By Naomi Riddle
29 October, 2019
‘Need I say more? The field is wide open as I thought to mention in the beginning, thinking of how I feel about the difficulty of puffing your way up a steep hill on a bike that isn’t motorised. The future is upon us and the Art of Criticism has already come into its own in those public places where the critic is lying down on a soft piece of ground to enjoy a bit of blue and yellow scenery…to be continued.’
Jill Johnston, ‘Critics’ Critics’, The Disintegration of a Critic (2019)
Since launching in October 2017, Running Dog has produced one hundred and twenty one articles. Throughout this period, we have maintained our founding principle of always paying writers for their work. We have published poetry, critical commentary, sonic responses, a two-part closet drama, the lyrics of Britney Spears and an ongoing series of Letters from the Editor. We have considered film, painting, burlesque and installation; we have reflected on exhibitions and events presented at institutions, commercial galleries, university galleries, festivals and artist-run-spaces. In 2019 we have partnered with Verge Gallery for a series of public programs, including the upcoming Might Delete Later on November 13th. In May, we launched four poetry micro-residencies, and, in August, announced Laura La Rosa as RD’s inaugural First Nations Emerging Critic.
On Running Dog’s second birthday, I cannot tell you whether this project will continue in the same form in six months, or a year from now, or even five. But I don’t find this fact unsettling (although it may be unsettling at times), because of what it enables: alternative ways of thinking about writing, publishing, precarity, labour, growth and linear time. It means we commit to the present, which makes us agile, which makes us less reliant on government bodies, advertisers and social media algorithms, which makes us more responsive to our community. It means we are able to shift our focus as it needs to be shifted. Much of the work we have been able to do over the last two years is because of the way we see open-endedness as a radical and productive mode.
Twenty-four months ago, I began Running Dog alone. Since then I have worked closely with fifty-seven contributors, and now collaborate almost daily with Hannah Jenkins—RD’s assistant editor, whose generosity, inventiveness and commitment has challenged and developed the scope of what this publication can be.
Running Dog exists not only because of the work of its two editors, but because of this tangled web of connections and relations: it is a collective, not a singular entity. And so, for our second birthday, we invited a group of regular RD writers to contribute to a series of responses—a miniature (and by no means complete) picture of this collective voice.
The result is a group of pieces that (re)think not just the future of arts writing in Australia, but also the disruptive potential of writing about art. The thread joining each of these responses is a dedication to the kind of word-making that carries with it thoughtfulness, sensitivity, attention and care. In presenting these pieces together, we hope you will find within them what Running Dog has always believed: that arts writing is its own art form, in and of itself. The field is wide open.
In true art-person fashion, I have a quote from Andrea Fraser stuck up next to my computer:
Art is art when is exists for the discourses and practices that recognise it as art, value and evaluate it as art, and consume it as art, whether as object, gesture, representation or only idea. The institution of art is not something external to any work of art but the irreducible condition of its existence as art.
On some rational level, I have always been cynical about this inescapable institution of art, and what it exists for.
But, on a more sincere and vulnerable level, I am coming to believe that writing about art might exist beyond such boundaries; prolonging and amplifying the power of art into new territories.
And so, I often find myself in two minds as I write, my thoughts cascading:
Writing is an extension
of the thrill and pleasure
and puzzle of art
Writing weakens art
that was already legitimate
deepens, and challenges
the propositions of a work
Writing is too limited,
a shadow of a response
to the magic of art
Writing can break
as many rules as art
Writing can be as
challenging as art
be art itself
I have been Running Dog’s assistant editor for six months, and I am more convinced than ever that creative, accessible and rigorous arts writing is the antidote to what appears as an inescapable bubble. By writing how I want to write about art, I feel these self-imposed boundaries fade. As if each thought and word is a scurrying ant escaping, or a seed growing, until one day I’ll have made a colony, or a forest, all from prolonging and amplifying art.
In today’s economy of noise, stillness is scarce. Refusal and reflection feel radical when set against the dizzying speed and neon hyper-vigilance of attention. Writing is encouraging myself to pause and to absorb and to observe.
Perhaps criticism is a form of listening.
Perhaps, then, criticism is also a form of loving.
I return to art writing again, and again, despite the violences inscribed in its white walls and white cubes. It is a return pitched by a feverish faith in art’s potentiality. I endure for that brief, rare, and inexplicable moment of compassion and tenderness in encounter. I dedicate for the admiration I have for artists who materialise invisible dialogues and conversations. I commit for the love I hold for artists who build futures and realms of intimacy and vulnerability.
When the contemporary art machine is impossibly enmeshed with the market, criticism becomes a space to make meaning outside of capitalist norms and matrices. It becomes responsibility. It becomes resistance work about ethics, (in)visibility and exclusion.
To write uncritically is a disservice. To write uncritically is to dismiss and to disengage. Conversely, to write critically is a gesture of care and affection. To write critically is to speculate, expand, develop. To write is to expunge and reconfigure the brutality of the systems that we are forced to swallow and internalise. Writing is a way to filter the chaos that piles around us and to be part of the world.
To write about art is to write about looking, where looking also contains not looking, or finding it difficult to look, or not knowing when to stop looking, or learning to look as if for the first time. Or even the last time…To look is also to look for what is at stake in the (climate of) looking or not-looking. When I looked at the artwork the artwork looked away. It was a thing and I was a thing, but was a sentence a thing? If it was, then certainly it was a different kind of thing. I thought, how to not be complicit in the culture of production? Or did I mean, the production of culture? And did critiquing a culture lessen my complicity? Then I walked away, until the work became a bundle of colour and edges and indistinct sound. Walking until I was out of the building I thought, I’d like to write a review, but I’d never written one before. Instead I wrote a poem. A review-as-poem, or poem-as-review, or review-as-poem-failing-to-be-review. I threw it out. After all it might work better as a dance. Or protest. Or something else that could be shared, with others: a concert, a cake, an hour, a walk…A very long walk, getting lost, before finding a new way back, and a new way of looking that is not a means to any recognised end.
What does it mean to write about art in this moment? (1) in our hyper-capitalist present: an era defined by exploitative economics, the mainstreaming of oligarchy, (2) precarious, dangerous, and exploitative labour conditions. (3) Sydney right now, in all its safety-bollard glory: a city being constantly negotiated, constantly broken apart and rebuilt (4) Here is language’s cardinal function: as a technology of comprehension, of world making (5) it hesitates, it ruminates, and it discloses. (1) Creating meaning out of chaos. (5) Making meaning is a kind of work. (4) Who, out of all us, has the privilege and the freedom? (2) We are governed by financial limitations, competing application deadlines and rejections. (6) What place does love and care hold within such a vexed landscape? (7) I am also writing this at the same time as I am reading (1) creating networks of solidarity (3) from hand to hand across a big sheet of paper. (8) I know I’m not alone in this. (4) A duty of care is what binds communities together. (7) I learnt this through my peers. (6)
(1) Naomi Riddle, ‘Letter from the Editor‘, Running Dog (27/09/19)
(2) Naomi Riddle, ‘Contemporary Recalcitrants: James Gatt‘, Running Dog (19/07/19)
(3) Rebecca Hall, ‘Ok Democracy, We Need to Talk‘, Running Dog (17/07/19)
(4) Jane O’Sullivan, ‘Free to Begin Again: Lucina Lane‘, Running Dog (23/08/19)
(5) Genevieve Trail, ‘A sonic boom, then silence: On Sandra Selig’s ‘Content in a Void’‘, Running Dog (12/07/19)
(6) Nanette Orly, ‘Independent Curating: A Written Response‘, Running Dog (14/07/19)
(7) June Miskell, ‘I love you Melissa‘, Running Dog (23/07/19)
(8) Chloe Watfern, ‘Illuminating the Wilderness: Project Art Works‘, Running Dog (16/10/19)
If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it.
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)
At the big gallery with marble floors, we looked down and close to see what patterns we could find in the rock. In other rooms, the black walls smelt like smoke, like a bush fire. We ran our hands along the walls and felt the roughness of the cork. ‘Portuguese cork’, the gallery attendant told us when we asked. ‘The artist wanted the walls to be special.’
Why am I writing this? I think Nietzsche once said something about surfaces being places where one can find the most depth. Or was it another thing entirely? It could have been that he was talking about flying fish skimming the edge of a wave. Either way, I have often been driven by a hunch that to write about art is to get closer to the depth at the edge of the surface.
Finger curved under my chin—a comma trying to dictate when I breathe—you tilt my head up, hold my gaze and tell me the truth: I will no longer be fucked as recount, canonised into libido, or written hard in the archive. I already know what’s happened, I’ve heard all the stories. I’ve fucked and been fucked, spoken and been spoken for, written and read, all in ways that are citational, conventional, in a lineage, using the same vocab, experimental only in an institutionally codified sense. Blah blah blah. Woah woah woah. I admit I’ve been a bot. I thought the algorithm would please you. God, who cares about leather or psychoanalysis or academic puns anymore? Kink wearables queered into a theory-verb can only inspire an eyeroll, or predictive text. I’m provoking you with bedroom eyes; giving you the most generous proposition; humming and stretching for our big break. At the risk of sounding like a Marxist, where’s the poetry from the future? Be above me like you’re trying to convince me of a future. Write to me like you’re convinced there’s already a future and you don’t have to tell me about it because I’m going to feel it in the snap of your hips. When I say snap of your hips, obviously I mean put five ice cubes in my mouth and ask me to feel the waterfall in the video differently.
One of the paradoxes of living in this moment is that we are saturated with images but bereft of the time it takes to make sense of them. Pictures shape what we see and how we see it. They can alter the course of our moods or days or years. They can upend our perspective on the world or knock our own world off its axis, spinning off in new and different directions. They can spark wild and radical forms of thinking. Arts writing, the process of making words out of pictures and pictures out of words, is a way to stop time, look closer and halt the endless procession of images. It lets us use the analogue power of language to understand—not just paintings, or sculptures or installations—but the tides and currents of our visual reality. I think that the relationship between viewer and artwork, the act of writing about art, isn’t about promoting openings or galleries or blockbuster exhibitions, the lingua franca of the art world. It’s about finding new ways to be.