‘Abergreen: A Social Laboratory’, Steven Duval and Ken Neil, edited by Monika Vykoukal, Peacock Visual Arts, 2006.
COURTING THE PUBLIC
When Steven Duval exhibited his pamphlet One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter as part of Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt’s Apexart project, Between The Lines (2003),1 he openly declared, in the wake of 9/11 and in the run up to Doubleya’s Gulf War, that global news media is sick on propaganda. As an antidote to that sickness, the pamphlet contained some readymade strategies for deconstructing loaded television programmes. When watching a news broadcast, for example, ask yourself ‘what assumptions of right and wrong is it expressing?’ then ‘what is the text of the media message and is there a subtext to the message?’ Better still, ‘write down all of the adjectives used’ in the broadcast and make a judgement as to whether or not ‘these terms constitute an objective analysis’.
Gordon Nesbitt’s catalogue essay struck the same note: ‘Between The Lines is just the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg, an attempt to expose the media as anything but objective and to offer a glimpse of a few perspectives worthy of serious consideration’. Our media are not objective, she emphasised, ‘there are many…contemporary issues – human rights, the environment and biotechnology to name but a few – that are being neglected in a large part by the media’. So the exhibition told us what we citizens already know, and such portentous offerings can be painfully sanctimonious: we don’t need to read between any lines to recognise that media bulletins only pretend to be objective. (‘Patriotic’ citizens know this too, but choose not to worry.)
But the superficial conclusions of the Apexart contribution belied Duval’s foundational agenda. As well as being a series of formal criticisms of those organs which manage and manipulate public opinion, Duval’s practice is ultimately concerned with, substantively, the reconstitution of a liberal public sphere of unmediated critical discourse. Irrespective of whatever contemporary issue is under scrutiny, to recuperate even the possibility of a healthy public domain of balanced, reasoned discussion, a just domain, is the real motivation behind his activity as an artist. Considering the contemporary widespread decline of public faith in the actors and mechanisms of public office, some might say that that motivation has never been so apposite.
Thinking about the ways in which public space and public speech have been adversely affected in post-9/11 USA, Judith Butler (to choose
but one commentator from many) recently targeted that same cynical knowledge management assailed by Between The Lines. Since the events of September 11, we have seen both a rise of antiintellectualism and a growing acceptance of censorship within the media. This could mean that we have support for these trends within the general population of the United States, but it could also mean that the media function as “public voices” that operate at a distance from their constituency, that both report the “voice” of the government for us, and whose proximity to that voice rests on an alliance or identification with that voice.2 Butler considers the cost of such media bias in terms of a narrowing of the boundaries of what can be legitimately critiqued in a public sphere. Using the example of Israeli-Palestine politics, she writes:
The public sphere is constituted in part by what cannot be said and what cannot be shown. The limits of the sayable, the limits of what can appear, circumscribe the domain in which political speech operates and certain kinds of subjects appear as viable actors. In this instance, the identification of speech that is critical of Israel with anti-Semitism seeks to render it unsayable.3
For Duval to brazenly acknowledge the ‘unsayable’ relativistic status of the 9/11 terrorists is a sure fire way of being seen in today’s climate of knowledge control as ‘complicitous with terrorism or with constituting a “weak link” in the fight against it’.4 This stricture emanates from Doubleya’s binary mentality which would proclaim such conceptual fascism as ‘either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists’. Such a mentality is designed to redefine the limits of public discourse to exclude anything other than its own limited terms of reference. As Butler lucidly puts it, “the binarism which Bush proposes in which only two positions are possible makes it untenable to hold a position in which one opposes both and queries the terms in which the opposition is framed”.5 It is this latter position of critique that Duval attempts in his ongoing bid to widen political understanding of some perspectives worthy of serious consideration.
Towards this end, Between the Lines being a salient example, Duval’s opening gambit is to counterbalance widespread binary prejudice with a straightforward delivery of alternative facts: precisely the kinds of facts customarily ignored by market-driven popular media. For other examples: RomanTech (Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, 2001) revealed some telling data about genetically modified food; The Apple is a Model (Pistoletto Foundation, Biella, 2002) set out the benefits of biodiversity and explained the alarming techno-processes behind the harvesting, cleaning and preservation of supermarket apples; and CNG Cowboys (Khoj, Delhi, 2004) described the environmental and fiscal costs involved in the conversion of thousands of Indian rickshaw taxis from petrol to natural gas.
At time of writing, Duval has most recently been artist in residence as part of Peacock Visual Arts’ LOCALE project. This series of residencies sees artists enliven and unlock aspects of local urban culture, encouraging participants to see the connections between their immediate environment and matters of universal concern. During his time at Peacock, Duval scheduled evening reading groups to consider the environmental and political geography of Aberdeen, and in the interim welcomed any visitor to the gallery space, inviting them to take critical stock of what constitutes public and social space in their city and in general.
Needless to say, the myth-puncturing element of such relational and often revisionist artwork is not without its pitfalls, not least of which, as seen, is the tenor of piousness. Yet, thankfully, there is something warmly disarming common to these projects. Being aware himself of the risk of preacherliness in the process of widening factual knowledge, the delivery of the alternative information in an unpretentious, straightforward and often humorous way is a sensible and effective tactic. This generous candour succeeds in taking the beholder beyond the primary aim of balancing the case judiciously, to the meta-level on which all the projects aim to succeed – the inculcation of commitment to a sense of public duty.
To develop a rounded critical agency, informed by a public ethic, is to inoculate ourselves against politically partisan pronouncements, and is to ready ourselves for critical counteraction. In the introduction to the pamphlet which accompanied CNG Cowboys, Duval gives textual form to the question which his projects propose on this meta-level: ‘How bad does it have to get before we become accountable for the world we live in?’ In asking this, of course, he implicitly asks a lot of art, a lot of the beholder, and places his output squarely in the midst of dense and age-old debate about art as necessarily subversive criticality or affirmative bourgeois normativity.
What seems clear initially is that Duval does not share a Marcusean opinion that art should be ‘essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence’.6 Far from retreating to a rarefied culture of special objects which have their own internal narratives, Duval allows us to see aspects of the everyday which we overlook everyday and which we miss with the help of stage-managed populist decoys. Whereas Marcuse famously saw a sense of the public, and potential for collective transformational action, being inspired by the audacious forms of vanguard culture (abstract painting, blues and jazz, for example), Duval all but removes the bourgeois artefact from his exhibitions. His leitmotiv, the cheap pamphlet, tells the beholder that no bourgeois sensibility is at work to impede the transmission of the sociopolitical messages.
And to leave the viewer in no doubt about his critical credentials, the pamphlets are Benjamined, rendered multiple and democratic, all auretic power is transferred to the force of the alternative factual messages. But just when a critique like that seems to capture Duval’s chief intention, it falters when it meets the stylistic continuities in his work. There is a characteristic look to the installation and materials of his production which is not exclusively determined by either topical research or geographical contexts, and which is not present by accident. I am inclined to see this stylistic consistency, not as a commerce-orientated strategy which would make his works (and him) distinct and recognisable products in the voracious art-marketplace, but, instead, as a deliberate conceptual troubling of his ostensibly objective and public practice: for how can we contend with a seemingly superfluous overlay of the style of Steven Duval, one which is in some respects dislocated from the content of the social commentary? Such close attention to visible form normally signals trite bourgeois distraction at best, and narcissistic brand management at worst. But here, in actuality, we have an exemplary blending of the imperatives for instrumentalist art practice and for aesthetic, private recuperation – a blend which lends the work real power.
Take as illustration once again the pamphlet for Between the Lines. The inevitably dialectical consideration of the idea that one man’s terrorist might be another man’s freedom fighter, is, then, surprisingly informed by the aesthetic imprint of the creative individual – a deceptively simple point, but one which tells us that Duval’s work of judicious balance is not at the expense of the creative agent. The triad at work in One Man’s Terrorist, comprising ‘acknowledgement of local bias’, ‘context of the Other’ and ‘creative overlay’ forms the heart of most of his work, and provides an access point to overarching discourse on the aesthetic and the political – of which Duval is not unaware. Of greatest significance, one could say, more than a levelling of the playing field, Duval’s trademark triad is a call to act, and, as this paragraph suggests, the aesthetic dimension is made manifest to encourage just that. The works carry with them a charged politics which cherishes the imagination as a means by which the social might be affected, symbolically and practically.
Duval’s attention to the social and the aesthetic shares a pragmatist’s outlook as described by American philosopher Richard Rorty. Rorty, at pains to recommend that no false distinction be drawn between social and private approaches to living, sees such dichotomies as unhelpfully divisive. In the process, as we will see, and directly relevant to this discussion, Rorty seems not to recognise or acknowledge the power of visual art to speak simultaneous languages. If we could bring ourselves to accept the fact that no theory about the nature of Man or Society or Rationality, or anything else, is going to synthesize Nietzsche with Marx or Heidegger with Habermas, we could begin to think of the relation between writers on autonomy and writers on justice as being like the relation between two kinds of tools. The one tells us that we need not speak only the language of the tribe, that we may find our own words, that we have a responsibility to ourselves to find them. The other tells us that that responsibility is not the only one we have. Both are right, but there is no way to make both speak a single language.7
As Gordon Nesbitt intended with Between The Lines, a critical citizen should not automatically speak the propagandist language of the tribe, and yet, what kind of citizenry do you have if each unit speaks privatistic languages and pursues a life of self-satisfaction, one of aesthetic pleasure? Rorty implores us to see both aspects as right and not in terminal opposition, and Duval does likewise. The binarism proposed by Doubleya is intended to tribalise a country and to limit the range and potential of relevant discourse. Duval’s interventions practically redress some of that worrying partisanship by way of informative content. More significantly, for this critic at least, the aesthetic component of his output stands ultimately above that practical utility as a symbolic plea to the critical beholder to take possession of the recovery of the public domain as a private concern. They too can turn a creative hand, analogously, to the repicturing of the public sphere as a collective advantage – the social aspect need not eclipse the private interest, as is symbolised by the salient aesthetic which operates across his body of work.
Duval’s aestheticisation of the political, his deliberate superimposition of individual style over factual data, but not to the detriment of either, gives licence to the beholder to likewise encase the social in the private. The triadic practice we see in Duval’s work rings true with Rorty, for an underscoring of individual creativity whilst engaged in substantial sociopolitical inquiry, is in line with Rorty’s utopian thinking.
In my utopia, human solidarity would be seen not as a fact to be recognized by clearing away ‘prejudice’ or by burrowing down to previously hidden depths but, rather, as a goal to be achieved. It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination…Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created.8
So, balancing the case judiciously, which is to hear Butler’s publicly acceptable voice and the voice of dissent, is not enough for Duval. His
foundational agenda is not only to lay bare in the public sphere the alternative facts of the matter in hand. His praxis is one where the aesthetic is ever-present alongside, but not equivalent to, the political. The stylistic overlay is, in this analysis, not gallery window-dressing, or art-market positioning, but, rather, a watchful element which insists on the indelible creative, living agency of the individual as a necessary counterweight to tribal speech – even the alternative tribal speech of the critical left.
The stylistic continuities in Duval’s work represent, then, the imagination to which Rorty refers. The aesthetic imagination so important to Marcuse blends here with Butler’s Marxist interest in exposing the workings of political bias in the public domain. More than anything else, the aesthetic in all of Duval’s projects acts as chaperone: as long as it is present by virtue of its force of individual creativity, the ills of a cynical public domain might be treated and the errors of unimaginative tribal speech might be combated. The aesthetic chaperone and the political casestudy somehow speak simultaneously in a single voice, one which tells us that there is a liberal safety in the opening out of discourse away from fixed objective polarities to a moveable position which holds only, but not merely, that the aesthetic imagination can lobby for a public sphere which welcomes the creative desire for things to be different from what they are,constantly.
1 Between The Lines, Apexart, New York, New York, March 15th – April 12th, 2003. Group show
curated by Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt. Artists: Ross Birrell, Jakob Boeskov, Steven Duval, Gardar
Eide Einarsson & Oscar Tuazon, Regina Moller, N55, John Pilger and others.
2 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London: Verso, 2004, p.1.
3 Ibid., p. xvii.
4 Ibid., p. 2.
6 Herbert Marcuse, ‘Affirmative Culture’ in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, London:
Penguin, 1968, p. 95.
7 Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1989, p. xiv.
8 Ibid., p. xvi.