(The following is a guest essay by Keith Tilford, author of the weblog Metastable Equilibrium. It is very long but, like everything on Long Sunday, hardly bored, or boring. Update: Part II is now here.)
Michael Blum, still from "Wandering Marxwards", 1999
What follows definitely took some liberties with a reading of Tronti. I used “The Strategy of The Refusal” more as a point of departure than anything else, as I wanted to focus generally on the notion of refusal – on its creative/inventive capacities - and attempt to make visible some of the relationships between art practices since the 1960’s and the trajectory of operaismo and autonomia along with the theoretical works that have come out of Italy. So perhaps in the spirit of Zizek’s book on Deleuze that he didn’t write, this can be my post on Tronti that I didn’t write. The post is divided into four parts, the first two will be here at LS, but because of excessive length I’ll be posting the last two parts over at my blog if the reader is interested (one is a more in depth consideration of the work of artist Francis Alys, and the other on “anorectic subjectivities” which acts as a kind of conclusion). This is really part of a wider research interest of mine, but I am very pleased that this symposium took place since it gave me the chance to return to some of those interest. Call this a draft, then. Many of the themes taken up in the second part of this post are also adressed in Howard Slater's essay "The Spoiled Ideals of Lost Situations", which is meant to accompany a reading of the book Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, where most of the artist's writings I've used can be found. Two artists that I have not been able to squeeze into this, but would highly recommend that anyone interested with what’s being said here check out are Thomas Hirschhorn (see here) and especially Santiago Sierra (a little about him here). Also, I should point out that while the word “practice” appears throughout, many artists today (including myself) really don’t like this word. I’ll skip giving reasons for the moment. Perhaps Ranciere’s “ways of doing and making within the aesthetic regime of the arts” would have been better, though long-winded – and out of laziness I have not yet modified any of that. However, the word does appear in inverted commas at several points, which I’m sure Matt will appreciate.
I. Double-Headed Histories
"Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults into a terrain of particles each containing its own void." – Robert Smithson
"The clear division between reality and fiction makes a rational logic of history impossible as well as a science of history." – Jacques Ranciere
With nearly forty years separating us from the first publication of Tronti’s essay “The Strategy of The Refusal”, a document showing that the struggle against work was actually essential to the development of capital, what to make of it now, in light so many radical, and at times even invisible or largely unnoticed mutations in the constitution of contemporary capitalism? Perhaps some possible answers can be recognized in Tronti’s formulation that ‘against the old forms of struggle and resistance’ should be installed new forms of political organization and refusal. It seems apparent then, that to think refusal today should invest in the same formulation – this time polemically positioned against Tronti. Why? Because from within the paradigm of “The Strategy of Refusal” is a rigorous division of class – and one that seems to run the risk of merely satisfying a dialectic and binary representational machinism; the categories of ‘worker’ and ‘party’ seem to end up installing themselves within the very representations that the workers would have intended to overthrow, a move which became thwarted by their own becoming-major. So perhaps some solutions to envisioning contemporary forms of refusal might begin along the lines suggested by Deleuze and Guattari: to think minority instead of class. To say this does not mean denying that there are classes, or that there is a ruling class; only that refusal, resistance – what composes and calls for them - are not reducible to the antagonisms of a class division. As the Italian Futurist FT Marinetti once said, “language is the motherload of all culture”, and it is without doubt impossible to follow the consequences of Tronti’s initial formulations without encountering and taking into much consideration all the nominations which have entered and continue to circulate through the “post-Fordist” lexicon as a result of the ‘failures’ of the Italian operaismo: social subjectivity, social chain, multitude, social factory, the general intellect, generic will, compositionism, immaterial or cognitive labour…
In coincidence with the workers movement as a particular history of struggles and theoretical works lay another long history of artistic practices and revolutions that could be said to have aimed at constructing solidarities with such resistances and refusals. If the artists and workers caught up in these histories shared a common enemy it was certainly ‘capital’ – though such an enemy will always express itself in different forms relative to a given situation or milieu. In Italy it was the factory; with artists, the museum, institution, or gallery. In both instances there was a resistance toward the system’s control that manifested itself in the engaged and active search for an outside set against received modes of subjectivity and the “conjugations of the axiomatic” (D & G); a search that concerned itself with the invention of new forms of life and work aimed at the embetterment of society as a whole. This other history, with loose ties to the attitudes of such localized movements as the Bauhaus in Germany and the Russian Constructivists (or for that matter more diffuse movements such as Dada), initiated new inquiries into modes of aesthetic production conceived through a kind of ‘anti-aesthetic’ which intersected with the ambitions of the Italian workers and autonomia during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Such coincidence figures into the attempts made by artists during this period to resist both the sedentary space of an elitist institution and the commodity form of the artwork in what came to known as Conceptual Art.
Though not all artists involved in the Conceptual Art movement were interested in positioning their practices within such antagonistic spaces whose directions and enemies were as clearly delimited as those of the operaismo or autonomia, it is nonetheless from this art historical trajectory that today’s artists derive the consequences of another ‘failure’; a failure which must similarly engage contemporary capitalism with the ‘sentimentalist’ imperative of gathering the “leftovers of unresolved struggles”. Such struggles did not merely disappear into museological sediment; rather, their forms have irreversibly changed and continue toward ever more uncertain futures. New strategies of artistic practice have developed, evolved, and mutated on the contemporary global stage; they carry with them their own set of names invented within art historical, critical, and theoretical discourse: socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, participatory, interventionist, research based, or collaborative art – to merely rattle off the very same inventory provided by Claire Bishop’s recent article on the ‘social turn’ in art (1).
These two histories overlap within heterotopic spaces that implicate a vast proliferation of events, sites, and struggles – the trace of which is no doubt evidenced by the compilation of an almost debilitating list from the fields of art, philosophy, and political theory. While such a brief compilation as provided here can in no way take the entire field into consideration, together they can be shown to exhibit a certain solidarity, and as a consequence one immediate question might be the following: do these contemporary nominations (community-based art, social subjectivity, compositionism…) in any way encounter the difficulties of unification and antagonism symptomatic of an organization through ‘the party’ as Tronti conceived it? Or, to put it another way, are these in some way the markers of an impetus to – pace Toscano – ‘dominate the process to non-domination’?(2 ) Perhaps Tronti already anticipated this problem, or at least Deleuze and Guattari were able to recognize it within Tronti’s text, stating that “as long as the working class defines itself by an aquired status, or even by a theoretically conquered State, it appears only as “capital” […]” ( 3 ).
Such questions appear as relevant because one of the main problems for refusal, it seems, is the emergence of these ‘entities of reference’ that might become the ‘objective crystallization of antagonism’ (4). And as is always the case with recognition, a potential disaster is therefore generated from the institutional nomination of these movements and events, nominations which can in turn render their errant compositions static within capital – something which should not be overlooked when one encounters such “taxonomic disorder”. Yet at the same time, it would appear as necessary to proceed from the knowledge that such solidifications are also the mark of a very real production of social subjects who continue to resist such solidification. If capitalism is the drug (the inoculating agent), minority becomings are the viruses which mutate accordingly in this ‘germ warfare’ (5).
Instead of seeking a part immanent to the State and within representation, it should be possible to admit such terms as ‘entities of reference’ which refer only to spaces precipitating events and the formation of subjects. That is, they reference a place without place such as the “errant multiplicity” of the “multitude-without-a-home”. To a great extent, terms such as “collaborative art” will only ever designate potential strategies or tactics within still to be created spaces where refusal, antagonism, and resistance are possible - without this at all implying the militaristic form of an ‘avant-garde’ movement. Such terms (be they from art, politics, or philosophy) do not stress unification as an organizational principle by way of already existing antagonisms, but instead explore the formulation that “antagonism is a consequence, not a condition”(6). That is to say, resistance is an effect – it has to be generated through invention by subjects who come to recognize themselves as unrecognized. A minority may create a model for itself in order to survive, but it is a model which it does not depend on, as Deleuze would say (7). The creation of antagonism and the possibility of resistance are in fact the very mode of being of those spaces; the name only ever signifies a process, not a product.
So within such categorical loquaciousness would also be the positive feature of language’s jargonization - or rather, what Agamben relates as the very fact that all language is already jargon. These variegated nominations created through minority usage are engaged attempts at articulating new relationships and new strategies within the “political imaginary”. Contested, criticized, modified, overturned, or left behind as they may often be, they nonetheless remain exemplary of what underlined the “No!” of Tronti’s Italian worker: to upset the masks of the State and the order of a repressive machine (4). These terminologies may even be said to inhabit spaces within discourse that Agamben would consider the mark of evental interruptions, in-between times “during which the factum of language and the factum of community come to light for an instant – are manifold and change according to times and circumstances” (9). That, at least, would be their desired efficacy.
Yet faced with such overwhelming jargons, it is perhaps much less difficult to also sympathize with a philosopher such as Badiou, who might consider them confined to the indexical site of a ‘postmodern’ sophistics which he terms ‘idealinguistry’ (though at the same time these nominations would seem to also be aligned with his “strange multiplicities” without clear predicate (10) ). In embracing a classical, systematic, and re-dressed Platonism, Badiou rejects such excesses as ‘celebrations’ of difference so as to instead assign thought a higher task in the production of sameness (genericity); and within the framework of his “meta-ontological” discourse, difference then becomes just “simply” what there is (11). And though recently Badiou has come to reconsider “culture” (home of the detestable difference) as important to his “generic truth procedures”(12) - in a move that shows him tarrying with his own unthought, as it were - he is in most instances quick to dismiss it as being merely a category of art (13). Such a refusal on his part involves sweeping such slippery concepts as the “multitude” or “immaterial labour” under the carpet of set theoretical pure multiplicity(virno one and many footnote). But no mistake should be made here: to the extent that the introduction of these terms into the vocabularies used by philosophers, artists, political theorists, critics or historians alike are invested in promoting, acknowledging, and understanding the creation of new social subjects, it is only through such minority usages of language that the construction of “common spaces” within a shared humanity might be accomplished. The reason for this, moreover, is precisely because minority becomings ground generic experience (14).
Difference[s] aside, then, attention should also be paid to a feature shared by much of the current political thought that, while not alien to the 60’s and 70’s necessarily bears repeating: the abandonment of ‘the party’ as an empty and no longer viable model of political organization so as to strategically jettison along with it any remaining “ideology of the proletariat” (or to follow Deleuze, “organization of power”, since for Deleuze ideology simply does not exist (15) ). While Tronti’s “No!” is still something else altogether, it would certainly be a mistake to remain content with the illusion of a “future at our backs” which would exclusively reside in such oversimplified models as those of the party or the proletariat as programmes for emancipation. This is to say, pace Guattari, that if one wished to find the site of a betrayal toward revolutions and the masses, it is in the workers movement where it can be found (16).
So against the violent destiny laid out by Tronti’s call for an image of the worker as “Proud and Menacing” should be opposed a slogan for Franco Berardi’s new “cognitariat” which might read: “Faceless and Invisible”. Though as Angela Mitropoulos has observed, such promotional efforts would not be without consequences of their own, running the risk of this “faceless and invisible” subject “preening itself in the cognitariat’s mirror” (17). Yet if one were to accept this strange slogan as a real indication of what some of our options might be as potential ‘clandestine practitioners’ (18 ) in this world, it is a slogan which implicates both Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence that the face is a landscape to be dismantled through becoming imperceptible(19), and Agamben’s call to “be only your face” (20). To dismantle while becoming, and to be only one’s face are here to say the same thing: take away from the face every codification, every fixed identity, and become faceless by being only your face in its “pure communicability” (21). For Agamben, the face (of the politician, the child, the movie star…) is that appearance which is only ever the hiding of appearing, and behind which lies the tumult of language forever leaving every face “suspended on the edge of an abyss” (22). In capitalism, there are always powers (such as the media) which cover over the “communicative emptiness” of the face, guaranteeing that we cannot take hold of the opening which it is. Yet the face is also the site of a struggle and “the only location of community, the only possible city” (23). To dismantle/be one’s face might then indicate another kind of refusal whose political impact and potential exceed its description; it is in its act as powerful as the “No!” of Tronti’s worker. And if it is true that we are always being “put to work” in our daily lives, to refuse what Guattari called “facialization” is one way to actualize a refusal of work – or to say the same thing: a refusal of one of the myriad ways in which capitalism works through us.
Indeed, to advance beyond the limitations inherent in the forms of political organization and refusal offered by Tronti should - at least in part - involve questioning the role, form, or formation of ‘new social subjects’ and their collaborative and creative capabilities. To articulate ourselves in the present – a very confused present in which we often find ourselves confused before powers which would prefer for us to remain confused – is to conduct experiments, acts, and decisions toward unforeseeable ends in the midst of the undecideable. Call it affective labour, or militant engagement, or perhaps something else…Whatever name is given to such procedures, refusal then becomes synonymous with invention; it hinges on the creative capacity of an any-subject-whoever – whether that subject be an individuated evental arrival (Deleuze, Virno, Negri…) or the careful considerations of Badiou’s faithful (and profoundly Christiological) militant, in which the figures of genericity and anonymity supplant identity, and fidelity assumes the role of becoming. And to the extent that capitalism might be said to force performance, it must also be examined, in the context of such investigations/becomings/fidelities, to what extent such performance can be accomplished without one seeing it immediately recaptured toward the very perpetuation of this world. It might also be asked how new and complex strategies of refusal can potentially count as an art not merely for those who might designate it as being such within the field of art, but for anyone who, engaged in struggle, seizes hold of opportunities within the empty unrepresentable spaces covered over in capitalism, so as to channel their own desire toward something and somewhere other than here.
II. Revolving Doors: The Legacies of Conceptual Art and The Contemporary Inheritance of Refusal
“…There is such a freedom of means that the very act of not creating already counts as a creative manifestation.” - Helio Oiticica
The 1960’s and 70’s witnessed a profound change in the way that artists discussed, made, or otherwise thought about art and their role as artists. The muddled history of art since 1960 presents a legacy of “unfinished business” – stalled movements and strategies that were plugged up after their own brief but effective plugging up of the systems which they were responding to. That many of today’s artists reactivate this history as their inheritance should indicate that in many ways, the future really is still at our backs. Characterized by a “general retreat from the visual” and largely emanating from a dispute with Greenbergian models of aesthetics, Conceptual artists worked with problematized placement, reductivism, and the foregrounding of text or information that became elements interwoven with newly defined parameters of artistic subjectivity. These changes were in part an attempt to fully realize the consequences of so many investigations which had been initiated by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s strategy - all the while maintained through an “anti-retinal”(24) position - involved revealing the artworks reliance on contextual definition, a move that would in turn make visible the role of the viewer as active participant in the creation of the work(25). It would be a mistake, of course, to see all of the changes which occurred during the 60’s and 70’s as emanating from the ‘legacy’ of one individual, though without much reservation, history nonetheless concedes to him a great deal.
Duchamp’s place in art history is complemented by the fact that he remains to this day the figure of a singular insubordination; and it is necessary, in the context of spaces that he could be said to have opened up for future generations, that it be remembered how he famously “quit making art” in order to pursue the leisure activity of playing chess. His refusal – which was incontestably a passive Barleby-like retreat from the artworld and its attendant ‘little communities’ – came to resemble the most severe form of an interruption which is still being felt today. No longer “making art”, and selling only a few works in his lifetime (a limitation of his own design), he committed himself now and again to sending some obscure and absurd object into the system like a virus that had to then somehow be contended with as art. (It is worth comparing Duchamp’s behavior to that of the workers movement in Italy, where resistance did not always take on the form of union-run events, but instead relied on the spontaneity and ‘formlessness’ of strategies such as sabotage, absenteeism, the surprise “checkerboard” strikes, and minoritarian workers who baffled management by bringing outside life into the factories – thereby displacing an appearance which exemplified the mutations and tendencies of an emerging class composition (26).)
Taken together, the strategies and positions developed first by Duchamp (who of course always preferred not to be called an artist ) and later by those during the 60’s and 70’s attempting to understand him differently (if not better) than their immediate predecessors were inseparable from a refusal of the existing order; a refusal of the institution and the status of the artist that also meant a resistance to capitalism and the commodity form of the artwork. Much as with the Italian workers, Conceptual artists were developing calculated strategies aimed at plugging up and blocking the system; styles of thinking, doing, and making that it was often hoped would prevent capitalism and the institution from functioning smoothly. These antagonisms provoked artistic practices that challenged the role of museums, the gallery space, the critic; and ultimately led to a retreat from the apriori identity and individualism of the “artist” in a kind of ‘autovalorization’. For many of these ‘practitioners’, then, who conducted their work in the public sphere as opposed to the “sacred space” of the institution, it was relevant to take an anti-art stance and perform a constant restaging of the matter and means of artistic practice. The Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica was one of the first to pose the problem of situating the artist’s activity in that somewhere else without it being necessary to have recourse to a preferable social subject or a cultural particularity – even if he was at the time speaking specifically of the situation in his country as the location of struggle:
…In Brazil, the roles take on the following pattern: how to, in an underdeveloped country, explain and justify the appearance of an avant-garde, not as a symptom of alienation, but as a decisive factor in its collective progress? How to situate the artist’s activity there? The problem could be tackled by another question: who does the artist make his work for? It can be seen, thus, that this artist feels a greater need, not only simply to “create,” but to “communicate” something which for him is fundamental, but this communication would have to be large-scale, not for an elite reduced to “experts,” but even “against” this elite, with the proposition of unfinished, “open” works. (27)
Such perspectives on an “open” work were likewise being explored by Cildo Meireles, who was inventing artistic practices that were to fuse art and political activism with his Insertions into Ideological Circuits. These early experiments, considered as an evolution from the recognized common practices of chain letters and the message in a bottle, involved stamping messages and opinions onto banknotes and then returning them into circulation (a practice still visible today in America). The “message in a bottle” was the model for Meireles’ Insertions—Coca-Cola from 1970, where opinions about local politics and the politics of imperialism were calculatingly camouflaged with small text printed in white ink onto the sides of Coca-Cola bottles that, after re-entering the factory, were filled and redistributed. For Meireles, the projects “arose out of the need to create a system for the circulation and exchange of information that did not depend on any centralized control”(28). These projects – small systems interacting with the machine of capital that had the potential of producing subversive effects - were never intended for the exhibition space (even if posterity would eventually find a home for them there) but were instead aimed at the masses through a form of “counter-information” that he further explained:
The way I conceived it, the Insertions would only exist to the extent that they ceased to be the work of just one person. The work only exists to the extent that other people participate in it. What also arises is the need for anonymity. By extension, the question of anonymity involves the question of ownership. When the object becomes a practice, it becomes something over which you can have no control or ownership.(29)
If the artist as factory worker was embodied by Warhol, such models of a fully engaged artist-worker collaboration with the market were quickly abandoned by many artists in the emerging generation who were sympathetic to worker’s struggles abroad. More artists during this time were becoming sensitive to the political and economic situations frustrating much of the world, and by necessity of their commitment intended their work for a public that couldn’t be figured from traditional categories of aesthetic reception. Of note in this regard is the still active collaborative team Art & Language. With members operating in both the UK and the US, they were to “side with the working class” following a Marxist critique of artistic means of production that sought to disrupt art’s “regulated function”. Their perspectives saw the artist as historically inscribed within the bourgeoisie, stating that ‘so long as there has been a proletariat the artist has not been a part of it’. With a desire to develop projects “in and for class lines”, A&L were convinced that “Under present circumstances, the progressive artists will be those who seek, as however distant a prospect, the dictatorship of culture by the working classes. As a member of a bourgeois social section, the artist can thus only act progressively in the symptomatic and historical paracoxicalness of his own social practice” (30).
Seeking to generate antagonism in the form of ideological conflict, A&L may have ended siding with the particularity of the ‘worker’ – citing Luxemborg and Lenin as they did – although they had their outspoken dissenter in former member Ian Burn. In NY Burn was operating at a time when it was possible to anticipate emerging economic conditions and new forms of labour that would later be identified as immaterial or cognitive labour. Burn was also one of the only artists to fully – and very perceptibly – explore his situation as an artist within the market as a relationship of “reciprocal determination”, where the artist determined the museum as much as the other way around. According to Burn, it was not enough to be “just an artist” since he saw the “artist” as playing a sterile and politically conservative role in society that only had “value as propaganda for an imperious culture” (31). When considering the attempts of an organization such as the National Art Workers Community, Burn reached conclusions that recalled those of Tronti. The NAWC desired to improve the artist’s status by 1) – improving the standard of living of the artist through expanding the demand for art; and 2) – promoting the recognition of the artist as a working professional…” (32). As Burn understood the situation, artists could not directly remain artists in the traditional sense of the word without still being enveloped within ‘an imperious and autonomous market dictating to the artist’ which in the case of NAWC forced Burn to ask the question: “Isn’t this labor organizing for the same reasons that capital does and for no other?”(33)
If Burn was sensing changing definitions of what could be counted as “work”, he was certainly not alone in the artworld. The term “immaterial labour” itself seems nearly synonymous with what Lucy Lippard and John Chandler were gathering under the title “The Dematerialization of Art” in their 1967 essay (34). Such “dematerialization” was characterized by ‘post-aesthetic’ or anti-art practices that sought the “disintegration of art”; it signaled a point – exterior to the existing conditions of the studio, museum, or gallery and the traditionaly positioned bourgeoisie status of the artist - when art, like work, could have more to do with the production and networking of information than with the visual embodiment of displaced labour in the art object. The history of the nomination “dematerialized art” has also had to contend with the shaky ground of such a concept which so resembles that of “immaterial labour”. Just as those who have worked with the notion of “immaterial labour” have had to flush out the concept in assurance that it did not imply the absence of any material trace (Hardt and Negri of course come to mind), those responding to Lippard and Charndlers initial formulation were obliged to do the same during their time. Terry Atkinson was one such artist (35), and still more artists were exploring “Media Art” by utilizing mechanisms of the media in an attempt to raise the political consciousness of viewers, often through direct manipulation and falsification of information (36).
One artist certainly more attentive to the already existing potential of immaterial or cognitive labour was Adrian Piper, who beyond the call for an understanding of the various directions the art-object was taking toward “dematerialized art” promoted what she termed “meta-art”. Piper explained “meta-art” as
the activity of making explicit the thought processes, procedures, and presuppositions of making whatever kind of art we make. Thought processes might include how we hypothesize a work into existence: whether we reason from problems encountered in the last work to possible solutions in the next; or get “inspired” by seeing someone else’s work, or a previously unnoticed aspect of our own; or read something, experience something, or talk; or find ourselves blindly working away for no good reason; or any, all, or other processes of this kind. (37)
Piper insisted the potential for “meta-art” lay in its usefulness as a programme that enabled a variety of artistic concerns and practices to be folded into everyday life, stating that “meta-art” “criticizes and indicts the machinations necessary to maintain this society as it is. It holds up for scrutiny how capitalism works on us and through us”(38). As a practice, it was first imagined for the artist as a focus on the artist qua artist; but given the nature of Piper’s activities during the formative years of Conceptual Art – her “paradoxical” simultaneous involvement in rigorous (Kantian) academic philosophy and unannounced street performance – it becomes quite apparent that “meta-art” would not only provide a way to dematerialize (or for that matter deterritorialize) the artist into society, but implied that the everyday activities of any-subject-whoever could consequently be considered as art – just not art with a capital A.
“Meta-art” was also a call to distance artistic practice from the hegemony of critics and historians whose interpretations controlled the public reception of artworks by suggesting that artists take the “means of revelation into their own hands” (39). Such a call was already anticipated by Lippard and Chandler who just five years earlier had said that “sometime in the near future it may be necessary for the writer to be an artist as well as for the artist to be a writer”(40). In the sense that Piper instilled upon the subject as artist-producer, the artist was no longer “just an artist” but lost that identity within a larger social context. Much in the way that the works of Meireles or the strategies of autonomia and the emarginati deliberately attempted to subvert existing systems, Piper’s Calling Cards provide the most notable example of how “meta-art” might function. Based as responses to the assumptions other people might make of her, Piper, when prompted, would distribute announcements printed on small business cards which said such things as:
“Dear Friend, I am not here to pick anyone up, or to be picked up. I am here alone because I want to be here, ALONE. This card is not intended as part of an extended flirtation. Thank you for respecting my privacy.”
As invested in social change as these artists were, and as heavily influenced as they became through their encounters with critical Marxism, French theory, ‘poststructuralism’, feminism, and an increasingly ‘bastardized’ deconstruction, the historical trajectory of Conceptual Art eventually gave way to certain realizations that it had pursued an “unfounded attempt to avoid commercialization” (41) that saw the ‘ghostlike reappartions’ of traditional forms of artmaking return (42). During the art-market boom of the eighties artists like Jeff Koons were fully exploiting the commodity fetishism of the artwork, often humorously and deliberately making it visible in a critical-comedy, as was his case. While this evident failure of the larger conceptualist “project of emancipation” could have been seen as a failure on par with that of the workers movement in Italy, into the nineties and the new millennium many remnants of art after 1960 (conceptual, fluxus, performance…) began to reassert themselves with a renewed vigor as some of the only strategies available to expand upon which the younger generations had inherited after being thrown to the new globalized situatuions of cognitive labour and a destabilized workforce.
Many practices of critically examining situations which had been pursued by artists such as Hans Haake, Daniel Buren, and Marcel Broodthaers would eventually be consolidated under the heading of “institutional critique”. The term, attributable to Frederick Jameson and articulated by Benjamin HD Buchloh (43), first appeared in print under the pen of artist Andrea Fraser. Originally “institutional critique” was set against the museum as an exclusive site for the repression and domination of artists - a theme which Fraser continued to develop throughout the nineties, notably in her “Proposal for artistic Services”:
This is the contradictory principle of our professional lives: dependence is the condition of our autonomy. We may work for ourselves, for our own satisfaction, responding only to internal demands, following only an internal logic, but in doing to so we forfeit the right to regulate the social and economic conditions of our activity. And in forfeiting the right to regulate our activity according to our professional interests, we also forfeit the ability to determine the meaning and effects of our activity according to our interests as social subjects also subject to the effects of the symbolic system we produce and reproduce. As long as the system of belief on which the status of our activity depends is defined according to a principle of autonomy which bars us from pursuing the production of specific social use value, we are consigned to producing only prestige value. If we are always already serving, artistic freedom can only consist in determining for ourselves—to the extent that we can—who and how we serve. This is, I think, the only course to a less contradictory principle of autonomy. (44)
Along a similar line of inquiry, Fraser also explored the potentials which still existed in the past demands of the Art Workers Coalition (AWC):
The AWC was probably the most significant post-war American attempt by artists to collectively redefine both the material conditions of their practices and its social function—particularly in terms of relations to public and private art presenting organizations. Many of the policy changes the AWC pressed museums for—free admission, equal representation of artists, museum professionals and patrons on museum boards, royalties paid to artists when their work is exhibited, and substantial representation of minority artists in collections and exhibitions were never realized. The AWC did however spur the development of community cultural centers, artist-run exhibition spaces, and political and activist art practices—particularly institutional critique. It also, through a resistance to feminist issues, contributed to the emergence of an independent women's art movement. (45)
In a recent contribution to Artforum, Fraser returned to the theme of “institutional critique” nearly a decade later, problematically recast in an essay which bore the title “From the Critique of Institutions to the Institution of Critique” (an inversion fully aware that there were consequences of contemporary capitalism that the critique of institutions and “institutional critique” would have to contend with). In the light of art history’s canonization of ‘conceptualist practices’, Fraser asked the relevant if not obvious question: “How can artists who have become art historical institutions themselves claim to critique the institution of art?”(46).
The problem here is that after the institution adapted to the demands of artists by making attempts to cooperate - or control, it’s really the same thing - with shifting artistic practices, it “destroyed itself through proliferation” (Buren). Such “destruction”, however, is characteristic only of the institution’s older form disappearing, and such disappearing merely signaled the birth of the institutions newer forms that, much like the replacement of the factory as centralized place of production through deregulation and the precarious worker all too easily resembled a display of “capitalism’s vengeance”. The destruction of the institutions through proliferation also resulted in the older froms of artistic practice which criticized the institution to be dissipated. And yet, the reason why Fraser can still claim that “institutional critique” has “urgent stakes in the present” has much to do with recognizing that the institution-with-open-doors of today – being no longer the mere image of an easily legible exclusion and elitism that it once was – still enacts a kind of repression and exploitation.
Fraser argues that the dismantled and proliferated institution has moved away from the specific place(museum, university) into the larger social field, from special places to common places. Just as the Arcades explored by Benjamin are no longer underground markets occupying a specific place, they, like the institutions of today, have no fixed or substantive character and no distinct “outside”, if they can be said to have one at all. For Fraser, what is outside of the institutions is “only what, at any given moment, does not exist as an object of artistic discourses and practices”(47). According to this evaluation, to make distinctions between the “institution” and “us” is to deny responsibility of our role in its maintenance, and as a consequence, recalling Burn, “It is artists – as much as museums or the market – who, in their very efforts to escape the institution of art, have driven its expansion” (48).
This realization is not, however, merely indicative of a negative condition - and it is worth wondering here whether the potentials of the general intellect, or the multitudes, are not also implicated in perpetually entering and leaving such determined and determining territories through a kind of revolving door – a passage at the border between recognition and repression, visibility and invisibility, or inside and outside, as it were. Such diagnosis reveal that no artistic poject can really exist without some antagonism toward something – be that something preconceived ideas about art, aesthetics, the role of the “author”, identity and representation, or capitalism and globalization. Yet today, the institution is not so much a site of reciprocal resistance as it is a space for the continued exploration of the questions opened up since the 1960’s. The institution of today would prefer to be seen as a platform for the posing and discussion of these myriad questions raised by artist and institution alike, a situation leading many contemporary artists – who often choose instead to now work for and with the instiution - to abandon clear lines of demarcation between their practices and the new ‘institutional practices’ of the institutions themselves.
To take seriously the suggestion that this relationship between artist and institution – which in reality has always been symbiotic – offers new possibilities and positive conditions for the artist, it has to be assumed that there is a kernel of truth to Daniel Buren’s proposition that “the proliferation of contemporary art museums today is a kind of technical revolution that may actually be as significant for art making as the invention of oil paint”(49). It would be a thorough disservice to the legitimacy of this statement if it were not paired with one it so closely resembles, made by Felix Guattari when he said that “we are currently witnessing a mutation of subjectivity that perhaps surpasses the invention of writing, or the printing press, in importance” (50).
Whether the artist engages with these subjects inside of the museum where they are invited, or discovers them elsewhere, is certainly being explored in new and interesting ways by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Tiravanija’s projects have brought outside life into the space of the museum by inviting the viewer to become active participants who eat, sleep, or otherwise interact with his installations in ways that reconfigure the modes of reception for an artwork. This constant restaging of the channels through which art can be experienced is something art has always shared with politics, and is part of what, in fact, makes aesthetics inherently political. Successful in their own right, the point of Tirivanija’s
The Land Chaing Mai, Thailand On going project
installations is nowhere more present than in his remote-location ongoing collaborative project: simply called “The Land”, it was initiated in 1998 and envisioned as a self sustainable lab utilizing architectural ideas for living (51) to which other artists such as Pierre Huyghe and the collaborative group Superflex (52) have contributed. There is also no time limit on the project, something that ideally allows it to continue expanding in an attempt to involve and enrich the life of surrounding communities. The overall desired effect of the project seems also to share the concerns of the collaborative team Oda Projesi, whose activities have been described by Claire Bishop:
Oda Projesi is a group of three artists who, since 1997, have based their activities around a three-room apartment in the Galata district of Istanbul (oda projesi is Turkish for “room project”). The apartment provides a platform for projects generated by the collective in cooperation with its neighbors, such as a children’s workshop with the Turkish painter Komet, a community picnic with the sculptor Erik Gongrich, and a parade for children organized by the Tem Yapin theater group. Oda Projesi argue that they wish to pen up a context for the possibility of interchange and dialogue, motivated by a desire to integrate with their surroundings. They insist that they are not setting out to improve or heal a situation – one of their project leaflets contains the slogan “exchange not change” – though they clearly see their work as gently oppositional. By working directly with their neighbors to organize workshops and events, they evidently want to produce a more creative and participatory social fabric. They talk of creating “blank spaces” and “holes” in the face of an over-organized and bureaucratic society, and of being “mediators” between groups of people who normally don’t have contact with one another.(53)
If it is only with the production of ‘new social subjects’ and the importance of finding “the public” that a ‘social turn’ in art should be understood, artists today continue - in what might appear as an exodus from the studio and exhibition space - to adopt Nomad practices that force their work into the “open” constructions Oiticica had envisioned. Like Tirivanija, artist Aleksandra Mir (54) chooses not to have a studio - or rather, both of these artists construct spaces in which social life itself becomes a kind of studio or laboratory. In direct opposition to the closed and factory-like space of a traditional artist’s studio, Mir instead prefers to travel so as to discover locations for site specific works such as her Cinema for the Unemployed. This project involved the participation of a movie theater that remained open free to the public during standard 9-5 working hours on the condition that it show only Hollywood disaster movies. Mir thus explored unemployment as a space oscillating in the public mind somewhere between tragedy and leisure, the circumstantially unfortunate lifestyle and the chosen one.
Engaging the public was also examined in other ways by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an artist working during the nineties with an all too brief life who would not only suggest to his students that the best way to read Althusser was drunk (55), but who also understood in a Foucauldian fashion that a passport had as much to do with the body as a sculpture of the human figure(56). Like Meireles’ Insertions, his work could not exist without the public. Examining the inheritance of a minimalist vernacular married to Conceptual Art’s strategies, Gonzalez-Torres utilized the logics of distribution to create works which were physically accessible and infinitely reproducible: masses of candy would be spread out onto gallery and museum floors or piled in corners, while for other projects it merely sufficed to have stacks of photocopied material which the public was free to remove and take with them. The “open” accessible work was the material where the immaterial could take place, and there is something to be said of work such as this that, 100 years from now, will still show the same generosity it did when it was first conceived, since no matter the ideological sediment that may surround it, it will never cease to liberate itself from itself by the simple fact that one remains allowed to remove a piece of candy from the pile and eat it. And while he always acknowledged that he made the work first for his partner Ross, then for himself, in the end it was always intended for everyone.
During an interview with curator Robert Storr, Gonzalez-Torres had said “I don’t want to make art just for people who can read Frederick Jameson sitting upright on a Mackintosh chair. I want to make art for people who watch the Golden Girls and sit in a big, brown, lazy-boy chair. They’re part of my public too, I hope.” For Gonzalez-Torres, there was no distinguishing between the degree to which a work of art could be said to carry social content; whether a formalist work or ‘politicized’ art, aesthetics were not even about politics, they were politics. Moreover, the more successful the politics in the work, the less directly visible it was. This in itself, however, does not imply that art’s political content will be channeled toward ends that benefit humanity, since very often it does the exact opposite. Art may be always searching for a people, but it can’t create them, as Deleuze would say (57).
Art has no obligation toward such creation, nor does it have any obligation to communicate; art merely has a potential, and part of that potential is that it can act as a medium through which spaces for antagonism can then be constructed – which is to say, spaces where it becomes possible to think.
1.) Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents” Artforum, February 2006, p. 170
2.) See Alberto Toscano, “Communism as Separation” in Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy, Peter Hallward editor (Continuum, 2004) p. 138-149
3.) “Generally speaking, minorities do not receive a better solution of their problem by integration, even with axioms, statutes, autonomies, independencies. Their tactics necessarily go that route. But if they are revolutionary, it is because they carry within them a deeper movement that challenges the worldwide axiomatic. The power of minority, of particularity, finds its figure or its universal consciousness in the proletariat. But as long as the working class defines itself by an acquired status, or even by a theoretically conquered State, it appears only as “capital”, a part of capital (variable capital), and does not leave the plan(e) of capital. At best, the plan(e) becomes bureaucratic. On the other hand, it is by leaving the plan(e) of capital, and never ceasing to leave it, that a mass becomes increasingly revolutionary and destroys the dominant equilibrium of the denumerable sets.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minnesota, 2000) p. 472
4.) Alberto Toscano, “Communism as Separation”
5.) I am thinking here of some insights into the development of germ warfare provided by Manuel Delanda in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (Zone Books, 1997) as well as some of the research of Peter Sloterdijk.
6.) Alberto Toscano, “Communism as Separation”, ibid. p. 148
7.) “When a minority creates models for itself, it’s because it wants to become a majority, and probably has to, to survive or prosper (to have s state, be recognized, establish rights, for example). But its power comes from what it’s managed to create, which to some extent goes into the model, but doesn’t depend on it.” Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Toni Negri, published as “Control and Becoming” in Negotiations (Columbia, 1995), p. 173
8.) Giorgio Agamben, “Languages and Peoples”, in Means Without Ends (Minnesota, 2000), p.67
9.) ibid., p.70
10.) For Badiou’s take on ‘idealinguistry’ see the Appendix to his Ethics (Verso, 2001); for his description of “strange multiplicities” in relation to politics and mathematics, see the transcription of his Birkbeck lecture Politics: A Non-Expressive Dialectics archived at: http://blog.urbanomic.com/num/archives/2005/11/badiou_transcri.html
11.) see Alain Badiou, Ethics
12.)[...]Badiou even went so far as to accept the notion that "culture", rather than merely being a version of "art" emptied of all truth, as he claims in the introduction to his Saint Paul, might actually be an appropriate name for the "networking (reseau) or "knotting" (nouage) among the various truth conditions that could be newly theorized as "culture", if "we can consider culture to be the network of various forcings, that is, at a given moment in time, the manner in which the encyclopedic knowledge of the situation is modified under the constraints of various operations of forcing which depend on procedures that are different from one another" Bruno Bosteels, Post-Maoism: Badiou and Politics archived at: http://positions.dukejournals.org/cgi/reprint/13/3/575
13.) See Alain Badiou, “Third Draft of a Manifesto of Affirmationsim”, Lacanian Ink 24/25, p.93-109; A footnote from Zizek clarifies some of this: “As Badiou perspicaciously notes, these four domains of the Truth-Event are today, in public discourse, more and more replaced by their fake doubles: we speak of ‘culture’ instead of art, of ‘administration’ instead of politics, of ‘sex’ instead of love, of ‘know-how’ or ‘wisdom’ instead of science: art is reduced to an expression/articulation of historically specific culture, love to an ideological dated form of sexuality; science is dismissed as a Wester, falsely universalized form of practical knowledge on an equal footing with forms of pre-scientific wisdom; politics (with all the passion or struggle that this notion involves)is reduced to an immature ideological version or forerunner of the art of social gestion…” The Ticklish Subject, p. 167-68, fn. No. 10
14.) It might be worth exploring the relationship between Badiou’s version of Beckett and Deleuze’s regarding this point.
15.) See “On Capitalism and Desire” in Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (Semiotext(e), 2004), p. 264
16.) “The history of betrayed revolutions, betraying the desires of the masses, is quite simply the history of the workers movement.” Ibid., p. 216
17.) Angela Mitroupolous, “Precari-us?”, archived at: http://www.republicart.net/disc/precariat/mitropoulos01_en.htm
18.) See Jean Paul Martinon, “Strategies of (In)visibility_ Numerous” archived at: http://www.republicart.net/disc/artsabotage/martinon01_en.pdf
19.) See A Thousand Plateaus, p.167-191 and 233-309
20.) Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End, p.91-100
22.) “Inasmuch as it is nothing but pure communicability, every human face, even the most noble and beautiful, is always suspended on the edge of an abyss […] The only face to remain uninjured is the one capable of taking the abyss of its own communicability upon itself and of exposing it withou fear of complacency.” Ibid. p.96
23) ibid. p.91
24.) Duchamp used the expression “anti-retinal” to designate an art or an aesthetics that resided in one’s “grey matter” as he put it. For Duchamp, the supreme example of “retinal” art was someone like Courbet.
25.) See “The Creative Act” at: http://members.aol.com/mindwebart3/marcel.htm
26.) See Nicholas Thoburn, “The Refusal of Work”, Deleuze, Marx, and Politics archived at: http://libcom.org/library/deleuze-marx-politics-nicholas-thoburn-5
27.) Helio Oiticica, “General Scheme of the New Objectivity” in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Alberto Alberro and Blake Stimson editors (MIT, 1999), p. 41
28.) Cildo Meireles, “Statements”, ibid., p. 410
29.) ibid. 411-412
30.) Art & Language, UK “Having-Your-Heart-in-the-Right-Place-is-Not-Making-History”, ibid., p.352
31.) Ian Burn, “The Art Market”, ibid., p.328
32.) ibid., p.330
34.) See Lucy Lippard and John Chandler “The Dematerialization of Art”, ibid., p.46-50
35.) See Terry Atkinson, “Concerning the Article “The Dematerialization of Art””, ibid., p.52-58
36.) See Alexander Alberro, “A Media Art: Conceptualism in Latin America in the 1960’s” in Rewriting Conceptual Art, Michael Newman and Jon Bird editors (Reaktion Books, 1999)
37.) Adrian Piper “In Support of Meta-Art”, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, p.298-99
38.) ibid., p.301
39.) ibid., p. 300
40.) Lucy Lippard and John Chandler “The Dematerialization of Art”, ibid., p.49; relatedly, see also The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Donald Preziosi editor (Oxford, 1998)
41.) Luch Lippard “Postface, In Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, 1966 to 1972”, ibid. 295
42.) “Or worse yet, that the Enlightenment triumph of Conceptual Art – its transformation of audiences and distribution, its abolition of object status and commodity form – would most of all only be short-lived, almost immediately giving way to the return of the ghostlike reapparitions of (prematurely?) displaced painterly and sculptural paradigms of the past so that the specular regime, which Conceptual Art claimed to have upset, would soon be reinstated with renewed vior. Which is of course what happened.” Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969”, ibid. p. 533
43.) Buchloh refered to this as a “critique of the institution”: “Paradoxically, then, it would appear that Conceptual Art truly became the most significant paradigmatic change of postwar artistic production at the very moment that it mimed the operating logic of late capitalism and its positivist instrumentality in an effort to place its auto-critical investigations at the service of liquidating even the last remnants of traditional aesthetic experience. In that process it succeeded in purging itself entirely of imaginary and bodily experience, of physical substance and the space of memory, to the same extent that it effaced all residues of representation and style, of individuality and skill. That was the moment when Buren’s and Haacke’s work from the late 1960’s onward turned the violence of that mimetic relationship back onto the ideological apparatus itself, using it to analyze and expose the social institutions from which the laws of positivist instrumentality and the logic of administration emanate in the first place. These institutions, which determine the conditions of cultural consumption, are the very ones in which artistic productions is transformed into a tool of ideological control and cultural legitimation.” Ibid., p. 533
44.) See Andrea Fraser, “How To Provide an Artistic Service: An Intorduction”, archived at: http://home.att.net/~artarchives/fraserservice.html
45.) See Andrea Fraser, “Services: a working-group exhibition” archived at: http://home.att.net/~artarchives/fraserservice2.html
46.) Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique”, Artforum Sept. 2005, p.278
47.) ibid., p.281-82
48.) ibid., p.282
49.) “In Conversation: Daniel Buren and Olafur Eliasson”, Artforum May 2005, p.210 50.) See Felix Guattari, “Remaking Social Practices”, archived at: http://slash.autonomedia.org/article.pl?sid=02/11/15/0347216
51.) See the official website for “The Land” at: http://thelandfoundation.org/
52.) See the Superflex website at: http://www.superflex.net/
53.) Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents”, Artforum February 2006, p. 180
54.) See Mir’s official website at: http://www.aleksandramir.info/
55.) See his interview with Robert Storr at: http://www.creativetime.org/programs/archive/2000/Torres/torres/storr.html
56.) I am thinking of his interview with curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist which appeared in Interviews (Charta, 2003).
57. “It’s the greatest artists (rather than populist artists) who invoke a people, and find they “lack a people”: Mallarme, Rimbaud, Klee, Berg. The Straubs in cinema. Artist’s can only invoke a people, their need for one goes to the very heart of what they’re doing, it’s not their job to create one, and they can’t. Art is resistance: it resists death, slavery, infamy, shame. But a people can’t worry about art. How is a people created, through what terrible suffering? When a people’s created, it’s through its own resources, but in a way that links up with something in art (Garrel says there’s a mass of terrible suffering in the Louvre, too) or links up art to what it lacked. Utopia isn’t the right concept: it’s more a question of a “fabulation” in which a people and art both share. We ought to take up Bergson’s notion of fabulation and give it a political meaning.” “Control and Becoming” in Desert Islands, p. 174