Field Work

By Melanie Gilligan, 4 July 2003

by Melanie Gilligan

It seemed the time had passed when academic paradigms were freshly formed in faculties practicing recombinatory discipline splicing. ‘Field Work: Reports from the Fields of Visual Culture’ held at Victoria Miro in London was a conference intended to bring ‘political’ contemporary art practices under the rubric of the nascent discipline of Visual Culture sprouting from many institutions.

The faculty of Visual Culture and the Cross Culture Contemporary Art research project at Goldsmiths invited several artists, all of whom exhibited in the recent globalisation interred Documenta 11. A lively caveat from Stuart Hall on how the attempt to constitute a novel discipline can lead to the putrefaction of its contents (vis-a-vis his experience with Cultural Studies), and David Scott intoning the word ‘field’ ad nauseum, were the manic-depressive poles of the academic contributions holding this notion of the constitution of a new discipline up to the light.

Perhaps more immediately pertinent are the various registers on which the artists presenting make ‘socially engaged art’. Alfredo Jaar adopts the role of social liaison on the behalf of first or third world governmental funding bodies, who deem his production a surrogate for investing in more pressing public insufficiencies. Notably contentious are his projects that commiserate the suffering of injustice, such as the wall commemorating emigrants that died between the borders of Mexico and the States, complete with a vernissage for the grieved family members. Increasingly, state funded political art strategists make symbolic social work that admonishes a variety of inequitable conditions and in doing so, atones for them cosmetically.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s approach to public sculpture is considerably less hypocritical. His monument to Bataille for Documenta 11, built on an estate, consisted of a reading room, pirate TV station, snack bar and pedagogic display of Bataille’s theory, all maintained by the residents. Hirschhorn’s focus wasn’t community service, but his art audience and the adulation of Bataille. Residents took part because they were being paid, helping themselves to parts afterwards – arguably partially theirs. By not acting in the interests of the community, he elucidates some of the problems that thwart making art from lived as opposed to abstracted social relations.

Especially compelling was Renee Green, whose methods of research and information presentation are a pleasurably ambivalent type of knowledge accumulation when, in the present moment, contemporary art needs to be more accountable for the unacknowledged service it is providing to other culture and information industries. Green enunciates the ideal audience for her research in videos like ‘Wavelengths’ where she paints an image of activism continuously informed by experimentations in music. When arts’ imbrication and instrumentalisation in knowledge economics is ever more apparent, work that produces pure research like Green’s does well to consider the position it occupies.

A conference on political art practice is bound to defeat itself on some level. When the burgeoning field of Visual Culture is constituted in conferences such as this, held in a private gallery as opposed to the privatised public space of Goldsmiths, it both clarifies and obscures the underpinning socioeconomic influences and contradictions remaking politicised art.

Field Work: Reports from the Fields of Visual Culture // Victoria Miro Gallery, London // 16 & 17 May, 2003

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