- Critical Art Ensemble: Tactical Media Practitioners
To produce this interview, Schneider met with CAE in New York City over the course of a weekend in June 1999, while a few days later McKenzie emailed them a series of questions. CAE responded to these queries, and McKenzie in turn sent a few follow-up questions. After the interview sessions were complete, Schneider, McKenzie, and CAE reviewed and synthesized the materials to produce this text.
I’ve always admired how CAE produces works and events with strong critical currents, and theory that involves a certain formal experimentation. Can you tell us about the self-organization of CAE as a group, its formation, its modes of production, and about how you continue to work so well as an ensemble?
CAE is a collective of five tactical media artists dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, critical theory, and political activism. Each artist in the group has his or her own specialized talents. The pool of skills includes performance, book arts, graphic design, computer art, film/ video, text art, photography, and critical writing. CAE generally uses these skills in a tactical manner. We choose a subject matter, place it in a particular context (and hence address a particular audience), and then attempt to construct a meaningful work in relation to the selected context. Because we are willing to address any cultural situation, and are not media-specific in our production (we use the medium that best suits the topic and context), we tend to interact with a wide variety of venues. We have worked in galleries and museums, radio, TV, festivals, bars and clubs, the net, the street—wherever there is a call. Even though our practice is varied and interdisciplinary, there is one constant to it: To produce work that reveals and/or challenges the authoritarian underpinnings of Western culture.
Can you tell us about how CAE supports itself? Grants? Sugar daddies? Mutual funds? If you work, what’s the relation of job work and CAE work? Does one inform the other? [End Page 136]
CAE supports itself by writing articles, doing lectures, performance honoraria, commissions, and book royalties. We almost never get grants. Basically, we get money to be put on display either as an object of curiosity, or as an alibi for an institution’s commitment to free inquiry. When involved in autonomous initiatives, CAE is lucky to break even. To pay rent, we all work straight jobs.
So there’s no channel of communication between work and activism? I’m surprised, given the new organizational forms that have emerged, such as the attention given to creativity and diversity, the “detournable” resources institutions offer, and the fact that most people spend so much of their lives in the workplace.
This comes down to how one negotiates complicity with the system. Everyone has their own way. Some try to do some resistant work wherever they go. CAE members tend not to share this model. We try to spend as little energy as possible on work. In that arena, we do what must be done, get out, and get back into the space where we feel our agency is greatest.
Maybe where you work the environment is creative and diverse, but where we work it isn’t. For example, at the places where we work, creativity is not a talent for recombination, divine inspiration, or a way of interacting with the undetermined. In the workplace “creativity” means that workers should invent or recognize the means by which a business product or process can be improved. “Creativity” is very specific and focused in this case, and is only valued when directly applied to a business process. When working “creatively” to improve the bottom line of the business, the worker is rewarded; however, if this energy is directed toward any other activity, it is marginalized or punished. Creativity has to be put in quotes here because its goal is already predetermined—make more profits. It’s a completely closed system.
You’ve written that the term “artist” is an anachronism and suggested it be replaced with “cultural worker.” What’s...