Getting Rid of Ourselves
Onsite [at] OCAD U
To October 11, 2014
All at once appeared,
as if born of some underground region of civilization,
a whole counter-world of subjectivities
that no longer wanted to consume, that no longer wanted to produce,
that no longer even wanted to be subjectivities.
– Bernadette Corporation
We like artists to be individuals. Ideally, they should be clearly defined, delineated subjects with personalities and biographies. It worked for Giorgio Vasari, back in the Renaissance when he was writing Lives of the Artists, and it still works today: the mythical figure of the artist – replete with personality quirks and tragic flaws – undergirds art history. Catalogue raisonnés, retrospectives, magazine profiles and a whole host of art-accoutrements pivot on the artist as a singular, marketable brand. In many ways, the notion of a ‘brand’ applies not only to artistic careers, but also to individual subjecthood more generally. The cult of individualism plays nicely into the capitalist imperative to consume. I know that I’m an individual, and to make it patently clear I wear a particular perfume, specific clothes, read certain kinds of books and get tickets to the right shows. We think it’s a personality, but it’s actually a shopping list.
The current exhibition at Onsite [at] OCAD U, Getting Rid of Ourselves, curated by Helena Reckitt, enters into the fray of individualism’s mounting criticism. In an era of increasing surveillance and consumption, it asks, are there more radical ways of organizing?
Reckitt has assembled a group of artists whose working methods skirt the notion of an individual source of artistic genius — some work in collectives, some work for someone else and some don’t really work at all. Even Reckitt’s role within the exhibition contradicts any centralized notion of the curator as arbiter. She invited artists, and facilitated their proposals (given that their responses were feasible – some, unsurprisingly, were not). Gathered together, the works feel playful, yet polemic.
Any attempt to list the artists in the show becomes complicated. Three of the names that appear in the gallery guide, for example, are the same: Janez Janša. This repetition isn’t an error. After Slovenia passed the Personal Name Act in 2006, three artists changed their names to match the moniker of their then-Prime Minister. If names mark, with their histories and ethnicities, this act offers a surprising erasure. The artists refuse through extreme submission.
While some artists question their own individuality, others turn the concern outward. Heath Bunting’s Off the Shelf Identity (2008) features stacked papers and ephemera that make barely any visual impact. Containing all the documentation needed for a life, it’s a work ripe for rifling: mail, a wallet stacked with credit and reward cards, a cell phone, keys and so on. Bunting assembles and sells these kits, which allow recipients to assume an entirely new identity. The sneaking realization that anyone, well-intentioned or not, could purchase one of these slightly undercuts the intoxicating hint of anti-authoritarian rebellion. This underscores a current that runs throughout the exhibition: the price of rescinding individuality is embracing collectivity.
Off the Shelf Identity hangs from one of the wire mesh ‘enclosures’ installed by the collective Kernel. These metallic walls reroute the gallery space and enforce a very particular passage. Similarly engaging the site in an unusual fashion, a quote from Franco “Bifo” Berardi has been scorched into the ceiling by Claire Fontaine (the name of the identity collectively acted out by two artists). These projects, along with Adrian Blackwell’s sculpture Circles Describing Spheres (2014), demonstrate Reckitt’s considered use of space. With its awkward, frequently interrupted layout, the Onsite gallery has rarely felt as fully engaged or entirely coherent as it does within Getting Rid of Ourselves. A slight irony that, in a show devoted to disrupting and disturbing the individual, the physical space survives fully intact.
Reckitt manages to trouble the hallmarks of individual subjectivity, but cannot escape them entirely. Yet perhaps fully expunging this reliance isn’t necessary. Instead, Getting Rid of Ourselves relies on an acknowledgement of these forms, and some provisional alternatives. How these alternatives can affect the larger field of artistic production, though, remains to be seen.