If Performa 09 is any evidence, the artist’s lecture is the performance form in ascendance. If, that is, you can call it a form. Despite, or perhaps because of, its prevalence, the lecture-as-performance seems to shrug off any typology, genealogy, or, for that matter, name one might ascribe to it: I’ve seen ‘narrative lecture’—Alexandre Singh, ‘staged lecture’—Mark Leckey, ‘experimental lecture’ – Guillaume Desanges, ‘performative lecture’—Beatrice Gross, as well as simply ‘lecture’ tout court.
Karen Archey’s savvy discussion of this tendency in the last issue of MAP described it as a ‘spectrum of work ranging from the strictly performative… to the purely educational’. Many reactions to her article—notably, on New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz’s Facebook page—consisted in exuberant additions to the roll call, as if fleshing out the spectrum would flush out the ambivalence surrounding the form. What about Harun Farocki or Henry Flynt, the futurists’ tirades or Lacan’s convulsive 1973 Télévision broadcast? The list is motley and seemingly interminable, and might give an indication of how wily the ‘form’ is, capable of slipping—as it does in Archey’s article—from pedagogy as art into the pedagogy of art. Part of this slipperiness may be accounted for by the similarities between lectures and performances. Equal parts ritual and transaction, both lectures and performances promise knowledge in exchange for attentiveness. In a lecture, this is knowledge of a particular subject; in the performance, it is, as Roselee Goldberg notes in her essay ‘Performance: A Hidden History’, access to the art world itself—an access-way paved with satire. The lecture-as-performance can thus, on the one hand, claim value independent of its performance qualities, and on the other, disavow or satirise its content.
John Cage’s 1949 ‘Lecture on Nothing’ exposed this strategy with panache. Delivered at the short-lived Subjects of the Artist School in New York, Cage’s lecture divagates through reflections on continuity, sound, silence, and even its own structure (‘This, now, is the end of that second unit. Now begins the third unit of the second part…’). Archly, and absurdly transparent, this last section demonstrates that a simple description of the structure serves just as well to fill said structure as the content that preceded it. The nihilistic state of arbitrariness governing the talk a lecture on anything, or on ‘nothing in particular’—is commensurate to a lecture on nothing, period. Arbitrariness, after all, is the great bugbear of the lecture-as-performance. Art’s elastic threshold for dubious expertise accommodates this arbitrariness, but it also provides the grounds for artists’ fraught relationship with expert knowledge. Archey astutely brings Andrea Fraser into the conversation here. However, institutional critique is but one way of reckoning with the authority invested in the lecturer. In his 1979 essay ‘Earthwords’, Craig Owens discusses 1960s artists’ texts as an eruption of language in art that cannot be reduced to a secondary, supplemental relationship to visual production. This eruption, Owens maintains, coincided with the emergence of postmodernism, signalling an end to modernist hierarchies along the visual/verbal axis, and infiltrating the discrete competencies of art forms.
Owens’ model is Robert Smithson, whose 1972 ‘Hotel Palenque’ lecture, a slide presentation on the tumbledown hotel grounds located near the famous Mayan ruins, could likewise be added to Saltz’s list. An autodidact who referred to his own prodigious writing as ‘material to sort of put together’, Smithson might be a more meet precursor for the idiosyncrasy of some of the lectures in question today—from Leckey to the Bruce High Quality Foundation to French duo Louise Hervé and Chloé Maillet—whose power lies in their ability to marshal, in the words of artist Ellie Ga, ‘temporary expertise’, collaged into a dazzling portrait of the contemporary hyperlink imaginary. In short, if Owens’ eruption of language marks the turning point in which discourse could be considered as not, or not merely, an appurtenance, it came with an expansion in the territories of artists’ expertise, beyond their own work, even beyond any plausible intimacy with the expert content. These territories have burgeoned, and their barriers attenuated, with temporary expertise available to everyone with a broadband connection. How fitting that Alexandre Singh’s encyclopedic tome, The Marque of the Third Stripe, should be prefaced by pages upon pages of hyperlinks—a demystification that says as much about the contemporary state of artist expertise as the (over)valuing of intellectual facility.
Archey’s conclusion paints the lecture as a method for artists to teach other artists how to be professionals, to redress the failures of their educational structures and to propagate a liberal, disenchanted model for the artist in society. But this seems to both renege on the richness evoked in her article, and leave little room for judgment, while lectures pull a bait-and-switch as both supplements and autonomous works. The art world has always been full of confidence men, only now there is a ‘form’ to match them. One could call it a modern-day performance of Keats’ negative capability. Or, to call a spade a spade—without, in all probability, denting its pride—you could just call it charlatanism.
Joanna Fiduccia is a member of MAP’s editorial advisory board