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We use the term “middleman” (or middlewoman) as an overall denominator for productive identity, including the nominal roles of artist, critic, curator. Take the two of us, for example, artist/writer and critic/curator respectively; we are at the same time producers and consumers of art. Middlemen between ourselves.
In 1970, the critic Harold Rosenberg stated: “At the present time – and this explains the interest shown in [the curators’] work – only the middleman has the power to fulfill the dream of union between the creative individual and society”. Rosenberg’s nearly 30 years old concept of the Middleman resonates with the many functions of today’s flourishing culture of Middlemen and -women: curators, consultants, brokers, journalists, dj’s, facilitators, spindoctors etc. People whose profession it is to mediate or to avoid that problems come about. It seems like the Middleman is a privileged agent in late capitalist-bureaucratic society. However, the concept of the Middleman is more than mere job descriptions and more than a critique of certain functions. Our claim is that Middlemanship is today a general condition of authorshipand productive behaviour. The existence of Middlemen indicates that the exchange itself is central to how value is estimated. It means being acutely implicated; it is a portrait of the desire for complicity. There is so to speak no ‘outside Middleman’: Everyone is a Middleman. This isn’t to say we don’t do different things in different places, but that it is a pervasive condition for subjectivity in the globalised economy.
In 1993, Pierre Bourdieu wrote about the field of cultural production: ‘… the subject of the production of the artwork – of its value but also of its meaning – is not the producer who actually creates the object in its materiality but rather the entire set of agents engaged in the field. Among these are the producers of works classified as artists… critics of all persuasions… collectors, middlemen, curators etc, in short, all those who have ties with art, who live for art and to varying degrees, from it, and who confront each other in struggles where the imposition of not only a world view but also a vision of the art world is at stake, and who through these struggles, participate in the production of the value of the artist and of art.’ (The Field of Cultural Production, 1993, p 261) Bourdieu’s analysis seems apt, if it weren’t for the productive identity he assigns to the artist as a maker of ‘material objects’. In the era of immaterial work this comes across as somewhat outdated. In other words, Bourdieu sees the place of artistic creativity as a primal scene of sorts; we would like to argue that there is no such primal scene of production. That is a modernist idea. Instead, production-consumption today is about how to style a patchwork of mediated material.
Let us take a look at what mechanisms of authorisation that underpin the role of the cultural producer. What we are talking about might be called an evaluation of power, a dissection of a complex web surrounding the signification of authority. As Michel Foucault told us, having power or being empowered is not a problem in itself. The question is how power is used and represented. We need to find positive ways to evaluate power from within the role of the middleman, from the position of networking and being networked.
The classical problem with the middleman is that as soon as s/he interferes, the situation is no longer one to one. Middlemen are seen as the ones who quietly follow market trends. The middleman is only involved in a process part of the time, but in that time his agency significantly affects the further course of this process. Typically, his involvement raises the value of the goods that are circulated. He is seen as a fleeting agent with shifting loyalties, sitting comfortably between marketplace and producer, enjoying a certain degree of immunity. You can’t reduce him and you can’t add anything to him. At the same time as he has power, he isn’t really the guy in charge, which is why it is difficult to address him as an authority.
The middleman can be something else than one who – like capitalism – arrives when everything is ready.
But on the other hand – and this is the other aspect of the middleman – we must bear in mind the colonised infrastructures of the past and the present. The middleman isn’t just somebody who quietly follows, but also one who can be a part of basic infrastructures. In This Sex Which Is Not One, the feminist thinker Luce Irigaray talks about woman as a go-between, as having functioned as “an infrastructure, unrecognised as such by our society and culture… everything depends on their complicity: Women are the very possibility of mediation, transaction, transition, transference – between man and his fellow-creatures, indeed between man and himself”. It looks like the middleman can be something else than one who – like capitalism – arrives when everything is ready. And infrastructures, of course, can convey many different desires, depending on their composition. The flows we put in orbit can be mere ornaments, but they can also be big waves or columns of rising air, staged to go somewhere in order to see what they collide with, as Gilles Deleuze said.
In a lecture he gave at Baltic arts centre in Newcastle almost exactly two years ago, Hans Ulrich Obrist stated: “[what is important is] How, within curatorial practice and also within institutions one can bring back, against the background of an obvious acceleration, new forms of slowness. How can we re-inject slowness into velocity?” We’d like to deconstruct this statement, because even though it is a relevant criticism of the speed of production/consumption, it still assumes that it is up to curatorial authority – not artistic authority – to slow things down and to perform the operation of “reinjecting slowness”. The curator, or the middleman, can speed things up and slow them down again; s/he is in effect a harmoniser. But can s/he also be a radicaliser? How does this subjectivity act which injects slowness? Curators can be producers, mediators, translators and custodians – even activists. Moreover, curators can decide what institutional format or metaphor to work with; archive, laboratorium, platform, exhibition etc. In any case it seems like curators are free to choose different producer/ consumer identities and different sets of operations for themselves.
When discussing the curator, we shouldn’t isolate the curator’s professional identity in its pragmatic subjectivity. Let us try for a moment and think beyond this specialised role and have a discussion about the cultural location of mediation.
The subjectivity of mediation – the middleman – is the subjectivity which brings us modernity. We are the ones through whom information travels. Often, you hear us curators urge to push the envelope, of the urgency to introduce new strategies to engage with new audiences, art practices and ways of using the institution. The curator is curious, looking for new ways and tools to implement these new strategies with. The curator waits to be filled with new knowledge, new qualifications: The curator is one who is “learning from art and artists”, and a “pedestrian bridge between artist and audience”, to quote Maria Lind and Alexander Dorner. A migratory subjectivity, filled up by new meetings, new cities, new info, new signification.
Today, production/consumption gets organised and distributed in shorter and shorter sequences, trough the discontinuous reinvention of institutions. In the networked society, every nodal point in the network is a go-between for flows, for material in movement. The cultural critic Bülent Diken has written that “network power is about the capacity to escape; its instruments are fluidity, liquidity, and speed. In “liquid modernity” power lies in the ability to “travel light.” With this in mind we would like to quote the curator Fransesco Bonami from his catalogue text for the recent Manifesta 4: “To call Manifesta an exhibition is misleading […] Because of its fluid structure when conceived and its mobile whereabouts it is impossible to identify Manifesta with a particular place or identity.” Presumably without wanting to, Bonami has here given us a very precise definition of authority as it today exists in its amorphous form: it simply can’t be pinned down. We don’t know what form authority has or where it resides; it refuses to be identified. The novelist Charles Willeford stated in 1971 that “A[n art] critic has to discuss what’s there, not something that may be somewhere else”. However, in the networked society, traditional parameters of evaluation have disappeared.
Now, the most empathetic way of striking up a relationship with the multiple operations of the object of style – or the multiple operations of the flow of style – would be one of interpretation rather than one of mapping.
When we use the term mediated material, we want to talk about ‘what’s there’ under certain conditions; material that exists due to economical, ideological or psychological interests and therefore always exists somewhere else, too; namely in the context of these interests. Mediated material is always already produced/consumed and it would be absurd to criticise that fact. Instead one should focus on how to understand the significance and potential of mediated material as a matter of fact. We want to talk about the materiality of the echo – the echo itself with no reference to the source, because a reverberation process produces a version of the source that is also a division; you end up with two different structures. An echo produces ‘something else’, and in the context of the echo that is ‘what’s there’.
A production of an echo that is deliberately promoted exposes a desire to produce ‘something else’ by producing the divisions of versions. The production of an echo is a way to escape the authority of the source and therefore makes an implicit promise of change and difference. As we take it that this style of productivity is very much the raison d’etre of the Middleman, because material is brought into a state of flow that enables a takeover of control, we come to the question, again, of how to relate to these gestures of promise and desire produced by the operations of the Middleman. In other words; How do we trust the middleman? How do we trust ourselves as middlemen?
We have discussed a lot how and when this agent of productivity entered Western Civilisation and therefore we would like to ask this question in a different way; how and when did civilisation start to trust the workings of Middlemen as cultural agents? How and when did a Middleman gain power on own terms? We would like to suggest that the work of Phil Spector in the early 1960’s is such a turning point, when it comes to cultural/aesthetic productivity, which is the frame of this discussion. Interestingly, Spector’s rise happened during what has been described as ‘rock’s lost weekend’ (that is 1959-1964; from the decline of Elvis to the global breakthrough of the Beatles). Spector was on to something different from the mythologies of the Bard. He didn’t perform, he rarely composed (he merely forced his autograph on to compositions) and still he became a star name in pop music. What he did was to produce music in a very all-embracing meaning of the word. Born in Bronx and partly raised in Los Angeles, Phil Spector had established himself as a succesful freelance producer by the age of 19, making hit records for the top 10-world of popular music. He formed his own record company (Phillies) by the age of 21 and from then on he took absolute control of all aspects of the music he produced and released; composers and musicians were hired on a freelance basis – the artists’ identities where engineered again and again, whether as solo or as group artists – and recording techniques and studios were developed to suit Spector’s sound production; The Wall of Sound.
So, Phil Spector produced a sound – a style of music production. It has to be noted that the pop music of Phil Spector was at the time regarded as highly disturbing as the songs were about teenage trouble and the sound was ‘plastic’ – not real music but a symptom of the times. He was very much aware of this and defined himself as a rebel both in the sense that he gave teenage sensibility a cultural form and because he transgressed the workings of the music industry – a double gesture that combined the ambition to take over the means of production and to generate a public flow of adolescent desires that were at the time very much excluded from the public sphere. What is of great importance here is that Spector didn’t operate by the means of dialectics; he didn’t establish an antithesis (a counter-cultural/subversive form) but aimed to gain impact on the ‘top 10-world’ of popular culture. What he did was to establish a new synthesis of the means of production/consumption and we suggest that only a middleman could take on such an operation, as the ability to deal with all aspects of production is needed to gain authority – the authorship of the middleman is the control of the flow of production. There is no claim for autonomy in Spector’s Wall of Sound – it is merely a staged flow of desires that echoes a certain cultural sensibility. Accordingly, when this sensibility changed and Spector’s production style was adapted throughout the music industry, his powers declined. That is the fate of the Middleman; as soon as you loose control of the flow, you’re replaced.
The question of style in production might be the thing to take us further in this discussion of the Middleman. The art historian Ina Blom has made some interesting remarks on style in contemporary art in her essay ‘Dealing with/in Style’ (2001). She finds that discourses of style have vanished due to the influence of the terminologies of conceptual art and institutional critique, that regard discussions of style to be a simple question of reference and formalism. What she points out is that there is a ‘productive ambiguity of style in much recent art’, that cannot be represented in the before mentioned discourses: ‘In […] these discourses […] style functions as a marker or a symptomatic formation which seems to pulsate around oppositional figures such as singular/general, subject/system, art/the everyday. It would perhaps be just as relevant, then, to focus less on what style is, as on how it performs a kind of double gesture that both produces these divisions and renders them uncertain’. The point made here is that a contemporary discussion of style should ‘focus away from the post-modern notion of diversities of style in favour of an attention to the diversity – or the multiple operations – of the object of style itself’. This is a production of difference and ambivalence that has much to do with the present post-media situation of art production, where formal categories of the Media are no longer relevant and where productivity defines itself in terms of ‘project’, ‘situation’ or ‘structure’.
To take Ina Bloms remarks a bit further, we find that these remarks on style applies very well to the overall look of many recent group shows; curatorial work as well should be regarded as an agency of style that ‘performs a kind of double gesture that both produces […] divisions and renders them uncertain’. A patchwork of mediated matrial, staged to produce differences. In this way, Obrist’s ambition to re-inject slowness would represent a desire to stage differences of velocity, and Bonami’s description of Manifesta exposes a desire to authorize ambiguity.
Now, the most empathetic way of striking up a relationship with the multiple operations of the object of style – or the multiple operations of the flow of style – would be one of interpretation rather than one of mapping. With a desire for interpretation, one has the chance to comprehend and maintain difference, whereas mapping – inherent to the concept of the post-modern style palette – is a gesture of archiving that is potentially inimical to invention. The mapping subject controls flows by making them irreversible in isolated domains, while not considering him/herself as part of that domain.
Therefore, to us, parameters of trust hinge on the historicity and materiality of the way a flow is styled. How else do you evaluate the composite flows, and your own role on the flow when you are part of it? Domains have to be opened up, roles switched around, and levels of experience synchronised in order to establish relationships and cede control.
To sum things up, we are suggesting that the middleman/-woman isn’t to be reduced to a authoriser of symptomatic formations (something that has been a point in the critique of curatorial work for instance) but rather, the Middleman establishes an authority in the control of the flow of productivity. In other words, the middleman is an author – and the author is a middleman – who exposes a desire to stage mediated material, and therefore subjectivity is produced here.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)