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Comments of the alt.SPACE network of artist research groups

alt.SPACE is a network of artist research groups that describes itself as self-organised, international, transdisciplinary, transparent, non-exclusive. alt.SPACE works through various media such as forums, chat rooms, mailing lists, face-to-face meetings and conferences, skype conferences, joint walks etc.

alt.SPACE states:

"It is our shared belief that in a time that stands witness to the increasing entrenchment and subsumption of research and criticality into the manufacturing processes of global, profit-driven corporate industries, self-organization and the non-totalizing, informal networking of micro-practices offer a site of resistance and dissent."

alt.SPACE activities are broken down on the page 'about' (to which one cannot link directly—navigate by menu via the home page) into four areas:

  1. Dialogical Processes
  2. Process-based and collective learning
  3. Complex spatial-textures
  4. Nomadism and peripatetics

First of all, I should state that I am generally sympathetic to the aims of the network (I have established contacts to some of the members)—I share the interest in establishing forms of collaborative working, learning through producing, and productive exchange even though I have never found this an easy task. This text shall simply try to explain to myself (and anyone who cares) the feeling of unease that I have when reading through the descriptions on the network's web site. I aim to add to these comments as I progress with reading. I believe my position of critique is half inside (by choice and personal inclination), half outside (due to the fact that I am not currently involved, probably a decade or more older than the average, and formed by another set of influences / authors).

Since the individual pages in the alt.SPACE site have no unique URL and therefore cannot be linked directly, I include some longer quotes. I recommend readers browse the site in addition. The sub-headings below indicate the path to the sections I will be referring to.

About > Dialogical Processes

"alt.SPACE is an environment for testing the prehensive capacity of ideas, of various kinds of productions. Our ideas, objects, texts, performances, gestures have limbs: arms, legs, tails, which allow them to grab and to be grabbed. This prehensive capacity is synonymous with their life (a jungle existence - more or less brief). In this sense they exist dialogically and in an immanent, non-dialectical relation to one another."

My online dictionary suggests 'prehensile'—fit for grabbing— instead of prehensive but this root may hint at 'comprehensive' or 'apprehensive'. That they allow to be grabbed they have demonstrated by making me write these comments though I myself would like to grab more precisely by being able to link to the page. The jungle surely is a place also to eat and be eaten, not just grab and be grabbed?

What is interesting is the turn against a dialectical relation. I have never understood the fissure between dialogical and dialectical—may be it reflects the fear that the dialectical operates by managing contradictions in a fashion too violent for the emergence of certain ideas.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to fathom the 'immanence' of a dialogue. In a sense, such immancence is constituted only on the level of an externally witnessed (and possibly recorded) output, being the result of the give-and-take, the lexical and semantic ties between utterances in the chosen mode (which may be polite and conciliatory, but not necessarily so). The dialogue is much more than that, however, for every single participant, and for each one in a singular and even fractured way. It consists of the many internal reactions, some silently formulated as they vie to grab a turn of the voice, but not all uttered (necessarily so, because the dialogue implies a turn of voices forming only one voice thread, with an asymmetry between listeners and speakers). I consciously neglect situations (not uncommon) where one dialogue breaks up into multiple discussions or overheats through a surplus of simultaneous voices that are no longer matched by listening.

So 'immanence' may simply indicate a setting where the chosen operational rules (etiquette) discourage confrontation and critique in order to allow tentative thoughts to emerge. How is this supposed to work? I continue the quote from above:

"This is not a space where projects are presented or practices theorized or contextualized. It is, much rather, a space where a form of dialogue takes place that traverses the terrain of given entities, meanings, positions and relations; a displaced and displacing kind of 'speech between' that no longer simply narrates or represents but that opens up to a future collective potential. It is thus not a space designated simply for institutional or negative critique or deconstruction, but also, and significantly, an affirmative space for experimental and exploratory activities and processes."

I a not sure what the authors mean when they talk about "a displaced and displacing kind of 'speech between'", and how such form of dialogue is more likely to open up future collective potential. Will the greater amount of vagueness or uncertainty of ideas make it easier to fuse them into a collective potential, as they settle down as some consensus?

What seems largely absent is a reflection of the discrepancy between the individual position within a competitive capitalist economy that exerts its selective mechanisms also in academic and other cultural institutions, and the collective role of the same individual in the network where another set of non-competitive values (affirmative space, exploratory activities) is upheld. The conflict is unavoidable and finds expression in the mechanisms that attribute cultural surplus and attention (a token of future career potential) unevenly across the collective. The reason is not (or not primarily) that some within the collective may want to raise their profile at the expense of others; the media and the informal dissemination structures (weblogs, wikis, etc) tend to restrict the number of names in circulation, focusing on those people and events that seem most tangible and 'prehensile' within a headline or catch phrase. Internally, all this does not matter in the equitable organisation of the dialogue; but this dialogue does not take place in isolation, no is it disctinct from the aspirations and career moves of the individuals participating in it. This is of course not an argument against the validity of the network and dialogical practice itself; it is just curious that there seems to be little evidence of a desire to reflect this conflict.

In my experience, few artists dare to talk openly about their personal agendas and the conflict implicit in entering collaborative settings. A dialogue including these aspects would probably not so much lead to affirmative, but rather to negotiated activities and processes which still bear the traces of conflicts and compromises and thereby, would retain more of the individual contribution.

Research groups > Reading

Reading a text together provides an occasion for meeting. It provides an external point of reference outside of the dynamics of the living points of reference: the individuals joined in the reading group. This external point of reference thus creates a test case where everyone in the group can, over time, assess the intellectual and communicative skills and the attitude of involvement (confrontational, conmfirmational, digressing etc) chosen by everyone else. In turn, it allows everyone to acquire a kind of 'relief map' of every other participant, tacitly and implicitly mapping them onto own predilections and ideosyncasies and testing compatibility as co-art worker and friend.

Another element missing here is the effect such reading has on the mutual reshaping of a canon. As new writers appear and are absorbed into the canon, older writers are marked up or down in relation to the comppatibility of their ideas to the vague and mutually generated notion of a 'cutting edge' or better, centre of gravity. In partaking in such continuous reshaping of the canon (which includes what one might call 'the canon of dissent'), a side effect is the training of one's own cultural competence and in turn, fitness for entering the social and cultural network and the organisations of which it is composed (art groups, collectives, universities, etc).

The choice of authors read (Deleuze & Guattari, Ranciere, Badiou, Agamben, Negri & Hardt) reflects the current intellectual trends and the influence these have had (measured by their curreny in the aesthetic and cultural discourse). Where is Bourdieu? What is somewhat surprising is that these are exactly the authors that would be found on any reading list of a cultural studies course; i.e., there seems little interest in linking to a canon outside, or to sharpen ones thoughts and arguments in the critique of mainstream orthodox authors in fields such as economics, history, political science, or sociology. Also surprising is the lack of authors that were still important points of reference for many of the authors included, especially Freud and Marx. It seems it is now sufficient to learn about these by way of references and quotations.

So there is an affirmative trait implicit in the reading list in that many of these authors are likely to furnish the elements of a syncretistic world view of critical dissent. It could also mean that these authors are seen as constituting the benchmark for cultural competence (which contributes sooner or later to job qualification).

(to be continued)

Last update: 29 July 2007 | Impressum—Imprint