You be the chorus: Rites of passage in a virtual art world

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'You be the chorus: Rites of passage in a virtual art world' Artlink 17 (3): 21-23 (1997)

i think the idea of natural grain in material arts has been over-fetishised. i get real sensual enjoyment from the sweet oily smell of plastic. tripitaka is simply pandering to the japanese nostalgia.

[email protected]

launceston, tasmania

registered art audience #997012

entry in tripitaka forum, fifth asia pacific triennial 2006.

 

Imagine art without gatekeepers—no curators, no reviewers, no bureaucrats. Emerging artists would no longer kowtow to the standards of a few curators in order to have their work seen. Audiences would no longer depend on the tastes of a select group of critics to determine which exhibition they should visit. No more cultural middlemen.

Idle fantasy, you think? The prospect of a transparent art world is in fact a mere extrapolation of current trends. Whether we continue to go in this direction is now a matter of choice. Let’s look ahead.

In this projected scenario, artists of the 5th Asia Pacific Triennial are selected according to a newly established code agreed on by nations in the region. Each nation maintains a registered art audience who is given voting rights in determining three artists for exhibition. These artists must come from other nations, guaranteeing cross-cultural dialogue.

Tripitaka is an art collective from Burnie, Tasmania. Their work translates digital graphics into finely crafted woodcut prints on paper made from Huon pine. Tripitaka are among the three chosen by the Japanese art audience, many of whom will visit Brisbane on a pilgrimage to see for themselves the subtle ‘grain’ in their work that cannot be translated into pixels.

Each nation maintains a list of 250 artists that are available for selection. In Australia, a system known as Shelf provides a hierarchy that orders their number in a pyramid form. Tripitaka first registered on the Bottom Shelf four years ago when they pooled together their savings to establish a web site. Their Arborealist manifesto was indexed in a manner that drew the attention agriculturalists, agronomists and vocalists. It eventually became a focus of lively discussion about the abstract status of ‘grain’ as an art medium. Threads of this discussion persisted into the Triennial, as sampled above.

Tripitaka graduated to the Top Shelf after receiving enough ‘hits’ from registered guests. This meant that more than a third of Australia’s registered art audience had acknowledged their visit to the WWW site. It was from Top Shelf that the Japanese selected Tripitaka as one of their three choices for Brisbane.

From humble origins across the Bass Strait, to an international profile in Brisbane—Tripitaka sailed to fame without the assistance of any curatorial or critical wind. They have two factors to thank for this: first, the technology that enables an audience to access information about work without barriers of geography, time or class; and second, a greater desire among audiences for participation in the reception of an art work and less tolerance for the opinions of ‘experts’. Tripitaka made work and the world saw it.

Situation today

If Tripitaka had been formed today, in 1997, their path would be very different. After a few exhibitions in artist-run spaces, they would develop a CV that qualifies them for a place in the program of a contemporary art space. A favourable review from a local writer might bring their work to the attention of an interstate curator who selects it for a modest group show touring the country. This exhibition is then seen by a number of senior members of the arts community, assisting Tripitaka’s grant for new work to the Australia Council. With this grant, they make a substantial solo exhibition for an interstate contemporary art space, which takes the fancy of a senior curator. She discerns in their work a new permutation of the orientalist paradigm and selects it for display at the Asia Pacific Triennial.

For any artist, this would be a dream run. Yet, compared to the future scenario, it is a more perilous route, subject to chance encounters with key gatekeepers. Much could have gone wrong. Work made in a particular environment may lose relevance as interests move on. The critical figures—certain curators and reviewers—may not have the opportunity to see their work because of accident. But perhaps most critically, the double isolation of living in a small town in a state off the mainland would place them well out of established networks.

At the gates

At the moment, Shelf may seem far-fetched, but a cursory look at current developments on the web reveals otherwise. In cinema, the Movie Database is arguably the largest collection of information about film, produced almost entirely from audience contributions. As well as credits, visitors rate the films on a scale of ten; the more enthusiastic can add information to the database, such as plot summaries, and submit their own reviews. Though less formalised, the largest online bookstore, Amazon Books, provides a space for readers to present their impressions of books for the interest of potential readers.

In the electronic arts, it has become common practice now to establish web sites in which artists and audience can pursue online discussion threads. In a site such as FleshFactor, theoretical papers are bypassed for a more participatory discourse. At a broader level, Globe is providing an electronic record of important exhibitions and the Adelaide group Virtual Artists is developing online forums where regular art audiences can share their impressions.

Alongside these online developments, a parallel shift is occurring in the rites of passage that traditionally mark the maturation of an emerging artist into an established member of the art world. The introduction of art practice as a tertiary subject has routinised this rites making them subject to formal academic requirements rather than subjective approval from elders. The Internet now provides a means of extending this formal procedure into the art world itself.

Though it’s a sensationalist image, the scene of a crowd milling at the gates helps focus this issue. We are currently faced with a decision whether to assist its entry, or to hold out, hoping we’re not crushed under the mill. It may be possible to heroically resist the mob and bludgeon them back into their previously meek attitude. But what would happen if we didn’t?

No more teacher, no more gallery

Let’s deal with the anxieties first. One significant fear is that beheading the critical hierarchy will, in effect, destroy the role of artist per se. After all, the artist is an elite vocation just like the critic—their privilege is a licence to represent personal experience on a public stage to the exclusion of others. Once this order is overturned, the future may be where, as George Alexander recently re-phrased Warhol, ‘everyone is famous for 15 people’—much fame spread thinly. But as terror inevitably follows revolution, so the eradication of artists will lead to a regime of banality. With the revolutionary merger of art and life will come the loss of space for aesthetic reflection. Or, to put it more crudely, in the words of Samuel Goldwyn complaining about a fashionable restaurant, ‘It's so crowded these days, nobody goes there anymore.’

Cheers for the chorus

But let’s pause before indulging too much in fatalism. While the practical responsibilities of gatekeepers may be superseded, their symbolic duties remain. Though the people can determine for themselves where to spend time and money, there is still an essential role those who mediate between stage and audience—ie, the chorus.

The role of chorus is only partly replaced by online forums. These spaces generate a fragmentary discourse made of parallel threads. As such, there is no public overview showing how works from different art worlds relate to each other. This need not respond directly to the works, but relate instead to a survey of the themes they are generating. The warp of the audience leaves room for the weft of the critic.

Louis Marin describes the role of the chorus on stage to be ‘simultaneously seen and seeing’. This witness function is an essential framing device for the work. There are coarse exponents of this, such as the claque, who were once paid to attend French operas and lead the audience in clapping and booing. In our own time, it can be argued that the very category of art itself is sustained by the gaze of charismatic individuals: it is difficult to look at a Rothko painting without hearing an echo of Robert Hughes’ solemn timbre.

Somebody looks at a work of art

At a mundane level, critics are the Tibetan prayer wheels of culture, guaranteeing that artistic endeavour is noticed, while everyone else pursues their busy lives. This sentiment is present in Dom Delillo’s White Noise, when a nun confesses ‘Our pretense is a dedication… As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe.’ Though individuals can follow their limited trajectories through the art scene, someone has to see it all.

In the end, it’s a matter of group psychology. As reflected in Elias Cannetti’s Crowds and Power, a social gathering defines itself by a front stage, through which it can construct a dialogue between the many and the few. The chorus, in all its incarnations, operates as an interlocutor between art and life.

In Jacques Lacan’s misanthropic words, the presence of a chorus on stage is ‘just sufficiently silly; it is also not without firmness; it is more or less human.’ The gatekeepers can stay, more or less.

Notes

Links:

Movie Database

Amazon books

GLOBE E Journal of Contemporary Art Home Page

Virtual Artists

FleshFactor

Books

Elias Canetti Crowds and Power Harmondsworth: Penguin (trans. Carol Stewart), 1931 (orig. 1960)

Louis Marin Utopia: A Spatial Play New Jersey: Macmillan (trans. Robert A. Vollrath), 1984 (orig. 1982)