From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. All sessions of the convening were transcribed live by a stenographer; below is an edited transcript of the Artists as Cultural First Responders panel, featuring short presentations followed by a group discussion with keynote speaker James Bridle, and panelists Marisa Mazria-Katz (Creative Time Reports), Dan Fox (frieze), and Claire Evans (Vice), moderated by the Walker’s Fionn Meade.
Download a PDF of the full conference transcript. To view videos of all Superscript panels and keynotes, or to read commissioned essays and live blogging by participants in the Superscript Blog Mentorship program (a partnership with Hyperallergic), visit the Superscript Reader. To report errors in this document, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artists as Cultural First Responders
Saturday, May 30, 2015
Creative Time. So I’ve been with them for four years. And you know, there was something very natural you could say, inevitable about launching a platform for artists to weigh in on news at Creative Time. It’s an organization that has been commissioning artists to engage with urgent social and political issues since its founding four decades ago. So for instance, I like to look at this project. It’s a real inspiration for Creative Time Reports. So this is Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed And Indifference Do. The Creative Time project was produced in 1989 at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. The political art action appropriated advertising and media strategies to spread information about AIDS and its social ramifications to a vast audience by pairing the piece’s message with an image of three interracial couples, both same sex and heterosexual, kissing, the image appeared on postcards that were circulating through mass mailings and on posters affixed to New York City buses.
So how many of you know Creative Time, show of hands? OK. So for the very few that don’t, just a little bit of history. I want to talk about what our mission is. Which really underscores that artists are important to society, that artists should be weighing in on the times in which we live, and that public places, and public spaces are places for free expression and creativity. Now, with all of this in mind, Creative Time Reports genesis came about when our artistic director and president Ann Pasternak began asking questions. Questions like, if Creative Time believes the idea that artists matter in society, and if we want them to impact how we think about today’s most pressing issues, what are the public spaces that would truly magnify their voices? Where should they be participating? Where is public dialogue happening?
And the answer we arrived to was online. So we thought now if we’re going to work in this vein, it entailed expanding our definition of public space, beyond shared physical spaces, and entering into a dialogue with news media.
So we incubated this idea for a full year before the site’s launch in October 2012 and we decided it was going to be established and rested on several pillars, first that we would work with artists all over the world. And this really entailed me leaving my desk, so you know, every month or so I was in another country and several of which were you know, Tunisia Hungary, the United Arab Emirates, and Kenya. This wasn’t just to meet potential contributors but also to engage what does it project like this mean what does it mean for an artist to weigh in on the news? Than they confirmed early suspicions that a monolithic approach just wouldn’t work. The pieces we featured had to be as wide-ranging in form subject and language as the contributing artists were diverse. It also meant cultivating a deep sensitivity to geo political situations that have the potential to make our artist correspondents vulnerable. For instance, if an artist wished to remain anonymous, we pledged that we would hide his or her identity.
So this was one of the first pieces that we did with an artist that made such a request and this piece was published on the eve of the 2013 elections in Iran. We also knew that if we were going to successfully weigh in on the news we had to be timely and we had to publish pieces that we were certain would align with the news cycle.
So how do we, a staff of more or less two, sometimes three, you know, compete with megalithic media sites? We came up with a few strategies. First, we wanted to always stay abreast of upcoming events that have the foreseeable potential for life-altering consequences, like the 2013 Kenyan elections which came 5 years after a vote that sparked violence resulting in over 1,000 deaths.
We also wanted to unearth approaching anniversaries that resonate often bitterly with those who mark them like the 20th anniversary of NAFTA or the one-year anniversary of hurricane Sandy. It also meant consistently taking on issues that are significant, no matter the month, like global warming, race, surveillance or immigration. We would ask ourselves, which artists are most poised as Howard Zinn wrote in his book, Artists in Times of War, to think outside the boundaries of permissible thoughts and dare to say things no one else will say. The second critical component of Creative Time Reports was cultivating partnerships with major publications that would then co-publish our pieces, thereby distributing artist personal perspectives and critical interventions to thousands or even millions of readers.
So our first such partnership was with Foreign policy magazine which was based in Washington, D.C. and the occasion was the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by Muslims as one of the five pillars of Islam. The photo essay was by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, who showcases the rapid transformation of a sacred city now flooded with multimillion dollar real estate developments and these are just some other photos from the photo essay. This is a hotel that was recently built that overlooks the Kaabah. This is a gas station that he often frequents or sees on his way home to Jeddah. A year later, one of our more memorable piece, David burn’s op ed on the effects of soaring, sorry, what’s what it looked like in foreign policy. David Burn’s op ed on the effects of soaring rents on creative life in New York. Went viral through our partnership with the Guardian and what was amazing about this afterwards is that the Guardian asks us to become part of their comment network, which means that we basically are in constant dialogue with them about upcoming pieces that we’re about to publish and very often they will take them and republish them. So since for foreign policy we’ve partnered roughly with 2 dozen publications including Al Jazeera America. This was with a story about a photographer who’s been documenting the lives of migrants who’ve moved from all parts of China to Beijing and live in bomb shelters beneath buildings, often illegally, and then we’ve also worked with the New Yorker. This is Sylvia Plachy photo series, images that she took from the first Gulf War.
So aligning ourselves with such outlets we initially released content as responses to the news. But this was hard for us, because it left us nipping at the heels of a fluctuating media cycle rather than determining our own publishing rhythm. So the shift in our strategy kind of came about, in 2013 with an artist we’ve all been mentioning today, with Trevor Paglen. He approached us with the idea of photographing the National Security Agency and other US intelligence agencies.
So the project required a tremendous amount of legwork. Even when we secured clearances from each agency, which was the National Geospatial Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office in addition to the NSA. We still had to find a helicopter pilot who was willing to fly above these institutions. One of which was located in a restricted flight zone. So I accompanied Paglen on the shoot and created a short film that, together with the text written by the artist, explains the impetus behind the project. The piece that resulted—it’s called Overhead—was co-published with the Intercept which was founded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill.
So I’m going to show a little film about this. It’s the one that I was just mentioning it’s about 3 minutes long and it’s so much of what Creative Time Reports is about is we step out of the way of the artist within we let them speak, so I felt it was important that you hear a little bit about how this all came about from Trevor directly. If you could play the film, please.
Trevor Paglen (on video): One of the things that is happening in society right now that I think is quite dramatic is a real shift in the way that we understand what is a relationship between the state and citizens, what is the relationship between the state and people in general, and that is something that’s really changing as a result of new kinds of technologies that have been developed, new ways of surveilling people, and new ways of storing data, quite frankly, and so I guess that’s where my interest in these institutions comes from, is just trying to understand how they’re influencing the rest of the world and to try to help develop a vocabulary, a kind of visual and cultural vocabulary that we can use to begin talking about this kind of thing. It’s very difficult to talk about something that’s so abstract, so I feel like part of my job is to try to point at something, to try to make an image that can be a reference point for a larger conversation.
When we imagine organizations like the NSA or the CIA or the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, I think we tend to think about them as being very separate from the rest of the state and very separate from other civic institutions, and to a certain degree that’s true. These are secret agencies they have classified budgets; most everything that they do is classified. At the end of the day, however, these are not so dissimilar from your local library, and we have no problem going to the local library and saying what policies we want, what hours we want them to be open, have something to say about what the rules are. And we don’t feel that same sense of ownership over the agencies of the intelligence community and I think we should.
What I hope is that these images will be first of all helpful to people to just try to wrap their heads around what some of these agencies are, to just point to them and acknowledge the fact that they’re there, that they exist, that they’re doing work. Beyond that, I hope that they can contribute in some small part to a wider cultural vocabulary that we can use to try to see these institutions, to try to understand them, to try to think about what it is that they do. And to try to think about the effect that they have on the society around them.
Mazria-Katz: So this piece debuted as I mentioned before with the intercept, but it came on the day that it launched, it was a really big moment for us to be part of this endeavor. And there were—the ripple effects were just staggering and we really took note you know, so in addition to the press coverage that the project got, Paglen’s images have illustrated stories about surveillance in newspapers and TV broadcasts around the world. Human Rights Watch used his photo on the cover of a damning report on US surveillance and the journalist Tom Engelhardt’s book, Shadow Government, used the image for its cover. So realizing that our most impactful pieces are often the ones that take the most time to conceive and execute, we recalibrated our approach to how and when we published.
As a result of this thinking, we slowed down on how often we published and in a sense, we found ourselves working more along the lines of Creative Time, ensuring that our artists are grounded in communities they cover, to avoid the ubiquitous art world and media world in general pitfall of parachuting in to report on a crisis and leaving before any substantive work has been done. The slower pace essentially allows us to work with more integrity, to fact check all the more rigorously and take time to massage ideas that are still forming.
Simultaneously, we’ve cultivating new paths for expanding our out reach and Creative Time Reports added several regional editors this past year, from Istanbul to Nairobi to Vancouver, we see these editors as our eyes and ears in cities around the world. Not only bringing new artists contributors on board, but also deepening our sensitivity to local conditions. The first such piece we did was with our editor Sheyma Buali who is based in London, Sheyma helped us usher in this piece from Lebanese cartoonist, Karl Sharro, just days after the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Creative Time Reports strives to present artists engaging with pressing issues in an expanded range of forms punctuating news feeds and home pages around the world, with unexpected stories and images. We hope that our signature mix of art, activism and journalism will become an increasingly visible and trusted source for unconventional forms of expression with real political impact. Thank you.
So, I’d like to begin by playing dumb. I’ve been worrying about this phrase “artists as cultural first responders” ever since the invitation to take part on this panel arrived. Worried because, I’ll admit, I didn’t really understand it. I turned it over in the light, tried to gauge the weight of it. I tried to work out what it was made from. I sensed that it might be something about artists as citizen journalists, perhaps, or Trojan Horse activists bravely storming the bastille of social media. But still, my initial sense was that it made me feel uncomfortable. It sounded—and here’s where I have to apologize to my lovely hosts at the Walker—it sounded melodramatic. For some reason I could not help but read the term “first responder” literally. Artists, vital though they are in our society—crucial though they are to our understanding of each other, to making the world a more interesting place—are not paramedics, they’re not firefighters, coastguards, or law enforcement officials. (Although some paramedics, firefighters, coastguards or law enforcement officials may well be artists.) A painting of a fire engine is not going to put out the blazing inferno engulfing an apartment block or rescue a cat stuck up a tree. A 3D-printed sculpture of your left hand isn’t going to dig survivors out from the rubble of an earthquake or taser an innocent man.
I could have pressed the curators for more clarity, but instead I decided to consult higher authorities. According to the United States Homeland Security Presidential Directive No. 8: “The term “first responder” refers to those individuals who in the early stages of an incident are responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment […] as well as emergency management, public health, clinical care, public works, and other skilled support personnel (such as equipment operators) that provide immediate support services during prevention, response, and recovery operations.”
Now, I know it seems willfully obtuse and pedantic to continue pursuing the literal meaning of this term “cultural first responder” but in doing so I discovered that the exercise of trying to find parallels between the real-world definition of “first responder” and this creative context began to raise some intriguing questions. First of these might be about “protection and preservation”: is that what artists really do? What does it mean if “the interplay between platform and content” (to quote the description of this panel discussion) is a question of “prevention and recovery” rather than innovation, say, or critical intervention, or creative destruction. What if—to come at this from an extremely paranoid angle—artists are not the “first responders,” but the emergency incident itself, and that the “first responders” are not nice, cuddly creative individuals but those involved in the actual development of new technology platforms, plundering methodologies from art in order to monetize them, turn them into some time-swallowing new app?
Let’s say the artists are the responders. What incident might they be responding to? The Homeland Security directive refers to the “early stages of an incident.” This is something that other people during the course of the conference have already spoken about, so excuse me for repeating it. Given the topic of “the digital age” that frames this conference, we can assume on a grand historical perspective “the incident” to be the bracing Internet revolution we’ve been living through for the last 15 to 20 years. If that’s the incident, then it was only a small handful of artists that rushed to the scene at the “early stages,” and—until recently,—they were quickly abandoned. Think, for instance, about how quickly the art world in the early 2000s became embarrassed of 1990s “net art” and “media lounges” in museums. Think too, how the art world for a long time remained insulated from many of the changes being brought to the arts at large by the forces of social media and file-sharing, and essentially remained analogue in what it produced. In a 2011 essay for frieze magazine, because I’ve got to get the advertisement in there somewhere, curator Lauren Cornell described how “unlike other industries, such as music and publishing, the art world wasn’t forced to react to cultural shifts wrought by the Internet because its economic model wasn’t devastated by them. The quality of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), for instance, isn’t dependent on YouTube votes or the extent to which it circulates virally, and nor can one download and install a BitTorrent of a Rachel Harrison sculpture. The principles that keep the visual arts economy running—scarcity, objecthood and value conferred by authority figures such as curators and critics—make it less vulnerable to piracy and democratized media.” (I would like to qualify that slightly, by making clear that we’re speaking in broad brushstrokes here. Technology changes, and will surely come and bite the analogue arse of artists sooner or later. The stickier reality is that what we call “the art world” means many things to many people, and your experience of its conditions differs depending on where you are positioned in relation to it in terms of geography, economics, race, gender and sexuality.)
But back to the topic.
At risk of plumbing the depths of my own crass literalism even further: what does it mean, then, to entertain the idea that in recent years artists have not proven themselves to be “cultural first responders,” because there was no urgency for them to be so, but maybe “second” or even “third responders”? Maybe artists should not be “first responders” anyway. There’s something a little self-aggrandizing about assuming artists should be on the front line. An artist’s work may well be more valuable in the space of reflection, in mulling things over, assessing the situation across a longer period of time. On the front line, they might just get in the way.
We also need to define what we mean by artists. Visual artists are the only creative workers who use the word “art” in the title of their own profession—writers, actors, critics, dancers, musicians, designers, film directors; they’re all artists too, but the appellation tends to get owned by visual artists—a bit like the way the country of “America” takes the name of two continents and owns it for itself. As we’re in a big institution which dedicates a lot of what it does to the visual arts, I assume it’s visual artists to whom we’re referring in this conference but I think it’s artists in the broadest sense whom we should be thinking about here. This is a broad generalization again, but conversations in the visual arts sometimes have a tendency to refer to other creative disciplines as if they exist as pick’n’mix sources of inspiration, or areas for visual artists to study occasionally in order to “critique” them, as if only artists are capable of having deep insights into what other people do.
Indeed if the incidents to which creative people are responding are the technological and concomitant social changes brought by the Internet, then maybe it’s musicians, publishers, writers and filmmakers we should be looking to as the “first responders,” for it’s their means of making a living, of distributing and valuing their work, that have really drastically altered in the past decade and a half—they should be here at this conference because we’re all in this together. That said, a part of me can’t help but think that to call any artists “cultural first responders” is to buy into an older Romantic myth of the artist as seer, soothsayer, oracle. “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths”, as Bruce Nauman put it sarcastically. But words associated with the arts also have slippery meanings today, changing valences. For instance, in our lifetimes, the word “creative” has migrated from being a nice, friendly adjective into a noun, a common job title in large technology businesses developing platforms that many of us—artists or otherwise—use daily. What does that mean when we ask who gets to set the agenda for the “interplay of platform and content,” or talk about “media inventors who create altogether new modes of storytelling, makers who use online means to critique institutional power?”
Some of the more powerful “media inventors” and “makers” are deeply embedded in the very institutions that need critiquing—not museums and galleries but government agencies, Silicon Valley corporations and tech start-ups. They are the ones spinning new modes of storytelling about the world, positioning themselves as “disruptors” whose “creative technologies” are going to make the world a better place. I could be wrong, or simply stuck in my own little corner of the art world, which is quite possible, but I don’t see that many visual artists or arts writers making entirely new communications platforms that will revolutionize how you watch video art or call your grandma on her birthday. That might shift generationally, as more people understand how to take control of the engine mechanics, rather than being stuck with the given functionality of the software offered to us by the tech industry. Or maybe—looking around at how many of us are glancing at our various devices in the room and—sorry, I’ve lost my place—using platforms designed by technology companies they have no dialogue with or control over—“cultural first response” is nothing more than trolling conference speakers on Twitter like a child sniggering at the back of the class. At times I feel that the best “first response” might be to switch off your devices, throw them out and go live off the grid. We don’t all have to be making art that engages with technology; it’s still fine to make a painting. You can still write art criticism using all the tools that tech provides, but it’s still an option to write a long essay and publish it in a book made from paper.
The idea of a “first responder” implies responsibility and authority. These days we’re all reviewers, we’ve all got an opinion about that exhibition, TV show, restaurant. But that assumes certain freedoms. I know artists who do not live in countries such as the US, and this is something Marisa spoke about very eloquently, artists who live in countries where being a “first responder” is impossible for reasons of censorship or harshly conservative cultural attitudes. There are critics who are more worried about being arrested the next day than whether they should accept a flat fee or be paid a dollar a word for their exhibition picks of the week. So we come back to the issue of second or third response. A second or third response might mean building a second or third layer of meaning, of encoding, onto what an artist makes, and that could be for reasons of security as much as anything. (Think, for instance, of how playwrights living under the Soviet Union used surrealism or science fiction in order to talk about their political situation.) Secondary or tertiary response might also mean taking a step back, responding slowly. The speed of opinion in the digital age demands instant response, instant punditry to news events, and the arts aren’t insulated from that. I’ve been working as a critic since 1999 and in that time I’ve felt the pull of the Gs, seen the pedal hit the metal; I have to get my review of the new Whitney Museum, say, or Venice Biennale, published within nano-seconds of the doors opening; there is now an assumption is that art critics have to go at the same speed as news reporters, sports journalists and gossip columnists. But the one question we don’t ask often enough is “what speed” should be of the essence? A reflective review written slowly, published a couple of months after the event, can be just as valuable than the snappy one published in the heat of the moment. (As Yeats observed, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”) Life doesn’t reveal itself to us all at once, and neither does art. Making things—whether it’s a piece of online art, an essay, a movie or a dance—takes time and there is value in refusing to live in the fast lane.
Let’s quickly remind ourselves of the legal U.S. government definition of “first responder”: they are “responsible for the protection and preservation of life, property, evidence, and the environment.” Is the question we should be asking ourselves not one about making the new but valuing the old?
As the conversations we’ve seen over the last two days have demonstrated, there is a sense of embattlement amongst some of us. The general tenor of the conversations this weekend has been that we are trying to protect and preserve something; striving to preserve imaginative, thoughtful, constructive responses to culture; defending a space in which you can live a life of the mind, a life of the creative hand, from the douchebags who have turned the world into such a harsh economic environment. On the other hand we need to ask what is worth protecting and preserving that doesn’t just shore up all the old structures.
If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to swerve sharply off the main road for a moment and head in the direction of big, clunky, boulder-like metaphors and some hastily conceived ideas. Just lately—and because this is the sort of nonsense that fills my mind—I’ve been thinking about a movie, made for TV in 1985, called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. The film is set in a United Kingdom run by a small handful of media organization and corporations. TV sets have no “off switch,” and the corporate oligarchy monitors the personal lives and data of every single citizen through the TV, which feeds a non-stop diet of reality-style shows voted for by viewers. A popular journalist named Edison Carter, played by the actor Matt Frewer, has recently been employed by one of these media companies, Network 23. His job involves running around the city chasing news stories using cameras that provide a direct feed to the TV network: he is a first responder in real-time—journalist and producer all wrapped up into one. Carter has discovered that the network is pushing a form of subliminal advertising called “blipverts” that cause seizures and can kill people who see them. In the course of gathering evidence he suffers an accident, running his vehicle into a low-clearance sign (which, in the UK, are marked “Max Headroom,” an abbreviation of “Maximum Headroom”). Network 23 thinks Carter is a goner, but worry about their ratings, so get a young computer whizz to “download” Carter’s personality and create an artificial intelligence avatar of him to cover up the disappearance. Unfortunately for them, the avatar is broken; it stutters, glitches. The Network gets rid of it, and it falls into the hands of a local pirate TV station, who tinker with the avatar, semi-fix it, and create a new kind of TV show host called Max Headroom who makes sarcastic comments against a floating backdrop of vector graphics. In the meantime, Carter awakes from his coma, and uses Max as a diversion, allowing him to ultimately expose the Network 23 honchos for the crooks they are.
What’s this sudden tangent got to do with artists as cultural first responders?
Well, for one thing there are the superficial parallels in the plot between our present and those 20 minutes into the future; citizen journalists, social media, uploading news straight to the network. We’re all broadcasters now. Arts criticism is a branch of arts broadcasting, but writing has always been broadcast. Secondly, in Max Headroom there’s this idea of the artist as a gremlin in the machine, a renegade that infiltrates more powerful media forces, cleverly providing a meta-commentary on the system. (Following the movie, the Max character went on to host music TV shows and appear on a record with the band the Art of Noise.) It’s a romantic idea, but as I mentioned earlier, now that larger business forces use the language of the creative arts—of disruption and subversion and virality—in order to innovate new products, maybe it’s an outdated look. To be inside something is not necessarily to critique it. Printing out Instagram photos and hanging them in a gallery isn’t “making work about the Internet,” it’s just ice-skating across the top of it.
On November 22, 1987, two television stations in the Chicago area—WGN-TV and WTTW—experienced a “broadcast signal intrusion”; the stations were briefly hijacked by a masked figure dressed as Max Headroom, filmed in front of a rotating piece of corrugated steel, emulating the moving digital environment that Max lived in. To this day, nobody knows who perpetrated the broadcast intrusion, nor really, what he wanted. But it represented, however briefly, a situation in which the means of distribution were seized. There are obvious parallels today in hacking that I don’t have time to go into now. But this train of thought—from Max Headroom to the broadcast signal intrusion reminds me that our present relationship to the Internet is merely part of an older story of the relationship between artists and the media and screen culture.
Two quick examples. Between 1973 and 1977 Chris Burden produced his “TV Commercials” – he bought advertising space on local television Through the Night Softly, Poem for L.A, Chris Burden Promo, and Full Financial Disclosure. Through the Night Softly was a performance where Burden held his hands behind his back and crawled through fifty feet of broken glass on Main Street in Los Angeles. Even earlier, in 1971, the British artist David Hall made his seven “TV Interruptions”: seven short films broadcast on Scottish TV with no explanation or contextual framing. Did anything change in the ways TV affected us? No. The traction that art has on the world is by and large small, slow, incremental. The second, third, fourth response.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, when the movie was made in 1985, the technology did not exist to produce an actual A.I. avatar. (Or at least it was beyond the budget of this TV production.) When actor Matt Frewer played Max Headroom, he played him dressed in heavy latex make-up and a fiberglass suit. He was flesh and blood human, using analogue technology to play a digital character. There’s something about this layering that reminds me of our present situation: your social media handle is nothing but a prosthetic, you are still flesh and blood. The digital age is still also an age of bodily functions and bodily needs. As James pointed out earlier, Internet is cables and satellite hardware.
All of which is to say that is that a first response might be laughter, tears, debating with someone in person, punching them in the nose or giving them a great big kiss. Using new technology in your work does not make you a better artist nor a more interesting human being, and it’s OK if your first response is the last response. Know what to discard, and know what to preserve and protect. Thank you.
Hi, my name is Claire.
I want to begin with a question that I thought would be far more left-field until Dan brought up Max Headroom. But the question is: what is science fiction?
Many people in response to this question throw together a collection of tropes. Science fiction is outer space. Science fiction is rockets and lasers and men traveling to the corners of the universe.
But that’s only the simplest way of defining and extremely complex literary and culture form. In fact, there’s something of a cottage industry, among academics, in drafting new and more comprehensive definitions of a genre that changes as quickly as our relationship to the future itself.
And because it means a lot of different things for a lot of different people, a singular definition for science fiction is hard to grasp. The boundaries are squiggly, and the more granular you get with the question, the more difficult the answer becomes: Does a science fiction story necessarily have to take place in the future? Well, no, every work of fiction has some temporal relationship with the world in which it is written, and even canonical science fiction texts like Star Wars take place a long, long time ago. Does science fiction have to be rigorous in its science or technological approach? Yes, there is a culture of science fiction—“hard SF”—in which that is an important quality, but some of the greatest science fiction writers of all time flubbed the science or considered it secondary to the central problems of their work. William Gibson, for example, wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter with little to no knowledge of the Internet, and Ray Bradbury famously put air on Mars in the Martian Chronicles.
If we try to define science fiction by first determining what it isn’t, we enter into an equally thorny area. Why is Slaughterhouse Five shelved under literature in bookstores, when its protagonist is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, but equally literary books by writers like Joanna Russ or Ursula Le Guin or James Tiptree Jr. are relegated to the mothballed corner of science fiction/fantasy.
And if we try to define where that slash falls between science fiction and fantasy it’s even more hairy. Because if aliens and robots and far-future scenarios are permitted, then why aren’t dragons and elves, etc.?
The truth is, a lot of different kinds of texts qualify as science fiction, books about parallel histories and alternate realities and futures so distant they might as well be mythic or ancient. Books where there are artificial intelligences on our desktops or extraterrestrial intelligences far off in the cosmos. In my study of the genre, which is informal but lifelong, I have only found onehard and fast rule about science fiction, which I am going to try and explain to you now.
Imagine a world. It can be the earth if that’s easier for you to imagine. In 99% of science fiction, it is the earth in some failed capacity. Whatever the world is, you must think of it as a starting point. It can have as tumultuous a history as you like, but, for the time being, it is a world that exists in a world of present condition, with set physics and social dynamics. Now change one thing about that world.
What kind of thing? Anything, it can be aesthetic, metaphysical, ecological, political. It usually takes the form of a question, which can be a technological question: What would happen if all the computers woke up tomorrow and said hello? What if we crack faster-than-light-speed travel? It can be a deeply human question. What if we cease to be able to breed? What if we radically upend social structures?
Pose and answer one of these questions, and you immediately create what genre critics call a “radical discontinuity,” which is a particular form of cognitive dissonance unique to science fiction that occurs when everything is familiar except for one, or a few, significantly altered variables. Radical discontinuities are what makes science fiction science fiction: Not rockets, not outer space, not far-flung time lines. They’re also what makes science fiction a particularly potent tool of “first response” for artists, because every radical discontinuity is inherently critical. By proposing an alternative to the world, either an aspirational alternative or an alternative that serves as a warning, depending on your proclivity for utopia or dystopia.
Using discontinuity for critique isn’t isolated to critiques of technology or society. It can work for art, I think, or it can, although I don’t see it used very much. In a lot of science fiction that deals with art, music, you know, the market’s frequently missed. When you look at musical sequences in science fiction like the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars or the cave rave in The Matrix, it doesn’t tell you anything about the future, it’s usually just like this shorthand of exoticism, or something, but I think it can be done in art and it can be used in an interesting way for art criticism. I’m thinking of the work of Mark Von Schlegell, does anybody know his work? When we practice the mental calisthenics of determining the difference between the real world Yeah, cool! He’s a science fiction writer who comes from art criticism and has published a handful of really incredible novels and semiotext, but he’s far outside of the science fiction landscape that he can only really publish in, like, highfalutin European art magazines and exhibition catalogs, and he makes these incredibly funny and biting critiques of the art world that, I think, are an indicator of what could be possible if we took that idea seriously. So, for example, for one of his stories, he presents the future of contemporary art as a hybrid of “all the essentially harmless activities of the Western cultural tradition” in a new practice called “kulturnautics,” which is among other things a circus of mathematically impossible pavilions that are sprouting up rudely and constantly into the lives of the working poor. This kind of thing is really snakry, of course, but it represents, to me, again what is possible when we begin to think seriously about speculative fiction as a form of art writing or art criticism.
No matter what the point of focus is, though, when we practice the mental calisthenics of determining the difference between the world that we live in and the variable world at hand in a science fiction, when we try to discover where the radical discontinuity has been made, and try to see how we, in our lives, in our world, might be led to the juncture at which those discontinuities are formed, we learn a great deal about what is seemingly natural to us in the world. It makes us reevaluate everything we take for granted. These strangenesses in science fiction can help clarify the normal, and it can help us to understand the inherently arbitrary or historical nature of some social constructions. It confronts us in a specifically cognitive way that is designed to leave us as readers wondering a great many things—it’s designed to pose questions like “where are we headed?” Or, whether we are complicit with the world, or whether we are really ourselves at all.
Radical discontinuities don’t require temporal extrapolation. They do not require the future in any capacity. Which is another of the assumed hard tenets of science fiction. Yes, the easiest way to understand the effects of a discontinuity is to play it out over time and to see how it modifies and takes root in the world, but something like a parallel history, such as in Philip K. Dick’s, The Man in the High Castle, a novel which takes place in a world in which the allies lost the war, can do the same kind of critical work, while taking place in the present.
And the kinds of science fictions that emerged from Mundane SF, which is a movement in the mid 2000s in science fiction—that was kind of like a Dogme 95 for science fiction—it called for stories that took place in the near future, with little technology, very little theatrics. It argued that, as in the manifesto it said, “our most likely future is one in which we have ourselves and this planet.” And it called for fiction that spoke to those realities.
With these kinds of practices, science fiction isn’t something escapist, exotic, or inherently futuristic—it is just an attitude, an approach to critique that can be applied anywhere and by anyone.
Great science fiction, the truly transgressive shit, proposes many different radical discontinuities at once, creating complex intellectual bombs that implode slowly in the mind, but the important thing is that it always remains tethered to the world as we know it, to the world as it was before the question or questions were posed, right? It always presents a clear road from the real to the discontinuous, a road we can imagine walking, because otherwise, there’s no through line. There’s nothing to hold onto, and therefore, it no longer has any position for real critique. It becomes just fantasy, pure escapism.
Which, speaking of, is the line between science fiction and fantasy. For the fantasy writer, the creative act is one ever pure imagination. His or her invented world doesn’t necessarily need to hew to a physics consistent with our own. A fantasy writer is free to magically relax the structure of the cosmos at will. But if science fiction writer wishes to do the same thing, they must invent a reason why, a method how, and then cope with the consequences. It may seem like a small difference, it’s kind of a conceptual stance, but makes all the difference, because waking up is what lends gravitas to dreams.
I deal in science fiction, partially for a living. Some of you may know me as a musician if you know me at all but I edit a rogue science fiction imprint of VICE called Terraform. It’s part of VICE‘s science and technology site, motherboard, of which I am the “Futures” editor. Terraform is where where we publish stories that speak to, extrapolate from, or are otherwise in conversation with the current news stories my journalist colleagues are covering elsewhere on the VICE platform. So, we connect our fiction in a very tangible way with the actual realities and anxieties of the present, and if somebody reads a piece of speculative fiction on Terraform and is piqued by the issues it raised, we have a very direct means for the readers to go back to read about what’s actually happening in the present day through tags and suggested articles.
I sometimes explain Terraform to people by saying it’s tomorrow’s news today, which is glib, but fairly accurate. At Terraform, we deal in the near term radical discontinuity. This means we publish stories about things like drones, the gamification of war, misogyny on the web, forms of protest in the 21st century, and the ways in which our relationship to social media changes our relationships to one another, etc. We only publish once a week and our upper ceiling, unless something is exceptional, is around 2,000 words, which is equivalent with the standard, shareable news story on the web. So we can be quite nimble, and often commission fiction or draw from our slush pile depending on what is happening in the world.
So, one of our favorite things to do is actually to commission journalists and non-fiction writers to extrapolate the ramifications of their own beats in a timely manner. So, for example, during a particular hairy privacy scandal involving Uber, we had technology writer Paul Ford imagine a dystopia in which a self-aware entity named Uber controls all resources. We’ve had the music Internet culture blogger Carles, formerly of Hipster Runoff, write us a picture of Coachella in the year 2065, as a scorching and inhospitable tent city in the militarized desert. Not everything we do is this literal, obviously because fiction is much more ambiguous than that, but we find that these kinds of stories receive the most engaged and immediate responses from our audience, because their themes are already highlighted in public conversation on the web. Ideally, their themes evoke existing but latent fears or perceptions about the direction of where the world is heading, and so the work of the reader to locate the radical discontinuities within them is simple, even intuitive. It’s been for us the most effective strategy for injecting fiction into people’s feeds and seeing it shared in the way nonfiction is shared.
In some case, we’ve used Terraform as a platform for direct critical response to issues about which we are passionate, some of which are self-reflexive. This year, there was a cultural upheaval in science fiction as our most illustrious literary awards, the Hugos, were in a sense overtaken, legally, but maliciously, through the gaming of a public ballot, but a very conservative group advocating for a political adventure yarn-style science fiction which, perhaps, never really existed. You know, when men were men and saved damsels from aliens in space, etc.
Considering that the Hugos have honored some of the great progressive and radical voices of the last 100 hundred years, you know, people like Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delaney, Phillip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler, it seems disingenuous and myopic, to say the least, to imagine that it deserves to be in the hands of people who do not use science fiction in that way. Science fiction has always been a tool for the marginalized to imagine new worlds beyond the limitations of the here and now, and such nostalgia seems ill placed. In reaction, Terraform commissioned a story from Kameron Hurley, a Hugo-winning writer, extrapolating what might happen when we no longer have the freedom to imagine our own future, if we let the trolls win. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s not good.
This is what science fiction does best. It uses speculation to shed light on the problems of the present, which, in this case, are the problems of science fiction itself.
The kind of stuff that we publish on Terraform is, and that I love, spiritually quite close to what cyberpunk was in its prime: Fiction about the very near, the very close, the alarmingly corporeal realities of technology and what it does to us, our societies, and to our planet. I think that now, more than ever, science fiction and art has a responsibility to be engaged head on with the complexities of the world, because, frankly, we need its power as a critical tool.
At Terraform, we believe that fiction isn’t just a place to go to escape from reality. It’s a place where we can come to understand, even take control over, what is real. To test code, you have to run it. To see if a building will stand, you have to build a model. And, for us, science fiction is the same thing—science fiction’s functionality has always been to take the world as we know it, tweak some key variables, to create discontinuities and to let it run. What emerges from the experiment may not tell us anything meaningful about the future, but it’s a really, really good mirror for the present.
The core science fictional gesture of radical discontinuity is not unique to the written word. It’s something that can be employed by anyone, any artist, any writer, operating in fictional and nonfictional spaces alike. It’s not watertight or isolated to genre, it’s more like a tendency or an impulse that can be manifested in any number of ways by anyone interested in reality.
So, I hope that I’ve made clear that science fiction is a mechanism for understanding and I want to leave you with a second stupid question: What is reality? Philip K. Dick defined reality as “that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it,” a purposefully evasive definition which requires us to believe in nothing in order to prove the reality of anything. But by that definition, the future is real, because although it’s intangible, it doesn’t require our belief to exist.
So, the future is real and it belongs to all of us and none of us at once, and the more we shore up its reality by writing about it seriously as though it were real, and identifying the variables which create it, the clearer our position in the present becomes. This, in my mind, is the real purpose of criticism, the role of criticism, not only to engage with the world, but to clarify our understanding of it, so that we can live better within it. As my favorite genre critic Robert Scholes writes: To live well in the present, to live decently and humanely, we must see into the future.
Fionn Meade: I think one of the things in being—having been handed this sort of frame “first responders,” it was interesting that we all kind of stepped into a questioning mode around that idea of artists as first respondents in different ways. Including I guess maybe a background question here is this presumed newness of a sort of informal capacity that the web, you know, and the digital platforms that we’re now all talking about presented. Is in that kind of informality that was—is new and has presented a new landscape, has it been entirely co-opted by the sort of promotion of the personal and the preference and in that regard, has that not created a kind of first responsiveness that actually is occupying a lot of space in terms of digital platforms, and if we’re not talking about first respondents in regards to artists, maybe we can just say what is—is this a counter kind of responsiveness that we’re talking about, so Marisa, in your work you talked about slowing down actually the pace of reports.
Marisa Mazria-Katz: Yeah, well I mean I think what we discovered was that it didn’t make sense for us to have artists responding to the news cycle, which is just accelerating almost, you know, constantly, because I mean you know, I think we wanted to give them the space to reflect and also, if we wanted to sort of upend traditional takes of the news, you know, that takes some thought, and it’s not something that we felt was really working to have somebody hear about something and then respond to it right away.
We just didn’t feel that the artists we were working with, that their practice really like worked in such a way. Of course there are exceptions to this, but generally speaking we felt that if this site was going to actually be different, or have something else to say that it was about giving space, and giving more time. And allowing artists to work in a way that I think they more traditionally work. Rather than asking them to be journalists.
Meade: And in the case of Trevor’s work, but also James your work, this effort to make in a sense the invisible visible, actually in general takes a sort of amount of research and development before the project is even shared?
James Bridle: Yeah, but I mean I hope all artists do some kind of research or have some kind of background to what they’re doing. I think—I’d really like Dan’s point that the first response is not necessarily the thing, but I think the more interesting thing that a lot of stuff is the response a at all. We can agree that we necessarily should not be the first people on this. On the scene we will get in the way but we should definitely be there, and the thing that for me, the technology enables occasionally demands, sometimes makes difficult or like makes bad, is if there’s a better way of doing that, is that there is a kind of necessity of response.
Which is very hard not to, and also the fact that you are responding is always kind of visible, because of the ways in which that work is then disseminated and displayed and so on and so forth so I think it’s less possible to just put a thing and go this is just my little response over here and you don’t have to worry about it. Like it’s going to be out there so there’s always going to be a context or response around it in some form.
Meade: I also wanted to ask you, Claire, when you talked about radical discontinuities of science fiction in some way softening the sort of maybe softening the rhetorical onslaught of the future, that science fiction in a sense makes the future more porous, through its embrace of radical discontinuities.
Claire Evans: I think it also prepares us for the future, which is kind of the tangled hierarchy that science fiction has, where did we land on the moon because a generation of engineers Arthur C. Clark or Isaac Asimov or do we have these glamorous cyberhacker cabals? It’s difficult to know what is predictive and what isn’t about science fiction but one thing that is true is that if we can become familiar with new scenarios ahead of time we can be prepared for them and we tend to think about them so that when the time comes we can have a good first response. It helps us to prepare and steep ourselves in kind of the rhetoric of tomorrow.
Meade: And just Dan you were quite blatant in saying that in your view, perhaps artists are second, third, and beyond respondents that there’s there’s a delay inherent in to some degree degree in artistic practices practice, Victor Shklovsky, the Russian art critic says that art was a device it actually complicates and gives a sort of demand of the shape of attention, and that perhaps that quality is a question, how does that exist in the digital shift or in the digital predominance of communication transactional surveillance, the atomization of transactional surveillance? How do you maintain in a sense that notion of artist as a device.
Fox: To slowing things down?
Fox: Well, it’s a question of choice, isn’t it partially? Choice of attention, choice of where you put things. As I said, I mean James is right to say that by and large what we do now will be made visible at some point, but you still have the—you can still go and live you know in a wood somewhere. You can go and not document what you’re doing in the studio. You can have a studio in the middle of a great big city and not take a single photograph of what goes on in there so there are certain choices about when you put something out into the world and how long you take to incubate it and who you talk about it with.
You can have private conversations with people still. But again it’s like James said, there is this sort of, you know, demands to respond for various kind of digital platforms, that make us feel very, very anxious about, you know, you kind of anxiously have to sort of you, somehow demonstrate that we were there, you know, we were there thinking and having a response that was, you know, fully formed and well considered right there in the moment. And you think when you sort of get away from that. There is still a choice in that.
Meade: So do you think, I mean Duchamps for instance when he adopted the ready made he said it was a way to move away from the proliferation of the retinal and from the self that had to be some degree guessed at or doubted in a way and that he saw more agency again, roughly 100 years ago in that, do you think that in your work in engaging kinds of the—with making visible and making invisible really in the end borders that are based in legal transaction? Do you think that that by surfacing that it’s a move away from in a sense the expectations of you as an individual artist? That has an individual studio practice?
Bridle: I don’t know about like to the extent that like this is all, you know, just my opinions, like I think that in my work it’s—I’m putting this out as an individual, but I have an expectation that it will naturally travel and be explored in different ways because that is the nature of the medium in which I work. It’s not a broad brushstroke about artist practice in general at all but it is to me fascinating and brilliant that I know these things can be sent out and always have been in terms of the fact that people have their own encounters with the work and I don’t really see that something has kind of particularly changed in there though I do think that yeah, that it still doesn’t seem to have percolated into most stuff to any degree that, so many of the attitudes I was set up to write are still not being addressed. Or aren’t like particularly well considered when talking about this stuff, except that again like we keep saying that getting harder and harder to ignore, right, that we have actually built an entire system to make us all enforced creators of ready mades. That’s what it does is it’s a perfectly Duchampsian system.
Meade: I was also struck in thinking through Tania Bruguera’s work or Tatlin’s Whisper. In Havana that what was interesting as well in a work that is seen as timely, topical, respondent, correspondent, almost, I’m curious your take you know, on this in particularly Marisa that piece is called Tatlin’s Whisper No. 6, so it’s actually informed by a series and choreographed performances of resistance and the space of resistance that actually goes back a number of years and what’s interesting to think about that is that the logic of that, so to speak, the artistic logic of that is perhaps less of interest in the coverage of her being detained than it is the fact of her being detained. Do you find that the logic for instance of a work like that in its sort of sequence and its terms, so to speak, comes across in the topicality of coverage around it, the reception of it.
Mazria-Katz: I don’t really know. No, I don’t think so. I mean it wasn’t really in terms of you mean the press coverage of what happened to her? No, it didn’t seem so to me, really, the project itself, I mean did you I mean when you were—
Meade: Well, no, I was just curious in my view, no, basically what’s in the news, is the topicality of an artist being detained in Havana, and it often goes not far beyond that into what the kind of concentric implications are of the work that led here to make that decision to do it there and similarly what it might have meant that by doing it as an artist born there but from elsewhere what does it mean for artists are living in Cuba and do have a different sense of the limitations or constrictions upon expression there? A lot of that Coco Fusco kind of surfaced it in a way in a piece that e-flux published, I bring it up because the topicality of it, the first responder part of it is because of the artist being detained.
Fox: That’s what news demands, doesn’t it? What’s going to be headline news is not the critical thinking behind the making of the piece of art. You know and a really crass example of this would be the way art gets written about in terms of auction prices, you know, you post impressionist painting of some, you know, some flowers that people aren’t really interested in what led those flowers to be painted, what’s interesting is the incredibly wealthy Russian oligarch how much they paid for it.
Mazria-Katz: It’s a lot of times how we commission, too, is anticipating what’s going to be in the news and thinking about who are the artists who are going to say something about it and have something insightful to say about it, so for instance, you know, the Kenya piece that I showed you, we worked on that for 6 months before, and actually what happened was I—I arrived, maybe it was even longer than 6 months because I got to Nairobi, I met the author, and knew, because in 2012 everybody be was talking about the 2013 elections they were quite fearful of what would happen.
So I knew that this was something that was going to be in the news and commissioned her almost immediately after meeting her and reading her work to write something because I knew what she was going to say was going to be very different from the traditional news take on the Kenyan elections but I also knew that her piece would probably get news coverage, too, and overall that’s the real—that’s the big goal of what we’re doing is inserting these artist’s voices into the news and with Tania with everything that was happening with Cuba it was sort of like a perfect storm and it all kind of erupted, right but I mean that’s very much how I work. I mean of course I really—I really make a special effort to get to know an artist’s work but I will equally look at what’s happening in the news to make sure that I’m doing something that people are going to be paying attention to. It’s of the utmost importance to us.
Evans: Yeah, and if you’re going to commission this kind of thing I think there are parallels to what we do, because you have to look into the future to some extent, you have to look for anniversaries or pegs of some kind even if it’s as stupid as something as Valentine’s Day. A lot of that comes down to traffic, too, we know that on every holiday there’s going to be a flurry of posts on that subject around that holiday and different reactions to it and it’s not like artists are wandering into the line of fire without information. You have to look for someone who’s already interested in this subject and ask them because they’re the one, because kind of they’re the last responders, this have been there all along. I think those what you united to talk to.
Mazria-Katz: Also we can’t get an editor to pay attention to us at these bigger publications unless we kind of anticipate what might be on their radar, too, so that’s really important for us.
Bridle: I was going to say that there’s a more subtle thing to do as well in terms of those Paglen photos which to me are the kind of answer to the difficulty that was being briefly discussed a couple of times of this material I’ll say of the Internet question of what does it mean just to point to it and show it is that those photos got reinserted into the media in a very different way that relied on sense causes but they used licensing and their major kind of tool for doing it and I think they’re such a fantastic example of like instrumentalizing the art in a certain way in way to sneak it in there and turn what could just be an image of the world of something far far more active and descriptive that goes out into the world that isn’t just writing you know, a news story but is actually something far more—yeah, targeted.
Meade: In Claire, in your work, you’ve talked about how there’s a being both like a musician and a writer and an editor, the difference between sort of expected immediacy around live performance and providing the universality of music as a sort of immediacy which I only bring up because when you go to a show you’re expecting the artist as first respondent—someone who’s taking on immediacy but you’ve distinguished that from the work of not only the editing but the delay of science fiction, again not using the word delay but the implicit delay of science fiction that allows for a different critical space. Can you talk about that just —
Evans: Well, I think that in this moment in time, all artists are existing on three or four different temporal tracks. As a musician there’s a part of my livelihood that requires being in a place with people in a moment and there’s an ephemeral quality to it but at the same time a musician must use the same tools that we use to make music to disseminate and communicate with people and that happens in a much more diffuse way.
As a writer you write in a moment and you publish something and you seem to have a 48 hour window in which anyone could give a shit about it and then it’s over. But it continues to live, you know, it’s not just that window of time. If something is on the Internet and it’s in a place which is not going to go out of business any time soon and you have an archive of it online then people can continue to react to it for years. The longer you write on the web, the more you get emails from people about something written six years ago. I get comments on the blog that I haven’t updated in three years because everything is existed in the sort of simultaneous, you know, equivalence.
Mazria-Katz: You think 48 hours? I think that’s really generous. But —
Evans: I guess it depends if you’re west coast or east coast, too.
Fox: I really notice that too as an editor of a magazine that as opposed to use Christopher Knight’s phrase from yesterday in a way part of like the niche art legacy publishing is a glossy print magazine that has been going for many years, you know, but at the sam time it’s a magazine that has—we have blogs, we have social media, we make videos, we produce at different kind of temporal rates, but one thing I’ve always noticed about doing a magazine and the print magazine is how it’s consumed at different kind of paces.
You know, and you get die hard fans who might kind of get an issue through the mail if they’re subscribers and they’ll read it cover to cover and provide some kind of response. But most people don’t. That’s not the way I consume magazines. The way I consume magazines is bit by bit and slowly and that could be a copy of the New Yorker that’s next to the loo and you kind of read slowly over the course of many visits or it’s something that you stumble years later in a magazine, you might be like Ben yesterday in his lecture was talking about his lecture and going to the library and looking at Artforum in 1982 and whatever and discovering new things. Publishing has its sort of slowness and some things that are very, very old can suddenly seem very, very fresh again, things that were overlooked at the time can suddenly seem very, very urgent so they kind of renew themselves.
Meade: Do you think given that that there is a role, though, for—Paul Schmelzer’s project with Artist Op-Eds, you know, has invited, like Dread Scott was responding to Ferguson’s or events like Ferguson, really larger implications than just Ferguson, like in the moment but maybe from his ongoing engagement as an artist I similarly I think Coco Fusco’s entry into Joe Scanlan’s process was really helpful and was performed a kind of mediating in betweenness that allowed people to have a more sophisticated conversation about the reception of that via the Whitney Biennial.
I guess I’m asking in your role, do you think that a—do you think that that is something that frieze, for instance, finds new platforms for or new immediacy for or in terms of like providing that space for a kind of highly editorialized immediate?
Fox: Yeah, I mean I think we’d like to do more of that we’ve been working with a slightly antiquated website for the last several years which has not allowed us to be as dynamic as we could. But I think different rates of response are really valuable in editorial work. I think there’s responding very, very quickly to something as it happens can be really important. I think the example about the Scanlan controversy at the Whitney Biennial. The whole conversation around that was, you know, something that has to kind of happen in the moment. Whereas it’s still possible, though, to have that conversation 6 months later, because these problems don’t go away, either.
You know, I think that’s an important thing, a slow response is also a reminder that problems of for instance race in the art world don’t disappear because people stop talking about them in the kind of buzzy world of you know, social media or kind of what gets circulated very, very rapidly online. And I think that in a weird sort of way what’s printed on paper and like the slowness of distribution with that, kind of provides some sort of not just sort of archiving or not just sort of archiving role but also it provides, it provides a brake, you know, as in like a car brake, it slows things down.
Bridle: Can I mess up that question a political bit by saying like these aren’t slow responses. Like a fast response is not necessarily a first response. Particularly in terms of the—because you’re asking meme who have been thinking about this for quite a while and actually their response may be a lot more thoughtful and in depth than a lot of the kind of immediate responses to stuff. I mean that is the thing about going out and asking different people who have worked on something for quite a long time is that you’re drawing on a huge extensive body of knowledge that a very fast media wasn’t and just because it’s published doesn’t mean —
Mazria-Katz: Just to add to that, one of the beautiful things that about I think asking an artist to respond, you know, versus a journalist, because working as a journalist for so many years there’s all these rules that you have to abide by and you have to work in a certain way whereas the artist can draw on so many different sources, work in different ways, embed themselves in communities and don’t have of the rules that journalists might, and that I think then produce also something that can be very different, and—
Fox: Yeah, I think that—that also brings up this distinction between the arts journalist and the arts writer. You know. There are very different types of writing about art. There’s writing about, you know, who’s moving where in the institutions or what things are being sold for or what is very newsy or very sort of fact based and requires journalistic skills, proper professional journalistic skills but then writing a monographic essay about an artist’s work or a historical movement or something requires other skills, that requires skills to do with imagination and empathy and maybe deep sort of historical knowledge or having followed someone for a long time. Maybe it requires sort of different kinds of literary skills. And so you know, when we think about this idea of like first response and this circles back to what we were just saying just now, it’s about like who has the best set of tools for a given situation, and there isn’t a one size sort of fits all kind of solution for this.
Meade: Right. And that—I think you—this was a Twitter question, how do artists respond differently from critics and journalists, which I think you were just sort of getting at. But is there—I mean is there in a sense a—do you feel like you’re creating space through your projects, in this case I would say this to Claire, Marisa, and Dan as editors, you know, are you creating platforms that you see as being like sustainable in that way that can actually and if you are, what are those, how do you differentiate the time registers of your responsibility as an editor and publisher that invites artists into a particular format?
Evans: Wait, define sustainable?
Meade: Sustainable meaning something that you think will like you said, stick around, be there for a period of time, not just disappear.
Evans: I mean, working on the Internet you will always have to keep in the back of your mind the possibility that the platform will someday disappear and reconcile yourself to that and try to sort of live it up while you can. That’s always been my attitude.
Bridle: But different to publishing a magazine just on a shorter scale.
Evans: Sure we’re talking about slow and fast but these are condensed time scales we’re talking about years at the most and the world is vast is time is vast and even our books will one day turn to dust so we have to reconcile ourself to that to some extent and make work that lasts in people that reflects people.
Bridle: Something about the quality of the work. Like the first responders, it’s ultimately about getting people to make work and getting it out there and the response, like maybe that’s the difference between the artist and the critic or there are shades towards it, but ultimately is that you just want to get the thing out there and say the thing and then you know all those other processes can happen to.
Mazria-Katz: I’m not sure hopefully this is part of this, but our platform is interesting because it’s almost—it’s whether or not people come to our site, you’d absolutely love lots of visitors to our site, and you know, it’s great, but what we really aim for, it’s not emphasizing the platform as much as it’s the insertion. And that’s been—that’s been a really interesting thing to try to work with, because with the emphasis of numbers and metrics and Google analytics and how are we doing and all these things and then what happens when you kind of take the ProPublica model, which is, you know, it’s which is also just like us inserting into mainstream newspapers, you know, what does that mean for you, and where will we be, you know, we may not be around, but these pieces will still live on in these other sites, let’s say, and that’s something that has been part of our process is realizing that if the goal is that artists are being read and discussed by people all over the world, how are we best going to serve that around that was—that was a really conscious decision at the very beginning for us.
Meade: And it was interesting to hear that it was really slowing down and taking the time to think of maybe more strategically about the insertion of the work or the artist into a different level of circulation and distribution. That created and efficacy that otherwise you wouldn’t have had, but do you feel as though you’re influenced by your partners in that regard?
Mazria-Katz: Our partners want the people that often that they haven’t ever heard of, or are doing things that are really interesting that are not on their radar. So in order—I mean I’m not sure if I’m answering the question, but when we think about our partners, we think about what can we bring them that they aren’t going to be able to do themselves? And having Creative Time and the knowledge of the art world and artists, we really bring something to them that otherwise I don’t know that they would be able to even—they’ve ever even heard of, so I mean that’s how we try to think—we try to think of how can we, you know, sort of help grow or expand the kinds of pieces that they are putting out into the world. That’s where we see our role.
Fox: I mean just speaking about our work on frieze magazine, in a couple of years ago we started making our own short videos, which is something you see a lot you know news organizations doing, but not so much in the sphere of like specialist art magazines, and they’re just like short 10-minute films that we do with a production company in London and they’re all paid for out of the editorial budget of the magazine, but we—it’s been very much like a kind of learning as we go process, making these things.
But what we’ve discovered is that it’s opened up a new sort of function of the magazine for us, which is possibly one of record, one of like, you know, possible kind of like archival value, which print doesn’t really sort of do in the same way. So for instance, was it last year, I think it was last year we produced our first 30-minute documentary, which we did in association with the BBC, which was about the history of the Glasgow art scene, and through the magazine, through the kind of contacts we have, you know, we were able to speak to a whole bunch of people in different generations in Glasgow about how the art has developed in the city, we were lucky enough to be able to use the BBC’s archive to pull in the archive footage.
We also ended up being one of the last people who got inside of the Glasgow School of Art before it was hit by fire, so what this documentary ends up being is this sort of snapshot of Glasgow at a certain moment before something happened which was very symbolic to the city and now we have this great 30-minute record of lots of different people of lots of different generations speaking about their, you know, their connection to the city. And it operates in a different way to something in print, you know, because we don’t have an editorialize voice. Of course we make editing decisions in what you show, but it’s talking heads basically artists and curators and writers talking to the camera, you can hear the grain of their voice, see what they’re like, see the environment. I think that’s something that technology has allowed us to do as a magazine or to start exploring as a magazine.
Meade: But I mean that’s also partly why just the Walker commissions inviting artists to make works that respond to signature artists in our collection that already have an interest in say, Derek Jarman, was that interest in surfacing new platform that could invite that kind of expertise, that kind of ongoing, say engagement the allure of something that already has a momentum, do you see the magazine devoting more time and space and resources to that and what’s the balance of exploring perhaps really meaningful new platforms for artists but at the same time providing as you put it a kind of legacy role of—or not legacy but a kind of convention of reception that is still valuable because it has an inherent convention?
Fox: Yeah, I mean I think there are questions of just economics. We don’t—these videos that produced out of the editorial budget and we don’t have any extra money for them that is raised by advertising of these videos and we’re able to produce them because the production company are friends of ours and we get mate’s rates basically of their facilities but I think what’s interesting for us as a magazine is how it has raised this question of like horses for courses, kind of what are the right writing skills for a certain type of platform situation?
So the writing skills that you need to write a 400-word review are different to the writing skills you need to write 2500-word monographic essay about an artist which are different to the writing skills you need to write for the moving image which requires more concision, more sensitivity to speech rather than to word you know words on a page so I think it’s another kind of writing that we’re learning about.
Meade: But isn’t the acuity of new forms of writing responsive to this kind of immediate attention and I mean we’re describing things that don’t sound that different than they have been in terms of approaches so I guess I’m asking is there a new kind of artist that is sort of this first responder that’s adopting the acuity of immediate response because I feel like we’re sort of talking about the counter to that.
Bridle: I just want to say that—I keep wanting to make science fiction metaphors basically and this is a really long one but something about the way you just talked about making that Glasgow film is you were basically making a science fiction without knowing it because you were predicting something into the future, I mean you weren’t predicting it, I hope you didn’t set fire to the place, but there was a weird thing that happened there. And not all artists, but a huge number, but also in terms of when you make stuff that’s deliberately intended tock into a news cycle and stuff you are doing a kind of futurism that is predictive.
The difference to that to the kind of pure reactive thing that we criticize is that it’s done from a position of kind of thoughtfulness and consideration and so we’re coming to it with like a domain awareness and a history of research and that kind of thing that allows you in hindsight to go oh, yeah, I was doing science fiction because I was looking in a place in which there was some kind of moment in a moment in which you were kind of projecting yourself forward in the time that you make or write this thing. And that’s the same thing that happens to archived pieces that get resuscitated or whatever they all exist in those kind of time lines and when they get reacted essentially speaks to the quality of thought that went into them in the first place.
Evans: I think artists and journalists have had the skill of because if you’re paying attention to the world, this is actually a kind of William Gibson thing, you can trace the nodes of things that are latent and see where they might intersect, because you’re looking and so that I mean it’s pa form of looking into the future but it’s also just awareness of the present.
Bridle: What Gibson does in terms of that reaching across the network and picking things out it’s like particularly it speaks completely to that flattening of time because there’s no temporality to the thing at all. He just has what appears to us to be a temporal foresight which is actually kind of a spatial one because he exists in this wider network but I think a lot of artists of a certain kind and the ones that have been worked that that’s what they’re doing, they’re kind of spreading out to these networks and being absolutely more aware of them.
Meade: Rather than rather than being determined by them.
Bridle: Yeah, absolutely.
Meade: So that anticipatory predictive quality is actually different in some ways than discussing it as a perhaps respondent, correspondent, imbedded reacting to the incident.
Bridle: I think it relates to what we had talked about last night when I complained about this label of political artist or activist artist which is like one that I get a lot because I make work about drones and war and stuff. And like I don’t object to it because it’s a—I find it weird that it’s just applied to me because I’m making work about these things as though making work about anything isn’t about these things or making work about the world in which you encounter is not some kind of form activism or involvement in the world and I feel it’s quite similar to this are you an artist who engages with stuff or not? Well, we do, we live in the world, hi.
Meade: I think it might be because we have—we have this great group of people, but also it’s our last opportunity for audience questions, I thought I would open it up to the audience for any questions on our conversation.
Audience Member: My favorite science fiction short story is Roadside Picnic, you know, in which we as a human race are dealing with the detritus left behind by an alien invasion in which they seem to take no notice of us whatsoever and I just wondered in instead of a question I’d like sort of a comment, I feel like it’s relevant to this conversation, in the sense that you know, like we are grappling with our responses to these things that to these technologies and to those modes of working and modes of like socializing that we still don’t quite have a handle on, and yet are trying to make proclamations around and, you know, determine our future according to like the clumsy ways in which you know we’re moving forward in the present moment.
Evans: Yeah. I mean the like the cosmic zoom out is always really important. I mean it’s you know in the midst of all of this deep conversation about essentially invisible things, that matter a great deal to us, we must always remember that you know, we’re on a rock and you know if an alien is passing by, they don’t necessarily have any understanding or interest in what we’re talking about. It’s useful to remember that sometimes, even if it’s just like this kind of theoretical construct, like we may not be alone into the universe, and if we aren’t, then you know, we are just as important as the other guy, and we know nothing of what’s going on with them, so—you know.
Bridle: As well about the indeterminacy of our present and the acknowledgment of that which I think is often possible in art is not possible in politics that within—it’s full of people going no, I am right about this and that is one of the major problems with the world. The refusal to kind of acknowledge a little bit of, you know, contextual difference or dissonance in that, and that’s what those kind of stories teach us more and more, and that I don’t think it would be impossible to spread that allusion a little bit further into other forms of public discourse.
Meade: There’s the sense, though, that I mean this gets at a very—like a very important gap which is that art that the politics of art are—art that embeds critique kind of promises a political accomplishment that it doesn’t deliver and it actually often thrives on that nondelivery or the ambiguity that’s created around not delivering in a sense that the political agency, there’s a—which is very different than being in the position of political power.
Bridle: Yeah, I don’t and I’m afraid to and I’m disillusioned by the inability of like that kind of political forms of those things to come true on a lot of the claims that we make like we haven’t got that figured out yet and yeah, if you want to do that, you should probably be trained as a lawyer. We know that other things have bigger structural things but at the same time that’s not the only thing we’re trying to do in the world, either.
Audience Member: Hi, just continuing on this idea of power, in your various subjects, I feel like the issues have come up like issues of curation, issues of systemic disposition, I was just wondering what you guys had to say in terms of the role of values and the implementation of values and who’s making the decision that sort of generates the values that result in decisions that affect all of our disciplines.
Fox: Well, I—that’s a big question.
Audience Member: Sorry.
Fox: It’s a big it’s a very, very good question, and a big question. All I can—all I can say to that is maybe just a sort of reiterate something that was trying to say earlier in my talk, which is that I think we need to not be myopic about first within just speaking about the arts generally, about what fields we work in, you know, this idea that the kind of artist, visual artists are somehow the most interesting ones and people that do things in other fields don’t have political agency or what have you. I think it’s a conversation we’re all involved in.
And then secondly you know not being you know, I think like being aware of your own sort of biases in terms of where you come from sort of metaphorically and literally, physically and I think it’s something you need to maintain some vigilance on. It’s not at all easy to do. But yeah, sorry, I’m really that’s a really inarticulate answer and a very platitudinous one, I sort of apologize, but I think maintaining vigilance about those things and not be locked down into a specialist conversation of your own field where what we’re doing here as professional art critics or what we’re doing here as artists who work in just in the visual arts, I think not getting bogged into your own sort of lane that’s crucial, also.
Evans: And being transparent, also, I think a lot of people are afraid to have an opinion about something, because they’re just always the possibility that you’re going to get trolled for it, which is a very real fear and I think it affects some people more than others, but we shouldn’t sacrifice our capacity to speak openly about what we believe in.
Bridle: That transparency, I’m in terms of it’s good, because it like it means we’re actually like being serious and genuine in saying what we’re talking about, and like expressing our values clearly. It also hopefully builds some sort of solidarity with other people but it also opens us up to proper critique about stuff, as well that want to be challenged on those values. So sometimes I have I get like really scared when I express something that I feel really strongly about in my work, and is the reason for doing it but more often than not it’s good that that comes out because it gets reinforced because there is genuine good strong criticism that I understand what the fact that’s really, really happening so I understand that it’s necessary to state values for both of those.
Audience Member: So you think those are occurring organically out of the conversation sort of between systemic and organic.
Bridle: The values are?
Audience Member: Yeah.
Bridle: I think there’s probably some sort of I hope it describes what I considered to be universal ones and there’s the more kind of actionable ones that happen with the encounter with, but that should always be open to some kind of critique in conversation.
Fox: Otherwise it just becomes ideology, doesn’t it.
Audience Member: We spent a fair amount of time kind of bemoaning the lack of power that comes in a lot of our positions and what we’re looking at but first responders are somebody who has a lot of power, right. They often frame the narrative because of they’re first draft. They often talk when the most people are listening so that narrative is picked up by a lot of people and so the question becomes, I guess my question is, I know it’s hard to be first responders as artists but how do we get there? I mean what can we start doing to be in that position?
Bridle: I think that’s really good. And I think we should shy away from actually trying to occupy that position from everything we’ve said if in fact we believe in the values essentially of those things we said. Like I don’t have particularly great strategy for doing that except I think actually stating these things clearly and loudly remains important. That we shouldn’t, while being, you know, reasonably reticent about the actual political effect some of this work might have, not shying away from we think it should and holding you, know, saying loudly and clearly, what we think is actually, I mean I don’t necessarily do that much and I don’t right now on this stage in front of you feel like I have a huge amount of power, I feel very lucky to have it, but you know, that’s when we get to say those things. How we say them, a little bit harder.
Fox: Yeah, I think you make a good point, though in being the first person to say something is often a really scary position, because you’re advancing an opinion that people haven’t necessarily commented on and you’re opening yourself up totally for kind of being trolled or criticized or what have you and it’s a very brave position to take and I think that if you do take that position it’s just a case of being open to the fact that you can modify your views, and the people who are listening to you make that first, that first statement, that first kind of salvo, you know, kind of reaction, shouldn’t like take you down for that, either, because it’s a very—you know, you’re putting yourself in a very vulnerable position and people need to respect that vulnerability, I think.
Meade: Yeah, that idea which is a valuable one that the act of criticism is or critique is self-education in public.
Fox: Yeah. Yeah, it is.
Meade: And not in a sense making a judgment that is universal. It is a modified—it’s putting one self in a position of —
Evans: And it’s difficult because things last, you know and if you make an opening salvo in a times of crisis that turns out to be misguided then that stays with you unless you have the capacity to go back and edit it until your opinion is like Wikipedia style up to date but we have to remember we all have the right to make that opening salvo.
Bridle: But also it doesn’t have to be the thing that is said first or loudest, either, but to say the new thing, as well. Again that slightly temporal difference that when the thing that is said that is new that should be kind of supported and critically engaged with very carefully, that that doesn’t have to be the thing said first and loudest.
Fox: Yeah and I think if you’re a critic you also have to remember that you’re perfectly within your rights to change your mind, which you know, a lot of people don’t expect of critics. I think you’re totally totally able to disagree with yourself. Disagree with the younger version of yourself. God knows that I’ve written some crap that I can’t believe I said at the time. I would never say now.
Evans: But that’s kind of nice that you have a historical record of prevailing opinions or whatever it was that you’re writing contained within your own body of work that you can create your own history and you can’t have that record unless you take the risk of saying the thing in the first place.
Meade: Unless there’s a burning last question maybe we can end there. And thank you for the conversation.