Negotiations: 1: What puts the ‘aargh’ in art?

At 9pm on May 7th, 2005, in an art space in Queens, New York City, three novelists were enclosed within three individual habitats designed and constructed by three teams of architects/artists. For the past twenty-one days, this has been their reality. They are not allowed to leave the building and they are granted ninety minutes of free time each day, for which they must punch a time clock to gain. In seven days time, they are to emerge from their habitats having completed a novel. The name of this conceptual art project, created and hosted by Flux Factory, is Novel: A Living Installation.

This work emanates from the Flux Factory collective. In case you haven’t heard, Flux has taken some heat in the press for their work, most notably from the editorial page of the New York Times. The Times’ criticism amounted to a claim that this project trivializes the act of writing, because it takes writing out of the hands of the writers and spatiates it, mechanizes it, and tethers it to time: “part of the meaning of making a novel is commanding the time to do so and owning the workings of imagination, however they pace themselves.” So says the Times. The criticism is unfair, in my opinion but not because it is inaccurate.

The Flux oeuvre (and—full confession— I say this as a frequent collaborator on their projects) rests to some degree on exploiting the trivial, the absurd, and the happenstance. Flux makes you look at exactly what is in front of your face. (The Dadaists did the same thing.) As a result, their projects often run the risk of becoming gimmicky acts of self-promotion; but when they succeed they succeed either because they manage to transform the trivial and the everyday into something meaningful or because they manage to mine the trivial and the banal for the potential profundities they occlude. Many of their projects function as almost artistic analogues for Socratic irony. They are like gadflies on the ass of the art world.

In this regard, the criticism is unfair because it misses the point. Novel’s aim was never to re-enthrone writing as the queen of the arts and to produce three masterpieces of contemporary American fiction. The point was to remove the crown that writing wears and peer into its brain, to resituate writing as an obsessively mechanical process alongside the other obsessively mechanical processes that comprise the manufacturing of art objects.

Embedded in the criticism, then, is a notion that we may or may not agree with: that writing is most emphatically not an art form. The intention of the curators at Flux was to interrogate that very notion. There are three forces at play in this installation, three intentionalities. This first one is a conceptual force.

The second force at play in this installation, the second intentionality at work, is that of the architects who designed the writers’ habitats. Where space is empty, it is not space—it is nothingness. What I have always found fascinating about architecture is that it seems to have a unique ability to sculpt somethingness out of the nothingness of empty space. In that regard, the work of the architects has been the most under-discussed element of this project. For them, the installation was an exploration of space with the aim of creating new space; and the spaces they have carved (really, out of thin air) are not merely holding pens or empty frames for the work of the writers within them. They were made to give rise to new spaces of the imagination; they are the material politics that make possible the very work that transcends them.

The third force at play is the actual writing that the novelists are doing. They have asserted that their writing is paramount and has superseded the restrictions under which they are laboring. (An interesting discussion remains to be had about the point—or points—at which the formal restraints they have to deal with, restraints of space and time, have actually become opportunities for the liberation of the imagination…) As one of the three groups of artists involved in this project, the novelists (fed and housed for a month, with nothing to do other than write) have had perhaps the easiest task—if one thinks that being oneself is an easy task. But if what one is, is a writer, theirs has also been the most difficult task because, unlike much of what passes for art, you cannot fake writing. As a writer you can’t hide under bells and whistles and wisecracks; you can’t call it in; and you are obliged to work with the knowledge that you have been assigned a Sisyphean fate: Sisyphean not because it is futile, but because it will always remain, to some extent, unfinished and unfinish-able.

So what we are dealing with, in toto, are three forces at play, three intentionalities: the intentionality of the curators (conceptual), the intentionality of the architects (spatial), and the intentionality of the novelists (literary).

What puts the “aaargh” in “art”? My pet theory, which I am testing out when I look at Novel, is that art is the stuff that’s left over. It’s the thing that occurs when intentionalities collide, like flint and steel, when the intent of the artist meets the (often hidden) intent of the material with which she is to work. Art is not the material object that artists produce, it is not the concept or the space or the words we create as artists. It is the stuff that remains; the stuff we are left with after we have said or made or thought or written what we have to say or make or think or write. It is—to borrow a phrase from Slavoj Zizek—the “indivisible remainder” of the interaction between our intentions and our materials. If Novel succeeds as an artwork, then, it does so not because it creates a closed universe of meaning, but because it creates aporias in art, because it throws something up that escapes the intentions of any of the artists working within it.