Monday, January 18, 2010

Out The Door and On The Move

Guest Blogger:
Karsten Lund
Curator and Writer

Years after the arrival of so-called post-studio practices, we've returned for another look at the fixed, grounded environment of artist's studio. I'm interested in trying to align changing perceptions of the studio and the rise of other models of art-making with broader cultural shifts and technological developments. A number of contributors to Studio Chicago have referred to the myth of the heroic artist working in isolation — within that narrative framework the studio is a refuge apart from the world. It's these ideas of disconnection and immobility that I'd like to explore and push against.

Reading between the lines in most analyses of the studio's fate, you'll find that a lot of non- or post-studio art practices rely on a growing mobility, the rising prevalence of travel. Travel gradually became commonplace for artists and the everyman alike. Furthermore, I'd venture that the other side of the coin is the ever-evolving media-technology that brings the big world to us.

It seems safe to say that over the last century, innovations in transportation and telecommunication technologies have led to substantial changes in our culture and even altered our individual ways of experiencing the world. As far back as the late-19th century, with the introduction of the telegraph and railroads, there was talk about how these inventions spelled "the annihilation of space and time." That sounds hyperbolic now, but it signaled the start of something: distances gradually contracting and long durations compressing into the instantaneous. By the 1950s, air travel and television had taken hold, which led Martin Heidegger to observe that a sense of "distancelessness" was encroaching on people's lives.

One could argue that in the decades after that these shifts toward greater mobility and media exposure inevitably affected the kind of artwork being made. Site-specific work, for instance, became bounded to particular places, and artists went off to make Land Art in distant locations. You have to travel to the site or else learn about it through documentation, published descriptions, mediated forms. With new technologies, the wider world starts creep into the home and office more and more; people head to the airport and out along the highways; artists leave the studio. 

Linking these developments together seems like less of a stretch when you note how these questions of mobility feed into more recent art practices, practices that now epitomize a post-studio era. But first, consider the last decade or so: the internet dramatically changes how we relate to each other (across distances); air travel is now totally ubiquitous; statistics show people relocate from one city to another with much greater frequency than a couple generations ago; buzz moves faster and further than ever before. As everyone adjust to new heights of mobility and mediation, so do artists.

In One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon observes that vanguard, site-specific art practices began to center on the movement of the artist, who becomes a nomad on a circuit of biennials and site-oriented commissions. Related ideas even poke through in curator/writer Nicolas Bourriaud's repeated attempts to describe the main currents of contemporary art. In 2002 he made the case for an art of postproduction that "seems to respond to the proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age" — and in this work, he writes, "precariousness is at the center of a formal universe in which nothing is durable, everything is movement." 

If the studio is back, are we collectively searching for stability in the face of precariousness? Are we dying for firmer footing, a chance to stand still? 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, renewed interest in the studio arrives on the heels of an economic collapse. Predominant models, in everyday life as in art, start to seem questionable. A year ago we saw gas prices rise precipitously; the cost of flights ballooned; people began taking "staycations." If America had come to take an easy mobility for granted, this was a wake-up call of sorts. Next, as the bottom fell out of the bucket, pundits even began to wonder if we were witnessing Global Capitalism's death rattle.

From one standpoint, a post-studio approach to art production might appear to be the ticket to a low-cost art practice — No rent! Less objects!— but the rising tide of well-traveled, well-known itinerant artists requires a steady flow of money. Racking up a million frequent flyer miles doesn't come cheap. And site-based commissions themselves can be highly involved, or large and spectacular. 

So, is the perceived return to studio-based practice a retreat? Back to the bunker? Or might it be a refusal of some of the very terms that have come to shape our lives — i.e. real-time media technology and an itch to stay moving? I think back now to the poster that Robyn O'Neil made for The Believer (if I'm remembering correctly), which I saw during her exhibition at Tony Wight this fall. On one side of the poster she humorously and attentively describes her studio practice, and one of the items is emphatically NO INTERNET.

Better yet, can a studio-based practice be the path to a new form of criticality, one that doesn't turn away from these evolving cultural conditions but rather explores their implications from a deliberately steady position? (After all, most of us still only travel occasionally, though we might be on the internet all the time.) 

Tentatively, two Chicago artists come to mind: Curtis Mann and Heather Mekkelson. Mann acquires peoples' snapshots from embattled places like Iraq and Lebanon, sourced via the web, and he reworks them using bleach and varnish. The resulting images suggest a strange new world, yet they also isolate elements from the original locations, amplifying the traces of real-life conflicts. Mekkelson also works from second-hand photographs, specifically pictures depicting the aftermath of natural disasters; based on these images she carefully reproduces the wreckage by hand using new materials from your local Home Depot. Both artists deal with the struggle to meaningfully engage with far away events and places that nonetheless feel accessible online or in photos. In both cases, it seems vital to the work that the artist is primarily operating in a studio setting: i.e. at a distance, with a degree of detachment, and yet responding to their sources in a physical manner — as if trying to feel it all out in a more tangible way. Last week's devastating earthquake in Haiti, and the constant news coverage in its wake, seem to underline the relevance of these ambivalent inquiries all over again.

Or is it possible that revitalized interest in the fixed setting of the studio is just another point along a certain trajectory, a predictable outcome? Media theorist Paul Virilio, with his usual dire outlook, wrote in Open Sky, "We are seeing a reversal in trends: where motorization of transport and information once caused a general mobilization of populations, swept up in the exodus of work and then of leisure, instantaneous transmission tools cause the reverse: a growing inertia; television and especially remote control action no longer require people to be mobile, but merely to be mobile on the spot."

As we return attention to the studio now, perhaps we ought to think about it slightly differently then. Maybe today's studio isn't an isolation chamber cut off from the world, as the cliché goes; the conventional workspace of the studio is yet another staging ground that aims outwards, another node in a networked world. In any case, it's a place, like many others, where we have to contend with the ripples of technology, and also with trends we tend to take for granted, whether mobilization or potential inertia. I'll be the first to admit that this line of thinking begs for a longer essay and a more thorough argument than I can provide now, but the speculative signposts I've planted here at least point to another avenue for discussion.

Karsten Lund  is an independent curator and writer, and the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill Chicago. In 2009 he organized exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Columbia College Chicago) and Swimming Pool Project Space. He holds an MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York.

Images top to bottom
Robyn O'Neil,Masses and masses rove a darkened pool; never is there laughter on this ship of fools, 2007, Courtesy of the artist
Curtis Mann, loudspeaker (Beirut), 2007, Courtesy of the artist
Heather Mekkelson, told them to look after the younger ones, 2008, installation shot: ThreeWallsSOLO, Chicago, Courtesy of the artist

1 comment:

  1. Hey Karsten, thanks for covering Robyn O'Neil -- she's one of my favorite artists and praise for her is well deserved. Her works are haunting and beautiful.