The Amateur Collector
He had an appetite for disconnected facts which I can only compare to the savage taste for beads. What is called information was indeed a passion with the man, and he not only delighted to receive it, but could pay you back in kind.
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Amateur Emigrant
How to begin? When asked to consider the merit of Anton Vidokle’s framing of e-flux as an artwork I didn’t have a ready answer. I wouldn’t rule it out, nor would I say that claiming the project is art is obvious or incontestable. I teach, which means that I participate in an ongoing, dynamic give-and-take about the art status of a variety of objects and processes; each week a number of proposals comes under the scrutiny of students and faculty, and after prolonged looking and thinking and talking, we begin to form judgments. At some time—this week, next month, next year—some of us may decide that a given proposal is good, that it is art; or that it is necessary to vote it off the island.
What I’m saying is that the various art worlds have a tribal aspect, and that membership is granted after the successful navigation of numerous tests and rituals. A shared lineage is acknowledged, different markings and actions and habits of thought are recognized. Skills are appraised, including the purported lack of skill. There are assessments of value in different registers. In some tribes the elders, however they are defined, are the ultimate gatekeepers; in others the gate is more open: accept the code and you are in. Only a few artists remain outsiders everywhere.
Generally, artists move to places that support their work—financially, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Someone who chooses to live and work in New York most likely has different interests and concerns compared to someone in Los Angeles or Berlin. That said, the ideas often resonate on a larger stage. In the ’80s, that was the ingenuity of the Flash Art Diary. If your name and number were in the book, you’d been accepted, and you could use that to make even more connections. If you were an artist in New York, you could expect a steady stream of calls from people passing through—from Australia, the West Coast, all over Europe—hoping to make a studio visit, grab a drink, even find a place to sleep. And when you embarked on the great Documenta/Venice expedition (artists didn’t go to Basel, or any other art fair, in those days) your generosity could be reciprocated as you trailed across the continent from Heathrow, Schiphol, Frankfurt, or wherever else.
We know that the Internet has changed all this, and that the space between home and the world has been adjusted to the laptop. Now, thanks to e-flux, we can know more about more artists and art spaces than we would ever care to. On a good day, this seems quite wonderful—an open arena of art news, a commons of knowledge available to anyone with Internet access. On a sour day, the steady beat of announcements and press releases raises paranoid questions of desire and control. Are we to feel empowered, connected as we are to a global network of art, or pathetic and disenfranchised, pitiably unable to fly around the world to that next biennale? Information is only as good as you make it. Rarely does it become knowledge without the help of context. On its own, it is little more than gossip, and just about as useful. Which is why we seek out guides, and turn to the critics and curators whose views we can calibrate to our own.
In his 1879 book about crossing the Atlantic during the great period of emigration from northern Europe to the United States, Robert Louis Stevenson describes an early version of the information enthusiasts, distracted by noise to such a degree that they can no longer function as political or cultural actors. All that is known is the information itself, and knowing only that, such people are condemned to find the New World as defeating as the Old. Stevenson argues that it is writers and intellectuals—and, by extension, artists—who provide the frame, the context, the space to bring these myriad facts into some sort of meaningful order, and make them useful to us.
Which brings us back to the art status of e-flux. On the local level, among conceptually driven art denizens of the Lower East Side, the proposition could fly. Where art has long been dematerialized, and recast as a genre-challenging strategy aimed at exposing the inner workings of the institution of art, it is easy to accept an information-rich website as an art project. In a broader context, the claim seems less supportable for whatever reason a given tribe would prioritize. For example, there may not be enough singularity of voice to bestow upon the project a meaningful reason to be considered an artwork. On the international scale, stripped of local contextualization, information is a service. There is an art to delivering that well, but that does not make the delivery a work of art.
Thomas Lawson is an artist and writer; some of his work can be seen at www.thomaslawson.com. He is dean of the Art School at CalArts, and editor-in-chief of East of Borneo, an online collaborative art magazine. His most recent contribution to that magazine was an article on the Los Angeles-based work of David Alfaro Siqueiros, entitled ‘Institutional Whitewash.’