Joshua Y'Barbo, Pan Am (2010) Silkscreen on Canvas
I originally wrote this for an exhibition catalogue. The exhibition was titled Glitch: The Aesthetics of Failure (2017). You may find more details about the exhibitions here.
A Roadmap for Failure
‘ART COMES OUT OF FAILURE. YOU HAVE TO TRY THINGS OUT. YOU CAN’T SIT AROUND, TERRIFIED OF BEING INCORRECT, SAYING ‘I WON’T DO ANYTHING UNTIL I DO A MASTERPIECE.'
Baldessari & Thornton, 2008
Art and design practitioners often experience glitches, errors, crises and failures in their individual practices. Failure, as a concept, is a common aspect of art and design pedagogy and practice. Failure is also a psychological affliction often accompanied by feelings of rejection, loneliness, rumination, and loss and trauma, which groups and individuals often experience whilst developing and maintaining a professional creative practice. A problem arises when confronting failure and its unfriendly bedfellows, which requires a reframing of its negative connotations.
So how can art and design practitioners respond to failure in their individual and collective practices?
To address this question requires a set of practical strategies and techniques that could be utilised to remedy the inaccurate and distorted conclusions that failure may cause. The argument that failure is a positive aspect of fine art pedagogy provides opportunities to learn and strengthen one’s understanding of one’s practice and, potentially, provides roadmaps for creating work in the future.
Addressing failure in art and design practice is by no means a subject of new enquiry. In 2013, Lisa Le Feuvre compiled a collection of artistic and literary works into an anthology on failure. Le Feuvre contextualised her survey by pointing to artists whose work inhabits spaces of resistance against unreliable concepts of value and success in art and design practice. In this survey, the processes of experimentation and risk are more valuable than the manufacturing of cultural products deemed successful by the institutions of art. Failure is a counter-position set against a backdrop of global uncertainty, and a logical space in which to explore and critique contemporary cultural production, where doubt and uncertainty are embraced and made significant (Le Feuvre 2013).
In the same year, the Korean based Gwangju Biennale Foundation produced a volume of NOON about ‘The Power of Failure’, which pointed to practices of the anti-aesthetic and the history of the avant-garde. In 2008, the foundation established NOON as a journal of contemporary art and visual culture. The journal is the foundation’s response to their perception of the failure of biennales and global art fairs to reach beyond a signal exhibition. International Biennales are characteristically held at a fixed location over a limited amount of time, predominantly attended by a privileged minority, who have the means to access these one-off events. The Gwangju Biennale Foundation's objective for NOON is to communicate with a broader audience, through connecting the discourses of art, culture and society (E-Flux, 2013).
The history of the avant-garde provides multiple examples of failing to meet established concepts of art and design in favour of producing new organisations and understandings of what art and design practice could be. The Salon des Refusés (1863) provides an example of a break away from the terms and culture valued by the established Salon (de Paris). Instead, this counter-exhibition favoured a new space and a new set of conditions through which to comment on cultural production (Boime, 1969; Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998).
The Salon (de Paris) was a sanctioned exhibition by the Académie des Beaux-Arts that represented the dominant institutions of taste and culture in Parisian society. Referring to an exhibition of works rejected for inclusion in a juried show, Salon des Refusés has been particularly significant in 1863 as a counter-exhibition made up of works excluded by the Académie for the Salon exhibition in 1863. The works included in this counter-salon failed to meet the traditional taste and standards upheld by the establishment of the time, but have since found new value within the milieu of art.
What is significant, in this example, is the practical strategy provided by the formation of an alternative space of display that created an extra-institutional space, in opposition to established institutions. The creation of extra-institutional spaces is a practical technique for engaging strategically with failure in art and design practice and implies physical, social and discursive sites for communities to share ideas and display products of cultural production. In creating extra-institutional spaces for failure within art and design practice, there are three locations to consider that include a physical location, the social conditions of those places and a discursive ‘site that is delineated as a field of knowledge, intellectual exchange, or cultural debate’ (Kwon, 1997 p.92). These sites become the content and context of art and design practice, where artists and designers can use these forms of sites to create spaces outside of dominant cultural institutions, to engage practically and critically with the concept of failure. Reflecting on anthropology and critical theory provides an opportunity to frame established cultural institutions’ control on patterns of thought and behaviour, through institutionalised thinking. According to the anthropologist, Mary Douglas, institutional thinking is used to explain the role institutional contexts have on individual subjectivity. Institutional thinking is the cognitive processes produced by physical, social and discursive manifestations of institutions. Douglas gives examples that include language and religion, which can be used to control memory and categorise thought; set terms of knowledge and identity; define systems and enforce governing principles of social behaviour (Douglas, 1986, p.111-113).
The term double occupation, as defined by the critical theorist, Irit Rogoff (2003), is used to describe a dual position of criticality where persons are aware of and capable of critiquing the conditions influencing their subjectivity. At the same time, being critically aware implicitly involves individuals in the creation, maintenance and alteration these circumstances. This dual occupation is interstitial in its perspective of critique, both in its simultaneous trade within institutional conditions and through a departure from these circumstances in favour of an outside view. This position of criticality creates a point of exit and re-entry into institutional conditions that vary between spaces of pedagogy (art schools, libraries, archives) and a display (museums, galleries, biennials and art fairs). The knowledge of the duality of critique and the intention to act in some way is the foundation of this critical perspective.
Alternative spaces are needed to produce extra-institutional spaces of criticality that counter the effects of institutional thinking on art and design practice. Using the term, spaces of criticality combines the criticality as mentioned earlier proposed by Rogoff and the manifestations of institutions introduced by Douglas, to produce extra-institutional spaces. Criticality is a duality between the ability to be critically self-aware of the conditions that affect individual subjectivity, while simultaneously being implicit in the terms that produce new subjectivities (Rogoff, 2003). By questioning assumptions of institutional roles and own subjectivity, spaces of criticality allow an exit from and re-entry into institutional contexts.
Shifting from anthropology and critical theory to psychology gives yet another understanding of failure that can be used to create extra-institutional spaces of criticality, in opposition to established institutions of art and design, and counter negative emotions experienced by individuals when confronted by failure as they advance their professional creative practice. As previously surmised, failure is a psychological affliction that affects a broader public that is not unique to art and design practitioners but is being framed here as a fundamental part of developing art and design practice. Failure has a distorting effect on how an individual views their goals and self-worth. Also, when people experience failure their perception of their abilities is distorted, which creates a sense of helplessness and, therefore, an inability to accept defeat as part of a learning process, which could, potentially, produce new understanding. The result of this distortion in self-perception and confidence is a conscious or subconscious ‘fear of failure’ (Winch 2015).
Experimentation and risk-taking are practical strategies of art and design pedagogy that can counter fears of failure and broaden the possibilities and potentialities available to art and design practitioners. In art education, we are taught authenticity through experimentation and to avoid contrived, trite and vague responses by embracing the mistakes and failures in the creative process of producing art and design objects and concepts. If we succeed in realising what we initially intended to understand through art and design practice, we have failed to enable the full potential of possibilities to present themselves and provide a representation of new organisations of meaning and understanding. It is entirely possible to fail at failing and, as such, miss the greater possibilities of originality that are made possible from disruptions inherent to art and design practice. The specific example of a practice that can be strategically utilised to counter concepts of value and success established by prevailing institutions of art is a method of creating extra-institutional spaces of criticality. Techniques of practice that confront the adverse effects of failure on creative practitioners and reframe failure into productive and subversive aspects of art and design practice are required to make these spaces of criticality functional.
Individual and collective reflexive practices have the potential to create new organisations of meaning, provide signposts for navigating confrontations with institutional contexts and establish re-evaluated concepts of value and success. In this context, common reflexive practice requires a community of practice to be developed and maintained. Most notably contextualised by Lave and Wenger (1991), a community of practice is based on groups of individual practitioners who share values or modes of practice, in this case, the value of experimentation in failure realised through art and design practice. These communities can evolve naturally or deliberately, as a result of learning through sharing expertise and experience (Lave and Wenger 1991). As a mode of reflexive practice that is given agency through extra-institutional spaces, communities of practice can be used to create and replenish social connections with other creative practitioners and occupy spaces, where a failure is a form of experiential learning and practice exchange.
As a kind of reflexivity, a community of practice can be used to establish new relationships, nurture existing relationships and provide a source of support with a community of art and design practitioners. The nature of the common reflexive practice of forming a community is social and based on learning and acting as a group. In this case, a community of practice serves a social function as a place to go for experimentation and operates in an extra-institutional space. As a suggested mode of practice, the collective efforts of a community of practice require a dynamic structure designed by individuals that are maintained by specific activities, again, in this case, experimentation in art and design practice.
The sustainability of this form of social practice is dependent on the participation of its members. Building communities of practice is a significant concern for art and design schools and universities and the focus of ongoing research that is beyond the scope of this text. Instead, here, forming and sustaining a community of practice is broadly presented as a mode of practice to be used to practically respond to multiple types of failure experienced in building a professional art and design practice.
Moving from collective action to individual reflective practice requires a different set of considerations to be addressed through art and design practice. Personal reflection is not exclusive of collective reflexivity but operates simultaneously and in parallel to the reflection on individual and group experience, in a continuous process of learning. Reflective practice enables groups and individuals to recognise patterns of thought and behaviour produced by particular institutional contexts. In the case of art and design practice, we can map our personal values, assumptions and intentions against the failures we experience in our attempts to develop a creative practice. Part of the process of failing, as we develop an art and design practice, requires accepting and arguing criticism, often found in the critiques of individual studio practice in art colleges or rejection in professional contexts, such as exhibitions, competitions or proposals. Personal reflection provides practitioners with the opportunity to revive self-awareness through contemplation and growth, which can be gained by inhabiting an extra-institutional space of criticality and through sharing a community of practice. Practitioners have the opportunity to establish priorities for their individual creative practice that can be shared and further discussed with a community of practice, by creating and inhabiting these spaces and reflecting on experiences of failures.
Forms of reflection can take on reflexive qualities, were adjusting to rejection can be reached through desensitisation. Failure and refusal are part of the process of developing a professional practice and the more experienced individuals have with confronting failure (or the fear of failing), the more desensitised people become to the adverse aspects of rejection and failure.
Changing a self-centered perspective on personal failure to a detached view regarding the inevitability of failure in art and design practice is another useful technique for reflecting on failure. By shifting focus from individual experience of failure to a more balanced perspective concerning the field of art and design, it is possible to enhance a sense of purpose in contributing to the ground and provide a road map of failure for other practitioners. Being able to give examples of what not to do to your community of practice can be much more helpful and valuable in advancing perspectives regarding art and design practice than providing examples of success, whatever that might be.
Boime, A., 1969. Thomas Couture and the Evolution of Painting in Nineteenth-Century France. The Art Bulletin, 51(1), p.48.
Douglas, M., 1986. How Institutions Think. New York: Syracuse University Press.
Encyclopedia Britannica., 1998. Salon | French art exhibition. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/Salon-French-art-exhibition [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].
Kwon, M., 1997. One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity. October, 80, pp. 85 -110.
Lave, J and Wenger, E., 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Le Feuvre, L., ed., 2013. Failure. 1st ed. London: MIT Press / Whitechapel
Rogoff, I., 2003. From Criticism to Critique to Criticality. [online] Available at: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0806/rogoff1/en [Accessed 1 February 2016].
"The Power Of Failure: Issue 4 Of NOON Out Now - Announcements - E-Flux". E-flux.com. N.p., 2013. [online] Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/32843/the-power-of-failure-issue-4-of-noon-out-now/ [Accessed 23 March 2017].
Thornton, S., 2009. Seven Days In The Art World. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Winch, G., 2015. "10 Surprising Facts About Failure". Psychology Today. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201501/10-surprising-facts-about-failure [Accessed 23 March 2017].