At the School of Visual Arts he made a significant impact while technically a student, influencing fellow students as well as more traditional teachers there at the time such as Mel Bochner. As Kosuth's reputation grew, he was removed from the student body and given a position as a teacher, by Silas Rhodes the founder and President of the school, in This caused a near revolt of the faculty, as he had been a disruptive presence in the opinion of many of the instructors, several who had unhappily faced his questioning of basic presumptions. His elevation to a teacher was also a result of Kosuth's outside activities, which included the founding of the Museum of Normal Art giving the first exposure to artists such as Robert Ryman, On Kawara, Hanne Darboven, among others along with proselytizing and organizing artists in a direction which was later identified as the conceptual art movement.

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Proximity is a useful term as the extent to which these three activities merge or fold into each other — or not — is the key issue at stake here. It is a mode for unlearning, or, conversely, a nourishing act, a warm gesture that reaches out to the possibility of learning otherwise.

Many of the artworks in documenta 14 sought to comment on, or actively intervene in, these crises. Art, anthropology, and activism all deal with notions of uncertain realities: they question what constitutes reality, use reality as a material, and attempt to affect reality and change it. In terms of documenta 14, this questioning of reality takes place in the context of the economic, political, social, and emotional uncertainty that is a central element of the Greek crisis itself.

But is this ongoing crisis something that requires the intervention of contemporary art? How can works produced under the banner of these fields actually intervene in the everyday experience of crisis? There is a concern with uncertain realities in two senses —reality as something that is the common material of all three fields, something they all deal with, but also the sense of an uncertain reality that is part of the experience of crisis. What is at stake when you bring these three fields into contact with each other is partly to do with what tools and methods each employs to investigate or approach reality and subsequently to intervene in that reality.

But also at stake is how those methods are thought to impact the reality they investigate. We are perhaps used to thinking about art as something open-ended, uncertain, but uncertainty is something that anthropology often finds more problematic in terms of the outcomes produced. There is perhaps a reluctance on both sides here: contemporary art wants to retain an uncertainty, an unlearning, even an unrealism; anthropology is not so keen.

Underlying many of the aims of documenta 14 is a particular constellation of art, anthropology, and activism in which anthropology is seen, from the perspective of some sections of contemporary art, as a means of theorizing the social and as a method for accessing it.

Activism is an important third term here, as a significant sub-field of contemporary art is overtly concerned with actively intervening in the social. Art practices intervene in ways that are sometimes hard to distinguish from what would normally be labelled as activism. One example is the amazing work of artist Theaster Gates who runs a variety of social projects in South Side Chicago. Gates uses money from the sale of his artworks in galleries to fund training courses for unemployed Chicago youth.

In doing so, he co-opts the wealthy patrons who buy the work into supporting a local social regeneration scheme. The artist and his individual creativity in making artworks likewise becomes one element of a more diffused creativity. Are the roofs made by Chicago youth as part of the training schemes organised by Gates to be considered as part of the artwork?

A consideration of the relationships between art, anthropology, and activism reveals what is at stake in assertions, explicit or implicit, that art can change social life. But where are the lines that distinguish anthropology, art, and activism from one another? Does it matter that the borders might be blurred?

Perhaps this is a kind of civil contract of contemporary art? Some of this, of course, has its roots in much earlier concerns in art. It is worth revisiting his definition:. My objects are to be seen as stimulants for the transformation of the idea of sculpture […] or of art in general.

They should provoke thoughts about what sculpture can be and how the concept of sculpting can be extended to the invisible materials used by everyone. At the time I last saw the tree, it looked — tellingly, perhaps — as if the graft had not taken. But the historical resonance of this concern with the social formed a context for many of the artworks exhibited or enacted in both Athens and Kassel. Questions about what kind of timescale validates, or invalidates, a project like this have a direct bearing on anthropological concerns as well as those of artists.

Lowe has run an incredible project along similar lines in Houston, Texas — his hometown — for many years. When I visited the work in the autumn of , there was a small group of young people. The women were wearing hijab and sitting together in a group slightly separate from the men. They had all been working on a visual project of some kind — scissors, paper, notes, and various images lay around — and were taking a break to eat, speaking quietly among themselves in their gender-defined groups, while sitting at a large table that was prominently situated in front of the large shop window of the space.

The project support staff were happy to show me around, only interacting with the young people when asked to do so. Looking at what they made? Was this a gallery? What are the limits to the work? Whose is the artistic labour? But how does that sit with the reality that the project intervenes in the lives of people? The work undertaken by the Victoria Square project ranges from putting new migrants in touch with relevant local NGOs and helping them with bureaucratic paperwork to organising African drumming classes open to the public.

There was a strong feeling of individual and group responsibility towards the situation. Projects like Victoria Square demonstrate that there is a real attempt among a major strand of contemporary art to intervene in the social in ways that draw, explicitly or not, on both activism and anthropology.

Various kinds of uncertainties are thrown up in crisis. Eleana Yalouri has talked recently of older Greek notions of prophecy, about how one may as well consult an oracle as an economist in order to understand the current crisis in that country.

Here we come to one of the key issues in bringing them together: the boundaries of the works that are produced. If we are thinking about art, anthropology, and activism in relation to times of crisis, if they are to be charged with the task of tackling crisis, then we also need to acknowledge the various responsibilities involved. It also means an attention to the creative, imaginative, and affective particularities of that context.

This situational responsibility entails firstly a recognition of that position in this case, documenta in Athens. These ethics are not predetermined — by the artists, the anthropologist, or the activist — but are specific to a particular context. They are also emergent; they arise through a process of collaboration and engagement. These ethics are open and adaptive. There is sometimes a misperception from the perspective of contemporary art that anthropologists are almost incapable of action because they are bound by a set of strict ethical guidelines, a disciplinary imposition that can be seen as a burden by artists.

This is both true and not true: anthropologists in the UK do have an ethical code of conduct set out by the Association of Social Anthropologists. What of other culturally specific ethical codes that may be as, or more, relevant in certain cross-cultural contexts and encounters? Of course, the reverse is also true: anthropologists have the misperception that artists are not bound by any ethical responsibilities.

The work of Gates and Lowe are both guided by a strong sense of ethics. The position and possibilities of being an actor or activist in any given situation entails a responsibility to that context. Some artists might argue the opposite, for the need to be irresponsible, to act outside of ethical codes.

Many contemporary artists and activists aim to catalyse new forms of solidarity, to promote new knowledge and understanding in their audiences, and to intervene in civil society in a positive way. Bringing anthropology, art, and activism together may entail a reconfiguration of the creative process. Where does creativity lie in the kinds of social intervention and activism that some artists are pursuing in and as their work? With the artist? With the culture? With the particular situation or context?

For artists, this would mean relinquishing a sense of their own creative priority or importance, or at least an opening out of that creativity into a wider and more inclusive field.

This is one area where artists can learn a great deal from anthropologists and activists who are used to constantly adjusting what they do in terms of their research to what is directly relevant to a particular group and situation. Perhaps grafting is a useful analogy? Does that matter if the end results for the participants are positive?

There is no voice-over narrative to guide us, and the protagonists speak only intermittently. An early section of the work consists of an agonisingly slow pan along the bodies and bare feet of children sleeping huddled together on the floor of a shop doorway — with callouses, sores, rubbish, and dirt in plain view — until the camera, and our gaze, ends up focusing on one particular child who, prone, at first appears dead.

The film was shot on a small consumer-level digital video camera by Papisthione between July and January LFKs is concerned with the creation of art, with research, and with direct social action in liaison with local agencies. Papisthione was present at some of these editing sessions, having been invited to screen the film at a festival in Belgium that included the anthropological filmmaker Jean Rouch, whom he met.

For me this is a disturbing element, adding an aesthetic dimension, a distance, that I struggle with. I am sure he knew enough after the editing process to be able to explain to others what had been done and why, and this is a very important point. You have to remember that this was twenty years ago in the context of the Senegalese education system and you have to try and imagine what that relationship between a student and a teacher, an adult and a child, would have been like.

We were responsible for 43 street-kids who were used to surviving mostly through criminal activity. There was a certain authority, that was the only way to keep the whole thing going. The film was primarily made for this purpose—to be one element in a larger exhibition about street children called Enfants du Nuit.

But, after a while, we could also see that it had its own potential and that the use of this potential by Papisthione as an independent filmmaker could offer him a solution for his personal future.

Papisthione remained in France for some time after the editing process as the completed film was subsequently screened at various European film festivals. The French television company Arte, among others, bought the screening rights to the film. This film 1. I was the person picking him up out of the hell of the streets and giving shelter and schooling: to be frank, I just could not refuse an opportunity for him to have fun traveling everywhere, to have dinner with glorious old guys like Jean Rouch, to make some money and to have worldwide fame for a while.

This was an unexpected but good outcome for him and Grand Malien. Among those who met Papisthione, there is some disagreement about who benefitted from the Arte deal, and suggestions that he deliberately overstayed his visa to try and avoid returning to Senegal.

This is a common enough experience in watching documentary and a product of my own position as an affluent, middle-class, white viewer. But this film has little of the contextualization, explication, or narrative voiceover of much documentary practice. These absences make it more disturbing as a viewing experience. Although the truth of the events depicted is not at stake, I am not convinced I am watching documentary; but the idea that this might be art is too much to bear. If it is framed as documentary, I am somehow reassured of its ethics.

Of course, this reassurance is misplaced, but if it is art, how am I to think of its ethics? I am also concerned about the role of the cameraperson. Who is showing me this hell? When I first encountered the film, I had no idea that those holding the camera were Papisthione and Grand Malien. My initial response was to be shocked, not just by the footage itself and the events depicted, but by the fact that a cameraperson had done these things with a video camera in this context. At one point in the film the camera nearly enters the mouth of one of the street children, showing us bad teeth and saliva in extreme close-up.


Joseph Kosuth



Uncertain Realities: Art, Anthropology, and Activism


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