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Time for change
Theoretical and critical reflection and exchange are fundamental strengths of New Media Art practice, and our tradition of festivals and symposia is part of that. But it is time to push beyond conventional formats and academic conventions for discussing our work. It is time to put aside polite camaraderie and pursue more critical forms of debate that will make constructive contributions to strengthening our practices and discourses.
Our field is all about hacking, deconstructing and reformatting existing formats, but it seems as if the classic Symposium format has come to be unchallenged .It is time to apply these principles to reinvent an appropriate form for discourse. It seems to have become a black box instrument or software that we do not dare meddle with. We hereby invite all curators, festival organizers to consider our proposal for a Juxtaposium.
Our main goal with this letter is to emerge from the contemporary situation where artists are expected to be their own mirror and critics are not sufficiently critical. We could all gain so much from honestly looking each other in the eye and encountering each other on each other’s terms in a way that is both generous and critical. Instead of the artist giving the standard talk about his/her own work, we need to talk about each other’s work, sharing and developing our perspectives as artists on our colleagues’ practices. Instead of the critic discussing his/her own theories illustrated by artworks, we need to perform close readings of specific artworks and self-consciously reflect on our motivations and evaluative criteria.
Proposal for Juxtaposium:
Several artists/theorists are invited as usual. But instead of speaking about their own work, they present about each other’s work. Artists speak about other artists and their work. Theorists foreground specific works of art, perform close readings of historic or critical literature in the field, and/or reflect on the more subjective aspects of their practice. (or cross-disciplinary (many artists also theorize) Artist-theorist teams could attempt hybrid forms of critical analysis and presentation. The point is to put the work in a new perspective, and in new contexts. These new interpretations should not be to illustrate their own work but rather to expand discourse. They can be critical, contextual or radically poetic. It will be surprising and fun, unsettling and enlightening, tragic and fertile. We will grow from each other and nobody will fall asleep.
Suggestions and thoughts:
-There is no such thing as misinterpretation.
-That the work be attended to as an object distinct from who had made it, may permit us to free the interpretation of the work from the biography of the artist. This format will provide new access to the work for the audience, as each juxtaposium interlocutor creates a new intermediate space between work, reflection and reception.
-Juxtaposium will temporarily free the work from its maker and the maker from his/her work.
-No repetition of talks: All presentations will be newly developed.
As artists, we prefer to do our work, exhibit it and publish it, rather than define it ourselves, thereby choking off the space for other new and fertile interpretations. We would like to contribute to the development of our field by publicly discussing the work of our peers. Our interpretation of our peers’ work may also generate new insights into our own. Our artistic inspiration is drained by having to repeatedly lecture about our own work, repeating our own interpretation of our own work again and again at symposium after presentation after lecture after workshop. We think our work and the artistic field will only stagnate if we stick to this self-referential format.
As theorists, repeatedly lecturing about our own work is a fundamental part of our practice and the feedback we get from this is integral to our growth as scholars. But all too often we become so immersed in discursive arguments that works of art become secondary. Through acts of interpretation, we can identify artworks as primary conceptual sources, giving credit to artists as important theorists, rather than citing the same ‘usual suspects’ that dominate critical literature.
What is the equivalent of ‘artistic inspiration’ for theorists? Why do we do what we do? What is our process? How do we choose and apply our tools? Theoretical practice is no less subjective than artistic practice, but rarely do we reflect – at least in public – on the personal sources and motivations that inspire our work, and how they have evolved during the course of our careers. Could we speak about our work in a way that is closer to an artist’s talk? What would we learn about our practice if we talked about our work as a personal journey rather than presenting a specific, coherent argument?
Finally, we need a new, more challenging role for the moderator. Is there too much (or too little) pressure on them in the current format? Is there too much respect for the artists and theorists? We are surprised by their reticence and anxiously waiting for them to challenge us with critical questions and unexpected interpretations.
Curators, festival and symposia organizers, please use this letter as a starting point to help us develop together a new symposium format. Use our desire to speak about each other’s work and make it fuel the first “Juxtaposium”.
Esther Polak and Ivar van Bekkum