Monday, July 1, 2013

The Form of Life in the Studio

Zach Blas seeks to draw out questions of materiality and sociality embedded in studio-space in his response to William Kentridge's "Life in the Studio".
During his 4th Drawing Lesson on “Life in the Studio,” William Kentridge stated that an idea is never enough--one must experiment, make, do. It is through experimentation, Kentridge continues, that one reaches unexpected meanings and new possibilities. But to experiment, the studio must first be a “safe space” for uncertainty. 
Image taken by Matthew Omelsky
Kentridge’s presentation brings forth a series of questions about when experimentation and uncertainty close down or reduce in the artistic process. If the studio is the location of experimentation for Kentridge, the presentation is not quite that. Kentridge works mostly from a site of certainty: he reads and consults a notebook, and there is a visual presentation timed to sync with his words (perhaps operated/advanced by an assistant?). In short, there is a precision at work that is at odds with “life in the studio.” Of course, there is room for a bit of uncertainty in the presentation--but not much. And no questions are taken at the end, which makes the event feel more like a performance than a talk, lecture, or lesson.
What is the studio for Kentridge? In theory, it’s a place of irrational action, where utopia can be found and one can walk in contemplation; the studio is receptive to what might be considered non-knowledge, like stupidity and silliness. The studio is also a materials repository, where paint and paper can be thrown and a multitude of photographic equipment is at one’s disposal. The studio is not a gallery or storage container for finished works but rather a repetitive testing area. In the end, it’s a rather idyllic place for creative research, discovery, and the production of the new.
In practice, (Kentridge’s) studio is more complicated. Of course, it must exist in a specific location, such as a gentrified / gentrifying area that brings along issues of race, class, and displacement. The studio must also be supported by various economic factors to exist as such: a wealthy art career permits the existence of staff and assistants, materials and production equipment, as well as the time needed in the studio to actualize its promise. While the artist studio can conceptually be a laboratory for creative experimentation, it does not exist outside of economic conditions that always bring forth questions of labor, exploitation, alienation, and reification. I won’t say the studio is a factory (although, with some contemporary artists it is exactly that), but the studio unavoidably incorporates aspects of the factory.
Importantly, I am not accusing Kentridge of anything. I am just taking his idea of the studio and pushing it further.
My question is this: if Kentridge himself said the idea is never enough in artistic life, is “life in the studio,” as presented by Kentridge, more idea than practice? That is, does “life in the studio,” as a model for artistic practice, put forth certain assumptions about artistic production, life, ability, desire, and politics as well as avoid other material conditions of existence? I have already mentioned the economic issues that often remain invisible yet are absolutely necessary for the studio to exist as such, which reminds us that not all artists can / will have studios. However, not all artists want Kentridge’s life in the studio; that model of artistic production--bound within a permanent and enclosed space--is abandoned for something else, such as a street, community, or public site.
Following Kentridge’s description of the artistic process, perhaps today it is crucial to experiment, that is, make uncertain and new, life in the studio. What would this be? To start, paints, papers, pre-cinematic devices, and other common art materials are done away with. What constitutes a material can be experimented with; maybe the presentation, the seminar room, and forms of the public itself become materials. Today, such experimental practices are most visible in art known as social practice, which dramatically shifts the idea of the studio. Examples include autonomous, artist-run schools like The Public School, Women on Waves’ abortion clinic on a ship, and Toro Lab’s community interventions in Tijuana.
In short, life in the studio, as formulated by Kentridge, is the pre-condition to artistic production. It is like Foucault’s episteme or Ranciere’s distribution of the sensible. The form of the studio sets the conditions for what is possible as artistic production.
Thus, life in the studio is a form that must be constantly fractured, re-invented, so as not to stagnate and disappear into the art world. The life in the studio requires many forms, and it is through the many that the artist becomes practical and experimental. 

Zach Blas is a PhD student in Literature, Information Science + Information Studies, Visual Studies at Duke University

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