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Arni Runar Haraldsson

The Form of the City / The Face of the Social

From So, To Speak, J-P. Gilbert, Sylvie Gilbert and Lesley Johnston eds.,
Artextes Editions, Montréal, 1999.
[ 1,119 words ]


To consider seriously the question regarding artistic practice and the social fabric, I feel compelled to briefly trace the trajectory of my own artistic production. To begin with, in the mid-1980s, the most important aspect of the discourse of artistic modernity, or so I felt at the time, concerned the notion of cultural institutions as the penultimate framing device for the reception and production of art. The overdeterminations and contradictions inherent in such a position, however, soon became all too apparent, as criticism of the institution of art could most often only be realized on behalf of the very institution that the critique itself intended on calling into question.

Although the form of address of the neo-avant-garde's critique of the institution has by now become familiar enough, its continuation remains absolutely essential, functioning today more as a consciousness-forming address rather than some radical rupturing of the institutional context. Besides, it seems to me that the destruction of the institution and the attack on the autonomous art work should not be perceived as emancipatory but rather as a violent and destructive act. After all, the cultural system of institutional distribution can still prove productive as a channel for critical art and the dissemination of social issues.

Concurrent with the neo-avant-garde of the 1980s was the so-called 'return of painting'. Propelled by powerful market forces, this shift was nevertheless pervasive enough to instil a sense of crisis among artists, myself included. To be sure, it was not the practice of painting in itself or the notion of painting as an outmoded medium in advanced technological society that prompted a negative response. Quite the contrary. At issue was the emergence of a sensibility construed as regressive in its refusal to confront the increasing social complexities of late capitalism.

Amidst this crisis, I registered what I took to be a sympathetic tone of negativity and doubt in the post-structuralist enterprise. What seemed to be required now was a type of micro-analysis of the relation between language, thought, and society. From the Derridian perspective, this included nothing less than the rewriting of the Western logos: commonly held assumptions and immutable truths had to be disrupted in an effort to alter existing social structures; binary opposites such as true and false had to be displaced through the notion of a gesture that would inscribe and promote dis-identity as a means of signalling that meaning itself is always already constructed, plural, and elusive. Consequently, the influence of post-structuralist theory would contribute to an increased and ultimately intense suspicion of all forms of authority, tradition, and representation.

As regards my own artistic production, a shift was evident, suggestive of a retreat, a temporary renunciation of art's ability to initiate social change. Like some free-floating signifier, however, the novelty of the Derridian model soon wore off. In the few attempts to extend beyond questions of epistemology to questions concerning art, Derrida has failed to relate art to social praxis, subordinating instead the question of action and agency solely to questions of truth and falsity. At this point, Habermas's observation of the surrealist project proved insightful: 'Nothing remains from a desublimated meaning or a destructured form; an emancipatory effect does not follow.'

In 1990 I became interested in the concept of beauty as possibly realized within an approach characterized as a type of critical negativity, an approach that entertained the idea of unity in contrast to dis-identity and negation. At this time I began to document in large-format the city of Vancouver, its urban spaces and peripheral suburban landscapes in transition. My intention was to conceptualize architecture and landscape as emblematic of larger social forces, as a symbolic system instrumental in determining human relations. I envisioned these images as containing the intersection of the real and the ideal, technology and wilderness, landscape and social-scape. Ideally, the image before the spectator would fluctuate between being true to the world it depicts and being true to the medium itself. For the cult of nature photography, landscape exists more as ideal than actuality, becoming inadvertently the pictorial repository for progress. In contrast, my intent was to maintain an equilibrium whereby the status of the image as object would not outweigh its significance as social document.

Recently I've expanded the scope of my project in other directions with an emphasis on the lost aspirations of the Utopian principle of Modernism, in terms of the design and social life of the city. My interest in the city as subject centres on the notion of urban space as a type of monad — an entity that encapsulates the characteristic features of the social and economic structures of the present age. Architecture and landscape composing the urban environment respond to, and reflexively structure, patterns of human activity. Of the cities I've encountered — Vancouver, Rome, Chandigarh, Johannesburg, Reykjavik, Jerusalem, among others — each has been, like a person, different and unique in its own way. In the built environment, I've observed that the social totality is crystalized in miniature as a culture presents itself in the form of traces, markers, or clues to a mode of existence, to a way of being.

So far so good, but what about the question: 'How do you conceive or imagine your artistic practice interweaving with the social fabric?' A complex question that I'm not sure I've even begun to answer.

I imagine that there are consensual communities firm in their conviction that for art to be considered as engaging the social, certain requirements are essential: the work should be physically situated in the public sphere; and the work must disrupt, deconstruct, or dismantle some aspect of dominant ideology. I'm not sure that I'm capable of engaging the social in such a manner, nor whether I could decipher such work — assuming the work were recognizable — upon encountering it in the public sphere. Rather, I'm interested in an art of representation, of looking at what is actually out there, listening to the voices of the city, observing its patterns and movements, the physiognomy of its structures. Looking, after all, is not neutral but a process affected by historical circumstances through which the social is ordered. Looking is a cognitive and physical gesture whose manifestation is, photographically speaking, the work itself. A process, a gesture, a work that is, when not overdetermined, mediated by the subject. When I look at the city, the city looks back at me, and in that encounter the face of the social — however ugly or beautiful, cruel or tender — reveals something of itself.


From So, To Speak, J-P. Gilbert, Sylvie Gilbert and Lesley Johnston eds.,
Artextes Editions, Montréal, 1999.

Text: © Arni Runar Haraldsson. All rights reserved.

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