Tania Bruguera, Tatlin’s Whisper #5, 2008. Performance view,
Tate Modern, London. Photo © the artist.
For Sehgal, the body is not the only medium that can generate immaterial value. The chance conversations In These Associations are actually based on a set of open-ended questions asked by Sehgal, such as "When did you feel a sense of belonging?" and "When did you experience a sense of arrival? (2)' This use of performative speech is what OJ.L. Austin described as phonetic acts, which has a long history of knowledge production in non-European models. In his text How To Do Things With Words (1954), Austin distinguished what he calls speech acts that simply say something (constative) from speech acts that do something (performative), i.e., they accomplish what they say (3). In this sense the use of language in Sehgal’s pieces are doing more than conveying lexical or grammatical convention (producing an English sentence). Language here is directly tied to the act of doing something, activating a response, and producing a non-material exchange of knowledge production that is immeasurable by monetary gain.
In a recent interview it was noted that Sehgal has developed a 'literal interpretation of Benjamin’s statement that authentic art has its basis in ritual' (4). The tradition of passing on knowledge through ritual or ceremony has an extensive history in non-Western civilizations, such as the First Nations of Canada or in Asian folklore such as the Jingjiang (Telling Scriptures)—a 'local style of oral prosimetric narrative performed in ritual contexts in the area of Jingjiang…in Jiangsu Province, China' (5), where semi-professional storytellers perform oral narratives that are accompanied by the audience. Examples of other cultures producing community value (other than material exchange) are important when defining the above stated thesis, because it is non-Eurocentric forms of knowledge production such as these that according to Boaventura de Sousa Santos are crucial to the anti-capitalist perspective. Where 'Western supremacy was also instrumental in suppressing other, non-scientific forms of knowledge and, at the same time, the subaltern social groups whose social practices were informed by such knowledge' (6). Conditioning Western audiences to expect specific avenues of receiving knowledge from the media to its cultural centers, dominating economic systems such as the late capitalist model of the museum in turn dictates the forms of display and representation used when constructing exhibitions.
Does every exhibition have to be documented? Allan Kaprow didn’t necessarily believe so. As a producer, what are the best methods of documentation that allows for the public to experience the live act? For Sehgal the museum and the industrial society are solely concerned with the displaying of objects and the 'kind of wealth that can be derived from objects and promoting that point' (7). Where Rosalind Krauss points out in her essay "The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum" that historically this was not merely out of dire financial necessity, but a result of the American tax law of 1986 eliminating the deductibility of the market value of donated art objects (8), where the governing bodies of the market have introduced incentives for such structures to exist. And because of the current funding structure of the Turbine Hall commissions—funded by Unilever—it may be appropriate to also point out that Krauss accounts for this profound shift in the very context in which the museum operates, a context whose corporate nature is made specific not only by the major sources of funding for museum activities, but also, closer to home, by the makeup of its boards of trustees (9). Thus the writer of Selling the Collection can say: 'The notion of the museum as a guardian of the public patrimony has given way to the notion of a museum as a corporate entity with a highly marketable inventory and the desire for growth' (10). But it is within this desire of growth that Sehgal as producer makes a departure.
If we think of economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s question of whether persuasion can keep up with production, can the institution—like the products of corporations—continue to persuade us to consume or commit to "things" that we don’t necessarily need. An idea that many Conceptual art movements of the 1960s and ’70s explored. But what does it mean to produce non-object, nonducumentable work today? Where those like the Fluxus artists (George Maciunas, Yoko Ono, George Brecht) made instructions to subvert the role of authorship in art production, and as Claire Bishop points out in Artforum: The first generation of Conceptual artists, for whom dematerialization was a way to subvert the work of art's relationship to the market and museum (Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Lawrence Weiner) Sehgal has no such desire for circumvention (11). Where Sehgal intentionally works within the system, looking for new ways of adjusting the existing model rather than disposing of it completely. Where even his own artworks are no longer passed on, or sold, but rather verbally exchanged amongst different parties—the only stipulation is that his pieces cannot involve the "transformation of any material, in any way. No written instructions, no bill of sale (purchases are conducted orally, in the presence of a notary), no catalogs and (to the dismay of photo editors in the art press) no pictures" (12), positioning a practice that seeks to develop alternative forms of acquisition and conservation, concurring with the views of economist Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth, which states that one method is to move away from products, and invest in areas such as health, education and experiences, rather than having the museum be a repository of material objects.
As a curator or artist producer, one can choose to produce work for art’s sake (historically inward in scope), often for a privileged class, or produce art for change—society and the systems that govern them at large. A combination of the two may be ideal, but perhaps utopian in scope. Yet with the expansion of art (globally and across disciplines), the definitions that hold its structures in place—perhaps should be contested. For when one is given a stage (with a potential to reach millions) of global proportions, to not address issues that are pressing (globally and socially), which also threaten to change the very structures that frame our cultural experience, seems like an opportunity missed. For museums are structures that not only affirm and implement belief systems (in the perceived value of objects, and the dissemination of knowledge); but assist in the transition of culture to social value in a society. Where museums are spaces of affirmation – teaching individuals how to interact, perceive, and value culture. Like physical newspapers they inform us of what issues a society should be contemplating and addressing. Funded by the people (and corporations) the institution in its many forms must aim to be sustainable, like every other entity in the ecology of the market—looking to improve on outdated business/exhibition models, and rethinking the product life cycle that was once thought of as being liner—with a beginning and an end.
In a recent interview Nicolas Serota noted: "At a time of austerity, people are rethinking their values and looking at art that doesn't straightforwardly have a market … artists want to make work that engages directly with audiences and is not so susceptible to commercial development" (13). Unlike Gustav Metzger’s Art Strike 1977–1980, Sehgal does not seek to fully recreate the economic structures of the art world, but simply reaffirms the viability of service goods and oral knowledge production, from the supply side of the economic equation. During a time where the museum has seen unprecedented growth globally (China, Brazil, Mexico, etc.), and with the professionalization of the artist and curator, the question now is how to manage our cultural resources and maintain a system that is not merely producing objects and positions. Where perhaps now the museum can become a testing ground for new ways of art production, that takes on characteristics of capitalist production, such as socially engaged art practices, but still allows for institutional support and reflexive dialog to exist, developing a new lexicon that can eventually be applied to other areas of production outside of the arts.