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Issue 42 September-October 1998 RSS

Yours Sincerely

Art Criticism

The twisted relationship between artists, journalists and the media

As the public’s memory grows shorter, most artists feel a need to remind it ever more frequently of their existence. But some - a very few - remain wary of overexposure. Unlike their PR-friendly colleagues, they do not automatically embrace every opportunity to publicise their work. Sensing perhaps that art can sometimes be destroyed in the very act of exhibiting it, they choose their spots carefully, often preferring venues off the cultural pilgrim’s beaten path. David Hammons’ name would have to be near the top of any census of this small tribe: over the past couple of years, he has shown work in a Harlem barbershop, an African crafts store, and conducted unannounced performances on the Lower East Side, while eschewing a major gallery show in his home town of New York. Yet his fugitive exhibition strategy is only a shadow to the 70s art gestures of Robyn Whitlaw, a California-based Conceptual artist who made a career out of playing cat-and-mouse with the local press. Like Hammons, Whitlaw wanted to keep her public profile at the level of rumour, so it might remain hauntingly unsubstantiated, and so generally sent out announcements for her shows and performances only after they had closed. For her last known piece she formally announced her disappearance, and has not been seen since.

The art world would end up a much smaller place if Whitlaw’s aesthetic ever caught on, but there seems little chance of that happening at present. Instead, three recent hoax-like art works are indicative of an opposite approach: using the media itself as a medium, these pieces seem to exist only in the frenzied throes of journalistic spin and manufactured scandal. As different from each other as their authors - novelist William Boyd, an earnest group of third-year Leeds art students, and a pair of London gallery pranksters - these pieces nevertheless share a common interest in simulated art (rather than art about simulation). And curiously enough, they end up replicating the concerns of a media-wary artist like Hammons by disseminating their work in places where we don’t normally expect to find art.

The most interesting of these media-dependent exercises was Going Places, the highly publicised work of the Leeds art students, which initially involved presenting a group holiday in Malaga as a collective art work. Guests who showed up at a local gallery space for the opening were shepherded onto a bus and driven to the Leeds/Bradford Airport, where they gathered to witness the return of the art students from sun-drenched Spanish beaches. Carrying luggage and duty-free goods, and sporting healthy tans, the students passed around holiday snaps and then, while treating their guests to drinks at an airport bar, announced that their trip abroad was in fact the only ‘work’ in their exhibition.

The kicker, as soon became known across England, was that they had financed their sojourn with a £1,126 grant from the Student Union, secured for the purpose of mounting a multi-media installation. This ‘misuse’ of funds at a time of educational cut-backs was the added spice needed to bait the press (there is nothing so likely to wind up the popular media as hard-earned dosh being doled out on allegedly bogus art), and the story was quickly picked up by the local and national media. Almost all took a predictable line: indignation at the cheek of lazy students declaring that their holiday was an artwork, and moral outrage over the misappropriation of funds. The media pundits, who, like politicians, trade in indignation and outrage as a kind of commercial currency, joined together in a stunning chorus of denunciation.

Had this been the end of the story, the Leeds 13 would deserve kudos for contributing to the ‘jollity of the nation’ (their own felicitous phrase). There’s a carnivalesque air in the media’s collective ejaculations of bile; both writers and readers alike relish the theatrical invective and venom, just as pro wrestling fans enjoy the make-believe sadism in the ring. But Going Places was only a work in progress at this point: having stirred up a minor journalistic frenzy, the Leeds 13 revealed during an interview on Radio 4 that they had never actually been to Spain, but had faked their holiday snapshots in nearby Scarborough, staged their return with the help of airport authorities (who even posted a fake flight number for them), and had tanned themselves with sunlamps while hiding out for a week in a rented house. Their student grant, they claimed, was sitting in a bank account, untouched.

In other words, a perfectly executed double-whammy. The media responded with a second wave of coverage, with those who had missed the original story gloating over their competitors’ loss of face while smugly laying claim to the true article. Eventually Going Places even acquired its own artists’ text: a collectively written article in The Guardian in which the students explained their intentions. Among others things, they said they had wanted to provoke a discussion on the nature of art, and of course on the surface they had succeeded, though the result was hardly enlightening. Far more compelling was the way the Leeds 13 had deftly played the mass media as if it were an orchestra, handing it a score with confidence that the various members would do their required bit, would make the noises we expect them to make - the exclamations of outrage, contempt and disgust, the notes of sarcasm, irony, bemusement, even the muted cries in defence. The students had set this whole machinery in motion by wielding a few reliable stereotypes, but as media outlets competed with each other for the next new angle it soon became clear that the orchestra was improvising wildly. The real subject of Going Places seemed to be its lucent demonstration of how a work is received by the media and how that reception changes the nature of the work, inevitably adding and inventing layers that weren’t there before.

One or two of the kindlier critics, in commending the prankish wit of Going Places, invoked the name of Duchamp, but the tradition of engaging the mass media as one’s actual medium is, with all due respect to the Futurists and their penchant for press conferences, a phenomenon that got underway in the early 50s with Lucio Fontana’s publicity stunts which included being escorted by hired fashion models to his press appearances and delivering manifestos before television cameras. It was elaborated by Fontana’s disciple in PR, Yves Klein, and given a twist by Klein’s sometime rival Piero Manzoni, both of whom created works that were either staged for the media, or completed and disseminated by media coverage. A work like Manzoni’s Consumption of Art by the Art-devouring Public (1960), was never actually performed for the public; instead, an audience of still and newsreel cameramen photographed invited guests eating hard-boiled eggs stamped with Manzoni’s thumbprint.

While both Klein and Manzoni were often chided by ‘serious’ critics for their tireless self-promotion, Manzoni in particular - much like the media-dependent artists of today - was more interested in appearing in the popular media than in art periodicals, and towards that end produced a steady stream of press releases and promotional photos. Manzoni, of course, could argue that there was little difference between his self-promotion and his art, as his work revolved around his living processes; 60s PR practitioners such as Andy Warhol and Yayoi Kusama, however, tended to traffic in disembodied personas which functioned as recognisable aesthetic trademarks as much as ambiguous parodies of celebrity culture. After all, who could tell how serious Warhol was when, in 1966, he took out an ad in the Village Voice proclaiming his willingness to provide celebrity endorsements for a long list of products? As for Kusama, her hippie-inspired nudist protests, such as the 1969 Orgy to Awaken the Dead at the MoMA which made the front page of New York’s Daily News, often appeared to function as theatrical backdrops for her public appearances as the Polka Dot Artiste.

Ironic or not, the PR efforts of these earlier artists were generally centred around the artist’s carefully-crafted public image (which in Warhol’s case was arguably his major artwork); the recent spate of media-directed work, on the other hand, focuses on simulated events and artefacts. London’s Decima Gallery has stage-managed four exercises in clichéd outrageousness over the past few years, some by fictitious artists, but all designed as media bait. Their most recent exhibit, ‘The Fuck Art and Pimp Exhibition’, was reviewed as the work of Canadian Angela Marshall, who produced her paintings while having sex with clients in the gallery’s back room (the size of the painting, as well as the type of sex, depended on how much you were willing to spend). Other stunts have included running a clinic for soap opera addicts and launching The Dennis Nielson Tour Company. ‘We use the media as a canvas for art’, explains David C. West who, along with Alex Chappel, comprise a ‘media terrorist’ group called a.r.t. (a reasonable thought). So far, the press have happily obliged by swallowing such bait, despite the inclusion of clues to their bogus nature. (In a seeming parody of Conceptual art’s categorical rigour, Chappel told a journalist at the ‘Pimp’ show that ‘it’s not art until the punter has sex with Angela’.) ‘The media take stories so easily’, West says. ‘As soon as one article is printed, everyone’s interested. And then it turns into a circus.’

One logical conclusion to this genre is an exhibition of press clippings, which is what the Decima Gallery plans for October when they will show ‘Framed’, featuring highlights from the coverage of their four previous media gambits. Of course, the idea of displaying press clippings as art isn’t exactly new: in the 70s, Chris Burden exhibited a selection of ‘corrected’ reviews of his previous shows, acting out a standard artist’s fantasy by systematically rebutting and reprimanding his critics with comments written in the margins of the articles. But this was the work of someone who could still take the press seriously, wrong-headed and misinformed as it might be. We now live in a time when the news media has largely returned to its earlier role as popular entertainment, and its broad, fast, wit and knack for the sensational make it a pretty close match, sensibility-wise, for many of the British artists associated with the Saatchi collection, who seem to view the press more as colleagues in a world of sensationalised entertainment. Consider the newspaper articles and cartoons lovingly reproduced in Damien Hirst’s book I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone, One to One, Always, Forever, Now (1997). Though not cited in the list of illustrated works, they might as well be. As suggested by headlines such as ‘Gallery turns up nose at Hirst’s rotting cows’, ‘Art failure’, or ‘Sweet sorrow for Damien and Jay?’ the selection of clips wasn’t included just to provide evidence of Hirst’s status as a representative cultural figure, but more out of the artist’s appreciation for the press’ carnival sideshow theatrics, the aesthetic of distraction that informs much of Hirst’s own work. It’s easy to imagine that this kind of press is far dearer to the artist than the laboured analysis of art magazines.

What distinguishes the Leeds 13 and the Decima Gallery group, though, is not that their efforts are specifically geared to generate press clippings - some critics might say the same of Hirst’s art - but that the media is their primary medium. There is almost a ‘Sim City’ aspect to these projects: the artists plug in a certain set of elements and then watch them metamorphose as the media frantically remodel the story from ‘fresh’ angles. Yet the principal motive of these Neo-Publicists is a fairly common one in contemporary art: in their statement in The Guardian, the Leeds students declared, ‘We have played with the media’s representations of art [and] ... showed that things aren’t always what they seem’. This is pretty much what novelist William Boyd said he wanted to do with Nat Tate, his biography of a fictitious minor artist, which was published by 21 Publishing, a company affiliated with Modern Painters magazine. In a piece written for the Sunday Telegraph, Boyd claimed he was intrigued by the possibility of making ‘something entirely invented seem astonishingly real’, and added elsewhere that he had created a fable for a time ‘when almost over night people are becoming art celebrities’. Yet the fundamental aim of the book, he insisted, ‘was to destabilise, to challenge, our notions of authenticity’.

Sounds a bit like artspeak, doesn’t it? Indeed, a New York spokesperson for 21 Publishing told the press that Boyd’s book was in fact ‘a work of Conceptual art’. But despite including quotes from his pals Gore Vidal and Picasso biographer John Richardson, Nat Tate is too transparently bogus to be very intriguing; no, the real creative work in this hoax wasn’t Boyd’s so much as the British media’s fantastical reporting of the book’s stateside reception. ‘The greatest prank pulled on the Yanks in living memory’, declared one newspaper, while others faithfully reported that the New York art world was collectively reduced to a teary-eyed state when David Bowie read aloud from the book at an April Fool’s Day launch party. It’s a wonderful image - the New York art world reduced to sentimental collapse - but if it has ever happened, it hasn’t been within living memory.

So while most New Yorkers (including many at Bowie’s party) remained blissfully unaware of Nat Tate, the story of someone putting one over on America’s top snobs proved irresistible to the British press. In contrast to their response to the Leeds 13 and the Decima Gallery, they showered Boyd’s monograph with gleeful praise; indeed, from the beginning the media had functioned more like fellow conspirators, with the Sunday Telegraph actually publishing an advance excerpt, sans disclaimer. Unlike the actual book, which is marred by some absurdly implausible photos, the excerpt appeared fairly convincing when given deadpan presentation in a major newspaper. By knowingly duping its own readers, the Sunday Telegraph added yet another angle to the media’s relentless blurring of fact and fiction, and in the end demonstrated how easily the press could achieve what Boyd could not - a truly convincing simulation.

This blurring is part of a larger culture which nourishes our sense that things aren’t what they seem to be - a clichéd motif of Hollywood noir and increasingly a cliché of contemporary art. An interest in duplicity and a desire to engineer the inspired double-take has long motivated such disparate artists as Charles Ray and Richard Wilson, while the ethos of simulation and artifice, of virtual realities so convincing that we lose track of the boundaries between the invented and the real, has been a familiar stomping ground since the early 80s. These concerns grow out of the Modernist impulse to transcend or radically re-work traditional definitions of art, only now the idea is to create aesthetic experiences that evade our attempts to pigeonhole them as ‘art’.

But when it comes to defying categories, it’s almost impossible to out do the mainstream media. Operating in an increasingly closed system, newspapers and broadcasters concentrate on one-upping the competition rather than on the world they are supposedly covering, and the result is expressionistic news: stories that are twisted, exaggerated, caricatured, distorted. In a market geared to entertainment, veracity is a secondary consideration. Rumours are floated on page one, then quietly retracted a week later on page 12 when the item’s sell-by date has lapsed. Compared to William Boyd, The New Republic’s Stephen Glass, who wrote 27 utterly fictitious articles loaded with amusingly made-up details and passed them off as straight journalism, is truly in the forefront of destabilising and challenging ‘our notions of authenticity’. But it is not simply a question of inaccurate reporting; if it proves anything, the recent spate of journalistic hoaxes in the US proves how little discernible difference there is between fabricated reportage and the factual versions, which are usually predictably riddled with stereotypes and biases.

This suggests one reason why the daily press typically go ballistic over non-traditional art forms: their clamour over aesthetic authenticity serves as a cover for their own hopelessly miscegenated status in a limbo where fancy and fact deliriously converge. Indeed, for artists wishing to examine ideas related to simulation and duplicity, to show us that nothing is what it appears to be, what better medium could there be than the media itself? The Neo-Publicists are clearly onto a good thing. And if anyone should wonder whether this is really art, consider the claim by the Leeds 13 that in their case the issue was settled when one of their members, answering in the affirmative, passed a lie-detector test on L!VE TV. In a world of simulated art, that could become a requirement of all future exhibitions.

Ralph Rugoff


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First published in
Issue 42, September-October 1998

by Ralph Rugoff

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