Welcome to the first edition of unbag.
Before we begin—Let’s address the obvious: why does the world need yet another magazine? What, among the seemingly infinite array of journals, periodicals, blogs, news sites, podcasts, and ‘projects’ dedicated to the exposition of contemporary art, is there possibly left to say?
Let us explain.
In Spring of 2016, before this publication had a name, format, or theme, three of us met in a Brooklyn dive to argue the question—“who is promoting grassroots critical practices?”
Until that time, unbag functioned as a modest—but, enthusiastic—curatorial platform. Driven by a dialogical impetus, we coordinated critique groups, organized seminars, moderated panel discussions, and curated exhibitions in an effort to excavate ideas by way of rhetoric and discursivity. Art, we held, is nothing if not a conversation—a semiotic glue that holds people together.
Our focus was then, as it is now, on voices who find under-representation in the mainstream of art. While the work presented in public institutions, commercial galleries, and seminal publications garners the attention of mainstream audiences, there’s a critical current in artist-run initiatives. A tremendous amount of significant work emerges from these spaces. Nevertheless, we find that it’s regularly passed over by established critical frameworks.
unbag is an attempt to amend (in part) the shortfall of platforms that attend to emerging and grassroots critical discourses. Our goal isn’t to disparage the art business or idealize an outside. Rather, we aim to frame the dominant center as simply one space of activity. If art has any political potential, it’s in a capacity to produce dialogue. We must complicate the discipline to diversify not only who can speak but, also, the platforms that determine how we speak. This is our task, and challenge.
In early 2016—over numerous meetings and numerous cocktails—a decision was made to augment the unbag platform. While spirited argumentation might cement certain modes of collective solidarity, we aspired to make our conversations tangible, and available to a broader public. How can we engage artists, authors, and thinkers beyond our milieu? How do we foster greater collectivity around these dialogues? How might we increase our capacity with a space for circulation?
This publication is the result of those conversations.
Sometime in the middle of last year we stumbled on an antiquated term—metis.
Metis describes forms of creative intelligence characterized by “cunning,” “craftiness” or “trickery.”1
The term has origins in ancient Greece. We have no derivative of it in modern languages and, as far as we can tell, the concept was never the subject of a contemporary analysis. From what we do know, it seems that, for the Greeks, metis was something of an insidious idea—a kind of ignoble impulse.
As Benedict Singleton makes clear, it’s no secret that many Greek thinkers (Plato, in particular) regarded the arts with “suspicion.”2 The problem was that in the manufacture of imitations, illusions, and representations, art was conceived as an activity that’s intrinsically inauthentic. We can only imagine that metis would have been particularly contentious. Distinguished from other Greek concepts of art, for example: poesis (to make) or techne (skilled production), metis is said to typify a devious approach to making. From a craft person's sleight of hand to political calculation, ambush, or ploy in argumentation, metis occurs when favorable transformations are fashioned—not by noble means—but a facility with guile, cunning, or chance.3
In the Summer of 2016, we took from the concept of metis and approached a series of artists and writers with a prompt:
“What can we learn from metis? Can such a thing be wielded now as a device, tool, or method?”
Much has changed since the inception of this project. Populist shifts have yielded a frightening brand of conservatism. Policy changes have impacted education, health, social services, environmental protection, the arts, and humanities, to name a few. And war in the Middle East rages interminably while displaced people continue to be detained amid an increasingly divided and dogmatic West. We stand at an historical and political precipice. Where conditions for life have been transformed by recent social and political turns, so too have the contexts for art. As we move forward into this uncertain epoch we need to reevaluate and renegotiate our engagement with the discipline.
What is the social role of art? How have an ethics of art been transformed by this moment? What criteria should we now use to evaluate the arts? To what degree is it necessary for the arts to adopt a more expedient form of politics?
In the following you will find no proposal, map, or intellectual model from which we might approach new horizons. You will find no solution, program, or answer to attend these crises. Rather, what is expressed here may simply be regarded as an affirmation of self-organizing, of collectivization, and a drive to give visibility to cultural practices drawing on metis as a critical form.