April 04, 2011

Shop Talk Respondent: Clark Buckner

On Thursday March 24 Open Space and Art Practical hosted the first of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present four responses to that first evening. Do join us for Shop Talk round two, on Thursday, April 14. Please welcome critical theorist Clark Buckner.

Chris Brown, Cheap Money, in Stephanie Syjuco’s Shadowshop, 2010–11.

Where is the Shadow in the Shop?

As we gathered in the soft lounge of the Museum’s education department, I was introduced to one of my fellow respondents, Jasper Bernes, who explained his studies at Cal as focused on the effect on art of the shift in America, since the 1960s, from an industrial to a service economy. While the central art movements of the last fifty years frequently are celebrated as challenging the privilege of the art object in order to resist the hegemony of the marketplace, closer attention to changes in the economy reveals that the move away from producing objects to generating concepts, staging performances, and orchestrating social encounters is altogether consistent with rather than contrary to market dynamics. To account for the force of this work thus calls for something more and different than simply asserting its defiance of apparent market demands.

Our conversation turned to Boltanski and Chiapello’s definitive sociological study, The New Spirit of Capitalism, in which they explain how the “artistic critique” leveled by the 1968 generation against bureaucratic institutions indeed succeeded in undermining managerial hierarchies and securing greater flexibility for workers. However, as part and parcel of the same process, these social movements simultaneously contributed to undermining the accomplishments of the 1930s generation’s “social critique,” by justifying the reduction of large portions of the work force to contingent labor with no health benefits or other forms of basic social security. And, while granting workers a greater degree of autonomy in how they organize their lives, the new “flexibility” in their schedules simultaneously extended the reach of their employers’ demands into their personal time and space — as the limits of their work days lost their clear demarcation and their homes frequently became their offices. Of course in the San Francisco Bay Area we’ve witnessed this first hand, among other places, in the strategies and culture of the tech industry; and I thought that Jasper seemed particularly well chosen to respond to the event that evening at SFMOMA.

A conversation was organized to discuss themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s Shadowshop, a temporary retail operation installed in the fifth-floor gallery, which features limited-edition multiples by over two hundred local artists. Stephanie’s artwork, among other things, has long addressed bootlegging, black-markets, improvised economies, and other systems of exchange. She frequently uses craft techniques or cheap materials, like foam-board and ink-jet prints, to re-construct refined objects, including celebrated modernist artworks, architectural furniture, high-end commodities, and high-tech electronics. She displays these in installations reminiscent of flea markets or other improvised economies; and sometimes she performatively stages their production in impromptu factories. Shadowshop was mounted as another project in this vein, which broadly speaking addresses, what Stephanie, on her website, describes as “issues of ‘illicit capitalism’” and the “friction between high ideals and everyday materials.” However, Stephanie also explains Shadowshop in more narrow terms, as an exploration of “the ways that artists navigate the production, consumption, and dissemination of their work”; and the discussion at the museum was framed accordingly in terms of “the survival strategies that artists adopt to gain recognition, to secure financial viability, and to further the critical reach of their work.”

Reflecting on the production of her own contributions to Shadowshop, artist Amanda Hughen focused on her relationships with the individuals and businesses whose help she solicited. Contrary to a standard market exchange, Amanda left it up to her collaborators to propose what they wanted in return for their services. What surprised her was the willingness of so many of them to receive less for their work than it was actually worth, challenging the accepted notion of “fungibility,” i.e., a dollar is a dollar is a dollar, which she titled her presentation. To my mind, Amanda’s reflections provided lessons that pertained to Shadowshop as a whole: 1) As Open Space editor Suzanne Stein similarly noted, two forms of capital are in play: financial and cultural. Beyond mere monetary gain, the project provided those involved with a degree of prestige that may have justified even financial sacrifices. 2) Artists and their projects are often seen as objects of altruism — a kind of social cause, as evidenced in the slogan on Stephanie’s web page: “Support your local artists!” 3) And finally, somewhere between altruism and prestige, the work of artists still lays claim to an integral value — as meaningful — even when it is reduced to the form of, what one participant in the discussion described as, “a novelty item.”

In her remarks, Megan Brian, the project manager for Shadowshop, described logistical challenges they faced when orchestrating the project, which provocatively revealed the ways that artists’ contributions to Shadowshop were incommensurable with both artworks in the museum and merchandise in the gift shop. Any art in the museum, she explained, is subject to strict regulations, concerning insurance, handling, leaving the building, etc. As a result, in an eccentric twist on the institutional theory of art’s ontology, the administration deemed all the artworks submitted to the project as “wares.” At the same time, the sale of these “wares” could not be processed through the gift shop without being codified as inventory — an unnecessary, excessive job, given the nature of the sales. As a compliment to this confusion, Megan explained that Shadowshop generated cognitive dissonance for visitors to the museum, who clearly recognized it as a shop, but didn’t understand why it was closing for lunch or why they couldn’t buy exhibition catalogs there. In these ways, Megan testified to the at least limited success of Stephanie’s project as an attempt to carve an eccentric space within the institution, and to explore the tensions between art and commerce.

In her remarks, writer and curator Christian Frock took a more art historical approach, loosely tracing instances in which artists, in one way or another, pursued financial autonomy. Among other work, she cited Claes Oldenburg’s Store, the restaurant opened by Gordon Matta-Clark, and Scott Snibbe’s recent extraordinary success producing applications for smart phones. Christian’s presentation was rich in its associations and perhaps most thought-provoking in the slippage it staged between various senses of autonomy. While she presented these artists as inventing novel ways to make their work financially viable, Christian also cited Group Material’s assertion of their creative autonomy as independent from and even counter to the demands of the marketplace. And, in a spirit that I’ll explore further below, she presented David Hammons selling snowballs in a poignant send-up of cultural commerce. In passing, Christian also asserted that, in her own practice, she was “anti-grant,” and I couldn’t help but note that the event’s considerations of how to survive as an artist in the wake of the Great Recession were framed by, and took for granted, the profound lack of public subsidies for the arts in the U.S.

In the subsequent discussion, the most forceful critical comments came from writer/curators Glen Helfand and Joseph del Pesco, who each in his own way questioned whether and how the project benefits local artists. Are they compensated in a timely manner? Does producing work for Shadowshop distract from the focus of their work? Does selling discounted wares undermine the strategies necessary to build a viable art career? Insofar as these were the most pointed criticisms raised in the discussion, they brought home to me how limiting it was to frame Stephanie’s project in instrumental terms of  “the survival strategies that artists adopt to secure recognition and financial viability.” While certainly these are essential concerns to anyone in the field, are artists, curators, and critics best suited to address them? Why not instead invite financial advisors or professors from a local business school, who could speak more rigorously to questions of marketing and commercial strategy? Of course, the reason why Open Space rightly solicited the contributions instead of artists, critics, and curators is because the Shadowshop carries a purported critical force as an installation, which raises questions concerning the place of art in contemporary society and explores social tensions with generative potential for art practice. Discussing the project simply in terms of how artists negotiate “the production, consumption, and dissemination of their work” thus risked foreclosing its critical impact: Is this perhaps the converse of the dialectics that Jasper and I discussed? While businessmen have wholeheartedly embraced the critique of hierarchical management and looked to artists for ways to “think outside the box,” has the critique of the autonomous work of art resulted in the cynical, wholesale assimilation of artists to market exchanges and other instrumental ends, reducing considerations of creative practice to careerism and cost-benefit analyses?

While these questions might seem to point toward a radical, political critique of the project and its complicity with capitalism, my concerns here are not so grand; neither do I mean idealistically to champion the value of artwork as somehow above and beyond any such consideration of economic exchange. However, I am interested in defending art’s capacity to interrupt the reduction of all experience to instrumental ends, to articulate the impasses in our relationships with one another, and to give voice to the desires and fantasies born of these antagonisms. In this vein I’m struck by the discrepancy between Shadowshop and Stephanie’s other projects. While Shadowshop ultimately amounts to a successful retail venture, Stephanie’s work typically puts the lie to such straightforward means-and-ends calculations. Her reproductions of high-tech gadgets present them as little more than glossy, over-promoted trash; her knitted bootlegs of high fashion accessories thwart their slick appeal; her reproductions of modernist artworks challenge the aura of authenticity that informs their reception; and her re-editing of Hollywood films undermines their commercial viability and mines their imagery for unintended ends. In various ways, these strategies thus contribute to articulating what she describes as her experience of being “an ambivalent subject of forces larger than [her]self — politics, global economics, capitalism, and the corporate culture machine.” At first glance, Shadowshop might seem to belong neatly within the set of these projects, as Renny Pritikin insinuated in his written remarks, when he evoked “iconoclasm” and “anarchy” in his description of the work. However, at least in the discussion at the museum, such disruptive forces seemed to be largely neutralized. Where, after all, is the ambivalence?

The great virtue of Shadowshop is to my mind the successful inclusion of so many local artists into the museum’s galleries. The project is, in this regard, a first in recent memory, and I sincerely hope that SFMOMA will continue to draw upon and contribute so extensively to the local scene. The project also vividly registers the creative energy that, in recent years, has emanated from small, local, DIY consignment shops in the Bay Area, like Needles and Pens; Rock, Paper, Scissors; and The Candy Store, which have provided excellent platforms for zines, independent design, and other artist multiples. However, the danger I mean to diagnose is that, if artists are treated just like any other entrepreneurs, then Stephanie’s call to “Support Local Artists” is no different than “Support Local Businesses” — a worthwhile cause, no doubt, but hardly worthy of art’s legacy and promise.

Nevertheless, art’s potential to interrupt the instrumental calculations of everyday life is not altogether absent from Shadowshop, and the proverbial devil may lie in the details. In this spirit, and in keeping with David Hammons’s performance introduced above, I was pleased to learn from Megan about the contribution to Shadowshop by artist Chris Brown, who sold slickly packaged dollar bills for $.99, which because of sales tax actually cost consumers $1.08. Contrary to the discussion at the museum, which primarily questioned whether Shadowshop was in fact a win-win for participants and organizers alike, Chris thus orchestrated a perverse lose-lose exchange. While the piece might therefore be understood as send-up of Adam Smith’s invisible hand — closer perhaps to the race to the bottom we’ve witnessed in the expansion of global capital over the last thirty years — to my mind, it still more fundamentally stages the failure of commercial and social exchanges alike to satisfy our desires, calling attention to the excess intrinsic to our aspirations, and holding open the dynamics of longing rather than disavowing such excesses by purporting instead simply to gratify the requirements of need. In this way, through the negative, subtraction of his intervention — and in keeping with the best (or rather worst!) intentions of Stephanie’s project — the artist thus succeeded in casting a shadow on both the museum and the shop.

Clark Buckner is a critical theorist who teaches in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute.  He’s currently completing a manuscript titled Apropos of Nothing: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and the Coen Brothers (forthcoming, SUNY U.P.).

Comments (1)

  • In the spirit of providing greater context, I feel compelled to elaborate on my use of the term “anti-grant.” Invisible Venue was a recipient of an Alternative Exposure Grant awarded by Southern Exposure in 2008. While I count myself lucky to have had my work validated in this way, I also recognize that my work largely falls outside most grant stipulations. I regard grants as potential windfalls—not strategies. The profound lack of public subsidies for the arts in the United States, as Buckner termed it, is for me an accepted limitation in the strategic development of new autonomous models in cultural production. In truth, I am not anti-grant (note to the MacArthur Foundation: feel free to call anytime), I simply recognize that they are a limited resource and that time is better spent focusing on alternatives fueled by innovation and self-reliance.

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