back to

e-flux conversations

Hal Foster: Bad New Days


Since Hal Foster’s book “Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency” came out this September, critics have been buzzing about how solid it is. Foster’s appearance at the Kitchen launching the book quickly sold out. Below is the video from Foster’s Kitchen appearance (already viewed over 4,000 times!), and an excerpt from “Bad New Days” via the Art Newspaper.

Over the last decade art museums have restaged many performances and dances, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s. Not quite live, not quite dead, these re-enactments have introduced a zombie time into these institutions. Sometimes this hybrid temporality, neither present nor past, takes on a gray tonality, not unlike that of the old photographs on which the re-enactments are often based, and like these photos the events seem both real and unreal, documentary and fictive. Sometimes, too, the spaces that are proposed to present this undead art are imagined as gray: along with the white cube for painting and sculpture and the black box for projected-image art, “gray boxes” are envisioned to maintain such work in this state of suspended animation.

The institutionalization of experimental performance and dance can be seen negatively as the recuperation of alternative practices or positively as the recovery of lost events; like independent film, performance and dance have come to the art museum both for audience exposure and out of economic necessity. Yet this does not explain the sudden embrace of live events in institutions otherwise dedicated to inanimate art. During the recent boom in new museums, the architect Rem Koolhaas remarked that, since there is not enough past to go around, its tokens can only rise in value. Today, it seems, there is not enough present to go around: for reasons that are obvious in a hyper-mediated age, it is in great demand too, as is anything that feels like presence.

One reason performance has returned as an almost automatic good is its promise of presence. It seems to be totally open to its audience: its making is one with its experiencing. Such transparency was a goal of various avant-gardes, both pre-war and post-war, and nowhere more so than in process art in the 1960s. Like performance, process is back with us too; yet, today as then, this making-manifest of materials and actions in the work can render its purpose more opaque to the viewer, not more transparent.

Another reason performance is embraced is that, like process, it is said to activate the viewer, especially when a process—an action or a gesture—is performed. The assumption is that to leave a work undone is to prompt the viewer to complete it, and yet this attitude can easily become an excuse not to execute fully. A work that appears unfinished hardly ensures that the viewer will be engaged; indifference is perhaps a more likely result. In any case, such informality tends to discourage sustained aesthetic or critical attention: we are likely to pass over the work quickly because its maker seems to have done the same prior to us, or because quick effect seems to be what was intended in the first place. Two further assumptions are no less dubious. The first is that the viewer is somehow passive to begin with, which need not be the case at all, and the second is that a finished work in the traditional sense cannot activate the viewer as effectively, which is also false.

*Image of Hal Foster via Interview