PRACTICE Everyday Life, Part I

BY Qing Huang

In 1968, Jack Burnham noted the shift away from the then-high arts, whose medium mainly concerns painting or sculpture, towards the immaterialized proposition, advanced by both conceptualists and minimalists such as Hans Hacke and Robert Morris. This observation allows him to shatter the arbitrary categorization between the two camps both of whom can be appreciated under the dome of creating experiential environments. Meanwhile, the role of spectator came into play, specifically, the demand for the presence of the viewers as a necessary component of the work. To turn against the autonomy claimed by the modernists, the postwar generation artists sought to foreground the participatory nature of the spectatorship while dissipating the authoritative voice of the artists. Such works decenter the object by gearing the gaze towards the space in which the spectator inhabits and shares with the works. For Burnham, such phenomenon went hand in hand with the advent of “a system-oriented culture” necessitated by the technological transformation at the time. Although his theorization of “system aesthetics” can be overtly privileging a systemic functionality over an open-ended structure, Burnham’s interrogation into the models after minimalism and conceptualism could be still illuminating today.

Nowadays, typically categorized as social practice, the artists who inherit the legacy of the conceptual and the minimal continue to challenge the spectator who has been, along with the way, well-educated to participate and fulfill the responsibilities in a dialogical framework of the arts. Nevertheless, illegibility continues to haunt the forms, if any, not to mention its content. In other words, artworks today can appear no different from non-art, namely, real life. Even if it is recognized as art per se, chances are that the spectator will have no clue what to take from the work, or even, where to begin with. Since the socially-concerned artists seek to make an impact, more or less, it becomes an increasingly urgent issue regarding the extent to which the work’s essence is communicative to the spectator. Interesting enough, in the 1980s, there was a debate whether art should aim for consensus or antagonism among the spectator. Leaning towards either side proves to be problematic. As Shannon Jackson argues, one can easily recycle an Ardonian dialectics when taking the side of antagonism which hierarchically distinguishes the autonomy of art from the public-dependent cultural products. In this way, one refashions the conventional reading that sets art against, if not above, life. On the other hand, consensus seemingly makes no difference besides reaffirmation of the spectator’s presupposition. What Jackson proposes is a model that organically develops within a certain social context which, foremost, takes both time and effort on the part of the artist. Following this line of thought, the priority of socially-engaged practice is to identify the “symptoms” characterized by a specific community with whom the artist seeks to conduct dialogue.   

The feelings of estrangement are no stranger to those who were born in and after the 1980s. In parallel, it is also the moment when the internet emerged and developed into an all-encompassing network that gradually replaced the conventional mode of communication and evolved into a technocracy. Essentially, the logic of internet is to collapse the real time/space by disregarding the physical distance and short-circuiting the chains of events. Its mechanism is driven by personal desire and centers around a virtual reality built on the gap between one’s imagination and real life. With the proliferation of emoji stickers and snapshot renderings, for example, the chitchat itself is manifest as a form of self-representation mediated through the artificiality of technological vision, which blurs the line between the real and the imagined. Thanks to the platforms staged by social media, one’s fantasization and self-projection find a way to everyday communication that reaches beyond a given recipient. Curiously, a vernacular statement has been popular, since then, that “everyone lives in their own bubbles”. It is true that individual realities manage to co-exist within a meta-structure whose realness is out of the picture from the individuals’. In this sense, the individual reality has to be fictionalized to some respect; the boundaries between representation and presentation have vanished from the horizon of technocracy.

Admittedly, the spectacle has been adapted into the increasingly interactive mode of viewing and participating, as is previously mentioned, an effort made by the postwar artists. The pervasiveness of social media effectively illustrates such interactivity omnipresent in every aspect of life. Typically, everyone is promised with a freedom that can be realized by the technology. However, it does not guarantee that this freedom is anchored with independency. Instead, it speaks to another mode of spectacle culture whose passivity has been transformed into a calculated process of decision-making, an illusion of one’s own choice. It is the informational structure that has internalized a logic of coerciveness with which one is made to choose as is expected. Thus, it is a self-conceived freedom only that it is anticipated. The mythical result of the most recent US presidential election testifies to this mode of maneuver. By virtue of the language of our time, the new president was successfully elected without delivering any actual speech if one holds to the criteria of a proper speech. Alternatively, he managed to conduct purely formalist speeches that can be assimilated as performances. Overall, the campaign is actually a performative construct composed by physical gestures and emotional expressions that resonate with a mentality shared among those who certainly live in distantly individual realities. In this sense, the outcome is not necessarily unexpected if one realizes the scope of the manipulative logic of techno-social structure and the consequently endangered relations among human beings.

In this day and age, the content hardly matters as much as the form through which one is informed. It is no longer about what but how things get done. Alternative models are in need so as to counteract the ones that have been naturalized in everyday life. Nevertheless, the alternative is not equivalent to new. It can derive from a concept as old as friendship that seeks to tackle what is contingently at stake here, the interpersonal relations. It would not be enough only by disclosing the problematics or revealing the power-relation without offering a solution. The estrangement itself has been internalized by everyone who has been long aware of the changes in the way that one engages with the other. The question is how we can foster a mode of relationship beyond the conventionalities engrained in a life that has been so entrenched in the rubrics of a technocratic system.

———to be continued———

Qing Huang
Currently based in New York, Qing Huang is M.A. candidate at Institute of Fine Art, New York University. Her academic interest ranges from modern and contemporary Chinese arts to experiential-oriented reflection on contemporary culture in large. 

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