Monday, February 1, 2010

the authority to remove

the tate modern recently hosted an exhibition of work by jill magid, work commissioned by the Dutch Secret Service who, once the work was installed proceeded to confiscate some of the contents of the exhibition. what ensued over the course of the various negotiations and exchanges between artist and patron is an interesting study about control of both information, images, content and, of course, people. it's a fascinating performance:

'The secret itself is much more beautiful than its revelation.'
Jill Magid, The Report for the AIVD on the Subject of its Face.

Authority to Remove marks the final chapter of American artist Jill Magid's long involvement with the Dutch secret service, the AIVD. In 2005, she was commissioned by the AIVD (De Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst) to create an artwork for their new headquarters. This unlikely-seeming invitation came about as the result of a stipulation under Dutch law that a portion of the budget for the new building be spent on an art commission.

Through her performance-based practice, Magid has initiated intimate relations with a number of organisations and structures of authority. She explores the emotional, philosophical and legal tensions between the individual and 'protective' institutions, such as intelligence agencies or the police. To work alongside or within large organisations, Magid makes use of institutional quirks, systemic loopholes that allow her to make contact with people 'on the inside'. Her work tends to be characterised by the dynamics of seduction, the resulting narratives often taking the form of a love story. It is typical of Magid's practice that she follows the rules of engagement with an institution to the letter - sometimes to the point of absurdity.

you can find out more about the book generated (or edited) by the project here.

you can find out about another piece generated by the experience, the directives, here.

all of which raises the question: what is the relationship between artist and patron/ commissioner/ institution? what are the expectations, responsibilities, hopes for both players in this relationship? what i find most interesting about jill's work is the surrender to the conditions of the commission(s). it is courageous. and yet it goes against the grain of our precious [artistic] autonomy -- not that this kind of control was a primary issue (or it least it isn't recorded) for many of our art history stars: michelangelo, raphael, da vinci, rembrandt et al -- all had to work to others' expectations and demands (and potential rejection or alterations) while creating their pieces. it wasexpected. how things have changed. now things often start - and end - with the artist rather than the commissioner, patron, consumer.

when did art stop being about serving others, about serving - and giving voice to - a community? when did art become about the artist? please understand me - i'm not asking this in order to have someone explain to me how there was a shift in the late 1700s/ early 1800s in continental europe in the conception of the idea of the artist, which was shaped by philosophical, social, political, social and, ultimately, market (read: economic) forces -- if you want to read a very good summation of that, read larry shiner's the invention of art: a cultural history. what i'm asking is a question for the artist - the cultural producer - who do you serve?


JAAR said...

I guess that if you don't work for a 'patron' (whether paid or not), you don't have a pre-agreed audience for your work. By working with an institution - whether its a gallery, art class or publication, you serve its visitors/members/readers. In which case you select an average target audience by selecting the institution. 'Serve' is a difficult word. Imagine people don't want to see your work. Property : Theft :: Servitude : Assault

JAAR said...

'the secret is much more beautiful than the revelation itself'

From a public perspective, a secret is between two people. Revelation is you finding out about it (seeing it represented).
I think you could take this to mean that what matters more than what you have to 'offer' (art) is the agreement between the participants in the exchange (your social existence). err...

techne said...

you're absolutely right -- "serve" is a difficult word, but one that i think is a crucial component of who we are and what we do as artists. of course, that relinquishing of autonomy and control (which we also find in collaborative projects, and which, for the most part, was how the guilds and workshops that produced many of the world's great [art] treasures functioned).

and we do make art for the institution (and its audience) - in fact, that is the way many programs function - and i think that is actually the worst way to find an audience, interact with people, have an impact etc. considering how few people (comparatively) actually go to galleries, not to mention that many of those aren't able to really engage with a lot of art - especially contemporary art - then i think it's actually a disservice to artists to have that as a goal. i think it is actually a very dangerous thing to have exhibiting and selling to institutions and collectors as a primary (though often unstated) goal.

the question of whether people want to see your work is interesting -- i still read that as putting the artist first rather than the [potential] community they could serve...could you expand on that concern?

Dave said...

"when did art stop being about serving others, about serving - and giving voice to - a community? when did art become about the artist?"

So, Edward, in your view, what would an ideal model look like - I'm sure it would be just one of many - where the artist would act in service to a community? Any good contemporary examples to your mind? If I, as a songwriter, say, wanted to take this approach, how would I go about it? What are the steps I would take? What sort of end product could result?

I imagine this is a fairly massive shift for many artists, where self-expression is the ultimate goal of the work.

Any thoughts, practically speaking?

I wonder if the current calligraphy work on the St.John's Bible would apply here?

techne said...

i'm not exactly sure what the ideal model would be. i just keep going back to the pre-1850 model of the artist, or the mediaeval/ guild/ workshop model. the st. john's bible is an interesting example because it is very much like the early illuminated manuscripts - luxury items. but i don't see the object as serving a community -- will the final manuscript be used by those monks for their gatherings? or is the final product going to be mass-produced? serving a community has to be, or is more useful when it is specific, i think. it's not about making something that [insert market demographic here] will purchase - in some ways it must be something that makes the most sense in its specific context. it must be difficult to transplant.

the fact is that there are still artists being commissioned for work for specific spaces and contexts but i think that, as artists, we should be seeking to serve, we should be looking for opportunities. and that's not to say that i think we do it for free just to "serve". or at least not all the time. regardless of medium, it involves getting to know and be part of a community, and finding ways to let them know you are there to serve. and it doesn't necessarily start with new creative works. perhaps it begins with simply providing one skills. as the community gets to know you and your ability, the relationship will develop from there. and remember, serving also involves educating, facilitating, assisting (perhaps even primarily). do some workshops. offer lessons. bring others you know alongside and widen the circle. i just think that we have made the final product a bit of an idol.

I imagine this is a fairly massive shift for many artists, where self-expression is the ultimate goal of the work.

it certainly seems to generate a lot of discussion. and i think that the problems often stem from a few things: immaturity as an artist (i.e. their identity is so wrapped up in "being an artist" everything is equally precious and sacred), ignorance about the history of art and the shifting role of the artist, and a unquestioning acceptance of the system as it functions. creatives have always discovered those "third spaces" between home and work where art can engage with people and culture, and they will continue to do so.

ultimately, "self-expression" isn't so much the goal for me as communication or connection. regardless of what i work on, or what kinds of things i create for the various communities i relate with, i will be creative (which is not the same thing as self-expression) and will work at finding the balance between that community's needs and my own artistic plans.