Popular Affront: Some Notes for Ayling and Conroy

Popular Affront: Some Notes for Ayling and Conroy
Commission for Ayling and Conroy exhibition
Leicester City gallery

Popular Affront:
Some Notes for Ayling and Conroy

At the beginning, when two artists start to work collaboratively, they must make decisions about what it is that they are going to do together. A single artist does not have this sense of a beginning and can, therefore, evade the conscious formulation of a working practice. All artist must decide, in one way or another, what kind of artist to be; the difference for a collaboration is that this process is both sudden and conversational. Collaborations have a definite beginning and at the beginning deciding what kind of artists to be is an urgent pre-requisite of doing anything. So the artists involved must talk about not only what they are going to do but also what they are going to be. In collaborations the conversation is literal and explicit: decisions have to be made rather than assumed. Thus collaboration is marked by the move from the statement ‘This is what I do,’ to the question ‘What shall we do?’ 

When the British Art Show came to town, the town in question being Nottingham, Ayling and Conroy found themselves, literally, on the periphery of Sideshow, itself an event metaphorically on the periphery of the British Art Show. The location of their show, Fight for Sore Eyes, on the edge of town reflected their position within art’s dominant institutions. However, Ayling and Conroy chose not to engage in some kind of institutional critique and not to produce some self-reflexive analysis of their own position as artists. Such an approach is a well worn attempt to get noticed by the types of institution apparently being critiqued. Instead, Ayling and Conroy chose a completely different way to respond to their role as artists: not as agents determined by institutional structures but rather as makers of things to be looked at. They decided to try to make something popular, spectacular and entertaining enough to attract visitors and make their trip to the periphery worthwhile.

For Ayling and Conroy, one way of imagining themselves as a collaboration, of finding something compelling to do, was to imagine an audience and to imagine trying to give the audience what it might want.

What is it for an artist to try to be popular? What is to be popular: the artist; the artist’s work; the career; the movement? And with whom is this popularity going to rest? It is, perhaps, worth remembering that the idea of ‘the populace’ was originally a derogatory term that lumped together all those who were not the educated and wealthy. In other words, its generality is based upon the negativity of exclusion rather than any positive characteristics of those lumped together. The poor all seem the same to the wealthy. Thus, to be on the side of the populace, and against exclusivity and privilege, should be to draw distinctions and differences within the populace. This is to say that any radical attempt to be popular should treat the populace as fractured and multiple. Given this complexity, what kind of constituencies are imaginable for art? Or, we could even ask, what aspect or aspects of a particular person does the artist imagine appealing to? It is often said that some particular policy will be popular with a particular group: for example, that increased child-care provision will be popular amongst parents. But, in this case, a parent is never just a parent; she may also be a worker; a violinist; a political activist; etc. In this respect, to be popular is not an abstract, universal quality: to be popular is to be popular with a particular group of persons under a particular description. 

What Ayling and Conroy did, for Fight for Sore Eyes, was to install a birdwatching hide in the gallery. The exhibition was viewed through the slots which would normally accommodate a birder’s binoculars. The serious birder is always hoping to see something new, a species which he (it is nearly always he) has not seen before. Thus, the hide, for the birder, is not a place of relaxation nor a place for a receptive gaze that records or takes in what might be seen. On the contrary, the hide is a place of anticipation and excitement; a place for a passionate, partial, differentiating gaze. It is an unlikely place from which to view art, which does not, on the whole, have the tendency to fly away if someone gets too close. So, for Ayling and Conroy, the attempt to be popular first of all necessitated an interruption of the normal ways in which we come to look at art.

The hide is called a hide because it is intended to hide the viewer from the birds; here it functions to hide the art from the visitor. This obfuscation, of course, increases the desire to see what is hidden. It is a simple and effective way of reinvesting looking with passion: of showing that looking is always impatient and interested.

It is not, necessarily, easy to be popular: to be popular by aiming to be popular. Just think of David Brent in The Office. Brent is socially paralysed, he is unpopular, precisely because of his attempts to be popular. It is only in the last episode, when he has given up trying to be popular and, in place of his erstwhile relentless cheerfulness, engages in a litany of complaints, that he finds redemption and gets the girl. What he had failed to understand was precisely the paradoxical social code that insists that in order to be popular one must appear not to care about being popular.

Debates about a putative “dumbing down” in culture usually fail to distinguish between attempts to be popular that are a success and those that fail. ITV1 has an established record of failing to be popular, whilst pursuing nothing else but popularity. Hollywood sequels usually follow the pattern of diminishing returns. And in politics it is not the popular policies, such as being ‘tough’ on immigration and on crime, that win elections. In these, failed, attempts at popularity, the popular is the simple repetition of something that appears to be popular already. It is, perhaps, surprising to entertain the contrary idea that popularity might involve originality rather than repetition.

Historically, in cultural debate, ‘the popular’ was formulated as something lacking in serious qualities. ‘Popular Fiction’ is still defined in opposition to ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ literature (it is unconnected to how popular a book, in fact, is). Here, the label of “popular” is a means of excluding some books from a particular type of attention deemed appropriate for some other books. However, Cultural Studies, over the last 40 or 50 years, has attacked this exclusion. It has set out to analyse popular culture with the same seriousness and attention that had previously be lavished on so-called high art. In seeking to redeem the popular, Cultural Studies applies the categories and standards formerly reserved for high art. For example, it has been shown that watchers of popular television are, contrary to stereotypes, in many ways actively engaged, self-aware and critical. Thus television watching is re-appraised in terms of the values of high culture experience. What Cultural Studies does not do, is challenge the categories, standards and hierarchies of cultural analysis. The underlying structure which values certain types of experience, and not others, remains intact.

It is precisely a certain kind of seriousness that Ayling and Conroy eschew in their pursuit of the popular and entertaining. Their installations are immersive, d.i.y. environments: they use chipboard walls, bright colours, loud music and dramatic lighting. They are, typically, full of such things as: crazy accumulations of toy cars; artificial plants; inflatable beach toys; kitsch statues; and the plastic balls used in children’s ball pits. They are distracting and overloaded. If taken as a set of positive characteristics, it could seem as though their attempt to be popular took the form of a kind of assault upon the visitor. It is, perhaps, better to describe these installations in terms of what they are not: they are not places to be still, quiet, disinterested, receptive and relaxed. In this light, the assault is not so much upon the visitor as upon the received ways in which art is encountered. The idea of the popular is one way to try to gain some critical purchase on the idea of the cultured.

Thus, for Ayling and Conroy popularism is not a pursuit in its own right. The claim they make to be attempting a kind of popularism, as well as the specific tactics they use in relation to that claim, are both forged out of a negative relationship to the established procedures and protocols of art. If one looks at established patterns of consumption, what people really, really want is pornography and junk food rather than toy cars and kitsch paintings. The fact that Ayling and Conroy are operating in relation to the framework of art can be seen in other series of works. In one, they doctor postcards of old paintings with signifiers of low-cultural pleasures: adding an ice-cream van to a military parade; or adding extensive body tattoos to a female nude. Another piece of work, One Careful Owner, proclaims itself to be ‘a minimalist sculpture with damaged corner.’ Here it is the world of damaged corners that collides with the world of minimalist sculptures.

For the series of works collectively called Curio Island, Ayling and Conroy re-assemble elements of their installations to be displayed as kinds of sculptures. This remaking presents them with a particular difficulty: for the sculptures, as opposed to the installations, the spatial relationship between artwork and visitor is reversed. In the installations, the visitor is immersed within, and moves through, the chaos of appropriated, pleasurable things. With the sculptures, these things become isolated: they are framed and contained by the context of the gallery. Here, the visitor moves round the work, rather than the other way round. The problem for the sculptures is how to avoid being objects of contemplation: something that can be surrounded and taken in. It is a problem that was overcome with the bird-watcher’s hide, which mediated and displaced the expectations of the visitor.

In the series 36 Views of Mr Mountain, Ayling and Conroy engineer another monstrous collision: a collision between Katasushika Hokusai and Bob Ross. Hokusai is the well known, 18th century, Japanese painter and print maker; Ross is the less well known, 20th century, American painter, who made a career out of publishing step-by-step guides to painting kitsch landscapes and seascapes. The odd sounding ‘Mr mountain’ in the title is a literal translation of Fuji San, the Japanese name for Mount Fuji, where ‘San’ is the equivalent of either Mr. or Mrs. in Japanese. Both this series and the original consist of 46 rather than 36 paintings, after Hokusai added ten to the original series, to meet popular demand. Ayling and Conroy have taken these 46 images of Mount Fuji by Hokusai and painted them using the techniques of Ross.

However, the point of this work is not so much the outcome, the qualities of the paintings, as the pursuit of the process. It is a common complaint of artist who work collaboratively that others are always trying to unpick who did what within the collaboration. This work was formed explicitly to resist such enquiries: the two artists work side by side, each on a separate painting, which is periodically swapped. This strategy of artists mingling their labour is not original. However, in adhering to the techniques of Bob Ross, this mingled labour is subsumed under an external process. It is this double movement, of mingling and subsumption, that displaces the role of the artist within the physical process of production.

These paintings are not a mockery of amateur painting; on the contrary, they are using the resources they do as a way of escaping from the closures and absences inherent within professional art. In a very practical sense, this convoluted process gives Ayling and Conroy something to do, as artists, when any act of creativity, however ironic, marginal or contrived, goes to confirm the conventional role of the artist. That is to say, despite the demise of modernist ideas of authenticity and authorship, today’s detached, cynical and unbelieving artists are still grounded in the specific construction of the individual (a construction which, incidentally, is in no way challenged by collaborative practices). So this procedure is a way of emptying out, or making void, the position of the artist.

The problem for the artist is analogous to that of Brian, in The Life of Brian. The problem for Brian was that whatever he did or said, however ordinary or literal, was interpreted on a different register by the followers he had inadvertently acquired. His followers were only interested in signs and in interpretation and, therefore, he could not break away from nor influence their attention. That is to say, their interpretative practice could accommodate anything. When Brian tells them to “fuck off” they want to know how they should fuck off; the followers are always looking for something more, something beyond the surface appearance of things. Every interpretation is a misinterpretation and doing nothing can be interpreted just as much as doing something.

There is something disarming about the open admission of the attempt to be popular. Mark Cousins, the psychoanalyst, once remarked upon how disarming it is when someone admits to liking something because their lover does. The question of whether one likes something or not is meant to be a relationship between one’s dispositions and the properties of the thing in question. What is disarming is the realisation that one’s tastes are always mediated through a third party, that there is no unmediated relationship between subject and object. In art, the relationship between the artist and artwork is, similarly, meant to be a relationship between the artist’s dispositions and the properties of what she makes.

Of course, there is much talk in art about publics and audiences. But there is little tendency in this talk to take the idea of the public seriously. Often the idea of the public remains a general and abstract one. That is, the idea of the public, detached from any real or possible persons, can function as a kind of guarantee of what the artist does: the site of the idealised and imaginary consumption of a particular bit of art. 

The apparent inversion of this position, which finds a particular, concrete group for which (and often with whom) to make art, in fact, duplicates the mistake. That is, the real persons with whom the artist works, may well have real properties but these real persons and their properties do not impinge upon the practice of the artist, however much they inform particular works. That is, the reality of real persons can be a fetish which underlies a continuing construction of the public as general and abstract. 

In talk about art, the idea of the public is often a front; the real belief, behind this front, is the belief in Art: a belief in the value and power of Art.

Ayling and Conroy’s express wish to try to give the public what they want can be interpreted on two levels. At a literal level, this could be read as an attempt to double-guess the preferences and expectations of those likely to see their work. But they do not engage with any particular persons. So, at a second level, this direct identification with the desires of the public, with popular demands, is a way to escape, rather than confirm, the debilitating belief in Art.

It is an established part of the function of public galleries to run educational programmes of some kind. Artists are, sometimes, obliged to run workshops or give talks in conjunction with exhibiting work. In such circumstances, art and education are kept in their distinct, discrete places. That is, the education is ancillary to the art: it preserves and reinforces the place of art as a place apart.

The City Art Gallery regularly displays children’s paintings concurrently with, but separate from, contemporary art exhibitions. Ayling and Conroy chose, as artists, to take over the exhibition of children’s paintings scheduled to run alongside their exhibition. They instigated a themed competition amongst local children, inviting responses to the title Half a Mountain of Lard; chose the winners; and curated the chosen work. Two observations are needed here. Firstly, the artist-curator is a common character on the contemporary art scene, arising largely from pragmatic rather than critical concerns. Secondly, the appropriation of amateur or non-professional artwork is a familiar move in contemporary art. The appropriation of non-professional artworks is usually on the terms of the appropriating artist: the encounter takes place on the territory of professional art. In these circumstances, that which is not-art is not there for its particular qualities but to stand as a token of what is not art.

However, once more we should consider what Ayling and Conroy are doing from the point of view of what they are not doing, rather than a simple, positive description of what they do. And what they are not doing, in this case, is maintaining the institutional separation of the exhibitions programme and education programme of the gallery. Rather than putting the children’s work out of place, Ayling and Conroy are putting themselves out of place: becoming curators in a way unbecoming of aspirational, professional artist-curators. To take their role of curators of children’s art seriously, is to engage in processes that are routinely excluded from proper art. There is something at stake here: ways in which they could fail or be embarrassed.

Appropriation is central to what Ayling and Conroy do but it is not appropriation for the sake of appropriation. That which is appropriated is not just displayed or re-presented but rather put to work: used to displace habitual expectations vis-à-vis art. Things are used to distract attention rather than to be the objects of contemplation; all the bits contribute to the overall spectacle. We could say, in the best possible sense, that the whole is less than the parts.

Nowadays, there are innumerable artists who appropriate the everyday images and objects of mass culture. The familiar procedure of removing things from their original context and repositioning them within the structures of art, reiterates the power (which is precisely the wrong word here) of the artist to manipulate and transform things. It is a one-way relationship: the appropriated things do not exert influence over art nor the artist. This is not to condemn appropriation; it is simply to point out that appropriation is now a conventional technique for making art.

Historically, which is to say with Dada, the point of the Readymade was not its positive characteristics – what it was, or where it was from – but rather, precisely, what it was not. Duchamp said, in relation to his Readymades, that he chose objects because of his complete indifference to them. It is essential to see Dada, against its dominant interpretations, not as a nihilistic revolt against the positive attributes of art but as the attempt to negate the negations of art. That is, Dada started from the position that art itself should be conceived in terms of what was absent from it: in terms of its constraints, exclusions, divisions and so on. Thus, the task becomes to get rid of these lacks: a task which is neither simply positive nor negative. It is, rather, a revolutionary task.

The practice of Ayling and Conroy is philistine, in the specific sense theorised by Dave Beech. For Beech (or my reading of Beech), the philistine is not to be understood as a particular set of attitudes and actions. Rather, it is a structural point within aesthetic discourse: the point of exclusion and repression against which ideas of aesthetics, taste and cultivation can build themselves up. The philistine is the void at the centre of aesthetic discourse; the void of the unspeakable around which aesthetic discourse swirls. The philistine is the part of aesthetic discourse that has no place within it. And, as such, it is that which haunts aesthetic discourse: a reminder of what has been excluded and repressed in order to perpetuate the elevated and cultural. In Zizek’s terms, the philistine is the universal exception: that which is necessarily excluded from a particular order or structure but, precisely because this exclusion is the founding gesture of that particular order, is the only adequate thing that can stand for the whole of the structure as such. For example, with capitalism, the proletariat is the necessary condition of capitalism and at the same time that which has no place within it; and this is precisely why the emancipation from capitalism must come from the impoverished existence of the proletariat rather than the cultured existence of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat is the truth of capitalism; the philistine is the truth of aesthetics.

Thus, to engage with what is philistine is not to move away from aesthetics, art and culture but, on the contrary, to move to the heart of the matter.

Ayling and Conroy are philistine in their determination to talk about art in terms of popularism. Talking about art in terms of popularism is a way to avoid talking and thinking about art in other ways. The idea of giving the public what it wants is not about educating the public, nor elevating the public, nor bringing culture to the public. Rather, it is a way for Ayling and Conroy to avoid being artists: to attempt to avoid the constraints and limitations that come with the established idea of Art.