Free Hot Mess
by Sunny Kerr
Curator of Comrade Objects at Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2016.
For one of the events in Ciara Phillips’ Workshop at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, participants came expecting a reading group, having been first asked to read a text about exhaustion and exuberance in contemporary art by writer Jan Verwoert (a significant choice, I’ll argue). Instead of discussing the text we learned an effective and unexpectedly breezy print technique: simply drawing one’s fingers over an inked screen. When combined with the magical reveal of screen-printing, it was irresistible. Phillips’ idea was that we would pick up any dry print from another artist out of an array on the floor, and print new imagery on top of it. And it worked. We were improvising like a band, forgetting ourselves and joining a song we all knew. I remember looking up from my work to see us working like a many-headed monster, together and separate, like a new kind of machine. Indeed, by re-connecting gallery to studio, Workshop re-routes desire and creates new flows between art and labour, resembling the “imaginal machine” of theorist Stevphen Shukaitis.1 This was an experience of the complicated pleasure of collectivity, and I gradually let go of some notions of pedagogy and identity-based habits for an immersion in a new, unpredictable and purposeless kind of body. Workshop allowed a space for this surrender through twofold demystification: first by repelling the priority of the intellectual and second, by using the absorption in artistic work to subtly block expectations of controlled outcomes. These manoeuvres made collaboration seem so newly possible.
This was a workshop in a very specific way: work on creating solidarities, showing the shapes of new collectivities, and a shop realigned with its etymologica origin pre-market, as a building without walls. As it continues to appea inside modernist “white cubes,” reorienting art presentation spaces,2 we can understand Workshop as an instituent practice, in Austrian philosopher Gerald Raunig’s terms; it keeps attaching itself to existing authoritative nodes and employing printmaking as counter-apparatus. For Raunig, instituent practice means “exceeding mere opposition to institutions: it does not oppose the institution, but it does flee from institutionalization and structuralization.”3 To make this possible, Workshop adopts and complexly inhabits the mould of live artmaking and new forms of invitation and aesthetics of hospitality so attractive to today’s museums. Once it is instigated, Phillips uses various strategies to raise questions within an institution’s spatial and temporal structuralising habits. One of the most important outcomes of her exhibition, for example, was the reciprocal conduit that it made available between making together and looking together, matching the pairing of distinct works carefully exhibited with an adjacent participatory space. Both the ostensibly “solo” and participatory threads in Phillips’ practice are material-conceptual investigations into the tensions at play in collectivity. The rewarding challenges and challenging rewards of public becoming are key to her work.
While it is most obviously discernible in Workshop, Phillips’ persistent immanent critique of social relations infuses the whole of her practice, springing as it does from the very tools of her work: the collaborative studio environments of printmaking. When I first emailed Phillips about developing a project with the Agnes, I noticed that she immediately suggested a face-to-face discussion. Later, once a plan came together around her work and exhibition ideas, it was clear that we would be taking a novel approach to public programs. Instead of the well-worn genre of show + artist’s talk, Phillips consistently proposed to meet small groups of people for artmaking sessions. These replaced PowerPoint-driven formats and their privileging of career, chronological narrative, and superficial treatment. When others approached her, her emphasis was likewise on forms that place two bodies near each other in space talking, or many hands making. What does this pattern reveal? Thinking about the ensuing exhibition, Comrade Objects, its residency project and Phillips’ broader practice from this point of departure reveals that a great deal is accomplished through Phillips’ engagement with art as an activity (as opposed to as a class of objects) engaged in by people (artists and other kinds of people). Combining a participatory space and a display space, the exhibition recognised artistic materials as channels for conjunctions between people and between codes of encounter that situate the aesthetic experience between product and process and between finite and infinite. These crossings are, appropriately, a moment for imprinting extrinsic contexts on each other. The moment of contact changes each. A change is brought to the paper and to the ink. Here, crucially, a change is brought to the site of viewing and the site of making, evinced, for example, by the simple repetition of a shape across works or the lasting impact on the institution’s self-understanding.
The fold in time enacted by such reciprocal crossing between exhibition and studio mirrors a much longer return, a re-visitation. Phillips returned to the site where she trained as an artist, Queen’s University, to present a selection of recent screen-prints on canvas, prints on paper and printed tunics at the Agnes. For Workshop, Phillips worked in-gallery on artistic projects with respected Kingston-based artist Clive Robertson, whom she first met when she was a student. Additionally, she worked with several other artists through a partnership with artist-run centre Modern Fuel, with members of the Katarokwi Grandmother’s Council4 and with Jen Kennedy and other members of Contemporary Feminism who visited from New York to facilitate the related Globe and Mail Feminist Reading Group. The balance of finished works and process-based activities revealed a consistent rethreading, a playful doubling back between studio sociality and gallery visitor sociality. As such, they activated Phillips’ unique common code or interface between processes and artworks that are completed and fetishised by habits of presentation, an interface wherein the origin, causality and directionality of art can be played with and questioned.
As if in response to the ubiquity of the social network and other transparently weak forms of neoliberal connection such as Airbnb or Uber, Phillips posed an intimate approach. In-person meetings or artistic collaborations ask for trust and hope for feelings of indebtedness to each other; working with ink, screen and paper requires that you show up, and it tests personal promises, discloses fantasies and exposes clichés. The felt impacts of such practices expose the thin hold capitalism claims on us. They are physical, slow, revealing, risky. In-person meetings and collaborations allow for bodily and facial expression in iterative processes of apprehension more than email or phone. The unpredictably generative technics of verbal conversation have a “give and take” that expends time, bringing us into a space of visual learning through collaborative proximity – which can be understood as its own type of research.
Phillips makes visible the contours of a kind of work that isn’t easily recognisable, much less valued. By turning all situations into opportunities for face-to- face dialogue and possible beginnings of collaborative making, she lets time be formed and informed by people and their relations to objects, in both the finished and process-based work. The sharing economy cannot easily bring people into such a material-intellectual exploration of making art; amid the failures and revisions of collaboration, Phillips takes pleasure in sharing this space.
Clearly, we aren’t talking about a simple elevation of the analogue handmadenor a simple appeal to pre-modern authenticity. In Phillips’ work the assertion of the primacy of the handmade, laborious and haptic is an invitation into a public space to work through internal tensions of the current moment, to confront its desires, hardened habits and preconceptions: the promise of ownership, ego-driven competition, performance, individual genius, hierarchical divisions of labour and appeals to bright futures and weak tech-mediated collectivities.5 Among its strongest threads, her work defies the unchallenged preeminence of privacy in culture. Privacy is too often considered a cherished right rather than a symptom of individualism and its continual reproduction. Without losing a sense of artistic independence, Phillips shifts the frame around audience: from audience as an obstacle to one’s private satisfaction to audience as fellow humans involved together, not without difficulty and conflict, in insti- tuting a site of public enjoyment. In a different way, prints stretched and hung in fashions more familiar to gallery display also confront the retreat into either private making or private reception of art. Phillips often accomplishes this with her exposure of print’s mechanics of collaborative proximity and open-ended process to make a collective assemblage of enunciation and analysis.6 One could even describe this as instating public space to varying degrees in all of its chaotic and contradictory joy, and the possibility of non-fascist life.
Workshop in Comrade Objects, 2016
Commissioned by Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston
Photo: Paul Litherland
Commissioned by Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston
Photo: Paul Litherland
One doesn’t often get a chance to reflect on one’s past work. In the case of this essay, making a long loop offers new advantages. Comrade Objects was the title I gave to Phillips’ exhibition at the Agnes in late 2016. Her attention to forming new socio-mental relationships to commodified objects all around us (including artworks) seemed among the clearest urgencies of her practice. Reading Melissa Gronlund’s perceptive essay for Just You at Bergen Kunsthall,7 I was fascinated with the way Phillips opposes petrified habits of knowing and possession with living process, dynamic handling and usage. Gronlund drew a comparison to Russian constructivists, such as Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova, who actively used the seductions of commodity to contribute to a new socialist utopia. Investigating the power of the fetish, constructivists recognised how free and untethered it is from ownership and consumerism, accumulation, profit. I was easily seduced by what is certainly an important piece of historical context and an insightful way of looking at the work. In hindsight, I conflated my own desire for the promise of art with the promise of Phillips’ work. Certainly, Phillips mingles warm, intimate and familiar gestures with print’s public dimension, declarative messaging and sense of glossy off-the-rack duplication. She is an artist highly attuned to these contradictory promises of screen-printing, which has always travelled uneasily between fine art, industrial, commercial and activist milieus – Phillips thrives on interweaving these contexts and engaging them in several directions. For example, at times in her practice, she has taken print art out into explicitly political contexts by making a protest banner. She surely engages the seductions of the commodity and redirects its phantasmal influences by taking printing’s most direct gestural technical possibilities, of which she demonstrates the most enticing qualities, and fervently exaggerates them.
However, her work is not related to a necessarily communalist future, but very much to a present. It is related to a future, yes, but not “The Future” since it clearly defies over-systematisation. Phillips does not revive specifically Soviet communist artist ambitions for new ways of relating to objects. The promise of socialism might have gained some desiring movement through Constructivist art, but today, could such appeal compete with the deep unconscious desire stoked by capitalism to work against our better future?
Phillips takes the image of warm personal intimacy of collaborative making into the fine art context; in doing so, she stirs our repressed desire for and concurrent fears of the public (perhaps fears of exposing our own unconscious and being exposed to those of others) and turns them toward artistic materials through which we can experience enjoyment of the apparent obstacle: people. The public is where our interests lie – despite the prevailing focus on the private. For Lacanian theorist Todd McGowan, “the great deception of the capitalist system is that it convinces us that we are self-interested beings.” The deception cuts deeper since “we are in fact beings devoted to imperiling and even destroying our self-interest ... As long as we remain committed to obtaining the object (whatever that object is), the private world will seem like the only site for satisfaction. But there is no satisfaction for the subject without the act of engaging the public.”8 In Phillips’ work, the materiality of publicness itself is respected, and it is here that her approach to work, non-productivity and duration come into play.
A large, colourful word “NO” printed with a xerox-y texture was intentionally positioned on the most visible wall of the space dedicated to Workshop. It met the public’s gaze with subtle antagonism that mitigated the openness of what else becomes visible in this gallery: a studio scenario and the vulnerability of the artist’s exposure. The word “NO” helped to complexify the performance of subjective positions in the project. It signalled finitude within infinity and commented on the knot between governed and ungoverned practices that Phillips works out in her processes, spaces and images. In “Exhaustion and Exuberance,” (the “reading” that Phillips selected) Verwoert articulates a strategy of refusal and solidarity in what he sketches as a neoliberal pressure to constantly perform.9 Phillips’ choice of text underlines pertinent questions about the contradictory space of art as simultaneously entrepreneurship, transgressive non-production and “a real job.” Indeed, saying “no” is a countersign within a space of production that performs resistance to the art institution’s own demand for productivity. The frank superposition of affirmation and negation allows her work go into the risky chaos of sociality and make a node there for vexed counter-actualisation of repressed sociality – a node of exuberant enunciation and collaboratively elaborated analysis that wasn’t available before. Her work confronts privacy and creates rhythms of emotions and bodies, a structural refrain that allows us to recognise and risk the chaos of conflicting desires.10
The image of production figured in the studio and finished work in Phillips’ exhibition allowed a question for audiences: how is what I do in this room full of art different from what I do in a room where art is being made? How do I behave with a collective in a space of making versus in the space of looking? Put another way, how are we looking in this room for making, and how are we making in the room for looking? This comparison is the central advantage and opportunity of an exhibition that includes both: to see what is common to different strands of practice and what is different that you might have thought to be the same. Her work crosses itself going in both the direction of fetish and going in the direction of material process and everyday life. The simultaneity of each of these supports and challenges the other. In her work, we have the co-emergence of the artist and the crowd, both called into being by the work. A context emerges wherein we can appreciate how any gesture is co-constituted by its capitalistic valence and its radically socialist valence and simultaneously co-ruptured by them. Here, to quote theorist Simon O’Sullivan, the event of “the finite presenting the infinite/the infinite becoming embodied in the finite – is horizontal, working across milieus.”11 A mutation in one sphere of life can have an effect on another.
Phillips re-uses patterns of offcut shapes that seem to indicate a negative space – that of the important bit that got used for something else. These shapes seem counter to the intentional mark, but they aren’t random. Such forms eschew the careful scissoring by Matisse, for example, by suggesting that all things bear the undeniable presence of the other. What is so disturbing about these shapes on a formal level is their unshakeable sense of refusal to perform quite correctly. They suggest a demystification of the artist crafting her components. Instead of a final product, we are brought into an overall design. Like Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture, this strategy prioritises the connections through the work rather than the work itself.
Despite its perhaps false promises, the notion of “comrade objects” still allows a space of semiotic play. Phillips’ works seem to make a winking gesture to a collectivity of printers, a constellation of the artists’ own friends. The adjacency of the work to the voices, movements and traces of a collectivity of collaborators actually working live in the gallery nearby also provides a rich allusion. Crucially, “comrade objects” describes how the artworks genially reveal how they are made and could therefore be remade, perhaps suggesting that you could make something. Phillips is self-aware and grounded in her openness to the public exposure of process, attentive to its repeated tests of social bonds. The rewards, however, of enjoying without accumulation cannot be measured. For Marx, “capitalism is already essentially abolished once we assume that it is enjoyment that is the driving motive and not enrichment itself.”12 Changing relations with our objects of desire might just be a matter of practicing making a free hot mess.
1. For Shukaitis, this means “a particular arrangement or composition of desires and creativity as territorialized through and by relations between bodies in motion.... Imaginal machines are composed by the affective states they animate, reflecting the capacities to affect and be affected by the worlds that are contained within them. They activate a cartography of thought.” Stevphen Shukaitis, Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life (London/ NYC/Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2009), 13.
2. Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney Biennial, 2018; Kunsthall Stavanger, 2019; The Model, Sligo, 2022.
3. Raunig expands: “Deriving from Antonio Negri’s concept of ‘constituent power,’ understood as a permanent process of constitution, instituent practices thwart the logics of institutionalization; they invent new forms of instituting and continuously link these instituting events. Against this background, the concept of ‘instituent practices’ marks the site of a productive tension between a new articulation of critique and the attempt to arrive at a notion of ‘instituting’ after traditional understandings of institutions have begun to break down and mutate. When we speak of an ‘instituent practice,’ this actualization of the future in a present becoming is not the opposite of institution in the way that utopia, for instance, is the opposite of bad reality. Nor is it to be understood simply in the way that Antonio Negri’s concept pair ‘constituent power/constituted power’ is conceptualized, necessarily in relation to being instituted or constituted power. Rather, ‘instituent practice’ as a process and concatenation of instituent events means an absolute concept exceeding mere opposition to institutions: it does not oppose the institution, but it does flee from institutionalization and structuralization. But while fleeing, ‘instituent practice’ searches for a weapon.” Gerald Raunig, Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, ed. Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (London: MayFlyBooks 2009), xvii, last modified 6 March 2020, https://ufdc.ufl.edu/AA00011734/00001.
4. Phillips worked with members of the Katarokwi Grandmother’s Council to create prints as an element of a concurrent artist’s residency with Cheryl L’Hirondelle, curated by Carina Magazzeni.
5. Alain Badiou’s short essay on his notion of “Neolithic Order” provides a provocative broad contextual space for thinking about Phillips’ work. Alain Badiou, “The Neolithic, Capitalism, and Communism,” Verso (blog), 30 July 2018, https://www. versobooks.com/blogs/3948-the-neolithic-capitalism- and-communism.
6. Here I’m indebted to methods of schizoanalysis developed by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze.
7. Melissa Gronlund, “Just You,” in Just You (Bergen, Norway: Bergen Kunsthall, 2014), last modified
7 March 2020, https://www.ciaraphillips.com/index.php/ more/texts/.
8. Todd McGowan, Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 57, ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral. proquest.com/lib/queen-ebooks/detail.action?do- cID=4588232, Created from queen-ebooks on 2019–05–05 14:30:32.
9. Jan Verwoert, “Exhaustion and Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform,” originally published in Dot Dot Dot 15 (2008), http://whyiseverybodybeing- sonice.deappel.nl/concrete/index.php/chapters/ exhaustion-exhuberance/ways-defy-pressure-perform.
10. To return to the notion of imaginal machines, Shukaitis wonders, “Is it possible to create a space and form for the organization of collective labour and creativity without it being turned against its own aims and intentions?” Stevphen Shukaitis, Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Life, 27.
11. Simon O’Sullivan, “Guattari’s Aesthetic Paradigm: From the Folding of the Finite/Infinite Relation to Schizoanalytic Metamodelisation,” Deleuze Studies 4.2 (2010): 256–286, DOI: 10.3366/E1750224110000978, https://www.simonosullivan.net/articles/guattari-aesthet- ic-paradigm.pdf.
12. Todd McGowan, Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, 244.