Lebenskünstler

“the nebula of “offroad conceptualists” who have withdrawn from the artworld attention economy into the shadows, never performing what they do as art.” – Stephen Wright on “art without qualities”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/23/2013

An Art Without Qualities: Raivo Puusemp’s “Beyond Art — Dissolution of Rosendale, N.Y.” – Stephen Wright

[Stephen Wright is one of the last truly vibrant theorists left in the art world. Although maybe that is because he spends so much time outside the art world. And maybe his early years in the Pacific Northwest gifted him with the temerity of a cryptozoologist (escapologist). He is relentlessly innovative with turns of phrase and new memes, not in some pointlessly entrepreneurial attention seeking way, but as a matter of necessity – because the things he is trying to describe are outside “accepted formal parameters of art” (as he quotes Raivo Puusemp saying in this post). Wright, if not a member himself of the “offroad conceptualists,” is surely their greatest chronicler.]

Upon resigning as mayor, Puusemp left Rosendale forever, moving to somewhere in Utah, and thereby joining the nebula of “offroad conceptualists” who have withdrawn from the artworld attention economy into the shadows, never performing what they do as art.

Of course plenty of things are not performed as art (in many cases because they just aren’t) although their coefficient of art — in terms of their form, contextual engagement and the competence they epitomize — would be largely adequate for them to successfully lay claim to artistic status. And it is precisely this issue which makes Raivo Puusemp’s short preface to Beyond Art so compelling. From it can be deduced an entirely original and under-theorized line of institutional critique as the background of his project to instantiate a plausible new artworld in Rosendale, A public work.

But before considering the underpinnings of the project laid out in the document’s preface, let’s pause for a moment to consider just exactly what “not performing art” means in the case of Raivo Puusemp. Since his stint as mayor of Rosendale, Puusemp has ceased making art; he hasn’t even done art. But he’s thought it. Meaning that he’s not so much a former concept artist, as that he remains an artiste sans oeuvre. Not in the affected sense of a dandy, but with the infectious humility of concept art. As he put it in a recent public conversation with curator Krist Gruijthuijsen at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (one of the venues to recently host a retrospective of the artist’s work, up to and including his stint as mayor) Puusemp acknowledged as much, at least implicitly, describing how his relationship to art had itself become conceptual. “I’ve always thought about art, I just haven’t done it. I would see something, and think someone should do that. But I would never do it myself.”

He’s sees conceptual-artistic potential in any number of situations, relations and things, contemplates making it art, but leaves the doing, the making, the “performing” (or not) to others.

Of course, this principled imperformativity only makes sense against Puusemp’s background as an active artist in the 1970s. This is the paradox of the imperformative: not-doing only has traction against a horizon of reasonable expectation of an ability-to-do and the deed itself. Countless things don’t get done, but the imperformative implies that something actually eludes performative capture — that it is done quietly, and not necessarily materially (who knows?) in the shadows. And the shadow of the deed is the idea. But the very fact that Puusemp would be inclined to contemplate people performing (or not) ideas he had thought of also stems directly from his previous artistic practice.

Several things happened that would lead Puusemp to choose to move into the shadows. For one thing, he became involved with an underground group in New York City called “Museum” which allowed him to understand art as an essentially collective endeavor and to gain insight into group dynamics and process. But above all, he writes, “it became apparent that art was a continuum of predictable steps each built upon the last. It seemed that by being familiar with the then accepted formal parameters of art, and by doing work within those parameters, there was a great likelihood of art community acceptance of that work. Creative leaps were reduced to inevitable innovations and predictable steps. I became fascinated with the process of conception to completion rather than the product. From that point, I found it difficult to continue making art within the standard context.”

–Did you still think of yourself as an artist?
–It’s hard to say. I just kind of walked away from it, or from the object stuff anyway. I was thinking about things a lot. I mean, the other thing is, I started looking at this Rosendale thing more and more as a piece of art. It was a strange thing to do, like living a dual life. On the one hand, I was doing this thing, but I couldn’t tell people I was doing it because they would think I was using them or kind of manipulating the whole thing.
–But was it always intentional for you that running for mayor would be an artwork?
–I think it evolved. I was intrigued by the possibility…

Raivo Puusemp, a possibilitarian? That was the term (Möglichkeitsmensch) that Robert Musil coined to describe Ulrich, his Man Without Qualities. Not because his protagonist was without quality — his insights were of exceeding quality — but because he possessed none that determined the others and locked him down into a particular ontology. We tend to think of artworks as characterized by a deep singularity — and as the documents on Rosendale’s dissolution show, it was a project so steeped in nitty-gritty singularity as to conceal its self-understanding as art. But as a morphing pursuit of intriguing possibilities, and in light of Puusemp’s decision to further withdraw from exercising artistic agency, Rosendale, A Public Work may be seen as paving the way toward an art without qualities.

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