About artistic production as speech-acts, the performative aspect and questions of efficiency in relation to reflection and transparency.

Text written for Gagarin Magazine #20

Published in Figures of Speech as introduction

1. What if one would view the part of an artist’s practice that is made public, whether in the form of an object, a performance, a text, a talk or conversation or an articulation of a position, as consisting of moments of communication?

If one takes this proposition as a point of departure questions arise, such as what it is exactly that is communicated, how something is communicated, from which position, with what intention, involving what other party, and how it is assured that communication really takes place. However, because one of the essential qualities of these specific moments of communication is the relatively extensive agency of the one who is communicating in the construction of the act, a more pertinent question might be: What informs the construction of these moments of communication?

An artist is part of an ongoing circulation and transformation of language, ideas, forms and relations; (s)he does not produce this continuous process but has agency in it. Connected to and involved in this circulation and transformation is a broad range of structures, such as power-relations, structures of representation, institutional structures, subject-object relations etc., that are expressed in situations, actions and events.

The artist’s practice necessarily functions in relation to this process, the structures and relations that are connected to it and the expressions as they take place, and involves an engagement with the potential of the artist’s own agency. This potential is linked to certain choices the artist makes concerning his or her practice and production.

The artist’s organisation of his or her thoughts, engagement and reactions is constitutive of the development of a structure that underlies the construction of the moments of communication and informs the intentional aspects of the acts. This structure is, of course, always in transformation, but over a period of time also requires more permanent qualities and can be distinguished from other structures, as it is based on engagement with something other than itself. If this engagement persists it also ensures that each moment of communication is connected to and works in and on several structures.

An ‘artist-generated’ structure is not public as a whole, but parts are made visible in constructed public moments, pertaining to specific instances of the artist’s choice. These moments are part of an exchange happening on the surface, which is the place where affect is produced. Moreover, it can be said that each moment of communication embodies an entrance, and as such, it can prompt the addressed party in the communication to an engagement that activates a larger part of this structure.

2. What if one considers the instances of an artist’s practice that involve a making public and consist of acts of communication, in whatever form, to function in much the same way as a speech-act?

If one would understand these instances to function in the same way as a speech-act, further questions arise. They would, however, be more directed to a consideration of the performative potential of such acts: What exactly does the work consist of? What is the syntax and semiotic structure of the work? What does the work do? Who is speaking and who is addressed? What is the illocutionary force? And, if one would derive from both of the premises above that artistic production is distinguished from artistic practice by its intentional public quality, additional questions would follow, revolving around the notion of production in relation to performativity and the issue of efficiency in a public sphere.

In the comparison of the production of art with the production of speech the necessity of an awareness of the conditions of production is underlined, because the act of speaking about something or someone, in the cultural field as much as in other fields, necessarily involves a reflection on ones own position and therefore on the conditions in which the utterance is made.

How can conditions of production be made visible in communication? A constructed moment of communication implies an author. The construction of the authorship is revealed through what is said, through the form of the act and in the conditions of reception. The authorship that is issued from an act of speech, however, does not necessarily reveal the conditions of production. Therefore, a certain sense of performativity can be applied in the construction of the utterance or a transparency can be kept towards the underlying and connected structures. The speech-act, then, can be perceived as part of this matrix that is revealed as an image, showing the conditions of production as well as the conditions of the ‘act’.

However, part of communication is the making of a divide between what is kept private and what is made public and one can dispute the extend to which the conditions of production need to, and can, be made visible in a public utterance, especially in regard to performative speech.

A speech-act is an act that a speaker performs when making an utterance. ‘An artwork as a moment of communication as a speech-act’ would constitute a performance of several acts at once, distinguished by the plural aspects of the intention of the speaker: there is the act of saying something, what one does in saying it and what one does by saying it. This last aspect of the speech-act consists in its function, not of communicating, but of affecting states of affairs. And there lies the value of the equation of the artwork with the speech-act, especially on the level of production and the responsibility of the producer towards the transformation of forces, modes and relations of production.

Because, a speech-act is effective, either in a performative sense or in the sense that it mediates agency. The easiest way in which the speaker can create the possibility of this mediation, is to construct a speech-act on the basis of two factors: What the act is intended to effect and what specific form of speech will function in a given situation. This could for instance work when a speaker wants to produce a specific (emotional) reaction or when the intention of the speaker is to temporarily transform a specific situation, but it becomes of course more difficult when it concerns the transformation of given structures of representation, power, institutions, production etc., in part because the notion of the addressee is much more complex in these cases.

Another problem is that transparency and reflectivity not always aid the extent of effectiveness of a speech-act. Therefore, the question arises how one should deal with the necessary reflection on ones own position and the conditions of production of the speech-act in relation to the functionality of the act itself. How can a speech-act (or, of course, an artwork) both express an awareness of, and reflection on the speaker’s position and its own conditions of production and still be effective in transforming a state of affairs?