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Foreword Afterall Journal Issue 19

During the spring of 1979, The Red Krayola and Scritti Politti toured together in England…

During the spring of 1979, The Red Krayola and Scritti Politti toured together in England. Despite the two bands’ very different origins and career stages at the time – The Red Krayola started in Houston in 1966 as an avant-garde psychedelic group and had by then recorded several albums, including collaborations with Art & Language, while Scritti Politti was a young English post punk band with only a few singles released – the match was perfect. As Scritti Politti member Green Gartside put it, Scritti Politti made ‘music with the questions built in and the assurances left out’. 01 The Red Krayola did exactly the same.

In an interview made on the occasion of that tour and published in the music fanzine After Hours in 1979, the members of Scritti Politti discussed several concerns they had as a band. Although neither this interview nor Scritti Politti’s work was part of the editorial discussion when we chose the contents of the current issue of Afterall, they provide the ideal access point to its central issues.

…the idea is that substantial decisions about what the group is doing are made by a larger number of people than actually pick up instruments at present, and play and call themselves Scritti Politti. 02

At a time when a still buoyant art market privileges the figure of the individual producer and considers his or her work independently from the context of production, it seems important to reflect on alternative modes of making art that focus on networks and collaborations. Not only because these might provide an alternative to predominant ideas about how art can or should be made, but because these modes may make possible a more nuanced understanding of the position of both art and the artist within society at large. This results from the conviction that, as Gartside says, many of the problems raised by artistic practice ‘aren’t actually encountered at the stage of writing or performing a song per se’. Rather, the problems are located at ‘the interface between making music and the rest of your life’. The work of gelitin, Chto delat?, The Red Krayola, Asco and Kai Althoff, featured in this issue of Afterall, constitute examples of how this conviction and those problems can be reflected within contemporary artistic or cultural practice. Gelitin’s dynamics as a long-standing artists’ group, Chto delat?’s interdisciplinary production involving artists, writers and activists, The Red Krayola’s constantly changing formations and collaborations, Asco’s group performances and Kai Althoff’s numerous co-authored projects (including music albums as the group Workshop) make visible alternative modes of occupying a space within the cultural arena, and allow a questioning of the official mechanisms of distribution and interpretation. This is important because, as Scritti Politti member Nial Jinks says, ‘Music is not constructed through our intentions as musicians, but is constructed socially through the people that we come into contact with.’

Gartside suggests that if the meaning of cultural products is (at least to some extent) constructed through social relations, both at the stages of production and reception, then questions about the artists’ agency and its political implications are raised – so that part of the artists’ task might then be to ‘deal with some of the … concrete problems that people have when they try to make or control their own culture.’ This might involve, as in the work of Chto delat?, an explicit reflection on issues of organisation or distribution or, as in the case of Asco, Althoff, Hito Steyerl or Jim Shaw – artists also featured in the current issue – a reworking of popular culture imagery that attempts to release it from role it plays within the social and production relations of diverse economic systems.

To some extent, as Gartside says, making art might simply respond to a desire to ‘disturb some thought, disturb some language, disturb some relationships… disturb complacency’. This can be effectively done not by creating a fully new vocabulary, alternative to that of domination, but by articulating the vocabulary that is available in order to disrupt the language of domination. That vocabulary, as this issue of Afterall shows, might contain crass, goofy or even just silly elements, from Spider-Man cartoons and the big-breasted women of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) to body parts turned into musical instruments and tags on the walls of art institutions. But although their popular nature seems to render any politic goals associated with the work moot, there is always a chance for a different kind of effect. As the lyrics of Scritti Politti’s ‘P.A.s’ (1979) say, ‘Bas(s)es shake / And speakers rattle / Doledrums roll us into battle / It’s jokey – Well, maybe.’

If that is the case, it is possible to situate the re-workings of popular culture that are showcased in this issue as a part of a disruptive, or even emancipatory project – that ranges from The Red Krayola’s recent experiments with the pop song format (which perhaps not surprisingly have strong parallels with Scritti Politti’s recent album White Bread Black Beer, 2006), Jim Shaw’s recycling of low-end cultural production and Kai Althoff’s appropriation of Christian and German iconography, to Hito Steyerl’s and Chto delat?’s more explicitly politicised use of capitalist and socialist imaginaries. Such work remains aware that utterances made in any song, or in any artwork, are not necessarily ‘about something’: songs or artworks, Gartside continues, ‘aren’t conversations or political tracts, and a new way of writing, of using language is necessary to maximise [their] potential’. This issue of Afterall explores, among other things, how these vocabularies function – and, ultimately, whether they all go down the drain.

– Pablo Lafuente