Young artists are hungry for company, for confirmation of their talent and a sense of four walls around them, and they’re hungry for partners in their rebellion against the world. Often there’s already a scene against which ingénues and arrivistes alike rebel and which, in secret, they long to own.
Critic and theorist Chris Kraus walks us through the birth and dissolution of one such scene in the first and best essay of her new collection Where Art Belongs. The scene is Tiny Creatures, a gallery and music space which bubbled and popped in Echo Park during the height of the Bush years. It’s the burning excitement and newness of this scene that Kraus wants us to understand and it’s this she communicates best. We meet Janet Kim, an ex-born-again salonnière who wills shows and concerts into existence and serves as the storm’s eye that every loose collection like Tiny Creatures requires. Until Kim’s arrival, the art scene in LA was composed of a “cluster of fiefdoms ruled by a handful of MFA programs,” as glossed in Kraus’ 2006 novel Torpor:
The LA art world … is free of arcane references and ambiguity. There are no alternate hierarchies of glamour here. Those who work outside the gallery system are simply losers. Any artist any good will be professional. All it takes is social skills and an MFA from the right school.
Kim is clearly a hero for Kraus because she challenged all that. Drawing art from the basements and files of local musicians (who also “did art”), Kim curated shows of “drawings, collage, and ephemera.” The vibe was low-fi and handmade: snapshots, ready-mades, posters:
At [Tiny Creatures], friendships would reach an ecstatic pitch and then fall apart. Artists would spend entire months producing ‘zines full of interviews and reviews that on the one hand sought to mythologize each other’s work, but at the same time questioned the whole idea of art careers built upon “gateway drugs to success” and “authenticity.” The group was never wholly on-message. Causal drug use would blossom to crippling habits and some of the artists would be arrested. “It just started out as one thing,” Kim recalls, “and then it became something else.”
Had Tiny Creatures persisted in its quirkiness, drawn small attention, and vanished, it’s unlikely that Kraus would have managed to land a grant from the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation to write about it. But, perhaps due to the well-known musicians whose work was being shown, New York money and LA media homed in on Tiny Creatures and stars were born. For anyone who’s ever been a part of a group of disparate people who came together, made something meaningful, then drifted apart, Kraus’ essay makes for absorbing reading – I nodded my head as I turned the pages. I noticed that the descriptions of actual works of art were few and spare, but they weren’t the focus of the essay after all (though this raises the question of why Tiny Creatures caught on). “You Are Invited to Be the Last Tiny Creature,” like most of Where Art Belongs, is about community and the texture of time. Kraus’ depiction of the middle Bush years, already bygone, rings true here: slacker aesthetics, twee branding, sprezzatura cool:
While the explosion of sometimes-conflicting energies around [exhibits called] Burnout and Retrospective led the core group to take a step back, the space was established and younger people arrived, creating a community eclectic beyond Kim’s initial dreams. San Diego pro-skaters Spanky and Jerry Hsu exhibited artwork in The Three Burritos. The vegan collective Crops and Rawbers turned the space into a temporary restaurant. As Kim recalls, “These shows had a huge impact on Tiny Creatures, because they brought in the young kids, the little Mexican punk kids, the bikers, the skaters, the vegans, and mixed them all in with the older art people. That was the deal.”
Among the other collectives described in the book is The Bernadette Corporation, a loose group of downtown New York artists who “adopt[ed] their name as ‘the perfect alibi for not having to fix an identity’ at a moment when branding was the buzzword in fashion.” The members of this collective style themselves upscale, creating installations of real fashion photographs minus the product names, for example, or one-time-only installations of an entirely original “epic poem” (“you look at a lot of poems that are published,” explains the poem’s co-author “and it could be a really excellent poem with burning great sentences, but what you really see is, where was it published? And then somebody’s name at the bottom”). As Kraus writes, “Bernadette Corporation were quick to see identity as a fallacious term usurped by capital—and so they sought to undermine it from within.” This is art that supports the theory that all of our personal relationships take place within the capitalist sphere and are beholden to that sphere for their existence. Every work of art, therefore, is a critique of capitalism from within—every piece of criticism too—though it is wise to avoid “programmatic critiques and their implicit, misleading ‘solutions.’” Hence Kraus’ overwhelming concern with cachet: if you don’t have it, you don’t exist. If the poem isn’t published by a famous poet in a major magazine, then who cares?
All art is now conceptual, defined by its stance in relation to other art and its place in the market. It would be more fruitful and interesting at this point to ask how an image transcends other images, or even more to the point: How can the market be used to do what art used to do?
What art used to do is not explained. Its historical role in promoting the ideologies of its owners or of advertising their prestige is not what Kraus is concerned with, at least not in these essays.
Her allegiance to admittedly fascinating ideas can make Kraus read like not only a world-weary writer, but also a wearying one. It’s not her responsibility to explain the underpinnings of her philosophy with every new essay or sketch, but it’s only by gaining a familiarity with the larger body of her work that I was able to piece together where Where Art Belongs was coming from.
Like Kraus’s other books, Where Art Belongs aims to evade genre distinctions (her novels often read like essays, her criticism like confession). Unlike those other books, it is possible to pin this one down: it’s a collection of ephemera, packaged as a manifesto. The series of which it’s part, Semiotext(e)’s Intervention Series, promises “highly focused manifestos, essays, and critiques,” but Kraus doesn’t write highly focused work—she drifts, and in that drift lies much of what is pleasurable about her work. Her essay “Indelible Video” explores ideas of collective art projects (of course) but also immigration, fair wages, new media, and the good work at American Apparel. One passage on the Wackenhut Corporation (now called G4S Secure Solutions) is quality journalism worth quoting in full:
Founded in 1954 by former FBI operative George Wackenhut, the company became a pioneer in the outsourcing of surveillance and terror. Throughout the 1960s, they gathered files on four million suspected American dissidents and went on to open privatized prisons all over the world and six immigrant detention camps in Australia. Tasked with providing untraceable illegal arms for the US military in the 1980s, Wackenhut joined forces with California’s Cabazon Indians to build a munitions factory on sovereign Indian land. Weapons produced here were covertly shipped to the Mideast and Nicaragua. In Texas, Wackenhut prisoners build Microsoft circuit boards for $1.25 an hour. Intensely supervised and centrally located, these prison factories compete well with China and India in outsourced computer assembly. In the past seven years, Wackenhut has been summoned to US Federal Court 62 times to face human rights charges brought by present and former prisoners.
Contrasted against the dystopian vision of Wackenhut is the revolutionary world of American Apparel, which – thanks to its vertical integration, immigration assistance, and sexy photo shoots conducted by employees for employees – is “able to reach more deeply into the culture than art ever can.” Or could?
Kraus is less interested in art than in scenes. More fairly stated: she believes that there is no really subjective way to take in an art object, that framing is all, and that the story of how the art world narrates its own identity to itself is more compelling than the way an individual work might, at a transient moment, cause a spectator to think or feel. So there is surprisingly little description of actual works and much more talk about group dynamics and the politics of survival. In describing the video art scene of the mid-‘90s, Kraus writes, “of course, by the mid-1990s, the idea that anyone outside the art game would be viewing the work was inconceivable.” Of course this isn’t true – I saw a number of the works she mentions at the time – but she’s writing for people committed to art and to theory and her style can be exclusive. I expect an LA resident or a working artist would probably get more from Where Art Belongs than I do.
What I come away with is a better idea of Kraus’ position on global capitalism than on art per se. Kraus doesn’t see individual works of art as personal expressions of identity, regardless of whatever else they may be, but I don’t know that she’ll succeed in converting a reader not already steeped in her work (and in the kind of poststructuralist theory Semiotext(e) promotes). The trouble is that by not explaining her point of view in so many words, she ends up taking for granted her reader’s like-mindedness. Presumably she also takes for granted that her reader is a member of the art world, or one of its students.
The American Apparel nearest to where I live and work is a pretty simple storefront selling fairly simple clothing that I don’t feel moved to buy. I don’t go there to feel or think anything in particular whereas I do go to galleries for that reason. Kraus is concerned with groups, group identity: we learn the vicissitudes of the Sex Workers Art Tour, but I wish John Berger had been along with Kraus on the trip so that he could write about what the art itself resembled and evoked. Surely, as Kraus has it, your journey and your company matter as much as your destination; but surely it also matters where you’re going.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010. He is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly