Concerning “Knowledge Production” (Practices in Contemporary Art) is a multifaceted project consisting of research, discussion groups, a publication, a series of lectures and dialogues by and with artists, curators, and scholars, as well as a series of public readings, screenings, and presentations that evolve around current articulations of the notion “producing knowledge” through the practices of contemporary art.
If art is said to produce knowledge, to what kind of knowledge do we refer? And even more constituitive: What is knowledge? It was the latter question that art historian Sarat Maharaj posed some three years ago when we telephoned him from BAK during a public performance.1 In that context, he was asked to share one of the urgent questions he was thinking about at that moment. Pronounced, as it was, by one of the leading protagonists in the discourse about art and knowledge, the question led us back to something rather fundamental. The query as such might be ultimately unanswerable; yet the very act of the question being posed reminded us of the need to critically examine present-day arguments on the art-knowledge relationship. We read Maharaj’s way of asking a seemingly simple question as a proposition that theories about art as knowledge production are, as a matter of fact, based on an equivocal riddle, which destabilizes settled meanings and convictions, and thus potentially infuses its discourse with new possibilities. This prompted us to create an ocassion that would allow us to pause before this very basic (and therefore complex) question and to put forth the notion of art as knowledge production as an object of study. Concerning “Knowledge Production” (Practices in Contemporary Art) seeks to provide such a forum.
Constitutive of Concerning “Knowledge Production” (Practices in Contemporary Art) is the notion of art not as an object of knowledge, but as its producer. Art as a way of knowing. In other words, this series of dialogues is an exploration of learning that is developed around—and through—both artistic practice and its reception today; involving “doing” and “thinking” knowledge. This requires revisiting theories of knowledge in the context of art, which have been formulated as dominant narratives of knowledge production in recent years,2and examining how these have been challenged through contemporary artistic developments.
To begin, however, we need to separate ourselves from the background noise of the “discourse industry” burgeoning across the field of contemporary art in the form of myriad talks, lectures, platforms, panel discussions, and publications. The fashion for such buzzwords as “discourse,” “artistic research,” and “education” is a double-edged sword; while focus on analysis and debate is a positive phenomenon, these events do not always produce in-depth critical artistic and intellectual work. Rather than being a serious translation of emerging new priorities in contemporary art, these manifestations are readily confused with the strategies of entertainment and spectacle, tending towards the reproduction and repetition of existing knowledge instead of genuine debate and the creation of new ideas. Thus a critical question appears: What are the ways of avoiding putting knowledge “on display?”
The term “knowledge production” itself contains a linguistic dilemma, and not only in the sense that “production” resides at the very core of today’s late capitalism. In order to challenge the affirmation of knowledge as a key commodity within the “knowledge economy,” what ways might we articulate the profound connection between art and knowledge through other modes than that of “production?” Simon Sheikh suggests that “one has to move beyond knowledge production into what we can term spaces for thinking.”3 Whereas knowledge is associated with disciplinary structures, “thinking is… meant to imply networks of indiscipline, lines of flight, and utopian questionings.”
Concerning “Knowledge Production” (Practices in Contemporary Art) seeks to consider the place of knowledge production—or be it “thinking spaces”—in contemporary art. Given the complexity of this subject, Concerning “Knowledge Production” (Practices in Contemporary Art) does not search for precise definitions or seek to limit the field of inquiry. The question we introduced in the begining of this introduction thus remains (and will remain) unanswered, consciously inconclusive.
It seems undeniable that the rhetoric of “art and knowledge” has become ubiquitous in the field of contemporary art. We are critical of the superficial, fashionable ways that “discourse” is invoked in the field, yet we are interrogating these questions through another set of discursive activities: discussions, lectures, and readings. In a context where the use of terms such as “knowledge production” is commonplace, how might we address the subject from a fundamentally distinct position? It may be that one can no longer study “knowledge production” in art without a reflection of the mode of study itself, making a kind of auto-critique imperative. This belongs to the risks we are willing to undertake, not least in order to consider other possibilities before us. We open our own practice to critical analysis; this involves, metaphorically speaking, turning one’s own work into the object of inquiry. Through this project, we hope to explore the ways in which BAK’s inclination towards theory, intellectual discourse, and the political issues of our day can be infused with new potential.
Our practice has the notion of art as a site for thinking at its core. And although art reaches far beyond what could ever be articulated through language alone, attempting to theoretically explore its complexity remains a crucial task for us nonetheless. This is, in our opinion, precisely where art might attain a critical position and potential, however fleeting and incomplete, in the contemporary world.
1 Now What? Dreaming a better world in six parts, part three: The World Question Center (Reloaded), 1 November 2003, a public
performance after James Lee Byars, curated by Jens Hoffmann.
2 To mention just two examples that point to this emergence, documenta X and 11, both through their respective exhibitions and accompanying discourse-driven events (100 days–100 guests at documenta X and the documenta 11 “platforms”) contributed to the articulation of this dominant narrative of knowledge production.
3 Simon Sheikh, “Spaces for Thinking. Perspectives on the Art Academy,” Texte zur Kunst, no. 62 (June 2006), available online at www.textezurkunst.de (accessed 28 September 2006).