Liam Gillick, ‘Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820’ Art Monthly #400, October 2016

Why are we seemingly locked in contemporary art’s cold embrace, an infinite present which elides future and past? How can we transcend ‘contemporary art’? To understand the former and prepare for the latter, artist Liam Gillick turns to lesser-known histories for lessons in Industry and Intelligence, a new genealogy which thinks backwards to revolutions in thought, society, consumption and production to locate the beginning of the infinite present.

The diffidence of the term ‘contemporary art’, Gillick writes, is the ‘reason for its durability and stifling redundancy’, allowing it to be simultaneously art-historicised and projected forward as a flat plane of nowness. Behind it are artists, of course, and a signal strength of this book is that it is written by one. Though it performs a grand historical sweep and is unafraid to tackle the macroeconomics of neoliberalism, the book’s central concern is the predicament of artists and their navigation of – and eventual emergence from – this enervating terrain.

Industry and Intelligence is structured loosely around certain dates from 1820 to 1974 which Gillick has chosen as pivotal moments even though they lack any headline historical interest. Though they stray from the canon of history, the author’s hypothesis rightly posits that change occurs just as much in response to micro-historical moments – those lost in the grander narrative – as to major wars or revolutions, with their easy causality, and that beyond a mere intellectual exercise these ‘soft revolutions’ might in particular offer a more nuanced understanding of contemporary art.

Establishing a mode of dazzling synthesis which characterises each epochal section of the book, for 1820 Gillick manages to assemble a cast comprising Erasmus, Darwin, the Mormon church, the Missouri Compromise of slavery-era pre-civil war America and the discovery of the Venus de Milo, under the proposition that a new order of self-awareness, moral relativity and a new relationship between knowledge and power was being constructed. Fast forward to 1974 and Gillick highlights Volvo’s introduction of the first fully automated car production line, the launch of the personal calculator and the development of the barcode. Ciphers for the dismemberment of postwar social structures described elsewhere in the book, these forces of abstraction and immaterial labour lead to an endgame in which the parameters of work itself are so flaccid as to become meaningless, particularly when applied to the characters of the precarious contemporary: the zero-hours worker, the freelancer, the artist.

Of no less importance, the author asserts, are the structures that organise the artist’s work, and with the breakdown of the nationalisation described earlier in the book, the trajectory towards abstraction from corporate collector to , ‘individual supercollector’, demanded new venues in which to site the art: venues which inevitably mapped their desires back onto the art itself and a new sense of reciprocity was formed. It is this Baudrillardian switchblade – the containers for art driving its content, the ‘complete curators’ stage-managing its direction – which really activates Industry and Intelligence.

The book’s genesis in individual lectures is evident in the way it moves between subjects, largely to its credit. Where it succeeds less is the degree of disjuncture between chapters which spin out from an historical proposition and those which have no such anchor. The personable, polemical and far-sighted prose of the former is in stark contrast to the impenetrable theory-speak of the latter, which tends towards dessicated theorising and gnomic aphorisms, for example: ‘There is an implicit objectivist claim that functions here as an aggressive option of neo-objectivity in the face of co-option’ and ‘A shift took place from the documentation of action to documentation itself as the primary carrier of activated nonaction.’ At these rather queasy moments, the book reads less as commentary on the problem of hermeticism it describes and more as an example of it, which is perplexing given Gillick’s insight into the feedback loop of art and philosophy elsewhere in the book. These chapters will no doubt appeal to theoreticians but the book’s strength lies in its bravura articulation of the relationship of present to past, in which the artist-as-author and artist-as-artist are allowed to coexist.

Forceful, persuasive and provocative, while Industry and Intelligence will no doubt find purchase as a set text in universities for those studying art history or curatorial studies, it would seem its most urgent readership should be artists themselves, whose struggle has been, and continues to be, one of finding a way to avoid being subsumed completely by the logic of the market: to escape the trap, as Gillick has it, of the ‘capitalisation of the mind’.

Liam Gillick, Industry and Intelligence, Columbia University Press, 2016, 208pp, £24, 978 0 2131702 0 8.