The Contemporary Manifesto

This text appears in the YYZ publication, What is our role? Artists in Academia and the Post-Knowledge Economy edited by Jaclyn Meloche Ph.D. Reflecting on the question posed by the publication, I imagined a dialogue between my artistic, architectural and intellectual self, accompanied by a series of diagrams, on what a contemporary manifesto for artists and designers in educational institutions would be.

This excerpt is found on pp 98-101

This is the primary tenant of our claim to the condition of now—that the truth is, and always was, unstable.

This, then, is the challenge of our manifesto—to build it on unstable ground.

The intellectual interrupts, and asks why we are using the word “truth” instead of knowledge?

The artist responds, because its more evocative or perhaps more seductive.

The architect asks if the intellectual has a problem with truth?

The intellectual asks if they think the two are interchangeable?

The artist avoids the question, and asks how interesting it would be to consider changing the task of knowledge production to the phrase “truth production”?

The intellectual feels an uneasy association with Orwellian language.

This contradictory association with the word “truth” delights the artist.

The intellectual feels uncomfortable with the ambiguity.

The architect is thrilled by it.

Figure 2 Diagram of the sphere of knowledge (excluding unknown knowns), by Ryan Stec
Figure 2 Diagram of the sphere of knowledge (excluding unknown knowns), by Ryan Stec

The artist diverts the discussion, and asks the intellectual about Agamben. The intellectual quotes Roland Barthes’ paraphrasing of Nietzsche, which appears in Agamben, “[t]he contemporary is the untimely.”[i] He further suggests, acknowledging the artist’s claim to a lack of an outside, that this impossibility describes instead a tension between the feeling of being both inside and outside of time, being both of a time and not…

The artist suggests this may open up a more interesting reading of the term contemporary artist, as being both of their time, and somehow beyond it.

The architect suggests that perhaps the artist should admit to reading something about this by Hans Ulrich Obrist.[ii]

The artist admits that he did not want to indulge the intellectual’s desire for a footnoted manifesto. The artist adds a footnote, and continues with his own consideration.[iii] He suggests that perhaps the experience of contemporary art can offer a creative instance of critical distance for a public. When a work of art is truly contemporary it creates a space that is somehow suspended out of its own time. In this way an artwork that is centuries old could continue to provide a contemporary space, but one made yesterday may fail in this same regard.

The architect asks if this is not disorienting, recognizing he is envious of the willingness of the world to embrace the disorientation of art, but so quick to chastise architecture that is not perfectly legible.

The artist replies that it is an invitation to be disoriented, and that art that is truly contemporary is an open-ended, imaginary outside. It is an opening toward public reflection, although perhaps more of an offering of a multiplicity of openings. The artist suggests that while writing will always move along a line that we can follow through time, and will always construct arguments and build positions, these qualities alone cannot house the commons we need. We need the multiplicity of art.

The architect thinks about engineering and about gravity, and he asks about numbers and what role they have to play?

The intellectual suggests that numbers are another language we have made to describe the world, as we perceive it.

So they are essential then, the architect responds, and then asks about drawings—what do they do?

The intellectual suggests that drawings resist…

The architect interrupts… and yet, in their resistance they seem to open up.

The intellectual changes the direction of the conversation, and mentions Bruno Latour and the art exhibition he organized with artist Peter Weibel, called Making Things Public.[iv]

The artist feels simultaneously validated and suspicious by Latour’s entry into the white cube of the gallery.

The intellectual feels more comfortable knowing there is a precedent of some kind.

The architect asks if this new intellectual commons should look like an art gallery?

The intellectual asks if we are suggesting that art is a form of knowledge or a way to access knowledge? The artist asks if a book is knowledge or a way to access it?

The architect thought we were using the word “truth.”

The artist asks the question in a different way, where do we find knowledge… or rather, where do we find truth?

The intellectual asks if we find truth or make it?

The architect says he prefers to make things.

The artist asks what Bruno Latour was doing?

The intellectual admits he is not sure. Maybe it was providing a platform for others? Maybe it was collage? Maybe it was provocation? 

The artist asks if we need more provocation? 

The architect asks if we need more than provocation?

The intellectual is uncertain about proposing solutions.

The architect suggests that a platform is not a solution. It’s a place for people to stand.

[i] The nature of the contemporary as “untimely” as framed by Roland Barthes and Friedrich Nietzsche, and by extension Agamben, is not without its problems. It places a considerable value on those who can develop a critical distance. In the Agamben essay, to be contemporary is to not be truly immersed in one’s place or to be outside in a critical or objective space, but it is this uncomfortable opposition, that the real meaning of the contemporary is exactly what it is not, which raises significant questions. This arises in part from its oversimplification, after all, as Pedro Erber suggests, exactly “…who coincides perfectly with one’s own time? Who can adjust entirely to its demands?” (Erber 2013, 39) In Erber’s Contemporaneity and its Discontents, he criticizes Agamben’s text for its inability, along with a number of other western philosophical positions from Martin Heidegger, Gilles Deleuze, and Walter Benjamin, to abandon a framework so deeply influenced by the European fascination with the other. Ultimately, he suggests that this position “…forecloses any possibility of approaching the contemporary in its most novel, problematic, and thought-provoking aspect: in short, the fact that the same word names today the historical period in which we supposedly live and the very impossibility of historical periodization, insofar as the unity of its putative subject unravels itself in singularities irreducible to generalization.” (Erber 2013, 44)

[ii] This endnote is a place holder while we wait for the artist to add his reference, and comply with the standards of writing that will assist this text in being considered legitimate thinking.

[iii] In the research and review for this rhetorical project, I encountered Hans Ulrich Obrist’s text in the e-flux journal, which also engaged with Agamben’s notion of the contemporary. Obrist’s text provides a critical frame for the Manifesto Marathon event which he co-curated at the Serpentine Gallery in 2008, suggesting that, “A ‘contemporary’ manifesto could perhaps be perceived as a naïvely optimistic call for collective action, as we live in a time that is more atomized and has far fewer cohesive artistic movements. And yet there seems to be an urgent desire for a radical change that may allow us to propose a new situation, to name the beginning of the next possibility rather than just look backwards.” (Obrist 2010) While Obrist seems to embrace Agamben’s notion of the contemporary, but expands on the Agamben dislocative or outsider aspect to suggest a plurality in the contemporary of the art world.

[iv] Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel curated the exhibition, Making Things Public: An Atmospheres of Democracy, at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), in Karlsruhe, in 2005. The exhibition focused on the “…problem of representation in politics” (Latour 2005), drawing from his 2002 collaboration with ZKM for the exhibition Iconoclash. In the catalogue essay published in the 1072-page publication, Latour proposes a Dingpolitik over a Realpolitik, which is to say, to think of the political in terms that extend beyond the human, and include the realm of objects. Latour’s political philosophy is driven by a shift away from what he calls “matters of fact,” which is the world rendered into stable and durable representations, toward the notion of “matters of concern,” which is a much more relational understanding of the world. (Latour 2005, 14) Through an incredible diversity of artists, intellectuals, researchers, texts, images, and objects, Latour and Weibel facilitate a consideration for the concept of an “object-oriented democracy,” creating a fascinating example of an engagement that stretches across boundaries, and opens up new ways of thinking through these complex and pressing ideas.