This interview was conducted over 18 months ago. Sean and I (R. Szott) agreed early on that we would exert an extremely light editorial touch in order to allow our conversation to avoid being too polished. There are many things we might have said differently if we took the usual editorial scalpel to things. This is especially true now that so much time has passed between the exchange and its publication. It is also quite long due to its unexpurgated nature. I hope that the patient reader will find it as rewarding to follow Sean’s thoughts as I found it…
Randall Szott: There’s never really an ideal place to start an interview, but maybe my “discovery” of some things you’re up to will work. I stumbled my way into AAAARG.ORG and Telic Arts Exchange and then into The Public School before I realized that you were connected to each of them! There’s an obvious self-organizing/pedagogical thread to those enterprises and a concern with thinking in interesting ways about publics and how to organize, exchange with, or challenge them. This seems to extend across your practice as a whole. I was wondering if you could place these things in their context (as you imagine it) or say whether you see them as intersecting with broader, or even narrower, concerns from other elements in your life and work.
Sean Dockray: You’re right, there is a self-organizing/ pedagogical thread there but with those projects I have been motivated much more by selfishness than by wanting to spread education or knowledge or something like that. What I mean is that I want to be part of a social context in which people are talking and thinking about things, trying to figure out the world we’re in, what we’re doing, why we’re doing what we’re doing, what else we could do, and who we are when I say “we.” Although AAAARG.ORG is about 2 years old, I see it as connected to its previous incarnation aaaarg.e-rat.org and then before that, 9 years ago, Zine.E-Rat.Org. They’re all quite different from one another but I think they’re connected by a desire to get people together online around short pieces of criticism and theory with the hope that we could put those little pieces together into a plan or a big idea or a way forward.
To me, “getting people together” also means trying to find strategies to overcome disciplinary boundaries like art, history, engineering, architecture, design, politics, philosophy, science, etc. This probably comes from my own promiscuity – I’ve gone from mathematics to mechanical engineering to civil engineering to architecture to computer programming to writing to art. Regardless, I discovered that I am rarely as interested in interdisciplinary collaborations (like an artist and a scientist do something and learn something from each other in the process) as in trying my best to ignore the idea of disciplines altogether. For example, the names AAAARG.ORG and The Public School don’t tell you who you have to be to participate. Also, when the conversation revolves around the idea of disciplines, it remains academic regardless of the conclusion. This seems to me another good reason for ignoring them.
I want to also say that these projects aren’t for everyone, but I do want them to be accessible to everyone. In other words, the projects are never changed to make them more appealing, more fun, or more friendly, but I spend a great deal of time trying to make sure that if someone has the attention span that they know what is involved, how they can participate, how the project functions, and so on. The Public School makes transparency of process a central part of its operation. For me, bars, bedrooms, and basements are the best places for conversations about ideas – not university seminar rooms.
Large, ostensibly product-less websites like Facebook, YouTube, and Google fascinate me because they have had such a real cultural impact in a short period of time and they use the labor of millions of people. I think its worthwhile to experiment with similar forms, or platforms, in order to demonstrate alternatives because for all the insidious data mining and lifestyle marketing, these things have an enormous amount of potential for those of us in the world of cultural production.
One more thing: I studied architecture in college and I remember being paralyzed by the realization that 98% of all new construction – or something like that – in this country is not designed by architects. And at the same time, we were relentlessly driven to arrive at a building at the conclusion of every project. It was very frustrating because it seemed like architecture was all about transforming the material world but then we were making drawings and models of stuff that would never get built. Since then, I’ve become more interested in working outside of architecture on a 1:1 scale, producing models that exist and function in the world, and that hopefully transform the context they’re put into.
RS: The first thing that jumps out at me in your answer is the crucial distinction you draw between creating “something for everyone” vs. “open to everyone. “I find that people can be critical of something like AAAARG.ORG because the texts and conversations there tend to be extremely academic and a very particular type of academic thinking as well. In fact, I made that criticism to you. But nothing in its structure dictates that it must be that way. So critics, including myself, have the opportunity to post other things, and start other kinds of conversations. If we pass on that opportunity, that’s our responsibility. Or do you think you should take a more active role in “steering” things?
SD: Everything you say is true but although anyone could post anything, that doesn’t happen, as you’ve noticed. Some people tend to conform to the existing context and other people are just not interested by it, period. Social networking websites usually seem to be for everyone – the whole point is that you will define your own territory with other people like you somewhere within the site. Any exclusions are explicit (spelled out in the terms of service) but exclusion is not really in the spirit of those things, so what exclusions there are can be blamed on the users. Any “open-system” is never entirely open. There are always rules (explicit and implicit) and customs and initial conditions and the general look of things.
A few notes about AAAARG.ORG: there are practically no instructions anywhere; it really is not user friendly; I do respond to emails explaining over and over how to contribute texts, if someone writes to ask; I have uploaded some of the texts, people I have personally pulled onto the site have uploaded some others, and total strangers account for the rest. I think it’s important to mention what I mean when I say I “pull” people on to the site. When I was younger, I had good friends in several different contexts but those contexts never really overlapped. Nevertheless, I had always maintained this hope that at some point we would all be living together, which was probably selfish and naive. Similarly, I often now find myself involved in some temporary social formation – a simple friendship, a collaborative project, an exhibition that I am organizing, teaching a studio class, a staff member at a university hired to help the grad students, etc. – and somehow we all get to talking about ideas in relation to short non-fiction texts. I want to read what other people are excited about and also to give what I find useful. But more than that, I want those different parts of my life to join together somehow. So I always push AAAARG.ORG on just about everyone I meet that I think would appreciate it and hope that it grows into something.
Your distinction between letting positive feedback drive something into homogeneity versus “steering things” is extremely important. Although I probably have a more optimistic view than you of the variety of thought on AAAARG.ORG, I do wince when a few very academic things come in. With The Public School we probably strike a better balance between the two. Nonetheless, I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to wrestle the type of writing that tends to be on AAAARG.ORG away from the academy (by which I mean institutionalized education). Yes, a lot of the irritating habits, terminologies, and funny jokes are products of that institution but I feel as if a certain mode of critical thought was given over to the academy at some point (or they hijacked it) where I don’t find it terribly alive.
RS: When you mention “bars, bedrooms, and basements,” it immediately brings to mind something I quote far too often from the philosopher Richard Shusterman: “After the conference papers are over, we go slumming in their bars.” This resonates directly with your sensibility in that he’s critiquing the institutions of academe for being unable to recognize the value of the various informal settings and practices that contribute to intellectual and social life. What I find so appealing in your projects is the various ways you try to square the circle, so to speak, of creating a structure that both makes a conversation more than just a conversation but also just a conversation. Does this make sense to you? You mentioned “transparency of process” with regard to The Public School but I guess what I’m getting at is do you think about transparency of apparatus as well? Would you like for the way the platform stages things to fade into the background? Or is part of what interests you foregrounding how these “social contexts” shape the possibilities of community and learning?
I would think architecture offers an interesting perspective on disciplinarity. It is its own discipline, of course, but it is quite broadly constructed as a discipline. One of the things that always appealed to me about art is the invitation “to ignore the idea of disciplines altogether” as you put it. Unfortunately, not enough artists take up this invitation and we end up with a lot of those insipid collaborations you mention. Florian Waldvogel makes some useful distinctions between multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity. Basically, the first is disciplines working along side one another around a common issue, the next is an exchange of concepts and methods and the last, which I think is what you’re getting at, approaches problems independently of specific disciplinary methods and creates disciplinary mongrels in which ideas dictate method/form rather than the reverse.
Finally, your thoughts on the ways you’ve decided to employ architecture toward ends other than buildings are touched on in a piece you co-wrote titled Building Sound: An Alternative Medium for Architectural Research. The summary of the piece on your website describes it as thinking about “…using radio as a platform for broadcasting architecture.” It is much more than that – it’s really a riff on how to utilize architecture, or architectural thinking, to construct things in the broadest possible sense of “construct” and “things.” Could you say a bit more about how that essay came to be written, and where you are now relative to it?
SD: I am very interested in how context shapes our social relations and knowledge. And I am also very interested in the staging being apparent because among other things it is often a good conversational device. But, as you put it, it should be “just a conversation” at a certain point which I take to mean that it should work, it should be functional. Sometimes critique seems pointless because it has a certain “no shit” quality to it (thank you for pointing out what we already know, now what?) At the same time there seems to be a cultural desire to be beyond critique, which is dangerous. I’d like to have it both ways.
Architecture’s perspective on disciplinarity is definitely a God’s-eye-view. Vitruvius begins his Ten Books on Architecture with, “The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgment that all work done by the other arts is put to test.” Anyway, you are probably right that I would align myself more with the last of those three choices. But I am also tempted to say that no matter how we rearrange our relationship to the disciplines, it never ceases being academic when we think about it in those terms. Are these different mutations of disciplinarity primarily invested in rehabilitating the academy?
There was a symposium in 2004 at UCLA’s architecture department called “Media, Messages, and Modes” which I think was formed to acknowledge the rise of architecture magazines and monographs as places where architectural research was happening and to question the point of an architecture PhD and how the dissertation might become more culturally relevant. At the time, Fiona Whitton (my partner and co-director of Telic), Tom Pilla, and I were producing a monthly radio program within an organization called the Institute for Advanced Architecture (IAA), and one of the symposium organizers asked me to give a presentation about this radio project. We (with another member of the IAA) wrote Building Sound, which is not very acceptable academic writing. When presenting, I showed slides and held up a radio to a microphone while Fiona broadcasted the Building Sound text from the school’s exhibition space – it was totally ignored for the rest of the symposium. I thought we did something really special because in the process of broadcasting our talk, we were also broadcasting to thousands of people who would have driven through the signal on the nearby 405 freeway. Sure, it was a literal way to break beyond the walls of the institution but it seemed like the symposium was asking for these kinds of provocations; instead discussion was focused around papers that encroached ever closer to the vernacular (dissertations about malls and suburban houses, for example). It was an experience that demonstrated to me that quirky subject matter alone doesn’t democratize something.
I actually just re-read our essay again for the first time in two years because of your question. One thing that immediately jumped out at me is from the “On The Expanded Audience” section which concludes, “This may not be a radio of mass-appeal but it should be a radio of mass-availability” which obviously resonates with what we were discussing above with the “for everyone” vs “open to everyone.” From my perspective, the piece basically argued that architects are missing the boat by carrying on myopically about buildings, and pictures of buildings ,when there are so many other games out there, so many ways to be designing the world, which is ostensibly the goal of the profession. Radio was the subject of the Building Sound essay but it hopefully gestured towards media and communication networks in general, things we were thinking about while producing the show. I think that may have been one of the first projects where I wasn’t working at model scale or representing something and so the essay has an undercurrent of coming to terms with that. Since then, I’ve been pulled more towards the art discourse – not because I was so enamored with art but because I thought a lot of art’s “to scale” experimentations were exciting in a way that I wished architecture would be. I’m thinking about lots of things – an unordered tip of the iceberg could be the inflatables fad in the early 70s, Tim Hawkinson’s Uberorgan, Andrea Fraser’s tours, Vito Acconci performances, the Center for Land Use Interpretation and its neighbor the Museum of Jurassic Technology, etc. The creation of informal, temporary spaces, worlds, experiences, institutions, and so on seemed to me what architects could be doing but generally weren’t, or if they were they didn’t always identify as architects anymore.
RS: I’m going to resist the temptation to respond point by point and zero in on your mention of how you came to art as a field of operation. I’ve talked and written a bit about people who are in art not because of some love for art itself but because of the pragmatic/experimental possibilities it offers. Another quote I use too often comes from the collective IC-98:
“…the world of contemporary art has proved to be the most flexible environment for diverse projects, being a free zone of experimentation within the society at large…the projects are labeled art only for strategic reasons – the strategy works as long as the concepts of art do not come to dominate the discourse…you call yourself artist, just because it is institutionally convenient…”
So I’m wondering if this resonates with you. If so, I’m wondering how, or if, you try to insure that your “to scale” experiments don’t become bogged down in the disciplinary baggage of art. Or do I have it all wrong? Are you interested in what framing things as art brings to the table?
SD: Running Telic Arts Exchange for a few years was interesting for me – before that I assumed galleries just bracketed off Art from the Life outside. It wasn’t long before I began thinking that galleries weren’t so special after all. They looked like art… barren and bright and unusual but, in the end, they were plain old shops just like everything else in the world. Then I thought that maybe what our gallery could do is be more like the world but at the same time be clearly something different, something not in the world. So I found myself interested in establishing a real boundary between art and life but this could be more of a mental boundary than a physical one. That is the framing I’m most interested in and I would lose interest in a project once that frame disappears.
I feel as though it is fashionable at the moment to say that we can “take advantage” of art’s networks of distribution to extend, expand, and connect projects, although it is certainly true to an extent. Maybe I’m a pessimist but I think capital will do this (extend, expand, and circulate) to us and our projectsto us and our projects regardless, whether or not we’re being strategic. Certainly we could insist on making our projects invisible so they continue to function primarily locally but I don’t see that as being inherently any better.
None of this really has to do with art history or disciplinarity. I suppose I don’t care very much about those things. I am attracted to art because some of the people are interesting to talk to and listen to (of course there are loads of bores too).
Although I run AAAARG.ORG, a theory text-sharing website, I feel embarrassed when I mention a theorist but there are a few times where a tiny little passage will plague me for years and so I talk about that passage a lot. Lately, it has been this one interview with Michel Foucault, called “Friendship as a way of life” where Foucault describes the relationship between men as something without a pre-existing model or institution and therefore something that requires constant invention. To me this perfectly sums up the spirit of what I would like out of my own life and projects.
RS: I’m in a bind here. Your answer is a good stopping point for the interview since you end with a summing up but I really feel like there’s a lot to take issue with.
It seems like you’re imagining a scenario where you can have it both ways, or several ways: gallery as just a shop, gallery as frame but somehow not the frame of art history, and you’d lose interest in a project without the frame? Then it is the frame that interests you and not the project which I find weird. And isn’t there a huge range of possibilities between using an art frame and making the project “invisible?” I’m also wondering where it’s fashionable to talk about using art networks tactically because I’ve rarely heard it said aloud.
As for your statement, “None of this really has to do with art history or disciplinarity. I suppose I don’t care very much about those things. I am attracted to art because some of the people are interesting to talk to and listen to (of course there are loads of bores too).” Isn’t this attitude exactly what I was alluding to in my question? This seems to indicate that operating in art is an entirely practical decision, i.e. a good place to find interesting people. This doesn’t seem to square with your more disicpline specific interest in framing experience.
SD: I feel like it’s barely started! We can’t end yet…
I think your email is so incredibly perceptive and right on it makes me feel a little naked. But there are a couple points I think I should respond to. The bigger thing is that I didn’t actually read your question in relation to our prior conversation and so my position to art comes off as even more schizo than usual. Concerning the scenario where I want to have it both ways: for some of the projects I was talking about (Telic Arts Exchange, The Public School) the project is the frame. One day we were having a lecture and I asked myself what the difference would be if it weren’t a lecture but a class. I think the difference is substantial. People generally come expecting to put themselves into it: they will prepare in advance, they will carry on relationships afterward, people even intuitively assign a different economic value to the two experiences. I am interested in framing – not for institutional legitimization but for the way the frame changes the way we treat the world (I’m sure this overlaps with the claims of aesthetics or art history but I’m just pretty ignorant about all of that.)
Anyway, I am interested in the projects, I swear! I consider the frame to be more about sensibility, enthusiasm, and energy than about territory, if that makes sense. And yes, I’ve failed in my explanation if I haven’t expressed a position of exploring the possibilities between using an art frame and making the project “invisible.” It was stupid to send my response so quickly. Fatherhood has me doing a lot things in some kind of hazy delirium.
I’ve heard talk about using art networks tactically in a couple panels and in discussions at the public school! I realize “fashionable” is a judgmental word but I am interested in these discussions and am currently trying to enact them to a certain extent (“franchising” the public school). I think we should stay conscious of the fact that our “tactical use” of these networks satisfies the needs of international culture industry and maybe we’re not always as in control as we think we are (especially when using macho terminology like tactical and strategic).
Yes and I totally agree with what you’re alluding to. I never really saw art as discipline specific, so much as just plain reflective. For example, I think our government should have more accountability and discussion about why we’re doing what we’re doing and what other possibilities there are. I don’t think of this as particularly art historical, although I do see your point that art history has institutionalized this kind of self-reflection.
I just can’t stop! More on this…
“So I’m wondering if this resonates with you. If so, I’m wondering how, or if, you try to insure that your “to scale” experiments don’t become bogged down in the disciplinary baggage of art. Or do I have it all wrong? Are you interested in what framing things as art brings to the table?”
One of these experiments might have been the video game that Fiona and I made, called PACK-MAN, which was just a hack of PAC-MAN so that five people controlled the character instead of just one (rather than moving him, it was more like you were voting on where he should move and that was being tabulated in real time in a pretty fun/ frustrating way). After making the game, we invited people from the internet to make new games for the video game console that we had engineered and then had a “screening” of sorts with those games, which came in from all over the world. The disciplinary baggage of art just never came up. The game was extremely visceral – it would make you squirm in your seat and yell at your neighbor. But it’s not as if art was somehow holding the game back from being something more interesting. There wasn’t really any art interest in it to speak of. To be honest it was the same thing with Telic – we did fantastic things and many people enjoyed them but there was just not much friction or dialogue with art collectors, writers, curators, tastemakers, etc. (with few exceptions). My investment scheme, the fundraising show, and AAAARG.ORG are all the same story.
So any answer I could give is really pretty speculative. What I can answer is why I’m even hanging out in this part of town at all:
– I like people that I’ve found within the context of art. There are people who try and create other ways of living, working, coexisting, and so on.
– An analogy: when I was younger I only ate meat and starches. I became a vegetarian at some later point. There were many meals in which I couldn’t participate or partake, or I’d limit myself to the “sandwiches” section of the menu. Now, I will try anything you serve me and I look at the whole menu which makes me feel so much happier.
– The fact is there are networks of publicity, distribution, sharing, exhibition, etc. in place that change what’s possible with a project and who it can reach. I’m skeptical of my ability to “use” these networks and still smell clean but it’s something to consider, especially because it links up with the first point.
So, maybe one of the good things about not being very successful at art is that I end up being fairly oblivious to the real weight of that disciplinary baggage you’re talking about.
The “framing” part of your question brings up definition and territoriality that I tried to address previously, mainly by appealing to another possibility for framing which is more about a philosophy than drawing lines in the sand. Obviously there is some line-drawing involved but I think it is less about making pronouncements (“this is art”) than it is about being a part of a bigger conspiracy (its an arts context because the people I referenced in my first point act as if it were true). Honestly, Randall, I feel stupid writing too much about framing as art and non-art because I don’t feel like I have much to offer because I can’t tell where the answers get us.
Anyway, this all seems to be winding down. I’m a little sad about it because I enjoy corresponding with you and (obviously judging from the last paragraph) there is a certain self-assessment that your questions have given which has been rewarding and helpful for me.
RS: It’s funny how this interview has sprawled into a messier conversation. I was concerned with it being a bit formulaic but happy that it had stayed a manageable edit and now it has taken on a real life, “something that requires constant invention.” So I’m going to abandon specifying what is and is not part of the sanctioned dialog and really plunge in now. This is difficult though as I am out at sea and this makes concentrating difficult.
I guess my concern is that the way the frame changes perceptions is often a distraction. My go-to example is eating curry in a gallery. If you want to think about what it means to eat curry in a gallery or as art, then framing it in an art context obviously makes sense. But if your interest is in curry, or creating convivial relationships, then maybe eating it at home with your friends is the way to go. I personally couldn’t care less what it means to eat/make curry as art!
Now the idea of frame-as-sensibility is interesting but I wonder if creating that sensibility in a new context, other than an art one might not be more potent. I’m feeling like I give the art context too much power and you give it too little.
As for fatherhood causing you to do a lot of things “in some kind of hazy delirium,” welcome to the club!
Art has certainly tried to take ownership of a certain kind of reflexive thinking and art history has done its bit to chronicle the lineage of that thinking. What concerns me is that art as a method is too coupled with art as a discipline. I think this is what Kaprow was dealing with for years with his notion of the unartist. How do we create and experience things in complex multi-faceted ways without always getting bogged down in an art historical dialog? To use a loaded example, how do I experience for myself what it is like to play chess with a nude woman without having to talk about Duchamp? Or to be less loaded, with a nude man? The point being the “experience” is often usurped into a historical-critical artlike (to further evoke Kaprow) art conversation. The genius of Kaprow in my estimation is that he saw this so clearly and laid out a road map, an escape route. I lament that so few people appear to have really taken the plunge.
As for being tactical and strategic, yes, well I’m a very macho guy which is why I want to play chess with a naked woman! I use the term tactical because it has such currency but often substitute practical/pragmatic. Yes, I completely agree about the complications involved in tactical use of art networks which is why I’m always harping on the art baggage associated with choosing to operate that way. I was puritanical for several years about this and at that time would not have even engaged in this interview/conversation but have since decided that the trade-offs are in fact worth it at times.
I’ll try to get into a bit more later but I have to go make some brownies. Man, we’ve really flipped the script! If you’re up for it, I think it could be nice to publish two versions of the interview – the formal, edited version; and the raw material (including even this proposal). We could have links to both and people could see which was more useful, boring or otherwise…
SD: I agree with the broad strokes of what you wrote but I don’t see what I’m doing as making curry. To go back to the radio show paper we talked about earlier, this gesture of domesticating the world by bringing it in to architectural discourse (writing an academic paper about non-academic topics) or into the gallery (curry) is less interesting to me than in what I think is the opposite motion.
What complicates this for me is that three of the projects I’m talking about are galleries. Maybe the analogy breaks down a little (it’s not bringing a gallery into the gallery) but at the same time, why do they have to be galleries? Why can’t they be ___? And here I have to admit that I’m relying on the idea of the gallery as something that people (not only art people!) get.
A recent one is the Distributed Gallery, which is basically an arrangement I made with a few business owners in my neighborhood (where Telic Arts Exchange is and where I have lived for the past four years) to put video monitors in their businesses, without obstructing normal business. They are a restaurant called Via Cafe, an antiques and other cultural objects store named Fong’s, and an art clothes and bookstore, Ooga Booga. Oh, there is a fourth monitor in The Public School.
Even The Public School isn’t bringing a school into the gallery. Rather, we had a gallery (Telic Arts Exchange) for a few years and eventually decided that a school made a more interesting model for promoting, distributing, talking about, and attracting the kinds of practices and ways of thinking that we were interested in. So, we changed the gallery into a school.
All that aside, I agree with the spirit of your analogy except that I don’t always want to do things with friends (eating curry, maybe). I enjoy having public spaces for our differences and disagreements to play out. In a way, this conversation is a tiny version of that. How do we sustain that kind of playing field? Because I do value it. I guess I’m returning to the idea of “frame.” Maybe the word itself is a little rigid and too much about carving out space, about insides and outsides. If that’s what an arts context is then it will always be problematic in ways that you’ve been convincingly describing.
Yes! Can you elaborate more on this paragraph?
“Now the idea of frame-as-sensibility is interesting, but I wonder if creating that sensibility in a new context, other than an art one might not be more potent. I’m feeling like I give the art context too much power and you give it too little.”
I think I agree with you wholeheartedly, even if our misaligned perceptions are written into it.
Each morning, I wake up thinking what did I write last night? Even these emails are written in between episodes of dancing, making sausage rolls, eating dinner, filling the bath, sending an email for work. The partial attention is frustrating but of course I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I’m conflicted because I feel like I agree with you and Kaprow here, but…I like talking about things, Duchamp included! And I don’t think experience is just some raw, primal pure moment, but something that is accompanied by talking, wondering, doubting, remembering. It doesn’t bother me that people talk about Duchamp, even in the midst of an interesting experience, I just think it’s a shame if the conversation starts and ends there.
What are the trade-offs that you see?
RS: As has been duly noted by legions of folks the gallery is something people “get” because it has a specific history as a form. Why not a community center? Or, my favorite, a public library? Both of those seem more flexible as sites for bringing various publics together. Public libraries have meeting spaces that can be used for video screenings, board meetings, birthday parties, book signings, etc. Sure, it too has an institutional history but unlike a gallery it isn’t circumscribed by basically one disciplinary form. What does the gallery provide? Seemingly the precise thing you want to ignore…
The public library is one of the last great civic institutions and one well suited to address your desire for “public spaces for our differences and disagreements to play out.” And it also has the potential to draw a far more diverse group of people. I’d also offer the Lyceum and Chautauqua movements from the 19th century as forms to modify and utilize. To some degree, I think the Public School might be an example, but there is a vast history that seems barely tapped from those movements.
Maybe this addresses the “new context” you asked me to speak more about? Or maybe you wanted me to say more about our divergent takes on the frame…
Of course I’m not interested in some idea of pure, or primal experience, or what some might call “authenticity.” There is however, a qualitative difference in experience that is historicized or art historicized and one that is not. There is a difference in intellectualizing experience and surrendering to somatic sensation, too. I am bored with, and frustrated by, the incessant drive of many art worlders to bring everything into the intellectual/historical/critical/curatorial fold. Sometimes a conversation is better suited as just that – a conversation and not some parsed meta-conversational performance, something to be framed, examined, interrogated, deconstructed, etc. This leads to the obligatory Zen reference – Don’t confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself. And yeah, I know “the moon itself” is a complicated notion, especially to the kinds of people that write for exhibition catalogs. To them I say (doing my best Nietzsche): relax your crooked soul, have a glass of wine, and enjoy the moonlight. There will be plenty of time tomorrow for your zeal, your seriousness, and the fury your academic analysis!
“What are the trade offs that you see?”
Hey, who’s interviewing who here? I think the trade offs for me were simple – continue with the art of living as I imagined it and have a few, deep conversations/experiences with people in my immediate circle. Or tap into a much larger network and open things up all the while having to be in evasion mode and spending an inordinate amount of time explaining why art is not particularly relevant to what I’m interested in doing, or rather explaining what unart is. The art world is filled with interesting people, to be sure, but it’s also filled with myopic snobs and interminable bores. I basically decided that it was worth dealing with those folks to get to the interesting ones.
To get back to Kaprow and Duchamp: I decided I would skip a step and drop out immediately rather than build a career or credibility and then drop out as they did. Eight years of doing nothing, but doing a very particular kind of nothing, was enough. At the end of that time I had my purity but I missed out on a bigger conversation and came to see my hyper-localism as potentially selfish, hermetic. So here I am now able to think through things with someone like you. It is well worth the trouble.
SD: Well some of the shop owners who are hosting televisions for the Distributed Gallery get a gallery and, even if they think it’s an odd form for a gallery to take, they are more receptive to working with me on hosting the monitors because they see it as a part of something bigger. And it also helps when I try and get people to choose videos to put onto those televisions every month. I think I see what you’re saying but I maintain that the form of the gallery can be put into action in interesting ways, particularly in our neighborhood where the split between Chinatown tourism and contemporary art is fairly even.
Maybe this is really the wrong project for me to be bringing up because it doesn’t really aspire to “bringing publics together” in the way you’re describing. It is much more personal – I am having these ongoing relationships with friends/ business-owners in the neighborhood I rarely leave. It’s alarmingly intimate! And then, we don’t do any press releases or curatorial texts for the exhibitions. I just have a long conversation with whoever chose/ made the work for that month. I mean, I do sincerely hope that the patrons of these different businesses goes to the other shops but the scale and nature of discussion is much different than a local library. For example, an artist wants to show something pornographic and then I have to figure out how to handle the expectations for creative freedom that contemporary art instills with the totally understandable objections that someone with opinions and a business might have. It’s a bunch of very small interactions but I find them exciting, even if they occur under the rubric of a gallery.
I mean, I like some art too! And there are artists that I want to support. I do kind of think that a gallery is often the worst thing for an artist but not always. I guess my way of thinking is very American – if I don’t like it then do something about it. I mean, we got rid of our gallery and replaced it with The Public School. I am not sure I could agree with you any more (except for starting two new galleries immediately afterwards).
Maybe this addresses the “new context” you asked me to speak more about? Or maybe you wanted me to say more about our divergent takes on the frame… I’ve been overthinking things as long as I can remember. Long before I knew about any folds! I feel as though you’re setting up these oppositions that I can’t choose between. On the one hand, I completely buy what you are saying in your critique of intellectualizing experience but at the same time I am personally incapable of having a conversation without having a conversation about the conversation at the same time, and this started years before I’d ever seen a piece of art from the 20th century. As you can imagine, I am irritating at a party but this doesn’t have to have anything to do with art.
In spite of your claims for dropping out or disappearing or doing nothing, you’ve left quite a formidable trail of thought over the last few years on the internet, much of it very critical writing about art. Maybe this is all very cohesive for you but there is an ambivalence between leaving it all behind and wrestling with it, occasionally on its own terms (maybe the archival nature of the internet skews my perception and sense of time a little though? But it does seem like you’ve built up some credibility!)
So after eight years is there any conflict for you or is that my own projection and has it really become as transactional as you’ve described? By that I mean a trade-off, where you know what you want and you know what you need to do to get what you want. I am fascinated that you’ve spent so long doing “nothing” and that you’re maybe pulling an appearance act. But I guess what I’m wondering is there a risk for you? In what way do you expect to be transformed in this process (conflict) or do you not expect to be (transaction)?
Yes, I did also want you to write more about this “feeling like I give the art context too much power and you give it too little” comment because I think it is central to some of what we’re discussing. Does “too little” mean that I don’t acknowledge the decisions or values or ways of working that it foists on us? And “too much” means that you attribute almost magical capabilities for it to govern our practice, with little hope for us to evade it? I like to imagine that I am thoughtful about this but you still are probably right. But could you explain what you really meant if I’m wrong?
Anyway, your point was that it might be more potent to operate (frame-as-sensibility) in a different context. For me, this returns to a centrifugal desire (art dispersing outwards) as opposed to a centripetal one (the world selectively brought in to be “dealt with” by art). What I want to think about is how the things that I value (the people, the conversation, the occasional thoughtfulness, the experimentation, the disagreement, etc) continue to function through this movement.
You’ve written a couple of times about the tendency to over-think, over-analyze, over-historicize, over-frame within art discourse. And I do agree with you except that I think there is not enough thinking and talking going on. A lot of that energy has been corralled into artist statements and thesis papers and monographs and formula lectures and so on. These circulate easily but in my mind they are distinct from a thinking and talking that doesn’t resolve easily into a format, that is as undefined and self-contradictory as the world itself, that becomes something else and something else again, that doesn’t stand up to time, that doesn’t respond to the compulsion to do, that… etc. I’m sleepy again.
I’m not sure how long you imagine this conversation continuing but I want you to know that I will keep going until it exhausts itself, or you pull the plug!
RS: Wow, you really hit your stride in the last message!
You’re absolutely correct in seeing me as deeply conflicted. It’s like a bad relationship I just can’t end! Or I could try to dress it up in this Kaprow quote: “Nonart advocates, according to this description, are those who consistently, or at one time or other, have chosen to operate outside the pale of art establishments–that is, in their heads or in the daily or natural domain. At all times, however, they have informed the art establishment of their activities, to set into motion the uncertainties without which their acts would have no meaning.” I’m conflicted about that too as I’m not convinced the acts would have no meaning.
I have built up visibility or “an appearance act” as you term it, and others can judge whether that translates into credibility.
It’s funny because I am familiar with the term “transaction” in John Dewey’s sense. That sense is more like the way you employ “conflict.” For Dewey a social transaction involves the co-transformation of participants. It is a process based epistemology that seeks to avoid the usual dualisms of subject/object, mind/body etc. So yes, I very much hope that my relationship with the art world and the world generally is transactional, in my [Dewey’s] sense.
I think you have this right concerning me: being polemical is a nasty habit of mine and therefore I tend to veer towards “almost magical” attributions too often. I know that you are thoughtful, deeply so, about your projects, but in the course of our conversation it seems like you’ve consistently dismissed any potentially negative effects of art framing. I think another possible explanation lies in our own histories. I have consistently claimed that the things I do/have done are not art and that seems to invite people to disprove it. So I’ve had far too many conversations about why something is art. Since the frame is a given in your endeavors, in a funny way it is less visible as such. For instance, in describing the PACK-MAN piece you noted the idea of art never came up. So maybe we each need to reverse positions!
I’m pretty sure we are in agreement. My complaint is not with thinking, per se, but with the highly specialized and insular form of thinking that seems to dominate certain segments of the art world. And I love the notion of art discourse corralling thought. That metaphor resonates with my concern for making things projects, pieces, works, etc. It puts experience into a pen, chases it down, ties it up…The range of what is thinkable in the art world suffers from its narrowly conceived theoretical canon. There are so many forms of thoughtfulness and intelligence (especially emotional intelligence) that get swept aside in the embrace of what I feel is “theoretical fundamentalism.” Compassion, empathy, sympathy, love, pleasure, fun, etc. all bow down before the high theoretical altar and are approved only after proving that they’re not “just” fun or “just” tender but have a whole theoretical/intellectual armature beneath them that make it okay. I think you’re right to point out that a good deal of art world conversation ends up as a formulaic enactment, one that too often tends to “resolve easily into a format.” Ultimately I just wish that there were more at stake than what amounts to artsy thought experiments. Haven’t we basically shifted from art for art’s sake to academic criticality for academic criticality’s sake? And what have we gained in the process? Not much, if you ask me – thinner and thinner slices of experience parsed by narrower and more specialized tools yet cloaked in the banner of openness and diversity. Feels a bit like greenwashing…
SD: Wow, that Kaprow quote is an interesting one. There is a part of Bourriaud’s book Postproduction where he writes (I’m not going to bother looking this up, so I could very well be wrong here) that the exhibition space could operate as a kind of “basecamp” for art explorations afield. These guys are so far apart in so many ways but Kaprow’s quote does seem structurally similar here – art is the thing we always have to report back to. I haven’t thought this through before but it seems like describing having a computer but not a network connection. You can play games, write essays, make pictures and movies on your computer, but you just don’t have the same people around, the same system of distribution, and the “reporting” kind of keeps your connection active. One very well can cut the cord and do what they do and it still has meaning, of course, just not in the same way with the same people.
I mean the network analogy, although terrible in certain respects, is fun to think about with Dewey’s transactions: i.e., to think about the ways that writing, making videos, etc. changes when we’re doing it in tandem with a lot of other people (shooting a home movie to put on YouTube vs shooting a home movie to watch whenever you feel like setting up the projector in your place). Have things gotten to the point that a book we’ve read has no meaning unless we report on it to our friends or the public in some online forum? I don’t know if this is appropriate – sorry to shift art-specific discussion to culture in general but I feel as though these are all connected. After all, our very specific discussion is being conducted at a distance in solitude but through the Internet, the very thing that even made us aware of each other in the first place.
I have lately been referencing this one passage in Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy about “articulation”, which I’ve remembered to broadly refer to that same transaction (although they are writing more about how groups with uncommon causes create chains of equivalence to form some kind of political movement). I’ve mainly been interested in talking about collaboration not as finding common ground – or each doing what we’re good at to get something done that we couldn’t do individually – but as working to a vaguely common goal with the understanding that we’ll each be transformed in the process (the first two are premised on a pretty stable sense of identity, unlike the latter). Anyways, I’d like to read more Dewey. I had a passing affair with pragmatism that I wouldn’t mind rekindling.
I recently had a discussion with someone who works on projects that I think are quite similar in motivation and spirit to what I do. He says that he does not call himself an artist but that in conversation with someone from the arts, it usually ends up at the reverse position, with that person saying, “You actually are an artist!” And I thought, my experience is the opposite. When asked “Are you an artist?” I will respond “yes.” But by the end of the conversation the person usually has their doubts. I think I prefer that!
I think focusing on the crossing in and out of the art frame – on one’s position with respect to the art frame – focuses attention on the art frame and makes it all mostly about the art frame. This is the art frame that generates all of those conversations about “Is it art? Or is it not art?” Those very conversations seem to be one of the most negative effects of art framing! That’s not to say there aren’t others though – maybe we could be more specific about what they are? It used to be that commodification was one, right? (I take the position that absolutely anything can be bought and sold if someone wants to buy it badly enough, so maybe it’s an obsolete concern.) I think limiting of the people who tend to be involved is another that you’ve brought up. I don’t want to totally evade your question but I think I need to know more of what you have in mind.
Even a week later, I am still taking this in: “to ‘resolve easily into a format.’ Ultimately I just wish that there were more at stake than what amounts to artsy thought experiments. Haven’t we basically shifted from art for art’s sake to academic criticality for academic criticality’s sake? And what have we gained in the process? Not much, if you ask me – thinner and thinner slices of experience parsed by narrower and and more specialized tools yet cloaked in the banner of openness and diversity. Feels a bit like greenwashing…”
RS: I wonder where you’ve gone with my “artsy thought experiments” comment. I also wonder where we are with our conversation and if you’ve imagined what might come of it beyond being an interview…
SD: Well you wanted more at stake than artsy thought experiments. Who can disagree with that? I’m a little torn though because I think there is a widespread, popular hostility to theory that attracts me to it. The thing is maybe to distinguish between theory and artsy thought experiments. Am I completely missing the point here?
Because of the sputtering last couple weeks, I feel a little as though our conversation is a land mass that’s still identifiable but lost its detail (writing to you makes me picture myself on a boat).
Well, quite obviously I hope that we stay in touch. I’d like to think it already went a little beyond being an interview, but I might be flattering myself to say that. I honestly feel privileged that you’ve taken the time to ask some very difficult questions and help me see things that might be limiting what I do, or choices I’ve accepted rather than made. In a way I don’t feel like it’s my place to imagine any more because I’m certain I probably got more out of this conversation than you did.
RS: Well the hostility to theory is not from the inside, is it? In my experience, it is only non-art people who have a (mostly well placed) aversion to theory precisely because it’s so hard to distinguish it from artsy gobbledy-gook.
The sentiment you’re expressing in your last statement is, well, NUTS. This conversation was so enriching and I’m so glad you agreed to it. I believe we’ve definitely move from “friends” to friends. That might be a good title?
SD: Oh, I wasn’t even thinking of artists using theory so much as the social practice of thinking in general. I understand that “theory” is now an umbrella term for all sorts of postmodern academic styles of writing and discussion that end up like inbreeding for ideas. I want to be clear that I am not defending this (whether in art or higher level education in general) even if I am using the term. Rather than taking up a position on the inside or on the outside, I like the idea of a parallel existence. I think young people do that with music. The idea of successive generations toppling each other like dominos makes less sense to me than the mutations that happen when things get done wrong and become really persuasive and amazing ideas. Although I don’t always have the self-discipline to do it. Thinking positively and keeping moving, when in an argument, always seems to lead to a more fulfilling place rather than taking a position of conflict (baggage).
It’s obviously nostalgia but I’m fascinated by a number of individuals who were alive in the 19th century doing things that seem radically disjunctive now, i.e. philosopher-businessmen-scientist types. You mentioned the Lyceums and Chautauqua, which I hadn’t heard of but I’ve looked them up and they’re definitely part of this same context. It seems as if life hadn’t been separated into the categories we find dominant now. I feel like we’re in a similar moment of cultural transformation where we really just don’t understand the world we live in. Theory should be a practice of thinking that helps us make that world better (unfortunately, it is the language of specialized academic discourse).
Sean Dockary is an artist in Los Angeles. He is a co-director of Telic Arts Exchange (http://telic.info) and has initiated a handful of collaborative projects including a school (The Public School), a theory text-sharing website (AAAARG.ORG), and an architecture radio show (Building Sound). He has contributed writing to X-TRA, Bidoun, Fillip, Volume, and Cabinet magazines, and his video and sculptural work have been exhibited at Gigantic Art Space, ESL, the Cheekwood Museum, the Turtle Bay Museum, and the Armory Center for the Arts. “The Public School (for Architecture)” in New York, a project in partnership with the architecture group, common room, was recently awarded a fellowship from the Van Alen Institute. With fellow collaborators in The Public School, Caleb Waldorf and Fiona Whitton, Sean organized a 13-day seminar at various sites throughout Berlin in July, called “There is nothing less passive than the act of fleeing,” which discussed the promises, pitfalls, and possibilities for extra-institutionality.