The Lecture as a Means to Withdraw (2014)

is a project under the name of Voitka Group, performed by Cissie Fu at puntWG, Amsterdam.

My name is Cissie. For this project about the lecture as a means of withdrawal, I am a part of Voitka Group.
I will start by introducing the figure Bartleby
Herman Melville’s famous work Bartleby the Scrivener, has Bartleby as its main character. He is a scrivener – a kind of clerk or copyist – on Wall Street. In the start he seems an industrious worker, being at the office both night and day, he never leaves. Remarkable about Bartleby is that he replies every request with: ‘I would prefer not to’. And this gets worse and worse until the point that he gets fired, but still he ‘would prefer’ not to leave the office building. Consequently, instead of moving Bartleby, the boss moves his office. The subsequent tenants can’t get rid of Bartleby either, so they call the police who move him to the Tombs as a vagrant. Inside this prison, Bartleby ultimately dies of starvation for he also ‘prefers not’ to eat.
An important passage in the book is when his boss asks him to go to the post-office, upon which Bartleby – of course – replies: I would prefer not to.
His boss asks him: ‘You will not’
Bartleby: I prefer not’.
Here it shows that Bartleby does not simply say yes or no, but ‘prefer not to’, hence engaging with the human consideration of the person addressed.

First, I will talk about Provo.
On the 13th of May 1967 the provotariat gathered in the Vondelpark for the dissolution of Provo. The provotariat was a combination of hoodlums, artists, poets, thinkers and political activists, which Provo considered to be the revolutionary force in a time where the ‘old proletariat’ had lost its momentum.
Two weeks later, The Paper Tiger was published wherein the death of Provo was announced. I quote: “The same names were always mentioned in the press, the same names that kept the movement going. Provo had gradually become something tangible, a cellar, a boat, a cinema and a printing house. The image of a group of non-violent, crazy idealists who brought out their protest in an original and hilarious way had transformed into an image of grim tension. All that remained was that image, and thus the decision to destroy Provo in order to decentralize the group to create a void where things are possible again.

This part is about the Russian political art collective Radek Community. I quote from an article published by the website Moscow Diary in 2008.
“A week ago, the Radek Community announced its dissolution. Little has changed in Moscow since then. Most people just smiled and said something like “Didn’t those guys break up a while ago already?” Basically, they saw the announcement as another non-event in a normalized administrative media routine. Why make a fetish of it?”

For this part I will give the stage to artist Eva Weinmayr. She will talk about the English art collective Art in Ruins.

This part is briefly about Voitka Group
The French neomarxist Henri Lefebvre developed the theory of the moment. Every moment, he says, is subversive. But the moment that is revolutionary or subverting, is always only temporarily. When the desire and the revolt come together, history makes a turn.
From the end of the revolutionary moment, we start. Voitka Group plays in that void. It is a scattered collective of ruins. We are structured like a collective, but we also tend to flee the difficulties that collectivity involves – by operating as networks. Each project and process has its own strategy, its own plan and its own members. Every time a project becomes tangible, every time an image is created, Voitka Group calls for its own dissolution. Like a repetitive suicide bomber.
We do prefer not to, but we also prefer not to be Bartlebys in as far as Bartleby says ‘prefer not to’ instead of saying ‘no’. The above collectives, and many more, find solutions inside the existing system. They sabotage and challenge, until eventually they dissolve, disappear, or dismantle. The retreat or exodus seems not to be an option. Voitka Group wants to operate in the retreat, in the withdrawal, in the disconnected connection.

After the lecture: Institutions by Artists – session 07 – Promises and Practices, readymade artist Claire Fontaine said:
There is no art under capitalism
We need to stop solving the problems of others and start creating new problems

For this part I will give the stage to the French philosopher Catherine Malabou. She will talk about her three heroes of the retreat: Maurice Blanchot, Alexander Grothendieck and Thomas Bernhardt.

This part is taken from an interview between art theorist Stephen Wright and theorist Alexander Koch called ‘Quitting: a conversation with Alexander Koch on the paradoxes of dropping out’. The latter published GENERAL STRIKE in 2011, a publication that sketches the act of ‘dropping out of art’.
Alexander Koch answers: you are right to ask to what extent this decision to retreat has a critical dimension. Remember all those classical gestures of refusal in art: empty canvases, closed galleries, silent artists. I see that sort of silence as a fundamental mistrust in arts’ contribution to social and individual change. I wondered if emptiness, silence or announced attacks on museums were already the radical peak of such distrust. And I found that there was a possible step further to imagine: just leaving the canvases, museums, and artworld as a whole, alone with themselves and seeking out other endeavours. But then how would we know about such steps, once they were taken?

This part is about the critical dimension of the retreat.
“In the last Guggenheim International Exhibition in NY in 1971, Daniel Buren hung a huge banner of 20 by 10 meters in the museum’s rotunda. Some of the other artists in the exhibition, like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, complained that the banner blocked the view, and that their works had to deal with this unwillingly. Buren notified that Flavin’s fluorescent lights also unwillingly coloured his banner”.
Institutional Criticism knows a long history of working with the institutions of art while commenting on it at the same time. The institutions in most cases are pleased by these critical gestures, except for the case above; Daniel Buren got thrown out of that exhibition. Institutional Critique, however, is not necessarily linked to the retreat, as it is known for reflecting the art world’s ideological framework back onto itself. It stays inside the place that it critiques. Andrea Fraser famously says that there is no outside of the art context. To critique the institute means at the same time that you inevitably participate in the institute. And what happens outside the field of art can have no effect within it. She says: ‘We are the institution of art’.
That is a rather depressing thought. Furthermore, Fraser is wearing an old coat as she points out that art is and remains autonomous, where its function is limited to its own ground – which asks for a self-limitation that barely permits reflection on one’s own field. There is no indication of forms of escaping, shifting or transforming. She does not consider any possible exit strategies.

Now I will hand over the word to Stephen Wright, who wrote about the double ontology of art, meaning that art is both what it is and a proposition of what it is. He will talk about his reason to start considering exit strategies.

This part continues on the critical dimension of the retreat.
The institutional critique of today lies not in direct comments on the field of art only; it lies in the disconnection, the flight, the exodus. In leaving behind the apparatuses of capture. According to art theorist Gerald Raunig, it lies in a new concept of resistance, where the aim is to hinder a dialectical idea of power and resistance: a positive form of dropping out, a flight that is simultaneously an ‘instituent practice’. Instead of assuming the conditions of domination as an unchangeable horizon and yet fighting against them, this flight changes the conditions under which the assumptions take place. Paolo Virno notes in The Grammar of the Multitude that exodus transforms ‘the context within which a problem has arisen, rather than facing this problem by opting for one or the other of the provided alternatives’.
Also activist and art critic Brian Holmes thinks about a possible ‘third phase’ of institutional critique. He talks about the link between the art circuit to projects and experiments that do not exhaust themselves inside the art system, but ‘extend elsewhere’. I quote: ‘These projects can no longer be unambiguously defined as art. They are based instead on a circulation between disciplines, often involving the real critical reserve of marginal or counter-cultural positions – social movements, political associations, squats, autonomous universities – which can’t be reduced to an all-embracing institution’.

For this part, the stage will be Gerald Raunig’s. He will talk about philosophical activism.

This part elaborates on the exodus as a collective action
The flight, or exodus, is not the subject’s personal retreat. A protagonist such as Melville’s Bartleby is often seen as a personification of personal resistance and of individual withdrawal. This old image of retreat into an artist hermitage is repeated, and used by the new circles of cultural pessimism against collective interventionist, activist or other experimental strategies.
When withdrawing, it is important that there cannot be the intention to make a personal statement. In order to make a statement, one already needs to operate from a position of power. When Lee Lozano executed her Dropout Piece – where she dropped out of the art world – she had been a successful painter for many years. Or when Gustav Metzger demanded a creative strike, the request was only heard since the already well-known Metzger initiated it. In the retreat, the collective action empowers itself. It is anonymous and invisible. From the moment that the retreat is discovered and empowered by something outside of it, it can no longer be itself.

This part is a definition of ‘the retreat’ from the introductory text for the program called ‘The Retreat’ at Documenta 13 – which is sort of an odd title since it is located at Banff in Canada, which is more of an elitist art hub than an actual place of retreat.
To enter or enact a retreat, is to draw together, in refuge, seclusion, separation, and sharing—not in order to abandon active life with others, but to consider ourselves, with others. The choice to retreat, to move to a space away yet in the world, can open up the possibility of redressing forms of disparity and can disturb relations of power, even if the act itself may seem a reduction of means or a lack of means altogether. Retreat is not abandonment of social challenges, political antinomies, or cultural dead ends, but a temporary condition whose intent is to generate permanent change.

This part of the lecture is about the possibility of a lecture as an artistic format
Recently, Voitka Group did another lecture. The remark of one of the listeners was that he would have expected the lecturer to give an experimental or at least a more creative presentation – considering that the lecturer was presented as an artist. He criticized the format of the lecture as an artistic venture. Two problems arise here:
The first one is the use of the word ‘creative’. What kind of creative format did he have in mind, and is creativity still something solely related to the artist? The word ‘creativity’ has become extremely hollow since it’s been appropriated by the ‘creative industry’. The deprived lifestyle that many artists lead out of commitment to their work and believes, is employed by the neoliberal market, where it is called: being flexible. The artist is the total illustration of flexibility and creativity, and therefore the perfect example of how labor should be conducted.
The second problem is the refusal to see the format of a lecture as an ambiguous artistic project.

This part of the lecture is about the ambiguous artistic lecture as a possibility to withdraw
Brian Holmes writes: The energies devoted to the creation of a privileged object could be better spent on reshaping the everyday environment.
Just like there is an overproduction of art objects, there is an overproduction of lectures, hence making them an inherent part of the mainstream art system. But you cannot research the withdrawal as a possibility for change if you don’t have anything to withdraw from.
The lecture as an artistic endeavor allows for a retreat. The temporality of its form, the fact that it is never unambiguously art, and that it already implies a distance – a lecture is often about the ‘work’, and not the work itself – allows for a certain kind of withdrawal that is not disconnected. For now, the lecture as a work is the epitome of the paradoxical relationship between the withdrawal and the capture.
As said in the beginning, Voitka Group is a collective of ruins where each project has its own strategy, plan and components. When the image is created, we call for our dissolution. And so we call for it.

The last words are for an unknown member of the audience of the program Institutions by Artists, Session 7, Promises and Practices. It is a short remark about the importance of smuggling, and deals with perhaps the most important question: how can discourse on the institutions of art become productive for society?