Heather Jones: I’d like to start with how you define yourself and your practice. You’ve written for Frieze, Momus, Afterall, Mousse, and many others, but you also received an MFA from Rutgers University, and a BFA from Emily Carr University. And your website suggests that you’re still involved in art making as well as research, writing and editing. Where do you locate your work within the global art world, and how did you arrive at art writing?
Mitch Speed: I’ve always struggled to define what I do, even as writing has dominated my work for years. I studied studio art. So I come to art criticism from a mixture of the studio and a very uneven relationship to critical theory, magazine and newspaper criticism, and art history. I think my writing has been nourished by art school critiques more than theoretical methodologies. Although that is to some degree a constructed distinction, what I remember most from those critiques was an insistence on balancing discourse with immanence and experience. The question was always: ‘what’s happening now, here, in this room?’ During art school I figured out that writing about art was as exciting for me as making it. The negotiation of these two roles has produced a mix of intense fulfillment and extreme frustration.
I started writing about art professionally a little more than ten years ago, as an exchange student in Berlin. I was horribly depressed. I’d wake up in the morning in an echo chamber of self-punishing thoughts and just stay there, totally unable to experience anything. It was hellish, and more so because I didn’t understand what was happening. Writing about art was a way to engage with something and save myself. I’m very grateful for that. But I’ve also learned that writing can equally be a form of escape from reality—into ego and performed authority. Which we can get into more later if it’s of interest.
These days I think quite a lot about the contrast between the depth of my engagement with art (in terms of what it means to make and experience art) and the specificity of my own experience with art, geographically and culturally. My writing draws on an awareness of North American and (specific) European work. So I have some massive blind spots, which I’m slowly working on filling, without burning myself out. I categorically reject the imperative to know everything, to be everywhere.
HJ: One of the ongoing goals of CAS is to continually question and broaden the field of art writing. Earlier this year you published an article titled the “Unbearable Sameness of Art Writing” in Mousse Magazine. You also wrote a semi-fictional short story for CAS called “The Pitch Writer: Two Excerpts” in which you highlighted the performance of authority in art writing in contrast to simultaneous feelings of insecurity. I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on art writing – the state of it now, where you see it going, and it’s potential to shift or broaden course.
MS: Over the past two years, I’ve stepped back from writing about art. This pull-back was initiated by some practical and obvious contextual factors. But it was good timing, as certain aspects of art criticism, including this tricky relationship with authority, had become very problematic for me.
When you write about art for a living, the pace of the work exceeds your capacity to spend adequate time and energy with the works being written about. This creates a dynamic wherein the authoritative voice of the writer by necessity gains a self-propelling momentum. You have to work so fast and produce so many words that it becomes impossible to know if you actually mean what you’re writing. When a writer’s medium is ostensibly autonomous thought and feeling, this is a big problem. The drive to produce the aura of authority and draw attention to one’s voice has serious consequences, both personally and in a wider social sense.
On the level of the individual, this situation sets multiple complexes in motion, from a basic separation from one’s own experience, to a constant self-measuring against dubious standards of authority. Politically speaking, this situation is structurally related to how we produce and consume media — click-bait, fake news… — and the accompanying political dangers. Performing authority for the sake of attention is dangerous whether it’s happening at Fox News, or in an art magazine.
I don’t want to be too pious, or to fetishize the idea of authentic experience. All speaking and writing is performative, and there is beauty and importance to that. We need to retain and exercise the right to play with voice. And even to really lean into pretension, if it takes us somewhere past academic mannerism, and if it’s fun. There are some great critics who consciously play the role, to the extent that it becomes a type of gorgeous camp theatre. That’s something I love, when it’s carried off well.
At this point, I’m chasing a type of writing that might actually be capable of reflecting encounters with art, including the performative aspects of those encounters. This might seem like a basic goal, but it’s much more easily said than done. And it has an important socio- political dimension, in the sense that actual experience is opposed to dissociation, and dissociated relationships to art probably reflect the conditions of a dissociated society.
HJ: I’d like to expand on the concept of voice in art writing that you brought up. You’ve described the majority of art writing as uniform and have pushed against this monotone in the genre. If you’ll allow me a very long quote from the same Mousse article:
“…we might finally ditch the performed pseudo-authority that we’ve collectively mistaken for voice, and in the process craft a richer kind of authority, one rooted equally in analytic rigor and the endlessly variegated—ridiculous, confusing, impassioned, angering, soul-depleting, delightful—reality of looking at and living through and loving and hating art. Above all, we might finally be able to tell the violently normalizing discourse machine: “Thanks but no thanks. I’m fine. I talk the way I talk for a reason.”
I’m curious about how certain kinds of voices carry more authority than others, and how that carries over into the arts. I grew up in Southern Missouri and when I moved to New York, it was immediately apparent that certain accents, words and phrases were deemed less among the cultural elite. Within art writing, how might we normalize a wider variety of voices?
MS: With respect to the broader meaning of the word ‘voice’ (in the sense of the artistic voices of non-white, straight, male subjectivities…) there has been a very big, overdue, and welcome diversification in art. However, as any person who has spent time writing for art magazines knows, this attention to diversity is not matched when it comes to the literal voices of writers, by which I mean the way in which they are permitted to speak.
Art criticism’s central conceit is a subjective and critical encounter between critic and artwork. This widely accepted condition of the discipline plays a crucial role in our conception of what art is in the first place. When the stylistic standards of art criticism become rigidly homogenized, you have a very creepy situation wherein the art critic offers their name and labour as a signification of subjective engagement, while they are simultaneously coerced to reproduce a uniform voice, which erases the manifold qualities of which real subjectivity consists. This is why it’s correct to understand art criticism in the gig economy as alienated labour, and not (as the perception commonly is) a form of work wherein the worker enjoys a special right to personal and critical expressivity.
This form of alienation becomes especially disturbing, when you consider that it is not only an individual’s own subjectivity that is simultaneously sold (as an image) and erased (in its actuality) through this process, but also an individual’s social background. So yes I agree with you. When languages and attitudes that might be typical of certain people in Southern Missouri become tacitly inadmissible within art discourse, a social segregation is taking place. The situation becomes very messy when we start thinking about the politics of representation. For example it might be advantageous for a magazine to publish a writer from your hometown, because doing so would signify diversity. But the price for this inclusion would almost certainly be that the writer drop their own habits of thought and speech, and adopt the tone endemic to the art industry, which is that of the white bourgeois class which has always held power here. So standards of voice play a role in preserving the increasingly homogenization of the art industries. The fact of this hegemony is unambiguous. It has been studied in multiple countries.
Of course not only social class markers are erased through this process, but also those of diverse psychologies. A magazine editor once attempted to delete a passage of mine that expressed an exhaustion and despair with the world. I found this shocking. If we can’t express feelings of anguish and depression when talking about art, where can we? It’s in this sense that the voice I was trying to criticize most closely overlaps with that of advertising copy. The enforced performance of happiness has an element of violence to it, as when workers are coerced to put on a stoic and happy face.
In terms of what can be witnessed and described through art criticism, pretty much all emotional states are inadmissible. I’m currently doing research on the relationship between nostalgia and contemporary art. I’ve ready many essays about artists whose works in various ways reach into the past. In common parlance, this kind of behaviour almost always has a strong affective or emotional aspect — the past is nearly by definition haunted by mixed feelings. And yet what I have noticed is that critics and writers will go to all lengths — will construct the most elaborate theoretical rhetoric — in order to avoid acknowledging this. The voice (of both critic and artist) must above all retain its machinic poise.
HJ: You currently live in Berlin – one of, if not THE, epicenter of the contemporary art world. Does this affect your viewing of art, or the unique voice your writing seems to strive for?
MS: I moved to Berlin for a similar reason to many people who come here. The city has been famously nurturing of art, because of its affordability but also its position in Europe. The question of Berlin is massive. The city is still, as you point out, a major art centre, and artistic culture has also been instrumentalized here in destructive ways, with respect to gentrification.
What I find particularly beautiful about the art scene in Berlin, is a certain difficulty and scrappiness that is less present (but not to say wholly absent) in the other major, heavily capitalized art centres: New York, London, etc. We don’t have this situation in Berlin where you can go to a single neighborhood (like Chelsea, NY for example) and walk through successive museum-scale exhibitions in private galleries. Berlin is still rougher and more diffuse. This is a cliché but it’s also true. You need to work a little harder or be more integrated to find things here. The city doesn’t give it over quite so easily, even as it is definitely still easier from a financial perspective.
Structurally speaking, the relative lack of financial pressure here has given me and others time. I suppose it’s that time that has afforded me the ability to even think critically about this stuff in the first place. If Berlin still bears some resemblance to what Richard Sennett calls the ‘Open City’ (open in terms of the possibilities for internal forms of creativity, in un-capitalized spaces) then yes, this openness enables a certain degree of creative critical thinking.
And there are other factors as well. For example the attitude towards mental health care in Germany (as opposed to North America) enables and encourages greater access to treatments like psychotherapy. All of these things play a role…
HJ: At worst, I’ve heard art writing described as a regurgitation of marketing or pseudo-poetic nonsense. However, along with your acknowledgement of the discomfort of working as a freelance art writer, you’ve also pointed out the important work of the genre as serving as a mediator between the artwork and the larger world. I’m thinking specifically here of your long-form look at a single artwork by Mark Leckey, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, for Afterall’s One Work series. What did this slower, highly focused, retrospective look at a single artwork allow that the faster pace of contemporary art criticism lacks?
MS: The book was an incredible opportunity and also somehow also a curse! Afterall’s One Work series is utopian, in that it allows a degree of patience and intimacy between an artwork and a writer that is otherwise impossible. I suppose PhD candidates might have a similar experience, although from what I hear, PhD’s can become too long, intimate, granular, interminable. So I think the One Work series hits a sweet spot.
I’ve operated for a while now under the position that worthwhile encounters with art entail a collapsing of subject into artwork, a disabling of the protective tools of engagement that we use to get through daily life, without embarrassing ourselves. I tried to let myself do this with the book about Fiorucci. I would not say that I succeeded fully, first because it is much easier said than done, to let an artwork into oneself in this way. Not only because vulnerability is itself very challenging, which it is. But also because the relationship between vulnerable experiences of art and the practice of writing for an audience, is innately paradoxical. The attempt to honestly transcribe is the inside of an experience butts heads with the performative nature of language, where all words are chosen and operate as proxies for experience. And of course, thinking (even critical thinking) is a part of experience. Thinking and conversing are sensual, in the same way that political movement is sensual, when it expresses mutual solidarity and concern. But thinking, criticality, and politics can also destroy experience. I think that this is the dialectic that all serious critical writing presents.
Anyways, the Fiorucci book was a beautiful and difficult opportunity to explore these contradictions, and to kind of make progress in my understanding of how good critical writing can and should foster complex experience. Mark Leckey’s video was an incredibly and incredibly tricky subject in this respect, because it is loved by so many different people and communities. And also because although the piece has a lot to do with immediate and intoxicating experiences (of dance culture, youth, etc…) its brilliance as an artwork is in how it very subtly laces that immediacy with an awareness of all kinds of distances. That’s where its pathos lives. I felt that this all had to be reflected in the writing. And I’ve tried to carry this awareness with me.
HJ: You mentioned that a new collection of your texts will be published soon via Brick Press. Can you talk more about the focus of the collection and what texts will be included?
MS: The collection will in the most basic sense revive or extend the lifespan of many pieces that I’ve written over the years, and that exist now either simply in website archives, or in catalogues that are not very accessible, either because they were printed in relatively low run, or are expensive to buy. The book will begin with a series of more substantial lead essays, that address broader themes or that engage political concerns, followed by many shorter essays and reviews. The pieces will span from roughly 2013, until 2020.
Brick Press is a relatively new outfit based in Vancouver, and they have done some great work publishing, amongst other things, some very unexpected and brave writing, as well as facsimiles of important documents of the 1960s and 70s avant-garde.
I do like the idea of condensing a selection of texts that have maybe made a particular contribution, in whatever small way. I would like for all of my critic friends and colleagues to have collections, which allow a reader to soak in a particular writer’s perspectives, ideas, voices, as they develop over time. I’m sometimes hard on the exhibition review form, for the reasons I mentioned above. However the brighter flip side is that reviews and essays, when several years worth of them are stacked up, make an incredible document of this aspect of culture, with all of its problems and beauties.
Mitch Speed is a Berlin-based writer. In 2019 his study of Mark Leckey’s video artwork Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) was published by Afterall Books, as part of their One Work series. His collected essays are forthcoming from Brick Press.