machines in the art gallery

Today I presented  some of my current thinking to the VC as part of the Early Career Researcher’s Seminar.

I was concerned to not only give a sense of my own work, but also of where I think Art History is as a discipline.

We had an interesting discussion about ‘nature’ and Ruskin and walking.

Bronwyn Holloway Smith Pioneer City 2014.
Bronwyn Holloway Smith Pioneer City 2014.

Here is the start of my talk.

The list that defines my research today includes contemporary art, machines, ecology, noise, utopia, nature, affect, and the place of the object in the art gallery.

At the core of this list is research with and about artists who work with issues surrounding nature and affect in the contemporary world, and today I will introduce one project that explores this explicitly.

Artworks occupy a strange place in the world. They inhabit the walls of our homes and offices, hide out in dark corners of our fictions, and watch as we live out our daily lives. As particular nonhuman objects they are never docile and always relational.

Since the opening of the first public museums in Victorian England, art historians have attempted to describe and understand these objects. Doing so has given us the power to understand how humanity can be both kind and cruel, and think about how critical relationships can form between us and the non-human things with which we share this planet. This is what art history does.

Recently American president Barak Obama made a flippant comment about how art history degrees are not as relevant for the economy as those gained by pursuing the trades. (CAA ref) He later apologised publically for his statement by saying that his own studies in art history had given him ‘great joy’.

But more than great joy (which is of course true) I would suggest that research in contemporary art histories gives us an alternative measure of how the world understands itself, and how it might learn from previous events. For example Picasso’s Guernica does not represent the bombing of Guernica, but both transforms the event of that bombing, giving it a new sense, and creates an larger affect that reminds us of these atrocities that continue to occur (Bryant, 2012). This is why Guernica hangs at the UN, and why on certain ‘delicate’ occasions it is covered by a large blue curtain. Art history gives us tools that remind us of the past in order to imagine the future.