Radical Proximity
by Sofia Leiby

The crisis of value is happening beyond the art-making sphere: the democratization of “expertise,” the constant cry of the “death of art criticism,” and the shift towards populist methods of value accumulation via networks: from Yahoo Answers to Yelp to Medium to Jerry Saltz’s open-forum review/prompts on his Facebook page. This is partly thanks to the “democratizing” tools provided by the Internet but also is related to the impact of a globalized, networked system of labor on creative producers and a general cultural trend towards “horizontality.” I have written about the trend of populist, radically democratic exhibitions in recent years1 and more have surfaced, one recent example being Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castanets’ 89plus, a utopian exploit which attempts to put forward a global, interdisciplinary zeitgeist of all artists born after the year 1989 through a massive open call.2 Like Obrist, traditional gatekeepers such as critics, curators and galleries are making a show of what appears to be a dispersal of their agency. In terms of value production, the tally has largely replaced the weighted vote, the visible vs. invisible over the plus vs. minus, as Boris Groys has suggested.3 But what is thinly veiled as some kind of populist paradigm shift in value accreditation that reaches towards consensus actually leaves art production exposed to the values of the market. Enabling this market recognition are a few high-powered gatekeepers, mainly hypermobile super-curators4 who curate massive global biennials. This new hierarchy of value for current art production is a flimsy, transient, mobile fabric, not unlike Marx’s idea of general intellect; a hazy combination of these few individual authors’ consumerist relationships. Lamentably, this new criteria is well on its way to replacing what may have been called the old postmodern marker of worthwhile art, criticality. This new fabric is completely uprooted, unspecific to place or time, linked to abstract ideas of fractalized and monetized time-units of making, floating above everything, distinctly face- and place-less, and bolstered by globalization and neoliberal capitalism.

So what are the ways to create methodologies for evaluation of art outside of the market? One place where artists know for sure the reason to occupy their time making art is within the pedagogical setting. Part of what is useful about art schools is that they foster a limited, clear-cut language for the artist to define her work, a criterion established by her professors that is fairly straightforward and developed largely on a case-by-case basis. Critiques can be enormously significant evaluations of success in artwork, and may be attributed to a student’s proximity to her peers within the university. In a critique setting, thoughts are fired around a room informally, and in the best instances, an embedded understanding develops between subjects in a room. When people feel comfortable, critiques can be some of the most helpful experiences for an artist: feedback is honest and, if even momentarily, suspended outside the market (even though the professors are getting paid and the students are paying).

What if we took this method of value attribution and thought about how it might begin to apply to artistic production outside of a school? If we defined a value system based on proximal relations between persons, with whom we share, at the very least, a location and that location’s history, might we create a system not dependent on capital and one that runs against the current of globalization?5 This would require a tiny bit of solidarity on the part of the artists, some kind of allegiance at least to one another or at least the place they are living in, something artists are largely resistant against. In his essay “Exhaustion and Subjectivity,” in After the Future (Oakland: AK Press, 2011) Franco “Bifo” Berardi suggests that through process of “collective subjectivization” – or social recombination – it’s possible to escape global capitalist flows and to oppose the precariousness of creative producers. He defines collective subjectivization as the development of “a common language-affection.” But for Bifo it’s impossible, as late capitalism has fermented to the point where artists are freaking out about how they spend time: it’s so implicated in a digital realm, fragmented by precarity, fractalized into little units: “abstract, depersonalized, fractal atoms of time available in the net-sphere.” For Bifo, contemporary creative laborers “[have] become unrecomposable, unable to recognize itself as a community of sensible and sensitive beings who share the same social interests and cultural expectations.”6

Michelle Grabner, writer, artist, gallerist, and curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, wrote in the Brooklyn Rail last March about Chicago: “Great amounts of creative energy are still being wasted on promoting and reinforcing outdated cultural hierarchies or on criteria of success adapted from New York… To maintain a rigorous art practice here, artists need to set their own criteria, continuously measuring and contextualizing their work.”7 It is useful to look to smaller arts ecologies, i.e. not New York or L.A., to find examples of this system based on proximal relations actually taking place. It is not a coincidence that in these areas, artistic production, like in the art university, takes place without the presence of a virile market for art. Happening in Chicago, as my examples below will note, is the creation of a value system not based on the market-dependent mobile fabric, but instead is based on individualized nodes of individual- and community-specific knowledge that are inexchangeable and therefore incommensurable. Not measurable in quantitative terms.8

One example of this value cultivation (development, say, of a “common language-affectation”) in practice in Chicago was the MDW Fair. The MDW (for Midwest, or Midway airport) Fair was co-founded by three of Chicago’s influential arts organizers, both for- and non-profit that took place in three iterations from 2011-2012. Despite the art fair epithet, the organizer’s stated objective for the event deemphasized sales, even neglecting to mention them at all; it aimed to be “a manifestation of the collective spirit behind the region’s most innovative visual cultural organizers, focusing on the breadth of work done here by artists and arts-facilitators alike.”9 The MDW Fairs consisted of mainly Chicago exhibitors, with a few exceptions (St. Louis, Baltimore, and Milwaukee in 2011). The uniqueness of MDW was that its success, if it could be measured, wasn’t by how well its cultural output was exported (did New York pay attention?), nor how much work was sold. Rather, it pursued a new kind of criteria for evaluation, one not beholden to a market. To me, an exhibitor, attendee and volunteer, the platform allowed fairgoers the space to step back and get an overview of Chicago’s artistic creation, from Bronzeville to Rogers Park, and to take a pause. James McNally, himself a participant in the fair (and another triple-organizer: curator, writer, artist), hit the nail on the head in his essay for Temporary Art Review after the fair received negative press on a New York-based blog, writing: “The fact that dozens of artist-run and alternative spaces, curatorial projects, and independent publishers would converge in one place with several thousand attendees and essentially no competitive or commercial presence is remarkable for a zero profit startup venture.”10 Indeed, it seemed, MDW seemed to not be about exporting Chicago’s culture, but instead to be about celebrating, and improving, its own cultural activities. MDW, put on by the creative producers of Chicago, for those producers and a general public, did not preempt the idea of criticality. Instead, it fostered a new kind of criticality, one that happened organically, at bars and in local weekly newspapers, in clucked tongues and at intimate studio visits; an environment not unlike the critique setting. In my view, MDW was in many ways an exercise in anti-commercial, locally produced value production.

In small arts ecologies, there’s lots of overlap; in Chicago, many creative people are artists, critics, curators, collectors and even donors all at once. This is another form of proximity that begins to develop a local methodology for critical understanding and production. It may be time to banish the whole “critical distance” thing all together; sometimes rather than of cheerleading, lack of distance between these roles actually results in devastating and tenacious critique. During a lecture this March in Chicago that my collaborator and I organized,11 art critic and artist Lori Waxman, who freelances for the Chicago Tribune, proposed a form of art criticism she called “embedded.” This form provocatively borrows the term from journalists working with a military unit during wartime.12 She argued that despite its negative and colonizing connotations, one positive aspect of the practice is the privileged level of access it affords, allowing for unique opportunities for in-depth analysis and criticality. Embedded units, though controversial, are arguably able to access indelible reports from the war front. She cited a personal example: she is married to the artist Michael Rakowitz, and thus is “the best possible critic of his work”13 but of course, could never write about it, due to the constraints of traditional criticism. Were Waxman to write about his work, however, it may begin to develop a kind of incommensurable, intensely proximal measure for his work that isn’t dependent on global gatekeepers or capital flows.

One might argue that this closeness could work to negatively impact creative production, in that instead of advancing criticality, it would rely on nepotistic aims, or, the reverse, devolve into interpersonal squabbles. This is certainly a perspective relevant to smaller arts ecology like what exists in Chicago. In Dieter Roelstraete’s “On Leaving the Building: Thoughts of the Outside,” in e-flux in 2011, Roelstraete discussed what he calls the “everpresence” of the artist’s uncritical position, “always-inside” the Gesamtkunstwerk.14 Roelstraete suggests, though, that this inside/outside doesn’t have to be a binary; the artist instead locates herself “at an open door,” where she can still maintain a “critical distance.” Perhaps this is a position we can explore how to occupy.

It seems that it might be useful for artists to, rather than stubbornly continue to pretend a position of “objective” critical distance, use that unique position. The role that criticism plays in a community is crucial in our present crisis of value and to figuring out what the post-critical agenda of current art is, if we think about it as not entirely subsumed into capitalist market hierarchies and the discretion of globetrotting, nomadic curators. Proximal, embedded, regional criticism developed ground-up through communities is uniquely positioned to address and unearth that criterion. And perhaps most importantly, the kind of valuation structure that is produced is unique to Chicago and the artists who live here, and so cannot be exchanged for its use value elsewhere; it does not play into a flimsy hyper-global higher value system of art, one that continues to enable a select number of individuals to triumph over the many.


1 See Sofia Leiby, Soft Populism & Pop Democracy in the Age of Crowd Sourcing: Investigating Hierarchy in Horizontally-Structured Megaexhibitions in WOW HUH, July 2012 (


3 James Elkins, What Happened To Art Criticism? (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003),113.

4 If some agency has left the critic, it certainly finds itself in the curator. Like critics, curators are purposefully and awkwardly dispersing their power ¬– like dOCUMENTA(13) curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s massive artist-led curatorial team.

5 While this essay focuses specifically on North American examples, there has been a strong current of anti-globalist activities on this topic, largely reacting against massive biennials and triennials that have no relationship to place. See The Ghetto Biennale and the general negative reception of documenta 11.

6 After the Future, 100.

7 Schwabsky, Barry. In Conversation: Michelle Grabner with Barry Schwabsky, The Brooklyn Rail, March 2nd, 2012 (

8 This is not to suggest that this kind of “collective subjectivization” can’t happen outside of those with a shared location – say, within intimate communities on the Web – but face-to-face interaction is a yet-to-be-explored x-factor.

9 See Compare this to the mission of Art Basel, on their website: “showing work of the highest merit, and attracting the world's leading gallerists and collectors, [making] Art Basel the place where the art world meets.”

10 McAnally, James. Plaster Dust and Polemics: The Other Public of the MDW Fair, Temporary Art Review, November 16, 2012. (

11 A workshop hosted by Chicago Artist Writers, at Gallery 400, Wednesday, March 13.

12 Waxman’s use of the term was echoed by Nato Thopmson in his controversial comparison of community-based practitioners to troops in “The Insurgents,” in e-flux, September 2013.

13 Chicago Artist Writers, Art Criticism Today and Hopefully Also Tomorrow, Bad at Sports (blog), May 28, 2013. (

14 Roelstraete, Deiter. On Leaving the Building: Thoughts of the Outside, e-flux journal, 2011. (