Anthologize this!

A Turkish translation of my essay Secret Publicity (from the collection of essays bearing the same title) was recently published in the book Kamusal Alan ve Güncel Sanat/The Public Turn in Contemporary Art, edited by Pelin Tan and Sezgin Boynik. On a similar note, a somewhat abridged version of my text Appropriation Mythology, a.k.a. The Feathers of the Eagle, will feature in Appropriation (editor: David Evans), an anthology from the series Documents of Contemporary Art, published by Whitechapel Art Gallery and MIT Press, and expected in April 2009. Later still, my essay Progressive Striptease is set to be included in the anthology Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History, edited by Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (and published by Blackwell).

To my mind, it is regrettable that the format of the Documents of Contemporary Art series, which does a laudable job in bringing good selections of relevant texts to a comparatively wide student audience, necessitates cuts in the anthologized texts. There are no doubt pressing economical reasons for this, but students are already given extracts and summaries far too often; there nothing like a confrontation with uncensored texts, complete and replete with their illuminating dead ends, contraditions, and obtuse moments. That being said, we were able to arrive at a reasonably good edit of Appropriation Mythology, and the list of contributors looks inspired and inspiring. I assume that the Perform anthology will be more costly and aimed at a somewhat smaller and more specialized audience. However, this means that the texts can be published integrally. To quote a famous Dutch dialectical thinker: elk nadeel heb z'n voordeel.

Appropriation is now available at Amazon:

The Art of Iconoclasm

Until 1 March 2009, BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht is showing my exhibition The Art of Iconoclasm as part of the project The Return of Religion and Other Myths, which is related to my book Idols of the Market. The Return of Religion and Other Myths also includes a series of lectures and presentations in early 2009, from January 11 to March 1, with speakers ranging from theorists such as Jan Assmann, Silvia Naef and Marc De Kesel to some of the artists in the exhibition. Their contributions, as well as other texts, will figure in the critical reader that will close the project later in 2009. As usual, reviews in the Dutch press are a pile of populist bile, with critics (Jip, Janneke, and the rest) screaming blue murder over a show that dares to posit an and emancipated viewer. The most absurd case was that of a glorified intern writing for the protestant daily Trouw who spent weeks working on a piece, talking to me for hours on the phone in the process, only to devote half her piece to the rantings of an employee of the Museum for Religious Art in the tiny town of Uden, who was predicably enraged by the whole project. I must be doing something right.

This is the text on the show in the project guide:

"The news of God’s death appears to have been premature. Religion is everywhere in contemporary politics and in the media; it has returned on the scene as a politicized media phenomenon creating controversies around righteous beliefs and their images. Religion is increasingly a matter of media controversy, of “image wars,” rather than daily observance or sophisticated theology.

"In a way, this development can be understood as consequential: monotheism was always deeply concerned with appearances, with images—after all, it was defined by the rejection of idols. In many religious teachings false gods, worshipped in the guise of “graven images,” are defined in visual terms. In the Christian tradition, the Second Commandment dictates that of the true God no images must be made. Visibility is the realm of the false gods. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation further mitigated this ban on representing God, since in Jesus God had taken on the form of a mortal man; however, the representation of Christ remained potentially contentious, as various episodes of iconoclasm show. On the other hand, while Islam is exceedingly strict in its ban on images (tasweer) that may lead to the idolatrous “association” (shirk) of other deities with Allah, it also has a history of depictions of the Prophet, including a still-living tradition of popular images in Shiite Islam. As much as demagogues would like us to believe otherwise, no religion is monolithic, and nothing is more unstable and contested than the definition of idolatry.

"With the rise of fundamentalist movements, many authors have come to see monotheism itself as pathological or evil. From the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas and 9/11 to the murder of Theo van Gogh over the film Submission, the Danish cartoon riots and the “Muhammad the Bear” affair, it is Islam that is often singled out for attacks; others, however, blame monotheism as such. Renowned Egyptologist and scholar of religion Jan Assmann has sparked fierce debates with his assertion that the “Mosaic distinction between the true God and idols created a kind of intolerance and violence not known before.” In the context of today’s images, monotheism and the rejection of idols are often presented as inevitably leading to intolerance, iconoclasm, and violence. This grim portrayal is one of the dominant contemporary myths about religion.

"Since Roman times, the “Greek” critique of mythic narratives and the “Jewish” critique of idolatrous images have become entwined in numerous ways. On the one hand, the Christian church adopted the philosophical critique of myths for their attacks on “idolatrous” religions; on the other hand, since the Enlightenment monotheism itself came to be criticized as being riddled with myths, as modern thinkers such as Feuerbach and Nietzsche appropriated monotheistic iconoclasm and Greek philosophy and turned it against religion itself. Originated in the wake of the Enlightenment, modern art was always a deconstruction of the rules of representation and of the images of Christian and other gods. There is not one single history of iconoclasm, but various interlinked and overlapping genealogies. While secularists create a radical distinction between “the secular West” on the one hand and religion (especially Islam) on the other, modern culture is profoundly indebted to religion; it sets free the secularizing impulse inherent in monotheism itself. The rejection of idolatry can be seen as a criticism of images that, while still dogmatic, was radicalized in modern thought and art.

"In refusing to regard iconoclasm merely as a pathological phenomenon associated with the religious other, this exhibition offers a counter-myth of iconoclasm. If both the narrative of secularization and that of the return of religion can be characterized as myths, this does not mean that they are simply untrue; according to a contemporary understanding of the term, myths are not just imaginary stories, but narratives that give historical events a contemporary meaning and can thereby, to some extent, shape reality. Rather than as “iconophobic” vandalism, iconoclasm at its most interesting can be seen as an attempt to redefine and re-imagine the image and to question what passes for visual culture—a culture whose images, including the images of religious confrontations that we are fed on a daily basis, may in fact be insufficiently visual. Do they not seem to be designed to obscure rather than reveal those processes that engender hatred and justify violence?

"In seeking to go “beyond the image wars,” the 2002 exhibition Iconoclash. Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art at ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe disparaged iconoclasm as such in favor of an “iconoclash” that amounts to a questioning and examination of images that suspends the urge to smash them. However, iconoclasm was always more than mere image-smashing, and amidst today’s spectacular battle over images it is crucial to reclaim iconoclasm—and religion—from its fundamentalist appropriators. As a criticism of images, the monotheistic discourse on idolatry also paved the way for modern critiques—of tradition, of religion itself, of the com-modity, and of capitalism. Regarding religious criticism and secular critique as being of the same ilk, Iconoclash co-organizer sociologist Bruno Latour goes so far as to say that “suspicion has rendered us dumb.” Governments from Washington to Teheran must rejoice at such prose. The efficacy of critique in the face of terror and counter-terror is indeed doubtful, but rather than a disparagement of it as such, what is needed is a reexamination of our cultural and political deadlock, in which critique is either institutionalized and neutralized, or equated with dangerous political dissent and terrorism.

"This show is conceived as a three-dimensional essay in two parts, which stages a confrontation between various kinds of iconoclasm in order to chart the (im)possibilities of contemporary iconoclasm in art, theory, and cultural and political practice in general. These notes indicate some of the possible relations between the images and non-images in the show, without presuming to curtail their interplay.

Part 1: From Idol to Artwork (BAK)

"While iconoclasm is often equated with the destruction of art, it has, more interestingly, produced art. This part of the exhibition reflects on this process and on its consequences. Iconoclastic erasures can even come to function as an integral part of an artwork. Furthermore, the critique of cult images as idols stimulates their recontextualization as art: after centuries of neglect, from the Renaissance onward Apollo finds a new home in the museum, as fallen idols are reborn as art. By questioning cult images and removing them from their sacred context, monotheism facilitated their eventual transformation into objets d’art with a secularized aura. Certain objects associated with monotheism—medieval Madonnas, Persian illuminations—even came to be regarded primarily as priceless works of art. In the museum, one could say that Christ, Buddha, and Muhammad exist on the same abstract plane (even if didactic wall texts or visitor guides may treat them differently). At the same time, some critics have argued that the work of art remains ever in the service of “cult value.” Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish was based in part on eighteenth-century writer Charles De Brosses’s notion of African fetishism, which in his view was a worship of random objects that constituted a “primitive” prelude to idolatry; as the commodity fetish par excellence, is the modern artwork not just a barely secularized idol? If we look to the recent history of modern art, iconoclastic attacks on Greek and Roman idols-turned-art and the critique of representation in general led—among other things—to abstract paintings that seem to obey a secular Second Commandment, banning representation not because of a religious dogma, but as a consequence of a critique of art and its conditions.

"Even if artists such as Piet Mondrian had long abandoned the faith in which they were raised by the time they made their mature work, this rejection of representation mirrors the old monotheistic condemnation of idolatry, which has become an integral part of modern critical thought. In the current context, however, abstraction often comes to be associated with Islam: think for example of last year, when Cologne’s Cardinal Meisner complained that Gerhard Richter’s new abstract stainedglass window for his cathedral would be better suited for a mosque, or how full-body veils are seen by some as symptomatic of Islam’s abstract rejection of western “visual culture.” But then, is the “spectacle” of our media-saturated society not itself abstract to the core, programmed as it is by digital codes? Just how visible is our “visual culture”?

Part 2: Attacking the Spectacle (CM Studio)

"The second part of the exhibition, Attacking the Spectacle, focuses on the political contestations of what philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt have characterized as the “Empire” of global capitalism. Here again the religious and the secular are in dialogue with each other. Modern theory and activism contain secularized traces of the Christian attack on Roman spectacles. For the early Christians, the Roman Empire was the paradigmatic idolatrous society. The early Christian rejection of spectacles remained a potent trope in western culture, ready to be reactivated, for instance by Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This “anti-spectacular” discourse was transformed and radicalized by modern theorists and artists; building on Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism for example, filmmaker and theorist Guy Debord attacked capitalism as a “society of the spectacle” whose images barely disguised that it is a system of exploitation and living death.

"Such critics may be truer descendants of monotheistic thinking than current fundamentalist terrorists who seem to outdo each other in the embrace of today’s spectacle of the media, and whose strategies are shaped by modern terrorism. Rather than resolutely rejecting the capitalist spectacle, fundamentalists transform it into a spectacle of their own, dominated by dualistic clashes between good and evil and effects-laden scenes, of which the images from 9/11 are the most famous example. How can we imagine forms of theory and practice that break the deadlock created by the war of images and counter-images, of terror and counterterror?"

Artists: Carl Andre, Carel Blotkamp, Guy Debord/Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rod Dickinson & Tom McCarthy, Hans Haacke, Arnoud Holleman, Imi Knoebel, Gert Jan Kocken, Krijn de Koning, Willem Oorebeek, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Haim Steinbach, Rosemarie Trockel, and Lidwien van de Ven.[id_projekt]=59

Texte zur Kunst no. 72: Design

Issue no. 72 of Texte zur Kunst has been guest-edited by Tom Holert - whose book Regieren im Bildraum has just been published by b_books, Berlin. The topic at hand is design, and one of the texts is my essay Under the Sign of Design, both in German (pp. 56-69) and in English (pp. 115-122). If the images of John Armleder's installation do not quite seem to match my description of it in the text, that's because the illustration show a later version (that I did not know existed until I saw the magazine in print) with completely different elements. Also, artist Mark Boulos's first name is misspelled with a c, and the distinction Bataille made between sociétés de comsommation and sociétés de consumation has evaporated during editing, the former term now being used exclusively. This text was written and edited in great haste by people who really needed some time off, and it shows. The text will be corrected and developed further in the near future.

Online Texts on Publicness, Nostalgia and Appropriation

Here are some links to older writings that are online at the moment (December 2008), though one never knows how long this form of publicness will last.

010 publishers has put the entire book The Urban Condition (1999) online, including my article The Invisible Work of Art, on works of art in urban "public space":

The somewhat more gothic essay The Conspiracy of Publicness from Open no. 7 (2004) is online at the official web site:

A 2004 essay on nostalgia, Happy Days Are Here Again, is still online at The text appeared in Metropolis M; at the moment I can't find the magazine in question, so I cannot check the number of this issue. I do recall that the design fascists who had free reign at the magazine thought it would be a cool idea to use different fonts for the names and bands, TV shows, and the like. These interventions are thankfully absent in the online version.

Someone at Berkeley put up a PDF (with some passages marked in yellow) of The Feathers of the Eagle (also known as Appropriation Mythology) from New Left Review no. 36 (November/December 2005):

New Left Review no. 54: Attending to Abstract Things

New Left Review no. 54 (November/December 2008) contains my essay Attending to Abstract Things (pp. 101-122), which comprises parts of my upcoming book Idols of the Market. The text attempts to arrive at a materialist theory of our seemingly abstract and dematerialized culture, revisiting theories of fetishism and of the symbol from De Brosses and Creuzer to Marx and Baudrillard, and using works of art as implicit - and sometimes prophetic - forms of theory in their own right. The opening paragraph:

"It has become a moderately popular pastime to accuse modern philosophy and theory, particularly Marxism, of evincing a crypto-idealist aversion to objecthood. Bruno Latour claims that the quintessential modern project is to liberate the subject from its dependency on the object, one prominent instance of which is the Marxian critique of the commodity fetish, that archetypal ‘bad object’. Is materialism, then, in the grips of a religious impulse to spurn the material world and ‘attend to things invisible’—in the form of grand theoretical notions? In fact, for dialectical materialism theoretical abstractions are necessitated by the abstraction inherent in the economic system; the commodity is regarded as insufficiently material, as too ‘theological’, prone to idealist pretenses. In Terry Eagleton’s words, ‘As pure exchange-value, the commodity erases from itself every particle of matter; as alluring auratic object, it parades its own unique sensual being in a kind of spurious show of materiality’. But this inherent duality of the commodity is not static; over time, the ‘spurious’ materiality of the ‘auratic object’ seems to become more so, the commodity becoming increasingly dematerialized and abstract. As Vilém Flusser noted, to abstract means to subtract, and specifically to subtract data from matter; throughout history, abstraction has been a movement towards information. In the ‘information economy’, capitalism has embraced a quasi-theological narrative of dematerialization, creating a need to redefine materialism that is only heightened by the turmoil in which this economy now finds itself."

I received some interesting feedback from Paul Chan, who also sent me the text of a lecture he gave earlier in 2008, The Spirit of Recession, which reveals lines of thinking very close to my own, in condensed and elegant prose. Here's what Paul wrote: "Just wanted to tell you that I really appreciate your piece in NLR 54. It's a big piece and to try to bring into relationship the spirit of abstraction in both concept and coinage is important and right. Many things to think about. Almost reads like a... manifesto of sorts. Please let me know when you plan to storm the gates. Any gates will do, for me anyways. One question. I took it as a rhetorical provocation (and question) when you asked how anyone can posit a narrative of increasing abstraction. But I can't believe you really believe that there has not been an increase of the spirit of abstraction in the everydayness of life and in every demand of the day. The divison of (manual, intellectual, emotional, pleasurable) labor increases with each passing business cycle. And the more they are divided, the more each divided part takes on the aura of a whole - a purer whole, since the point of the division was to reduce human potentialities to an efficient productive "fullness", whether as consumer, producer, or parishioner. This feeling of unbearable fullness is precisely what has increased."

Paul is right, of course, and that he feels uneasy about the conclusion of my text suggests that I got carried away by my opposition to the habitual complains about increasing abstraction, which fail to see that every increase in abstraction is also an increasing concretion of abstraction itself, and that there is a potential for praxis (to use an old-fashioned term) in this process. Thanks to Paul, this point will hopefully be made in a clearer manner in the book, which will also be free from the typos that have crept into the NLR text due to an excessively frantic editing process - notably a "2009" that should be "2008" and a French "département" surreptitiously transformed into "department" by Word's intrusive spell check. These glitches have been corrected in the online version (for which you need a NLR account):

Image: an African "fetish" with shells, formerly in the collection of Tristan Tzara.

HTV no. 76: "Liberticide"

Issue no. 76 of HTV De IJsberg, a.k.a. the HTV, a free Dutch art paper, is dedicated to the effects of neoliberalism on art. The catchy title is "Liberticide," which the editors also used for a Dutch-language collection of essays published by Uitgeverij IJzer. I contributed a textual readymade, accompanied by the following introductory note:

"In 2007, Julika Rudelius asked me to sign a letter written by an American lawyer. In the letter, an art critic with my name asks the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services to give Julika an ‘extraordinary artist’ visa. The lawyer’s prose was cringe-inducing, and I did not recognize myself at all in this grotesque doppelganger of mine. However, I assumed that Julika’s legal eagle knew what kind of letters 
US bureaucrats like to read, so I gave him (and her) carte blanche, only suggesting that it might be tactically wise to remove the mention of the New Left Review from the text. In stark contrast to the global travels of commodities, including works of art, the movements of even relatively privileged people are subjected to ever stricter constraints—never mind the movements of those who have no access to western lawyers and their literary talents. Set in an alternate universe, populated by distorted alter egos, this text reenacts this everyday drama as an obscenely amusing farce."

The letter falsely claims that I am an editor of De Witte Raaf, which at that point was no longer the case. Not correcting factual errors was part of my hands-off policy, but the editors of the HTV repeat this claim in the author's note, which suggests that - in spite of my introduction - my uncanny double is doing what doubles do best: spreading confusion.

Springerin, Fall 2008

The Fall 2008 issue of the Austrian art magazine Springerin is dedicated to religion, and it includes my article Schleierspektakel (only in German, pp. 18-23). The text, which is an extract from my forthcoming book Idols of the Market, deals with the Islamic veil as a prop in the current image wars.

The English version, pretty much unedited, is online here,

Texte zur Kunst no. 71

Issue no. 71 of Texte zur Kunst (September 2008), which is largely dedicated to "artists' artists" and "referentialism" in recent art, also contains my review of David Joselit's Feedback: Television Against Democracy (English version pp. 186-189; German 201-206).

Grey Room no. 32: From One Spectacle to Another

Issue no. 32 of Grey Room (Summer 2008) contains my essay From One Spectacle to Another (pp. 63-87). The text, which examines the afterlife of the Christian theoretization and condemnation of idolatrous Roman spectacles in modern culture and Situationist theory, is based on chapter two of my forthcoming book Idols of the Market.

"Although Egypt and Babylon were the idolatrous societies par excellence of the Old Testament, for the early Christians the Roman Empire was the paradigmatic idolatrous society. Tertullian, the most puritanical of the important early Christian authors, went furthest in denouncing idolatry as an all-encompassing system. In his De Spectaculis, he argued that something as seemingly “secular” as the Roman games was in fact suffused with idolatria; the games were dedicated to the false gods and thus part of the heathen cults. In part because of Tertullian and his central place in the Christian tradition, the term spectacle—referring to all kinds of theatrical entertainments—was always ready to take on negative connotations and be used as a weapon. Protestant communities in particular inherited Tertullian’s attitude, and in the eighteenth century the Protestant criticism of spectacles was secularized by Rousseau. In his Letter to d’Alembert (1758), Rousseau objected to the latter’s suggestion that Calvinist Geneva might be ameliorated by building a theater and allowing actors to perform. Even while citing Calvin and referring to “notre religion,” Rousseau attempts to justify banning spectacles on secular grounds: an important argument is that the theater is antisocial and stimulates the citizen to withdraw into a world of make-believe in which family, neighbors, and duties are forgotten. "

"Rousseau’s complaints conjure up the famous image from English-language editions of The Society of the Spectaclean audience of passive zombies donned with 3-D goggles, and Martin Jay detected in Debord’s stance “a touch of the stern Rousseauist injunction to force people to be free by compelling them to shut their eyes to illusion, whether they wanted to or not.” While such a remark neglects that in Debord’s work Enlightenment moralizing has been replaced by an analysis of the political economy, just as les spectacles have given way to le spectacle, anachronisms are an integral part of the spectacle and of its critique. Neo-Roman posturing is met with contestations that derive some of their strength far from contemporaneous sources. “Disguises” in cultural production should be taken as seriously as survivals and returns in theory—without neglecting crucial differences and transformations. Now that both religious fundamentalists and "Enlightenment fundamentalists” proclaim a Manichaean opposition between faith and secular reason, the attempts by some to break through this deadlock by “re-sacralizing” the critique of the current imperial spectacle are of great significance."

A small erratum: In the article, Ellen Meiksins Wood's name was misspelt "Meiskins Wood," which will of course be corrected in the upcoming book version, like so many other glitches!

Image: Jean-Léon Gérôme's Pollice Verso as reproduced in the journal Spur (1961).

Holy Grail/Quail

This summer I found out that Tris Vonna-Michell included a copy of the Holy Grail issue of the HTV, which I guest-edited, in one of the installations/performances in his 2007 Witte de With show. The piece in question is Finding Chopin: In Search of the Holy Quail (2006), which centers, or circles, around sound poetry guru Henri Chopin. This happens to be one of those rare Witte de With exhibitions that I didn't see. Since it's always nice when obscure projects turn out to have some sort of unexpected use-value, it would have been interesting to see how this publication functioned in Vonna-Michell's web of references and allusions. Not having been in the right place at the right time, I can only try to piece together a composite picture of this non-event (for me, at any rate) through photographs and the writings of others, such as Sam Thorne in Frieze:

"Vonna-Michell’s modern day picaresques unfold within dimly lit installations, comprising projections, arcane ephemera, personal correspondence and scattered photocopies. The sparse props in these indeterminate spaces are less the detritus of ‘events frozen in time’ than points in a hyperactive dot-to-dot puzzle, a mind-map of postwar Europe, gleefully hopping either side of the Berlin Wall.
"The young artist’s surname is an unlikely one for his home town, the English seaside resort of Southend, and it is Vonna-Michell’s search to understand the oddity of this familial displacement that generates the journey retold in Finding Chopin. ‘Why was I born in such a place?’ asks the young Tris. ‘Ask Henri Chopin – all you need to know is that he loves quail eggs, lives in Paris, and is 82 years old,’ replies his father, gnomically. So starts the desultory trip, with Vonna-Michell the protagonist, which skips between Glasgow, France and Norfolk on the trail of the eponymous concrete poet, whose relocation to Essex purportedly influenced the Vonna-Michells’ move. While this pursuit can appear aleatory, like the antic questing of Herbert Stencil in Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963), the overarching narrative is driven by a search for sense, frequently governed by associated sounds, puns and repetitions." (

The entire Holy Grail issue can be found in the online archive at
Image: installation shot of Finding Chopin at Witte de With.

Omer Fast: The Casting

The MUMOK in Vienna has published a small book on the occasion of the exhibition Omer Fast: The Casting. For this book, Fast has once more collaborated with designer Manuel Raeder, resulting in a publication that functions like a typographic remix of Fast's new video installation, The Casting, which is itself a reenacted remix of two different episodes narrated by a US soldier: an encounter with a disturbed girl in Germany, and an ambush in Iraq.

The book contains an e-mail conversation between Omer Fast and myself, which focuses on reenactment in his work and in general. Exchanging these mails was very stimulating, and the text contains some suggestions that I hope to expand on next year, when the idolatry project is finished and I'll be able to focus on a new book. Publications (and the exhibition Life, Once More) that are labeled "History in Motion" relate to this potential book on the contempory production of history through film, TV, and other moving images.

Roy Villevoye: Detours

From June 14 to August 10, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen shows Detours, a retrospective of Roy Villevoye's work from the late 1980s to the present. The catalog includes numerous essays, including one by Villevoye's frequent collobrator Jan Dietvorst (a number of co-directed films are part of the show), and my own essay The Art of Exchange from Secret Publicity. It is unfortunate that it has not proven possible to have the show travel to other locations/countries, but hopefully the publication will find its way to some addressees outside of Holland.

Unknown Knowns

BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht just published On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art (edited by Binna Choi, Maria Hlavajova and Jill Winder). This reader contains both newly commissioned and anthologized writings in art as a site for the production of knowledge. Included is my essay Unknown Knowns: On Symptoms in Contemporary Art, (pp. 84-107), which is a sequel of sorts to my earlier essay Theory and the Sphinx, and which discusses works by artists including Martha Rosler, Jeff Wall, Andrea Fraser, and Omer Fast. From the introduction:

"Artistic “research” often functions as a parody of instrumentalized academic knowledge production, falling short of even its eroding criteria. However, this may not be a bad thing, at least not entirely. The failure to meet a dubious standard always holds the potential to erupt into a questioning of that standard. In this respect, it is interesting to note the place held by the symptom in what passes for artistic knowledge production. While the rhetoric and practice of artistic knowledge production can themselves be seen as symptomatic of the social constraints to which autonomous art is subjected, the work of some artists actively engages with the symptom as an alternative to the empire of signs created by academic disciplines—as pointing both backwards and forwards in time, beyond the current order of things.

"By definition, symptoms are unintentional and uncontrollable, unproductive and even counterproductive—the result of repressed drives seeking an outlet. Recent practices that stage physical or linguistic symptoms can be seen as undermining the sham logocentrism of contemporary discourse even while taking advantage of the symbolic status of theory and research. Such approaches need to be distinguished from historical modern art, especially Expressionism and Surrealism: if these movements simulated symptoms, it was because they valued symptomatic scribbles and movements as authentic and autonomous expressions, and sought to liberate the symptom from a clinical or analytical context. By contrast, today’s artists are not so much interested in using the symptom as a model for a quasi-symptomatic, expressive, and convulsive art, but rather a reflexive symptomatology that produces dubious knowledge about knowledge’s other.

"Building on a famously rambling epistemological statement by Donald Rumsfeld, in which the then US Secretary of Defense mused about the “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns” in the war on terror, one could say that such practices articulate the “unknown knowns” of society—its ideological unconscious, its repressed knowledge. Such active symptomatology is in contradistinction to the theoretical tendency to read art’s formal characteristics as symptoms of the conditions and contradictions of artistic production, revealing more about society than the artist may have realized. Symptomatological approaches in recent art depend on an actively critical role for the artist; however, it is important to remember that critical intentions have their own unconscious, their own unknown knowns."

images: pages from Manuel Raeder's typographic version of Omer Fast's Godville.

Open no. 14: Sacred Sites

Issue no. 14 of Open, a publication on "art and the public domain"edited by Jorinde Seijdel, is dedicated to art institutions and the reinvention of publicness. This issue contains contributions by Chantal Mouffe, Nina Möntmann, Jan Verwoert and Bik Van der Pol, among others, as well as my essay Exhibiting Cult Value: On Sacred Spaces as Public Spaces and Vice Versa (pp. 38-55 in the English edition). The text analyses the relations between museum, cathedral and mosque, arguing against the popular tendency to either define museums and other art spaces as bullwarks of "Western"secularism or demand that they become so. An extract:

"For Enlightenment fundamentalists, mosque and museum are radically opposed to each other, while the cathedral is politely or opportunistically ignored. If the Qur’an is seen as the enemy of Western “free word” and its media, the mosque stands in a similar opposition to the museum, the home of “free art” that is under threat from sinister fundamentalists. In this way the mosque comes to be opposed to the museum as representative of the secular public sphere. Recently, when the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague refused to exhibit photographs that showed gay men wearing masks representing Muhammed and Ali, his son-in-law, the museum was attacked for betraying its mission to be a space of secular freedom against theocratic tyranny. Thus there are two opposed interpretations of the museum: in contrast to the authors who argue that the museum is too sacred, that it is insufficiently profane, others ideologize the museum as a prototypical space for Western secularism, for free words and images. Both positions are militantly secularist. In both cases, the sacred as such is seen as ominous.

"Emile Durkheim noted that “[t]here are two kinds of sacred, one auspicious, the other inauspicious;” for Enlightenment fundamentalists, there only seems to be bad sacrality. But does not the concept of the secular itself come to play the part of the “good” sacred? After all, the Enlightenment fundamentalists effectively sacralize “the Enlightenment”, “the West”, “free speech”, “free art”—while using such slogans to avoid any discussion of Western complicitness in the situations they denounce, in the Middle East and elsewhere. If secularization means the questioning of dogmas and stifling celestial and earthly hierarchies, a revolt against a culture of fear and taboo, then secularization is indeed crucial, but many secularists seem intent on sabotaging this process by nurturing Manichaean dichotomies. This goes for art-bashers as well as for Islam-bashers; while the latter use the bogeyman of Evil Islam to prevent a serious contestation Western neoliberal policies and economic imperialism, the former seem intent on disabling whatever potential for dissent art may still have. Yes, the museum needs to be critiqued, but Ulrich’s “profane” museum, which is no longer distinct from the surrounding culture, would itself be as critical as Fox News.

"Perhaps the museum’s insufficient secularization, its elitist and mystifying form of publicness, also enables critical practices that would not be possible otherwise. And did not churches, at various moments in history, function as public places that enabled the articulation of dissenting practices and forms of resistance, both from a Christian and from a post-Christian perspective? No doubt some mosques deserve to be eyed with suspicion, and there are many obstacles to be overcome, but one can give a positive twist to the mosque’s difference from (and in) the current order, as in the case of the museum. Some works of art stage a tentative dialogue between art context and mosque. Lidwien van de Ven’s photo of a Viennese mosque, in which men are seen from behind, praying with their faces to the wall, is pasted directly on the wall of the white cube; thus one space of concentration, however myth-ridden, is presented as an extension of the next."

Image: Lidwien van de Ven, Islamic Centre, Vienna, 2000.

The complete text is online here:

En de nederlandse versie is hier:

[Correction: Although in recent years Lidwien van de Ven often shows her photographs in the form of poster prints glued directly on the wall, the picture of the Islamic Center in Vienna has not been shown in this way yet.]

Texte zur Kunst no. 69: Abstraction

I served as guest editor of issue no. 69 of Texte zur Kunst (March 2007), alongside regulars André Rottmann and Stefanie Kleefeld. The contributions gathered behind a rather unfortunate cover by David Lieske are dedicated to abstraction in modern and contemporary artistic practices and aesthetic theory, particularly in relation to the economic conditions of art. The texts aim at establishing an understanding of abstraction that exceeds the historical limitation of this generic term in art-historical parlance by decidedly expanding its implications beyond the realm of (neo-)formalist preoccupations with aesthetic surfaces, especially in painting. Instead of prolonging this notion’s reduction to self-reflexive forms of modernist medium-specificity, the various contributions seek to explore abstraction in the context of the socio-economic upheavals of modernity, in which “all that is solid melts into thin air”—as two nineteenth-century art theorists put it.

The "thematic" part contains texts by Sebastian Egenhofer, Melanie Gilligan, Isabelle Graw, Sabeth Buchmann, Ina Blom, Alice Creisher/Andreas Siekmann, and myself. My essay Living With Abstraction (German version pp. 46-59; English version pp. 132-138), which contains materal from from chapter 4 of my book-in-progress Idols of the Market, starts as follows:

"For his 2002 poster project commemorating the attack on the World Trade Center, Hans Haacke produced an edition of monochrome white posters from which the silhouettes of the Twin Towers had been cut out. These were glued onto New York poster walls, with the underlying printed matter partly visible in the outlines. For the design of his “negative” poster, Haacke used an advertisement for a Broadway production from the New York Times Magazine as background, and on the city's poster walls it was likewise fragments of ads that were visible in the towers' silhouettes — often ads for shows, films or records. Although ostensibly commemorating 9/11, the project in effect problematized and questioned the destroyed building itself, which had made visible the abstract, aniconic tendency of advanced capitalism in the form of a spectacular icon. As an image of deterritorialized streams of capital, in Haacke's project the destroyed WTC becomes the empty frame of commodity-images which, according to Marxian theory, are themselves merely pseudo-concrete manifestations of abstract exchange-value: as Terry Eagleton put it, “the commodity erases from itself every particle of matter; as alluring auratic object, it parades its own unique sensual being in a kind of spurious show of materiality.”

"In a process that is as liberating as it is destructive, capitalism extracts people and goods from feudal social bonds, replacing them with the abstract bond of exchange value. This means that all modern — commodified — art is fundamentally abstract, regardless of whether it consists of squares and rectangles or represents cute kittens: “As uninteresting as obsolete postage stamps, and offering as little variation as these, literary or artistic productions are now signs of nothing but abstract commerce.” Formal abstraction thus would seem to offer no privileged insight into a society where abstraction is triumphant. In 1937, Meyer Schapiro argued that there are problems with theories that derive abstraction in art either from the forms of industry or from “the abstract nature of modern finance, in which bits of paper control capital and all human transactions assume the form of operations on numbers and titles,” since abstract art did not emerge in the most industrially advanced nations or in the main centres of finance — and moreover, many early abstract artists positioned their work squarely in opposition to what they perceived as the "materialism" of modern society.

"One way out of this quandary was offered by Adorno's sophisticated argument that formal abstraction is the result of a new “interdiction” of representation stemmed from the imperative for the work of art to absorb its “deadliest enemy, exchangeability”, resisting abstraction by representing it negatively. Abstract art is thus positioned as perhaps the modern art par excellence — its “windowless monads” showing the abstract nature of society by refusing to represent its glimmering surfaces, or even its dark underside, giving back a blank stare rather than attempting to adjust traditional representation to a post-traditional world. However, this negative theology of abstraction — of which Gerhard Richter's reading of the gestural abstraction of art informel as befitting a post-traditional world is another instance — has increasingly been challenged by practices that seek to give a more precise social and political meaning to abstract structures. This development occurs at a time when capitalism seems to abstract itself beyond recognition, entering a post-visual, “conceptual” phase in which even pseudo-concrete appearances are abandoned. In the 1970s, Baudrillard used the “binary” towers as signs for the transition from a regime of production to one of pure semiosis, of capital becoming coded information circling the globe — the ultimate abstraction. Can such abstraction still be made visible, however inadequately, now that Baudrillard's double icon is gone?"

Images: Frank Stella, Madinat As-Salam I, 1973, and Hans Haacke, design for Commemorating 9/11 poster project, 2001.

Artforum, March 2008

The March issue of Artforum contains a short text on Werner Herzog, in particular his new film on Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World (pp. 117-118). The text was and should be titled Encounters in End Time, but Artforum changed this to the cringeworthy Truth and Beauty.

Some extracts:

"In one scene, the director tries to make a reputedly increasingly misanthropic and shy scientist relax by asking him probing questions about sexual deviancy among penguins. The bemused expert ventures that, while he knows of no gay sex, there is some evidence of threesomes and "prostitution." This all-too-human behavior leads Herzog to ask whether there are cases of mental derangement among these birds. Some penguins, it turns out, become insane and abandon their group; we see footage of one penguin who stays put as others go on their way, and who eventually waggles, alone, toward the bluish-white horizon-where, Herzog's voice tells us with a hint of barely suppressed glee, "certain death" awaits. This brings to mind various other Herzog protagonists, those played by Klaus Kinski in particular, who subordinate everything to some overriding vision and therefore act in socially unproductive ways. If anything, such "deranged" outsiders allow us to see the insanity of business as usual more clearly. [...] But in a film that repeatedly gives voice to the concern of scientists over global warming, the larger implication is that humanity itself, like the deranged penguin, is marching toward certain death.

"Indeed, although Herzog is highly critical of Al Gore's pimped-out PowerPoint presentation, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Encounters takes up many of the same motifs, albeit in a more imaginative way. In what may well be one of the staged scenes that Herzog includes in his documentaries in order to go beyond what he has, speaking of cinema verité, called "superficial truth, the truth of accountants," Encounters shows a marine biologist and his colleagues watching the trailer for the 1954 film Them! on a computer monitor. In Them! natural history is out of joint, as nuclear explosions beget a race of giant monster ants. All of Herzog's sci-fi films in fact have similarities to this film-they are disaster (if not monster) movies, showing landscapes full of industrial junk or otherwise ravaged. [...]

"Media coverage of global warming often implies that the process is so radical as to be all but unstoppable, and thus it often serves to breed passivity, even when accompanied by ostensibly actionist rhetoric. This is the effect of one scene in Encounters, in which a computer screen displays a time-lapse animation of icebergs moving northward, where they will inevitably melt. The film as a whole, however, opposes such intimations of inevitability with a rich and varied rhythm, a temporality that counters linear scenarios with spiraling movements between men and penguins, between the "cathedral" under the ice and the edge of an Antarctic volcano. By proposing time as something malleable, Herzog suggests that today's unnatural natural history is still open to intervention-that there are possibilities for action in and beyond entropic end-time."

Image: Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World (2007), production still.