What is Intanginble, Transitory, Mediating, Participatory, and Rendered in the Public Sphere?

Art as service

Andrea Fraser: What’s Intanginble, Transitory, Mediating, Participatory, and Rendered in the Public Sphere? 1

Introduced by Judit Angel

The American artist Andrea Fraser has been known since the mid-1980’s for her performances, projects, videos, and print publications, all of which have expanded, and indeed redefined, the field of institutional criticism. Her work is based on intervention in the community, a critical exercise. Through the early 90’s, she used psychoanalysis as a model in the interpretation of the discourses of cultural institutions, primarily museums; later, her work expanded in scope to include an examination of patronage and a definition of the artist’s status and position in society. Beginning with now-famous “Gallery Talk” series that she exhibited in the 1980’s at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art among other places, Andrea Fraser has been showing regularly in Europe and Latin America (the Venice Biennale, EA Generali in Vienna, the MACBA in Barcelona, the Kunsthalle in Bern, and the São Paolo Biennale). In 2003, the Hamburger Kustverein presented a retrospective entitled “Andrea Fraser, Works: 1984 to 2003.”

I stumbled upon the text that follows while doing preliminary documentary work for the catalogue of the exhibition “Szerviz” (“Service”) that I directed at the Műcsarnok exhibition hall in Budapest in 2001. It appeared in 1997 as a reflection by Fraser on the project “Szolgáltatások” (“Services”) that she produced together with Helmut Draxler at the University of Lüneburg in 1994. There are several reasons why I return to it in taking up Exindex’ invitation. Frazer’s text focuses on a dimension of artists’ activity as work, and on its pecularities – on a dimension of services that “Serviz” did not examine directly, only implied. Looking back, I see that these two projects – “Szerviz” and “Services” – complemented one another, though this was not deliberate on my part, since when I was reading Frazer’s text, my own PR and marketing-based view was already formed. It would be more precise to say that each project is the product of its own “age”: Fraser’s was conceived during the latest renaissance of institutional criticism, while mine came to be in the time that followed, when artistic practice moved on to more subversive forms of criticism and the artist’s role as cultural servant became more and more naturally accepted, more stable. Though both of us used the “services” model, our goals were different: Fraser was interested in the economic aspects of project work and in defining the societal relations associated with it, while my emphasis was on the relationship between the servant/service and the “client,” in response to the Hungarian art scene’s needs in communicating with society at large.

Fraser’s text that follows is interesting from the perspective of the genealogy of art services, and in addition it raises a few questions that are still important today. “Services” is a term Fraser uses in a strategic sense “to identify those areas of artistic activity that do not result in a negotiable product.” Emphasis on this “intangible” segment of artistic activity naturally contains a criticism of cultural commodities and questions of artistic autonomy and of the relationship between the artist and institutions. Even though Fraser’s Marxist economic excursus on “services” might be overly didactic, its conclusions still have value because she demonstrates the meaning of the use of the concept in an artistic sense. In brief, she calls attention to the organic interdependencies between artistic practice, the positions artists have constructed for themselves, and the economic conditions and societal relationships these imply. Issues like the remuneration for artist’s work in project art are still relevant today. At the same time, it is worth considering the effect of “wages” on the relationship between the artist and the commissioning party or institution. In Fraser’s view, the situation is necessarily fraught with contradiction: “the precondition for our independence is dependency… as long as we define the belief system that determines the status of our work by the principle of autonomy – which precludes the possibility that our job is producing some kind of special practical value for society – we will be condemned to produce nothing but objects of prestige value. If service is accepted as our function, then artistic freedom must necessarily consist in our determining for ourselves (to the extent this is in our power) whom we will serve, and how.”

Last but not least, I have chosen this text to shed some light on a practice of artists and curators that is extremely rare in Hungary: the use of individual concepts as models, which makes possible the joining – or juxtaposition – of diverse spheres of meaning. Though it was important for me, in “Service,” to create a direct communication between art/artist and public (which proved successful in most cases), nonetheless I consider the “hows and whys” of artistic service even more interesting. The press in Hungary covered the exhibition with several articles, yet I still feel a substantive treatment of the “services” theme has yet to appear. In retrospect, I regret never having had the opportunity to organize a symposium for the exhibition, but there are also advantages to the perspectives brought by the distance of time. I hope that a reading of Andrea Fraser’s text will prove inspiring to those touched by the subject.

Translated by: Jim Tucker

1 October, No. 80, 1997, pp. 111 – 116.

2 Andrea Fraser: How to Provide an Artistic Service: An Introduction. Presented at The Depot, Vienna, October 1994