Herramientas del arte. Relecturas [Tools of Art. Rereadings]. Corversation with Álvaro de los Ángeles

The following conversation is another way of presenting a few of the issues that this project wishes to analyse. It is a virtual dialogue-in-progress between Álvaro de los Ángeles and Daniel G. Andújar, written in the places and moments when it was possible to do so. Many of the ideas that were developed, however, were expressed when G. Andújar was in Valencia carrying out a workshop together with Rogelio López Cuenca. Themes such as the social commitment of contemporary artists, their roles within the socio-cultural and socio-political framework, the real possibilities and tactics of survival and the creation of new ways of understanding their trade in a society undergoing continual change, are side by side with elements which come from the very title of the project: What tools do artists today have at their disposal? Where or against what should the rereadings resulting from their actions be addressed?

Álvaro de los Ángeles
: The theoretical-practical workshop-encounter that you and Rogelio led from 3rd through 5th March 2008 served to define several of the central themes of the project Herramientas del arte. Relecturas [Tools of Art. Rereadings]. It’s true that not all of the concepts on the programme were able to be developed, in part because the entire process was condensed in three days, but, due to some of the aspects that were discussed there and the debate these created, the general impression after the workshop was that many questions were raised and new ways of facing the artistic experience emerged.
From the very beginning, this project was planned to raise questions, to examine supposedly unquestionable facets of culture and its institutions, for all of the agents involved to consider which channels the artistic practices of today can be directed and to stir up a debate about the artist’s place in society. Also, if anything characterises art today, it is the hybridisation of techniques, media, the ways of exhibiting it and its relationship with other social subjects, such as politics, sociology, history, philosophy, psychoanalysis, architecture, or city planning… To which we could add other subjects, those not qualified as “scientific” but theorisable nonetheless, such as the question of memory, the archive as a model of contemporary society, the new interconnected social networks, the associationism and activism oriented towards art, or projected and created from it.
Can the concept of art’s functionality, its usefulness within society (as it has been conceived since at least the 1930s and then its evolution in later decades) have a correlate in the contemporary art of today? Is a rereading of its functions and usefulness possible from the basis of the elements created by contemporary tools, especially those which have derived or emerged from technology? Is this the only way of re-reading its practice? And, as a consequence, in a society governed by macro-economics, where everything is valued in real time or even in advance, can art still have a real social function, in the feasible, palpable sense?

Daniel G. Andújar: The practice of art, as I understand it, must also become a show of “resistance,” a model that obstinately wants to remain in a space of relationships which are more and more hierarchical, diffused, globalised, standardised… Those who direct the framework of cultural industries and the management of cultural institutions abandoned, decades ago, the processes of creating new contents and cultural production as a collective construction. Most of the professionals who run this framework are simply developing a personal power structure, climbing up the ladder to the most visible and media-friendly part of the public and private art institutions. They flaunt their power and reign over the reality of their little empire. The Art Institution has been absorbed as just another mechanism in the process of service production. It is an active part of the touristisation process in the urban context and participates in the complex re-adaptation of the new city’s infrastructures. Artists have been pushed out of the court to make way for a new elite of cultural managers who work in ivory towers, conceived more like mausoleums, on biennial events.
Clearly, this model implies a conflict of interests and this radicalisation of positions is taken advantage of in a very opportune way by those in power and those highly placed in these visible spaces. A visibility which, up to now, has been given to them in the traditional media, that is, in Radio, Television and the written Press. Who are the owners or, at the very least, who control these media? And, what is even more important—who are their allies?
To us artists, it is clear—either we join this new management system, or we move on to architecture to recover good favour of the court. Anything else puts us in a permanent situation of loss. Of course, we can also put ourselves in a (permanent?) state of resistance. I choose this latter option. The models are continually being defined. Fortunately, current information and communication technologies have created a new framework for action, in which previous situations as well as new scenarios develop, and artists can also take advantage of this. I believe that these changes are creating a crisis in the dominant cultural models of distribution and management. The digital space did not emerge simply as a medium permitting communication, it also emerged as a new theatre for all kinds of operations. And this is clearly a disputed space in which the old hierarchies of its interests are threatened. Art also has a political function there which needs a clear ethical stance. Art, like any cultural process, is basically a process of transmission, transference, of a continuous, permanent and necessary dialogue… but we mustn’t forget, it is also transgression, rupture, irony, parody, appropriation, misappropriation, confrontation, investigation, exploration, interrogation, opposition. We therefore search for the ideal context which permits this idea to develop in the best conditions. And if they don’t exist, we have to try to create them.

ÁdlÁ: Let’s expand on the subject of social commitment. It seems almost unthinkable that the work of a specific artist, especially if his work is characterised by a battle with social themes, could not be on a par with his or her way of behaving when faced with certain political matters. And, nevertheless, history is full of intellectuals, poets, artists, philosophers… whose work has transcended their time and is considered outstanding, while their personal actions could be judged—and in fact have been judged—as inappropriate, not only in relation to their work but, from an ethical point of view, also in relation to everything else. This is still a very current topic.
Perhaps because of its intrinsic descriptive vocation, by making obvious and visible personal interpretations of important matters, art is always kept away from the making of decisions, not only in the realm of politics, but also in culture. In fact, cultural policies themselves are frequently planned by political offices defined by a marked cultural phobia or, at the very least, a reductionist vision of culture. Culture is understood as the accompaniment for a group of important and decisive matters and personages.
Is the artist’s public dimension what makes up the institutional art spaces, the galleries, the new spaces which provide technological tools hosted on the web… or is it rather a private space, which each person makes his own, becoming visible in a personal and almost unpredictable way? Can there be gestures, actions, itineraries… which emerge as a joint effort, or does the hyper-individualism of art only permit uni-personal acts?

DGA: In the new configuration of cultural industries, in which more and more people are employed, artists are found at the lowest level of this hierarchy and are at the rear end of the economic rewards the system produces. In other words, there are a lot of people earning a living in this world, but it seems like the artists are rather “risking their lives.” And I ask myself, can the Art system support itself without contemporary artists? It seems that many institutions can. Fortunately the practice of art is not only confined to the boundaries of the institution or the marketplace, it can and must find new territories to develop new proposals—and if we can’t find them, then we have to invent them.
One of the territories we can operate from is the notion of intellectual property, whose prevailing system is certainly in urgent need of revision and reformulation, as it should be evolving towards a new, freer cultural context. The laws implemented by our political leaders under the new Intellectual Property Law, such as the right to make personal copies—now reduced to the bare minimum—are anachronistic for the Internet Age. I understand the current regulations as imposing a real burden on creating, on accessing information, and on the spreading of knowledge. I think that these are the kinds of territories where visual artists can show signs of commitment and make examples with their work; without them, their ability to act becomes very limited. Historically, their work has been associated with visions that are too egocentric, hyper-individualistic, focussing on the vision of the one-of-a-kind object as the sole material reference to their work. Transformed into mere exchange value in a market that, at the same time, is also evolving, in its own economic context.
As we mentioned earlier, we are immersed in a deep process of change which is creating attitudes permitting the management, on a global level, of different movements in favour of the development of new forms of innovation and collective creation, as well as being in favour of freely sharing the acquired knowledge and the right to use it. It is a complex, global process of co-operation and development that is constantly increasing its participants and interests. They are ways of organising work that have been declared more productive and which are tremendously able to direct these innovations towards the goal of communal interest. Social co-operation reveals its powers of innovation and creation, understood as the best way to support a model which allows for the distribution and expansion of the contents for the participants, the users and the audience. Obviously, artists must belong to the change process. And it will not be easy to adapt.

ÁdlÁ: According to what you say, and to what we have discussed on other occasions with Rogelio López Cuenca, it is safe to assume that the artist’s purpose can no longer be that of merely representing the world, understanding this representation as an action which allows him to create work proving the creative, different individuality of each artist. However, in all artistic forums, the artist’s creative particularity, his hallmark, continues to be what determines his quality. Is this a contradiction? If so, how can we come to terms with it, as artists who are active in the art world?

DGA: Well, there is still a lot of resistance to moving away from certain air-tight containers. In my opinion, it is extremely important to be able to abandon these traditional, limited sites that exist in the already narrow world of art. We make up part of a much wider cultural and social context which, in turn, is trying to digest one of the greatest cognitive changes of transformation in recent decades, if not the last few centuries. As I understand it, art can not limit itself to simply airing out the great questions about the human and the divine—nor obeying strategies which are purely aesthetic or of the marketplace—but rather it must be committed and involved in social and political processes.
We have to show our ethical commitment with the work we do, incorporating it into the part of the development process of the different aspects constituting our social, political and cultural context. We are living through a re-formulation of the processes of production, transmission and appropriation of symbolic goods that make us reconsider models of the construction of subjectivity and social organisation. Walter Benjamin, already in 1934, wrote this in regards to producers: “An author who does not teach writers, does not teach anyone. The model character of production is then decisive; in first place, it instructs other producers in the production and then, in second place, it is capable of putting an improved apparatus at their disposal. And when more consumers take this apparatus to production, the better it will be.”
We must begin redefining the role of the artist in this society, even within its specificity, and there is nothing wrong with that—or is this the only field that can not have a crisis or be in a state of constant change? Aren’t other disciplines—educators, journalists, scientists—trying to redefine or rethink their role in society, to gradually adapt to change, to find their position in society? A process must be started to break with the classic conception of the artist, in order to create a different one, which should be processual in nature, akin to the character of an analyst, informer or critic, within a reality of logical answers to the current situation of the exclusionist, bourgeois art institution—the museum, the market, the academic world, the conservative concept of the artist. Artists have to offer alternative actions, to open spaces of confrontation and criticism. This implies going into the arena, questioning the structure as a whole, and convincing others that we can restructure the entire system using different parameters, other processes, different from the ones proposed by the current courtier artists, official portraitists, roundabout artists, and decorators in cahoots with the powers that be. We can not resign ourselves to going back to the cathedral, to paint vaulted ceilings in theatres, and to decorate the apartments of the nouveau riche of the construction business. Obviously, we’re pushing the issue one step further, reformulating a thorough rereading, but I don’t believe that we are doing anything more than observing what is going on around us and questioning it, questioning it all the time, learning to read on the backside of images. It is nothing new.

ÁdlÁ: The question of survival is fundamental if we want to clarify what the artist’s task is and what his place within the artistic framework is. As we pointed out earlier, it seems that the artists are “risking their lives” doing what they do, rather than making a living like any other worker who does his job. Speaking of this, I would like to bring up one of Iván de la Nuez’s ideas from his text included in this publication, bearing the subtitle “Art, Politics and Survival.” In the last part of the text, which had already been published in the cultural supplement Babelia under the title Intelectuales en la era de la imagen [Intellectuals in the era of the image], Iván argues that visual culture is slowly but surely substituting written culture as the “transmitter of knowledge.” And he argues that artists are therefore faced with the task of becoming the intellectuals of the era of the image.
This idea, which is doubtlessly a key to understanding the more and more specific complexity of contemporary art, brings up, however, other doubts, among which, from my point of view, the term “intellectual” is foremost. We should question if this term, and everything it has meant historically, is helpful for the communication of new ways to understand art, or if it is weighed down by too much baggage. That is, if the word intellectual would also need redefining or a rereading within the cultural territory, where, as you have said, everything is in the process of transformation.

: I don’t understand it so much as some taking the place of others, but rather as a situation in which we are moving closer to a stage where it will be difficult to identify cultural sectors that are completely autonomous. This might seem to contradict the fact that it is more and more difficult to grasp reality in an individual and autonomous way. We need to create, as a group, new ways of learning and collaborating to carry out any task. We are submerged in a world where the transmitter and the receiver act simultaneously. In a very short period of time, we have gone from visiting the museum, the library, archives, to physically living inside the Archive. As individuals, we do not have the capacity, or the memory, to take in the whole System. Researchers have warned us that the human being has a work memory capacity limited to remembering four things—no more—although we can use tricks like repeating something many times, or grouping things together. How then are we going to manage with this huge quantity of documents, information, images… We have to create mechanisms which would allow us to transform all of that noisy mess into specific knowledge to be able to develop any specific activity in our personality. We will have to embrace this collectively, and look for new mechanisms from the enormous variety of fields and disciplines. Surely beginning with education. Here, no one is superfluous, just as no territory is exclusive to any one person or group.
If we were speaking in traditional terms, like one speaks in museums, that is, of the public, the viewer—the audience the artist’s work will be aimed at—today, more than ever, they are used to very sophisticated representation techniques borrowed from the mass such as advertising or television, but especially from the recent change in consumer habits of the media, brought about by the extensive appearance of the Internet, personal telecommunication tools, such as the mobile phone (which is also a camera for both videos and photos) and the systematic introduction of the computer in the private sphere. The visual is specifically associated with the contemporary territory of the digital: digital entertainment, advertising… Artists are no longer the only ones with the ability to influence the visual imaginary. Moreover, I think we have lost part of that ability and perhaps it is time to stop making any more noise, to stop producing images. This does not necessarily mean to stop working with images, which is something us artists know quite a bit about, or at least we should. Let’s join that battle, but let’s value other points of view. We should discover what lies behind those images; indeed, teach how to decode; help crack the code of visual frameworks; show the backsides of all these images; expose their entrails. It is a language filled with potentials, but it is immersed in a battle to control it. “Language changes the world,” said Rogelio López Cuenca in a recent interview. This is one of our fundamental battlegrounds—Is that an intellectual stance? I don’t know. But we’re working on it.

Herramientas del arte. Relecturas
Un proyecto de Álvaro de los Ángeles con Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, Rogelio López Cuenca y Daniel García Andújar

Sala Parpalló, junio-septiembre de 2008

Valencia, Calle Alboraia, 5, 46010, al lado del convento de la Trinidad
Tel: 34 963 614 415. Fax: 34 963 936 197

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