The Artist’s Studio

Shezad Dawood

The Artist’s Studio (some remarks on its contradictions)

Peter Lewis

April–May 2006: Guillaume Paris (France) June–July 2006: Shezad Dawood (UK) September–October 2006: Riccardo Previdi (Italy) November–December 2006: Marko Mäetamm (Estonia) January–February 2007: Szuper Gallery (Germany / Ukraine) March–April 2007: Khalil Rabah (Palestine) May–June 2007: Shilpa Gupta (India)

What is an artist’s studio these days? Has the traditional studio reached an impasse? The spectacle disrupts all artistic autonomy – the ‘sensible’ framework defined by art’s network of meanings and expressions can no longer find a place in the system of visible co-ordinates where it had once appeared and occupied. The aesthetic regime is (fully) redistributed; reversals, or counter-shots have disturbed the foundations upon which the studio and traditional media had been founded, so much so that a new set of difficulties have since emerged, consigned to share the same shaky ground. The intention to extend the discourse of a redistribution of the aesthetic (looking back to Baudelaire’s definition of modernity as being revealed principally through the senses) would today entail more subtle, more schizoid and more urgent means in adjusting to uncanny reproductions via mechanical reproduction. The ‘sensible’ is re-addressed in the demotic language of a trans-aesthetic. ‘Demos’ resists signification. The language of realism, too, having reached an end-point at quixotic speed is blinded in a fog of cultural relativism. We now have only ourselves at hand to work, in place of art which is diffused everywhere and nowhere. The question is raised as to how one can align available structures and put them to work, as the formal means of reconfiguring the artist’s studio, if it is designated to perform a number of tasks for today. Firstly, in a curatorial role, which at the same time is set to assist artistic practices that might wish to decentre a sovereign idea of an aesthetic ‘practice’ itself; also to interrogate the contradictions of its wishful-thinking which are implicated in the fake motives of political traversal away from the business of making art. Art has its own politics, always subjective in origin, against relation. Curating is ostensibly the best of available choices in wanting to ‘relate’ things, or to accord a happy state where artists, never not intentionally ‘political’, distribute their exertions through the medium of the trans-aesthetic, shared awkwardly on a discursive platform with politics. There is politics, without knowing it, performed through other means (temporality, for instance, in Virginia Woolf’s novels) to transmit a sense of cognitive disturbance that might alternate, being effectively unknown, as politics. Artists are always vulnerable as the standing-reserve for political agendas of their managers, and, as willing victims, may not want anything changed of their individual practice, nor to be transported to the public realm of the ‘Multitude’. They may not want to be ‘relational’ aestheticians, in fact may actively resist all things ‘social’. They may even, at worst, wish to bring back something of the ‘pre-modern’ through self-policing in alignment with the transcendental codes of reactionary bureaucracy to unify everyone as a kind of little ‘manager’ within the milieu of a total Management. There’s always a higher authority, insinuated in Post-Fordism. Art is to be free, never tame. Or is it? Curators are potential victim to a predatory tendency over the lives of artists (look at Elvis and the Colonel) and as cultural workers, or as bureaucrats of art, with their own hierarchies and skills placed in aesthetic judgements. A trap is snared. Conceptual art, to some degree, had advanced this curatorial sensibility (a clever use of artists and works to advance an ideology, nothing new) to operate within State administration as both the correct institutional method and aesthetic regime for the post-war times. As Dan Graham is quoted to have said in an interview, maybe a better option than to be left behind as outsider, anarchist, or boho is to be inside, and to negotiate one’s work. So does the Artists’ Studio (in this particular incarnation) fulfil these criteria, and can it disengage from a redundant definition, say, of a post-conceptual model, in any other ways, if reluctant to conform or negotiate in any prescribed way?

What maintains the ‘standard’ of representation (within a singular artistic practice) is that which sets a polite, neutral distance from immersion in the world where things speak without mediators, for themselves. Something an artist would take as a given, not being overly concerned so much with interpretation or meaning after the event of a work which keeps revealing things beyond expectation. The words ‘polite’, ‘political’ and ‘police’ are intertwined. A work may paradoxically claim to forward a ‘democratic’ intention, be disinterested in politics per se, or oblivious to its potential. Work indeed may appear out of the blue, become the subject of attention and locate, within the immense subjective field, a process of truth. This would be a contradictory situation never the less. An easy route, taken out of a sense of betraying the status quo by seduction, is less purist and puritanical, hence the title’s playful Artists’ Studio is also ‘modern’: if we are to assume that it is its remit to show difficult work; or if at first glance it implies contradiction, and at a risk of misreading intention, we may be uncertain as to whether we are being fed a red herring, or not.

Any further declaration of (in)equality distributed by the aesthetic is declared from this play on the rhetorical and relativist points of intersection between opposites, past meanings and corrupted new ones, etcetera. A work predicated on reorganised source material does not yield true precedence for its existence. It may be screened from an earlier aesthetic ‘event’ with no relation to the present. The formation of the works, at an arrival point here, is not systematic. The selection, albeit commendable, alerts us to a kind of serious flaw in ‘retrospective progressivism’. The curation of these works has avoided unnecessary toil by presenting their intelligence in the first position and their precedence as secondary. The works by Guillaume Paris, Szuper Gallery, Khalil Rabah and others are assembled to prevent misreading in referencing, alignments, and reconfiguring each under the aegis of the Studio with a forced relation to content; each artist has been situated in terms of a disturbance, consciously, to the individual performance. This sets at odds any difficulty in the attempt by artists to resist incorporation within the concept of the Artists’ Studio, to seize their moment to ‘disincorporation’ (an unattractive word and unpleasant task, but noble in idea) to redistribute the ‘sensible’ upon a common ground. The risk is offered to contradict the concept itself, cleverly transforming an artist’s difficulty into a rhetoric of friendly challenge and patronage. Disagreement is annulled by gentle affirmation. Certain schema are reassessed by testing the capacity to each practice. The struggle against the progressive reduction to an aesthetic relativism, damned if you do, damned if you don’t, faces each with a forced choice. Let the games commence. I watched Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) recently. I believe in Rome.

This cultural relativism […] derived from the coinciding of (Anglo-Saxon) linguistic judgement and analytical ideology and the tradition of hermeneutics recognises no other form of truth than the lived particularity of specific designated groups, in particular made up of ‘passive’ victims of one kind or another, duly specified according to language, race, nation, religion and gender. Second, the only unifying mechanism behind this collection of ‘sub-sets of the oppressed’ is ‘the false universality of monetary abstraction’, the undivided rule of Capital.

‘Taking Sides’ in Badiou – a Subject to Truth, Peter Hallward, University of Minnesota Press, 2003

The ventriloquist, no longer distinguished from its dummy, speaks its thoughts. When simulation reaches a critical point there is no longer difference. As Alain Badiou points out, one must at a crucial moment distinguish between something true and its simulacrum, if there is to be a risk, to make the (ontological) leap. I presume ‘beyond good and evil’. To pull back from that, well, is betrayal, he may say, of a situation. It’s not a good idea either to believe in something too forcibly, inviting disaster. However, what if simulacra are the only choice; there are no causes, only effects?

The term Artists’ Studio seems at first to be either a distraction (the play on an archaic, romantic notion of Art preceding its discontents), or to bring up shining images of a once imagined world such as depicted in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring (directed by Peter Webber in 2003) concerning the time-honoured profession of an artist (Vermeer) entering philosophical discourse slowly and painstakingly, ‘at home’ with his craft. Here the genus of time was systematically measured to accord the act to painting and sculpture as a residing iron in the soul, ‘god’ in the details of the ordinary, just light on an interior wall. The studio permitted an artist’s concentrated focus: to act upon an object’s implacable resistance, to declare the Unity of the One of Newtonian time and space, and by the mimetic procedure of representing ideas scientifically, portray ideas and emotions in ‘things’, transforming their impurity. This hard-won victory affectively generated the subject of truth. Over centuries culture has been founded in the search for the pure and infinite, in domestic interiors, the ordinary places, and is not undertaken either without the erotic, poetic contract between love and death. Art as a process may transmit some deeper, ultimate force beyond the artist’s knowledge, by its own affirmation emerging within contradiction to produce a politics (interior) from the formal contours of the poetic (exterior).

Artists’ Studio is a project set in a desirable property in the heart of Knightsbridge. It is a complex and ambiguous undertaking, unashamedly contradictory as to what it says it is and what it does in the context of Britain’s disavowed inequalities and capitulations of governments. We only have to remember the speech of the 9th Earl of Spencer, who has subsequently recanted.

Any process of bringing artists together under the auspices of an idea of a cosmopolitan metropolis must unavoidably produce a shadow bundled together of specific communities and knowledges, within the exclusive medium of a global financial market. Artists’ Studio emerges, between risk and contradiction, in uptown Knightsbridge, seeded by chance, as if from a side pocket in a vintage Hermès handbag picked up outside Harrods. What it reveals is the gap between the visuality in an artistic process and the visibility of its production. In concrete terms, a blind spot.

Any set (grouping) is incomplete if the method or ‘search’ (enchelus) it operates begins, before the event, at an impasse. A recalling of the ‘studio’ as site of the transformative process of a work having its own intention is doubled with another, the curator’s, which also turns on an acknowledgement of an unsatisfactory model of artist as curator, and its reflexive claims to distribute ‘sensibility’ as a new standard of material evidence-in-process of ‘curating’. Concepts are bracketed for a contradictory practice. Any statement such as ‘these artists differ, yet share a common understanding and purpose’ is not contradiction, merely in contradictory relation. True difference must be extreme or nothing at all. There is a case that Artists’ Studio brackets art as ‘cultural’, ‘marginal’ or ‘Asian’, ‘Arab’, etcetera, by using the structures of race, nation, selecting those who are variously from a global perspective anyway so as to subvert their categorisation. In this inversion it seems to make something of the ‘same’ within the concept of ‘foreign’ that may interpolate, and resist its recuperation via relativist interpretation as an acceptable, political and represented ‘difference’. Without the threat to security, knowledge / difference is accorded value and rewarded through the established order and through monetary equation; to be left feeling uncomfortable with ‘belonging’ the work may be particularised to create a false universal. Artists’ Studio, in advertisements and publicity, will nevertheless behave with propriety, so as to stage contradiction without having to oppose the market. This subtlety is a tactic of invisibly splitting the market’s ground on the ambivalence of a premise, as if ‘there is no market, there is no art’, or ‘no market, no art’.

No need then for concern, for if this is not new, all the more so we can say that it is, and buy into the post-political ethic / therapeutic that efficiently will do that: ‘identity’, ‘meaning’ and ‘interpretation’. Artists’ Studio, giving with one hand, takes with the other, as a challenge to acceptance. Just as the thought of the soixante-huitard is finally consigned to the garbage tip of revolt, it is reclaimed at the last minute.


There is little purpose here in reiterating or even ridiculing the frequently used ethical clichés of ‘blurring the boundaries of…’ the curator and artist, the pronouncements of the ‘Control State’ (see The Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno). Project-space / museum are synergetically each inside the other. You cannot join the establishment if you are already it. When did I leave? The museum accommodates the project-space. The alternative is dead. Long live the Alternative! Institutionalisation is final victory. The Model tests the unacceptable Idea, as the question of a new professional category within the art establishment, ‘shaking hands’ in full knowledge that every affirmation of friendship is also suspected from both sides. What choice? To subtract one’s projects from the institution which is able to support them may be a deluded, romantic undertaking, leading to self-exile within the community; a melancholic affair, rewarded with a pathetic pat on the back from the arbiters of taste for loyal, if dissenting, years of untiring service. If failing to seize and be seized in the search for a rigorously generic community and a new aesthetic, unwinding the over-used ‘Gesamkunstwerk’ of museum culture, are we to remain unchallenged? On the same plane as the world, our fake universality, so tragically befallen, is a worthless manoeuvre. Where is the real art ‘event’ being staged, if we are only led through the threshold of indistinguishable differences, show after show of ‘sensual’ particularities, syndrome of a romantic nihilism resigned to defeat?

Yona Friedman and other soixante-huitard and Situationist advocates of the multitude’s capacity for self-organisation have been influential. This is clearly marked in history not as an ‘art for art’s sake’, or ‘revolt for revolt’s sake’, nor relationally as a ‘stop-off on the road to Utopia’, but more likely the ‘art’ of a discrete, or invisible institutional anarchism. Like Wile E. Coyote in the cartoon Road Runner (created in 1942 by Chuck Jones for Warner Brothers), running out of luck suspended in mid-air over the cliff’s edge. At first bewilderment, then realisation, after the event proper. We vanish out of frame.

Perhaps the machinations of post-industrial society and Post-Fordist labour are far beyond both individual and collective agency, or any real alternative. The parameters set by these art projects in series over one year are not really in place to make a claim for artistic virtue and social legitimacy, or anything ‘new’ in this aspect. They are carefully presenting in a discursive, even mannered style the necessity for disorganising the tendency to bureaucratisation, if concerned with upsetting art’s ‘sensual particularities’ (a derogatory term from Alain Badiou aimed at counter-balancing pity for the other as victim, in aesthetics / politics, and a pious respect for representations of all difference-as-suffering). I am comparing Artists’ Studio with another project, fig-1, a grander ‘elite’ affair, run by Mark Francis in 2000, plagiarising the squatting signifiers of alternative spaces at that time in the format of one year of individual exhibitionary projects. Held in Soho (in a building undergoing renovation for its re-entry into the market), fig-1 launched individual careers.

In the relation of the market economy qua art, especially of property, the use of temporarily vacant real estate during a sales procedure is an aspect of the business of art, and vice versa. Why not? ‘We are not,’ Robert Longo once declared, in the unapologetic 1980s, ‘19th-century Gentlemen.’ The frankness of an admission that artists are always in debt to patronage, and never unto themselves ‘sovereign’, is more than just some newsworthy item of interest, given the success gained from media attention, harnessed at the more brutal end of its cosmology of desire. An art project is less interesting if it is gauged only in the clever and scandalous attitude of / to money spent on the cultivated pseudo-objects of connoisseurship or in the commodification of critique (verified also in the auction house) than in the coincidences of narrative, especially to be found in cinema. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon (1975) exposes the style and manners of the rich and powerful (with all its etiquettes of self-loathing / disgust in bad manners) in a social climber that also is a criticism of giving over one’s desire to the Law. Perhaps the self-imposed exile to London’s west-side art wilderness is a means to break the respectful passivity of the ‘Alternative’, to challenge the gallerist mentality of Vyner Street’s ‘white-cube’ occupations, redolent of New York ‘buzz to enter’ spaces, that has left the status quo, but not the street, more than intact. It just leaves a visitor with bad nerves and an uncanny sense that we’re back in downtown LA at China Art Objects, or in Beijing, overnight, for a big opening. All the same.

Statements that declare ‘East moves West’, or ‘West is the new East’, or ‘Arabs are the new Jews’ perform to test the limits of their over-familiarity, saturated like soggy tissue paper. There are models, a plethora in the new Thames & Hudson survey of Post-War International Galleries. Nigel Greenwood and Robert Fraser in London in the 1970s and 1960s. Castelli had shown Kandinsky and Pollock in the late 0s. Peggy Guggenheim opened The Art of This Century Gallery at 30W. 57th Street in New York City earlier in the 1940s. Frederick Kiesler is again fashionable. Content and style, both, big business. Cerulean blue is back, so is Meryl Streep. Keith Haring? No. Context and marketing are how to equate ‘worldliness’ with an idea and its shelf-life. It is hard to discredit the relation between patronage and support for new work, and design and advertising. Entertainment wins, but it’s disappointing, this ‘jouissance’, the ‘this is not it’. I watched the film Pollock, starring Ed Harris. Harris studied Pollock in detail for years to get it right. But who these days is talking through whom, about what? The marketing is very discrete and successful and, above all, intelligent. It’s a long way back to Straub-Huillet’s excessive and intellectual realism, setting itself apart as ‘art’, or requiring an audience that had still to take shape, to exist.

How does this impact on the studio activity as a sincere search, e.g. the classic modernist film-makers Straub-Huillet, for abstraction? Since no absolute break in the historical continuum is suggested, does this not also suggest that in its engagement, any break from the museum; for which read the genres of independent curating, dealing, or working from an apartment, painting and showing in the kitchen, or the Mondo Ikea ‘home’ whose living space is site for another order of display; has blended imperceptively: ‘this is new, but must be, therefore, because also not-new, historical.’ There is precedence, yet it is not so easy to dismiss the affirmation that the new must be measured by an immediacy in acknowledging, pledging, a break with the vector of its duration. Perhaps it will take time.

I met Franco Berardi recently, and he reminded us of the Fiat strike in Bologna, 1977, at a time when a new way of ‘making and doing’ art was created out of risk, against work, and, politically staged, in a loose symbolisation of aggression, in ‘revolt’ but not ‘terror’. Perhaps, it could be argued, this was the last chance for making and doing art outside the law without actually becoming a terrorist. Now the Law itself has taken note and so begins the prosaic work, the morning after, and daytime (i.e. normalised) terror continues unabated.

To restrict unnecessary tasks, Artists’ Studio provides an easy translation from the Salon to the apartment, through the revolution of the 1960s, the counter-culture of the 1970s, to the cultural relativism of the 1980s ‘after-Warhol’, to the more cautious present, of art’s demolition, to banality and worldliness, aka ‘equivalence’, the idea of the victim, and so forth, regulated by the post-political sophistry of State benevolence. So is the institution changed by the pressure to change, in order to survive? To evolve or die? Hardly. The changes may or may not interpolate voices from exclusion or invisibility into the discourse of governance. Tate is Tate (Disney). The relation is in fact triangular. Art, life and entertainment. Attempts by artists to be entertaining have generally failed, and that’s entertaining, failure, to the mass. It’s not the death of the Artists’ Studio that hurts, missing its sense of familiarity and the motivation of profound subjectivity it encouraged. We are not in mourning. It’s the loss of desire for the desire that’s really worrying. Does that make any sense?

Tell that to Gorgias […] that you can’t teach [the practice] of excellence.

Socrates from Plato’s dialogue Meno


By Franco Berardi

Franco Berardi is a writer, media theorist and media activist. Founder of the magazine A/traverso (1975 - 81), he was a member of the staff of Radio Alice, the first free radio station in Italy (1976 / 1978). He was involved in the political movement of autonomia in Italy during the 1970s, then fled to Paris where he worked with Felix Guattari in the field of schizo-analysis. During the 1980s he contributed to the magazines Semiotexte (New York), Chimères (Paris), Metropoli (Rome) and Musica 80 (Milano). In the 1990s he published Mutazione e ciberpunk (Genova, 1993), Cibernauti (Roma, 1994), Felix (2001). He is currently working for the Italian network Telestreet, and is engaged in the movement against the media dictatorship which is oppressing his country. He is co-founder of the e-zine.