by Michael Pepi
2015 Triennial: Surround Audience
The New Museum | February 25 – May 24, 2015
One of the current predicaments of art was recently captured in a statement by media theorist Alexander Galloway. Speaking at the book launch of e-flux’s The Internet Does not Exist, Galloway proposed that, contrary to the aspirations of the art of the modern period, art today isn’t really operating as a vanguard. Instead it’s continually organized around ideas from other disciplines whose inquiries assume the agenda-setting role. Art is “more often a caboose” or “a kind of ambulance chaser.”
Meanwhile the themes that dominate contemporary art discourse are borrowed from disciplines engaged in what we might call the productive design of the future. These include the non-human life of things, a hyper-capitalism enmeshed in new forms of extraction, monopolies in digital networks, and the ability of data to form new social relations outside of our own immediate perception. This is but a brief sketch of the weird realm that has arguably become our predominant social mode. Art’s role in this process is equivocal, at best. Its foundations are so deeply conditioned by human-centered categories of aesthetics and history, not to mention materialist fetishes, that, despite many attempts, cannot be dematerialized away by conceptual gestures. It’s limited not just by its disciplinary principles, but also by the way we write about it.
Art is then left flat-footed, confined to providing answers to external ideas instead of proposing justifications for its existence on its own terms. There’s a growing sense that the situation surrounding art production and reception as entangled elements is no longer adequate. This includes its delicate pedagogy, its discourse and judgment, and specifically its dominant display mechanism—the exhibition. Lately, emerging artists from around the world have largely left behind the MFA-approved institutional choreography in favor of a mass market ethos more in touch with what Boris Groys terms the “horizontal infinity of aesthetically equal images,” identifying instead with generative, ubiquitous media experiences than with the genteel hermeneutics of biennial circuits past. These are the concerns that foreground the third New Museum Triennial. The highly anticipated exhibition carried an implicit promise to take up these questions independent of the retrograde gazing into professional networks and the bizarre market faith that reigns over other thematic shows.
The Triennial proposes that the way out isn’t necessarily through critique, subversion, or mastery, but possibly through a sort of faith in the redemption of the weird. This isn’t a “weird” in the expressionist or metaphysical sense, or even a “weird” in the sense of the postmodern maneuvers of assemblage. This is a weirdness that stands outside the position of the institution—something unable to be accounted for by the exhibition format. As a consequent result, however, art risks getting left behind as the large-scale speculations about building new territories and systems relegate it to a niche antiquarian discipline engaged in perpetual nostalgia.
In short, we are bereft of a strange new desire. Things need to get weird and they need to get weird fast. The Triennial was to be predictive, to speak to “a time when culture has become more porous and encompassing and new considerations about art’s role and potential are surfacing.”
The choice to include projects by K-HOLE and DIS was a warning shot in this direction: two emerging collectives quite different in intent, but of a kind in the sense that they operate through the strength of weak ties, whose networks have enchanted the angsty non-hermeneutics of youth culture. Both could be said to engage in a critique through mimesis, which depending on who you ask, is either a disenchanted retreat into the cognitive tissue of capitalism or speculations of a time to come.
Yet unfortunately, these are concerns for which any biennial exhibition format is deeply outmatched, if not fundamentally ill-equipped. This could be the reason there is such a general malaise regarding art’s representative capacities when faced with the eponymous “surround audience.” Curators Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin have set us a task, but the way we interpret and receive these works has largely failed us.
Art’s surround audience is increasingly provisional in its commitments, elastic, distributed, and asynchronous. Lending individual judgments as to the success of these works is curiously at odds with the context of their production. As a critic, this places one in a difficult position. To traipse through the New Museum’s galleries and prognosticate on the aesthetic success of discrete works comes across as an especially outmoded tactic. If the Triennial’s project was bold and futurist, it could be located in the desire to unseat the subject-object relations that are somehow still ghosting around us. This isn’t to reanimate the premises of poststructuralist thought, but rather to ask for a critical project worthy of the new conditions of its subject. Something like the Triennial deserves to be interpreted using methods that at first might contradict the delivery vessel of the exhibition.
What future are we creating when we double down on the hollow notion of singular judgment spreading forth, unidirectional and divorced from the connections now forged by a pervasive exchange of information? Our critical tools are just as responsible for art’s caboosed condition. Art will remain in this role, in part, because we prop up hermeneutics from previous eras even as the material conditions in question have starkly shifted. When the work’s aspirations rely on an embrace of a new technologically-conditioned indeterminacy, reengaging the power dynamic inherent in art’s universal right to representation is a form of bad faith.
The troubling thing about the Triennial is that we don’t seem to be able to talk at or about the work. Instead we can only stand with it. Just a few of the works that thematize this would be Antoine Catala’s “Distant Feel,” Ashland Mines’s sound and light installation in the stairwell, Steve Roggenbuck’s bombastic self-recorded poetry videos, or Ed Atkin’s “Happy Birthday!!”
It’s not altogether clear what a new critical framework might look like, of course. A text is still a text, and the artists still have their motivations and intentions that might be uncovered through some form of critical exegesis. But preserving a discourse awash in low-stakes language games still pegged to the goals of mid-century formal excavations tells us nothing about the weird new society staged by digital technology. The critical obstacles brought to bear here differ from the problematizing of self-imposed postmodernism. The works engaged in the effects of digital technology platforms and planetary scale computation are disorienting, literally beyond the grasp of human sensibilities, because their networks, images, and exchanges exist for us only as secondary steps. The sensuous remains of what art can produce in order to address or respond to this, will, as a result, always be impoverished and blinkered.