What I defend above all is the possibility and the necessity of the critical intellectual.
– Pierre Bourdieu, 1991
Afterall is a new publication that seeks to discuss the work of contemporary artists and relate their ambitions to the wider social, political and philosophical framework within which art is produced. We aim to create a platform where art can take its place alongside other primary practices as a way of understanding and reflecting upon the world. As Pierre Bourdieu has said about the critical intellectual,
…she questions the things that are self-evident, in particular those that present themselves in the form of questions, her own as much as other people’s. This … shocks [those] who see a political bias in the refusal to grant the profoundly political submission implied in the unconscious acceptance of commonplaces, in Aristotle’s sense – notions or theses with which people argue, but over which they do not argue. 01
It is such a notion of the critical intellectual, broadly and fluidly defined, that Afterall claims for contemporary artists – artists who are researchers and experimenters as much as producers, and whose work tests out propositions in ways related to, but different from, both the philosopher and the scientist. In order to concentrate on specific practices, each issue of Afterall will feature four or five artists whose relationship to each other is complementary rather than thematic. For each artist, a descriptive text covering a range of work is paralleled by a more discursive or personal response. Alongside these articles, two more discursive essays will set the cultural and political context within which art is produced and received.
For the pilot issue, we approached five artists whose work explores the terrain surrounding the idea of ‘Utopia’ and its relationship to an artistic and social avant-garde in the twentieth century. The lamentable history of modern Utopian projects has, of course, changed the rules under which art can make propositions about social and cultural change. And yet, art has retained its capacity for symbolic projection, or, as Liam Gillick defines it, scenario creation. So some artists are beginning to talk, as Superflex do in their interview, of proposals for small ‘Utopias’ adapted to particular circumstances. The work of the artists in this issue often places them into uncertain territory where the application of their research can only ever be provisional and specific. They are usually speaking from and to a state of uncertainty, and their approaches, although different, seem to require new definitions or an abandonment of separate categories such as the visual and verbal or political and cultural.
Such strategies appear unconcerned with issues of art’s autonomy except perhaps as a means to place ideas within a certain speculative framework. Nor are they simply continuing the historical avant-garde’s desire to close the gap between art and everyday life. Instead, they cross these boundaries, embracing the discipline of critical art discourse while acknowledging the dependency of that discourse on economic and political structures. It is this tension, which allies with issues of utility and non-utility fundamental to art’s status, that generates the dialogue between the work of art and its context. If the increasing popular response to contemporary art is to have long-lasting implications, then these deeply political intentions need to be more widely acknowledged. It is in the areas between art, politics and philosophy that the most compelling contemporary art lies, where the standard of artistic freedom is tested by the economic and social restrictions under which art is produced.
The artists in Afterall issue 0 generally view the gallery as one context amongst many. Pavel Büchler’s explanations of intellectual space in one of Europe’s former socialist ‘Utopian’ states have informed his performances, gestures, photographs and actions since the 1970s. Desa Philippi’s survey of his work draws out its significance in relation to his own history and his commitment to the existence of a mental and public space of exchange and proposition. In turn, lan Hunt examines a single work by Büchler, Red Flag, which provided that possibility in a specific place. Fiona Banner looks at some of the archetypal media of modernism – from film to type design – to find the gaps and translations out of which other stories and alternative ways of reading, both past and future, can emerge. Matthew Higgs’s interview gives the artist an opportunity to place her own narrative on her work, while Alan Woods has written a text responding to The Nam flickbook. Jeremy Deller’s production, with its emphasis on collaboration and incongruous juxtaposition, is also ripe for narrative response. Many of his works initially exist for tiny and particular audiences, to be subsequently recalled only in photographs and anecdotes. In response, Nicholas Blincoe has written a short story about Deller’s Acid Brass project and Will Bradley has contributed a more investigative survey of a number of projects. Like Deller, Superflex’s work is exemplary on one level while creating an immediate and deep engagement for their collaborators. The Biogas project, their most elaborate work to date, serves as a small Utopian model in a situation as foreign to most of the art audience as Thomas More’s original description of his ‘no place’. Finally, Pierre Huyghe relates most closely to ‘scenario creation’, exposing and illuminating the gaps between projection, reflection and subject in film and photography. Liam Gillick has written a text which looks at his methodology and approach while Jean-Christophe Royoux writes more specifically about individual pieces.
The longer essays examine two moments of apparent Utopian settlement, the Swedish social democrat consensus from 1932-73 and the radical non-site of the Internet. Both Gertrud Sandqvist and Josephine Berry reject the easy paths of modernist hyperbole or post-modern cynicism and instead opt for an analysis of the conditions of political, economic and aesthetic self-regard in those different communities. As such, the methodology of these writers does not differ so markedly from the work of the selected artists, but further enriches the proposal for an art of critical engagement with the commonplaces of society.
Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998, p.8.