Farewell to Language 3D, Jean-Luc Godard, 2013

Image from Farewell to Language 3D (Adieu au langage 3D), Jean-Luc Godard, 2014

 …in French-speaking Switzerland where I live, in the Vaud canton, “Farewell” also means hello…
Jean-Luc Godard in Jean-Luc Godard talks to Canon Professional Network [about his new 3D film Farewell to Language], 2014

Jerry-rigged SLR cameras used to film "Farewell to Language."

Jerry-rigged SLR cameras used to film Godard’s Farewell to Language, 2014.

Bobby Waldrop oversees machinery for spinning yarn at the Parkdale yarn factory in Gaffney, South Carolina on Tuesday, February 12, 2013.                           NYTCREDIT: Mike Belleme for The New York Times

Bobby Waldrop oversees machinery for spinning yarn at the Parkdale yarn factory in Gaffney, South Carolina on Tuesday, February 12, 2013. NYTCREDIT: Mike Belleme for The New York Times

The ceilings are high and the machines stretch city block after city block — this one tossing around bits of cotton to clean them, that one taking four-millimeter layers from different bales to blend them.

Only infrequently does a person interrupt the automation, mainly because certain tasks are still cheaper if performed by hand — like moving half-finished yarn between machines on forklifts.

…truth be told, labor is not a big ingredient in the manufacturing uptick in the United States, textiles or otherwise. Indeed, the absence of high-paid American workers in the new factories has made the revival possible.

“Most of our costs are power-related,” said Dan Nation, a senior Parkdale executive.
“U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People,” by Stephanie Clifford, New York Times, September 19, 2013

Varvara Stepanova at her desk,1924, by Alexandr Rodchenko

Varvara Stepanova at her desk,1924, by Alexander Rodchenko

Composition is the contemplative approach of the artist. Technique and Industry have confronted art with the problem of construction as an active process and not reflective. The ‘sanctity’ of a work as a single entity is destroyed. The museum which was the treasury of art is now transformed into an archive.
Varvara Stepanova, text from 5×5=25 exhibition, 1921, Moscow

Compass and Ruler Drawing, 1914-15, Alexander Rodchenko

Compass and Ruler Drawing, 1914-15, Alexander Rodchenko

Thenceforth the picture ceased being a picture and became a painting or an object. The brush gave way to new instruments with which it was convenient and easy and more expedient to work the surface. The brush which had been so indispensable in painting, which transmitted the object and its subtleties became an inadequate and imprecise instrument in the new non-objective painting, and the press, the roller, the drawing pen, the compass replaced it.
Alexander Rodchenko, exhibition pamphlet at the exhibition of the Leftist Federation in Moscow, 1917, cited in Rodchenko, by German Karginov, quoted in “From Faktura to Factography,”  Benjamin Buchloh, October 30, Fall 1984.

Faktura also meant at this point, and not for Rodchenko alone, incorporating the technical means of construction into the work itself and linking them with existing standards of the development of the means of production in society at large.
Benjamin Buchloh, “From Faktura to Factography”

Having decided to stop painting in the mid-1970s,  for reasons of historical relevance, I had to devise a transitional medium for stopping, for coping with the anxious loss of familiar habit, but also with the loss of the tactile and olfactory qualities of painting that had been meaningful to me personally. A Winnicot-esque transitional object – a commercial paint-roller – took the place of my brush-bond, so to speak, with white and grey wall paint rolled on horizontal canvases. Once this transitional process had served its purpose, the canvases were thrown out. Had I been familiar with the artists of the Russian revolution, I might not have had to go the route of the roller at all; for those artists, if a transitional medium was needed, the tune of class equity and the death of bourgeois values sufficed as transitional objects. But I was a baby of the cold war, and the revolutionary period had been publicly repressed almost completely during my childhood and young adulthood.

Over the past 35 years, the subject of facture and faktura have intermittently preoccupied me. Not so much its aspects of medium self-referentiality as applied mostly in relation to, as Buchloh points out, European modernist art, but more so a persistent return to thinking about aspects of tactility, of the trace of the hand, of “the visual representation of material and constructional qualities.” Those qualities that revolutionary artists such as Stepanova and Rodchenko and others had moved beyond for historical and ideological reasons. That said, my work has become more and more attuned over the years to photography, video, film, and to the development of the algorithmic digital. Fields that do not register the hand indexically. But I was long put off by the compositing capabilities of Final Cut Pro, the non-linear video-editing software which for almost 15 years has allowed the hand, by extension of the mouse, to create “painterly” layers in film and video work, post-production effects that to me seemed a nostalgic throw-back to earlier aesthetic modalities and methods. (But perhaps even the temporally bi-furcated term “post-production,” still commonly used, is also growing obsolete.)

Structuralist and other film genres of the 1960s/70s did sometimes involve the indexical sign of the hand acting on cellulose, and so one could say that not too much had changed in the shift from mutilating the film strip to compositing effects in video-editing software. But 21st century Final Cut Pro encourages the solitary “painting” (with the mouse) that art could be presumed to have moved beyond.

Filmmakers such as Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard have made their technological early-adoptor stances a kind of political credo, even if they did/do jerry-rig their low-tech processes rather than high-tailing it to Hollywood.

The "camera train" used to film parts of "Goodbye to Language 3D," from En Attendant Godard (Paris, 2014)

Godard directing with the “toy train camera rig” used to film parts of “Goodbye to Language 3D,” from En Attendant Godard, by Zoé Bruneau  (Paris, 2014)

You can trace the development of editing software in the degrees of compositing and special effects found in Godard’s films after 2000, which may not consistently present the tech-critical perspective of Farewell to Language. This criticality I can only judge prior to the film’s commercial release by reading mostly between the lines of some reviews – the script, and montage, the visual/technical disorientation of the spectator (in addition to his signature aural disorientation), but also the inverting of the usual play with 3D – the pushing out rather than pulling in of the spectator, the use of fragment rather than heroic scenario in the 3D genre, etc.

In an early scene, Godard pretzels viewers’ eyes by overlaying one shot over another as a woman walks off-frame—and into a shot superimposed over the previous one, then returns to her original location as the images merge once more. (That scene in particular elicited a round of applause from the Cannes audience, which tittered when the technique surfaced again during a nude scene featuring both actors’ genitals.) 

Godard uses up-to-date digital mediums (indications are that the 3D effects in his latest are mostly developed in post-production, by which is meant in the realm of the digital) but the digital also affords him a kind of aesthetic decision-making that is extremely close to the painterly, especially when compared with the breaks with that approach realized by Duchamp in his reliance on chance, or with the Russian Constructivists who moved toward factography. The number of references to Godard’s painterly techniques in popular critiques of his work is stunning for someone immersed in the digital world of image- and sound-making, not to say filmmaking.

At one point, he includes a quote from Claude Monet, who instructs artists to “paint not what we see, for we see nothing, but paint that we don’t see.” 

There’s no difference between my life and my movies. I’m existing more when I’m making movies than when I’m not. That’s why someone might say to me, “You have no personal life; I can’t have a relationship with you. When we’re making love, you’re suddenly saying, ‘What a beautiful shot I’m thinking of!’ It’s like a painter only speaking of colors.”

But in this historical moment of Capitalism when the global means of production are all over the place in scale and modality – from sweatshops and cottage industry workers to massive assembly lines to the absence of workers altogether in robotic industries – why would facture be easily renounced…we might as well be living in pre-revolutionary Russia…

 

Level Five, Chris Marker, 1996/2014; 106 minutes; color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.)

Level Five, Chris Marker, 1996/2014; 106 minutes; color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.

“Participant observation” serves as shorthand for a continuous tacking between the “inside ” and the “outside” of events: on the one hand grasping the sense of specific occurrences and gestures empathetically, on the other stepping back to situate these meanings in wider contexts. Particular events thus acquire deeper or more general significance, structural rules, and so forth. Understood literally, participant observation is a paradoxical, misleading formula, but it may be taken seriously if reformulated in hermeneutic terms as a dialectic of experience and interpretation.

The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford, 1988

In the 1980s and 90s, texts such as Clifford’s were formative for me as an artist and continue to resonate, to illuminate my art practice and everyday perceptions. In the ’80s, such writings dove-tailed with post-modern analyses of the authoritative voice as found in all cultural mediums and genres –literary, visual, aural, and discursive. And without them it would be impossible to disentangle the complex knots of American foundational myths and neo-liberal capitalism, or to parse the behavior and effects of the increasingly larger category of shadow politicians, those private individuals or philanthropic families – revered for their mega-wealth – who step into the vacuums created by the widening breaches of democracy. These days it takes political acumen backed by intellectual inquiry to analyze the authoritative voice of boundary-less mediums and commerce.

Level Five, Chris Marker.

Level Five, Chris Marker.

Locating the ideological knots of authority in globalized politics and culture  is basically a survival test.

privileged informants, trained observers, participant observers, reliable informants— these are some of the terms questioned by ethnographic critical inquiry, and these are the terms that came to mind after recent screenings of Chris Marker’s films at BAM, specifically The Last Bolshevik (1993/1998) and Level Five (1996/2014).

Understanding how an authoritative voice is constructed in, for example, documentary (or a narrative film or even a newspaper), will always come up against the degree of a spectator’s identification with the voice – literal and figurative – in the work. When viewing a documentary on a subject about which one has limited knowledge, even a critical spectator will be caught between overtly interpreting the form of the work, and identifying with the filmmaker as an informant considered reliable. For me, even though I should know better, Marker falls into the category of reliable informant, transferential figure. Even as I follow the slippages of voice in Level Five (Marker speaking through a female interlocutor, through a male narrator, in the first or third person, in the plural; through a montage of found footage, digital screens, interviews, and studio mise en scene, etc.), I am willing to let him guide me through foreign territory – in this case, Level Five‘s exploration, through the language of video games and our digital counterparts, of what can be called the genocide resulting from The Battle of Okinawa during WWII.

Level Five, Chris Marker.

Level Five, Chris Marker.

I watch critically, but more often than not I am also absorbing, unquestioningly identifying with the speaker. I have the same reaction to watching The Last Bolshevik, his film about Alexander Medvedkin, the Soviet filmmaker, and his navigations of the  utopian and dystopian periods of Soviet politics. A film about the reasonable and not so reasonable judgments one can make about left-committed filmmaking.

The Kast Bolshevik

Medvedkin in The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker, 1993/1998; 116 mins; color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.)

It’s not that Marker doesn’t raise his own questions about events and individuals. But his lilting scripts (usually spoken by someone else) have always made a fairly obedient student out of me. Oh, I’m deconstructing the montage even as I follow it, but often my regard for his “voice” – his intelligent observational mind, his poetically aphoristic rendering of political events, his combination of resignation and resistance – overwhelms my critical discernment, at least in the theater.

The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker.

The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker. Frame from Medvedkin’s film, “Happiness.”

I got a glimpse into just how compliant a Marker viewer I might be when I viewed his 1977/1993 film about mostly French and Latin American left politics in the 1960s and 70s, A Grin Without a Cat, in 2001.

A Grin Without a Cat, Chris Marker, 1977/1993; 180 mins., color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.)

A Grin Without a Cat, Chris Marker, 1977/1993; 180 mins., color. (Distributed by Icarus Films.)

I found the film very convincing until it reached the section covering his assessment of American resistance to the Vietnam War. It’s excessive to call it an assessment; it’s really just a brief dismissal that takes a couple of minutes in a three-hour film. My identification with the authority of the film was punctured. Now, one can’t fault an essayistic filmmaker for getting the facts wrong in the same way one can a historian. Marker might have intended to give short shrift to that period of American politics for a reason. But had I not known that period very well through readings and personal engagement, I might have found legitimate and not worthy of question — in part due to a classic viewer’s transference — his dismissive and elliptical way of rendering it. I’ve always been grateful to A Grin Without a Cat for making me see through my own identification with Marker’s voice, because it has made me a more active viewer of Marker in general.

The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker. Final frame.

The Last Bolshevik, Chris Marker. Final frame.

Writing this has also made me understand more clearly some of the points that Sébastien Pluot makes about translation in my interview with him for this blog. Because “translation” is the ethical interface between spectator and cultural interlocutor. And one could think of transference as an ethical interface…

 

beads_smJust when you thought it was safe to assume that the term “kitsch” had lost all meaning…this little plastic bracelet above, found in a children’s store in a seaside American vacation spot, challenges the concept’s obsolescence. It includes a black bead filled with mud from the Dead Sea- “the lowest point on Earth,” and a white bead with water from Mount Everest – “the highest point on Earth.” The plastic bracelet is touted as an aid to emotional and spiritual balance.

All the academic tenets of “kitsch” have lost their energy through the near-indiscernible boundaries of the pseudo, the retrograde, the sentimental, the tragi-comic, the diminutizing, the memento, and the tasteless in relation to the avant-garde, the cutting edge, the authentic, good taste, etc.

And, no, this is not a reference to Jeff Koons.

jeff koons 2But the fetishistic dynamic of kitsch could be seen as persisting. Something stands in place of something occluded. Mount Everest, the postcard image. Elemental and pure.

mount everestA detail view of the 50 tons of rubbish that thrill-seekers have left behind on Mount Everest.

Everest PollutionThe Dead Sea, postcard image. Sublime and isolated.

the dead seaA Dead Sea Hotel development. Not so sublime.

dead sea hotelThe Dead Sea lies about 11 miles south of the Allenby Bridge, the only route in and out of the West Bank for Palestinians. In the last months, this checkpoint has been subject to an unexplained and governmentally unauthorized Israeli ban on departures and crossings, through the imposition of an obscure “blacklist.”

allenby bridge

Such fetishistic occlusions render a little trite many earlier obsessions with the fetish and the kitsch.

From Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste by Gillo Dorfles, 1969.

From Kitsch, The World of Bad Taste, by Gillo Dorfles, 1969.

subtlety 1_smGenerally speaking, defense is directed towards internal excitation (instinct); in practice, its action is extended to whatever representations (memories, phantasies) this excitation is bound to; and to any situation that is unpleasurable for the ego as a result of its incompatibility with the individual’s equilibrium and, to that extent, liable to spark off the excitation. …Defense is marked and infiltrated by its ultimate object-instinct-and consequently it often takes on a compulsive aspect, and works at least in part in an unconscious way. Definition of “Defense,” excerpt, Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Jean Laplanche, Jean-Bertrand Pontalis.

I thought that braving a day-long, global-warming-downpour might have encouraged the giddily touristic spectatorship evident on the evening I went to visit A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. But googling “Subtlety selfie” turned up 33,000 links, showing it was part of the general reaction to the work. On the evening i went, a manic fun-house atmosphere prevailed, with a constant flurry of spectator portrait- and selfie-taking.

subtlety 12One would expect a more somber reaction to the historical brutality that is the overt para-text of the project, and to a space that witnessed decades of suffering. Online and print theories accounting for the “tasteless” selfies abound. But one online site will actually selfie-suture you in if you cannot manage to get to the exhibition in person.

subtlety 13The newspaper and magazine articles and blogposts on the topic of Subtlety-selfies occupy a spectrum, with each being largely single-minded; there are conjectures about white disrespect for the black female body (although writers have also noted that a very diverse audience participates in the selfie-taking); about the self- and other-fetishization typical of the current technological apparatus of Capitalism, fetishization being a form of defense against unwanted thoughts; about the experience being an effect of spectacle culture in general, etc.

In some ways, the work sets itself up as the ideal object of the lens, oddly enough not because of its heroic scale; not because, as one writer has it, taking a selfie brings the giant-scale project down to human scale. Instead, my impression was that the scale itself is actually manageable in being (inadvertently, I assume) geared to the capacities of a digital phone camera lens. That is, standing in physical proximity to the mega-scale of the Egyptian Sphinx would not offer “The Subtlety”s frisson of self/object.

subtlety 5Well, it turns out that workarounds at the ancient sites have been found, and scales flattened thanks to the contemporary depth-of-field capacities of even phone cameras, as set in motion by consumer desire. But note the actual scale of the humans in physical proximity, and the distance required for “closeness.”

sphinxpyramid

“A Subtlety” – given the luminosity of the “sphinx” in the dark space, and the bittersweet chiaroscuro light around the smaller figures of boys made of resin and molasses – is eminently photogenic. The camera loves this work, in the Hollywood and cinematic sense of love.

sugar boy_subtletyAlthough in a popular sense the work can be fit into the category of the spectacular, in a properly Debordian sense the project doesn’t fit the “spectacle” bill, because for Debord, spectacle culture depends on the repression of the historical, and the occupation of a continual present. Here the para-text  of the project – the history of sugar-growing and refinement, with its attendant slavery of one form or another, even once workers started to be wage laborers – the para-text offered on the multi-media website, artist and curator interviews, press media, outdoor title banner, p.r., moves you back and forth in time.

subtlety 7But maybe it’s the attenuation of connection between the discursive para-text and the tactility, materiality, and sensory aspects of the project and its containing space that produces disinhibition in spectators. I wasn’t able to push the para-text out of my mind in experiencing the work. But it was clear that most spectators did it quite efficiently.

subtlety 9Perhaps “A Subtlety” produces a defended spectatorship, as in Freud’s observation that self-proclaimed boredom is sometimes its very opposite. Defendedness is not an ideal frame of mind for reflecting on history. Because if the internal conflict masked by the defense cannot be tolerated by the psyche, then it sets in motion a projection onto others of what frightens, scares, disturbs, so as to, following Jacqueline Rose on Christopher Berlatz, purify oneself and find fault in the other. The very purification that this work sets itself against. But maybe something always seeps through defenses. The psyche is not air-tight. And, as Rose says in regards to setbacks in feminism, the system (psychical, political, cultural) is not in a lock, or feminism would not exist at all. Norms fall apart in dreams and symptoms, perhaps prior to other dismantlings.

Maybe it’s also the case that “A Subtlety” is unwittingly produced at a scale that encourages, in dovetailing with the world’s most popular lens, a manic disinhibition, an unsubtle affect again not conducive to reflection. With spectatorship comes ethical responsibility, something that the popular equating of art with entertainment tends to obfuscate. Weeks later, the olfactory memory is still unnerving, now connected to the para-text. And the snap-happy spectators remain a central association.

subtlety 3

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Image

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.

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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.

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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.

Dan_Flavin_Site-specific_installation_by_Dan_Flavin_1996_Menil_Collection

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.”

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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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