Retooled

“Activator” at Bates College Museum of Art
By CHRIS THOMPSON  |  February 2, 2006

DIZZYING "Vertigo" by Nicola López.1926. My most important work as an artist begins: the creation of exhibitions.
— El Lissitzky

Apologies in advance to those hoping to read descriptions of artworks.

What follows is a response to the provocation posed by the Bates College Museum of Art’s current show “Activator,” a tightly organized exhibition of six installations by seven young artists (N.B. Aldrich & Zach Poff, Astrid Bowlby, Amy Stacey Curtis, Eric Hongisto, Nicola López, and Jason Rogenes). Curator Liz Kelton Sheehan frames the work and its interactions as a contemporary intervention in a historical trajectory that begins with the interactive installation practices of El Lissitzky and the Russian avant-garde in the ’20s, and moves through the generation of artists involved with the production of “Happenings” in the late ’50s and ’60s.

In her recent article exploring the vagueness of the notion of “installation” as a category for describing contemporary artistic practice, critic Claire Bishop notes that despite uncertainty about what counts as installation, there are key points of overlap between the artists who consider themselves part of the “installation tradition.” These overlaps are blends of aesthetic and moral objectives, “values [that] concern a desire to activate the viewer — as opposed to the passivity of mass-media consumption — and to induce a critical vigilance towards the environments in which we find ourselves.”

Now that the authoritative pronouncements of the Greenbergian generation of criticism have been outlawed, pooh-poohed into the dustbin of history, one is discouraged from speaking of “good” and “bad” art and certainly warned away from making claims on behalf of “the best” of anything, other adjectives have come to take their place. To provoke, to heighten awareness, to challenge, to be interesting — these are today’s values.

“When the experience of going into a museum increasingly rivals that of walking into restaurants, shops, or clubs,” says Bishop, “works of art may no longer need to take the form of immersive, interactive experiences. Rather, the best installation art is marked by a sense of antagonism towards its environment, a friction with its context that resists organizational pressure and instead exerts its own terms of engagement.”

That Bishop is willing to make this claim for the “best installation art,” apart from being a credit to her conviction, also suggests something more historically interesting: the prospect that critical authority is staging its comeback.

In The Theory-Death of the Avant-garde, Paul Mann suggests that the avant-garde has always been the vehicle for the production of discourse, one that habitually takes the form of theories that pronounce the avant-garde’s death, and thereby give the avant-garde and the discourse machine alike the nourishment upon which to live.

In characterizing this pattern that constitutes the life and death of the avant-garde, Mann traces three overlapping stages that extend from 1945 to the present. The first consists of what he calls the “Consolidation and recuperation of the mode of anti-art,” when attacks on the institution of art become institutionalized and legitimated. The second stage he calls “supersaturation,” the moment when it becomes clear that any avant-garde gesture can and inevitably will be recuperated.

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