Interventions and provocations introduction (1998)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 9 September 2011
This text was previously published as an introduction in the book Interventions and Provocations: Conversations on Art, Culture, and Resistance published by the State University of New York Press, May 1998.


Although the discourse on contemporary art has been dominated in the 1980s and ’90s by Postmodern pastiche and a sometimes facile critique of consumerism, throughout the past two decades there have been a number of artists who have been engaged in creating a form of art that exhibits a Postmodern skepticism about transcendence but nevertheless seeks to engage critically and creatively with society and history. These artists have sought to forge new relations among art, everyday life, and the public sphere. Their work is not related in terms of style, gallery affiliations, regional groupings, or promotional groupings created by the art press. They are instead related to one another by the critical approach they take toward social norms, and by their resistance to centralized cultural hegemony. This alternative to the art market and to the culture of passive consumption is characterized by the artists’ interventions in and challenges to everyday social reality

The interventionist and provocationist artists participate in a new invigoration of public space and civic discourse (sometimes with results far beyond the usually narrow borders of the art world, such as in the public debates over the works of Andres Serrano, Karen Finley, and Tim Miller, all of whose voices can be heard in the conversations collected in this volume). Whether these artists’ site of engagement is the gallery or the street, they participate in the creation of a new form of art that is conceptual rather than object-oriented; unlike classic conceptual art, however their work attempts to influence a public beyond the galleries and art magazines— but at the same time, unlike overtly political art, their work avoids both ideology and any belief in utopian, transcendental goals. Whether their work is performance, installation, text, painting, sculpture, film, or the kind of public collaboration that Arlene Raven has called "art in the public interest", these artists are involved in the creation of a new form of art that is both public and skeptical.

That is to say, the political interventions and social provocations exemplified by the artists in this collection demonstrate an attitude toward art and form that can be characterized as "tactical", adopting a term used by Michel de Certeau, or "postutopian", a term used by Boris Groys to describe the unofficial art of the late Soviet Union. These artists have lost the early twentieth century’s faith in radical transformations and transcendental ideals. They have not abandoned the ambition of twentieth-century artists to engage with the social realm, but they are much more likely to see the social impact of their work as an intervention into the network of normal social relations or a provocation to normative social values.

The relation to daily life staked out by these artists owes a great deal to Bertolt Brecht and Viktor Shklovsky for the idea that art produces an alienation or estrangement that interrupts the flow of normal, normative, socialized experience. But it is perhaps not coincidental that these artists began to appear during a revival of interest in Mikhail Bakhtin, the Soviet critic whose notions of answerability, dialogism, and the carnivalesque suggest that art must be engaged with daily life, but also that art’s transfiguration of an audience’s experience will be a momentary, liminal experience rather than a revolutionary transformation.

The practice of tactical artists can be categorized as feminist, political, performative, or even "puerile", to borrow a term from Peter Schjeldahl’s Village Voice columns. But unlike artists intent on realizing an essential feminine, a political truth, or a return of the repressed desires of childhood, postutopian artists use tactics like provocation in the service of critical interventions in social discourse. For example, Nayland Blake’s soft sculpture installations engage in a breadth of dialogue with daily life that is beyond Mike Kelley’s intentions in the stuffed animal installations and other "puerile" works for which the latter artist is famous. Blake brings both his own life and his political engagement into his work in ways that Kelley does not, in spite of the power of Kelley’s aesthetic explorations of repression, representation, and the art world itself. Blake’s work derives its power from the autobiographical exploration, political commitment, and depth of both vision and humor that the artist exhibits throughout all phases of his work.

The formal aspects of this work also represent a shift within the avant-garde. The concept of artistic form in both the making of a postutopian art and the discussions surrounding such art suggests the use of the word "form" by the Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz in his novels and diaries from the 1930s to the ’60s. Gombrowicz uses form in a double sense, to refer to aesthetic form and to social form, by which he means the social masks that we create to give others the impression of a unified subject and which we ultimately come to believe in ourselves. That is to say, form is both aestheticization and socialization, and the social agent and the artist both are form makers and prisoners of form. Gombrowicz is both seduced and repelled by form, which he associates with maturity, and the only alternative he sees to form or maturity is the equally ambiguous category of youth or immaturity. Youth in his sense is the embodiment of precisely the violent, messy, temporary, energetic, diverse, and chaotic qualities that artists like Kathy Acker rely upon in their search for an art that is "more than craft, more than decorations for the people in power." [1]

The postutopian interventionist and provocationist artists have embraced this "youthful" impropriety in their attack on social and aesthetic form, while at the same time maintaining a Gombrowiczean skepticism about both the rigid "form" of social and aesthetic norms and any alternative disruption of them. They have adopted a tactical approach to social and aesthetic interventions. This approach may be seen to be grounded in the work of de Certeau, who made a distinction between strategy and tactics in the practice of everyday life (and de Certeau also singles out Gombrowicz as the creator of the hero of the fleeting politics and pleasures of tactics). De Certeau says that "a strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper.... Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this model.... [A] ’tactic’, on the other hand,... cannot count on a ’proper.’.... A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance.... [A] tactic... is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized ’on the wing.’ Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into opportunities". [2] For de Certeau, tactics are the means by which the consumers at the receiving end of social production manipulate everyday life for their own purposes. The artists of tactics are in solidarity with these tactical consumers, with respect to their relation to central power structures, and also with their relation to daily life.

The art of tactics seeks a new relation to everyday life; sometimes that relation takes the form of collaboration with communities beyond the art world, sometimes the form of political intervention of a distinctly postutopian character. Sometimes these tactics involve provocations that are not overtly political but have political consequences, and sometimes they simply adopt new forms of public address.

For tactical artists, daily life is a contested territory, not a taken-for-granted horizon for their life or work. But they do not project a global, ideological, alternative life-world through their work. In a similar way, according to Boris Groys, the "sots art" of Komar and Melamid and other manifestations of late Soviet-era Russian art achieve their unique character by rejecting the utopian claims of both the classical Russian avant-garde and Stalinist social realism. [3] But Groys does not see the work of Komar and Melamid, Ilya Kabakov, or Erik Bulatov as apolitical or solipsistic (as some poststructuralist or postmodern positions might be characterized, due to a paralyzing skepticism about authenticity, the genuine, or political action). Their own skepticism about aothenticity and action and subjectivity impels them toward a comic or frivolous (though nonetheless serious) engagement with contemporary life. Kabakov in particular exhibits a profound engagement with homo sovieticus, and the situation in which his characters find themselves has not disappeared with the decline of the Soviet state. His work, as Groys suggests, emphasizes individual voices rather than collective ideologies of the right or the left. The same might be said of other artists whose work derives from Western rather than Soviet sources. Fred Wilson, for instance, is known for his installations critiquing museums and museology, but his work also gives voice to the stories of individuals silenced by racism and colonialism. Wilson does not speak for them, he finds ways to bring these individuals forward to speak for themselves. The interview with Wilson in this collection provides examples of both his work and his manner of working.

Some other contemporary artists in the West are taking up a similar position by locating art in communication and social interaction rather than the enclosed space of the self, which has historically been projected into social space by artists only in the enclave of the gallery. The artists in this collection of interviews have all sought, through interventions into political space or provocations directed at social space, to create a disorder, impropriety, or interaction directed toward social change that is real, though not revolutionary. All of the artists in this collection have exhibited an effective resistance to the numbing force of mass society, and all of them have also proposed active alternatives, countervisions of human life at the end of the industrial age. There are, of course, tactical differences among them: most of the artists interviewed in the first half of the collection have chosen to address social concerns through direct confrontations with issues, practices, and contradictions raised by the society at large; the artists in the second half may not create work that is explicitly political in content, but it nevertheless constitutes a challenge to society’s norms through strategies that are provocative in the use of sexuality, religion, race, or gender.

Art’s social role has been actively contested in the United States in the 1980s and ’90s, in large part through the interventions into public discourse carried out by tactical and postutopian artists. Ironically, the assumption underlying the resulting attacks on political art and government arts funding, mostly from the right wing of the political spectrum, is that art has an active influence on the fabric of society— thus, the importance of art has been emphasized rather than diminished in the public controversies surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts and a number of provocationist artists (often those using homosexual themes or explicit sexuality). This backhanded endorsement of the power of art has occurred within a climate in which political forces of the right and the left have frequently hoped for an art that would be a passive reflection of social goals rather than an active force in its own right, and in which the broad audience for art has often gravitated toward work that is decorative and optimistic rather than political and aggressive. The artists in this volume, on the other hand, assert the vitality of art as a political act, yet they achieve in their work an art that cannot be described as simple didacticism. They appropriate the power of art and they project the depth of their political convictions at the same time. Guillermo Gómez-Peña states (in the conversation included in this volume) that "in the ’90s we as artists can conquer more central spaces to speak from, and function as cross-cultural diplomats, as counter-journalists, as border pirates, as experimental activists." All of the artists and theorists interviewed in this volume operate in the simultaneously central and marginal zone described by Gómez-Peña; all of them have contested mainstream culture at its very base, in the imagination and vision that makes culture itself possible.

All of these interviews appeared originally in Art Papers, a magazine founded in 1977 as the newsletter of the Atlanta Art Workers Coalition. Art Papers has over the past twenty years increasingly emphasized contemporary art as a field of action and inquiry, rather than as an idealized site of aesthetic activity. Although the magazine has from its inception covered the work of artists from the entire spectrum of contemporary art (from the political to the formal to the philosophical), the activism inherent in the name of its original parent organization has remained a vital element of the magazine. Through five shifts in the position of editor-in-chief, through shifts in the orientation of art in three succeeding decades, the writers and artists involved in the production of Art Papers have remained dedicated to a basic opposition to anti-intellectual, socially regressive, and politically repressive forces in the art world and in society at large. As a result, Art Papers has remained at the forefront of both contemporary art and the presentation of post-utopian artists such as those included in this volume.

The regional character of Art Papers has also been a factor in its commitment to tactical artists. Based in Atlanta, Art Papers is not only "outside New York" but planted in the middle of a "New South" that is characterized more by commercial ambition than cultural achievement. The audience for contemporary art is widely scattered in the southern United States, and the need and desire for communication with other artists and with a diverse, widely distributed audience has fostered an understanding of both a grassroots journal like Art Papers and new ways of making and discussing art.

The interviews collected here are only a snapshot of the magazine’s publishing history. Articles by some of the most interesting writers on art today (some well known, others too little known), the most extensive and diverse review section of any U.S. art magazine, lively consideration of the daily working lives of artists, and the presentation of new artwork (in the form of "artists’ pages" designed specifically for presentation in Art Papers) continue as important aspects of the publication. Art Papers is also oversized, demonstrating its origin as a tabloid newspaper and also the origins of art criticism in the popular press. In format as well as content, Art Papers is focused on process rather than product, work on culture rather than works in museums.

Like those of us who have kept Art Papers going for more than twenty years, the artists in this collection recognize some hard truths. There has to be communication with a public that we know is largely not interested in difficult ideas, but we know easy ideas can’t convey difficult truths; we know image-saturated culture overwhelms the critical thought that is necessary to keep our culture and ourselves alive; and we know that outrageous art will reinforce the arguments of the "culture cleansers" of the political right, but also that only outrageous art can bring critical thought to the attention of a public not interested in difficult ideas. We have to be tentative and unrelenting; we have to do serious work on culture by interacting with everyday life, in ways that won’t earn us a living. These artists’ work, whether confrontational or community-based in its particular expression, embodies a solidarity with social groups that are the target of authoritarian strategies, as well as embodying action oriented toward bringing social relations to consciousness. The forms in which their tactics are expressed are constantly absorbed into the mainstream arts, media, and culture, the total system of the information age. But the tactics themselves survive, seeking to express not an "outside" so much as an "everywhere-always-particular" position: a position that keeps alive critical thought and skeptical perspective with relation to globalizing social forms; that tactical position is their significant contribution to the cultural life of the next millennium.

[1] Kathy Acker. (May 1984). "Models of Our Present". Artforum 22:6, pp. 62-65.

[2] Michel de Certeau. The Practice of Everyday Life, tr. Steven Rendall. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. xix).

[3] Boris Groys. The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond, tr. Charles Rougle. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).