March 30, 2006

REPORT | Hard Copy Workshop

Introductory notes for the Hard Copy session titled 'Readerships and Criticism'.
Panellists were Sam da Silva and Linda Marie Walker.


This panel is concerned with ‘criticism and readerships’. As you will have noted from the program we are addressing the ways in which we, as publishers, writers, producers, researchers, editors and as an artworld, develop and sustain an informed audience. What does audience (literacy, looking and reading) mean in this time where media and access to it prevails. Proliferation of media and accessibility can sometimes seem like a cacophony of blog, blogger, blogging. Who can we trust to talk to about art and the complexities of interdisciplinary practice? If artists have such unprecedented access to audiences as a result of these new technologies, what does criticism actually do and who is it for? I prefer the term art writing – a kind of hyphenation that either crosses or sits in-between. It evokes ideas of collusion, collaboration and complicity. Media, I think, does that – always implicated.

Is there a divide between academic work and other kinds of art writing? Is academic work just for the academy?

We are talking small here – our experiences and our world feel kind of small. We will give some consideration to the methods, styles, languages and forms for communicating about, in and for interdisciplinary practices. As well, we will be talking about the ways we might develop relationships with existing cultural outlets and new hybrid portals. How able are we to make choices? How do funding or dollar decisions impact on our words? Given that we’ve all run publications and tried to stretch a dollar and squeeze everything we could out of a minute, we’ve been at the coalface - our bodies are also tested.

As a way of introducing this issue for this panel because I am aware Sam has something to say about this, here’s a statement describing a forum held in the US last year:

With 9 million blogs, umpteen online message boards, thousands of shows on hundreds of cable channels, and an increased number of magazines on the newsstand, the number of outlets for expressing criticism has never been higher and the barriers to would-be critics have never been lower. Is this devaluing evaluation or does the shotgun approach result in better criticism?

The question seems to revolve on two presumedly competing notions – better or more? Where do such questions come from, what do they actually mean and why is there such a tight, almost competing, relationship between them? So maybe it is more usefully put in the manner that the futurist Sohail Inayatullah insists: “I don’t need more information in my life unless it improves the quality of my life”.

Perhaps that last set of questions is best put to you all – how do we develop and manage those relationships with existing cultural outlets and new hybrid portals? How do we map them and negotiate them? How can archiving and publishing work in tandem in a collecting environment that seems to ignore new media practices? Does this mean we are working around ideas of interdisciplinary criticism arising from interdisciplinary modalities. What of writing as an interdisciplinary practice? What of storytelling and narrativity - approaches like journalism, narralogue and documentary? Can criticism really be a subject in the way we are discussing here? Is that a productive construction and what does that mean for communication, knowledge and other flows?

So there we have a raft of questions. Some are relevant and some perhaps less so, just tangents that might dilute our focus.

I am joined on this panel by some powerful experience and expertise. Sadly Keith Gallasch wasn’t able to join us today. Keith’s elegantly put view of the arts as ecology is perhaps well known and perhaps warrants some thought in this context of publishing and parallels Roger Malina’s comments about writing and publishing ecologies – and many others – we are always both inside and out. So let me introduce our panellists, Sam de Silva and Linda Marie Walker.

Sam is a media producer. Over the recent past he has dabbled with the internet, print publications and video production. Currently, he is working on a documentary film. Sam would one day like to produce a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Sam is a driving force in the Spinach7 initiative, a banner under which electronic and print publications are produced. After two years of production, Sam and his colleagues had to make the difficult decision to cease publication of the Spinach7 magazine. So perhaps we have an opportunity here to talk about the practicalities of running publications – business models, funding opportunities and funding failures and what can sometimes feel like compulsory volunteerism in our sector.
Linda is a writer, artist and curator. Her research area is titled: 'an archaeology of surfaces'. She was Director of the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia and editor of its magazine ‘Broadsheet’. She is Senior Lecturer at Louis Laybourne-Smith School of Architecture & Design at the University of South Australia. Linda’s research interests include: Writing as design; Language-based writing; The body as/in space; The object/thought/voice; Abandonment & ruined space, an archaeology of spaces; Contemporary Australian visual arts and artists; and Curatorial practices.
So, to my mind, Linda’s own writing practice is interdisciplinary. How much consideration do we give to ideas about writing itself – how it is itself interdisciplinary or experimental. Artist-writing is a very potent idea – how do we negotiated visual and worded thinking? What of desire?

Try as we might, prior to today Linda and I just couldn’t find a chance to meet or talk, so a silence prevailed and perhaps there is a point to be made about silence and silencing in our critical acts … For both of us, rather than criticism, we’re interesting in rolling around the idea of ‘art writing’. What are the typologies of this kind of practice?

I love the fugitive – always desiring what I can’t grasp. But in this, I am caught in a bind. Always looking for, always wanting, always reaching for the fugitive is an exercise in futility - once apprehended, the fugitive is a captive …
Given the vast array of publishing experiments that have existed in the arts ranging from the fugitive one-off pamphlett or artists book to the long lived peer reviewed journal, the blog to the catalogue, the cheap artist run initiative to the hardover monograph, it’s sometimes difficult to chart the ways ahead for arts writing and publishing. We are not just talking about one thing in or from this interdiscipolinary work.

One of my favourite statements about art writing and its relationship to the art world is from David Carrier who said "a community is formed as soon as you and I find some object worth talking about, even if we are the only people who take an interest in that artifact. When our shared interest leads us to record our dialogue, it is possible that soon enough readers, too, will come to share our interest ... A community is defined, in part, by willingness to engage in intellectual exchange." I think this is a much more enjoyable way of thinking through connectivity than, say, the disconnectivity or aloofness of a writer like Matthew Colling who I recently heard speak in Brisbane at the ARC Forum.

For Carrier, these exchanges need not be wholly convivial – even cantankerous and raucous disagreement is a sign that some thing warrants discussion. Also at ARC in Brisbane last year, Ted Colless said that the challenge for critics is to go beyond into some kind of 'hyper-' existence - beyond their relationship to the earth, beyond the economics of desire, beyond meaning and value. So here we have two messages about art writing – one about connecting and the other is, if I heard correctly, about pressing the zones of materiality and immateriality.

Also at that ARC forum, newspaper arts editor Rosemary Sorensen asked about the spaces for ‘difficult’ writing. They are tenuous, she said. So one of the issues that arises here is about the appropriate spaces and media in which to draw expertise in the arts into dialogue with audiences and each other – there’s a very enjoyable idea here about the ways in which artists, writers and audiences can all be involved in an experiment or as Carrier says, a conversation about some thing. Are audiences for writing and publications the same as audiences for art? They are not interchangeable are they? How does criticism, art writing or a publication create audiences and knowledge?

On some level we are enmeshed in various levels of cultural and social devaluation. As I overheard someone, who should know better, recently say in the prevailing fundamentalist rhetoric of policy and creative industries, “We no longer fund cultural or social outcomes. We fund economic outcomes.” Even though that’s no surprise, it’s still a disturbing thing to hear.

That brings me of one of the many wonderful Mullah Nasruddin stories – and in using this story I am trying to say something about the cultural locations of knowledge. What kinds of knowledge and cultural biases are we privileging in our engagements with interdisciplinary work in our regional and global networks? Knowledge is not some transcendent totality or pure entity. It is culturally located and culturally constructed and much depends on where or how we look for it ...

As some neighbours of Mullah Nasruddin came home one dark evening, they spied the Mullah digging about under a street lamp in front of his house.

"Mullah, whatever are you doing?"

"I have lost my keys and am looking for them."

Soon they were all scratching about in the dirt, searching for his keys.

After a while, one of them spoke up: "This is no good. Mullah, think back. Where did you last have your keys?"

He replied: "Well I lost them somewhere in the house, but I'm not sure where."

"What? Why are you searching out here then?"

The Mullah answered: "Because it is much too dark in the house, there is more light here."