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Tan Lines is a collaborative piece by Earl Gravy (Daniel Wroe and Emma Kemp)

The Great Plains is a collaborative piece with Earl Gravy and a Los Angeles arborist club


March 1, 2016

by Emma Kemp


Earl Gravy is the ongoing collaborative experiment between Emma Kemp and Daniel Wroe.


What’s in a name? There are many reasons to establish a moniker, albeit a silly one: to establish oneself as a corporation, for example, and default on student loan debt; to make a logo; to shape a brand; to employ a Conceptual Art Consultancy firm; to make a website; to utilize Optimal Keyword Density; to make a Facebook page; to make it BIG.


All semi-ironic. All really real.


As an artist/writer/educator/designer/editor, I have as many freelance jobs as resume-worthy skill sets. I have five email accounts, three websites, and two blogs, but my annual income barely broaches the California state poverty line. In non-monetary terms, however, I am attractive and competitive within the market. I am a startup, or multiple startups, struggling to see a return, but unable to exit the trading floor that deals in the promise of success. The envelopment of art-making, of artists themselves, into corporate identification feels, at this point, unstoppable. For me, the question is, can collaborations/shared agencies/healthy “creative commons” act as disruptors to this seemingly inevitable fate?


Over the last two decades, the idea of collaborative art making modelled on social activist principles has grown and classes in social practice are offered at art schools across the country. These formations are designed to “engage the audience in ways that undermine both the so-called autonomy of the art work and its basis as a commodity.”[1] They are billed as an attempt by artists to intervene in and deconstruct art market sensibilities, to halt art’s submission to larger, global powers of inequity. Nicholas Bourriaud termed this way of working “relational aesthetics” in the late nineties, and since then the art world and the wheel of cultural production has, in sync with the entrenchment of web-based communication, set about coercing and coopting social practice. The educational-industrial complex has taken it up, and the galleries are selling it at profit. Does an exclusive garden workshop in a geodesic dome in Mt. Washington, for example, disrupt the system of capital flow any more than a marlbleized plinth in Culver City? When I go into such a garden, I question my motives. What is the substantive drive here? To partake in an exclusive event, which, by the nature of its hierarchical form, could potentially expand my repertoire or strengthen my reputation, eventually leading to moderate success and tenure track position with pension plan?


Here, you see the crux of the issue. So intertwined are our bodies and interactions with a modality of neoliberal control that even attempts at defiance quickly become muted by capital concerns and the monetization of social interaction, which has been accelerated by an unprecedented sociality via web-based mediums and invisible agents of control.


Like many of my generation, I have a hard time making things IRL. Due to my ritualistic lack of funds, it’s difficult to justify the material expenses of art-making. I get frustrated by the accumulation of paint buckets, squeegees, trays, tape, drywall, and other non-degradable objects that end up in the trash vortex after the opening. Every trip to Home Depot signals the end of a species. It could be this—a quite self-centered concern—that pushes me to a place of communal studies, to a mode of working that in some ways overrides material concerns. That could be why I pursued writing over art; the digital trash bin is less strenuous to empty, and is satisfyingly effective in electronically reminding me what crumpled paper sounds like.


But recently, something has shifted. I’ve been getting turned on by smooth surfaces—stainless steel, surgical silver, things cold against my face. I’ve been digging around in excess, in empty pools just to inspect the tilework. I have purchased body bags for nothing more than their matte white central zipper. This job, like most of those on my list, doesn’t pay but consumes hours, provides something for someone, and eventually will provide for me too, if I can just keep my body-cog in motion.


In 2015, given the more or less impenetrable umbrella of corporate governance we live under in the West, could it be that social practice (or at the very least, immaterial art practices) do not actually do any more to disrupt the current economic system or social structure than making million dollar ceramic editions? Artists of the “new aesthetic” go some way in answering this question, preferring a naked acknowledgement of the lure of, or even perhaps a nostalgia for, product as product. For, in the current climate, the product is harder to advertise or to fetishize via color correction and strobe pack. The product is embedded behind the screen and under our skin. It is the very fabric of our being as society.


Hardt and Negri, off the back of Foucoult, develop the concept of biopolitics to describe, in Viegener’s words, “forms of resistance to capitalism using life and bodies as weapons of escape from economic domination.”[2] I want to believe that an art-constituting praxis, which deems itself 'social,' is inherently concerned with, or organised around, a center of social connectedness and therefore these practices can serve as resistant or antagonistic forces against the steady flow of neoliberal propulsion supporting forces of exploitation and oppression. But my fear is that already the very essence of our humanity has been colonized by the corporate power structure; our sociability, our connectedness, our community-building relationships have become the product of our times. Viegener comments that “Intangibles such as information, knowledge, afects, codes, images, and social relationships, for example, are coming to outweigh material commodities or the material aspects of commodities in the capitalist valorization process.”[3] I worry that they already have, that I already have.


Today, we trade in social equity, exchanges which begin in the virtual and transcend to the offline world. The wealth generated by the networked society is wealth generated, in a large extent, through and by communication, social cooperation, and collective intelligence.[4]


While ‘beyond’ is not necessarily equivalent to ‘after,' I am searching for positive ways to maintain an art practice with the acknowledgement that the intentions outlined by early social practice modalities have been subsumed by the dominant mode of control. The question now is how to protect the notion of a social commons—“those milieu of shared resources, that are generated by the participation of the many and multiple, which constitute, some would say, the essential productive fabric of the 21st Century metropolis”[5]—from further attack by totalitarian enterprises? How to preserve the “disruptive and innovative potential that arises out of the interactions of the bodies and desires constitutive of the multitude”[6] so as to create the kind of meaningful engagements that can operate outside of oppressive forces?





Emma Kemp is a British-born artist, writer, and one-half of collaborative duo Earl Gravy. Earl Gravy recently showcased its publication, Tan Lines, at Ooga Booga’s Artist Books and Cookies. Earl Gravy has exhibited in Sundown Stock & Exchange, with ForYourArt and Fritz Haeg’s Seminary for Civic and Embodied Arts, and is working with Self Publish, Be Happy to produce work for its TV edition. Emma was a 2014 Fellow of the Ithaca College Image/Text Symposium and is currently at work on a compendium, to be published in May, 2015. She writes art criticism, reviews, and artist interviews for Conveyor Arts, Mark Moore Gallery, Trop, Volta 365, Paper Journal, and others.


[1] Viegener, Matias; Informal Market Worlds ATLAS published by nai010 publishers, Rotterdam, April 2015:187-205 


[2]Viegener, Matias; Informal Market Worlds ATLAS published by nai010 publishers, Rotterdam, April 2015:187-205 


[3] Ibid


[4]Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio: Commonwealth,, 2009



[5] Research Open Labs On Urban Commons: Mapping the Commons,



[6] Hardt, Michael; & Negri, Antonio; 2009: 58-59.


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