McKenzie Wark on Wed, 1 Sep 1999 11:38:19 +0200


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Syndicate: Art and the Academy



Other Voices, Other Rooms: Eccentricity and Creativity in 
the Arts
McKenzie Wark

The title of this conference, Other Voices, Other Rooms, 
gave me nightmares. It's true. I was trying to think of what 
to say today as I fell asleep, and I had the strangest dream. 

I teach media studies at Macquarie University. As you may 
know, this is one of the oldest media production courses 
running in any Australian university. Its a place where the 
scholarly and the creative have coexisted, not without some 
friction, for many years now. 

We teach video and audio production, and we have 
recording studios, with big thick wooden doors to make 
them soundproof. Anyway, in the dream, I'm locked in the 
recording studio, and no matter how hard I shout, nobody 
hears me, nobody lets me out. 

I have this speech printed out and it is with me, in the 
recording studio, and I know I'm supposed to be in 
Wollongong to give it to you, but I'm locked in a studio at 
Macquarie and I can't get out.

So what to make of this dream? There's some fairly banal 
anxieties in there. I'd leave it to my analyst, if I had one, to 
worry about that. But that's the problem with analysis, with 
interpretation in general, is that often it reduces the 
unconscious to fairly banal and well worn meanings. 

Not being terribly creative, I don't think I can get all that 
much out of the dream that is more interesting, but there is 
one thing in it that is relevant to this other voices, other 
rooms theme. 

It seems to me that the creative arts are another voice, and 
they occupy another room, in relation to the humanities, 
social sciences, even the sciences, in the university. The 
creative artist shouts from another room, but that room is a 
bit of a padded cell. No sound gets out into the wider 
university community.

Just look, for example, at the kinds of points you get for 
creative work under the DEETYA research quantum rules 
as they currently stand. Your novel or symphony is worth a 
fraction of what a scholarly monograph is worth. 

Incidentally, Macquarie university also had one of the first 
writing courses ever taught in Australia. Only it was called 
"literary craftsmanship" and it was offered by the English 
department. Only trouble was, you got no teaching load 
credit for teaching it. It was expect that it would be done on 
the side, in another room, as it were. As if writing were not 
really the business of an English department. 

Part of the problem is a genuine problem about the status of 
art as a discourse, or set of types of discourse. There really 
isn't any such thing as an artistic discourse. There's no 
essential feature all art has. But there might be family 
resemblances that link different kinds of art, and so the term 
is not entirely meaningless.

Some kinds of artistic discourse are really rather like 
academic discourses in some respects. There are rules of 
composition. There are conventions about appropriate and 
inappropriate kinds of statement. There are authorities who 
perform the function of authorising statements to be made, 
as art or as scholarship, and there are people who become, 
thereby, entitled to act in the role of artist or scholar. 

Some of these institutional features are very similar. 
Publishers and editors, for example, vet manuscripts for 
both literature and scholarship. The blind refereeing system 
is common to both. There are even appropriate and 
inappropriate ways of citing one's sources. A novelist can 
allude to another text, but can't pinch it wholesale. So for 
instance Bernard Cohen's writing can be authorised as 
literature, but under the current rules, Helen Darville's 
writing isn't.

Given the similarity in institutional procedure, surely it 
would be simple to make this other room a legitimate part 
of academic discourse? Why should I feel like I am shouting 
in a sound proof booth when I'm in the creative part of the 
university? 

There may be some more obstacles to overcome in other 
media. How would a visual artist or a choreographer make 
a case for her or his institutionalised discourse as one that 
could be compared to an academic one? With some 
difficulty. But it isn't impossible. 

Now, there is a risk in this. We risk making the discourse of 
art subservient to that of scholarship. I think that's also a 
way to think about this unheard voice from the soundproof 
booth. Even if an equivalence can be made between art and 
scholarship, do we really want to make them the same. 

Rather than making art like scholarship, maybe what we 
want to do is make scholarship like art. A characteristic of at 
least some art is that while the discourse network is similar 
in terms of the way it is authorised, there is a much more 
heterogeneous audience on the other end of it. 

Perhaps it would be a good thing if some, and certainly not 
all, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences sought 
to experiment with the kinds of audiences, readerships, it 
could compose. This was certainly part of my ambition 
when I wrote The Virtual Republic and published it with 
the trade division of Allen & Uwin. 

There's a lot of talk about 'difference' in the humanities 
academy, but regardless of the colour or gender of the 
speaker, sometimes there is the most utterly homogenous 
space within which that talk is supposed to circulate. One of 
the things scholarship might learn from art is the skill of 
composing different kinds of audience.

This might be another way to think about the other voice 
shouting and not being heard in the soundproof booth. Its 
not the voice of the arts in the academy, its the voice of the 
academy itself, scholarship itself, which has locked itself 
within its own sound proof room and can't get out. 

There are a few different ways that innovation, creativity 
and change happens in the academy. Sometimes, a new 
kind of statement is proposed within the traditional 
discourse network, and sometimes, after a bit of a fuss, 
someone with an authority function decides to approve it. 
Somebody makes a decision to publish something, or to hire 
someone, or to accept a conference paper, and a small 
change in the discourse takes place. 

So for example, you've got the word "cyber" which is newly 
approved, and the word "feminism" which has been 
approved for some time, and then along comes 
"cyberfeminism", and eventually that gets approved too. A 
bit harder is the case where you have "cyber" and you have 
"queer", both with semi approved status -- there aren't a lot 
of full professors of either cyber or queer studies. but sooner 
or later there will be cyberqueer studies. Indeed there 
already is.

Similar things happen in the arts. You have feminist art and 
you have performance art, and then eventually you have 
feminist performance art. But it will only happen when it is 
approved within the traditional network of authority.

Sometimes this requires the creation of new authorities, so it 
is not just new statements being accepted by the old 
authorities, its new ways to qualify as an authority, or 
rather, new ways tacked onto the old. 

In short, creativity in both the arts and the academy is a 
matter of innovating new moves within the rules of the 
game. Sometimes, it also means creating new rules. This 
happens much more slowly in the academy than in the arts. 
And so it should, I think. One of the functions of the 
academy, and I stress only one, should be to resist fashion, 
to hasten slowly, to be untimely. 

Part of the tension between art and scholarship has to do 
with differences of tempo, I think, rather than differences in 
discursive institution. They function much the same way, 
but rarely at the same speed.

But there is one kind of creativity that is very rare, and very 
difficult. In fact, almost impossible within the humanities 
and social sciences, but not in the arts. I'm talking about the 
kind of creativity that escapes from the rules of the game, 
and the authorities of the game, and invents its own 
conditions of existence and relation to its audience.

I'm talking about the kind of art that is, as Beckett said, a 
"Strangeness so entire as even to withstand the stock 
assimilations to holy patrimony, national and other." This 
kind of art is what Jean-Francios Lyotard defined as the 
postmodern, the moment within the modern that "refuses 
the solace of good form." 

Now, as Niall Lucy has pointed out in his excellent 
poststructuralist critique of postmodern thought, this idea 
of the postmodern as an open questioning of form, a 
sublime escape from sense, is basically romanticism. The 
Jena Romantics, the Schlegels, Hlderlin, wanted to join 
literature and literary theory in the one creative act, an act 
that would at one and the same time open a completely new 
space of expression and touch the inexpressible. 

I mentioned that there is a danger in making art look too 
much like scholarship, and that scholarship can learn 
something from art. In particular, how to create audiences. 
But I think there's another danger, which is not that art will 
loose its heterogeneous public audience, but that it will get 
too  much of an audience, an audience with predictable 
expectations and often the power to enforce them. In short, 
the other danger is in closing off the space for the radical 
otherness that the romantic aesthetic promises. Art can 
become routine. 

There is creativity in art and scholarship, although it takes 
somewhat different forms. But there is also the creativity of 
creativity, the creation of new kinds of creation. That I think 
is something that can only exist outside of the academic 
institution. In fact, it has to have its time alone outside of 
any institution, for escaping institutions is what this kind of 
creativity is all about.

There is the creativity of creativity, but there is also the 
mimicking of the creativity of creativity. it's remarkable 
how routinely statements about difference and flux and the 
ineffable can be pass around in the humanities. Difference 
has become pretty much the same. Its become a fixed 
language. This is the somewhat perverse outcome of the 
institutional relation between art and scholarship we now 
have. Perhaps I'm not shouting from the sound proof booth, 
in the dream, perhaps I'm howling, a wordless yelp that is 
refusing to be classified under the existing authorised canon 
of difference.

The creativity of creativity is something that can't be 
directly institutionalised without turning it into routine. But 
it is something that can pass through the institution, on its 
way out into nothingness. I think there's a subtle role for 
scholarship in not turning the art from the outside into its 
own patrimony, or that of some other collective identity.

In short, art brings two things to the academy. One is the 
heterogeneous audience, the establishing of which may 
require some innovation in statements and rules and 
authorities -- but often not much. The other is the 
heterogeneous work -- the work that cannot be 
homogenised into the ruling canon of difference of the day. 

In short, I think there is a place for art that seeks, on ethical 
grounds, to create new kinds of community, and I think the 
academy should be part of that process. A lot of my own 
work takes this direction.

But I also think that there is a place for art that seeks 
complete alterity. The academy cannot be a part of that 
process, but it can be a custodian of its possibility. 

Its not common that these things go together. There's the 
cultural studies people who are interested in communities 
of meaning making, and there's the avant garde people who 
are interested in overcoming accepted practices of meaning 
making. I've also had a bit of a foot in both camps. I've 
written about Kylie Minogue and also about John Kinsella, 
for example. 

But I think the relationship of scholarship to these different 
kinds of art differs. In one case, I might be experimenting 
with ways of making public utterances, making statements 
that can exist in hybrid spaces that are part academic, part 
media, part art world. 

But in the other example, writing about John Kinsella's 
poetry, I might be doing something quite different. It may 
be more about assuring the passage of John's more 
challenging writing around the obstacles set up for it in 
both literary and scholarly discourses, easing its passage 
through and beyond them. 

Perhaps, finally, this is what I was shouting about, in the 
soundproof booth. I was shouting to myself. There's me in 
the booth, there's me outside, and I was dreaming about 
what the connection was between the different things I do, 
the cultural studies stuff and the avant garde critical stuff. 
The soundproof booth was about the fact that I did not 
know how these two aspects of my own work were 
connected. So this paper is an attempt at an answer, and one 
which I hope provides a diagram for others, for your 
conference. In any case, thankyou for the opportunity of 
dremaing out loud.


__________________________________________
"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
http://www.mcs.mq.edu.au/~mwark
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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