The Avant Garde, Again

Alex Farquharson

First published in 'Carey Young, Incorporated', published by Film & Video Umbrella, London, 2002

So what will be required in the future? Answer: ‘sole creators... defined by ideas’, ‘disruptive innovation’, and ‘a shift from... tangibles to intangibles’. These phrases aren’t lifted from an award ceremony speech by the curator of an international Biennale, but from an article in Fast Company, a leading business magazine [1]. “Where is the Next Frontier of Innovation?” we’re told is the question we should continually be asking ourselves. “The only way... today,” the unnamed author concludes, “is to be fully, constantly, and instantly alive — alive to new ideas, alive to new practices, alive to new opportunities.” Never before has the lexicon of contemporary art and leading-edge business, with their mutual emphases on discovery, creativity, and innovation, sounded so alike.

Opinions are sharply divided on whether the infamous 2000 crash of technology stocks was a period of adjustment of the kind that inevitably accompanies any radical change, or a return to traditional ‘common sense’ business values (the unnamed Fast Company reporter is obviously of the former opinion). Either way, the theme of constant innovation has long been a core tenet of both Capitalist economies and Twentieth Century art. Corporations consistently evoke the concept of innovation to link their values with those of artists, even in instances where artists believe their innovations are hostile to the corporate ethos. Way back in 1969, the tobacco giant, Philip Morris, outlining their reasons in the catalogue for sponsoring the seminal Conceptual / post-Minimal exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (curated by Harald Szeemann and shown at Kunsthalle, Berne and ICA, London) wrote:

“Just as the artist endeavours to improve his interpretation and conceptions through innovation, the commercial entity strives to improve its end-product or service through experimentation with new methods and materials. Our constant search for a new and better way in which to perform and produce is akin to the questionings of artists whose works are represented here.” [2]

Philip Morris’s act of identifying the avant-garde’s strategies with its own would have been a particularly bitter irony to swallow in this instance, since these were types of art practice predicated on the belief that physical dissolution was, at least in part, driven by the will to evade commodification. Thus, for theorist Lucy Lippard, the ‘de-materialisation’ of the art object into ideas, gestures and processes was a bid by artists to act outside capitalism. In the same year as the Philip Morris/‘Attitudes’ joint-venture, Lippard stated “The artists who are trying to do non-object art are introducing a drastic solution to the problem of artists being bought and sold so easily, along with their art” in an interview that became the Preface to ‘Six Years’, her survey of these art tendencies published in 1973. By the time she wrote the Postface to ‘Six Years’ in 1972, that idealism had faded altogether:

“It seemed in 1969... that no one, not even a public greedy for novelty, would actually pay money, or much of it, for a xerox sheet referring to an event [etc]... it seemed that these artists would therefore be forcibly freed from the tyranny of a commodity status and market-orientation. Three years later, the major conceptualists are selling work for substantial sums here and in Europe; they are represented by... the world’s most prestigious galleries. Clearly whatever minor revolutions in communication have been achieved by the process of de-materialising the object... art and artist in a capitalist society remain luxuries.” [3]

Hans Haacke had foreseen this outcome. Earlier he’d been making post-Minimalist ‘de-materialised’ works whose forms were the results of physical systems or processes - air flows, water flows and condensation patterns produced by pumps and fans, for example. Dependent for their form on a mechanical source of energy, the space around them, and the passage of time, Haacke’s early ‘sculptures’ were physical states rather than static, autonomous objects. When he moved his attention to the spaces that framed these works, it wasn’t just static, white, minimalist boxes he saw, but systems, processes, connections and flows, much as before, only this time of a political and economic kind. For Haacke, the prevalent notion of ‘site’ was merely an institutional membrane connecting art’s avant-garde to global corporate and political networks, via the cultural brokerage of exhibition sponsorship and museum board membership. Harold Szeeman’s ‘Attitudes’ were Philip Morris’ too.

If there was a paradigm for the disparate avant-garde art forms of the late 60s and early 70s it was the endeavour to draw what had been the mutually exclusive realms of ‘Art’ and ‘Life’ much closer together; to break out of the physical, social and ideological confines of the museum and merge the avant-garde with the progressive politics and the everyday social flow of the contemporaneous counter-culture.

It didn’t quite turn out like that. Fast forward to the new century, and it’s clear that very few aspects of our lives on the one hand, or strategies of avant-garde subversion on the other, haven’t been appropriated by global brands and marketed back to us. Very few aspects of society, including our cultural institutions, are truly public anymore — most are sponsored by, partnered with or outsourced to for-profit businesses.

Carey Young, dressed in a smart business suit, paces back and forth in a slick office space. The wall behind her is made entirely of glass. It looks out onto the vast central atrium of a sparkling post-modern office complex. Beyond the atrium are similar offices to the one she’s in, where executives in shirt-sleeves sit before computer monitors. Young is alone in the room with a tall middle-aged man, also smartly dressed, who is in the process of offering her instruction — coaxing her, giving praise and supporting her efforts with constructive advice. “I am a revolutionary,” Young exclaims for the n’th time, weary but determined to better her delivery. Again, but with different emphasis: “ a revolutionary.” She doesn’t sound quite certain, and knows she needs to believe what’s she’s saying herself if she is to convince the prospective audience. Alisdair Chisholm of Marcus Bohn Associates, a company that specialises in business skills training, sketches out a scenario, and, improvising, alludes to passages of the speech we haven’t heard that are supposed to have preceded this declaration. He encourages her to step a couple of paces towards her audience on reaching the tricky phrase; towards us, in fact, since, when the work is projected, the room appears life-size, and we seem to occupy the other half of the office space that the screen seems to bisect.

Carey Young’s ‘I am a Revolutionary’ is, on one level, a delirious post-modern reading of Keith Arnatt’s Wittgensteinian ‘Trouser Word Piece’ (1972) - a photo of the artist holding a sign that reads ‘I AM A REAL ARTIST’. Young’s video performance includes Arnatt’s original tautologies while overlaying them with contemporary corporate versions of each term: artist/businesswoman rehearses artistic statement/corporate speech about herself in an art video/corporate training video for a small art audience/imaginary business audience. As well as Arnatt’s work, the substitution of ‘revolutionary’ for ‘artist’ evokes Joseph Beuys, implying that today’s corporate guru is the progeny of Beuys’s now antiquated radical shaman routine, his legendary persuasive powers and inexhaustible ego now re-directed from participatory democracy to profit. But why are these four words causing her so much trouble? Is it, as artist, because she can’t quite bring herself to believe in either the avant-garde or political utopia, if that is her message? Or, as executive, does she doubt that she is indeed a radical leader, a visionary? Or, can’t she bring herself to accept the co-option of the rhetoric of radical politics by modern day business, and the redundancy of opposition that that seems to imply?

Joseph Beuys’ own take on the art/life dichotomy was that the active re-shaping of society by the people themselves was itself a form of art — an art he termed ‘social sculpture’. His primary medium for propagating this idea was a didactic form of performance in which the use of language and speech was instrumental — “to be a teacher is my greatest work of art,” he said. [4] For the entire duration of Documenta V (1972), he put himself in the position of the art work in what he called an ‘office’, rather than ‘gallery’, where people could meet with him at all times for social and political debate (‘One Hundred Days of the Information Office of the Organisation for Direct Democracy through Referendum’). Carey Young’s recent ‘corporate works’ re-locate Beuys’s notion of social sculpture within the modern business environment; its ‘soft’ yet didactic techniques of training, brainstorming and skills workshops displacing Beuys’s charismatic proselytising and, with it, by implication, his utopian vision for society. In an act of double irony, Beuys’s parodic ‘Office’ becomes, quite simply, an office. Another work, ‘Social Sculpture’ (2001), performs a similar manoeuvre, whereby Beuys’s famous rolls of felt - that in his symbolic world signified the preservation of human life - are substituted by a roll of its visual equivalent in the modern workplace: beige contract carpeting.

In ‘Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong’ (1999), Young herself assumes the role of the instructor, this time at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park (a piece that ‘I am a Revolutionary’, in many ways, mirrors and reverses). Speakers’ Corner is itself a kind of cacophonic mini-Beuysian participatory democracy, where anyone, no matter what their status, can get up on a ‘soapbox’ - actually, a stepladder - and promote their world-view to whoever happens to be assembled. Providing a forum for the amateur orator, the fanatic, the oddball or the disenfranchised, it is inevitably a site for more left-field or idiosyncratic opinion. In the video of the performance Young is shown giving a sober ‘skills workshop’ on corporate presentation, again dressed impeccably in a businesswoman’s suit. On an obvious level the humour derives from the disparity between the methodologies Young advocates, and the calmness of her delivery, compared to the style and content (religious, political, other) of her neighbours’ more feverish oratory. Though the corporate persona Young adopts believes her act to be a helpful one, and that her audience shares her aspirations, the dark lining of the humour resides in the unwelcome proposition that even this carnival of free-thought might be absorbed by the corporate world some time in the not-so-distant future. The title ‘Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong’, which is borrowed from the title of a business book, suggests further paradoxes and ambivalences: does it mean to say that it’s the ‘presentation skills’ of her fellow speakers that’s at fault (i.e. on the level of the signifier), or that their messages are ‘wrong’ too (the signified)? More generally, is it suggesting that all the knowledge we’ve each acquired throughout our lives is now corrupted? Or self-reflexively, is it saying that it’s what the piece itself appears to represent - i.e. the corporate absorption of free debate - that’s ‘wrong’? Characteristically, Young presents us with continuum rather than closure.

For ‘Incubator’ (2001) Young ‘outsourced’ this role to Pól Ó Móráin: a venture capitalist with Xerox Venture Labs, where the artist was undertaking a residency funded by East England Arts. Small start-up companies formed within Xerox as a result of their research work go through an ‘incubation’ period, nurtured by teams of specialists, before they are let loose in the wilds of the market. A vital component of this process is brainstorming, here called a ‘visioning workshop’, where the directors of infant companies are encouraged to think radically, and perhaps abstractly, about the potential for their business — to come up with ‘crazy ideas’ and ‘blue sky scenarios’, irrespective of their current resources. These are then compared with examples from a wide range of industry sectors in order to help breed the Darwinian fittest.

The participants in the visioning workshop in ‘Incubator’ were the directors of Anthony Wilkinson Gallery, the small-ish, respected commercial space in East London. After the event, the work existed as an edited video of the two-hour workshop, the office furniture and detritus of the meeting, along with the full transcript of the proceedings, together with Ó Móráin’s follow-up suggestions in preparation for subsequent sessions, reproduced on a Xerox copier, of course, and available for sale as an inexpensive multiple (the artist ironically returning to traditional modes of selling works of art).

The workshop began by focussing on defining the gallery’s product and its existing markets. Despite the innovation and diversity of contemporary art itself, from Pól Ó Móráin’s business perspective, the way it is sold is conventional, outmoded and unimaginative. This first half of the workshop confirmed his impressions: product (art) from the same dozen or so suppliers (artists) is shown in one outlet (the gallery), and marketed conventionally through ads in trade (art) magazines to three market segments (private collectors, museums and corporate collections).

The gallery directors were then encouraged to identify new market segments, new ways of reaching them, ways of increasing product supply, or not seeing what they’re offering as a product at all, but as a service or an experience along the lines of the ways most products are now marketed to consumers (as aspirational lifestyle, for example). This way of thinking necessarily involves breaking the mould of the gallery system. It also rides roughshod over the principle that it is the artists’ role to determine the art they make, as one of Ó Móráin’s lines of enquiry makes clear:

“How do you define the lifetime of an artist?”... “Don’t you try to influence what the artists produce?”... “Do you think there is any flexibility in terms of generating more pieces of art per artist?”... “But if you take that piece of art and produce it in a hundred different colours then isn’t that still unique?”.... “What we’re trying to do here is not necessarily what’s right. In other words, could you have an exploitative approach to art and art marketing?”

The gallery directors respond in three different ways: either by following his lead with suggestions of their own, or not responding at all, or by hitting the brakes — a representative example of the latter is: “Well, I think in the end a gallery is gallery — it’s about a space that puts on exhibitions. You can’t really get away from that.” Ó Móráin responds by laying down some basic market principles: “There’s a concept in the marketplace in general that you don’t in any sense expect the client to come to you. You understand who they are, where they are, and what they want, and you bring the product to them. You give it to them in any way that makes it easy for them.”

By discounting ‘what’s right’ (the interests of the gallery’s artists, the creative integrity of the art work, the idea that art cannot be reduced to commodity, the reluctance to be seen to be commercially motivated, etcetera), the objective becomes very pure — to increase profit. By cutting out the ethical paradoxes that inevitably enfold the business of art, the venture capitalist is able to conceive of radical ways of expanding art’s market and perhaps its potential audience (art investment portfolios, product placement in celebrities’ houses, exhibitions at professional networking events, television ads, hospitality on Concorde, and so on.)

Ironically, many of Ó Móráin’s examples reflect key innovations of the avant-garde of the last century, such as the multiple, intervention, art-as-commerce, the site-specific, the notion that the avant-garde is perpetually renewing itself (built-in obsolescence), the artist as service provider, and the idea that the artist may outsource the actual making of objects. Young, in fact, has incorporated most of these avant-garde strategies in the form of ‘Incubator’ itself, along with specific references to two 70s works that broke the art/money taboo early on: Chris Burden’s ‘Full Financial Disclosure’ (1977), a disclosure of his year’s earnings on television, and Michael Asher’s untitled act of removing the wall dividing the exhibition space and the office at Copley Gallery, in L.A. in 1974. In ‘Incubator’ the vectors of the avant-gardes of art and the information economy converge uncannily — what were binary oppositions appear entwined, rhizomatically, in a single matrix. Ironically it’s the business structure around art that clings to the conventional ‘value propositions’ (Ó Móráin) of its product and market: scarcity, uniqueness, permanence; exclusivity, prior knowledge, single outlets, existing markets. When it comes to the business of art it seems artists have a monopoly on innovation. ‘Incubator’ appears to draw the ironic conclusion that avant-garde artists have more in common with leading edge business strategists than with gallerists that sell their work.

In ‘Nothing Ventured’, shown at Fig-1 in London and Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art in Sunderland, Carey Young again constructed a ‘social sculpture’, and a notion of the artist, from corporate language and interfaces. Physically, the piece consisted of just a telephone on a table with a single chair. Thus far it was reminiscent of Walter de Maria’s ‘Art by Telephone’, exhibited in‘When Attitudes Become Form’, though he didn’t stretch to providing the furniture. By de Maria’s phone was a sign that read: “If this telephone rings, you may answer it. Walter de Maria is on the line and would like to talk to you.” This was the voice of the artist as voice of God — mysterious, immanent, invisible, omnipresent. (As it happened, God never called). In ‘Nothing Ventured’ it wasn’t the artist on the other line, but one of around thirty call centre agents the artist had employed for the duration of the show. On lifting the receiver, a call would go through to one of these agents who would attempt to categorise the caller as “a member of the press, a prospective customer or a general enquiry.” The caller then had to choose from a menu of four options: “biographical information, previous exhibitions, themes and influences, or reviews and review quotes.” If the caller selected a quote, the operator read out one from Mute magazine: “Young’s work retains a ludic approach that should not be written off as co-opted.” Influences, callers were told, include “the artist Joseph Beuys and his notion of social sculpture, i.e. that everyone can create art.”

The situation set up a tension between the information providers, who presumably knew little about art concepts other than what was in the script, and the receiver, who tended to know a lot more about the context of the work, and who felt their privilege and freedom undermined. Consequently, as gathered by Young in the documentation of the calls, many visitors attempted to interrupt the script, and reverse the lines of authority, by asking the operator to elaborate on what they meant by the artist wanting to break down “the barriers between commerce and art,” for instance. At this point the agent would have to improvise by recourse to his or her own opinions, thus rupturing the generic facade.

A related piece by Young is a ready-made in the form of a white board, retrieved from a call centre, listing a number of ‘Gap Fillers’ — phrases all of us would recognise as techniques agents use to buy time and fill silence, e.g. “I am just awaiting confirmation...” or “I am searching for your details, please bear with me...” Today’s service sector no longer presents itself as mechanical, impersonal and bureaucratic — the “bear with me’s” and “just’s” we’re getting accustomed to hearing suggest an informal ‘one-to-one’ empathy and intimacy between employee and customer, though this air of spontaneity is carefully regulated through training, scripts and recorded conversations. The benign language of ‘customer care’ instils in us a sense of identification with a product or service, through identification with individual employees. The title of Carey Young’s exhibition at Oxford Street’s Virgin Megastore - simply ‘My Megastore’ - evoked this process of brand identification, while alluding to the various discrete counter strategies Young put in place to expose the behind-the-scenes mechanism of big brand customer relations (“Always Smile at the Customer”, lifted from Virgin’s training manual, was programmed into the LCD displays of the Megastore’s tills, for example).

In ‘Nothing Ventured’ Carey Young turned herself into a product, on par with all the other commercial offerings her call centre agents were spending the rest of their time promoting. Callers could, if they wanted to, acquire a fair bit of information about the artist and her work. Yet, by outsourcing the P.R. role to a call centre rather than a gallery, she was, in effect, outsourcing her artistic identity to a corporate framework. In ‘Nothing Ventured’ the ‘real’ Carey Young was no more present than the Walter de Maria who never called. ‘Good afternoon, Carey Young, Nothing Ventured’ the agents greeted each caller, a picture of the individual so exteriorised that it is adopted with ease by any number of others. ‘Carey Young’ in ‘Nothing Ventured’ draws a parallel between post-modern ‘death of the author’ strategies, such as Cindy Sherman’s adoption of multiplicitous Hollywood female stock types in the ‘Untitled’ film stills, and the way employees of a corporation, especially one called after the proper name of its founder, adopt its brand identity. ‘Nothing Ventured’ also could be seen as a comment on the recent phenomenon of galleries and museums outsourcing their P.R. to specialist firms. Art critics and editors are now cold-called by people who know a script but not the subject.

The double-irony in ‘Nothing Ventured’ was that Young, on a simple, pragmatic level, was playfully maximising the promotional possibilities of her first solo show (perhaps, also parodying the reputation ‘young British artists’ have for self-promotion). The title evoked this by punning on the old saying, ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ (Young cheekily admitting she’s got a nerve), and, of course, the buzzword ‘venture capital’. At the end each caller was given the option of receiving more information by post and to be entered on Young’s database for invitations to subsequent exhibitions, an offer that deliberately evoked junk mail.

By presenting herself as a brand and her art as a product, Young appears to jettison art’s transcendent values, opening up her practice to the vulgar, unsentimental vagaries of the open market. In an earlier piece, ‘Art and Life’, she did just that by investing a £1,000 public art commission grant in two stocks, one with the ticker symbol ‘ART’, the other with the ticker symbol ‘LIFE’. The piece ended a year later when Young’s shares in ‘ART’, which was out-performing ‘LIFE’, was acquired by a corporation named, spookily enough, ‘Artist Acquisition’ (thus giving her a reasonable profit on her initial investment). “To my knowledge this is the world’s first art project to be ended by corporate take-over,” Young reflected.

In a new video, ‘Getting to Yes,’ Young, dressed for business, stands at a lectern in an empty corporate auditorium, its rather sublime blue interior reminiscent of works by James Turrell or Yves Klein. As in ‘I am a Revolutionary’, she is rehearsing a speech for an implied audience, but this time it is an acceptance speech. The three short paragraphs narrate a kind of corporate take-over of the artist, though given that the persona Young adopts mentions her paintings, and Young does not paint, we can conclude she may not be referring to herself. From the time the artist’s works are bought for the corporate collection, this artist gradually finds herself relinquishing her autonomy to the flattering and apparently benign advances of a ‘mighty’ corporation. First she agrees to a sponsored party at her opening, then allows her images to be used in a company report, then runs a “creative thinking workshop” for some of their “top people”, until eventually her sense of self as an artist dissolves altogether and she gratefully accepts a position in this “mighty” corporation: “And of course, I said yes! To all of those things”; “I shall devote myself entirely to achieving your objectives.”

The narrative trajectory of the video is a kind of travesty of Carey Young’s own increased involvement in business, both in art and life. Her first job, at a major IT and management consultancy, was to give occasional presentations on uses of new technology to corporate clients — the company had a policy of deliberately selecting ‘creatives’ for this task. Young still distinctly recalls, with a sense of self-estrangement, the time she first identified her employer’s interests as her own by saying the word ‘we’ instead of ‘me/them’. ‘Getting to Yes’ includes the gallery audience in the equation, by appearing to position us amongst the auditorium’s rows of empty chairs, since they form the foreground of the projected image. By implication we may also be on the ‘slippery-slope’ to a corporate take-over. It’s an impression that’s unmistakably uncanny: her contamination of ‘business’ with the virus ‘art’, and, at the same time, ‘art’ with the virus ‘business’, is, indeed, a little dislocating, perhaps alienating, but whatever shuddering this cross-contamination may induce is rapidly replaced by laughter when we begin to unravel the layered ironies that go into their conception. The döppelgangers she makes of avant-garde art and leading edge business may appear indistinguishable, but for the time being, at least, they remain, for the most part, separate, if parallel worlds.

[1] ‘What is the State of the New Economy?’, Fast Company magazine, September 2001.
[2] Sponsors Statement for ‘When Attitudes become Form’, John A. Murphy, in ‘Art in Theory’ (Blackwell 1993) ed. Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, 886pp
[3] ‘Six Years’ by Lucy Lippard, extract in ‘Art in Theory’ (Blackwell 1993), Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, 895pp
[4] ‘Conceptual Art’, Tony Godfrey (Phaidon 1998) pp195