Public Knowledge: Selected Writings by Michael Asher
(MIT Press, 2019)
The career of Michael Asher was defined by an incredible situational sensitivity. Vital to his work, in its conceptual and aesthetic ambitions, was a constant inquisition into how we as viewers—as a community—perceive and approach a work of art. His aesthetic interventions, deconstruction, and circulations acted as vehicles for his continuous questioning of the institutional framework and its role in the dissemination of information and the creation of knowledge.
Public Knowledge: Selected Writings by Michael Asher (2019) offers an exceptional vantage into Asher’s approach. Compiled and edited by art historian Kirsi Peltomäki, the book brings together a variety of the artist’s writings, ranging from notes to himself, drafts of exhibition statements, and letters to curators. Peltomäki worked in close conversation with Asher before his death in 2012, and continued this gathering with the permission of the Asher Foundation afterwards. The majority of the texts come from the artist’s self-organized archive. He meticulously conserved and filed notes, correspondence, and exhibition ephemera, with the clear foresight that these texts were to be of use once he was no longer alive.
This conservation is remarkable given the fraught relation of Asher’s work to documentation and preservation. In fact, the book begins with Asher’s notes regarding the document and its precarious qualities, namely its effect on the experience of a work: “I feel documentation should be framed precisely as fragments which give the reader a record of the original. The experience of the original can never be had through documentation and the intent of the artwork can be misunderstood when the documentation of the work substitutes itself for the actual work.” He built his practice largely around site-specific proposals, taking into consideration the cultural and historical significance of his works at the instance of their production. Asked to reproduce a work from 1972, he answers: “To reconstruct this work would be possible if we could reconstruct the site of modernism sixteen years ago and the actual context of Documenta V. But if we were even able to do this why and for what purpose would we be doing it?” For Asher, it’s clear that the conditions of the work were not bound to the institution in his eyes, but the ecology of information and social activity within which the work was born. Because of this extreme contingency Asher’s works rarely survived their installation, posing a problem of circulation.
Hence Asher exercised impressive control over said circulation, considering the significance of the documentary form as much as the work itself. Given the specificity of his constructions, primary experience of his work is only available in the initial installation; what one receives in the photograph is something other than the work. Given the control he exhibited over both the work and its distribution, it is clear that this well-groomed archive serves to make up for this insufficiency. This sense of control, of being directed by the artist, carries through in the selectivity and edifying nature of this collection.
The document, something between a transcription and a translation, that inherently loses some traits of the original work while revealing others, resonates in the formatting of this collection. In the preface, Peltomäki makes clear her intent to “facilitate the ease of reading while maintaining a sense of Asher’s thinking and his distinct use of writing.” To achieve this, Asher’s original documents are transcribed, with his spelling errors corrected and struck through texts omitted. In addition to this copy editing, each text is prefaced with detailed notes from the editor that contextualize the occasion of the writing and summarize its contents. These notes, perhaps unintentionally, tidy Asher’s already rather polished collection. Between the artist and the editor, few if any gaps are left for a reader to insert themselves into the collection, preventing the opportunities for imagination through mystery, foregrounding exclusively the use of these texts as didactic information. This formatting preserves the concrete, analytic distance of his work, asserting the establishment of the archive not just by its collection but by its intended use.
As a selection, the book asserts a delineation between information and knowledge. Data is compiled, while knowledge is groomed and exchanged. It is this active movement, defined by the relationship between participants in said movement, that comes through repeatedly in Asher’s work and his notes. It is articulated best in his reflections on his role as a teacher at Cal arts. His notes outline a pedagogical philosophy focused on developing critical thinking through readings and discourse: “If there is an overarching principle, on the one hand, it would be predicated on advancing the use of theory and practice so one is contingent upon the other.” Prioritizing readings and conversation in his studio classes, Asher offered his students an approach that directly interlocked art with systems of knowledge, ultimately making for greater opportunities to participate consciously within them. The role of the viewer as the body completing the artistic exchange is also important to Asher, a notion he sites from Duchamp: “the creative act is not performed by artists alone” hence “when [his] work is on view the museum visitors are thus able to witness the completion of the viewing process while actively being engaged in the process themselves.” Participation, hence accessibility, were key to his conception of public, that knowledge could not fully be deemed as such until interaction occurred.
Public Knowledge engages with the notion of a record, true to the extreme contingency of Asher’s practice within the instance of the installation. The overall tone is calculated; the intricate paradox of giving and controlling that permeates Asher’s work is reinforced in this publication. The desired direction/use of the texts feel quite standardized, to be taken as clinical reference rather than interpretative material. The collection, as an outstanding account of Peltomäki’s scholarship and Asher’s fastidiousness, also raises questions of historicism and the riskiness of the term “knowledge.”