The Future is Unwritten
11 July - 30 August 2009
Onsite: Fiona Connor, William Hsu, Daniel Malone, Kate Newby, Martyn Reynolds, Peter Trevelyan
Online: Amit Charan, Narrow Gauge, Kelvin Soh
Curated by Laura Preston
The starting point for this exhibition project was to invite nine artists, designers and writers to consider how art can engage, by means of its forms and structures, in the political realities of this moment. The artists’ projects acted as a series of proposals for embracing this time of uncertainty, where structures and systems that we have come to know are being brought into focus and re-defined. Using the gallery as a place of proposition, the works presented both in the building and online, questioned the political efficacy of contemporary art by suggesting other ways to claim space and be resourceful within it. Furthermore, the exhibition employed the university as a place for interdisciplinary thinking, to ask whether a pedagogical site can re-think art’s purpose and affect.
Another form of the three-act structure
I’d like to propose that the exhibition is a beginning rather than the culmination of the event. I wanted to address the difficult, perhaps even irresolvable question, of art’s political efficacy by using the gallery as a place of proposition. Given its location at the university – a site of ‘higher’ learning and an ideal model where disciplines co-exist – and the idiosyncratic character of the building, I thought it a useful site to consider the shape of power, and the appeal to ‘un-write’ and model alternatives to the institutions we know.
We are currently facing a time of transition. There is much rhetoric in the air and talk of crisis. This has both perceived and real, lived effects – economic, social, and political. It is indicative of the insidious power of capitalism that it has affected so many arenas of our lived experience. In the attempt to critique capitalism’s strong hold and to move beyond an individualistic apathy, there seems to be an increased desire for social renewal. This is evident in the proliferation of online social network infrastructures, which use the capitalist structure and idea of exchange but perform within this to shift its usual function to trade, to one of fostering social interaction. This model, in turn, is also being co-opted. Much of the rallying activity and effort at community building has been based on a shared concern for and awareness of the environment. This is informed and supported by an industry dedicated to developing and marketing sustainable technologies. Yet, whether personally determined or based on media manipulation there is a visible change of behaviour towards sustainable measures that look to recycle and conserve energy. The recognition of the need to conserve energy has also extended to other aspects of our lived experience within this just-in-time milieu, even as far as to critique how we perform our daily roles and the expectation to deliver in outcome-oriented ways. It is a time to take stock and to recognise just how far we have come (and let things go).
In acknowledging that we are experiencing a time of crisis there is simultaneously an interest in understanding the course of change. A pertinent example of this, in the year of the 20th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is the case of how the wall eventually fell. The actual act came about rather unexpectedly. Although the long-awaited unification was in preparation and much consultation had been in play behind the scenes, the final decision came from a public slip up, a mistaken command that released the border too soon, presented before the world’s media to verify. With some distance now from this event and in this time when the European Union continues to take form and neo-liberalism questioned, interestingly, there is a renewed interest in the ideology of Communism. However, the nostalgic investigations of these histories seem to be more a reckoning with the situation of capitalism and an attempt to locate strategies for moving through this power structure.
Again, it is from history that the methods of change can be reviewed. History proves that revolution and its abrupt overhaul only end up with a shifting back to the same model of power. How then does any re-writing of the status quo occur and avoid being co-opted, marketed back to us, and used by the powerful? If the collective was to rally against the system once more, how might a sense of politicised collectivity and, in effect, a new form of institution be shaped presently? Would it be possible even, considering the hyperlinked, immaterial environment we have come to communicate within?
It is in keeping with this climate of transition that the architectural framework of the Adam Art Gallery will be engaged. The building follows the structure of a pre-existing stairway; a site that invites perambulation and an expectation that you arrive somewhere else to where you began. The building itself isn’t meant to really be here and acts as an intervention between two others. It is as though the building opens up the jump cut between two frames, making visible the operations of constructing narrative by placing two images side by side.
In my curatorial brief it was also asked that the artists respond to the notion of the university gallery as a site for research and critical thinking, and as a forum for the re-visioning of art histories. Responding to the institution of the gallery within the institution of the university provides a double framework with which to contend. The evidential weight of this structure invites the artist to draw an alternative, an escape plan that reaches beyond art’s inherited politics and the knowledge hegemony of the university yet simultaneously embraces the possibilities that each can offer. Furthermore, by directly engaging with the university as a place for interdisciplinary thinking, critical analysis of the current climate can be brought into consideration. Thus, this project asks whether a pedagogical site can reposition art’s purpose and affect.
The artists I have invited to work with me on this project were selected because of their sculptural intent on framing the performativity – made visible by the legacy of institutional critique – latent within a site. Not always working with the ‘material’ of the gallery and not necessarily interested in undertaking a mannered exposé of the institution, each of the nine artists and designers utilise a context responsive approach. They have inherited the critical tradition of conceptualism that treats art as a mode of thought, and they are conversant in presenting process as part of their work. These practitioners do not have conventional studio practices; rather the way they work is indicative of the increasingly common practice of responding to the curatorial call of the institution, and for their work to be generated out of conversation and collaboration. Further still, what links each of them is their interest in moving beyond, or perhaps it is better to say sidelining, the ironic impasse of postmodernism and its insular re-enactment of art history, to re-assert a belief in meaning and the possibilities for art to tap the tenor of experience that includes knowing without knowing .
Philosopher Jacques Rancière positions the political in art as not residing in the effectiveness of transmitting messages, but in the power of form itself . The formal arrangements, tangible and intangible, that art produces provide an abstract language that cannot be written; yet too often this language is read as exclusive either because it requires conceptual decoding or it is presumed to. Ranciere offers a means to consider the embrace of art’s broader intellectualism by placing value again on what is felt, to re-engage with art’s affect. Marxist philosopher and semiologist, Paolo Virno, who has recently been picked up by contemporary art discourse, also asserts that form can build new structures of thinking . Although it is precarious to believe that art can aspire to utopian models (or even anarchic) and produce new systems to live by, it seems timely to be reminded that art can provide a practice of reflexivity and point to the realities of political experience. With these ideas in mind, I propose that the gallery is the site of rehearsal for these action, but one not predicated on anticipation and working towards resolution.
Thinking back to the Wall and considering that significant change may happen incrementally or by surprise when you least expect it, this exhibition proposes that art has the ability to suggest the un-writing of known structures by bringing attention to other ways of claiming space and being resourceful within it. In negotiating the call for change, the artists in this project also resist the expectation to produce. The propositional is a political strategy, not necessarily punk, yet a constructive and an affective approach critical of the incessant call for progress. In the interest of forming an exhibition that is resourceful and which may in fact become a resource for future activity, what you may find at the gallery and what you may see online are forms and structures unfolding.
 W. G. Sebald’s fiction creates unarticulated connections between words and images that elucidate on the ways in which we know without knowing, and remember without memory.
 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London: Continuum, 2006
 Paolo Virno interview in Open 17:A Precarious Existence Vulnerability. Rotterdam: Nai Publishers, 2009
The Adam Art Gallery receives sponsorship support from The Quality Hotel and Comfort Hotel Wellington. Photography: Michael Salmon.
Minette Hillyer on Media ‘after’ modernity [mp3]
Paul James on Architecture and latency [mp3]
Ralph Chapman and Andrew Wilks on the environment and energy use [mp3]
Click here to view Fiona Conner’s recent project for Permanently Closed, curated by Cammie Staros in Los Angeles, the latest chapter in Conner’s work developed for the The Future is Unwritten.