Still Thinking About Field Work

…the experimental artist who plays with the commonplace does so in the very midst of crossing the street or tying a shoelace. There is no excerpting and reenacting them on a stage, no documenting them for a show. Art is thus easily forgotten. And that is the condition for experimentation: the art is the forgetting of art. (Kaprow 2003: 249)

Art exists as a separate world since anything whatsoever can belong to it. […] Art is given to to us through these transformations of the sensible fabric, at the cost of constantly merging its own reasons with those belonging to other spheres of experience. (Ranciere 2013: X-XI)

To enter the field of art is to enter a realm of paradox. Genuinely experimental art tests the margins of art. In doing so it risks passing beyond or outside art, yet this is precisely the point at which contemporary art becomes characteristically manifest – at the instant that it risks its own disappearance. The double maneouvre of rejection and return takes shape as a conventional strategy and expectation.

And it is this sense that there is no genuine passage out into a wider field, because the wider field (its aesthetic alienation and uncertainty) is a feature of art itself. The larger field is actually a subset of the smaller field. Art stages its relation to multiple outsides. For all of its apparent exteriority, all these other places appear in picturesque terms. Here a sly relation between the conventional aesthetic attitudes of the picturesque and the sublime is evident. The infinite prospect of the sphere of non-aesthetic sociality (everyday life, other practices, other disciplines) develops its own conventional iconography and tropes (ellipses, ephemeral records, rough diagrams) – a set of aesthetic lenses for negotiating and representing all manner of alien fields.

So we must cautious about fieldwork. We must be suspicious about envisaging so simple a relation to a pure exterior.

But the statement from Ranciere also suggests something else. While at one level it reflects upon the conventional dialectic between inside and outside in contemporary art, it also suggests something more – something that may help progress matters beyond the impasse of a formal paradox. With its capacity to accept anything and to expand its boundaries however it likes, art has the potential to re-position fields and entities – not so much simply to make them strange within art, but for themselves and in relation to one another. Art – a very imperfect container – has the capacity to juggle elements, and this juggling has implications beyond art itself (partly because art lacks the power to contain everything that it engages with). In this sense, key forms of contemporary art work less to colonise aspects of ordinary experience than to tease out dimensions of estrangement and possibility.

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