May, 1968
Joseph Breikers in conversation with Benjamin Crowley

Benjamin Crowley’s Local Solutions to General Anxieties continues the artist’s tendency to draw on Australian pub culture, and the associated bodily manifestations of tragedy and comedy.

The single-limbed articulations of arm-wrestling and punching both appear as subjects in Crowley’s work. These actions share a combative and competitive nature. However, arm-wrestling tends to be more formal and playful – despite its potential for inflicting pain. And punching, of the ‘one punch can kill’ type, is stupid and vicious.

JB: Your work often refers to the body, and the bodily experience of the viewer. There seems to be an element of choreography in your object-based installations: where forms ‘herd’ the audience. Do you think this comes primarily from an interest in sculpture, or performance?

BC: I think of sculpture and performance as being very closely related, but definitely take more influence from the performative. Performance in this sense being what an object makes an audience do when engaging with it. The idea of making a gesture out of this performative element has been a reoccurring theme in my work. The desire being to promote time-based associations and meaning that is embodied in the interaction, while creating opportunities for spectatorship between viewers. My intention is to make visual the cognitive process of understanding work, and reframing it as a kind of vanity. Though this idea is performance heavy, I’m not interested in forgoing the object altogether, but enjoy making explicit the moment of interaction between viewer and object.

FORM, FUNCTION, FUCKOFF

There is no question that art has value. And more often than not, it fits neatly within the scaffolding of capitalism: aristocratic and repulsive. Whatever the context, art is capable of reinvigorating the cultural, intellectual, and social spheres: encouraging innovation and preventing stasis. Instead of going over and over the same ground, it wanders, leaves home, gets hopelessly lost and thirsty and hungry, and shits for the first time in many years without toilet paper.

JB: Notions of form and function are often referred to when speaking of art’s value. These terms are complicated because their interplay is often overlooked in favour of their oppositional relationship. Jeroen Boomgaard argues that art with a specific function is particularly problematic. Do you agree with his claim that it is too neat, that it “robs art of much of its dissident potential?”

BC: Yes and no. Art that projects a particular social function can still operate in a dissident way, as in my case where the function is muddled by the intent. But in saying that, I have noticed a personal bias against works that do project a particular function. I think the major problem with work that does any specific thing, is that it may be easily marketed and valued by that function. However, this logic may also be applied to art not particularly concerned with the sociological, in that case the work may be packaged and analysed against how well it can re-interpret the specific art-historical laws of its form.

JB: You’ve written previously that “the appearance of activism, is sometimes just that.” This questioning of the integrity of artists and art institutions is important, and complex. As an artist with certain privileges, this project could easily be misread. Is it important that this risk is present?

BC: I don’t think I could have an exhibition that spoke to the questioning of this kind of integrity, without multiple risks. As best I could, I’ve tried to make the ‘questioning’ self-deprecating, by using a topic that has been common in my practice as the conduit. My hope is that an audience will read the questioning of integrity towards my own practice first, and metaphorically, to wider contemporary practice including other artists and institutions, as second.

As far as possible negative readings go, the project is not necessarily a critique of the One Punch Can Kill campaign, (though in 2014 the campaign aided in the setting forth of new and questionable legislation, Safe Night Out Legislation Act 2014, which includes, Unlawful Striking Causing Death) but its function, co-opted as a contemporary artwork. This may lead to the gesture being read as exploitive, through using the cause to make a point not necessarily in line with its promotion, ultimately resulting in a disservice to the victims. The final and most awful implication is that another white, straight male artist has taken it upon himself to question the cultural boundaries of contemporary art.

BLANK SPACES STALKED BY MONSTERS

JB: Should ‘institutional critique’ be capitalised?

BC: Yes. INSTITUTIONAL CRITIQUE.

Many practitioners recognise that the artist is inseparable from the concrete and philosophical spaces that make up the art institution. Andrea Fraser is a key figure when it comes to dealing with the inescapability of the institution: “I can rip at the walls of my institutional body. But I can’t tear it down completely, and I can’t leave it, because I would then not only cease to have an effect within the field; I would also cease to exist.”

JB: This conflict and compromise is a large part of what I find interesting about art. When you talk about the problematic nature of art practices that strive for social change, do you think this is linked to the complicated nature of institutional critique?

BC: Definitely, I believe the sentiments of Fraser’s statement are echoed across contemporary artistic practice, but I also think the focus of institutional critique has changed. The strategies of the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde have become completely absorbed. Critiques on medium and context, have become normalised and formulaic approaches to making art. I believe more and more the focus of a post-modern, institutional critique, is turning towards sociological pressures and influences outside of art, which have just as equally determined the boundaries of such arguments.

The problem with this change is how to manage the sociological shift in the unavoidable institutional context. Unavoidable because as Frasers statement implies, the institution remains the home of aesthetic adornment and recognition. The problem with this persistence is that the potential for social change is almost always greater when executed or framed in the context of the actual problem. For example, the One Punch Can Kill Campaign supplies branded bar runners and t-shirts for staff at participating pubs and other areas of risk. This kind of direct social engagement, in the physical context of the problem, speaks directly to potential would-be offenders. When shown in the context of contemporary art, though there may still be potential offenders, the sentiment is more often than not, ‘preaching to the choir’. The value in the context of the institution is taken from the abstract, rather than the action.

1 Andrea Fraser, “Why Does Fred Sandbeck’s Work Make Me Cry? 2004,” in Andrea Fraser: texts, Scripts, Transcriptions, ed. Carla Cugini, (Koln: Walther König, 2013), 87.
2 Jeroen Boomgaard (2006), “Radical Autonomy: Art in the Era of Process Management,” accessed August 26, 2017, http://onlineopen.org/radical-autonomy, 4.
3 Benjamin Crowley email message to Joseph Breikers, Jan. 24th, 2018.