VIP of visual culture studies, Irit Rogoff, declares in Basis voor Actuele Kunst’s second critical reader that ‘a theorist is one who has been undone by theory’. This statement responds directly to the mega-query of her chapter, ‘What is a Theorist?’, reprinted from a 2004 anthology edited by Katharyn Sykora et al entitled What is an Artist? The reappearance of Rogoff’s piece is useful, for her explication of her becoming-famous declaration sets the scene for all essayists in this new anthology.
‘In the context of a question regarding what an artist might be,’ she wrote, ‘I would want to raise the question of what a theorist might be to signal how inextricably linked these existences and practices might be.’
Following their timeous 2006 critical reader, Concerning War, BAK are once again addressing a topic of imminent import. The algebraic increase of discourse around contemporary art practice has produced, has it not dear reader, a glut of information, knowledge and opinion on behalf of, and not on behalf of, art practitioners.
As Rogoff implies, one reason for the indistinguishability of artist and theorist is the status of the art object as carrier of prima facie knowledge. In short, it is hard for art to make meaning beyond its satellite discourses, especially when several of those discourses preclude the potential of art to have any degree of pre-discursive significance.
One flash-point of this topical debate is to be seen within institutions of formal art education. The status of the art object/ act as verifiable knowledge, independent of secondary commentary, is deeply contested. A powerful twofold anxiety lingers as a consequence of the contestation.
Firstly, if art is not about the production of the kind of knowledge that can be seen and consciously assimilated by another, then how might the governmental institutions which orbit schools of art assess the quality of the accumulated knowledge generated by publicly-funded artist-researchers? Secondly, if the work of art cannot stand its ground as explicable and transferrable evidence of knowledge accumulated by a student, then what sort of claims, beyond those based unsaid on personalities, can be made as to criteria and fairness of assessment?
This combined anxiety has been in synchrony with the pressure on art institutions, in the words of contributor Simon Sheikh, to take into account ‘the double process of the dematerialization of the art object on the one hand and the so-called expanded field of art practices on the other’. The greater the dematerialization and expansion, the further we are from the formally-based measuring-rods of an artworld once-upon-a-time.
Sheikh has this epistemological puzzle solved: ‘thinking is, after all, not equivalent to knowledge’. But knowledge should not be understood as the morally superior sibling of ‘thinking’, because ‘knowledge, in the sense of being what you know, what you have learned, is also a limitation: something that… inscribes you within tradition, within certain parameters of the possible’.
Rogoff’s theorist’s state of being undone, thanks to Sheikh’s clear thinking, can be understood as that condition of (deliberately or, perhaps, inevitably) not knowing because of playful thinking ongoing. Sheikh’s embellishment of Rogoff’s axiom is supported by many other essays, which focus indirectly on his description of ‘thinking’ as implying ‘networks of indiscipline, lines of flight, and utopian questionings’.
The Copenhagen Free University presents its 2007 statement of de-institutionalisation. Connecting with the leitmotiv of formalised knowledge as limitation, Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobson make clear, ‘The CFU has never wanted to become a fixed identity and as part of the concept of self-institutionalization we have always found it important to take power and to play with power but also to abolish it’. The University as paragon of founded knowledge is subjected to a dual think-through by Heise and Jakobson: established in a flat, their university is then disestablished with equal ceremony and conviction; ‘We Have Won!’ they proclaim at the formal moment of dematerialisation (announced through the knowledge-producing channels of discourse professionals, of course).
A most convincing demonstration of knowledge being empowered by the simultaneity of playful thinking is the brilliantly evocative script of New York artist Matthew Buckingham’s 2003 film, ‘Muhheakantuck—Everything Has A Name’. The transcript delivers insight into the historical facts of the infl uence of the Dutch East India Company on the ecology of the Hudson River, but the knowledge is cleverly undone.
‘Muhheakantuck’ means ‘the river that flows in two directions’ named by the ‘Lenape’, the text informs. But this is followed closely by Buckingham interceding with, ‘writing substitutes the eye for the ear. Writing substitutes the hand for the mouth. Colonizing language also colonizes memory and imagination’.
And with all such colonising, so knowledge is formed by the politics which hover over the creative play of artists of all kinds: knowledge which awaits bagging and tagging in readiness for its long journey through the aisles and checkouts of the knowledge economy, all the way to you, dear purchaser.
Ken Neil is head of historical and critical studies at the Glasgow School of Art