Social Abstraction: Jacob Dahlgren’s No Conflict No Irony (I Love the Whole World)
The history of so-called ‘social practice’ has now been well-told: from its origins in the community arts initiatives and performance practices of the 1970s, through the addition of the qualifier ‘new genre’ to the field of public art in the early 1990s, to the mainstreaming of relational and dialogical aesthetics in the 2000s. While the practices grouped together in this lineage differ widely according to any number of political, aesthetic and ethical criteria, they have fairly uniformly tended to address some form of specificity. Austrian collective WochenKlausur address ‘local political circumstances’ in their art-as-social-activism interventions, while even practitioners bracketed within the more conceptually oriented rubric of relational aesthetics tend towards the construction of micro-communities confined within the intersticial space of the exhibition. This practical tendency towards specificity is mirrored at the level of discourse. Critics and apologists for the various factions within this field may have squabbled and quarrelled furiously in defence of their chosen strand of social practice (see the feverish debates played out between Nicolas Bourriaud, Grant Kester and Claire Bishop, for example), but the question of specificity is rarely, if ever, challenged. For instance, art historian Miwon Kwon has written supportively of the shift in the 1990s from a general concern with site-specificity towards more ‘community-specific’ practices. At both ends of this sliding scale, however, specificity is the constant.
The degree of normalisation of the tendency towards specificity in social practice is such that, when presented with a work, which not only evades being pinned down to specifics but positively flees in the opposite direction, something jars. This is the case with much of the work of Swedish artist Jacob Dahlgren, and in particular his No Conflict No Irony (I Love the Whole World) (2013). Executed as part of Collective’s ‘All Sided Games’ project, No Conflict formally cohered with many of tropes associated with social practice. It entailed a series of workshops and events, in which local children helped to design a 100-metre-long banner. Over five days, artists Sophie and Katie Orton, along with Dahlgren led these children in a series of games and activities in some of the many cavernous gyms tucked beneath the main stand of Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium. Children drew shapes with their feet, made dreamcatcher-esque constructions out of rope, paper plates and hoola hoops, and ran around a practice running track shrieking, with arms outstretched. Designs stemming from these workshops were then sewed together into the banner by a time of late-night stitchers. This culminated in the parading of the banner around Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium and the surrounding area in a large-scale public event, mimicking the form of the opening ceremony, on what happened to be among the wettest days of the year. The plan had been to display the banner to the city of Edinburgh from the 150-foot heights of Salisbury Crags. Weather intervened, and the banner only made it halfway up.
Up until this point, the project sits easily within established frameworks for discussing social practice. Pedagogy, the workshop format, engagement of underrepresented communities, overcoming adversity (the Scottish weather) through camaraderie: all of these are recognisably consistent with the history of art’s ‘social turn’ as outlined above. Even the work’s realisation as part of a project (All Sided Games), which demarcates an allocated place in Collective’s programming for more socially leaning practices, aligns it with this tendency.
Where No Conflict departed from any archetypal image of social practice – and from social practice’s apparently immanent concern with specificity – was in its content: the imagery adorning the banner. In keeping with a major preoccupation of Dahlgren’s practice as a whole, the banner’s 100-metre length was made up of various abstract geometric patterns. By way of contrast, compare No Conflict with two projects which more coherently fit the dominant narratives surrounding social practice, and that also used a parade/ceremonial form: Jeremy Deller’s Procession and Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International. Procession comprised groups parading banners representing factions of unrepentant smokers and chip adorers around Manchester city centre, while IMI’s march on International Migrant Day on December 18th 2011 included placards featuring the names and locations of artists taking part in parallel actions highlighting migration. Both refer to specific social concerns or even individuals. Dahlgren’s work on the other hand employs a language long associated with the universal or transcendental. The word ‘abstract’ itself, when used as a verb, refers precisely to the process of considering something in isolation from its specificity. It is this juxtaposition of socially engaged form and abstract content that lends No Conflict a certain curiosity. In a sense it constitutes a kind of inverse to Liam Gillick’s juxtaposition of minimalist abstract form and social content. At a larger scale it also serves to destabilise the tacit equation between the social and the specific that art history and theory have rendered as a given.
In making this claim, however, care must be taken not to fall into another of art’s widely held misconceptions: that is, abstraction’s necessary autonomy. In a hangover from Clement Greenberg’s theorisations of modernist painting, we have laboured under the doctrine that abstraction avoids reference to the world outside the frame entirely. Greenberg wrote in ‘Modernist Painting’ in 1959 that: ‘it is in its effort to [achieve autonomy] that painting has made itself abstract.’ While this misconception still has considerable currency more than fifty years post-Greenberg, many artists and writers have challenged his claims. Peter Halley in 1991 noted that ‘to limit our understanding of the meaning of abstraction to an incantatory recital of its own formal history is a denial – a denial of the myriad connections between culture and other histories and between the artist and the world.’ Briony Fer echoes Halley’s remarks in commenting that abstraction ‘needs saving from the clichés attached to it: for instance, that it is merely formalistic art for art’s sake.’
The connections between abstraction and its social contexts is a consistent concern in Dahlgren’s work more broadly. His life-long project Peinture Abstraite is a series of photographs, one taken per day, of Dahlgren wearing one of his thousand-strong collection of striped T-shirts. Appearing in his studio, in galleries, on the street, alone, with family, with friends, skiing, shopping and occasionally wrestling, the series is a compilation of images in which the abstract patterning of the T-shirt is permuted by its contexts. Furthermore, in its use of the ‘lifework’ model of practice pioneered by the likes of Tehching Hsieh, On Kawara and Roman Opalka, Peinture Abstraite immanently ties the language of abstraction to the life of the artist himself. Even the geometry of the stripe points to a necessary connection between abstraction and the world beyond the frame. In a text on Dahlgren’s work, Sally O’Reilly quotes literary theorist Stephen Connor as observing that the peculiarity of stripes is ‘that they are relatively rare in nature.’ Accordingly the stripe motif necessarily refers to the processes of its production and its artificial origins.
Thus a second jarring occurs in No Conflict. This is a case of abstraction placed within avowedly social contexts and thus shorn of any claims to autonomy. Comparisons may here be drawn with the work of Dahlgren’s great influence, Daniel Buren, who famously took stripes off of the canvas, out of the gallery and onto any surface that took his fancy. Indeed Dahlgren’s own Demonstration series of works, in which participants march around various cities waving placards depicting paintings by Swedish abstract artist Olle Baertling, directly quotes Buren’s Seven Ballets in Manhattan, in which his signature stripes likewise adorned placards and were paraded around New York. In the case of both Buren and Dahlgren, the interest in their work derives from the conscious upheaval of established art historical figures from their natural habitats. In No Conflict abstraction is wrenched from the comfort of the canvas and taken out into the world, a journey that debunks the myth of abstraction’s necessary autonomy. Simultaneously the conventional forms of social practice are occupied by the unexpected guest of geometric abstraction, thus upsetting our tacit acceptance of the equation of social engagement and specificity. It is No Conflict’s liminality, the fact that it has one foot in each of two spheres of modern and contemporary art that have rarely been thought of in concert, that allows these disturbances to take place.
Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” October, no. 110 (2004): 51-79.
———. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents.” Artforum 44, no. 6 (2005): 179-85.
Fer, Briony. “Abstraction at War with Itself.” In Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915-2015, edited by Ivona Blazwick, 225-32. London: Whitechapel, 2015.
Greenberg, Clement. The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969. Edited by John O’Brian. University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Halley, Peter. “Abstraction and Culture.” In Abstraction, edited by Maria Lind, 137-41. London: Whitechapel, 2013.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
O’Reilly, Sally. “Signes D’abstraction.” In Jacob Dahlgren. Farsta: Blå Himmel Förlag, 2008.
WochenKlausur. “Method.” accessed: 16/04/2015, http://www.wochenklausur.at/methode.php?lang=en.