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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Anton Vidokle: A man of the arts must be lazybones, now and then

5 April, 2012 - 00:00
ANTON VIDOKLE / Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Anton Vidokle, a noted Russian artist, curator, co-founder and editor of e-flux on-line journal (e-flux.com) specializing in contemporary art, visited Kyiv to take part in 2012 Arsenale’s panel discussion.

Vidokle was born in Moscow. He was 15 when his family emigrated to the US in 1981. His works of art started being displayed by the Biennale di Venezia and London’s prestigious art gallery Tate Modern. He currently lives in New York and has a residence in Berlin. His e-flux journal daily contacts some 70,000 artists across the world.

Anton Vidokle delivered a lecture entitled “Art without Education.” Before the lecture he kindly agreed to an interview with The Day.

Your father was a musician at the circus. In what way did that influence your artistic development?

“I was five years old at that time, and I do not know at what age precisely you start being formed as an artist. Maybe that is a little bit too early, but who knows what makes up the psychology that results in artistic process. So, I do not know.”

What was the brightest artistic experience of the early years of your childhood, when you still lived in Soviet Union?

“Since my father was a musician, I was also expected to study music. My parents sent me to music school at a very early age. But I did not have a talent, so it was really difficult, we were fighting a lot. Finally, they realized that they can force me as much as they want, but I am not going to be a musician, I just do not have the ability. And then they were confused as to what to do with me. My mother’s friend was sending her daughter for drawing lessons with this artist studio in Moscow. My mother thought that I should go there too, and I could not refuse, though I was a bit skeptical of this. The moment I entered the studio, I knew that this was exactly what I wanted in my life. It felt just like entering a totally magical world, I think I was 11 at the time, and the feeling continued ever since.”

Do artists need higher education in order to be successful? And why?

“No. Very few artists I look up to and whose work I really love actually had any artistic training whatsoever. One of my favorite artists in the world, he is unfortunately dead, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers was a poet, a kind of a failed poet, until at the age of 43 he suddenly made an art object by taking a book of poetry and covering it with plaster, making it unreadable. And that triggered one of the most interesting developments in conceptual art. On some level I am quite fond of dedicated amateurs and people coming from very different fields, be it physics or geography, poetry, or literature, or philosophy, and bringing all of that to art. Unfortunately, what I see around in the United States in terms of professionalized artistic training, seems to produce an emptying out of artistic activity, when it comes to almost cloning. When you go to an art fair, and you see so many works that are supposed to be new works by young artists, but you have this deja vu feeling that you have seen them all before, that this is a repeat of last year and the year before, where things just mirror each other. I think we are starting to get trapped in a labyrinth of mirrors. We just keep on reproducing something that has already been developed. I think that it is a much more interesting situation, when the field of artists is not professionalized in the way that it is now.”

I can agree with you on that. The CIS countries still practice a rather strict academic way of education, and this truly turns young artists into clones of some well-known academic figures.

“But the same thing is happening in the West. There is a tendency towards professionalization that is becoming more and more prevalent in the last 20 years. There is not so much difference between East and West, it is a global phenomenon, and it is a very disturbing one.”

It is strange, I have probably idealized the path of an artist in the West, especially considering the freedom that was obtained in the 1960s.

“That changed very radically with the invention of MFAs (Master of Fine Arts degrees) which basically reappropriated whatever freedoms that existed into a new kind of structure that fed off itself. In other words, if you want to support yourself as an artist, which meant teaching for the majority of artists, you were required to have an MFA, because otherwise you would not be hired for a teaching position without it, universities will not take you. But universities use MFA programs as a revenue generating source. It is creating a circle, where you cannot practice, you cannot support yourself if you do not go through this program and pay the university for it, and keep your professors employed, and become one of them eventually, and just perpetuating the cycle. We are seeing the effect of it right now. And the scary thing is that now it has become an almost totalizing process, now they have invented artistic Ph.D. In the last few years, maybe 10 Ph.D. programs opened for studio art, which is very interesting, because to me it means that eventually artists will be required to have a Ph.D. in order to teach. This will affect a vast majority of artists who rely on having a source of income outside the market. And we know what happens to people who go through Ph.D. programs. It is not only about accumulating knowledge, it is the restructuring of your mind, it is like the military.”

And have you personally managed to become an artist that does not work?

“I would like to think so, because I do not see what I do as labor. My situation is a little bit unusual. In some sense, I work all the time, but I do not produce commodities of some sort, I am not a worker in that sense. Mine is a situation that is a little bit less alienated than other possibilities in the art field. I do not teach, I do not have a job, I do not work with a gallery or for a gallery, I do not have to produce any objects of art, it is a very unusual situation. Again, like I said, I do work all the time, but it is work in a slightly different sense.”

Does an artist have to work at all?

“I do not know. For example, there is a fantastic Croatian artist who is one of my favorite figures in Eastern Europe, his name is Mladen Stilinovic. He is very famous for his series of photographs from the 1970s which are called ‘Artist at Work,’ where he is basically sleeping in his bed. So, his whole theory is that Western artists are very bad artists, because they work too much, and for a real artist you have to be lazy, you have to have time to think and not do anything, not produce anything. He is half-joking and half-serious, but I think there is something to what he is saying.”

In your article you expressed an idea that art without work is art as a lifestyle.

“This is important for me. There are very few descriptions of what communist society would actually be like in books by Marx. And the closest it gets when he describes the situation where in communist society people could change their occupation all the time: today you could be a journalist, tomorrow you could be an artist, and the next day you could be a bartender, and then a politician, so your identity is not fixed to your professional occupation, it is fluid. And it seems that within that kind of situation life becomes so unalienated, and it gets an aesthetical quality of just being. So, there is no real need anymore for art as we know, is something that you put on the wall, or something that is a rarefied experience separated from life, but living is a way of expressing or consuming art. And for me this description is incredibly inspirational and I see a very clear trajectory in modern art towards certain dissolution of art and life. It is almost a tradition, and I feel that I also partly belong to this tradition.”

I have been to a performance in New York; the artist did not present any artworks, but he cooked delicious food. And it appears that in order to make art your lifestyle, you still need to work for that.

“And that artist does work quite hard, in fact; cooking for many people can be called labor.”

It seems that in the past 50 years art has turned into the art of gestures: besides exhibiting their works, artists need to perform a gesture in order to draw attention to themselves. Do you think these gestures are necessary?

“I think it has to do with a much wider condition of contemporary life, where this gesture is necessary for doctors, and lawyers, and businessmen as well. It is not only artists, but this kind of publicity-seeking gesture is very much the result of television-based capitalist culture. I am not the sociologist, and I cannot fully explain and analyze the condition right now, but it seems to be much bigger than just in the field of art.”

What is an artist nowadays in a philosophical sense?

“I think it is a subject and transition. There is a range of very interesting new artistic practices emerging that have not really fully registered as art just yet, and exist somewhere in the space between technology, political thinking, design, and music. There are also a lot of young people who are very disenchanted with art, for whom a career of an artist is not an appealing future because of this association between contemporary art and neoliberalism. It is not for somebody who wants to do something meaningful or different; entering this kind of world is not a very appealing proposition. I am very curious what these people will do, these really bright people who want some kind of difference, that before, maybe, would have become painters, but will be doing something very different now. We will see it in 15-20 years for sure.”

Are you now more occupied with creating art itself or some editing, supervising, exhibits organizing activities?

“I do not distinguish between all of these things. It is too difficult to sit at two chairs at the same time. For me all of these activities are kind of part of my artistic practice. And this is also one of the things in which I feel that the contemporary artistic figure is changing, because I am not unique in this respect. Majority of people that are published at, let us say, e-flux journal are artists, they make films, some art objects, exhibitions. They also consider their teaching activity as extension of their artistic practice. They do not necessarily see so much of a difference between making an art object, doing a workshop, writing an essay, making a film – it is all one thing. There is more and more of this kind of multi-faceted activity these days in the art field. And the difficult part is that it does not fit into existing institutions. Museums do not know what to do with it, they do not know how to reconcile a workshop or a text as a work of art, they still want concrete objects – sculptures, photographs, installations, whatever. What we have been trying to create at e-flux a little bit, is a space for this kind of artists, and engage them in all of their complex practice. We could publish their texts, we could give them space to exhibit work, we could help them make a film, and we could organize lectures or workshops where they could teach.”

Are the supervisor and the artist at a fight within you?

“No, they are not; there is no supervisor in me.”

Managing e-flux is a quite time and effort consuming occupation. Why did you decide to get involved in this project?

“It was a bit of a coincidence. We were organizing a show without any budget with a couple of friends of mine about 12 years ago. And there was this idea to just e-mail the press release. And suddenly the information circulated in a very unprecedented way, it was like an example of viral dissemination. That developed into something that in the beginning felt like having a small radio station. Suddenly there was this audience, thousands of people all over the world, and it was incredibly interesting. And I did not look at it as work or job, it was just incredible to have the audience that could reach you immediately, they would write back to us all the time, every time we would send out a press release. In the beginning people thought it was completely personal, that we were sending it to them specifically. It is polite to respond, so a lot of them replied with what they thought about this press release. It was completely fascinating. I do not see this as some kind of job or work, it was also an extension of my artistic practice, dissemination of ideas about art, about works of other artists, about other exhibitions.”

On e-flux you have articles about politics as well as the ones about art. Should politics and art be treated as allies or as enemies?

“I think we have to avoid this kind of ‘either-or’ situations. It is not ‘either-or,’ it is probably ‘and-and’ – they are both allies and enemies at the same time.”

We had a lot of politicized art in the Soviet Union, and it was very boring.

“Yes, but on the other hand there was a lot of politicized art that was absolutely incredible.”

Where do you see yourself in the future?

“I cannot answer questions like that. I do not know. I will get older.

By Dmytro DESIATERYK, The Day