Dissociationism at P.S. 1
New York, New York

by Brian Conley

The survey of Dissociationist art at P.S.1 last spring, which included the work of over 60 artists, was the first full-fledged indication that New York and the artworld at large may be in the midst of a tectonic shift. This shift is being produced by a movement of artists, many of whom work as anonymous individuals, under the banner of Dissociationism. In New York, rumor has it that Pat Hearn and David Zwirner are planning shows for next season, while the Whitney and Guggenheim museums are also planning future exhibitions. Last April there was an exhibition of European Dissociationist art at the Leung Institute in Oslo, Norway, and The Royal Academy of Art in London recently held a lecture series on the movement. Dissociationism seems to be galvanizing artists and sweeping the artworld much like earlier 20th century movements. It has, while no one was paying much attention, achieved a momentum of its own.

Dissociationism is not simply an amalgam of Dadaism, Fluxus, Situationism, Art Brut and Postmodernism as some critics have proposed. These references are both too suggestive and not suggestive enough. If artists like David Salle, Sherrie Levine and Peter Halley are puppets of Postmodern theory, Dissociationist artists are its ultimate victims. They seem not to have chosen towards Postmodernism, but are instead helpless products of it. Their disbelief extends beyond authorial authority to even the coherence of personal identity, though less as a theoretical stance than as a genuine feature of mental life. Since this makes the identification of signature styles impossible, this exhibition has the look of a mix of science fair, wunderkammern and liquidation sale. Is this of interest or is it simply bad art?

The work in this survey, if given a chance, does begin to dislodge the viewer's ordinary agreeable acceptance of autonomy and personal coherence. As David Hume stated, we fail to distinguish between the "idea of an object, that remains invariable and uninterrupted thro' a supposed variation of time" and the "idea of several different objects existing in succession, and connected together by a close relation". Hume raises the classic philosophical issue of the identity of the individual's body and memory across spatial difference, their reidentification over time--and the problem of determining a criteria for that reidentification. Instead of searching for a criteria linking temporally diverse ego states, the Dissociationist artist stands this issue on its head by accepting the absorption and integration of an internal state of fragmentation, and that the relation between subject and object, observer and observed, cannot be effectively distinguished. This is not because the world has shattered or come unglued for these artists, but because personal boundaries have merged and in some sense become fused. In Dissociationism this interpenetration creates what could be called a form of simultaneous multiperspectivalism. This is not about multiple viewing positions nor the omniscient singular eye, but about multiple viewers located in a singular entity. It is as if perspective cuts across egos to reside within one larger mental entity, or that there is a multiplicity of discrete biological entities drawing from and contributing to a surrounding mental construct, whatever the degree of reification. This overarching bubble consumes the tyrrany of the urgent and irons out the unreliability of the individual's inner sense of conviction and self-knowledge. Mass alienation is something to be embraced and the question of bodily transfer is shifted from the status of nightmare to one of fulfillment. Forgetting can then be seen as the ordinary mental state of the individual, as in Plato's allegory of the cave, and remembering and ego construction as artificial dams against the onrushing blankness of things and other people. From this perspective, drifting away and dissolution are the actual trajectories of life and should not be resisted.

Many Dissociationist projects do not occur in gallery settings, but can take place only in sectors of "actual" life. Tim Mainz' work, for instance, is in a constant state of transit. Other projects appear to be no more than detritus of one sort or another, such as the pile of ash and rotting vegetables by an anonymous artist. Others are locked within densely inaccessible interpersonal experiences, such as Sarah Rudman's two floor installation. Further, many Dissociationist works are not manifest physically. This, however, is not about the dematerialization of art, but rather a consequence of the form within which communication takes place. Dissociationist artists appear to be unconcerned with the source of their ideas, including whether they duplicate those of other artists, as well as whether their ideas fall outside the domain of art. In most of the work there is a slippage between maker and product and even further between self and other. These categories have dissolved as if there were a leakage of consciousness seeping through various indeterminate mental and physical openings. Because of the seemingly confused intentionality, or to put it more strongly, of the vaporizing of ego boundaries, there is a question of who or what is responsible for this body of artwork, what sort of collective process is involved: witchcraft, team spirit, conspiracy, or mass delirium? But these are all in the domain of the political and psychological, and we are speaking of art.

Can a set of artists (and others not previously labeled as such) inhabit an unseen mental field which exists much like the thousand square mile mushroom recently discovered in Minnesota, which is so vast and so familiar that it was previously overlooked? The result of inhabiting such a space is a sense of automatic knowledge, of mutuality, a guidance through unforeseen terrain, of foresight. In this case, other voices become integrated within one's own voice in a way that makes them indistinguishable, and further, provides a sense that one must act. But in whose name, through whose directive, intention, agency and to whose end? These questions go unanswered and seem inconsequential. To Dissociationist artists the imperative for hyper-individualistic iconoclasm looks cranky and delusional.

Brian Conley
New York, New York
1996