Interview with Carey Young by Dieter Buchart and Gerald Nestler

First published in Kunstforum International, Art and Economy Issue, 
Vol 200, 2010

Dieter Buchhart/Gerald Nestler: We are witnessing "collapsing categories between business, politics, and culture" to quote a text on your work by Natalie Bell (published in Art Papers, March/April 2008). What role do you see for the artist in such a situation?

Carey Young: If we agree with Adorno that art is a special type of labour, which reveals the critical pressure points of the system, it nevertheless takes a certain amount of research to get to grips with the current paradigm, otherwise termed neoliberalism, in which the ‘free market’ is seen as capable of providing for all needs, whether cultural, social or political. This is a vital area for artists to discuss, problematise, and criticise. I don’t buy into the idea that the artist, by withdrawing into their studio, is defiant by default. This ‘via negativa’, as it has been termed elsewhere, is in my view impotent if the aim is to create critique.

My take on this has been research-oriented – whilst making artworks, to also take part time employment in a corporation and a leftist, non-profit think tank specialising in economics, as well as residencies in various organisations such as Xerox and the BBC, so as to develop my practice in relation to these sites of particular intensity. This employment, in which I had a proverbial desk-job kind of position, has also given me an identity as a complicit figure, which I use in my work as a shorthand to discuss ideas of criticality and ‘otherness’.

Dieter Buchhart/Gerald Nestler: Between Marcel Mauss' study of gift economy and Boudieu's "cultural capital" there is a wide range of notions regarding the idea of exchange. To which degree does this idea inform your work and how important are insertion and research for your practice?

Carey Young: Contrary to Mauss’ gift economy theory, I don’t really see my ‘giveaway’ gift pieces as an exception to an economic system. These works are more concerned with escaping an immediate market worth (they are available for free from exhibitions), but the works also play with and inhabit other notions of value. For example, for one piece, Raise Your Passion for Product (2001), a piece staged as part of my solo show at Virgin Megastore in London, all of the store’s customer receipts became an artwork by me. For the duration of the six week exhibition, on to each receipt (over 600,000 of them) was printed a mantra from Virgin's staff training manual (the mantra is 'Raise your Passion for Product'.) To obtain a receipt, the viewer had to purchase a product from the store. Of course, most of these receipts were probably thrown away by regular customers, which I quite like. I created a limited edition within the work by signing the receipt of the first twenty people that wanted them. This imbued the edition with an increased financial potential as an artwork -  a value which exists at a tangent to the value of the original product purchase.

My recent interest has been in creating experimental legal contracts as works of art. Contracts are based on the exchange of promises. Developed with the assistance of lawyers, and like all my work, based on extensive research, these contract-works have used a variety of media including video, installation, or wall-based text pieces. They set up a formal relationship between myself and, for example, the collector, the viewer and/or the gallery, which last for variable durations, such as the length of my life, or the viewer’s life.

Cildo Meireles’ use of the term ‘insertion’ (embodied by his project Insertions into Ideological Circuits, 1970) is an important reference point for me – I see it as more provocative and, in an era ever more dominated by the systems of globalisation – farsighted - than the over-used artistic term ‘intervention’. One caveat: my work adapts Meireles’ idea, because the tactic of insertion, according to him, always circulates ‘counter-information’ within a pre-defined circuit. Instead, I am more interested in pushing this in a different way by setting up a dialectic between counter-information and ideological information within a system: my work, which often indicates or implies the overlapping of systems (such as the art, business, legal and political systems), carries information that criticises that system, as well as showing a certain connivance with its values.

Dieter Buchhart/Gerald Nestler: The corporation plays a crucial role in the current form of capitalism. As a legal entity it is even on equal terms with the individual subject. This has wide influence on the relation between persons, the 'societal performance,' so to speak. Law and the corporation play an eminent role in your work. Could you elaborate on their relation to art, participation, and the performative in the context of your work?

Carey Young: In general terms my work considers language, the body and individual agency as subject to the growth of globalised practices of business and law. Corporations festishise creativity and brand themselves around innovation (sometimes using art): even in economically challenging times, companies’ market worth has to some extent been based on their creative capacities (to be able to think flexibly is to be adaptive, for example, in a recession.) Whilst I don’t think corporations have appropriated artistic types of strategy, I am interested in the corporate use of the languages of creativity, revolution and the avant-garde, whilst the political implications and legacies of these vocabularies have been removed. I see this as a challenge to artists.

I often begin a work by imagining what might happen if a certain subject, medium or site is controlled, created or revisualised by corporate or legal interest. I aim to collage fragments of the systems of art with fragments of the systems of law and business, and to use these overlapping sites to offer an absurd exaggeration of the current situation, as a kind of warning, as an invitation to think and to consider alternatives. I do not present those alternatives. In a sense my work shares much with science fiction, in its form as an elaboration of the historical present.

My works are often process-based and participative, involving systems and situations which can include others, such as the viewer, the exhibition curator or gallery staff, or professionals such as skills trainers, as well myself as artist. I use participation to create an embodied inclusion in the works. By participating, one has internalised the information or the situation proposed by the work, and thus one becomes part of the work, possibly for amounts of time that extend far beyond the limits of an exhibition. The work sounds from this description very serious, but underlying all my works are varying kinds of dark humour, vulnerability and pathos, which I use to engage the viewer and to offer a variety ofemotional registers.

I see the law works in some senses as different to my ‘business’ works. Whilst law is undeniably linked to commerce, it is a separate institution, which is more closely related to ideas of rights, morals, equality and of the notion of person-hood – for example, what kind of agency can an individual have in the world, what is just, and how a society should operate. Law is inherently performance-based, not only in terms of the theatre of the courtroom, but also in terms of legal structures such as contracts, which have a kind of time-based choreography: control-structures which demarcate actions and agreements in the present and future.

Dieter Buchhart/Gerald Nestler: Bringing the artist's material reality into the space of the market, as you have done with Inventory (2007) opens questions between value, the real and the virtual as fluid forms. As the negotiation is actually done within your body and only then relates to the marketplace, the work still seems to remain in a conceptual realm of art creation. What kind of capital are you creating in this work and where does it derive its value from? Have you actually sold the work and thus transformed your chemical components into wealth creation as well?

Carey Young: I should first describe the piece, which is based on an idea from Georges Bataille’s journal Documents, in which a physician outlines the financial value of a (male) human body in terms of its constituent chemical elements. I decided to develop a self portrait from this idea, and my research outlined that since creation of the original in 1929, there had been so many scientific discoveries about the human body that the original research was invalid. Working with the guidance of scientists at Imperial College London and Cambridge University, I assessed the value of my body according to its chemical elements and their current value on the international chemicals markets. The elements range from relatively large amounts of oxygen, carbon and nitrogen to infinitesimal amounts of other elements such as tungsten and gold. The work is manifested as a large black graphic on the wall (indicating my current value, in Pounds Sterling) and next to it, a framed print-out of the calculation data (the market price and weight of all the chemical elements in my body.) Each time the work is shown, I weigh myself on the date of the invitation to exhibit, and then recalculate the value, which is also the sales price of the work (which is as yet unsold.) The value has accordingly gone up and down depending on the state of my physique.

I don’t agree that the negotiation of value happens only within my body: the work sets up a specific relation between my body and the commodity markets. It takes to an absurd extreme the notion that the female body is often used/valued as a commodity, not only in society but also in art. The work also considers the ‘value of an artist’ by overliteralising and thus satirising the process of providing an answer. The resulting commercial worth is less than the black market value of the constituent organs, and is of course valuable as a work in terms of symbolic capital, but it is more interesting to me than either of these concerns because of its formal references, which go from intimate, micro level of particles to the macro level of a vast network.

Dieter Buchhart/Gerald Nestler: Would you agree with the notion that you take Institutional Critique out of the solely artistic realm into a broader societal field of research comparing economic and legal systems with artistic ones? If so, do you find Institutional Critique to be eligible for a broader application for investigation? If not, what is your relation to Institutional Critique and how has it influenced your current practice?

Carey Young: Institutional Critique has generally been focussed on artistic and museological contexts, and the criticism, framing and boundaries thereof. Certain associated writing also assumed that commercial organisations could not be seen as ‘institutions’ per se. I feel that corporations and the legal sphere should not escape the kind of rigourous artistic insights thus afforded to art institutions and the art system, and that institutionally critical art did not include them merely throughimplication or indirect association. If we take Andrea Fraser’s proposition, that ‘we’ (defined as ‘artists, critics, curators etc’) - are the institution (the art institution), I do not believe that ‘we’ – the art institution – would want to be considered as a de facto part of these more economically- or legally-oriented institutions, since ‘we’ generally find their activities ideologically suspect. To quote Pierre Bourdieu, art has an ‘inverted economy’ in which it is prized for its remoteness from established measures of value: wealth, power, popularity and so on. Therefore, despite the persuasive (Derridean) view there seems to be no ‘outside’ left, the institutions of business and law persistently remain ‘outside’ the self-image of the ‘we’ of the art institution. It is this kind of inside/outside dialectic that I am interested in.

My interest is to try to create critical distance by going deep inside commercial and legal institutions, and I aim to use their material, tools and tactics directly in my work. I do not usually present these as readymades, but adapt them to my own ends. They are distortions or inversions of the originals, without losing the original’s identifying (and often absurd) character. For example, with many of my law works, I worked with a legal team to develop legal structures that operate at the limits of the law. They are legally valid but often stretch existing notions of the way the law operates and highlight the subjectivity of the law, implying it is less rigid than we imagine, or that a kind of unusual subversion can come from getting this close.

Therefore, I do not agree that I am merely ‘comparing’ the institutions of art with those of business or law. The point is to use artistic ideas and methods to alter, discuss and sometimes to reverse the tools and tactics of business and law. This to me is hopeful, it opens up other, more socially and ethically positive kinds of use-value for these tools, whilst also suggesting ‘we’ can change them.

Dieter Buchhart/Gerald Nestler: You have been working with specialists from law, business, or negotiation skills. How far does this collaboration go? Are you consulting them for information only or how deeply do they influence your work?

For a long time my work has been collaborative - before I started on the ‘business’ works in 1999, I had collaborated with computer hackers and science fiction writers to produce severalsculptural and mixed media works. Now I involve business/law professionals such as conflict resolution specialists, venture capitalists, motivation and negotiation skills trainers, lawyers, legal theorists and call centre agents directly in the works. They often have an active role within the work, such as offering their professional speciality as part of the piece, and they are usually named either in the work or the associated credit, so that they retain their own professional identity. They will often figure in the work more than myself, or in comparison with the identity of the artist, viewer, gallery etc within the work. In a sense my work creates a space for polyphony.

I’m attracted by the idea of the anti-art gesture, of having these figures as active voices within the work, of their ability to make art unfamiliar, even to myself. I also involve them to reference my own past and to give the works another level of reality: this is not illustrative - this readymade process, although adapted and mutated into other forms, has come directly from this other sphere, and sometimes operates in the art sphere and the other professional sphere concurrently. For example, the law works operate in artistic terms, and due to their authentication by lawyers (and the interest taken in them by lawyers) these works also have a separate legal ‘reality’.

Dieter Buchhart/Gerald Nestler: What are your next plans, works, and strategies?

Carey Young: I am developing a new video, works for a touring solo show, and ideas for a book which will draw all my law works together for the first time.