Speaker by Various Artists

Et al, livin da logo loca

by James Littlewood

The Prime Minister said on b-rekky that “Creative NZ now know what it’s like to be accountable.” I don’t know if that is strictly correct. Perhaps it would be truer to say that the rest of the country is finding out what it’s like to try to measure a cultural institution with a calculator.

What is the problem? If you don’t yet know the identity of et al, then I’m not about to tell you. Who cares anyway? What are the implications?

Let’s look at it firstly from a nationalist perspective, which seems to be the one causing most of the grief. The PM says the artist should be able to turn up to Venice and explain their art. But why? If it’s the nation that is being represented at Venice, then what’s the artist got to do with it? I like to think of nationalist artists as a sort of conduit, surrendering themselves to the vagaries of their context, letting the cultural lifeblood of the nation to cascade right through them. Rather than criticising everybody in sight, why not praise the artist for having the humility – for once – to let the art speak for itself? And before you say it, remember it takes even more humility than that to let your art be spoken for by others. Try it.

By removing her own profile from that of the work, et al is being profoundly nationalistic, allowing her art to represent the nation directly, without the security net of his own identity to come between the sign and the signified. Besides, the biennale is – by all accounts – primarily a meeting of institutions, in which artists have a fool-like role: entertaining, reflecting, and momentarily basking in the curatorial glow sparked by the rubbing up of national discourses.

Perhaps the nationalists fear that the artist will misrepresent them. Reasonable fear to have. Everybody hates that. If the art misrepresents you, then it’s always good to have someone to blame for its existence. But in this instance, where the artist steps out, the institution rushes in, like gas in a vacuum. Presto: people are already blaming the arts council.

Perhaps there is a critical argument to sending this particular work. Not having seen the work, that’s not my call. But if you’re feeling misrepresented by a work of art, then the absence of the artist creates a whole new critical situation (well, not that new considering how well established the anonymous art tradition is now, with the likes of Budd Holdings, DM Portables, City Group, Lillian Budd, et al, to rattle off a few). With no appropriate object onto which to project rage, the offended now has to locate an alternative site for those feelings, and an alternative response as well. Incredible! A new location for thought, and a new thought process to go with it. In fact, nothing short of a new way of being. And that – I really hate to say it – is what art, and indeed nationhood, is all about (needless to say this will no doubt change).

That’s right. Nationhood is all about doing things different. Different from before. Different from elsewhere. Different from how we will do it again. Example: Lord of the Rings. Example: extreme right wing economics.

Et al understands that life is logo mad. Everything has to be a brand these days.

Which all reminds me to ask, is there a financial argument in this? Back when I did theatre, we used the 2 out of 3 ain’t bad approach to marketing: if the audience recognise two items amongst the name of the author, the cast or the title, we had the confidence to run with it. I don’t know if that’s how they still do it, but perhaps the only certainty about New Zealand’s current contribution to the Venice Biennale is that its got media interest. Is it a cultural cringe that makes us imagine that because we find it interesting, there’s no reason to suppose the punters will? Or worse, that because we do, they won’t?

It’s just that it seems to me that this is probably the most talked about Biennale ever. I know, because I’ve stopped hanging out in art galleries, and news of it has still found its way to me. Trust me, when you get your information from TV One, you’re talking public knowledge, rather than news.

Thanks to those who agreed with me about the awesome work the midwives do, and apologies for implying Team NZ are involved in birthing. When I said births, I meant for the boats. Like, where a boat ties up is a birth. I could have said docks, but in fact that’s slightly different.