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On conditions
by Marina Vishmidt 


Ghislaine Leung, Fountains, 2021

Score: A fountain installed in the exhibition space to cancel sound.
Edition 1 of 3 + 2 AP
Courtesy the artist; Maxwell Graham Gallery, New York

Photo: kun​st​-doku​men​ta​tion​.com

In approaching the work of Ghislaine Leung in this exhibition, on the one hand, and that of Carolyn Lazard, on the other, two historical truisms appear, asking to be dissolved. The first is the opposition between color and line; Browns (2021) and Red (2021) both generate a space, delineate it, through the deliberation of color. The other is that conceptual art is opposed to relational art, because it is tautological and self-contained; Leung and Lazard infuse the vocabulary of conceptualism with the materialism of dependency. The sketching out of an atmosphere through the delegated installation of industrial or quotidian objects, as in Fountains (2022) – which echoes Lazard’s A Conspiracy (2017), an installation of twelve ceiling-mounted white noise generators often found in healthcare and hospitality settings, shown at Cell Projects in London in 2019 – is also the production of space, or rather, its conditions. The indeterminate status of objects between conditions and décor is perhaps not so new as a post-conceptual gesture, yet what these two practices, represented here by the first three works cited, accomplish, is a patterning of an exhibition space as a space of dependency, of self-insufficiency.

For Lazard, this is a praxis that unfolds through questions around access in the exhibition space, here evoked by a switch from a potentially seizure-inducing flicker between black and white to red light, which pulsates more gently. Before even this can have its effects, however, a text in an ante-room describes the potential experience for the viewer. The reference, Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1965), as well as Paul Sharits’ films, is sublated from shock into an empathic gesture, minimalism no longer as theater, as Michael Fried fretted, but perhaps a braver, if still equivocal phase-shift: minimalism as therapy. The way structural film literalizes the conditions of the viewing experience is by bracketing everything that falls outside the phenomenological grain of the encounter between eye and moving image. Lazard unravels this by bringing the conditions for this bracketing into the picture. More than this, however, they articulate the dependency of the formal on its conditions as a matter of labor: the commingled labor of the artist, the curator, the gallery staff, and the visitor. The labor is translated into access here, into information and adjustment, which combine to create an independent’ artwork, modulating the time and space of the encounter in a different way, with its polemics (dependency) and autonomy (coherent gesture) tightly imbricated.

Lazard’s work is often characterized by the proposition that access can be a formalization of artistic labor, with the relevant conditions enacting the principle of this labor rather than a sidelong supplement. Their engagement with disability politics is what allows them such a specific vantage on the problem of labor conditions for not just the artist but the situation of art. Lazard’s writings, work and advocacy over the past decade give us an insight into the impact of disability not just on a person with an art practice, but how chronic illness starts to undermine the parameters of time and achievement imposed on young artists, and also provides a view onto questions of access and accessibility that can be generalized to all kinds of conditions of limitation, but can also move to constituting an ethics and a politics in themselves. Lazard is very clear that disability is a social condition, and one that insofar as it deviates from capitalist understandings of health, individuality and productivity can also serve as a ground to critique those understandings and to organize differently. An example of that is Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice, which adopts the perspective that inclusion is not a special adaptation to some people who are less able to navigate conventional architectures and choreographies in art spaces but a shift in how the audience-institution relationship is imagined, that inclusion is inclusion for all, especially with disability as an eventual horizon for all. This is a standpoint that has, in many cases, been integrated into policy, as is the case at my workplace, Goldsmiths, where the standard assumption is that you work on making documents and lectures accessible for all, not just adapt them to a minority who have specific needs’. This foregrounds the emergence and consensus, to an extent, around the social model of disability’ which is that, as Lazard describes it, impairment may be a physical or mental loss of function, but disability is a relationship to the social and physical environment, which can be modified in such a way that it is easier for both disabled and non-disabled people to negotiate and confronts the relegation of some bodies as not useful or appealing and thus needing to be excluded from public space as well as employment, education, and other structures of survival in a capitalist economy.

The question of disability justice allows us to connect the ways labor appears and is practiced in the field of contemporary art to broader issues around social reproduction, and how labor is gendered, racialized and naturalized until it is no longer visible as labor. At the same time, raising labor to visibility is not enough, if the working conditions are not seen to include both exploitation and oppression, which is to say that the conditions in which this labor is performed relies on its allocation to groups already deemed economically marginal and socially disposable. The social field is always already stratified. Raising the question from the standpoint of dis/​ability and access means that the injustice is not located simply in that social reproduction becomes the responsibility of certain groups, but in what kind of society and social relations are being reproduced thereby. And this is an inquiry that can unfold on the plane of the economic or the aesthetic. The link between them is a reflection on conditions.

In Lazard’s earlier, more autobiographical text How to be a Person in the Age of Autoimmunity, they stake out their project of approaching disability, and the particular kind of condition that they have, and share with millions of others, predominantly feminized people, which is an autoimmune condition, through its implications for a broader analysis whose co-ordinates are socio-economic, political and affective. Here, illness is seen as a biomedical and social condition at the same time, and one does not exclude the other – the biologically dysfunctional individual who just wants to get well and participate in society independently, and the person produced as ill by a society, because they fail to live up to its expectations are both actual and are dialectically entangled with one another. This is described as a paradox, or might also be thought of in the psychoanalytic terms of a double bind’ (the inability to not not want something) that even as the ill person recognizes that health and illness are social, not natural conditions, and that they can also serve to discipline the body in capitalist production (and as a vast source of profits in privatized health care systems such as the one in the US, thus a strong engine of inequality), at the same time they want to be well.

An important part of that project is to see the body as an indicator or barometer of social ills, rather than a transparency to the soul, as they suggest in a citation from Virginia Woolf, and having this conversation requires overcoming the shame and secrecy around being ill or disabled or differently abled in a society that values health, productivity and independence above all. It is also insisting on the relationality and contingency of the body against the self-defensive, military metaphors of everyday speech and medical science, the security metaphor of immunity’; but, also, auto’. They identify some of the ideological co-ordinates of this kind of metaphor by drawing an analogy between autoimmune disorder as the body attacking itself and capitalism as humans attacking their own conditions of survival, with the ecological consequences correlating with the enormous expansion over the last decades especially in the West of autoimmune illness. They put this as, Mimicking, on a molecular level, the degrees of alienation and commodification that happen to the body on a social and economic level.” A recursive view, in other words. They observe how people who otherwise identify as critical can mislay their scepticism when it comes to modern techno-medicine and have a blind spot when it comes to disability.

What happens when our bodies revolt’ and the factories stop functioning so smoothly? Perhaps they are trying to tell us something about their working conditions.” Lazard revisits radical sickness politics as social movements, as with the 1970s German Socialist Patients Collective, with their critique of the medical-industrial complex’ and demand for autonomy from the medical establishment. This should be understood in the sense of a historical left German autonomist politics – collective self-determination – rather than the insipid, formal autonomy of the liberal subject that may also be lurking within the auto’ of autoimmunity, but harder to dislodge that ideology normally is since it has taken up residence in the double bind of health.

The accessibility guidelines Lazard develops in Promise and Practice elaborates the social model of disability in the pragmatic test case of cultural venues. The notes are titled a promise and a practice” to underline the prefigurative aspect of disability politics – that access is a horizon that both needs to be worked towards and can already start to transform practices and relations in the present. This poises disability justice as a speculative practice’ emerging out of real needs and conversations organized by the affected collectively through trial, error, offense, and defense, rather than a government-imposed guideline, for example, although the latter may also take on the character of a demand. Lazard writes, Within this framework, disability is defined as an economic, cultural, and/​or social exclusion based on a physical, psychological, sensory, or cognitive difference. Disability Justice movements understand disability to be unevenly distributed, primarily affecting black and indigenous communities, queer and trans communities, and low income communities. Disability is structurally reinforced by ableism, a system rooted in the supremacy of non-disabled people and the disenfranchisement of disabled people through the denial of access.”

There is also an emphasis on the need for infrastructure – for the need to do infrastructure differently, that is, for infrastructural critique – that allows disabled artists and art workers, as well as audiences, to take part – thus arts institutions are not just spaces of representation but can actively support the lives and capacities of their participants: Supporting the cultural labor of disabled artists and thinkers must happen in tandem with infrastructural changes. Additionally, arts organizations need disabled art workers in positions of leadership to create actual substantial shifts. There is often a striking discord between an institution’s desire to represent marginalized communities and a total disinvestment from the actual survival of those communities. The ideal arts space is simple: it’s one in which art and culture are not sequestered from the lived experience of artists and their communities.” Such a formulation pinpoints conditions in a sense that evokes a number of the recent decades’ debates on social engagement and usefulness in art. Specifically, it calls on the image of the useful museum’, as trialled by e.g. MiMA in Middlesbrough, UK, where the arts institution was presented as a social infrastructure that is dedicated to supporting its communities in ways other than exhibiting and mediating art. The contradictions here come down, once again, to conditions. Access maybe a preliminary to justice, just like visibility, but it remains a neutral descriptor unless the power relations of the thing or experience to be accessed are part of the challenge.

However, the definition of access Lazard seems to be formulating is one that radically counters precisely the specter of autoimmune personhood. This vision of self-enclosed, bounded and self-reliant individuals stands to be dismantled in favor of a more relational concept of people as subjects with needs and caring abilities as well as capacities and skills. This then redefines labor as a relational and aesthetic activity rather than a productive and commodified activity, and once this relational element is front and center, the contradictions of a pre-determined visibility, usability, the unvarnished good of representation, start to diminish in importance, along with the inclusivist fantasies that form the hard barrier to this genre of radicalism.

It might be observed at this point that the essay has wandered somewhat out of its initially charted course of discussing how both Carolyn Lazard and Ghislaine Leung’s work deal with the question of dependency – of conditions for (the) work to be made and be viewed – from a minimalist or post-conceptual starting point. The tiny red herring of color and line disappeared at some point as well. The essay instead directed itself to outlining some of the relational and political premises informing Lazard’s practice in particular, with some prospects on wider contexts and debates around access and usefulness as matters of urgency for contemporary art. It might be said that Leung works in a more reticent way in this territory, but the proximity is there. Atmosphere is a medium for her, with the barely noticed or proprioceptive the range in which questions of access – to production time, to exhibition space – can be felt. Recent exhibitions such as Balances (Maxwell Graham, NYC, Sep-Oct 2022) problematize access to an artistic identity, an artistic work schedule, in light of the gendered labor of parenthood. There is a chart explaining when the artist can work and when she cannot. There are baby monitors, child safety gates, and the work Fountains that appears not in on affairs. Leung writes in the exhibition text, A work is contingent on its context, this vulnerability is my work’s resilience. It is a negotiation of what it means to have dependencies and be dependent. It is a negotiation of what it means to value the labor of maintenance.” If dependencies featured for Leung in the past as a formal principle below the radar’, digging out the infra-thin of an exhibition situation through color, lighting, and measurement, the dependency has now ramified outside of that situation into what it takes to be present within it, and how that presence can itself be revised both into a series of work and the experience of their diagrammatic insufficiency, their non-performativity as works or, rather, their performativity as the limits to working. At the same time, Leung’s insistence that her propositions are presented not only in space but as an analysis of spatial properties as the core of what it means to make an exhibition are minimally didactic, minimally present – an organization of selected elements into a rhebus or a rhyme of objects in a space which always have to do with atmosphere: a certain height of wall painted, a certain color, a certain shape of light ornament, a certain sound coming from a certain fixture. The elements are never alone, they are always serial, the better to pattern the experience of the space. In this initially evident sense, Leung’s approach is phenomenological as a tangent to the minimalist legacy, albeit less concerned with materiality or direct experience than with tweaking standard settings to tell stories and make jokes about dependency. A vanishing mediator, shedding an electric charge as it disappears around the wall at the corner of your eye.

But even if spatiality has remained the focus for the artist, keeping the affect light and allegorical, the previously noted Balances started to extend the analysis into time, the recursive time of being available to think about art that installs a materialized thought of dependency somewhere else, through the hands and tools of others. The delegated performance of the instal becomes the delegated performance of the reproductive and the waged labor that enables the artist to maintain their life and their family on the other side of the chain (one might even say the hierarchy of idea and execution), and the query becomes whether a continuity rather than a break (be it thematized or hidden) can be visualized as evidence in the space of the absence of time. So, a space that is not just about modulating the visitor’s experience as an allegory of dependency of art on standards but going further back into the artist’s production process as itself dependent on standards that cannot reasonably show up in the space of exhibition as anything but absences (sleep, exhaustion, caring tasks). Such a trajectory seems to merge with Lazard’s exploration of the formal properties of access, all the ways the inaesthetic adaptation to special conditions’ can be rerouted back into aesthetic conceptualization. And this, perhaps, is what situates these two practices as belonging so intimately to the curatorial imagination of on affairs, with its attention to how infrastructural thinking in post-conceptual artistic practice is capable of levering slices of operational autonomy out of a teeming image world where circulation and permutation never stops. As Peter Osborne has written recently, The photograph’s existential proximity to the world’ – its indexicality – is thus increasingly registered less in the content of the image than in the often rapidly image-obliterating act of its exchange”. His term distributive unity’, denoting a fragile, historically-bound way of unifying matter under a category – here, photography’ – always from a retrospectively unifying vantage, allows us to see that a category like infrastructure’, affairs’ or even artwork’, has no ontology to unify them except a historical one, that is, the possibility of understanding what we are referring to by agreeing on what it is and how it works. This baseline understanding of what we are looking at is in this exhibition identified as a space of operations, of logistics and permutations. Not a showcase of systems but of possible modes of experience mediated through materializations which may include various levels of distributive unity: may include mathematical formulas, codes of conduct, may include temporality, gender, space, scent and texture. All resonate with an interest in dependency, on and off-site, structural and infrastructural. Perhaps the work by Lazard and by Leung announce their relation to dependency most unequivocally, even perhaps literally, but evoking the literal has often been a direct way to get in attunement with a critic. But only when it comes to finding a place to start.


Participating artists

Marina Vishmidt


is an American writer, editor, and critic. She is a lecturer at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University of London and teaches art theory at the Netherlands Art Institute in Arnhem. Her work is primarily concerned with the connection between art, value, and labor, focusing on the increasing dissolution of international financial markets and their influence on subjectivation in the artistic field. Vishmidt publishes in various magazines and journals such as Mute, Afterall, Texte zur Kunst, Ephemera, Kaleidoscope and OPEN! She is on the editorial board of the book series New Perspectives on the Critical Theory of Society (Bloomsbury Academic) and the journal South as a State of Mind. Recent publications include: Speculation as a Mode of Production: Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital (2018), Reproducing Autonomy: Work, Money, Crisis and Contemporary Art (2016).

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