- Introduction: Cynegetics of Experimentalism
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Among the extant forms of art that still fall into the clutches of auditors, readers, viewers, dilettantes, and raconteurs, there is without doubt none that promises more thrills and surprises to the connoisseur than experimentalism. It is, however, an elusive quarry. Experimental art manages to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Certain art critics and academics wish to monopolize the hunt for it, yet their intended mastery is far from logical: the superficial “meat” of the experimental is tasteless and its substance is indiscernible. Once the “experimental” is consumed by the connoisseur—“the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable” 2—its substance, manner, method, style, and preparation are no longer experimental, but are instead ingested, sometimes digested, sometimes egested—and occasionally emerge as nothing but merdre. We never know ahead of time how experimentalism will go, whose tastes it will please, or whether or not it will soon become the quotidian pap of tradition or the fad diet of an elite. This, we propose, is the very point. [End Page 169]
This special issue of ASAP/Journal proposes a cynegetics rather than a taxonomy, theory, or taxidermic fantasy of experimentalism. We maintain that experimentalism is something other than a synonym for “avant-garde,” a term that signifies modes of aesthetic and political radicalism that may designate forward-looking ambitions but which is often applied post hoc to movements and works of the past, whose qualities we admire from a necessary remove. Instead, experimentalism provides an optic through which to approach even the historicity of its own practice as subject to radical uncertainty: experiments gone wrong or simply deemed to “fail,” experiments that may not have been recognizable as such, artistic endeavors whose demands on the future have yet to be realized.3 From the point of view of the contemporary, we might reconsider artistic movements of the last twenty-five, thirty, forty, or even fifty years in light of their experimental pursuits—no longer simply as “neo-avant-gardes” with servile attachments to earlier forms of aesthetic radicalism or, for that matter, as artistic tendencies with essentializing gender, sexual, or racial politics.4 Many of the prescriptive manifestos of 1960s and ’70s art may seem outmoded today for their claims to identity politics, black nationalism, or art’s power to invoke psychic or spiritual transformation, as Naomi Beckwith notes in a recent exhibition catalogue. Their currency registers, however, in the insistence of their pursuits and their invocation of trial and risk, far more than in the assurances of their methods.5
Whether such experimentation emerges in controlled environments or according to chance; through empirical testing or DIY trial-and-error; through challenges to convention or the development of new artistic forms and media, we encounter proliferating ideas about what it means to experiment in the contemporary arts. Not only does the artistic recourse to experimentation yield wildly divergent kinds of results, but it also draws upon numerous and often contradictory ideas about the practice, comportment, and history of conducting experiments. The ambiguity of any concept of the “experimental” invites a renewed interrogation of how and why vestiges of empiricism adhere to contemporary performances of experimentalism in art, science, and thought. The rules of art form and founder alike on the shoals of experience. “All principles of gravity are negated by fear,” we learn from Rob Tufnell’s “Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape,” his reflection on this very ambiguity for a 2011 group exhibition on Transcendental Empiricism.6 At the same time this ambiguity also invites us to consider earlier experimental efforts as performances rather than as measurable successes or failures. [End Page 170]
For with these experimentalisms we never know if and from whence risk may emanate. Our University...