Saturday, January 5, 2013

Write Makes Right

Write Makes Right
#VisArts Writing IRL RN in Ireland
A conversation between Darren Caffrey and Jim Ricks
Autumn – Winter 2012

DC: So how do you want to start?

JR: The point is just to write truthfully in correspondence about what we see as the shortcomings, pitfalls, success stories, etc. taking place in Irish arts writing.

I think the attached graph that James Merrigan of Billion Art Journal and Fugitive Papers produced a little over a year ago is an interesting starting point. I immediately countered his graph with another and then, upon request, modified it. Please note that it was never clear to me if his use of the word ‘Criticality’ was intentional or not. Criticality meaning: The quality, state, or degree of to be considered as of the highest importance. I replaced the word with ‘Criticalness’, or, the degree to which one is critical. I reframed ‘Irish Public Readership’ with ‘Contemporary Visual Arts Readership’. I have no idea whatsoever as to how the readership was determined, I simply re-guestimated. It would be interesting to ask around perhaps about site hits and number of copies distributed.

You wrote earlier:

Billion Art Journal, being a product which is almost exclusively the compiled word of one man, potentially sits into the landscape of echo and commentary as a tool for self-promotion. It is not for this reason a failed enterprise; indeed the fact that it achieves the required tone (as might be necessary to just about overcome this danger) and the fact that some of Billion’s output, accessories included, serve to conjure anonymity, no less it remains true that all of this undressing reveals but a pared down version of the human. And yet, it is precisely this which sees the voice of the writer become swallowed up by the mechanisms of total control. In this respect, insight lacks honesty and even with affectations of common-language-vernacular, the editor-come-author circles outside of himself, to such a degree that the product is without true bearing or emotional hold. It is automatic; it is masculine; it is dominant and it is regular. It is the father of the future of art criticism in Ireland.”

I agree in the sense that James's art and critical practices are overlapping. After seeing a recent show I began to think of him more as a successful web artist than anything else. That is, his best work is coming out of Billion and it is the weirdest and most unconventional criticism around. Although that could be explored as well with Paper Visual Art's Ticket Reviews and Shower of Kunst's Haiku Reviews. But for instance with Billion, I quite liked his video Shit List, an overview of degree shows from the past year. Technically, it is a bit distracting, but it’s quite a good idea, very practical.

I'm also curious as to why you say he is the “father of the future of art criticism in Ireland”?

DC: The making of a graph, the original, not the response, is surely little more than ambitious. While this ambition is perhaps even slightly tongue in cheek, it is merely a distraction from what else might be possible. Whatever of the potential of Fugitive or any publisher of criticism, it seems like space has been left on the graph into which it is perceived that growth will extend.

I laughed when I read your question about James being ‘the father’ of this, it seems though that your own feelings, i.e. how you wish to kick off the discussion reflects something of my slightly sardonic, slightly sarcastic, and slightly ticklish way of understanding what is the value of engaging in something as cosseted as art criticism at all. Don't get me wrong, I feel that there is and needs to be real contribution from a philosophic, poetic and pragmatic point of reference, so that an artist might be better enabled to develop a practice which feels itself part of a vibrant and relevant dialogue. I say these three 'p' words as I feel that each of them gives clear indication of the value of human involvement in the common thread that is, or, in the eyes of the future, will be read as the making of something of worth to an age.

That is high minded, probably modernist and yet it is cleanly cut as being reflective of the ambition of all who care so much as to make a graph or frame a picture or post on a blog or indeed however it is that an individual wishes to contribute to the overall picture of their home or habitat.

What are your thoughts regarding the qualities that criticism need provide if art is to be fed sufficiently that it might learn all which individual artists can?

JR: I reject the marginalising efforts and triumph of subjectivism of Post Modernity, so see no need to discuss whether it is a 'Modernist' approach or not.

In no way do I think the original graph was tongue in cheek. My response was an effort to highlight all of the above and my response to the response perhaps reveals the need for individual projects to place themselves on the chart.

In terms of Fugitive Papers, I think it is of value to get into it as some important strides have been made here. But I do have my criticisms. In #2 I felt that it was a refreshingly opinionated analysis of the deeper currents of Eva's theme. Quite critical of works structurally, both in regards to their respective functioning, aims and within the context of a biennale. Beautiful meanderings of Katherine Waugh, and yet the design negatively affects her synchronistic approach to exploring a vast range of ideas and artists in an equally vast range of mediums. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure if I remember what she was talking about! The essay strays from art writing to conceptions of the future to Kafka’s handwriting. I did feel that there was a slightly neurotic self analysis – even a hypochondria of arts writing – evident in the James Merrigan piece. He makes daring statements but doesn’t support them and I feel it is encumbered by a sort of presumptuous shunting. Alan Phelan’s artworks are apt and funny, although should have been given a respectful distance from each other if included together at all. Because of the form of print on paper, the meaning is the message and the meaning here suffers.

I do wonder with Fugitive Papers if there is an inclination toward elitism? A retreat to the safe circles of art writers and artists-cum-writers writing, discussing art writing? Perhaps easier to write about art-writing than about art? This is not a paper for the general art public, despite being available at libraries and some selected galleries. Quizzically, from my own experience, it is not available to some events to distribute, perhaps due to an unseen process of weeding out affiliations.

In response to your question... I think you have already answered it. However, in a nutshell, I believe that art criticism should not foreground the writer over the exhibition, that it should describe (re-view) the exhibition, that it should be candid yet historically grounded (not necessarily in art) and should take the approach of an art school critique or in some more urgent cases, that of the polemic. I think there should also be opportunities for artists or individuals to respond and counter the review. That should be encouraged. Further, I choose to include political, philosophical, aesthetic, and historical concerns. And I mean in the original nature of the word political, i.e. the polis, the city or community.

DC: Certainly! My real feeling is that artists need be able to critique themselves, but surely the work of others is a good testing ground for such an approach, providing there is retained the humanity which permits humility. Otherwise it’s all just show and its nothing but a waste of time.

That said, I rarely find myself reading contemporary art criticism! So in some ways it’s like poetry, where there are many more who write than there are who purchase the works of others. Some see this as a problem, not least of all the struggling publishers. I personally feel that it’s not a problem, it’s part of the solution; the product as it is, simply becoming an evolution according to what is desired of its tone, poetic or whatever. You mentioned the subjective supposition and how it’s not a trend or a matter of form, definitely I would agree that it is part of it, the whole picture. So you have people who will write and nurture a voice as it is called and these same people might find it difficult to follow the trends of the commercial or in some sense culturally relevant topics of the field, even if that subsequently delivers with it a restriction and impediment regards participating in the cultural currency of that particular field and ultimately ever becoming more widely read. The subject I guess, in the guise that it takes for the individual, is always going to be independent. That is the most obvious point of having such utility as the option and real fact of the subjective take on the whole picture, even in its most seemingly inconsequential detail.

When I was young I had a friend who loved football, you know 10 hours a day ball at his feet. But he was not one to watch it, even cup-finals. His passion was felt by him according to his own perceived involvement in the game. I reckon if it can be cultivated that through natural development artists would define clearly for themselves their own contribution, then the product that is art would acquire an enhanced dimension by way of being regarded as a part of the their own state.

If art is our example then the artist is key to making the case for something of worth which can elaborate upon the human experience in ways that can be felt as literal as according to the emotional, and broadly speaking, the fullness of an artistic experience.

Again to reiterate, there is no question that there ought be better access to criticism. Equally, there need be better challenge put to those who criticise, the separation of each and other is basically childish and stupid if the interest remains for that shared cause.

JR: There's a lot of talk about the lack of popular art criticism. For instance the Irish Times or RTÉ, in that they don't dedicate enough resources to visual art. There's Aidan Dunne with his biases and old fashioned approach. And there is Gemma Tipton with her popular narratives. As well as the generally enthusiastic Cristín Leach in the Sunday Times. The others don't cover it at all. And what is covered seems so prescribed and required and not spontaneous. Is there a way forward in this deadlock? Are they irrelevant? Does it matter? Should we clamour for change?

DC: I did prefer Waldemer Januszak who also presents art themed programmes on BBC and Channel 4, admittedly not often, but obviously in terms of public exposure to ideas, it is the TV which serves as a base for much of the generally held knowledge. I don’t necessarily feel this to be a bad thing, but it does give cause to doubt the significance of popular critique in the public sphere; perhaps more likely the niche is fed in small publications and zines and the like, so that this niche may grow to become a popular thing. Regarded for a time as ‘on trend’ but naturally, if it’s not immediate then often it’s not so clear what the purpose is. Besides ENTERTAINMENT!

Does anyone read critique so that they might be entertained? I wonder. It seems fair to say that entertainment in this form perhaps relies upon the vanity of the reader, providing references and showing work which is situated as being relevant to the work discussed. The real danger is that this large swell of accumulated knowledge bisects the popular into the niche and into the uninterested. Perhaps there is also fearfulness of being shown as not knowledgeable on a particular field or topic.

For me, the critic hopes to stand between the two camps, the uninterested and the knowledgeable, and deciphers how best to observe the work from where it is. Equally the work sits always as part of that bigger picture of monkeys putting things together to make entertainment something of a shared experience. Of course ‘making’ is entertaining. It is the response to the subjective call for action which itself may further shape knowledge and progress understanding, ultimately lending itself to a wider cause. But it is an economy of clear difference to, for example, the provision of a service. Wherein the artist is and can be used by communities, institutes etc.. but no longer need respond according to their own subject. This in effect may risk (if risk is the correct word) their becoming a tool of something which they have little hand in the making of. When artists become useful are they then better, or is there a use beyond the tradable kind which the artist need preserve? Is this a question of purity and if so does the sorts of art reviewed make a difference? Or is it simply a question of what’s on, and in a more specifically image based age, what looks good in jpeg?

I guess clamour for change is a real thing, and always the big needs to adapt to the small. Disenfranchisement and dislocation are the obvious results if the big commands the adjustment of the small. In your own home country they say something along the line of “the customer is always right” and I guess that is the truest sentiment of the prevailing system. To acknowledge that the vitality and dynamic which drives all commercial success ultimately arrives from the individual who demands that very change, be it service or product.

That’s not to say that change is ever welcome but.....

JR: I really like your two questions:

“Does anyone read critique so that they might be entertained?”

“Or is it simply a question of what’s on and in a more specifically image based age, what looks good in jpeg?”

And I do think they answer themselves. What were your thoughts on this Enclave Review? I've never come across it. Have you seen the Paper Visual Art printed publications? They recently did these Ticket Reviews.

DC: OK, so the questions which you have identified contain ready-made answers, this in turn leaves me with a question by extension, which is... why not? How should or could art criticism manage to be of service to a consumer oriented culture and not be understood in terms of some entertainment value? This of course is not to say that the entertainment need be cheap X Factor(y) styled, whereby the system is the winner every time. Or that it need be based upon nit-picking for the sake of making comment in an area which may titillate the more nasty spices of a public opinion, localised as it is.

I have no interest whatever in outlining caricatures of a field or its players, unless it be a means to draw attention to the actual structures that dominate the landscape and its activity. So that issue aside, my own feeling is that the entertainment value need come from the art itself. This is why I would employ what may be seen as a pseudo-philosophic question, as might be asked by anyone of any world who has ever come into contact with the forces and flows of the phenomenological and the psychological activities of life. By alerting to something intrinsically human of the art-work being discussed, I feel there is more access possible to the potentials of the work. This in turn gives reason to identify more clearly the means by which it has or has not succeeded.

By taking the questions of the work as essentially questions derived from and encountered by ourselves, the work may only highlight elements of an overall creative form, and in such case, the narrative may be drawn as relative to the work and equally, as reflective of those who go to see it. Or those who wish simply to know of its existence. In not attempting to frame the work in something which exists and as such is already known, something close to a result may be ascertained. This is according to how clearly the connections have been articulated. But to achieve a result which is somehow extensive, that being primarily the work and secondarily the world (which is always going to be bigger and more interesting), requires ultimately that you know where to look. Naturally communication is key... it is a word game.

Enclave Review is I guess, more clinically obsessive in its reference-laden and pre-structured commentary of the works discussed. In this vein, much of the writers are what you might term scholarly, art history lecturers and the like. In this respect the product is well rounded, it is also well funded, supported by Crawford, The Arts Council and UCC. There are two editors and an assistant editor, something that almost any publication these days would be grateful and lucky to have. For me the routes by which a publication like Enclave takes to get to the core of a work/exhibit is too narrowly drawn, in particular the requirement by virtue of being scholarly, that it in fact need be scholarly. Such is the value of the formality of provision and the necessary provisos which come attached to the academic underwriting of knowledge economies.

JR: There is also then the Visual Artist Newssheet ‘Review Supplement’ and Paper Visual Art. And I will go there, at the risk of seeming hyper-critical. I've felt that they both in particular have not positioned themselves, since their advent, in contrast or opposition to Circa. Because, let’s be honest, that is overall what’s going on here with arts writing. The blogs, the publications in Ireland have all emerged to fill a vacuum. Indeed, this vacuum has pulled in Irish Arts Review to fill some of it, as demonstrated in the last year. Or to speculate as to a more exact analysis, certain powers and/or funders pulled Irish Arts Review. But I do think it is safe to say that all the other, initially online now going towards print, Irish visual arts writing has been a response to or a correction of Circa's oft noted shortcomings. This has not been entirely successful of course, as some of the shortcomings come from things we've discussed, that is, they are the nature of the beast, particularly those on a shoe-string budget.

However, to my point... I feel Paper Visual Art hasn't been fully aware of this or tried to differentiate itself in content from the legacy of Circa. They do not have a rigour or editorial point of view in other words. The writing varies widely, in fact they seemingly publish most things; and in some cases, things with a serious lack of fact-checking or criticalness. Which leads me to believe they are ‘going through the motions’ in a way. Perhaps they are concerned primarily with form over content. And one could speculate that the social dynamics and networks of the sphere of Dublin visual art play a strong role as well, being in the thick of it and all. ‘The hierarchy’ on some level as it were. Their latest object oriented endeavours have included a zine or book and a series of Ticket Reviews. The latter are printed on tickets, like concert or game tickets, with small type and short reviews. They were certainly hard to track down. Which raises another point in regards to the form over content question. Does it matter what we are saying and to whom we are disseminating this?

DC: There being only a small number of art criticism outlets, before I heard of Shower of Kunst I tried first the Paper Visual Art. In the end the reviews which I submitted were met with curiosity and enthusiasm, but fundamentally this was identified as not in keeping with the given standards, to which I was referred through an additional link to the Circa website, wherein guidelines are put forward that may seek to further cement the seemingly pre-cast conceptions and their trailing conceits. Thankfully Shower of Kunst gave me an opportunity and took a real and careful look at what I was saying and what I was not. Even more happily the result was a reasonably fair and open dialogue, from which art works may extend. There is for me nothing narrow about looking at what can be done better and so the exchange which occurs to create and shape each review or supposedly critical piece is best served by simply contributing to an echo of the activity which is ongoing as a series of temporal structures.

This essentially means that the definable worth of a temporal exhibition practice is, according to much art critical exponents, characterised as needing to fit an indiscernible, but nonetheless rigid framework, built as it is, upon a series of irrational expectations harboured on all sides of the writer to reader contact.

JR: Well, I think a kind of direct engagement is essential, imperative even. Unfortunately honesty often ruffles feathers and shakes all our little art hierarchies. Because of the inherent uncertainty in this sphere, honesty is often swept under the carpet of pleasantries. Arts writing, and I refer to this in a very non-specific way, retreats to safer, supportive ground. It becomes a tool or a prop for both the writer and artist to further their careers. This impossibility of saying to people “don’t take it personal” prevents actual discourse outside of academia. And when criticism is employed it can be used to reinforce individual’s positions in the hierarchy. What’s professional becomes personal and vice versa.

In a way I think James Merrigan’s announcement that he is “turning off” Billion Arts Journal directly relates to this. He has, intentionally or not, blurred the lines between his practice and arts writing. He raises some similar points in the statement he issued about the nature of arts writing, however it is also clearly about this professional/personal issue.

My visible opinion has also caused resentment; resulting in second-hand gossip that chips away at your resolve. I never thought +BILLION- would get the attention that it did – good and bad – but now it is time to rethink what reviewing art means to the individual who writes it; the artist being reviewed; the institution calling for it; and the art community at large in Ireland.”

DC: It seems then that the end of Circa, which you cited to have had such an overall impact in this notably small world, did in fact spawn various projects and tools by which to reapply critique, a form that had been arguably blunted by its ties to past traditions and order. It would no doubt be the wish of those at Circa, as much so as any who have followed in their footsteps, that whatever comes next be best for the subject. In this realm, artists and art are the fruit and the flower, and means require only new applications to reignite the hopeful and the willing.


A response from James Merrigan
13 January 2013

This is great Darren and Jim! A patient, reflective, honest, and thorough analysis of your opinions of art writing 'efforts' in Ireland today. I am emphasising 'efforts' intentionally, and will explain in due course. 

With regard to +BILLION- Journal: I never knew what I was getting into 2 years ago. The blog was developed through impulse. What that impulse was I cannot honestly say. It was a compulsion: I set up the website in one night and started reviewing immediately. It was perhaps a selfish endeavor, but aren't we all? I was following the examples of Shower of Kunst and Dear Nadia, but I wanted the journal to be more consistent, and the only way I thought consistency of attitude and reflection could be achieved was through one voice. I never took into account the evolution of an idea however, and how that would manifest in the future. The negative aspect of this approach, which I have learnt through experience, is everything is read explicitly as self-promotion. Although self-promotion is part and parcel of the upward trajectory of any artist's career, this is usually done implicitly. At first I saw the reviews as disposable, were one review would lead to another without any reflective gap. It was relentless. But I spent an inordinate amount of time on each artist's work that I reviewed, mainly figuring out their intention and fusing some sort of dialogue with their ideas, and of course mine. I never thought of it as a blog. It was serious. I took the artist's work that I reviewed seriously. But I also benefited greatly from involving myself with the artists' interests, which gave me an even greater appreciation and insight into what artists do to make their work. What I did know from the start was +BILLION- would corrupt the way I was seen as an artist, and in time would corrupt my art practice, which it finally did at The Lab, which you refer to above. All in all, it was an experiment.

I emphasise 'effort' because +BILLION- was not pre-packaged. I had no experience as an editor. I was only finding my feet as a writer. I didn't discuss the idea with anyone else. In essence, it was a private diary, made public, and in some ways a creative playground where I could test out different ways of writing and judge the tone of its reception. In this regard it is my view that all online and printed publications that have been developed, and are 'developing' post-Circa Magazine, have been 'efforts' to test the waters as to what an art publication could be online and in-print in Ireland today. 

I can't discuss Fugitive Papers in detail here as I am one of two editors involved in its development (Michaele Cutaya), but what I will say is, that it is funded through the Irish Arts Council Project Award, and has been developed through public and private discussions, which influence the content and design of the finished printed publication. At this point in time I think it is premature – in a constructive way – to critique a printed publication that is only 3 issues old, especially if you consider the contexts in which it is being developed. The issue of the so-called crisis of art-writing and criticism that takes central stage in the first two issues of Fugitive Papers was brought to the table at the initial public and private discussions, which is not surprising in this era of  'testing the waters' and finding our critical feet after Circa.

The fact is, the end of Circa left a giant gapping crater, not just a vacuum. There would have been something to work with if we had a razed landscape to start with, where pop-up online and printed publications could start afresh. As young artists, writers, curators, we literally had to start again from a position of ignorance and financial compromise when it came to the development of art criticism and writing outlets. There was a sense that everything had been lost through 30 odd years of Circa; or that knowledge and experience was ignored, or not shared. However the attitude toward Circa's demise says a lot, from  the collective "good-riddance" to "We don't want another Circa," which I think is wholly unfair.

The influx of often temporary, and it would seem a segregated and competitive population of various online and in-print art writing outlets, is exciting and disheartening all at once. What we would all benefit from is the sharing of resources, whether that is simple dos and don'ts, or just an honest appraisal from all interested parties of what is being developed currently. Jim and Darren's analysis is fine here as a starting point but it's quite a reductive sample. 

I think it is good that there are different voices out there and I welcome critical voices that are individual and who set a tone or contrast to their peers. My experience has been an extreme case of artist/writer corruption. But personally, I wouldn't change anything that I have tested over the last 2 years. I think we all have to test the waters now and again, how boring a world would it be without contradiction and experimentation, and nothing to complain about from the biased and subjective opinion of the art public.

It would be great to hear from the rest of the publications who are referred to it this dialogue???


Editor's note (21/2/13): Please see Adrian Duncan's recently published essay Compassion in Art Criticism in Paper Visual Art Journal  here.