Spike Conversations: Critique and Precarity

Fulvia Carnevale, part of the Paris-based collective Claire Fontaine, and theoretician Rory Rowan, have a number of complaints. Art is increasingly becoming a job, there is too little time left for thinking, and artists have to act like rock stars to please collectors. Is there still hope?

Alexander Scrimgeour: We’re here to talk about critique and precarity, which are very present for all of us who are en­gaged with art. Fulvia, can I ask you to start?

Fulvia Carnevale: In the way the invita­tion was formulated it was an explicit question about how you maintain your independence, your autonomy, if you have these immense pressures from the outside world. This question presupposes that you face censorship or boycott or limited opportunities if your work is politically charged and loaded with a position that might be dangerous for the status quo. I know that curators get fired for making ex­hibitions that are not liked, but artists can’t get fired, because they don’t work for anyone. If you can’t express your point of view in your work then there is no point in making it. 

Alexander Scrimgeour: My feeling is that there is a lot of latent pressure on people as art becomes less about self-­ex­pression or autonomy than about hav­ing a job. Rory, how does this look from your perspective at a university, which seems like another safe space for autonomous thinking or critique? 

Rory Rowan: At the moment I’m in a pretty comfortable position at the University of Zurich, but before that I was in the US and in London, trying to live as a freelance writer and editor. At that time I was on the edges of both the art world and academia, and the art world seemed like a place where you could plausibly eke out a living, occasionally making $250 giv­ing a talk or something like that. Of course, on the art side there is a desire to shore up legitimacy. But alongside the financial stress: How are you go­ing pay the rent? How are you going to eat? There is also a less explicit type of stress which gets at the core of people’s subjectivity: What is it to be an artist? What do I want to achieve? Why am I even doing this? I think people still see art as a place where they can pose ques­tions. Self-­expression is still an im­portant motivation, but these factors fall into the background as increasing emphasis falls on professionalisation and career-­building. And this is an ex­tremely stressful scenario.

Fulvia Carnevale: It used to be common in the 1970s for artists to write or have a relationship with theory. I don’t know why it stopped, because it’s a need, in fact.

Rory Rowan: In the 60s and 70s there was almost the expectation that you should produce theoretical work as a key part of your artistic practice.

Now there is a widespread expectation that someone outside will produce a dis­course to conceptually legitimate the work.

Alexander Scrimgeour: There is also a change that has happened through art becoming a meeting point of precari­ty, neoliberal subjectivity, and money: it shifts the position of a critical art practice into something that is operat­ing in the center.

Fulvia Carnevale: There is certainly a change that art has gone through in the ten years of Claire Fontaine’s exis­tence. I think the people who buy con­temporary art are asking for some­thing different – for something that is visually exciting outside of any con­textualisation. There is less and less passion for art history; for under­standing how a practice is positioned within a historical landscape. There is a lot of desire for something close to decoration: something that might look like it is not a mass-­produced ob­ject. The artwork has something artis­anal in it and that’s what excites the collector, I guess. The readymade has a more and more problematic status because it’s very unspectacular.  And it’s not because the world is more crowded with objects because Apple manages to excite people with their products; the object itself is not less exciting, it’s even more exciting. But there is a real change in the way we think visually that is somehow very traumatic for me. I can’t say if it’s a real impoverishment, but something on the level of what was at stake when Minimalism or abstraction were at the core of the debate becomes impossi­ble. These were existential postures. People were making this work to posi­tion themselves in the world, and the fact that they were making this work was defining the world. It was creat­ing new emotions because it had this muteness but still had a way of speak­ing to the soul. And people were very sensitive to that for some reason. It had political implications, and not be­cause it was “about” this or that. I find it very difficult today to see gestures of this sort, let alone to produce them, but even to recognise them and say, “Ok this is really exciting, wow. I’m going to talk about this with the peo­ple I care about.” It happens in cinema but in contemporary art, for some rea­son, at the moment it is not happen­ing. It’s very hard to take for someone who works in that field.

Alexander Scrimgeour: A lot of people have this kind of relationship to the art world where you actually don’t be­lieve in it, but still you’re engaged – you’re operating around a hollow center.

Fulvia Carnevale: It’s a convenient space, in some ways. It’s freer than other spaces but it’s disappointing and it shouldn’t be. It’s not a moralistic thing, “Oh people make crap.” I don’t even know if it’s crap, it just doesn’t excite me. I don’t see anything that creates the same types of emotions or discourse that stuff managed to create in the 70s. I’m not nostalgic for that either; I just want it to happen now. 

Alexander Scrimgeour: What about hope for the next thing?

Fulvia Carnevale: The craving for the new is stupid. There can’t be new blood coming every five seconds, there can’t be the new hot artist every season. It’s not fashion, Jesus Christ [laughter].

Rory Rowan: I think that in part this is a symptom of a wider accelerated me­diation of art – of everything – but that in the midst of this there is a strange feeling of stasis. Part of what you’re addressing reflects a broader crisis of critique. In critical social the­ory, there is a deep sense of disap­pointment that it didn’t do what it said it was going to do. Aspects of so­ called speculative realism, object­-ori­ented ontology, and new materialism seem to me an attempt to turn away from the idea of demystification that stood at the centre of the project of critique and to re-­enchant the world with talk of magical vitalisms, the “liveliness” of things, and other bi­zarre things that don’t seem to have very much traction on social ques­tions and problems. So while these new forms of thought came about in part as a response to the disappoint­ments of older critical theories and certainly bring new things to the ta­ble, I am wary of what giving up cri­tique might mean and who or what might benefit. Also, Fulvia, you mentioned this pushing away from a moral reaction, which is often a sort of knee­ jerk response. I appreciate the way that you think about social processes is not to have a moral response, to as­sume some sort of moral “outside”, but to have a political, strategic re­sponse that looks at power and the play of forces rather than seeing things in terms of good and bad. Peo­ple get sick of that. And I think that is one reason for the contemporary un­ease with critique. Although it’s im­portant to be careful about too quick­ly dissing critique as it can act as a way to absolve people of the need to think through their position in power.

Alexander Scrimgeour: Fulvia, do you think that the distancing gesture of Claire Fontaine being a “readymade artist” enabled you to create a space to reclaim subjectivity?

Fulvia Carnevale: Well it was a kind of necessity, too, to create this device, because it was a way for us to define more faithfully what we were doing. It’s absurd how much attachment there is to the identity of the artist: what the artist eats, how the artist dresses, where he was born, how he grew up, and if he’s gay or not. I think all this is a pile of bullshit. It’s part of making the subjectivity of the artist marketable, almost erotically exciting for the collector. One has to become a sort of rock star. It’s ridiculous, not from a moralistic view but from a hu­man point of view. I want to talk to people because they are interesting. I don’t care how they dress, I don’t care where they grew up, I don’t care about their sexual taste, and I don’t care if they were in Artforum diary. Creating Claire Fontaine was a way to distance ourselves from all that. And to create a space where we could be more radi­cal and more intense than if we had to work in a way that is coherent with our biographies. 

Then there is this whole problem of what subjectivity is today in terms of how it’s put to work. We try to think through this problematic with the concept of the “human strike”, with the idea that one can resist this global­ly exploitative process that wants to make you into an object, wants to make you into a coherent individual, wants to make you into a productive and adequate person. All this is in­sane, revolting slavery, and the art world fought against it for many, many years; all its charm and respectability come from there. It is exciting that you can do things that are meaning­ful, that touch the hearts of many peo­ple, without having to live the life of a rock star and be submitted to the desires or feelings of the people you’re talking to. You are still part of the world as a person and this is the only way it’s possible to keep making inter­esting artwork. If you are just travel­ing around, you lose contact with the shared realities of people who don’t care about the art world. These are the things that have always inspired art, from the first scratchings on cave walls until today. It’s obvious why one should keep a radical point of view on reality as an artist – otherwise the whole thing seems pointless.

When you try to think radically it always ap­pears to be an attack against some­ body.

I’ve heard things like: “Your work is contemptuous of the collec­tor.” I don’t even think of the collec­tor when I’m making my work! I mean, who is the collector? Our work talks about all of us being included in a really problematic position where social classes are not so operational anymore, where inequalities are ex­tremely complicated, where what we have inherited of patriarchal society is damaging even the most radical com­munities. We are in a situation where you can’t point your finger at anyone. You actually have to think through the complexity of this new solitude. And I thought that’s what we were do­ing, but people feel insulted by it somehow. It’s extraordinary that it doesn’t create a community but on the contrary creates hostility.

Alexander Scrimgeour: Is it partly be­ cause the art world has become so big that it thinks of itself as a self-­enclosed system?

Rory Rowan: I think there’s been a move more generally, as Fulvia men­tioned, to reinforcing solitude. There’s a great pressure from many angles to individuate social problems. Social problems are increasing in complexity but there’s this demand that the individual takes the strain. Within critical theory but also, now, in the world of policy, there has been a move to think about how you would try to re-­socialise some of the ill ef­fects of individuation, to think about anxiety and depression as social rath­er than individual problems. This is quite difficult in an art context be­ cause there has been this huge fixa­tion on the artist as an individual, heroic figure. We all know the image of the starving artist. Here it’s inter­esting to think about all the hope around collaborative art practices – although my worry is that actually many people want to work on an in­dividual basis, which is totally legiti­mate and should be respected. Often there are very personal drives to make artwork and this doesn’t have to be understood in some old­ school romanticist way.

Fulvia Carnevale: It’s obvious that some people are fit to work together and others aren’t. My personal experience of collaboration is very singular too, like each experience is. Theoretical work is also very personal and I’m not sure that every teacher should publish a certain amount of articles every year because theoretical research takes a very long time: sometimes dozens of years go by and you’re still working hard on stuff, reading and thinking and really trying to formulate. And one day you get the illumination and you can actually put the thing into shape. The obligation to produce is an extreme violence.

Rory Rowan: This demand to produce obviously creates anxious subjects, and in academia you’re always meant to be producing but often you don’t have any time to think or digest things. So you make a shit product and everyone says: “That person’s shit! [laughter] There’s too much aca­demic writing.” There is too much academic writing. There is too much art too. Not in the sense that I think it shouldn’t exist but it’s actually very damaging for what gets shown, what gets produced, and the emotional state of the people who produce things. There is no period of relief or release. And this reinforces a sort of individuated isolation that prevents us from being together, perhaps in new ways.


FULVIA CARNEVALE co-founded the collective Claire Fontaine with James Thornhill in 2014. Its practice can be described as an on- going interrogation of political impotence and the crisis of singularity that define contemporary society today. Recent exhibitions include „Happy for no reason“ at Carl Kostyal in London, „Love is never enough“ at Air de Paris, „Stop seeking approval“ at Metro Pictures in New York (2015). She lives in Paris.

RORY ROWAN is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich’s Political Geography Research Unit, where his work crosses the fields of geography, political theory, philosophy and the environmental humanities. He is co-author, with Claudio Minca, of On Schmitt and Space, 2015.


This text was published in the print issue Spike Art Quarterly N° 46, which can be orderd at our online shop.

This discussion was part of a series of conversations on the changed conditions of art at Paris Internationale. In collaboration with the Fondation d’entreprise Ricard.

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