Activity is a densely packed volume of essays exploring and expounding issues of collaboration, accountability, and democracy. Listed on its publisher’s website as ‘an exhibition in book form’, Activity treads lightly and confidently into a historical pool of radical exhibition-making first defined by Seth Siegelaub’s January 5-31, 1969, a show of conceptual art that took place largely within the pages of an artists’ catalogue. Initiated and edited by Ricardo Valentim and Pedro Barateiro, Activity is also a collective artistic effort by a raft of contributors who have largely sought to explore agency through self-reflexivity. Liam Gillick, for example, has inserted colourful monotone half pages that interrupt the reader’s flow, while the Uqbar Foundation contributed recto pages featuring text from Plato’s Parmenides, the top corners neatly folded like bookmarks. Not just decorative, these tactile qualities suggest that Activity might function as a corollary to action in the real world.
Part of what makes this book fresh and urgent is the freedom with which contributors have explored their own conceptual and formal concerns within its framework. One downside of this is an occasionally pretentious or worthy tone: the text on the jacket, for example, which comes courtesy of International Pastimes, opaquely states that ‘Activity is to a group what content is to a platform, a sort of empty signifier, a placeholder’. Thankfully the book is so varied in content that it’s easy to overlook such moments of brow-furrowing art babble. I found Activity easier to appreciate as an exercise in dialogue rather than explication: conversations are more important than conclusions. Indeed, Activity is filled with questions, many of which are posed by Cecilia Alemani, with answers supplied by Barateiro and Valentim. These are posed as fun: to the question ‘So tell me exactly what do you do?’, Barateiro and Valentim have inserted an image from Swedish Communist Party propaganda.
A subset of concerns spinning out of the interview format, which dominates this book, is the idea of de-authorship. For example, Raimundas Malasauskas interviews an ‘anonymous artist’, while Fia Backström’s conducts a prickly meta-interview with Goldin+Senneby (a collective whose work often concerns issues of corporate anonymity). This leads to another interview between two anti-copyright activists chosen by Backström and Goldin+Senneby: Rasus Fleischer (of Piratbyrån) and Fred Benenson (founder of Student for Free Culture). Of course, in a visual art context, this careful weakening of authorship need not be verbally articulated. Ricardo Basbaum’s photographic project Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?, 1994-ongoing, records the journey of a minimalist-looking metal polyhedral box in various locations, being used by different ‘participants’ in a sort of relational/collaborative extension of the path trod in the 1960s by Franz Erhard Walther and Lygia Clark.
Collaboration rarely results in happy agreement; indeed, what’s important is how one copes with inevitable disagreement. Although it’s not mentioned explicitly in this book, it’s useful to recall terms used from leftist political philosophy, such as ‘dissensus’ (Jacques Ranciere) and ‘agonism’ (Chantal Mouffe), which seek to define acceptable forms of democratic conflict. These notions appear here through images and texts taken from Artur Zmijewski’s video ‘Them’, 2007, in which representatives of Poland’s political/cultural factions (nationalist, socialist, Catholic, Jewish) attend an art workshop to collaborate in producing an image representative of Poland.
The potency of this form of debate is convincingly stated here by Istanbul-based artist collective Oda Projesi, who, for their contribution to Activity, have re-worked a piece originally made for the 9th Istanbul Biennial, 2005. ‘Neighbourhood, room, neighbour, guest?’, 2005, involved invited participants who were asked questions about issues of ‘neighbourhood’ and ‘community’. The results were then printed in a book, rather than in a conventional exhibition space. Re-presented here, the questions include: ‘Is there a place called home?’, ‘What is it that has haunted you in the past three years?’ and, ‘is any form of self-sacrifice possible these days and, if so, what would make you do it?’. Participants largely take their questions seriously and speak from personal experience. Many questions, however, are left unanswered—allowing readers to pontificate at their leisure. Ultimately, this is the pleasure of Activity as a whole: it is a rare encounter in which individual art practices are placed in a generative tension that allows the reader space to breathe, as if walking around art works in a physical space.
Colin Perry is a writer based in London