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.”


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.


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

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

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

ZG 81

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

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

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

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


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

John Updike, Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism

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

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

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


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


Here’s one recommended for teaching young children.


And, please, save us from ones like this.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mercer Street, NYC, July 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

This is the room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in which Julian Assange has lived and worked for a year.

This is the room in which Edward Snowden is living in limbo in the  Moscow Airport Transit Lounge.

[This post was moved from tumblr, when I stopped posting there; originally posted on July 2, 2013]

Following a video project that “brought to life” the militant Ulrike Meinhof, one year ago I started research on a related project about Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) – “Red Rosa,” the Marxist theorist, economist, philosopher and socialist revolutionary. This is an image of her prison cell in the Wronki Fortress, where she spent 1916-1917, one of the more humane prison spaces she inhabited. 

I could not do my research without the renewed interest in Luxemburg that generated recent translations into English of her voluminous letters andwritings, nor without the well-known biography on Luxemburg. But although there are many mentions and details of her prison stays in her these books, I could not find a timeline of the dates that Luxemburg spent in jail. DId I, not being an academic, miss something? I had to cobble together a timeline as best I could, because prison time was something Luxemburg accepted as a fact of life for a leader of the international socialist movement, or for anyone committed to the “cause.” 

26 August, 1904-24 October 1904 – Berlin-Zwickau Women’s Prison (a sentence commuted by one month, against Luxemburg’s protests, by an amnesty declared to commemorate the coronation of Friedrich August von Saxe ). Sentenced for insulting Emperor Wilhelm II in a public speech.

4 March 1906 – end of June 1906 – Incarcerated in Pawiak Prison, then moved to the notorious Citadel fortress, both in Warsaw. Sentenced for possession of illegal literature and correspondence with the Social Democratic Party of Germany. 

18 February 1915-18 February 1916 – Royal Prussian Prison for Women, Berlin

10 July 1916 – end of October 1916 – Royal Prussian Prison for Women, and 1 1/2 months in a dark tiny, unlit cell in the police headquarters in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.

End of October 1916 – 21 July 1917 – Wronki Fortress, near Poznan, in Prussian-annexed Poland.

22 July 1917 –  8 November 1918 – transferred to Breslau Prison to see out her term.

For the above four, jailed without trial for, amongst other similar offenses, giving a public speech urging German workers not to take up arms against workers of other nationalities, and for accusing the German military of maltreating soldiers and abusing them physically and psychically.

In effect, Luxemburg spent her years in prison due to a lack of laws protecting freedom of speech. But as dehumanizing and weakening as these stays were, she retained citizenship and access to at least a semblance of due process through her lawyers; she was in the limbo of prison cells, but not the limbo of placeless non-citizenship and non-residency.  

ImageIn 2003, I began research on a project entitled Proximity to Power. On the book cover above is the project’s “recipe.” I interviewed five men, one of them an investment banker. A large part of his interview struck me as gibberish, confusingly abstract. The gulf between an artist fairly well educated in the machinations of capitalism and someone in its inner circle proved too wide. With an exhibition deadline looming, I threw the tape into a file and didn’t think about it again until 2008. By then, subsequent to the bailout of maniacally leveraged corporations and banks, some outside the market world were learning a new vocabulary. I had acquired the vocabulary little by little between 2003 and 2008, and it occurred to me that if I were to listen to the interview again the “gibberish” would sound crystal clear. Since then I’ve thought that I should have incorporated the interview without fully understanding it, acting as a kind of artist “medium” for it. 

Below is the unpublished interview, with my questions included. In the audio and printed versions of the project I edited out my questions in order to play with spectatorial projections. 

[Proximity to Power will be re-installed in 2014 at the Hammer Museum in Take it or Leave it: Institution, Image, Ideology, curated by Johanna Burton and Anne Ellegood. The show’s incisive premise is that the art historical categories of appropriationism and institutional critique often overlapped.]

Unpublished 2003 interview from Proximity to Power project. [It’s long-ish, but the gibberish builds up.]

Silvia Kolbowski: I want to reiterate that you will have complete anonymity. Not even the person transcribing this interview will know your name.

Investment Banker:  It sounds like you’re going to be asking me some very very sensitive questions!

SK: Yes, actually, I will.

IB: I can start by saying that I work for a bank, which is one of the oldest banks around.  It was and remains a private bank. It’s owned by 40 partners, who have unlimited personal liability for what I get up to. There are about 3000 of us worldwide.

SK: Unlimited liability means they are liable for anything?

IB: You could sue them for their houses and the clothes they wear on their backs. I mention that because it’s unusual. Most companies have gone to limited liability or limited liability partnerships. 

SK: Does it make the people who work at that bank more conservative in their investments, or just more nervous?

IB: We’re more measured about taking risk. We’re risk averse. What I do is work in a little area that’s called a middle market advisory group. We specialize in mergers and acquisitions. – generally the sale of privately-owned companies, or if they’re publicly held, very closely held. We define the middle market as any transaction where the aggregate consideration of what you would pay for the business ranges from 20 million dollars to 200 million dollars. So what I spend 80% of my time doing is selling businesses.

I was originally trained as a lawyer, but I haven’t practiced for a long time.

SK: So the first question I want to ask you is, how do you define power?

IB: Good question. I would define it as having the ability to direct and implement something.

SK: Do you think about power?

IB: I sort of have to because you’re negotiating and a lot of it is entirely about power – who has what power to do what. Since I spend my time selling companies, how you position them – what you say, what you don’t say, what you imply, what you don’t imply – is effectively shifting the balance of power.

SK: Do you assess the power of other men?

IB: Yes, I will try and assess what I see about the other side’s power. Their ability to effect change, their ability to actually push through their agenda. And they’re doing the same thing to me. There’s a great deal of logic involved, but it’s also a little bit like a chess game. You have to think ahead a number of moves – if I do this, it’s likely to elicit the following, does that move me towards the end goal? 

SK: To elaborate on that, what sort of power does “he” have?

IB: Well the ultimate power would be to decide whether to sell the company or not, because at the end of the day I’m effectively a broker. In fairness, since most of my compensation comes on the back end, on a contingency basis, I try and only take assignments where I think there’s a high likelihood of selling. But the power that he has, which is something that happened to me recently, is to say, well listen, you may think this is a drop-dead gorgeous price for this company, but I’m not as comfortable with it as you are, so I’m not going to sell this company.

SK: And in a general sense, what gives him power?

IB: Well, in some cases by dint of birth, they’re the son of the owner. In other cases it’s because they’ve proven themselves. They’ve started the company, effectively built it up underneath them. They form the pinnacle of the pyramid, the arrow that points in whichever direction. That’s the type of person that I deal with. I work mostly with privately owned companies, so they tend to be family-owned businesses that have been passed on or, alternatively, with entrepreneurs.

SK: So in the case of the entrepreneur, why that man and not other men?

IB: They seem to have an ability to discern the forest from the trees. They are generally not concerned with detail; they leave implementation to others, but they scent the right direction; they pick the right trend, they figure out exactly what’s going to happen in ten years time and they position themselves to best reap the benefit from that. Why them as opposed to someone else?  They’re risk-takers, frankly.  The reason I work as their lackey is because I don’t have the gumption to take the risk. We have clients I deal with who hocked everything they had  – household, wife, car, the lot. I’m just not that kind of risk-taker. But they are and they hit it and they do very well.

SK: Some people fail…

IB: Certainly. I just don’t see them. (Laughter.)

SK: I think you’ve answered my next question, which was “how do they get there?”

IB: These people generally seem to have a superior vision than the general schlub in the street, to be honest with you. There’s the inventor, then there are those who are serial entrepreneurs. They seem to be looking at the world from ten thousand feet, whereas we’re down here like little ants. They see the pattern…

SK: So what does he require of you?

IB: He can be very demanding ; they don’t tolerate fools. You have to have a certain ability to deal with them on their level, which is by definition hard because at the end of the day I’m a service provider and I’m not running a business, so you have to gain their trust. 

SK: Do you work with an atypical number of really nice, wealthy powerful men?

IB: No, no, no…I have some real dicks in my portfolio, as do most people. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are very, very difficult. I have one person I’m currently dealing with who always seems to come up with a question out of left field.

SK: Is that a power play?

IB: No, I think it’s ignorance on his part, to be honest with you. But it’s very unnerving. It has an impact on me because all of a sudden I’m being asked a question that I think is so basic he would have figured it out, or I think there must be some other agenda. Why is he bringing me in this particular direction? Where am I going to put my foot in it next? And he doesn’t listen. And then he comes back to me, and says, this isn’t working out, aren’t you supposed to be helping us out with this? So the tough decision is to whether to say, well, I said you should have done it this way, but you went and did it that way, no wonder…but you can’t really say that.

SK: So he requires  —

IB: A servileness. It’s a master/servant relationship at the end of the day. They’re paying your retainer…but you can’t just be a complete flunky or you don’t get hired. You have to have ideas, thoughts, and express them.

SK: But sometimes you have to not express them.

IB: Yes, well you express them in different ways. With this client I had to say, “Well, here’s where I think the problem arose, because we moved in thisdirection. Where perhaps it might be best to move in this direction. Because then this would have happened.” Without actually telling him that he took the wrong path.

SK: So are you saying that he requires that you take responsibility for his mistakes?

IB: [Laughs] Well, I don’t so much take responsibility as pull him out of them, or fix them.

SK: But you say something. He doesn’t listen. He gets into trouble.  And you have to share in the blame.

IB: True. You have to. Some clients never admit they’re wrong. In which case you do have to share the blame. It’s easier.

SK: Does he have anything that you want?

IB: Yes, of course. From a purely selfish standpoint, frequently I end up selling businesses for people who I think have one tenth of the smarts that I do. I think to myself, why him, why them? Why not me? It’s ridiculous. It’s like falling off a log. So I have to rationalize it. Yes, some of them certainly do have things that I want.  They’ve been very successful; they’ve founded their own company; they’ve made a lot of money. They have an ability to direct things as they want, which I don’t. At the end of the day, I’m an employee. There’s a degree of envy, I suppose, in dealing with these people.

I would like to have the things that his greater power brings, to be honest with you. I mean sure, the money would be nice. We can all think of what we could do if we had a lot of money. But at the end of the day is it the money itself?  It’s not. It’s the power and what it brings.

That’s a pretty pointed question, Silvia. You know more about me now than even my wife, possibly.

SK: [Laughter.] Here’s another question. What does he accomplish with his power?

IB: It’s going to sound a little corny coming from an investment banker, but to a certain extent, let’s say this difficult client that we discussed, something very specific. He’s actually added liquidity to a market that didn’t have liquidity before. It’s actually a pretty big achievement.  He is acting like the lubricant on a wheel.  If you imagine commerce as being the wheel and people wanting to trade these very esoteric instruments that aren’t like stocks, aren’t quite bonds, they’re sort of complicated derivatives on this, that and the other. Previously these people didn’t have a marketplace in which to do that, there was no price discovery, etc. etc. By founding the company, it’s added a great deal of liquidity to that market. It’s enabled a lot more of these things to happen. Here’s the corny part, by doing that it actually kind of makes the world a better place. This may not sit very well with you, I know…To take it to the base level, the farmer is now able to hedge his crop, for example. Therefore, if there’s a massive price decline he doesn’t have to sell his farm and go out of business.

SK: So the farmer becomes an investment?

IB: Well, you know as a farmer you can rely on your crops, and the weather, and everything. But all of that is not very predictable. So now you can take out options on the weather, you can take out options on commodities, you can bid all these complicated hybrid instruments…not that I’m saying every farmer out in Nebraska is doing this, but it’s a general example. It means that the farmer is no longer at the mercy of the weather. If he has a crappy crop because of the weather, which he can’t control, it doesn’t mean he has to sell the farm.

SK: You can bet against yourself.

IB: Well, yes, you lay off the risk.

SK: What does that mean?

IB: For example, if an insurance company insures one person’s life it’s a certain bet; if you insure a hundred people’s lives, it’s a completely different kind of bet. So they lay off the risk. They’ll take your insurance policy and they’re going to sell a little piece of it to them, a little piece of it to the other, so the risk is parceled out in very small amounts. So the corny part is that I believe it makes the world a better place because in the long run—

SK:  You were saying before that the insurance risk gets parceled out…

IB: Laying off the risk?

SK: There was one word I’m not sure I understood…parceled?

IB: Yes. The insurance brokers do it the same way. You as the insurer take the risk and then you turn around and then you lay it off.

SK: Laying it off means selling?

IB: Yes, right. Selling part of it to someone else.

SK: What is that called?

IB: In insurance-speak, you’re laying off the risk.

SK: Is that something like what a hedge fund does?

IB: No, a hedge fund is different.  A hedge fund….well, it’s very difficult actually to define a hedge fund, that’s why the Fed’s had such tremendous problems regulating them. What is a hedge fund? Well, mmm, that’s tough to say. It’s basically unregulated; it’s generally large pools of money coming from very sophisticated, very wealthy investors that are being used to make a variety of sophisticated bets, let’s say, rather than just investing in one stock. Well, take the classic example – Long-Term Capital Management, that’s the one that everybody knows, the one that almost broke the whole financial system at one point. What they were doing was they were betting on convergence strategies, meaning that you take two bonds, for instance, and you historically see that this bond in Germany trades in relation to this bond in the UK in a certain way, and there’s generally a spread, meaning the difference between the two rates, let’s say, 20 basis points, .20 percent, and over time that’s been pretty constant. You track these bonds and you see that all of a sudden one of them is at a 40 basis point spread. The bet they were making was this isn’t going to endure, it makes no sense because historically it’s always been 20 basis points. Quick, buy the bond that is off-price because it will eventually come back. But of course you can’t buy the bond, so what they would do is they’d go and they’d short it. They’d sell a bond they didn’t have so that when it came back they could buy it back cheaper to cover the short—

SK: And make a profit.

IB: And make a profit. But these movements were very very small, so people who would do it, say, with a million or two million dollars, you’d make fifty bucks or something. So you had to be betting with billions of dollars. You needed big money in order to make those bets, which is what they had and what they did, and eventually the bets became so big that they almost bankrupted the system. Long-Term Capital Management was mostly misunderstood because what they said I think was actually correct, which is they didn’t give it enough time. The model was that you have to be absolutely convinced that this relationship will hold true. Therefore every time you see a move away from that relationship, you double up the bet. They saw a way of making more money so they doubled it up, doubled it up, doubled it up…the point is, how long does it take to come back again? If someone cuts you off at the middle—

SK: Believe it or not, it’s a gambling strategy that the artist Marcel Duchamp used to make money sometimes. It’s called a martingale, I think. If you can stay in the system long enough you will actually win back your lost bets.

IB: Right! Yes, it’s exactly the same sort of idea.

SK: As long as you’re able to keep doubling your bets.

IB: Keep doubling down, that’s correct.

SK: You can make a lot of money gambling like that, but you can lose a lot of money also, the minute your bet is too big to double.

IB: Well, look, it greases the wheels of commerce. That’s what my client has succeeded in doing, which in general I find to be a good thing.

SK: When you say he’s invented something, you mean it’s some kind of thing that you now trade that wasn’t traded before?

IB: Well what he’s done is actually founded a market for this particular instrument.

SK: Is this instrument just a piece of paper? Or is it actually something?

IB: Paper, yes, I guess it’s…honestly, I don’t know how these things are physically…

SK: What’s it based on?

IB: Well, it can be based on many different things. Some of them are done on the weather, some of them are done on commodities…

SK: So basically it’s an instrument for betting.

IB: Well, yes…I mean, right, it’s a financial instrument for betting. In the same way that the stock market is basically a gamble.

SK: Except that the stock market used to be based on actual relationships to company growth, and I know it hasn’t been for a long time, but—

IB: Was it ever, Silvia, was it ever? I don’t know. It’s really the perception of the public as to what a particular company is going to do. So I would say that it gives the impression of being…I’ve long held the belief that the stock market is just legalized gambling. Just like the gambler in Las Vegas remembers that in the shuffle X cards are going to come up; every time one goes out he can recalculate the odds of what the likelihood is that…it’s the same thing in the stock market.

SK: So this man who invented this new instrument—

IB: He actually set up a marketplace in which it could be traded. Before, someone else invented the instrument. You see A didn’t know B, necessarily, and A would have to go and talk to fifteen different people, in order to find someone who might be interested in buying it…

SK: So how do people have access to that market now?

IB: It’s done basically through the telephone. I mean he said “I know where this particular thing is that you want, Mr. Smith.” And he went to Mr. Jones, and said “Yes, I think I know someone who wants to buy.” The classic middleman. Because Mr. Smith didn’t want to disclose to Mr. Jones what his trading strategy was, he was happy to have someone stand in the middle who could act as a cutout. Now, substitute Goldman and Salomon. Goldman doesn’t want Salomon to know that they’re selling off all the X,Y,Zs, and likewise Salomon may not want Goldman to know, so they’re very happy to go through a middleman. Now, effectively, he knows who’s got what and what the price is, and now there is an active market in that, whereas before Goldman would have to call twenty banks, say, listen we’re trying to do this, we’re trying to do that, would you be interested? No? Right, next one. Now they go to this central person who says, look, I’m in touch with, I know all the brokers at, I know what they’re looking for. I’ll match you up. And it’ll be done so that you won’t know who it is and they won’t know who it is. You preserve anonymity.

SK: This is just a whole other world for me. Another question. Have you ever not carried out his wishes, and if so, were there consequences?

IB: Yes, and the reason is that I strongly believed it was not the right thing to do and we would not have achieved the right goal. Were there consequences? I can’t say yet, because it hasn’t panned out. [Laughter.] If we get the deal done, there won’t be consequences. If we don’t, I will have to explain why it is that I chose to ignore a particular set of instructions.

SK: And what could happen?

IB: He’ll get pissed off, and I’ll have to explain why his set of instructions was bogus, silly.  Would not have achieved what he wanted to achieve, and that what I was doing had a much greater likelihood of achieving something. That I felt confident enough that I was willing to take the bet.

SK: You were willing to take the bet?

[Tape runs out.]

ImageThis blog is both an extension of my art practice — a projection onto a new platform of some of the ideas that occupy my mind and my work — and a place that allows for a freer use of language than in my artwork. I will post about culture defined by broad parameters, attempting to maintain a focus on the status and manifestations of art today. There will be observations, analyses, inquiries, and discussions with artists, curators, historians.

Recently, speaking to a group of visiting art students in my studio/office, one student remarked that he was surprised at my repeated use of the term “artwork.” he seemed to think it a term both old-school and maybe even embarrassingly straightforward in a moment when the parameters of art are in such flux. For some reason, it’s the term I like best these days; it encompasses for me the sense of process that I experience in my day-to-day life as an artist.

The photo above was taken by a former student, artist Ruth Oppenheim, of her son Leo, who had the good sense to put aside Gertrude Stein and pick up my 2008 book documenting a 2004 project (edited by Anthony Elms). I start with this because I’m going to post an interview done during the research for that project, but omitted for reasons that will soon be explained.

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