A*live: art criticism goes live at last

Catalan original version

A*live, a meeting between art critics and artists that took place at the Suñol Foundation in Barcelona – an unusual, necessary, professional event – is the result of an intelligent symbiosis between two bodies engaged with art and culture. Firstly, A*desk, the group of critics founded by David G. Torres, Martí Manen and Montserrat Badia, provides the spirit, the players, the organisation, for this is a collective with the credibility and trajectory to accomplish the difficult task of awakening expectation amongst the small but demanding contemporary art audience in Catalonia. And, secondly, the Suñol Foundation, which lent the “container” and once more showed its good judgement in promoting contemporary art in an eclectic and educational style.

Nonetheless, it is necessary to critique criticism, to suggest certain conflicting considerations in order to ensure that future events of this type can achieve even higher standards of quality, if that is possible. The first improvement we should like to suggest concerns the fact that A*live lacks audience debate. Such debate is an indispensable ingredient if the goal of the event is social communication. The intimate nature of the venue would have allowed it, as would the new technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook, by opening up the meeting to the virtual audience. This occurred, for instance, at the “Cultural Institutions 2.0!” conference at CCCB last spring. Barcelonan audiences are little given to incisive dialectic – they need guidance with regard to when they should intervene.

I feel that audience intervention would have thrown up interesting questions that could have replaced others, which were too predictable or vague at times. Rather than guiding the interventions towards a discussion of complaints, it might have been better to exchange ideas about how to combat the crisis, drawing all the museum institutions into the debate. Instead of talking about an exhibition we enjoyed or found interesting, we could have discussed the critic’s profession itself: what role should contemporary art play in society? Through what new channels can we express ourselves? Rather than bringing up the decline of the Venice Biennale – which clearly did not interest even its curator – perhaps it might have been more appropriate to discuss the reasons for its failure and the curatorial alternatives available to us. And another key issue: educating the public in contemporary art. Should we give this up as a lost cause? There is a lot to do in this field, and discussion about how to approach the issue is absolutely indispensable.

The Barcelonan nature of the meeting is also open to debate. I hope that this event will turn out to be a “metropolitan” first part, and would like to see a second round in which other towns and cities, such as Mataró, Girona, Lleida, Tarragona and Vic, play a leading role, not to mention – while we are asking – organisations and artists from the rest of the Peninsula and Europe. There should also be other partners from outside A*desk. It is understandable that the first meetings of this kind should feature many of the critics and artists linked to the magazine but, as we all know, the Catalan contemporary art world is much more complex and multi-faceted.

All this notwithstanding, A*live enabled us to decipher several burning issues concerning the contemporary arts in Barcelona. The debate on “discourse”, which we talk about naturally and insistently, is triumphant. At times, travelling to London, Berlin, New York, one wonders why they are so obsessed with discourse at home. It is as if we had suddenly become asexual and come to scorn the fact that, in the 21st century, the exhibition of an artwork must be the result of a production that measures intensity, irony or sensual subversion and conceptual engagement. That the artwork – whether objectual or liquid – rules and discourse is its accompaniment. When artworks become befogged by ideas, this is a sign that something has not been done well or that the curator has chosen the wrong profession. For this reason, we should never take the pre-eminence of discourse in art and curatorship too much for granted. Discourse failed in Venice, in exhibitions like “Estratègies” [“Strategies”] after failure of Can Felipa –where discourse was finally abandoned – at the last show at the Catalan Government’s Espai Jove – where audiences were forced to guess at it. This is an argument with enough question marks to make it worth debating.

The event also served to elevate Carles Guerra as a new reference in the Barcelona contemporary art scene. His presentation was, I felt, the most solid and vehement. A clear, forward-looking mind, like the projects he so successfully directs. On the other hand, some of the critics who spoke confessed that they felt uncomfortable, arguing that they are more used to defending their theories in writing rather than in speech. And this is understandable: we have few forums for oral critique and, moreover, Spanish schools and universities did not train us to speak – I would even go so far as to say that they did not teach us to write, either. But this is a subject on which art criticism needs to work, and to work very hard. We must look abroad, not only to learn English, but also to learn methods of writing, research and communication. This would help us in many ways, including, amongst others, to bring contemporary art closer and to smooth over contradictions.

A final problem we should like to discuss concerns language. That a large proportion of contemporary art critics in the city express themselves in Spanish was amply ratified at A*live. We do not seek to stir up provincialism with this remark. Let all express themselves as they will – and Spanish is essential for local, peninsular and trans-Atlantic communication. English is essential, too, and the members of A*desk have done good work here, giving our criticism the chance to travel beyond the borders of our country. But what I do feel that we should criticise is the fact that Catalan is being ignored in contemporary discourse; and it should be a French-speaking curator like the charming Laurence Rassel who gives us lessons in this.  If we do not cultivate Catalan in our own media, then the language of Sebastià Gasch and Cirici Pellicer can be packed up and filed away. If language is also thought, then using it will, perhaps, lead us to what we so eagerly seek: singularity of discourse.

[Bonart, December 2010]