The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

All Issues
FEB 2014 Issue

LANE RELYEA with Katy Siegel

Portrait of Lane Relyea. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Lane Relyea. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Upon the release of his latest book, Your Everyday Art World, Lane Relyea met with Katy Siegel to discuss the historical and future implications of DIY, contemporary post-studio practices, and the the rising art world institution. The conversation took place in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Regina Rex, a collaboratively curated exhibition space committed to engagement and dialogue with other artists.

Katy Siegel (Rail): Your book is unusual in being truly polemical and critical, qualities in low supply right now. And it’s also personal; you write about recent history that you’ve lived through. Most unusually, you implicate yourself in a lot of the things that you complain about. 

Lane Relyea: In the ’80s I edited art magazines, one in Los Angeles and one in the Twin Cities, and we focused a lot of attention on certainDIY and subculture fads—extreme literature, zines, postal art, role-playing communities, pirate radio. That got me noticed; it got me writing offers from Artforum, where the editor at the time, Jack Bankowsky, was describing emerging artists as “slackers” in a nod to the indie movie by Richard Linklater. It also got me a job at CalArts, where the first class I taught was called “How to Secede as an Artist.” We made zines, organized postal art shows, and so on. Dave Muller ofThree Day Weekend fame was a student in that class, so the book goes back to that. It’s really about me trying to reckon with my early advocacy of DIY from the vantage of today when it no longer looks like a passing fad or even very alternative but more like an important historical shift, a new set of arrangements being put in place, part of a new post-Fordist, neoliberal status quo. I start the book off with an anecdote about how, when I was in Europe in the summer of 2007 taking part in “The Grand Tour” and visiting dOCUMENTA and Munster and so on, I made a stop at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and was surprised to see a show featuring all these extreme literature books, part of a project by Bik van der Pol which the museum had just bought. These were the exact same books we were passing around at CalArts in 1991. 

Rail: Now in the context of the super groovy Van Abbemuseum, not exactly about seceding from the art world anymore.

Relyea: Right. I mean, you can get a sense of the change if you just think back to the ’80s, the zenith of blockbuster culture, when FM radio was still a major site of music consumption. Students today will ask me, “What are you listening to?” Back then that was never a question. You knew what people were listening to. In January, 1983 you were listening to track two, side two of Thriller, then in February it was track one, side two, because it was playing everywhere, there was no avoiding it. You had three primetime networks, that was it. And the dialogue about culture was structured differently. You simply had to form an opinion about certain things, whether it was Star Wars or Jeff Koons. Consumers didn’t think about “individualizing” their entertainment streams, you got what everybody got. That was the context in which zines and mixtapes first exploded. But the changes were really widespread. Despite my involvement in DIY I still worked diligently in the late ’80s on the free speech campaign launched in response to the Republican attack on the N.E.A. I remember being so bewildered by how many younger artists couldn’t care less about the whole issue. They were turning away from large, corporate artist’s spaces as the starting place for their careers. They were already opening their own apartment galleries. 

Rail: Are you arguing for some version of a postmodernist break underwritten by technology? People sometimes point to this narrow-casting or customizing as a paradigm shift, but they also say, well, you know, Robert Rauschenberg was already doing something similar. What’s specific about the combination of technology and politics you’re describing? 

Relyea: There are several important forces that I try to keep distinct from the various developments in technology they’re drawing on. There’s the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair and New Labour; the trend within the business world toward breaking up centralized management structures in favor of short-term contractual relations with suppliers and dealers; the accommodation of more freelance, temporary labor. It was in ’90 or ’91 when you get the Fortune Magazine cover story about bureaucracy busters and theBusiness Week issue on stateless corporations. Labor takes a performative turn and becomes more flexible, and so does production as it grows more just-in-time and on-demand and involves more constant interaction and dialogue with the customer. It’s not that business becomes DIY exactly; this is also, remember, a time of bigger and bigger mergers and acquisitions. But the two are not unrelated: hyper-consolidation on the global level happens at the same time that actual on the ground operations become much more decentralized and fragmented. 

The source I draw on most heavily is Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, where they look at ’90s management and organizational literature in the U.S. and in continental Europe. They talk about the shift within business away from trying to rally workers in terms of social concerns—stability, security, a job that lasts, that has a pension at the end of it—to instead a motivational rhetoric that’s actually pulled from ’60s counterculture, what they call an “artistic” rhetoric. Business appropriates the critique of the corporate welfare state, of the administration of everyday life, of security as boredom and inauthenticity. What you want instead is risk, change, mobility, the feeling that you’re not pegged into some overly static order. This becomes the language for winning the loyalty and enthusiasm of the workforce. Of course it also allows businesses to exteriorize a lot of costs. A temporary laborer doesn’t need health benefits.

Rail: Thomas Frank has written a lot about this too, about how since the ’80s advertising has borrowed its language from the ’60s. But what I think is unusual about your book is that you are not just pointing to avant-garde language being repackaged by commerce, or the usual move from a productive economy to a service economy. That critique of art stars and relational aesthetics may be correct, but feels beside the point to younger artists. What’s really on point is your discussion of the apparent flipside: how the things that are intended to oppose the big money, neo-liberal art world—local scenes, a return to hand-making—are implicated in the same political moment, the same art world. You manage to connect a global nomadism and artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija to what’s going on today in Bushwick, or in Memphis and Chicago apartment galleries. 

Relyea: Yeah, there are continuities. A lot of younger artists who’ve rejected social practice and relational aesthetics and are now returning to painting and sculpture or whatever, they too face the same set of conditions. Studio artists know acutely that the studio can be a place of intense disconnection, and disconnection is uncomfortable now. Post-studio has perhaps more of an advantage when it comes to meshing with today’s pervasive feedback systems, with all the constant communicating, accommodating, reaction, dialogue. I don’t even want to call it dialogue, because feedback is different, it breaks down the kinds of behaviors or positions allowable in dialogue. In dialogue there are statements that can be thought about for a moment, and you can respond in different ways—or not, you can just walk away. Feedback is much more [snaps his fingers] eventful. The model is driving a car: you see a rock, you swerve, you see the car now heading toward the guardrail, you swerve back. It’s constant and immediate, about maintaining a constant homeostasis with some kind of mechanism. It’s like what you experience when playing video games, or like the involuntary response you have to reach for your phone when it buzzes in your pocket.

Anyway, another thing I talk about in the book is how, since I first started teaching on the college level in the early ’80s, I would usually teach in painting departments, and like everyone else at the time I would talk about modernist medium-specificity versus the more Duchampian or conceptualist concern with art in general. I would ask students, “If you’re at a bar or on the witness stand and somebody asks you what is it that you do, what would you say? Are you a painter or an artist?” Back then everybody said they were painters. I still ask the question—I did most recently at Cranbrook, again in the painting department—and today nobody says they’re a painter. But they also don’t call themselves artists.

Rail: It’s confining. It pins you down.

Relyea: Exactly, as the definition of art gets more and more blurry, saying, “I make art” can sound antiquated, like you live in some past, sepia-toned era. Even if you are crafting art objects in your studio, you don’t want to be sepia-toned. So across the board everyone’s answer today is, “I make stuff” or “I do stuff.” All verb, no predicate. Doing is preferable, of course, because it’s so open-ended. You might possess considerable skill but you can’t be sure anymore what tasks you’ll need to devote that skill to. This is true generally: as labor grows more short-term and flexible there’s less of a direct connection between skills acquired and tasks performed or outputs produced. So even painters today feel the pressure to not just paint but also put together events, write blogs, do performances, publish criticism, set up collaborations, open exhibition spaces, curate shows, design T-shirts, etc. The same is true for painters as for everyone else: your CV will seem thin even if you have lots of solo shows, because shows aren’t enough anymore. Now you have to have residencies, blogs, publications, curating experience, and so on. The more categories and subcategories, the better.

Rail: We think that medium-specificity is so old-fashioned, that as artists now we have so much freedom to do different things. But really what happens is you have to learn a new art skill every time you do something. You’re always starting from zero; you’re always having to “retool” yourself in the Clintonesque language.

Relyea: When it comes down to it, that’s what I’m trying to do, alter the language we use when talking about this stuff. I don’t want to critique just for the sake of being nasty. It’s about not misrecognizing the labor performed by artists, not overlooking or mythologizing its exploitation. It’s perhaps not wrong to think there’s more freedom today, but there are different ways to look at it. I’m trying to dislodge dominant ways of describing the current moment in art. Like what you’re saying, “Oh, relational aesthetics, it’s the spirit of the ’60s.” Well, no, the ’60s were the zenith and beginning of the end of the corporate welfare state. Erecting some art historical continuity across that socio-economic divide is dishonest. It’s conservative, it’s about entrenching art historical traditions, about making art historical canons of “radicalism” regardless of social history.

Rail: People might make fun of relational aesthetics but the larger emphasis on performativity you’re talking about, on doing and verbs, hasn’t been critiqued really. Artists and critics who aren’t famous and flying all over the place, for them is there still any value in this kind of performativity, or do we need some radical alternative? When people write these books they usually have an afterword that says something like, “Here’s this little glimmer of hope.” You skipped that. 

Relyea: Not entirely. I do try to pose Andrea Fraser as the counter-post-studio artist. For one, she’s not a good team player. Or at least people think that her work is either incredibly didactic or incredibly narcissistic. According to management literature, and all those hot curators like Charles Esche and Maria Lind who speak as if they’ve memorized that literature, they’ll tell you that those are exactly the qualities you want to avoid. Narcissists and loudmouths are not responsive. They’re either too inward-turned or too know-it-all to adequately provide dialogue or feedback. At the same time Fraser is flexible; in her performances she’ll fragment herself into a variety of personas, but in a way that makes her seem not liberated from larger determining systems or sets of conditions but all the more trapped within them. She both is and isn’t exemplary. 

The other thing I like about Fraser is that she wasn’t championed by Bourriaud, which is good because I don’t want to be taken as jumping on the anti-relational aesthetics bandwagon. Instead I want to argue that all this is coming out of institutional critique. I want to argue both with and against Fraser and Miwon Kwon and James Meyer, that’s the discourse I’m engaging. So like them, I map it all back to Minimalism and Conceptual art. Like institutional critique, today’s post-studio, performative social practitioners can be seen as an outgrowth of Minimalism and its sense of exteriority and embededness—only that today, instead of objects, it’s people who are turned outwardly, who engage space and each other, eat food, talk face-to-face, have real connections. And at the same time there’s Conceptual art’s disembeddedness, its emphasis on information and circulation over the big, heavy, stationed object. Post-studio artworks are both at once—temporarily contracted to be embedded in some local situation, then quickly released upon completion of the contract to become disembedded and fly off to the next gig. 

The big difference with institutional critique in the ’80s and today, of course, is that sometime over the last 20 years the institution seemed to go away. Short-term contracts, flexibility, all that stuff helped replace institutional critique with a myth of spontaneous socializing. We’re just free agents operating in communities, acting as natural humans would with other people. Institutional critique turns into social practice because not only does the institution start to break up but also critique goes away. What art and artists stand for now is positive and social. The language of Conceptual art, the museum’s didactic labels, the gallery’s announcement cards or the catalogue’s and magazine’s essays and captions, et cetera, all that is replaced by just talk. Warm and human. Art no longer means separation from the kinds of political effects or audiences or meanings we desire. In fact, art doesn’t come with any limitations at all. It now means freedom from other institutions’ limitations. But as soon as you use the word “art” you’re operating within an institution. That’s one of the reasons why I lean so heavily on Fraser, her argument has recently been that she’s not talking about brick-and-mortar institutions. “Every time I do a work,” she says, “I am the art world. I am the institution.” Despite the waning of institutions and an older museum culture, and no matter how much everybody and everything, including museums, now fall all over themselves to become more flexible and event-like, it doesn’t matter. As soon as you use the word “art” you have that whole institutional apparatus. And it still deserves a critique. Otherwise we start believing our own hype and it all becomes ideology.

Rail: That’s one place where we differ. Fraser hasn’t been rejected by the institution, but a lot of other artists have—most artists don’t refuse the institution as a critique, they are just left out of major institutions like museums and galleries. They fail to matter in terms of conventional success. And so there is a reason for your students to feel ambivalent about the institutional art world, to say, “I make stuff” not “I’m an artist.” 

Relyea: You’re right. I live in Chicago and came up in places like Minneapolis and Los Angeles. So my relationship to the institution of art hasn’t involved so much a powerful gallery-museum system like what Daniel Buren or Benjamin Buchloh talk about. In Los Angeles in the ’80s, and now in Chicago, instead of a commercial gallery system it’s the M.F.A. programs that dominate. There are art scenes across the country, in places like Portland, Maine, and York, Alabama, where there are no commercial opportunities but there are M.F.A. programs, or at least artists with M.F.A.’s. And all these fly-over art scenes in the middle of the country, they have enough coherence that they’re able to internally reproduce things like status, recognition, visibility, CVs, so that the artists can maintain careers without needing gallery exhibitions. But that’s possible to a large degree because everybody has been trained, extensively, in the separateness of art, they’ve been professionalized as artists.

And I think that’s becoming more and more true for everybody, even those in New York or other big cities. A lot of people have talked about this recently. In place of galleries and museums it’s art schools that are becoming the system’s primary unit. Which makes sense: you can’t beat graduate school when it comes to the constant retooling you spoke of, or in terms of trying to emphasize talk and socializing, of having a sense that young people are coming together as if “spontaneously” to form communities and create events, and then they graduate and quickly disperse across the map. Museums and other big art institutions, in their attempts to become more flexible and social and dialogue-based and event-like, are really trying to be more like M.F.A. programs. They merge the education and curatorial departments, for example, and generally replace the idea of looking back at art in retrospect with an interest in the future, in prospects. Instead of the permanent collection you get something closer to the school’s open house, or maybe portfolio day.

Rail: In those situations—in the art scene in Chicago, but also in Brooklyn—your identity as an artist perhaps has less to do with the work you make than with your social energy, the things you do. Maybe that’s why there’s so little interest today in some big discussion of where art’s going. Whatever the next big thing is, we imagine it not coming out of art but out of some radical social activity.

Relyea: Out of some kind of organizing of artists, or we think of something like Occupy. Obviously the way I talk about artists and their DIY activity rhymes a lot with discussions of precarious labor. Part-time, overstretched, overly available, on-demand and easy-to-get-rid-of labor. And it’s really hard to organize that kind of labor, of course. So perhaps it does suggest other structures, like Occupy, like the old ’30s Artist Union but more spontaneous, structures that aren’t too rigid and can accommodate fragmentedness and transience.

But this is also why it’s interesting to rethink the institution of art. And to also rethink our avoidance of it, our desire to imagine we exist outside of it. If art now overflows the older model, if the institution today is centered more on the graduate art program than the museum, then we’re dealing with a much larger map and a greater variety of situations. We’re dealing with York, Alabama, for instance. You can be lazy and respond by saying, “Well, that’s just the surplus.” And it’s true, our society keeps producing more and more artists, the number of M.F.A.’s awarded each year has been growing steadily since the 1960s, it never slows despite all the recessions, the defunding of the N.E.A., whatever. If not necessarily more inclusive, the art world is definitely becoming bigger and more evenly spread throughout the country. And a surplus of artists corresponds to other kinds of surpluses in labor and production. After all, that’s one definition of art, right? That it represents what labor might become when it reaches a surplus, when it’s been socialized and automated and made efficient enough so as to become not just something necessary for survival but instead a free creative activity undertaken for its own sake. When it becomes not a means to an end but an end in itself. 

Well, there sure is a whole lot of surplus or excess wealth out there, only it’s a surplus that’s misrecognized as individually rather than socially produced and that in turn is appropriated by an infinitesimally small fraction of the population. And then on the other hand here are all these artists with huge student loans to repay, struggling to survive, their creativity narrowed by necessity, their art as surplus folded back into scarcity. They have zero chance for commercial sales and no more government support to turn to. Rather than the N.E.A. they have to hit up today’s Medici-like mega-patrons like the Warhol Foundation, or they simply turn to each other through crowdsourced funding and community supported art schemes. That’s a pretty tense situation. And pretty interesting. All these people walking around, in all these different places, saying, “I just want to do things for their own sake.” I have no problem with that whatsoever. More artists out in the world thinking that, in a society able to create such incredible wealth, more people should be able to spend their time freely, doing whatever it is they want to do.


Katy Siegel

Katy Siegel is professor of art history at Hunter College, CUNY. Her most recent books are Since ’45 (Reaktion, 2011) and Abstract Expressionism (Phaidon, 2011); upcoming curatorial projects include Light Years: Jack Whitten, 1971-1973 and The Matter That Surrounds Us: Wols and Charline von Heyl (Rose Art Museum).


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2014

All Issues