September 10, 2006

COMMENT | Breaking down ...

by Linda Carroli

I stumbled upon something recently, like a crack in the footpath across which your step falters or twists. A frayed editorial in a local art publication that focuses on emerging art and writers. The magazine is tiny - it sits somewhere between a zine, street press and art magazine, not really making a mark or packing a punch as any of those entities. Given away but not cheap-looking enough to be disposable - without the breadth of information - like a street mag. Independent but not fugitive or unconventional enough to be a zine. Carrying reviews and essays and published bi-monthly but not long enough to be taken too seriously as an art journal or magazine. The formality and legacy of art history studies permeates the pages.

The editorial (and I am only talking about the editorial at this point) bemoans why there is no critical environment in this state (being Queensland). I can hear your eyes rolling. Strange how that chestnut rolls around with predictable regularity in variously self-righteous tones, as if no one understands their world-weariness. I’ve read these kinds of purportedly thought-provoking pleas for intelligence many times over and have responded to these questions many times over. Somewhere in its 16-between-A4-and-A5-sized-pages and 1000-copy-every-two-months print run, it set itself the task of “fostering a critically engaged environment in Queensland, with the outlook of establishing and encouraging honest, opinionated and creative responses to the visual arts in this state and elsewhere”. Perhaps the editors of that publication might start by being honest with themselves about scale.

Initially, I wasn’t going to respond to those comments. This isn’t the first publishing experiment to fall a little flat – to overreach, to beat its chest about the failures of its community rather than to reflect on its own failure to capture the imaginations of writers and critics in that community. Why point to the critics and writers for a failure in critical environment when one presumes that the publications are the pathways that connect the critics to the audiences? Who published the “flat and timid, conservative, descriptive and uncritical” prose in the first instance? Editors can seem so remote from, extraneous to, the writing process. If writers are to engage creatively then perhaps that engagement is best focused on their own writing rather than with the artworks they are writing about. ‘Aboutness’ is an arrogant bastard. I’ve said it before – I don’t wan’t to ‘write about art’ when it’s so much more enjoyable to ‘write art’.

Every generation has to make its media in its own image. It has to somehow negotiate the conventions it wants broken. In the current technosphere, we have an opportunity to do something else with printed publications. Criticism might be a technology (or technique) but it is not necessarily a medium. Printing is oh so slow. Printed publications perhaps need to find their niche and their voice within that temporality, within its own materiality. McLuhan identified the need to put print to different or new purposes. Reviews feel like yesterday’s news. Critical writing takes time, publishing takes time and, in all that passing of time, we (readers/viewers) tend to forget. Where’s the currency in that? Why must our critical culture, generated by expert opinion (either self-appointed or somehow ordained), exist in this kind of lapse, these mediatised faultlines? How can print create that appreciation of time, the time it takes to think visually, write and process complexity? I could wax lyrical about the explosion of weblogs and other online entities that are reworking critical tropes.

I wonder if 'criticism' is fluid, reinvented generationally, geographically and culturally. I wonder if the sort of criticism regarded as ‘conventional’ is tied to institutional preference. Is criticism necessarily a written or printed object? Or can it be other things and could the written-ness of it preclude new publishing (making public) tropes and oralities ...

I’m tinkering with my new mobile phone, having just had an epiphany about how to bluetooth. Having seen an exhibition, I send an SMS into the ether, hoping someone will accept that message as a genuine attempt (experiment) to communicate critically. My short message refutes the comments in the weekend paper about the exhibition I’ve just seen. In turn I receive a couple of messages telling me to fuck off and another couple saying thanks; even going as far as to commit to having a look sometime.

And so, time to applaud this little publication, burdened by the weight of its championing of a ‘new criticism’ (that reads very much like the old), called Machine and let’s also give thanks for their brave step into cyber-connectivity via, of all things, a message board as a means for fostering this brave new critical environment …

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