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1988 2004 Essay Gillick Liam Selected

Art is a history of doing nothing and a long tale of useful action. It is always a fetishization of decision and indecision—with each mark, structure, and engagement. What is the good of this work? The question contains a challenge to contemporary practitioners—or “current artists,” a term I will use, as contemporary art no longer accounts for what is being made—that is connected more to what we have all become than to what we might propose, represent, or fail to achieve. The challenge is the supposition that artists today—whether they like it or not—have fallen into a trap that is predetermined by their existence within a regime that is centered on a rampant capitalization of the mind.

The accusation inherent in the question is that artists are at best the ultimate freelance knowledge workers and at worst barely capable of distinguishing themselves from the consuming desire to work at all times, neurotic people who deploy a series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of the neoliberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism of the every moment. Artists are people who behave, communicate, and innovate in the same manner as those who spend their days trying to capitalize every moment and exchange of daily life. They offer no alternative to this.

The notion of artists as implicated figures has a long history, visible in varied historical attempts to resolve the desire to examine high culture as a philosophical marker, attempts beset by the unresolvable problem that the notional culture being examined and the function of high cultural reflection are always out of sync—meaning the accusation that we are functioning in a milieu dominated by predatory neoliberalism is based on a spurious projection of high cultural function in the first instance that cannot account for the tensions in art, which remain the struggle for collectivity within a context that requires a recognition of difference.

Theories of immaterial labor—an awareness of the informational aspect and cultural content of the commodity—have exerted a profound influence on the starting point of current artists, allowing them to perceive the accusation as framed by the doubts that form the base of art’s work. As a result, the question “What is the good of work?” is at the heart of the work—it is not a symptom or product of accidental proximity. It accounts for the doubts and confusion that exist and explains why there seem to be moments of stress and collapse within any current art structure. These moments of critical crisis are an expression of resistance to the structure—a constant restructuring in response to the desire to avoid work within a realm of permanently unrewarding work.

The reason it is hard to determine observable differences between the daily routines and operations of a new knowledge-worker and those of an artist is precisely because art functions in close parallel to the structures that it critiques.

It requires precise and close observation of the production processes involved in order to differentiate between knowledge workers and current artists. If the question “Why work?” is the original question of current art, it is necessary, in order to counter the accusation that artists are in thrall to processes of capitalization beyond them, to look at a number of the key issues around control. And to address them in a fragmented way. What follows is a discussion of these issues—a negotiation of which is necessary in order to replace a critical mirror with a window.

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So what happened to the promise of leisure? Maybe this is what art can offer us now—a thing to use or reflect upon in a zone of permanent future leisure, as the “arts” as instrumentalized deployment becomes a more refined and defined capitalized zone. This zone is never geared towards artists alone but instead directed towards the general population as a way of rationalizing and explaining away innovations within the workplace as being part of a matrix of doubt and difference. Modes of leisure have been adopted by artists as a way to openly counter notions of labor as sites of dignity and innovation and in order to critique, mock, or parody the notion of an artistic life as role-play within the leisure zone. Yet the promise of leisure is not synchronized with artistic production. The withdrawal of labor and the establishment of structures in which intentions and results are uneven are markers that go beyond the promise of post-labor, which was always just the projection of a neurotic non-state.

So are we left with only the possibility of the good artist who fulfills the critical criteria? The artist who works—more or less permanently—and always finds a way to account for him or herself within a context demanding more and more interpretation? It is not leisure, but is it really work? Within this subset we have to engage in a careful process of categorization, meaning that we have to look at the methodological groupings that emerge within the art context rather than what is produced. One answer on offer over the last years was the formation of communities of practice forming new leisure/work modes. For artists are often creating new life in opposition to lifestyles. This involves a complete reorganization of relationships, wherein relationships themselves may become the subject of the work and discursive models of practice become the founding principle rather than a result or product.

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At the opposite extreme there is deliberate self-enforced isolation and a concurrent lack of accountability, amounting to a structural game within a context where notional support structures are mutable and dynamic. The two main trajectories of current art both attempt to clear us of the accusation: restructuring life (ways to work) and withdrawing from life (ways to free work). Categorizations of art in this case can superficially appear to mirror attitudes to work. It is quite appropriate for artists to co-opt working models and turn them to their own ends, from the factory to the bar and even to the notion of the artist’s studio, as specific sites of production that used to either mimic established daily structures or deliberately avoid and deny them. Categorizations of art are not limited to what is produced but are connected more deeply to how things might be produced. It is necessary to focus on production rather than consumption (including the new formalism of responsible didactic criticism) if one is to unlock art’s potential and permit a recasting of the accusation.

The notion of withdrawing or limiting production is the key to decoding the anxiety about work. One of the enduring powers of art, and one of the devices used by contemporary artists to consolidate specificity once they have attained a degree of recognition, is a withdrawal of labor or a limiting of supply. Doing the opposite—operating freely, openly, and on demand—is viewed as a problem within the gallery structure and resists the simple commodification of art. This shift to production consciousness by current artists, away from reception consciousness by contemporary artists, is a form of active withdrawal.

This notion of withdrawal can be understood in relation to the following: are there answers or questions in the work? This is central to the defense against the accusation. A postmodern understanding is that the current artist asks questions of the viewer while standing beside them. It is this sense of art as something that asks questions of the viewer that is misunderstood in the knowledge-worker accusation. The shift of position from confrontation to proximity is in practice a shift in category. Within the realm of the knowledge worker, the new consumer is always activated and treated as a discriminating individual who can be marketed to directly—spoken to face to face. Documentary practice places the user and the producer alongside each other. The exhaustion created by the continual capitalization of the recent past and the near future has its source in the knowledge worker’s attempt to account for every differentiation, whereas the artist is producing every differentiation alongside the recipient of the work.

This dynamic is linked to a game the artist plays with control over the moment of completion. For current art, the moment of judgment is not exclusive to an exterior field. The sense of control or denial exercised over that moment marks a zone of autonomy within a regime of excessive differences.

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A response to the accusation is the creation of one’s own deadlines, as opposed to the apparent creation of imposed deadlines. The notion of the deadline is a crucial applied structure that links the accused with the flexible knowledge worker. The number of deadlines increases exponentially, and they are created by the producer as much as they are introduced by others. An awareness of the constructed nature of deadlines allows one to electively engage and disengage and thus to create a zone of semi-autonomy.

Working for a long period with limited deadlines is a prerogative of not just the artist, but also of the occasional worker, whose job description is one of unbearable tedium but includes hard-won rights over steady employment. This prerogative marks the tension between the notion of applied flexibility and a critique of flexibility that permits a projection of potential.

Relationships with others are crucial. Roles are recast daily—alone together, together alone. For artists do not operate in isolation. And artists can only function in complete isolation. The acquisition or rejection of relationships is a crucial marker in art production, defining an artistic practice over and above a super specific knowledge-producing activity peppered with deadlines. This means that the entry of the artist into the apparently undifferentiated territory of infinite flexibility is made critical by a recognition of a series of encounters, borders, humps, and diversions.

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The identification of ethical barriers emerges in the course of making art under the stressful circumstances of the accusation. Circumstances and subjects in this case appear as moral zombies—undead and relentless victims—that artists reject or accept in tension with the creation or rejection of ethical barriers. Ethics are not stable, easy to reach, feed, or kill off.

Under these stressful circumstances there is an assumption that art extends memory forwards and backwards. In other words, art is not necessarily synchronized to the present. What appears to be a methodology linked to present works is an illusion. Art deploys flexibility in order to account for the moral zombie—to navigate the terrain of ethical mutability. Art extends and reduces memory using tools that were instead developed to shorten memory—that is, capitalize the near future and recent past.

As there are no limits to work there are also no limits to not working. The idea that artists find a way to work is a defining characteristic of current art, emerging in the context of post-labor anxieties and the creation and dismantling of ethical barriers.

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Research and reading as activities are not accounted for in the accusatory model. Artists whose modes of production are primarily informed by research are assumed to be the “good” workers. To research in a directed way and then present the results as a final work is not a leisure pursuit. But accounting for things and relationships in the world leads to displaced work, the creation of structural subjects. There is a sense in which all new art accounts for all other work previously made. This awareness is not necessarily accompanied by full knowledge of all the other work, but a sense that all the other works exist somewhere.

Even in documentary work, in addition to the creation of didactic structures or the replacement of a super-self-conscious and worn-out fourth estate, there is a sense that the nature of art is being questioned. The pursuit of documentary strategies is also a critique of the flow and capitalist logic that is applied to the commodification of art. The documentary is permanently working off of other fields. It also offers the possibility of being arrested while thinking about art. This is not possible while working as a knowledge worker.

This leads us to the equation: “just another citizen in the room versus everything I do involves a special perspective on the specificity of others.” At the heart of the latter artistic persona is the assertion of citizenship combined with an invitation to view the extraordinary ordinary. It makes the biographical a locus of meaning. As art became more specific the biographical became both more generic and more special, a way to present the specific in a form that would encourage more specificities and more difference. Art now is an assertion of difference, not an assertion of flexibility.

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How to find a better life in all of this? Current work undermines a sense or possibility of infinite leisure. Infinite leisure is only one form of utopia based in religion—a nightmare full of virgins and mansions. Will there be dogs? Oh, I hope there will be dogs. To be a clerk would be heaven for some people. A breakdown of the barriers between work, life, and art via direct action is a rather more rewarding potential outcome. Art appears to be result-based but is generally action-based and occupation-based. It is towards something. It reaches out. It only has meaning within a context and that context will always determine what activities might be necessary to improve the context.

This leaves us explaining everything in total communication anxiety about differentiation. Art viewed as a generalized terrain of collectivity and difference operates within a real of anxiety that is merely a reflection of multiple apparently contradictory moments of differentiations chiming simultaneously. Anxieties about too many artists, overproduction, and lack of ability to determine quality are all ideologically motivated and defer to a defeated series of authorities who would prefer the attainment of a neo-utopian consensus, a market consensus, or at least the regime of a big other consensus. All of these things are attacked and are permanently defeated within current art. Otherwise things will default towards authority and control. The entropic quality of art’s structural and critical trajectory is its resistance.

For the relation between art production and the development of creative tools for decentralized production is also a historical coincidence. It is only necessary to look at what is produced though the primary defensive mesh arrayed against predatory capitalization—its structural approaches to tools that may well have been developed for other purposes.

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Art is not a zone of autonomy. It does not create structures that are exceptional or perceivable outside their own context. Therefore current art will always create a sequence of problems for the generally known context. For example, with regard to the undifferentiated flexible knowledge-worker who operates in permanent anxiety in the midst of a muddling of work and leisure, art both points at this figure and operates alongside him or her as an experiential phantom.

Art is a place where the rules of engagement are open to question. The knowledge worker also appears to challenge rules of engagement but can only do so in the production of software or a set of new fragmented relationships. The artist can create alienated relationships without all these intricacies.

A different sense of “super-self-conscious” commodity awareness is at the core of current artists’ desire to come close to the context within which they work. Projection and speculation are the tools they reclaim in order to power this super-self-conscious commodity awareness. Artists project into the near future and the recent past in order to expose and render transparent new commodity relations. The surplus value that is art is not limited to its supposed novelty value but is embedded in its function as a system of awareness.

Art is a series of scenarios/presentations that creates new spaces for thought and critical speculation. The creation of new time values and shifted time structures actually creates new critical zones where we might find spaces of differentiation from the knowledge community. For it is not that art is merely a mirror of a series of new subjective worlds. It is an ethical equation where assumptions about function and value in society can be acted upon. There is no art of any significance made in the last forty years that does not include this as a base-level notion of differentiation.

The idea of the “first work” or the development of ideas is no longer directed towards the total production of all work in the future. This fact creates anxiety within the culture in general and leads to a search for analogous structures that also appear to temporarily function with a contingent potential for projection.

A sense of constantly returning to ideas or structures by choice rather than by intuition is an aspect of contemporary art that defies the logic of capital. The notion that an artist is obsessed by a structure or by an idea-context is sometimes self-perpetuated. The apparent work is no more than a foil to mask a longer deferral of decision-making. The art becomes a semi-autonomous aspect of lived experience, for the artist as much as for the viewer.

Not thinking about art while making art is different to not thinking while preparing a PowerPoint presentation on the plane. Of course I am working even when it looks as if I am not working. And even if I am not working and it looks as if I am not working I still might claim to be working and wait for you to work out what objective signifiers actually point towards any moment of value or work. This is the game of current art. Art production and work methods are not temporally linked or balanced because the idea of managing time is not a key component of making art, nor is it a personal or objective profit motive for artists. Unless they decide that such behavior is actually part of the work itself.

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Working alone but in a group is a contradiction at the heart of current art practice. It is always an active decision to give up the individual autonomy of the artistic persona with the goal of working together. Within the flexible knowledge community the assertion of individual practice always has to be subsumed within the team-worked moments of idea-sharing. Art as a life-changing statement is always the product of a specific decision that involves moments of judgment that cannot be controlled exclusively by the artist but are also operated on by all other artists. The them and us is me and us and us and us and them and them.

The assumption that there is a “they” or “them” is part of the problem involved in understanding how artists function within society. Artists are also “they” or “them” who have made a specific decision to operate within an exceptional zone that does not necessarily produce anything exceptional. For adherence to a high-cultural life is a negotiated concept within the current art context. This critical community is simultaneously subject and audience. Therefore we have a situation in which an artist will propose a problem and then position it just out of reach precisely in order to test the potential for an autonomy of practice.

Reporting the strange in the daily—that which cannot be accounted for is at the heart of artistic practices, yet not for purposes that can be described outside the work itself. And still, working less can result in producing more. The rate of idea-production within art is inconsistent, which is a deliberate result of the way art is produced and how it can become precise and other even while it flounders and then proudly reports back to us within the self-patrolled compound masquerading as a progressive think tank.

Artists function in micro-communities of discourse that are logical and contingent within their own contexts, as well as (often) generationally related. Current artists are caught within generational boundaries. The notion that artists are a perfect analogue of the flexible entrepreneurial class is a generational concept that merely masks a lack of differentiation in observation of practice and the devastating fact that art is in a permanent battle with what came just before. That is the good of work. Replacing the models of the recent past with better ones.

At the beginning of his film Dear Diary, Nanni Moretti says: “Why all? Why this fixation with us ‘all’ being sold out and co-opted!” “You shouted awful, violent slogans. Now you’ve gotten ugly,” the characters say in the film he is watching, full of depressed sell-out nostalgia from the perspective of success and authority. “I shouted the right slogans and I’m a splendid forty-year-old.” “Even in a society more decent than this one, I will only feel in tune with a minority of people. I believe in people but I just don’t believe in the majority of people. I will always be in tune with a minority of people.” This is easy for an artist to say and hard for a knowledge worker to understand. Maybe here we can find a space where there is real antagonism and difference rather than just questions of taste or manners.


Images in this essay are stills from Liam Gillick, Everything Good Goes, 2008, video loop.

This essay was first presented as a response to the question “What is the Good of Work?” posed by Maria Lind and Simon Critchley within the framework of a series of talks by the same name hosted by the Goethe Institut New York. The essay will be available as an artist book published by Artspace, Auckland, New Zealand as part of the exhibition “post-Office,” in May 2010. For more information:

Liam Gillick is an artist based in London and New York. His solo exhibitions include “The Wood Way,” Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2002; “A short text on the possibility of creating an economy of equivalence,” Palais de Tokyo, 2005; and the retrospective project “Three Perspectives and a short scenario,” Witte de With, Rotterdam, Kunsthalle Zurich, and MCA Chicago, 2008–2010. In 2006 he was part of the free art school project unitednationsplaza in Berlin.

Gillick has published a number of texts that function in parallel to his artwork. Proxemics: Selected Writing, 1988–2006 (JRP|Ringier, 2007) was published in 2007, and the monograph Factories in the Snow, by Lilian Haberer (JRP|Ringier, 2007), will soon be joined by an extensive retrospective publication and critical reader. He has in addition contributed to many art magazines and journals including Parkett, Frieze, Art Monthly, October, and Artforum. Gillick was the artist presented at the German Pavilion during the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.

© 2010 e-flux and the author

The term “contemporary art” is marked by an excessive usefulness. The contemporary has exceeded the specificity of the present to become inextricably linked to the growth of doubt consolidation. At the same time, it has absorbed a particular and resistant grouping of interests, all of which have become the multiple specificities of the contemporary. The tendency is for artists to deny that they are part of something that is recognized and defined by others. Frustrations here are always unique. Donald Judd did not identify himself as a minimalist. Yet “contemporary art” activates denial in a specifically new way. It does not describe a practice but a general “being in the context.”

The people who leave graduate level studio programs are contemporary artists—that much is clear. They represent the subjective artist operating within a terrain of the general. Yet we now find that the meaning of contemporary art is being redefined by a new art historical focus upon its products, ideas, and projections. That means we are going through a phase in which—whether we like it or not—it is quite likely that a new terminology and means of delineation will be proposed. It is therefore necessary—for artists specifically (although never alone)—to engage with this process of re-describing what gets made now. What constitutes the image of the contemporary? And what does the contemporary produce other than a complicit alongsideness?

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“Contemporary art” has historically implied a specific accommodation of a loose set of open-minded economic and political values that are mutable, global, and general—sufficing as an all-encompassing description of “that which is being made now—wherever.” But the flexibility of contemporary art as a term is no longer capable of encompassing all dynamic current art, if only because an increasing number of artists seek to radically differentiate their work from other art. In a recent essay I attempted therefore to re-term contemporary art as “current art,” as a way of dropping the association with the contemporary of design and architecture and simply find a term that could contain the near future and recent past of engaged art production rather than an evocative post-modernististic inclusion of singular practices. However, this new adjusted definition also does not suffice as a description that can effectively include all the work that is being made with the intention of resisting the flexibility of contemporary work. It is increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the definition contemporary art has been taken up by such apparently mutually exclusive arenas as auction houses and new art history departments as a way to talk about a generalization that always finds its articulation as a specificity or set of subjectivities that no longer include those who work hard to evade its reach.

Contemporary art has become historical, a subject for academic work. The Fall 2009 issue of October magazine on the question of the contemporary tended to focus on the academicization of contemporary art while acknowledging extensively the existing unease that many artists have with being characterized within a stylistic epoch. Hal Foster noted that the magazine received very few replies from curators to his questionnaire. This could be due to the October issue coinciding with the end of the usefulness of the term “contemporary art” for most progressive artists and curators—or at least with the reluctance of more and more to identify with it—while remaining a convenient generalizing term for many institutions and exchange structures including auction houses, galleries and art history departments, all of whom are struggling to identify the implications of their use of the term—some more than others, of course.

The dilemma of contemporary art, for the purposes of this text, actually refers to the period between 1973 and 2008, rather than the post-1945 definition common in Western museums. This is in an attempt to avoid what might be called the “late modern” period, where the legacy of modernist arguments is still the primary term of reference. By 1973 we find ourselves already operating within an institutional context of contemporary art museums and art centers while reflections on the reductive and conceptual endgames of the 1960s have given way to a new set of debates about performance, video, and institutional critique. There will follow an attempt to describe the current understanding of the term “contemporary art” and the way it is deployed towards the creation of a space of inclusion and potential.

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Workers at the New Museum installing an Urs Fischer work. Photo: Thomas Rennie]


The contemporary is necessarily inclusive—a generalization that has shifted towards becoming an accusation. Is there the possibility of merely saying “I make work now”? Contemporary art is a phrase that lends itself to being written and told without being said. It is always “everyone else.” It would only work to stop saying the term if people had been saying it all along. It is as rare to hear an artist describe himself or herself as a contemporary artist as it is to hear an architect tell you that he or she is a contemporary architect. This sense of the unsaid has emphasized the role of the contemporary as a loose binding term that is always pointing away from itself rather than a term articulated and rethought from the center. That is the reason for its durability and stifling redundancy.

So what is contemporary about contemporary art? Does art itself point to the term or vice versa? Whatʼs going on? Have people forgotten to ask artists if they are contemporary artists? One answer is that the term is a convenient generalization that does not lend itself to reflection and constant rethinking in the manner of established theoretical terms such as Postmodernism. It allows a separation from the act of making or doing art and the way it is then presented, explained and exchanged. Both artists and curators can find a space in the gap between these two moments where they are temporarily considering an exceptional case with every new development or addition to the contemporary inventory. Yet, an inventory of art spaces alone, for example, cannot help us find a categorization of participation within the realm of the contemporary. The question is how to categorize art today in a way that will exceed the contemporary. The inclusiveness of the contemporary is under attack, as this very inclusiveness has helped suppress a critique of what art is and more importantly what comes next. We know what comes next as things stand—more contemporary art.

The installation—and by association the exhibition itself—is the articulation of the contemporary. Even paintings cannot escape this “installed” quality, the considered and particular installation of things and images, even when approached in a haphazard or off-hand manner. We all have an idea of what contemporary art represents while only knowing the specifics of any particular instance. It is this knowing what it means via evoking a particular that pushes people towards an attempt to transcend this generality.


There has been a proliferation of discussions and parallel practices that appear to operate in a semi-autonomous way alongside contemporary art. They ignore it or take the work of the contemporary as an example of what not to do. Recent focus upon the documentary, educational models, and engaged social collaborations have attempted to establish and describe new relationships that operate outside and in opposition to the apparently loose boundaries of the contemporary. These are engaged structures that propose limits and boundaries and take over new territories, from the curatorial to the neo-institutional, in direct opposition to the loose assumptions of the contemporary (in both its instrumentalized and capitalized forms). A good example might be the Unitednationsplaza project in Berlin. A series of discussions and lectures framed within the idea of an educational setting. While the discussions and lectures appeared to address the possibilities of art now there seemed very little anxiety about the idea of actually bypassing the production of recognizable contemporary art forms. The project itself was a melding of the curatorial, the artistic, and the academic towards the creation of a series of discursive scenarios that might defy not the commodification of art, but the absorption of everything within the authoritarian tolerance of contemporary production. The mediation of one’s own practice creates moments of escape from the contemporary. Still, seeing this production of parallel knowledge creates a dilemma when it becomes the primary production of the contemporary artist. For even the “educational turn,” as figures such as Irit Rogoff and Paul OʼNeill have termed it, quickly produces its own coding as part of the contemporary.

Another key example of this production of nuanced contemporary aesthetics is the recent reassessment of the documentary, a tendency that must be re-examined for its claims to evade the contemporary. As Maria Lind pointed out, the documentary practices which we see now

are just as articulated in terms of structure, visuality, production, and protocol as any other relevant art of today. But they tend to be less formally seductive. And yet they are as complex as some work that is known to be “complex.” The look of objectivity is not objective, just as the look of commercial materials is not necessarily commercial.

The most effective thing about this documentary strategy has been that the artists do not offer resistance to the contemporary by taking themselves out of the equation—even when they provide the narrative for escape. There is an implicit claim to objectivity that functions here as an aggressive option of neo-objectivity in the face of co-option. Without resisting that co-option structurally it becomes merely a way of standing offstage waiting for the moment to enter.

The documentary has become a way of avoiding the problem of de-sublimation in the face of excessive sublimation. It is a semi-autonomous location where everyone lives to fight another day at least. It is a place where there is still a them and us. A protest against the contemporary by refusing to acknowledge its scope. Art in this case has been formulated as a boycott of the subjective and has built barriers in the face of continuous and constant fragmentation. At best it has made exchange visible and created a new battle over what used to be called realism. So, new consciousnesses around education and documentation provide glimmers of clarity within the inclusive terrain. Inclusion and exclusion suddenly become moments of clear choice—political consciousness starts to affect the notion of specific practice. Thinking about the problem of contemporary art while producing new networks of activity that are marked by their resistance to contemporary art as a generality. It is the lack of differentiation within the contemporary that leaves it as an open speculative terrain. This is what drives the discursive and the documentary as somewhat passive yet clearly urgent oppositions.

A recent solution to the way the contemporary subdues differentiation has been to separate the notions of artistic and other political engagements, so that there can be no misunderstanding that only the work itself, in all its manifestations, might be part of the “contemporary art context.” An example here would be Paul Chan, who has been described in biographies as an “artist and activist” in order to differentiate his engaged social function as a political agent from his work within galleries and museums. We are aware that the activism feeds the art and the art feeds the activism, but in a distinct step away from the artists role in the shadow of conceptual art we find it is now necessary for many such as Chan to show that there is a limit or border to the embrace or effectiveness of contemporary art. Of course, there is a potential problem here in terms of how we might define activism, for example, along with the use of the documentary among progressive artists. Taking a term such as activism and combining it with an artistic practice that is clearly of the contemporary shows a tendency to associate with earlier forms of certainty. One form of a reluctant acceptance is that it is currently impossible to escape the hold of the contemporary, but it might be possible to separate life and action from contemporary art. In these cases, we continue to read the work through the hold of the contemporary in terms of what gets made but we do this via an understanding that there are these other daily social activities that are not part of the “contemporary art context”—they do not share its desires, projections, and results.

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Philippe Parreno, Birthday Candles, 2007.]


The contemporary is more successful within cities. It relates to the increasing deployment of contemporariness as a speculative terrain of lifestyle markers that include art. The contemporary implies a sophisticated sense of networking. Making things with an awareness of all other things. Joining a matrix of partial signifiers “that will do.” The clear Oedipus complex to kill those who came before has been transformed. Relativism in this case is merely defined by context and is a non-activated neo-political consciousness. Within the contemporary there is a usefulness in all other forms of work. And there is a paradox of an anti-relativism within the subjectivity of each artist and every artwork. Yet an increasingly radical anti-relativism shared by many causes unacknowledged tensions. The contemporary is marked by a display of self-knowledge, a degree of social awareness, some tolerance, and a little bit of irony, all combined with an acknowledgment of the failure of modernism, or at least a respect for trying to come to terms with the memory of something like that.

The contemporary necessarily restricts the sense in which you are looking for a breakthrough. An attempt to work is the work itself. Unresolved is the better way, leaving a series of props that appear to work together—or will do for now. In this case no single work is everything you would ever want to do. This is the space of its dynamic contradiction. Hierarchy is dysfunctional and evaded by the contemporary, and therefore key political questions, whether ignored or included, are supplemented by irony and coy relations to notions of quality.

The contemporary comes to terms with accommodation. Fundamental ideas are necessarily evaded. For the idiom of the contemporary still carries the lost memory of a democratization of skill. Its grounding principles were based on universal potential. By your nature you are it by taking the decision to announce yourself. It is easy to “be”—just existing through work. The process functions in reverse sometimes as a coming-into-being through work. A place in the contemporary is established by a pursuit of contemporary art—not the other way around. Collective and documentary forms have attempted to escape, and to establish a hardcore, activist separation. A critique of anything and everything. There has developed a need to find a secondary ethics in order to establish a zone of difference. Tweaking tiny details and working as another character alongside the contemporary. For historically all profound “isms” in art were originated by artists—in the case of the contemporary the artist is the originator of all subjectivities. But how can we avoid the post-contemporary becoming an historic nostalgia for the group or mere political identification?


The basic assumption of the contemporary is that all we need is a place to show—to be part of and just towards the edge of contemporary art. Everyone in this zone of the exhibited becomes the exception within the tableau. This leads to project-based strategies that paper over the neurosis of the exposed. Desire and drive and motivation are sublimated. Every project-based approach creates a hypothetical method that endorses the mutable collective. Seeing clearly combined with instinct moments and always building. All contributing to a matrix of existing forms and justifying them by continued reappearance. The work always projects into the future while holding the recent past close at hand. It predicts the implications of itself and builds a bridge between the almost-known-but-half-forgotten and the soon-to-be-misunderstood. The contemporary artwork is always answering questions about itself and all other contemporary art.

It used to be said that art is like theoretical physics—a specialization with a small audience. It could have been a perfect research-based existence. Yet in a world where the contemporary artist is considered cynical you never meet an artist who completely gives up. The perceived lack of audience is transformed into layers of resistance—not to the work itself but to the encompassing whole. The contemporary is therefore the place of dynamic contradiction where the individual work is never more than the total effect. No singular work has more value in terms of function than any other. The discourse of contemporary art revolves around itself. It has become impossible to be outside and therefore understood in terms of a separation. There is always an interest in showing something somewhere.

Politics and biography have merged. We are all tolerant of art that is rooted in specific stories. This is the inclusive zone where the artist plays his or her own perspective for a collective purpose. The drive is towards unhooking from who you are while simultaneously becoming only yourself. Some people can sleep with their eyes open. What does this process of constantly discovering yourself actually do? Is it a push for recognition? It creates exceptional individuals of globalization—“an aristocracy of labor,” as Shuddhabrata Sengupta put it.

Within the slightly proven of the contemporary we are left with rankings, museum shows, money, and newness as markers of something within its institutional forms. Working continues in a flow determined by economic conditions. And the obligation is to keep defending contemporary art in general even if you find it impossible. There might be an attempt to describe the free flow of ideas within the inclusivity. Audiences create barriers and obstructions in a soft war of aesthetic tariffs that regulate flow and consensus. Tiny flows and minor disagreements mimic drive and resist the external. The painful flow of life is sublimated. Change happens to other things but not within the realm of the contemporary. Boycotting everything is no longer an option; the strikes and protests will be included, too. The system is resistant. Moving against the stream is a problem, for it goes in every direction. Neurotic work is the reward. Something will happen.

Excessive work is the contemporary struggle. Where capital is globalized it is necessary to be everywhere. Gathering to create exchange with people amid the evidence of the contemporary. For despite the fact that each language has its own rules and gaps within it we find that it is impossible to find true contradiction within these boundaries. Where would we find this gap? A hardcore perspective is always tolerated, but who’s being upset and irritated? Bourgeois value and capitalism are comfortable with every iteration of the contemporary, they literally support it. The contemporary offers a specific tangent with a narrative. No longer does anyone care who did what first, the idea of the original doesn’t matter. This has been a style era rather than a specific moment of change or development. At the edge of practice we only find more things to be absorbed. At the center is a mass of tiny maneuvers.

Self-consciousness constantly rebuilds this site of continuity. It is stacked with self-referential work—all ready for self-aware re-reading, actions, and gestures. Certain terms have been established as a kind of lingua franca. It is a zone where it is possible to trust yourself within confusion. Learn communication skills. All the while students get smarter and recognizably different—ironic in a way that levers the critical tone a little higher and eases the zone a little broader. Within this vague contemporariness people see more and more than they saw before.

That is the genius of the regime. Contemporary art is the perfect zone of deferral. No clarity can be overcomplicated when it is reproducing itself endlessly. Here we can encounter slightly different situations every day. Feuds with good men will not create a rupture here any more than the condemnation of obscenity. The problematic cannot be destroyed. Jealousy in this environment is exhausting and unproductive. Instrumentalization at the institutional level is always in place in order to defy the idea of a them and us. Why should I tell you whether what is produced is good or bad? No one can ever really understand the basis of what I’m telling you. Whatʼs readable? Tell me about your work. How many voices are in your head? This has been the time of the curatorial text. In the service of many.

[figure 0f74979298a460cfab7ea211ca801e44.jpg
Mathilde ter Heijne, Mathilde, Mathilde..., 2000, video. Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT gallery.]


Current art cannot be left to idle within the contemporary as a question of taste or preferred subjectivity. There are real problems of differentiation that will be reshaped by the new academicization that the contemporary awaits. The contemporary offers a multiplicity of artists whom we hope will coalesce like one of Negriʼs global tribes into a force of implicit resistance, but the contemporary creates anxieties ensuring that all operators within it are forever awaiting a specific cue for action. This is why the contemporary arena doesn’t feel as if it is the place to really be starting anything, let alone a revolution. Constant and arbitrary reversal of positions has come to be expected like a nervous twitch to keep us intrigued. The contemporary displays a disruption between intentions and results, leaving a contingent gap that makes it futile to look for contradictions. The displaced is uniquely discoverable here. An inability to project into the future, to finish narratives—having, by an accident of birth, missed the end of everything. Functioning on surplus energy, with a clear desire to get organized. They are about to become organized by other people—instrumentalized, exchanged, and redefined by others.

Knowing which “personal” to occupy is of help here. We must assume that everyone is true. Trying on different personalities is forgiven within this realm. The decision to change an obligation. Burning paintings is the originating myth. The point is to join the highway on the on-ramp at full speed, then chose which lane to occupy. Slowing down or getting on or off again is difficult and undesirable. Difficulty is internal in this place, and a completely different person emerges to occupy this internal space of thought and action. The contemporary is always an internal thing that is expressed only partially on the external. It is full of ways to be misled and involves the avoidance of totalizing shifts masked by stylistic changes. History defying becomes a complete rupture. Defying history is part of the past. The regime of the contemporary becomes more and more inclusive of its own past and eternal future. Bloated and on the edge of usefulness, it reaches out endlessly in all directions. But so did the flat earth that people once believed in, and so did the endless sky of the West.


This essay was developed during a weeklong seminar at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in October 2010. Special thanks to Robin Cameron and Ernst Fischer for the use of their notes of the week’s work. The text was written for the book Cultures of the Curatorial (eds. Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff, Thomas Weski), forthcoming in 2011.

Liam Gillick is an artist based in London and New York. His solo exhibitions include “The Wood Way,” Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2002; “A short text on the possibility of creating an economy of equivalence,” Palais de Tokyo, 2005; and the retrospective project “Three Perspectives and a short scenario,” Witte de With, Rotterdam, Kunsthalle Zurich, and MCA Chicago, 2008–2010. In 2006 he was part of the free art school project unitednationsplaza in Berlin.

Gillick has published a number of texts that function in parallel to his artwork. Proxemics: Selected Writing, 1988–2006 (JRP|Ringier, 2007) was published in 2007, and the monograph Factories in the Snow, by Lilian Haberer (JRP|Ringier, 2007), will soon be joined by an extensive retrospective publication and critical reader. He has in addition contributed to many art magazines and journals including Parkett, Frieze, Art Monthly, October, and Artforum. Gillick was the artist presented at the German Pavilion during the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.

© 2010 e-flux and the author