Some notes on method

Text written for Temporary Autonomous Research, Amsterdam Pavilion 9th Shanghai Biennale 2012, Metropolis M Books

With the exhibition “The Body in Crisis (Distance, Repetition and Representation)”, on view at Ellen de Bruijne Projects in September 2011, I started my second cycle of works under one general title, after “Figures of Speech” (2006-2010). “Figures of Speech”, in short, consist of works in which linguistic objects are constructed and deconstructed, subjectivity is considered in relation to given conditions, and in which authorship, agency and speech within works of art is analysed in texts and videos, but also by means of diagrams and abstract sculptures. In contrast, “The Body in Crisis” primarily and with emphasis, addresses an issue that is much more concrete and overtly political, namely the continuous repetitive occurrence of moments where bodies are thrown in a state of crisis through violent shifts in the conditions of life.

From the beginning I have thought about the relation between these two cycles, not in terms of content (other than deliberate differentiation), but in terms of methodology. Viewing “Figures of Speech” for a large part, maybe even predominantly, as the development of a method in which research, production, reflection and transformation are brought together in very close proximity, thus enabling a practice that almost seamlessly shifts from one mode to another, I’ve regarded it both unavoidable and essential that this method would form the ground on which the new cycle of works could unfold. Simultaneously, I organized the long-term project “The Body in Crisis” in such a way that there are clearly defined spaces from which new methods can emerge.

Research, production, reflection and transformation became almost indiscernible during the process of “Figures of Speech”, I believe, as the result of an insistence on a three-way transparency, as a method to produce and as an aesthetic strategy. With three-way I mean: transparency towards the past by always relating a work to earlier works and previously formulated thoughts; transparency towards the present by showing the conditions of production and thus the conditions in which something is made public; transparency towards the future by announcing and outlining intentions, thoughts and plans for works that yet need to be made and steps that still need to be taken.

While this way of working developed intuitively at first, it soon became something more deliberate and productive for (my own understanding of) my practice. I decided, for instance, to let go of transparency towards the past when I wanted to reconsider criticality within my practice by disconnecting it from a linear and progress based logic.

My thoughts about transparency towards the present towards the end “Figures of Speech” revolved around a comparison of artistic production with the act of speaking. In the text “About artistic production as speech-acts, the performative aspect and questions of efficiency in relation to reflection and transparency.” (first published in Gagarin Magazin #20) I reflected on the question “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?”. In the text I stress the necessity to show the condition and mode of production alongside or within the work itself, “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”. This could be brought about, for instance, by reflecting on a work’s authorship within the work or through a revealing of the structures that are involved in the moment of something becoming public.

Transparency towards the future I usually define as projection. In a collective text, which will be published later this year in a publication of Le Pavilion, the residency programme of Palais de Tokyo, edited by Charlotte Moth (in which I invited three other artists and curators to each articulate five notions they find crucial in their practice in relation to a pedagogical moment) I wrote: “I use projection to ensure that the work is not the only object to which the spectator can develop a relation, but also to be able to place the work, later, within or in relation to a constellation of ideas that have already undergone an attempt of articulation and/or formulation. Through the repeating public articulation and formulation of ideas, in different languages, but also through the positioning of these articulations, a differentiation takes place that makes it possible to think about authorship rather in terms of the act of enunciating, speaking, attempting to speak, than in terms of subjectivity and identity.”

“Figures of Speech” was established as a body of work when I revisited three individual earlier works, that I connected through a re-reading in the form of a new lecture and continued to explore and transform through sculptures, installations, texts and diagrams. The very beginning of “The Body in Crisis”, however, consisted of setting out a multi-directional trajectory (I would call it a diagram), on forehand, which I expect to follow – or partially negate or adapt if there is a good reason – over the next years.

This trajectory consists, first, of a fairly specific (although briefly formulated) focus on a level of content (“the body in crisis”). Second, I defined a series of six historical moments by a year, a geographical location and a sentence. These moments relate to events, ranging from the redesign of public healthcare in France and the installment of the first university hospital in Paris in 1793, to the beginning of the privatisation of prisons in the USA, in 1984 in Houston. The third element consists of three structures that exist as sculptural installations, but also as graphic signs. These three structures facilitate in different ways the process, the making public and the archiving of the research into the six historical moments related to the body in crisis theme. Formally they are the basis for a more abstract layer of inquiry related to notions like distance, repetition and representation. These structural works, which could be said to form the backbone of The Body in Crisis, will change over the course of the cycle. The fourth and last aspect that I outlined in the trajectory is the commitment to make six works, each related to one of the historical events, separate from the main structures. These six works will provide the previously mentioned spaces where I hope new methods will emerge through a restrained approach of research and translation. Concretely, I will try to refrain in these works from making use of the methods I have developed over the years: I don’t want to make use of diagrams, of abstractions and I would like to let go of the structural ‘neutral’ author I have come to rely on in many of my works, in favour of more precisely articulated positions.

I made this intention-diagram visible – partly or in total – in various ways. There are three digital graphics that can be printed and depict the three structures. Here it becomes clear that each of these structures is designated to address a specific issue. In graphic form their titles are: “Structure 1: Distance (Obstacles)”, “Structure 2: Repetition (Not Representation)”, “Structure 3: Representation (Ongoing Event)”. In physical form the structures are relatively large sculptural installations that bear different titles. The edited narrative of the works and relations as they progress within “The Body in Crisis” I have published on an online journal and as a growing series of digital prints. But also in exhibitions, slightly more hidden by the time-based medium, I have openly outlined in videos the structural organisation that has brought about the physical occurrence and content of, and productive relations between, the works in the space.

It would be a mistake however to regard the trajectory or diagram as a dogmatic programme. I think that this set-up can generate an exciting process and hopefully an interesting body of work, but I am just as interested in the texture that is created by impulsive or reasoned digressions, by reformations and reformulations. Because I want to address certain questions related to the production of art and question the questions and considerations that are deemed relevant (and that I deem relevant) I make all these aspects public as part of my artistic production.

Thus the assumption, performance, demonstration and reconsideration of transparency continue to play an important role in my practice and there is certainly a pedagogical aspect to it. It could also be regarded as a positioning against the idea that the value of a work of art lies in the enigmatic and inaccessible. However, transparency does not necessarily mean that a work is easy to read, because it asks from the spectator to take time to differentiate between layers and regimes of language. One of the reasons why I insist on transparency and visibility is that it generates work that is largely surface: that what is accessible to an audience, the place where exchange happens and where affect is produced, is extensive and offers many different points from which a spectator can access and re-access the work(s) over a longer period of time.