Making the Stone Stonier: In Conversation with Osman Khan

Osman Khan is an artist interested in constructing artifacts and experiences for social criticism and aesthetic expression. He is currently an Associate Professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan. His work has been shown at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art  (MassMoCA), North Adams; the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MoCAD), Detroit; the Shanghai Biennale, Shanghai; L.A. Louver, L.A.; Witte de With, Centre for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam; among others. Along with a substantial exhibition career, Khan’s expanded practice also includes cultural placemaking (Co-Director of the Indus Detroit, Artist Residency + Culture Lab, Detroit), curatorial endeavors (Halal Metropolis Exhibition Series), and cultural enterprises (Indus Truck Works and Indus Truck Décor Corporation). 

A lot of your work seems to me to deal with the sort of “everyday” relations that happen between people and objects. How did you come to be interested in these kinds of interactions, and in creating interactive work?

I often think back to Viktor Shklovsky’s proposition that the purpose of art is ‘to make the stone stonier (Art as Technique, 1917) as a useful way of approaching art making  – the ‘stone’ being the inquiry into the ‘everyday’ the artist is pursuing, this could be anything from the examining the associations between colors or unpacking political relations between communities; the ‘stonier’ the strategy(s) or technique(s) the artist uses to highlight/frame/amplify/vivify/call attention,  from  removing recognizable symbols or other representations (abstracting) allows one to focus purely on the relationships between  juxtaposed colors (and contemplate the poetical impact) to  using  performatic reenactment to rewrite the history of slavery (and challenge prevailing narratives),  to aestheticize these ‘everyday’ occurrences (Shklovsky positions this as making them  “unfamiliar” ) so as to allow a renewed aesthetic encounter (resulting in a critical reflection or visceral wonderment or ideally both) with the content.

My own inquiry, or ‘stone’ per Shklovsky, originated in critically reflecting on the effects and affects of  technology on society. I had worked in IT consultancy and internet startups for many years – this was during the initial advent of the world wide web and the development of the browser – and was both actively engaged in implementing these paradigm shifting technologies and witness to the resulting societal changes occurring. It was a desire to reflect on what was happening both critically and aesthetically that led to to pursue art.  In trying to get at how best to articulate the particularities of the subject matter, it was crucial to adopt the implemented technology’s materiality as the medium for its critique (as opposed to representing it through another medium – for example a painting – which couldn’t quite get at addressing the issues nor the modalities I was concerned with). For  example,  Net Worth, a work from 2003, reflected on the  newly evolving valuations that society was developing as it shifted from the corporeal (material/body) to the virtual (information). In Net Worth,  participants are asked to swipe their credit card, the system would strip their name and ‘google’  it displaying the number of hits they received, ranking them along with anyone else who had swiped their card – revealing their (mind the pun) ‘net’ worth. To highlight/articulate  this particular  ‘stone’, it became necessary to not only directly engage the technologies (both the credit card/magnetic card system and the newly emerging Google search engine) but also the interactive modalities of their implementations, swiping of the credit card and the real time reward of ‘googling’. Interactivity, an affordance of the medium, was not only inherent in the content being explored (in the real world) but also something I was interested in exploring as a new aesthetic paradigm (in its representational mode), shifting a passive audience to active users (to borrow tech’s terminology) in realising the final outcome of the artwork.

If one is engaged in exploring and exposing the contemporary and shifting the content of art from people, things and places to the relationships between and the systems that connect, it seems quite inadequate to represent these through traditional forms (as used in aestheticizing the former). As an artist it’s important that we constantly develop new modalities and aesthetics that more precisely reflect and articulate the contemporary content and contexts we are engaged in, per Shklovsky, we have to keep finding ways to make the stone stonier, lest even art gets lost in the pile of the ‘everyday’.

Part of what I find so interesting about this way in which your work asks the audience to pay closer attention to banal objects and interactions, is that it kind of points to the implicit political nature of all interactions.Do you find interactive and participatory practices to offer more political potential than the more traditional “artist-as-producer/audience-as-consumer” model? 

I would be careful in over asserting the work’s political potential as part of its instrumental strategy. It’s true that by offering interaction and participation, the work provides the audience some agency and allows participatory entropy to determine final outcomes, however the work still operates within defined parameters and objectives – typically in the hopes of critically looking and exposing political and or social relationships, which I believe could equally be re-presented using other aesthetic techniques. Arguably there are examples in current social and participatory practices that provide participants with  true political possibility, the ‘agency’ provided in my work’s interactive participation is far from actually providing the individual with any true transformative political power. I would be a bit wary in  equating the illusion (or rather delusion) of choice as ‘politically’ liberating. I find the question better framed through an aesthetic argument, perhaps akin to what gaming is to cinema. I would also like to separate the instrumentation used in the work (interactivity/participation – which could easily be used to banal ends) from content that may be socially and politically relevant – so to not confuse one for the other.  As such, I would be hard pressed to argue that a great film offers less political potential than a game.  What is interesting to think about is when the passive audience becomes an active participant, the aesthetic revelation isn’t in the observed, that is it isn’t held in the image but in the experience.  Not so dissimilar to how in conceptual art the aesthetic pleasure is found in contemplation of the idea and not necessarily in the artifact (if there is even any). Here we might relate it to experiential vs a prior knowledge, akin to understanding speed when watching someone riding a bike to riding a bike. The shift is perhaps also reflected in larger societal shifts, in an increasingly representative virtual world, we see a swing towards the experiential, the tactile, where contemplation is embedded in action, completeness replaced with entropy,  vitrines become petri dishes and open works never close.

Khan, Osman “Networth”

How do you conceive of art’s relationship to everyday life? Is art autonomous? 

Emancipated from service to church or state since the 18th century, Art (capital A) has been conceived (and codified by Western hegemony) as an autonomous form (per art for art’s sake). Under a certain definition of the term Art is still autonomous, as autonomous as basketball (in that the art world similarly works as a contained industry – with its own modes of pedagogy, production, exchange, etc. – though perhaps not as successfully autonomously sustainable, its achilles heel since its first patron) or anthropology (requiring a critical distance to the world in order to reflect it).  But in a real sense the term autonomous is hazy and ambiguous at best. Intrinsically art is tied to the communities, cultures and capital and the social, political and economic zeitgeists that produce it, I am not sure anything let alone art, could ever be considered autonomous. It’s more a question of abstracting, art may still declare its autonomy but the art world(s) aren’t, art persists as representational,  the artist still has to pay the bills.

To your first question, in my own interpretation, all art is about the everyday. It’s more of a question of resolution, what aspect of the everyday is art trying to articulate (what ‘stone’ is it re-familiarizing us with)? Color forms or race relations, congenial floral gardens or collapsing global ecosystems… some might seem insignificantly banal, others dripping with political gravitas, some important in the current context, others circling imaginary nostalgias,  but the value of these are subjective (just look at what is taught in schools versus what is sold at art galleries)… arguably it is not the ‘stone’ that the artist highlights that should be up for discourse but in how successfully they made it ‘stonier’.  Beyond its form and content,  in order to truly understand an artwork one must consider the work’s author (their biography and subjectivity) and contexts of its productions.

If art isn’t autonomous from the social and political dimensions of everyday life, then what are some of the social and political responsibilities of artistic practice?

To properly unpack the questions one might need to start by addressing the varying perspectives that make up art world(s) rather than just artwork. This includes the modes of production, presenting, collecting, educating, etc. All of which absolutely entangle art into social and political dimensions of the world.

If we were to approach this set of responsibilities  from an ethical perspective, we might find ourselves compiling a manifesto of good citizenry that re-address capitalism’s exploitative characteristics: Art should be ethically produced, Art should not exploit its subject matter, Art should fairly compensate the labor to produce it,  Art production should not pollute the environment, Art should be free for the public. Art should be diverse, Art should be inclusive, Art should not be controlled by the wealthy, etc. I didn’t necessarily want to write a new manifesto here, and though this doesn’t address the content of art,  it does situate art squarely within capitalist production and if it is to be a vanguard pointing to new social and political ethics. the very immediate need to readdress its modes of production.

On the other hand, it’s critical for art to maintain an autonomy, we can all recount the dangerous when art aligns and serves political and propagandist agendas (remember not all gestures will align with one’s beliefs) – we can see similarities in what is asked of journalism, a free (read autonomous) press is essential for democracy, the arts should be no different. Art needs to preserve its ability to critically reflect and project the world back at us.

That said art evolves with the societies (lets add breaking western cultural hegemony to the list above) that produce it, responding to its needs, adapting its role, adopting new modalities and technologies, evolving aesthetics. Social practice, art activism, participatory work arguably arose to address societal (read capitalism) failings and shortcomings that those engaged in these forms felt traditional art seemed inadequate to address, necessitating the development of new modalities and production of new aesthetic forms.  Art addresses its times. So perhaps the question requires some introspection, what do we or rather will we want or need from art?  Spiritual transcendence, social critique or comic relief – probably a bit of all three. 

I also have found it fruitful to shift the focus from art (product) to the artist (producer), from object making  (noun) to objective realizing (verb).  This shift allows for us to reimagine and redefine what the artist role is in/for society and to realign the focus to the artist’s engaged inquiry/research (I position this slightly apart from what we typically call process, which is one aspect of this engaged inquiry) and away from its traditional final form as artwork. This shift allows for more malleable reimagining of the final form of the inquiry(s) dissemination- such that the research may as easily be concluded into a paper, a workshop, a business, an archive, a policy, etc or an artwork or all of these. The artist (and their particular ways of synthesizing the ‘everyday’) then becomes the critical focus, and new questions arise, what is this ‘particular way’ and what are the skills required for developing/producing ‘synthesis’ – pencil and paper or data analysis? As an artist and educator, thinking through this framework has been productive especially as we work to reimagine a sustainable future for artists that liberates itself from capitalism’s current failures.


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