Ruth Barker

Back to Back They Faced Each Other; Art and the Everyday of Terror



Transcript of talk given at CCA Glagsow, as part of The New Co-Effecient (a symposium on the work on Andrew Sunley Smith). 



You’ll be pleased to hear that this isn’t an artist’s talk.


But my thinking does have a relationship to my visual practice, and so maybe that’s a good thing to talk about as I begin.  I’m an artist, and because of that I’m a very subjective observer of art and of the things that might be related to art. The act of making affects the way I think about things, just as the way I think about things affects the act of making. Every artist feels differently about how and why they make work, and that’s all to the good; what’s also to the good however, is that sometimes we artists try to articulate the how and the why of art. Part of doing that is by talking with opacity about some of the questions that are inherent in the act of visual practice. It’s a luxury in our field of work that that is a possible dual role for us as practitioners to take, and so I’ll try to make the most of that possibility. What I’m particularly interested in at the moment is how art might be discussed as quite a solid and manifest thing that has the same kind of relationship to the vagaries of the intellectual, economic, political, and geographical world as any other field does: newspaper reporting for example, or music, or bubblegum manufacture.


My own visual practice exists in several ways: I make work; I talk about work; and I write about work – both my own and other people’s. I see those different structures as different methodologies I can implement as a practitioner to investigate a set of concerns and to communicate a set of ideas, and so really I don’t differentiate too much between them. They all come from the same place, and they all circle round similar ideas. This talk is an example of that.


What I want to do this afternoon is to use some ideas from my own work and some from Andrew’s work (using Andrew as an example of the genre of the co-efficient and so an example of a different - though related - way of thinking about the function and practice of art), and then to draw out some implications from that.


Specifically, I want to ask how we as artists think about how art might exist as a form within the world, and perhaps what kind of a world we think about art being a form within. That sounds circular, but perhaps in many ways the way I think art should be spoken about is analogous to the way I think art should be made, which is a combination of the thought and the gut. Maybe this talk will be similar in that I want to combine some things that I think to be relevant, and some that I feel to be relevant. 
I’m going to ask some questions about where we stand with regard to what might be called the ‘philosophy of art’, and then talk about where that philosophy might stand in relation to a context of wider world events.


My work uses different forms, but often comes back to text, sculpture, and drawing. The physical forms of making are important to me, and often I try to find a point within a repetitive process of production where you make something over and over again until the hands know how to make, when the hands have a sensitivity to the object or the idea. I think that that in itself becomes an interesting way to think about these parallel processes of thinking and making. The work is often very labour intensive in that way.


Some of my recent work has revolved around a couple of ideas; death/mortality, and language/thinking. They aren’t so far apart as they might seem at first. A lot of our cultural thinking about death comes down to a fear of a loss of recognition, an absence, a loss of specificity in some ways. Death is very anonymous because it is a common condition. Thinking and language are clearly related to that idea, as ways of defining and articulating self as well as others and the world. Through definition we are able to challenge nothingness, but the disparity between thinking and articulation must also always be questioned


That’s a very broad series of ideas that I’m more than aware that we don’t have the time to go into, so I’m just going to drop it in there and move on. Just before we do so completely though, the cultural critic Terry Eagleton touches on some parallel ideas in his 2003 book After Theory, when he’s speaking about the grand narratives of postmodernism. He says:


“Death is both alien and intimate to us, neither wholly strange nor purely one’s own. To this extent, ones relationship to it resembles one’s relationship to other people, who are likewise both fellows and strangers. Death may not be exactly a friend, but neither is it entirely an enemy…

My identity lies in the keeping of others… It is others who are the custodians of my selfhood… It is only in the speech I share with them that I can come to mean anything at all. That meaning is not one I can ever fully possess, since neither can those who fashion it.”



In some way this is analogous to Susan Stewart when she talks about poetry as a form of illumination through articulation, of giving shape to darkness through the entry into it of language and metaphor. I’d perhaps add the language of physical manipulation of stuff as another way to define those spaces and shape those ideas.


In an essay for Caesar called ‘How Are Things Made’ I talked about the process of making an art practice, as distinct from the process of making individual works. The structure of a practice, wherein the works an artist produces exist in relation to that which the artist has done before and that which they have yet to do, I argued was key, because it becomes a precondition for the process of ‘art as investigation’: a quality that sets visual art aside from leisure pursuits. I say that not to establish a hierarchy, but merely a differentiation with regards to intent. Carol Becker though, is very right to point out in The Subversive Imagination that:


“There are few people outside the art or literary worlds who would define art as ‘investigation’ and be sympathetic to this as its legitimate goal. Rather, many expect art to serve as a source of pleasure or an intellectual and aesthetic diversion.

Within this conflict between expectation and reality rests the contemporary artist’s anxiety and despair.”



It’s a tough life. But this idea of art as investigation raises a very interesting question: not about the content or direction of that investigation, but about it’s structure. What kind of framework can be inferred by the investigations we see being undertaken? That framework which underlies some of the ideas that artists are tackling at any given moment in time, has changed radically over the course of art history, but we might think about it usefully here as something like ‘the philosophy of imagination’ as well as the philosophy of art. We can think about the shifts from thinking about imagination through phenomenological or ontological terms, through an existential reading, or even a hermeneutic approach. Recently, since the 1980s and 1990s, I’d argue that the philosophical structure that has almost been taken as read by mainstream culture as well as by many artists, is that of postmodernism. The central tenets of postmodernism, I think, have almost become cultural truisms. I’m speaking here about the received understanding of postmodernism –ideas like the fragmentation of experience, of multiple viewpoints indicating a fractured actuality, of the end of the real, of the lack of any kind of ‘authentic’ experience or ‘objectivity’, or absolute.


I want to give you a proposal to think about. When I spoke about my own work, I talked quite candidly about death as an absolute experience. At one time, not so very long ago, to discuss these ideas in the face of the implacable giant of Postmodern Discourse would have been laughable. And yet my proposal is that something in the contemporary artworld seems to be changing. It seems as though artists of a younger generation are becoming dissatisfied with some of the understood ‘truths’ of postmodern thinking as it has been accepted into the mainstream.


The genre of the co-efficient, of relational aesthetics, which Andrew Sunley Smith’s work has discussed and that we’ve had described by some of the other speakers here today, I feel is an example of that. It’s not the only one of course – maybe its just the one that’s triggered this particular train of thought for me.


Andrew’s work is quite personal, I think, to him. And I think that that aspect of the personal is important because it allows aspects which otherwise might be seen as inconsistencies to instead become autobiographical details. When he talks about these big issues like migration or the quotidian, the co-efficient, Andrew approaches them from a personal perspective that is rooted in his own experience of the world. What isn’t an issue for him though, is that there is a world for him to experience. We almost have the best of both worlds: the postmodern notion that Andrew’s personal and idiosyncratic experience is valuable, but also a slightly different idea that there is a definite reality there which impacts on him and which he is situated within.


Let’s take Richard Kearney’s summary of postmodernism from his critical essay ‘The Postmodern Imagination’. Here’s he’s painting a very broad portrait of postmodernism, and using Derrida as an example of that, which is interesting because as far as I know I don’t think Derrida ever uses the term ‘postmodern’ in his own writing, although he’s certainly a very influential part of that canon.


“According to this scenario, [i.e the scenario of postmodern thinking] there is no longer an original light, deriving from the sun-god of Platonism or the imagination lamp of humanism. There is only a circling of reflections without beginning or end – the ‘mirror of a mirror… a reference without a referent’ Derrida is compelled to conclude that there may no longer be a decidable distinction between image and so-called reality. The mimicry which parodies itself also deconstructs itself. It is ‘at once image and model and hence image without model, without verisimilitude, without truth or falsity, a miming of appearance without concealed reality, without any world behind it.’ After imagination, there is no reality.’ ”


Since the emergence of postmodern thinking as it moved from the discourse of architecture to become such a defining set of ideas to cultural theory more generally, theorists have summarised a lot of postmodern writing into 4 basic pointers:


  1. The refusal of previous ideas of “an imagining subject as a transcendental origin of meaning” (Kearney again)
  2. The refusal of universality.
  3. The refusal of the modern idea of ‘Truth’.
  4. The refusal of an opposition between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art.

I feel, as a thinker and practitioner, that the recent shift away from postmodern philosophy as a cultural given centres around a re-appraisal of points 2 and 3 here. I don’t want to undermine the worth of postmodernism as a structure, and in fact, what I want to go on to talk about is explicitly a child of the postmodern project. I’m not even saying that points 2 and 3 are being or have been attacked or refuted, but merely that they are being reconsidered. And this is still a proposal, remember - just something to think about.


In Andrew’s work you see a shift in terms of the artist’s relationship to ideas like Truth. His practice doesn’t seem crippled by that notion of being lost in a tissue of signs. It stands on it’s own two feet in a way. That’s certainly not to say that it is uncritical, or unconcerned with theory, but simply that it exists within a world that is explicitly palpable. There is a certain amount of no-nonsense assumption that the world he lives in is pretty similar to the one that we live in: that we eat, we drink, we have pleasure in particular things and so on.


Okay, so I’m proposing that some artists, and some other people, feel that we’ve moved away from the postmodern idea that the world is an endlessly displaced series of mirrors with nothing behind them but images and parodies and images.

I’m explicitly not going to say why that might be the case.

Instead I want to contextualise that shift, which I’m proposing is happening right now, by talking about the wider global situation in which I in Glasgow – and Andrew in Australia – are living within. I’m not claiming that either one of them (either the work or the broader context) is being caused by the other. But I’m pointing out that both are happening at the same time, and that it is not inconceivable that they may have a relation to one another.

In his 2003 text After Theory, Eagleton quite sardonically points out that in the late 1990’s, when postmodernism was still swinging:


“It seemed as though there might be nothing more momentous for young Europeans to recount to their grandchildren than the advent of the Euro.”


As we know, with the declaration of the War on Terror things have taken a slightly more dramatic turn, and we don’t even have the Euro yet. The 21st century has already seen an appalling catalogue of atrocity and disaster, some of which have been natural, and some of which have been man-made. We have indeed been witnesses to a myriad images, but those images have included the earthquake in Bam; the events of the 11th of September 2001; and Bali, Madrid and London; the Beslan School Massacre; the earthquake in Pakistan; the Tsunami; New Orleans; Iraq and Afghanistan; attacks in Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories; Durfur and Sudan: this list is not exhaustive, but I also don’t think that it has left us unaffected.


The causes of these events are deep-rooted, and many, and complex, as are their effects and their implication. I do not wish to trivialise any of them. What I will suggest however, is that they have occurred at just the same time as the postmodern shorthand that all truth is relative, and that there is no reality outside of the circuit of image and parody, has started to seem slightly unconvincing to some of us. Perhaps, and I speak as an individual rather than an artist or a theorist or a writer, perhaps the Grand Narrative of horror is not relative, and perhaps it remains horrific no matter when or where or how it happens.

Perhaps not everything can or should be fragmented, and perhaps the opposition that can be drawn is between the trivial and the significant, rather than between the high and low.


I am not one of those who believe that overexposure to the images which atrocity engenders necessarily dulls us to their implications. I don’t think either that these images are always visual though – even though I know that that’s usually how they are discussed: verbal or written accounts can be just as affecting. It can be at least as harrowing for example, to hear someone describe an appalling event they have survived or witnessed than to be shown a picture of it. I’m sure we can all think of examples of that, but maybe we are actually presented with more occasions when we are able to hear these kind of first hand stories: we talk a lot about a global culture, for good or for ill, but perhaps one of the implications of that is that we have access to the testimonies of individuals who would not previously have had a voice within the media.


A lot of that is down to new technologies that allow camera and recording equipment to be a lot lighter and more manoeuvrable. Reporters can go undercover, or they can penetrate disaster scenes much more quickly than ever before. New technology has had another effect as well, in that it has had a fundamental affect on the kinds of images that we are presented with. If I cast my mind back to the images from New York on the 11th of September, from the London bombings, of the Tsunami, and from New Orleans, then the footage that springs to mind is from mobile phones, digital cameras and camcorders – personal images from people who were protagonists rather than commentators. We have moved from the third person to the first. That’s new, I think. Because we lost, for that moment, the objective or dispassionate camera-person.. That simple fact in the media desire to get the first images brought the situation home to the people watching it at home on tv. They could imagine themselves there, to a degree. There is also an uncomfortable but undeniable fact that a lot of television viewers were more affected by some of these images of ‘western’ death and suffering because they were closer to home than somewhere like Rwanda. People could imagine being on holiday in Thailand, and so they had an immediate empathy. ‘Those poor people’ changed to ‘what if that was me?’


Perhaps it’s just that reality of the threat of terrorism for example (or even climate change), though still relatively small, is a part of the everyday for many Europeans now. Perhaps that makes us better able to empathise with horror elsewhere: because we can almost imagine it coming here. Perhaps we don’t feel quite so outside these situations any more, and so they feel more real to us in that sense.

Where I’m trying go with this idea – that we can maybe imagine being on holiday in Thailand, or that we feel an immediacy when we’re presented with footage from a mobile phone of commuters escaping from a mangled tube train – is that it feels more uncomfortable now to suggest that there is no reality. When we saw New Orleans on our TVs, I think we knew that drowning is an absolute. 

Perhaps it’s worth speaking about that, and perhaps implicitly, it is reflected in the work of contemporary artists – not all artists and not only artists – who are trying to maintain a practice in the same world as all of this stuff is happening in.

Perhaps the flourishing of an idea like co-efficient practice makes perfect sense in that case. On the one hand the co-efficient is a theoretical premise, but on the other you can throw the theory out the window and you still have, when you get right down to it, a functioning vehicle, an edible garden, a usable crate. Those things are real.

Or in my own case, and I don’t see my work as an example of the co-efficient, you have an acknowledgement, and a recognition, that some things just are more fundamental than others. That you can talk about the dissolution of the real all you like but shit, we’re still all gonna die. And though each death is different and personal, in a very real sense each death is also the same and something that happens to everyone.

Looking at both Andrew’s work and my own in terms of these questions, I’d talk about the shift in this way: Postmodernism offered a vision of the world in which fragmented, multiple viewpoints saw a fragmented and insubstantial image of a world that was itself fragmented and insubstantial. Perhaps now, in this post postmodern state, we understand that multiple viewpoints may be had of something that is nevertheless absolute; that just because every individual might perceive the world differently, that doesn’t mean that there is no concrete world to be perceived.

In these images of horror, atrocity, and suffering we have jolted back into some kind of perspective. Whether the synchronicity of this re-evaluation of the presence of the real and the witnessing of a succession of horrors happening to people not too different to ourselves, is sheer coincidence? I think it’s impossible to say.


This isn’t some gratuitous way of looking for the silver lining. It would be incredibly distasteful for me to say, ‘hey that earthquake was pretty bad, but on the bright side it’s allowed us to become critically engaged with the tenets of discourse!’

I’m not saying that, of course. What I am saying though, is that I think art is important, and that the making of art is important. For me as a practitioner it’s also important to ask the biggest questions I can about how and why art might still be important in the face of such appalling suffering the world over. Even if I can’t find an answer. I know I’ve probably not been able to get to the bones of that in half an hour, but I’ve tried damned hard to find the skin.

You might not agree with me – in fact you probably don’t, but at least I’ve given it a go.