperse creativity.
Throughout this essay my intention has been to depict Hirschhorn's entire practice as a period of events, relationships, meetings and shared activities, which do not all fall within the bounds of his delineated and visibly distinct art works. It is this characteristic that has enabled his projects to operate as a domain in which to begin a discursive negotiation between the typical roles attributed to artist and curator. But in keeping with the etymology of discourse, its endless running about, these negotiations will have 'innumerable beginnings, middles and endings'21 that will range far and wide, dissolving the fabric of truth, knowledge, information, opinion and speculation.
1) Steyerl, Hito. The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012.
2) Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or not at all. London: Verso Books, 2013.
3) Documenta 11, Kassel, Germany. 2002.
4) Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee. 2009.
5) Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica, were Brazilian artists who founded in the 1960's, along with Ivan Serpa, the Neo-Concretist group.
6) Phelan, Peggy. Out of Now The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh. London & Massachusetts: Live Art Development Agency & The MIT Press, 2009, p 341.
7) Tehching Hsieh between 1978 and 1986 made five one-year long performances. These works are regarded as seminal durational performances and Tehching Hsieh is described as a master by Marina Abramović.
8) Peggy Phelan is an American feminist scholar and one of the founders of Performance Studies International.
9) Nicolas Bourriaud co-founded, and from 1999 to 2006 was co-director with Jerôme Sans of, the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris. He was also founder and director of the contemporary art magazine Documents sur l'art (1992-2000). Bourriaud was the Gulbenkian curator of contemporary art at Tate Britain, and in 2009 he curated the fourth Tate Triennial; Altermodern.
10) Liam Gillick, Rirkit Tiravanija, Phillippe Parreno, Pierre Huyghe, Carsten Holler, Christine Hill, Vanessa Beecroft, Maurizio Cattelan and Jorge Pardo.
11) These shared activities have been described by Bourriaud as microtopias.
12) A field recording refers to the practice of making audio recordings of natural sounds; it is also called phonography a term chosen to illustrate its similarities to photography.
13) Foster, Hal, Arty Party. London: London Review of Books, 2004 p 21.
15) Proposed by Guy Debord, this new category of viveur means literally 'one who lives' and describes a mode of behaviour opposite to a 'mode of passivity and subjugation that arrests thought and prevents determination of ones own reality.' Guy Debord was co-founder of the Situationist International and wrote the seminal text The Society of the Spectacle (1967).
16) Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics (October 110, Fall 2004, pp. 51-79. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press) offers an outline of her critique of relational aesthetics.
17) Viewers as Producers by Claire Bishop is the introduction to the 2006 Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press Publication; Documents of Contemporary Art: Participation, series editor Iwona Blazwick.
18) Buren, Daniel. Translated by Thomas Repensek. The Function of the Studio October, Vol. 10 Autumn, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1979).
19) Gustave Courbet, The Painter's Studio; A Real Allegory Summarizing My Seven years of Life as an Artist. 1855, Oil on canvas, Musee d'Orsay, Paris. Courbet depicts his studio as a salon, thronged with people.
20 Daniel Buren in The Function of the Studio spoke of his respect for the sculptor Constantin Brancusi for permitting his sculptures to be only seen within his studio, and how this approach 'thwarted any attempt to disperse his work, frustrated speculative ventures, and afforded every visitor the same perspective as himself at the moment of creation. He is the only artist who, in order to preserve the relationship between the work and its place of production, dared to present his work in the very place where it first saw light.'
21) Phelan, Peggy. Out of Now The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh. London & Massachusetts: Live Art
SOPHIA Y HAO is a UK based curator and writer with a focus on challenging and innovative practices and critical discourse in contemporary art and visual culture. Hao is currently curator of Exhibitions & Visual Research Centre at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Scotland, she is also the founder and editor of the art journal labels.