BABAK GOLKAR: I want to begin by introducing myself, my name is Babak Golkar and I have the pleasure of introducing Ali who is a close friend of mine and also a peer artist. I will give a brief introduction as to what is to follow in terms of our interview, and we can dive into questions and begin our conversation after that.
Ali Ahadi is a Vancouver based artist and writer, holding a BFA from Art and Architecture department of Azad University of Central Tehran, and he also holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia, and he is currently a PhD candidate in continental philosophy and visual arts, a joint program between the philosophy department and the department of Art History, Visual Arts and Theory (AHVA).
I met Ali not too long after he moved from Tehran to Vancouver back in 2009, and ever since we have conducted our friendship around discussions on art, culture at large, philosophy and language, all of which have been very fruitful and inspiring, at least, for me.
I thought instead of expanding on your specific area of interest and research right away, Ali, we would open a larger umbrella and claim that the discursive relationship between “visuality” and language is central to your practice, and let the conversation unpack on how you approach your subjects within that context. In the past, you have insisted that contemporary arts by necessity should be discursive. Can you expand on that and tell us how you are arriving at that conviction?
ALI AHADI: Thank you, Babak. It’s a great opportunity to talk about some discursive aspects of my practice, which is also related to the central theme of this interview as well—that is, the relationship between art and discourse.
In order to be able to answer your question, Babak, I think I need to first set up a context in which this discussion, on the relationship between art and discourse, could possibly be better understood.
I, myself, think of art as a paradigmatic phenomenon, and I think that art has always been that way. By that, I’m simply referring to the changes art has been undergoing through history as one paradigm to another; that is what in art history we are more familiar with as “different schools of art”. For instance, impressionism, post-impressionism, “Happenings” movement, Fluxus, “Art-Language”, etc. I am basically talking about a logic of supersession operating such transitions, that is one genre, or one school, or one paradigm of art, if you like, supersedes its preceeding paradigm. And this basically occurs through an Oedipal and antagonistic relationship between the later paradigm and its predecessor: the logic of “I am later and I’m better”. For instance, post-impressionism holds that I’m later and better than impressionism; So, does post-structuralism: that I’m later and am better than structuralism, and so on.
If we take this paradigmatic view to art into account, then we should be able to arrive at this understanding that there is no such a thing as art as an a priori category, or art as a transcendental category. That is just an archaic view of art. So, I think that a work that was once historically considered as a work of “art”, could later, depending on the historical, social, and philosophical transformations, be simply no longer considered as one but as many other things. Things that could simply be called craft, or what used to be art! To exemplify this further, Michelangelo’s painting or sculpture, in my view, would hardly survive a contemporary trial of artistic judgment; they could simply be perceived as some magnificent craftsmanship and not “art” anymore.
When thinking about art paradigmatically the principal question that would arise is, “what art is” and “what it ought to be?” To me, that is the most principal question each artist should ask themselves. They need to explain to themselves “what am I doing?” and why is what I am doing considered art? In other words, they need to find a way to explain what is constitutive of art in their very activities.
I believe that such a task is not possible without finding a route that is built out of another domain of thought and communication—that is, language and discursive production. To put it differently, I think every contemporary artist should discursively explain to themselves: first, “why am I doing what I am doing?” and then second, “why is what I am doing art?”
In this way, I think art is to be thought of as a very specific modality, a mode of thinking, a mode of argumentation, which depending on the nature of one’s art, has been evoked by dealing with specific material. If, for instance, one is sculpting, painting, or using ready-made objects, one is dealing with specific materials, that would make possible a very specific mode of thinking. A mode of thinking, which would not have been possible without dealing with those materials. Therefore, if we say, for example, writing is a mode of thinking, or speech is a mode of thinking, I would say visual art is yet another mode of thinking. So, despite art being a special and distinctive activity, I don’t think there’s anything so special about it that would situate art in a superior position compared to other modes of thought and argumentations. Let me place a quote from Boris Groys here, which I believe would just make short my long story. The quote is from Boris Groys’ article entitled Under the Gaze of Theory:
I would suggest that today artists need a theory to explain what they are doing—not to others, but to themselves.
The way I understand Groys’ assertion suggests that contemporary artists should turn their back on the spectator so as to ask themselves: what am I doing, in what paradigm or apparatus of art, and in what regime of the distribution of the sensible are these activities going to be represented as art? It is clear to me that, in order to answer these questions, one just needs to resort to discursive mechanisms—that is, using language, writing, reading, arguing, and so on. Nothing is gained from the assertion that “art is not to make one think, but rather to make one sense”—I call this, the sensory alibi of art! Sure, art does many things, including the creation and distribution of the sensible. But the question persists; how do we explain and explicate the very mechanism and paradigm of those sensations without discursive argumentations? We either manage to understand the contemporary necessity for such explanations or we enjoy remaining in the current impasse that is the mere fetishization of art and its concomitant sensations.
I always say this to my students and friends, and it often comes across as a rather controversial statement—that contemporary artists eventually make art for themselves and their friends. Some people tell me that, with such an assertion, I’m being absolutely dismissive to the problem of the receiving end of art, aka the category of “spectator”, “audience” or whatever else you want to call it. My response is Yes but No.
When I’m making art, I am providing a discursive opportunity for things to be discussed, to be thought of, and to be argued about with those who are already within the institution of art. And if we expand our notion of the art institution as those who are using the pervasive and dominant language of art, then it is to say that I am making art to be spoken about with people who are already within that language. Instances of such discursive communications and reflections are: someone might write about your practice in diverse forms such as an exhibition essay, a critique, a review; or you might attend panel discussions or hold studio visits; sometimes you deliver artist talks or respond to the texts that have been written on your practice; and so on. These are all associated with one particular activity that we call art-making. At the end of the day, and if I am going to be fully honest, we are making art for these individuals or group-subjects who are attending art through the prevailing language of art. Nevertheless, if there are problems with that language—and I believe there are many—there’s no better place to deal with those problems other than within the territories of that language.
Thus, if there is anything to come out of this activity of “art making” that concerns the question of “change”, that thing would be the transformation the artist undergoes by mediation of this activity. What I mean is that when I make art, I change or, at least, I subject myself to the procedures of change. Thus, the effects of my art, in my view, will not directly impact the category of the social—that is, the audience, the society, or the receiving end of art in general. But it is the changes that I myself have undergone, that would only by mediation of the conversations, correspondences, and argumentations that I maintain with my artistic community, exert some force on them and possibly subject them to the procedures of change as well. It is then to say that the result of my art-making would only impact society on a secondary level, and simply by the presence of the changed artist within the society. Nothing more and nothing less!
I am aware that this argument forces us to face multiple controversies and questions that emerge regarding the critical legitimacy of, let’s say “institutional critique” and/or “political art”, that the discussed view renders obsolete.
I would like to add, if I may, this paradigm does not make art and ultimately artists any less concerned with politics, but on the contrary it helps politics liberate itself from the false categories of “political art” and from the now commodified strategies such as institutional critique. This argument around art and politics would require a distinct session so I will stop here. Anyhow, I hope I have answered your question.
BG: Yes, it’s great to have that context in the back of our mind as we go through the next question, as I think, it clears few things up as we tackle questions such as your “production mode”, “how you go about formulating your projects” and, etc.
It’s interesting to think about the discursive approach to art making, and artists asking themselves “what?” and “why?” and maybe “for whom?”—you answered the “for whom?”—and this, to me, sounds like a question just happened, and this discourse around it is beginning to come to fruition. So, that’s interesting. This is an example of your theory of how art could be discursive.
Let’s expand that a bit further. We have talked about your take on the notion of “Event” in the past. I’m very much interested in how your practice and writing dwells onthat , and I know that you have a firm perspective on it. I haven’t really formalized a question around this, but I thought maybe you could begin by defining it for us and expand from there, perhaps into your take on the notion of “contingency”.
AA:“Event” in the type of philosophy that I am interested in, in particular the philosophy of Alain Badiou, is, of course, a rather complex ontological concept. But here to summarize it, we can say it is a very contingent happening that befalls a “situation”, or a “world”, and transforms the very nature of that situation, including our knowledge of it.. Badiou breaks this down into four types of Event [of truths], namely, artistic event, political event, scientific event, and amorous event, i.e., an event that involves the question of love, beginning with a lovely encounter.
But in my studio practice , what I call “event” is basically a synonym with the notion of “the contingent”, that is what might happen. And it is very important to note that when we talk about contingency, we are basically saying that, using Reza Negarestani’s words: there might be some possibilities or no possibility at all. So, contingency is not quite the same thing as “possibility”.
Just one thing that I should add here, and I think it’s quite important, is the question that when and to what extent should an artist incorporate the contingent into their practice, and when is the moment they must cease in doing so? This is because contingencies have a very chaotic nature and when something of a contingent sort befalls you, it ushers in a vast body of random thoughts and possibilities. So, you need to know how to control and navigate through that chaos. The decisive moment for me is exactly when a possibility for a discursive justification of my activity is starting to be formed.
BG: Let’s circle back and link this to “language”. Of course, your approach to language cannot be reduced to claiming language as a subject without honing in on specificities of a particular language. Could you help us understand these specificities or conditions in relation to your works?
AA: Thanks, Babak! That’s a great question.
I think the question of the English language, in general, is a very important one that every artist, every writer, basically every contemporary thinker should take into account so as to explain to themselves: what kind of conceptual contributions are they having with the thinking world? Who is their audience? Who is their interlocutor?
It is indubitable that English is the language of hegemony today, or to put it metaphorically, English is the language of the king, which all across the globe, through cybernetics, media, and education, through all different forms of socio-semiotic machinery, is exerting forces upon language users and thus conditioning the possibilities for “thinking” and subsequently for “being” and “seeing”. Regardless of what language you speak: Farsi, French, Arabic, or any other languages, you’re always under siege. With the omnipresence of English, every peripheral language (vis-à-vis English) that is trying to connect to the world has in a way become a torsion of English. This dominating capacity of English in the global atmosphere here and there subjects the language users of other languages to courses of translation and in many cases mistranslation. In a way, you either speak English or you are affected by not being able to speak it properly. You are either an English speaking subject or you are negatively defined as the negation of that subject. Here we’re dealing with a simple dialectic.
BG: Can you expand on that a little bit, perhaps you could give an example?
AA: Sure, let’s take my own relationship to English, which was not an exception to this dominant reality. As an ESL person, I suffered a great deal after immigrating to this language and encountering afflictions such as not being able to communicate properly, being misunderstood, constantly facing your subjectivity split in two, and so on. Later on, however, this lack of ability turned itself into a theoretical foundation for my artistic and scholarly production.
This ESL disposition allowed me to understand, or at least, to sense to some degree how language operates; to realize how we are never fully capable of saying what we thought we intended to say. Being ESL was indeed a great epitome of how language operates you and not the other way around. There would, of course, be a paucity of such an understanding when you speak your mother tongue. So, in this case being ESL is an absolute privilege.
Let me explain this a bit further: When one is learning one’s mother tongue, as linguists say, one is learning the language in an indexical fashion. In fact, your mama points at a thing and at the same time utters and enunciates the name of that thing. For instance, the mother verbally asks a child to kick the ball while she is simultaneously pointing at the ball. Therefore, here the ball becomes an index implying to the child what the mother is pointing at is probably one and the same thing as what she is enunciating.
If we call this a maternal way of learning language, anyone who is learning a second language is indeed learning it in a paternal fashion; in the case of the latter, in lieu of our mama, we are learning the language from this authoritarian figure, namely the dictionary. So, we are deprived of that moment in which someone points at something while voicing its name. In a way you’re dealing with a real abstraction that the absence of mother is. This is precisely the locus of the problem and frustration when you are learning a second language. Yet at the same time, this could turn itself into an advantage; one that lets you first, experience the very physicality of words without yet knowing what’s the “meaning” of them.
So, with the ESL people who are not fully “connected” to the core of language, there exists this great stage of creativity within the interval period between the moment of hearing a word and the time of gaining access to its meaning through a dictionary. In this interval period, the ESL person has a great opportunity to imagine whatever meaning that word might have; whatever meaning you would like to attach to it based on any idiosyncratic association. Of course, this imagination takes place by virtue of the associations one would make between the sound and the physicality of the just-heard word and similar sounding words whose meanings have been previously introduced to them.
In the case of my works, such an approach to English functions as a theoretical tactic in my art production, one that involves the usage of translation and mistranslation as a resource for creating semiotic opportunities. In particular, I am interested in the creation of semiotic situations that would place paradoxes upon language. We should define for ourselves what a paradox is. As I’m obsessed with etymologies, let me quickly take you to the etymology of the word “paradox”. The word is composed of para plus doxa. “Para” is a Greek prefix meaning besides, distinct from, anti. And “doxa” is also a Greek term meaning public opinion, that which goes without saying, or that which makes perfect sense. Therefore, a “paradox” (vis-à-vis urdoxa [higher opinion], and Orthodoxa [true opinion]) is that which goes against the public opinion, or against that which makes perfect sense. In short, a paradox is that which does not make any “sense” as it is a break in the “chain of signification”. So, when I say I’m interested in creating semiotic situations that would subject the dominant language to paradoxes, I am indeed saying that I’m interested in creating semiotic opportunities for making the dominant language stammer.
This is a very general overview of the type of theoretical relationship that I have with language in my art making, and specifically with English. Before proceeding to your next question, I should also mention that I don’t think that making art while having a side-view to the English language is by any means a sign of having been fully subsumed into the English language at all. Quite on the contrary, I think in order to produce anything of “local”, or of “national” disposition, there is no authentic way but to maintain your position toward and through the hegemony, and in this case toward and through the language of the hegemony that is English. Otherwise, in my view, one’s production would simply fall under the very problematic category of identity politics.
BG: Thank you! I find the picture you are painting for us with the maternal and paternal ways of learning a language, in this case, English, quite potent, especially when it comes to making meaning and as you say “making sense” of the world. I’m also fascinated by the opportunity for the imagination to go to places between the moment that you’re introduced to an object/subject or a word until the moment you go to the dictionary; that interval period you were talking about, and how that fits in with your idea of paralogism—this sort of chaos that happens within the mind until it kind of becomes clear. But that clarity comes at the price of subjecting yourself to the hegemonic system.
AA: Sure, I think that interval period is the only moment that the chain of signification is broken. When you’re in your mother tongue, the very physical distance between the moment you hear a word (a sonic signifier) and the moment that the signification pertaining to that word takes place is so little—it’s like an iota. As an ESL person, however, the interval period, which is a period of freedom, is magnified. You are temporarily free from language, at least until you arrive at a dictionary, or until you get “corrected” by someone else. This freedom is akin to what post-structuralist thinkers advocated as “exiting language” and then faced tremendous difficulties trying to figure out how to achieve such a task—that is, how to escape the authoritarian presence of language. Well, you might delude yourself that you are thinking, but you are just using a language. And many believe that thought would not be possible but with keeping language at arm’s length.
BG: Continuing from your position on language, it’s also interesting how you come up with your own definitions of, let’s say, the recipient of the artwork. You have a very keen interest in the receiving end of artworks, the person who comes across the work of art, traditionally designated terms such as “audience”, “viewer”, or “spectator”. But you insist on a very particular term, which is the “visitor”, not plural and always singular. Could you share your theory on that and expand your notion of visitor?
AA: The theory of the “Visitor” is, in fact, something that I’ve been working on as the main component of my PhD dissertation. So, to be honest, the subject itself could require a separate session. But I’ll do my best to find a way to briefly address it here.
Basically, my theory of the “Visitor” is a reformulation of the categories of the audience, or the spectator into an encountering subject position that I call the visitor. Before getting into what it means to be a visitor, let me share with you some of my thoughts on my choice of the term, visitor, and why I thought it could be a suitable term to which I can attach the theory that I’m going to explain.
There were many etymological versatilities associated with the term visitor: Visitor derives from the Latin Videre meaning to see, which is also the common root of terms such as “vision”, “visible”, and “video”. For instance, “video” is a Latin word literally meaning I see. Visitor also shares a common root with another term, ideo, again meaning to see. And we should note that these terms are quite distinct with similar English words such as “looking”, “observing”, or “viewing”.
And as for my reasons for thinking that it is time for us to be dispense with terms such as “audience” and “spectator”, I should say that beside the philosophical problems associated to them, these terms also have their own etymological problems: to spectate is to passively take pleasure in the appearance and in what one sees without yet knowing the repressive logic of the appearance. There is, of course, a whole history of philosophical polemics on this Debordian view to the question of spectator and spectacle, which I don’t intend to get into here. The term “audience” also derives from the Latin audire meaning to hear. As if, being an audience of an artwork is tantamount to “hearing” the voice of the artist that is embedded in the art object. So, here the art object becomes the embodiment of the voice of the artist. And, of course, this is exactly the opposite of what I’m attempting to achieve with the theory of the “visitor”.
Therefore, I thought “visitor” is a term linguistically more capable of meeting the requirements for the situation of having an encounter with an object or subject, rather than situations that still remain confined within the preconditioned optical relationship to an object or subject; a relationship that is usually conditioned by language.
The other thing about the “visitor” is that it does not have a plural form, like visitors; a term that on the basis of its quantified form the art institutions try to gain their legitimacy. Also, to be a visitor is, indeed, to have become a visitor. So, it’s a subject position that does not exist by default. And in order to attain such a position, one needs to acquire a critical faculty as well as a critical vision to the questions of language and of the optics.
BG: Let me interject quickly here and ask you how you imagine your notion of the visitor would possibly effect the artist’s relationship to his own product, i.e., the artwork itself?
AA: Well yes, with the visitor, I try to suggest that art’s familiar ontological triptych, that is, artist–artwork–spectator, should be replaced with a new triptych that is, visitor–artwork–visitor. So, in this sense both the artist and the receiver of art could visit what is mediated in the middle, which is the work of art. However, this does not mean that the type of visitation that the artist would have with his own work is one and the same with the type of visitation that the receiver of art would have.
With this new triptych, before anything, the art’s attendee will be liberated from the agony of discovering the artist’s level of intentionality; they will surmount the need for finding out what the artist has wanted to say. A task for which the art’s attendee most of the times feels stultified and dumb, faced with the saddling question of: why don’t I get what the artist wants me to? All the while, and you and I know this very well, the artists themselves don’t necessarily fully understand what they are doing, nor do they have to. The artist needs to reach out to many different domains such as theory, language, etc., to explain to themselves what is it that they are doing, or what is it that they sense in regard to what they have done.
Therefore, and most importantly, the crux of the visitor’s act is that they do not presuppose the presence of an artist behind the artwork and thus they do not bother with hearing the artist’s “voice” through the artwork. They instead attempt to come across an artwork the same way they have encountered many other things outside the domain of art; the first time a toddler encounters a frog, the toddler doesn’t worry too much what the frog means, really! So, here too, the visitor only attempts to seize the possibilities, not for discovering, but for constructing something out of what they see before themself. So the visitor is ultimately a persona of constructivism.
As regard to the artist, too, they can also subject themself to a constant process of re-contemplation and, thus, reconstruction of new objects of thought out of the objects they have already made in the name of an artwork. The situation is similar to becoming an attendee to your own work. I’m sure many artists have experienced this; you create an artwork, whether you exhibit it or not, and then you constantly visit it, so different thoughts (vis-à-vis your initial thoughts) will strike you. Though, to have this opportunity requires keeping those initial thoughts at arm’s length. With the “orthodox” paradigm of art making, however, doing such a re-vision would come at a price, especially if you have already exhibited the artwork: you would need to deal with a judgment of morality, either of yourself or others—that is, to feel ashamed for having new thoughts about your work that are not necessarily aligned with those you had hitherto claimed being the core ideas behind that work. But let’s move on.
The visitor is, in fact, a stranger in both realms of language and vision. By that, I mean the visitor is a figure who intentionally keeps as remote as possible from the categories of the “already said”, from that which, in regard to what we “see”, has been already spoken about. In other words, the visitor’s tactic is to stand at a distance from the language that is coagulated around what they see. The visitor knows that a prescriptive linguistic economy, the immediacy of an existent hegemony is the sole reason that the optical economy of the sensible and the visible object can be determined so easily—for a spectator. So, when you become a visitor you turn into a stranger the same way an ESL person is a stranger in language…
BG: Yes, I was just going to say this! It’s quite a nice link you are making here.
AA: Yes, you turn into a stranger like an ESL person in relation to both what you see and, at the same time, to what you hear in your head in regard to what you are “seeing”. Because we know that everything we see, the retinal object that forms in our optical system, is at the same time, a linguistic object. And in order to make sense of what we see, we are immediately and automatically in the field of language.
The visitor is always open to the linguistic errors that might contingently befall his act of looking at art; these errors usher in new semiotic opportunities. Yet, none of this would be possible without having already been dispensed with the presence of the artist and his level of intentionality behind the work.
So, to sum this up, the artist is making art for themself and his community and is thinking about matters which they wouldn’t have thought of without ever making art (i.e., mode of thinking). The receiver (the visitor), on the other hand, comes across objects that are very particular objects, very beautifully crafted objects, objects that are capable of creating new conceptual or sensual possibilities. But the receiver has nothing to do with the artists anymore. You, the receiver of art, would strive to encounter art objects as you attempt to exit language, or at least try to stay remote from it—it doesn’t matter if this language is the dominant language used in the institution of art and or any other language or institution.
So, I call this figure of the subject the visitor, the visitor whose important disposition is to take the thought of contingency into account through his act of seeing.
BG: There is a really nice harmony between this shift in language and your view of the ESL and the breaking of the hegemonic hierarchy. I think that’s a valuable proposition. And it leads nicely to the next question, because all of these things that you are conjuring upon and thinking about and implementing could be seen as a methodology or a strategy. And this is sort of another point I would like to determine here. I would like to know the distinctions between the two for you. You and I have had conversations about this and I think it’s relevant to this discussion; not only because of my personal interest, or because my work also operates on those two different levels, but also as something that I think would be beneficial to our readers. So, let me open up another chapter here so we can discuss this issue.
As a point of reference though, maybe we can use your notion of “abstraction”, in particular in relation to language; to see whether or not abstraction should be used as a methodology or as a strategy.
AA: This question leads us back to where we started this discussion, which is the relationship between art and discourse.
To be fully honest, I was uncertain about the term methodology for a long while. I wondered if “methodology” means the “way” you do something, why is it then called methodology, why not just “method”? On the other hand, if methodology means, “the knowledge of systems of methods” utilized to do things, why is the term “methodology” often used in ways that do not stress the knowledge-related part of the term? Later on, I was introduced to multiple literatures describing different artists’ methodologies, which clarified things. In those literature, I came across descriptions such as: the possible methodology of this artist for example, “identity politics”, or this other artist’s methodology involves the question of gender, race, and so on. So, in this sense, methodology would signify a broad category or a problem-set an artist is determined to deal with.
But even this definition does not clarify what a methodology is. So, I agree with you! If we take this dichotomy of methodology versus strategy that you mentioned, strategy would be what we’re doing here now. We’re talking about all these different theories, concepts, and background stories, using words and words, all as one discursive mode of communication, reflection and contemplation; some other people, for instance, have “written” on this work—so they made some texts available; this interview itself, we know, will be later available as “text”, and then once someone is reading it, the rules that govern the modality of “reading” would also subject the reader to yet other set of thought contingencies (vis-à-vis the contingencies of looking at art) and so on.
In the beginning of this interview this is exactly what I meant when I stated that art ought to be in relation to discourse. To a large extent, art is the production of discourses, and this is artistic strategy.
Indeed, one makes an exhibition, and then in the exhibition the attendee of artworks would experience them in a phenomenological mode of experimentation. However, there are many different possibilities for art making, and for thought production as it pertains to “art” that might have already been displayed in any given exhibition. You and I are having an interview, this is a mode of “visiting” (or rather, making art of) an already produced artwork, and yet through a different modality, we are producing discourse and argumentation. Even those who accuse this mode of art making (because they believe art is not necessarily about “thinking” but “sensations”, or “distribution of the sensible”, “chaotic feeling”, and so on), would themselves reach out to language and discourse when they try to articulate their own sense of an artwork they have seen.
BG: Yes, of course! How do you see the use of “abstraction” in relation to strategy and/or methodology?
AA: Let me dwell a little longer on this last issue. There is a great tradition in the history of western metaphysics that regards art mostly in relation to the questions of sense and taste, for instance with people like John Locke and Montesquieu. The subject for them pertains to the questions of “substance” and “taste”, which they associate to a category called: I-know-not-what. “I-know-not-what” is, in fact, “an invisible attraction, a natural grace in something that nobody has the knowledge to define”, says Montesquieu. Therefore, it is that which eludes words and concepts. You look at a painting and say: “there is something in this painting making me jittery that I-know-not-what”; or, “something is lacking in this sculpture that I-know-not-what”.
Although “I-know-not-what” is assigned to the category of taste that is, as Agamben says, “a knowledge that does not know, but enjoys” (and that’s why in western metaphysics taste is typically considered inferior to “sight” and “hearing”), but to communicate with others this very mechanism of tasting and enjoying something which you do not know what it is exactly, you would need to resort to discursive elaboration, for example, on the nature of things that elude words and concepts, things that cannot be reasoned about, and, etc. Again, there’s a difference between elaborating on the function of taste and elaborating on the taste of something. The former, of course, involves discursive activities.
So, back to the question of strategy, I think this way of art making that would give way to discursive argumentation, or at least, provide a situation for it, can be considered as my strategy in art making.
In fact, I would like to make a type of art that would provide a situation in which we can talk about the question of “art” itself; a type of art, that beside the relationships it makes to many other problems, considers itself as a subject. And this is quite different from “art for the sake of art”, for which I have no affinity. Perhaps we can advocate this strategy under the statement of “art for the sake of artist”.
I think “methodology” could be conceived as the tactic an artist would employ to achieve such a strategy. In other words, the dichotomy of methodology and strategy, sounds very akin to the dichotomy of strategy and tactic. And we know, to use Louis Althusser’s words, that “there can be no tactic that does not depend on a strategy, and no strategy that does not depend on theory.”
This provides the basis to get back to your question about my use of “abstraction”, I can say that abstraction is the methodology, or the tactic, I often use to attain my artistic strategy.
Before I get into what I mean by “abstraction”, let me clarify what I do not mean. By no means am I concerned with the concept “abstraction” as it is often used to describe, for instance, abstract expressionism, or things that are visually abstract—things that when you look at them, you can’t say what you are looking at. Not only is there nothing abstract about visual abstraction—if we take abstraction to mean absence of, that which we naively confuse with reality portrayed in indexical representations— this is the common language or rather doxa of contemporary art. Quite the contrary, I am more interested in things that are quite comprehensible when you look at them. Let me explain my assertion with a shallow example: suppose there is a banana in an exhibition, either an actual banana or a representation of it. I would rather, when you look at it, it appears to you as an actual banana rather than a semblance of a banana. So, nothing is abstract here about its visual appearance. Nevertheless, I would like to place that “banana” in a situation where it would maintain a very particular relationship to the language around it, such that the supposed “banana” would no longer be taken as a given thing. For instance, suppose the title of the exhibited banana is “democratic materialism”! So, what is being “abstracted” here is, the pre-established signified of banana as a signifier. Thus, the thing’s meaning is no longer guaranteed, and this is the crux of the matter as it pertains to the concept ‘abstraction’.
My way of using this type of abstraction—that is, abstracting the relationship between the visible signifier, the art-work, and the linguistic signified, its supposed meaning—passes through my usage of language as my operational material in art making. This could happen either by my way of titling my works, or by using language as the object of work. In fact, the objective for me is to create paradoxes in an artistic situation; one that stands in between the optical economy and the linguistic economy, i.e., between what you see and your habitual way of making sense of what you see.
There are many debates on what real artistic abstraction is. It would be useful, I think, if I refer here to a rather recent one between Alain Badiou and Reza Negarestani taking place on the occasion of Jean-Luc Moulène’s exhibition at the Miguel Abreu Gallery (see: Matter and Form, Self-evidence and Surprise, trans. Robin Mackay, Sequence Press, 2019).
For Negarestani, abstraction, I’m quoting here, “is the ambition of thought to liberate itself from the tyranny of the here and now.” For Badiou, whatever the processes of artistic abstraction (vis-à-vis scientific abstraction) are, they always end up at a return to the self-evidence of the sensible object that is right here and is here right now. What I think, however, is that, yes, the question of the return to the here and now is quite crucial but the main question is our account of “here and now”. To me, what is phenomenologically considered as “here and now” is logically the here-and-now of the language that is here and is here now while one looks at the art object. But the language that is in the here-and-now is itself a referral to what is there-and-then, to what is already spoken, to the category of the-already-said, to the discourse. Yes, the protocol of abstraction must be the one that returns us to the here and now but at the expense of disorganizing the language that operates it, and this does not necessarily involve visual abstraction but abstracting the relationship between the visible and the sayable.
BG: I would like to bring in the remark that Gareth James, the British artist and writer, makes in his response essay to your last exhibition Shit Yes Academy (Goh Ballet Academy), entitled “Here’s Shit in Your Eye” that I believe it’s going to be published soon.
I think it would offer a great insight into the artistic mode of abstraction you just talked about, which is a good place, I think, to conclude this interview. So, here is the quote:
Goh Ballet Academy reminds us that what is seen is also always subject to the linguistic events that precede, accompany, and belatedly assist seeing much as speech is assisted in machinic enslavement. Each time we are presented with the cliché that seeing is believing, our eyes and ears should become attuned to the fact that we are not only confronted once more with the desperate avowal of the natural and unencumbered condition of both vision and belief, but also by a surreptitious disavowal and suppression of the fact that such seeing is nothing more than a saying.
James offers an interesting critique of the ocular-centric nature of the hegemonic ways in which Western cultures, and by extension, all other contemporary cultures participating in a globalized manufacturing of meaning, have been propagating “seeing” as the ultimate mode of subjectivation.
So, having that as a context, what are your thoughts on James’ reading of your works?
AA: I hope the exhibition book that the Ag Galerie is going to publish will come out soon, so people would have access to Gareth’s full essay, and also to Matt Browning’s and Mo Salemy’s essays, which I think are just as great.
As for what Gareth says in the quote that you just read, which is basically the concluding paragraph of his essay, I should say that the assertion he makes in there offers a great insight not only to the way the works of that exhibition have been produced but also to the way that this type of works, in general, could be perceived.
I think what Gareth is saying here—as we have learnt from people like Félix Guattari, Maurizio Lazzarato, on whose work Gareth is also very avid—is that subjectivity is distinct from subject. The former is what capitalism produces, and also launches new versions of it, like all the other commodities; Subjectivities define for us our worldview, our desires. And we know that unlike the drives, in the Freudian sense, that come from within us, desires always come from the outside world and operate the subject, they mobilize our bodies. Guattari and Lazzrato argue that the primary mode for producing subjectivities is through discourse (social subjection) and also through what they call machinic enslavement. Therefore, one way to resist subjectivities, Guattari suggests, is “to exit language.” He says, I read his own quote: we can exit language “by dissociating subject from subjectivity and stop considering the power of enunciation exclusive to man and subjectivity.”
So, it is not that only animate beings talk; objects also talk to us, and a great example of that is in art. when it comes to art, it is more or less understood. But the situation with the world outside of art is not any different. As we talked about this before, every object at the same time of being an ocular object is also a linguistic one—hence, back to what Gareth says: that “such seeing is nothing more than a saying.” Languages are always foreign to us, Gareth points to this assertion of Julia Kristeva. There is always an unfathomable distance between “us” and our language-using self. This is why our subject is forever split.
Now, I would like to link this back to the theory of the “visitor” and the ESL user. With the ESL, such a distance between the self and the language-using self is much wider than being called unfathomable. There are great chances for the ESL person to experience the alien nature of words, their physicality, their sound, without yet knowing their meaning. In a way, the ESL person is privileged to stand on the verge of language, so they may as well exit it temporarily. The “visitor” is one who attempts to fully incorporate the “ESL strategy”. What I am calling the ESL strategy is open to all, that is, even to those speaking their mother tongue we can intentionally misuse signs and words, to exit the ideological linguistic presence so as to create new semiotic opportunities.
I think you can do this with a great deal of pleasure from the Duchampian paradigm of art onward. You would have tough times doing such a thing with modern art and say, impressionist art. Good luck talking to an abstract expressionist artist, and trying to find out what their work is about, or, at least, finding out what the artistic modality of their work is. The abstract expressionist artist would simply saye: I can’t say where it came from; it’s a thing from my gut feeling really, and so on. So, with this anti-paradigmatic position we are dealing with the cliché of the artist as that unique, mystical and super-sensitive subject in the world!
But with the Duchampian paradigm of art onward, we can consider and benefit from this understanding of the interplay between art and language. The great thing about Duchamp’s works is that they don’t require much time to be looked at but much more importantly, time to be discussed, talked, and argued about.
I would love to end this interview with a quote from Dave Beech, a quote I always recite once I get a chance:
…Reading to see the artwork does not mean reading about the artwork. After the Avant Garde, anti-art, the readymade and conceptual art, shouldn’t we spend less time looking at art by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Martha Rosler and Artur Zmijewski, and more time writing and thinking about it?
So, my strategy for leading the viewer toward the realm of language, wherein the possibility of thinking is more abundant, was to come up with this theory of the “visitor”. And Shit Yes Academy (Goh Ballet Academy), for me, was an attempt to experiment with this theory.
BG: Alright Ali, thank you so much! As always, this was really illuminating and fruitful. It’s been a great listening to you unpack your potent theories in relation to your practice and beyond. Lots to think about.
AA: I thank you, Babak, for spending so much time on this and for the great questions. It was a great privilege to do this with you.
BG: My pleasure!
–Ali Ahadi and Babak Golkar, October 2021
This interview was conducted in Vancouver. Babak Golkar is a Vancouver-based artist.