Visual art symposia tend to be sporadically presented, ill-attended affairs. Though the word comes from Greek, meaning drinking party, the symposium has become a solemn, profoundly academic event where Papers Are Delivered. Maybe art symposia lack popularity because of the discipline’s deeply uneasy relationship to academia along with a lingering fear and loathing of philosophical and cultural theory leftover from the 80’s. Or maybe it’s because art is being sold these days as a branch of the entertainment industry and symposia, often grueling events in dark auditoriums on bright sunny days, have little to do with Hollywood style entertainment. Perhaps they’d be better attended if they took their cue from the Greeks and served drinks.
In terms of funding priorities, the notion of education in the arts has shifted from a commitment to explore the deeper issues of art production to building art audiences (and patronage) of the future through youth education and community outreach. Art schools have also shifted their programming emphasis to focus more on an outreach/entertainment function, offering artist talks couched in pop culture vernacular. Since symposia ostensibly perform an educational function, however, the question arises: in a city fast becoming a presenting rather than producing city, why waste resources on the ongoing education of practicing artists?
For these reasons, the day and a half long Deleuze conference organized by Marina McDougall and Anna Rainer and presented by CCAC Institute was a welcome attempt to present an interdisciplinary symposium on a towering topic. “The idea for the event came when we began to notice the strong influence of Deleuze’s ideas in the work of contemporary artists, designers, architects, and curators as well as theorists - from visual artists such as Fabrice Hybert to musicians such as Atom Heart” says McDougall. Organizers are to be congratulated for tackling a challenging and neglected thinker. Deleuze was a French post- structuralist philosopher whose work was largely overshadowed during American academia’s embrace of French theory in the ‘80s. American academics embraced his contemporaries Foucault, Lacan, Derrida and Barthes instead, perhaps as means to argue for a politics of identity that made sense in the American framework; or perhaps as a seemingly apolitical, eternally relativistic safe harbor. Deleuze can be highly abstract and sometimes obscure. In collaboration with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, he created books like Anti Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus that are simultaneously poetic, free floating and concrete.
The conference brought together visual and sound artists, philosophers, theorists, psychoanalysts, and curators to explore the “Deleuze effect.” According to McDougall, “In organizing the event we were inspired by the way in which Deleuze does not make a hard distinction between theory and practice. The hope was that philosophical discussion would seamlessly intermix with performances and presentations by makers of art and design.” In that sense, the methodology behind the conference resonated with that employed by organizers of Chance: Three Days in the Desert, a symposium presented by the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, organized primarily by Chris Kraus and Sylvere Lotringer back in 1996. At Chance, theoreticians like Jean Baudrillard, DJs like Spooky and butoh performers split the bill. The approach met with similar successes and pitfalls; artists seemed at times like entertainment breaks between theoreticians, who came off too dry and academically bound. Putting art practice on equal footing with theoretical dissertation, however, promises to create an exciting new dynamic in approaching both.
The Deleuze conference began on festive footing Friday evening with a few loose, introductory remarks by Cal Arts Critical Studies professor Sande Cohen and ultra hip theory star Manuel DeLanda (Columbia professor and author of Art in the Age of Intelligent Machines). DeLanda’s talk applied Deleuzian thought most accessibly to the practitioner audience. I grew increasingly uneasy however, that in DeLanda’s rush to celebrity status, key Deleuzian concepts suffered from his application of them to oversimplistic artificial life computer models. The evening concluded with DJ/sound art performances by jonathan living seaskull, DAT Politics, and Atom Heart. The sound works provided an appropriate mingling ambience while chilling on the extraordinary pink foam installation called The Mute Room by Thom Faulders of Beige Design, part of the exhibition, Listening Rooms at the CCAC Institute.
Day two was more rigorous. Panelists delivered papers in a dry, academic style that I found strangely refreshing in an art school setting. Australian New York- based philosopher Elizabeth Grosz compared Bergson and William James to Deleuze, while Swede Sven Olaf Wallenstein, contrasted Heidegger to Deleuze. I found this tendency to engage in the disciplinary practice of comparative analysis less useful and dynamic than an exploration of the core ideas of Deleuze, or the concepts’ situational application.
Los Angeles- based painter Linda Bessemer’s work seems, at first glance, to be the very materialization of some Deleuzian concepts. Bessemer’s work can be read as a kind of concrete painting that collapses notions of metaphor and representation. Paint strokes form strata and are then removed from their surface and draped over rods like curtains, or spread horizontally. According to Bessemer, though, her work is steeped in the art history of painting and feminist theory. She plays with notions of figure and ground and attempts to reclaim The Gesture from its phallocentric lineage (the artist herself expressed a sense of doubt at her inclusion into the conference context.)
The afternoon’s highlight was French born and Brazil-based Psychoanalyst and curator Suely Rolnick. Rolnick’s discussion focused on what she termed “pret a porter identity,” the re-territorialization of life for neo-capitalist market consumption. She framed Brazilian artist Tunga’s work as a strategy of “resistance” through its scrambling of socioeconomic strata. Her work provided real insights into the psychological effects of the current market paradigm, and the artist’s choices in that paradigm.
I love symposia; they coalesce an intense level of focus onto a topic, turning it around and inside out over a period of days. They capture a zeitgeist. As I listen in the dark, weighing my own resonance and resistance to what I hear, they reroute my synaptic map. They constitute a multilayered site where micropolitics play out. They function simultaneously as social gathering, group commiseration and jousting match, where consensus is formed and ripped asunder between ideas and fellow participants. Art Symposia create an increasingly rare space of reflection onto art through the work of words and ideas. It’s easy to ignore or downplay such illusive effects. Rhizomatic, they are formed in the moment and grow in a thousand invisible ways.
The Deleuzian Age took place September 22nd - 23rd, 2000 at California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco.