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un Projects

In time: emotional professionalism


Jess Johnson, <em>Of course, things go bad</em>, 2013, artist frame, pen, copic markers, metallic paint on paper, 121 × 90 cm framed, photograph: Alex Davies The following text takes as a starting point this year’s Primavera exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, being an interview with its curator, Robert Cook, made by one of the show’s participating artists, Thomas Jeppe. This may be considered as a social/emotional backstory, a counterpart to promotional exhibition rhetoric, and a gesture towards coherent expression of the excitement, the ambivalence, the mute incendiary attitudes and the anxious vulnerability that form the ‘other side’ of institutional engagement.1 This line of enquiry is housed under a questioning of temporality: the twin pressures of the survey and the moment. The discussion took place on the day before vernissage.


TJ : You’ve described your Primavera as a pictures show, which raises the spectre of anachronism. In this respect, this exhibition is emphatically not about capturing a zeitgeist, in terms of its imperative. RC : But I can imagine that that’s what people want out of a Primavera—to be shown: this is the zeitgeist, this is where things are at. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in finding complexity, and showing that the field is far more heterogeneous than it might seem. And maybe I don’t know what the zeitgeist is. Certainly I’ve approached this with a Modernist, highly reductive methodology; entering the white cube, treating it like a page, and composing the show as if I were making a magazine. Through this process, elements can be reduced to paragraphs that are, in the planning phase, not about the content, but about how the paragraphs sit on the page. From that point, meaning then starts to re-emerge in a radically un-didactic way. Here the Heideggerian notion of clearing comes into play; clearing the space for Being to present itself. And Being is about a radical uniqueness that is not simply ‘the new’. TJ : When we consider Primavera as a recurring annual show, always a group of artists, under 35, with active practices in a variety of media, it takes on a survey objective. This is a necessarily contemporary idea. To fulfil that, and to still manage to feel ‘out of time’—like a break or a disjunction from the expected—is actually quite difficult to achieve. If indeed one could consider it an achievement.


RC : I’ve always operated with a certain amount of consciously guarded naiveté. Like: what do I really think about the work? It’s not about what I think I should think, it’s not about the stuff I’ve read, but how am I actually approaching it; what are my actual thoughts about it? It’s about going back to first principles. To capture something that’s not filtered through art world expectations, so I can have my genuine relationship with artworks. TJ : There seems to be a connection between naiveté and anachronism. And the idea of non-didactic presentation sits between the two. In our past discussions, you’ve emphasised your own naiveté around some of the work. But naiveté cannot be cultivated, it can only be maintained. And it can only be maintained by a quite active denial of information. So perhaps we can’t talk about naiveté here, because it could be conflated with a lack of intelligence or an ambivalence of engagement, and I think neither of those things are part of this show. RC : Well that may be the case. But I feel I can form an engaged relationship with naiveté, though obviously I can’t claim total naiveté. I think I’m ‘quasi-more aware’ of these outside factors, like audience reception, than I let on. I don’t want to be totally oblivious. But I don’t want to give in to it, to take a position because of it. And it’s not a brave thing, it’s just a real thing for me, a genuine thing, and you can see here an existential impulse. So we go back to authenticity. Back to Heidegger for me, and Sartre, Camus. TJ : So anachronism comes in a return to existentialism, in a return to the authentic credible engagement with the artwork. This is something that is so ripe for critique. RC : Sure. But that’s fine. I don’t know what you get by creating an allegiance to whoever’s most interesting at the moment. Since I’ve been doing this, many phases of art theory have come and gone. When I started my PhD, my supervisor said ‘I’ve seen this before, this is passing. Poststructuralism, as we embrace this in the mid-90s, it’s passing, I’ve seen this before. Marxism, semiotics, structuralism…’ I absolutely did not believe him. I thought: No. This is the answer. This is where things are at. This makes sense of the world. And it passed. I was very serious about poststructuralism when I did my study. It was everything to me, and it was of the moment; it was engaged, it was political in the right way, textual in the right way. And living through that, working through that, it started to feel like I needed to move beyond that. Of course, our relationship with poststructuralism in Australia was 30 years out of date. At least. It was reliant on thinkers who actually weren’t very interested in putting forward a specific set of theories that could be followed through. Yet we took them in that way, we used their theories to explain our situation. And having pushed through that, having written through that, it dawned on me in a very real sense that it’s actually massively stultifying of real thought and engagement. Everything I’ve done since has been a way of not letting that happen again. Not shutting down doors, and not fixating on a zeitgeist. Which might make my work anachronistic. But the foundation of this position is the existentialism that fed, by way of reaction, the poststructuralism movement. I believe Roland Barthes used to read Sartre before he wrote, to get into the zone to write. So always, improbably, the least existential of the philosophers of that period, he’s coming from Sartre. And then weirdly his continual claims for micro freedoms makes him the most. I’m with Roland. Anyway, the zeitgeist happens through people talking, and looking at each other. That’s not enough for me to respond to: there’s something for me that needs to go inwards, and carve out a particular space for myself. Which is again, ridiculous, right? It’s Heidegger, the thin margin of freedom. We live in a world in which we are thrown, everything makes sense to us because of what is around us, and freedom can only be found by breaking that, finding a little space outside the network. And now doing a show like Primavera, which is the network—the idea is to create a space for freedom inside that.

Jess Johnson, <em>Every1 and Everything on my back</em>, 2013, installation view, Primavera 2013, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, photograph: Alex Davies


TJ : Being mindful to sidestep sentimentality, tell me about how emotion comes into this. Because I think it is something of a cornerstone. RC : I was planning an essay about this show called ‘The Exhibition as Catharsis’. This is why I’m a bad curator on a few levels, I am a free-association curator and a feeling curator. I’m not a didactic curator. I made a show that I felt. It’s not about controlling or directing, it’s about being in it, this immersive thing. So, in terms of emotions, it’s happening on every level. And I’m probably really strange, but that’s my thing. During install I was in the space almost the whole time, just kind of responding during the entire install period. It felt necessary even though practically it adds no value. But it speaks to this idea that the show comes from within. TJ : So emotions are driving a lot of your decisions, and you say that your approach is probably strange for this reason. Do you think that this is an unusual quality—being open or susceptible to emotion, and using it? RC : I like the idea of susceptibility. When Dave Hickey talked about his gallery, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, that was his thing. He wanted to create a space to engage works on their own level, in a very genuine way, that was about absolute deep involvement and interest in the works for what they were as objects and how they came out of a particular maker. But in terms of using emotion—it’s my point of connection. Others get at things from a different place. As an example, Glenn Barkley is pretty much my favourite curator in this country. What he does is slow you down and make you think again about things in the world. Glenn’s Octopus show at Gertrude Contemporary—it’s got five works in it or something. I guess the Octopus shows could be seen to have the same ‘survey imperative’ as Primavera, yet I feel that he wasn’t remotely trying to construct a show that made a statement about the moment. Again, Heidegger: Glenn’s show opens a clearing for complexity to emerge. So, I believe all good curators are working in that realm of susceptibility, whether they fall around emotion or interpretation. TJ : One important thing to identify, with the prevalence of emotion as a catalyst, is that the subsequent building of the show is not cold. There’s a real warmth to it; a personal attachment preceding the composition of the exhibition, the bringing together of people. I don’t know if this warmth can be read by anybody entering the space, but as soon as your writing about the show comes into play, this connectedness frames the entire operation. This is also important to consider against your background in poststructural theory. Placed alongside this, your writing is actually quite iconoclastic. RC : Warmth, yes. It’s actually really important. We’re spending a year talking with each other, having conversations. There’s got to be warmth or there’s just no point. And with this poststructural thing, I’ve gone through my Valley Girl poststructuralism phase. TJ : Can you clarify that? RC : Well, it’s kind of using poststructuralism in an incredibly light way to create a series of chatty engagements with things. I went through that phase on the way to finding a more authentic voice. It was important to play the flibbertigibbet, but it was a character. I was writing my experience, but when I look back on it now, I can see I was over-reacting to the earnestness of the poststructural stuff I was reading then. But the writing does frame the show; that’s where my so-called voice comes in. And it seems like, yes, there’s a whole bunch of stuff about relational exchanges but every exhibition is a relational exhibition, with certain networks and dialogues, connections, misunderstandings, and that’s what it is, it’s complex. TJ : So do you think that’s inescapable for a contemporary show? RC : For any show. No matter what you do. TJ : In the catalogue you described my work as ‘anti-relational aesthetic’. RC : Which is the greatest thing! I feel that relational aesthetics is probably the most ridiculous art movement ever. ‘We’re going to construct this thing, we’re going to do it in a roundabout, we’re going to observe how people move’. It just doesn’t matter. Tolstoy wrote about stuff. His subject was relational aesthetics. Don’t make a movement and take the least interesting part of it and make it seem radical, because it’s absolutely not. But to construct something that relates to a space, that frames the space, in such a blunt way as you did seems to be radically anti-relational aesthetics. It’s like site-specificity as an inflexible dogma. This is probably where my anachronism becomes ‘of the now’. It’s ‘neo’. TJ : Neo-anachronism.


RC : But in terms of self-reflexive critique and how you mobilise it, it relates to the comedic, as a thing: I feel that comedy is perhaps the highest of the art forms, or the highest part of art forms. Because you need to buy into the thing that you’re mocking, but you need to resist it. It’s that tense dynamic between the two things. You can’t have comedy unless there’s tension to release. That’s Freud’s thing, that the joke only works where there is a taboo. Because it’s a taboo, it’s actually emotional, something we strongly feel. And then you’re like gasp—you’re releasing it. So comedy is actually a series of catch and release points. TJ : So comedy resonates through the way you work. Is there a comic aspect to our show? RC : There’s not a comic aspect, in the sense of a joke at the superficial level, but there’s a comedic aspect. And the comedic aspect is: yes there is a structure, what do I think about the structure, or, how am I entering this and refusing it at the same time. For this discussion, we’ve been referring to that point of disjunction as anachronism. The term anachronism could be exchanged for comedy, and we’d have had the same discussion, because the structure is the same. Without comedy, culture is irrelevant. As a vehicle for pathos, it’s amazing. And maybe that’s what this whittles down to. Comedy as a vehicle for pathos, anachronism as a vehicle for pathos. I wonder whether anybody else sees this. Part of me, I don’t care. I’m going to do this thing, it makes sense to us. Does it translate? I don’t know. TJ : Which is massively unprofessional. But of course, pragmatically, the show has been fundamentally professional. So in this, there’s already such tension from the outset, in what you’re doing.


RC : In terms of the professional/unprofessional thing, there’s a way of seeing professionalism as ‘buying into the system’. TJ : It occurs to me that professionalism and the emotional are incommensurable. RC : They probably are, on a superficial but very real level, and I think that’s been my struggle. I probably need that struggle to produce stuff. How do I have this life, and this professional thing, and be a basket case? How does this work? TJ : But the fact of the matter is that professionalism is constructed. The emotional is not. It may be a response to constructions, but it’s ultimately a felt thing. RC : I guess. But emotion can only respond to restriction. They’re dependent. TJ : In this equation, professionalism is pure restriction. RC : Yeah. Which could also be great. I’ve been saying I don’t want to be that, but one could really embrace that, and allow the thrill of being subject to that. To profoundly feel the restriction, to delve into it and to be the great professional. That would be thrilling, if you understood it as an erotics of professionalism. TJ : I feel no uncertain joy in jumping into restriction. Trying to produce work in a way that lives up to an outside idea of perfection, a certain quality of hand production, a certain expectation of professionalism. Which is never more constructed than in the art world. RC : It’s discretionary professionalism! TJ : Exactly, it’s self-imposed. But happily. Embrace the shackles. RC : I was recently reading the Fantastic Man book about buttoning the top button up, which is simply an extension of Skinhead and mod culture. It was a way of accepting the restrictions and shoving them back in the face of the class above you. You dress sharper, harder, more precisely than your bosses. You spend more on your suits. It’s a way of giving yourself space and freedom within the restrictions of your culture. Back to the white cube. It’s a square in the big city. High profile place. It’s hard containment. And maybe pushing it, giving into it, allowing the hard containment to be, is the most interesting kind of force. To be skinheads. In the most rigorous and precise and interesting sense. Comedic, emotional, tense, released, anachronistic. Grandly concerned with narrative aesthetic fields, Robert Cook is developing the vernacular journalism of the abstract present. Concerned with grand narrative and vernacular aesthetics, Thomas Jeppe is presently developing the field of Abstract Journalism. [^1]: Thomas, as you know I love the aesthetics of this interview, and, of course, the aesthetics (we take this broadly, critically) of our relationship. And this aesthetic is built on a divergence, between—as you pointed out today—how we speak/write. You are a fan of the emphatic, the direct. I am a fan of the obfuscative, the tentative, the backing-away. A symptom of this is that, when I read this interview, I am always saying to myself ‘yes, but…’, ‘yes, and…’. I guess, I want that on record, that my words seem ‘clear’, that I ‘approved’ them, yet at the same time, do I stand by them? Well, yes, but… Yes, and… They seem like the tip of an iceberg of revision and explanation and more explanation. Also, am I seeking freedom from my words, even? Yes, emphatically. Now, I also love the taut clarity of this intro. It does, however, make me nervous, in particular your use of the phrase ‘the “other side” of institutional engagement’. It’s a lovely line, but here is how I want it interpreted, for myself, myself only maybe. To me, it is not about institutional critique. It is about how my subjectivity comes into being/expresses itself in a set of situations around exhibition making in general, and in particular. These are the tensions of which I speak. I know that’s (partially) what you meant, but my anxiety (of which you have tattooed around the physical evidence of) compels me to make this ‘over clear’. But more than this, and it will embarrass you, though you have felt it too, this show was simply the most beautiful professional and personal experience. It sounds trite but our relationship with our hosts was truly exquisite. So, on that note, how I end this is very clearly about my own subjectivity in relation to a space and how I push at that, how it pushes at me. Okay, thanks Thomas. With love always, Robert.