Tension Reduction / Farming for Content

West Coast028A predominant facet of contemporary criticism can be named as tension reduction: forcing a structure onto what is borne of non-linear thought; imposing the will of the critic onto a non-linear landscape in an implicitly violent process; highlighting certain aspects whilst erasing others; co-opting territory for the gains of the critic. Farming would also be an apt comparison for this mode of enquiry. This is not to characterise criticism < art as the negative dialectic of artificial < natural—that would be too simplistic.

The mind is a disorderly storehouse of many possibilities. This chaos is the initial state from which a work is born, and once the work is externalised, it becomes—conceptually—in the public domain. At this point, the critic takes it up, attempting to find strands of it to tease out through dialogue, further extending and expanding its life and potency. The impulse here is to see criticism as a further refining of the original work’s ideas, as an act of translation, as further persuasion of what the work ‘means’, or as an alternate entry point into the field of enquiry, dilating initial opacities so they can be comprehended by those not present. This is what is meant by tension reduction: in effect, a process of domesticating.

Refining becomes a mode of capture: blocking alterity and reducing work to a series of elements, severing connective tissue and gaps in favour of cohesion and clarity.

According to Negarestani, the spectator is the true labourer of effect/affect, and the critic can only offer alternate modes in understanding, but they cannot do the work for them. The critic’s impulse is to try anyway; hence the excessive attempt to de-tension the work for the purpose of the spectator.

The critic is, naturally, eager to share their experience of the work in a way that persuades the reader both of what the work does and how the critic has read it.

However, much of art is not quantifiable, particularly in the realms of performance, affect, and gesture. Criticism, in many cases, becomes about overlaying logic onto a system that is not necessarily governed by logic, and therefore owes nothing to the systems external to itself. It’s not to say that this is a mode of projection, but more of reduction. Occam’s razor has no place in the treatment of art—it is unnecessary to consider the simplest solution as the most potent or productive, or even to privilege ‘solutions’ in understanding. It’s a worthwhile project to resist making the hidden visible for as long as possible.

One of the many functions of art criticism is to examine the function of an artwork in the expanded field: to look at how an artwork breathes, and consider the work itself as a tool in understanding its alleged ‘content’. If art is about understanding something beyond the artwork itself, criticism further expands the ways in which the artwork seeks to understand that. So this becomes an endless chain of expansion which exposes the indeterminacy at the heart of the object’s power.

Curators are guilty too—artworks in group shows are thematically and curatorially promiscuous, and also expendable, in the way that curators bend the motive(s) of the work in favour of overarching themes. The difference between curatorial polemic and criticism is how the work is co-opted—both before and after itself. Nevertheless, both modes submerge false alternatives and interesting perspectives, the nebulising agents which aid in the act(s) of dispersal.

To name, or ‘hail’, one’s terms is to call them into existence (interpellation). Naming the forces that drive a work requires the rejection of innumerable alternatives, removes other avenues of entry, and reduces the dialogue to a small number of concentrated, easily domesticated modes of investigation. Words have real power in taming the irreducibility of objects.

Tension reduction assumes that artwork is a code to crack—that it needs to be decoded in order to be understood. That the work needs to be ‘got’. In many ways this is like building an empty doorway in the middle of a field, so that people have something to walk through.

To decode or translate work for interested parties means, necessarily, to simplify it. Criticism becomes about mining for content. To translate work means to choose one, or two interpretations at the expense of all other possibilities—to reduce an amorphous cloud to a flat plane. For these reasons, we should resist definition of terms for as long as possible, while recognising this as a necessary mode of unpicking work in order that it can be comprehended.


[1] Arnheim, Rudolf (1971). Entropy and Art: An essay on disorder and order. University of California Press.
[2] Negarestani, Reza. The Human Centipede – lecture at Escape Velocities Symposium [eflux] 2013.