THE ELEVATOR man is hassling me. I'm in a building in Chelsea trying to find Paul Chan's studio, but his name isn't listed in the directory and I'm not making much progress with the attendant. "Why do you want to see him?" I'm asked. "What do you do? Is he expecting you?" The interrogation is unsettling--my first maximum-security studio visit. Despite my best efforts, the attendant refuses to divulge the suite number but eventually agrees to take me there. He asks the other passengers to wait as he chains the elevator cage open and proceeds to lead me along an anonymous hall to a door simply marked KNOCK HARD. It swings open and Chan greets me warmly, a gesture that appears both to relieve and slightly disappoint my imposing escort. Once we're inside, the artist matter-of-factly explains that he had asked the building's staff not to reveal his whereabouts after an unexpected visit from plainclothes investigators in the summer of 2004, when he was at work on The People's Guide to the Republican National Convention, a map-cum-handbook for protesters that remains one of the liveliest and most acute artistic responses to that roiling political season.
This story is a precis of sorts: Its improbable and immediate politicization of a simple studio visit succinctly captures the tensions subtending the whole of Chan's multifarious practice, from his large-scale animated projections and almost academic charcoal drawings to projects like the map and a video made from footage shot in Baghdad on the eve of war. I hesitated to tell it, though, given the artist's repeated insistence on the distinction between his well-documented political activities (on behalf of groups such as Voices in the Wilderness, the Teamsters, and Indymedia) and his more artistic ones--a nearly inviolable separation that has become one of the defining tropes of his critical reception. At first, Chan's position might seem a kind of cover-your-ass pragmatism at a time when "political art" (a term that, he wryly observes, is often followed by the caveat "whatever that means") invariably provokes the cliched charge of its supposed inefficacy. Yet his vigilant border patrol, an admitted "provocation," derives from a carefully considered and deeply held philosophical position. He sees his politics and his art as pursuing two fundamentally different aims, the former practically addressing present social conditions with specific ends in mind, the latter ambiguously posing "new questions for possible futures." In interview after interview, Chan has made eloquent comments to the following effect:
Collective social power needs the language of politics, which means,
among other things, that people need to consolidate identities, to
provide answers ... to make things happen. Whereas my art is nothing
if not the dispersion of power.... And so, in a way, the political
project and the art project are sometimes in opposition.
Point taken. Chan's Rancierean wariness about reducing what he sees as art's polysemy to politics' "message" is certainly compelling, and one should hesitate to use his activism as a badge of honor for his "gallery work." Yet Chan is not Carl Andre or Donald Judd at a late-'60s meeting of the Art Workers Coalition expounding on the gulf between metal boxes and Vietnam protest politics. To maintain such a distinction in his case risks an altogether different kind of reduction, requiring us to determine which of his diverse activities might qualify as "art" and, conversely, which do not. Surely we could draw a line between his video installations and his on-the-ground involvement with certain activist groups. But what of Chan's artful RNC map; or his freely downloadable fonts in which letters correspond to icons or slogans from ACT UP and the Black Panthers; to say nothing of his single-channel video response to the controversial conviction of civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart? …