Full Speed Ahead: A postmodern arts conference analyzes itself

Image by Ellis Calvin

Image by Ellis Calvin

“The big implication is that what most people call contemporary art is not too contemporary, and it is barely art,” says Matthew Jackson, professor in the art history and visual art departments at the University of Chicago. He is addressing the point that Our Literal Speed, a multimedia event unfolding across Chicago on April 30, May 1, and May 2, wants to make, which is that art history and criticism circulate on the same plane of existence as the art they interpret. Professor Jackson is one of a few dozen artists, academicians, and performers who will take part in the hybrid of conference, exhibit, and theater piece.

Heavily inspired by the institutional critique and conceptual art movements of the 1970s, Our Literal Speed (OLS) envisions the historical progression of art as entwined with the discourse surrounding the actual paintings and sculptures. The work of academics, then, is a creative force propelling the overall advancement of ideas. In a sense, to talk about art is to make art, especially in an era when increasingly fewer works of art are material objects. The argument Our Literal Speed wants to make is that, in Jackson’s words, “Discourse and interpretation are already acting like art.” According to its website, the event aims “to present a microcosmic rendering of the contemporary art world” by staging a conversation of multiple voices that overlap and intersect in close proximity to actual art (in the form of an exhibition at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400, running through July 4). Art and its interpretation work as a pair of intertextual oppositions that reinforce each other–but neither has priority over the other. According to Professor Jackson, “OLS is about things that are near to other things–the gaps and closeness of things.” When one sets side by side unconventional lectures about topics in artistic practice and self-referential performance pieces that try to visually represent the institutions and conventions of art, will they look completely different, or like mirror images of one another?

The list of presenters at Our Literal Speed reads like a department directory for the University of Chicago’s authorities on contemporary art and critical theory. Matthew Jackson specializes in contemporary Soviet art; Darby English is an active contributor to the unfolding theory of post-black art; Christine Mehring researches postwar German art; Joel Snyder works mainly in photographic theory; Theaster Gates has been an active contributor to public arts projects in Chicago, and is currently the University’s Coordinator of Arts Programming; and Critical Inquiry editor W.J.T. Mitchell interprets everything from Cronenberg films to the images from Abu Ghraib.

Though the University of Chicago has the lion’s share of participants, the event’s roots reach quite far, making contact with the rest of Chicago’s collegiate art community and at their farthest stretch touching academic institutions in Germany and the UK. The University of Illinois and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago both offer contributors, including Bill Ayers of ‘60s radical group the Weathermen and video artist Gregg Bordowitz. Harvard, UCLA, New York University, Yale, and the Getty Museum all send representatives. Like many a gubernatorial candidate, OLS even manages to rally a few deceased persons to its cause: Weimar Germany’s mystical sociologist Walter Benjamin and the late MoMA director Porter McCray are listed as participants on the project’s website.

All this is a reminder that Our Literal Speed attempts to be, much like late capitalism, diffuse in time and space. The May Day events are the second installment of a 2008 conference that happened at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, a museum and research institution focused on new media in Karlsruhe, Germany. Many of the same presenters, including Jackson, participated, although the Chicago event has quite a few new notable faces, including influential critics Hal Foster and Thomas Crow.

Art critic and theorist Rosalind Krauss makes a lot of the myth of the Argonauts, who repeatedly repaired their ship, the Argo, while on their journey, replacing its parts until none of the original materials were present. What remained the same, and what was crucial to the ship’s identity, was its structure. Our Literal Speed adheres to this parable, acting as a structure or ongoing conversation whose actual participants are quite fungible. It is difficult to pinpoint the central axis of OLS, and who is in charge of what is deliberately obscured. When asked about his role organizing for the OLS, Zach Cahill, organizer of the installation and performance art unit Project for the New American Century, said, “People are in Our Literal Speed when they are in it or they are not in it when they aren’t.” Many project participants seem somewhat in the dark about exactly what other contributors have prepared. The total shape of OLS is quite different from a mere sum of parts, but it is hard to know to what extent there is a single guiding vision behind it. “It’s intentionally ambiguous [whether OLS was organized by a single individual or group],” said Professor Jackson. “Ideally,” he said, with apt vagueness, “one should have some idea of who probably did some stuff. But that is about it.”

This idea of a group of artists/commentators harkens back to the (in their own words) self-critical and self-destructive practice of the conceptual art collective Art and Language, which was founded in the ’60s by four collaborators, the members of which have since shifted to include only one of the originals. The group has played a large role in both the Karlsruhe and the Chicago conferences, and views art as a kind of language in which certain ideas, images, and problems are passed down and reformulated within the institutional framework of museums and universities. One model they use is a performance lecture with multiple voices, in which the members reflect on a theoretical issue while alternating between speakers. This formal mechanism will be taken up by OLS, whose website promises “jagged transitions among scholarly presentations” and recalls the collective character of Our Literal Speed, a principle represented by the “Our” in its name.

The “Literal” refers to something similar to what conceptual artist Hans Haacke calls the “fusing of practice with an analytical reflection on that practice.” In other words, says Professor Jackson, “This is an event that is about itself.” Our Literal Speed wants to discuss how art history ends up looking a lot like the art it is discussing, while also showing that this is true. It is art theory about art theory, and how art theory needs to realize that both art and art theory are part of a continuing conversation, taking cues from one another every step of the way. Our Literal Speed is literally a part of this conversation, but it is also a reflection on the way this conversation plays out on the stages of academic discussions, art, and in the media. “Speed” signifies the dynamic and temporal movement of art history and practice.

One of the most visible aesthetic tendencies of the project’s promotional materials has been its inclination towards laconic self-identifying slogans like “A Discursive Altamont for a Nameless Decade,” and “A Pedagogical Concept Album,” not to mention its stylish name. This pithy phrase-making recalls the spirit of the ‘60s (and the death thereof), the catchy graffiti and posters of the Situationists, Enrages, and Weathermen, and makes it clear that OLS sees itself as politically engaged. The events were also chosen to be “on and around May Day,” and, according to Professor Jackson, the legacy of the IWW contributed to the choice of Chicago as host to the event. Overall, “the project is driven by skepticism,” he says, “combined with an optimism that we can do something.”

It is difficult not to imagine Our Literal Speed, in all of its self-imposed obscurity and its tendency to walk the line between a collective action and a muddled mass march, ending up being, at the very least, an interesting experiment. If it fails to convince many that the living of history and the writing of history need to be seen as existing side by side, and if it fails to rewrite the way academic conversations are conducted, it is sure to be fascinating as a kind of po-mo biodome. What happens when you give a congress of ingeniously obtuse intellectuals the freedom to view their normally dry activity as performance for three days? Expect Our Literal Speed to answer that question, and hopefully many more.
For more information and a schedule of events see ourliteralspeed.com