‘lifelike art’ of a constructed world
Catalogue Raisonné of a constructed world, 2007

Simplistically put, artlike art holds that art is separate from life and everything else, whereas lifelike art holds that art is connected to life and everything else. In other words, there is art at the service of art and art at the service of life. The maker of artlike art tends to be a specialist; the maker of lifelike art, a generalist.
Allan Kaprow, The Real Experiment

A turning point for me occurred at the inaugural conference of unitednationsplaza in Berlin during a presentation by Liam Gillick (unitednationsplaza is ‘exhibition as school’, a seminar program based in the city of Berlin which was initially planned for Nicosia, Cyprus as a part of Manifesta 6. The program is organized by Anton Vidokle in partnership with individual artists, artist collaboratives and philosophers.) He was invited to Berlin to speak about the failure of manifesta 6. Towards the middle of his talk, Gillick moved on to alternative art models and spoke about transferring the responsibility of the artist to other people, to a non-ready group and therefore making the participants an intrinsic part of the artistic process. This informal talk helped immensely in terms facilitating my analysis of the art of Jacqueline Riva and Geoff Lowe, a collaborative duo known as ‘A Constructed World’- (ACW).

Long before knowing about the work of ACW, I was attracted by the nature of their collaboration. In my first studio visit to their studio, I wanted to know more about how they worked out the power relationships. This was a crucial point to pin down because, as I see it, working as a duo is a preparatory step towards opening oneself to the other, a way of resolving the relationship between self and other. ACW’s primary concern in their collaboration is to take out all trace of individuality so that the work cannot be attributed to either artist. Their secondary concern is to be vague about who makes what. After talking and thinking this through, I concluded that although most contemporary art is collectively produced, we have a tendency to believe in the individual creators. ACW challenge this assumption firstly by being a collaborative. Their collaboration, then, is easily extended to their art practice, which consists of collaborating with individuals as well as groups. Indeed, in this text, I will limit myself to ACW’s collaborative workshop projects as well as the self-published art review magazine, Artfan.

The name chosen by ACW to mark their art practice immediately brings to mind Guy Debord, a founding member and leading force of Situationist International, and his theories on ‘constructed situations’. According to Debord, ‘constructed situations’ were participatory events using experimental behavior to break the spectacular bind of capitalism (Debord, Guy, Towards a Situationist International in Bishop, Claire (ed.) Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art (Massachusetts, MIT Press) 96.). He advocated the construction of situations rather than simply awaking critical consciousness, constructing situations aimed at producing new social relationships and new social realities (Bishop, Claire (ed.) Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art (Massachusetts, MIT Press) 12.). On the one hand, the practice of ACW accords with Debord’s perspective. After all, they construct situations that encourage equal and democratic participation. On the other hand, the immediate concern of ACW is to criticize the politics of the art world, which excludes and alienates. Rather than engaging directly with the social and political concerns of the world at large, ACW produce art that is shaped by questions such as: how does art serve to legitimate and normalize existing power relations? Who is art for and who is qualified to speak about it? What is the role of the spectator in relation to a work of art? The questions raised by their art also have resonance within the expanded field. Indeed, their art provides polemical ground for rethinking the art system in general, and exclusions in the art world due to its intellectual pretension in particular.

Emancipation should be the presupposition of equality: the assumption that everyone has the same capacity for intelligent response to a book, a play or a work of art, according to Jacques Rancière(Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics (London: Continuum, 2004) 34.). This statement could be considered the motto of ACW. Most of their works, in which they collaborate with non-specialists in the arts, are a manifestation that everyone, regardless of background or specialization, is capable of producing their own interpretation. Artfan, an art review magazine founded by ACW in 1993, is a fitting example in this respect. The magazine differed from the other art magazines in that it included exhibition reviews by people who knew nothing about art as well as critics and curators. In Artfan, ACW constructed a platform where specialists (critics and curators) and amateurs shared the same space. This juxtaposition lifts art from the sphere of the privileged and allows exploration of the relationships between the ’separate’ and ’special’ language of experts and the connected language of the public. The analysis makes it explicit that the amateur also has a legitimate response to contemporary art.

In 2001, ACW worked on two different collaborative workshop projects: Art Crew, which took place in New York City, and Wild Kingdom in Philadelphia. Art Crew was a collaboration with Lower East Side high school teenagers that formed part of the Artists Space education program. It involved ACW and the 15 teenagers spending two weeks together working on different types of projects chosen by the participants. Wild Kingdom, by contrast, was a collaboration with a group of investment managers at the company’s invitation. ACW were invited to talk with employees about the firm’s contemporary art collection in particular and contemporary art in general. These projects are documented in pocket-size publications, which include transcriptions of the dialogue and conversations between participants, and occasionally document the artworks created during their interaction together. To a certain extent, these workshops can be likened to Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons (1982-1984), a series of workshops on funk music and dance for whites with no access to black culture. The notable difference is that the ACW workshops are based on participation and dialogue as opposed to lectures.

ACW construct these workshops by engaging with a particular group of people who do not usually have any knowledge of or interest in contemporary art. The group is generally chosen by the institution that requests the workshop. Throughout the workshops ACW use the states of ‘not knowing’ (borrowed from Lacan) or ‘having nothing in common’ as a shared space on which to base the dialogue (Jacques Lacan created a model of the analyst and the analysand for the study of the unconscious, or what is not known. Lowe, Geoff, To research new interfaces with contemporary art audiences in Australia and internationally, 2.). This shared space prevents different experiences – individual or collective – from becoming a differential tool such that people who trained in art see things quite differently than those who did not. Geoff Lowe of ACW states, “Learning about the field in contemporary art motivates dividing the audience into those who know and those who don’t know (about art) in much the same manner. This audience is usually demarked, clearly and by their own avowal, into knowing and not knowing (about art)" (Ibid.). With these concerns in mind, ACW aim in their workshops – as they did with Artfan magazine – to counter this differential tool. Besides, many decisions regarding the workshop are subject to constraints from the outset. For instance, ACW cannot always choose the group they will work with or the duration of the collaboration; and even the end result, which could either be the process or any type of artwork they will come up with, may be predetermined. Therefore, if there is anything contingent, it is the outcome.

One of the overriding interests of ACW’s practice is to find a ‘language’ that favors and advances participation – as illustrated in the workshops Wild Kingdom and Art Crew and the magazine Artfan. The aim is to transmit and share a language that everyone is empowered to use. For ACW, “The work is not unfinished in order to encourage the creative act of the viewer: it is unfinished because of the creative act of the viewer.”(Ibid., 3.). ACW insist on the lack of differentiation between performer and audience in their workshops. As a result, the outcome of both workshop projects was that participants – who ranged from teenagers to the middle aged from students to specialists – felt less alienated from contemporary art after the workshops. By discussing their feelings about contemporary art in general or their situation in particular in a receptive context, they felt neither offended nor outsiders. In a nutshell, the work of ACW foregrounds the act of bringing people to contemporary art as opposed to bringing art to the people (Art Crew (New York; Artists Space, 2001) 7.). These workshops are inter-subjective encounters in which meaning is encountered collaboratively. ACW’s art is therefore radical in terms of sharing responsibility with the non-ready group, as Gillick mentioned, rather than solely encouraging the spectator to interact.  

Aligning themselves with the ideas of Joseph Beuys, ACW do not see communication occurring as a one-way flow. In their collaborative works, they make it explicit that communication is a reciprocal process between the artist and the viewer, the participant and the artist. Even the spectators’ positive or negative reaction is a form of participation as far as the duo is concerned (Carnevale, Graciela, Project for the Experimental Art Series, in Bishop, Claire (ed.) Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art (Massachusetts, MIT Press) 117.). In the Wild Kingdom publication, ACW state, “The attraction was working with people who said they didn’t know about art, in the same way that we said we don’t know about money. (…) Over the time of this workshop we realized that even though we ‘don’t know’ we do manage our finances. And those who manage money use art to live. This can’t be avoided.” (Wild Kingdom, Project 002 (June 2001) 5.).

In some respects, it could be said that ACW craft their artistic mode of expression through the use of ideas and forms that characterized Allan Kaprow’s Happenings in the late 1950s and the 1960s. These include viewing art as a vehicle for expanding our awareness of life through unexpected interactions, blurring the distinction between audience and artist and therefore decentralizing the authorship, and seeing art as a participatory experience. They also use the ideas of Situationism and conceptualism for instance by favoring the process and the relationship between participants rather than with the art object. Equally, they seek to constitute convivial relations; they critique the exclusivity of the art world and work in collaborations; they reject artistic autonomy by bringing people to art, and reject the ‘separateness’ of art and its privileged and highly intellectual status. ACW believe in finding new means and technologies in order to maintain a shared space, as well as for representing and redeeming those that have not yet been valued (Lowe, Geoff, To research new interfaces with contemporary art audiences in Australia and internationally). Their practice is more about looking for a position from which different groups of people in a given place could participate can participate actively in a discussion on contemporary art.

All in all, ACW’s artistic practice could be described in terms of ‘modest proposals’ to borrow a term from Charles Esche (Esche, Charles, Modest Proposals (Istanbul: Baglam Publishing, 2005), 13.). The small-scale situations that they create by negating competition and success, the defining characteristics of today’s society, are always worthwhile contemplating.