In Memory of a Talk at Decad in Summer 2016

Thanks to Rachel Alliston and everyone at Decad, Irene Perez Hernandez, Vasilis Mochas, and David Dixon of Cathouse Funeral in NYC. 

The understanding of the studio that emerges from much of the scholarship that exists on the role of the studio in artistic practice conceives of the studio as a specific location, a site in physical space, containing objects and materials which define an artistic practice. It is also characterized as the title of Andrew Hardman’s Ph.D. thesis, Studio Habits, implies, a place of habits. Habits necessarily entail a sense of returning and continuity. And it is fair to say that this accords fairly well with the historic conception of the artist’s studio, a location in physical space where the artist appears and carries out the ritual of the creative act for a limited but undefined period of time before leaving the “studio” space to occupy other spaces, spaces like homes, cafes, galleries, Ankerklause on Maybachufer, wherever the artist may choose to go. What is important about the discrete infinity of other spaces is that they are almost never characterised as being the artist’s studio even if the artist is present there and working there. I feel like this is a crucial distinction that this presentation may fruitfully explore. Obviously, there can be no single definition of what a studio is or represents—and this is true of any word, but it is worth noting that the fungibility of the concept of the studio is not infinitely flexible. If someone were to happen to meet me in, for example, Cafe Pfeiffer or 5 Elephant and I told them I was “in my studio” laughter would be the most logical response to such an assertion, but, in thinking about the production of this text, such conclusions, written, quite literally in the physical space of the aforementioned cafes, must necessarily be true, at least in part, for me. 

 I would argue that, increasingly, the ecology of aesthetic practice is becoming increasingly dematerialised, this is true both of the reference points and materials used in the production of art, but also in the geographic territories in which the act of creation takes place. I will attempt to examine this point from several different perspectives. I will use my own “practice” for lack of a better term as a kind of starting point, but then I will hope to explore the theory of the studio as it exists in the literature, as well as the lived experience of artists engaged in creation in physical studio sites in cities including New York, London, Berlin and Athens. 

Artists who, unlike me, primarily create physical material objects are increasingly marginalised, both in terms of the aesthetic discourse and in terms of the vagaries of neoliberal capitalism in this late age of hypermobile capital and the hollowing out of urban spaces by the transmutation of buildings as (primarily) Heideggerean dwelling places into repositories for capital. This is particularly true of London—at least until Friday 24 June at around 1AM GMT—but it is increasingly true of Berlin and other cities less historically central to the biography of the nexus of visual art and capital. To begin this discussion, I will discuss my own personal experience with and understanding of the studio, and compare that with historical conception of the role of the studio in the traditional conception of the artist’s life. 

 My first personal knowledge about and interest in the experience of the studio was cultivated in relation to the recording studio. Images of musicians in the studio were always fascinating to me, and hearing stories about the recording, for example, of Marvin Gaye records where producers and engineers asked Gaye to lie on his back to record certain vocal parts to produce particular vocal effects were, given my limited horizons at the time, endlessly fascinating. The first physical interactions I had then with studios as creative spaces was with the bands I played in in my late teens and throughout my twenties. During those years, the studio was a place of deep emotional connection and immersion. Initially, it was a site of total anxiety, facing a microphone in a recording booth for the first time, or trying to reproduce a “live” sound in the rather anodyne atmosphere of the recording studio was a long way from the romantic vision of Bowie in Hansa Studios. I would say that during this period, I began to fall in love with the studio as a space and it became an annual tradition to spend Christmas Day in one or another dingy recording studio working more or less every year for a decade. I would contrast this notion of the studio with the artist’s studio however, in that if one takes Andrew Hardman’s notion of the studio as “a place of habits” or Michel de Certaeu’s notion from his work The Practice of Every Day Life as “a practiced place”. Recording studios at this point in time were places where I worked to realise works rather than to cultivate creative habits. The creative production took place in various spaces, flats, dorms, rehearsal studios etc. These locations are seen differently in music, which I think is conceptually significant. They are designated as “rehearsal rooms” or “spaces” rather than “studios”. Studios are a site of realisation rather than a site of “habits” or the exploration of process. 

 Time in the studio during this period was actually frequently disrupted by performing or touring, which, at the time, I hated because it kept me out of the studio, but I feel that that touring period was the time during which I cultivated my current rather ambivalent attitude toward the studio. The running joke about the band was that the only people who liked us were art students who downloaded our music for free and A&R people who were sent the music for free for promotional purposes so we had no commercial future. This turned out to be true. But in playing gigs and doing promotional work for the band, I met many of the people who introduced me to the world of visual art and I began to understand what I was doing as being less “music” in the traditional sense, but a modality of performance. In the years that followed the breakup of the band, I became more and more involved in performance and conceptual (more or less relational) art. It was during this period that I also completed my MA and Ph.D.—works centered on the interaction of language and mind, and began doing art “journalism” if that is indeed the term one should apply to the writings that appear in art publications. 

As I drifted further from the norms of the recording studio, I never truly settled on a conception of what the art studio would mean to an artist with my concerns. I feel that possibly the people who were most formative for me in terms of my own practice were people like Richard Long and Robert Smithson, artists who were avowedly in the world as much as they were in the studio, and philosophers of language like Chomsky and Wittgenstein who viewed language as relational systems as much as chains of reference and meaning. To speak about a few specific works that relate to the physical studio as conceived in the literature, the place of habits and the place of practice, and my own approach, this is a work I called “A Hole Made by Walking” referencing Long’s earthwork “A Line Made By Walking”. This work was something I retroactively understood as having cognitive and aesthetic value in relation to art historical concerns. It was created, ignorantly, over the course of 2012, a period of extreme poverty that I was enduring in London during my Ph.D. I’d made a work the previous year called “Every Step I Took” which consisted of a pile of canvas shoes stacked in the corner of a gallery. That work essentially recorded every step I took in public in the year 2011, another year of dire economic circumstances, but also the last year of my life that I allowed my obsessive vegetarian beliefs to dictate my clothing choices. The shoes were all “vegetarian vegetarian” in that they didn’t contain even the glue, made from pig bones, that many canvas shoes use. I was saving the shoes to recycle them at the end of the year, but then I realised as I looked over at the pile that the shoes were a kind of biography, a personal, intellectual and physical biography both of me, and of London. They contained my own physicality but also the time that wore them down to the holed messes that they were. They also, I felt humourously, engaged the notion of artistic poverty and self-importance so familiar as tropes from visual and literary representations of art, not to mention their being made of canvas. This work, and the work that followed, “A Hole Made by Walking” (from the year I abandoned vegetarian shoes as what I’d come to regard as a kind of moral vanity given that buying new shoes every two weeks entailed the extraction of materials that were as bad for the earth as knowing one is wearing completely vegetarian shoes is good for one’s smugness), was also a kind of awakening for me, a realisation that the site of creation, the site of habits could just as easily be a public space as an enclosed private space. Agamben’s notion of a habit as a “mode of being” was, I would argue, much more fully realised in a work like “A Hole Made by Walking” or “Every Step I Took” than any studio based self consciously “art” object based work I would have created at the time.

 

 From this point, I began to have a greater interest in the capacity for distributed sites of creation in the production of artwork that was not not object based, but also inherently performative. The question where these lines get drawn is an open one, but in Unmarked (1993) Peggy Phelan argues that documentation is an inherently experiential process, that “performance’s only life is in the present” and that documentation is antithetical to the content and aims of performance. I would argue something different, or perhaps I would position my own approach as being something different, the creation of objects that contain or address time, temporality and motion, but are not inherently tied to the physical presence of an individual being at a specific location at a particular time, essentially the converse (no pun intended) of Phelan. These are contradictions of a kind but they are acknowledged in the discussion of less obviously performative art traditions, for example in Kasia Redzisz’s writings on the “traces of the human presence” in the sculptural works of Miroslaw Balka. Objects like the shoes in “A Hole Made by Walking” are, in my understanding, something like “Performance sculptures”, sculptures that not only contain time—by inference—but also take time as a key subject in their production. 

   These works may be “dematerialised” in terms of the sites of their creation, but they remain very much in the material world of objects. Also, following the reasoning of Hardman and Agamben, they represent habits, but habits realised in a distributed geography. A more recent work from last year touches on this same set of logics but returns to language as a reference point in my work. As many people probably know me more as a writer than anything else, it might be helpful to draw that strand of my life more directly into contact with the works I’ve been discussing so far. I have long had an interest in the relationship of poetry to performance. My Ph.D. centred on the work of John Ashbery as its primary literary touchstone and contrasted it with notions of presence in the work of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson, more or less Ashbery’s contemporaries. I became interested during this period in Olson’s assertion that presence was central to the meaning of poetry, in his conception of it at least. During a poetry reading at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, documented in Libby Rifkin’s interestingly titled book, Career Moves, Olson Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan and the American Avant Garde, Olson is quoted as having made the following, vatic assertion about the role of presence in poetry:

 I wanna talk. I mean, you wanna listen to … a poet? I mean, you know, like a poet, when
 he’s alive, whether he talks or reads you his poems is the same thing … And when he is
 made of three parts, his life, his mouth and his poem, then, by god, the earth belongs to
 us. (Rifkin 13)

Very much orientated toward the bardic end of poetic ideology, the poetry I was interested in, poetry like Ashbery’s is less about the embodied poet but about the nature of language itself and its properties and structures. During this period I became interested in the idea of the poem as a visual object, beyond concrete poetry and flarf, I became interested in creating a “digital collection” in which poems were also readings, but were also visual objects. The results I posted on Youtube as part of a collection I called “Ephemera” (2014). Again, the notion of dematerialisation and distributed creation was at the heart of this project and a project I made in 2015 when I was living in New York. In keeping with the peripatetic approach of the other works, I came up with the idea of using the words I found around New York to create a poem and to produce a “reading” of that poem via instagram in which I posted the words I had found and configured into a poem in order from my instagram account. I am currently working on a version of this for Berlin but also using the visual reference point of the Youtube “lyric video” to create works that are even more robustly visual, but also irreducibly linguistic in character. The work of Steve Reinke might be a useful reference point here, or potentially not. These works are all, however an outgrowth of the notion of the distributed site of creation, which I feel is intrinsic to reconceptualising the studio, or at least formulating a conception of the studio which is outside the traditional “site-based” notion of the creative studio within art. 

 Having spoken about my own work, I feel that it is imperative to note that mine is just one voice within the contemporary creative ecology and that not every person working to create art has the same concerns and is so privileged as to work in a medium that consciously eschews the fixity of place in the process of creation. While I was working on this text, I became interested in the ways artists working in media like painting and sculpture are responding to the changing dynamics of the studio in relation to soaring property prices and incipient gentrification (or the regentrification of locations already economically (or, indeed, militarily) colonised and fallen into disuse). I wanted to include another voice in this process, someone who isn’t in my position, in this case a young Spanish woman who is a sculptor, her work requires a studio for its completion. Living in South and East London over the last ten years, she has also had a peripatetic experience but this is because she was in the epicentre of London gentrification. I think her story offers a glimpse of the dynamics of the process by which artists move into a place with affordable rents and subsequently create an economic dynamic that dispossess themselves and other people. 

 

 This story is probably familiar to everyone here either personally or at a few degrees of remove. I think one of the ways of tying all the threads together today by saying that this process too is part of an increasingly dematerialised logic. The logic of hypermobile capital flows is now so pervasive that the ability of the material world to respond is almost irrelevant, and thus circumstances like those that were documented in a report by Robert Booth in The Guardian from 31 January 2014 in which Booth gained access to a number of the “investment properties’ on the so-called Billionaire’s Row in Bishop’s Road in Hampstead and found inside one of these multi-million pound properties what he described as “generations of owl carcasses” suggesting that the place had been empty for so long generations of owls had lived out their lifespan and perished of natural causes inside. The property was simply too valuable to let. It is an ironic twist that the only safe way to maintain wealth in a hyper-financialised economy is to buy physical property and not rent it out. The ensuing scarcity that this process creates, both in terms of capital and in terms of space feed forward into every discourse in a culture or political entity. The infinite reach and distribution of digital imagery is one part of the increasingly dematerialised aesthetics that characterise a substantial proportion of contemporary art, but the process is not solely aesthetic, it may not even be a result primarily of aesthetic choices but the movements and appurtenances of the markets. The fewer residences that are available, the more desktop residents there will be. This is a process that may feel inexorable, but it is generated by humans, even if it is transhuman in its manifestation. To conclude on a hopeful note, I believe it is still possible to rehumanise the process but time, in the material world, is always a finite quantity. We must make the most of it.