April 24, 2012

"Who's Afraid of Accumulation?" (Part 1)

Administrator’s Note: Two months ago a group of art theorists, professors and authors sat down at our panel on “Accumulation” to begin a dialogue on what we perceived as an “amassing or gathering [of] objects, documents and/or other items for express purposes either of art installations or recognition of such accretion as a legitimate manifestation of art production.” My colleague, Dr. Nana Last, and myself had “amassed” a strong group for our CAA2012 session and it was a resounding success. Today I have the distinct pleasure of sharing one of the session papers with readers of this site. Dr. Philip Ursprung, Professor of History of Art and Architecture at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, presented the following essay on Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. “Who's afraid of accumulation?” considers the question of the structure of accumulation itself and the relations it establishes between the amassing of data, capitalist expansion and the potential loss of control. With the kind permission of Dr. Ursprung, his paper will be posted in two parts: 


Thomas Hirschhorn, born in 1957, studied graphic design in Zurich before leaving his native Switzerland for Paris. In Paris, he joined the design collective Grapus. The members of Grapus, founded in 1970, combined Situationist methods of finding inspiration in the street with the militant iconography of May 1968. Collage and bricolage were typical elements of Grapus’ design, as was the affinity to Soviet and Eastern European posters. Grapus shifted from rebellious collective to the mainstream in the 1980s and was dissolved in 1991. By that time Hirschhorn had already left the collective to become an independent artist who mainly works on his own. However, the notion of collage, the focus on the street life and the interest in the Marxist vocabulary remain central in his oeuvre. For Someone Takes Care of My Work (1992) Hirschhorn chose pieces of cardboard, collaged them with photos, marked them with text and signs, and left them in the street. They remained exposed to the public and finally were discarded by the garbage collectors like his 99 plastic bags (1995). After these performative art works Hirschhorn developed his so-called “displays” or “layouts” in public spaces. The Ingeborg Bachmann Altar in Zurich (1998) consisted of a variety of images, texts, objects that related to the Austrian writer. The altar was set up outside the Zurich Art Museum, recalling the spontaneous mourning sites that had been installed a year earlier after the death of Lady Diana. This alter and others such as the Altar Otto Freundlich were outdoor displays dedicated to artists and intellectuals that he worships as a “fan,” as he puts it. Often directly set in front of the museum they are less a critique of the museum as an institution but means of overcoming the exclusivity of the art world.


 The guiding rule is that of the collage. Hirschhorn juxtaposes images and texts that seem to be disconnected. Masking tape and opaque plastic foils simultaneously connect and separate, expose and disguise the content matter of his art works. Hastily combined they evoke the fragility, or, as he says, the “precarious” nature of any kind of order. Another sign of the Situationist heritage is the relation to a site. In general, his displays cannot be separated from the site they take place. For instance, the visitors of his Bataille Monument, a highlight of Documenta 11 in 2002, had to drive to a Turkish immigrant neighborhood at the outskirts of Kassel and enter an area that normally lies beyond the exclusive limits of the art world. The Mus√©e Albinet in Aubervilliers, held in 2004, went furthest in Hirschhorn’s intention to transgress the exclusiveness of the art world. Instead of bringing the kids to the Louvre, he brought the Louvre to the Banlieue, installing a series of displays grouped around original works of art in a social housing building. With the exhibition Crystal of Resistance Hirschhorn represented Switzerland in last year’s Venice Biennale. Comparable to artists such as Hans Haacke or Barbara Kruger in the 1990s he himself has become mainstream, combining political subject matter with esthetic autonomy, in other words his interest with the “capitalist waste-basket” as he calls it and with beauty.

When I visited Thomas Hirschhorn in his studio in Aubervilliers, in the outskirts of Paris last fall, he told me that the notion of the collage was fundamental for his art. Where other artists keep their paint-brushes, he has his masking tapes. He conceives his work basically as a two-dimensional collage developed into space. When I asked him about the notion of “accumulation,” he answered that he had never used this concept. However, he felt that this notion was highly interesting. He found it important in relation to the issue of energy, for instance in the image of the charged battery cherished by Joseph Beuys.

Hirschhorn rarely agrees with the terms that art historians apply to his work. For instance, he does not consider notions such as “participation” or “relational esthetics” or even “political art” helpful to deal with his work and insists that his main issue is esthetic autonomy. But “accumulation” seems to touch a nerve. The question I want ask is how this concept can lead to a better understanding of Hirschhorn’s art, and how Hirschhorn’s art can lead to a better understanding of the notion of “accumulation.”

What strikes me in the concept of accumulation is the fact that it cannot be reduced to an art discourse. It leads beyond the definition of an artistic genre or medium. It thus promises to overcome the limits of self-reflective notions cherished by museums and historians such as “assemblage” in the 1960s, “institutional critique” in the 1970s, “installation” in the 1980s, or “relational esthetics” since the mid 1990s. Originating in the Latin verb ad-cumulare, (“adding to a pile”) the term accumulation is highly elastic and reaches from artistic methods of arrangement to the enumeration in a text, to gardening to electricity and to economy. I find particularly fruitful the role this terms plays in the theory of economics. According to Marx, “accumulation” is one of the prerequisites of capitalism. The act of accumulation allows the capitalist to exploit those who have not accumulated anything and only have their skin. It is therefore always a first phase of a capitalist cycle. Before there is money with which one can make more money, there has to be an original or primitive accumulation (urspr√ľngliche Akkumululation), based on an extraction of resources. In Marx’s words:
“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black-skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.”

Unlike many other theorists of economy, Marx states that accumulation always roots in expropriation, and that violence, not individual merit, is the driving force of capitalism. One of the leading present-day Marxist theoreticians, David Harvey, claims that accumulation – in his words „accumulation by dispossession“ – is not limited to the prehistory of capitalism, but intrinsically part of capitalist economy, something that is happening over and over again. From such a perspective, we can interpret the fact that the 1970s are marked by both a recession in the industrialist countries and an astronomical profit of „petro-dollars“ by OPEC as a typical moment of primitive accumulation. We can interpret the exploitation of cheap labor in developing countries, the exploitation of natural resources in developing countries or the wars about the control of oil resources in this context. And we can, as Harvey does in his book The New Imperialism (2003), interpret the current privatization of public services, as emblems of accumulation by dispossession in our present time. We all can perceive the effects of this trend in our daily life.

How can we connect the economic concept of accumulation with the art practice of Thomas Hirschhorn? On the level of political engagement, the answer is clear. Hirschhorn publicly protested when the industrialist and right wing politician Christoph Blocher was elected member of the Swiss federal government by the parliament in 2003. In a Manifesto he declared that he would not exhibit in Switzerland as long as Blocher was in the government. Blocher had made a fortune by accumulation by dispossession during the 1980s and 1990s when he dissected several Swiss companies and pocketed the profit. On the political level he transformed a former middle-class popular party into a neoliberal, nationalist party, organized like a corporation and financed by his own billions. In fact, Christoph Blocher virtually embodies Switzerland’s shift to the right taking place since the 1990s.

But is there a way to connect the structure of Hirschhorn’s art to the phenomenon of accumulation? In order to give an answer, I want to focus on his most controversial exhibition up to present, Swiss-Swiss Democracy, held from December 2004 through January 2005 at the Swiss Cultural Center in Paris. The center is funded by Pro Helvetia, Switzerland’s state agency for cultural events. While the Center’s program, as is typical for such official, government-funded institutions, goes usually unnoticed, Hirschhorn’s exhibition brought a radical change. Overnight, the exhibition produced a major political scandal, was debated in the Swiss media, in both chambers of the parliament, and ended with a spectacular one million Swiss francs budget cut of Pro Helvetia by the Swiss National Parliament. [Part wo will be posted on April 30, 2012.


[Part two will be posted on April 30, 2012.]

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