International Festival Stuff
Elie During - From Procedure to Operation
Elie During elaborates in this text originally published in ArtPRESS 2004 the distinction between procedure and operation. He argues that it is insufficient to establish a particular procedure as long as it is not followed by a thorough analysis of its operation. This text does not directly refer to performance but can offer certain pathways to discuss differences between architectural and performane practices.
Should we say, in a parody of Bachelard, that contemporary art does not have the philosophy it deserves? A certain number of incoherent theses can be found in circulation amidst the theoretical rumbling constituted by ordinary art discourse. These come in both naive and more learned forms. One of them, as suspect as the purported conflict between "figuration" and "abstraction," is the idea that the most authentically contemporary artistic practices are attempts to get beyond "representation," to reunify the scattered poles of the traditional set-up (subject/object, scene artist/viewer, etc.). Harold Rosenberg said that for every American painter there came a moment when the canvas ceased to appear to him as a flatly reproductive image but was instead a fact, or rather a field of operations, an arena opened up to his action. From Duchamp to Support/Surface, from performance to installation, from body art to transactional or relational art, and following the paradigm of action painting (but in a sense which goes well beyond any historically locatable movement), the diffuse interpretative tendency that emerges from this idea mixes the end of retinal art and the advent of transformative procedures, the destitution of the iconic structure (with its separate planes) and the quest for the fusion or primitive unity of the elements of art. Lyotard, in the good old days of the libidinal economy, suggested a more sophisticated version of this vulgate, even though at base it shared the same presuppositions. To his credit, he did at least recognize that the regime of representation and the series of separations effectively instituted by its different structures) rested precisely on a particular order or arrangement of actions and on the effects that were expected from them-that it was, then, essentially a pragmatics. More recently, Jacques RanciÃ¨re cashed out all the implications of this by showing, conversely, the debt owed by certain readings of modern and contemporary art to Schopenhauer. So we have no excuses any more, and there is something theoretically naive about wanting to go on playing the action or the procedure off against representation. The whole issue, now, is to identify the kind of operations that can allow us to define a regime of art production and, to begin with, to identify artistic operations in general. For that is the root of the problem: we do not know what an operation is, and it is by maintaining the indeterminacy of words such as "gesture," "procedure" and "intervention" that we end up allowing ourselves to apply such debatable and generalist readings to both works and artists.
Phenomenologies of the Operation
In this regard, any phenomenology of the operation is doomed to naively repeat the learned truisms of the philosophy or interpretation that it unconsciously adopted beforehand. Thus collage is seen either as the irruption of real presence (newspaper, poster, waxed tablecloth) in the field of representation, or as a tangible sign of an intervention, a materialized action (cutting out, montage, sampling and insertion. It is the same with sampling (here I am deliberately choosing an example that is outside the sphere of usual artistic gestures one will dwell either on the moment of reappropriation and montage (mix), or on the act of cutting out and changing its finality (cut). But it is obvious that these descriptions are of a piece with a specific interpretation ('modern" in the first case, "postmodern" in the second).
Procedure and Interpretation
This means that a phenomenological description of the procedures implemented by electronic musicians can never be what it claims to be: a neutral description, capturing the operation in and for itself. Even a purely "technical" reading always unwittingly presupposes a general interpretation of the processes which is its true principle. This is generally the case for all the operation-oriented approaches to contemporary art. Thus most of the operations of the aesthetic "doxa," as analyzed by Anne Cauquelin 14) under the name "tool box" seem-no doubt because it is from there that they draw their principle-to confirm the interpretative system set up by German Romanticism, be it the practice of the fragment, of quotation, or even interactivity, which only superficially contests the Romantic definition of the artist as genius, and once again sends us back to the idea of a work/process whose functioning would then mirror the immanent operations within life itself.
Processual and Performative
The problem is complicated by the fact that the concept of the artistic operation or procedure is itself torn between two interpretative regimes, two discursive regimes of the operational. On one side, there is what we could call a processual regime in which the operation or whatever name we want to give it: gesture, intervention, action, etc.; always manifests the virtualization of the work, the erasing of the material or object structure to the advantage of the process of its own production of its sometimes unpredictable effects and its interaction with an environment or viewe/performer. (The operation can of course be delegated to a natural agent, as in the piece by Jean-Pierre Bertrand in which a pile of metal boxes is slowly oxidized by its contact with salt, an interesting example of a work that could be defined by the process of its own disintegration.) On the other side, there is a performative regime in which the object and language are inseparably tied together, in which the act, decision and convention, but also the assembly instructions, the protocol and the manual, end up standing in for the work by instituting the conditions for an aesthetic experience through a series of procedures. We could say that these are the two sides of the same coin, and that many installations, performances or actions combine the two orientations. Indeed, that was what readymades set about doing, and we know well that they did not rest content with underscoring the role played by conventions and the gaze of the spectator in instituting art, but that they desubstantialized art in general by equating it with its procedure. We need to think of Fountain in relation to Given 1) The Waterfall, 2) The Illuminating Gas: the primacy of artistic doing is inseparable from the transfiguration wrought by word play. The historical interconnectedness of process art and concept art attests in another way to the fact that process is fated to be overtaken by the acts of language by which it is instituted, if not as an art, then at least as an aesthetic experience. Whether it is the open work, reduced to its possible operations or orderings, or the indefinitely under-elaboration work in process, in all these instances we conceive of the work as being absorbed by its own process, that is to say, disseminated through the Traces of its project or the signs of its functioning.