TEXTBIOBIBLIO

Verena Kuni
"What is, in the context of contemporary art, your vision of a yet unknown art?"



In the first moment, you are always happy to be invited. You have been chosen. You are being asked to contribute. Your vision. Of a yet unknown art.
But then you realize that the question posed is one that will necessarily also give you this kind of apocalyptic feeling that is the dark side of the bright moon called great expectations enlightening our dreams. What is my vision of something yet unknown, hence, unknown not only to others, but also unknown to myself? I feel familiar with utopias. But vision? This sounds like something further, something you keep for yourself. Unless you are planning to become a religious leader, or - maybe more profane: a missionary. On the other hand, at least figuratively, in case you believe in what you are doing, if you are convinced of having a message to spread... I would have to admit, when doing my work, I have been called "missionary" more but once, and not always with depreciative intention. And I would have to admit: I definitely did like it.

However, I am far from calling myself "visionary" or (even more awkward:) "a visionary". This would mean ending up with the same kind of myths I am usually quite eager to analyse and deconstruct wherever I get in touch with them. Like "the artist as visionary", the "author/writer/critic as visionary", just one variant of many that are still so virulent in our culture, scientific culture included.

Of cause, at a certain point this is exactly what people pretend I should identify with when writing about contemporary art: directing readers to "new perspectives", introducing to them what might be embraced as a "challenging position" - or, at least, just showing and telling them something they do not already know at length. At the same time, everybody is well aware that being able to tell "what's next is not so much about vision, but about professional curiosity, research - and communication, supported by experience.

If I was a cynic, I might add, what is sold as vision is formed by the interplay between the different agents in the operating system of art, at the intersection between different arenas of representation, money (and in the better cases, a good quantity of narcissistic obsessions) being the lubricant to make the wheels run.
If I was a sophist, perhaps I'd borrow from the three famous sentences on the non-existing (das Nichtseiende, le néant) attributed to Georgias of Leontinoi, as I did in summer 2001 at a conference, when being asked to give a talk about what, in the context of contemporary art, were my visions of "future bodies", to state:

1. There is no unknown art.
2. If there was an unknown art, we would not know anything about it.
3. If we knew about unknown art, we would not be able to say anything about it.
Both of which would obviously lead to a less than productive result for the anthology, and for myself as well.

Therefore, I decided to come back to what in its result should at least come as close as possible to a visionary musing about an yet unknown art: research and communication, hereby drawn, of cause, by my own curiosity - and, as much as possible, also relying on experience. Taking account of the purpose as well as the media based format of the anthology, what would be more promising than to make use of networks at hand to proceed?
Not only with respect to the short amount of time given to find valuable results, but also to the project itself already being based on the principle of a questionnaire, it seemed neither possible nor appropriate to forward the question to several of the mailing-lists I belong to. I must admit, I'd have preferred this solution to any others - However, I chose a more personal, and in terms of media as well as in terms of networking, quite traditional line of action when I started to connect.

Trained as an art historian, my first idea was to ask art history about what the past could contribute to the vision of a yet unknown art. Why not find some expert knowledge, nourished by the experience of decades of serious research in this field. Hence I called a friend working in an major art archive. Her answer was negative. Of cause, to a certain extent, it would be possible to research the data base for the history of artists considering themselves visionaries. And she could provide a whole range of data sets for the entry "unknown artist". However, neither the search entry "unknown art" led to any results nor had it ever been planned to be a valuable entry in the database as such. This would not make sense anyway, she answered: art history is known made art. For art history, unknown art does not exist. What is not known as art cannot be art.

Does this mean that while a bigger part of art history's creativity is clearly devoted to creating what will later be "known (as) art", due to the fact that the conscious acknowledgement of this process necessarily needs to stay suppressed, it is limited to looking back to its own "knowledge" and, apart from doing some research into the history of art history ideas, one is condemned to be subjected to a reign of sophists? Do we have to resign on that expert knowledge and experience in art lead to a state that is not visionary at all?

Frustrated, I turned the opposite direction. Maybe not an expert in art (who would probably know too much to have a vision of the unknown), but somebody who is not concerned with art at all could be a better company for my research. Hence, I called a friend who works as a consultant for major companies (so called "global players"). I assumed, an expert for yet unknown developments, if not for trading visions even. And indeed, as a professional optimist, she was very positive about my request, and immediately came up with an idea. Our business philosophy currently gains a lot from the realms of spiritual ideas, she said. Why don't you ask a clairvoyant?
Unfortunately, she could not know that this had been already done, years ago - by a now well known German artist participating in the Venice Biennial of 1999.

However, I still did like the idea of consulting a medium, especially since not only in art history media play an important role for artists concerned with visions of the unknown - including visions of an unknown art as well (be it believing in this idea as such or with an ironic attitude) -, but also that in more contemporary times a lot of hype has been made around the importance of "new" media for future developments in art. Hence, I called a friend working at a big media art institution. Unfortunately, what she came up with - apart from some well known McLuhan quotations dating from the sixties - were references to 2001 ars electronica's motto, "Take Over". While the festival itself had been expressly devoted to the question of "who's doing the art of tomorrow", the answers it proposed were not visionary at all: "The avant-gardiste [sic!] principle of art striving to be a driving force and to impart momentum to the development of society as a whole has undergone a shift: science, pop culture and sub-cultural niches, business & entertainment, software engineering, etc. are the epicentres of the exciting current developments." Appropriating the idea of avant-garde (or even the notion of art) for the entertainment industry and business purposes is not only not new, it also leads to quite "unvisionary", if not predictable results. And above all, when it comes to contemporary art itself, learning from and leaning on biz strategies is state of the art, and for sure not striving to something "yet unknown" as well.

Now, what about the "new medium" of our decade, the internet? While, for reasons already mentioned, I had rejected the idea of spreading the question via mailing-lists, why not pose it directly to the web itself? Hence, I started online research by using the most simple and common tool for doing so: I asked a popular search engine. As usual, for simple research, just entering the substantial keywords contained in the question word by word, the mere output was immense. We found 55,365,885 results, the engine told me. However - who should seriously browse all this stuff? Additionally, as simple key word research does not necessarily bring up documents in which the entered items are combined (not to say: combined in a meaningful way): How many hours of valuable lifetime would be needed to pick the pearls among sheer amounts of crap? Fortunately, there was still the opportunity of a refined request, which I started with a Boolean query, now combining the key words myself to form meaningful expressions quite close to the question so desperately waiting for to be answered. Unfortunately, this time the output was not only more clearly arranged, but obviously poor as well. Three entries only. The first lead to the online shop of a second-hand bookseller. The second lead to a so called "art broker" site. And the third referred to a course syllabus in art history. In sum, when asking, as precisely as possible, for what, in the context of contemporary art, might be considered as a vision of a yet unknown art, all the web could offer to me was either reference to history or the market or, if you want so, a combination of both. You might imagine how frustrated I was.

Consequently, for my very last attempt, I decided not only to come back to my personal network, but also to consult somebody who probably would understand my frustrations as well. Hence, I called a friend who I knew as a professional in art as well as an internet nerd. After successfully building up a major art community network with public funding in the mid-nineties, she had faced not only the internet boom and the net art hype, but also the following crash that, together with the visions of so called start ups, made also the visions of net art blow - later and for somewhat different reasons. Chastened from her utopias of a free and creatively as well as collaboratively developing net culture, she had even been trying her luck as an art consultant in e-commerce. However, it seemed like nobody had been willing to share her visions and so she had decided to make some money and then retire as soon as possible. My call reached her camping at a lakeshore in the wilderness where she was offering survival courses and meditation for burned out managers, most of them former IT consultants for major companies who had recently returned to their jobs in the so called "old economy". As I had hoped, if not expected, she was finally the one who could give me the most valuable advice.

You will understand, she said, that while I talk about "visions" a lot here, I think these kind of visions are definitely not what you are looking for. And as a professional businesswoman, I would not bother anybody with my personal visions, if I had any. Basically, I would recommend, if you have visions, don't talk about them, just strive to make them become real. Like the older people around here use to say when setting out for hunting and fishing in the wilderness: Yesterday is ashes, tomorrow is wood - today the fire burns.

Verena Kuni
Frankfurt a.M., January 2002