Pathologies of space: the place of the artist

Luis Camnitzer

Luis Camnitzer lives and works in New York. His work has been shown in noted exhibitions and institutions since the 1960s, including individual shows at The Kitchen and El Museo del Barrio, New York; the List Visual Arts Center at M.I.T., Cambridge, MA; and the Museo Carillo Gil, Mexico City. He has had recent solo shows at the Museo de Arte Moderno, Buenos Aires, and at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Santiago, Chile. Retrospectives of his work have been presented at Lehman College Art Gallery in the Bronx, New York; Kunsthalle Kiel, Germany; the Daros Museum in Zurich, Switzerland; El Museo del Barrio; and the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Colombia. His work forms part of the permanent collections of such institutions as the Tate Modern, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, MoMA, the Whitney Museum, and the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de São Paulo.

Language doesn’t help us much when it comes to accurately elucidating the definitions that help us to situate people, which is probably why it falls back on images related to space—the verb “to situate” being one of them—as a means of being more specific. But the space that words refer to is not a neutral space but rather one that, because it is decided by tacit conventions and agreements, belongs de facto to the collective. On the other hand, and at the same time, in our society we are led to believe that we can occupy a space controlled by the individual, or at least in a space that the individual is able to dispute.

Luis Camnitzer, Symmetrical Jails, 2014
Etching in 7 parts, 56,52h x 75,56w cm (cada una), Edition of 18 + 1 AP.

Even the simplest words accommodate ideologies, and sometimes they reflect a worldview that is at once profound and transcendental. Since they are unquestioned in the moment in which they are used, such words have a subliminal impact on our views. Their everyday use renders us unconscious of their actual import, and of the ways in which they outline a geography of behaviour, one capable of either joining the individual to the collective or separating the individual from it. We don’t realize how words reflect that tension and how they ultimately seek to put people “in their place.”

The “exile,” in the dislocation implicit in the word, is an individual who is granted a special status by dint of his or her victimhood at the hands of the enemy’s abuse of power; in this case the change of space is seen in a positive light. On the other hand, the “refugee” or “migrant”—another by-product of the abuse of power whose spatial displacements are similar to those of the exile—is assigned to a de-individualised mass lacking in honour. Viewed as an invisible unit within a fluid dynamic of movements of peoples, the state and individuality of the refugee and migrant are viewed as negative. These individuals become “foreigners” (etymologically those who are “on the outside”), engendering the otherness that is the product of chauvinism or racism.

The metaphor that is used by D’Alembert in the Encyclopédie, which he co-edited with Diderot in the eighteenth century, to catalogue the disciplines and professions, is that of a geographical map, with spaces quite clearly defined, almost as if they were nation-states. The concepts of inter- and trans-disciplinarity, of crossing or ignoring the boundaries of accepted fields of knowledge, still didn’t exist at that time, but the poly-erudition of the kind displayed by Leonardo da Vinci was wiped out when knowledge was forcibly subdivided by the rise of the printed book. No longer seen as part of the knowledge-generating intelligentsia, artists were essentially classified as artisans with an indefinable “extra” attributed to virtuosity.

At present, the spaces in which it is possible to place artists are unstable, both socially and individually. Society views art as an activity that is proper to leisure and therefore aimed at the social classes who have access to that leisure. Yet that mental model also holds the danger of prejudice: artists may be seen as non-productive parasites or simply as individuals who service the pleasures of those at the top of a power structure. Artists themselves usually try to avoid identifying themselves with the space ruled by the purchasing classes. They endeavour to stake out a space for themselves and to remain within it. That makes them “eccentric” or “displaced,” two words that are equally allusive to spatial coordinates. Taken to its extreme, this being “outside the centre” or out of place becomes a sign of a full-blown, or at least incipient, pathology, one that can then lead to a state of “infirmity”—etymologically, “lack of firmness.”

Leaving aside the matter of how we are situated, we as artists find ourselves in an extremely ill-defined situation. On one hand, society increasingly defines us as producers and sellers of objects which, in their capitalist definition, are turned into commodities. From our original artisanal function, we have gone on to occupy various positions ranging from artisan to entrepreneur. On the other hand, however, we are supposed to exert a certain cultural influence due to our potential effect on collective forms of perception. As producers, our work undergoes a process of vertical transformation. Once created, art objects first pass through the hands of the purchasing class and then trickle down into general consumption; from there, they are distilled even further down until they end up as disposable convention or collective iconography.

Nonetheless, as cultural agents, we strive to change not only the rules of perception but also the rules of behaviour in order to achieve an internalised social progress that will replace the existing one that we regard as negative. We could say then that art first tries to de-normalise and later, for better or worse, ends up being normalised. In his book Deep Thinking, Garry Kasparov notes that “anything that goes beyond the rules is classified as knowledge.” This statement comes from the context of playing chess against a computer that bases its future moves on rules and on previous moves, but that wins through so-called quantitative “brute force” rather than through creativity. This “brute force” possibly reveals something that it is still unknown and is latent, but it doesn’t generate new knowledge; in other words, it does not create. The problem is that once knowledge has been created, it becomes part of normality. What has been normalised informs the body of rules, with one of its manifestations being, for instance, the legal code. De-normalisation challenges and questions the rules, not to expand their territory with the predictable, but to enrich it with the unpredictable.

In our time, the decisive role of the ego has had its impact on artistic creation. Paradoxically, its presence gradually evaporates as the perception of the work emanates from the artistic source and finally flows into the sea of normalisation, precisely because what starts out as generation of knowledge ends up in regulation. With the question of the ego, we continue operating within the romantic notion of individualised authorship, now employed today as a commercial trademark. In the context of individualistic ideology, the ego is the fulcrum from which we can theoretically activate the lever to move the world; or at least that is what we are led to believe. It is the ego that contributes to the accumulation of power and with it to expanding the effect of what we do. When it comes to selling products, we believe that the accumulation of power increases sales. When it comes to acting as social and cultural agents, we believe it increases our influence. But when we focus on the mission of the good citizen, which includes militancy on behalf of the common good, the activity is supposed to be independent from individual recognition. The important thing is the collective social progress which ultimately derives from (or is hindered by) the accumulation of anonymous efforts, and therefore our ego becomes insignificant.

Nevertheless, if today we as artists were forced to choose between personal (albeit temporary) fame and the achievement of permanent (albeit anonymous) social progress, we wouldn’t know which to choose. The quandary is ideological more than personal. Artistic fame takes place within the relatively restricted and elitist confines of the artworld, while social progress occurs in the wider and depersonalised field of collective society. The choice depends on the utopia (yet another space) within which each specific artist operates or wishes to operate, the degree of militancy he or she is willing to invest, and the ethics governing his or her decision-taking process. All of the above makes the artist’s role impossible to locate in a specific point—either individual or collective—and keeps the spatial coordinates in permanent flux. Any form of spatially static firmness becomes impossible, and the definition of “health” (inasmuch as it is a synonym of firmness) as the opposite of illness is relativized.

Firmness, or the lack of infirmity, is predicated not solely on the efficacious working of an individual system, but also on its role in the context of that system of systems which is the social structure. It is this structure that creates the metaphor “besides oneself” to refer to an antisocial individual misplacement which, fortunately, is a passing condition. The German phrase ausser Sich refers to this passing bewilderment, whereas the term verrückt, literally translatable as “displaced” or “shifted out of place,” is used to allude to the more permanent condition of insanity.

Luis Camnitzer

All of these words describe abnormality. In that sense they seem to be normative (no pun intended). There is always someone who, through the use of power, places people in the place socially attributed to them as “theirs”—the place of origin, of punishment, or merely the place of the body. Thus normality may be defined as an ordered territory, with its sets of rules in place and the individual territories situated where they ought to be, a territory in which disorder is seen as abnormal and damaging. It is in approximations and distance-taking from that normality that artists try to situate themselves dynamically. This dynamism, capable of subverting the status quo, is not entirely accepted due to its dis-ordered condition and, in extreme cases, it is socially diagnosed as an illness. In fact, sometimes it is nothing but an indestructible firmness, clinging not to a place but to movement that takes place outside the stable centre, thus conveying wrongful impressions of infirmness, of eccentricity.

Within certain limits, eccentricity is an accepted quality and, in its minimal expression, is even admired. Extreme eccentricity, however, may end in derangement once the centre becomes inaccessible. In consequence, innovative artists cannot afford to lose sight of the centre, nor can they afford for the centre to lose sight of them. They must retain bonds and a certain degree of conventionalism. Otherwise, they would be in danger of being expelled from the category of artist and being classified as who knows what. Thus artists work with and within a controlled dislocation, operating within flexible critical distances that may be useful at certain times, but not always. Lack of flexibility would lead only to adherence to a programme, and that adherence would lead to its mere illustration. The function of generating knowledge ends at the very moment a piece of knowledge is generated. It is then that it enters the process of being turned into a set of rules, because it is absorbed by the codes of conventions. It is in that moment, an instant of temporary firmness, that artists must decide whether or not to return to a mobile point of eccentricity in order to recover the ability to de-normalise and generate new knowledge once again. The other option would be to repeat successful pieces and fall into the formulaic. From the viewpoint of normality, that would be a sign of firmness; from the viewpoint of art, it is a true infirmity.

*Courtesy Alexander Gary Associates, New York
© 2017 Luis Camnitzer/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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