Architecture of Influence: Thinking Through Craig Owens | Tom Burr
I’d like to describe a particular setting. By committing this setting to language, I’m hoping to allow it to produce its own enunciations, its own pronouncements, and announce its own limits. I want to get at something, through this setting, which has set the stage for the formation of my approach, of my work, my way of thinking. In considering the setting as a frame, or a series of repeating and overlapping frames, the physicality of these specific spaces becomes structurally akin to language itself, as it utters, confines and defines. And so with language, there are thresholds and passages, opaque walls and filtering screens. The repetition of forms, (as containers of experience, as experience itself), made manifest in art production, in institutional spaces, and in the conditions of language, are all a part of this setting, this configuration of frames.
I met writer and critic Craig Owens inside of this framework, this particular setting, somewhere within the matrix of language, specific architecture and theoretical space. Within these frames Owens opened up further spaces of possibility and articulation, and posited the possibility of writing itself as a form of relevant, ethical work for an artist, as a means of communicating the geography of one’s own position: to articulate where one is speaking from.
The setting is an institutional one – an art school – a series of buildings in New York City clustered around 23rd Street and Second Avenue without a distinguishing coherence or unifying plan. There was a transitory sensation to this constellation of buildings opportunistically squatting within other, existing buildings without the enduring legacy of purpose built structures defining an organizational scheme. This quality was both destabilizing in its lack of centralization but also oddly comforting – for me – in that it produced a vaguely clandestine experience, one of immersion into the adjacent cityscape. Each one of the buildings had been adapted from a previous function and restructured into the various facilities that were required within the different departments of the school, first breaking down into the more general disciplines of Commercial Art, and Fine Art – as they were defined – and then further fracturing into the various specializations that each one encompassed: illustration; advertising; photography; painting, etc. Only the main building on 23rd Street announced itself with conspicuous signage, while the other locations remained largely camouflaged, known simply by their street addresses. Together these buildings constituted the undergraduate campus of a post war, for-profit, art college where I found myself in the early 1980’s.
The effect of architectural anonymity continued into the interior of the buildings where it produced a sort of haze of generalities, where myriad corridors, elevators, stairwells – and the many rooms of various size and function – appeared largely indistinguishable from one another. While this may be one of the predominant impressions of architecture of institutions more broadly, where a sort of depersonalization is perceived, here it felt as if the experience was produced partially by default, being less about repetition and rigidity as a calculated endeavor and more born of neglect and to a certain degree, thriftiness. It emanated as well from the character of the common areas, of the entrances, hallways and lobbies, and from the fact that most of the structures had been mid level office buildings previously, and continued to house other businesses or organizations alongside of the space leased by the school, lending a somewhat bureaucratic normalcy to the art school as a whole.
Within this setting transitions occurred, shifts in my thinking that were specifically related to the physical and organizational context that I found myself in, where the banal yet efficient structures of this school were laid bare with little embellishment, its machinery largely exposed. While these conditions would later become a subject for me, in part, and would become mirrored in my gestures and responses in the form of artworks, at this point I still couldn’t speak my way through my surroundings. I was largely mute. While searching for the tools with which to both produce art and produce myself as an artist, I found myself fading, dematerializing, vanishing, not in the sense of my own corporeal physicality, precisely, but in terms of being able to create my way through. The models I had expected to follow, of a post-minimalist trajectory based in part on the work of Robert Smithson, Dan Graham and Eva Hesse, had begun to break down and cease to function for me. I had been developing the first steps in a formal project of grafting an architecturally based framework onto and within the specific spaces I was working in, and while this still remained salient, it became increasingly listless at the same time, lacking in any theory of the subject, or more importantly, of subjectivities. I had no way to surpass the neutralizing effects of form, no way to undermine the effects of power in my own gestures as well as those around me, and I had no inkling as to how to consider myself, and others, within the scenario of anticipated production I was embarking on.
Within the traditional open studio spaces, physical divisions were created. Rarely were these fully articulated walls, though in some instances they were, (my single realized effort in my second year studio course was to fabricate a slightly bent and curved wall, that originated from the existing studio room wall out and into the space just far enough to contain a work space in its span, an “arm” as I thought of it, that would both contain, conceal and protect). Typically in the painting studios an easel, or a series of large canvases would form a makeshift barrier – establishing a cubicle of sorts – that might delineate the space around a student’s artistic camp. It was a territorial inclination that wasn’t taught so much as intuited, and it was an impulse that was accepted as a natural act of exclusion. I would return to the construction of physical divisions within spaces a few years later, but at this time the anxiety that produced the curved wall was largely unconscious. I floundered in this environment and considered my containment exercise a failure. I contemplated leaving the school entirely to study elsewhere, architecture or planning, or to write. Around this time, a time which might have constituted a crisis had it been prolonged, a number of new voices reached me, both through my own reading which had become a continual rhythm in my days and nights, as well as through the artists and writers who were present in the art world at this time – the mid-1980’s – several of whom were teaching at the school. Through classes with May Stevens, Amy Taubin and Joan Braderman, and others, a somewhat abrupt shift in my awareness occurred, as well as in my fantasies and aspirations about what an art practice might be and how it might incorporate the site of my body, my voice, into a system of other coordinates that might be considered to be responsive to, or reflective of, a given site. And I discovered frames within which to consider power, in the combined discourses of feminism and newly expanded notions of site specificity.
Recollections have contour; they have form, which is to say they exist as nebulous phantoms that seem to guarantee their own survival – in one’s mind- through an adherence to the structure of more or less random occurrence. Like parasites, particular remembered moments of significance may dig deeply into the skin of seemingly mundane material surroundings, becoming inseparable from their host wall, chair or corridor. Here they persist, in an event of association. Transitional architectural spaces – the liminal spaces that one passes through, lingers in, hesitates by, retreats to, anticipates from- mirror powerfully when those transitional spaces are components of the larger context of an institution where the very nature of its use is transitory, where one passes through, and where you feel acutely your sense of being produced, in a temporal sense, and in a serial sense as well: coming before; coming after. Schools have this character at their core.
A sort of institutional trauma pervades (which is to say, a trauma brought about through the structures of the institution, of passing through the institution) – in this case through the anticipated though not guaranteed success of the art student, and a potential success that has little to do with what achievements may occur within these walls and everything to do with what may occur outside, beyond the confines of the art school itself; and of course, the corresponding anticipation of failure. “To be good is not enough, if you dream of being great,” – the operating slogan of this particular school- clearly and succinctly articulated the desire for distinction, temporally and spatially, allowing that it is not here and now that matters, but later and beyond; on the outside. This outside is hinted at in the studio class spaces of the school, approximated in a setting that bears the imprint of both the 19th century art academy as well as the urban factory, both instances emphasizing the isolated worker performing alongside another isolated worker; individually situated next to others who are themselves individually situated, producing. And it is the physical isolation of the individual artist that remains the model of expectation going forward, a sort of isolating success at best; an alienation.
The exact trajectory of the route that led to Craig Owens’ classroom now escapes me: I remember it in truncated form, with the corridors, and any bends and elongations it may have involved, absent, and instead a direct passage from the elevator into the room. It wasn’t that way. But the memory is one of spatial immediacy – of an immediate and direct entrance into the room. I was in this room off and on for two years, the first year, sitting in, beginning part way through the semester, after having heard about Craig and his course through another student; the second year I enrolled. Things moved rapidly in this space, with ideas, names and images tumbling into my consciousness with a rapidity I hadn’t experienced previously, and in a sense, haven’t since. Craig drank coffee, copiously, and gesticulated both with his hands and with his feet, extending a leg and pointing a toe to underscore a specific point and give it a visceral enunciation. His hands were a blur. When discussing desire, (which followed on the heels of a lengthy multi-session consideration of notions of pleasure with specific reference to the work of Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous, Mary Kelley and others), Craig elaborated on the subjective construction of the term, noting that desire can lodge visually and be “at play” anywhere, from the way a piece of clothing may fall, to the gesture of a particular hand. Craig’s hands and his entire body engaged us in a taut pedagogical journey that consisted largely of images – in the form of a rapid-fire 35 mm slide progression, of artworks and images related to the texts we were reading, on the one hand, and continual dialogue on the other, the slide projector and Craig’s verbal prowess creating a split-screen of focus.
(Craig’s hands and his remarks reminding me, now, of Yvonne Rainer’s “Hand Movie,” from 1966, a work I didn’t know until some years after my first introduction to her films via “Journey’s from Berlin/1971” 1980 while studying. Because Rainer was confined to a hospital bed during the making of “Hand Movie,” the actions of her hands alone become the subject of this recording, which itself is a dance, an extension of the quotidian gestures and movements she had been exploring with her full body for some years. The constraints of the hospital setting, while not shown within the piece itself, still come to constitute its conditions. Similarly Craig’s lecturing style had much to do with the setting in which he performed, and he continually referenced the limits of that space, and the repetition inherent in the institutional frame we were activating: one class room next to another, next to another; one slide after another, after another. And his physical gestures as well seemed at times to be measuring the space in which we sat, pointing to its edges, its confines, drawing awareness to its very repeatable frame, its serializing conditions).
A performance was occurring. It was a performance that was mirrored in Craig’s own writings. Craig was editor of Art in America at the time, with numerous writing assignments in front of him, and the fact that his writings were being written – wrangled with, speculated on, questioned and refined – in the space of that room as we listened, watched and participated, was palpable. They were being written in that moment, in that specific space. And if at the time Craig’s thinking was emphatically concerned with positions, and positioning, informed by his deep engagement with the intersection of psychoanalysis and feminism and the construction of the “Other” in culture and in discourse, there was a continually more radical investment in the position of his own body as a queer subject.
(I have a memory of a particular book I was carrying with me at some point during the beginning of the second year with Craig: Foucault’s “Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-century French Hermaphrodite.” It wasn’t a book that had been included in the course’s reading list, I don’t remember Foucault’s “A History of Sexuality” – of which this text was an offshoot of sorts- being course material at all, though Foucault was often cited. At some point Craig must have seen the book. Did I want him to see the book? I imagine I must have, and that I used it quasi-consciously to signify a connection across the room, and across the student/teacher divide. It’s curious to me that it was this book in particular, a document which is emblematic of the societal desire to locate Truth and stability in a subject’s sexual identity, to equate subjectivity, sexuality and Truth. This questioning, which stood at the forefront of Craig’s thinking as well, was in contradistinction – if not conflict – with any speech act of “coming out.” Therefore, for Craig, the process of articulating his own stakes and positions was a cumulative one, a steady process through the lens and lessons of feminisms, through Foucault, through others, and into a notion of a complex subjectivity located at the crossroads of various and often conflicting discourses. After “Herculine Barbin” created this connective tissue in this classroom, an elaborate and lengthy dialogue evolved, lasting through the semester and into the next, with discussions of gender designations, social constructions of the subject, and gay positions).
In Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s 1986 autobiographical essay, “A Poem is Being Written,” through echoing and transforming Freud’s 1919 essay “A Child is Being Beaten,” Sedgwick creates an intricate conflation of the rhythms of poetic verse with that of her own memories and later musings of being spanked as a child. The body of the child (her body in this instance; could be our body as well), and the almost palpable physicality of the poetic text, become associated, linked together. There is something of this essay that becomes sharply generative for me in the context of pedagogical sites generally, but specifically here in relation to Craig’s “room.” Hand gestures, vocal cadence, distances and proximities between bodies, all play a role in relation to the texts being read and the texts being written.
Sedgwick’s writing had a particular impact on Craig Owens at that time. Unlike many of the writings we were exploring, Sedgwick’s major works were contemporary, from precisely the years we were reading them, with “Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire” being published in 1985. This work, among others, would form an essential bridge between Craig’s multi-faceted feminist critique, and his incorporation of an emerging queer politics into the body of his writing, which in a sense signaled the fuller incorporation of his own body into his writing. One could detect it was a hugely transformative period for him, as he developed the set of ideas that would carry him from considerations of gender and voice in “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” 1983, or “Posing,” 1984 to “Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism” in 1987.
(I remember vividly Craig’s presentation of this last text, “Outlaws,” at another educational setting in 1987, and I remember talking to him beforehand, attempting to sooth his nerves before his talk. He was agitated and concerned about how the talk would be received, stating that he didn’t think the audience was “ready” to hear it. This was connected, I felt, to Craig’s apprehension that this could be taken as a form of personal admission, and that it might only be perceived on the level of the personal, as a proclamation of his own sexuality and the stakes associated with that. Of course, it both was and wasn’t that. It was the logical and timely extension of his discourse of Otherness into the realm of homosexuality, within the overarching frame of a queer politics gathering these writings and their positions together – from his early work on Smithson to this nuanced study of the intricate levels of criminalization associated with the gay subject – into one discursive trajectory with enormous stakes. But it did also perform the requisite “coming out” speech act, however much Craig would have disapproved of that reading, or been uncomfortable with that implication of a proclamation of truth. By this point, however, in some of the most devastating moments of the ongoing AIDS crisis, this position had urgency and political currency, and both the audience and Craig felt the full pressure, and power, of that acknowledgment of stakes. It was a brilliant talk, and regardless of whether the audience had been ready to hear it, he was clearly ready himself to give it. Craig would go on in the next two years to incorporate the politics of AIDS and its representations into his lectures and courses at various institutions, this important work being halted by his own death at 39, of complications due to AIDS.)
Craig’s course, though, was also about our writing; it was a writing course. Perhaps above and beyond the many revelations of this period, the deep emphasis on the idea of an artist who writes, and on writing as a legitimate and potentially crucial component of an artist’s practice, remains the most enduring for me and certainly among the most productive. Through Craig Owens’ encouragement I was able to develop a working method that allowed writing to exist, materially and structurally, as central to what I do, and not as an ancillary practice. And likewise, I was able to produce physical work alongside that writing that considers itself as a text, that might be read, and through which positions can be taken, charted and questioned. Perhaps it is this simple act – of writing – from one’s vantage, not as an access to truth but instead as an untethering of supposed truths, that has also become a structural imperative in all of my work, alongside that of many of my colleagues who passed through Craig’s frames of reference and influence, and were able to see through his very particular lens of vision. It is an ongoing process, a process of becoming, and of continually considering the coordinates from which one is speaking, (is writing, is making, is listening). To borrow Craig Owens’ words, as both the anonymous interviewer and interviewee in his 1983 piece “’The Indignity of Speaking for Others’: An Imaginary Interview,” :
Q: What you are saying, then, is that to represent is to subjugate.
A: Precisely. There is a remarkable statement by Gilles Deleuze in a 1972 interview with Michel Foucault that encapsulates the political ramifications of the contemporary critique of representation: “In my opinion,” Deleuze remarks, “you were the first … to teach us something absolutely fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others.”