The inflationary expansion of artists’ talks, curated panels, open forums, “critical” dialogues and rap sessions all and sundry has been one of the more marked developments in contemporary art over the two decades – and one of the most significant inasmuch as the need for “talking art” may be seen as palliating a knowledge crisis. By and large, the tendency has been to integrate talking into the existent conceptual and physical architecture of the artworld (Talk Show, ICA; Spoken Word, Tate Modern; Oral Culture, Jan Mot), to think of the verbal as a mere enhancement of the visible, rather than perceiving it as a potential alternative to often reifying exhibition structures. Though such “discursive events” (to use curatorial parlance) can be adapted to the modalities of visibilization – indeed, anything can be – it is worth wondering considering this tendency more closely and ask whether artists talking about their work is not a thoroughly viable and particularly non-reifying way for art to appear in the world. Isn’t it invariably more interesting to hear artists present their work than to have to go and look their exhibitions? Beyond the trivial explanation that this is because the artist’s presence evidences an existential engagement in the work that is not otherwise tangible, it may also reveal that the site of art itself has undergone an historical shift; that art itself is not immediately present, but withdrawn, its coefficient of specific visibility too low for it to be detected and identified as such. One might then contend that in the case of off-the-radar practices, talking art — like the popular musical form of “talking blues” — is a means of performing the work outside conventional frames, activating a proposition as art. Though it may be argued that this phenomenon is a by-product of relationality in aesthetics, it also seems to point the way to a thorough overhaul of how art is apprehended, and where it takes place.
In recent years, as the attention economy has triumphed, art has increasingly withdrawn from the world. In its place, one finds documentation of art, suggesting that art is not immediately present, but hidden, its coefficient of artistic visibility far too low for it to be detected and identified as such. There is perhaps no overarching explanation of this quest for the “shadows,” but there is one undeniable consequence: that is, that cutting-edge art no longer takes place in art galleries, museums or other exhibition spaces, but rather in documentation centers and archives. Increasingly it is through documents rather than through artwork that art takes place, is framed and more precisely “performed.” Of course these “documents” look for all the world like artworks — not only because artworks no longer look like anything in particular, but because they typically use media, above all video, historically associated with art making. Yet many of these video documents lay no claim to the iconic status or regime of visibility of artworks; they simply seek to reframe and hence to lend art-specific visibility to practices and phenomena which otherwise would go undetected as art.
This day-long seminar will seek to unpack this paradox conceptually, curatorially and discursively, because it is all too easy to confound – as the art-critical establishment glibly does – video documents and video artworks. The focus will be on examples, with screenings of excerpts from videos by Francis Alÿs, Ilana Salama, Rabih Mroué, Oliver Ressler, Chris Marker, Dan Graham, amongst others.