p.1 – Studio Newwork
pp.4-5 – 100 people on the streets of New York
p.6 – Partizan Publik (Christian Ernsten, Christiaan Fruneaux and Janmaat Joost),
p.7 – Topos Graphics (Seth Labenz and Roy Rub)
p.8 – Andrew Weinstein
p.9 – Ruth Liberman
p.11 – Catalogtree (Daniel Gross and Joris Maltha)
p.12 – REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT (Martin Keil and Henrik Mayer)
It is a generally accepted view that pervasive skepticism underlies postmodern society, and this widespread skeptical mentality may lead to having even paranoid habits of doubt. If that is true, this climate naturally influences how critics judge artworks. The introduction to the feature “Future Greats: 30 Art Stars of Tomorrow” in Art Review’s March 2008 issue admits these worries, uncertainties, and anxieties that the critics have about their own judgments and the lack of tangible criteria in today’s contemporary art:
1. “Future Greats: 30 Art Stars of Tomorrow”, ArtReview, no.20, London, March 2008: p.79
“What’s ‘great’?”, [the panel of experts who selected the list of artists] asked, sighing and rolling their eyes skywards. The thing is that everyone has a different opinion, even if, when we print those opinions on nice paper in a nice font, they look more like facts. And that’s where the worry starts…What’s important to remember is that being on this [Future Greats] list is not a cast-iron guarantee of greatness; it’s a statement of someone’s belief. The belief of the person making the art being matched by the belief of a critic or writer that they are doing something worthwhile…[T]he artworld does function very much on belief.¹
In many cases an artwork is a reflection or a representation of personal belief. Each person may have her own belief, and it is difficult to find a sharable belief that everyone can relate to. This is the age of accelerating modernization and globalization. The common grounds and belief systems that used to be shared before, such as religions, traditions, communities, and institutions, are no longer so trusted and they are being fragmented. Instead, people’s values are formed by a number of easily interchangeable variables like interests, trends, and “lifestyles,” which quickly and randomly cross a society. Therefore it has become difficult for any kind of value judgments to be made with any set of fixed criteria.
2. Giddens, Anthony, Modernity and Self-Identity, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1991: p.3
In Modernity and Self-Identity, Anthony Giddens summarizes one of the causes of anxiety in the modern climate: “Modernity institutionalizes the principle of radical doubt and insists that all knowledge takes the form of hypotheses: claims which may very well be true, but which are in principle always open to revision and may have at some point to be abandoned…[T]he self, like the broader institutional contexts in which it exists, has to be reflexively made. Yet this task has to be accomplished amid a puzzling diversity of options and possibilities.” ²
3. ArtReview, no.20: p.79
The critics try to see as many available options as possible, “[w]orrying about how he was going to see all the shows on his Chelsea beat and then worrying that the ones he had actually made it to were probably the ‘wrong’ ones and that the ‘cool’ action was happening elsewhere.” ³ In this situation, you may easily imagine that they have had a hard time being certain about their judgments based on their personal beliefs. Most people do not have the authority to validate the value of art, but only to be given “facts” proposed by the specialists, who seem not to be completely sure about their own credibility. The point here is that we tend to search for someone new and special, such as the charismatic art star or the cult of individual, as opposed to “less exciting” others.
The aim of my art project Global Identity that I started in 2002 is not to prove the value of a single belief as the basis for judging art. Instead, it proposes the value of the attempts to build the bridges between even conflicting sets of beliefs through continuous dialogues and communications, which require mutual respect and tolerance, and the value of the platform to show the ongoing processes and ever-changing results. I am curious to see if there might be some common denominator or sharable factor that connects all the beliefs. The whole act itself is my art – a big picture.
In pre-modern times art had a close connection with common factors like religion, so the general public could relate to the nobility of art. But modern artists departed from this shared ground that limited personal expressions. Since then, high art was not for everyone for a long time partly because there were usually social hierarchies and privileged classes that validated and maintained the integrity. However, pop sensibilities have widely spread and now so pervade art world that the conventional classification is no longer useful. British artist and designer Susanna Edwards contributes the thoughts on this matter:
4. Edwards, Susanna, “Art Attack”, Grafik, no.137, London, February 2006: p.49
[M]uch of contemporary art…is media- and fashion- driven…There used to be distinct roles, the role of the artist and the role of the commercial artist…the boundaries are more blurred and we seem to have run out of definitions for these new modes of practice and delivery…⁴
In other words, we can hardly discuss today’s art without acknowledging its relationship to the “commercial” cultures. Only the artist’s intention and the context in which the work is presented may determine the “right place” for it. There still are the experts and authorities that validate the “fineness” of artworks, and the system seems to be still working. However, the integrity has been constantly challenged over the last few decades as mentioned above. The art world may rely on the fine art context to present artworks in its territory, but at the same time, it takes advantage of the blurring boundaries, which has never been more confusing, when it needs to. The Whitney Biennial, for example, has continuously presented many people who are not usually considered as fine artists – for example, Spike Lee, Meredith Monk, DJ Olive, Jim O’Rourke, and Chris Ware. It appears that those whose activities can be placed in ambiguous areas somewhere between their “commercial” specialties and contemporary-art-friendliness or “experimental ethos” have been intentionally selected, which in turn further accentuates the ambiguity of contemporary art – and even our entire cultures.
Pandora’s box has already opened for our benefit because it follows from this strategic opportunism that we can “convert” anything into fine art. My project Global Identity is a mass of works created by people from different backgrounds, including artists and non-artists. The art takes many forms varying from painting, sculpture, and photography to text, video, and sound. Individuals contribute pieces that other participants connect, communicate, and reinterpret. Each contribution is numbered, and all the pieces are linked directly or indirectly. There are normally no restrictions on work, such as medium, size, and format, so the result of every contribution is unpredictable, hence uncontrollable. Participants may be invited by myself, but openings are available virtually to anyone who is interested. My attempt is to build a platform for this activity, so viewers can visualize the connections between fragmented common values that could easily be lost in this rapidly globalizing late-modern world. The platform itself is a piece of art, and it performs as a “converter” to radically contextualize everything into fine art, no matter what it is or who the author is. This idea — anything that is contextualized as fine art is fine art — is built upon Duchampian methodologies of modern art. The platform also allows us to connect a countless number of artistic styles expressed in our age when no single movement prevails. Global Identity is not to give the authenticity to participants in the same way that the art world selects exclusive artists. It does demonstrate the alternative criteria to the customary value judgments, by embracing the all-inclusive and double-barreled character of our contemporary cultures.
5. Giddens, Anthony, Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1971: p.87 “[S]ocial facts are ‘external’ to the individual…[E]very man is born into an on-going society which already has a definite organization or structure, and which conditions his own personality…[A]ny one individual is only a single element within the totality of relationships which constitutes a society.”
The project consists of sequences of direct and mediated communications and relationships between individuals, which is a basic definition of social facts.⁵ It follows from this idea that we can simulate our society by using the shared platform where individuals link to and communicate with each other through the productions of artworks — representations of their beliefs — and search for what senses, notions, and values we could share, which I think is a valuable action for many of us. It does not suggest supporting the development of utopian society by reviving the communist dogma or empty humanitarian optimism but, rather, probing the world of interacting individuals.
In this project for Newwork Magazine, I initiated a series of works entitled “0” to show the potentials of the platform mentioned above. 0 is the foundation or groundwork of subsequent construction of the (simulated) society. I was fortunate to have a contribution by Partizan Publik, a devoted and globally active Dutch think and action tank in the field of architecture and social engineering. I also collaborated with one hundred people on the streets of New York. By asking them the same simple question “What do you believe?” and letting them put their answers on papers, which conceptually are their contributed artworks, I collected one hundred variations of personal beliefs.
6. Ibid: p.87
“0” also includes a self-portrait of myself standing in front of a statue of George Washington in Union Square in Manhattan. This piece is a statement that when I express myself in this project, it is in relation to the society that contains the self. In one sense, the whole project has an aspect as a personal self-expression because “self” can be defined by the interactions between yourself and the surroundings that identify you.⁶ To know the relationship between you and other people gives you a better understanding of who you are. In this piece I stand in front of the statue to state my personal position in the society where I currently live – that of a foreigner in a multi-national city in the United States that historically has a particular relationship with my country of national origin, Japan.
Other contributors were provided all the materials from the series 0. I was fortunate to have a variety of international contributors from different fields: a fine artist, Ruth Liberman; an interdisciplinary artists group working at the intersection between art and society, REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT; an art historian/theorist and writer, Andrew Weinstein; and two graphic design studios — Catalogtree from Arnhem, Netherlands, and Topos Graphics from New York; and myself. We produced new works that link to 0, except REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT, which submitted a piece from their recent project that they believe perfectly relates to 0. I chose to have graphic designers because of graphic design’s ability to mediate information and idea to masses of people. By disembedding this useful function from its commercial origin and recontextualizing it in fine art, we can enjoy the “pure” benefits to be able to communicate effectively with a large number of people.
The extreme inclusiveness of the sharable platform, and its capacity to connect a large number of individuals, create opportunities to raise a variety of issues in different areas from the personal to those existing on the global level. Also, the simulation and research aspects of the project can provide chances for researchers and activists to present their works in association with other related pieces in cultural, social, and political contexts without straying from the contemporary art context. “0” may play a key role in the process because it is the framework of the project through which many contributions will be linked, and thus it affects how social facts and relationships are simulated. The project has to be brought along very carefully so as to avoid falling prey to prejudice while at the same time leaving some “play grounds” for unpredictably creative acts to be installed.
I could have a feeling of uselessness and powerlessness of myself as an individual artist since contemporary art can be remote from most people. I want to believe, however, that my art can have the potential to mediate ideas, concepts, and notions of values that are accessible to a diverse group of people, by objectively looking at my own “truth” and maintaining respect towards even hard-to-understand beliefs of other people. The project could end up merely reconfirming the disorganized conceptions about cultural values and purposes by showing juxtapositions among disparate pieces. Yet only by people consciously connecting each piece with others with mutual respect, it is possible, I think, to make the big picture – the alternative concept of monumentality.
7. Sennett, Richard, Respect in a World of Inequality, W.W.Norton, New York, 2003: p.208
The sociologist and novelist Richard Sennett suggests the importance of conveying respect in the world today: “Both art and anthropology are useful guides in exploring how people in our own society might express respect so as to reach across the boundaries of inequality. In looking for those clues, we might discover something of not just social value. These expressive acts, when they occur, reveal something about how character takes form: character as that aspect of self capable of moving others.” ⁷
I would like to conclude this essay with a quote from one of the participants in the one hundred beliefs piece, an old man who gave me very little information about himself. When I asked him, “What do you believe?”, he quietly answered: “in hope & answers to ?s..”, an answer that romantically resonates with my own hopes for my art and life.
I would like to express my appreciation to my family, Naoki Asai, Marian Faux, Jessica Gruber, Justyna Kijek, Anne Meister, Marta Pachucka, and Andrew Weinstein for all their kind help. I am grateful to assistance and patience of everyone at Studio Newwork. I should also like to thank all the people who most kindly contributed to this project because it could not be possible without any one of them: Daniel Gross and Joris Maltha of Catalogtree, Susan Crile, Ruth Liberman, Partizan Publik members: Christian Ernsten, Christiaan Fruneaux, and Joost Janmaat, Henrik Mayer and Martin Keil of REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT, Seth Labenz and Roy Rub of Topos Graphics, Dirk-Jan Visser, Andrew Weinstein, Studio Beirut Public Space Workshop Participants, and 100 open-minded people on the streets of New York.
Ueda, Reona, “Global Identity”, Newwork Magazine, New York, Spring Summer 2008: pt.2, pp.2-3