December 30, 2012

My Resolution

"The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere." (1)

For some time now I have become aware that our preoccupation with the momentary facets of our media culture have moved beyond mere distraction to dangerous manipulation. Our daily addiction to these cellular technologies and their proprietary structures is altogether troubling. But the barely camouflaged agendas within the media-driven services, created via corporate programmed commerce, dictate our willing enslavement for most of our waking hours.

We sign on to the Internet, a ready stand-in for Guy Debord's "Spectacle," believing that we are "just checking our Facebook," only to be prompted to some "suggested post," a disguised advertisement poised to register our "likes" for future "call lists." Our keystrokes and movements through this insidious "World Wide Web" are tracked and monitored, with the resultant "spam" steadily filling our filtered lives, and our habits and preferences traded to those corporations complicit in the deceit. Because distraction is just a click away - political scandal, celebrity misadventure, YouTube miscreants and fiascoes - our loss of time is imperceptible as we text, scroll and meme our way through the Spectacular.

This is not to say that the Internet has no function, for that would be patently absurd. The ‘Net’s usefulness as basic information source cannot be denied. From students to academics, to research scientists and authors, the ease and speed with which any topic can be accessed and explored on the Web makes it the premier tool for gathering and gaining knowledge, or at least a sense of knowing.

We could never have known how correct Debord's predictions would become. We communicate via The Spectacle, controlled by its machinations, lead to wherever it wants us to go. This may be harmless for the young, perhaps even amusing for five or six years as they sojourn through the tethers of Academia. However, the adult mind becomes besotted among the zeros and ones, drugged by the "Now," mired in the false belief that this "Media Culture" is the "Only Culture."

As I have aged, I have begun to tabulate what I have missed, what I haven't read, the things I haven't seen. The experience of Here and Now is lost to me when I am on the Web. I can no longer allow myself the sloth of wandering through meaningless gossip, innuendo, "fact" based on opinion, "truth" based on Wikipedia.

Before there were blogs and digitized media there were books; before YouTube there was cinema, before iTunes there was jazz. How many hours are left to me? How many days?

I have read only fragments of Dante, Ben Jonson, Coleridge; and I haven't read enough Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Clemens. I have seen bits of Griffith, Eisenstein, von Stroheim; and I haven't watched enough Chaplin, Ford, Kurosawa.  

This is my resolve, to wisely use what moments remain, to be in the moment. My plan is simple and forthright: I will abandon the superficialities of Facebook, YouTube and the "social media." I will seek knowledge through books, art and poetry through film, to rekindle these lost art forms and the essence of their relationship to me. I will stay aware of my epistemic conditions but go deeper than The Spectacle allows. I take a chance that there is a life other than that proposition of an existence "mediated by images." I seek a social practice among humans whose being is defined by actions. The possibilities are too promising to ignore.

IMAGE: Still from Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin, Kino, 1925.


1. Debord, Guy. "The Society of the Spectacle," Detroit, Black & Red, 1977, #30.

December 22, 2012

P.F.D. (2 Bobs)

"...I thought Bob Dylan was just Prince's giant middle finger to the screwed up art system that doesn't give enough of a damn to look at what it's buying and selling and fawning over. Not just the death of the author, but his murder, and the propping up of the author's corpse, Weekend At Bernie's-style, in order to keep cashing his checks."(1)

As I have often told my art theory students, generating discourse about and around your art practice serves to authenticate and reinforce your position vis a vis the Art Canon. The more print and chatter reviewers, curators, collectors and peers generate about your work, the better. Because it is not just the audience of spectators that you want to impress, but the peripheral legions of those critics, theorists and thinkers who will promote your place in the canon if they cotton to your output. Or, as Duchamp more elegantly and arcanely put it:

In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.(2)

Thus, it should surprise no one that that well-traveled and thoroughly ensconced ar(t)biter of all things fashionably artsy, Richard Prince, would upend Ye Old Art World with his latest con(ceptual) art piece, Revisionist Art, currently at Gagosian Gallery (NYC: Mad.Ave.). 

First off, no one is admitting - publicly, that is - that the assembled silkscreen paintings are actually Richard Prince's work, and the Gagosian Gallery press release holds to the party line that these works, characterized by some as "jaw-droppingly awful," are indeed created by the iconic and legendary singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. Dylan showed his Asia Series paintings at Gagosian Gallery last year and Prince wrote about them. But Prince has remained quiet about this series so far, busily Tweeting about his other passions - his "invitation only" bookstore and hanging with the babes from the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. And don't hold your breath for Dylan to comment; the notorious recluse rarely grants interviews. Perhaps that's why Prince "adapted" this current series of works to "represent" Bob, knowing that Dylan would probably not care less. 

All this back story is tiresome to slog through and other sites have covered it all in infinite detail. Greg Allen quite smartly gauges all the possibilities on his blog, I have Mr. Allen to thank as well for prompting my useful acronym for the concept of "Prince (works) for Dylan (works)," P.F.D. Greg readily admits the P.F.D. conspiracy theory idea was originally floated by GalleristNY's Michael Miller and also shares links to talk that continues on various Dylan fan sites about these putative "paintings" of Bob's.

However, allow me to focus my attention on Richard Prince and engage my anxiety that his art practice may have begun to spin out of control. In order to proceed, of course, one needs to assume that this "Prince for Dylan" theory is factually accurate and that Prince has actually foisted these "Revisionist" silkscreen paintings as Dylan's. Therefore, I must stress that what follows is pure speculation based on the above premise that Prince is representing a current body of work as another person's and thereby upping the ante on his appropriative modus operandi.

Prince's earlier forays into appropriation initiated a discussion that would include semiotics and signification as referenced through the writings of Baudrillard and other critical theorists. Prince's use of appropriation, along with other artists like Sherrie Levine and Jack Goldstein, was able to manifest these theories of the signifier (a photograph) being subject to manipulation through presentation as other signifieds (meanings). A Marlboro man became emptied of meaning when taken from the contextualized world of advertising. The postmodern view has expressed that there is a disconnect between the signifier and the signified. This results in a variability of meaning, wherein signs are "emptied" and transformed into "floating signifiers," never in sync with definitive endpoints. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari would write of this inevitable loss of significance:

" [the sign] is thought of as a symbol in a constant movement or referral from sign to sign. The signifier is the sign in redundancy with the sign. All signs are signs of signs. The question is not what a given sign signifies but to which other sign it refers, ... it is this amorphous continuum that for the moment plays the role of the 'signified,' but it continually glides beneath the signifier..."(3)

I have long been a supporter of Prince's work, even stepping in to defend it whenever I felt it maligned inaccurately. Prince's best work challenges the inherent power of images, their meaning and relationship to "truth." He leveled a clear, intelligence at the Spectacle and played havoc with the World of Signs, eliciting a reassessment of the very nature of representation. Along with the other first wave of post-Duchampian appropriationists, he paved the way for a critical analysis of authenticity, originality and the very definition of art.  

To what end, then, is Prince's faux-presentation of himself as Bob Dylan? If we are to understand that the essence of this provocation is to extend the vacuum of meaning that surrounds an image, a representation, to include as well the public image of a pop cultural person, then we may further propose that the P.F.D paintings function as props for the staging of the real "work" of the "Revisionist" show: identity theft as art.

If so, then I propose at least two conclusions can be drawn here. First, Prince's expansion of the practice of appropriation to include "impersonation" resurrects the original charge of theft that these acts of "borrowing" provoked. This P.F.D. tactic itself posits a question about "truth" by operating as a fallacy. In this sense, Prince might be seen as returning to address the original attacks on appropriation by traditionalist critics that his work was nothing but falsification. This is perhaps a belated attempt to return to those original talking points and debates about authenticity and the definition of what constitutes art.  

It is my second conclusion that gives one pause. When Prince assumes the identity of a living person and presents his own work as another person's work he weakens the substantive theories that were initially behind his previous output. Prince's earliest work was structurally connected to media; the representation of advertising and print ads that he built upon connected his entire oeuvre to semiotics and postmodern theory. As he continues his drift toward a quotidian pop-social media culture, his work deflates and reveals an actual emptiness. Far more stark and repellent than that structuralist signifier "emptied" of meaning, the "Revisionist" show is indicative of the fact that Prince currently runs the risk of his art becoming facile and shallow. Truly, with "no there, there," Prince treads on the thin ice of critical theory as we struggle to keep aloft his once prescient ideas. Now that impersonation and sham have been taken up as his new act, it is as if Prince seeks to remove himself completely from art discourse and excise all critical theorist connection to his work.


1. Allen, Greg. "If He Did It,", Dec. 5, 2012.
2. Duchamp, Marcel. "The Creative Act," lecture given at Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, TX, 1957.
3. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 112.

December 17, 2012

On Historicity & Obscurity

Having recently taught an introductory course in art and “art appreciation” for a community college, I can now inform readers of this site, most of whom genuinely love and respect art, that the recording of art history is under serious attack and subject to whims and allegiances of authors and their publishing houses. Furthermore, the “appreciation” of art, in all honesty, is presented as dependent upon supposed truths disseminated through the validating authority of The Text.

It is this hierarchy of validation and authentication, established hundreds of years ago with the advent of the printed word that reveals the tenuous reality of historicity. History – at least art history – is malleable, suspect, corruptible and ultimately flawed.

How do I prove this and what does it mean? Suffice to say, in terms of evidence I will point out a rather glaring omission of one 20th Century artist from one particular required textbook, the elimination of which appears to doom this artist to academic obscurity, at least as far as this art history text is concerned.(1)

My brief elaboration on this artist is related to the specifics of what I know and teach, performance and contemporary art, and the failure to mention the artist in this textbook’s version of 20 Century art history can only be surmised as an exercise in academic censorship. Certainly, this demonstrates that different versions of history are being represented and, although this perception of historicity's putative "truth" is not new, it clearly shows that an academic censorship agenda may be afoot.

The artist missing from this text that I want to discuss is Chris Burden. From 1971 to 1974, Burden engaged in a series of iconic performance art pieces:

Working out of his Venice studio, Chris had himself shot with a .22 rifle, nailed to a Volkswagen roof, fired a pistol at an airliner, tried to "breathe" underwater, crossed two "hot" electric wires at his chest and assaulted a television journalist by holding a knife to her throat. These are difficult performance art pieces that Burden was keen to present as “sculptures.” They have a mythic presence in “body art” yet he has grown reticent to talk about them as he aged, apparently seeking to distance himself from his destructive early work. His evolving sculptural process began to explore the physics of stress and energy (Samson and Big Wheel) with a whimsical fascination with the “gee whiz” of science. Yet the legacy of Burden’s body art assured that the possibility of imminent and unpredictable violence would remain inherent in the work of succeeding generations of art students “attempting to emulate the transgressive character of Burden’s early work” and contemporary artists like John Bock and Matthew Barney.(2)

But Burden is not mentioned in this textbook; not in the index, not in footnotes, no photographs. He is not even listed in the textbook’s passing reference to performance art. Why?

Could it be that Burden himself refused permission to the author or publishers to reproduce photographs of his seminal performance art pieces in their text? As has been noted, Burden’s work has evolved through the years to encompass more traditional sculptural concerns, with installations and even public art commissions. Perhaps he wishes to control his legacy and focus attention on his more recent projects instead of a four or five year period soon after he graduated from UC Irvine. As substantiation of this possible theory, it has been reported that he denied Marina Abramovic permission to “replicate” his “Transfixed” piece (in which Burden was nailed to that Volkswagen) for her 2005 Guggenheim Museum show, “Seven Easy Pieces.”(3)

Coincidentally, Marina Abramovic is presented in this textbook, complete with two reproductions and quoted statements from the artist about her work.(4) Abramovic’s efforts at legitimizing performance as archival media and gaining institutional acceptance have been extensive, and her efforts were duly rewarded with a 2010 retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Abramovic’s inclusion in this art history text as one of the sole practitioners of performance art may be a testament to her obvious success as performance art’s unofficial spokesperson. But the complete omission of Chris Burden’s performances as validated, authenticated pieces within the canons of art history is troubling.

IMAGE: "Transfixed," performance by Burden, April 1974; © Copyright by Chris Burden. 

1. Sayre, Henry. A World of Art (Seventh Edition), Pearson Education, 2013.

2. Quoted from my October 18, 2007 post, “Chris’s Burden.”

3. Nancy Princenthal, “Back for One Night Only!” in Art in America, Feb. 2006, 91-92.

4. Op cit., 322-323.

November 19, 2012

Intern Wanted

In the near future, work will begin on my long-overdue book project; a compilation of selected essays from "Theory Now." Preliminary reviews indicate there are well over 200 posts that have accumulated over the past 7 years and my proposed structure will group these conceptually rather than chronologically.

Preparing for this daunting task will undoubtedly require assistance. Therefore, I seek an intern for this project and this is my initial open announcement for this position. All work will occur in the Washington, DC area, and the potential candidates' geographic location must be taken into consideration; "virtual work" may be considered depending on qualifications.

The ideal candidate would have a significant understanding of both critical theory and contemporary art, with or without Ph.D; graduate students or practicing artists are encouraged to apply. The candidate should have excellent English language skills, with a view to both proofreading and editing my essays. Additionally, there may be some business correspondence duties. Thus, I ask that interested candidates provide two samples of your writing along with your letter of interest. I will narrow the field of applicants to two or three before conducting "in-person" interviews via Skype to select the best individual for the internship.

Please forward all inquiries/correspondence/writing samples to

October 25, 2012

The Critic and The Critique

Recently the art world lost two individuals whose absence now puts art criticism and the critique in jeopardy.

Robert Hughes a major critic whose opinions on aesthetics and the nature of art, though often leveled with vindictive barbs, were absolutely essential to come to grips with the “shock of the new.” Hughes was 74 and died on August 6. Hughes’ relationship with art world denizens and sycophants cannot be better described than Michael McNay did in his obituary on Hughes in The Guardian when he wrote: “He was incapable of writing the jargon of the art world, and consequently was treated by its mandarins with fear and loathing.”

Never one to suffer fools, Hughes spoke from the hip with a frank manner on the current tenor of art. His critical views on art that he found worthy of consideration were honest and eloquent. His attacks on artists he found to be lacking were brutal and frank appraisals, not petty or born of jealousy. In one episode of his highly regarded “The Shock of the New” television series, Hughes shared his incredulity about a Damien Hirst piece that shows “what so much money and so little ability can produce.”

Hughes will be missed and it is hard to imagine who would fill his shoes. Today's critics seem more inclined to merely type out general descriptive assessments of what they're looking at without making any “judgments of taste.” Most disturbing is the fact that relations between advertising and the commercial aspects of the art world seems a barely concealed truth about an obvious complicity between the benefactors and their dealers.

In the “real world” the art critic informs us of his opinion so that our opinion is informed. Meanwhile, in our art schools the erstwhile artist/educator is responsible for creating a tone of sincere critique. This sincerity of critical analysis of the “art of the newbie” in art institutions is necessary to provide a properly engaged atmosphere to allow in-depth critiques. However, for the most part the rank-and-file of art institutions have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in much more than random, project-driven crits, given the expectations heaped upon them by various accreditation agencies.

Yet Michael Asher did provide such a critique. Michael Asher was 69 and died on October 15. One of the originary Conceptual artists, Asher’s work ranged from nearly intangible actions to his perhaps single-handed invention of what became institutional critique. But it is for his contribution as arts educator that Asher may be best remembered. Having taught at California Institute of the Arts for 33 years, Asher’s legendary day-long "crit class" held at CalArts is fabled and revered by CalArts alumni and fellow faculty for the intellectual depth and emotional breadth of these marathon critiques. Grad students in Fine Arts underwent close, diagnostic investigations of even their slightest intentionality in making artworks. As Sarah Thornton observes in her “Seven Days in the Art World,” Asher’s critiques usually ran for 12, even 14, hours:

'I don't have a theory of time," he explained to me in an interview. 'It is a very simple, practical matter. For clear investigations, you need time. That is the only rule of thumb. If you don't have it, you run the risk of being superficial.' Asher doesn't remember when or exactly how the class got so long. 'People had more to say,' he said. 'Unfortunately, we can't go on for as long as we would like.'(1)

With the loss of Michael Asher at CalArts it remains to be seen whether his "crti class" will be able to continue. After all, who would, or even could, champion such all-encompassing, rigorous analysis of contemporary artworks?

Thus, with the passing of these two iconic proponents of criticism our art world has lost two of its most stalwart believers and that void may be both improbable and impossible to simply fill.


1. Thornton, Sarah. Seven Days in the Art World, New York, 2008, 70.

October 8, 2012

Theory-Checking: Jamais lu la théorie?

Taking my cue from today’s contentious, over-wrought political climate with its saturation of “facts” and faux-statistics, I think it is high time we add “theory-checking” to our sometimes parochial Art World discourse. Pundits and fact-checkers had a field day with the recent Presidential debates and though “truth” may never surface in that conversation we can expect a modicum of accuracy when it comes to art theory, can’t we?

Aimee Walleston’s review of recent work by Nicolás Guagnini (AiA, Vol. 100, No. 9, Oct. 2012) opted for theoretical specificity concerning Guy Debord and his Situationist theories of détournement. Apparently, Guagnini has painted several reproductions of a photograph of a Parisian wall where a young Debord had graffiti’d “ne travaillez jamais,” or “never work.” However, when Ms. Walleston tried to point out how Guagnini “détourned” a bit of scrawled graffiti by Debord she blatantly misinterprets Guagnini’s actions as Debord’s détournement by “redirecting appropriated materials to antagonistic or subversive ends.” Ms. Walleston should have dug out and re-read her copy of The Society of the Spectacle, or at least Googled the Situationist movement before attempting such misguided presumptions.(1)

In point of fact (and here comes our “theory-check”), Ms. Walleston has confused détournement with the opposite Situationist theory of recuperation. In recuperation, revolutionary tactics such as Debord’s graffiti are coopted by those in control of society (The Spectacle, mass media) in order to defuse such ideas, or sometimes transform them into capital.(2) Moreover, the Situationists “pinpointed the increasingly evident problem of capitalist institutions subverting the terms of oppositional movements for their own uses…recuperation operated on all fronts: in advertising, in academics […](3) Thus, the use of Che Guevara’s image to sell t-shirts as metonymic trope of “rebellion” is exemplary of the recuperative act. Détournement is the exact counter-action that would subvert the language and imagery (advertisements) of the capitalist machine and turn it against those in power (corporations, government).

Guagnini’s paintings are not provocative subversions against capitalism but in actuality support the inherent commercialization of Debord’s subversiveness via a complicit art market. As acquiescence to the Almighty Dollar, Guagnini’s paintings actually trivialize the revolutionary impetus of Debord’s Situationist movement. Guagnini’s intentions are suspect but for Ms. Walleston to misrepresent his recuperative actions as “revolutionary” is an egregious insult to our collective understanding of critical theory and Debord.


1. It would appear that Ms. Walleston swallowed whole the press release on Guagnini’s show issued by the Miguel Abreu gallery which extols the original misinterpretation of détournement in Sven Lütticken's essay and exacerbates her confusion.

2. “Power lives off stolen goods. It creates nothing; it coopts.” - quote from “All the King’s Men,” a Situationist International essay written in 1963 (by Debord?).

3. Kurczynski, Karen. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 53/54 (Spring-Autumn, 2008), 295-6.

September 30, 2012

Critical Fragments: Accumulation

Recent research and scholarly investigation of accumulation as an art practice, a construct, or art movement, has yielded intriguing theories on the various artistic processes that involve “amassing or gathering objects, documents and/or other items for express purposes.”(1) Art historians have well-documented artists’ fascination with storage and distribution via generative technologies to make quantitative volume the distinctive accumulative act. Other theorists speculate that accumulation reflects our collective guilt and obsession with “capitalist expansion,” product consumption and its resultant waste. Still other viewpoints focus on individual artists whose cumulative process of time and labor represents the artwork itself as a product of accumulation.(2)

It is to this latter position that I wish to contribute yet another theory concerning accumulation. My additional speculation is that this “cumulative process of time and labor” may help to define art certainly. Moreover, the temporal aspect of accumulation obviously helps situate art historically. What I want to propose is that it is perhaps through a retrospective consideration of past production that artists may have the best comprehension of their life’s work in relation to art history. That accumulation has a direct quantitative connection to this possibility is clear; this reflection via the “long view” of an artist’s past work is inexorably cumulative. However, given that past artworks are analyzed ex post facto, our theoretical conjecture must consider the possible clarity of knowledge the grace of accumulation may allow.

Historians and curators engage in such “long view” reflection on the past cumulative artwork of artists for their exhibitions; it is notable and accurate that all-inclusive exhibits of artists' works are referred to as “retrospectives.” The critical and analytical regard of an artist’s work by historians or curators might provide us with an historically measured perception. However, we must realize that these exhibitions are generally not with the artist’s participation, particularly if the artist is no longer living. Living artists often do participate in the curatorial selection of work for such exhibits but the museums nearly exclusively prefer that supplemental materials for these exhibits be authored by art historians; such academic remove yielding the putative objectivity favored by art institutions.

What if the artist had more collaboration in this endeavor? Would his or her critical analysis, “looking back” at all of the accumulated work gathered for such an exhibit, differ or be distinguished from a degreed art historian, art critic or curator?

Undoubtedly my esteemed colleagues in the fields of art history and curatorial practice would hold that it is only through an objective view of an artist’s body of work that we may ascertain its value for posterity. Further, they may argue that an artist’s close personal relationship to his or her work would necessarily muddy the perspective required.

These are valid arguments. However, there remains the distinct alternative theory that only artists have the personal connection and investment required to evaluate their own artwork. This is especially relevant if we proceed from the premise that an analysis of an artist’s past body of work acknowledges the definition of that work as a “cumulative process of time and labor.” The immediacy of their presence on a daily basis with their art practice would truly make the artist the sole expert on their artwork, its history and its intentions.

If we recognize the accumulative process of art practice, the day-to-day studio work, the requisite research and study necessary to become artists, then we can begin to understand that this involves an incredible amount of time and labor. It is a further given than that the temporal progression of one’s practice extends parallel and in harmony with one’s life, following a trajectory that produces objects (or perhaps “art as ideas”). We may also then agree that at any point along their life's trajectory each artist has the option to pause and take note of his or her past work. This retrospective view has the definitive potential to enlighten one’s perceptions of the past, one’s accomplishments as well as failures, with an overarching insight that one's past accumulation of time and labor is ultimately a finite archive. As archival knowledge, one's retroactive assessment of their accumulation of work has a transcendent power to define both the individual artist and grant us a glimpse of the very definition of art.

Image: Plaque installed at corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Blvds. in Los Angeles, CA; brass; 1.5 x 3 inches; photo by MCB; Copyright 2009.


1. From an unpublished paper by Nana Last delivered on Feb. 23, 2012 as introduction to our CAA 2012 panel session on “Accumulation” in Los Angeles, CA.

2. Elise Richman presented her paper, “Performing Labor,” on the work of On Kawara and Michelle Grabner to demonstrate that artworks “embody” both time and labor.

September 21, 2012

Fall Topics

With the Fall comes a new season, a new course load and a new perspective on all things art-related. This December will mark the sixth year of this blog’s existence and in preparation for that anniversary there are several topics forthcoming on this site. To whit:

First, I would like to re-visit accumulation to propose yet another way of looking at it as art practice. My esteemed colleagues who paneled our College Art Association session last February approached accumulation from a wide variety of viewpoints all of which provided scholarly knowledge on this still developing and under-recognized movement.

Next, I have been meaning to articulate my opinions and perceptions on the on-going issues regarding the Corcoran’s current angst-ridden dilemma. Potentially, the great iconic building will be emptied of both the Corcoran Gallery’s extensive art collection and the Corcoran College will be exiled to Virginia (or some other suburban locale). The angst this has generated in faculty, staff and students of the college has yet to be fully examined. Having taught at the Corcoran for nine years, it behooves me to wade in to this fray.

After those more pressing matters I shall try to make headway on the massive Getty-funded effort to re-write and/or renegotiate the history of Los Angeles art that is Pacific Standard Time. My own history with that great, sprawling city has been documented on these pages before but I have several salient points that must be made public regarding my own contributions to LA’s development as a world-renowned art center. The image above documents my initial foray into conceptual “aart” and shows my youthful determination to change/remake the very definitions of art. That determination has not waned and it has become abundantly clear to me that it is my own responsibility to position myself in “art history,” rather than wait for The Institution to do so.

In addition to the above, there’s Thierry de Duve’s recent Corcoran seminar series and the second installment of Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith’s (e)merge coming up. So stay tuned and many thanks for your continued support these past six years.

Image: MCB as "aartist," photograph by MCB, © Copyright 1979-2012.

August 30, 2012

UPDATE: Administrator's Note II: In pulling this original 2008 essay up to send to my directed studies student, I made an Editorial correction (Laura Mulvey did not receive credit in a footnote for her seminal "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" essay). I am making an Editorial decision as well, to re-publish it for the current set of readership's eyes.  Over the years, this essay has consistently garnered accolades and kudos and its themes bear further scrutiny.

Administrator's Note: The following essay by Diane Blackwell, current Corcoran College of Art + Design senior and former Theory Now student, focuses on the importance of postmodernist theory on feminist video. Diane’s meticulous research on this topic directs our attention to further discursive analyses by multiple sources, and her passion for feminist video as a unique and continuing movement in contemporary art is skillfully represented in her writing. With great pleasure, I post it here for readers of this site.

“. . . since around 1970, it has been feminist responses and approaches to visual images that have provided some of the strongest, most polemical, and most productive theories and critical strategies to come out of any of the disciplines or modes of analysis associated with visual culture.”(1)

Amelia Jones in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, 2003.

Two events in the 1960s caused a dramatic change in the way art was formulated; one was cultural, the other was technical. Betty Friedan published her book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963 which criticized the idea that women could only find fulfillment through childrearing and homemaking and jump started feminism. As Anna Quindlen stated in her introduction to Friedan’s seminal work, “This is the book that defined ‘the problem that has no name,’ that launched the Second Wave of the feminist movement, and has been awakening women and men with its insights into social relations, which still remain fresh, ever since.”(2) The Portapak, a relatively inexpensive, portable, home video recorder, including camera, was introduced by the Sony Corporation in 1965. It gave artists a new medium for creating art. Friedan’s book and the Portapak coincided with a shift in artistic theory from modernism to postmodernism.

The Second Wave of the feminist movement centered on examining the dissatisfaction found in the lives of a multitude of women who found their identity and thus, self-worth, dependent on their role within the family. By focusing on social institutions that caused this sense of discontent, it was thought that women would be liberated from entrenched prejudices. For too long it had been a private issue. Only by developing a “Pro-Woman Line with its scientific explanation based on an analysis of our own experiences and an examination of ‘who benefits’ from women's oppression . . [could women arrive at an] understanding that our oppressive situations were not our own fault.”(3) This premise was included in an introduction to the paper, “The Personal Is Political,” by Carol Hanisch which was originally published in 1970. An exploration into gender identity was begun by the struggles within one of the radical movements of the Sixties, the Women’s Liberation Movement. Inspired by their example, women video artists created some of the most successful visual investigations.

Video art, initially made possible by the Portapak, was the ideal medium to present artistic endeavors that rely on psychological conditions that could not easily be summarized on a physically two or three dimensional structure. The physical qualities of the Portapak were appealing. It was relatively light, affordable, easy to operate, and gave immediate feedback on what was recorded. When the Portapak became available it appealed to women artists because it made the process of making art self-sufficient and came with no preconceived notions as to aesthetic expectations: a medium free from a patriarchal usage and ways of seeing. What was there not to like when the physical qualities of the new medium and the psychological possibilities were wide open for interpretation? Women began using the new medium unrestrictedly to explore not only generally addressed modern art themes but also how gender shapes how viewers see and how they understand what is seen. All this reflectiveness, this analysis, was not possible in previously available mediums. Art critic Gregory Battcock summarized the unique properties for the new video aesthetic: narcissism (to manipulate psychological factors); immediacy (time and space); and participation (how the viewer interacts).(4) These properties were a far cry from traditional aesthetic properties set out in 1962 by Clement Greenberg that the inherent meaning of art comes from its structure, for example: pictorial art’s essence is found in its flatness.(5) Feminist video art not only analyzed its medium — its technological qualities — but also the cultural influences that created it.

Many early videos were recordings of artists performing to the camera or documentations of performance art. This tendency led Rosalind Krauss, co-founder and editor of October, to observe that artists use the monitor as a mirror and thus, to conclude that the medium of video is psychological. “Because that statement (‘The medium of video is narcissism’) describes a psychological rather than a physical condition, and while we are accustomed to thinking of psychological states as the possible subject of works of art, we do not think of psychology as constituting their medium.”(6) However, without a permanent physical presence, psychological factors were one of the unique aesthetic properties found in video.

In her 1975 video, Semiotics of the Kitchen, (6:09 min., b&w, sound) Martha Rosler critiqued the socially prescribed image of housewife in her role as food preparer. The widely acclaimed success of Julia Child’s television cooking show, The French Chef, which debuted in 1963, demonstrated that many women aspired to attain a similar image of successful provider of the family meal. Rosler had laid out the traditional tools of the kitchen, methodically picked each up, named it, and proceeded to demonstrate it. Her “lesson” was given straight to the camera. However, instead of Julia Child’s cheery enthusiasm, Rosler’s presentation was made with a dead-pan ironic delivery. The disconnect between the neutral announcement of the utensil and the violent gestural demonstration indicated that more was happening here than just the happy housewife-in-the-kitchen routine.

Why did Rosler turn the camera on such an iconic image? She gave her reply as, “An anti-Julia Child replaces the domesticated ‘meaning’ of tools with a lexicon of rage and frustration. When the woman speaks, she names her own oppression.”(7) Rosler was using the medium of film which has had unrestrained freedom in its use of the female image to benefit the patriarchal gaze. It was the “tool” she used to expose the illusion of self-fulfillment created by society in its aggrandizement of the domesticized role of women. The woman in Rosler’s artist statement clearly was not enthralled with her position as cook for the home. Each representative item was met with pent-up rebellion. As a matter of fact, the possibility of even coming close to Julia Child’s adept use of kitchen utensils to produce culinary perfection seemed so remote that a revolt was inevitable. Jacques Lacan defined this psychological condition as The Language of the Self. “What the patient comes to see is that this ‘self’ of his is a projected object and that his frustration is due to his own capture by the object with which he can never really coincide.”(8) This aspect of the not so “pleasurable structures of looking in the conventional cinematic situation” as outlined by Laura Mulvey “developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, (and) comes from identification with the image seen.”(9) There was a double mirror image: the example of the home cook to the professional, and the example of the viewer to the home cook. The viewer mirrored the hopes and anxieties displayed by the unfortunate chef. Thus, when the names of the tools were vocalized objectively and the definition of the usage of those tools were demonstrated subjectively, the jarring juxtaposition released hitherto suppressed emotions in the viewer. The irony of the submissive role of viewer was played against the insidiously demonstrative person with the knives.

As Walter Benjamin noted in his 1936 essay on photography and film, “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”(10) By researching the methods used to construct the image one could make conscious the meaning of the image. Rosler furthered the metaphorical use of “tool” by formatting her video as a self-help television program. Television had become ubiquitous in American households. Within the privacy of one’s own home existed an immediately accessible tool capable of offering a better way of life. The television seemed to be the voice of authority. The television viewer obediently accepted the messages, visual and cultural, that were relayed across the screen. It was this unquestioning position that Rosler wanted to expose.

Another of video’s unique properties was its immediacy. Initially many videos were records of events as they occurred which were filmed from a stationary position. Editing methods for videos were not widely available in the late Sixties and Seventies. This block of recorded time was given a sense of authenticity: something happened in an allocated space of time and it was captured. Quickly though, with enough resources, videos could demonstrate that time and space could be modified seamlessly through postproduction. “Video art in the long run is not television. It’s the medium of television being used by artists to express conceptual ideas and also to express ideas about time and space.”(11) The vocabulary of television was learned by artists and the recorded image was given new meaning.

Joan Jonas took advantage of the qualities of video and critiqued the omnipresence of television from a feminist perspective. In her 1972 video, Vertical Roll, (19:38 min., b&w, sound) she addressed the disconnect between anticipated time and space and exposed the objectification of the female body as being out of synchronization with a woman’s identity. “In performance I was able to work with time in many layers, combining different elements-sound, gesture, object.”(12) As in Rosler’s work the television screen is used to frame the video, however Jonas had blended prerecorded footage into the recorded performance which was relayed on video. A common malfunction of the image, a vertical roll that occurred during early television (caused by a de-synchronization of the frequencies of the camera and monitor signals) was used as the driving element of her video. The viewer observed only sections of Jonas’s body from different perspectives. The view was interrupted by the constant roll which slammed down only to spring into existence again from the top of the screen. The staccato effect on the image was matched, almost, by an abrupt blast of sound of something being rhythmically banged. The discord was meant to be highly irritating so as to jolt the viewer from a passive role into an active one. In the end, Jonas faced the viewer directly with an emotionless stare in front of prerecorded footage.

In her video, Jonas addressed the issue of the objectification of the female body as enabled by television. Mulvey presented this view when she stated, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed . . ”(13) Jonas thus presented a fragmented female image and literally shifted the rolls of the transmission signal. By staring at the viewer while the scenes play in back of her, she had created a layering of space and time and challenged the viewer to deconstruct the traditional representations of women as shown on television.

The third unique property mentioned by Benjamin concerning video was viewer participation, for only in video does the viewer assume an active role. “Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed.”(14) In contrast to film, the viewer’s thoughts in video art were not guided by the moving picture for passive amusement. Instead, video art communicated a criticism of current culture.

In her 1979 video, Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry, (6:50 min., color, sound) Dara Birnbaum directly addressed the issue of the grammar used by television to subdue its audience. She had appropriated images from a game show, The Hollywood Squares, which provided light comedy from celebrities. The participating television contestants determined whether the celebrities truthfully answered questions. The television viewing audience decided which celebrity was most clever. Birnbaum’s video panned in and out, then froze the framing of the image in a close up (telescoping montages) to capture the gestures used by individual celebrities. By definition, the celebrities were putting on an act for their viewing audience; their gestures were representative of their expectations of what would “sell” their star image. The men were shown as authoritative figures that were confident and assured. The women were submissive. Their eyes shifted hesitantly. They were alluring but coy. These star strategies that exploited the audience’s prejudices were exposed through video to its viewing audience. Birnbaum’s art served to enlighten her audience by showing them the truth.

Birnbaum described her tapes as new “ready-mades” for the late 20th century — works that “manipulate a medium which is itself highly manipulative.”(15) The technique used on the appropriated shots was repeated enough so that the video audience could understand the unspoken language used to convey meaning. This use of repetition was in direct contrast to its effect when used by the repetitive game show formats which lulled the audience into mind-numbing experiences. An ironic touch was replacing the show’s theme song with a child’s taunting sing-song and linking the adults’ gestures to the music. “In this case, appropriated material is consciously stripped of its references to its original setting, so that it can be reinvested with meaning which draws specific attention to the nature of the original surrounding context.”(16) The alluring and clever gestures became sarcastic commentaries of what the stars actually thought of their viewing audience. These subconscious thoughts were revealed by video.

The 1960s and 1970s brought a period of revolutionary technological and cultural changes that signified a new era. Women artists empowered by the re-emergence of feminism and armed with the tools of new technology challenged the way art was commodified through their use of video. Rosler realized this when she commented on the fate of institutions of art in Western culture that “Not only systemic but also a utopian critique was implicit in video’s early use, for the effort was not to enter the system but to transform every aspect of it and . . to redefine the system out of existence by merging art with social life and making audience and producer interchangeable.”(17) It was a very postmodern way of looking at things: to make a better world by deconstructing it. Rosler dismantled the image of the happy housewife by turning the refracted mirror on the icon of cooking. Jonas dismembered the male gaze when she offered a disjointed array of body parts. Birnbaum exposed the façade of the celebrities to the naïve viewing audience. The privileged art object would not suffice to convey a subversive message meant for mass distribution. It would need a medium capable of multilayered meaning.

The early videos of the Sixties and Seventies produced by female artists marked the transition from modernism toward postmodernism. As Hanisch proposed, only by analyzing women’s “personal problems” and identifying real sources of oppression could women gain “political” equality. Female video artists took on the task of feminist “consciousness-raising” within the remnants of modernism. They began by looking at the tools of their oppression: the language, the perspective, and the stereotypes that formulated the concept of “woman.” In this semiotic analysis of repression, Second Wave Feminism’s “consciousness-raising” was meant to break with past assumptions and create a new world of equality. When applied to creating art, this idealistic approach soon moved away from its modernistic origins.

Video was the favored medium for this utopian vision. It arrived without any historical theories, was malleable in its handling of the subject, and it was reasonably affordable. As Krauss pointed out, video shattered the notion of art as a precious object by turning the definition of art from that of being a physical condition to a psychological one.(18) By doing so, it no longer fit the definitions of modernism. More than a narcissistic phenomenon, feminist video art foretold postmodernism’s trait of social commentary. Video in the hands of female artists was used as a mirror on society’s stereotypes to influence social change. It could effectively capture the male-oriented gaze by freeze-framing it, and thus exposing its existence so as to begin the process of dismantling it. The near-simultaneous arrival of the Second Wave and video technology were the combined events that signaled the final demise of modernism and greased the path towards postmodernism. Video was used as a direct psychological link to a passive audience to shake up the status quo. “Modernism also thought compulsively about the New . . but the postmodern looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the telltale instant after which it is no longer the same.”(19) Feminist video art signaled that moment of change.

Image: Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), (6:09 min., b&w, sound), © Copyright by Martha Rosler.

1. Jones, Amelia. The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, New York, 2003, 3.

2. Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique, New York, 1963 [Introduction by Anna Quindlen, 2001].

3. Hanisch, Carol. “The Personal Is Political,” in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, 1970 [New introduction by Carol Hanisch, January 2006]; see also The ‘Second Wave’ and Beyond.

4. Battcock, Gregory. New Artists Video: A Critical Anthology, New York, 1978, xvi-xvii.

5. Gibson, Anne Eden. “Color and Difference in Abstract Painting: The Ultimate Case of Monochrome,” in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, (A. Jones, ed.), New York, 2003, 192 [Note 3: Clement Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism,” Art International, October 25, 1962, 30].

6. Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” in New Artists Video: A Critical Anthology, (G. Battcock, ed.), New York, 1978, 44 [Reprinted from October, 1:1, Spring 1976].

7. Semiotics of the Kitchen.

8. Krauss, op. cit., 54.

9. Jones, op. cit., 47 [Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” originally published in Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975].

10. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation (John Hanhardt, ed.), Rochester, 1986, 43 [Reprinted from Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn, New York, 1969].

11. Levine, Les. “One-Gun Video Art,” in New Artists Video: A Critical Anthology, (G. Battcock, ed.), New York, 1978, 90.

12. Jonas, Joan. “Untitled,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, (Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, eds.), New York, 1990, 366.

13. Jones, op. cit., 47 [Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” originally published in Screen 16.3, Autumn 1975].

14. Benjamin, op. cit., 44.

15. Video Data Bank.

16. Ross, David. “Truth or Consequences: American Television and Video Art,” in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation (J. Hanhardt, ed.), Rochester, 1986, 176.

17. Rosler, Martha. “Shedding the Utopian Moment,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (Hall and Fifer, eds.), New York, 1990, 31.

18. Krauss, op. cit., 44.

19. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, 1997, ix.

July 4, 2012

Save the Corcoran Flagg!

Dear reader,

Please sign this petition to say NO to the proposed sale of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (and Corcoran College of Art + Design) building in Washington, D.C. - Save the Corcoran.

Unless this sale can be stopped the Gallery and School may lose this historic building designed by Ernest Flagg and built in 1897.

Many thanks,


April 30, 2012

"Who's Afraid of Accumulation?" (Part 2)

Part 2 of Dr. Philip Ursprung's guest essay on Thomas Hirschhorn's Swiss-Swiss Democracy:

What was the exhibition about? Hirschhorn “besieged” – as he put it – the Cultural Center during 50 days. He was present during most of the exhibitions time. He transformed it into an environment of knowledge. The walls were decorated with the “democratic” colors pale red, pale blue and pale yellow. Some walls were covered with texts, newspaper clippings, and photographs. A miniature landscape with a toy train evoked the alpine landscape of Switzerland. There was a library containing books about democracy, a computer for free internet access, a photocopy machine for free use and a bar. Hirschhorn printed a daily newspaper, which he distributed for free. In an auditorium the philosopher Marcus Steinweg presented daily lectures. And in the theater space Gwenaël Morin staged his adaptation of William Tell every evening. The presence of the artist, the philosopher and the theater director during the entire exhibition was an explicit reference to Joseph Beuys’ legendary 100 day performance Organisation für Direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung during Documenta 5, in 1972.

Whereas Beuys had criticized the authoritarian structure of the postwar political system in German, Hirschhorn with Swiss-Swiss Democracy intended to “go beyond democracy.” There was no catalogue, just an invitation card. Its cover shows a collage by Hirschhorn. We can see the photograph of an American soldier torturing an Iraqi prisoner in the Abu Ghraib prison, dated 2004. Under the photograph there are the emblems of the three founding cantons of Switzerland and the Swiss emblem, marked with 1291, date of the foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy. “I love democracy” is handwritten on the torn out cardboard. Hirschhorn juxtaposed an image of the cruelty committed in the name of democracy in Iraq and the symbols of the Swiss democracy. Violence is related to “democracy”, and Switzerland was related to what happened in Abu Graib, yet there is another democracy that Hirschhorn loves. There are two Switzerlands – “Swiss-Swiss” – and two ideas of democracy. Hirschhorn added teardrops with ball-pen to the images. Like medieval pilgrim statues of Saint Marie who is represented crying – as if deploring the gap between an ideal world and the sinful reality – the collage seems to deplore the cynicism of today’s politics both in the United States and in Switzerland. On the reverse side of the invitation card Hirschhorn explains, manifesto-like, the intentions of the exhibition:
“'Swiss-Swiss Democracy' wants to go beyond democracy, it is not a provocation. Together with Marcus Steinweg, Gwanael Morin and his theater troop, I want to besiege the Centre Culturel Suisse during eight weeks. With this presence and with this daily production, I want to de-idealize democracy and destabilize the ease of the democratic conscience. I am against the utilization of Democracy, against the absurdity of today’s direct democracy in Switzerland, my country, and I am against the election of Christoph Blocher as member of the federal government.”

The Swiss Ambassador to France had warned the Department of Foreign Affairs about the exhibition after receiving the invitation card. And in fact, immediately after the opening the right wing press started a campaign against Hirschhorn for insulting his native Switzerland and Pro Helvetia for abuse of tax money. At the core of the campaign was the rumor that during the performance of
an actor had urinated on a poster depicting Blocher and vomited into a voting box. Of course, this never actually happened – some observers stated that the actor only made an allusion to these gestures, and some say that nothing at all happened --, but the media and then the politicians immediately reduced the entire exhibition to the idea that Hirschhorn was attacking the Swiss democracy. In short, the opinion dominated, that the artists was violating the innermost values of the Swiss identity and that Pro Helvetia had to be punished because it funded the provocation.

I do not want to enter into the details of this scandal. The left defended the exhibition, the right was against it, Pro Helvetia tried to find a balance, stating that this were the opinions of the artist, not the agency, etc., etc. Needless to say that hardly anyone actually saw the exhibition in Paris. However, even those who were against Blocher – as the majority of the art critics and the media of the political center and the left – and insisted on the artistic freedom, did not really defend Hirschhorn. The reaction of the Paris correspondent of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung is revealing for a problem that goes beyond the obvious subject matter of the exhibition and touches the very structure of Hirschhorn’s work. In the view of this critic, the “installation, a variation of a random sample of bricolage made out of masking tape and cardboard that is typical for Hirschhorn operates solely accumulative.” In his view, Hirschhorn had repeated the same principle as in earlier exhibitions such as the Bataille Monument. He quotes an earlier article from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung where the author had stated that one could compare Hirschhorn’s exhibitions of Hirschhorn with a “web-Page or an illustrated journal.” The same applied to Swiss-Swiss Democracy: “A brainless action, presented as denunciation, which develops on the surface, but not in depth.”

The critique of the accumulative nature of Hirschhorn’s work is typical for the reception up to today. I find it more important to analyze this critique than to reconstruct the mechanisms of the scandal. The fact that right-wing politicians don’t like Hirschhorn’s art is not surprising. However, it is striking that so many art critics could not – and still cannot -- tolerate the formal structure of Hirschhorn’s work and criticize it precisely for its repetition, superficiality, and accumulation. Could it be that this accumulative structure is the main reason for the harsh reaction both by the politicians and the critics? Are they afraid of this accumulative structure? What if Hirschhorn holds a mirror not only to the problem of the exploitation of democracy, but also to the realm of art? Could it be that not only capitalism but art itself is rooted – on a symbolical level -- in the logic of primitive accumulation? Why are so many artists eager to hide their sources; why is the relation between the labor invested into a work of art and the finished work of art so problematic? Hirschhorn, of course, is neither able nor interested in denying the commodity character of art – after all, his artworks are sought after by collectors. But structurally he addresses an issue that is usually disguised by his peers, namely the fact that every artist accumulates symbolic capital in his oeuvre and symbolically dispossesses other oeuvres. In laying his cards open – for instance in declaring his sources, in making obvious his methods, in constantly being present in his public exhibitions – he makes transparent the process of accumulation and simultaneously makes clear that most of his peers don’t show their cards. The structure of his oeuvre is in this respect comparable to the structure of open source software. Anybody can partake in the process of production; no one is a priori dispossessed, or excluded. In openly displaying and laying out the act of accumulation, Hirschhorn not only reveals the scandalous basis of capitalist and artistic expansion, but he also shares the means of production with others. The seemingly endless connection of images and texts, the “precarious” structure of a combination that seems open to new arrangements and alternative configurations, the invitation to everyone to join and follow the process of production symbolically opens up the realm of art to a broader public and inspires it to position themselves politically. And it also symbolically represents and actually performs what those in power – be it political, economic or symbolic power -- fear most, namely the loss of control.

IMAGE: Courtesy Le

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 Musée 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 (ursprüngliche 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.]

April 8, 2012

Our Readymade Centennial

Duchamp's contribution to conceptual art (and appropriation), the "readymade" turns 100 in 2014. To celebrate the centennial, I proposed an exhibition of "new" readymades to my friend and colleague, Jack Rasmussen, Director of American University's Katzen Arts Center. Jack accepted heartily and the exhibition will open in October 2014. You can follow our progress at Readymade at 100.

In January, I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and met with the museum's Department of Modern and Contemporary Art to discuss the possible loan of some of their Duchamp readymades. PMA, of course, has the largest collection of Duchamp artworks in the U.S. and owns several readymades from the 1914-21 era.(1)

Just to get us started, let us consider Comb from 1916. This little article sits unassumingly in a glass vitrine in Room 182 at PMA. Obviously ill-advised to use upon a human head, speculation is that this device may have been used on dogs or cattle.(2) The "use value" of this readymade is rendered moot, however, with MD's tiny inscription along the comb's edge that suggests other more erotic uses.(3)

Regardless, it is such a delightfully enchanting item that I sorely hope PMA will loan it to the Katzen for our little show. Duchamp himself felt it epitomized the ideal characteristics of a readymade: "No beauty, no ugliness, nothing particularly aesthetic about it."

Image: Comb (1916), gray steel comb, rectified readymade, 16.6x3cm, PMA's Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection.


1. In the 1960's Duchamp would create "replicas" while living in New York City. I am interested in corresponding with anyone owning Duchamp "original" replicas.


3. "3 OU 4 GOUTTES DE HAUTEUR N'ONT RIEN A FAIRE AVEC LA SAUVAGERIE," translates as "3 or 4 drops from [of] height have nothing to do with savagery".