Residency 6: Simone Slee

9 - 15 December

 

 

 

 

 

Embodied performativity and material sociality

 

 

‘There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all. People will say, perhaps, that these games with oneself would be better left backstage; or, at best, that they might properly form part of those preliminary exercises that are forgotten once they have served their purpose. But … what … is philosophical activity … if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself?’[1]  

-Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, 1985.

 

 

Simone Slee’s view of art practice is much like Foucault’s perspective on the practice of philosophy, as an activity dedicated to the avoidance of received thinking and which accepts partial outcomes as a circumstance to work through. Slee actively embraces the scope for failure and wrongness in investigating how materials and practices mediate human experience, but she can wonder whether her arrangements of objects, materials and actions are too provisional for exhibition. Resisting immediate judgement, however, is central to Slee’s project of experimentation, invention and speculation. Her constructions rarely reflect the character of enduring objects, of products. Their individual components can involve quite some making, but this is offset by the improvised way in which their components lean against, hang off, sit on or support each other. Some works incorporate perishable elements, chancing their collapse during the course of an exhibition.

 

Given Slee’s focus on generative procedures and materials, her work can seem to continue that line of post-WWII sculpture that deployed materiality, process and site-specificity to contest diverse ideas of artistic value. Slee, however, is more concerned with the materiality of social life than art critique, her work investigating the embodied performativity in nonhuman material entities; how materials and objects suggest human activity and shape their users. Anthropology, cultural studies and material studies have long considered the social role of things with various theories of the self, identity and human relations being linked to the symbolism and semiotics of material objects.[2] More recently, a group of writers has argued that material entities incorporate more direct forms of agency. Bruno Latour considers how things institute ‘programs of action’, especially those comprising easily overlooked, but pervasive socio-technical systems.[3] Theodore Schatzki describes social life as a web of practices and arrangements that are undertaken in the context of material arrangements, which they simultaneously determine, depend on and are modified by.[4] For

 

Schatzki, it is not possible to separate the social sphere from other primary domains of the lifeworld: biology, materiality, nature and physicality.[5] Each of these four realms is present in the spectrum of Slee’s work. Sometimes she addresses the intermediary role of materiality in the formation of social and cultural phenomena at the level of commentary. Her 2010 work, Houses that are happy to help with at least one of the possible problems of art, a series of photographs of suburban houses of the 1960s and 1970s, documents the broad dissemination of the modernist principle of truth to materials. In Slee’s sculptures and performances, the engagement with material entities is more immediate, the properties of materials and objects suggesting what is done to and with them. Slee’s aim here is not to affirm materiality as an immutable truth of art. Rather, using a range of manual construction practices linked to the basic achievement of everyday life, she explores how nonhuman material entities exert an influence over human action and are in turn socialised by them.

 

In dividing creative agency between the artist, material entities and practices, Slee’s work parallels the ‘practice turn’ in contemporary social theory alluded to above.[6] Practice theory draws on aspects of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Anthony Giddens, Bruno Latour and Theodore Schatzki among others.[7] In seeking to explain the relationship between human action and the social order, practice theory approaches practices as the fundamental unit of social analysis. A practice is seen to comprise practical knowledge, material objects and a social objective.[8] Practice theory grounds the social in the performance and replication of practices rather than in thought, discourse or human interaction.[9] Where other social theories highlight the role of social structures and knowledge systems in determining how people think and act, theories of practice hold that although tacitly accepted social rules and values may fix practices to an extent, organising what people do, practices are also modified by and originated through their performance, thus attributing agency to the performer.

 

Theories of practice reflect the rise of everyday life as a central concern of modern philosophy and social theory.[10] The premise of the series of residencies and exhibitions My House is too Small brings art and exhibition practice into relation with a third field of practice, domestic life. The invitation for Slee to intervene in the amalgam of material trappings, social routines and spatial zones that comprise a domestic interior is wholly apposite. In its focus on doing things with things, Slee’s work recognises the diversity of actions and routines that constitute everyday life, but which most of us carry out without significant self-observation or reflection. Indeed, for Andreas Reckwitz, individuals are the bearers of practices, but they mostly have no particular awareness of this role.[11] Art practice is arguably an exception here, sitting outside the field and flow of practices that comprise everyday life. For artists, the contemporary art enterprise centres on the conscious identification and association of multiple practices in the realization of both individual works and an overarching artistic project. In unfolding over years, the need to forge a practice exerts a significant organising influence over what artists do, seeing them harness diverse activities, material resources and conscious intellectual effort to specific objectives.

 

‘Practice’ constitutes the form and content of Slee’s work, which is given over to repeated cycles of doing, reflecting and adapting in the quest to make art. That the practices, materials and objects Slee incorporates into her work are quite ordinary is important to its ability to communicate its central concerns to an audience. Benjamin Buchloh argues that the deskilling of art practice by neo-avant-garde artists, in negating ‘a traditional, hierarchical model of [art as] privileged experience based on authorial skills’, brought about a comparable change in the viewer, suggesting that the reception of art no longer needed ‘acquired competence’.[12] For Buchloh, the banal activities and ideas found in Conceptual Art in particular recognise a flattening of the field of contemporary art; how discursive and institutional inscription had reduced the relationship between artists, artworks and audiences to one of equivalence, that is, had made them equally subject to the processes of a self-reproducing art ‘system’. In developing her work around simple activities with readily available props—commonplace phenomena that are readily taken for granted and disregarded—Slee eschews the expectation for specialness and otherness in art to ground her work in the ordinary realm of everyday experiences, that which Barry Sandwell describes as a ‘coherent intersubjective or public “domain” of consciousness shared by all members of society.’[13]

 

In bringing practices to bear on themselves and on material entities, Slee reveals the social intermediary role of both, as well as the situation in which some practices are linked to ‘cultural production and organization’, but others are not.[14] Modernism harnessed materiality to an inward-looking quest for genuineness, integrity and origins, the concern for truth reflecting the perception that the modern world was no longer authentic.[15] Bruno Latour links the idea of authenticity to modernity’s chief objectives, the production of order, the work of purification and the suppression of heterogeneity and hybridity.[16] Slee’s speculative, process-driven assemblages of practices and material entities not only reveal the distributed network of competences held between human and non-human actors, but also the role of practices in producing new, hybrid articulations of relations between people and things across the lifeworld.

 

In exploring the role of practices in the emergence and reproduction of shared ways of being and understanding, Slee’s work raises some interesting questions about the relative value of different methods and fields of expertise in understanding the world. Science’s positivist methods dominate the production of knowledge about the physical world, with the interpretation of culture and society being left to the humanities.[17] Increasingly, however, a range of social and cultural debate questions the usefulness and validity of established approaches to knowledge production, along with the idea that specific forms of professional expertise and their specialized intellectual approaches are needed to grasp the reality of the world. Creative practice is typically seen as separate from formal rationality and instrumental ends, having an uncertain status as an approach to learning about the world. In Simone Slee’s work, doing things with things exposes the alliances, relativities and interminglings between human and non-human actors. As much as it is concerned with possibility, with discovering new relationships in the interactional space between materiality and technicity, Slee’s practice-driven investigation into how materials entities affect programs of action in the human domain also models processes of change within the fabric of everyday worlds and the dimensions of agency in the performance of routine actions.

 

 

Carolyn Barnes


 

[1] Michel Foucault. The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Volume 2, trans. R. Hurley, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1985, pp. 8-9.

 

[2] For example, Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, New York, Cambridge Studies in Social & Cultural Anthropology, 1986; Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. J Benedict, London, Verso, 1996 [1968]; Mary Douglas and Brian Isherwood, The World of Goods: Towards and Anthropology of Consumption, New York, Basic Books, 1979.

 

[3] Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1999; Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.

 

[4] Theodore Schatzki, ‘Materiality and Social Life’, Nature and Culture, vol. 5, no. 2, 2010, p. 124.

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] Theodore Schatzki, Karin Knorr-Cetina and Eike von Savigny (eds), The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. London, Routledge, 2001.

 

[7] See Andreas Reckwitz, ‘Toward a theory of social practices: A development in culturalist theorizing’, European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 5, no. 2, 2002, pp. 243–263.

 

[8] Dale Southerton, Wendy Olsen, Alan Warde and Shu-Li Cheng, ‘Practices and trajectories: A comparative analysis of reading in France, Norway, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA’, Journal of Consumer Culture, vol. 12, no. 3, p. 240.

 

[9] Reckwitz, p. 247.

 

[10] Ibid., p. 244.

 

[11] Ibid.

 

[12] Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, October 55, Winter 1990, p. 140.

 

[13] Barry Sandywell, ‘The myth of everyday life’, Cultural Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, p. 163.

 

[14] Pierre, Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice, London, Routledge, p. 325.

 

[15] Richard Handler, ‘Authenticity’, Anthropology Today, vol. 2, no. 1, 1986, pp. 2–4.

 

[16] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, New York, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.

 

[17] Mike Savage, ‘The “Social Life of Methods”: A Critical Introduction’, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 30, no. 4, 2013, p. 14.

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