Ecology of Practices: Santiago Sierra

Santiago Sierra’s work is controversial, obviously so I would say. His projects include paying prostitutes to  tattoo a red line across their backs for money for heroine (160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People, 2000), paying unemployed works to sit in cardboard boxes for four hours a day for six days (Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 2000), and hiring workers to act as buttresses to hold up a wall for five days (The Wall of a Gallery Pulled Out, Inclined Sixty Degrees From the Ground and Sustained by Five People, 2000). Claire Bishop, whom I wrote about last week, counters her criticisms of relational art with Sierra’s confrontational work.

Bishop claims that the relationships set up by Sierra don’t collapse into the work and are not meant for a sense of belonging like Rirkrit Tiravanija’s and Liam Gillick’s whom she criticizes: “The relations produced by their [Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra] performances and installations are marked by sensations of unease and discomfort rather than belonging, because the work acknowledges the impossibility of a ‘microutopia’ and instead sustains a tension among viewers, participants, and context” (Bishop 70).

Santiago Sierra, 160 cm Line Tattooed On Four People, 2000 (image found at http://bombsite.com)

While reading Isabelle Stengers “Introductory Notes on an Ecology of Practices,” I thought of Sierra’s work. She begins by describing the stakes for physics: either it defends itself as keepers of the knowledge of reality or it must suffer as just another social practice. To deal with this issue of science’s truth claims, Stenger develops the notion of an ecology of practices which is defined as a non-neutral tool for “thinking through what is happening” (Stengers 185).

Stengers talks about our attachments, our obligations, and our responsibilities; attachments to her are “what cause people… to feel and to think, to be able or to become able” (191). It is our mistake when we take these attachments as “universal obligations” and feel “free to go anywhere, to enter any practical territory, to judge, deconstruct or disqualify” (191). What can this mean for Sierra’s work? Work that judges without judging, disqualifies without actually disqualifying? Sierra brings the prostitutes and unemployed workers into the gallery where they become both performers but also objects of art. Their previous societal disqualification makes them fodder for Sierra and they are transformed into highly expensive works of art, though after their time of occupation, what has changed about their original disqualification? How do we see these people now? What is our (the audience’s) responsibility to the people who for a period of time became art? Bishop says that “Sierra knows there is no such thing as a  free meal: everything and everyone has a price” (70). Is Sierra simply a “nomad” pointing out the problems and exploitations of the world while still participating in them?

Santiago Sierra, Eight People Paid To Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 1999 (image found at http://www.medienkunstnetz.de)

What does it mean that Bishop claims Tiravanija is working in a “major key” and Sierra is in a “minor”? (71) Is this at all akin to Stengers’ insistence on working in a minor key that “avoid[s] the center stage”? Like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s work on minor literature, a literature that works from the inside through  the dominant language? Sierra in these works is using the dominant language of gallery, gallery patron, artist, art object, but the question of his complicity within this dominant language has been raised. According to Stengers, “there is no practice independent of its environment” (187). To this, Sierra responds that he doesn’t “believe in the possibility of change” (Sierra 2002, 15 quoted in Bishop, 71). But what kind of change is he talking about here? A change in the politics of labor exploitation, or a change in the mechanics of art? Or are the possibilities for change wrapped in both?

How are Sierra’s practices, art practices, implicated in Stengers’ notion of the ecology of practices that does not “describe practices ‘as they are'” but rather “aims at the construction of new ‘practical identities’ for practices, that is, new possibilities for them to be present, or in other words to connect;” “as they may become”? (186) How can Sierra’s work be in a process of becoming? To view Sierra’s work as just another instance of exploitation is to, I think, dismiss another side of the work – some sort of nuanced truth claim, but not Truth. Stengers mentions philosopher Leibniz’s take on Truth: to “not appeal to the strong drug of Truth, or the power to denounce or judge, to deconstruct and criticize” (187). The very notion of the critique while participating in the practice being critiqued seems to throw a wrench into the smooth machine of criticism. Do these works empower in Stengers’ sense of the word or mobilize? What about the witch’s ritual she describes and its effect that is “not becoming aware of something which others already knew, of understanding some truth beyond illusions – her effect is enacting the relation between belonging and and becoming, producing belonging as experimentation while it is always in danger of being some kind of psychological habit”? (195)

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