Interview with Graham Harwood

February, 2002

This interview was made for the newsletter Cream after a symposium on net art criticism in the Balie, Amsterdam. In it Graham Harwood talks about his views on art criticism and specifically about the beauty of systems. 'It is useful for me if people that do net art criticism can write about the context in which the work that I am making appears.'

JB: Can you tell me your point of view on art criticism and net art?


Graham Harwood: I think in the description I was trying to make in De Balie was that art criticism comes from a certain mode of cultural production. That mode of cultural production was generally for the social elite that was trying to maintain or create its position in society for taste. The manufacturing of taste in a more or less homogeneous culture, in which let’s say all people are white, is about how you make divisions. How you make divisions between those that have a natural right to wealth and privilege and those that don't. For a good few centuries art was used mainly for this purpose. This was its main function. Because if you define a set of values for the social elite (and art was the best way to transmit this over time and across place, it was a very efficient method), once you agree a set of taste values anyone that does not conform or understand those taste values is not part of your group. Ritually they are excluded. Taste has always been manufactured to create a distance between the mob and the social elite.

Art criticism generally comes from that trajectory. That is not to say that is invalid, but that is it’s general direction.


JB: And you would say that of 2oth century art criticism as well?


GH: Yes. Talking from the art criticism I have read in Britain I think there were radical moves in 20th century art to try to make some kind of disruption along Marxist lines, but most of the art works, most artists and most art criticism came from the same space. It came from a literate social elite. Even those rebelling against it were from the social elite. They were not your average worker in a factory, they were not your average peasants standing up there and saying "this is what I think". They were certainly people of note in society.


JB: And feminists or deconstructivists haven’t made a difference there?


GH: That is much later, and that is much to do with media culture. Media culture grew from bits of film, bits of photography and then getting into major, major motion in the sixties when it takes off. That is something different. The old forms of art, culture and taste values were transformed into mass media. That is a sea of change. Instead of just a small group of people being able to manufacture these things a bigger group (still not that big, but a bigger group) gets into play. Then you get snapshot photography, which means that even more people are beginning to make meaningful culture for themselves. In the 1960's you get the feminists, women's movement, the gay rights addressing an image within society, an image within culture, an image of women, an image of the black. They are not questions about particular art strategies. They are questions about what are the images that dominate us. And the images at that point are not artistic images. They are cultural images, media images. The debate is very different at that time.


JB: But it has had an effect on art criticism..


GH: I think it kind of blew apart a lot of ideas of universality tried to stay with. Abstract expressionism, those kinds of things were blown apart. You end up with a very different notion of what art is, what it is not and what function it has. I think that the key questions now are very different. The problems are much sharper. I think now everyone with access to clean drinking water is also making meaningful media for themselves. Snapshot photography, tape recordings, photocopied letters… all the things that people manufacture who have got access to clean drinking water. The next thing after clean drinking water and reasonable food is: make meaningful culture for yourself. So you start to save the pictures of your grandparents, you start to grab the pictures of your parents; you start to build your archive of meaningfulness that you make for yourself.


JB: So if you are not living in extreme poverty then you are part of media culture. Is that what you are saying?


GH: You can be in poverty and still be part of media culture. But I think as soon as you have clean drinking water is a reasonable place to start. That is when people do start to take pictures etc.


JB: Why that connection, the clean drinking water and the media?


GH: Because I think before that you are usually dying (laughs loud). The clean drinking water scenario means you don't have to then just talk about bloated western cultures. You can talk much more widely. In India, once you've got your clean drinking water, then you can get on with your snapshots of your family.

Anyway, what's happening now is that more and more people make meaningful media for themselves. The thing is that that offers a much larger counterweight to the banal big media or mass media that exists. So all those instances when we were talking about what is the image of women, what is the image of black people in cinema, what is the image of this, what is the image of that in the mass media in the 60's, 70's, 80's, whatever, now you get a point where there is so much meaningful media that you can't understand because you don’t understand the context that it comes from, but you know it is there. And you know it is acting against or in response to big media, yet you can’t access it. These are really difficult questions. Then you get questions like: what is an artist then? If an artist is not making meaningful media, or making points for cultural debate… if that debate is already happening elsewhere, if those kind of networks of meaningful media are being made then what is our position? What are we doing?

My problem with art criticism and net art is that maybe what we are doing is that we are still looking into these cultures of social elite and their trajectories which have more or less dissipated anyway, and we are still trying to move in that direction. Maybe the problem is how do we deal with the amount of people that are making meaningful media for themselves and how do we navigate it.


JB: To take that to the topic we had.. art criticism and art today basically, that would mean what? Should art critics address all those people that make meaningful media or is art and art criticism part of this abundance of meaningful media? It seems somehow that what you are saying is too generalized and it does not seem to have a focus or point of view from which we are looking at the situations at hand. Are you looking up, down, outside, inside?


GH: It is a leveler point of view. Say you have a list and it is for Indian cooking. There are many people on this list and they talk about different recipes, from different parts of India. They talk about the recipes that have been handed down from their families and there are a lot of people spending a lot of time making dinners for each other etc. The problem is: how do you interpret that in terms of net art. It is obviously meaningful. People are obviously constructing their life around it. It is making meaningful exchange between people, it is building a network, it has got communities…


JB: But does it have an artistic intent?


GH: Obviously. It is making food. Food is a very aesthetic and meaningful practice. How do you deal with it? And that is just a tiny fragment of what is there. How do you actually begin to deal with it? I think this is a real problem. How does my work or jodi's work or someone else's work engage with this? When obviously you can't produce something of such wide meaning individually.


JB: It seems a bit like you create a problem that is not there somehow. Or that you like other voices that I have heard somehow seem to get stuck in this idea that now there are so many voices and so many possibilities or so much freedom or however you want to say it, and this therefore means that everything is now happening on the same level or that everything is done with the same intent. There is a tendency to say there are no differences in cultural value anymore and therefore we cannot base value on differences. The value of a piece of art for instance. The value of a piece of art is, amongst other things, very much depending on the artists intent with the work.


GH: Intent to me seems to weak an argument. If the only difference between a piece of art and not a piece of art is intent then to me that is too weak.


JB: What is artistic intent? It is something for which functionality as a tool is not the primary goal, or it does not have some kind of plain and obvious usefulness for everyday life. It makes interventions, statements and comments on another level then that. That is one way to describe artistic intent for me.


GH: Yes, but you can have a media image, like the child running after the bombing in Vietnam. It has huge cultural social and cultural impact. It resonates for a long time. There was no artistic intent for such an image. Not at all. But the image has such a resonance within the cultures of the time that it has a transformative quality. Very much like the Medusa had for the social elite in the Victorian times.


JB: It is aesthetisized by the media basically. By the constant copying and reproduction which happens through the media.


GH: I don't think that is quite true. Then you would have a problem with something like when Rodney King was beaten in Los Angeles by the police. An image like that can be fabricated, it does not have to be real at all. But because it actually locked into the everyday life of people they understood that image. It resonated with them. Whether it was real or not, it resonated. Even though the media reproduced it, the image was already present. That was the crystallization of such an image.

If we want to understand the dynamics of culture then I don't think that artistic intent is useful for doing that.


JB: Art and culture are not the same thing though.


GH: I am not sure about that. Even if I find some of the images and artworks of that social elite trajectory very interesting and quite rewarding I don't particularly accept that they are useful things spending time manufacturing. That kind of art. I think there are many kinds of cultural production that people do in their daily lives that enriches their lives, makes them meaningful, points out problems or celebrates different aspects of themselves. These are not part of that trajectory and I find those much more appealing.


JB: But then you could just as well be a politician or an architect (who are often considered artists of course), or anybody that enhances our feeling of richness of life that is not depending on money. If something gives you a pleasant life is not necessarily art.


Another question: I have the impression that you also would think that you would like to extend the field of art into life itself, like the situationists in the sixties. Is that correct?


GH: I don't think there is any difference between me gardening, which is probably where I deal more with beauty and those kinds of things, or noticing and talking about those things and making art. That enriches me in exactly the same way as making more outspoken and directed interventions into culture. I don't think there is any separation for me. I would not choose to have the poetics of gardening as my main public discourse, but I wouldn't mind if the world was a bit better. I would be quite happy talking about the poetics of tulips, rather then the story of dead children in London. It is far nicer. I just don't feel I can talk about those things. It is certainly there. Like in the Bijlmer (neighborhood of Amsterdam with most illegal immigrants and people from the former Dutch colonies, JB) when you see the allotments where people people bring vegetables and flowers from all over the world and trade them or give them as gifts to each other. You see how enriching that is. That is certainly artistic. It has all the values ascribed to art but within people's daily lives.


JB: To get back to art criticism today in the environment of different voices in different types of meaningful media…; what trajectory do you think we should go then as art critics. Do you have any vague or clear thoughts?


GH: I think there is one proposal that is not too bad. When we know these lists are out there I think the proposal is not to write the novel or the narrative, but what is the structure that will reveal the qualities of the list. What structure is imaginable that you can place on lists that will reveal all the intimacy and exchange that takes place there. That is a credible proposal.


JB: So that would mean that you see art criticism as creating a context in which you reveal certain aspects of the exchanges and content there in a very specific way. That would mean a new or different sort of editorial practice?


GH: I suppose it is being able to devise the structures that reveal those qualities.


JB: Then the art criticism is basically just revealing certain aspects of mailing list culture. Then that is all art criticism at that point does: reveal.


GH: No. Then you are just saying this exists, this exists and this exists.. But if you have a structure through which you can imagine the complexity… One problem we have at the moment is that we have these beautiful systems for collecting tax, these marvelous giant algorithms that are ale to extract money out of our pockets. They have a great poetic. How they work, how they configure and bring all these different people together and how they structure them in these big things. It is a huge and marvelous thing. It is a beautiful monster. And you want to make it work right, you want to be able into every person's pocket. You want to be able to take all this money out and spend it on arms and all these other things. Programmers sit there completely fascinated by this giant monster, this universe of taking tax. The thing is, you need to be able to describe that. They only do this because it is beautiful. People don’t do things that don't have this kind of beauty. It is the same beauty as the pilot dropping the bomb on people. It is very beautiful from above. He looks down and it is aesthetically pleasing, it is elegant, it is powerful, it is beautiful. That is why he can drop the bomb. It is the same thing with the tax system or the social security system or all these other giant systems. They are all beautiful. We need to be able to critique that. The net art critic needs to be able to deal with that poetry. When you're dealing with that poetry, then the place of people making specific statements about these cultures has a resonance and a place. Then we are dealing with structures that occupy our lives. Then we have much more context I think.


JB: This reminds me somehow of a text I read, a lecture, by a man from India. It was about the state and background of art criticism in India. He explained how art criticism was brought there by colonialism; it did not exist before. After India became independent art criticism in India split up in traditional Indian art criticism and western art criticism. The same critic often writes both types of criticism. This man also wrote about one Indian art critic who said that western art is totally self indulgent and too individualistic. It seems like you feel that way about western art as well and that you are looking for an art that reflects bigger structures of our world as a whole.


GH: It is useful for me if people that do net art criticism can write about the context in which the work that I am making appears. And that context is the poetics of those social security machines. It is the transformation of something. Like the way Photoshop has transformed the way we view images. Even images made before Photoshop existed. The popular notions of for instance truth have been dismissed. If net art critics can actually make that context, can address the work that I and other people produce in that context, then I think we are going somewhere. Then I think we are relevant to people.