Abbey Shaine Dubin, an artist, approaches a podium and begins to speak. 1
Abbey Shaine Dubin: In 2006, as an undergrad studying art history, I found myself in attendance at something called a theory installation at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. This installation was a collaborative work between the Jackson Pollock Bar, a theater-cum-art collective based in Freiburg Germany and Art and Language, the British conceptual art group that’s been around since the 1960s, comprised of Michael Baldwin, Mel Ramsden, and Charles Harrison. I had no idea what to expect, but something stodgy and vaguely educational seemed likely.
The piece was entitled “Theses on Feuerbach.” The San Diego Freeway hummed dully in the distance, as I settled into the back row of a trapezoidal room, the sun still high behind rows of mechanized blinds. This was the Getty Research Institute’s main conference space, a Bauhausy construction joined to the main museum building by a dirty white travertine walkway. In theory, the theory installation was open to the general public. It could have been attended by any one of the Los Angeles Metro Area’s eighteen million souls, but only about thirty chairs were filled. At the front of the room stood a table with three name cards bearing the names of Baldwin, Ramsden, and Harrison perched before microphones.
When the three men took their seats it was immediately clear that they were not Art and Language; too young, too Hollywood looking.
A conversation ensued, or rather a pre-recorded track played over loud speakers while the three men lip-synched into the un-amped mics before them. The content covered the conditions of production and reception in the contemporary art world.
Later, the men at the conference table were interrupted by an aggressive female questioner in the audience, who also lip-synched her lines. What is more, Jackson Pollock Bar performed the “theory installation” while the real members of Art & Language looked on from the audience.
Among other things, in the theory installation, the actors said: “The theories of theoreticians, and indeed the theoreticians themselves, no longer form a neutral abstract background to the aesthetic. They have developed so as to constitute its material. The “aesthetic” has become discursive and “discourse” has become aesthetic.” The statement itself openly echoes Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” which lament an “idealism that does not know real, sensuous activity as such…but regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude…”
Upon the theory installation’s conclusion, the Jackson Pollock Bar and Art & Language launched another panel discussion that fielded questions from the audience about the just “performed” panel discussion. At the conclusion of the event, I was left with the uncanny feeling of having watched culture performed, rather than having watched yet another cultural performance. The event was artful and arresting, even captivating, yet extremely difficult to describe in the terms of art.
There are some atmospheres in which one must literally describe one’s experience to oneself in order to try to understand it. I believe this process leads to greater self-knowledge. This is not easy. And this is my stake in the project of Our Literals Speed: to produce psychological environments in which no one, not the producer, nor the spectator can colonize the experience readily with words.
In 2006, Our Literal Speed began as a collective in earnest and I adopted three injunctions that have guided my art-making:
- Work with what made you who you already are.
- Everything starts with words. Even art. So concentrate first on words, then on art.
- Stuff near art that is not art, which is treated as if it were art, is now the substance of most serious art.
So, we worked within the pedagogical arena of academic conferences and roundtable discussions, as a student of art history working in collaboration with art historians, it’s what we had access to. And, importantly, they are formats for which there already existed prevailing expectations. Our Literal Speed composed scenarios that were close to, but not identical to, the prescribed formats; they had to embody what one might call “a strong nearness.” Like the uncanny valley: not quite the thing itself, but near enough to the real that one would not be discomforted. We realized that we had to produce minor deviations from the normal format; a series of speed-bumps; small things, things that generally go unarticulated. It’s a deductive structure: we focus on activities that already exist near art that are not themselves art. This tends to yield a low budget discursive atmosphere with few hard edges and little room for hard ideology.
The first major Our Literal Speed conference/event was held at the Zentrum für Kunst und Mediatechnolodge in Karlsruhe Germany in 2008. At the ZKM, a collaborator and myself delivered the first of what has since become the core of this practice; a performance script. One could even say that the entire structure of the three–day conference at the ZKM was composed solely to create a framework for this performance script. We delivered the address to a room full of tenured, mid-career, academics who didn’t know us from Adam and Eve. What were our credentials? Why were we so young? The questions at the end of our presentation came fast and furious like so many bullets from a firing squad. We had sufficiently alienated and antagonized them and they were retaliating with vigor. But none of the questions addressed the content of the talk; they were entirely concerned with the presentation and determining the relationship between the words and the bodies behind the podium. Everyone involved felt harassed and disquieted. That is, it was a success and the performance script has endured.
This leads to one of Our Literal Speed’s crucial assumptions: Modernism never ended, rather its artists were superseded by modernist art historians and art critics. These figures, one could say, gradually converted their medium, art writing, into an activity that bordered on art practice, although it was not art itself. We would argue that “discourse performance” in the visual arts, much like poststructuralist theory in the literary world, became a crucial zone for experimentation over the last thirty years. If as Rosalind Krauss wrote, “Barthes and Derrida are the writers, not the critics, that students now read,” then is it not also true that the “discourse performer,” not the art writer, became the model for a younger generation of critics and artists? None of this is new. This is the para-artistic space of late/post modernism; an environment in which the lecture, the panel discussion, and the public event were transformed into the gestural vocabulary that we now encounter in Walid Raad’s PowerPoints and Andrea Fraser’s institutional acts. Deliberately experimental, Our Literal Speed, attempts to re-think the forms (objects, lectures, essays, reviews, performances, and general art talk) that make contemporary art contemporary.
In particular, our performance scripts ask: what does it mean for an artist to be working in the age of social networking?
Mediated sociality means that your professional activity most often turns you into a cast of characters, extravagant avatars, and now playing the role of the talkative schizophrenic just demonstrates that you are a well-adjusted, with-it kind of person. As an artist one is expected to avoid being associated with any overly defined set of skills. As an artist, you are expected to float in the flow of events, be ready to become anonymous, and then abandon that anonymity at the right time. Frankly, these are not positive developments to me, but realities nonetheless that one must accept. In this way, we in the artworld provide an atmosphere of high-end humanistic quality, a kind of neo-traditional, psychological décor for the ruling class. I mean, we’re all working on the intellectual and creative side of the hospitality industry, which is a very strange place to be. We serve as essentially decorative entities within the Mansion of Global Capitalism… and art is at the highest high end of the hospitality industry, fetishizing the ideal of the free and freaky artist. But, functionally speaking, any random cat video on YouTube will have a lot more cultural impact than anything I’m doing here, today in the Jeanne and Peter Lougheed Building or if you are reading this, then on the pages of Le Merle. The distinctive creative idiom of our time is maturing elsewhere.
And this is the crux of Our Literal Speed. We want to find where that distinctive creative idiom might be. It’s not to be found in the mainstream of the artworld, at the corporately-sponsored DJ parties during Art Basel, not that there’s anything wrong with those things, or in the mainstream of academia, in the bland lecture halls of CAA—not that there’s anything particularly egregious about CAA either. I believe that one must look in neglected spaces. Peripheral experiences. It’s as if today, all confident statements made in appropriate places by appropriate people at appropriate times, all gestures that affirm: “As an important communicator, I am communicating this important information to you…” those kinds of gestures seem somehow empty…superfluous.”
It seems that the future of art might belong to gestures that, for all intents and purposes, have never been made. Only if we are unsure who did it, what they did, where they did it, why they did it, and how they managed to do it, only then do our minds really become constructively engaged. That is, we have so much information today, so much cultural conditioning, that only a deficit of information and cultural framing can yield something genuinely compelling. It’s kind of like the Impressionists ditching the expected “realist” rendering of the world to manifest their surroundings’ ephemeral qualities through light or color.
Something very much like that is happening with art and art writing today. We just get bombarded with so many opinions, so much data, so many facts, so fast, that only something that makes us think, “What is a fact? What is an opinion? What is informative?” Only that sort of stuff causes our descriptive energies to kick in, get the interpretive juices flowing. So, it’s the instability, the inscrutability of the gesture, its lack of appropriateness mixed with the gesture’s seeming ambition to be completely appropriate that gives it resonance. That’s what grabs us. Or maybe I can put it like this: if the twentieth century was defined by the Readymade, then the twenty-first century may belong to the Nevermade.
Talking about Our Literal Speed is still a very new mode of engagement for me, as opposed to performing or writing content for the project. With that in mind I am still very much trying to explain a project that, in some regards, has very few enduring parameters, no set cast of players, and no singular site. So, for the sake of this presentation I’ll start from the beginning.
I think art is different from most other things because we’re never really sure what art is. To me, this is visual art’s motivating paradox, the thing that makes art baffling, even antagonizing. Some would argue that art is “an ontologically unstable category of cultural production,” but maybe we should just say that art is like a trinket that we’ve surreptitiously stuffed into our pocket on our way to civilization. It’s a remnant of believing in magic and the incantatory power of mumbo jumbo. Art has its roots in desire and fear made over into stuff. So I think if you look back, nearly every important artwork, every “masterpiece,” nearly every one of them was once hard to even see as good art, much less as GREAT art, from Rembrandt to Manet to Kaprow. Our Literal Speed is currently engaged in writing a book about the feelings that happen near these kinds of thoughts.
As I said, Our Literal Speed began in 2006 in correspondence with seeing the Jackson Pollock Bar’s performance at the Getty and my first solo-art show in a storefront in Beverly Hills.
The installation was called A Real Allegory of a Seven-Year Phase in My Artistic (and Moral) Life. This installation, referring to the full title of Courbet’s painting The Artist’s Studio is a self-reflective recapitulation of the previous seven years of my existence as a fashion model. It consisted of three California King beds, gowns from the just performed runway shows in London, and a cadre of gentleman sex workers. However, upon its installation it was clear that the piece aptly and allegorically gestured toward the art world, fashion, and, notably, to our contemporary professional subjectivities, whether you are a professor, a curator, an artist, or a fashion model.
As a model, you’re always hustled into the back scenes of a fashion show. Then you’re poked in the eyes with pencils and your hair is aggressively tugged at—it’s an assault. Your clothes are pealed off you by one person, while a second squeezes you into, and more often than not, sews you into, some designer’s creation, whilst some sleazy diminutive male photographer hides amongst the racks of clothing, lens angling for the perfect “behind the scenes accidental nudity shot.” You are then attached to high heels that place you closer to seven feet tall than to six. And before you have a chance to scream “Not in your life!” someone more accustomed to yelling slaps you on the back and barks: “Avanti!”
You are pushed out, music pumping, heart rattling, ankles twisting, to find a world bathed in total blinding light, an endless tunnel of light, with more lights, smaller flashing ones, in the far distance. This is the only indication of where to go—just walk into the light. This is the model’s experience of a fashion show.
Immediately after one show you’re grabbed by a driver and delivered to the next to perform the whole “walk into the light” act all over again. With each additional runway show you are closer to believing that you cannot dress yourself, that if you do not look like a drag queen then you’ve made a terrible mistake, and that walking should be done exclusively on a pay-by-step basis.
Entirely enmeshed in the product, the model is never privy to the experience of the consumer or audience. You are literally always blinded by production.
So, “being blinded by production” then is another way of saying that your actions are always already so codified, so conventionalized, so obviously appropriate, that they become completely self-obscuring—that is, if you are thinking about what you are doing as a model, then you are already doing it wrong. And I’ve come to think that something like this holds true for cultural experience too. When it becomes a walk into the tunnel of light; when all of this important stuff [gestures around]—all of this well-compensated and happy ambition to impress and inspire with words and ideas—when all of this starts to feel less like the inner workings of a Habermasian public sphere and something a lot more like an intelligentsia’s fashion show—then we all become cultural producers walking down a very long and blinding runway, thrusting ourselves again and again into the artistic and discursive light.
To be more prosaic, in the standard version of art practice, the Power Point lecture, the editorial meeting, the question and answer period, the studio visit, the critique, the hallway conversation, the academic introduction, the gallery exhibition, and the après opening dinner receptions… that is, all the LITERAL conditions around art that make it functionally available to the public—are NEVER the real message. All of the meaningful stuff of art and academia supposedly exists within an extremely narrow, artificially homogenized interpretive framework; yet, it seems that it is only a matter of time before these activities will cease to be viewed as abstract, neutral backdrops. Logically, they will soon become historical, even ripe to become the content of a book.
This is, in fact, the book that I am working on at this moment. It is called Our Literal Speed, though it is not so much ABOUT our art project, as it is itself a project in its own right.
It works like this: In January 2006, immediately after the Beverly Hills art installation and that Jackson Pollock Bar theory thing that I described, I decided that I would spend the next seven years of my life not trying to BE a professional artist, even though I did eventually receive a MFA from UCLA; instead, I decided that I would allow Our Literal Speed to become my primary art endeavor and that I would simultaneously write a book about the process of what it means to try to become a professional female artist today. This was my one work of art during this seven-year period.
The Our Literal Speed book project is a character-driven, narrative account of the project’s formation and development; however, the book exists not merely as a document about itself but also as an art/discursive project in its own right. The book concludes with the founding of the Our Literal Speed art space in Selma, Alabama and the invitation to the reader to visit this real world site. We view the book as the narrative prologue to our Selma-based “media opera” (i.e., an eclectic mix of developing events), a kind of post-postmodern academic and artworld variation on the soap opera. And like the soap opera itself (another fading relic from the twentieth century), OLS has no obvious reason to exist and no preordained endpoint. Ironically, these two features have allowed our undertaking to enjoy great dexterity and freedom as an art project.
OLS has performed at MoMA in front of hundreds and in Selma in front of a half dozen, yet such events carry equal importance for us. Acquiring more spectators and more publicity are not our goals; rather, we seek to understand spectatorship and publicity themselves as materials for art-making and art-thinking. We wish to treat them in the same way one treats canvas or marble. In the process, we aim to carve out zones of unexpected contemplation, places in which we can ask ourselves and our audience: What is the psycho-material character of art in our age of social-media, the dawning of all-encompassing virtual reality, and mass avatarization? The answers to such questions, we assume, must be complex and no doubt can only meaningfully unfold over space and time.
The Our Literal Speed book project and Selma “media opera” grow out of these convictions and concerns.
The social and aesthetic atmosphere of Selma contributed directly to one of the greatest progressive achievements of the twentieth century: the political enfranchisement of one tenth of the American population. However, we see Selma not only as a site of mass political action, but also as a place where the tremendous artfulness and formal inventiveness of the civil rights movement made themselves manifest. Today Selma borders the most conservative congressional district in the United States (widest McCain over Obama margin nationally) within a state that is enacting the nation’s most repressive immigration laws. In Selma, we are attempting to discover the structures for an alternative art-world and academic-world; one that does not yet exist; one that will not revolve around seminar rooms or DJ-ed parties. The book is the narrative back-story; the media opera, the unfolding future.
In January 2013, this book project will come to a close, though Our Literal Speed will go on.