Handle With Care

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‘Art’, then, can have a double meaning; to those who are disposed to it, it can stand for something liberating and exciting, but to those that aren’t it is a watchword for the undesirable, the time-waster, the trouble-maker – and worst of all, the unknown. Bearing in mind its potential for constellating anxiety and irritation, we should, perhaps, be careful of how and when we invoke its presence.

The organizers of Playing the City have made the decision to associate the event with art: to bring in the jargon and conventions of the art-world. Yet, as we’ve seen, this needn’t have been the case. The event itself is, if we take it at its word, concerned with creative living, something that needn’t involve artistic creation, and, by extension, the conventions of the art-world.
The acts involved in Playing the City are invariably radical, inasmuch as they are intended to promote ideas that can be seen to go against the grain of State ideology, intentions that are made explicit through those references to the avant-gardes that we considered previously. If, then, we take the event at its word, it intends to be, in some way, a radical event.

And yet, through its precursory reference to art-structures (‘gallery’, ‘exhibition’, ‘installation’), its use of art-jargon and its incitement of art-history, Playing the City appears to make it clear that it is to be seen through the lens of ‘art’. It immediately anchors its actions to a structure, to the safety and solidity of a familiar term. As we’ve seen, in classifying itself in this way it risks its own recuperation - whilst its events may be radical, their ensconcement within ‘art’ threatens to disarm them, to make them safe. At once they become something known, and understandable. If the value of the radical act is in its ability to constellate anxiety – to force those who witness it to stop and think – then the association of art allows a way out. ‘Art’ opens a back-door, and says “Quickly! Through here; before you see too much, think too much!” When it becomes clear that the event is an art event, a chain of associations is allowed to be set in motion, culminating in a relieved dismissal – “Phew! It’s only art! (for a second there I didn’t know what was going on)” Playing the City hopes to combat mindlessness, yet by branding itself as an art project it invites its audience to retreat to the firm ground of a well-worn category. In this way it works against Negative Capability – the slipping and sliding of a confusing experience, when we don’t know what to make of it, how to label it, shelve it – almost negating its own ends.

That isn’t to say that many of those who witnessed or took part in the events of Playing the City would have come to the realization that what they were experiencing was art; but the danger is that they may have, and that through publicizing the event under the umbrella of art, it made this danger more likely.

‘Art’ is the catchall term for depotentiating difference and deviation. Because it is a favoured put-down of the State, and because it threatens to undermine him at every turn, it is, in many ways, the enemy of the radical.


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