knowledge commons, power, pedagogy, feminism and collective practices

Puerto Rican riot police stand behind students sitting in the road in front of University of Puerto Rico during 2009 strike to stop tuition hikes.

Conversation with Paula Cobo, CEMENT Graduate Journal, San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), NOV 6, 2010

Q>Paula Cobo: At a moment where art institutions operate as corporations, where we are witnesses of an ongoing endogamy of interests, how do you feel about the role of the self-Institution, or the Anti-University?

A>Cara Baldwin: Art institutions have historically operated as corporations, with varying effects/affects. At this particular moment what interests me in terms of collective practices are those that are incredibly open. This is not anti-corporate necessarily.

I do not know what anti-university refers to exactly, but I think that it refers to forms of militant research and new, some radical, forms of pedagogy. I make this distinction because these all operate extra-instutionally. I think there is an important shift to recognize between the question you put to me and the one I choose to respond to.

In other words, I don’t recognize a space outside institutions even as I imagine and participate in the creation of slippages and movements that are formative and generative as well as defensive and critical.

A family is an institutional space. What kind of research is to be done here? Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati are advancing some incredibly critical and inspiring work on this subject.

And I think at the heart of your question there is an exploration of scale and subjectivity that I find very interesting.

>Paula Cobo: Yes, when I refer to spaces of self institution I’m thinking of projects as Copenhagen Free University. Where the everyday life becomes a space of research and self-revolutionary praxis evidencing an autonomy that frames itself outside the realm of capitalistic thought or activity and where thought is more creational and experimental than re-productional.

Do you think is necessary to self revolutionize (become other) or revolutionize the current institutional system?

>Cara Baldwin: I think it is important to recognize the compulsory flexibility imposed on us as artists, and moreover, as neoliberal subjects in a post-fordist or late-capitalist society. I mention Federici and Fortunati because they are denaturalizing space once perceived to be institutional and radically expanding this to include those in which much of our unwaged labor takes place (production and reproduction)— through an insidious form of capitalism now as self-management. Perhaps related to the phenomenon you are referring to in the phrase self-institution?

>Paula Cobo: Some of this (self)projects-particularly here in L.A- seem very dependent on the same institutions and in that sense there seems to be a conflict of interests, can you comment on this?

>Cara Baldwin: I take (self)projects to mean those cultural projects that are represented as singularly produced and distributed, authored and edited-or framed. In this case, I would ask where such a project exists? Indeed, where it has ever truly existed?

I think, though, that this is not what you mean. Perhaps you are referring to collectively run projects?

>Paula Cobo: Yes, I am pointing at collectively run projects which first of all operate on a plurality in order to achieve their singular goals (a nihilistic collectivity), undermining a set of desires that appeal to an inscription on a institutional framework (and that is OK). But I think that the interesting part of the experience of collective singularities is precisely their capacity of anti-inscription on a institutional framework. I mean by this creating new ways of thinking, new ways of presenting (exhibiting) and new ways of assembling radical subjectivities. I don´t know, but thinking on the lineage of Guy Debord and the SI, of course the Dadaists, and I know that this might sound a bit naive at this point, but I sincerely think art, as the place of disruption, permanent protest and poetical subjectivity and multitude. And if this means being out or in the margin of it, its fine!

I think the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest is interesting precisely because of its autonomy toward the institution (becoming self institution), its generative and anti-hierarchical and that is free and open to the public “users”.

>Paula Cobo: So another question for you, do you think is important to exhibit? (take it traditionally/ individually/collectively/ but on the coordinates of the “artist show”. What do you think of exhibiting?

>Cara Baldwin:

>Paula Cobo: how did the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest operate?

>Cara Baldwin: The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest operated collectively. First, as a sort of family practice that extended out to friends as contributors and, by issue 2, as an editorial collective that included myself as a non-familial co-editor. Other co-editors followed including Ryan Griffis and Lize Mogel meeting to conceive of and create each issue. This flexible core group worked collaboratively with writers and editors internationally. These actively proposed and frequently made contributions to each issue in response to open calls that were distributed online through an email list that we built together and on various independent or autonomous media publishing sites. The project itself was not for profit (as opposed to non-profit) and relied on substantial community support through art auctions and purchase of print publication.

Unlike dominant models of academic and artistic production and distribution that rely on scarcity to generate value we modeled ourselves as a site of commons, making all content free to any who wished to access it. The project continues to shift and change. It seems to be in a process of redefinition, contraction, and consolidation at the moment.

>Paula: It seems that talking openly about revolutionary politics today, particularly in the university system is somehow “outmoded” or just discussed on a theoretical level. From this post political plateau (in where all revolutionary attempts failed) how do you think is possible to think again politically, and what means to think politically for you today in current conditions of production?

>Cara: From my perspective this decidedly bourgeois aversion to radicalized speech (and thought) has been enthusiastically sustained since the industrial revolution. Before. This has been true in both public and private universities with respective claims to populist and radical ideologies with few exceptions and over a period of time that predates 1968.

Disinterestedness is a (western) cultural product with a material and philosophic (aesthetic) history. In other words, it is not an elevated or neutral ground to operate from.

What is meant by ‘post-political,’ particularly in this moment— ever? It seems as impossible as a post-conceptual—or post-cultural moment.

>Paula: I signify the “post-political” as this suspended time-space in which we are in the process of analyzing the events that signified as “political” in the second half of the last century and failed as attempts of change (1968,  the third world project, struggles of decolonization, popular movements in south america etc… ). Im not saying that current times are not political, and that the notion of “post-political” is not being political but, that the notion of political has slightly shifted in meaning and that in a way there is no way back, and that we are re signifying the political.

I am very interested in your critique of the artist as a neoliberal subject, and it came to my mind Ranciere´s “distribution of the sensible”, in which the artwork is supposed to present us a certain political engaged sensibility or more “socially engaged art”, but most of the artists ARE working on a neoliberal plateau …..(art market/museums) and showing this “socially engaged art”. What do you think on this? . It reminds me (and makes me laugh) of the statement of Nicolas Bourriaud in his “Relational Aesthetics” that Rirkrit Tiravanija is a precarious artist. What do you think of this? (I like to think of the statement: “The political is not the content, the political is the form.”

>Cara: I find the work of Nicolas Bourriaud and Rirkrit Tiravanija disgusting. I believe in the indivisibility of form and content but imagine it never ends. I am a student of Allan Sekula and Michael Asher among others. I am not insensible to poorly wrought work. It offends me. It oppresses us. It is not ‘convivial’. I can speak more about this, but I would prefer to be blunt.

And then, what is referred to in terms of current conditions of production? I think that this would refer to acting as a cultural producer in a late capitalist society. I do have quite a bit more to say about that. Perhaps I’ve already overdone my emphasis on labor and could focus on modes of distribution, diffusion and interfacialiity?

>Paula: Yes, I mean acting as a cultural producer (or knowledge producer) in late capitalist society and its relationship to labor. Can you comment on this notion? How can we make a living? (hahahaha)

>Cara: We can begin by working with one another to decide that ‘how to’ live piece. I am in the process of doing this with friends now, enacting a larger community/ies discursively.

In practice, this can operate as simply as a generating projects that shift according to the needs and abilities of those who contribute to it. Something as simple as a directory has a political and creative potential that are impossible to imagine, but realizable just the same.

This approach addresses the idea of self-project or institution as well as, in a critical sense, self-management. When asked by another artist what projects I had been thinking about/working on lately among them I mentioned that I had just decided that it would be worthwhile to create a reference page of links between collective, immaterial, critical or subversive practices / projects in Portland, Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc… connecting them with existing projects elsewhere, particularly those in Central and South America. The response to this was ‘What kind of thinking is that?’ The critique went on to assume that this was a ‘dead’ or closed way of thinking. Thinking out of self-interest. Not creative in that it didn’t come from an open ‘blank’ or ‘white’ space.

I was struck by the modernism in this desire for a pure, white space. The desire for a pure, white space—and a transcendent moment thought all in the singular. I thought of the showers. This is not where I want to live (make a living). This is a horror. It’s a trauma.

What kind of thinking is it I am interested in? I am interested in compassionate, intellectual and interested thinking.

>Paula: In what are you working right now? Which are your main focuses of research?

>Cara: Revolutionary histories and systems of exchange. Latin American and feminist contemporary art. Autonomia, feminism, Marxism. Poetry. Performance. Political content in art that has not been perceived as such.

I am working on a book on critical pedagogy and another about writing as a form of reading and embodiment. Writing about de Certeau’s notion of flesh. Researching mound cultures. Writing about respective approaches to negative space in Doris Salcedo and Rachel Whiteread’s work. Turning my studio into a reading room / micropublishing space that is open and creative, rather than hermetic and sealed.

>Paula: How would would you define your practice?

>Cara: Queerly operating from the belief that art is a field without discipline or measure. This is a practice that is at once dispersed and collective.