// This was meant to be published by Elephant but it ended up being way too wordy for them (!) and didn't really know how to rewrite it so ended up pulling it. In process of looking for somewhere else to take it but thought I would put up here for now. Untitled as of yet. //
Transmission is an artist-run space based in Glasgow. Established in 1983, Transmission’s institutional formation offers a site for understanding the atrophic circularity resultant of contemporary art as critique. Firstly, how do we arrive at this configuration of contemporary art? Following Victoria Ivanova’s analysis: art in Western modernity has followed a trajectory of ‘ontological liberalisation’—a gradual dispersal of the strictures that define what art is. This describes the shift from the linearly developmental progression of art’s material specificity, reaching its zenith in high-modernism, to contemporary art’s emancipatory task of ‘renegotiating semantics’, contentiously demarcated as emerging in the late 1950s and informed by poststructuralism. The primacy of individual experience remains common to the high-modernist aims of creating a universal subjectivity to contemporary art’s function of exposing the receiving subject to the normativity of their own cultural assumptions. The move into contemporary art does not signify modernity’s conclusion but rather its reflexively critical transfiguration.
Therefore, with reference to Suhail Malik’s reading of Quentin Meillassoux, contemporary art is the art that depends on ‘the addressee of the work, who is taken to constitute it’. Contemporary art is defined by its semantic indeterminacy and critical autonomy which allows meaning to be differentially made by each receiving individual’s interpretation. Malik claims that this is the hegemonic configuration of contemporary art, ‘attaining total spectrum dominance in the metropolitan centers of the West since the mid-1980s and globally since the mid-late 1990s’. Lane Relyea, after Miwon Kwon, has noted that by the early 1990s Transmission’s artist-curator governing committee were employing a discursive poststudio practice to generate temporary artistic projects: artistic practice as nomadic critique. This ‘neoconceptual’ position affiliated the gallery with an international circuit intent on propagating a similarly focused contemporary art. Contemporary art’s logic of critical differentiation, represented in Transmission’s instance by a rhetoric of self-determination and DIY, validates ‘the liberal-democratic agenda as an ethico-functional imperative’, according to Ivanova. It does this by privileging negative liberty, the freedom from external interference, over the positive freedom to act due to society’s material organisation, including economic distribution, bestowing the subject with the necessary power to do so. This obfuscating operation is at the root of what Nancy Fraser has termed ‘progressive neoliberalism’.
An instance of this operation is observed by a specific evaluation of the historicisation of Transmission’s success. This narrative posits that the open networks and heterogeneity afforded by contemporary art’s critical autonomy offered artists from the provinces outside metropolitan centres the opportunity for international recognition. In practice, non-white artists were excluded both from the narrative itself and the material privileges it aimed to rationalise. A famed example would be the ‘great critical silence’ that Lubaina Himid described of the response to her 1994 exhibition ‘Vernet’s Studio’ at Transmission, a direct precursor to the now lauded 'Naming the Money’ installation that led to the valorisation of her work via the 2017 Turner Prize. This critique was brought to the fore by Camara Taylor, whose tenure on the Transmission committee lasted from 2016–2018, and partially explicated the historic conditions behind the Glasgow art scene’s disproportionate whiteness. Taylor’s curatorial practice was instrumental in instituting Transmission’s ongoing process of decolonisation, implementing what former committee member Alberta Whittle describes as a strategy of ‘wayward curating’ that attempts to refuse contemporary art’s hegemonic conditions. Pertinently, this emancipatory shift was in reaction to a certain historic institutional formation but it is consistent with the liberal tradition of progressive assimilation manifest in contemporary art as a widening heterogeneity of representation enabled by its critical autonomy. Transmission’s governing article, which remains unchanged since the institution’s inception, states that the gallery’s objective is to present 'the works (in the widest meaning) of persons who under normal circumstances would be denied a platform for expressing their artistic ideas'.
Therefore, to not regress into the aforementioned obfuscation of actual material organisation through a representative affirmation of negative liberties, the following committees had the task of striking an ethico-politcal position of redistributive decoloniality. Attempting to undertake what might be described by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney as a 'fugitive liberation' of institutional resources, Transmission shifted to a committee comprised solely of people of colour which in turn naturally instigated mutual working relationships with various activist and community groups that committee members were already operating within. However, as David Hodge and Hamed Yousefi have observed, the expectation for the contemporary art institution to defer 'the closure of meaning and [open] space for reflection' is antithetical to the political project of creating a 'historical subject with the capacity for collective resistance' and a 'shared political horizon to concretize […] affirmations of difference into a strong attack on hegemonic conditions.' This expectation is most crucially presented by public arts funding bodies, mandated by their liberal-democratic commitment to the broadest of publics, which apportion a majority of funds for programming efforts that reproduce contemporary art as individuated critique as opposed to the institutional research and development that could action said critique. Elsewhere, this issue is being variously tackled through Yazan Khalili and Kader Attia’s work respectively at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center and La Colonie, ruangrupa’s ‘lumbung’ model for documenta fifteen, and the Serpentine’s new Research and Development Platform.
The crux of the issue is that practicing what Ivanova and Armen Avanessian have called 'institutional realism' results in the contemporary art institution leaving contemporary art behind. By 'harnessing institutional capacity to increase value, influence pricing, play into geopolitical and ideological agendas, and hence support institutions in taking on their role as rating agencies', the contemporary art institution must forgo its privileged autonomy from other forms of social production and accordingly its entrenched commitment to critical autonomy. Is this a renunciation we are willing to execute? Regardless, the inability for contemporary art institutions to enact the critical claims they fetishise, beyond the creation of what Jemma Desai terms 'mile wide inch deep' movements, is due to this ontological condition. It is also an ethico-political question of wider import: the Left’s indebtedness to poststructuralism has resulted in a failure to provide substantive grounds for what is common to citizen-subjects and therefore the means to achieve power in liberal democracy. What would this new contemporary art and its institutionalisation look like? With telling irony, this question is open to be developed by further critique. However, these are the grounds on which it must be staged.