Category Archives: theory

“The Artist as…”

social intersections screen shot

In 2012, together with m’colleague Brogan Bunt, I had the pleasure of creating and teaching a new subject at UOW called “Social Intersections“:

This subject examines how creative practice can engage with social forms and processes.
The aim is to encourage conceptually informed, interdisciplinary practice that reflects upon dimensions of social space and history. Students gain a critical understanding of relevant traditions of creative practice and develop individual and collaborative projects that reconsider the relationship between art and society.

The students did some really interesting projects and we had a bunch of excellent discussions in class about this “new” form of art, which engages with social relations as a material. We had good experiences with getting the students to use blogging to track their own progress throughout the semester.

I’m in the process of archiving the class blog, and clearing the decks so that in 2013, our new batch of students can start filling it up with their work.

I figured that some of the lecture notes from the subject might be more widely useful, so I’m cross-posting them on this here blog. Below I have cut and pasted an entry I wrote under the notional title of “Modes of Engagement”, which was intended to provide a cross-section (albeit incomplete) of ways in which artists might engage with the world, by acting “as” practitioners of other (non-art) disciplines…

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How can art practice be “Research”?

If in doubt, return to blogging! Since the question posed in the title of this blog entry is unfathomable to me, and I am struggling to sort it out in my academic word documents, here I am, back online, where things don’t have to be “right”, just interesting…

Unfortunately, I fear that this question shouldn’t be unfathomable to me, by this stage. I am due to hand in my thesis on 12 June, my scholarship has run out, I’ve been on this boat for over 3 years now… I should, by rights, know WTF “art practice as research” means!

But I don’t.

I’ve always thought of art as a sort of whimsy. It’s something silly to pursue that makes people realise how silly the whole world is, so we might as well relax and not all take ourselves too seriously.

And then, fool that I am, I go and enrol in a PhD programme which proposes that art practice is not only a very serious business, it is a form of RESEARCH that stands up as an equivalent to the research produced by, say, my ole buddy Chris-o, the pharmacologist, who has done an intensive study of withdrawal symptoms of methamphetamine addicts. He will hand his thesis in about the same time as me. Mine will be about blogging as a form of art. Assuming all goes well, we will both end up with PhD degrees. How the hell can they be equivalent?

One of the frustrating things about the job my university requires of me, is that I have to submit an academic research paper. My argument (as best I can muster it) is about how blogging allows knowledge to emerge in a fragmentary, collaborative way. It’s about allowing us to see the process of doing stuff, experiencing life, and turning it over through dialogue, as a thing that is constantly emerging – not a tidy finished product.

And yet, what is the written thesis supposed to be? A watertight product with complete footnotes and all contingencies taken care of. Talk about square peg in round hole, eh?

In various chats with friends who are also trying to shoehorn their unwieldy creative projects into the format for “submission” (think about the meaning underlying that word!), I have mused on other possibilities. How great would it be, I have asked myself, if I could hand in my PhD as a series of blog entries? That way, I could merge means and ends. Method and product would utilise the same system – the thing would actually DO what it said, not just be a way of drily saying something about a process that happens somewhere else.

Here’s how it would work. Each blog entry would have to be relatively concise. Each would pose a question, or state some observations, related to the practice of blogging-as-art (the two projects presented as part of this thesis are Bilateral Kellerberrin and Bilateral Petersham). Just like an academic paper, the entries would refer also to other thinkers and artists, considering ways that others have done this stuff, and suggesting the possible benefits of doing and thinking in the way I have carried out.

But, unlike an academic paper, these entries would then be open to enquiry, suggestion and response from others (and from myself) through the comments form at the end of each blog entry. This would be a strictly ADDITIVE process. Unlike academic writing, blogging creates a sort of knowledge through querying what has been already written, and then responding to the queries, as a dialogical process. (OK, so academic writing does that too, but it’s an interminably long-winded way of doing things, publishing in refereed journals then responding in kind, takes years…).

My point is, the whole process of dialogical exchange (and knowledge production) is laid bare in the blogging format. Furthermore, these blog entries (ie “thesis chapters”) would be published one by one, as they are written. There would thus be the chance that comments and dialogue generated by an early blog entry could affect what happens in the ensuing chapters. The whole process would be emergent – and visibly so – as opposed to the standard academic model of hiding away in the study, burning the midnight oil to get this essay perfect BEFORE making it public. If the academics really required it, I could do a summing-up entry which ran through what I thought I had learned from the process.

All of which is to say, I would like to perform upon academia the same opening-out as I like to perform on the art world. In my way of doing things, art is shown to be a set of emergent processes rather than a magical product that seems to come from some mysterious other planet. Bilateral Kellerberrin and Bilateral Petersham are clear examples of this emergent-process-as-art, where interactions between me and local residents who I bump into, written up on the blog, then lead to further interactions and suggestions for future adventures. My recent goat project Gruffling is this whole method in a nutshell.

Would / could my university accept such a thesis?

The Art of Knowing

"It is by the manipulation of materials that we come to know those materials, that is, to know a part of our world, and this is also how we come to know how to do various things with materials. That is, knowledge is, paradigmatically, the skilled making that is the primordial meaning of 'art'. And of course: in this process, we also come to know various propositions, for example, those embodying procedures for the further development of skills. We come to be able to describe, say, clay, and the vessel made of clay, with a depth and an appreciation that only arises in thorough and involving experience. And this in turn ramifies into our experience of the vessel thus made, and of similar vessels: as we understand more, our experience of use is enriched. Indeed, the experience of making a vessel may lead to a cherishing of vessels and their makers, an understanding of and respect for persons and things that could not arise by other means."


p 131 – Crispin Sartwell, The Art of Living: Aesthetics of the Ordinary in World Spiritual Traditions, State University of NY Press, 1995.


The idea of art and the aesthetic as a separate realm distinguished by its freedom, imagination, and pleasure has as its underlying correlative the dismal asumption that ordinary life is one of joyless, unimaginitive coercion. This provides an excuse for the powers and institutions that structure our everyday life to be brutally indifferent to natural human needs for the pleasures of beauty and imaginitive freedom. These are not to be sought in real life, but in art, whose contrast and escape from the real gives us human sufferers temporary solace and relief. By thus compartmentalizing art and the aesthetic as something to be enjoyed when we take a break from reality, the most hideous and oppressive institutions and practices of our civilization get legitimated and more deeply entrenched as inevitably real; they are erected as necessities to which art and beauty, by the reality principle, must be subordinated. Still worse, those rigid and cruelly divisive institutional realities then further justify and glorify themselves through the high art our civilization produces in trying to transcend and escape them. Art becomes, in Dewey's mordant phrase, “the beauty parlor of civilization,” covering with an opulent aesthetic surface its ugly horrors and brutalities. These, for Dewey, include class snobbery, imperialism, and capitalism's profit-seeking oppression, social disintegration, and alienation of labor.

-from Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics, Rowman and Littlefield, Oxford, UK, 2000, p24.
(referring to John Dewey, Art as Experience, 1934)

commodification of the artist

This chunk of text comes from a book called One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, by Miwon Kwon, 2002, MIT Press, p46-7. It struck a chord with me because it seems to cut through some of the rhetoric I crap on with from time to time. I was thinking about this paragraph in terms of my project Bilateral Kellerberrin, which although not site-specific in a late 1960s sense (ie inextricably anchored to physical location), does grow out of the circumstances of the time and place in which it was planted.

Thus, as Kwon writes, "site" is not only a physical place, but also a set of conditions, social, discursive, temporal, and physical, which situate a project, make it comprehensible to its audience or participants. But the idea of Bilateral Kellerberrin is transferrable (in fact I am looking to transfer the same project to my home suburb of Petersham in Sydney, to see what will happen) – hence the following:

Generally the in situ configuration of a project that emerges out of such a situation is temporary, ostensibly unsuitable for re-presentation anywhere else without altering its meaning, partly because the commission is defined by a unique set of geographical and temporal circumstances and partly because the project is dependent on unpredictable and unprogrammable on-site relations. But such conditions, despite appearances to the contrary, do not circumvent or even complicate the problem of commodification, because there is a strange reversal now by which the artist comes to approximate the “work”, instead of the other way around as is commonly assumed (that is, art work as surrogate to the artist). Perhaps because of the absence of the artist from the physical manifestation of the work, the presence of the artist has become an absolute prerequisite for the execution/presentation of site-oriented projects. It is now the performative aspect of an artist’s characteristic mode of operation (even when working in collaboration) that is repeated and circulated as a new art commodity, with the artist him/herself functioning as the primary vehicle for its verification, repetition, and circulation.

nontheatrical performance: Kaprow

the following is taken from 'Nontheatrical Performance (1976) by Allan Kaprow, in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life

…artists themselves, […] today are so trained to accept anything as annexable to art that they have a ready-made “art-frame” in their heads that can be set down anywhere, at any time. They do not require the traditional signs, rooms, arrangements, and rites of performance because performance is an attitude about involvement on some plane in something going on. It does not have to be onstage, and it really does not have to be announced.


here is the ball game I perceive: an artist can

(1)    work within recognizable art modes and present the work in recognizable art contexts

    e.g.,    paintings in galleries
                poetry in poetry books
                music in concert halls, etc.

(2)    work in unrecognisable, ie nonart, modes but present the work in recognisable art contexts

    e.g.,    a pizza parlour in a gallery
                a telephone book sold as poetry, etc.

(3)    work in recognizable art modes but present the work in nonart contexts

    e.g.,    a “Rembrandt as an ironing board”
                a fugue in an air-conditioning duct
                a sonnet as a want ad, etc.

(4) work in nonart modes but present the work in nonart contexts

    e.g.,     perception tests in a psychology lab
                anti-erosion terracing in the hills
                typewriter repairing
                garbage collecting, etc. (with the proviso that the art world knows about it)

(5)    work in nonart modes and nonart contexts but cease the call the work art, retaining instead the private consciousness that sometimes it may be art, too

    e.g.,     systems analysis
                social work in a ghetto
                thinking, etc.


Performance in the nontheatrical sense that I am discussing hovers very close to this fifth possibility, yet the intellectual discipline it implies and the indifference to validation by the art world it requires suggest that the person enganged in it would view art less as a profession than as a metaphor. At present such performance is generally nonart activity conducted in nonart contexts but offered as quasi-art to art-minded people. That is, to those not interested in whether it is or isn’t art, who may, however, be interested for other reasons, it need not be justified as an artwork.