From top left, clockwise: Not Too Critical reading group (Sandbar), The Art History Project on preview night (Grosvenor, G20), HOIC on preview night (Holden Gallery) and detail.
“A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible. Its laws and rules are not, however, harboured in the inaccessibility of a secret; it is simply that they can never be booked, in the present, into anything that could rigorously be called a perception.“
– Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Dissemination, 1972: 63
“Recently we have seen the rise of a new group of people who have studied art history but have resisted or found no place within the standard systems of curating. This new “non-group” has not been completely identified, manipulated, or instrumentalised by the dominant culture, yet … They have studied art history but do not all want to be curators—or traditional critics, either.”
– Liam Gillick, Maybe it would be better if we worked in groups of three?, 2008
The art works were installed, the visitors visited, the students conversed with the visitors about the art works – but nothing was complete. Everything was deferred: the grades, the visual interpretations, the reviews and the subsequent professional realisations. The degree show is a space for displaying art students’ journeys and their associated creations for the engagement of a familiar or critical public, yet the potential of this engagement is infinite. A visitor to the art history project part of the show just asked: ‘can art history address artworks which are contemporary or which focus on development rather than product?’ One Art History student, one Interactive Arts student and myself – an Art History lecturer – were there to answer, if only to say, like a cliché, that that there is no answer. Perhaps there once was, before art history became ‘new’ or radicalised, before the time when Modernism imploded and before Marxist, Feminist, post-modernist, post-structuralist and post-colonialist discourses questioned the discourse itself. Art history used to look at art that had been produced during a historical era that was named the Renaissance; next, it looked at art of the 20thC so-called avant-garde as if all other artworks created which lie outside of these periods and these locations cannot in fact be defined as rebirths or as ahead of their time. Even the nomenclature associated with these art histories is (ancient) European in origin. We seem to like origins, teleologies of words – but language evolves – as do social practices; it is part of human creativity.
The problem of category, it seems, has not been left behind with semiotics or French theorists such as Derrida (to whose concept of différence I am partially referring here) because even if we think these questions are dead, they are alive as actions; students are asking them as we write. The Manchester Metropolitan University degree show showcased artworks by students from a wide range of categorised art disciplines and some of its participants engage with questions of category and discipline within their practices. Darren Murphy – an Interactive Arts student who has recently been selected for the Castlefield Gallery exhibition Launchpad prize – raises these issues in his ‘artwork’, called HOIC: Hours of Idle Conversation. During the degree show he has been ‘having conversations’ with visitors about the nature of art practice and prior to this he organised and recorded a critically engaged reading group called Not Too Critical (which is where we came together to discuss the nature of discussion). Up the corridor from Darren’s HOIC installation, is a project / exhibition designed and run by two second year Contemporary Art History students – Naomi Cull and Leanne Findlay – which also seeks to question categories in art, using interviews from past/present art history tutors at the art school and scans of archived objects. The main questions arising from the Art History Project are – ‘what is research?,’ ‘what is a researcher?’ and ‘how do we know when research is finished?’ Meanwhile Darren’s HOIC and Not Too Critical conversations have asked questions such as ‘what is an artist?’ and ‘is art ever finished?’
The three students found each other amongst the multiversity of degree show artworks and found themselves asking each other questions about each other’s disciplines; are art historians and artists equally ‘practitioners?’, ‘are they equally creative or interactive?’ ‘where does theory end and practice begin?’ or ‘what is the difference between art and text?’ Teaming together, the three students have been holding open ‘In Question’ sessions throughout the degree show, engaging Art History staff, friends and other visitors to the event. From a lecturer’s perspective, these questions are interesting because whatever art history is – either as a concept or as a course of study – it is something which changes. It changes and art changes but do they change together (and are they together)?
The definition of Art is in disarray. Perhaps, we can point the finger at Duchamp, or, like Beccy Kennedy suggests alongside me, we can place the blame with the rise of not one person but a series of movements, an ‘advancement’ in the ways of seeing that has altered, perhaps detrimentally, how we see Art. One text in particular jumps to mind, Alan Kaprow’s Art Which Can’t Be Art; a reflection on brushing one’s teeth, is the act the art, the written word (the experience?) or is it in the idea? This then leads me to remember Hans Ulrich Obrist’s introduction to Dorothea von Hantelmann’s How to Do Things with Art: The Meaning of Art’s Performativity, in which he asks how any art can be anything but performative, annulling an attempt to define a certain ‘type’ of art and allowing the word to apply across all mediums.
It seems that Gillick is having difficulty in placing this “new group of people who have studied art history” under an umbrella, unable to give them a title. But, he’s not alone. For those who refer to me as an artist, my practice prompted a question, ‘Why are you an artist, and they not?’ The ‘they’, Naomi Cull and Leanne Findlay, both second year students of Contemporary Art History, recently presented their Art History Project as part of the Manchester School of Art degree show. Naomi & Leanne both explore and discuss dialogue and communication as research, asking those questions mentioned by Beccy. Whereas my work exists to prompt something similar, I ask with HOIC, ‘What is the potential of the discursive framework?’ but in its very nature it has continually prompted questions about art and art practice, conversation and discussions (seem to) naturally boil down to a pursuit of a shared understanding of terms.
However, a question such as ‘Why are you an artist, and they not?’ assumes that ‘they’ do not see themselves as artists. Which is true, Leanne is clear that she is not, as is Naomi, but neither are definite about their title as Art Historian, either. Assimilating with these people who have studied/are studying Art History, Naomi and Leanne are unsure of their own titles, just like I am, although I am happy to accept the title of an artist when it is given to me as I utilise such practice, context and experience of art in my work.
The three of us recently worked together to explore and develop a discussion format, whereby two interlocutors are bound by the rule that they could only ask questions. This format prompted a questioning of research and responsibility to research; it also put our respective courses of study head to head – the study of Art Practice and the study of Art History – ‘is an artist’s research more valid than an Art Historian’s?’ and ‘is there a difference between art and research?’ seemed to resonate deepest with those in attendance.
Another question asked more recently by a visitor to the Art History Project was how Art History could account for ephemeral, experiential art such as Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, which relies upon the participant to generate their experience of the work. It seemed this question allowed Naomi, Beccy and myself to reach a conclusion, rather than a prompt for more questions, that perhaps there is no answer to that question – or, maybe in that instant Art and Art History is the same thing?
Art History Project by night (exterior, Grosvenor building), ‘In Question’ flyer, HOIC flyer, Installation view of Marina Abramovic’s performance “The Artist Is Present” at The Museum of Modern Art, 2010. Photo by Scott Rudd. Â © 2010 Marina Abramovic. Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery/Artists Rights Society (ARS).