There’s something about the immediacy and urgency of writing against the present that can be panic-inducing; paralyzing even.
It feels as if we should be quicker than we are. We should be able to respond more efficiently. It should be easier by now. Our brain’s functionality should be in sync with the latest social media apps on our Blackberrys, tablets and Mac books—so that we can not only multitask, “double-screen” and consume information (both virtual and real) at the rate of several giga-Hertz per second—but also analyze it, digest it and produce a meaningful reaction to it immediately. Except that’s not exactly how our cerebral cortex works; there is a lot more complexity involved—and maybe there is a saving grace in that somewhere.
The pressure to keep up with, and contextualize the arts within, the most up-to-date socio-political happenings was cited and critiqued at the recent discussion series, Global Art Forum_6. Part of the titan that has become Art Dubai and its collateral programming, this year’s forum was titled “The Medium of Media,” and for this second installment writers Rayya Badran, Rijin Sahakian, Shahira Issa and myself were invited as “forum fellows” to reflect on issues in the fair. Art critic and forum fellows mentor Kaelen Wilson-Goldie talked about an almost expected reflex to situate art within contemporary politics (or politics within contemporary art), with particular reference to Lebanon and Syria. Such a reflex has been intensified by two things in recent times: the conflicts and uprisings of the Arab Spring, and the penetrating and shifting role of instant online media in news reportage.
In her talk “Power Less: Art vs. Media,” journalist and editor Negar Azimi spoke of some of the concerns surrounding potentially reactionary arts practices, such as “revolutionary art works” and the “industries of interest” that can arise out of such politically charged situations. She considered the question: given that many of the region’s conflicts are ongoing, should we be looking at current “political art” skeptically? Can artists reflect on these processes in a valid way yet, or is some of this art opportunistic? And importantly, how does the speed of contemporary media affect the ways we respond to current affairs, and in turn infiltrate our cultural practices?
Perhaps the flip-side to that question is the possibility that art might actually be a way of slowing us down. Author and artist Douglas Coupland mentioned this when he proposed “the arts as an antidote to all this technology” in his introductory talk. Director of GAF_6, Shumon Basar, along with Hans Urilch Obrist and Joseph Grima, referenced similar ideas in their critique of acceleration, dubbed “post-hastism.”
Almost as a physical manifestation of this concept, the forum fellows were given a space in which to pause and reflect upon the seemingly multiplying, fast-paced events at Art Dubai. From the sanctuary of our plush beige conference room, we met for two hours a day with writers from Art Forum and Bidoun to Frieze and ArtAsiaPacific, and discussed subjects that engaged with the sub-text of the fair: obsession and neglect, hesitant knowledge, slippage, gender, expectation and deliverance and art politics. We were tasked with writing 200-500 words daily, using such key words as a point of departure, and relating them to what we saw or heard at the fair. The time-bound pressure to produce a response to our surroundings was certainly there, but without the pressure to publish or perfect our pieces immediately, we were given the crucial space to experiment with language and form.
One of the ideas that kept resurfacing was the “re-invention of format”—from the idea that engaging with Art Dubai is akin to watching television, to presentations on the evolution of “net art” and on the creative potential of information software such as Microsoft PowerPoint, to the structure of Q&A discussion being changed to fit the 140-character format of tweets. One proposal was to performatively present an artist’s profile or a review of one of their art works, using the same format and language as one would in the medical world. This considered the idea of “slippage” between scientific and artistic approaches, and the subjectivity involved in reviewing an artist’s body of work. This also tied into the notion of “hesitant knowledge” on the part of the practitioner as it highlighted that both clinical skills and the proficiency to think critically are honed through time and experience. Also mentioned several times at GAF_6—from the journalist Georgina Adam’s talk about the art market to Kristine Khouri’s comissioned text Definitively non-verifiable speech girls, which discusses off-the-record communication (part of TL;DR, Some medium stories edited by Michael Vazquez)—was the power of gossip, rumors, innuendo and other forms of casual conversation or information-gathering in the art world. Khouri’s musings in this regard poignantly related to writing against the present; as she said, “Most of what you learn will never appear in print.” We looked at the way language is used at an art fair, with personal introductions being likened to “elongated captions to artworks.” And, referring to the way she had overheard an artwork being described to a collector, another participant coined the savvy phrase “the politics of discursive seduction.”
Another of the key issues this year was that one forum fellow, recently impacted by regional unrest, felt unable to produce a written text at all. Despite being active in all the discussions, she seemed to epitomize one of the ideas the group had given form to; that it can be problematic to write against the present, while still being connected to the past. In our sessions we had abstracted this concept and wondered if the relationship between the present could be characterized by a kind of manic quality or “obsession” and the past by a form of memory loss or “neglect.”
In the end, rather than presenting our fragmented, experimental texts at the final presentation, we felt the most meaningful response to the present would be to continue to ask questions of it—just as we had done for the past three days of the forum and the fair. Some of these questions included: how do we begin to represent process? And how does this relate back to the finished (or commercial) product? And also, how do these very privileged conversations we’re having at Art Dubai relate to some of the more developed arts programs in the region? And lastly, how does thinking (or writing) about the present differently affect how we will go on to interpret the future?