At a recent talk at the Architectural Association in London (‘Revisiting Relational Aesthetics’, 30 October 2007), Hal Foster looked again at his arguments about relational aesthetics as well as the artists working with fictional archives, first laid out in the October article ‘An Archival Impulse’ (Autumn 2004). Heard again, Foster’s argument about artists who mine history to create present webs of meaning, or who blend fact and fiction in assembled archives, had an air of existential dispossession to it: the ‘archival impulse’, he stated, ‘is made within a world whose given connections are lost’. Such grey skies hover over the corpus of artists he is drawing upon: Tacita Dean, Joachim Koester, Sam Durant, Gerard Byrne – successful, and good, artists who have featured heavily in exhibitions over the past six years or so.
The argument was framed as retrospective – Foster was likely pitching it to an architectural audience – but it sounded particularly dated, in large part because of another group of artists whose methods are similar but whose tone is entirely different: joyous rather than sombre. The strategies are like those of the artists mentioned above: lateral thinking, a series of connections made between different registers and time periods that, in looping back or coming to rest, is represented in the gallery space as a series of letters, maps, photographs, in the narrative offered by a film or video, or in a mechanical model that physically enacts the imagined connections among its disparate parts. In contrast to the fictional archives built by Foster’s artists, the ‘systems of meaning’ symbolised by these artists are ones already existing in the world, and the feeling evoked by the networks is not one of elegy for a failed or unfulfilled promise, but one of almost wilfully naïve delight. At Momentum in 2006, the Nordic festival held in Moss, the artist Tue Greenfort calculated the amount of lignin – both a by-product of printing processes and an artificial substitute for vanilla flavouring – that would be produced by printing the festival’s catalogues, then used that amount to flavour gallons of vanilla ice cream, which he served to festival visitors in soft-serve machines. Michael Stevenson, at a show at Vilma Gold in London last year, re-created a hydraulic computer from the 1950s that was meant to demonstrate the Guatemalan banana economy; he gave this gangly show the slapstick title ‘Answers to Some Questions About Bananas’.
Despite the jollity of the work its source material is darker, and this is key to the project. The origin of much the material that supplies the connective systems is like that of the film Syriana (2005) – the connections between finance, politics, environmental disaster, money and influence – that, by becoming infantile or childish, this form of representation hopes to defang. For Greenfort, who often works with environmental material, it is the chemical by-products that are detourned into syrupy vanilla ice cream; at last year’s Venice Biennale Nedko Solakov took the story of an arms deal between Russia and Bulgaria and wrote it, toilet-wall graffiti-style, with the hokey tone of a fairytale. In a show in the Netherlands the British artist Mike Cooter connected an element he has used before in his artistic practice – the statue of the Maltese falcon, from the film of the same name – with a side-effect of American ‘gotcha’ politics. He noticed a statue of the Maltese Falcon in the background on a TV interview given by the conservative judicial nominee Robert Bork, whose failed Supreme Court nomination engendered the term ‘to bork’. Cooter then represented this connection in a series of letters to Bork, comparing Bork’s contribution to language to one in the field of artistic practice. More so than with Foster’s artists, this blurring of the parameters between registers – the political and the artistic, the economic and the aesthetic – seems under contestation: is framing the Guatemalan banana economy, an arms deal or conservative politics in an art context an act of elevation or misappropriation? In flirting with the real world rather than fiction, does the artist risk playing the holy fool? This debate is implicit in Cooter’s letters to Bork, with their alternation between hyperbolic formalities and naïve liberty-taking: ‘With that in mind, I would very much like to ask you the following: What do you believe is the purpose of art?’ That’s not really the central question here, but rather the act it entails: artists – newly – looking from the outside in.