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 Temp.ch

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.

2. http://www.toutfait.com/unmaking_the_museum/Comb.html

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".