Johnson Chang speaks with Boris Groys about archives as “museums minus the aesthetic experience,” the return of God as a spectator, and the totalitarianism of music.
The art critic, media theorist, and philosopher Boris Groys visited Asia Art Archive during its fifteenth anniversary in November 2015. The following conversation with Johnson Chang ensued, including a Q&A with members of the AAA team and the community. It has been edited and condensed.
Johnson Chang: I think all of you must be very curious to hear what Boris has been thinking lately. Would you care to share some secrets?
Boris Groys: Well, in terms of secret ideas, I tend to publish everything I think, and I think all possible things at the same time. Maybe I can speak about what I'm doing now: a new collection of my essays under the title In the Flow, published by Verso, is a collection of essays about the avant-garde and Internet. Of course, modernism and especially the avant-garde can be understood in different ways. My take in this collection of papers has to do with the reaction of European art to the crisis of European art institutions at the beginning of the twentieth century. It seems to me, and this is why I go back to this period of time, that we have today this new wave of industrial revolution, and that is industrialisation of our intellectual activity. The first stage was industrialisation of manual practice. From that time you have the idea that even if everything crashes, even if the art institutions crash, even if handwork as a basis of art doesn't exist anymore because everything is industrialised, some things like innovative concepts, like new projects, still have their origin in the human brain. That is a great topic of the avant-garde: everything is destroyed, everything is black screen, but there is creative energy, creative thinking in the human mind.
What is an artist in general? What is the definition of an artist, at least in the Western tradition? The artist is somebody who addresses not his family and his circle of friends, but the whole of mankind. That is the difference. Normally when I speak, I address only somebody; but if I am an artist or a writer, as Nietzsche said, I address nobody and everybody—so, I address everything. That is a condition of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Everybody permanently addresses nobody and everybody. That means this initial gesture of addressing the universe became trivial, banal. At the same time, it is completely democratised because everybody can do it. On the other hand, every such act of addressing the universe becomes irrelevant because nobody is interested. We have an interesting constellation from which something disappeared. Not the artist—everyone became an artist, everyone became a writer. What disappeared was the reader and the spectator—they are the figures that don’t exist anymore. Everybody has to say something, everybody has to show something. Nobody wants to look at things, and nobody wants to read things.
You look at the whole picture; the Internet gives something like a whole picture. It's only one picture that we want: the only picture of our time is the Internet itself. It is obvious that this picture is made not for human eyes; humans cannot see the Internet in its totality. It is made, actually, for God: only a divine gaze—because divine gaze is infinite—is able to see the Internet. So we have a very strange reversal, and I think that has to do with the return of religious thinking, particularly in the West, the influx of Islam, and so on, has to do with a return of God, not as an actor, but as a spectator.
People want somebody looking at what they are doing, and this desire to be looked at, or to be read or understood, to become the object of interest for somebody, is a new form of return to religion. I quote Nietzsche again; he said that every artist wants to be an artwork, so actually the artists don't want to be a subject—subject of desire, subject of thinking and creativity—he wants to be an object of admiration and love. And so activity and creativity are there, but admiration and love are not. That is a new condition that I try to describe, and I do not of course try to criticise that or change that or whatever; my goal is simply to describe the situation in clear terms, to formulate the conditions under which the subjectivity functions in terms of self-objectification. Self-objectification is what culture is about. Culture is an attempt to turn our subjectivity into an object. This problem of self-objectification under the condition of absent, or passive spectatorship—that is mainly what I have been writing about.
JC: There's also the issue of archiving—in that archival activities cannot be infinite, it's always a selective process. Perhaps the activity of artists who use archival processes and Asia Art Archive have this in common, in that we are making things that try to make sense. At the end of the day—like information in the art world, activities—no matter how many people are making them, it's still finite. Because it is finite there is a possibility for meaning. So how do these frantic selfie photographers and diarists on the Internet who make their world through an endless supply of information still make sense? In this analysis it is the issue of meaning, but meaning implies editing and selecting. Only a God can make sense of infinite information, but if the meaning comes from God then it is no longer meaning, because it is undefined.
BG: I think the concept of archiving has to do with a notion of authority. So if you speak about selection, then you speak about an authority that is trusted by others, so that this selection will be a relevant selection. If you look at the creation of the museums of art at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century, they turned the places of power and places of religion into the places of archive basically. Museums are basically the first archive.
It is a kind of canonical narrative that has a power over our imagination, over our culture. Now that is, I think, a problem that—already in the 1980s and 1990s—we're confronted with this new phenomenon of distrust in relation to any cultural authority and any possible cultural selection process. This distrust came from the feminist movement, it came from postcolonial discourse when it was said that this selection was wrong. But if I say that this selection was wrong, that means that my selection can be also wrong. It's not like if I say this particular selection is wrong, I, rather, kill the possibility to make the right selection as such; every selection seems to be wrong. It seems to be wrong because it is based on the system of cultural prejudices, traditions, and so on, that are relative and subjective.
I taught for, I think, fifteen years in the USA and it is especially obvious there, but it becomes increasingly obvious in Germany, too: students basically know only what other students are doing, or their friends. So they are basically not interested in earlier generations; they don’t think about archives; they’re not interested in information; they're interested only in what their friends are doing. As I started to teach, I couldn't offer any books to my students because no one read anything, but at least I could talk about movies. We saw the same movies. But now we don't even see the same movies. They see only movies produced by their friends. It's very strange. For example, I gave them a certain topic and they said, "I want to write a text for the seminar on the basis of this video, this artwork and this novel." I did not know the names of the authors, so I asked who the people were. "They are their friends, they’re not published or exhibited yet but I want to write on the basis of their work." But how do I grade it? I have to read this novel, to look at this video, and so on. I don't have the energy to do so, so I'm kind of perplexed, and I think this kind of perplexity is general; I don't think I'm the only person in the world who is perplexed. Because I time and again encounter references that have nothing to do with something like a general, socially-accepted space of cultural information that I could participate in, and be able to participate in. That's a very interesting development. So archives, yes, but I think they have to reflect on the fact that every selection process in our culture remains forever problematic, and its authority will be forever challenged.
JC: But the fact that your students have selected their friends' work to include in their narrative, that is actually also reflecting a sphere of significance for them, so it's really an issue of how broad the perimeter of this sphere of significance is. In the case of an archive, when it draws enough participants it creates authority—as in the eighteenth-century museums. But then if even this sphere of significance, if the range of references is finite and internal-looking, what does that say about civilisation as a whole? It probably also suggests that historical reference for the public is now so fragmented that an overview of global or national or even personal historical references or the basis of any communication becomes more and more restricted because they're fragmented.
BG: It is extremely fragmented, and Google becomes a conversational partner basically. So people basically don't know anything, and even if we did know something, we forgot it. So we look to Google.
JC: So Google now replaces God?
BG: Google now replaces the church. It's a mediator between human gaze and divine gaze. Google is based on a theological model of knowledge, not modern systems of knowledge, because Google is based on a series of references and not on a narrative. If you look, for example, into medieval literature of let's say the twelfth, thirteenth, or fourteenth centuries—before the Renaissance—then the books that were produced at that time were about things that famous people said about plants, for example, or ants, or animals, or the stars. So: Aristotle said this, Plato said that, and so on. And that's Google; Google's based on this principle—you give a name, you give a term, and then you get all the contexts in which this name or term occurs simultaneously. That means that there is no narrative, there's no theory behind that, it's only occasions in which you can find a certain word. It's what happened to a notion or a certain time as it more or less accidentally finds itself in a strange situation.
For example, if I Google myself I come from one strange situation to another strange situation: yesterday I was in Moscow; now I'm in Hong Kong. So if somebody Googles me, I kind of emerge in these different situations but it doesn't say anything about what I'm coming for, what I’m doing, and so on. And people of course don't read what I write; they just look at the Internet if they generally want to know something. So it's a very strange form of existence in the cultural space, this kind of emerging in different contexts at the same time—not in history but at the same time. It's kind of a new simultaneity of the past and present. Actually, my talk is recorded and at the moment it is recorded and is put, for example, on the Internet, something happens that already Derrida describes: my existence, the fact that I'm alive, becomes irrelevant. People look at the video and they don't know if I'm still alive or already dead. That is precisely this divine dimension of the Internet; the divinity of the Internet is this kind of incapacity to differentiate between all these photographs, recordings, and so on—between life and death. And that is how it is functioning as a church. Museums also function partially like that. I go from one space to another, one artist is still alive, another artist is already dead, but I find the artworks in the same space.
So we already have these forms, but it is interesting that the Internet functions only on this basis of simultaneity of all the documents and recordings. Then you can create your own narrative, and that is precisely how the fragmentation of the Internet comes. So what is a cause of the fragmentation? The Internet is general; Google is general; most information is general, it's accessible to everyone, there's no fragmentation of that space. But they're not narrated, so the act of narration I have to produce myself. I have to say, "That is important, that is not important. I like this, I didn't like that. That was before, that comes after." I create my own narrative, and the other users create his or her own narrative, and fragmentation comes at this point, so the basic information is general; but I cannot refer to it in any meaningful way because every reference is a reference to a kind of story, or theory. And the story or theory is created by the other person, or a small group of users, and I agree this small group of users can be Asia Art Archive, or a circle of friends, why not—it is the case. But it doesn't reach the level of authority that canonical narratives created in our generation; we still have them in our mind. It doesn't happen today. So you can create this narrative but you can't make this narrative into a living one, into a dominant one, into even a legitimate one.
JC: To go back to the original purpose of the museum and then the archival space and look at the original reason for existence—that is authority and organisation; if the Google world is a metaphor then authority and authorisation only comes in the form that we use them today, this global capitalist way, which is through accumulation. You accumulate the number of hits on your site, you accumulate enough people coming to look at it and join your position—it is this calculable accumulation that gives authority. What about, again coming back to the concept that it's not possible to have a narrative that is universal, and also going back to the idea of meanings and linguistic models—Google is actually not a linguistic system; it's not like a transformational grammar. It is like one feature of a linguistic system (as a structure) that everyone refers to, like the vocabulary list, but the vocabulary list is potentially an infinite set of elements. So in that case, Google would not have worked if this was not consolidated into some sort of structural framework. Google is not a transformational grammar.
BG: I think what's important to see in relation to what you said is that the number of clicks—that is, symbolic capital—gives you some kind of commercial success because it attracts people who want to invest in the art world, if you have a blog, for example. But it doesn't give you any authority. If you look for example at the Internet the truly viral videos are mostly about cats and dogs. No information creates such a universal response as images of dogs and cats. They’re real viral videos. If you look at the list of viral videos of the recent period of time, you will see that there are always five, six, seven dogs and cats and a huge break in numbers until the next one, which is mostly eruptions of volcanoes, things like that—catastrophes.
Point number two: if we speak about archives, let us reflect on the relationship of archives versus museums. I think that it is a very important point, because even if I said earlier that the museum is an archive, it’s not quite true. It’s not true because when we enter the museum we are confronted with art, we are confronted immediately with artistic work. If you go into the archive, you are confronted with information about art, but never with art itself.
Now the question is why and how this shift from the museum to the archive happened on a philosophical level. On the philosophical level it obviously happened through the work of Heidegger and Benjamin. Both authors in different philosophical languages said that a work of art is a work of art only at the moment of its emergence, and only in the context of its first emergence. Heidegger says that only in the first moment—and very short moment—in which the artwork is produced, it opens the world for the artist, and for anybody else. But the openness to the world, he said, is the openness to closure; it is the anticipation of disappearance. That is to say, the only thing that you can actually see in this opening is the closure, and the closure takes place through the art business. The mechanism of closure is a museum or gallery exhibition—the selling, buying of the artwork—because the art will then not disclose or open the world, but will become a part of the world, an object circulating with other objects. At the moment the openness is closed, you can see that what you are confronted with is information about art, not art itself. The art itself has already disappeared.
Benjamin says that to exhibit work in a museum is the same thing as to make a copy of it. The exhibited artwork is a copy of itself, and a copy can only inform us about an artwork but not disclose it to us. In this sense we begin to be confronted with the phenomenon that created completely new possibilities from which, also on a practical level, Asia Art Archive actually profits—namely, the erasure of the difference between performance and traditional visual art. If we think that every art—even if it’s a painting—is actually performance in itself, that it appears as art only at its first moment, then there is no difference between, let's say, documentation of the performance and artwork exhibited in the museum. They all become forms of documentation and information that refer to a certain event that is already a past event. If you speak, for example, with people making performances in America in the 1960s, they would say we didn't make any documents; we hate archives because they undermine the authenticity of our actions, of our bodies, and so on.
So this distrust and hate of documentation and archives were actually the genetic code of performance art in certain periods of time, but precisely today what happens is that the performance is documented in the first place. So I think that with the Internet and the development of this new paradigm, we have a shift from the museum to the archive where the traditional difference between artwork and art documentation is erased. The performance artists became more and more comfortable with documentation—a relatively new phenomenon, I would say, that started in the 1980s or maybe the 1990s. So the shift from the museum to the archive is at the same time the shift from artwork to art documentation, and at the same time it makes archives comparable with the Internet after all—because the Internet is a place where not the artwork is shown, but the information about an artwork.
I think that if you speak about archives, the archive is an appropriate place for art to be, simply because, as I said, the philosophical reflection on art and artistic practise both brought us to the concept of information as substitute for this mythology of aesthetic experience. Archive is museum, minus aesthetic experience—that’s the definition. So if you believe in the aesthetic experience, you hate archives. If you don't, you see the museum already as a proto-archive. So a visitor in the Louvre lost consciousness because they were so fascinated by their meeting with eternal beauty and the aesthetic experience was so strong that they couldn't eat, they couldn't drink, they stayed there for six or eight hours in front of a particular painting and then lost consciousness and had to be taken to the hospital! That is an experience that we don’t have in Asia Art Archive. So this kind of archive and contemporary space of art is a museum minus aesthetic experience as it was understood in nineteenth century and still in the twentieth century.
JC: This reminds me of a very funny story I heard recently about sex.
BG: That's always funny.
JC: Of course sex is an awkward thing as a spectator sport. I have this friend in China who is a very eloquent speaker and he loves to theorise and speak and he's exceedingly busy because he writes, he organises events, and he's a teacher. He loves to talk about his fantasies and his encounters with women, but his close associates all know he did not have these experiences. And it occurred to us that talking about sex is probably as important as having sex because once you've had it, it does not exist anymore; but when you talk about it, it lasts. It's like the experience many people have with modern museums. So the challenge of the modern museum is comparable to having sex, which is: having an aesthetic experience while you're there. So the challenge for the exhibiting institution is delivering the aesthetic experience that it promises. We should envision a new institution of art display which creates this encounter of openness, of opening the world at the moment of encounter and allows that to happen without closing down the artwork so it turns into an object of authority, or just an object for documentation; then we will have the ideal museum. Would that be possible?
BG: Well, there are two things. I know a Russian joke about it: A guy comes to a physician and he says my friend is so potent he has these sexual experiences, and I don’t have them. The physician asked him, "How do you know that your friend had these experiences?" "Because he told me about them." He responded, "It’s easy to cure—tell the same!" So that is also the problem with art. The problem with art is that, of course, documentation of art is a reference to an absent event, but the absence of this event means the possibility that it didn't take place at all. So the archiving process opens a degree of speculation and imagination that brings us to the future, through the rewriting or reinventing of the past.
It's interesting especially if you look at recent Lebanese art. It is art thematising destruction and wars. Now many interesting Lebanese artists are making, so to speak, false histories of Lebanon, playing on the fact that everyone in the world knows something terrible is happening—civil wars and so on—but they don't know exactly what is happening. So they invent groups and armies and revolutions, conflicts that never took place, and document them as artistic practice. The same with Bolaño and his book Nazi Literature in the Americas; he just invented the whole Nazi literature there. So you are able to play with the concept of absent experience in different ways.
JC: Creating an abstract canon is in a way to feign authority, just like we accuse regimes of inventing history for our own pasts and rewriting their own roles in this re-written history.
BG: But you know one guy wrote in his diaries that the only way to prevent the emergence of a new Hitlerian regime is for everybody to become Hitler. So if only one will invent history, then this invented history can be imposed on the people. What was a totalitarian practise of propaganda can become a field of new artistic imagination if everyone would invent one's own history.
I don't know how it is in China, but in Russia and Eastern Europe, they invent the past; they don't discover it. Because the break was very fundamental, the shift was psychologically unreachable, and so communism comes to be a break in the history—an interruption, not a part of history, it doesn't fit into history as it is told now. The history in many cases looks very naive, almost parodistic; but it is a creative process after all. People invented history. They created history. There's nothing bad about it. It was like the Renaissance. There's nothing wrong with faking the tradition, the past, if it is made in an interesting way.
JC: But now people fake things by reinterpretation, by giving different significance in alternative ways.
BG: As I said there's so much information, there's no interpretation. We're living in a system that we don't read books where facts are embedded in the narratives and interpretations. We just look at Google and we see what happened at that time, and we do not know what that means. We have to invent the meaning. The link is not there.
Our system says, "Please, say something new." Why should I say something new? Maybe it's more interesting to repeat what was already said? Why write a dissertation, for example? They say this dissertation should be new. What does that mean exactly? They don't say it should be true. They say you have to create something new, even if it is wrong and false. That is the official academic requirement! And that means that our education system is based on an appropriated lie. A production and invention of fantasies, fakes, and lies that create this kind of illusion of consistency.
Audience: Boris was saying the archive is the museum minus the aesthetic experience. So if you flip that around, what is the archive plus the aesthetic? Is it the museum, or is it something else?
BG: Well, I think archive plus aesthetic experience—it is an artist who wants to come into the archive, to become archived. So I think that to get aesthetic experience in the archive is not to look at art but to do art, to make art, to produce art. Basically, it doesn't need to be involved in the production process, but the production process is demotivating, in a certain way, if it is not archived. If you don't have a feeling that you made a step and you are ready to make the next step. Archiving is important. I know for publishing and writers it's important because it closes a certain chapter in their lives: you do something, you get published, and you move forward. So archiving and publishing are important for a kind of personal account and in terms of this personal economy, aesthetic experience, experience of being an artist.
Audience: But you said there are no spectators?
BG: What does the spectator mean? If you come into the archive you are not a spectator; you get informed about art, you look for information. Of course one can organise an exhibition, but it's not like an archive. An archive doesn't give you immediate access to anything that can be aesthetically experienced, but an archive informs you about the artistic practices. But I think that the basic participants can be artists, curators, critics, and authors, so mostly it's for the people who are involved in the art process, or who are going to get involved.
Audience: As a writer—a frequent writer—if there's no audience, why do you continue to write and who do you think your audience is?
BG: That is completely irrelevant for me. I'm simply writing because I wrote before. You know, you have to do something. So I'm writing. So it's life for me. If you are accustomed to this life, then you go further. What comes out of it is difficult to say. It's difficult to look at what you do from an outside position.
Audience: I wanted to return to what you started with. Having worked as an artist with both museums and archives over many years, I see that there is a structural difference between the museum and the archive—that is: the archive has no imperative to display. That's why it's so interesting for artists because there is no already-existing narrative in the way that the museum has this imperative inbuilt to display; and therefore to create a narrative, and the curatorial engagement in creating that narrative, is what we're suggesting—that when we come to see art in the museum, it is already gone, it already closed because that narrative is the moment of that closure. I see it as the most important difference: that the archive offers itself much more openly to an artist, academic, and so on.
BG: It's difficult to say because a few of the archives are digitalised. Digitalisation means actually exhibitions in the context of the Internet, so archives are exhibited. They're not exhibited in space like a museum, but exhibited in the digitalised form in the digital context. I think that every institution creates a kind of individual narrative or suggests a certain structure that you can accept or ignore, but it's also not so different from the museum. But also it's interesting to look at the development of the museums themselves. If you look at MoMA or Tate Modern, they exhibit like seven or ten percent maximum of their collection. But now they are moving to digital exhibitions. They put on the Internet everything that they own. So we have a system where the Internet gives us a more complete overlook of the museums and also about the strategies of collecting and presentation and so on. So I think that digitalisation in a certain way erases this difference that you describe. The difference is relevant on an analogue level, but I think in our time it's more or less the same.
Audience: But then that forces us to accept that the Internet is a space of display. Is that true?
BG: Yes, I think so. I think for many people it's a primary source. It's not like nobody goes to a museum and looks at a painting and so on. But I think that the first encounter with an artwork or project or event happens in the context of the Internet. Maybe the second gesture is to go somewhere to look at the original or visit some space. But the primary source is the Internet.
Audience: I do not agree with the lack of display in an archive because even if it's not digitised, and even prior to the digital era, the arrangement of the information as it comes to your head is a way of displaying, because you have to make sense—you're making a selection and also you have to make a narration. Maybe sometimes more intrusive or laid back, but there is a certain processing of information that is already an involved element of displaying because you cannot ignore the idea that people will come and click through and, for them, it's a way to perceive your information.
BG: Yes, if your primary gesture is to go into the archive and follow the logic of the archive, then I agree with you, that is the case. But I was only saying that it's a kind of secondary move. It's a primary move when I'm interested in the name of an artist. Say I heard a name, a Chinese name, unknown to me. So I search this person on the Internet, and it shows me this exhibition, the work was produced in Asia, etc. So in my imagination, I get something like an arrangement of the information where a particular archive or particular museum are only sources for this arrangement of information. In this sense the logic of their own construction remains hidden to me because I take only one example, and ignore everything else. So I think what is important is that I take the iteration of certain names, iterations of the work, and so on. But the structure of the context in which this iteration takes place, I can go into it but I can also ignore. The museum invites me to ignore.
Audience: It's like a tutorial in terms of display narration, it's kind of open.
BG: Yes, that I create myself.
Audience: I'm curious about your take on the now very popular data aesthetics.
BG: Well I once participated in a conference about that and it is an interesting development because at the beginning of this reflection about how the artist uses the Internet was the idea of destruction of the data. So all the first projects of the 1980s and 1990s—artistic projects—there are late-modernist-inspired ideas that we have to destroy data to open the gate to the medium itself. Like, if you want to open the medium of paintings you have to destroy the image itself. So the way to deal with data is to destroy data. That was the leading idea during discussions of that time. But as I see now, the question is not how to destroy data to open the medium; the question is how to present this data in a user-friendly way. The idea to do something in a user-friendly way is a design concept; it's not an art concept. An art concept is to present something in an unfriendly way. As an archive, you have to present in a friendly way unfriendly things.
Audience: I read about a new program yesterday being developed by a newspaper agency in China where it can basically write its own articles now. So the fact that the Internet is a place of just references, and there are programs that can actually narrate these references. I'm wondering about your thoughts on artificial intelligence going into the future, and the role of the individual in narrating.
BG: I don't know. It's interesting that artificial intelligence is by definition not intelligent enough. Not intelligent enough because artificial intelligence cannot die. What makes us intelligent is taking criticism and seeing dangers. If you do not do that you are not able to be intelligent. On the other hand, as an artistic project it is OK. For example, I had a student. He made curatorial projects for Tate Modern, MoMA, and Centre Pompidou: he constructed spaces in a virtual space and created curatorial programs that were looking for different images and placing them on different walls of these institutions. So the program can function as a curator. This program was created in a way that it looked for images on the Internet according to certain rules—the rules were different for different programmes—and compared these images with the spaces in the museum and filled in an appropriate way, as a professional curator would do. I think that was a great idea as a curatorial project.
Audience: I have three questions related to the moment of emergence. I was very touched by your reference to Heidegger, Benjamin, and your own writing: art is only art at the moment of emergence. I'd like to know a bit more about this definition of emergence. Is it when the idea starts taking shape? Is it when the idea is manifested or embodied in a medium? Or is it when that medium is perceived by an observer? When is the moment of loss of grace?
BG: No author gives an answer to that! There are attempts if you read German, relatively recent attempts to focus on this idea of Augenblick, the moment, or momentariness. But if you read Benjamin, on the one hand, he speaks about the role of art as participating in a ritual, having something magical. So the Christian icons are involved in some kind of ritual with magical aspects—thus, operating with magical images you can change something in the world. For example, you can ask God to change the course of history, and if he is nice he will do it.
But the moment these words and images are taken out of this ritual context, they lose their magic powers. That would be, for example, when the moment is lost to secularisation. The other, being a typical German, is to describe an authentic experience such as a vacation in Italy. If you go to Italy in good weather, you're sitting under a tree and the skies are blue, that is this magic moment and is irreplaceable. So you have nature—Italian nature of course, not German nature—and this private ritual. It is, actually, an example that is chosen by Benjamin. Heidegger describes two examples in "The Origin of the Work of Art." One example is the project of a temple that has to be built to unite people, to unite the folk, so the Germans in this particular case. But it's only conceived, not built. The moment it's built, it's over. So as long as it's a pure vision, it's still a promise. But the moment this promise is realised it becomes a commodity.
Audience: You talk of the aesthetic experience, so when you encounter an artwork in a museum, the art is at that moment emerged, before it's formalised or concretised. Then I would say a lot of the archival material is actually where the art is emerging. Maybe that's where the potential of the aesthetic experience is at its most promising?
BG: Every project is imitation of another project that we also should see. The project in itself is not original. If it was original we wouldn't be able to recognise it as such. So the openness is never original—openness is original openness, but as a gesture itself it is not original, it is repetitive. Heidegger also says that we go from one repetition of the original experience to another repetition of the original experience. In this sense, if we are confronted with artistic projects in the archive, then the authentic relationship to this project is to develop your own project as an open horizon of a new possibility. But this openness itself is a repetition of the openness of possibilities in the archives.
So it's not about passive experience of beauty, like aesthetics. It's not like you remain in a secure situation of spectator and passively consumeristic in an idealistic way—you experience something. But the real involvement is much more active and productive. You have to be involved in the artistic process. I must say, my experience of working with artists, in general, shows me that you have to really be part of it to understand it. It has nothing to do with elitism. It's not the case; everybody can be part of it. But you have to be part of it. You have to make this project your own; then you are involved.
Audience: You said openness itself is original, but the gesture of openness in the form of—
BG: It's repetitive. The original experience itself is repetitive. The gesture of opening the original is not original. That is the old idea of Heidegger, of Derrida, and of other people; and I think we can share it. Because on a very simple level, if I want to produce an original painting I still have to know it is a painting. It's like people say, "I did something different, some different things." But it is a painting. And being a painting is ninety-nine percent the same, only one percent is different. So every original gesture, every opening matters only on the merits of its exhibition. If you do not repeat, you can't also see it.
Audience: OK, let's turn to music then. Is the experience of music the experience of information about music, to use your terminology?
BG: Music is an eternal example. I don't know. I don't know what it means to listen to music, that's very important. I don't know what you mean by that. If you go to the supermarket, if you're sitting in the taxi, probably there is music playing. Music is not like visual art or text, because to listen to the music does not depend on your personal decision to do so or not to do so. So music is by definition totalitarian. It is there whether you want it or not, it is there. So if you understand music as something that takes place, like maybe the water or the sky, then music of course is not under your control and can't be archived. If you look at music as something that is constructed, then in a very strange way, music is a most radical example of what we are saying, because what is really archived are the scores, and the scores produce no sound. So if you look at the archiving of music, it's the most radical example of the break between archive and aesthetic experience because you can't experience music only from the scores. Of course, people who are very well trained can read it and can hear it internally. If they're really professional; but still, then, it's your own music. It's precisely what I said again: you go into the archive, you get some kind of instruction of how to produce music, and basically you do it yourself by pretending to hear it in your mind.
Johnson Chang is AAA Co-founder and Director of Hanart TZ Gallery.
- Mon, 20 Nov 2017