donelle 2I was friended on Facebook by a stranger – young, artist, black, female. Some frienders have an affinity for my work, or the algorithm sweet-talks to us about our shared affinities. This friend likes one of my posts, which is flattering. Then a FB post journeys algorithmically to my feed, a growing controversy springing up around this friend’s new-found success. Donelle Woolford. She’s the fabricated persona of an artist – white, male, head of an ivy league art program. He writes and rewrites her origin story for a decade, makes artwork for her, selects her avatars, maintains her FB page, her likes and dislikes, her thoughts and writings, hires black actresses to stand-in for his proxy, procures venues for the two of them, etc. etc. He is her broker. Recently, a Biennnial curator rewards them.

donelle 5Before this happens, I unfriend Donelle Woolford. I do not want to be tracked by this persona. Donelle doesn’t care; s/he continues to make FB friends; s/he now has almost 1500.

Every so often, FB alerts me to thoughtful, articulate, questioning, inchoate, passionate, combative, angry, superficial, frustrated, accusative, defensive comments on this project. Comments and links to texts by artists, historians, critics, journalists, curators; comments posted by the artist and his proxy. An artist collective withdraws from same Biennial in protest against the work’s inclusion; others publicly concur.  Misogyny and racism, institutional unresponsiveness. Methodological slippage is sometimes counterposed.

donelle 3The radio is on one recent morning. Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses “the taking of the black body,” the state-sanctioned plunder of black Americans…into its little-recognized fourth century, now.

The newspaper of record writes about rape jokes, and a poet critically breaking the taboo of rape jokes.

donelle 1Transgression is crucial. Methodological slippage is crucial. Image-play acts to loosen rigid and inequitable norms . Why throw the post-modern baby out? But without responsibly calibrated nuance and imbrication of the self, this project is just salt rubbed into long-persisting wounds.

donelle 6

Marcel Duchamp as Belle Haleine. Photo by Man Ray, 1921.

Photo of Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Selavy, Man Ray, 1921. Photo used in the assisted readymade,                      Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, Marcel Duchamp, 1921.



ImageThere looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, 1984 [all quotes]

ImageLoathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them.

ImageDuring a photo shoot the other day for an upcoming project related to Rosa Luxemburg, I watched as our hair/makeup artist, Natalie Livingston, prepared the hair extensions for the shoot, and I thought of Julia Kristeva’s famous essay on abjection. The extensions were made from real hair, but holding them in my hands, detached from their source(s) and industrialized, my mind refused to accept that fact. Being real, they were most definitely in the wrong place. They had that quality of abjection that was only somewhat overcome when they were clipped onto the head of our actor, (artist) Abigail Collins.

It is …not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. 

hair and there_2That day, we were turning Abigail into an extension of Luxemburg. Not a character recreation, but someone suspended between a historical figure and a present-day protagonist. The virtues of working with a non-art crew (Natalie, my photographer, Carolina Palmgren, her assistant Daniel Calatayud): not conversant with each other’s professional and aesthetic languages, for that day our own familiar discourses are disturbed by unfamiliar ones. The usual work boundaries have to be pushed against, while remaining present.

If it be true that the abject simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the subject, one can understand that it is experienced at the peak of its strength when that subject, weary of fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within; when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than abject.

ImageNarcissism…appears as a regression to a position set back from the other, a return to a self-contemplative, conservative, self-sufficient haven.  Actually, such narcissism never is the wrinkleless image of the Greek youth in a quiet fountain. The conflicts of drives muddle its bed, cloud its water, and bring forth everything that, by not becoming integrated with a given system of signs, is abjection for it.

Sometimes, my tech-assistant, (artist) Harold Batista, translates for us, providing an interface between Carolina and myself on technical details. But I have to translate myself to Carolina, and vice versa. Even Natalie and I have to arrive at a language we can both understand, because although in this instance i share her discourse of enhancement, for this project it’s not expressed through a typical vocabulary of beauty. Carolina has a particular knack for translating my aims to Natalie, in spite of the fact that Carolina and I share no discursive background. She confirms my sense that theory doesn’t arise from nowhere.

ImageThe photo studio is a detached space (except for the multi-level car garage view). It’s the place where we try to will that suspension between the past and present by stepping into the body of another, without losing our own.

The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.


The various means of purifying the abject – the various cartheses – make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion. Seen from that standpoint, the artistic experience, which is rooted in the abject it utters and by the same token purifies, appears as the essential component of religiosity. That is perhaps why it is destined to survive the collapse of the historical forms of religions.


Team links: Harold Batista , Abigail Collins,  Natalie Livingston , Carolina Palmgren



The timing in itself felt strange, like the delayed – and more effective – late appearance of the chief character in a play.

Jacqueline Rose, “The Haunting of Sylvia Plath,” On Not Being Able to Sleep, 2003

genzken 3Walking through the Isa Genzken retrospective at MoMA the other day I noticed that if I looked at a work before reading the wall label, I was always wrong in guessing the date of the work, thinking it was earlier. In general, I was off by anything from 15 to 20 years, and sometimes more, although in some rooms a 20-year difference was common.

Virtually all the works seemed to me to have been made earlier than they were. It’s as if the works occupy an obliquely parallel temporal relation to earlier works by other artists (like a rhomboidal tracking of those earlier works). The “lateness” of her work didn’t seem to be that of an artist who fixates on a particular historical modality or style and repeats it out-of-time, like a repetition compulsion to stave off the anxiety of a present moment. If so, her work wouldn’t be rhomboidal; it wouldn’t progress. And there’s an acute thoughtfulness to the Genzken work, particularly through the 1990s, that belies nostalgia, academicism or simple borrowing. The word “derivative” does not apply to it. The work conveys an unusual attention to art that has come before it. It has about it a deliberate un-mindfulness of historical timing, as if the works pause stubbornly and un-self-consciously to reflect and filter pre-existing modalities, processes, materials, subjects, forms, events.They take their own time.  In their un-mindfulness they create a glitch in the more typically untroubled movement of museum-time. Viewing the exhibition, I sometimes wanted the work to have been made earlier, but that desire was always frustrated.

genzken 1The curators refer to her “radical inventiveness.” But to me, the most interesting aspect of the work is that it’s not “radical” as we’ve come to understand that term. Nor is it “inventive” as the word is typically used by curators and critics. It seems to be insistently un-inventive, unconcerned with the radical, unless we define as radical a subtle reflection on and recalibration of what has come before. This work depends on the time-lag. And this begs the question of whether we understand timeliness in art. It also begs the question of how we define “influence.”

genzken 5Can someone who lags behind in a critical manner be considered an influence as typically defined? (And maybe a few less qualifiers of her purported influence could have been omitted from the MoMA website text altogether – “Isa Genzken is arguably one of the most important and influential female artists of the past 30 years.”)

genzken 6The fact that the Genzken work reflects on, processes, and filters earlier practices without employing the use of language is particularly interesting because it means the spectator has to think through one visual language to think about another visual language differently. I don’t doubt that I saw an exhibition that many others, less historically-minded others, have not. But that may just speak to defining more broadly – less broadly, more subtly? -the contemporary challenges of curatorial and critical work.


Open Letter, Marcel Broodthaers, 11 October 1968. (Detail of translation published in Marcel Broodthaers Collected Writings).

Researching the open letters of Marcel Broodthaers led me to the recently published trove of Marcel Broodthaers Collected Writings, and a re-reading of Benjamin Buchloh’s “Open Letters, Industrial Poems” (1987), from which the below:

“Broodthaers’s ‘ I, too, wondered if I couldn’t sell something’ seems to travesty a 1912 statement by Guillaume Apollinaire, who declared, on his invention of spatialized poetic language (the calligram): “And I, too, am a painter.” Yet one does not believe that, even in the case of Apollinaire, this proclamation reflects merely an ambition to rival his painter friends whose projects he would soon define in Les peintres cubists, nor that it was generated by what academic fantasies have again and again described as a new strategy to abolish genre boundaries and poetic categories. Rather, it seems that Apollinaire was already attempting to accommodate the fact that the very modes engendered by these conventions of meaning-production were threatened and destroyed by factors outside of poetry and painting, factors which Walter Benjamin described twenty years later: ‘Now the letter and the word which have rested for centuries in the flatbed of the book’s horizontal pages have been wrenched from their position and have been erected on vertical scaffolds in the streets as advertisement.’”

Moi aussi, je me suis demandé…, Marcel Broodthaers, 1964. Collection, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Open Letter, Marcel Broodthaers, 11 October 1968. (Detail of translation published in Marcel Broodthaers Collected Writings).

“already attempting to accommodate” – this is interesting for many reasons. It identifies Apollinaire’s lack of mastery over his own work in relation to social shifts in the use of language, but marks his practice as a site that both passively registers those social shifts and responds to them, even if only through attempts. “accommodation” connotes giving space to, fitting something in,  giving way, but also giving consideration to something.

The Conquest of Space, Atlas for the Use of Artists and the Military, Marcel Broodthaers, 1975.

The open letters of Broodthaers give good consideration. They accommodate various existing modalities of language and convention and institutional paratexts. But their humor and historical discernment produce the distance of a consideration.

In regards to the recently-announced MoMA expansion, perhaps Broodthaers is still having one of the last words.

broodthaers play

Image… ‘seriature.’ The etymology leads back to cord, rope. ‘Seria’ is also the idea of a series, that is, the necessity of a proliferation of gestures, particular each time …. In a chain, thus, there is always the same metaphor of rope, chain, shuttle. The necessity of linking gestures or moments that do not let themselves be linked, which are absolutely singular every time. And one has to link singularities, that is, put in a series of things that do not let themselves be put into series. This can be a definition of negotiation. Why one must repeat and put into a series, in a kind of serial generality, things that do not let themselves be serialized, which are singular and nonnegotiable every time.”

Jacques Derrida, Negotiations

What I have in mind is not so much a different state concept as the necessity of changing this one. What we call the “state” is not much older than the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the same thing is true of the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty means, among other things, that conflicts of an international character can ultimately be settled only by war; there is no other last resort. Today, however, war – quite apart from all pacifist considerations – among the great powers has become impossible owing to the monstrous development of the means of violence. And so the question arises: What is to take the place of this last resort? …. we must have a new concept of the state.

Hannah Arendt, “Thoughts on Politics and Revolution: A Commentary”

Interview by Adelbert Reif, 1970

rockefeller_1rockefeller_2rockefeller_3rockefeller_4rockefeller_5rockefeller_6rockefeller_7rockefeller_real 8rockefeller_8rockefeller_ real 9rockefeller_10rockefeller_11What is this space? Art project? Vitrines awaiting development? I have no idea, but perhaps some of you do. I found myself in this underground corridor in Rockefeller Center the other day, trying to find a shortcut from the R train 49th Street exit to my dentist’s office. Quiet, the way museums used to be, but without any wall labels or any signage indicating it might be a “public” artwork. It provided the remarkably sublime and sublimely remarkable experience of absence – absence of advertising, absence of commerce, absence of address, absence of instrumentality. I had forgotten the sensation of release produced by the experience of being in the rare space of abstraction-without-aim. The only other time I’ve had this kind of experience was at the holocaust museum in Washington DC when it first opened, where the Ellsworth Kelly paintings and wall sculptures seemed to me much more affective than the explicit installations. Although perhaps that’s because I already know the history.

I tried hard to find some sort of reference to this space, and only found one today after inventive re-googling (“10 Places to Find Peace and Quiet in Manhattan.)” Interestingly, the journalist didn’t seem to know what it was either (although she refers to it as a “modernist fever dream”).

Not that light inherently defies reification. If you didn’t know that by now, last week’s New Yorker profile on gallerist David Zwirner makes it clear. (Thank you New Yorker, for making the text available for “free” online, in exchange for collecting god knows what personal data and doing god knows what with it…)

I thought one of the most interesting parts of the profile was the discussion of Zwirner’s attitude about the Dan Flavin works. Works that didn’t sell in 1964, now selling for one to two million each; Zwirner tribute-shows staged to lubricate his subsequent posthumous edition deals and sales (challenged by Paula Cooper and Pace Gallery as not being what the artist had in mind); Zwirner’s justification: “‘You can’t tell me it’s not better that there are more,’ he said.”

“A Flavin isn’t a Flavin unless a certificate affirming its provenance comes with it. If you have a Flavin and no certificate, it is no longer a Flavin. It is a fluorescent light. Monetarily, there is little difference in value, at present, between those which come with certificates signed by Flavin and those signed by the estate. ‘Most new collectors don’t care or know any better,’ Cooper said.”

Fluorescent lights: it seems that Zwirner has cornered the market on new replacement tubes, and Cooper the market on old ones.


Actually, it’s even more complicated than that when it comes to famous and generic fluorescent tubes.

Perhaps, like the Ford Motor company, we should rely on “reimagining,” the past. In its new branding program for their Lincoln models, the company is relying on art to generate new customers. 

“With ‘Hello, Again’ we’ll commence a series of projects with artists who share our vision of reimagination. And along with you, watch as they explore familiar territory to return with original creations we’ve never met before.” I’m not sure, but those lines may have been generated by an algorithm, without any actual human involvement in the branding.

In a NYT business section article, “In Marketing, Art’s the Thing,” Kevin Kearney, managing  director and partner at Alldayeveryday, says that “Although bringing art and marketing together is ‘becoming more widely accepted,’ the biggest risk remains doing it in a manner that is deemed cheesy, tacky or too commercial by the intended audience. ‘It’s totally fine to do if it’s done in a tasteful way,’ he said, in which case it can be ‘beneficial for the artist and beneficial for the brand.’ That would ‘not come across as a selling-out thing,’ he added.”

bacon freudTwo “letters” found me this week. One “letter” took the form of an article in the New York Times about the Christie’s auction that included the Francis Bacon triptych that brought in $142 million. And although I unsubscribed from e-flux a few months ago (to see how much less stressful my life would become without dozens of art announcements per day, and frankly, there is no turning back…), a museum email announcement did manage to bypass the protective algorithmic shield I tried to erect for myself. An email from the Van Abbemuseum announced that on December 7 the museum would become “the Museum of Arte Útil, a place where art’s use value and social function will be put to the test.” Art as “tool”…”new functionality”…”Museum as Social Power Plant”…including a commissioned “new lexicon of art terms.” Could these two phenomena be further apart? Art being put to the extremes of exchange and use values.

bacon freud_detail 1The Christie’s auction: what makes it possible at this moment for journalists to express their dismay at the rise of auction prices as though it were a surprise? What makes it possible for journalists to refer to “ultra-conspicuous consumption,” “flexing monetary clout,” and the “privileged few tossing around huge amounts of money” without once utilizing the word capitalism, let alone including a critical word about capitalism? Can we really be surprised that auction figures are rising as wealth becomes more and more consolidated in a tiny global minority and markets become more and more about abstract leverage? Are we supposed to be calling for a more moderate auction market? Should we call for checks and balances in our auction markets?

bacon freud_detail 2As for the other extreme, do we really believe that art can be used instrumentally to save us from today’s widespread aggression, suffering, and state dysfunctionality? That it can be used as a “tool” to save us from the extreme effects of our denial state of mind?

And for me, more interestingly, is there something in between the two extremes of art as exchange value and art as use value? An art that can qualify as an engaged social practice without being reduced to either of the delusions of social instrumentality or monetary cipher?

bacon freud_detail 3

ImageLanguage delivers its judgment to whoever knows how to hear it…It is the realist’s imbecility, which does not pause to observe that nothing, however deep in the bowels of the earth a hand may seek to ensconce it, will ever be hidden there, since another hand can always retrieve it, and that what is hidden is never but what is missing from its place, as the call slip puts it when speaking of a volume lost in a library. And even if the book be on an adjacent shelf or in the next slot, it would be hidden there, however visibly it may appear. For it can literally be said that something is missing from its place only of what can change it: the symbolic. For the real, whatever upheaval we subject it to, is always in its place; it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from it…a letter always arrives at its destination.

Jacques Lacan, Seminar on The Purloined Letter,  ÉCRITS

Rereading, for a project, Lacan’s Seminar on The Purloined Letter, and a few of the many critical texts that it has generated, I could not help but think of the role of the algorithm in the ways in which “letters” circulate today.

I won’t go into the details of Lacan’s argument, and those of his critics, and his critics’ critics, but suffice it to say that some of the salient points concern the circulation of signifiers. In the Poe story, a letter written to a Queen, containing what is alluded to as compromising language were the King to see it, is stolen under the Queen’s gaze and the unseeing eyes of the King by a Minister who replaces her letter with his own. She then hides that letter by crumpling it up. A Police Prefect who is offered a reward to retrieve the letter then offers to pay an amateur Detective to steal the letter from the Minister, as the police have not been able to locate it in spite of having searched the Minister’s accommodations thoroughly. The Detective surmises that the Minister has “hidden” the letter by leaving it in plain sight, proves himself right on first visit, and arranging for a second visit, manages to distract the Minister and replace the stolen Queen’s letter with one of his own. At no time is the substance of the letter described in the story. It is the signifier which circulates in relation to power and powerlessness, to femininity, the circulation of disclosure and concealment as they draw the characters into the established symbolic order.

Here are diagrams found online, from what looks like a students’ college course site. What can I say? It’s a complex story line:

chart_2chart_1Lacan, and some of his critics, analyze the story in relation to concepts of floating signifiers, the notion of subjectivity assumed through mis-recognition (i.e. a “letter” arrives at its destination as soon as someone receives it and presumes to be its recipient, correct or not), and the debunking of teleological illusionism (i.e. events that seem to have been pre-ordained are understood as such through a retrospective logic by the one who has received a “letter,” intended for them or not). The concept of mis-recognition, as rarefied as it sounds, actually has a great deal to say about the very popular process of how subjects today do or don’t assume political subjectivity.  Zizek’s quote from my previous post is apt. Those who recognize themselves in the Tea Party, for example, do so not necessarily because they assume an informed and educated identification with those anti-government politics. In fact, polls (for whatever they’re worth) indicate that many who identify with categoric anti-government politics (and I don’t mean anti-this administration, but anti-government overall) mis-identify which programs are state-funded at the same time as they identify with the opposing rhetoric. Somewhere in there lies resistance to assuming informed subjectivity, ironic in a discourse about self-determination.

In oblique relation to these analyses, the algorithm today can be viewed as functioning like one of those letters that always arrives at its destination. As adults, today we no longer receive information (and I use the term information here indiscriminately) in a collective sense, other than through those media that cross our paths without our choice – magazines and newspaper headlines in a subway kiosk or doctor’s office, billboards, crawling type in outdoor urban spaces, logos on building surfaces, etc.

zen_1The rest of the time we seem to make “choices” by selecting our customized news, entertainment, information, data, material items for consumption, etc. We create our entertainment through subscription processes, particularly as they are now distributed through the internet, rather than cable. Even radio has become exponentially expanded, non-regional, and customized through subscription satellite. And there now exist 50 sites similar to Kickstarter – “crowd-funding” sites that allow one to fund one’s personal future entertainment, reading material, and events. Through the “choices” we make – and including those of material consumption of all kinds – the algorithms cull information from the many sites we use to construct the “letters” that are sent back to us on virtually every page we search online. Customized advertising. When we click on those links, we recognize ourselves as the recipients of those “letters.” Hundreds or thousands of people reading a blog at the same time will be addressed by completely different ads, at the same time as the reading of that blog may partially determine the next advertisement you see, as the algorithm “monetizes” the intricate puzzle pieces of the shared desires, or the desires it presumes to exist. Now, there may be spaces of disjunction in the puzzle games played by the algorithm. The algorithm is a machine we humans have created, and it has its own fallibilities and quirks, as well as its overdeterminations. But the dynamics involved in mis-recognition are not inconsequential.

blog magIt has become commonplace for pop and media culture critics to extol the virtues of the digital in relation to political resistance. And some of those claims are legitimate. But the lack of a shared information realm – irrespective even of the question of quality – has its sinister consequences. The dispersion involved in technologized globalization often ends up producing isolation, as it creates pools of coherence. Perhaps that creates a more crucial opening for cultural production, since we are sharing less and less in the political realm.

It seems crucial to see the function of the algorithm as a floating signifier, in addition to its function as an applied instrument of capitalism today. We miss the symptomatic, and symbolic, aspects of the algorithm at our peril.

occupy brainsPopulism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal to know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the “subject supposed to know”): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.                                                                                            Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009

There are many things I’m afraid of in this world, but wrestling with a theoretical text that is beyond my intellectual capacity is not one. Over the years, I’ve experienced a lot of displaced aggression from students who felt overwhelmed by theoretical texts. But the problem seems to be a top-down one. The attitude of a culture toward theory (or toward intellectuality in general) is felt at every level, including at the level of curating-by-poll, or in the sweeping under the rug of museum education departments some of the thornier issues confronting art. Anti-intellectualism occupies brains; it values the skimming of surfaces and it reduces complexity to slick slogans; it compromises democracy, particularly at a moment of extreme political and ideological complexity. It isn’t surprising that in the 1970s Derrida was intensely involved in opposing a move toward “rationalizing” education in France by arguing for the value of philosophy, and was also successfully involved with others in pushing for philosophy to be taught at the high school level in France [Who’s Afraid of Philosophy?].

The U.S. academic world, as well as the so-called art world, has had a love/hate relationship with theory. Theory – that writing which concerns itself with a structural understanding of history, language, phenomena, events, and subjectivity – seems to be under intermittent attack in the US. The right posits it as elitist, and the left and liberal-left often posit it as useless in relation to politics. The spoken and unspoken assumptions of the anti-theoretical are that theory consists of jargonistic language written and spoken by charlatans. For the anti-theoretical left in particular, theory shirks its political and historical responsibilities. Noam Chomsky’s recent attack on Slavoj Zizek is classic in this regard. He complains that Zizek’s type of theory is frivolous because it’s not “scientific” or “serious.” There’s no question in my mind that Zizek “won” that debate. Frankly, Zizek won even before he responded to Chomsky’s attack, because it’s apparent from his comments that Chomsky has never read Zizek’s books. It seems to be the case that many disparage Zizek’s writings without reading him (i.e. “I did read a book of his, about fifteen years ago…). It’s clear that Chomsky hasn’t read Zizek because if he had he would know that Zizek’s writings incorporate history, and apply theory to contemporary political events, and that his writing is quite clear, albeit requiring some understanding of terminology which I would think Chomsky could manage to master if he were interested in any writing that was not positivist. The same disregard for reading seems to apply to disparagers of Derrida (who Chomsky also threw into the mix when he sent out the first volley in the exchange).

Left and liberal pragmatists and positivists who are allergic to theory evade examining the complexities of political subjectivity, and thus have to resort to platitudes when questions are raised as to how new political subjects might arise in the midst of the seemingly totalizing political and economic crises we now face. The only way positivists can explain why those who suffer often don’t rebel is to overemphasize the raw power of the oppressor, an explanation that leads to closure.

And then there’s the most anti-intellectually derided category of theory, “pure” theory, that writing – usually of the philosophical type – that does not incorporate history and does not apply itself except very obliquely to contemporary phenomena, and may – what a horror – actually involve the learning of a vocabulary, or an acclimation to a writer’s particular use of language. That kind of writing is hard for the uninitiated and undereducated to penetrate, but it’s in that kind of writing that I often find glimmers of insight into painfully contorted ideological knots. I was sent such a text recently, for advice on where it might be published. I understood only about a quarter of the text, with effort, and I can’t personally think of where it could be published here, but it reminded me of the relationship of such texts to concepts of democracy. Because although I value and benefit from the kinds of philosophical writings and other kinds of theory that are applied and co-mingled with history, such texts are largely directive. “Pure” theory creates a different space; it asks you to move toward your own applications and references. It produces just the sort of subjectivity that governments such as ours are at pains to foreclose with their technocratic and plutocratic education “reforms.”


Soon I’ll start posting conversations with various people. These conversations are motivated by experiencing something – a film, a book, an event, an artwork – and wondering what a particular person thinks about it. There is pleasure in exchange, as well as that involved in refining a written or recorded exchange. But these conversations also become part of an extended process of research for current work. Conversations that appear to be at most obliquely related to a project often push a work forward more than those that have a direct relationship to it.

I was fortunate to come of age as an artist in the early 1980s, a period when artists’ writings – even of the intellectual sort – were valued, and publication and anthology editors were open to critical writings by artists. As a young artist I perceived it as the beginning of a period, but in retrospect I think that I caught a somewhat limited resurgence at the tail end of a period of such activity. It’s possible to go back to the 1960s and 1970s and find significant small-distribution magazines that published artist’s writings, or even to trace the writings of various artists in more mainstream art publications of that period. Avalanche is an important example of the former, and there are many examples of the latter, of which Donald Judd’s voluminous writings, for example in Arts Magazine and Art International, may be best known.

From 1983-1990 the editorships of various small and large publications in the U.S. and elsewhere were filled by people sympathetic to publishing criticism of all kinds by artists – Artforum, Art in America, ZG, Wedge, Afterimage, RealLife, Impulse, Parachute, etc.

ZG 81

In the 1990s I began to feel a distinctly different climate developing, and a return to more conservative ideas of the artist as a “type” and let’s just say that type was not one who wrote criticism. It’s not for nothing that at some point in the past decade I changed one heading in my bibliography from “Writings By” to “Writings By/Works in Print,” because the bulk of what I began to publish in the 90s turned out to be art projects of some kind. There were exceptions, although those also had their interesting quirks. I was commissioned by Texte zur Kunst in 1998 to write a text on the collective Parasite, but as an artist who had been briefly part of that artist collective. Publishing venues for artists who write still exist today – Fillip in Vancouver being one  – although there are less of them, and they tend not to be mainstream.

I was fortunate to be offered a co-editorship at October magazine in 1993. But no artist subsequently replaced me on the editorial board when, after seven years of fruitful but overly absorbing work,  I asked to move to the advisory board. Either I was irreplaceable, or the editors had their fill of artist editors.

All that said, I always had my personal rules about writing as an artist, which I never broke. I would write no criticism on the work of other artists unless the work was included under a broad thematic topic.  (Such writings seemed more likely than not to open the door to the polar pitfalls of cronyism or alienation.) And I could decide just how scholarly the writing would be. In general, I prefer to write in either a completely non-scholarly manner, or in a scholarly-ish manner (footnotes included). In the non-scholarly category I include aphorisms (when I can manage them), plays on genres, modulations of existing texts of various kinds by myself or others including, twice so far, song lyrics, etc. I am not an artist-scholar, can’t keep up with the reams of scholarly writings that come out every year on a particular topic, and my interests are too broad for any kind of specialized focus.  Plus, I have too much respect for scholarly writing, and too much knowledge of how scholars work, to think that I could write in that genre without the time-consuming and meticulous work involved in such endeavors.

And it’s for that very reason, sadly, that I do not have an encyclopedic knowledge of even writings by artists. Fortunately, the encyclopedic is not necessary for the timely exchanges that I plan to post.


Respectability [of writing non-fiction], however, comes with a price for a would-be artist. As eminent a critic as Malcolm Cowley once, after some kind words about a review of mine of James Joyce’s letters, wondered if I ought to be doing this sort of thing at all. I wondered too. Creativity is a delicate imp; it should dwell under toadstools and garb itself in cobwebs and not be smothered beneath a great load of discriminatory judgements.

John Updike, Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism

Diagrams. I hate them. They are not innocent purveyors of knowledge, but generally represent a kind of ideological instrumentalization, a colonization of thought. I even dislike diagrams used by artists with a left, critical bent, because the medium is always the message. If you want to critique current manifestations of power, don’t do it with the representational tools that shaped the very thinking that got us here.

That said, there is one diagram I came across in my development as an artist that made a strong impression on me. In the late 1980s I was teaching in the Whitney Independent Study Program and the artist Mary Kelly came to give a talk on her work. In the talk, Mary used a Venn diagram (although at the time I didn’t know that it went by that name).

Here’s an example of a simple “two-factor” Venn diagram found on the internet, with it’s typical corporatist way of organizing knowledge.


Here’s a “multi-factor” organizational venn diagram.


Here’s one recommended for teaching young children.


And, please, save us from ones like this.


And this is Mary’s old-school Venn diagram, as I remember it.


Mary was discussing her infamous Post-Partum Document (1973-1979) project and the question of how it might be perceived by various types of spectators. Artists who make work that involves research, and intellectual or discursive processes, and more than purely immediate visual or aural perception are often challenged as to whether their work is comprehensible or not, whether it is elitist or not. In the 80s and 90s, the misguided concept of “accessibility” was demanded of such work, assuming that the spectator had no role in creating the meaning of the artwork.

The question of spectatorial “understanding” is often simplified, not to say the question of projected spectatorship in general. The artist Thomas Hirschhorn, for example, says he is seeking a “non-exclusive audience” in propping up his “monuments.” Ostensibly that term refers to audiences that are not getting into museums or blue-chip galleries – his other art venues . (Art in America refers to the locations chosen by Hirschorn as “underserved communities”). But there are sub-texts to the use of the terms “non-exclusive” or “underserved” spectators.  Hirschhorn could have installed at least one of his four “monuments” in one of the depressingly ubiquitous megalopolitan middle-class suburbs to significant effect, in terms of addressing “non-exclusive” or “underserved” audiences.

As I remember, in her talk Mary mentioned three kinds of spectators who might be expected to see the work – spectators who were mothers, spectators who were artists, and general spectators who were neither mothers nor artists. (My memory may not be exact, so apologies to Mary if I’ve gotten some of this wrong. The general point will still be made.) Her aim in using the diagram, as I remember, was to indicate that all these spectators would find various levels of interest and comprehensibility in the work, and while one could possibly project an ideal spectator, that would not diminish the experience of the work that others – even non-art-educated spectators – might have.

Where the overlaps occurred, there might be a deepening of comprehension or entry into the work. For example, artists who were also mothers might read the work differently than artist spectators who were not mothers; the same would go for spectators who were mothers but who were not artists, or non-mother spectators who were not artists. One could add spectators who were psychoanalysts, art historians, curators, child-care workers, diaper-factory workers, waiters, etc.

Of course there are a lot of artworks that are obtuse or just plain incomprehensible. Those works create an aporia that leaves the spectator floundering, with no possibility of engagement. And those works can fall into virtually any art genre – painting, sculpture, performance, film/video/audio, installation, photography, etc.

Again, my memory may be distorting this, but in the very center of Mary’s Venn diagram there was the artist spectator who was also a mother, who might experience (not to say understand) the work at the greatest number of levels. I remember thinking “I am this project’s ideal spectator.” But Mary’s point was that all those areas of experience of the artwork were of value, implying that one shouldn’t pre-determine what artwork – “complex” or not – would be “accessible” to whom.


Bystanders, May Day NYC Occupy March, 2012. S.Kolbowski

In my last post I touched on the repercussions of Edward Snowden’s placement of his body at the limits of international law and national boundaries. U.S. intellectuals of the left, hackers of no particular political persuasion, off-the-grid libertarians, and political activists might have surmised before his whistleblowing that Americans live in a surveillance state handed over to corporate sub-contractors and pathological venture capitalists. But did even they, not to mention the U.S. population in general, know the exact worthlessness of an American passport, the sham of national sovereignty, and the full extent of America’s authoritarianism and mockery of international law? Snowden allowed all of it to be played out in detail.

I indicated at the end of that post my intention to connect this observation to Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of spontaneous revolution. Below is my argument…please bear with the background material. In the interim, Snowden has been granted a one-year temporary asylum by Russia and Obama has decided to cancel an upcoming summit with Putin because, as he decreed on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show”, Russia keeps insisting on “slipping back into a cold war mentality.” Snubbing your nose at the arbiter of world justice is not part of the American rules of the game. Bolivia’s Morales learned that earlier. Obama will instead make a highly symbolic visit to Sweden, now deemed an important ally, as if to say that at least this country has bowed to our pressure to criminalize whistleblowers.

“Let us avoid any temptation to go back to the ‘origins’. Let us simply pierce a moment in time…”

So starts an early section of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy entitled “The Dilemmas of Rosa Luxemburg.” This influential 1985 book drafts a comprehensive critique of the “essentialism of Marxist thought,” reformulating socialist theories as well as posing concepts of radical democracy. Crucially, Laclau and Mouffe demonstrate in detail why social movements and critiques – of gender and race rights, for example – are as important as those of economic and political categories in challenging elitist power, spelling out the structural architecture that gives these movements their synergetic effects. But the book impressed me most, when I read it in 1990, by questioning the fixed human subject of historical Marxist theories. Resistance to capitalism must have its actors, the formulation of which has been a blind spot of Marxism, one of its main dilemmas. Seen from a contemporary perspective, the human subject of capitalism is clearly not a rational one. Even taking into account historical details, why do populations sometimes rise up against inequity en masse, and sometimes – during extended periods of enormous oppression or suffering – not at all?  Laclau and Mouffe spell it out in different terms, but by bringing psychoanalytic feminism to bear on their critique one can surmise that Marxism and socialism have theorized a problematic conscious subject with free will, who is only lacking information or enlightenment or organization in order to generate resistance. (My critique of Thomas Hirschorn’s “monuments” to philosophers would only begin there…) But regardless of how much enlightenment they receive, the rational subject with free will and without an unconscious is one not projected to engage with or understand a political imaginary. And yet politics exists to a great extent in the realm of the imaginary and the symbolic. The subject is also formed through such discourses. The Laclau and Mouffe argument does not overvalue physical revolt, for good reason. And yet it is hard to ignore the fact that without mass resistance, U.S. politics have moved dramatically to the right.

Hegemony and Socialist Strategy starts by turning to Rosa Luxemburg’s 1906 publication, “The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions.” The authors praise this text for laying out what no socialist tract had been able to do. There are two points they value in this text. One point is that Luxemburg proposes, through observation, that the human subjects of economics and politics (and, by implication, social subjects) need not be exclusive. i.e. there is no pre-existing “working class” revolutionary subject per se. Secondly, the human subjects of economics and politics sometimes come together in unpredictable ways in relation to historical events. So Luxemburg’s theory of spontaneism – spontaneous revolution – acknowledges that, to paraphrase the authors, its logic is a logic of the symbol that sometimes disrupts the literal logic of necessity or pragmatism.

So how does this relate to Mr. Snowden? While the notion of an American mass uprising has become laughable to the American left and liberals, it can certainly be seen at play in quite a few international sites in the recent past or present, where massive uprisings are captured on U.S. media – Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Libya, Quebec, Greece, Spain, etc. In the U.S., however, those who follow these resistance movements have to wince when reports turn up on political blogs or emails or progressive radio shows touting turnouts of 25 or 200 in response to hugely egregious U.S. state or corporate transgressions.

Perhaps, though, someone like Snowden is a kind of condensed subject of resistance. Beyond the tradition of the whistleblower (although within its legal definition), he rises out of a complex and unpredictable confluence of circumstances – affluent by American standards for a twenty-something; un-educated in conventional terms but highly skilled in technology and with a precocious political intelligence; unaligned with any political stance per se; acutely aware of the timing of social media and the specifics of current power relations, etc.  At the age of 28, and with virtually no investment – in fact, he made a good living by educating himself in the transgressions of the state – he managed to challenge a “masters of the universe” state in a way that no large organized group has been able to do in the U.S. in the last couple of decades. In a period of profound political and cultural distortion and complexity in the U.S., where the average citizen is living a subsistence life and seeking a little solace in distraction, Snowden may have unwittingly become a new kind of subject of spontaneous political revolt.


Mercer Street, NYC, July 2013

For a few years, the term “academic” has cropped up in my thoughts about some current art practices. The term “academic” has had pejorative connotations ever since the reign of the normative art academy was discredited or fell by the wayside. An art historian friend noted – when I complained to him a few years ago that quite a lot of “critical” artwork today seems academic – that historians themselves are fundamentally academic by definition, in that the historical field, the university itself, arise out of a desire to conserve knowledge, as well as to legitimate. There are notable exceptions, and academic work is not art, but I saw his point. As an artist, I don’t have to contend with any mandate for factual preservation, as historians do even in the context of breaking from a norm.

An academic approach takes shape in different ways for different types of art. The recent “critical” art practices that I define as academic take aesthetic modalities that were seen as rupturing earlier normative practices and by dropping these aesthetic modalities into the present, repeat them as empty formulas. It’s not the repetition of the formula per se that renders these artworks academic; nor is it solely the fact that the ruptures have already taken place. What makes the work academic is the hollow rendering into the present of an earlier modality that remains bound to another moment. Current art that can be called academic is an empty husk, even if it strives to appear contemporary by attaching timely codes of one sort or another. I think this is why contemporary art of the academic mode depends so heavily on the press release and the wall label, or the public explanation.

This is not to celebrate rupture for rupture’s sake, not spectacle or newness for the frisson they provide. PR experts already take care of that. And rupture may not be the most critical aesthetic methodology at certain moments. Instead, academic “critical” art may be faulted for its paucity of meaningful cultural intervention. And by intervention I mean even that of the most subtle or indirect kind.

For a couple of decades, political context has been a degraded consideration for those art historians who have lauded art that critiques art institutions (I.e. Institutional Critique as a genre). In fact, in the ‘80s and ‘90s,contemporaneous political and social “context” was skirted in some art historical circles, although in other circles – those makers and supporters of art of the agit-prop type – it was perhaps validated but under-theorized.

These thoughts arose again in the past weeks of thinking about the drama playing out over Edward Snowden’s revelations of the U.S. surveillance state, and the media’s treatment of the event. Cubby-holing political thought blinds one to the expansive political dimensions of representational phenomena.  The petty personalization in the U.S. of his whistleblower acts and his subsequent stateless suspension, by television, radio, newspapers, some blogs, as well as by the White House and some elected officials, was no surprise. It was the creation of profitable entertainment and political deflection at once. But I found myself disagreeing with aspects of otherwise crucial and brilliant analyses, such as legal scholar Richard Falk’s on his blog, or even journalist Glenn Greenwald’s. The one argument they made repeatedly that I found problematic was one that I think derived from relating to historical precedent in either a scholarly or empirically journalistic manner. Here is an excerpt of an important Falk post of the other day:

“Beyond the legal guidelines on extradition and asylum that are applicable, there are considerations of world order: protecting dissent and pluralism in a global setting in which the principal political actors are sovereign states that increasingly rely on secrecy and security rationales to constrain democratic open spaces. What Snowden did was to expose this dynamic of constraint in relation to secret surveillance programs administered by private, for profit, contractors. Also exposed was the ‘Global Big Brother’ implications of extending surveillance to foreign societies and their governments. It is these questions that should receive our attention, and the Hollywood circus chase of Edward Snowden should cease for humanitarian and political reasons.”

One can see why Falk and Greenwald would, while always mindful of speaking up for Snowden’s personal safety, criticize the media’s and the U.S. government’s personalization of the issues Snowden raised and try to leave Snowden and his personal predicament out of the equation. Snowden himself has been contemptuous of that personalization, has asked to be ignored as an individual. But I think the focus on his predicament has been essential. For me, one of the most radical aspects of the Snowden “affair” is the global political chess game that he set in motion, specifically because of his personal predicament. By placing himself on the world stage, Snowden enacts a testing of the aporia of international law, revealing the arbitrary conditions of national sovereignty, displaying the farce that is currently American democracy, etc. As Falk points out, by (illegally) invalidating Snowden’s passport, the White House rendered moot the legal safeguards of international asylum. Snowden thus exposes the readiness of the U.S. state to resort to authoritarian illegality. He is not the only one functioning in this way today, although he has created the most visible platform for such exposures, exposures that in a sense result from the marooning of his individual and particular body.

In significant ways, Snowden is the Virno-esque subject of this moment of Capitalism – the self-precarious subject par excellence. Have virtuoso knowledge, will travel. But Snowden is displaying more than self-precarity.

In my next post I’ll try to explain why I think that Snowden could be seen to embody – by analogy – Rosa Luxemburg’s somewhat discredited 1906 theory of spontaneous revolution.

“…a mutation [of international institutions and international law] will have to take place. But it is impossible to predict at what pace…what remains incalculable is first of all the pace or rhythm, the time of acceleration and the acceleration of time. And this is for essential reasons that have to do with the very speed of techno-scientific advances or shifts in speed. Just like the shifts in size or scale that nanotechnologies have introduced into our evaluations and our measures.” Jacques Derrida, Philosophy in a Time of Terror (2001/2003)

When you “wake up” a historical figure for a project of any sort – art, book, play, film – you cannot help but imagine their reaction to the present moment. The word imagine is apt because the process involves an identification with the figure woken and a psychical process of projection, although scholars might argue that one can rationally speculate based on a life’s discourse or work. It’s in this frame of mind that I sometimes think about Rosa Luxemburg in relation to the current political situation, particularly in regards to the issues that Edward Snowden has made pivotal today regarding democracy and our currently laughable system of “checks and balances.” It’s not that Luxemburg ever put any faith in organized politics in any case, believing that organized politics in a time of gross inequity were nothing but a farce. Others might argue, as a friend has recently in regards to a review of writings by Étienne Balibar, that some changes can to be enacted pragmatically from within organized politics. But even Balibar has standards that would place the U.S. political system outside of such optimism.

In any case, when I read the dizzying instructions below in one of Luxemburg’s letters from 1906, I can’t help but think of Derrida’s comment in regards to techno-science. One thing that comes across very strongly in Luxemburg’s letters is her ceaseless use of the postal system in her political work. In those days the post seems to have been delivered at least twice a day (sometimes it seems to be three times a day), which helped her keep up with unpredictable historical events; and the speed of delivery from country to country at that moment seems astonishingly fast. But imagine organizing a revolt by post today.

ImageIn this excerpt above she’s writing from Russian-partitioned Poland, Warsaw, where she was engaged in the mass empire-wide revolts that were taking place. Her role, as it often was, was to write and see that contraband publications were printed and distributed. Transposed to the present, she might be using twitter, or more likely encrypted emails and sites.

Whenever I read Glenn Greenwald’s twitter site these days, I am hyperlinked to countless sites and tweets and articles and videos. I’m not complaining, because it’s an education a day. But it’s the stream speed of data and its atomization that are worrying all the same. Frankly, we need Derrida’s analysis.



Jacques Derrida, age 20; Rosa Luxemburg, age 12.

In A Few Howls Again? Ulrike Meinhof’s relatively brief 5-year trajectory as a militant and prisoner lent itself to condensation in a short video loop. My current project on Luxemburg has the more difficult task of condensing her 25 years on the frontlines of left political resistance in many arenas – in fraught party politics, Marxist pedagogy, political journalism and scholarly writings, direct engagement with revolts, personal and political relationships and friendships, as well as years of incarceration as a political prisoner. [See my earlier post.]

Partway through the research on Luxemburg, a detour led me to the brilliant 2001 interview with Jacques Derrida in the book Philosophy in a Time of Terror, a book that should be read by anyone who takes  for granted the catch phrase 9/11. Reading this interview produced for me the strange sensation that if Luxemburg’s particular intelligence and prescience were transposed to 2001, she might have sounded something like the Derrida of that interview. The ghost of Derrida resonates today –especially in a moment of particularly egregious rogue state actions by the U.S., by Europe — with Luxemburg’s ghost in unexpected ways. Distanced by 60 years (Derrida was born 11 years after Luxemburg’s death), they nevertheless shared the spirit of positions on the need for theorizing justice beyond notions of national boundaries and national citizenship. In a schematic sense, for Luxemburg that meant an internationalism of the economically, socially, and racially oppressed; for Derrida, it meant articulating the urgent need for international justice in the face of growing nationalism and a simultaneous boundary-less movement of the algorithm. For me, it raises the question of overlapping two historical figures, temporally out of place, in one project.

Interestingly, they shared some formative traumas: Derrida’s childhood as a French Jew in Algeria; Luxemburg’s as a strongly identified Pole in a Warsaw under repressive Russification. Both were “out of place.”  Both were also forbidden to attend public schools at some points in their lives (for being Jewish, being a woman, being a Pole, etc.). For Luxemburg the Russian censorship sent her to underground meetings meant to sustain Polish culture, where the label of her religion (a Judaism she rejected from a young age and until her death) was subordinated to a diverse context that shaped the cosmopolitan outlook of rest of her life.

“Given all the colonial censorships, especially in the suburban milieu in which I lived, and given all the social barriers… the only option [to learn Arabic] was at school,” Derrida writes in Le Monolingualisme de l’autre, originally a lecture on mother and other tongues delivered in the United States. “The study of Arabic was restricted to school, but in an alien language, a strange kind of alien language as the language of the other, but then of course, and this is the strange and troubling part, the other as the nearest neighbour…For I lived on the edge of an Arab neighbourhood on one of those hidden frontiers that are at once invisible and almost impassable.”[From the review, “Algerian Derrida,” by David Tresilian of the 2012 Derrida: A Biography.]

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