Part I of our extensive conversation with art critic and curator David G. Torres, in the A*Desk headquaters in Barcelona

Conversation with an art critic, part I: David G.Torres
Barcelona - APR 05, 2013

ArtDiscover visits the headquarters of A*Desk to talk with co-director, art critic and curator, David G. Torres. With humour and honesty, David talks about A*Desk and what it represents, on critical thinking and the influences that are perceived in his work.

Let's start with A*Desk. You define yourselves as an institute criticism, of critical thinking.

We define ourselves as an independent institute of criticism and contemporary art. It took a lot of work to find the definition of what we were. It's a job we did 3 or 4 years ago because A*Desk had started as a simple online journal and little by little we have been multiplying. Now we are not only a magazine, but we develope projects, and we have a very important training program.

Actually, the three parts form a structure of communicating vessels. The educational and training projects have to do with our belief in new voices and that the journal is a place that allows the configuration of new authors. 

From what you say, the magazine stands out as the central platform A*Desk. What is its main purpose?

The A*Desk Magazine aims to be a place that thinks of new forms of presentation and communication, working on art and contemporary culture. It also becomes a presentation of new models and new ways of doing. This is where the projects intervene. The projects that are sustained through the training programs, forming a network of communicating vessels.

But three years ago, when we start thinking in a much more serious way what we were and we what do, we could not say that we were just a magazine, we are many more things. At that time, the word platform was very popular. Many people said that A*Desk was a platform and we ourselves said we were a platform. But the word platform was a word we felt completely hollow. A platform is a place from which you jump or in which one is raised. It is a word derived from the Documenta 11, if I'm not wrong. 

Because of this, we started thinking about the word that could define us.
 To do so, we started to look in places that we liked and what we identified with. We thought a great reference for us could be the Courtauld Institute of Anthony Blume, an institute that came straight from the history and criticism of art, that trais art critics and historians, which develops projects and where publications are created. Other places that attracted our attention and that were part of this idealized thing are the ICA in London, dedicated to these three things, the Art Institute of Chicago, dedicated to these three things, MIT also dedicated to these three things. These great images confirm that yes indeed, by calling ourselves an institute we were linked with the idea that an institute is a place that works both in training and in publication, as well as projects. And that also has a very important part that has to do with artistic research and with research in general, in this case with research in culture. That's why we chose the word institute. The problem is that the word institute in Spanish refers to the idea of a high school institute, but we believe that ultimately it is the word that can best define what A*Desk is. That is an institute dedicated to research on culture, through 3 branches.

Independent is also a very important word, which almost forms an oxymoron with institute because institute refers to institution and independent refers to that which is outside the institution. But it does qualifies that this institute does not dependent from any public institution, we are not like the MACBA with its PEI, or a part of a public institution. Obviously we have public subsidies, but we are not tied to any public institution. Therefore we are an independent institution.

It was also very important the contrast between criticism and contemporary art. We are not an institute of contemporary art criticism, but one that works on criticism and contemporary art. It's like applying critical thinking in contemporary art.

Lately, I also believe that the concept "contemporary art" needs to be revised. We ought to change it and become an independent institute of contemporary criticism and culture.

Conversation with an art critic, part I: David G.Torres
A*Desk in Barcelona

Why contemporary culture?

Because the content we are working, on specially from the magazine, which is what gives us identity and the part that gets more coverage, despite being the most deficient, each day we are more transversal and we cover issues that do not have to do strictly with art. For quite some time it was an interest we had and now it is becoming a reality thanks to the new formulation of the journal. We want to orientate it as a daily journal, almost like a cultural newspaper. One thing that caught our attention from the beginning was that if in music magazines you can find exhibition criticism from the point of view of the music, we could also do this. The gaze of contemporary art is a specific gaze; the way of looking of contemporary art criticism is also an specific glance that can also be applied to cinema, theatre, literature, etc.

And finally what we are seeing is that the content, we have discussed this and you have seen it, every day tend more to what would could be a critical review of cultural trends. I think we are finding specificity there. There are many contemporary art magazines, many magazines devoted to trends, trendy and very hipster. While we are a cultural trend magazine, we do not lose the critical dimension of these trends. What I mean is that in comparison with Esquire or other magazines, our specialty is that although we touch many cultural phenomena and many phenomena that have to do with trends, we treat it from a critical perspective, from a perspective of cultural criticism.


As you well say, now you are focused on speaking from contemporary art, do you think this position also defines your work as a critic?

Yes, because my education comes from art history but it is not linked solely to art criticism, it is also related to philosophy and anthropology. In fact, PhD I pursue was a doctorate degree in contemporary culture, developed between the faculty of art history, the comparative literature department and the department of aesthetic philosophy. A doctorate that lasted two years, but that stressed the issue of contemporary culture. And while at the beginning of my career, or in the work that I have developed, I was much more focused on art criticism and very focused on contemporary art, I have been adding more and more voices from other places and I have been able to better establish links between different interests. In my case, they come largely determined a the moment although very naive but that exists as a moment, that I discovered a series that of interests that I had in different drawer were actually in the same drawer. Those interests are: the interest in some attitudes that came from punk, going back to situationism, and that have to do with Dada, and certain attitudes that exist in music and literature that happen in parallel, and other attitudes that also happen in contemporary art. There is a moment I see, and I insist that it is very naive, many people see it before me, the link between Raymond Pettibon and Sonic Youth, and that brings me to establish the link between Sonic Youth and James Reid, and the Sex Pistols and Guy Debord, and Tristan Tzara and Marcel Duchamp. That lead me to create a map that is much broader and that has to do with a cultural perspective and not with a perspective of classification by language. In fact, one of my concerns, everytime I wrote exclusively about contemporary art, is dismissing any classification in contemporary art. Sometimes I have been asked, you are not a person very interested in new media, right? And I said that the new media did not interest me, as I'm not interested in painting or like anything inscribed in a language. I'm interested in artistic production and cultural production and what is said through artistic productions and cultural productions.

Beyond that, I'm interested in people who have something to say and say it. The means by which they say is what I care less about. I also think it is a way to clarify. Just as there is an association of art critics, to which I belong. I think it's a partnership that has to fulfil a number of functions, or that is helpful to me if it fulfils a number of corporate functions, such as labour union defense. But let's say my travel companions are not always in the association of art critics.

Where are they then?

My traveling companions are those who develop critical thinking that is akin to that I elaborate. That critical thinking is perhaps more easily found, rather than in critical colleagues, in an artist like Ignasi Aballí or Antonio Ortega. So beyond the drawer in which cultural productions are usually placed, I think that I try to work on a list of affinities. Then in these affinities, my fellow travellers are sometimes critics, as is the case with Montse Badia, co-director of A*Desk. But sometimes it's a designer like Alex Gifreu or sometimes an artist like Rafael Bianchi or Tere Recasens. Other times, they are people who I do not know, such as Enrique Vila-Matas. I think that's where a critical thinking is developed in which there is a communion of ideas beyond the economic status you occupy. The last thing I worry about is the economic system that says a writer publishes books by an editor and they are put in a shelf marked fiction, an artist makes a number of things a gallerist sells and an art critic does a number things which are published a magazine because the magazine pays. What interests me most is the discursive regime behind them.

Conversation with an art critic, part I: David G.Torres
"No más mentiras. Sobre algunos relatos de verdad en arte (y en literatura, cine y teatro)

It’s about maintaining critical thought, the critical exercise, regardless of where it comes from, right? Like what the definition of A * Desk says, "critical thinking will set us free”, paraphrasing a bit.

Well, on A*Desk, when we started this operation of finding a qualifier, one of the things we started to develop were a set of beliefs, such as thinking about publics. We tried to creating a mental image of who could be the ideal reader. This is something that comse from marketing and branding, that tried to put a situationist twist on and make it ours it to work the content based on it. We like to imagine what ideal reader may be like. Not because we create a product exclusively for that ideal reader, but because there is a sort of feedback, that what interests him interests us. We also looked for a creed.  Beyond working in art, beyond believing in a critical culture, asking why do you believe in all this? And the answer was the transforming capacity of individuals. In the end it was an exercise almost like going to the psychoanalyst and going to the extreme, to the last detail, to answer this question. And one of the extremes was that, believing in the transformative potential of individuals.

A popular topic lately is the institution that questions its role. We’ve discussed this before and you always point out the conservative nature of this critical posture.

Yes, Tirdad Zolghadr explained it in a workshop; he said the conservative way of being an institution was to question the institution. This means that the hegemonic discourse of institutions has been the questioning of the hegemonic discourse of the institutions. This may seem like a contradiction but it is true. The first thing that museums do is to question their identity as a museum. I think what happens in institutions is that we are in a moment of genuine transformation of cultural production in which institutions, probably because of the crisis, which is not only an economic crisis, but a systemic crisis, and it is rather a paradigm shift, is affecting and will deeply affect cultural production. Museum institutions are oversized and are living in a moment lacking in reality, in which the ground sinks beneath their feet. I think structures like our own and self-managed structures, freer, less fossilized and less mastodonic, are the real producers of culture at this time and in a very, very sustainable way and with an efficiency many times more or as great as that of a museum, aside its touristization capacity, which is basically what it addresses.


Conversation with an art critic, part I: David G.Torres
A*Desk en Barcelona

Amid this changing landscape, what is the role and place of criticism? This constant discussion that attempts to define the role of the critic seems inevitable.

The problem is that, going back to before, I think there are as many critics as artists, as many critics as attitudes and as many critiques as attitudes. It's very different writing for El Cultural of El Mundo, which is a medium in which I write, which obviously demands a specific type of information. I think it's the best cultural supplement published in Spain, but obviously it is a very traditional format in which one speaks of exhibitions, saying if they are good or bad, describing them, it's criticism in the traditional sense. But I think if we have to carry on some form of exercise today it involves not rethink the roles but implementing them. Implementing local attitudes and legitimizing discourses. I think this is one of the keys of contemporary cultural production and they have to do with the models of distribution.

I have been paraphrasing Marx when he says assessed capitalism saying that the issue was that the workers were not owners of the means of production. I believe that today in cultural productions the problem is that the creators are not the owners of the means of distribution eventhough, for the first time they have the ability to own these means of distribution because internet offers the possibility. Furthermore, self-publishing, self-management, multiples and the conceptual basis of the work that eliminates the idea of the single copy, open up a world in which we can be the owners of the means of distribution. Another thing is where we find the money to manage it. And once they are the owners of the means of distribution, the question is where to find the places of legitimization. 

In that sense, A*Desk, I think plays an institutional role to the extent that it has become a place of legitimization of some firms. That is, it is not the same that some of our authors open a blog and write naked before the world, to come authenticated  by a structure such as A*Desk. In that sense I think we're very institutional, or we assume a very institutional issue. I think that's where the battle is and where criticism is as well. There is much concern about the future of art and I do not think it's too important. I do not think its very important if contemporary art survives or it does not survive, if museums survive or do not survive, or if the whole shebang is sinking or not sinking. I do not think it's too important. I think it's important for people, and I insist on it before, who have things to say find a way to say them. If it’s in artist format, blogger format or antisystem format, it’s the least important thing. 

The other day, I forget who was being interviewed, he was asked what were the most interesting moments of art and I pretty much agreed with the answer, because the artistic production that occurs between the transition between the Renaissance and Baroque is unmatched. Also, what occurs from the 10th year of the twentieth century until the year 50, or if you want, elongating, until the 70s, is also unique. They were moments of an incomparable artistic production. There are moments of climax and there are times when certain events and certain creative ways have their climax and likely points. Nowadays art as we understand it is not a place that is offering the most interesting cultural productions. They probably have to be looked for elsewhere, do not ask me where because I do not know. But they are probably somewhere else and we cannot locate them. 

So, could we say that the interesting moments of art are not properly located in contemporary art but in culture?

Yes, I think tgat the people who are saying interesting and important things may not be exactly in the context of art. Or maybe they are mixed with other contexts. But overall, the artistic production, if you do this absurd exercise of trying to generalize, is not very intense, you cannot perceive it with the same intensity with which it has percibed before.


Conversation with an art critic, part I: David G.Torres
"This is not an art show, even"

Aside from where they can be located, what do you think are the “interesting moments” of present day artistic production?

For example, I’ve reciently done an exhibition at Fabra i Coats, a show of which I am very happy, because I worked with a very young generation of artists, beyond Joan Morei and Antonio Ortega.  With artists like Gabriel Pericàs and Laia Estruch were part of it. And trying to respond to what you ask, I think that they do represent a certain intensity in art production and I think that they are doing very, very interesting things, but precisely for what they interest me is because of their low artistry.

What are you referring to when you say 'low artistry'?

They have a very low importance as an artwork. What Gabriel does, one of the artists who interest me, really does not matter whether it is presented in a museum, or if it is a text on the internet, it does not matter. It has little formal entity and that's what interests me. As it is a very hybrid type of production and at the same time very strategic, that takes advantages of the mechanisms present in contemporary art to represent what interests him. But if they were the mechanisms of literature, he would use those. He simply uses a series of tools. Yes, it is probably true that the territory of contemporary art is one of the most open cultural territories, more porous and more likely to catch any demonstration that in theatre, literature and the other arts is normally excluded.

If you think about Julia Montilla’s exhibition in Espai 13, which I think is fantastic, you can see it can operate at many levels, which are not strictly art. This is probably the most interesting part of the situation of contemporary art, its low formal entity and its ability to assume hybridization. Regardless of the format, what is revealed is the importance of what is meant to be said or even the importance of wanting to say something. I think that there, in that low formal entity of art, is where the most interesting movements are being produced.

Conversation with an art critic, part II: David G. Torres

Verónica Escobar

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