March 25, 2006

How No Can You Go?

Michael Blum, still from "Wandering Marxwards", 1999

What follows definitely took some liberties with a reading of Tronti.  I used “The Strategy of The Refusal” more as a point of departure than anything else, as I wanted to focus generally on the notion of refusal – on its creative/inventive capacities - and attempt to make visible some of the relationships between art practices since the 1960’s and the trajectory of operaismo and autonomia along with the theoretical works that have come out of Italy.  So perhaps in the spirit of Zizek’s book on Deleuze that he didn’t write, this can be my post on Tronti that I didn’t write.  The post is divided into four parts, the first two will be here at LS, but because of excessive length I’ll be posting the last two parts over at my blog if the reader is interested (one is a more in depth consideration of the work of artist Francis Alys, and the other on “anorectic subjectivities” which acts as a kind of conclusion).  This is really part of a wider research interest of mine, but I am very pleased that this symposium took place since it gave me the chance to return to some of those interest.  Call this a draft, then. Many of the themes taken up in the second part of this post are also adressed in Howard Slater's essay "The Spoiled Ideals of Lost Situations", which is meant to accompany a reading of the book Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, where most of the artist's writings I've used can be found.  Two artists that I have not been able to squeeze into this, but would highly recommend that anyone interested with what’s being said here check out are Thomas Hirschhorn (see here) and especially Santiago Sierra (a little about him here).  Also, I should point out that while the word “practice” appears throughout, many artists today (including myself) really don’t like this word.  I’ll skip giving reasons for the moment.  Perhaps Ranciere’s “ways of doing and making within the aesthetic regime of the arts” would have been better, though long-winded – and out of laziness I have not yet modified any of that.  However, the word does appear in inverted commas at several points, which I’m sure Matt will appreciate.

I. Double-Headed Histories

With nearly forty years separating us from the first publication of Tronti’s essay “The Strategy of The Refusal”, a document showing that the struggle against work was actually essential to the development of capital, what to make of it now, in light so many radical, and at times even invisible or largely unnoticed mutations in the constitution of contemporary capitalism?  Perhaps some possible answers can be recognized in Tronti’s formulation that ‘against the old forms of struggle and resistance’ should be installed new forms of political organization and refusal.  It seems apparent then, that to think refusal today should invest in the same formulation – this time polemically positioned against Tronti.  Why?  Because from within the paradigm of “The Strategy of Refusal” is a rigorous division of class – and one that seems to run the risk of merely satisfying a dialectic and binary representational machinism; the categories of ‘worker’ and ‘party’ seem to end up installing themselves within the very representations that the workers would have intended to overthrow, a move which became thwarted by their own becoming-major.  So perhaps some solutions to envisioning contemporary forms of refusal might begin along the lines suggested by Deleuze and Guattari: to think minority instead of class.  To say this does not mean denying that there are classes, or that there is a ruling class; only that refusal, resistance – what composes and calls for them - are not reducible to the antagonisms of a class division.  As the Italian Futurist FT Marinetti once said, “language is the motherload of all culture”, and it is without doubt impossible to follow the consequences of Tronti’s initial formulations without encountering and taking into much consideration all the nominations which have entered and continue to circulate through the “post-Fordist” lexicon as a result of the ‘failures’ of the Italian operaismo: social subjectivity, social chain, multitude, social factory, the general intellect, generic will, compositionism, immaterial or cognitive labour…

In coincidence with the workers movement as a particular history of struggles and theoretical works lay another long history of artistic practices and revolutions that could be said to have aimed at constructing solidarities with such resistances and refusals.  If the artists and workers caught up in these histories shared a common enemy it was certainly ‘capital’ – though such an enemy will always express itself in different forms relative to a given situation or milieu.  In Italy it was the factory; with artists, the museum, institution, or gallery.  In both instances there was a resistance toward the system’s control that manifested itself in the engaged and active search for an outside set against received modes of subjectivity and the “conjugations of the axiomatic” (D & G); a search that concerned itself with the invention of new forms of life and work aimed at the embetterment of society as a whole.  This other history, with loose ties to the attitudes of such localized movements as the Bauhaus in Germany and the Russian Constructivists (or for that matter more diffuse movements such as Dada), initiated new inquiries into modes of aesthetic production conceived through a kind of ‘anti-aesthetic’ which intersected with the ambitions of the Italian workers and autonomia during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Such coincidence figures into the attempts made by artists during this period to resist both the sedentary space of an elitist institution and the commodity form of the artwork in what came to known as Conceptual Art.

Though not all artists involved in the Conceptual Art movement were interested in positioning their practices within such antagonistic spaces whose directions and enemies were as clearly delimited as those of the operaismo or autonomia, it is nonetheless from this art historical trajectory that today’s artists derive the consequences of another ‘failure’; a failure which must similarly engage contemporary capitalism with the ‘sentimentalist’ imperative of gathering the “leftovers of unresolved struggles”.  Such struggles did not merely disappear into museological sediment; rather, their forms have irreversibly changed and continue toward ever more uncertain futures.  New strategies of artistic practice have developed, evolved, and mutated on the contemporary global stage; they carry with them their own set of names invented within art historical, critical, and theoretical discourse: socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, participatory, interventionist, research based, or collaborative art – to merely rattle off the very same inventory provided by Claire Bishop’s recent article on the ‘social turn’ in art (1).

These two histories overlap within heterotopic spaces that implicate a vast proliferation of events, sites, and struggles – the trace of which is no doubt evidenced by the compilation of an almost debilitating list from the fields of art, philosophy, and political theory.  While such a brief compilation as provided here can in no way take the entire field into consideration, together they can be shown to exhibit a certain solidarity, and as a consequence one immediate question might be the following:  do these contemporary nominations (community-based art, social subjectivity, compositionism…) in any way encounter the difficulties of unification and antagonism symptomatic of an organization through ‘the party’ as Tronti conceived it?  Or, to put it another way, are these in some way the markers of an impetus to – pace Toscano – ‘dominate the process to non-domination’?(2 )  Perhaps Tronti already anticipated this problem, or at least Deleuze and Guattari were able to recognize it within Tronti’s text, stating that “as long as the working class defines itself by an aquired status, or even by a theoretically conquered State, it appears only as “capital” […]” ( 3 ).

Such questions appear as relevant because one of the main problems for refusal, it seems, is the emergence of these ‘entities of reference’ that might become the ‘objective crystallization of antagonism’ (4).  And as is always the case with recognition, a potential disaster is therefore generated from the institutional nomination of these movements and events, nominations which can in turn render their errant compositions static within capital – something which should not be overlooked when one encounters such “taxonomic disorder”.  Yet at the same time, it would appear as necessary to proceed from the knowledge that such solidifications are also the mark of a very real production of social subjects who continue to resist such solidification. If capitalism is the drug (the inoculating agent), minority becomings are the viruses which mutate accordingly in this ‘germ warfare’ (5).

Instead of seeking a part immanent to the State and within representation, it should be possible to admit such terms as ‘entities of reference’ which refer only to spaces precipitating events and the formation of subjects.  That is, they reference a place without place such as the “errant multiplicity” of the “multitude-without-a-home”.  To a great extent, terms such as “collaborative art” will only ever designate potential strategies or tactics within still to be created spaces where refusal, antagonism, and resistance are possible - without this at all implying the militaristic form of an ‘avant-garde’ movement.  Such terms (be they from art, politics, or philosophy) do not stress unification as an organizational principle by way of already existing antagonisms, but instead explore the formulation that “antagonism is a consequence, not a condition”(6).  That is to say, resistance is an effect – it has to be generated through invention by subjects who come to recognize themselves as unrecognized.  A minority may create a model for itself in order to survive, but it is a model which it does not depend on, as Deleuze would say (7).  The creation of antagonism and the possibility of resistance are in fact the very mode of being of those spaces; the name only ever signifies a process, not a product.

So within such categorical loquaciousness would also be the positive feature of language’s jargonization - or rather, what Agamben relates as the very fact that all language is already jargon.  These variegated nominations created through minority usage are engaged attempts at articulating new relationships and new strategies within the “political imaginary”.  Contested, criticized, modified, overturned, or left behind as they may often be, they nonetheless remain exemplary of what underlined the “No!” of Tronti’s Italian worker: to upset the masks of the State and the order of a repressive machine (4).  These terminologies may even be said to inhabit spaces within discourse that Agamben would consider the mark of evental interruptions, in-between times “during which the factum of language and the factum of community come to light for an instant – are manifold and change according to times and circumstances” (9).  That, at least, would be their desired efficacy.

Yet faced with such overwhelming jargons, it is perhaps much less difficult to also sympathize with a philosopher such as Badiou, who might consider them confined to the indexical site of a ‘postmodern’ sophistics which he terms ‘idealinguistry’ (though at the same time these nominations would seem to also be aligned with his “strange multiplicities” without clear predicate (10) ).  In embracing a classical, systematic, and re-dressed Platonism, Badiou rejects such excesses as ‘celebrations’ of difference so as to instead assign thought a higher task in the production of sameness (genericity); and within the framework of his “meta-ontological” discourse, difference then becomes just “simply” what there is (11).  And though recently Badiou has come to reconsider “culture” (home of the detestable difference) as important to his “generic truth procedures”(12) - in a move that shows him tarrying with his own unthought, as it were - he is in most instances quick to dismiss it as being merely a category of art (13).  Such a refusal on his part involves sweeping such slippery concepts as the “multitude” or “immaterial labour” under the carpet of set theoretical pure multiplicity(virno one and many footnote).  But no mistake should be made here: to the extent that the introduction of these terms into the vocabularies used by philosophers, artists, political theorists, critics or historians alike are invested in promoting, acknowledging, and understanding the creation of new social subjects, it is only through such minority usages of language that the construction of “common spaces” within a shared humanity might be accomplished.  The reason for this, moreover, is precisely because minority becomings ground generic experience (14).

Difference[s] aside, then, attention should also be paid to a feature shared by much of the current political thought that, while not alien to the 60’s and 70’s necessarily bears repeating: the abandonment of ‘the party’ as an empty and no longer viable model of political organization so as to strategically jettison along with it any remaining “ideology of the proletariat” (or to follow Deleuze, “organization of power”, since for Deleuze ideology simply does not exist (15) ).  While Tronti’s “No!” is still something else altogether, it would certainly be a mistake to remain content with the illusion of a “future at our backs” which would exclusively reside in such oversimplified models as those of the party or the proletariat as programmes for emancipation. This is to say, pace Guattari, that if one wished to find the site of a betrayal toward revolutions and the masses, it is in the workers movement where it can be found (16).

So against the violent destiny laid out by Tronti’s call for an image of the worker as “Proud and Menacing” should be opposed a slogan for Franco Berardi’s new “cognitariat” which might read: “Faceless and Invisible”. Though as Angela Mitropoulos has observed, such promotional efforts would not be without consequences of their own, running the risk of this “faceless and invisible” subject “preening itself in the cognitariat’s mirror” (17).  Yet if one were to accept this strange slogan as a real indication of what some of our options might be as potential ‘clandestine practitioners’ (18 ) in this world, it is a slogan which implicates both Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence that the face is a landscape to be dismantled through becoming imperceptible(19), and Agamben’s call to “be only your face” (20).  To dismantle while becoming, and to be only one’s face are here to say the same thing: take away from the face every codification, every fixed identity, and become faceless by being only your face in its “pure communicability” (21).  For Agamben, the face (of the politician, the child, the movie star…) is that appearance which is only ever the hiding of appearing, and behind which lies the tumult of language forever leaving every face “suspended on the edge of an abyss” (22).  In capitalism, there are always powers (such as the media) which cover over the “communicative emptiness” of the face, guaranteeing that we cannot take hold of the opening which it is.  Yet the face is also the site of a struggle and “the only location of community, the only possible city” (23).  To dismantle/be one’s face might then indicate another kind of refusal whose political impact and potential exceed its description; it is in its act as powerful as the “No!” of Tronti’s worker.  And if it is true that we are always being “put to work” in our daily lives, to refuse what Guattari called “facialization” is one way to actualize a refusal of work – or to say the same thing:  a refusal of one of the myriad ways in which capitalism works through us.

Indeed, to advance beyond the limitations inherent in the forms of political organization and refusal offered by Tronti should - at least in part - involve questioning the role, form, or formation of ‘new social subjects’ and their collaborative and creative capabilities.  To articulate ourselves in the present – a very confused present in which we often find ourselves confused before powers which would prefer for us to remain confused – is to conduct experiments, acts, and decisions toward unforeseeable ends in the midst of the undecideable.  Call it affective labour, or militant engagement, or perhaps something else…Whatever name is given to such procedures, refusal then becomes synonymous with invention; it hinges on the creative capacity of an any-subject-whoever – whether that subject be an individuated evental arrival (Deleuze, Virno, Negri…) or the careful considerations of Badiou’s faithful (and profoundly Christiological) militant, in which the figures of genericity and anonymity supplant identity, and fidelity assumes the role of becoming.  And to the extent that capitalism might be said to force performance, it must also be examined, in the context of such investigations/becomings/fidelities, to what extent such performance can be accomplished without one seeing it immediately recaptured toward the very perpetuation of this world.  It might also be asked how new and complex strategies of refusal can potentially count as an art not merely for those who might designate it as being such within the field of art, but for anyone who, engaged in struggle, seizes hold of opportunities within the empty unrepresentable spaces covered over in capitalism, so as to channel their own desire toward something and somewhere other than here.

II. Revolving Doors:  The Legacies of Conceptual Art and The Contemporary Inheritance of Refusal

The 1960’s and 70’s witnessed a profound change in the way that artists discussed, made, or otherwise thought about art and their role as artists.  The muddled history of art since 1960 presents a legacy of “unfinished business” – stalled movements and strategies that were plugged up after their own brief but effective plugging up of the systems which they were responding to.  That many of today’s artists reactivate this history as their inheritance should indicate that in many ways, the future really is still at our backs. Characterized by a “general retreat from the visual” and largely emanating from a dispute with Greenbergian models of aesthetics, Conceptual artists worked with problematized placement, reductivism, and the foregrounding of text or information that became elements interwoven with newly defined parameters of artistic subjectivity.  These changes were in part an attempt to fully realize the consequences of so many investigations which had been initiated by Marcel Duchamp.  Duchamp’s strategy - all the while maintained through an “anti-retinal”(24) position - involved revealing the artworks reliance on contextual definition, a move that would in turn make visible the role of the viewer as active participant in the creation of the work(25).  It would be a mistake, of course, to see all of the changes which occurred during the 60’s and 70’s as emanating from the ‘legacy’ of one individual, though without much reservation, history nonetheless concedes to him a great deal.

Duchamp’s place in art history is complemented by the fact that he remains to this day the figure of a singular insubordination; and it is necessary, in the context of spaces that he could be said to have opened up for future generations, that it be remembered how he famously “quit making art” in order to pursue the leisure activity of playing chess.  His refusal – which was incontestably a passive Barleby-like retreat from the artworld and its attendant ‘little communities’ – came to resemble the most severe form of an interruption which is still being felt today.  No longer “making art”, and selling only a few works in his lifetime (a limitation of his own design), he committed himself now and again to sending some obscure and absurd object into the system like a virus that had to then somehow be contended with as art.  (It is worth comparing Duchamp’s behavior to that of the workers movement in Italy, where resistance did not always take on the form of union-run events, but instead relied on the spontaneity and ‘formlessness’ of strategies such as sabotage, absenteeism, the surprise “checkerboard” strikes, and minoritarian workers who baffled management by bringing outside life into the factories – thereby displacing an appearance which exemplified the mutations and tendencies of an emerging class composition (26).)

Taken together, the strategies and positions developed first by Duchamp (who of course always preferred not to be called an artist ) and later by those during the 60’s and 70’s attempting to understand him differently (if not better) than their immediate predecessors were inseparable from a refusal of the existing order; a refusal of the institution and the status of the artist that also meant a resistance to capitalism and the commodity form of the artwork.  Much as with the Italian workers, Conceptual artists were developing calculated strategies aimed at plugging up and blocking the system; styles of thinking, doing, and making that it was often hoped would prevent capitalism and the institution from functioning smoothly.  These antagonisms provoked artistic practices that challenged the role of museums, the gallery space, the critic; and ultimately led to a retreat from the apriori identity and individualism of the “artist” in a kind of ‘autovalorization’.  For many of these ‘practitioners’, then, who conducted their work in the public sphere as opposed to the “sacred space” of the institution, it was relevant to take an anti-art stance and perform a constant restaging of the matter and means of artistic practice.  The Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica was one of the first to pose the problem of situating the artist’s activity in that somewhere else without it being necessary to have recourse to a preferable social subject or a cultural particularity – even if he was at the time speaking specifically of the situation in his country as the location of struggle:

…In Brazil, the roles take on the following pattern: how to, in an underdeveloped country, explain and justify the appearance of an avant-garde, not as a symptom of alienation, but as a decisive factor in its collective progress?  How to situate the artist’s activity there?  The problem could be tackled by another question: who does the artist make his work for?  It can be seen, thus, that this artist feels a greater need, not only simply to “create,” but to “communicate” something which for him is fundamental, but this communication would have to be large-scale, not for an elite reduced to “experts,” but even “against” this elite, with the proposition of unfinished, “open” works.  (27)

Such perspectives on an “open” work were likewise being explored by Cildo Meireles, who was inventing artistic practices that were to fuse art and political activism with his Insertions into Ideological Circuits.  These early experiments, considered as an evolution from the recognized common practices of chain letters and the message in a bottle, involved stamping messages and opinions onto banknotes and then returning them into circulation (a practice still visible today in America).  The “message in a bottle” was the model for Meireles’ Insertions—Coca-Cola from 1970, where opinions about local politics and the politics of imperialism were calculatingly camouflaged with small text printed in white ink onto the sides of Coca-Cola bottles that, after re-entering the factory, were filled and redistributed.  For Meireles, the projects “arose out of the need to create a system for the circulation and exchange of information that did not depend on any centralized control”(28).  These projects – small systems interacting with the machine of capital that had the potential of producing subversive effects - were never intended for the exhibition space (even if posterity would eventually find a home for them there) but were instead aimed at the masses through a form of “counter-information” that he further explained:

The way I conceived it, the Insertions would only exist to the extent that they ceased to be the work of just one person.  The work only exists to the extent that other people participate in it.  What also arises is the need for anonymity.  By extension, the question of anonymity involves the question of ownership.  When the object becomes a practice, it becomes something over which you can have no control or ownership.(29)

If the artist as factory worker was embodied by Warhol, such models of a fully engaged artist-worker collaboration with the market were quickly abandoned by many artists in the emerging generation who were sympathetic to worker’s struggles abroad.  More artists during this time were becoming sensitive to the political and economic situations frustrating much of the world, and by necessity of their commitment intended their work for a public that couldn’t be figured from traditional categories of aesthetic reception.  Of note in this regard is the still active collaborative team Art & Language. With members operating in both the UK and the US, they were to “side with the working class” following a Marxist critique of artistic means of production that sought to disrupt art’s “regulated function”.  Their perspectives saw the artist as historically inscribed within the bourgeoisie, stating that ‘so long as there has been a proletariat the artist has not been a part of it’. With a desire to develop projects “in and for class lines”, A&L were convinced that “Under present circumstances, the progressive artists will be those who seek, as however distant a prospect, the dictatorship of culture by the working classes.  As a member of a bourgeois social section, the artist can thus only act progressively in the symptomatic and historical paracoxicalness of his own social practice” (30).

Seeking to generate antagonism in the form of ideological conflict, A&L may have ended siding with the particularity of the ‘worker’ – citing Luxemborg and Lenin as they did – although they had their outspoken dissenter in former member Ian Burn.  In NY Burn was operating at a time when it was possible to anticipate emerging economic conditions and new forms of labour that would later be identified as immaterial or cognitive labour.  Burn was also one of the only artists to fully – and very perceptibly – explore his situation as an artist within the market as a relationship of “reciprocal determination”, where the artist determined the museum as much as the other way around.  According to Burn, it was not enough to be “just an artist” since he saw the “artist” as playing a sterile and politically conservative role in society that only had “value as propaganda for an imperious culture” (31).   When considering the attempts of an organization such as the National Art Workers Community, Burn reached conclusions that recalled those of Tronti.  The NAWC desired to improve the artist’s status by 1) – improving the standard of living of the artist through expanding the demand for art; and 2) – promoting the recognition of the artist as a working professional…” (32).  As Burn understood the situation, artists could not directly remain artists in the traditional sense of the word without still being enveloped within ‘an imperious and autonomous market dictating to the artist’ which in the case of NAWC forced Burn to ask the question:  “Isn’t this labor organizing for the same reasons that capital does and for no other?”(33)

If Burn was sensing changing definitions of what could be counted as “work”, he was certainly not alone in the artworld.  The term “immaterial labour” itself seems nearly synonymous with what Lucy Lippard and John Chandler were gathering under the title “The Dematerialization of Art” in their 1967 essay (34). Such “dematerialization” was characterized by ‘post-aesthetic’ or anti-art practices that sought the “disintegration of art”; it signaled a point – exterior to the existing conditions of the studio, museum, or gallery and the traditionaly positioned bourgeoisie status of the artist - when art, like work, could have more to do with the production and networking of information than with the visual embodiment of displaced labour in the art object.  The history of the nomination “dematerialized art” has also had to contend with the shaky ground of such a concept which so resembles that of “immaterial labour”.  Just as those who have worked with the notion of “immaterial labour” have had to flush out the concept in assurance that it did not imply the absence of any material trace (Hardt and Negri of course come to mind), those responding to Lippard and Charndlers initial formulation were obliged to do the same during their time.  Terry Atkinson was one such artist (35), and still more artists were exploring “Media Art” by utilizing mechanisms of the media in an attempt to raise the political consciousness of viewers, often through direct manipulation and falsification of information (36).

One artist certainly more attentive to the already existing potential of immaterial or cognitive labour was Adrian Piper, who beyond the call for an understanding of the various directions the art-object was taking toward “dematerialized art” promoted what she termed “meta-art”.  Piper explained “meta-art” as

the activity of making explicit the thought processes, procedures, and presuppositions of making whatever kind of art we make. Thought processes might include how we hypothesize a work into existence: whether we reason from problems encountered in the last work to possible solutions in the next; or get “inspired” by seeing someone else’s work, or a previously unnoticed aspect of our own; or read something, experience something, or talk; or find ourselves blindly working away for no good reason; or any, all, or other processes of this kind.  (37)

Piper insisted the potential for “meta-art” lay in its usefulness as a programme that enabled a variety of artistic concerns and practices to be folded into everyday life, stating that “meta-art” “criticizes and indicts the machinations necessary to maintain this society as it is.  It holds up for scrutiny how capitalism works on us and through us”(38).  As a practice, it was first imagined for the artist as a focus on the artist qua artist; but given the nature of Piper’s activities during the formative years of Conceptual Art – her “paradoxical” simultaneous involvement in rigorous (Kantian) academic philosophy and unannounced street performance – it becomes quite apparent that “meta-art” would not only provide a way to dematerialize (or for that matter deterritorialize) the artist into society, but implied that the everyday activities of any-subject-whoever could consequently be considered as art – just not art with a capital A.

“Meta-art” was also a call to distance artistic practice from the hegemony of critics and historians whose interpretations controlled the public reception of artworks by suggesting that artists take the “means of revelation into their own hands” (39).  Such a call was already anticipated by Lippard and Chandler who just five years earlier had said that “sometime in the near future it may be necessary for the writer to be an artist as well as for the artist to be a writer”(40).  In the sense that Piper instilled upon the subject as artist-producer, the artist was no longer “just an artist” but lost that identity within a larger social context.  Much in the way that the works of Meireles or the strategies of autonomia and the emarginati deliberately attempted to subvert existing systems, Piper’s Calling Cards provide the most notable example of how “meta-art” might function.  Based as responses to the assumptions other people might make of her, Piper, when prompted, would distribute announcements printed on small business cards which said such things as: 

“Dear Friend, I am not here to pick anyone up, or to be picked up. I am here alone because I want to be here, ALONE.  This card is not intended as part of an extended flirtation.  Thank you for respecting my privacy.”

As invested in social change as these artists were, and as heavily influenced as they became through their encounters with critical Marxism, French theory, ‘poststructuralism’, feminism, and an increasingly ‘bastardized’ deconstruction, the historical trajectory of Conceptual Art eventually gave way to certain realizations that it had pursued an “unfounded attempt to avoid commercialization” (41) that saw the ‘ghostlike reappartions’ of traditional forms of artmaking return (42).  During the art-market boom of the eighties artists like Jeff Koons were fully exploiting the commodity fetishism of the artwork, often humorously and deliberately making it visible in a critical-comedy, as was his case.  While this evident failure of the larger conceptualist “project of emancipation” could have been seen as a failure on par with that of the workers movement in Italy, into the nineties and the new millennium many remnants of art after 1960 (conceptual, fluxus, performance…) began to reassert themselves with a renewed vigor as some of the only strategies available to expand upon which the younger generations had inherited after being thrown to the new globalized situatuions of cognitive labour and a destabilized workforce.

Many practices of critically examining situations which had been pursued by artists such as Hans Haake, Daniel Buren, and Marcel Broodthaers would eventually be consolidated under the heading of “institutional critique”.  The term, attributable to Frederick Jameson and articulated by Benjamin HD Buchloh (43), first appeared in print under the pen of artist Andrea Fraser.  Originally “institutional critique” was set against the museum as an exclusive site for the repression and domination of artists - a theme which Fraser continued to develop throughout the nineties, notably in her “Proposal for artistic Services”:

This is the contradictory principle of our professional lives:  dependence is the condition of our autonomy.  We may work for ourselves, for our own satisfaction, responding only to internal demands, following only an internal logic, but in doing to so we forfeit the right to regulate the social and economic conditions of our activity.  And in forfeiting the right to regulate our activity according to our professional interests, we also forfeit the ability to determine the meaning and effects of our activity according to our interests as social subjects also subject to the effects of the symbolic system we produce and reproduce.  As long as the system of belief on which the status of our activity depends is defined according to a principle of autonomy which bars us from pursuing the production of specific social use value, we are consigned to producing only prestige value.  If we are always already serving, artistic freedom can only consist in determining for ourselves—to the extent that we can—who and how we serve.  This is, I think, the only course to a less contradictory principle of autonomy. (44)

Along a similar line of inquiry, Fraser also explored the potentials which still existed in the past demands of the Art Workers Coalition (AWC):

The AWC was probably the most significant post-war American attempt by artists to collectively redefine both the material conditions of their practices and its social function—particularly in terms of relations to public and private art presenting organizations.  Many of the policy changes the AWC pressed museums for—free admission, equal representation of artists, museum professionals and patrons on museum boards, royalties paid to artists when their work is exhibited, and substantial representation of minority artists in collections and exhibitions were never realized.  The AWC did however spur the development of community cultural centers, artist-run exhibition spaces, and political and activist art practices—particularly institutional critique. It also, through a resistance to feminist issues, contributed to the emergence of an independent women's art movement. (45)

In a recent contribution to Artforum, Fraser returned to the theme of “institutional critique” nearly a decade later, problematically recast in an essay which bore the title “From the Critique of Institutions to the Institution of Critique” (an inversion fully aware that there were consequences of contemporary capitalism that the critique of institutions and “institutional critique” would have to contend with). In the light of art history’s canonization of ‘conceptualist practices’, Fraser asked the relevant if not obvious question:  “How can artists who have become art historical institutions themselves claim to critique the institution of art?”(46).

The problem here is that after the institution adapted to the demands of artists by making attempts to cooperate - or control, it’s really the same thing - with shifting artistic practices, it “destroyed itself through proliferation” (Buren).  Such “destruction”, however, is characteristic only of the institution’s older form disappearing, and such disappearing merely signaled the birth of the institutions newer forms that, much like the replacement of the factory as centralized place of production through deregulation and the precarious worker all too easily resembled a display of “capitalism’s vengeance”.  The destruction of the institutions through proliferation also resulted in the older froms of artistic practice which criticized the institution to be dissipated.  And yet, the reason why Fraser can still claim that “institutional critique” has “urgent stakes in the present” has much to do with recognizing that the institution-with-open-doors of today – being no longer the mere image of an easily legible exclusion and elitism that it once was – still enacts a kind of repression and exploitation.

Fraser argues that the dismantled and proliferated institution has moved away from the specific place(museum, university) into the larger social field, from special places to common places.  Just as the Arcades explored by Benjamin are no longer underground markets occupying a specific place, they, like the institutions of today, have no fixed or substantive character and no distinct “outside”, if they can be said to have one at all.  For Fraser, what is outside of the institutions is “only what, at any given moment, does not exist as an object of artistic discourses and practices”(47).  According to this evaluation, to make distinctions between the “institution” and “us” is to deny responsibility of our role in its maintenance, and as a consequence, recalling Burn, “It is artists – as much as museums or the market – who, in their very efforts to escape the institution of art, have driven its expansion” (48).

This realization is not, however, merely indicative of a negative condition - and it is worth wondering here whether the potentials of the general intellect, or the multitudes, are not also implicated in perpetually entering and leaving such determined and determining territories through a kind of revolving door – a passage at the border between recognition and repression, visibility and invisibility, or inside and outside, as it were.  Such diagnosis reveal that no artistic poject can really exist without some antagonism toward something – be that something preconceived ideas about art, aesthetics, the role of the “author”, identity and representation, or capitalism and globalization.  Yet today, the institution is not so much a site of reciprocal resistance as it is a space for the continued exploration of the questions opened up since the 1960’s.  The institution of today would prefer to be seen as a platform for the posing and discussion of these myriad questions raised by artist and institution alike, a situation leading many contemporary artists – who often choose instead to now work for and with the instiution - to abandon clear lines of demarcation between their practices and the new ‘institutional practices’ of the institutions themselves.

To take seriously the suggestion that this relationship between artist and institution – which in reality has always been symbiotic – offers new possibilities and positive conditions for the artist, it has to be assumed that there is a kernel of truth to Daniel Buren’s proposition that “the proliferation of contemporary art museums today is a kind of technical revolution that may actually be as significant for art making as the invention of oil paint”(49).  It would be a thorough disservice to the legitimacy of this statement if it were not paired with one it so closely resembles, made by Felix Guattari when he said that “we are currently witnessing a mutation of subjectivity that perhaps surpasses the invention of writing, or the printing press, in importance” (50).

Whether the artist engages with these subjects inside of the museum where they are invited, or discovers them elsewhere, is certainly being explored in new and interesting ways by artist Rirkrit Tiravanija.  Tiravanija’s projects have brought outside life into the space of the museum by inviting the viewer to become active participants who eat, sleep, or otherwise interact with his installations in ways that reconfigure the modes of reception for an artwork.  This constant restaging of the channels through which art can be experienced is something art has always shared with politics, and is part of what, in fact, makes aesthetics inherently political.   Successful in their own right, the point of Tirivanija’s

The Land Chaing Mai, Thailand On going project

installations is nowhere more present than in his remote-location ongoing collaborative project: simply called “The Land”, it was initiated in 1998 and envisioned as a self sustainable lab utilizing architectural ideas for living (51) to which other artists such as Pierre Huyghe and the collaborative group Superflex (52) have contributed.  There is also no time limit on the project, something that ideally allows it to continue expanding in an attempt to involve and enrich the life of surrounding communities.  The overall desired effect of the project seems also to share the concerns of the collaborative team Oda Projesi, whose activities have been described by Claire Bishop:

Oda Projesi is a group of three artists who, since 1997, have based their activities around a three-room apartment in the Galata district of Istanbul (oda projesi is Turkish for “room project”).  The apartment provides a platform for projects generated by the collective in cooperation with its neighbors, such as a children’s workshop with the Turkish painter Komet, a community picnic with the sculptor Erik Gongrich, and a parade for children organized by the Tem Yapin theater group.  Oda Projesi argue that they wish to pen up a context for the possibility of interchange and dialogue, motivated by a desire to integrate with their surroundings.  They insist that they are not setting out to improve or heal a situation – one of their project leaflets contains the slogan “exchange not change” – though they clearly see their work as gently oppositional. By working directly with their neighbors to organize workshops and events, they evidently want to produce a more creative and participatory social fabric.  They talk of creating “blank spaces” and “holes” in the face of an over-organized and bureaucratic society, and of being “mediators” between groups of people who normally don’t have contact with one another.(53)

If it is only with the production of ‘new social subjects’ and the importance of finding “the public” that a ‘social turn’ in art should be understood, artists today continue - in what might appear as an exodus from the studio and exhibition space - to adopt Nomad practices that force their work into the “open” constructions Oiticica had envisioned.  Like Tirivanija, artist Aleksandra Mir (54) chooses not to have a studio - or rather, both of these artists construct spaces in which social life itself becomes a kind of studio or laboratory.  In direct opposition to the closed and factory-like space of a traditional artist’s studio, Mir instead prefers to travel so as to discover locations for site specific works such as her Cinema for the Unemployed.  This project involved the participation of a movie theater that remained open free to the public during standard 9-5 working hours on the condition that it show only Hollywood disaster movies.  Mir thus explored unemployment as a space oscillating in the public mind somewhere between tragedy and leisure, the circumstantially unfortunate lifestyle and the chosen one.

Engaging the public was also examined in other ways by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an artist working during the nineties with an all too brief life who would not only suggest to his students that the best way to read Althusser was drunk (55), but who also understood in a Foucauldian fashion that a passport had as much to do with the body as a sculpture of the human figure(56).  Like Meireles’ Insertions, his work could not exist without the public.  Examining the inheritance of a minimalist vernacular married to Conceptual Art’s strategies, Gonzalez-Torres utilized the logics of distribution to create works which were physically accessible and infinitely reproducible: masses of candy would be spread out onto gallery and museum floors or piled in corners, while for other projects it merely sufficed to have stacks of photocopied material which the public was free to remove and take with them. The “open” accessible work was the material where the immaterial could take place, and there is something to be said of work such as this that, 100 years from now, will still show the same generosity it did when it was first conceived, since no matter the ideological sediment that may surround it, it will never cease to liberate itself from itself by the simple fact that one remains allowed to remove a piece of candy from the pile and eat it.  And while he always acknowledged that he made the work first for his partner Ross, then for himself, in the end it was always intended for everyone.

During an interview with curator Robert Storr, Gonzalez-Torres had said “I don’t want to make art just for people who can read Frederick Jameson sitting upright on a Mackintosh chair.  I want to make art for people who watch the Golden Girls and sit in a big, brown, lazy-boy chair.  They’re part of my public too, I hope.”  For Gonzalez-Torres, there was no distinguishing between the degree to which a work of art could be said to carry social content; whether a formalist work or ‘politicized’ art, aesthetics were not even about politics, they were politics.  Moreover, the more successful the politics in the work, the less directly visible it was.  This in itself, however, does not imply that art’s political content will be channeled toward ends that benefit humanity, since very often it does the exact opposite.  Art may be always searching for a people, but it can’t create them, as Deleuze would say (57).

Art has no obligation toward such creation, nor does it have any obligation to communicate; art merely has a potential, and part of that potential is that it can act as a medium through which spaces for antagonism can then be constructed – which is to say, spaces where it becomes possible to think.

How No Can You Go? (Part II)

What follows is the second part of my contribution to the Long Sunday symposium on Tronti's "The Strategy of The Refusal". The first part is here. This is all still in draft, the last two parts especially. I'm still re-working everything - cleaning it up, deleting, adding, etc. - but it's here for those interested. Comments welcome.

III. Moving Cities: Francis Alys’ Paseos (Strolls)

The real must be fictionalized in order to be thought.
- Jacques Ranciere

The work of artist Francis Alys builds on a kind of homage to Fluxus that is half Situationist derive and half Benjaminian flaneur. Born in Belgium, Alys has for the past sixteen years lived as a citizen of Mexico City – and it is no doubt due to the eight years he spent as an architect before deciding to become an artist that his interests now are formed from themes of social, urban, and city space. When discussing his work, Alys speaks of “building situations” and “elaborating scenarios” through a ‘practice’ which allows him the fantasy of being a storyteller. There is a sense of playfulness or childishness to his strolls through the labyrinthian networks of the city which is all the more apparent when considering his series of portable sculptures called Ghetto Collectors: small “toy dogs” on a leash that have been outfitted with rollerskate wheels and magnets. Though reproduced in cities across the globe, Alys’ performances involving the Ghetto Collectors were initially designed to be taken through the streets of Mexico City as an examination of what he expressed as the “politics of survival of the place”; such survival was predicated on an economy he perceived to be essentially thriving on nothing – on recycled life. The toy dogs would consume the city’s waste (bottlecaps, bits of metal, coins…) as Alys went about his stroll, a stroll which would only end as soon as the power of attraction supplied by the magnets inside his Ghetto Collectors had been sufficiently used up.

Alys’ Paseos can also be seen as a way of refusing habit, of refusing the normalized pathways of the city so as to build stories ( of drift, fragmentary invention, absence of memory) through the act of walking. His Paseos also resemble the stroll as a kind of “speech act” described by de Certeau in his essay “Walking in the City”: Alys walks in an improvisational childlike wandering that subtracts itself from the city’s panoptic order, making stories that are “composed with the world’s debris”(53). For de Certeau, such walks would be the ‘proliferating illegitimacy of microbe-like, singular, and plural practices’ not eliminated by the order of the “proper name” of this or that particular street, this or that particular space; thereby embodying the “tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised.” (58)

If Alys fancies himself as a storyteller then it may not be an exaggeration to make such comparisons to de Certeau, who views the act of walking as an engagement with the surrounding urban environment in which changing steps or cutting away through tangential skips would inform a whole “rhetoric of walking” that destabilizes language. A walk in the city, then, as defined by being a “field of trajectories”. For de Certeau, the city performs an emptying of the imaginary - it erases stories, legends, and fables; it empties itself of “special” and habitable spaces which might otherwise perform the function of exits, instead giving way to an art of walking that, by substituting for such vanishing exits enables space to open back onto “something different”:

What this walking exile produces is precisely the body of legends that is currently lacking in one’s own vicinity; it is a fiction, which moreover has the double characteristic, like dreams or pedestrian rhetoric, of being the effect of displacements and condensations. (59)

Paolo Virno has also analyzed contemporary forms of metropolitan behavior and their attendant ‘childishness’ – a childishness that can certainly be seen in the Paseos of Alys, which resist both the substantial and the legible. Characterized by a disappearance of “special places” that are slowly being supplanted by “common spaces”, repetition dominates these new behaviors that might provide refuge from the course of the world (60). In this sense Alys embraces what Virno effectively describes as the positive features of being a stranger in one’s own community and “not-feeling-at-home”. Even in Alys’ paintings – scenes derived from future, past, or altogether unrealizeable strolls and performances – solitary figures wander or hover about through desolate and liquid landscapes where they always appear, as Alys himself has acknowledged, to be “looking for a home”. “Common spaces” then, can also be solitary and desolate – or for that matter, precarious - spaces which skirt disaster yet still provide repetition as a form of refuge: the same fairy tale, game, or gesture one more time (61). Such repetition should recall Deleuze’s analysis of the return of the same: when someone (a child, a city-dweller, an artist) repeats the same story, game, or gesture, it is the return of the same inasmuch as that same is different. There might otherwise run the risk of what Virno calls “the emergence of a publicness without a public sphere” that would dictate redistributions of hierarchies and control (62). Alys’ strolls aim at becoming the positive form of a repetition that provides a refuge and a refusal, so as to strategically exit from such risks.

While any possible relationship of Alys’ Paseos to the particular romantic notion of an ‘artist’s journey’ – which I take to be the illusion of a decadent and vulgar individualism – is of complete irrelevance here, I do wish to further locate his urban interactions/interventions within the context of Benjamin’s flaneur, and to a certain extent the Situationist derive (even if Debord happened to have directly opposed the derive to the ‘classical’ notion of a stroll). To take, then, one project of Alys’ in particular: Narcotoursim/Copenhagen, 6-12 May 1996. This work, which truly investigated Deleuze’s assertion that “underneath all reason lies delirium, and drift”(63), outlined a week-long stroll where Alys would walk within the city under the influence of a different drug each day, and document his experience through photographs, notes, or any other material that became relevant. Nowhere in Alys’ many other performances is the solitary, impersonal figure of the flaneur more relevant than this one in particular. For Benjamin, the flaneur traveled in the time of a childhood not necessarily his own, through a “landscape built of sheer life” and anamnestic intoxication. The flaneur’s observations were not to classify, categorize, or otherwise single out the distinctions or social standing of a city’s inhabitants, but instead to level the world within a horizonal structure (‘a more terrifying labyrinth’, as Deleuze would say). And Hashish, which Benjamin for a time experimented with (and it can be assumed or at least imagined was one of Alys’ seven selections), gave similitude an “unlimited relevance” that produced a world where ‘everything was face’ (64).

So why continue with the Lafarguian flaneur as so analogous to the strolls of Alys, even when many critics have dismissed such a comparison as having little to bear on Alys’ projects? Perhaps because the best and most perfect flaneur not only found his home in the homeless multitude to which Benjamin’s fragment from Baudelaire would attest (65), but also because the flaneur found the idleness of the sidewalk stroll to be a productive venture – and Alys certainly fits the profile of a “productive walker”. Benjamin also noted the role of the journalist as flaneur, who counts his leisure hours as work hours too, constructing his stories while exhibiting a worktime visible to everyone in the space of a city where external agitations are made to be profitable. But most of all, it is the flaneur’s idleness, like the interruptive and interventionist idle chatter of humanity examined by Virno (66) which makes such a comparison so necessarily pressing – and as Benjamin wrote: “The idleness of the flaneur is a demonstration against the division of labour.” (67)

Alys’ behavior really is somewhat childlike; his Paseos comprise an art that speaks and builds stories, reappropriating the dreamworld while making maps of new experiences that mirror the desired effectiveness of a derive. And not to forget what on one occasion Deleuze had said about art: that it “ […] no longer retains anything of the personal or rational. In its own way, art says what children say. It is made up of trajectories and becomings, and it too makes maps, both extensive and intensive.”(68)

IV. Anorectic Subjectivities

Maurizio Lazzarato distinguishes in “Struggle, Event, Media”(69) between two paradigmatic bodies in Western control societies – either the obese subject who readily consumes the multifarious possible worlds offered up through advertising and media, or the anorectic who refuses the world, constantly seeing the starvation and destruction transmitted through the television. Yet, this simplification permits the television as only a stream of advertising interrupted by the film or the program, and the anorectic subject is limited to becoming “sick with the world” through absorbing only the disasters of society. There must be more to the anorectic subject than a mere refusal of the world of images depicting a certain hell of capitalism. Are there only negations, or can refusal count as affirmation – and what, exactly, is being refused?

There must be a positive, affirmative anorectic subject who refuses through invention; but it would also amount to an obese subjectivity, an insatiable desire to find or create untapped resources of the multitude. The gaps, voids, potentials are covered over by a world that has become advertising. The anorectic subject is forced to invent and create or risk having desire blocked. An unhinging of new forces of desire has to begin with refusal, it has to begin with the perception and understanding of the infinite ways that capital is capable of controlling and enforcing - through the most microscopic regimes - a received subjectivity that will always come back for more (advertising and media: it’s ‘so harmless’ after all…). But the programs on television are no longer only the interruption of advertising (or the other way around), the programs have themselves become advertising, and it is harder to distinguish between the space and time of the commercial and that of the program which would “interrupt” it. It could almost be said that product placement had moved from its uncanny presence in the Holywood film and directly infiltrated the television programs themselves, which before were the breaks between the advertisements. And in the cinema, the television model has been synthesized into an extended and uninterrupted commercial. There thus exists an indeterminate zone between what is supposed to be entertainment and what is expected of the subject.

As Deleuze might say, there are ways of seizing the possible in the gaps - those imperceptible arrangements and voids. Advertising is that forceful vengeance of capitalism that invades all of life and puts it to work wherever it is, and as Lazzarato recognizes, the prompt for ways of living (food, clothing, styles of life – ways of speaking and behaving), the circulation of opinion – in short: everything that is expected of the subject is something that insists in the hertz waves as ‘incorporeal transformations’. With the Deleuzian analysis that Lazzarato embraces, these sign regimes express commands disguised as seductive messages which describe the world as “something possible”. Massumi has also considered the home as a “regime of passage” – a pourous membrane allowing sings to enter in an circulate; the ultimate capture is one of the movement of the event itself which leads precisely to the problem of belonging.(70)

And what of ‘artistic practices’ within the new situations generated through globalization and the proliferation of institutions? What, if anything, is art supposed to do under such circumstances and how might it benefit from refusal – from its own ‘anorexia’? The upcoming Documenta XII may attempt, under the guise of ‘institutional practices’ to broach some of these questions. It’s three leitmotifs, “is modernism out antiquity?”, “what is bare life?”, and the third, oft repeated “what is to be done?” intend to take full advantage of immaterial production: the model for the latest Documenta will include a “documenta XII magazine” which proposes to utilize over 70 worldwide publications so that it might ask questions as to how artistic theory differs from practice or other forms of politics, artistic work from other kinds of work, etc. However, these questions are not entirely new, and Jacques Ranciere has already done considerable work toward clarifying them, particularly with regard to the notion of ‘modernity’ itself and the place of art within other kinds of activities, stating that: “Whatever might be the specific type of economic circuits they lie within, artistic practices are not ‘exceptions’ to other practices. They represent and reconfigure the distribution of these practices.”(71) Of course, the curator and the institution often have their own artistic ambitions, so to speak – and the organizers of Deocumenta XII, as their website indicates, are approaching these questions with “the aspiration of becoming a platform for the transfer and discursive consolidation of specialized knowledge”. Yet the institution that asks the questions invariably determines the market to a very large degree.

An arrival at antagonism, not a starting point. Saying no – or more appropriately, just refusing in general (however it might be decided to do so) - becomes the means to invest new forms of affirmation, new ways in which to grab hold of the gaps and run with them. The ‘immaterial transformations’ are the site of new potentialities, and Tronti was already beginning to acknowledge this when four years after writing “The Strategy of the Refusal” he went on to say that attention should be paid to capitalism’s “growing phase of development which creates a positive movement in the whole social texture of production without presupposing that the latter is owned and organized by the capitalist class”(72). Refusal, as de Certeau recognized, is an “ageless art” that goes back beyond our contemporary demarcations of workplace and worktime – a refusal might take the form of “la perruque” (“the wig”): “La perruque is the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer”(73). To create diversions inside of the factory, the office, perhaps even the home by tricking the order through actions that do not obey the law of the place. Such refusals, as Berardi would note, are more about active life and its enhancement than merely indicating some “right to laziness” of which they are nonetheless a part. And then there is Negri, who is at his most cogent when he says that the refusal of work is one thing, outmoded and ineffective as it may be, but the refusal of command, well, that is something else entirely…