THE ORIGINS OF INSTITUTIONAL CRITIQUE:
The Art Workers Coalition (1969-1971)
The Art Workers Coalition was active between 1969-1971 in New York City and was a loose knit organization of over 300 artists, critics, writers, and arts administrators who sought to investigate and act upon the underlying politics of the art world. One of the Coalition’s primary activities was to argue, often in the form of public protest or intervention, against the hegemonic nature and power structure of large cultural institutions. On a more general level, the contentions of the AWC led to the initiation of protests advocating for issues of civil rights and condemning US involvement in the Vietnam War. On a specific and localized level, similar to the functionality of a trade union, the Coalition was deeply concerned with fighting to preserve and improve the everyday working conditions of artists. In my presentation about the AWC, one of the central issues I will attempt to discuss is what it means to be an ‘art-worker’. To me this is a very interesting and very curious classification, not artist, not worker, but an “art-worker”.
On the one hand, it seems that being an ‘art-worker’ is based less upon the choice to self-identify as an artist, but instead upon the way someone’s labor can be immediately bound to the production and dissemination of culture, hence the inclusion in the AWC of not just artists, but also of critics, writers and museum staff. On the other hand, a better understanding of what it means to be an ‘art-worker’ must also take into account the fact that with the concept of the worker comes an obvious set of historical and political associations with The Left. To get a better sense of this implication we need only remember the famous phrase: “Worker’s of the World Unite”. But the fact remains that the concept of an ‘art-worker’ represents a very complicated and “in-between” form of subjectivity, a form that also seems to be historically re-occuring. It seems as though each generation of modern art produces its own unique type of art-worker, and it is important to recognize this perpetual re-occurrence in terms of both continuity and change.
So therefore, first, before I begin about the USA in the 1960s, I’d like to quickly go back a bit further in history to mention members of the DADA movement and how they might also be considered early “art-workers”.
My example here is of the members of DADA in Berlin. Especially in the context of this exhibition at CCA, it is important to remember that the 1918-1919 Socialist revolution in Germany was itself a failed revolutionary moment. What then is the role of the critical and political artist in the time of a failed revolutionary moment? At a Dada exhibition in 1920, German artists George Grosz and John Heartfield were photographed holding a placard declaring (Art is Dead). The sign expresses a sense of frustration. The frustration of wanting to do something, of wanting to express something, of wanting to change society in a positive way, but not knowing exactly how to do or express such things.
Another example is Grosz and Heartfield’s sculptural montage entitled The Middle-Class Philistine Heartfield Gone Wild. This piece embodies the frustrated position of the petit-bourgeois artist. It is a montage of both man & machine, consisting of a department store mannequin about the size of a young prepubescent boy. Both of the figure’s legs are tied to the floor, while the lower portion of the figure’s right leg has been replaced with a metal pipe. Various bits of household ephemera, as well as a military medallion and small revolver are affixed to the figure’s upper torso. An illuminated incandescent light bulb replaces the figure’s head, which also necessitates that the sculpture always remains close to a gallery wall wherein it can be connected to an electrical outlet. Here I propose that this piece might just as well be considered a self-portrait depicting the artist as political activist. A creature of pure potential, yet one whose illuminate requires that he or she literally remain plugged into some kind of institutional framework.
In a way, this piece raises the infamous question: What is to be done? Artists are still asking this question today, but to be more specific we might also ask: How can artists seek to be active citizens? How can artists help to develop programs of effective civic engagement? Has the realm of contemporary art developed in such a way as to render these aspirations impossible?
Jumping forward in time from DADA to the time 1960s, I would like to give a few examples of artistic protest actions that helped build a context for the emergence of the AWC in 1969. First, in June of 1965, a full-page advertisement containing the signatures of over five hundred different artists was placed in the New York Times to protest US involvement in Vietnam War. In bold lettering the advertisement’s headline read “End Your Silence”. This article was significant because it represents the beginning of a resurgence of artists’ attempts to publically express a collective political consciousness in the United States.
Later, in 1966, a group of artists in Los Angeles California erected the a large public sculpture called the “California Peace Tower”. The tower was a symbol of their discontent with the Vietnam War. This sculpture is significant because it shows a point at which frustrations get so high that artists feel the need to break out into the public sphere. The tower was 20 meters tall, brightly colored with many panels, each panel designed by a different artist.
Also, in October of 1966, a group of radical artists from New York City called Black Mask issued a press release stating that, “On Monday October 10 at 12:30pm we will close the Museum Of Modern Art.” Naturally this made museum officials very nervous. On the afternoon of October 10th, museum security was very high; even the police were called to surround the building. Nobody even noticed when a member of the Black Mask group casually walked up to the museum’s entrance and placed a small sticker on the front door, this sticker simply said “CLOSED”.
In 1967, a group of New York based artists again joined together to produce a week long series of protest performances, happenings and events called ‘Angry Arts Week’. A huge wall was created where artists were asked to express some type of obscenity to represent their political frustration, the wall was called the “Collage of Indignation.” After this was performed in New York City, more ‘Angry Arts’ weeks were also held in the cities of Boston and Philadelphia. These events marked the emergence of a new self-awareness about how artists could and should publically express their political sentiments.
In March of 1968, a group of artists and critics held a protest outside MoMA during the opening of an exhibition of Dada and Surrealist work. They argued that by placing this work in the context of the museum took away its real political or revolutionary value. The protesters held signs saying, “MOMA KILLS DADA” and “SURREALISM MEANS REVOLUTION NOT SPECTATOR SPORTS”. Here it is significant to note that this protest was directed against the Museum itself. As we will see with the AWC, the museum itself became a specific and symbolic site of struggle.
But first it should be noted that the revolutionary spirit of late 1960s was not only specific just to the United States. For example, in 1968 a group of 250 Belgian artists, writers, poets and musicians occupied the Palais des Beaux Art in Brussels for a period of two weeks, their slogan was “art should not be for profit”. Also in 1968 artists joined together to protest the Venice Biennale as an elitist and exclusive event. Many interventions were performed and actually 23 of the invited artists refused to show their work …. because of this the Biennale was forced to close just a few days after it opened.
Furthermore, artistic dissent in 1960s happened not just with public protests, but also with the development of infrastructure. For example, in the spring of 1968, a group of New York based artists, established an alternative form of exhibition system known as, “Ten Downtown”. Here ten different artists made small self-exhibitions in their studios. Every weekend a walking tour was held from studio to studio. Another example from 1968. A group of artists in New York rented a large 1500 sq/m loft. This became a multi-purpose experimental space. They called it “Museum: A Project of Living Artists”. This “Museum” later became a base of operations for the AWC. The idea of starting an experimental and alternative project space became very influential for later generations of young artists. These were just few examples of how stage was set for the eventual emergence of the AWC in 1969.
On January 3rd, 1969, a group of 4 individuals including a Greek sculptor named Takis Vassikalis entered the Museum of Modern Art, distracted the security guards, and removed one of Takis’ own pieces from the exhibition. They carried the sculpture to the garden where a protest was held on account of Takis’ unfair treatment by Museum curators. Takis claimed the curators failed to respect his wishes not to include that sculpture in the current exhibition. Their logic being that since technically they owned the piece, they had the right to do whatever they wished with it. After protesting in the Museum garden for 2 hours, Takis was allowed to meet with the Museum Director and they eventually agreed that the sculpture would be removed from the show.
On January 28 1969, just a few weeks after their first event, the AWC sent a list of 13 demands to the director of MoMA. The new list explained the initial concerns of the group, it also included new arguments regarding the representation of black, Puerto Rican, and female artists. Most importantly, this list demanded that the Museum hold a public symposium to discuss the political concerns of the artists. But after reading the list, the museum made no public response.
On March 22, frustrated by the Museum’s failure to respond to their 13 demands, members of the AWC gathered outside MoMA and distributed counterfeit admission tickets to coming visitors. Tickets were designed by artist and AWC member Joseph Kosuth. A few days after these fake tickets were distributed, a rally over 300 people was held in the Museum’s garden. Here it was announced that, in light of the museum’s failure to respond to the list of 13 demands, the AWC would hold its own independent public hearing.
So on April 10, 1969 a public hearing was held. The event was officially titled an: “Open public hearing on the subject: What Should Be The Program of The Art Worker’s Regarding Museum Reform, what should be done to Establish the Program of an Open Art Workers’ Coalition” Almost 400 people were in attendance, over 80 people gave short speeches to try and answer this question: “what is to be done?” One of the most memorable “speeches” was perhaps given by an artist named Richard Artschwager. He went up to the podium but did not speak, instead as a symbolic gesture, for two minutes he exploded small fireworks into the air.
The majority of opinions expressed at the open hearing gravitated around two main thematic concerns: (1) frustrations with the MoMA itself and (2) frustrations with the Vietnam War. A bridge between these two concerns was formed by the Museum’s trustees. Especially MoMA president Nelson Rockefeller who at that time was governor of New York State. And MoMA vice present William S. Paley who was founder of CBS news corporation, one of largest television networks in the world). It was these high-powered politicians who brought the Vietnam war into the museum.
Regarding the open hearing however, it is important to recognize that the collective frustration of the AWC was not unified. Within the Coalition there were many differing opinions regarding the nature of the museum. More conservative members of the coalition were hesitant to attack the MoMA because they believed in the theory of a museum. They believed in the idea of a musuem’s beneficial place in society. On the other hand, more radical members of the coalition believed that this theory was being discredited by the actual practice of museums. Here we have classic discrepancy of theory vs. practice.
In terms of artistic modes of institutional critique the situation of the Open Hearing points to a still unresolved question as to the existence of a certain threshold or tipping point. What is the point where the discrepancies between theory and practice reach a boiling point? When does tension become so great as to require intervention and direct action?
A perfect example of this tipping point is found with a group called “The Guerilla Art Action Group” or GAAG. The GAAG formed a subcommittee of the AWC devoted specifically to performing public ‘art actions’.
For example On October 31, 1969, GAAG held one of their famous ‘art actions’ at the MoMA. Together the GAAG artists John Hendricks and Jean Toche entered the museum’s galleries and very carefully removed Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White from the wall and set it onto the floor. In place of the painting they posted a copy of their own “October 20th Manifesto”
This manifesto consisted of 3 demands and a brief statement of purpose:
- MoMA must sell $1 million of art from its collection and give the money to the poor for them to use in any way they wished.
- MoMA must decentralize so as to include anyone interested in its decision-making and to give art back to the “people”.
- MoMA must close until the Vietnam war is over.
Here their action criticized the elitist position of museum itself, as well its complicity in the propagation of the Vietnam War. This performance distinguishs a critical difference between the way institutions often seek to present themselves to the public (as impervious, well-organized, and machine-like,) vs. the way they exist in reality (as fissured, permeable, and changeable subjects). Also, the choice of GAAG to specifically remove a work by Malevich while posting their ‘October manifesto’ can also be understood as a playful attempt to associate their own position with those of the earlier avant-garde Constructivist movement and Bolshevik Left.
Besides the actions of the GAAG, the AWC is perhaps most well known for a poster campaign it began in November of 1969. On November 13, 1969, a news report was made about how American Soldiers brutally massacred innocent civilians in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai. This report appeared in more than 30 newspapers across the United States and created tremendous outrage amongst the counter-cultural generation.
In late November, members of the AWC met with staff members of the MoMA and together they agreed to collaborate on the production of a poster to protest the incident at My Lai. It was agreed that AWC would design and print the poster, and the museum would pay for distribution. But just a few weeks later, on December 18th, AWC members were informed that the Museum would not be able to associate itself with the poster in any way
Even though museum staff members wanted to help with the poster project, the board President and Vice President did not approve of the poster’s very graphic and obviously political design. Yet despite the Museum’s refusal to participate, AWC members still managed to distribute the poster via an informal network of friends and colleagues.
The poster campaign highlights a very important affinity between AWC and the museum’s regular staff. This relationship was further strengthened as the AWC helped inspire MoMA staff members to unionize. The union of museum workers at MoMA is known as The Professional and Staff Association or (PASTA). It his highly significant for becoming the first ever union of museum workers in the United States.
With the formation of this union there existed a double-sided attack on the Museum. From outside came the protests of the AWC, from inside came the organization of PASTA union. Both AWC and PASTA both were reacting negatively to Museum’s participation in what members of theorists of Frankfurt school called “administered culture”. Eventually they came to realize that museum itself had become just another big corporation situated within the capitalist system.
For example, in 1970, there was a major shift in Museum Policy when the director named Bates Lowery was fired and replaced by a new director named John Hightower. While the old director was an academic and a specialist in the history of art, the new director was an administrator and businessman with very little academic training about art or its history. This shift indicates how the museum too was coming to be treated just like any other type of corporate machine.
The AWC and PATSTA recognized that eventually, all working components of the museum (e.g. staff, artists, and artworks) would come to be treated in an increasingly efficient, machine-like, and de-humanized manner. In this sense, it can be understood how the protests of the AWC and MoMAs PASTA union represent attempts by the museum to protect itself. But here it is also important to recognize that the artist and arts institution have a very fundamental connection to one another. So it must be questioned, when an artist makes critique of an institution, is the artist also at the same time critiquing him or herself?
This relationship between artist and institution is highlighted by the paradoxical position of how the museum exists as an object of critique but simultaneously also as a necessary platform for the delivery of such critique. On the one hand while coalition members criticized the Museum, they also needed the Museum because it provided a necessary place and audience for their ideas.
Yet by 1972 the AWC came to an end simultaneously as the revolutionary energy of 1960s in USA also came to an end. So what then is the legacy and important accomplishments of the AWC?
One example of a specific, albeit small, accomplishment is that the AWC instigated the establishment of a ‘free day’ at MoMA. Since 1969, for one evening each week, admission to the Museum has been free of charge. The actions of the AWC resulted in artists becoming increasingly more aware of their own civil rights. Artists began to demand from museums more control about the exhibition of their work, and especially how they would be compensated for it. With the AWC, artists also became more aware of the fact that Museums too can be subject to corruption. With AWC and revolutionary moment of late 1960s in USA there was a demystification of the idea that institutions of art were somehow inherently good places, and there was new understanding that museums are never politically neutral, and certainly not autonomous from the concerns of society.
Another example is how the Coalition contributed to the alternative Spaces movement in the United States. The AWC acted like a type of counter-institution and in this sense represents one of the first instantiations of a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) ethos. This concept of DIY cultural organizing that has been a characteristic of politically committed forms of artistic collectivity ever since. Any social cohesiveness to be found amidst the countercultural generation and New Left Movement of the 1960s was slowly replaced by the independent and somewhat anarchistic spirit of D.I.Y cultural practices. Thus today, politically committed and socially engaged activist art practices remains far too fragmented ….
Here it becomes apparent that there is a very fine line between the anarchistic elements of D.I.Y culture and the extent to which such culture is itself symptomatic of a Neoliberal desire for increased individualism, privatization, and entrepreneurship. Perhaps then one of the most important things to be learned from the history of the Art Workers Coalition is the importance of having individual artists or individual artists groups, as well as individual writers, designers, theorists, curators think about their participation in broader social movements. To think about the need for new coalitions of art-workers today.
The text is a rough transcript of the presentation by Roman Petruniak, in the context of the exhibition Revolutionary Moments in Kiev (autumn 2009). It is based on his M.A. thesis research. Roman Petruniak was a guest lecturer in the framework of Loose Associations// FEAST: Zagreb in April 2010.
CORNELIUS CARDEW: FROM THE GREAT LEARNING
TO THE FREEDOM OF LISTENING
Works of art of the highest level do not distinguish themselves from other works by their success – whatever success means – but by the nature of their failure.
– Theodor W. Adorno
It is in the absolute dispersion of its voices that the community experiences itself.
Few composers of contemporary music have been as determined to define the social and political meaning of music as the English composer Cornelius Cardew. His quest to establish a valid and contemporary significance for music as an art form was coupled with a near blind faith in the potential of individuals to achieve valid forms of emancipatory collective experience. No more is this so than in his most ambitious work The Great Learning. Divided into seven individual works or paragraphs, the composition, written between 1968 and 1971, is based on the opening seven passages of the Ta Hio, the first of four books that form the classic grouping of moral thought attributed to Confucius. Using a translation by the American poet Ezra Pound (itself based on the 1838 translation by the French Orientalist, Guillaume Pauthier), the corresponding paragraphs are either spoken or sung and accompanied by detailed musical interventions that are scored in various ways including standard notation, graphic notation and verbal instructions. The entire work lasts approximately seven hours, individual paragraphs varying from thirty minutes to two hours.
The diversity of compositional techniques Cardew uses within the work virtually sums up the various attempts to rejuvenate avant-garde musical practice after the decline of serialism (which he studied under the tutelage of Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne in the late 1950s) as the predominant musical form in the immediate post-war era. But the motivating force behind The Great Learning was also Cardew’s desire to compose works that would bring together a diversity of musical aptitude (from musician to non-musician), and in so doing, to question the tripartite hierarchy of composer, performer and listener, which posits the composer as an authority of technical virtuosity and specialized forms of perceptual experience.
While studying in Cologne, Cardew was inspired by his encounter with the works of John Cage and David Tudor. Upon his return to England, not only did he avidly promote Cage’s music, along with that of other members of the American musical avant-garde, but he subsequently explored a number of Cage’s experimental compositional procedures in his own work. It was not merely the emancipatory nature of Cage’s compositional techniques, however, that inspired Cardew’s own development as a composer throughout the 1960s, but equally, if not more importantly, its social and ethical import. For Cage, too, had sought to question the social hierarchies of musical composition and reception. As he wrote in 1973:
We first need a music in which not only sounds are just sounds but in which people are just people, not subject, that is, to the laws established by any one of them even if he is ‘the composer’ or ‘conductor.’ Finally (as far as I can see at present), we need a music which no longer prompts talk of audience participation, for in it the divisions between performer and audience no longer exist: a music made by everyone.1
Despite his willingness to impart his emancipation of sound as a utopian mapping of potential social change, Cage, however, remained somewhat unwilling to take the step from theory to practice. Ironically, at that time, Cardew was completing one of the most radical attempts to do just that, seeking to elaborate the grounds of his compositional practice on the very sociality that Cage’s music promised yet left unresolved. Henceforth, Cardew succeeded in taking notation to its ultimate Cagean conclusion as a means of “unlocking” freely engaged forms of individual and collective commitment. As Michael Nyman has suggested (in terms reminiscent of Cage’s “people are just people”), Cardew “conceived of notation (in his own work) not as an end in itself, nor as a means of unlocking sound, but as a way of engaging the most valuable resource of any music – people.”2
Cage’s formal influence can also be seen in the compositional techniques Cardew used in The Great Learning to incorporate Pound’s translation of the Ta Hio. For like Cage’s recourse to various aleatory procedures in generating musical notation (such as his use of the I Ching), Cardew devised a series of elaborate means to generate notation from the Chinese characters of the original paragraphs of the Confucian text. These notations vary from the whistle solos in Paragraph 1, which follow Cardew’s transformation of the Chinese brushstrokes into visually ornate musical notation, to “The Dumb Show”, the opening section of Paragraph 5, in which the root ideograms of each of the Chinese characters are physically acted out using sign language. Paragraph 7 follows this principle in that the number of brushstrokes of each original character determines the number of sung repetitions in their English translation. However, as the recourse to verbal instructions (used extensively in Paragraphs 6 and 7) makes clear, this was a far more overtly linguistic operation than Cage’s various chance operations. Verbal instructions had been prominent in several works Cardew wrote prior to The Great Learning and testify to a second, although not unrelated, influence: the verbal or event scores that had been decisive in the founding of the Fluxus movement, and whose works – notably those of George Brecht and La Monte Young – Cardew promoted and performed in England during the mid-sixties. Scores such as Young’s Composition 1960, No. 10, with its the laconic phrase, “Draw a Straight Line and Follow it”, employ simplified linguistic utterances in place of musical notation as a means of projecting moments of inalienable experience from within otherwise instrumentalized forms of language. At the same time, such compositional procedures willingly challenge the values associated with music as a highly specialized and virtuosic form of expression. Such an objective can be seen clearly in Cardew’s School Time Composition (1968) where a series of succinct questions, to be followed through by each participant, along with various responses and their permutations, cover a near exhaustive range of logical choices associated with the most rudimentary activities of music making. Cardew here incorporated the simplified verbal notation of Brecht and Young as a compositional element rather than an independent utterance in its own right, thus enabling extensive interpretive freedom while retaining compositional structure.
The move to verbal notation followed Cardew’s performance of his first major work Treatise (1963-67), a 193-page graphic score written while he was performing with the seminal improvisational group AMM. The graphic notation of Treatise, with its intricately devised graphic lines, shapes and symbols of indeterminate meaning (inspired in part by his employment as a graphic designer at the time), was a means of further questioning the limits of compositional practice; decisions concerning pitch, timbre and duration, along with the choice of instruments and the number of performers, were left entirely to the discretion of those willing to devise the rules and means for its performance. Discussing the disadvantages of a musical education, in his “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation” (included in his Treatise Handbook), Cardew stated that the most rewarding interpretations of Treatise came from performers who had by chance either “acquired a visual education”, or “escaped a musical education and … have nevertheless become musicians, i.e. play music to the full capacity of their being”.3 If his graphic score relinquished any requisite formal training or skill, Cardew found that graphic notation nevertheless implied a visual aptitude that unwittingly disadvantaged the musically literate, hence his turn to the more expedient and egalitarian form of verbal notation. Ideally, he concluded, “[s]uch music should be played by a collection of musical innocents; but in a culture where musical education is so widespread (at least among musicians) and getting more so, such innocents are hard to find.”4
Cardew’s attempt “to locate such musical innocents wherever they survive” proved fruitful, however, when, in 1968, he began teaching experimental music to a disparate group of adult students at Morley College, London. This encounter would instigate the founding of the Scratch Orchestra – one of the most radically democratic attempts in avant-garde history to question the social limitations of art as a realm of specialized knowledge and experience. Impetus for the creation of the orchestra came when Cardew realized that his second composition for The Great Learning required a much larger ensemble in order to reach the intensity of multiple voices and drum rhythms that the work required. The initial group of students was fleshed out – with friends and associates – to around fifty performers who premièred Paragraph 2 during a seven-hour concert (which also included Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis) in May 1969. The composer Gavin Bryars claims that this need for additional performers was in part prompted by the disparaging première of Paragraph 1 the previous year, due to the apparent inability of professional musicians to adapt to the unconventional requirements of the score. The contrast in enthusiasm that Cardew encountered while working with an enlarged and now highly eclectic group prompted him and his students to go beyond the interpretation of his own work and found a communal project in which all members would become equally engaged in the compositional process. Moreover, the content of public performances would be decided upon through an egalitarian principle of reverse seniority in which each member would in turn be responsible for organizing and choosing the works to be performed. Thus, the program for the first concert in November 1969 was assigned to Christopher Hobbs, an eighteen-year-old student of Cardew’s at the Royal Academy of Music.
The founding of the Scratch Orchestra was announced in a “Draft Constitution”, published in The Musical Times in June 1969. Various categories of egalitarian musical activity were outlined and emphasis was given to a broad understanding of music not limited exclusively “to sound and its related phenomena.” As Cardew later explained in a BBC interview:
These people may be visual artists, they may be people interested in theatre, they may be perfectly ordinary office workers or students or what have you. They’re not necessarily trained in playing any instrument at all. Some of them would perform activities of one kind of another, not necessarily producing sound, because scratch music was really a composite of people making their own activities, so that some of these activities would involve people playing conventional instruments like saxophones or flutes or this, that and the other. And other things would simply involve making motions with a hand or arranging a scarf, or all kinds of activities which would not necessarily make sound.5
Over the course of three years, the Scratch Orchestra performed in numerous locations from traditional concert venues in London to village halls in remote parts of Cornwall and Northern Wales. Cardew’s emphasis on establishing the orchestra in the public sphere, however, proved difficult to maintain for any extensive period of time without confronting more urgent and demanding questions concerning the origins of the alienated forms of contemporary experience the orchestra endeavored to challenge. A series of events, including a performance of “scratch music” at a club for young black immigrants in London, the site of recent police harassment, and a media scandal following the interruption of an outdoor performance in Nottingham, in which (as part of the score) obscenities, albeit of an innocuous nature, were acted out, led to a series of Discontent Meetings where members were encouraged to voice their opinions over the orchestra’s future direction. Those pressing for more political responsibility, headed by the musician Keith Rowe, were of the opinion that a “pathological disunity between theory and practice”, was stifling the orchestra and proposed to set up a group which would apply Marxist theory to future activities. Cardew, who had previously voiced his apprehension about involving the orchestra in politics, sided with this group and promptly embraced Marxist-Leninist theory and politics with the same energy and fervor with which he had invested his work as an avant-garde composer.
Attempts were made over the next two years to reform the orchestra along the revolutionary lines of Maoist politics. The Confucian text of The Great Learning, with its advocacy of personal rectitude as the precondition of a well-founded state, was revised to condemn the oppressive and imperialist machinations of monopoly capitalism. When this version was presented at the Royal Albert Hall in 1973, following an invitation to present The Great Learning as part of the BBC’s Promenade Concerts in recognition of Cardew’s status as a composer, similar political references were censored by the BBC from the concert program notes, and banners bearing Maoist statements were banned from the concert. To make matters worse, when Cardew again accepted an invitation from the BBC to prepare an English public for performances of works by Cage and Stockhausen, the two composers who had had such an important influence on his career, Cardew openly vilified both composers for writing socially irrelevant music that did nothing to challenge social injustice. Later published under the title Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, his condemnation of these two major figures of post-war avant-garde music was supplemented by extensive self-criticism, including a detailed Marxist analysis of the Scratch Orchestra and its failings.6
Given his political shift to Maoism, it is understandable that Cardew would ultimately reject what had been his most ambitious project to date. In 1974, he concluded that his entire composition was little more than the fruit of a “politically backward composer wrapped up in the abstractions of the avant-garde”. His attempt in 1972 to revise the Confucian text came only a year before the launch, in the midst of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, of the “Criticize Confucius Campaign”, aimed at eradicating Confucianism and its long history from the People’s Republic of China. Furthermore, Cardew now had to confront the place of Confucianism in Ezra Pound’s support of Italian fascism for which Pound had faced charges of treason at the end of the Second World War. For Cardew, such proclamations as can be found in Pound’s 1937 article “The Immediate Need for Confucianism”, with its claim that the Ta Hio could overcome the barbarity “of countries like Spain and Russia”, further tainted The Great Learning. Cardew subsequently renounced all links with the avant-garde and aligned his political engagement, as a member of the anti-revisionist Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), throughout the mid- to late-seventies with a body of work (predominantly piano compositions) that returned to the very tonality that twentieth-century art music had, as its founding moment, abandoned. Henceforth, from the time of his self-reprobation in 1974, Cardew’s most ambitious work was never again performed during his lifetime.
We can not speculate on what Cardew’s political position would be if he had survived to see the fall of “real” communism and the decline of communism itself as the “the unsurpassable horizon of our time”, to quote the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.7 Nor can we speculate on whether he would have continued to endorse his self-critical rejection of avant-garde music and art. At the time of his death in 1981, the victim of a hit and run accident near his home in Leightonstone, he was scheduled to perform his graphic score Treatise – a sign that he was willing to reconsider that position. However, despite Cardew’s ultimate rejection of The Great Learning as politically reactionary, we can look back at it for its political astuteness – at least as a work of far greater significance than Cardew was willing to admit. To grasp an understanding of this – and following its very failure – one might begin with the liner notes to the Scratch Orchestra’s 1971 Deutsch Grammophon recording of Paragraphs 2 and 7. Here, not uninterestingly, Cardew describes various examples of failure, from Buddhist monks attempting to chant over the deafening sound of a waterfall (which Michael Parsons had suggested to him as a possible reference to the nigh irresolvable struggle between voices and rhythms in Paragraph 2), to Buster Keaton’s desperate attempt, in his 1920 film One Day, to come to terms with the newly emerging mass production of life:
Failure exists in relation to goals. Nature has no goals and so can’t fail. Humans have goals, and so they have to fail. Often the wonderful configurations produced by failure reveal the pettiness of the goals. Of course, we have to go on striving for success, otherwise we could not genuinely fail. If Buster Keaton wasn’t genuinely trying to fail to put up his house it wouldn’t be funny when it falls down on him.8
Cardew’s references to the failure of so many voices struggling to be heard above the exhausting drum rhythms of Paragraph 2 are not only equally applicable to the ultimately unattainable collective harmony of Paragraph 7, but to The Great Learning in its entirety. Yet this very failure is precisely where its political import lies. For what ultimately fails – or more precisely what is refused – in Cardew’s work is the immanence or intimacy of communion. In this way, it is the outright rejection of whatever Pound could appropriate from the Ta Hio in his defense of totalitarianism – for in its drive towards collective immanence and social totality, totalitarianism names the incentive to overcome and ultimately erase the otherwise necessary non-coincidence that makes the political engagement of shared experience possible. It is that very non-coincidence, in the absence of any determined essence or communal fusion, that enables The Great Learning to offer a truly democratic version of politics: the affirmation of a multiplicity of voices sharing in common their own ecstatic disparity in the absence of any common measure.
This does not, however, strip the Confucian text of its meaning nor reduce it to a simple clamor of voices. Rather it opens it up to something that might best be described using what Roland Barthes (following Julia Kristeva) calls signifiance – that which in a given text generates and conveys meaning in excess of any predetermined or stable signification. For Barthes, signifiance has a utopian value in that its absence of closure resists what he describes as the “tyranny of meaning”: the peremptory demand that meaning be conveyed in stable and definite utterances. Like other art forms, as Barthes argues, music is subject to a “tyranny of meaning” when it is required to communicate coded emotions and to reduce the experience of its signification to what can merely be said.9 Moreover, such a demand emerges from a culture that has increasingly distanced – in the name of capital – the act of producing music from the act of listening to music. Given that The Great Learning was largely written in opposition to such a division, it is not surprising that it should also refuse such a tyranny – and it does so by bearing within its score traces of signifiance. Indeed, Barthes’ description of signifiance as the “shimmering of signifiers” in his essay “Écoute” fittingly describes Cardew’s score: from the shimmering of so many transposed brushstrokes into sound to the various recitations of Pound’s translation itself, endlessly arising from and returning to the score without arresting its meaning.10
If The Great Learning contests the tyranny of meaning, it does so, however, not by projecting a space in which the clamor of so many voices is freely expressed, but rather by affirming and freeing the act of listening itself. Again, as Barthes suggests, if we are to liberate listening it is not enough to begin to speak – as it is often crudely believed – but by allowing listening itself to circulate and permute and, in so doing, to undermine the distribution by which dominant modes of instrumentalized and hierarchical speech enforce themselves:
No law can oblige the subject to take pleasure there where he does not want to go (no matter what the reasons for his resistance might be) and no law has the power to constrain our listening: the freedom of listening is as necessary as the freedom of speech. This is why this apparently modest notion [of listening] is finally like a little theater where those two modern deities, the one bad the other good, confront each other: power and desire.11
Thus, if the essence of all contemporary works of art of any merit is the suspension of power – and something of that suspension can be heard in Cardew’s affirmation of failure – the importance of The Great Learning might be seen to reside in its modesty: it is itself very much the blueprint for the modest theatre that Barthes describes – after all, nobody is required or compelled to audition, unless we understand audition in the original sense of the word, as the faculty of hearing or listening. It is in this way that we can grasp what The Great Learning ultimately offers as its most pertinent lesson: nothing more nor less than the noncoersive recognition of the freedom that resides in listening.
1. John Cage, M: Writings ’67-’72 (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1969).
2. Michael Nyman, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 115.
3. Cornelius Cardew, “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation” http://www.ubu.com/papers/cardew_ ethics.html
Originally published in Treatise Handbook (London: Edition Peters, 1971).
5. Quoted in Timothy D. Taylor, “Moving in Decency: The Music and Radical Politics of Cornelius Cardew”, Music and Letters, n. 79 (1998), p. 556.
6. Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism
Originally published as Stockhausen Serves Imperialism and Other Articles (London: Latimer, 1974).
7. As has been acknowledged elsewhere, Jean-Luc Nancy’s remark in The Inoperative Community is a misquotation of Sartre’s famous 1960 comment in Search for a Method that “Marxism is the unsurpassable horizon of our time.”
8. Cornelius Cardew, liner notes in Cardew – The Great Learning / Bedford – Two Poems (Deutsch Grammophon, 2002).
9. Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice”, Image, Music, Text (London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1977), p. 185.
10. Roland Barthes, “Listening”, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), p. 260.
Loose Associations: Lines of Movement (2008-2010)
NEW UKRAINIAN ART
On the square
The appearance of the new generation of artists on the Ukrainian art scene is connected with the local social and political processes in 2004 and 2005. During the „Orange revolution“ and the events that followed, various forms of independent collectivism and self organized protest groups have emerged. These groups conducted public manifestations, a form of protest which became characteristic of Ukrainian political life in the last several years. Performative features of the mass political rallies along with the language of “street democracy” became one of the subjects of interest for the new generations of artists, while the questions of solidarity and self- organizing aspirations became an important component of their artistic activities. Interventions within the domain of the political demonstrations turned out to be a typical form of new artistic practice.
In those interventions (street actions, distribution of flyers and other agitation materials, allocation of art objects in the public space), the artists were deconstructing the rhetoric of the demonstrators, but at the same time applying the same model of civil cooperation among themselves, the model which was the base of the “orange” movements. Public outbreaks of the young artists at the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005, primarily the REP Collective in Kiev and SOSka in Harkow, were marked by the attempt to directly participate in the public life, by analyzing mass “democratic rituals”, by submitting the aesthetical component of the artistic gesture to its socio- critical engagement and especially by collective creation.
Actions of the R.E.P. and SOSka collectives, in which they appropriated the methods of pre-election street rallying, using them to present their own agendas, spoke about the aspiration of young artists to reclaim public spaces, and make them truly “common”.
The young artists are continuously aware of the sharp contrast present in the fact that their community is strongly connected, but also remains isolated within the wider social context. This claustrophobic situation constantly reminds of the boundaries of the possible, at the same time calling for their removal. The artists are dealing with their everyday life or speaking about the burning issues of contemporary Ukrainian society, always insisting on the inclusive position, as insiders.
Some of these issues include the transitional state of Ukrainian society, economic and social instability, and the mass economical emmigration of the Ukrainians. In his project „Where is my home?“ , artist Ivan Bazak illegally passes several European borders, along with Ukrainian citizen Vitalik whose mother has been working in Italy for a long time. Vitalik goes to visit his mother with no visa or other documents. Together they cross the Ukrainian border with Hungary, in the middle of the forest, while on the Hungarian- Austrian border they swim across the river: illegal immigrants find ruptures in the wall of “European beauty”. In the action by Nickolay Ridni “Lay and wait”, performed in front of the German embassy in Kiev, the artist’s “attack” by passive lying down, brings the expected defeat.
The R.E.P. Collective has been elaborating the “Patriotism” project for a long time. The project consists of graphical signs that correspond with different words and notions and allows the use of those signs for construction of visual narratives, basically in the form of wall painting. In “Patriotism”, the local issues become the subject of universal communication. This, conceptual “Esperanto” project aiming to preclude the complexity of translation, carries an almost utopian idea of discussing differences in a common language. In the project “Here and now” that took place on the “Independence square” in Kiev, REP members involve passers-by in an improvised determination of the course of their country’s foreign affairs. In the work “Contraband”, the group smuggles small quantities of Russian oil in hot-water bottles and Russian gas (in balloons) across the Ukrainian- Polish border into the European Union. Simultaneously, using a hidden video camera, artists document the life of the people in the frontier zone, who continuously smuggle alcohol into Poland in the same hotwater bottles, hiding cigarettes in their pockets.
Ever since 2000, every contextualized art activity moved from the regions to Kiev. Outside the field of critique, market demand/pressure, hidden for the local environment, artists from Harkow, Odessa or Herson, study their immediate surroundings. SOSka, the art collective from Harkow, studies the post-Soviet transformation of social consciousness. They are looking for symptomatic figures witnessing the changes- for example, provincial representatives of „Goth“ sub-culture or a young homeless woman who refuses to be put on welfare, saying that she is completely satisfied with her way of being. The collective operates through street actions and small exhibitions that are always connected with conflicting social agents. Artists from the city of Herson find their inspiration in scarce local mythology („Pushkin was in Herson“), town folklore (Chanson art by Stanislav Voljazlovski) and the absurdity of provincial conspiracy studies (the same author’s works dedicated to „Jewish conspiration“ and „extraterrestrial aggression“). Voljazlovskij works exclusively with motives from his own surroundings, creating works out of materials collected from a depo, left on the place of accident of the „grand narratives“. The language of his art is a jargon composed of notes, quotations from literature classes, crooks´ tattoos, patriotic slogans, rough home-made pornography, naive superstition, commercials, cheap novels, soap operas,… The artist never produces only superficial compilations of these multilayered elements; his creation builds upon his own experience and the experience of those who have nothing but those inappropriate materials to make their life a bit easier. Voljazovski’s art practice always includes creation „from what is“, which becomes his particular stylistics, in which we find limited resources, provincialism, dereliction.
Herson artists (Stanislav and Julija Voljazovski, along with the older generation representatives Vjačeslav Mašnickij, Aleksandr Rahlickij, Elena i Maks Afanasevy) deal with their own marginal position constantly emphasizing similarity of their own art practice with the art of outsiders (Aleksander Pecerski and Aleksander Zukovski from Belozerka village) and including these artists in their common representations.
After long period of studying in the Netherlands and her returning to Ukraine, Alevtina Kahidze publishes the book „Ždankova“, named after her home town. Googling the name of the town, Alevtina Kahidze finds dozens of Ždankov places in post-Soviet, Russian speaking areas: towns, villages, regions, rivers. Every one of them is a place bypassed by history. Refusing to take the position of the external observer, the artist becomes a mediator between the mute Ždankovs outside the historical and the „wide“ world.
The Ukrainian- German- Austrian group „Carpathian theatre“created a project space in a village cottage in the west of Ukraine. What determines the character of their art practice is the very location: they explore „ the Europe with a shifted center“, in the part of Europe called „Eastern Europe“, which, however, geographically stands in its center.
It is important to mention some other conditions that created the context in which the new generation of Ukrainian artists emerged. One of them refers to a deeply conservative system of artistic education.
The majority of the teaching staff is made up of the former masters of socialist realism who, after Ukraine became independent, turned to patriotic subjects, almost with no exception, while the younger generation of teachers’ practices “salon painting”. The very existence of anything else in contemporary art has been strategically ignored within the curriculum, while the history lectures in European art ends with the beginning of the 20th century. This is why the students interested in contemporary art are forced to educate themselves. The periodical publications dedicated to contemporary art are missing, more or less adequate publications dealing with it within non specialized printed media, are extremely rare. In this situation, self- organized education within the community, becomes the condition of survival for new Ukrainian art. Institutional self-organization, completely unknown to the older generation of artists, becomes crucial for the new generations. Art collectives such as “Carpathian theatre”, “SOSka”, Kiev and Herson artists have organized their own exhibition/laboratory space. Precarious associations of young artists have been formed around Kiev’s independent lab- galleries Totoro Garden (2006/2007) and LabGarage (founded in 2008). Their exhibitive activity reflects in a great deal the very character of the interrelations among the protagonists: friendship, trust, the joy of communicating.
The work of independent exhibition spaces and curatorial collectives determine communitarian action as the most credible and effective type of mutual action in the current situation. The ccommunitarian exhibition project is representative of the very method of its production. The relations representative of the exposition as a whole, correspond with the ideological platform of the participants.
Exhibition Program of the Gallery „SOSka“ and „Carpathian theater“,” Project Community “, organized by the” headquarters “at the Center for Contemporary Art at NaUKMA, which works as Kiev artistic council (Hudsovet) built on interaction, excluding relations of subordination and power, at a high level of personal connections, similar personal motivations collaboration. These projects are also distinguished by their insisting on the procedural – the work is always to be continued…
In 2005, the REP group was in residence at the Center for Contemporary Art at NaUKMA, and in early 2007 they initiated a curatorial program named “Headquarters”, aimed at supporting a new generation of artists. At the same time there was a reorientation of the ex Soros center for contemporary art, on research and educational practice, and ultimately – towards working with the youth.
The organizational model of ”Community Projects”, a key exhibition of new art, is natural and inseparable from its horizontal non-hierarchical structure. “Headquarters” has assumed supervisory tasks in the project. In the halls of CCA seven independent exhibitions were created by the communities. The iintegrity of the exhibition was less about defending the aesthetic proximity of the various separate exhibitions, it was more about the general ethical content of the participants.
The relationship of artists within the community differs from market-competitiveness. This relationship is more akin to the practices of self-improvement and competitive sublimation of the (artistic) quality, which in the days of my parents’ youth were called “socialist emulation”. Also in the communities represented in the project, no cult of leadership or any sort of repressive verticals are present.
Intensive communication within communities, coupled with a constant feeling of the artists’ social autism and a desire to overcome it, gives rise to an understanding of art as proselytizing outside a personal gesture, as a widely addressed direct speech, not mediated (but neither amplified), by the institutional “voice”. Street protest, graffiti, a variety of interventions in the public space – are the main activities of the project participants.
Another important line of the artists’ research is the “location” (in the works “Carpathian Theater, SOSka, Kherson artists).
The Kiev Art Council, founded in the summer of 2008, included a number of young artists, architects, translators, political activists, literary theorists, curators, designers, publicists – all in all nineteen members. The artistic council operates as a curator group, and at the same time, as a discussion and self-educational community. Their projects were based on communication – among the participants, but also as an independent value, as a source of pleasure and as an opportunity to go beyond the boundaries of exclusive areas of expertise.
The work of the Art Council is based on the universal right of speech and coherent argumentation. Accepted in a non-authoritarian space, the decisions are repeatedly revised and reshaped in streams of speech. This obviously reduces the mobility of the artistic council: carried out in irregular meetings and exchange of letters, its activities may develop with only a very limited speed. But this slow tempo keeps us from falling into the competitive environment of today’s cultural industry, where speed of artistic production and display sublimates to complete devastation and meaningless of the artistic statement.
The first public project of the Art Council was the exhibition “Views” in the Center for Contemporary Art at NaUKMA. Besides the works of artists selected by the Council, it included pieces of correspondence of the working team members. The organizational process, the arguments and motivation for the choices made were made accessible to the public. The exhibition, discussions and round tables that accompanied it, excursions, and urban interventions (fight against building on the site of a public park) were part of the efforts to return the category of the artist’s view within the public domain of Kiev. “Views” provoked a lot of publications, sometimes sharply polemical, and became a meeting place for artistic and activist communities, building new audiences.
The motivations behind the Art Council are constantly being revised by its members in the process of spending time together, communication and work, attraction and repulsion, fragmentation and unification. But we can not say that this cast of the current state of the community is completely devoid of a program – it is in formation. Ossification would be disastrous. The council will be able to maintain its relevance only as long as it remains in development.
Nikita Kadan was born in Kiev in 1982. He is the member of the R.E.P. group.