In fact, those unitary discourses, which first disqualified and then ignored [these subjected local knowledges] when they made their appearance, are, it seems, quite ready now to annex them, to take them back within the fold of their own discourse and to invest them with everything this implies in terms of their effects of knowledge and power. And if we wish to protect these only lately liberated fragments are we not in danger of ourselves constructing, with our own hands, that unitary discourse to which we are invited...?

 -Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge 1

This publication marks the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the University of Iowa's Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts (ATCA) project and accompanies four National Endowment for the Arts-funded exhibitions of work drawn from the ATCA collection:
Alice Hutchins: Arenas for Happenings,
Artifacts of the Eternal Network,
Ken Friedman; Art[net]worker Extra-Ordinaire,
Latin American Realities / International Solutions

The publication of this volume also celebrates the formal consolidation of the Conceptual and Intermedia Arts Online (CIAO) consortium, a collaboration among nine participant institutions committed to the development and dissemination of networked access to educational and scholarly materials on the broad theme of conceptual and intermedia arts. Members of the CIAO consortium include ATCA, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, University of California, the Electronic Cafe (Los Angeles), Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc. (New York), the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and Humanities, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, the National Gallery of Canada, The Tate Gallery (London), and the Walker Art Center. Funded, in part, by a concurrent grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, CIAO is developing an internet accessible virtual collection of conceptual and intermedia art as represented in the collections and scholarship generated by these museums, archives, and research centers. In January 1999, Latin American Realities / International Solutions opened on the World Wide Web in affiliation with The University of Iowa's Global Focus: Human Rights celebration, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations' ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Alice Hutchins: Arenas for Happenings, Artifacts of the Eternal Network, and Ken Friedman: Art[net]worker Extra-Ordinaire are in the process of being prepared for circulation as virtual exhibitions accessible through both the CIAO and ATCA web sites. 2

Serving as an interface among University of Iowa facilities, Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts is committed to the collection and preservation of works and papers of contemporary artists and to the facilitation and dissemination of research related to the post-World War II avant-gardes. ATCA is composed of a complex body of artifacts and documentation spanning such phenomena as Fluxus, event arts and happenings, book works and visual poetry, artists' video, correspondence works, conceptual art, performance relics, and artists' papers. The conceptual thread that binds the ATCA collection together is that it represents what has been described as the Marcel Duchamp/John Cage legacy and provides eloquent evidence of recurrent challenges to introverted formalism and its prerequisite assumptions about the hegemony of the object. Founded in 1979 as a Special Collections Program under the auspices of University Libraries, ATCA's base of operations shifted, first to the School of Art and Art History in 1982, and then to the Museum of Art and University Libraries in 1994. From its inception, the project was designed to serve as an inter-institutional coordinator, or enabler, and its initial charter optimistically prophesied that ATCA would facilitate "the active reciprocity between the repository at Iowa and other institutions that share similar goals," a prophesy realized twenty years later in the project's affiliation with the Conceptual and Intermedia Arts Online consortium.

Until recently, the post-World War II "interarts" have not fared well within an art historical literature that remains agenda-bound to the custodianship of high culture. That such should be the case is not surprising, in view of the fact that, from their inception, these forms of cultural production challenged lines of demarcation among media, the visual and performing arts and literature, as well as between art and life. Consequently, because these radical works and actions were deliberately positioned outside of how normative critics and historians are organizing our cultural canons and knowledges, they were, until recently, relegated to the margins of our disciplinary discourses. Conversely, from our present interdisciplinary perspective, the interarts are understood to serve as the basis for much of what we now understand to be exciting about contemporary artistic practice. Furthermore, as recent exhibitions such as the Whitney's Ray Johnson and MoMA's Yayoi Kusama retrospectives, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles' award winning Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object exhibition, the Walker Art Center's In the Spirit of Fluxus, and Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts, Franklin Furnace and the Anthology Film Archive's Fluxus: A Conceptual Country confirm, the historical intermedial and conceptual arts have undeniably captured the imagination of our own present. They are central to ongoing reinvestigations of our cultural assumptions about the nature of the art experience itself and our concurrent attempts to re-examine the viability and expand the scope of both the museum and the academy as cultural institutions.


Buster Cleveland, DADA:Lucky Strike, n.d.

Although most often addressed in the recent literature as anarchic and iconoclastic "dematerializations of the object," these marginalized knowledges have historically not merely been "anesthetic" attacks on objecthood. Instead, for the last hundred years, these local discourses have also attempted to address the interrelationship between the means by which information is disseminated and the construction of cultural "truths." Furthermore, there is little question that throughout the twentieth century, the historical avant-gardes' recurrent commitment to cultural critique was tied to their concurrent belief in the transformative power of intermedial actions. Such was as much the case for the Russian Symbolist composer Alexander Skriabin, whose experiments with synesthesia directly influenced the post-Revolutionary state-sponsored "Mass Actions," as it was for the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG), whose communiques and interventionist street actions are counted among the most radical of the Vietnam era's art-based anti-war protests. In addition, because these forms of cultural production bridge normal divisions among institutional sites committed to the custodianship of our cultural heritage, the conceptual and intermedia arts have always challenged normative methods of classification and description. 3 For example, many of the myriad contemporary artists and art cultures whose lineage is rooted in the Duchamp/Cage legacy, (among whom GAAG is counted a member), the term intermedia was, by definition, distinguishable from multimedia. Whereas the latter signified a form of pan-artistic practice comfortably separated from everyday experience, the former denoted a strategic positioning of artistic activity outside our hierarchical orders of power. Nonetheless, as the conceptual and intermedial arts are entering mainstream discourse (as they are being "welcomed back within the fold," so to speak), they are being refashioned so that they better conform to the artworld's supposition that our modernist and post-modernist knowledges must be organized around the formal analysis of privileged sets of artifacts (and/or actions) selectively removed from everyday experience, the very cultural assumptions against which these forms of artistic practice traditionally stood in opposition.

 That these long disqualified and subjugated "local knowledges" are currently in danger of annexation into a unitary artworld discourse is evidenced, to cite but one example, in the lead article of the Sunday, April 25, 1999 "Arts & Leisure" section of The New York Times. Under the heading, "Conceptual Art: Over And Yet Everywhere," Roberta Smith posits that "Conceptual Art has been to the second half of the 20th century what Cubism was to the first half-that is, a great divide, a demarcation after which nothing was quite the same." 4 She later credits Duchamp's ready-mades as the movement's "ground zero, its 'Demoiselles d'Avignon'" and John Cage's investment in Eastern thought as "its crucial non-Western influence-as African art was to Cubism." 5

Well over twenty years earlier (and during the very point in time that Smith delineates as conceptual art's initial historical moment), Michel Foucault had argued that a genealogy was a defense against the inscription of local knowledges within the hierarchical order of power. For him, the construction of a genealogy was a viable means through which to "emancipate historical knowledges from that subjection, to render them, that is, capable of opposition and of struggle against the coercion of [unitary] discourse." 6 Conversely, Smith's genealogy is offered in an attempt to provide a respectable pedigree for her subject. Rather than emancipating a subjugated historical knowledge, she argues for its adoption within mainstream discourse.

Throughout her provocative New York Times essay, Smith uppercases "Conceptual Art." Describing her subject as a challenge to "the very being and usage of art...the shifting terra infirma on which nearly all contemporary art is built-and a crucial factor in the increasingly globalized art
world," 7 she argues that the movement "brought into the artistic mainstream, subversive ideas that had been hovering on modernism's edges for much of the 20th century, in Dada, Fluxus, Happenings, Concrete Poetry and Situationism." 8 There are two seemingly contradictory threads that run throughout Smith's essay. On the one hand she posits that "Conceptual Art was forged in the cauldron of political unrest (civil rights, anti-war, feminist) of the late 1960s and early 70's" and acknowledges that the movement taught the art world "to read images for their cultural meanings." 9 On the other, Smith lets slip that, for her, conceptual art was somewhat deficient in its fulfillment of some of the normative canon's prerequisite formal criteria. For example, she proposes that conceptual art's universality was dependant, to some extent, on the fact that it "required very little art training" and notes that when, "in late 1970s Conceptual Art seemed to wane there was a sigh of relief about the return of the art object." 10 That the critic's perspective is indeed informed by some of the very cultural assumptions challenged by the historical subject she is attempting to champion is further evidenced in her proposition that conceptual art influenced what she calls the "multimedia fluidity that today's younger artists take for granted [emphasis mine], moving effortlessly from painting to video to photography to drawing at will." 11 In the essay's penultimate paragraph, Smith observes that, as we stand "in recovery from Conceptual Art, and partly in its debt," we are experiencing the rematerialization of the object, and with it, "a return to traditional skills, techniques and to some extent standards." 12 Conversely, she closes with the observation that conceptual art has made substantial contributions to the "dramatic opening up of the art world-to women, minorities and artists from different cultures [that in the phenomenon's wake] it is no longer possible for art to be dominated by one country, one style or one medium [and that] for a dematerialized art movement, this is a tangible accomplishment." 13


Eat Art, Art History and Earth, 1979

Despite their recently acknowledged "tangible" accomplishments and their token visibility within mainstream artworld discourse, the conceptual and intermedia arts persist in remaining outside the normative mechanisms by which we organize our knowledges. The appearance in print of Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts: Subjugated Knowledges and the Balance of Power coincides with current re-evaluations of our disciplinary boundaries. The materials here under investigation bridge interests across disciplines and are thus particularly valuable subjects for members of the scholarly community attempting to revise more traditional academic curricula and graduate programs in favor of new interdisciplinary interfaces among "fields" such as the performance arts, comparative literature, art history, and urban anthropology, among others. As Foucault has eloquently forewarned us, the moment when any recently liberated fragment is annexed into a particular field's mainstream discourse, it is in danger of being silenced. Conversely, it could be argued that it is only through the reorganization of our interdisciplinary knowledge bases that these challenging cultural artifacts and actions can productively enjoin the current imperatives of intellectual discourse.

Within any authentic arena for intellectual discourse there are no absolute knowledges. All theories and propositions are, by definition, contestations and thus inherently defeasible. This publication is offered in opposition to current attempts to revise our cultural canons within the boundaries imposed by unitary, universalist historiographic models. Instead, it is frankly relativistic in its initial propositions. Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts: Subjugated Knowledges and the Balance of Power is divided into five sections. Part One is composed of a set of essays that attempt to problematize the subject here under discussion. Parts Two through Five accompany the four National Endowment for the Arts-funded exhibitions of works drawn for the ATCA collection. I am grateful to Ken Friedman for allowing me to reproduce his pivotal 1973 essay "Flowing in Omaha" in this volume. I would also like to thank Stephen Perkins, Ph.D. Candidate (ABD), The University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, and Owen Smith, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Maine at Orono, for their contributions to the dialogue that follows.

Estera Milman, Founding Director
Alternative Traditions in the Contemporary Arts



 1. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings, 1972-1977, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980, p. 86.
2. These exhibitions will be accessible through the CIAO consortium internet address: http:// as well as to the ATCA's pages:;; and The original web address for the Latin American Realities / International Solutions exhibition is
3. For example, although the term "performance art" has entered the descriptive vocabulary, many of the more radical practitioners of this form of intermedial practice are opposed to the term "performance" (which implies that their work is "re-presentational") and instead describe their own work as "actions" and/or "events."
4. Roberta Smith, "Conceptual Art: Over, and Yet Everywhere," Arts & Leisure, The New York Times, Section 2, Sunday, April 25, 1999, p. 1.
5. Ibid., p. 38.
6. Power/Knowledge, p. 85.
7. "Conceptual Art," p. 1.
8. Ibid., p. 38.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid. Perhaps the most troubling proposition in Smith's article is the critic's assertion that many displays in the Washington Holocaust Museum are "indebted to Conceptual and Installation Art." Adopting a formalist descriptive vocabulary for her discussion of the relationship between a "pile of shoes from concentration camps" and installation art is problematic enough. When Smith immediately follows this argument with the insistence that "More profoundly...the way art is experienced has changed," something is indeed wrong.




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