BY Mark Nash in Opinion | 01 APR 08
Featured in
Issue 114

Reality in the Age of Aesthetics

What does it mean when artists create scenarios that rely on existing social realities, or when they actively enter a social realm in order to generate works of art?

BY Mark Nash in Opinion | 01 APR 08

Isaac Julien, Western Union Series No. 8 (Sculpture for the New Millenium) (2007)

‘The fiction of the aesthetic age defined models for connecting the presentation of facts and forms of intelligibility that blurred the border between the logic of facts and the logic of fiction … Writing history and writing stories come under the same regime of truth.’
Jacques Rancière1

Much has been written, some of it by me, on the ‘documentary turn’ in contemporary art. We can trace this development back both to major international exhibitions such as documenta 11 in 2002 (of which I was a co-curator) and to exhibitions focusing more specifically on artists’ work with moving images, such as ‘Experiments with Truth’, which I curated at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia in 2004–5. Exhibitions such as these sought, among other things, to explore a range of artistic practices that, in one way or another, attempted a connection with social and political reality. Current shows such as ‘Come and Go: Fiction and Reality’ at the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, and ‘The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image, Part 1: Dreams; Part 2: Realisms’, at the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., are evidence of the continuing resonance of these issues.

This issue of frieze seeks to explore artists’ increasing involvement with documentary by invoking the notion of artistic agency as one in which the artist, in one way or another, crosses back and forth between the domains of reality and fiction. Rather than being faced with a choice, the artist solves the problem of this relationship through his or her activity of ‘border crossing’. ‘What does it mean’, asked the editors in their brief to me for this piece, ‘when an artist creates a scenario that partly relies on existing social realities, or when they actively enter that social reality to generate work?’ For frieze the question of fiction is bracketed off, so that one can attend to the notion of artistic engagement. This is quite a complex issue, given the way that, as Rancière suggests in the opening quotation, the boundaries between reality and fiction are increasingly blurred.

It is certainly true that there is no longer any mileage to be gained from the opposition between fiction and reality. Decades of post-Structural philosophizing (for example, Jean Baudrillard’s notion of simulacrum) have inured us to the argument that it no longer makes sense to try and distinguish between reality and its representation. At the same time documentary has become a means of attempting to re-establish a relationship to reality. The pertinent question, perhaps, is what kind of social, political or personal reality is being proposed.

In 1921 Roman Jakobson pointed to a central feature of any discussion of realism: avant-gardes were forever breaking with the established codes of realism – to which the conservatives held as a rule – in the name of a greater realism which their art provided.2 Realism, in other words, needed constant renewal. In current discussions, artists’ work with documentary has the potential to inject a new realism into contemporary art. Many artists embrace the documentary form because they see it as the latest technique for the renewal of aesthetic language. I am interested in this, but also in the potential that the form still has to reinvigorate the social dimension of art.3

In my catalogue essay for ‘Experiments with Truth’ I wrote: ‘Documentary, however loosely we understand the word, has become almost a privileged form of communication in recent years, providing a meta-discourse that guarantees the truth of our political, social and cultural life.’4 In the essay I attempted to provide a historical context for our current debates and discussions of documentary:

‘Two formative but politically opposed notions have informed key debates and practices since the 1930s. On the one hand is the notion of documentary film to educate and inform a mass audience on the duties, responsibilities and occasional pleasures of citizenship. This model was developed by John Grierson and embodied in John Reith’s founding charter for the BBC. On the other hand is the model, inspired by the political avant-garde in Soviet Russia, that sought to use images as a vehicle for social and political change, such as the imagistic factography of a Dziga Vertov or the more traditional humanist challenge of a Joris Ivens.’

Two roles, then, for a documentary aesthetic: one a liberal, Fabian idea of furthering education within the existing social order, to reveal a more or less objective reality; the other, inspired by the then relatively recent events in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, which involved the necessity of more radical social transformation. Indeed Sergei Tretyakov developed a different term, ‘factography’, to describe this transformational aesthetic.5 These two different understandings of the function and role of documentary continue to influence our use of the word today and, indirectly, the way artists embrace and/or critique the form.

Tanya Barson’s exhibition ‘Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now’ at Tate Liverpool in 2006 was particularly good at exploring the history of the dialogue between artists and the development of the documentary form in the UK. ‘The traditional dichotomy between art and documentary’, Barson argues, ‘can be considered a false dichotomy.’ Hers was the first exhibition to situate the work of contemporary artists in a historical context, to put the Euston Road School (the subject of the current Tate exhibition), for example, up against contemporary art and photography (Isaac Julien, Richard Billingham) and to tease out the lineages of committed art continued in the work of Rita Donagh and Richard Hamilton.6

The notion of artistic agency in which artists and critics make claims for work as forms of political and social engagement can be traced back through the early 20th-century debates referred to above. When in the late 1960s Jean-Luc Godard (together with J.P. Gorin) wanted to make films as a form of social struggle, he named his group the Dziga Vertov Group, referring back to the passionate debates in the Soviet Union in the 1920s on the relationship between art and politics, documentary and fiction.7 There are many other instances of artists and filmmakers seeking some form of guarantee for their aesthetic strategy in historic examples. As Barson’s exhibition demonstrated, films produced within the 1980s’ black workshop movement, such as Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986), relied heavily on the earlier tradition of British documentary and neo-realist fiction.

Documentary was ostensibly about the realities that could not be represented in fiction. Paradoxically, however, it always involved some fictional element, if only to help it more faithfully refer back to a particular social and political reality. (For example Ivens’ use of reconstruction to present police evicting striking miners in Misère au Borinage (Misery at Borinage, 1933). The postwar developments of neo-realism and cinéma vérité took the documentary aesthetic into fiction in such a way that it is now difficult to make such hard and fast distinctions. Two recent multi-screen installations by Julien illustrate the point that the most interesting work these days occurs on the borderline between fiction, documentary, reality and fantasy. Fantôme Afrique (2005) combines a range of cinematic references (in particular to the neo-realism of Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves, which was so influential to the vocabulary of post-independence African cinema) with its fantasy shots and footage of everyday life in a contemporary West African city (Ouagadougou). Western Union: Small Boats (2007) mixes reconstruction of migrant journeys across the Mediterranean from North Africa featuring the actuality of the boats themselves, piled on top of one another as if in a graveyard, with complex sequences in which some of the travellers are rescued and taken into the Baroque palace where Luchino Visconti filmed The Leopard (1963). What is also important about this approach is that the artist does not abrogate an aura of political agency, although of course the work has a political dimension.

In the preface to his essay ‘documenta 11: Documentary and the “Reality Effect”’ Okwui Enwezor raises the question of ‘how to read the disfigured tradition of the documentary as it converges with a surprisingly conservative notion of the disinterestedness of art in its relation with social life’.8 When we curated documenta 11 the aim was to explore a variety of artistic and social practices that questioned this disinterestedness. Although we did not make much of it at the time, we could have looked further back at debates in Western art from the late 18th century and traced a series of avant-garde positions concerned in one way or another with making contact with, or representing, political and social reality – 19th-century realism being the most evident and most enduring. Of course, a notion of ‘art for art’s sake’, promoting an art grounded in an aestheticism based on this separation, can also be traced back to the same period.

The question really arises as to why we are still having these same discussions today. My own view is that we are living out the legacy of the cultural cold war, during which the CIA intervened to promote Abstract Expressionism (in particular, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko) against a realism of politically committed European artists (such as Pablo Picasso). And while this story is now relatively well known, there has been no serious reckoning as to the necessity of rewriting the history of postwar art from Clement Greenberg to Conceptualism until the dissent of the late 1960s broke with this conservative trajectory.9

The fact that many artists working today continue to question this notion of the disinterestedness of contemporary art is encouraging. To my mind one of the most important achievements of documenta 11 was to bind critics of so-called ‘political’ art into the debate.10 Yes, visitors to that exhibition were presented with artists whose work involved social action: the Huit Facettes collective staging art workshops in rural areas of Senegal; documentary cinema including Ulrike Ottinger’s South East Passage (2002), tracing the new borders in south-east Europe created by the eastward expansion of the European Union; Allan Sekula’s installation Fish Story (2002), which exposes the working conditions and political economy of the global shipping network; and so on. But there were many more artists whose work operated in another register completely. Crucially this documenta insisted that in order to communicate effectively, indeed in order to function as art, all the work had to function aesthetically: that is, be well installed and presented.11

It is conventional wisdom to see artists as double agents crossing back and forth between art and society. But in our increasingly mediated world, where it can be argued that social processes have an aesthetic dimension, it is much more difficult to locate areas of personal and social life that are unaffected by art. The question is not about artists entering into social reality, since they are already in it, but about their making choices that involve commitment and which do not always lead to market success and the Turner Prize.

Artists can feel empowered by the projects they embark on, but to my mind this notion of agency is often no more than an enabling fiction or fantasy. I choose these words deliberately, since I would argue that it is only when an artist comes up against the limits of her or his practice that the work becomes truly interesting. Once involved in the messy business of engagement, activism and social change, matters quite rightly get out of hand and develop a social dimension.

There were several such projects in the 2007 Sharjah Biennial. A work by the collective e-Xplo and Ayreen Anastas struck me both by its enthusiasm and its naivety in this regard. A series of sound-pieces were sited around a working-class area of Sharjah, and visitors were invited to search for recordings of songs from different regions back in India. I was impressed at the fearlessness with which this group attempted to connect the world of migrant labourers in the Gulf to that of the Biennial. The main beneficiaries of the project, however, seemed to be the artists themselves, who were discovering something about the complexity of social life in the Emirates and, as all travellers do, more about themselves than about the place they were visiting.

Few artists are willing to consider the complex moral and ethical lessons to be learnt from contemporary anthropology about the politics of these engagements and the necessity to reverse the ethnographic gaze, empowering the other (‘reverse anthropology’, in the words of Jean Rouch). I am also always struck by how the ‘author’s name’, to use Michel Foucault’s term, continues to be of primary significance in the art world, even when the projects are realized with the help and collaboration of others. Many such artistic projects continue to be ethnographic in their implicit opposition of artist versus Other.12 At heart this is still a Romantic notion, and such works have moved much less than they would like from the Orientalism of, say, Eugène Delacroix.

Of course, there are always exceptions. For example, Emily Jacir’s installation Where We Come From (2001–3), in which Jacir acted as an agent for Palestinians unable to move around their territory. The simple question she asked participants was: ‘If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, that you yourselves are unable to do, what would it be?’ The request, in English and Arabic, and her narrative and photographic documentation of her actions – which included delivering letters, registering cars and performing acts of mourning for citizens deprived of that liberty – form a series of panels that comprise the work. Of course, the project depended on Jacir’s exceptional status as a Palestinian with a US passport, an irony not lost on the artist or the viewer. The model of agency here is very simple: not (yet another) intervention on the wall, but the necessity of human intervention to complete the most simple of everyday actions, as well as assisting in the more complex ones such as memorializing. Works like this raise questions about agency and change in a very direct way. Where We Come From taught me more about the reality of everyday life in Palestine than almost any other work about the area.13

A more complex example is Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave project (2001), which involved a recreation of one of the key battles between miners, their supporters and the police during the 1984 British miners’ strike. The performance was filmed by Mike Figgis as The Battle of Orgreave: Jeremy Deller (2001). This film of the reconstruction was presented as part of the widely exhibited The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) (2004). The project is about popular memory and counter-history, about re-engaging with history from a working-class perspective. The archive is a museological exhibit complete with a timeline, documentary photographs, posters (including those from the Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners group), song sheets and a miner’s jacket covered with decal slogans. A plenitude of artefacts, they are reminiscences of a struggle that has all but faded - the Tower Colliery in Hirwaun in the Rhondda Valley, bought by Welsh miners with their redundancy payments, closed as I was writing this essay. The importance of Deller’s work is that it encourages these memories to resurface while asking questions about the history and legacy of that struggle today. The artist’s agency here, such as it is, involves presenting us with the possibilities of alternative memories and histories. The distance and detachment of the presentation highlight the fact that these political struggles in the 1980s represented a real historical defeat. The Figgis film I find confusing since it proposes an equivalence between the reconstruction and the original event; I feel Deller’s project is strongest when the differences and difficulties are highlighted.

Artists often take an indirect route when engaging with issues that have an important political dimension. The idea of commitment can be uncool. Instead, the increasingly conventional aesthetic is minimalist, refusing to tell you what to think about what you are seeing. Rather, you have to make up your own mind, based on a very fragmentary mosaic (in linguistic terms there is no meta-discourse).

The position Steve McQueen adopts in his installation and film Gravesend (2007), along with the several recent documentary films and television programmes about the Congo, is illustrative here. Much of the political instability in the eastern Congo is caused by illegal mining by militias from neighbouring countries: Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. As we know from these documentaries (and it is their use of the framing voice-over which enables this to happen), 50 years ago Belgian companies mining for gold, uranium and copper were behind the secessionist move in another part of the Congo, Katanga, which precipitated the crisis that in turn led to prime minister Patrice Lumumba’s murder in 1961 (in which both the CIA and the Belgians were complicit).

Faced with such a unstable and complex history, Gravesend takes, as Hamza Walker notes, an ‘unapologetically abstract approach’.14 How can an artist deal with such overwhelming subject matter without finding an approach that can allegorically invoke a wider set of issues and without getting lost in them?

Thierry Michel in his recent documentary Congo River (2005) takes the opposite tack. The film charts a journey up the river (with the destruction of infrastructure in the country, travelling by boat is one of the only ways to get around). However, these boats are more like crowded waiting rooms: people huddle together in makeshift shelters on board deck as the boat makes a dangerous passage that can take months. Michel uses this journey as a way of presenting the abject level to which everyday life has been reduced. The viewer is thus caught up in an emotionally cathartic experience in which she or he feels (and this is the downside of Aristotelian catharsis) that they have experienced and understood something of what it is to live in the Congo. McQueen refuses that aesthetic. From footage of miners working in the forest in the eastern Congo together with a few key close-ups (hands breaking rock) he abstracts images with which to construct his installation, which connects this world of bare survival to the more abstract one of high-tech communication (the mobile phones for which these black bodies are mining the rare mineral coltan) and the blood-red sunset over the River Thames from which Joseph Conrad’s Marlow sets off to explore the ‘heart of darkness’.

Both artists visited the Congo, but they created very different projects. I am interested in McQueen’s abstract, emblematic aesthetic for a number of reasons. It is perhaps the dominant way contemporary artists manage their relationship to the real world when they are working with the moving image – and for good reason. The codes of documentary realism and the development of documentary (sub-) genres mean that footage shot on location is anything but neutral. It is just as coded as the most constructed of Hollywood films or the most abstract of animations: in fact, one might read the role of the animated river that courses through the work as an attempt to use a very abstract convention to convey a concept that the installation, in its attention to close-up and detail, cannot deal with. McQueen’s work, unlike that of Michel, involves a series of deliberate shifts of register not unlike those of Soviet montage cinema, where the disruption of the edits forces the viewer to ask what kinds of connection are being made or whether it is possible to make any.

However, there is a paradoxical underside to this 21st-century return to documentary – if such it is – namely, that of the evacuation of signification from the signifieds of documentary practice such that it becomes, in the words of more than one artist practitioner, ‘simply’ art, losing any connection to a social referent. If the drawback of Michel’s work is the confusing emotionality that comes with its adoption of a narrative form, that of McQueen’s is that its aesthetic is too withholding. Although some viewers may be sent elsewhere to decode the enigmas it sets up, others are only too happy to accept these enigmas as ‘art’ or to read this minimalist approach as giving them access to a totality that is really only suggested. While McQueen uses the language of Deconstructionist film, Michel conveys more of the horror, and accordingly, one could argue, his is the more avant-garde project.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps, we could discuss Artur Zmijewksi’s Powtórzenie (Repetition, 2005). This film is based on an experiment at Stanford University Department of Psychology in 1971, designed to explore how prisons construct personality. Male students were kidnapped and held in a specially constructed gaol for up to five days before the experiment was ended prematurely. As one of the organizers subsequently reflected, it only took five days for all the features of prisoner abuse that were revealed in the recent Abu Ghraib scandal to emerge.

Zmijewksi filmed a re-enactment of this experiment, but with rather different rules: all the participants were paid volunteers and were allowed to leave the prison, although if they chose to do so, they would forfeit their fee for participating. Similar patterns of pathological and violent masculine behaviour emerged, which became even more complicated when guards and prisoners reversed roles (which did not happen in the original experiment). As with the original experiment, Zmijewksi demonstrated how people’s behaviour is conditioned – a situation not too dissimilar to behavioural studies of rats and mice in cages.

Zmijewksi’s film is not a scientific experiment; rather, it’s a performance that resurrects an original, to insist that in the former Eastern Europe, at least, there are other solidarities at work. In his project the group decides to dissolve the experiment. The work takes a stand against a certain ideology of personality, indeed implicitly against an atomistic capitalism in favour of a more collective approach. It bears comparison with Catherine Sullivan’s film Ice Floes of Franz Joseph Land (2003), in which the artist creates a re-enactment of takes the Chechen rebels’ three-day siege of Moscow’s Dubrovka theatre in October 2002 as its point of departure in which around (the final number is disputed) 200 people died, including 129 theatre-goers who had been held hostage. These kinds of project bear resemblance to extreme sports – the aim being to produce shock, awe and perhaps fear, pity and terror in ways that art in recent years has eschewed, even if it is the staple of mainstream entertainment narrative.

For Milica Tomic’s video Reading Capital (2004) the artist asked art collectors to read from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867). As the exhibition documentation states: ‘Several of the area’s most successful capitalists read from Marx’s seminal critique of the very system that gave them success. The resulting video presents the voices speaking passages into the camera while seated in a space of their choosing (home, office).’ I like the piece, but for opposite reasons to those outlined above. These collectors are not, in their own minds, capitalists, if such a general designation makes sense today. Indeed, they have separated themselves from the world of capital by creating trusts and foundations and getting heavily involved in philanthropy. They lead comfortable lives to which many would aspire. The work explores this contradiction of having money but apparently not being possessed by it. These so-called capitalists are, or appear to be, nice people: they don’t take themselves too seriously – indeed they have agreed to appear in a humorous video. If you think about it (although I am not sure this is in the work), Tomic’s piece might enable you to see something of the impersonality of capital. Capital is indifferent to people, and the humanism of the piece could be perceived as foregrounding this. Indeed one might read some of the dynamics of the global art market, particularly in the USA, as a wish to return to an older form of accumulation that is visual.

Tomic’s work sets up a lure – the reference to Das Kapital purporting to give us some insight into the workings of capital, which in fact it does, though perhaps not exactly as intended. The Zmijewski and Sullivan pieces operate slightly differently: they invoke reality as a fetish – the representation presents itself as reality (rather than remake) and, instead of a critical distance or reflection on the limited scope for action that the project allows both viewer and artist, promises a more direct (but impossible) connection.

These works are interesting because of the ambivalent way they both evoke the possibility of art participating in and providing an understanding of contemporary realities and social change, and at the same time carefully insist on the impossibility of this project. Hence the enduring paradox of what happens when aesthetic positions become substituted for their referent – reality becomes a fetish and perhaps just another commodity.

1 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, London, 2006, p.38
2 Roman Jakobson, ‘On Realism in Art’, Readings in Russian Poetics, ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, Cambridge, Mass., 1962
3 This debate takes us back to the animated discussions of the 19th century in which the more socially committed realism was pitted against individualist Romanticism, both movements born from the social upheavals of the French Revolution and industrialization.
4 Mark Nash, ‘Experiments with Truth: The Documentary Turn’, in Mark Nash, Experiments with Truth, Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, 2004
5 See ‘Soviet Factography’, October 118, Autumn 2006
6 The exhibition would have been strengthened by the inclusion of work by British Surrealist painters and filmmakers.
7 Including Godard’s British Sounds (1970), which includes the quotation from Vertov: ‘The film drama is the opium of the people … down with bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios … long live life as it is!’
8 Okwui Enwezor, in Nash, op. cit.
9 For example, Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983
10 So-called because Abstract Expressionism was also political, tied in, often without the artists’ knowledge, to an ideological struggle against ‘actually existing’ socialism.
11 documenta 12, in 2007, took another tack on these issues foregrounding presentation, installation and the aesthetic.
12 Cf. Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’, The Return of the Real, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1995
13 Part of Fareed Armaly’s far more ambitious From To (documenta 11, 2002)
14 Hamza Walker, ‘The Grand Scheme of Things’, in an essay for McQueen’s 2007 exhibition at the Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago

Mark Nash is a curator, writer and Head of Department for Curating Contemporaory Art at the Royal College of Art, London. His most recent book is Screen Theory Culture (2008), published by Palgrave. He recently co-curated ‘Pere Portabelle’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.