SPILL STINGS 8: A Dialogue on Infection (Part 2)

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Mary Paterson and Theron Schmidt continue their written dialogue on the theme of infection in relation to wider cultural contexts.
Hi Theron
I’m going to answer that question by talking about something else to begin with.

The other day I was passing through St. Pancras Station at rush hour and there was a bottleneck outside M&S.  It was caused by two pairs of dancers from Sadlers Wells, doing the tango.  Groups of commuters and Eurostar travellers stopped to watch and take pictures on their mobile phones, and it was very enjoyable – a beautiful dance, a pleasant diversion, a gentle feeling of togetherness.  It also made me think that someone might reasonably look at these badly lit dancers, moving in not-enough-space and accompanied by tinny music, and think it would be a good idea to put them inside a dedicated performance space: somewhere where people could sit in comfort, without diversion; where performers could have all the resources they need.

It’s worth remembering that arts venues have a real utility, because institutional critique is so familiar.  As art students are routinely taught (inside university institutions), an organisation like the Barbican confers legitimacy and authority on all the works it chooses to show.  ‘It chooses to show’ is an odd phrase, and reveals something of how this authority works – anonymously.  It’s precisely because there is no single, identifiable decision maker that the artistic programme of an institution like the Barbican can appear to stand for a consensus of opinion, the sedimented achievements of the Barbican’s past successes, and the promise of its material presence, all at once.
But the fact that institutional critique is so familiar doesn’t make the institution any less powerful, or the ways in which its cultural capital works, any more visible.  Perhaps this brings us back to the idea of disguise and misrecognition.  Most of the artists in SPILL are interested in the social relationships that surround art – for artists like Rajni Shah and Kings of England, in fact, this is both the subject and the content of the work.  And the festival as a whole sits within a wider artistic trend that validates art according to the nature of the audience experience (as opposed to the artist’s skill).

On one hand, art is able to comment on and participate in social relationships because artists don’t represent a large institution like the Barbican – they are free agents, seemingly independent of the capitalist drives that shape the rest of our lives, including the baser instincts of the culture business itself.  On the other hand, artists are able to do these things because they are artists.  And you can tell they’re artists because they perform at institutions like the Barbican.

I’m simplifying the argument, of course, but it’s a familiar one: institutional critique is performed by and for institutions, who commission artists to act as independent agents, who are then legitimized by the institutions that allow them to carry out institutional critique.  We all need each other.  And on top of that, it is important to remember that institutions like the Barbican are not only hierarchies of anonymous and naturalised power, but also dedicated performance spaces that allow great art to be made, appreciated and remembered.  (Did you know that the Barbican centre is built into the craters of bombs dropped during World War Two?)

I don’t think that these things are mutually exclusive, but I do think they sit together uncomfortably.  In the case of SPILL, the theme ‘infection’ stings of something negative – the norm being attacked.  But what is the norm, and what is under threat?  Both the Barbican and the Festival have acclaimed, international reputations – neither could be called an ‘outsider’, to each other or to wider society.  Does ‘infection’ symbolise a kind of oppositionality that neither institution can represent?  Or does it refer to the state of art in a wider sense – a type of non-productive (in the capitalist sense), social space, like a laboratory for new ideas?  Or else, does it work the other way round – perhaps it is the artwork that is infected from elsewhere?
x M

Mary – I’m really excited by what you’ve written. It took me a second reading before I understood what you’re suggesting, but looking at it again this morning I think I get it.  Let me attempt to write back to you what I understand you to be getting at, and see whether that is what you’re intending.
We’re talking here about distributions of power and value.  About the way that systems – including buildings, organisations, artforms, and cities – consolidate their value in opposition to other systems.  But this is the way of all organisms – and so it is not only understandable, it is necessary.  It’s a waste of time to wish that the Barbican were less institutional, or that experimental art was more valued within the mainstream, and so on.

Instead, the way you are describing ideas of infection moves us away from an oppositional model – one in which performance work is ‘good’ because it is supposedly able to create a ‘true’ equality that is unavailable in our heavily marketised culture, and in which capitalism is ‘bad’ because it prevents this true communication or equality from emerging.  For one thing, such an oppositional model is precisely that which distances art from any impact or efficacy: when the claim to outsider status is the basis of the critique, it at the same time neutralises that critique through its very marginality.  (And anyway, this claim to be outside systems of commodification is quite tenuous in itself; Castellucci’s On the Concept of the Face… reminds us that the history of Western art has always been intertwined with systems of power, and it was clear from his own comments that he sees his work as being part of the tradition of religious iconography, not a challenge to it.)  As I think you’ve suggested, there was always something oxymoronic about institutional critique, when it depended upon the institution in order to amplify its critique.

So the idea of infection gets us beyond the opposition between ‘good’ art and ‘bad’ institutions of capitalism. In its place, we might start to think about value the extent to which each system infects the other.  By opposing them, we insist on their separation; we quarantine each from the other.  But by making them permeable, we must also accept that the permeability works both ways, and that infection spreads across both domains.  In place of terms such as critique, autonomy, and perhaps even radicalism, an emphasis on infection would start to value a new set of terms such as permeability, transmission, and communicability.  What does it mean for this work of art to be here, in this part of the city, at this time?  How might we think about audiences as carriers, valuing not only what they bring from the art experience to whatever day jobs they may have, but also what they carry with them when they come into the art space?  Can we think about the role of art not in terms of its ability to infect, but to be infected?  To be a space where infection happens, not necessarily the virus itself?

Looking back at your letter, I notice that I’m just providing variations on the questions you were asking at the end – but I had to find my own way there.

x theron