Fillip 10 — Fall 2009

Re: The Dialogical

Johan Lundh and Irene Loughlin

Johan Lundh: exploring and examining notions of dialogical and community-based art practices, I would like to start by asking if you have observed a more inclusive approach to such practices within the contemporary arts scene in recent years. Toward the end of your essay, you seem hopeful about the possibility of unusual collaborations bridging established art institutions and community-based practices. Maybe you can shed light over what Grant Kester means by the differences between dialogical and community-
based practices?

Irene Loughlin: In general I don’t think that there has been much bridging between art institutions and “community-based practices,” and I seem to have lost my optimism. I could be suffering from what the group Feel Tank Chicago diagnosed as “Depressed? It might be political!” They suggested political activists show up at demonstrations in their bathrobe and slippers, an action at once both funny and slightly alarming to those of us who have experienced the debilitating quality of clinical depression. Nonetheless, University of Texas professor Ann Cvetkovich has commented that the goal is now to “depathologize negative affects so that they can be seen as a possible resource for political action, rather than as its antithesis.” [1] Perhaps this take on how many of us are experiencing contemporary life is also somewhat liberating, in that it deconstructs some constrictions which have been emphasized in the past that were simply difficult or annoying to internalize. For example, second wave feminism emphasized the importance of demonstrating qualities of self-actualization, many of which were inextricably tied to what became known as “ableism” through the emphasis on verbal articulation, debate, and the exhibition of mental “strength” and resilience.

Lundh: Could you please elaborate more on the relationship between culture and the process of gentrification, maybe using examples from your experiences from one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas of North America, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?

Loughlin: The concept of bridging seems to privilege one set of circumstances over another. 
The bridge may run through parallel geographies (as from a wealthy area of a city to 
a low-income area), however, the “bridge” often conveniently runs out of the financial resources to satisfactorily complete the project in “undeveloped” zones. Because of these economic and social disparities, collaboration seems forced and contrived, and institutional staff rarely possess the insight to understand the intricacies or even the practical needs of these exchanges. I think great feelings of loss occurred when we saw that the Woodwards development project in Vancouver was not going to provide accessible education in the new university setting for Downtown Eastside residents, nor the social housing that was hoped for in the condo development project. Few answers have been provided in the dialogue surrounding the ethics of “urban development” as it applies to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, particularly within the arts, which, as we know, always plays an active, early role in gentrification processes. Only those of us who were directly involved in the communities affected had to try to answer to the fallout directly—not hypothetically—as we reached for some kind of accountability during difficult panel discussions such as “Picturing the Downtown Eastside,” at the Belkin Satellite in 2005. Others were noticeably absent and took impressive photos of the infested buildings that some of us lived in while engaging in distant articulations. The ethical questions are simultaneously simple and complex, and I don’t believe they can ever be escaped. I was never interested in the trained response that skirted issues of accountability in order to save face. Certainly as an artist, I feel a painful mixture of accomplishment, regret, and uncertainty when I think back on any of the work that I did in the Downtown Eastside. The worst of these memories stem from the occasions where I inevitably acted out the internalized tropes of “rehabilitation,” “service provision,” and “community-based arts practice.” 

Relational aesthetics became some kind of all encompassing term for certain artistic practices which were at once ephemeral and transgressive—such as the public interventions of live art practices. Once named, however, the “genre” turned in upon itself and became an opportunity for the institution to employ an artist to produce an event providing a marketable “experience” for institutional audiences, thus creating the illusion of an “accessible” environment. Artists, particularly those working in a live context, often have less opportunity to present a work that feels authentic to their current practice and may be coerced into producing a “relational” work. Such events are highly attended and generate income for the institution through entrance fees and alcohol revenue, of which participants and artists see little return. Despite their popularity, “bridging events,” or what I might term “the dog and pony show,” are targeted at a vaguely defined, generalized, yet all-encompassing “community,” that is, nonetheless, seen as peripheral to the main programming of the institution. 

Curator Anselm Franke elaborates on this disturbing and unfolding subtext. “In a world that no longer recognizes an outside....” Franke explains, “The market has gained a special social status in this economy, also called the ‘experience economy’ or ‘transformation economy’.” Products are classified by their emotional content: How much can a product move us, to what extent can it create subjectivity? The art market, because of its detachment from any utilitarian value, has, in fact, become something like the narcissistic reflection of the market’s expansion into the sphere of life.... Commodities concealing the fact that they stand for social relationships as “natural” facts. [2] Franke further noted during a lecture held at the University of Toronto (March 3, 2009) that depression as a response to these conditions is an attempt at a false unity, a stranded imagination furtively linked to the pathology of being unable to imagine the possibility or striving for an “elsewhere” or an “outside.” [3] This abandonment is easily embodied in the notion of political depression, which I noted earlier.

In your Fillip article, you write, “I’ve observed that ‘community’ is often invoked by dominant cultural institutions in order to infantilize, neutralize, and exclude radical activist and art practices that are developed intellectual strategic responses.” Nevertheless, you say that “community” is still the only word available to describe the practices of your mentors and peers. Could you please elaborate on your feelings about community-based art practices today?

I think community-based art practices have largely been co-opted, especially in an institutional sense, and I think the practice of artist-run centres in Canada must be included here. Of course, there are many people who are doing excellent work in the “community-based arts,” but most of these exist outside of art institutions. I participated in “community-based practices” out of an immediate, urgent need to make connections with other art producers while living under difficult conditions. My experience of “community” has been fluid and has been influenced by disability. As such, in more recent years it has also confusingly encompassed both the university and the welfare system. These two systems are typically distinct within the social context. Particularly as tuition costs rise in Canada, we see few low income students and students with disabilities in an academic context. Academic “interventions” in the DTES, in which I had the misfortune to participate as a “community member,” suffered from the “service provider/client relationship” or contained aspects of an anthropological subtext, which engaged the disabled thinker as a kind of “intellectual curiosity.” Due to these complexities and to those which I have mentioned previously, I could and have been a reluctant participant in both the academic community and the DTES community and was often simultaneously in both. The fluctuation between the two experiences led to a disturbingly vertiginous and constantly re-focusing perspective. In any event, the longevity of maintaining an ethical art practice in such an environment is difficult, to say the least. In the case of “dropping out” of art, some of which has been noted in some of your previous writing [4] on “dropping out” as a choice or a performative act, Johan, withdrawal becomes less about a definitive choice and more about a possible or inevitable future cycle, a kind of unremarkable disappearance for artists existing outside of normativity, or a permanent event rooted in the related economics of constructs of health and illness.

Lundh: One of the most articulate critics of Grant Kester’s study is American art historian Miwon Kwon. She has criticized Kester’s concept of a “politically coherent community” as being reductive and essentializing. Kwon also argues that politically coherent communities are more, rather than less, vulnerable to appropriation because they use collective identities. For a long time, you were involved with Gallery Gachet, a Vancouver community-based art space devoted to providing DTES residents with opportunities to exhibit, curate, perform, read, and develop leadership skills. Were there any discussions at Gachet about the risks of being appropriated and bureaucratized by mainstream culture?

Loughlin: Well, I’d like to first state that I didn’t feel provided with leadership skills. The work there was peer-based and the learning was experiential, as there were so few resources at the time, and our practice was not legitimized to warrant much of the public funding sources that other centres depend upon for the professional development of their artists, programming, and curatorship. A person who works at any other artist-run centre in Vancouver also develops leadership skills by working or being involved there just as I did at Gachet, and no one would think to describe an employed curator, say, for example, at the Western Front, as “developing their leadership skills.” So, as I have spoken of previously, this kind of paternalistic rhetoric is pervasive and internalized, often as a means of justifying external support parallel to comfortably framing resistant practices within a “normative” context. I have always viewed Gachet as a space where important work emerged in relation to contemporary art and in regard to many issues including safe injection sites, public perceptions of mental health, and so on.

As I noted in my article surrounding Kester’s work, at Gachet circa 2003, we were more interested in the internal dialogical. The “coherent community” aspect of Gachet worked well to guard it from a shallow type of appropriation, as stigma generates false perception, which has both an exclusionary and insular effect. I largely felt that we were more a community of necessity than a community of collective identity, which might be further described as a community ambivalent to its identity as such because of the misinformation attached to its identification. This position was both liberating and alienating, which perhaps further guarded it from the appropriation Miwon Kwon describes, as it is also a difficult position to pin down. Once again, I’d like to reiterate that the challenge in community-based art is the rhetoric of “service provision” almost inevitably permeating the peer-based projects of artists in low-income communities. This rhetoric, in collusion with the nature of stigma, acts to de-emphasize the self-directed and often groundbreaking quality of the work produced within a peer-based model.

Johan, in your review of Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette’s book Collectivism After Modernism, you state, “neoliberalism has made resistance more complicated since it thrives on resistances. Socially and politically engaged practices become commodified and depoliticized before they can make a mark on the world.” Can you elaborate on this process of neoliberal commodification and depoliticization, perhaps giving an example of how this process has been enacted within a socially or politically engaged practice?

Lundh: This is one of the crucial questions of our time. As such, it is a complicated one to unravel fully. The point I was trying to make is connected to philosopher Francis Fukuyama’s argument that the demise of Socialism as a viable political alternative speaks to the end of history. What we lost with the breakup of the Soviet Union wasn’t first and foremost an evaporation of a corrupt and detrimental political system. What we lost was the notion of capitalism’s other. Not too long ago, we could still envision something beyond a neoliberal economy infinitely caught in an omnipresent now. This insistence on the present is the result of a lack of a future horizon—the ultimate result of the neoliberal utopia of the end of history. Resistance against the current order has historically always fed off the notion of a future horizon, if only an imaginary one. Resistance against a paradigm that presents itself as the only possibility is enormously complicated. Therefore, the radical positions of the past need to be constantly re-imagined. 

An example of a seemingly rigid enterprise that has been defused by a neoliberal agenda, perpetuated by the periodic large-scale international exhibitions called biennales, is the practice of the Guerrilla Girls. Established by a group of feminist artists and activists in New York City in 1985, they are well known for utilizing posters to promote women and people of colour in the arts. The reason the Guerrilla Girls have maintained a sense of integrity is that they remained anonymous and acted without institutional mandate. Although admirable in their cause and commitment, they ultimately lost credibility for me when they officially participated in the Venice Biennale in 2005. Rosa Martínez, one of two curators, commissioned them to produce six large posters for one of the biennial’s official exhibitions, which criticized the artworld, the George W. Bush administration, Hollywood, and the Biennale itself. Ironically, that installment of the Venice Biennale was the first to be curated by women in its one-hundred-year history. What must have been perceived as a win-win-situation for the curator and the artists ended up undermining both parties, cynically indicating their resignation from a radical position, which they held for thirty years in order to receive institutional recognition. In this sense, their critique of institutions had become an institution of critique, to paraphrase Andrea Fraser.

I am interested in philosopher Brian Holmes’s declaration that there is a “slow emergence of an experimental territory, where artistic practices have gained autonomy from the gallery-magazine-museum system and from the advertising industry [which] can be deliberately connected to attempts at social transformation.” Do you see evidence of such territories existing in Canada, or elsewhere, and what would you say are some of the most effective ways in which they operate and their existence is reinforced?

Lundh: I believe that a creative rethinking of the past could help us to delineate the shape of things to come. Information technology has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and interact with each other. The Internet has been as important for the production and dissemination of information and ideas as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. In theory, I agree with Holmes when he claims that an “appropriation of expressive tools from the information economy opens up an enormous field of possibilities, where artists, alongside with social groups, can regain the use of political freedom.””5 (read footnote)”:#note5 There have been a few instances in the last few years when I have participated in projects and discursive activities where the social, economic, political, and cultural differences have been temporarily suspended. But I cannot assert that I have ever experienced the experimental territories that Holmes is referring to, nor have I gained autonomy from the mechanics of contemporary art.

I seem to be more pessimistic about the consequences of the unapologetic transformation of art and culture into new economic forces than Holmes. Politicians and bureaucrats around the world seem to be determined to make art and culture a subdivision of the entertainment industry. When reading philosopher and art theorist Gerald Raunig’s book Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century (Semiotext(e)/Active Agents, 2007), I can only come to one conclusion: if revolution was ever possible through art, that moment is now over. What remains of the transformative powers of art, according to poet and cultural critic Jeff Derksen, are meek interventions in the form of social interstices or constructed situations—for example, Relational Aesthetics—whose aim is to enable individuals to think about new kinds 
of social exchange in a self-developmental fashion.

Loughlin: Does collectivity really offer an alternative to “signature articulations” when the group name attached to individuals becomes more commercially viable as a “product” than the names of the individuals themselves?

Lundh: As always, it depends on what, how, and for whom you work as a collective. There is nothing inherently radical in working as a group. Collective practices are nonetheless more problematic than individual ones. Even if the members of the collective remain anonymous, it does not prevent their works or actions from being commodified or depoliticized. The Helsinki-based artist collective Revolutions on Request are, despite their name, no more progressive then someone like Damien Hirst. If anything, they show how watered-down a word like “revolution” has become. According to Brian Holmes, “the construction of global brands in the 1980s and 1990s entailed the integration of countercultural and minority rhetorics, as well as the direct enlistment into the workplace of ‘creatives’ of all the domains of art and culture.” [6] In other words, the notion of resistance has become extremely complicated in a neoliberal paradigm. To put it bluntly, yesterday’s radical activists are today’s corporate ties. The same thing is true for artists and artist collectives. In the last few decades, many artists have turned away from the social. But what has been the benefit? Ironically, this has left art navel-gazing without a space of otherness from which to create meaning/value/affect. What we need is to bridge the cultural with the social—to create more varied engagements between art and spaces of sociability.

  1. Ann Cvetkovich, “Public Feelings,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106, no. 3 (2007): 460.

  2. Anselm Franke, “Outsider Becoming Insider Art and Politics,” Metropolis M 5 (October/November 2007).

  3. Anselm Franke, University of Toronto, 3 March 2009. See

  4. Johan Lundh, “The art of disappearing: Can artmaking only have meaning within the context of the art world?” C Magazine, 22 March 2009.

  5. Brian Holmes, “Do-It-Yourself Geopolitics—Cartographies of the Art World,” in Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945, 273–95.

  6. Ibid.
About the Authors

Johan Lundh is an artist, curator, and writer who splits his time between Stockholm and Vancouver. His research-based projects explore connections between social interaction and the mechanics of contemporary art. He is currently working on an interview project as well as a series of collaboratively produced posters with Vancouver-based artist-curator Alissa Firth-Eagland.

Irene Loughlin is a performance artist who works with text, video, and installation and has exhibited in various national and international contexts. She has recently received a Lynch-Staunton Award, Canada Council for the Arts.

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