music from Our Literal Speed Soundtrack Recordings, Woodstock II by The Size Queens


4 AUGUST 2009, PERFORMED AT CLARK ART INSTITUTE, WILLIAMSTOWN, MA

OUR LITERAL SPEED
Presented by Abbey Shaine Dubin and John Spelman

[Opening visual: white letters on gray screen with the following text:]

“Stuff near art that is not art which is treated as if it were art is now the substance of most serious art.”

[Abbey Shaine Dubin and John Spelman are already seated at a seminar table with the texts in front of them. No soundtrack. Brief introduction by the director of the Institute.]

[John begins]

We are Americans.

The massive, perpetually empty parking lots that are plowed through the rural margins of the American suburbs tell you all you need to know about Americans. We have no particular sense of quality or quantity. As Americans, we do not sense any obvious opposition between the high and the low, between the appropriate and the inappropriate, because we are never that certain about the character of our cultural experience.

True detournement can only take place where there are cultural values to be turned upside down. There could never be an American Joseph Beuys; Americans have no feel for inversion as a non-satirical project. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons – they did not turn things upside down. When you get down to it, they all repeated things; Americans like to repeat things. Typically the American repeats something bad and tries to make good use of it. Please keep this in mind as we discuss the following.

[New visual: gray screen with white letters with the following text:]

While the Trojan host with shrill cries storms like a flight of cranes across the battlefield, the Greek army approaches quietly, with noble tread. There we see only the arrogance of blind strength, here the triumph of form and the simple majesty of law.” Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man

[After a long pause so that the text can be read, Abbey begins, slowly and patiently]

Nathan Bedford Forrest, a cavalry commander of renown during the American Civil War --- and a truly odious man --- supposedly claimed that his military tactics were based on the principle of “Getting there furstest with the mostest.”  Maybe Forrest never said this. Maybe this is just a legend about him, but for the sake of argument, let’s agree that he said it.

What this meant was that one dispatched a critical mass of armed men on horseback to a location proximate to the enemy, yet tactically advantageous – say, in a forest or on a hill top --- an action that would ideally persuade the enemy to abandon its own violent objectives. From this standpoint, it is irrelevant what you plan to do once you control a situation, or what others might wish to do in your place.  Arrive “in force” at the right place at the right time and the rest will take care of itself.

“Getting there Furstest with the Mostest” is an imprecation to advance without worrying about the constraints on one’s forward progress --- to move without a grand design as to what will eventually happen; it is a belief in a kind of speed. In any professional military situation there is a built-in propensity toward the fetishization of command hierarchy and superfluous weaponry, so in the realm of military planning, placing one’s trust in “getting there furstest with the mostest” embodies a profoundly “de-professionalizing” attitude, although not a de-skilling. And it is worth noting that Forrest never received any formal military training.

Forrest’s innovations were only fully recognized after a delay, when during the Second World War armor commanders began to employ similar tactics. Once their units broke through the enemy’s initial lines of defense, their forces could have turned around in order to wreak havoc “from the rear.” This would appear to be the most “logical” decision, as it immediately consolidates the tactical situation in the attacker’s favor. 

However, instead you witness the strategic logic of the Breakthrough.

Rather than securing a ready advantage – the tanks pushed further onward, away from their antagonists – thrusting through the countryside, across the horizon, streaming forward as fast as fuel and moving parts would allow.  This manner of attacking concretized Forrest’s insight: by getting to unexpected locations in sufficient numbers --- the enemy’s ability to comprehend the parameters of the situation begins to falter. One could even say that something like an “event” in Alain Badiou’s sense of the term takes place. The enemy forces find themselves confronted with too many choices: a situation that breeds discord, hesitation and --- ultimately --- self-destructive paralysis. 

[New visual: Cover of October, Winter 2008]

[John speaks]

If we are living within a neoliberal “military-entertainment complex” (as art historian David Joselit puts it), then it seems accurate to say that we have been hesitant to contemplate the military implications of this phrase. Is it not time that we begin to take “the militarization of the world” seriously as a cultural project?  Even with a new administration in Washington, it seems inevitable that we will be obliged in the coming years to come to terms with the Military-Entertainment Complex’s methods and means, even in contemplating our most intimate hopes and fears.

 

[pause]

Among academics today, tactical thinking is a must.

With the perfecting of information technology, it is only a matter of time – if in fact it is not already the case – that cultural administration and professional management will determine an academic’s value according to how many hits her name returns on various search engines. The Internet can quantify and verify your informational worth in seconds.  This technical development will almost certainly lead American public university systems to abandon tenure in favor of “pay for performance” – an alternative that the general public will consider much more democratic. So far, academics have accepted such transformations without much protest, only grumbling and mumbling.

[New visual: “Semioticians” image from Art & Language’s Black Propaganda]

[Abbey speaks]

So one might ask: what would “Getting there furstest with the mostest” look like in the contemporary academic arena?

Such an orientation would pivot on the fact that it will be necessary in the future to design environments in which the textual ceases to be the exclusive mode for the distribution of “scholarly information.” Furthermore, it will also become necessary to abandon the assumption of authorial and professional synchronicity (that is, the automatic pairing of the scholar and the “authorial voices” that inhabit her texts), and to revisit the unexamined requirement that modes of explication and presentation be narrowly stable and singular, rather than improvisational and collaborative. As an act of intellectual self-preservation, the scholar will need to produce situations that create advantageous conditions for future action without knowing precisely what these conditions will yield. 

In other words, we must embrace the logic of the Scholarly Breakthrough.

[John takes up the narrative in a matter of fact voice]

A kind of “thinking-in-situations” will become the definitive mode of future art historical and art critical activity. The individual will discover the value of being in particular spaces at particular times to engage in quasi-improvisational undertakings that will have not yet been efficiently “mapped” or “quantified.”

Such approaches offer the best prospect for shrugging off the sickly embrace of the mediocre text and our managed subjectivity, by redefining, or better, “dedefining” our actions as the production not of “finished works,” but of “texts-in-process.” In this way, the academic will become much more scholarly by ceasing to be a “professional scholar,” but [John may gesture here for emphasis] not in rebellion against the pedagogical. On the contrary, the goal will be to enhance the flexibility, adaptability and technical know-how of the academic within a changed “marketplace of ideas.”  In this sense, we must also confront the most disturbing realization of all: these transformations will not be subversive or iconoclastic, at least not according to our inherited assumptions about subversion or iconoclasm, because they will yield just what administrators always crave: professional innovation. In fact, this enveloping pedagogical vertigo of displacement and rupture, if mobilized to managerial ends, could lead to the abandonment of historical memory, to an inattentiveness to detail, to the collapse of the self-seriousness that seems absolutely necessary for collective knowledge work. Academic cabaret and pedagogical spectacle could emerge as our "new didactic forms.” This, of course, would be the worst situation of all.

[New visual: gray screen with white letters with the following text:]

“Time = money is an economic equation derived from the scholarship that if life is the pursuit of money (life = money) and time is the primary aspect of life (life = time), then necessarily time = money.  In an inevitable adjunct, the essential time-component of music makes it the pre-eminent modern art form. Because music requires a commitment of time from the listener, it is now considered precious in a way other art forms are not.” Ian Svenonius, The Psychic Soviet

[Abbey speaks]

Our Literal Speed’s events are sometimes self-described as “pedagogical concept albums” --- though let’s admit that, by and large, concept albums were failures.  And it would be naïve to think that the genre will fare any better in a different institutional medium.  All the same, the appearance of the concept album in the 1960s pioneered a new kind of thinking within pop music, even if most pop musicians were not up to the task.  Moving from the production of a single song to a coherent reflection on the idea of the album as a whole imbued popular music with an unfamiliar self-awareness.  It was also conceptual art’s most significant foray into the public sphere.  And here I’d argue that Abbey Road is a much better “concept album” than Sgt. Pepper and Bob Dylan’s 1970 concept album, the much maligned Self-Portrait was by far the best of them all. 

In case you have forgotten, here’s what the first minute of Self-Portrait sounded like in 1970.

[The first 60 seconds of “All the Tired Horses” play. As the music runs John and Abbey by turns look out at the audience and listen, concentratedly. They do not necessarily frown, but do not smile under any circumstances]

[Abbey goes on as the music fades, speaking over Dylan’s quieting tune]

According to the album’s liner notes “All The Tired Horses” is a song written and performed by Bob Dylan.

Self-Portrait expressed a self-reflexive sensibility that reached out beyond its status as a pop album.  The record demanded a different conception of quality ---- or put differently ---- it required an understanding of quality that was fundamentally conceptual.

Such remarks touch on the intimate relationship between our current scholarly situation and models drawn from popular music, just as earlier generations of art professionals took their lead from filmic and photographic practices. 

In particular, mid-century transformations in the popular music industry may suggest useful parallels to the situation of contemporary scholarship [pause]:

Today, we are leaving a period dominated by University Press-published, Ivy League Department-backed, Blue Chip Singers ---- the scholarly equivalents of Elvis, Sinatra, and Chuck Berry ---- superstar scholars who produced great texts --- hit singles, one could say --- without spending much time wondering about how their material reached the public (that is, without wondering who played the instruments, produced the records, designed the packaging, organized the tours, etc.).

Instead, we are entering a zone in which all materials connected to scholarly activity are potentially available for transformation into vital, signifying surfaces.  We are on the verge of seeing the scholarly equivalent of singer songwriters, gatefold album covers, outdoor music festivals, artist-run record labels, and super groups.

Straight Cultural Professionals --- that is, the people who pass critical and managerial judgment, like the befuddled, yet beguiled Ed Sullivan of the late 1960s, will not be able to reject these coming contributions because they will be offered up by serious people in serious venues under the rubric of established professional activity.  However, when the need to establish the value of such activities arises, much more attention to the character of intellectual labor and the didactic possibilities of form will be required. 

[New visual: gray screen]

[John speaks sympathetically, but with authority]

Although unsettling, such ambiguities are entirely consistent with broader developments in the early 21st century. In The New Spirit of Capitalism, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello write,  “Adaptability, that is to say, the capacity to treat your self as a kind of text that one can translate into different languages constitutes a fundamental demand.” That is, turning one’s personality into a cast of characters is no longer a mark of schizophrenia ---- rather, it demonstrates a well-adjusted attitude to the economic and social realities of our time.  In the workplace one must now avoid association with any overly defined set of skills in order to develop a reputation as an agile and adaptable character who responds with ingenuity and enthusiasm to the vagaries of a given institution’s “event landscape.”

Today, we have moved beyond Deleuze and Guattari’s discussions of Capitalism AND Schizophrenia, to a world in which Capitalism IS Schizophrenia.

[Abbey speaks]

However, it is no longer a matter of simply learning to adopt a more or less codified professional subjectivity --- that is, one no longer learns how to be a professor, or curator, or administrator. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that one learns how NOT to be a professor, a curator, or administrator, at least according to our traditional understanding of these roles. Instead one is encouraged to approach one’s own professional existence, one’s field of expertise, as if it were infinitely malleable, one must live with the expectation that one will soon transform oneself and one’s skills into “something else.” As a result, the most successful worker today is the person whose qualities are impossible to define --- the person who is many things at once, yet nothing in particular. This is not “The Man without Qualities,” rather it is the person with qualities that cannot yet be defined or described. The person who knows a little about a lot and does many things reasonably well. Not an inauthentic person, but rather a person at home with many varieties of “authenticity.”  It seems inevitable that as professional disciplines are colonized by managerial figures of this sort, academia will learn to follow similar models. Therefore it is only logical that one finds the most compelling academic activity today in murky in-between areas.
 
[John speaks]

Likewise, as a hyper-mediated world of half-forms and quasi-content surrounds us more vigorously via the Internet, the textual/interpretive bias of contemporary scholarship has the effect of inadvertently flattening the signifying structures of non-textual practices. Not unlike a theological worldview confronting a rapidly secularizing environment, we now have a text-based critical apparatus struggling to come to terms with an explosion of practices that have let loose all manner of textual/visual/performative hybrids.

As the art historian, curator and critic come into greater contact with such unhinging and destabilizing forces, intellectually-serious activity will cease to focus primarily on the creation of self-contained books, exhibitions or articles. Instead, critical interventions will grow more heterodox as administrative demands for novelty and “client recruitment” increase.

None of this is new.

[Abbey reads the following text – which is also on the screen above, without naming the source, then begins the following text in a serious voice:]

[New visual: gray screen with white letters with the following text:]

“Warburg always sought and found these in-between levels in those historical epochs that he himself regarded as ages of transition and conflict: the early Florentine Renaissance, late Antiquity under Oriental influence, the Netherlandish Baroque. What is more, within those periods he concentrates by choice on the study of those men who, whether by profession or by fate, occupy an in-between position: merchants, who are also lovers of art, and in whom aesthetic taste collides with mercantile interests; astrologers, who combine sectarian politics with erudition, and who work by their own dual definition of truth; philosophers, whose pictorial imaginations clash with their logical need for order.” Edgar Wind on Aby Warburg’s Serpent Ritual

Even from its beginnings in the sixteenth century, art history has been constituted as a paradoxical activity.  It is an arena in which “scientific analysis” and “artistic activity” scrape against each other with few enduring boundaries separating the two endeavors.  As a result, art history has always been in danger of being transformed into a subset of its own object of study.  Recall that Vasari wrote not as an amateur but as an artist; his schema of stylistic rise and fall was an extension --- not an explanation --- of his painterly practice.

And as the putative subjects of the art historian’s inquiry moved closer to the present --- as the art historian began to study not only Ancient and Medieval themes but also modern ones --- art history began to occupy terrain that was increasingly similar to that of art. If you read recent recollections about Artforum in the 1960s, fairly quickly you run into Rosalind Krauss’s description of her “little dance” when she hears, via radio, about the death in an automobile crash of the sculptor David Smith (For those who do not know the full story: Krauss danced because Harvard then would not permit dissertations on living artists).

In retrospect, it is obvious that once this death-dancing genie was out of the bottle there was no going back. The future Professor Krauss set in motion a process that has left the field of art history dominated by The Contemporary. Most important, “Dancing Day” was the moment that art history made the big leap toward becoming a full-blown para-artistic practice.

When Krauss explained to her advisors that things were not going to go as planned -- that she was for all intents and purposes “abandoning History” --- she secured an improbable gift for all art historians: she made art history responsible to its surroundings, responsible in an entirely “literal” way. A tragedy that had just happened on the damp Vermont asphalt was worth describing.  It was even worth celebrating.

And with the plunge into the Kraussian present, art history was further transformed into an academic discipline very much in synch with modernism’s expressive devices and productive mechanisms. This is a collective professional repression that must be confronted.

[New visual: Images of Magic Lanterns and Slide Projectors]

[John reads in a deliberate, scholarly voice, making sure to speak slowly]

On the fifth of May 1894, in Budapest, the art historian Max Schmidt read a rambunctious paper before the Third International Congress on the History of Art. His subject was the slide projector’s use in the teaching of Kunstgeschichte. Schmidt touted slides as a way to “scientize” the connoisseurship of Raphael and Michelangelo, comparing the new device to a microscope. The slide, Schmidt claimed, [quote] “collapsed the distance of time, it [has] made the past artwork a new creation of our era.” [unquote]

However, slide technology was rooted not in the examining room or in the laboratory. Rather its origins lay in magic lantern entertainments and phantasmagorias, light shows staged at carnivals, séances, and fairs in South Germany as early as 1860.  The aura of this fairground use accompanied the Skioptikon into the art history lecture hall. By the early twentieth century it had become the slide projector’s potential for garish spectacle and necromancy which enhanced its value to art history.  The darkened classroom, the strange pools of light, odd noises emanating from the machine at rear, and the enlargement of pictorial details ---- these all contributed to a new kind of art-historical performance, proximate and akin to art, but not yet art itself. The slide projector in tandem with the pedagogue made artworks stranger, rather than newly demystified.

[New visual: Images of Magic Lanterns and Slide Projectors]

Heinrich Wölfflin’s lectures famously avoided dates and particulars. Instead they proposed “eine Kunstgeschichte ohne Namen,” one which “set itself a goal beyond that of ascertaining external facts.”  At Munich, Wolfflin deployed two projectors for teaching. These ultimately systematized an entire method of art history based on formal comparison. Enthralled students likened Wölfflin’s illuminated talks to operatic performances; Wölfflin used long pauses and deliberate repetitions, and paced furiously back and forth while he spoke. One observer described the effect: “Wölfflin held his audiences spellbound with descriptions of artworks; he would juxtapose good and bad examples to back up his claims, and often ---- not to show off, but to better explain his work methods ---- [he] would share stories about how he wrote and rewrote his books.”

[New visual: Images of Magic Lanterns and Slide Projectors]

Wölfflin’s was indeed an art history without names. Instead he articulated an art historical performance of a name: Wölfflin. The slide projector amplified his scholarly performance in tandem with his subject’s specifics. In a shadowy auditorium, faced with a glowing reproduction of a painting and a charismatic speaker, students were exposed not to the autopsy of the artwork; rather, they experienced a transcendent dislocation to the space of Raphael’s altarpieces themselves. Wölfflin’s dual-image talks were often likened to Wagner’s operas at Bayreuth; and Wagner, it turns out, himself first used slide illumination at the premiere of Das Rheingold in 1876. 

So what are we to make of this? One might argue that in Weberian terms, the later nineteenth century slide lecture became one means to re-sacralize the increasingly autonomous art object. With the use of luminous reproductions in auditoria, old art entered a vernacular of (modern) appearances --- collective conjuration revived through new technology. Here, perhaps, a new kind of ritual, an art historical one, supplanted what Hegel saw as the lost “vocation” of cultic art. Vacillating between a poetics of aesthetic idealism and scientistic clinicality, that is, between Kunst and Wissenschaft, ---- the slide lecture, as a kind of performance, suggested an aesthetic act mandated by the artwork itself. 

[New visual: 1974 College Art Association image]

[Abbey speaks in a scholarly voice]

A century later, in the Spring, 1974 issue of The Art Journal these tensions made themselves explicit once more: until this moment the actions of art historians had never been documented in The Art Journal’s reports on the annual College Art Association Conference. Yet in 1974 ---- at the very moment that performance art was entering the academic mainstream ---- art historians began documenting and --- remarkably --- commenting on their own performative activities.  And in retrospect, it is not hard to understand what was happening: art historians were beginning to realize, however dimly, that they were infringing on alien aesthetic territory --- and that the projects of the visual artist and the art historian were drawing ever closer together.

[*new image: Hans Haacke text]

Consider the forms endorsed by the editors of the journal October throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  Clearly, the journal’s favored art practices corresponded closely to the actions of the art historian: [John speaks] Hans Haacke investigating provenance records; [*new image] [Abbey speaks]Marcel Broodthaers curating art exhibitions; [*new image] [John speaks] Dan Graham publishing materials in art magazines; [*new image] [Abbey speaks] James Coleman manipulating slide projections; [*new image] [John speaks]Andrea Fraser giving gallery talks; [*new image] [Abbey speaks] Michael Asher printing art catalogues. Thus, there can be no question that the era’s most acclaimed “critical” artists were those whose practices intersected most inventively with the professional activities of art historians.  Benjamin Buchloh once referred to these works under the general rubric of “the aesthetic of administration,” yet perhaps it would be more accurate to call this the aesthetic of the art historian.

Which leads us back to another art historical form: the Roundtable.

[New visual: Cover of October 12]

[John speaks in a scholarly voice]

On the fifth of January 1980, Rosalind Krauss, along with Benjamin Buchloh and Annette Michelson gathered in New York for a tape-recorded exchange on the work of Joseph Beuys. This conversation marked one of the first appearances of the journal’s ”roundtable” form, a feature that quickly developed as the trademark platform for the editors’ polemical views on art.  In this case, Beuys’ work was doomed as soon as the conversation began.  Witness Krauss’s question to Michelson: 

[Abbey reads with gusto, but does not take on the “part” of Krauss, etc.  exactly. She retains a brightly objective tone, like a scholar enthusiastically quoting from an interview. John does the same]

Why do we have to deal with this as a trenchant or even interesting idea of Beuys when its been kicking around in avant-garde aesthetics for a hundred years? Everywhere in Beuys work you come up against the sense that….

[John reads Michelson’s response/interjection, wondering and quizzical]

…you’ve been here before…

[Abbey reads Krauss’s rejoinder]

At least once. I’m not sure if he’s simply a fool or a very shrewd trickster, or perhaps he’s a mixture of both.

[New visual: Image of Beuys from October]

[John takes up the narrative]

And so on. The parries and nods of this kind of October criticism have long become familiar, even as the foes and participants change. Indeed, in the October roundtable, the content under scrutiny is often less compelling than watching the arguments and hatchet jobs unfold. The roundtable, which to date has appeared in more than 26 issues of October, has become synonymous with the journals’ tack itself, a para-performance echoing the work under discussion: Michelson picks up Krauss’ spoken cues, Buchloh’s comments, ingenious to be sure ---- become obtuse to the point of mannerism. It can hardly be coincidental that this first October conversation tackled the work of a European artist prominently engaged with performance art. One could perhaps re-imagine Krauss, Michelson, and Buchloh’s spoken word intervention as a kind of performance itself, one spurred by the conviction that Beuys had gotten absolutely everything in his performances wrong. Resisting what Barthes called the “confinements of argument, narrative, and linearity” inherent to the essay form, October substituted good performance for bad.

In other words, if, as Krauss argues elsewhere, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida were the “writers” that students actually read, is it not true that somewhere around 1980 Rosalind Krauss became the performer that students really wanted to see? 

[New visual: gray screen with white letters with the following text:]

“The very existence of a fact as literary depends on its differential quality, that is, on its interrelationships with both literary and extraliterary orders.  Thus, its existence depends on its function. What in one epoch would be a literary fact would in another be a common matter of social communication, and vice versa, depending on the whole literary system in which the given fact appears.”  “On Literary Evolution,” Yuri Tynianov

[After a pause to read the text, Abbey speaks in a scholarly tone]

To paraphrase the literary theorist Yuri Tynianov, we are dealing with the evolution of “artistic facts” here --- just as the critic described the transformation of “literary facts.”  For example, Tynianov emphasized that what once may have been merely a “social fact of communication” (say, a collection of friendly letters) could over time become a “literary fact” (the epistolary novel). What counts as literature changes over time.  Similarly, we have a long art historical tradition of retroactively grasping the artfulness of objects within renewed conceptions of artistic possibility.

From this perspective, it seems that we have traversed a series of transformations within our discipline that have finally come full circle.  We have witnessed the production of a refined, structuralist vocabulary, and the cultivation of a profound sense that there were “stakes” to art history and art criticism.  These are the qualities that made the publications of the High October period (roughly from 1978 to 1996) the only writing that always carried its own weight.  The October writers created and preserved a space for “verifiable” criticism and a historical sensibility that was neither exclusively formalist, nor narrowly sociological in its thrust.  In other words, for most of us, they made art contemporary.

[John speaks]

Then at some point, these writers’ books and essays became progressively looser in form and more adventurous in content.  And gradually it began to dawn on us that the most significant art historians to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s were perhaps not so much historians of modern art, but Modernists who employed art history in the service of a mixed media practice.  In this sense, we see the gradual maturation of a para-artistic project that culminates with T.J. Clark’s appropriately titled 2006 study, The Sight of Death ---- a work that functions as a nearly indescribable hybrid of self-portraiture, poetry, observation and, most striking, an entirely literal record of the art historian acting as an art historian. It should come as no surprise that the work bears the appropriately “modernist” subtitle “an experiment in art writing.” And for anyone who has read it, it is obvious that The Sight of Death is an art project that just happens to take the form of a book.

[Abbey speaks]

Thus, it seems that the art historian’s traditional recourse to contextualizing historicism has always served as a crucial brake on the discipline’s technologically-driven, spatially-organized, performative dimensions.  In this standard version of art historical practice, the slide lecture, the roundtable, the publication, the academic conference, the brown bag lunch ---- that is, everything that literally makes art available to its public ---- is never the message. All of the meaningful stuff of art, so this untold story goes, exists within a narrowly circumscribed interpretive framework, yet it is only a matter of time before ancillary spaces and incidental activities cease to be viewed as abstract, neutral backdrops.

They become historical.  [emphasis on HISTORICAL]

Thank you.

 

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