Notes

Research Log | On the Precipice of Events

In November 2010, I spent ten days in Mumbai. My research trip was driven, not by any particular exhibition or programme, but instead, by the opportunity to visit the studios of artists – Sudarshan Shetty, Shilpa Gupta, Riyas Komu, CAMP, Tushar Joag, Sharmila Samant, Jitish Kallat, Sudhir Patwardhan, Reena Kallat, Nalini Malani, and T.V. Santhosh – as well as curator Johan Pijnappel, to converse with each of them at length about their work, the circumstances in which their artwork is created, and the contexts in which it is realised.


Rather than attempting to re-tell what was discussed in those conversations, this research log serves to explore the relationship of such conversations to artistic ‘events’. In an attempt to theoretically explore the meaning of artistic events, I would also like to consider how ‘events’ relate to their archiveable traces. My deeper interest in writing this essay is in fact to explore that in an artist’s life which lies outside of the artistic event, or at least on the event’s precipice. I propose that certain forms and contexts of articulation, certain acts by artists, lie outside of what I call the ‘consecrating speech act’, i.e., an artist’s ability to legitimise an act or object as art through the mere declaration that it is so; thereby consecrating certain objects with the value of art. This proposition should immediately raise the questions: where would such forms of articulation that lie outside of consecrating-speech-acts be situated? In the realm of art? Or outside of it? Is the artist ever ‘outside’ being an artist? As much as it may sound like I am simply asking if everything that an artist does should be called art, I am not. Neither do I question the title of ‘artist’ as a singular designation; an artist can also be a curator, a mother, an entrepreneur, etc. My interrogation is instead philosophical. Is there ever an instance in which an artist is NOT an artist? And if so, what could it mean for the artist to be disengaged from art when being ‘engaged’ is a tacit requisite of art practice and artistic identity in India today [1]?

The question is not without historical influence and is particularly relevant today, when much of Indian art is a gesture towards overt political redress. Between delving into issues of (one’s own) cultural identity and those of a notional public, and addressing the many ecological crises, there is an obvious investment of the artists’ self in his/her practice. Interestingly, there is often a curious tension regarding the overlap of the artist and his/her practice. This tension emerges most starkly when an artist separates the ‘aesthetic’ from the ‘political’ while discussing his/her work. In that sense, the questions posed above embody not merely the tensions between the artist and the limits of his/her practice, but equally the tensions between the aesthetic and the political, and between the self and the world.

To pursue my proposition and to enrich the above line of questioning, I would like to systematically reflect upon the following:
1. The artist’s ‘work’, i.e., his/her labour, dwelling upon the presumed seamlessness between the artist, his/her labour, and the resultant artwork.
2. The event of art, when the seams between the aforementioned become apparent.

1) The Artist’s ‘Work’
To break it down to its most basic function, the artist’s work is the necessary production of artworks with/in an ‘art world’. By virtue of this only, s/he will be an artist. And as an artist must produce artworks, his/her work has the added function of continually reproducing the status of his/her being an artist. As we broaden our perspective to include the artist in society, one may add to the above that the work of art(ists) may be a means of redeeming subjective agency on behalf of any such unit of the polity: the individual/ a community/ society/ state/ empire/ the world. Such a role for the artist has been a steadfast paradigm of Modern Art, mostly, but not always, in favour of a transcendent redemption. But we also know that this role is of a subjectivity that (art) institutions entitle with the ‘right’ to artistic autonomy. It is an agency rarely bedevilled by its own failure, though certainly by vulnerability [2]. One can therefore see the artist’s role as that which reproduces artistic freedom on behalf of society based on the model of a deeply fraught idea of sovereignty [3]. In keeping with the artist’s representative agency, the artwork turns from being an embodied utterance of the artist to becoming a cast for other subject positions to occupy. We’ve heard only too often when standing before artworks about the need to gauge the artistic intent, sensibility, and ‘see the world through the eyes of the artist’. In the case of collaborative art projects, particularly those that turn toward relational aesthetics, where the artist surrenders/shares his/her agency (in varying degrees) in order for the artwork to speak for itself, the potential community is the artwork. Even in such cases, there is a conception of an overarching totality of art that can encompass consensual utterances and the artistic body, as well as labour.

In the account above, we see an almost seamless relationship between the artist (constituted by his intent and work), his/her work/labour (the production of artworks and reproduction of his ‘artist’ status), and the artwork (the concrete manifestations of the above). But as much as it is convenient to keep the harmonious bind between the three, it is equally possible and necessary to separate them. The seam between the artist, his/her practice, and the artwork can be invoked most efficiently by considering the concept of the ‘event’.

2) The Event of Art
How might we define an artistic event? How would the idea of the ‘event’ apply to practice, or that which is understood as an ongoing process of the artist’s self-exploration? Could the concept of the artistic event have any valency over the bind between the artist, his/her work, and the artwork? It can be said that the (moment of) realisation of an artwork is the moment when art happens [4]. The moment of realisation, of course, is spread across many registers; from the moment of recognition that ‘this is art’, to the moment of exhibition when an artwork has public countenance(s), to the recurring moments of retrieval of its trace in posterity (as archival event [5] ). [6]  So, the ‘event’ is not simply invoked here as an epiphany, but as junctures of an artistic utterance’s manifold realisation [7].

I propose that art be considered an ‘event’, that art happens. Here, I must clarify that the event needs to be distinguished from the artworks/art objects. Whereas the event is confined strictly to the moment(s) when art happens, the artwork is only the catalyst for events. The prerogative of art is to be an event, and the artist is but one agent amongst many to realise the event. On this basis, we can separate art from artworks, and the artwork from singular artistic intent. The artwork, which ‘appears’ as/with the event, is therefore an inscription of the artistic event, an inscription made first by the artist, and retraced over and over again by layers of meaning and affects.

Such an understanding of the event is commonly understood to bear degrees of emancipatory intensity. As a force, the event affixes—as well as separates—art from the artwork. One can draw correlations with a similar relationship between the subject and the body. The subject should not simply be reduced to the limits of the body (an identification), nor should the subject be thought to transcend the body (a separation or sacrifice). Likewise, art is neither reduced to the limits of an artwork, nor is it a transcendence of the artwork. As a consequence, we have a relationship between art and the artwork that Alain Badiou termed ‘immanent difference’. To understand art as event is therefore to invoke a new subjective paradigm, one that continues to be a deep preoccupation of many philosophers of our time.

The necessity of art is to make apparent this relationship of formation and separation. Art invokes the idea of an event by virtue of its happening ‘to’ the world, not simply ‘in’ the world. An artist is someone who makes art happen at a historical moment. That which is left behind after the artistic event can be called the artwork’s traces [[8] or inscriptions. One among the various forms of inscription is the artwork. When any of these inscriptions are re-traced (through means of interpretation) by other historical subjectivities, a series of subsequent events are given rise to. 

The Event’s Precipice
My current interest is in nothing more than drawing attention to the ‘work’ of artists vis-à-vis the event of ‘immanent difference’. I am unconcerned, for the moment, with how or when individuals acquire the artistic status required to carry out the artistic event. Quite to the contrary, mine is an interest in groping for the limits of an artist’s efficacious agency and his/her enunciative capacities. To reiterate my earlier questions, what are the limits of an artistic event? Is the artist ever ‘outside’ being an artist? Does it depend on the event? Limits are inscrutable ‘probabilities’  [9] dispersed within and along the precipice of events. These limits of an artistic event may be explored through conversation, through limits in articulation, the points at which an artist resorts from talking about his (conscious) strategies to retreating into his (unconscious) intuition, through estimating to what degree his visual language can handle representation. The limits of articulation are undoubtedly determined by the limits imposed by historical context.

In my conversations with some artists in Mumbai, for instance, we often began discussing the artist’s exposition, statements, and intents. Eventually, each artist and I were able to push each other toward thinking through practice, beyond the modalities and frameworks in which their work and their intentions have already been considered. I would describe this point in our conversations as moments when art is briefly unrealised. It is an instance where art cannot happen, when the existing subjective paradigm can only utter language’s own excess, and the artists’ statements can either retract from the precipice or else fall off.

I imagine that the process of such an exploration cannot find a form amenable to any archive, nor any event, aside from fragmentary annotation. This essay is one such fragmentary annotation of an exploration that no archive can contain, for the archive, by its very essence, is founded on events and appearances within historical confines. And yet, if the exploration of such a tentative nature will reveal itself (rather, 'appear’), it will manifest in no other form than through events, excepting only, that the axis from which to view that appearance can have tilted slightly by minor degrees. To go back again to my initial question, if an artist is ever not an artist, it is during such moments of suspension, beyond the precipice of the event [10] .

Beyond the precipice of an event is not the ‘everyday’; neither is it some sort of ‘anti’-event, but the impossibility of the event in history. If the artist should ever be considered an agent of emancipatory force, it will certainly not be on the basis of his/her unique enunciative capacities. Instead, it will be on the basis of the recognised limits of any claim to sovereign autonomy, because emancipation can be best understood as a cognition of limits of what is possible at a historical juncture.


1. Perhaps a polemical statement, being ‘engaged’ is seemingly the moral criteria for artists in India today. The vague and loosely used term ranges in meaning in this context from ‘being engaged with the issue you deal with’ to  ‘being engaged with society’, to ‘being engaged with your practice’.
2. Let us remember, no one doubts anymore whether what an artist calls art is anything but that, regardless of whether the artwork is weak, or problematic, etc.
3. Considering that the Indian art community has, in recent times, pled to the State for its freedom of expression, the artist can be seen to aspire to an agency modelled on what Judith Butler calls the ‘sovereign speech-act’ (the power to do/make what it says). This is the voice the artist often projects onto society, misconceiving the sovereign imagination of agency to be an exemplar of freedom. 
4. In keeping with Alain Badiou’s sophisticated exposition on a ‘new subjective paradigm’, he understands that the potentiality of a subject lies in an event, as ‘something that happens for this world, not in this world’, quite like a protest.
5. We’ll remember that Michel Foucault aptly described the archive as ‘a system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events’.
6. Even process-based practices are a gesture in custody of the event, from the moment of their commencement to their ongoing archival impulse.
7. 'An event’, writes Raqs Media Collective in Earthworms Dancing: Notes for a Biennial in Slow Motion, is a plea against the equivalence of all moments vis-à-vis each other; it insists that, in a given space, a pre-selected duration has a greater significance than all other moments, save its own future echoes and its subsequent editions’.
8. I deliberately allude to the ‘trace’ and not to the residue because a trace invokes the act of inscribing and re-inscribing.
9. Even as contingency, which Giorgio Agamben describes ’as a capacity not to be… the actual giving of a possibility’, in ‘Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive’.
10. It could easily be assumed that the antithesis of the event is the ‘everyday’. But I would clarify that I am not dealing with an antithesis, but the limits of the thesis itself.

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Author

Sabih AHMED

Topic
Notes
Date
Wed, 2 Feb 2011

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