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Inside the Box: Notes From Within the European Artistic Research Debate

December 4, 2010, Murcia, Spain. The lights had come on in the auditorium following a screening of As the Academy Turns, Tion Ang’s telenovela-style exposé of machinations in the contemporary art academy, and it was time for the obligatory Q&A. The audience, professors of art and their PhD students, cautiously assayed questions concerning methodology and budget, but Ang, in the grips of an apparent somnambulism, hazarded vaguely mechanical answers and disavowed conscious intent, privileging instead notions of embodiment in producing artwork. It was his hands that wrote the script, his body that set up shots, blocked his actors, and so forth. This might have been a passable response for a sculptor, but for an artist working in video such a line of thought was oddly disconcerting. Occasionally, I glanced at the empty seat to my right, vacated some time earlier by one of my colleagues from the Center for Art Knowledge (CAK), a PhD-in-Practice program housed at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, who had left shortly before the screening ended, muttering darkly that she couldn’t take any more. And indeed, having sat through thirty minutes of strangely non-reflexive portrayals of lesbian professors, conniving Asian temptresses, sympathetic older-lady secretaries, arrogant and professionally preoccupied male professors, and finally, a murderous Latino exchange student, I shared her desire to exit the premises. But at the same time, I was transfixed by the audience’s puzzling indifference to the glaring questions of representation the work provoked, let alone the fact that its ostensible critique of the contemporary art academy focused on racial stereotypes while the structure of the institution itself was portrayed as the natural and naturalizing frame for the enactment of their respective passions.

I was pondering this gap when my colleague—let’s call her “A”—returned, marching to the front of the lecture hall bearing a full rubbish bin. The video was rubbish, she proclaimed; the panelists too were rubbish. And with that, she deposited the bin’s contents ceremoniously on the plywood tables behind which the discussants were seated and marched out, the auditorium’s heavy doors swinging shut on a stunned audience.

Though the garbage was swiftly cleared away, the pall lingered over the following two days of presentations. This pall might even have been salutary, for it might have cast into sharp relief the deficits in a discourse that at times floundered in search of its discipline. Meanwhile, consensus had formed that we as a group were bent on purposefully disrupting the normative habitus of academic discourse. During the intermission periods between presentations, I would regularly be approached as I sipped my coffee and after a moment or two of polite conversation, my new acquaintance would say, “You’re part of that radical Vienna group, aren’t you?” After acknowledging this affiliation, I would receive a pitying smile, and then my interlocutor would wander off to speak with someone more pragmatically attuned to the academic game.

Two days later, after the second presentation of the morning, the topic of A’s trash can intervention was finally broached in public. The discussion commenced with an airing of certain deficits in the symposium’s organization, but soon devolved into an exchange between partisans of a postcolonial position—who asserted A’s action represented an act of aggression against difference—and the gender/queer theory faction arguing for a re-evaluation of what kind of violence had been perpetrated over the past two days and by whom. A well-known German filmmaker accused my colleague in the queer faction of using fascist terror tactics. Dissatisfied with the reaction this line of argument received, she appealed in exasperation to another equally well-known theorist of South-Asian ethnicity: “_________, say something!”

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