Posted on December 17, 2015
I’m doing this essay for a book on art and theory for the excellent people at ArtEZ in the Netherlands, and it is a stimulating item. The contribution has been making me spend some time thinking about the relationship between theory and practice and about the ways in which people in my game talk about the relationship between theory and practice. To boil that essay down: the way that people talk about theory and practice in Art & Design (or commonly theory versus practice) is redundant. You heard it here first, maybe.
To borrow (again) a linguistic tactic from one of my intellectual heroes, Richard Rorty: it might be said that the question of what is the essential difference between theory and practice is no longer an interesting question to pose. It is no longer an interesting question to pose (and pursue), excepting this dalliance of course, because the premise of the question is wrongheaded. If you think about the function of Art & Design in the world and towards that end the interdependence of practice and theory, of doing and reflection as the duality is often characterised; and think also of the interdependence of both theory & practice and theory; and on top of that think of the interdependence of both theory & practice and practice, you see that the dualism resident in those normative Art Academy conversations is redundant. To keep seeing the dualism is, I reckon, then, disingenuous.
In the essay for ArtEZ, to be shared here in due course, I offer the term artistic attention as the vocabular component to use whenever you feel inclined to worry over the twoness of the two concepts and their particular relationship in a particular body of work. You see, good art is never without theory & practice and their interdependence because good art is ever and always predicated on artistic attention, and artistic attention is forever predicated upon the necessary holistic singularity that arises from the erasure of the dualism into that integrated phenomenon of, well, artistic attention. If you take this as a circular conceit designed to exclude the dualism then you’re right for that’s right, so says this circular note.
From the ArtEZ piece in my very own words: “Artistic attention is to be understood here not as a container of parts nor as an indicator of symbiosis of two discrete things in simultaneous, aporetic harmony but, rather, as a description of whole singularity; the singularity of that mode of creative inquiry that peforms meaningfully to make the world perform meaningfully. Artistic attention is predicated not upon passive reflection versus action but is grounded in the conception that it is only possible by a sophisticated endeavour of criticality which is as concerned with erstwhile theoretical apprehension as it is with practical manifestations and transformations, dependent as that attention is upon the needs of the inquiry and its object in the contemporary world.”
With the essay pressing my brain over the last wee while it was present in my reading of a very interesting little book by the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Changing Roles: artists’ personal views and wishes (2007) edited by curator Renske Janssen. The entry by artist Tris Vonna-Michell I want to bloggily punt as a living example of artistic attention and its holistic command of our erstwhile dichotomic components. On being asked what ‘he would like centres for contemporary art to be presenting’, Vonna-Michell expresses his version of artistic attention in this way :
Dynamic projects that expand beyond the architecture of the institution. Works that explore larger mappings of involvement and research, and which include theoretical substance without reverting to a textbook hand-out. More events – performances, screenings, talks. Fewer projects whereby the work becomes dormant within a given location/context. A certain degree of integration between audiences and the means of creation, research and articulation would be an interesting and fruitful experience for both parties (artist/institution and public).
These are the theories, conditions and actions that create the contexts for and the results of artistic attention. Vonna-Michell’s work is of great interest because his artistic attention to his objects of inquiry sees that the world performs meaningfully in a constructive manner. We as recipients of the tactics and products of his attention are supported by his efforts and those of a centre for contemporary art such as he describes, not merely to receive items and events passively to couch them in theory, nor simply to re-act up to the experientiality of context, but instead to creatively and constructively make meaningful worlds by virtue of our own holistic artistic attention.
Prompted by Vonna-Michell’s 2013 Jan Mot exhibition, ‘Postscript I’ (2013), the one that led to Turner Prize nomination, the critic Christophe Gallois put something of all this in this way:
The work illustrates the way in which the artist’s narratives are built on a series of fragments of information as well as heterogeneous elements collected according to the principle of ‘objective chance’, of coincidence, and leaves a large amount of space to accidents, unintended events or other forms of sideway motions that crop up as it unfolds.
These elements (in Vonna-Michell’s projects and, of course, in the big old world itself dear punter) need attention for meaningfulness to emerge: the meaning is not worn on the ‘face’ of these elements by virtue of anything extra to attention, as Vonna-Michell (and Rorty) would tutor. And, lastly, that emergence of meaningfulness is not driven principally by reflecting, by theorising, nor driven principally by doing, by practising. That emergence of meaning is produced dynamically from heterogeneous elements by artistic attention in all its integrated singularity: attention driven, in no particular order, by knowing, by feeling, by reflecting, by doing, by revising, by sharing, by connecting…, and by redescribing all of that in order to do it all again, out of interest and as the antidote to redundancy of all kinds.