If you recall, when Jennifer Allen wrote the article ‘Divine Disorder’, she reminded us of Kant’s distinction between the beautiful and the agreeable, between beautiful decoration and agreeable use and thus between art and design.1 As such, for a long time, perhaps there has been an uneasy divide between the two
- between what we have considered to be design and that which is art. Having said that, we all know, as Allen does, that this distinction was not always the case — that these sometimes hierarchical separations and classifications, explicit in twentienth-century manifestos, are drawn for a multiplicity of intentions and reasons
- capital, cultural, personal and material, technological and also in response to the desires of institutions and states. Groys talks about this best in his article ‘The Obligation to Self-Design’ in reference to the Russian Constructivists, where it was assumed art should rather be placed entirely at the service of the design of utilitarian objects, making Constructivism a total project where it wanted to design life as a whole.2
To be honest, the approach taken in devising a thematic approach to this edition of un Magazine came from seeing one work and thinking about it in context to the Impossible Objects exhibitions curated by Helen Hughes and Melissa Loughan at Utopian Slumps, and works exhibited during the two-year Y3K project led by Christopher L.G. Hill and James Deutsher. In 2011, Berlin-based Vassiliea Stylianidou exhibited a work at the VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery titled PlaceLineLack in the exhibition Future Possible. The work, originally exhibited in 2007, consisted of a concrete-rendered model of an unfinished house and a video that documented a family dinner. In the context of the global financial crisis and, in particular, the austerity measures that many European countries were facing at the time, especially Greece, Stylianidou’s representation of a half-finished house presented as relic from the passing of Modernism’s utopic future, stood in stark contrast to Deutsher’s cast feet wearing £300+ Maison Martin Margiela Trainers in the exhibition ...beauty is something you have never seen before, but have always wanted to see at Kalimanrawlins later that same year. Was I looking at Groys’ design in a political context — the presentation of individuals as both artist and as self-produced works of art in re-organised social space?^3
You and I have spent a while talking, wrongly or rightly, about the existence of an artdesign undercurrent that seemingly pervades. We imagined presenting our discussion in a form that echoed philosophical-texts-cum-manifesto in form: five numeric (but unordered) titled dot points — Phenomenology of the hyper modern, Use Value/Art Value, Luxury Goods, Arranging, and the Social Life of Objects — but my inability to speak through a kind of ‘historical knowing’ prevented an attempt at that task. un Magazine issue 6. pitched a question about our relationship with design and art; the responses received complicate the question and also answer in a way that is both more and less. The relevance of the question is hopefully curious in the context of a ‘two-speed economy’ framed by political torpidity — once alert and alarmed, perhaps now subsidised and safe?
We continue to question our aesthetic relationship and responsibility to politics and space regardless of what may be an, albeit assumed safe-distance. At one stage, we tried to represent what we saw as the complexity of ar(e)tdesign in a type of looped equation — conceptual art > service / experience < conceptual art. Although perhaps still wrong, I wonder if it is the closest in articulating a present. You are aware of Masato Takasaka’s anti-aesthetic aesthetic (re)arrangements and planned used-but-packaged networks, towers and chaotic flat-packed venn(zen)-diagrams, which are both personified and commodity-fetishised, as well as art historical and design-present.4 And Ash Kilmartin’s spatial and rhetorical gifts — painted floors that both clean, memorialise and ghost the spaces within which they exist, her invitation to us is through a gesture of material experience that puns, plays and nods to the realities and contradictions of (economic) life via titles such as stop work 2010. Kilmartin’s The Travelling Mime II 2011 made of harlequined leather and silk, takes its cue from the designed-by-necessity altered blankets used by recent European migrants and refugees peddling cheap tourist mementos at sites of significance. In May, Greatest Hits’ exhibition De Facto Standard at West Space gestured to our inability (or need) to coherently articulate our shared experience with objects and immediacy — a fake but flung printed piece of pickle, buy-two-get-one free (so three) _Avatar _DVDs and a sleek and stainless-steel cylindrical object dispensing eau de Macbook Air. By commissioning scent maker Air Aroma to distill a fragrance reminiscent of newly opened Macbook Air packaging, and exhibiting the scent alongside other constructions of frivolity and fun (the pickle), and James Cameron’s multi-million dollar ode to saving the world, Greatest Hits might have quietly placed us in the awkward and shifting spaces between ideal-desire and ideal-ethics.
I guess for me, our complex relationship with artdesign is informed by tacit experience and knowledge, and, in a way, the collapsing of categories as a way of exploring the always-ongoing social, personal and political transformation of aesthetic and material value in relation to our environment.
All my best,
Thank you for the thoughful letter, which prompted me to look again at Allen’s article. I did something of a double take when re-reading it. In her suggestion that every designer since Kant ‘has tried to put the parts back together again’, I thought, for a second, that Allen may have overlooked an important historical moment, namely Viennese architect Adolf Loos’ equation of ornament with crime.5 As you know, Loos fervently called for the abolition of ornament from modern design, an argument that apparently demanded a thoroughgoing divorce of beautiful decoration from agreeable use, i.e., precisely not their reunification. But this is not the whole story.
Loos’ thesis is an aesthetic argument with an ethical foundation: he decries the extra (unnecessary) labour involved in the production of ornamentation, a labour that is doubly wasted because ornamented goods go out of fashion in a way that an austere modernism ostensibly does not. Thinking back to Deutsher’s exhibition at Kalimanrawlins, I’m sure Loos would have liked the work of the Maison Martin Margiela very much, particularly the earlier stuff. This comparison is revealing: just as Margiela ennobled found and everyday garments, Loos’s argument is, at base, a redefinition of beauty, but one that champions austerity over decoration. In this way, Loos did indeed try to ‘put the parts back together again’ — it’s simply the case that one of those parts, beauty, looked different in his formulation.
From Austria to Russia, this essentialist aesthetic found expression also in Constructivism, but the latter presented an added political task, namely the education of the populace in the appreciation of the industrial products of the socialist state. There is an approximate process at work in Takasaka’s use of found objects as material, and in Greatest Hits’ eau d’Air. Such anti-aesthetic practices sensitise us to the aesthetic qualities of the everyday. Arranging, re-use and the relocation of materials and meanings figure strongly in these examples; in this way, they draw out those social relations between things that Karl Marx recognised, but to which he never duly attended.6 The works of Takasaka and Greatest Hits are acts of making something from something else, shifts in and of value. Already in Marx we find the recognition that every act of production is also an act of consumption, and vice versa,7 but it was the Duchampian ready-made which revealed to us that this productive potential of consumption is true not only in a material analysis, but also in a cultural one. And Bourriard’s figure of the artist as DJ — as a user of pre-existing forms — reminded us of this in contemporary terms, in case we’d forgotten.8 Yet, as Groys tells us elsewhere, the end of aesthetic trajectory in art, of which the anti-aesthetic is but a moment, is its own obsolescence.9 For example, this trajectory meets its hypothetical end when the Soviet socialist populace recognizes the beauty in the otherwise inaesthetic products of its collective labour. In Constructivism, however, art adopts the form of design for the state for another reason, namely its own survival: the quest for the new that finds a profound expression in modernist art elsewhere has no place in a political environment that is prefaced upon the end of history. Like the Constructivists, Christopher L.G. Hill sought to erase himself in Problem Poem 2012, his recent exhibition at Conical. Yet, it is ultimately not self-erasure but rather the kernel of critique that is more significant here: the practices we’ve been talking about do not face a political climate so inimical as Soviet socialism, but the example of Constructivism helps us to recognise an important tendency, namely a drive to interrogation that, however subtle, distinguishes these practices from anti-aesthetic aestheticism alone.
With regard to the matter of critique, Loos again rears his head, for we might understand his diatribe against ornamentation as a call for design against design. Whilst the thrust of Loos’s polemic properly belongs to a very particular historical moment, design against design is alive and well today — as is design against design against design, for that matter, in residual postmodernisms. Of course, we also find art that is against design, as well as art that is for design. In fact, we find art that is either for or against (or both) design that is against design — I’m being deliberately obfuscatory here, but perhaps only such an oblique proposition can sum up the complexity of the practices we’ve been looking at and talking about. In other words, we can say that we can say a lot about objects, but also not very much at all. You’ll recall that Ian Bogost’s recent Alien Phenomenology attracted our attention promptly upon its publication:10 in sum, taking a cue from Bogost’s object-oriented ontology, which would place objects and humans on the same plane of philosophical analysis, we should perhaps be concerned less with what we can say with certainty about objects, and more with what they might be saying about us.