By Naomi Riddle
29 January, 2019
‘Imaginative work…is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.’
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
‘Finitude is the precondition of and not the foil to power.’
Vitalist International, ‘Life Finds a Way’, Commune Magazine (2018)
In November 2018, the editors of e-flux journal marked the ten year anniversary of the publication. Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, and Anton Vidokle were clear eyed about the changes that had occurred over the course of a decade—celebrating the many victories and achievements of the journal, but also considering its failures.
E-flux journal was born in the shadow of the global financial crisis, the Iraq war and a dwindling number of media enterprises, but it was also born in a time where hope was to be found in the opening up of borders, and in the potential for cross-disciplinary approaches. The online space was seen as fertile ground for conducting democratic and free-thinking work. But, as Aranda, Wood and Vidokle admit, ten years later, this openness has given way to the reinstatement of borders, rather than their collapse. We live in a world marked by stagnating democracy, a surging tide of populist nationalism, an unveiling of racist sentiment (not a ‘resurgence’ which implies that it subsided), and routine online surveillance—all set against the backdrop of an unchecked ecological crisis.
The practice and production of art (and the writing that sits in response to it) does not exist outside of this. If anything, what our contemporary moment has shown is how much the art world is situated within, and answerable to, the context of its time, rather than able to transcend it. ‘For us, as publishers, as editors,’ argues Vidokle, ‘it is quite important to try and understand how to respond to this.’ What does it mean? What (and who) is it for?
These questions are not flippant, and the answers are not, and perhaps never will be, immediately clear. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the art critic Ben Davis acknowledged that at best the art world seemed unsure as to how to respond to this fact. Two years later, Davis continues to level this charge, arguing that ‘as society grows aware of its intensifying polarities, the question of how art relates, or does not relate, to a larger social context is only going to become more and more pressing.’
But considering such a question is a difficult proposition when the ‘art world’ remains beholden to ministerial whim and funding cuts, increasing levels of corporate interest, and a dismissiveness of the labour of those doing the work. Thinking through the value of art (or imagining its potential to change) becomes laden with extraneous material. The focus turns to survival, to holding still or bolstering what is already there—aspiring to some form of permanence in a state of impermanence.
But this is the contradictory nature of the task at hand: we must ‘think art out of its bubble’, writes Davis, ‘without giving up what it offers as a sanctuary.’ And if we see art’s ‘value’ as a movable thing, then the structures and organisations that currently dictate its meaning lose authority and control (think of how piercing a bubble lets out air; air with which to breathe, more easily).
In thinking this through, I have realised that Running Dog’s dual interests in experimental arts writing and rigorous criticism are not antithetical to one another. To categorise them as separate has been a mistake on my part, because they are, in fact, one and the same thing. That is, the assumption that a focus on aesthetics or experimentation or abstraction is apolitical, or insular, or exclusionary, or walled off from the world, is misplaced. Rather Running Dog’s commitment to expanding what arts writing can be is no less of a political project than its mandate towards thoughtful criticism.
For the poet James Scully, the line break in a poem has the potential to ‘shift the weight of a word, reset our relationship to it.’1 It can ‘disrupt and defamiliarize…the dominant conceptions of the reader.’2
Similarly, experimental arts writing allows for a rewilding of language and a recalibration of the discourse. It offers a method for deliberately disorganising hierarchies and genres.
In 2019, Running Dog wishes to remain restive and attuned to these concerns. We will continue to focus on the work of artists in Sydney and regional New South Wales, with the belief that concentrating attention on a specific place allows for deeper engagement with global concerns. In February, we will conduct a callout for the position of Assistant Editor in a bid to multiply our editorial voice. In March, we will hold our first panel at Verge Gallery, with Pedro de Almeida, Lauren Carroll Harris and Neha Kale discussing the role of criticism. In April, we will launch our First Nations Emerging Critic Mentorship, an initial step in fostering the talents of early career Indigenous writers.
We will strive to sit with the questions that have no easy answers, be more willing to grapple with contradiction and confusion, and not become too comfortable with the state of things as they are. ‘After all, ‘writer’ is not a metaphysical category’, argues Scully, ‘to write is to resist the inclination to slip into cruise control. To resist giving up, or giving over.’3