My examples above certainly represent a critical, if not a cynical, take on the idea of bare activity. They also set aside many of Massumi's (2013, 39–41) more sophisticated distinctions, for example, between games or entertainment and art. Nevertheless, they mark moments in which something is perhaps just beginning to stir, but will most likely not turn into anything else. They represent bare activity in the everyday sense of the word, and they include enjoyment, but, I believe, they seldom manage to become what Massumi expects from them: singular events or art with wider relevance. Most likely they will simply remain in the state of bareness, but still there is no reason for us not to perceive or treat them as examples of the kind of activity Massumi finds so important. For better or worse, they incarnate possible moments of bare activity.
Moreover, as the examples already hint, such process-based enjoyment may often come with a price, a price of leaving others outside. What else is a honeymoon than a period in which two people form a community, or a process of their own, and ignore all others? And in Tallinn, the workshop made us, the participators, laugh but left others outside.
Even when emphasising the participatory and communal sides of contemporary art, the focus on the process often paradoxically means a turn towards oneself, a turn inwards, and an introvert take on art, as the game of those who are part of the process. It means, literally, self-creation (see Massumi 2013, 2). A move away from the object entails or includes a simultaneous move away from the audiences and, above all, from their unexpected responses. More than often, it implies a retreat to the closed community of those who have been chosen, like my husband, or those who have happened to get involved in the process, as in the Tallinn workshop.
I personally collided with the closed dimensions of collaborative artistic processes and their effects when trying to interview the writers of the collective novel currently being written by 14 Finnish authors associated with a group called Mahdollisen kirjallisuuden seura (MKS, The Society of Potential [or Possible] Literature). In my interview request, sent by e-mail, I asked for the possibility to interview at least a few of the writers and added, ‘I will treat the data anonymously, but I always wish to interview several writers from each project, so that the collective nature will be reflected also in the data. Of course, I am also interested in all kind of observing, but we could at least start with the interviews and see how it feels on both sides.’
After having sent my interview request to one of the writers, another person involved in the process asked me to explain to him the starting points of my research and my research interests, my relation to the tradition of procedural writing, what in the MKS-project interested me and how my research would benefit MKS and their collective novel.
These questions set up a context, in which I either managed to place myself with my replies, or otherwise I was destined to stay outside of their process, described in the email as ‘our collective novel’. Apparently, my answers that stressed my interest in investigating the process (and not only the resulting text) did not satisfy the writing collective as they declined my request. The email I received stated that,
‘very many writers of the collective novel found it problematic (already from the perspective of their own writing) that the uncompleted process would be opened up outwards in the way you [I] propose. The remaining stages of writing and the related intellectual work require full and undisturbed concentration. The completed work is of course another matter. // In other words, with a unanimous decision we stay outside your research project.’ [Translation mine.]
Soon after this email, however, some writers of the collective discussed the project and the process on a radio show with a journalist (Kultakuume 2013). Little later, the writers discussed their collective work in the literary magazine Parnasso (2014), in which several of them also stressed the importance of the process next to, or in addition to, the end result. Thus, the way I understood it, it was not a question of undisturbed concentration, but a question of who would make this disturbance.
The use of the rhetoric we, against you (in this case me), in the emails suggested that there was a we, or a temporarily constructed collective will of the we, that decided who are the Others with whom the process can be discussed and who are not. In this particular case, the radio journalist and the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine managed to accomplish what I did not: i.e., break the border between those involved in the process and the rest.
This incident of course calls for critical self-reflection from my side, too. Is the way academic research is conducted—or the way I conduct it—a problem for process-based art or artistic processes? Is my research too prone to produce closures that are not attentive enough for the always-in-the-state-of-becoming reality of art? The question needs to be directed specifically at me, and not only to academic research in general, because the MKS project itself includes several academic researchers. Is there something in my way of doing research that makes people hesitant to discuss their work with me, and if so, should I change my style or my premises? Or should I rather interpret the refusal as a sign that there is a needed and an understandable difference in perspectives and conflict of interests between critical research and the immanent ethos of artistic doing? Is distance needed in order to analyse, for example, the self-acclaimed descriptions of the MKS-writers according to which their project is ‘a rare mutation’, ‘interesting’, ‘valuable’ and ‘peculiar’. Is the entire point of critical research in its independence of and distance from the immanent sphere of the process and its self-proclaimed explanations, and is this what differentiates critical research from contemporary cultural journalism? If many current collaborative writers see the process as important as the end result, how to tackle with the situation that this increasingly important part, and its interpretations, are not necessarily open to research and the public, but remain in the hands of the doers and are interpreted only by them? Or is this distance rather something I should try to get rid of? I believe these questions are crucial for the entire field of artistic research and its future.
Whatever the real, multiple and perhaps complex reasons behind the refusal I received were, as a result, the MKS process did not open or expose itself for my possibly unexpected interventions and reactions.
The warding off of unexpected and perhaps uncontrollable reactions a priori, or substituting the circulating object with an image of a process that stays in the hands of the producing community, can be read in relation to the old discussion on the undesirable qualities of object-based production, as introduced already in Plato’s Phaedrus. In Phaedrus, Socrates argues against writing, in contrast to dialogical discussions, by saying:
‘I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence . .--- And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.’
The circulating and fixed object, so the argument goes, cannot protect itself, but something, which is first in the process of becoming, can do this ad infinitum. This is what makes the process superior to the object. A process can always redefine its course, re-contextualize its identity, decide not to come public or create new alliances when needed. It is not at the mercy of the audiences who choose their own reactions without the parental guidance of the artist(s). It is the moment of publication, of making the result or the process public and getting into contact with the unpredictable others, that offers the work for critique and for ‘false’ interpretations. This moment, so to say, never truly takes place in process-centred art that can always redefine itself.
The idea of maltreating the process, or interpreting the resulting object falsely, is a recurrent theme in the cases I have studied. As the quotations in the beginning of this exposition show, the processual take on art seems to suggest that the immanent, the immediate and the self-chosen or self-appointed contexts of the artistic processes are also the most legit and desirable ones. Once again Massumi’s (2013, 84) writings and his praise of the immanent encapsulates the ethos that I am trying to describe. He writes, ‘If I am guilty of romanticizing anything, it would be intensity. By intensity I mean the immanent affirmation of a process, in its own terms.’ The process-oriented paradigm, thus, often proposes that instead of some surprising reactions of unwanted intruders, the artistic processes should rather be approached and affirmed in their own terms. The above quoted Million Penguins research report embodies this ethos, by stating that ‘many of the commentaries show a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the processes behind the wikinovel’ (Mason & Thomas 2008, 2).
Turning back to Phaedrus, one can thus say that the current focus on the (closed and intimate) processes—in contrast to publicly presented artworks—seems to be rooted in an old agony and suspicion regarding images and steady objects against interaction, process and reception that affirm artistic gestures in their own terms. Later this mistrust found a new form in Guy Debord’s (2000) critique of the spectacle as the reified unreality (see Bishop 2013, Rancière 2007).
What could, then, stand against this mistrust or this process-oriented approach that wants to value artworks or artistic processes in their own terms? A defence of the object, or of the artwork, might start with Jacques Rancière’s (2007, 277–278) claim that art should not try to aggregate or actualize a community (that the spectators are virtually supposed to be), but rather what needs to be put to the test by art is the capacity that makes anybody equal to everybody. Consequently, for this test to take place, we need mediators—i.e., artworks or objects—that stand between the artist’s idea and the spectator’s (capacity for) interpretation. The process, that is based on the idea of aggregating a (closed) community, does not allow what the object does, which is ‘the blurring of the opposition between those who look and those who act, between those who are individuals and those who are members of a collective body’ (Rancière 2007, 279). This blurring does not mean changing the roles of the artist and the spectator, but dismissing the separation of these roles altogether and realizing ‘that looking is also an action --- and that “interpreting the world” is already a means of transforming it, of reconfiguring it' (Rancière 2007, 277).
Rancière’s defence of the spectator might sound like good old fashioned cultural studies of the 1990s, which tried to save and emancipate the audiences of popular culture by stating that even fandom is active and subversive (Jenkins 1997, 1992, Grossberg 1997, Radway 1991). Equally, one can argue that Ranciére's position is not that different from Massumi (2013, 6, 40–44) who writes about objects as events and the dynamics of perception, suggesting that ‘where objects are, there has also been their becoming. And where becoming has been, there is already more to come’. To a certain extent this might be true, as Rancière’s writings easily open themselves up to various, if not mutually contradictory, interpretations. However, there seems to be one difference between Rancière’s writings on the emancipated spectator and the emancipated audiences of cultural studies: Rancière’s (2010, 2013) model attempts to preserve something that could be called the aesthetic regime of art or the category of the aesthetic—things that the cultural studies of the 1990s saw as merely elitist (see also Bishop 2012, 26–30). Similarly, it is possible to argue that despite Massumi's event-like readings of objects, his theories stress the processual dimensions to the extent that artistic objects, produced by artists, vanish or disappear from sight, so that the differences between artworks or human-made artefacts and other things, such as leaves, starts to wither away (see e.g., Massumi 2013, 42–43).
If we take Rancière’s test seriously, the equality of all people entails also a possibility for mutual learning. This mutual learning, however, requires mediating objects, artworks, or texts, as this fragment from Hannah Arendt—that stands in opposition to Socrates’ views in Phaedrus—suggests:
‘Each time you write something and you send it out into the world and it becomes public, obviously everybody is free to do with it what he pleases, and this is as it should be. I do not have any quarrel with this. You should not try to hold your hand now on whatever may happen to what you have been thinking yourself. You should rather try to learn from what other people do with it.’ (Arendt 1973)
This, of course, also means that the objects or processes I produce, such as this exposition, are open for critique as objects that the readers can interpret and criticize from their perspectives—even though this does not mean I would believe in the readers' uncompromised and unrestricted freedom to choose their own interpretive positions. Instead, every interpretation always takes place inside materially and discursively structured formations that organize the practice of interpretation (see Kuusela 2013).