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Mark Leckey:
Art Stigmergy

Interview by
Mark Fisher
Issue 11 Summer 2011

In an increasingly dispersed world, Leckey rejects the self-referentiality of the art world in favor of being immersed in things through the benefits of technology—thus allowing an expanded field of sculpture to take shape between material and immaterial realms.

MARK FISHER  Maybe we could start off by talking about the role of popular culture in your work. Why do you focus on popular culture?

MARK LECKEY  Popular culture is just things that are immediate to me. When I was in college in the ’80s, I found everything too detached or ironic, and I didn’t want to make work like that; I couldn’t make work with a critical disinterest. I decided that I should use as material my own history and background. “Fiorucci” was a way of digesting things that had happened to me personally, but also a history of where I had come from. I was a casual and a raver, so those are things I can speak of. My show at the Serpentine features a big fridge because that’s what is now in my local environment: domestic appliances. That’s what I have a relationship with now.

MF  A lot of your projects could easily be classified as „video essays“; they have a story that holds them together, which comes out of research. What do you think about the relationship between research and art?

ML  I slightly despair. I see a lot of student shows now that look like they were put together by librarians. I think the weight of research is outweighing all kinds of artistic concerns at the moment.

MF  So it’s not the research that you don’t find interesting—it’s when research is a substitute for everything else. But what is “everything else”?

ML  Research has to go through a body; it has to be lived in some sense—transformed into some sort of lived experience—in order to become whatever we might call art. A lot of art now just points at things. Merely the transfer of something into a gallery is enough to bracket it as art. It’s kind of weak.

MF  I sometimes wonder about my own relationship to a lot of this material As a critic, you sometimes feel that you’re being brought in to provide the content, or to provide the work with consistency that it actually lacks. You can et away with much more in an artwork than you can in a work of philosophy or cultural theory. I think this situation is partly influenced by Post-Structuralism, which, as I see it, has become a kind of religious piety. The other month, I was speaking to artists, saying that I believe artists should impose things on their audience. The predictable response to that was, “That’s a very old-fashioned idea of art.” I said, “Well, I think your view is now old-fashioned—the standard, postmodern view that the artist shouldn’t oppress people by providing content.” There’s this pervasive idea that any kind of determinant statement is oppressive, but how it is art if you’re not subjecting people to things in some way?

ML  People aren’t sure about what an image or object is anymore. They’re not sure how things are fixed or where they belong. If something can be a jpeg online, what is it when you print it out and put it up in a gallery? Increasingly, there’s this confusion, this anxiety, about the status of things, which seems to feed into what you’re talking about. There is a sense that the object and the subject are themselves just nodes or parts of networks of understanding, and that therefore, work can only have agency or be activated in this network—rather than as an autonomous object. There’s a real fear in that.

MF  That becomes an alibi for not producing objects that have any effect. There is an epistemological claim—that the object doesn’t exist apart form people’s relationship with it—and then there’s the moral claim—that one shouldn’t impose things on people anyway. Given those discourses, it’s no wonder that artists feel hemmed in and that there’s a lot of anxiety.

ML  For me, the only way out of this research problem is to proliferate those nodes, to extend them further and further out, so that what you get is a dispersed work. There is no center, and there is no object to look at as such; there’s just this nodal network that you’re in the midst of. You’re in this expanded field of sculpture that exists between the material and immaterial realms. That possibility for producing work seems really exciting.

There’s this term I like, "stigmergy": an ant goes out, lays a path of pheromones; the other ants follow that path, and then that path gets built up until it becomes a pathway.

MF  There is something interesting about the distributed form. I was thinking of H.P. Lovecraft—there’s a sense that his work is not about any one of the stories, but rather about the set of the stories taken together, which composes a world that other writers can then join.  The degraded version of that kind of collective fiction is Tolkien. This is now a widespread tendency in film, to be at the center of a whole matrix of commodities, rather than existing on its own. Film is an interesting model of collaborative art: it opens up the possibility of a post-cinematic, collectively constituted, genuine, distributed art that has actual content. That’s the difference. A lot of this stuff that you’re talking about is distributed form, but the network delivers no content of its own. What if you could deliver things in this distributed way, and they actually had content?

ML  Well, that’s the problem: content is elsewhere. The difficulty in making work now is that there’s this model of how a distributed kind of collective work could be made (i.e., through the Internet), but it can’t be made in a gallery. The nature, or structure, of the gallery doesn’t allow for that; it needs certain kinds of forms, certain objects.

There’s this term I like, “stigmergy”: an ant goes out, lays a path of pheromones; the other ants follow that path, and then that path gets built up until it becomes a pathway. They use this term in open source to describe a programming language that has being continually added to and amended so that the original code has been lost or forgotten, but you’re left with a structure that everyone can use.

As an idea of making art, that seems really interesting—something made with the benefits of technology. At the same time, that idea is a long way from the art being made now, and a long way from Benjamin’s idea of art’s aura. The aura is still there; it still surrounds artworks, massively. The trouble is that more you start to distribute art or disperse it, the more mutable art becomes, until finally, it dissipates into just “LOLCats” or something.

MF  We’ve seen a lot of this rhetoric around student protests. A lot of the discourse surrounding those protests is naïve regurgitation of ‘90s cyber-rhetoric: concentration is bad, distribution is good. I think we’re beyond a stage where that works anymore. It’s quite clear that distribution is our condition. It’s neither good nor bad—it’s just how things are. Actually, I’ll go future than that: you can have things that are top-down and distributive.

ML  I see a lot of the stuff on the Internet as a realization of ideas from ’80s rave culture.

MF  In the sense of…?

ML  In the sense that the Internet allows concentrations of things to manifest, to self-generate or come together into some kind of body.

MF  I get it, but I think concentration has gone against the dominant tendencies of the Internet.

ML  No, I don’t think it has. We’re so immersed in these new networks; we’re so dispersed, and we haven’t figured out a way to concentrate. That’s the point of this argument: you have to consciously make a body out of these things. There has to be a program in art-making and in politics, and we have to gather these things together. I still think that the Internet’s technological possibilities allow for that, more so than ever.

MF  I think that’s the crucial distinction that you’ve made, between the idea that the Internet by itself will deliver this and the idea that you need not a critical relation to it so much as a practical orientation.

ML  Or historical.

MF  Given that the prevailing ideological currents are individuating, the tendency has been for the Internet to invent new forms of solitude—a connective solitude. People are realizing that you can use the Internet to do other thing, but you have to get outside of it first, to instrumentalize it instead of being instrumentalized by it.

ML  This is the frustration I have with the art world at the moment. I want to say that there’s a lack of historical materialism, but maybe that’s too loaded. There’s just a lack of personal history, an understanding of lived experience. In art schools now, you finish your B.A., you do an M.A., and then you go straight into a gallery system. So it’s hard to talk about having an experience outside of the art world, but it seems entirely necessary. There has to be something else beyond art practice.

MF  We’re talking about the general crisis of concentration.

ML  It’s an erasure of the existential subject, twentieth-century man. The current state of technology denies you that kind of crisis; instead, you have another kind of existential crisis, and have to accept yourself as a networking social creature, which is quite at odds with the individual, self-actualizing, “Thatcherite-being” you’d always supposed yourself to be.

MF  For me, the issue is thresholds, not frames. It seems to me that art could learn a lot from the theme parks or video games. Instead of providing this neutral space, which no one knows what to do with anymore, art spaces could be constructing thresholds into a place where, like in a video game, everything in the space is significant.   

That’s the expanded field of sculpture. That is what I was going to say before about the desire to be immersed in things. There is a melancholic desire to be in an image, which is really promising and maybe realizable in some three-dimensional, televisual way. I think part of this desire is a sense of seeking out an expanded sculpture, which includes the concentration we were speaking about as well. It is a lot easier to get your head around these things if you think of sculpture rather than framing, because you can step into a sculpture. I think that’s what art needs: something that you can get inside.

Mark Fisher is the author of Capitalist Realism and the editor of The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson (both Zer0, 2009). He writes regularly for Frieze, The Wire, Sight&Sound, and Film Quarterly, and maintains a well-known blog at k-punk.abstractdynamics.org. He teaches at the University of East London, Goldsmiths, University of London, and the City Literary Institute.

Mark Leckey is an artist living and working in London.

All images courtesy: the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York.

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