Speculations on Speculations on…

Talk given at a seminar in Zurich, 2014, later reprised for the ‘Speculate’ Late at Tate series, Tate London, May 2015.

There’s no better way to address the multiple meanings of ‘speculative’, at the crossroads of philosophy and art, than through Alix Rule’s and David Levine’s 2011 report for Triple Canopy on ‘International Art English’, which charted the rise of a recognizable pseudotheoretical jargon throughout the art world and related spheres. The critical stance of the authors was that this sophisticated creole, deployed in press releases, reviews and artist’s statements, seems to announce grandiose theoretical ambitions without ever pinning down the meaning of the borrowed words it uses.

I’d like to make three points about this:

(1) Quite rightly, the report understands these ‘concepts’ as commodities whose fortunes rise and fall, and which can therefore be said to be subject to speculation. This is a market with its own rules, which is not identical with the art market as such, but which overlaps it to a certain extent. That is to say: not all buyers of art need their purchases to be certified by the currency of the latest artspeak, but to a certain extent general speculative trends in one market are correlated with those in the other. Furthermore, the thriving of contemporary art as a privileged cultural sphere worthy of civic and national investment is also linked to the movements of this market and the compelling conceptual hold it seems to have upon the future—it presents ideas whose time is coming, and which therefore boast a certain force that demands attention and investment, even if (or perhaps because) they are sometimes foggy and difficult to make out.

(2) Which brings us to the second point: The report hints at the way in which these concepts themselves are valued precisely in so far as they remain in a state of indefinite vagueness. International Art English thrives on concepts that can be loaded with various different meanings, but whose power is that of a semantic enigma: they promise to make us see the world in a different light; they seem to hold in reserve some future conceptual bounty. Once again this goes to suggest the multiple senses of ‘speculation’ involved here.

(3) More specifically, it is amusing to read that, among the words jostling for prominence in this international market, Rule and Levine’s quantitative analysis reveals that ‘[u]sage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009’ !

What could have been the ‘underlying’ of this increased market activity within what the authors describe as an economy of ‘acts of linguistic mimicry and one-upmanship’? What is the meaning of this speculative bubble in which the notion of speculation itself has become the choice object of speculation?

I should own up to my part in providing some of the raw materials for this economic miracle, having published in 2008 the proceedings of the conference held at Goldsmiths in 2007 and entitled ‘Speculative Realism’. As we all know, SR subsequently went on to become an astonishingly well-known brand.

In 2013 SR made a surprise entry at no.81 in ArtReview magazine’s ‘power 100’; and it’s just been revealed that it has since climbed the chart to no. 61 in 2014. This listing is itself a fascinating enterprise: how does one evaluate the ‘power’ of ‘Speculative Realism’ (or the four philosophers who took part in the 2007 workshop) against that of Hans Ulrich Obrist, Victor Pinchuk, and Tinho Seghal? (which almost amounts to an Object-Oriented ‘Latour litany’ in itself!) By what metric did Bard College, in 2013, pip Speculative Realism by one place?

If not a rigorous market evaluation, this event must certainly be indicative—but what exactly does it indicate? ArtReview’s short commentary is informative here: what is evinced in support of Speculative Realism’s 2013 position of ‘power’ does not go far beyond the fact that, in a world where ideas are ‘accessed by artists and curators directly from other academic disciplines’, Speculative Realism is ‘increasingly referenced’ (in 2014 they mention by whom it has been mentioned, namely Nicholas Bourriaud [no 76]).

It seems to me that two conditions are necessary in order for this speculative market in speculation to function—that is, in order for each coinage of the currency of International Art English to thrive: (1) it is required that the words be vague and gestural—they cannot be cashed-out at any point—that would pop the bubble; and (2) these words must be the index of something outside the market which bears a ‘real’ value that contemporary art fears it is unable to generate indigenously—they are underwritten by another discipline. So is philosophy the underlying for art-world speculation on speculation?

If so, how long can the bubble last, given that this is a way of using words very different from that traditionally sought by philosophy, which as a priority seeks to define, explicate, and understand the words it uses?

Indeed, beyond the undeniable fact that ‘it is being referenced’, the alliance between SR and art is puzzling when one considers that the primary selling point of SR is a problematization of the mediating role of human experience; and a renewed interest in the thesis that human cognition can gain access to that which is not determined by the conditions of human experience—precisely, one would think, those aesthetic conditions with which art is largely concerned. If this ‘movement’ consists ih wresting attention away from the primacy of intuition and interpretation, it could be (and has been) construed as an anti-aesthetic, anti-interpretative tendency; so what could it mean for art?

The adoption of SR into art practice and (more prevalently) art discourse, I think, was determined not so much by an engagement with these philosophical concerns as by a series of symptomatic synchronicities. Its endorsement was boosted by the convergence of the theme of a ‘reality-without-us’ with ruminations on climate change and the anthropocene. And its concern with nonhuman actants or material complicities speaks to the great inhuman networks within which we know we are enmeshed, but whose complexity we all struggle to figure. The effects that SR has had upon artists’ attempts to deal with these contemporary problems has not been wholly negative but it has often rested upon less than cautious appropriations of philosophical ideas which had themselves been the subject of overenthusiastic speculative endorsement.

In my dealings with the art world it seems to me that there are indeed compelling dialogues between individual artists and the philosophical questions raised by Speculative Realism. But equally I think the specific nature of these dialogues can be easily drowned out by the currency of International Speculative English.

I certainly don’t want to be the one who reproaches and disciplines artists for not studying philosophy properly or failing to define their concepts perfectly. I accept and applaud the fact that artists’ practice involves different ways of working with concepts and materials (and concepts as materials). I would just highlight the negative function of ‘speculation’ as a blanket term—as a term that is nothing more than an opportunity for speculation, a brand that one invests in because it’s what everyone else seems to be investing in. (At its worst this amounts to little more than statements of the type: ‘the new exciting philosophy says that everything is an object/material/contingent; therefore any object/material/congingency I present has a philosophical significance, which exponentiates its artistic value.’)

I have found working with particular artists over a long period far more rewarding than participating in the general discourse of ‘speculation’, where I am often mystified and distressed about quite what my role and responsibility is supposed to be, and quite how I am implicated in this market of ideas.

Instead, what I have been interested in over the years is to nurture the type of exchange which I think defines a healthy and productive relationship between philosophy and art, where neither of them attempt to ape the others’ procedures, or to use the allure of the other’s authority (which works both ways, since both art and philosophy are unsure and suspicious of their own authority and procedures). A way in which instead, their different ways of working can complement each other and draw out from each other something that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

Working with artists has been a rewarding experience in which, from the very beginning, the artists’ works were already using concepts I had been working with as a philosopher, and used and presented them in unexpected ways that led me to develop them differently. Often, I hope, I was able to pass something back to them, enriching their own practice.

A concept I have developed for describing this is the ‘interrupted relay’. In fact it came from a conversation I had with artist Jake Chapman. As you know Jake and his brother Dinos work together and invariably their works are ‘signed’ by both. But Jake told me that, for instance, when they’re working on a drawing, he will draw something and then just leave it on the table in the studio; the next day Dinos might come in and scribble it out and write something on it, and then leave it; then Jake will come back and add something a week later, etc. So this problematizes the idea of collaboration as involving the simultaneous participation of the parties in some kind of dialogue of co-presence. This is how I feel I have interacted with artists: they take concepts away and use them in a completely different way than I would ever have envisioned, and return something to me, which I interpret according to my own coordinates and return to them… It’s a very rewarding and productive experience precisely to the extent that neither of us have too much neurotic respect for what the other thinks they’re doing—we’re interested in this thing that’s developing in between us.

This interaction, it seems to me, is a very different thing from the curatorial metaproject of aligning philosophical ‘movements’ with artistic ‘movements’. While it involves an understanding that different practices use concepts in different ways, it also involves avoiding the temptation to appropriate the vague allure of the other (which—again—works both ways). The difficulty, of course, comes when philosophy’s well-developed sense of rigour and propriety with respect to concepts balks at the types of operations that artists tend to carry out on their materials (which can include philosophical concepts). Or, equally, when artists feel that their well-meaning interest has been misconstrued as an attempt to actually engage in philosophy, something which few of them presume to do.

This whole field of negotiation remains open, and the question of how to attain the correct balance is a difficult one. I just want to suggest that it’s the specificity of projects where something really passes from one side to the other that is of interest—and that smothering each other with the comfort blankets of ‘the speculative’, ‘new realisms’ or ‘materials’ don’t necessarily help us to get to work on this.