Unknown Knowns

BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht just published On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art (edited by Binna Choi, Maria Hlavajova and Jill Winder). This reader contains both newly commissioned and anthologized writings in art as a site for the production of knowledge. Included is my essay Unknown Knowns: On Symptoms in Contemporary Art, (pp. 84-107), which is a sequel of sorts to my earlier essay Theory and the Sphinx, and which discusses works by artists including Martha Rosler, Jeff Wall, Andrea Fraser, and Omer Fast. From the introduction:

"Artistic “research” often functions as a parody of instrumentalized academic knowledge production, falling short of even its eroding criteria. However, this may not be a bad thing, at least not entirely. The failure to meet a dubious standard always holds the potential to erupt into a questioning of that standard. In this respect, it is interesting to note the place held by the symptom in what passes for artistic knowledge production. While the rhetoric and practice of artistic knowledge production can themselves be seen as symptomatic of the social constraints to which autonomous art is subjected, the work of some artists actively engages with the symptom as an alternative to the empire of signs created by academic disciplines—as pointing both backwards and forwards in time, beyond the current order of things.

"By definition, symptoms are unintentional and uncontrollable, unproductive and even counterproductive—the result of repressed drives seeking an outlet. Recent practices that stage physical or linguistic symptoms can be seen as undermining the sham logocentrism of contemporary discourse even while taking advantage of the symbolic status of theory and research. Such approaches need to be distinguished from historical modern art, especially Expressionism and Surrealism: if these movements simulated symptoms, it was because they valued symptomatic scribbles and movements as authentic and autonomous expressions, and sought to liberate the symptom from a clinical or analytical context. By contrast, today’s artists are not so much interested in using the symptom as a model for a quasi-symptomatic, expressive, and convulsive art, but rather a reflexive symptomatology that produces dubious knowledge about knowledge’s other.

"Building on a famously rambling epistemological statement by Donald Rumsfeld, in which the then US Secretary of Defense mused about the “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns” in the war on terror, one could say that such practices articulate the “unknown knowns” of society—its ideological unconscious, its repressed knowledge. Such active symptomatology is in contradistinction to the theoretical tendency to read art’s formal characteristics as symptoms of the conditions and contradictions of artistic production, revealing more about society than the artist may have realized. Symptomatological approaches in recent art depend on an actively critical role for the artist; however, it is important to remember that critical intentions have their own unconscious, their own unknown knowns."

images: pages from Manuel Raeder's typographic version of Omer Fast's Godville.

Open no. 14: Sacred Sites

Issue no. 14 of Open, a publication on "art and the public domain"edited by Jorinde Seijdel, is dedicated to art institutions and the reinvention of publicness. This issue contains contributions by Chantal Mouffe, Nina Möntmann, Jan Verwoert and Bik Van der Pol, among others, as well as my essay Exhibiting Cult Value: On Sacred Spaces as Public Spaces and Vice Versa (pp. 38-55 in the English edition). The text analyses the relations between museum, cathedral and mosque, arguing against the popular tendency to either define museums and other art spaces as bullwarks of "Western"secularism or demand that they become so. An extract:

"For Enlightenment fundamentalists, mosque and museum are radically opposed to each other, while the cathedral is politely or opportunistically ignored. If the Qur’an is seen as the enemy of Western “free word” and its media, the mosque stands in a similar opposition to the museum, the home of “free art” that is under threat from sinister fundamentalists. In this way the mosque comes to be opposed to the museum as representative of the secular public sphere. Recently, when the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague refused to exhibit photographs that showed gay men wearing masks representing Muhammed and Ali, his son-in-law, the museum was attacked for betraying its mission to be a space of secular freedom against theocratic tyranny. Thus there are two opposed interpretations of the museum: in contrast to the authors who argue that the museum is too sacred, that it is insufficiently profane, others ideologize the museum as a prototypical space for Western secularism, for free words and images. Both positions are militantly secularist. In both cases, the sacred as such is seen as ominous.

"Emile Durkheim noted that “[t]here are two kinds of sacred, one auspicious, the other inauspicious;” for Enlightenment fundamentalists, there only seems to be bad sacrality. But does not the concept of the secular itself come to play the part of the “good” sacred? After all, the Enlightenment fundamentalists effectively sacralize “the Enlightenment”, “the West”, “free speech”, “free art”—while using such slogans to avoid any discussion of Western complicitness in the situations they denounce, in the Middle East and elsewhere. If secularization means the questioning of dogmas and stifling celestial and earthly hierarchies, a revolt against a culture of fear and taboo, then secularization is indeed crucial, but many secularists seem intent on sabotaging this process by nurturing Manichaean dichotomies. This goes for art-bashers as well as for Islam-bashers; while the latter use the bogeyman of Evil Islam to prevent a serious contestation Western neoliberal policies and economic imperialism, the former seem intent on disabling whatever potential for dissent art may still have. Yes, the museum needs to be critiqued, but Ulrich’s “profane” museum, which is no longer distinct from the surrounding culture, would itself be as critical as Fox News.

"Perhaps the museum’s insufficient secularization, its elitist and mystifying form of publicness, also enables critical practices that would not be possible otherwise. And did not churches, at various moments in history, function as public places that enabled the articulation of dissenting practices and forms of resistance, both from a Christian and from a post-Christian perspective? No doubt some mosques deserve to be eyed with suspicion, and there are many obstacles to be overcome, but one can give a positive twist to the mosque’s difference from (and in) the current order, as in the case of the museum. Some works of art stage a tentative dialogue between art context and mosque. Lidwien van de Ven’s photo of a Viennese mosque, in which men are seen from behind, praying with their faces to the wall, is pasted directly on the wall of the white cube; thus one space of concentration, however myth-ridden, is presented as an extension of the next."

Image: Lidwien van de Ven, Islamic Centre, Vienna, 2000.

The complete text is online here: http://www.skor.nl/article-3635-nl.html?lang=en

En de nederlandse versie is hier: http://www.skor.nl/article-3635-nl.html?lang=nl

[Correction: Although in recent years Lidwien van de Ven often shows her photographs in the form of poster prints glued directly on the wall, the picture of the Islamic Center in Vienna has not been shown in this way yet.]