The Art of Listening (and of Being Heard): Jay Koh's Discursive Networks - Grant Kester, The Third Text, Summer 1999

[Western] culture is sufficiently logical to criticize the paternalistic despotism of institutions, thinkers and subcultures, but perhaps not logical enough to make clear to what extent the despotic rule is inherent in any kind of discourse that is not rooted in listening.
Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other Side of Language"1

Discursive Practices

Working quietly and with little or no recognition from mainstream art critics and curators, artists and arts collectives operating in Europe, South America and Southeast Asia, have, over the past several years, developed a number of innovative projects that are concerned with the creation of new forms of collaborative knowledge and interaction outside of gallery or museum spaces. { 2 } The primary focus of this work is not on the creation of exemplary physical objects (although objects and object-making do play a role in many of these works), but on the organization of exemplary discursive interactions with specific, often non-art, constituencies. In many cases these works challenge the distinction between artist and audience, turning viewers into co-participants. They replace the conventional, "banking style" of art (to borrow a phrase from Paulo Freire), in which the artist "deposits" his or her expressive content into a physical container to be "withdrawn" later by the passive viewer, with a process of dialogical exchange and collaborative interaction. They are performative to the extent that they see the identity of the artist and the participant as produced through these situational encounters, but they are not subsumable within the traditions of performance art to the extent that these depend on the concept of the "performer" as the expressive locus of the work. Primary emphasis is placed on the character of the discursive interaction itself rather than on the physical or formal integrity of a given artifact, or the artist's experience in producing it.

Specific examples would include projects by the Viennese group Wochenklausur, such as their "Intervention in a Deportation Facility" in 1996, which led to substantial improvements in the treatment of inmates in a facility for extraditional custody in Salzburg, including access to legal advisors. Other examples include Creative Activity for Everyone (CAFE) in Dublin, which has worked with the Clondalkin Travellers Development Group (the "Travellers" are Ireland's Romany or Gypsy population) to create a new housing site in St. Oliver's Park designed in large part by the Traveller's themselves. The Art of Change in East London has produced a number of projects with school children in the Docklands over the past decade that involve the collaborative production of digital photo-montages, in many cases reflecting on the complex racial and cultural politics of the area. The Naam Chewitt project of the Empower Foundation in Nothaburi, outside Bangkok, has developed programs for sex workers in Thailand that include job re-training, language classes and AIDS education courses. La Plata's Grupo Escombros has proposed a network of "socially-committed" art schools in Argentina, staffed by artists, sociologists and social activists designed to develop locally-based cultural projects in response to the specific political and social needs of the surrounding community. In response to those who would reduce their practice to social work or activism, Wolfgang Zinngl of Wochenklausur is insistent that it be defined in terms of art. "Localized between social work and politics, between media work and management, interventions," as Zinggl writes, are "nonetheless based on ideas from the discourse of art". These ideas would include, first, the capacity for thinking critically and creatively across disciplinary boundaries. "Art lets us think in uncommon ways," according to one of Wochenklausur's statements, "outside of the narrow thinking of the culture of specialization and outside of the hierarchies we are pressed into when we are employed in an institution, a social organization, or a political party."

Although these works don't constitute anything like a formal movement they all define art, and the value and significance of aesthetic experience, in terms of a process of communication. This may seem like something of a commonplace but in fact the idea that a work of art should be accessible and understandable, or that it's form should be determined by and through interaction with the "viewer" goes very much against the grain of dominant beliefs in both modernist and postmodernist art and art theory. The idea of communicability, of an art practice based on shared discourse, is irrevocably tainted by the association of discourse with kitsch and the market. Thus, in his influential essay on the "postmodern" condition Jean François Lyotard writes with real disdain of art defined by the assumption that the public "will recognize. . . will understand, what is signified." { 3 } In fact, Lyotard goes so far as to link the concept of discourse and communicability in art with what he ominously terms a "call to order" and the cultures of fascism and Stalinism. Jürgen Habermas's claim that art might expand from "questions of taste" to the exploration of "living historical situations" is linked for Lyotard with a naive, nostalgic and politically reactionary yearning after "unity" and the misguided attempt to reconcile art and society into a mythic "organic whole". { 4 }
Of course Lyotard's fears of a universalizing discourse are well-founded. One does not have to look very far in contemporary US culture to find concrete examples, such as recent attacks on the teaching of Spanish in California public schools (Proposition 227) under the guise of a resurgent one-language Americanism that attempts to define "American" identity through the negation of the complex cultures that actually constitute our country today. Clearly, any model of discourse or cultural identity that is founded on the violent suppression of difference must be rejected. At the same time, the vehemently counter-discursive tradition within the modernist avant-garde has led to another kind of negation—an indifference and in some cases an outright contempt towards the viewer. This was an integral component of the conventional (and in many quarters still quite dominant) "New York School" approach to art-making. "The artist," as sculptor David Smith insisted in 1952, "deserves to be belligerent to the majority". { 5 } In its extreme state this view can lead to the position that art is not a mode of communication at all. Thus we find the painter Barnett Newman projecting an anti-discursive tendency into the very mists of time: "Man's first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. . . an address to the unknowable." { 6 }
Aspects of this indifference and in some cases antagonism persist into the present day, in the association of avant-garde artistic practices with an "orthopedic" aesthetic, in which the artist seeks to radically transform the viewer's (implicitly flawed) consciousness of the world through a therapeutic ontological dislocation, precipitated by the work of art. While there is certainly an argument to be made in support of work that calls into question the naturalness of various discursive and representational systems, this association has also made it difficult for many in the arts to recognize the aesthetic significance of the commitment to communicability evinced in the works cited above (or in some cases, to even accept them as "works of art" in the first place). The projects I've already mentioned, and the work that I will discuss below, challenge this view. They can be usefully analyzed in terms of what might be called a "discursive" model of the aesthetic. { 7 }We typically identify discourse with langue and with a set of commonly shared meanings. This leads in turn, as in Lyotard's critique, to the association of discourse with a fixed and hegemonic semantic system that negates the unique specificity of individual speaking subjects. For the purposes of this essay I will define discourse instead in terms of the process of dialogue itself, and the ways in which dialogical interactions can be transformed through aesthetic forms of knowledge.

The specific function of conventional aesthetic perception is to treat the perceived object-in-the-world as an ensemble of stimuli to be registered on the conscious mind of the artist. Everything that is outside of the perceiving subject thus becomes a kind of raw material to be processed by the senses and the mind in order to produce what we might call a „transcendence effect". In the classic Kantian account, this process allows the subject to reflexively perceive the operations of their own consciousness, and by extension to glimpse the potential cognitive ground of a universal basis of communication. The transcendence effect is most pronounced when the material being experienced is treated as a mere representation, thus insulating the meditative perceiver from any direct contact with the viewed object which might distract them from the process of self-reflection. This is typically expressed in the early to mid-twentieth century concept of a formalist, self-referential art practice.

The effect, then, is to negate the specific identity of those objects around you (and people can easily function as objects), and instead to treat them as instrumentalized material. In contrast, a discursive aesthetic would locate meaning „outside" the self; in the exchange that takes place, via discourse, between two subjects. Moreover, the identities of these subjects are not entirely set, but rather, are formed and transformed through the process of dialogical exchange. In the traditional view I’ve just outlined aesthetic experience prepares the subject to participate in intersubjective exchange by giving them mastery over a universal discursive form. They function as an already fixed enunciative agent who merely makes use of discourse to express the a priori „content" of their internal being. In the model that I’m attempting to define the subject is literally produced in and through discursive experience.
Although in some cases deriving from the innovations of Conceptual and Minimal art in the US and Europe, many of these "discursive" projects have been produced well beyond the heliocentric art "worlds" of Europe and the US. In many cases they have developed in explicit opposition to the influence of what is viewed as a production-oriented, market-driven, western culture. I'm going to focus here on the projects of Jay Koh, an artist whose work in many ways exemplifies this discursive approach to art making. Koh grew up in Singapore but left in the late 1970's after being warned of his impending arrest as a political subversive for his activities with the oppositional Worker's Party. What began as a one or two year hiatus, until things "cooled down," turned into an extended migration through Europe, from Ostende to Dover to Frankfurt and finally to Cologne, where Koh has lived since 1982. Due in part to his educational background in chemistry and biology, Koh's early activist work in Germany was focused on the politics of health care and scientific research. He helped establish one of the first public interest groups in Cologne to protest against the dangers of genetic engineering (Cologne is a center for genetic research) and worked on the development of a patient information system that allowed health service users to monitor and evaluate the performance of doctors. When he was in school, as Koh notes, he was taught that the arts were for those students who were too "stupid" to succeed in more important (and lucrative) scientific or technical fields. But by the early 1990's, as he became increasingly frustrated with the endless discussion, lack of action and willingness to compromise among the health activist community, Koh began to recognize some of the possibilities of arts-based activism. As he notes, "I believed that as an artist I could project my ideas more clearly, carry out actions that established more definite positions, and react more quickly to changing circumstances." He founded an organizational entity called "arting" in 1992 that served as the basis for a range of different activities; symposia, artist and critic exchanges especially focused on Asia, exhibitions, demonstrations, and so on ( "The idea," as Koh wrote, "was to create a platform where I, together with my colleagues, could use the medium of contemporary art to intervene in various social process and structures." In 1997 Koh founded another, smaller group, the International Foundation for Intermedia Arts (IFIMA), which mobilizes ad hoc affiliations of artists, activists and writers in Germany and Asia for the creation of specific projects.

One of the first "intermedia" projects Koh developed with arting (in 1990) reflected his transition from health activism to activist art. Titled Genopoly, the project involved a series of performances, lectures and exhibits designed to raise public consciousness about the dangers of genetic research (especially of experiments underway in Cologne to implant human genes in animal "receptors"). Genopoly would set the pattern for a number of subsequent arting projects. It was based on the creation of collaborative alliances among various activist and arts organizations in Cologne and elsewhere (from the Bürger Beobachten Petunien to the South and Meso-American Indian Rights Center). This crucial networking component was combined with the inter-disciplinary focus of the project, which featured lectures, performances, exhibited artworks, publications, a web site and so on. Underlying many of arting's projects is the recognition that complex social and political issues, like those raised by genetic research, can't be adequately addressed simply by fabricating physical objects (sculptures, paintings, and so on), but rather, require polyvalent responses that operate on multiple levels of public interaction. Other recent projects have included Auszeit der Demokratie or "Time-out in Democracy" (1993), a large exhibition, performance, and lecture series developed in response to the drastic increase in killings and attacks on Ausländer or "foreigners" in Germany by fascist groups following re-unification. Koh brought together dozens of artists who developed performances and "actions," collages, installations and other works reflecting critically on German xenophobia. Currently, Koh is developing a proposal for a course to be offered as part of the Empower Foundation's educational program for sex workers in Thailand that would use art-making strategies to help teach students about the impact of cultural imperialism on Thai society.

The Politics of Cultural Exchange

In the mid-eighteenth century the Jesuit missionary Pére d'Entrecolles, recorded his impressions of one of the first "hongs" or factories established in China by the East India Company. D'Entrecolles describes the "vast sheds," in the East India facility at Jingdezhen, which were filled with "a large number of workers who each have their appointed task. . . one piece of fired porcelain passes through the hands of seventy workers." { 8 } As this account reminds us, phenomena such as globalism, the division of labor, and "off-shore" sourcing are hardly unique to the current high-tech economy. For centuries the west has been engaged in a complex set of "exchanges" in which the countries of Asia are used as both cultural or stylistic resources ("Japonisme" and "Chinoiserie" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) and as testing sites for the most advanced techniques for the regulation of labor (from the East India Company to Hewlitt Packard). Koh's awareness of this conflicted history has contributed to his skepticism about the current fascination with Asian "cultural exchange" in the US and European art worlds. For Koh this interest, although often well-intended, is highly problematic, as it carries with it certain neo-colonial mechanisms of both exoticization and homogenization. Moreover, it is often characterized by an inadvertently patronizing attitude on the part of western organizers, due to the massive discrepancy in access to economic resources between arts organizations in the west and those in Southeast Asia in particular.
Koh draws a parallel between the role of powerful institutions like the International Monetary Fund in representing Western economic interests in Asia (under the guise of a benevolent globalism), and the role of the powerful curatorial/critical system of the western art world in representing European and American cultural interests. He has written critically about what he calls "the scale," the "universal and ideal" (and implicitly western) standard employed by curators, artists and critics from the US and Europe which treats non-western art as little more than a "copy" or reflection of tendencies and attributes that are seen as originally or more fully developed in Western cultural practices. Typically, as in the much touted exhibition Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions, organized by the Asia Society in New York in 1996, a single Asian voice is selected as the privileged spokesperson for "Asian" art (in this case Thai critic and historian Apinan Poshyananda). This surrogate gate-keeper is then forced to negotiate the identity of Asian culture with a phalanx of western funders, consultants, critics, curators and institutions. In this context works that call too much attention to the troubling political complicities between the west and the east are decorously pruned (as in the noticeable absence in Traditions/Tensions of contemporary Indonesian art dealing with western support of the Suharto regime and the massacres in East Timor).

As a result of this dynamic, one of Koh's central concerns has been the facilitation of exchange among Asian artists, historians and critics. "Cultural imperialism does not depend on arms or technological superiority but consists of attacks from the intellectual side and the constant reinforcement of prejudices. . ." as Koh has written, "A lot of Asian people reinforce this way of thinking. They are educated in the west, blindly believing in its total superiority while those at home follow the same blind faith". Koh's ongoing Network Project has involved a series of initiatives developed with artists and arts groups in Bangladesh, Burma, Mandalay, Hong Kong, Thailand and Tibet. These include collaborative sponsored exhibitions, exchanges of artists and writers between, for example, Germany and Thailand, and the organization of conferences devoted to the definition of an independent Asian arts practice. Koh has travelled extensively in order to build a network of personal and institutional connections among Asian artists in an effort to provide an institutional and discursive alternative to the growing interest (economic as well as intellectual) in Asian art and culture among European and American NGO's, state agencies, critics, and dealers. Koh has been particularly concerned to support the emergence of an independent critical apparatus that can develop an analytic framework for art produced in Southeast Asia as an alternative to the ways in which value is assigned to art in the west. To this end he has developed an ongoing exchange program with critics and artists from Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh, called The Other Critic (1998).
Many of the "cultural exchanges" orchestrated by or on behalf of western institutions tend to ignore the specificity and complexity of local art and cultural production, as well as the political implications of the power differentials between developed and strategically under-developed countries. At a recent activist art conference in Ireland that brought together practitioners from the US and England (several of whom enjoyed relative lucrative university affiliations) along with practitioners working in far more restrictive (and in some case even hazardous) conditions in South Africa, Northern Ireland and countries in Southeast Asia, one participant described this as the schism between the "G-7" and the "Non-aligned Nations" artists. Very real differences in terms of access to economic and cultural resources are often suppressed in these circumstances through an appeal to art as a "universal language" that allows people from radically different cultures and backgrounds (for example, the US and Myanmar or Indonesia) to identify some common ground for interaction. For Koh these "exchanges" have to begin with a frank acknowledgment of these differences. They must also involve a sensitivity on the part of practitioners and organizers associated with dominant, western fine arts institutions to the ways in which "exchange" is constrained and structured by the specific cultural and political context of a given country, region, or site, and by the broader political and economic interrelationships that exist between their respective countries.
The problem of this kind pseudo "transcendence" was usefully illustrated in the controversy that accompanied a highly publicized exhibition, "Tomorrow is Another Day," by the US-based artist Rirkrit Tiravanija at the Koelnischer Kunstverein in the winter of 1996-97. Tiravanija is widely viewed as an exemplary "hybrid" subject (he was born in Buenos Aires and lived in Bangkok and Canada before re-locating to the US); an "outsider" whose installations challenge the boundaries between the public and the private through the creation of "parallel spaces" in which he assembles temporary cafes, lounges, dining rooms and playhouses in galleries and museums. It should be noted, however, that Tiravanija is also a highly successful and sought after artist who works and teaches in the very epicenter of western cultural privilege; New York. Tiravanija has been invited to re-create his "parallel spaces" in galleries and museums through Europe and the U.S., where they are celebrated as embodiments of art's power to transcend institutional and cultural boundaries and to create a utopian space of free and open exchange (of food, conversation, etc.). According to the new edition of Aranson and Prather's standard History of Modern Art, "Tiravanija treats the intersection between private and public experience as the site where communal ties can be built and celebrated." { 9 }
In the winter of 1996, as Tiravanija was re-constructing the Koelnischer Kunstverein as a utopian space for cooking, eating and "communal celebration," the Cologne police were in the process of breaking up and driving out a settlement of homeless people near the gallery, under pressure from a local business group called "City Marketing" that was concerned about the negative impact that street people might have on tourism and gentrification in the area. While Cologne's liberal press lauded the show as a model of "inter-cultural exchange," a number of local artists and activists found the juxtaposition of Tiravanija's magnanimous gesture and the brutality of police attacks on the homeless deeply problematic. Stefan Roemer, one of Koh's associates in Cologne, produced a video critique of the exhibition that included the following dialogue: "They act as if they are being so generous in making this room available when they are really doing nothing at all. It is a meaningless statement. At the same time they are making this grand gesture fifty homeless people are being ordered to clear out their camp and go. . . it fits perfectly with the rhetoric of globalism, with its focus on image over substance." { 10 } Koh's protest took the form of the following message (in Thai), written on the front door of Tiravanija`s „utopian apartment": "Sawasdee Khrap, Nong Chai [Greetings, younger brother]. Your Process art sounds good, but what about the 'process' in your [Thai] society? The women and poverty?" While Tiravanija certainly can't be blamed for the attacks themselves, his work returns us to Koh's concern with art projects oriented towards "exchange" and interaction that ignore the (political, social and cultural) context in which the dialogue itself is staged.

An Aesthetics of Listening

For Koh the work of art is not simply a physical object but a specific social process; the catalyzation of dialogue, the exchange of ideas, and the collaborative generation of new aesthetic paradigms. This juxtaposition of discursive versus economic exchange is elaborated in the Exchanging Thought (1995-96) project that Koh developed in Chiang Mai, Thailand in collaboration with members of the group Bon Fai. Exchanging Thought was held in several different markets in Chiang Mai over a two month period and involved bringing objects and works produced by artists from seventeen other countries, including Germany, Finland, Iran, Brazil, Turkey, and Eritrea, to the market and offering to exchange them for other objects brought for trade by local residents. According to the Exchanging Thought catalog these transactions "cross cultural and professional differences on the basis of respect and equality in a process where the spectator becomes a participant." Objects play a central role here as both symbols for and embodiments of a kind of equitable material dialogue intended to challenge the instrumentalizing logic of the art market.
Koh's interest in the moral economy of exchange and communication brings us back to the concept of a "discursive" aesthetic that I outlined at the beginning of this article. In order to understand Koh´s work, it is necessary to shift from the expressive / productive nexus of conventional art practice, to a concern with listening and process. Thus, Koh's Network Project is premised on what might be termed an "aesthetics of listening," in which the very act of establishing networks among Asian artists, writers, and activists across boundaries of nationality and culture, is an integral part of his own practice as an artist. The Italian philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara, in her book The Other Side of Language, notes the etymological origins of the Greek term "logos" or language in "legein"; to lie with, to gather in, or to receive. She juxtaposes this to what she calls "the assertive tradition of saying" that has dominated western philosophy, and art. "We have little familiarity with what it means to listen," as Fiumara writes, because "we are. . . imbued with a logocentric culture in which the bearers of the word are predominately involved in speaking, molding, informing." { 11 }Of course it was precisely this instrumentalizing aspect of language that modern art attempted to circumvent through the withdrawal into opacity and inscrutability. But Fiumara refuses to surrender the concept of discourse entirely; she simply argues that we must begin to acknowledge and bring into being, the long-suppressed role of listening as an integral component of discursive knowledge.
For Koh an art practice that privileges dialogue and communication can't be based on the serial imposition of a fixed formal or spatial motif (as in Tiravanija's "cafes" and "lounges"). Rather, it must begin with an attempt to understand as thoroughly as possible the specific conditions and nuances of a given site or community. Only then can the appropriate or strategically effective formal manifestation, gesture or situation be devised, in response to those specific conditions. Well before the enunciative act of art-making, the manipulation and occupation of space and material, there must first be a period of open-ness, of non-action, of learning and of listening. For Koh it is even more important that those western artists and institutions, for whom the "assertive tradition of saying" comes so naturally, also learn to begin by listening.

published in the Summer issue( 47 ,)1999 by the "Third Text" - Third World Perspectives on Contemporary Art & Culture from London and Liverpool.

{ 1 }Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Language, translated by Charles Lambert (London: Routledge, 1990), p.26.

{2 }A number of these groups have discussed their work at a series of "Littoral" conferences organized by Ian Hunter and Celia Larner of Projects Environment in England over the last several years (in Manchester, Sydney and Dublin) devoted to the presentation and analysis of "engaged" art practices (

{ 3 }Jean-François Lyotard, "What is Postmodernism?," The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p.76.

{ 4 }Lyotard, p.72.

{ 5 }David Smith, "Aesthetics, the Artist and the Audience" (1952), reprinted in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, editors (London: Blackwell, 1992), p.578.

{ 6 }Barnett Newman, "The First Man was an Artist" (1947) reprinted in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, p.568.

{ 7 }This form of practice, or at least this orientation towards artistic practice, is increasingly being recognized at the level of studio education. At the new California State University campus at Monterey Bay Suzanne Lacy has helped organize a studio program organized around public or community-based practice within the framework of the school's commitment to "service-based learning". Carol Becker, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been instrumental in setting up new pedagogical track devoted to encouraging the creation of collaborative projects related to art and activism, and Carnegie Mellon University has initiated an "Art in Context" course that involves students in working in community-contexts outside the studio and classroom. Programs of this kind are even more developed in the UK, where there is a longer history of organized, community-based work. In March of 1999 there was a major conference in London of the "Contextual Practice Network," a consortium of fifteen English and Scottish art schools that all share a concern with art activities created in relationship to external agencies, communities and non-art specific contexts.

{ 8 }Sotheby's Concise Encyclopedia of Porcelain, David Battie, editor (London: Conran Octopus, 1990), p.58.

{ 9 }H. H. Aranson and Marla F. Prather, History of Modern Art, fourth edition (New York: Prentice-Hall and Harry Abrams, 1998), p.795.

{ 10 }Stefan Roemer, Tomorrow is Another Day: A Video Criticism of Rirkrit Tiravanija's exhibition "Tomorrow is Another Day" at the Koelnischen Kunstverein (Koelner Videomagazin N-TV, January 1997). My translation.

{ 11 }Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Language, pp.9, 23.