Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

A few weeks ago I invited Emily Apter, Emily Liebert, and Siona Wilson to discuss some recent and historical art projects that address the issue of rape. [Participant bios can be found at the foot of this transcript.]

Silvia Kolbowski I’ll start with the brief text I sent to all of you in advance of our in-person conversation. In the last few years there has been substantial reporting on the lack of responsiveness- on the part of American universities, police departments, and prosecutors – to the epidemic of rapes, both on university campuses and off. The 2015 film The Hunting Ground documents this criminal negligence as it takes place in universities. The film delves into some reasons for this behavior, including the willingness of universities to ignore allegations in order to maintain the positive branding (and therefore competitiveness) of tuition-hungry institutions in the U.S. education marketplace, and their reluctance to risk alienating, by holding them accountable, the fraternities and sports players that are the strongest generators of alumni donations.  In addition, a recent report revealed that even repeat rapists are often not pursued by police departments and prosecutors because rape cases pose difficult challenges to both, and career-promoting successes in rape cases can be elusive. The fact that police departments are reluctant to engage in connecting database information across the country, which would greatly contribute to capturing and successfully prosecuting repeat rapists, indicates that there’s something in excess of careerist pragmatism at play in ignoring reported rape crimes.

The reporting and documentation of the rape crisis has been direct and thorough, backed up by compelling, not to say devastating studies and statistics, although of course the issue deserves even greater distribution. But such facts do not always convince when a culture doesn’t value women’s sovereignty. This is where non-legal and non-documentary representation comes in, raising the question of what art can contribute to intervening in a problem that is never disconnected from other aspects of cultural misogyny.

To that end, we’ll look at a number of art projects of the last few decades that deal with rape. I’ll start with two general questions – What are the particular ways in which art can intervene in the rape crisis? Which projects come to mind in this regard?

Siona Wilson Thinking about the range of different artistic projects that address the question of rape, from the late 1960s through the last few years, they seem to occupy the position of activism, assuming the voice of the artist as an activist voice. It’s striking that even the film The Hunting Ground, represents a range of artistic projects. There’s the photographic art project through which one of the central protagonists, from UNC Chapel Hill, came out to the campus community about her rape. And of course there’s the central example of Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University, with her Carry the Weight mattress art project, in which she uses a performance project as a way of putting pressure on the University to act on her accusation of rape by another student on campus.

Kolbowski Siona, are you defining an art project as activist if it has a direct goal, if it addresses the institution directly with a demand? Is that what defines the work as activist for you?

Wilson In this case, I think so. It’s the act of taking on the role of advocacy, with a speech address directed to the institution. And I think there’s another level in which we can see, if we go back and look at some of the historical examples, such as the Ana Mendieta work from 1973 – Untitled (Rape scene) – that the activist dimension of such a work was tied into a feminist politics of consciousness-raising, of discussions. It may not have been what she intended, but that was what arose from the work.

Kolbowski I would say, based on what you’re describing, that the Suzanne Lacy works on rape – the 1977 “Three Weeks in May” and its 2012 recreation, fit into your description. But I wouldn’t say that the Mendieta project did.

suzanne lacy 1a

Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

Wilson I think it does in the sense that it’s a live work. The audience is invited into her apartment, where they witness her with blood on her body, a re-enactment of a rape/murder case that was recent in her college community, and the audience response is to stage a discussion about what happened. So that became part of the work, with a response that was actually the development of a discourse around the issue of rape. Even if Mendieta hadn’t intended it, it took on the role of advocacy.

Kolbowski I thought the point of the Mendieta project was to position the spectator as a voyeur through their witnessing a tableau in a personal setting. There’s an echo of the Mendieta piece in the Sulkowicz web video piece – Ceci n’est pas un viol. By virtue of using a surveillance camera format with a split screen to show sex enacted by herself and an anonymous male, Sulkowicz positions spectators as voyeurs.

ana mendieta

Documentation of Untitled (Rape scene), 1973, by Ana Mendieta.

Liebert I think a crucial difference between those two pieces is that Mendieta is showing us a kind of after-image, so the spectator by necessity has to project what has preceded the tableau. But in Ceci n’est pas un viol, we’re actually watching the act start to finish.

Wilson But Ceci n’est pas un viol also provides an after-image, because it’s not the actual act.

Apter Ceci n’est pas un viol raises the question of address, of how you come to the work. Are you supposed to have the foreknowledge of Carry That Weight, and of the media spectacle around Sulkowicz’s rape accusation on campus and the fallout from all of that? There are several levels of reference involved.

ceci n'est pas

Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, video, 2015, Emma Sulkowicz.

Kolbowski In that regard, what is different now – which didn’t exist at the time of the Mendieta piece, or with the first Lacy rape project– is the search algorithm. With somebody like Sulkowicz, everything gets attached to everything else, which is the nature of the algorithm. So you would have to assume that anyone looking at Ceci n’est pas un viol would be aware of her earlier accusation and of Carry That Weight.

Apter The Mendieta and the Lacy pieces, as you mentioned, Siona, were made in reference to actual rapes that had occurred to others. But the difference with Ceci n’est pas un viol is that this supposedly happened to Sulkowicz. So it’s not the re-presenting the rapes of even anonymous others, based on information that could have been taken from police files or blotters, but instead a level of self-situating that is very different from the other works. That’s a huge difference. The fact that with post-millenials it’s all about “me.”

Siona When I first watched Ceci n’est pas un viol, I was struck by that shift from a collective connection or advocacy to an individual perspective. But it’s really important to see this as a web project and this connects back to Silvia’s point about the connectivity of the internet. You immediately wiki Sulkowicz and find information. And that’s how she staged this work. I also think that the text that she put as a preface to the video on the project webpage, which raises a trigger warning, evokes a collective viewing response. And I thought the comments were crucial to the work.

Kolbowski Ceci n’est pas un viol is an enactment at a personal level, as you’ve pointed out, Emily. But of course the artist means to be representative; her claim on the project website is that she’s setting out to change the world. But to some degree that video as an artwork has a tendency to simplify and to reduce what rape culture is in general. There’s a lot of complexity around the role that rape plays in contemporary culture – whether it’s an aspect of a military war or something that takes place on a university campus, or if it is carried out in an urban context that delimits which areas women can traverse alone and which they can’t.

Apter And sex trafficking…

Kolbowski Exactly. So although I think that one of the main things that Ceci n’est pas un viol does well is allude to the way that rape is sexualized, when in fact rape has little to do with sex, I also think that the project does not bring to light the complexity of rape in our culture. What do you think?

Apter Yes and no. When I watched the video for the first time, it felt very staged and almost like watching something on a stage; a mock enactment. She doesn’t want to use the word “re-enactment”-

Wilson – a demonstration.

Apter But it’s very unconvincing as sex.

Wilson Absolutely.

Apter So the fact that some of the comments left on the site refer to what takes place in the video as porn –in order to undermine her project, or to hurt her – maybe some porn has the same effect, but it really wasn’t very good as porn. It wasn’t convincing to me in that regard. But when I watched it the second time, I did think that it actually problematized the question of consent. And this gets into something that is maybe not critically profound, but I think that there’s a general misunderstanding about sex. People can enter into having sex, and it can be very pleasurable at one moment, and“consensual,” and then suddenly it’s not. Sex is risky in that way. And the question raised for me in this regard is, where is this pointing? Is Sulkowicz saying that sex should not be risky? That sex should always, in a sense, have an institutional eye looking out for you? Or the old cliché of the contract, where you’re signing onto this and this, and having everything spelled out? You don’t have to be a libertarian feminist to say, no way, I do not want that; I do not want the state intruding into my body, just as I wouldn’t want the state telling me whether I could have an abortion or not. So these are the kinds of contadictions that were raised for me on second viewing, where I felt that it did capture that menacing moment when she – maybe because the slap was louder the second time I heard it, and the “ow,” and I looked more closely at the moment where violence and risk come together, and not so much the sex itself, which I took out of the picture. So the question of consent and the question of a feminist position about risk within sexuality – that was what was raised for me the second time I viewed the video, linked to some kind of performative dimension. I would say that the work problematizes that issue for me.

Kolbowski I thought it was interesting that the sound of the slaps seems to be imposed in post-production. I’m almost positive that he’s not generating that degree of sound during the course of videotaping, because it has a different quality than the rest of the sound in the video.

Wilson Really?!

Apter That actually changes what I’ve just said…

Kolbowski It seemed to me that the sound of the slaps was heightened in post-production. In regards to what you said, Emily A., I wanted to raise the article recommended to us by Emily L., written by Carrie Lambert-Beatty, in part on the 2008 senior project by the then Yale undergraduate art student Aliza Shvartz. The project was described in a Yale newspaper as “…a documentation of a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself ‘as often as possible’ while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as preserved collections of the blood from the process.” One of the things that struck me in Carrie’s text – although obviously the piece by Shvartz is about abortion and not about rape – in terms of how an artwork can intervene, is Carrie’s point that Shvartz’s piece was intended to and did engage institutional mechanisms -the institutional frameworks of law, public discourse, popular definitions of morality, the media’s role in defining an act, the university’s enactment of what it perceived to be its legal privileges, the revealing alignment of pro- and anti-abortion public discourses, etc. And by virtue of smoking out these institutional elements, as Carrie points out, the work highlights the different definitions that could be accorded to the act in different frameworks. In one institutional context, the artist is thought to have performed self-abortions; in another context the event is considered a menstrual period; in another  it’s a performance. Reading about the Shvartz piece made me question whether Ceci n’est pas un viol frames the existing levels of complexity in rape culture. That’s not to say that rape isn’t simply rape. In other words, where consent doesn’t exist, it’s rape.

shvarts studio 2

Apter The question is, what is the act? Is the accent here on the consent or is it on something called genital penetration? I think you can be raped in different ways. It can shade into something metaphorical, a form of psychic violence that is absolutely devastating and leads to trauma, but doesn’t involve physical penetration or a form of violence with an object on your body…

Kolbowski Did you notice that in The Hunting Ground they refer to anything that is not penetration by a penis as sexual assault? And rape is the word that they reserve for the penetration of an orifice by a penis.

Wilson I wonder if they were using a legal definition?

Kolbowski But even if it were a legal definition, it’s still interesting that they chose that demarcation for the documentary –

Apter – even if it were legal, it doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a blur line between assault and penetration.

Kolbowski Right.

Liebert The questions that you’re bringing up about consent and risk, which are maybe the complexities raised by Ceci n’est pas un viol, did they map onto issues of spectatorship for you or did they seem like they were located exclusively in the sphere of rape?

Apter Siona brought up the question of address. The question of spectatorship or auditory reception is important because there’s an active way of looking at the video, and then there’s the address of the instructions, the proviso or warning text on the Ceci n’est pas un viol website page. Sulkowicz writes “Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable…Please don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.” Many of us would find that manipulative. And that’s what a lot of the comments on the blog are reacting against – “Oh, well, I guess I just raped Emma Sulkowicz.” But the text presents a taunt – please, please don’t participate in my rape. Ceci n’est pas un viol – for me it’s spells “don’t do it, but do it.” It’s one of these double negative affirmatives. It’s Octave Mannoni’s “Je sais bien, mais quand même..” I know, but still.

Kolbowski But doesn’t that echo a large aspect of rape culture — the masculinist assumption that when women say no, they really mean yes?

Apter That was the most shocking thing in The Hunting Ground, the sign at a Skull and Bones fraternity that had on it “No means yes; yes means anal.”

Kolbowski Then how do you interpret the written preface to Ceci n’est pas un viol ?

Wilson I found it annoying when I first read the webpage preface, but only in so far as it seemed naïve. But that’s the nature of a student art project. She’s no longer a student with this work, but still it had that I-want-to-save-the-world naivete to it. But I also found the preface interesting, because it stages the very problem that the video itself seems to be presenting. And here I want to go back to the point that you made, Emily A., which is that Ceci n’est pas un viol raises some very difficult questions that The Hunting Ground as a documentary cannot raise; for example, the question of sexual practice in a more general sense, when it really isn’t clear whether consent is being given. Consent doesn’t cover the whole issue. I thought, how could anybody watch her video if you followed Sulkowicz’s directions, because how can we really know what she feels? It poses an impossibility.

Apter It leaves you with the possibility that if consent is ultimately unknowable, then what are you saying to the university, to the institution?

Wilson Exactly, this opens up a whole other issue.

Kolbowski But then isn’t there an element of so-called acting out in that preface?

Wilson That’s another form of juvenilia.

Kolbowski But what she’s setting up in the webpage preface is the very complexity that she’s denying in both her public accusations and in the video. I’m not, let me be clear, suggesting that she didn’t get raped. She may have been. But I prefer to treat this artwork as an artwork.

Apter But is this a site-specific work, in the sense that it has to refer to knowledge about her case in order to make sense?

Kolbowski The preface implies that she would say no.

Liebert I agree that there’s a promise in the title and in the textual framework that the piece is about the impossibility of proof or of naming rape, and that in the space of that ambiguity is where the spectator would project. In the title and the framework there’s a promise that the piece will turn back to the spectator, and then to me that space is collapsed in the visual material, or reduced.

Kolbowski In that regard I would return to the Mendieta piece. Mendieta sets up only one condition for viewing – that of voyeurship. She sets up a peephole, in effect. She doesn’t prescribe viewer reactions and outcomes. It’s interesting that although the Mendieta work is owned by the Tate, they describe the work on their website, but there is a blank where the image would be, and yet the image is searchable. That raises the general question of what gets shown and what doesn’t get shown. In other words, in the legal courtroom the word and forensic evidence should suffice. The least likely thing is that there would be a visual representation of a rape. At the very best you’d have corroborating evidence, as in one of the cases presented in The Hunting Ground, where the rapist’s schoolmates witnessed parts of the assault, although it didn’t seem to help the case.

But in an artwork that addresses rape, if it isn’t a work that depends solely on data, the tendency is to visualize.

Apter And that ties into the Black Lives Matter movement, and whether seeing the footage is changing the nature of the trials or the possibility of a grand jury indictment. What seems to be so shocking is that you can come up with forensic evidence and even have footage and it’s still not making a difference in terms of how the law is responding.

Liebert I think this also goes back to Silvia’s framing. You asked what art can offer in situations where facts don’t convince. Black Lives Matter arose when proof was ineffective. In the incidences of rape – when facts don’t convince, what can come in? In important ways, the Sulkowicz mattress piece had real impact in terms of catalyzing a very broad activist effort, and there she used a symbolic object and her body’s relationship to that object to disrupt the routines on [at?]the site of an institution.

Wilson She used that project to connect it to the institution, and also to complicate the situation.

Kolbowski The mattress piece used a metonymic strategy and also the engagement of identification in a collective sense–

Wilson –because of those who helped carry the mattress, and offered support.

Kolbowski And maybe not only offered support, but also engaged in an experiential identification.

Wilson With regard to the question of the visual, the Eric Garner case on Staten Island made it very clear –since the whole assault was recorded on video, which did not aid in indicting the officer–that it’s always discourse that frames the veracity of the visual. I think it’s Ariella Azulay who has written that it’s impossible to photograph rape. The question of rape does not reside in the visual. It has to reside in a discursive framing of the visual. So even if you have a kind of reenactment of a rape event, the reenactment is doing other things than providing veracity and proof. Maybe it would be interesting to think about what kind of work the visual is engaged in.

Apter Just as a footnote, I can’t help pointing out that the subtitle of the Magritte piece, Ceci n’est pas une pipe is La Trahison des images. The Treachery of Images. It seems to me you could also apply that subtitle to Ceci n’est pas un viol.

Wilson, Liebert Right.

KolbowskI But the fact remains that the artist chose to–

Wilson–to represent.

Kolbowski Images, whether they be videos or photographic images, often serve to reinforce the prejudice of the viewer. Because that is an aspect of viewing. A comparable example that I’ve used in teaching is Slavoj Zizek’s point about the Austrian election in which Kurt Waldheim ran for president. The Socialist party that ran against him exposed as the major part of their campaign the facts of Waldheim’s Nazi role. And Waldheim won! So, as Zizek points out, by telling the truth, by exposing something that Waldheim himself could not have exposed but something with which voters identified or at least condoned, the opposing party was doing the work of electing Waldheim. That’s where the limitations of the image come into play. It’s like saying, I use this video to prove that something that is considered consensual is actually part of rape culture, part of a rape. But then you read the 4600 comments on the website, and you have your proof that people will distort by projecting themselves onto the image. The image confirms what they want confirmed. And that to me points to what you quoted, Siona, that…

Wilson …that discourse determines the image. It shapes the meaning of the image. Azoulay’s point that rape cannot be a visual thing.

Kolbowski Well, it is for both the perpetrator and the victim, but…

Apter And let it not be forgotten that in the culture we’re in, very often it is precisely for viewing that many women in these initiation rights of fraternities are gang-raped, and it’s filmed and sometimes distributed. So it’s not just that they are violated in terms of a legal notion of consent but that any sense of their privacy is violently attacked. And the loss of privacy doesn’t fall under sexual assault. But it does become rape by spectatorship.

Liebert In The Hunting Ground they discuss one fraternity that has a “conquest wall” of photographs.

Apter So even though a “post-feminist” generation describes itself as empowered, as sex-positive, as initiators as much as they’re being hit on, there is nonetheless – though perhaps it’s linked to backlash –also this idea of the woman-hunt. Silvia, you mentioned rape in war situations, but it’s also a form of sport that gets incorporated into hazings. One of the things that’s so troubling is that rape is ignored and blatantly condoned, especially when it’s to do with sports heroes on campus. Universities and police departments won’t go there; there’s too much money at stake, there’s too much male heroism at stake. So that old idea of the woman-hunt is strangely reinforced in such settings, and especially with the spectatorial aggression that’s attached to it.

Liebert And it’s interesting that there’s a sort of dualism, or an unfortunate contradiction here. On the one hand we’re talking about an extreme visiblity that you’re rightly saying is part of the rape, and on the other hand an invisibility that perpetuates rape culture. It’s exposure in the wrong places.

Kolbowski I wonder if it wouldn’t be more important for art to pursue the rape issue obliquely. Because one of the things that’s clear in reportage about rape, and documented in The Hunting Ground, is how the shame that rape victims experience often shapes their hesitation to report the crime. Even today, shame is often the reason why they don’t tell family or friends, let alone the police. And yet it’s telling that the women who are expressing shame in the film are the same ones whose rapes involved no nuances of consent at all. Female shame is a part of rape culture. By addressing the question of shame that women feel when they’re violated by rape or sexual assault, you’re not necessarily going to change the ways universities or cops react to accusations, but you would start to chip away at a huge part of why we’re not making any headway against the statistic of a rape every six minutes in the U.S.

Apter I just went to see a very interesting film by Sylvie and Florence Tissot about the French feminist Christine Delphy, which was, interestingly, titled Je ne suis pas féministe, mais…. A title in the line of those denials that affirm. There was a discussion afterwards with a group of feminists. I think it was Sarah Shulman who said in the discussion that there was no feminism anymore. And I objected by pointing out that there are many discussions of rape. Her point was that there was no real feminist engagement at the moment because there’s no anger, because there are no issues that women are angry about.

Kolbowski Wow.

Apter I didn’t buy that. But it relates a little to what you’re saying, Silvia, in that we could ask if rape is a galvanizing issue. The focus on rape often refers to privileged women on campuses, but not always, or to date rape, and that kind of focus often get media attention. But is the focus on rape gaining traction as a rejuvenation of feminism at this particular moment? Is it one of those issues that crosses generational, class, race, and professional lines?

Kolbowski It should. Think about, for example, the link I sent to the performative piece by the art collective Blank Noise that was done in India, which has the third highest rape statistic in the world.


Activists converse with strangers on a road near Bangalore, India, as part of the public art project, Talk To Me, by Blank Noise art collective, begun in 2012.

Wilson I think that’s a great point, Emily A., and I do think that it’s a class-defined issue. For example, at the public college where I teach, we’ve only had student dorms for a couple of years. So students are not living on campus. If there isn’t a social life around the campus, if students work at night, if they don’t have social events–

Liebert –if they’re not drinking together.

Wilson They’re not drinking together.

Kolbowski But the one-rape-every-six-minutes in the U.S. is happening to women whether they’re on campus or not.

Apter But when the rape occurs on campus, the media is giving it another level of attention.

Kolbowski True. To bring the topic back around to art, I would reiterate my initial question. There’s obviously a necessity for data, for legal activism, for demands placed on institutions, and also to rewrite the discourse of women’s sovereignty, let’s say, but what do we see–

Apter – a necessity for sexual citizenship!

Liebert, Kolbowski, Wilson Sexual citizenship!

Apter But that’s for another discussion, since we should bring the discussion back to art.

Kolbowski Well, we’ve talked about visualization and non-visualization, and we shouldn’t exclude the auditory in discussing art about rape. Because there is an auditory dimension to rape, even though typically no soundtrack to rape travels beyond the perpetrator and victim. These are the things that art excels at – it excels at the visual, it excels at the auditory, and even at the discursive and the affective. So is there something that art can contribute to this ongoing crisis that it’s particularly well-poised to do?

Apter This isn’t a direct answer to your question, but it is something that comes back to the formal construction of Ceci n’est pas un viol. We haven’t discussed its four frames and what the different camera angles do or don’t do to the viewing of the act. The project overtly refuses the term reenactment, but it quotes surveillance footage, the way the surveillance camera is used when you’re reviewing a crime scene. The different angles – they’re probably false angles into a truth, but to address your question directly, there is still in art some claim to authenticity, some claim to truth – even if it is refuted or denied. In art there’s some claim to a higher angle of vision or a multiplicity of angles of vision, that may bring you to the aporia, to the unknowable, but they may also bring you to critical parameters. So the question is whether the technique that Sulkowicz used, of the four frames and the different angles is intrinsically important to how we approach Ceci n’est pas un viol? Does it actually go somewhere in answering the questions you raised about the topic?

Kolbowski It’s interesting that a lot of the comments on the Ceci n’est pas un viol website have to do with the surveillance aspect of the work. I read one comment that shocked me. The writer pointed out that the window in the room is not covered. The commenter then reasons that because of the exposed window, the impression that the man would have gotten in going into the room is that the woman was into voyeuristic sex and therefore the man would have gotten mixed messages about what sort of sex she wanted to engage in. I didn’t even notice that window when I watched the video a couple of times, and in fact there’s no way of telling from the window in the four frames whether anyone could actually look into the room. So for that reason among others, the comment is exposed as pure projection. In some ways, the most reprehensible and stupid comments on the site are the work of the piece. And that’s where I think art has the potential to intervene– at the level of the psychical. To understand that it isn’t just about proving a violation to a spectator, but rather to show how the spectator frames that violation.

Wilson And frames it through their own experience, through their own investment in their own sexuality, their own…sexual citizenship!!

Liebert Related to your comments on the piece itself, and to your question, Silvia, I think that art informed by feminism, specifically, can intervene in the rape crisis. The most successful elements of Ceci n’est pas un viol and Carry That Weight are in the ways they turn back toward the spectator, and that is one of the legacies of art informed by feminism that Sulkowicz is carrying forward.

Kolbowski Would you say that it’s art informed by feminism and psychoanalysis? Do you think that there’s an awareness in the work of the psychical dimension of spectatorship?

Liebert Yes, the work engages questions of desire—conscious and unconscious—in spectatorship.

Kolbowski Shall we end on that note?

Apter Sure, except there’s one last thing I’d like to bring up.  You’ve said, Silvia, that there are several ways in which you find Ceci n’est pas un viol to be problematic. Can you pin that down for us? What was most problematic for you about the piece?

Kolbowski It has to do with what I pointed out earlier in comparing Ceci n’est pas un viol to the Shvartz piece. For me, Ceci n’est pas un viol doesn’t expose the institutional/discursive framework of how people are positioned in rape culture. There’s too much investment in Ceci n’est pas un viol in proving a smaller point – no less traumatic, but smaller. Sometimes a smaller focus can stand in for the larger, but for me in that work it doesn’t. Maybe it does for others. For me, the Shvartz piece continued to resonate after I read about it because of the way that it exposes framework and because of the nuanced ways that work displays how women are contained through naming. Because ultimately, while rape is a physical violation, so much of the violence of rape concerns language…in its aftermath, and in the continuation of that culture.


Emily Apter is Professor of French and Comparative Literature, and Chair of Comparative Literature at New York University. Recent books include Against World Literature: On The Politics of Untranslatability (2013) and Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (co-edited with Barbara Cassin, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood) (2014). Recent articles include “Occupy Derivatives!” in October, “Planetary Dysphoria” in Third Text, and “Women’s Time (Again)” in differences. In 2012 she was appointed Remarque-Ecole Normale Supérieure Visiting Professor in Paris. Together with Bruno Bosteels she co-edited Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Poetry and Prose (Verso 2014).

Emily Liebert is a Curatorial Assistant at The Museum of Modern Art in the Department of Painting and Sculpture since 2013. Prior to her current position she curated the exhibition Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves” (2013-2014) at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery and ICA/Boston, which was a finalist for an AICA “Best Exhibition” award. From 2008-2011 Liebert was a Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program (2009-2010). Liebert holds a B.A from Yale (1997) and a Ph.D. from Columbia (2013).

Siona Wilson is author of Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (Minnesota, 2015). She is Associate professor of art history at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research interests are grounded in issues of sexual difference, sexuality and the intersection of art and politics in post-war and contemporary art in relation to experiment film, video, photography, performance and sound/music. Recent publications include an essay on Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who… (October) and a reflection on digital media and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (Brooklyn Rail).

La Salle Verte, Centre national d'art contemporain, Paris, 1975.

La Salle Verte, Marcel Broodthaers, Centre national d’art contemporain, Paris, 1975.

The following is a recent exchange about artist Marcel Broodthaers with art historian Rachel Haidu. Haidu is an historian and critic of modern and contemporary art with particular interest in Western and Eastern Europe. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History, and Director of the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies, at the University of Rochester, and the author of The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers 1964-1976 (2010). Her current project, The Knot of Influence, proposes new models for understanding artistic influence with particular attention to historiography, identity, and the influx of performance and technologies of reproduction in contemporary art.

La Salle Blanche, 1975, Centre national d'art contemporain, Paris.

La Salle Blanche, M.B., Centre national d’art contemporain, Paris, 1975.

Silvia: In relation to a project, I’ve been looking at the 2012 publication, Marcel Broodthaers: Works and Collected Writings. It’s always interesting to start with the paratextual material in a book: the book is part of a series of artists’ writings edited by Gloria Moure that includes only one woman artist out of 12. That incomprehensible lineup aside, this book is fascinating. It’s interesting not just for the actual writings it contains, but also for its organization. The table of contents lists only the forward, introduction, two essays, and a general category of writings that itself takes up the majority of the book, 462 pages.

The methodology described in Moure’s introduction points out that they have observed chronology, occasionally privileging the thematic. I’m not sure exactly how the thematic is privileged, but the editorial approach intersperses some of Broodthaers’ visual/linguistic works among his writings, no doubt because so much of his work was bound to language.

This editorial approach produces an unusual experience for the reader. Because it’s the nature of Broodthaers’ work to “commix spaces, things, objects, and words…” (Moure), the reader gets immersed in a dizzyingly borderless compilation of genres, “styles,” authorial voices, types of address, etc. It’s as though one is experiencing the artist’s aesthetic strategies in a manner in which the exhibitions would not have made available. I’m interested to know your thoughts on this particular book.

Broodthaers works and collected writings

Walmart takes a cut!

Walmart takes its algorithmic cut.

Rachel: The book is beautiful, for sure. And full of fascinating, previously unpublished writings, though a few of them are of the sort that seem like they might have been so for a reason. There are some great moments, like the reproduction of the “author’s edition” of Pense-Bête with colored papers pasted over parts of poems (or sometimes a poem in its entirety) in that volume. It’s done in such a way that you can see the recto-verso, in other words you can see right through the paper just as in the original, which deepens the sense of playfulness, and connects it remarkably well to the Mallarmé editions that follow, some pages later. Throughout, all the work runs together, continuously, without the artificial, discursively-imposed categories of chapters and so on, in a way that I love.

There are also some odd choices, such as the ways that they translated the open letters into English. Some appear with the French original in facsimile next to the translation; others are without that original, as if they were written in English, which is made even more peculiar by the editors’ use of an old-fashioned font that’s very close to the typeface that appeared on the originals. Since the only other large published collection of open letters—edited by Benjamin Buchloh and published by October–is out of print, Moure does a disservice to future scholars who would want to parse the original texts. Why do that to Broodthaers, for whom “writing,” as Moure and Peltzer stress, is the key term?

This also points to the absence of information that would frame all of this. One almost wishes there were at least a key in the back to explain what the open letters were. There is a bibliography that oddly makes no distinction between published writings and “notebooks” and omits any mention of these very important, distributed “open letters.” A real guide to the writings, which explained to some limited degree what each republished “writing” was, would have been welcome, though of course it would have raised complicated issues about what information is necessary to define a piece of writing.

But here I’m nitpicking with a terrific and beautiful publication. I haven’t seen the other books in the series, so I can’t compare its presentation to theirs, but this one hews closely to Broodthaers’s approach: it feels simultaneously like a book of text and a catalogue, a series of reproductions and a series of publications…in other words, it lets all the categories run loose and flow into each other in a way that makes it possible to feel one is plunging right into his work, without having to piece it together, read the writings against catalogue images, etc. In that way it is remarkable.

A page from Pense-Bête, Author's Edition, Brussels, 1963-1964,  Marcel Broodthaers Collected Writings.

A page from Pense-Bête, Author’s Edition, Brussels, 1963-1964, in Marcel Broodthaers Works and Collected Writings.

Silvia: The book’s omission of information on the open letters is frustrating. For readers who may not know, Broodthaers’ open letters were written in 1968 and 1969, with most, but not all, taking an epistolary form of address (Dear Friends, Dear Sir, My dear Claura, etc.). Some look more like press releases, and sometimes the two forms are combined. Their language belongs to various genres -informational, allegorical, allusive, satirical, poetic – sometimes combining more than one in a letter.

In your fascinating 2010 book on Broodthaers, The Absence of Work, you wrote the following:

“In the European tradition, lettres ouvertes are written as open provocations by an individual for whom another individual is not an adequate or appropriate audience: the public must be addressed. Published or not, a lettre ouverte is thus characterized by its lopsided structure: it is aimed at “the public,” but from a position that stresses the individuality or even marginality of the author. The typical authorial position of a lettre ouverte is that of the loudmouth, troublemaker, or rabble-rouser, someone anxious to make himself heard from a restricted (nonpublic) position. In this sense, the lettre ouverte is a presumption to the openness of debate – to what is popularly, if problematically, called ‘freedom of speech.’ But by its very nature the lettre ouverte depends on a freedom so ‘free’ it expects no return. Though it might provoke a reaction, it does not and cannot anticipate a response; it is a letter without a return address.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the (non)circulation of the open letters of Broodthaers. Some historians refer obliquely to their having been “issued;” sometimes there’s a reference to their having been handed out at exhibitions. I agree that the open letter is one written without, so to speak, a return address, and to a “public” always in quotation marks. But there is a tradition of open letters being published so as to reach wide distribution. Possibly the most famous one is Émile Zola’s open letter on the Dreyfus affair, J’accuse. Addressed to the French president and published in a Paris newspaper in 1898, it played a big role in Dreyfus receiving a second trial, and still resonates, most recently in an essay by Jacqueline Rose on a related topic. There is also Martin Luther King’s well-known “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” of 1963, which went on to be published and republished over fifty times. And there are other examples. Often in an open letter the specific addressee is a stand-in for a different “public.” Today, with multiple, “rent-free” platforms, and the search engine, one need not even depend on the sympathies of a newspaper editor.

I realize that Broodthaers was an artist, and the examples I give here were not the work of those who functioned within the realm of what we used to call the “visual” arts, but in light of today’s distribution contexts, what do you think of the very limited circulation of Broodthaers’ letters in his time? Do you think there was a spectatorial value to that limitation, beyond what might be theorized today in an art history text?

j'accuse and mlk

Rachel: The lettres ouvertes were circulated in a variety of ways—some left in stacks at gallery openings, others sent to a mutating group of recipients. I think Broodthaers had in mind both the “mail art” that had been part of Fluxus’s range of approaches, and the great work with respect to invitations that was done, for example, by the artists in Anny de Decker’s Wide White Space gallery in Antwerp. In the book I mention a project by James Lee Byars that involved an invitation to a “Con. Art” opening sent in a tube; Lawrence Weiner had a show that was just his invitation to that show tacked up on a wall. And of course the lettres ouvertes also have to do with the cartes postalesthe hanging of postcards on the wall of the Section XIX siècle of the Musée d’Art Moderne.  As part of the Musée, the lettres ouvertes were called the “section littéraire,” considered another wing or “section” of the Musée that included the “Section Cinéma” as well as sections organized by epochs, like the “19th century Section.”

I’m not sure what you mean about what “might be theorized today in an art history text”—is there something specifically out of bounds that you’re thinking of? Does art history have really strict limits on what can be theorized?

In terms of spectatorial value, it’s complicated. Broodthaers was interested in the ways in which contemporary art—Minimal and Conceptual art, and before that Pop and Fluxus—limited art’s “spectatorial” value, its pleasures and those pleasures’ association with the marketplace. He was particularly interested in that as a writer, and as a poet even more: writing and poetry especially are ways of not making money and not reaching people. At least, that was a version of his experience that he liked to talk about. He liked to stress how few people he reached as a poet, and how therefore art was for him about “communication,” about succeeding where he’d failed as a poet, which of course is a great parodic statement, since his art almost always refuses to communicate anything as such (hence the title of my book).

So, for me the lettres ouvertes have specifically to do with that, which is why I’m so interested in their form, and the eloquent if abject position he designates as the one from which he writes. I like the poetic nature of that abjection—how he resorts to a kind of poetry that’s at times comparable to the concrete poetry of someone like Carl Andre and yet utterly different, because where Andre really is mostly interested in modularity and the typewriter, Broodthaers is really interested in the actual communicative dimension of the words themselves…how trite and yet sorrowful his isolation is, and how that too might be an “art project,” almost like Acconci’s, for example, except with more direct political ramifications having to do with speech, history, and subject-positions.

Marcel Broodthaers with the wax figure of Jeremy Bentham. Scene from the film Figures of Wax (Jeremy Bentham), 1974.

Marcel Broodthaers with the wax figure of Jeremy Bentham.                                                                           Scene from the film Figures of Wax (Jeremy Bentham), 1974.

Silvia: What I meant by “beyond what might be theorized today in an art history text” is whether the experiential aspect of the reception of Broodthaers’ open letters might have exceeded what a historical/theoretical text can represent or theorize. How did spectators at the time experience the work, as opposed to how it is discussed in a theoretical text today? For me, there’s a gap that always exists in engaging a historical moment or artifact through another medium, another form of evaluation. That gap is not one I would characterize in negative terms, but it is for me the sign of a limit or a difference. It’s not that experience is pure and critical writing is mediated, but that a historical moment is always different in experience than it is in a retrospective framing.

I’m not sure I would accept Broodthaers’ take on writing being more removed from the economic realm than art. I’m don’t think there’s anything that achieves distance from economic systems and their effects, but as you say, that was the version of his experience on which he chose to focus. Maybe that focus signaled a blind spot, based on his lack of financial success as a writer.

Rachel: As to the Dreyfus affair and the political realm you brought up: it’s incredibly important, but perhaps I am trying to assert something about the way that Broodthaers can be read as a lodestar as people try to figure out how to be politically engaged in their art. I don’t mean that he can’t be, or that they can’t read him however they want; I am just trying to bring our conversation closer in to the specifics of how he works. For me there is a resonance with those artists who are working on the difficult emotional component of being politically engaged. Though I certainly don’t want to make Broodthaers into an artist of “affect,” I think that what the lettres ouvertes open up, specifically, is that particular position of the poet describing his own complex position, abjectly shut out both by virtue of his language and by virtue of the social position assigned to poets. (Here I’m intentionally using the gendered pronoun “he,” thinking of Baudelaire over Marianne Moore. But in fact this has become a particular preoccupation of feminists, such as yourself, Silvia, and other artists such as Sharon Hayes or even Jenny Holzer or Mary Kelly—again, staying with words and politics in the most literal sense.)

So if you want to talk about today’s distribution contexts, it seems you want to talk about the Internet, and the instantaneous, seemingly utterly public “realm” in which one can speak. First, of course, there are the well-rehearsed limits to just how public one can be on the internet. On the one hand there’s publicness and on the other hand there’s a voiding of that term in the way it’s been classically thought, and now has to be rethought. I’m referring to how segmented the public really is, on the internet, and the fact that it does not in fact reach “everyone,” though of course it has those pretenses. On the other hand, there’s the question about whether the position from which one writes (even on a public blog) has actually changed. I think that if Broodthaers were writing and making art today (which is impossible to imagine, but I can try), he’d still write in the same exact tone, full of pathos and irony at the same time, even if it were (God forbid) posted on Facebook or something. And that part is interesting to me: the possibility that the position of the poet he’s so invested in might not have changed one iota despite the apparent broadening of the realm of circulation of something like a lettre ouverte.

Silvia: As they say, funerals are for the living, and conjecturing about what kind of work an artist would be making if they were alive today (something I enjoy) is similar. It’s an important exercise, in my opinion, because it’s one way to think the present through the past.

I agree with your skepticism about the publicness of the Internet. Recently some Masters in Art History students from the Courtauld were visiting for a discussion and one mentioned an Ai WeiWei article in The Guardian [link] that equated blogs – and the internet in general – with freedom (in relation to Chinese censorship). As a populist (and promoter of individualism), Ai WeiWei would think that. I had to chuckle at this concept because, yes, if you have the notoriety of an Ai WeiWei you can start a blog and have millions of followers the next day. I welcome those followers! But those without notoriety or fame, or those writing, for example, about topics that are not notorious or outrageous or scandalous, will have a very hard time indeed building up a readership. It’s the parallel, in a sense, of Broodthaers’ notion of writing for nobody. Every post on a blog is like an open letter in that regard – written with an open address, with no guarantee of reception. Today, aiming for a quick, large and impactful internet “readership” more often than not discourages subtle thinking, analysis, or projects. On the other hand, there are those who see popular forms of communication such as gossip (an age-old “platform”) as just another means for forming, conveying, and changing social opinion. I might actually find this argument convincing if I thought that the human race currently had the leisure of time to address its dire problems. If we had all the time in the world maybe we could substitute gossip for governance!! Instead, we have what one podcaster calls “the Fuck-you-mankind Nuclear Plant.”

This is another reason why it’s useful to conjecture about what an artist like Broodthaers might be producing today, with his acute understanding of the interlacing of the realms of representation, institution, production, persona. When I mentioned to a colleague that we were having this discussion, he was surprised that an artist like me would be interested in so cynical an artist as Broodthaers. I suspect that he reads the irony that characterizes a lot of Broodthaers’ work as cynical, because some people collapse irony and cynicism. I don’t collapse them, but that said, it does seem that – in a moment of extreme consolidation of power – irony sometimes rings hollow.

One could say there is a hermetic quality to Broodthaers’ work, which is why it translates so well through the work of interpretive historians, but presents a cryptic face in museum collections. Would you agree?

Decor. A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1975.

Decor. A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1975.

Rachel: Well, certainly I agree that his work “presents a cryptic face” when it’s stuck inside an exhibit or a collection. And, probably, I would argue that some of the people who’ve written on Broodthaers are simply particularly good exegetes! But there are factors to do with reception that you are not quite allowing for, like curatorial uncertainty and institutional mal-adjustment. When I first saw works of Broodthaers’ exhibited at MoMA, when they opened the then-new building, I was stunned. The work looked simultaneously so polished and pretty, and so bizarre and silly and out of place. They had grouped some early work together in a room of Conceptual art works, and thematized them, I think, around chairs. Kosuth’s chairs and Broodthaers’s eggshell-covered stool…ugh. Never mind that Broodthaers is not a conceptualist, or that those eggshell works respond to another moment altogether (one that is wrapped up in Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme, and certainly not yet Anglo-American conceptualism). More crucial than such curatorial misdemeanors is how those works, in a Belgian institutional setting, hook into a whole other set of histories that just gets eradicated by the Anglo-American art history that an institution like MoMA works within. Other institutions that are less glossy and “centrally” positioned rhyme better with Broodthaers’s remarkably messy, un-Anglo, self-consciously marginal, and above all unreadable gestalt. That is not to say that MoMA won’t do a terrific job with their upcoming Broodthaers retrospective, but to emphasize the ways that Broodthaers’s own work, in exhibition, performs some of his theses on art’s circulation and its relation to subject positions. It may be true that museums work with art’s portability, but that doesn’t mean that all art is equally portable, or that museums know how to handle art objects’ portability.

That said, there is another mechanism in place here. To me, in that mis-placement of Broodthaers’s work, what happens is that its profound unreadability—what I try to get at even just with the phrase “the absence of work”––is what gets missed, substituted for by a surface “what the hell is this?” It isn’t easy to penetrate, on any level, and what works across a bigger exhibit of Broodthaers’s work is a sense that that refusal or barrier to understanding is systematic, it goes through very different shapes and phases but ultimately unifies the work. So, without an aggregation of works—if you are just looking at one or two single works—then you lose that systematicity, which really helps to start to move you inside, towards the work.

As for cynicism, the phrase I go to—and use once, I think, in my book—is “gimlet-eyed.” It has a gleaming quality, more mischievous and sardonic, less smugly self-satisfied than cynicism connotes. Not that these lexical differences make much difference, I think. An artist’s position should be more complicated than a simple word or phrase can communicate, and certainly that’s the case for Broodthaers. On the other hand, what’s more cynical than “Fuck-You-Mankind Nuclear Plant”?

Silvia: I won’t belabor the “Fuck-You-Mankind Nuclear Plant” because the reference is out of context here, except to say that Hannah Arendt refers to humor as being essential to retaining one’s dignity in the midst of social onslaught. In spite of agreeing with Arendt in general, I think that when a culture depends more and more on desperate irony and sardonic exposé, something is very wrong. Such humor both elucidates and distances the immediacy of the threats we face; it is both survival strategy and symptom.

From a psychoanalytic standpoint, I would say that the concept of “subject positions” undercuts the kind of spectatorial fluidity that Broodthaers’ work creates. For the spectator, “understanding” work such as Broodthaers’ always depends on a double effort– reading about the work as much as seeing it. I was fortunate to have approached it that way by chance in the late 1980s, running across more comprehensive exhibitions than the recent installation at MoMA (which I agree is very problematic), as well as the scholarly writings and catalogues, and sporadic film screenings. Through that way of taking in Broodthaers’ work, the projects inform each other reciprocally, and the work itself, although never experienced as one might have contemporaneously with their production, gains something of its historical nuances, while also speaking to the present. That means that one has to read art historical texts very critically, because exegesis is always overdetermined. But then so is spectatorship. Perhaps we have to start to value spectatorship as a process – extended over time and place. And in that regard, we may be up against it.


Sébastien Pluot is a Paris-based art historian, curator, and a professor at the École supérieure des beaux-arts Tours Angers Le MansHe has developed a unique and subtle way of interweaving pedagogy, curatorial practices, and art historical and theoretical research.

I met Sébastien in 2009 when I was invited to participate in an exhibition he co-curated with Dean Inkster on the subject of art and translation (“Double Bind: Stop Trying to Understand Me!” Villa Arson, Nice). I was asked to contribute an existing work, an inadequate history of conceptual art, so the work traveled to Nice, but I didn’t, meaning I didn’t have much of a chance to get to know Sébastien then. When I was invited to give a talk at the San Francisco Art Institute later that year, I was surprised to encounter Sébastien there, teaching for a semester and working with students on an exhibition entitled “Living Archives”  (under the umbrella of Renée Green’s program Spheres of Interest). I have to confess that I didn’t fully grasp at that time exactly how Sébastien works because his process is so unusual. In 2011, I saw his exhibition Anarchism without Adjectives, On the Work of Christopher D’Arcangelo, (1975-1979), co-curated with Dean Inkster, and I started to get a sense of his atypical curatorial approach. That exhibition addresses the 1970s work of an artist without exhibiting any extant work or documents per se. (Anarchism without Adjectives is currently at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery at Concordia University, Montreal.)

It was only when he asked me to contribute to a 2012 exhibition entitled “Art by Telephone…Recalled”, co-curated with Fabien Vallos, and involving art and art history students from Barnard College, the Barnard Department of Comparative Literature, and students from four other schools, that I began to understand something about his unique curatorial methodology. Currently Sébastien is curating two exhibitions, entitled “A Letter Always Reaches its Destination” and “Breaking News From the Ether,” at the Centre de Culture Contemporaine-Montpellier, to which he has also asked me to contribute. And that’s another unusual thing about Sébastien – his fidelity to the artists whose work he values. There are other curators out there who practice such fidelity, but in my experience they are few and far between, those curators who consistently follow an artist’s work and include them in multiple projects. His is not a “discard after using” approach. The following conversation took place a couple of weeks ago.

Silvia: I want to start our conversation with something that may seem tangential, but that I will tie back to some questions later. I recently re-read Pierre Cabanne’s book-length interview with Marcel Duchamp of 1966 (Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp), and one paragraph in it struck me differently than it had before. I also read the newly published Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews, Calvin Tompkins’s interviews with him of 1964 and I’d like to ask you about one exchange in it.

This is the paragraph from the Cabanne interview:

Cabanne: Where does your antiretinal attitude come from?

Duchamp: From too great an importance given to the retinal. Since Courbet, it’s been believed that painting is addressed to the retina. That was everyone’s error. The retinal shudder! Before, painting had other functions; it could be religious, philosophical, moral. If I had the chance to take an antiretinal attitude, it unfortunately hasn’t changed much; our whole century is completely retinal, except for the Surrealists, who tried to go outside it somewhat. And still, they didn’t go so far! In spite of the fact that Breton says he believes in judging from a Surrealist point of view, down deep he’s still really interested in painting in the retinal sense. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It has to change; it hasn’t always been like this.

Silvia: I’m intrigued by Duchamp’s vigorous reference to painting having had other “functions” in the past. And when he calls for change, he seems to refer to some kind of continuity with art that existed before the retinal became its defining characteristic. Now, I’m certain that he would not have been calling for a return to the religious, because he was  explicitly anti-religious. But it made me wonder what forms the philosophical and moral “functions” of art of the past would take today.

Sébastien: I don’t think that’s what he meant. He was referring to a period in which art was not organized around the pleasure of the retinal, and since it was organized around something else previously , it could be organized again in another way.

Silvia: That is in a sense what I’m trying to point out. I know that most people see Duchamp’s life-long argument against the retinal in art as leading directly to the conceptual. He himself uses the word in the Cabanne interview. But do you not think he indicates some need to consider the pre-retinal as well as the post-retinal?

Sébastien: He’s saying that retinal satisfaction is not an ontological condition of art. But that doesn’t mean he was calling for a return to the state of art previous to the emphasis on the retinal. It’s a call to go beyond modernity’s concern with visuality and conventional notions of beauty, or with good and bad taste. He’s interested in going beyond good and bad taste to the indifferent.

Silvia: Yes, he later ridicules the “tasty artist.” But while he condemns the religious in other comments, he doesn’t condemn the other roles that art once played – the philosophical and the moral. He often argued for art-as-nothing, so that’s why his comment intrigued me. By analogy, what could the art of the preretinal be today? In his moment and ours?

Let’s bring in the Tompkins/Duchamp exchange now:

Tompkins: And yet in spite of all the commercialism and the rat race it’s still a fact that there’s such a great deal going on among younger artists now.  There’s so much more inventiveness and excitement…

Duchamp: Yes, there was less activity then than now. There were not as many artists as today. The profession of being an artist, of becoming an artist, was only left to a few, compared to what it is today, when a young man not having special aptitude for anything will say, “Well, I’ll try art.” In my day, young people who didn’t know what to do tried medicine or studied to become a lawyer. It was the thing to do. It was rather simple, and the examinations were not as long as they are today. You could become a doctor in four years, in France at least.

Tompkins: Do you think the idea has spread that art is easy?

Duchamp: It’s not that it’s done more easily. But there is more of an outlet for it. Exchanging art for dollars did not exist then except for a few artists of that time. The life of an artist in 1915 was non-existent as a money-making proposition – far from it. Many more people are miserable today because they try to make a living from painting and can’t. There is so much competition.

Tompkins: But isn’t all the new art activity in one sense a healthy sign?

Duchamp: In a way, if you consider it from the social angle. But from the aesthetic angle I think it’s very detrimental. In my opinion, such an abundant production can only result in mediocrity. There is no time to make very fine work. The pace of production is such that it becomes another kind of race, not rat, but I don’t know what.

Tompkins: Doesn’t this also reflect a change in the concept of what art is – a loss of faith in the creation of masterpieces, and an attempt to make art a part of daily life?

Duchamp: Exactly, it’s what I call the integration of the artist into society, which means he’s on a par with the lawyer, with the doctor. Fifty years ago we were pariahs – a young girl’s parents would never let her marry an artist.

Tompkins: But you’ve said you liked being a pariah.

Duchamp: Oh, yes, of course, it may not be very comfortable but at least you have a feeling that you may be accomplishing something different from the usual, and maybe something that will last for centuries after you die. It’s very pleasant in a way, because there is the possibility to make a living. But that state is very detrimental to the quality of the work done. I feel that things of great importance have to be slowly produced. I don’t believe in speed in artistic production, and that goes with integration…

Silvia: Tompkins is the classic liberal capitalist of the period.  The more the merrier when it comes to art. The quantitative is king – the more inventiveness and excitement the better. Art can be anything and anybody can be an artist is what Tompkins conveys in the interview. Duchamp is not impressed, to say the least.

For me, the two excerpts I chose dovetail because Duchamp seems to uncharacteristically be calling for a more weighty position for art. Duchamp is seen as the artist who unleashed de-skilling and an unbounded inclusiveness in art through the readymade, and he agrees that he was responsible for unleashing this, but he’s not entirely comfortable with the effects. For example, he calls for slow production and he’s at pains later in the Cabanne interview to explain how he controlled the dispersal of the readymades, how he didn’t market or sell them (at least this is his account).

Sébastien:  What is fascinating is how Duchamp redefines his positions at different moments. He begins with a readymade that is a selected object, then he assembles objects as readymades, then he selects them through random processes, later he limits the readymades,  and subsequently duplicates them himself or lets others do so. With each of these acts he integrates a different historical moment, a different consequence of his act, and the context in which it’s done. At the moment at which Nude Descending A Staircase is rejected from inclusion in the Cubist Salon des Indépendants in Paris in 1912, he stops painting. But when the painting is a successful scandal in New York in 1913, sold along with several of his other paintings, instead of responding to Picabia’s request that he send to New York more paintings to sell, in 1913 he takes a job at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, and begins to work on The Large Glass.

Silvia: I think your point about his integrating different consequences and contexts at different times is very interesting, and seems to connect to what I was trying to say about the paragraph from the Cabanne interview.  These adjustments which you point out that Duchamp makes could be seen as an analogical method of addressing, in a post-retinal moment, the moral and philosophical “functions” of art of the preretinal period. The decades spent producing the Étant donnés in secret are another such adjustment.

I think it’s very interesting that the artist who pushed us towards an “anything goes” culture of art is clearly skeptical if not contemptuous of such a culture. These adjustments are subtle and seem to be carefully thought through in terms of the social status of art at a given moment.

Sébastien: The nominalist interpretation of the readymade [i.e. this is a work of art because I call it art] is based on a complete misunderstanding of Duchamp’s position on the retinal paradigm. There is a related debate that took place between art historian Benjamin Buchloh and Daniel Buren, when they taught at the Institut des hautes études en arts plastiques in Paris, which concerned the importance of visuality in the work of Duchamp. Buren argued that even if Duchamp was intent on countering visuality, the visuality of his work could not be erased. Buchloh opposed this, pointing out that the urinal, for example, doesn’t have to be seen in order to be acknowledged as a work. The fact is that the work existed without having been shown. It was dependent on language. Many of the ready-mades were not shown or were not identified as readymades.

Silvia: But that would bring us closer to the point that Tompkins makes, without using the term, that Duchamp helped create a condition of nominalism, since a work so dependent on language and not exhibited could include almost anything.

Sébastien: I would not say that the readymade could be anything. I would say that the readymade has to be considered in its evolution and in how it exists in specific contexts. At a given point it could be anything, but anything as specifically found through a random process. The work of art therefore is not the aesthetic dimensions of the object, but the condition of its being in a particular location and context. It also has to do with canceling the object’s use and exchange values — the bicycle wheel and the stool are two frustrated functional objects.

Silvia: But then of course the readymades acquire different kinds of exchange value in the short or long run. In your teaching, and often in your curatorial work, which sometimes involves archival research with students, my sense is that you erase the boundaries of the aesthetic. Would you agree with that?

Sébastien: It has more to do with the question of hierarchy. I think when we work with people – students, young artists – who cannot be expected to have an elaborate knowledge of art and art practices, you can work with them in a way that doesn’t acknowledge hierarchy. I don’t think you need to bring in the subject of hierarchy in order to create a situation in which they develop knowledge. Put another way, I try in the teaching and/or collective curatorial situation not to make hierarchy and differentiation the premises for the construction of knowledge.

Silvia: It’s interesting that your method is to not even articulate the subjects of hierarchy and differentiation when you’re working with students on a collaborative project. And by differentiation, I mean both in the sense of who does what and of what defines art. I think that approach is very interesting at this historical moment – not articulating it even though one knows it exists as a problematic.  And I’ve actually seen how you do that, but I would also question your statement somewhat because I’ve seen you directing the development of such projects, by default almost.

Sébastien: In the exhibition “Art by Telephone…Recalled, ” curated by myself and Fabien Vallos and involving students from five institutions, we re-presented an exhibition that took place in 1969 (Art by Telephone), which itself refers back to Moholy-Nagy and Duchamp, and we generated projects in the present using the premise of that historical exhibition.  How we dealt with re-presenting the historical show, and reinterpreting it in the present with students has something to do with what Duchamp clearly stated in his text “The Creative Act” (1957) – the spectator contributes to making the art.

The original Art by Telephone exhibition went further and radicalized the notion of the non-autonomy of the artist and the artwork in the sense that the interpretations of the language speech proposals made by the artists over the telephone could lead to other sounds or to the re-organization of the language content, or to an object or an event or anything relevant to the artist’s proposal.

Silvia: Well, let’s take Art by Telephone…Recalled as an example. After you received the spoken directions that I contributed to the exhibition, you said to me, “I think I know just the right student to interpret these instructions.” And I didn’t know what you meant by that until I met the student who enacted my instructions brilliantly, Zoë Harris, and realized that she had focused on audio work in her undergraduate art history degree at Barnard.  And my instructions required that whoever enacted the work would have to hold a conversation with, in a sense, an audio function – I specified asking the Siri function of an iphone a particular question. Most artists in the first, and even in the second show, gave instructions using the telephone as an instrument of conveyance, but in my work I had a self-referential strategy that I suppose led you to think that she would be a good person to enact my instructions because her focus had been on audio.

Sebastien: I had no idea that her focus had been on audio.

Silvia: Really?! So why did you choose her?

Sébastien: When we played the contemporary recordings for the students to hear and proposed to them that they interpret the spoken words of the artists in the exhibition, they needed to learn about the practices of the artists involved. We showed them documents about the other work of the artists in the show who recorded the verbal instructions, and discussed those works, and the students learned a lot about the artists. We organized workshops – theoretical and historical – where they started to learn about concepts of translation, the historical avant-garde, and the art of the 60s and 70s.

Silvia: So did you choose her because you felt she would have an affinity for my work?

Sébastien: I knew that she would have an affinity because we’d had conversations with her. And I knew that she would be able to react to your proposal, which implied the delegation of a delegation. I knew she would be able to take that into account.

Silvia: So in a way you’re proving my point. That is your directorial move. And there’s an implicit hierarchy in that directorial move. You make a decision as a curator that shapes the outcome. Right? I’m not against that –

Sébastien: But I don’t understand that as a hierarchical stance. It always develops through conversations. And it always involves negotiation. Of course when you put yourself in the position of being responsible – ethically – for the work of the other and for the framework inside of which a work would be delegated, of course you allow yourself an authority. But authority does not automatically imply a hierarchical position, but a permanent questioning of an ethical task. In a way, Fabien and I are extremely arrogant in confronting the huge historical precedent of the 1969 show “Art by Telephone.” But at the same time I would say that we assume generative positions, because we didn’t want to engage in a two-person research into “Art by Telephone.” We thought that it was important to involve other art historians and philosophers and artists to historicize “Art by Telephone” through a new exhibition that would also include contemporary work. So this responsibility and this task and this ethical position we shared with others.

For example, in this summer’s Prada remake of “When Attitude Becomes Form” (1969) in Venice the three people involved (Germano Celant, Rem Koolhaas, Thomas Demand) produced a battle of the egos, and questions of the ethics of translation from history, and of interpretation in the present are non-existent.

Silvia: That’s beautifully put: an authority that does not imply a hierarchical position, but a permanent questioning of an ethical task. I think an ethics of authority is always important, but it’s particularly relevant today, when people are trying to move away from definitions, whether it be distinct definitions of artist, curator, or even historian in some academic contexts, and yet hierarchies are maintained. But what does an ethics of authority really mean?  You defined it as involving a state of constant questioning—

Sébastien:— and dialogue.

Silvia: Constant questioning, dialogue, and negotiation. But even in the midst of that there are decisions made and limits set. There is a huge difference between what Celant, Demand, and Koolhaas do – their non-ethics of authority in relation to history and the spectator, so to speak – and what you and your colleagues do in your curatorial and pedagogical work, without having to relegate an ethics of authority to a realm of extreme suspension in which there is no decision-maker, or there’s no individual who sets limits, who to some extent has ultimate authority. Right? Because you’re also taking responsibility for the material that gets exhibited. Your way of working is to some extent related to the breakdown of definitions that we talked about earlier, but you are trying to develop a different way of dealing with that erosion of categories.  Ha! “breakdown,” “erosion” —  I keep using very negative words, because I guess I’m still skeptical about the erasure of definitions. I have enormous respect for the way you work, Sébastien, because I’ve seen it in action, but at the same time I’m not sure you’ve given me a convincing definition of the ethics of authority.

Sébastien: The ethics of the translator implies at one and the same time fidelity to and an acknowledgement of the fact that you cannot be fully faithful to the so-called original. Derrida called that a “double-bind” between the necessity and the impossibility of translating. It has to do with the German term Aufgabe used by Walter Benjamin in his text “The Task of The Translator” [“Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers”]. It means at the same time “task” and “renouncement”.

Silvia: I think the notion of the curator as a translator is crucial in not, as I’ve heard you say, reducing curatorial work to evangelizing. And I see the ethical component of that. However, you raised the issue of ethics and authority when I questioned how you chose Zoe to realize my verbal directions in “Art by Telephone: Recalled.” You connected it to an idea of responsibility.

Sébastien: There were actually three people who tried to enact the work.

Silvia: I didn’t know that.

Sébastien: Yes, and I knew that there was one who I thought would do it very well. In the end we chose the result that we considered to be the most interesting. There were six or seven people around the table, considering your project, talking about the work and how it would be realized – would it have only audio, or also include an image, video or film?  We even considered having a digital voice talking to another digital voice. We discussed various possibilities.

Silvia: Guidance still involves authority of some kind.

Sébastien: But a project like this one is based on the premise that one of its central aspects is the questioning or deconstruction of authority, it’s already contaminated by that from the beginning.

Silvia: So let’s say in this instance you chose the result, in collaboration with the group, that you felt best suited the instructions. But let’s say the group decided to choose the project that you felt worst suited the instructions. Would you have gone ahead with that worst project?

Sébastien: No.

Silvia: Why?

Sébastien: For example, something happened while re-enacting the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing #26 voice instructions from the original 1969 exhibition. I knew a student who I thought would be extremely precise and meticulous, could use a pencil methodically, and I thought he would know how to interpret conceptually and graphically the intentions of the artist. But I didn’t measure the dimensions of the ego, and he did what Sol LeWitt alluded to very early in his text “How to Make Wall Drawings,” [Art Now : New York, vol 3, n°2, June 1971] in which he wrote that if the craftsman carrying out his instructions did not follow the rules, then the resulting work became the work of the craftsman and no longer a work by Sol LeWitt. And that is what happened with this student. The resulting work no longer had any relation to LeWitt. And this resulted in a very long conversation. In the end, I told him that if we wanted to be faithful to LeWitt’s idea we had to erase the student’s work and start again.

Silvia: So when we talk about an ethics of authority and you say it always has to do with negotiation and dialogue, that’s like saying that your way of working is not to impose something but to bring the students around to what you think would be the best result.  But is that really so different than working with a hierarchical structure where the curator ultimately makes a decision and takes responsibility and assumes authority. Is that really so different?

Sébastien: I try to avoid thinking that I know what is the best result. If I am interested in these issues it’s because I am interested in uncertainty and unpredictable events. I think there is a huge difference from a political perspective. And I think it involves not considering the approach as a single truth and evangelizing it. It’s about putting forward the questions and the debates as something that we as curators or educators work on together with other people.

Silvia: So the ethics of authority is process?

Sébastien: It’s process, doubt, and sometimes withdrawal.

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