End of year roundup: book reviews, book in progress

Reviews of Idols of the Market have recently been published in Metropolis M, Open, and Texte zur Kunst. Meanwhile, aside from a grant application for a big project, I’m working on another book called, tentatively, History in Motion. This quotation from a film by Harun Farocki gives an idea of its point of departure: “Camera and event. Since its invention, film has seemed destined to make history visible. It has been able to portray the past and to stage the present. We have seen Napoleon on horseback and Lenin on the train. Film was possible because there was history. Almost imperceptibly, like moving forward on a Moebius strip, the side was flipped. We look on, and have to think: if film is possible then history, too, is possible.”

Which consequences did the rise of moving images (film and video) have for the representation and the production of history? If film was destined to “portray the past and to stage the present”, as Harun Farocki states, History in Motion wants to focus on the interconnection between these two activities—not only in relation to film, but also in relation to other time-based media, including live performance and its afterimages. If it was traditionally a fleeting presence, the stuff of elusive memories, in modernity the moving image became storable. How does this influence the relation between representation and event, between the time of the image and historical time, and between past history and the history-in-progress of a contested present?

The book’s analysis is mainly aimed at the past few decades, at the post-Fordist phase and its temporal specificities: flexibility, the erosion of the distinction between work and leisure, permanent media presence. However, the temporal transformations of society and culture associated with post-Fordism, dominated by the permanent presence of television and then the internet, but haunted by the afterlife of cinema, will be related back to earlier shifts, in particular to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century capitalism—the early years of film.

This probably gives a highly inadequate impression. Analog, concrete thinker that I am, I’m notoriously bad at giving a priori summaries of what work in progress will end up being like. Although I’ve already done a lot of groundwork with various articles—tagged "history in motion" on this blog—things crystallize, dissolve and coalesce during the (re)writing process, and if I knew beforehand what I would end up with, I couldn’t muster the energy to actually do it. Admittedly, this is something of a handicap in a society in which you rarely get credit on the basis of your history – only on the basis of meticulously drafted, carefully planned futures.

Image: Stan Douglas, Overture, 1986, installed at Witte de With in 1994.

A Few Quotations for the Holidays

When I was rereading Debord and Sanguinetti's 1972 Theses on the Situationist International and Its Time shortly after the meltdown of the Copenhagen climate conference, I came across some passages that simply demanded to be posted:

"The recent appearance in the spectacle of a flood of moralizing speeches and pledges of retail solutions to what governments and their mass media call pollution, seeks to hide, at the same time that it must reveal, this obvious fact: capitalism has finally delivered proof that it cannot develop productive forces any further. It is not however quantitatively, as many people thought it necessary to understand, that capitalism will have proved incapable of pursuing this development, but qualitatively."

"The society that has every technical means to modify the biological foundations of the whole of life on earth is also the society that, thanks to the same separate technical and scientific development, has every means of control and of mathematically incontrovertible forecasting to measure in advance exactly what the growth in alienated productive forces of class society can lead to - with dates, according to a best- or worst-case scenario - in terms of the catastrophic break-up of the human environment."

"Pollution and the proletariat are today the two concrete aspects of the critique of political economy."

Oh yes, and happy holidays.

Return of Religion Reader

The final installment of the three-part project I did at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht: the publication of The Return of Religion and Other Myths: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, co-edited with Maria Hlavajova and Jill Winder.

Co-published by BAK and post editions, Rotterdam, the reader contains contributions by Jan Assmann, Christina von Braun, Paul Chan, Boris Groys (an interview by Maria Hlavajova), Arnoud Holleman, Marc De Kesel, Kenan Malik, Maria Pask, Dieter Roelstraete and Jorinde Seijdel.

As well as completing the BAK project, which also included a lecture series and my exhibition The Art of Iconoclasm, this publication can also be seen as a companion piece to my recent book Idols of the Market.



Bug report: It seems that at some point, someone decided to turn the title of Arnoud Holleman's text from "On ne touche pas" into "On ne touché pas." It's French, so there should be plenty of accents, oui? My apologies to Arnoud for this faux-pas.

Attending to Things Online

The group Chto delat has put online a PDF of my article "Attending to Abstract Things" from New Left Review no. 54 (November/December 2008), making it available for those who don't have a NLR subscription. Here it is:


The site also contains the contents of various issues of the Chto delat newspaper. The discussion in issue 01-25 in particular resonates with some of my present and nascent concerns, but there's more stuff that is well worth checking out - including texts by Peio Aguirre, Gene Ray and others on dialectical method in issue 03-27.

Texte zur Kunst no. 75: Thomas Hirschhorn review

Texte zur Kunst no. 75 (September 2009) contains my review of The Bijlmer Spinoza Festival, a project that took place in the Bijlmer (Amsterdam) during the summer of 2009, which involved daily lectures and performances taking place in a pavilion that also included a Spinoza exhibition and a library. The location, the Bijlmermeer or Bijlmer, is a post-war banlieue of Amsterdam with a large Surinamese population. The review discusses this piece in relation to previous Hirschhorn works, such as his 1990 Spinoza Monument and the Bataille Monument at Documenta 11, as well in the context of the contemporary socio-political situation in the Netherlands.

"If Spinoza is currently something of an event in Holland, it is mainly because he is seen as a philosopher of tolerance and democracy. Ironically, in the current Dutch culture wars the accusation that Muslims cannot be proper democrats because they believe in the edicts of a radically transcendent God has become a favorite weapon for Pim Fortuyn’s heirs; right-wing populists like Geert Wilders, who are intent on aggravating oppositions and tensions as much as possible, are not above demanding a ban on Qur’an or the deportation of Muslims. Little wonder that Spinoza has been embraced by Amsterdam’s mayor, Job Cohen, who routinely gets flack from Holland’s strong right-wing populist front for not being “tough” enough on immigrants, especially Muslims. Cohen has been much maligned by right-wingers for stating that when his aim was simply 'to keep things together' ('de boel bij elkaar houden'), i.e. to prevent the city from imploding or exploding socially. It almost seems as if Hirschhorn translated this into literally making sure that things do not fall apart: every day, his signature brown tape was used to make sure that things (and, by implication, people) stick together.

"During the Q&A following his talk, [Toni] Negri was asked his opinion about Hirschhorn’s 'precarious aesthetics': Can such an esthetique de précarité bring art and politics together? The issue of the political connotations – let alone possible political efficacy – of Hirschhorn’s formal means is too complex for a succinct answer, which Negri consequently did not give. One the other hand, when arguing that from a Spinozist perspective the state is an expression of un pouvoir that comes from among us, Negri pointed around to the pavilion and said 'comme ici.' Things are perhaps not quite as clear-cut. Dutch public art ideology is based on the quasi-Schillerian desire to mediate between the abstract logic of the state and the realm of sensuous being, of people’s lives; however, critics argue that in the end public art often merely functions as symbolic flag that is draped over social problems, in lieu of an actual political engagement with them. That the state and its organs initiate so many public art projects seems to suggest that this state is precisely not 'comme ici', that it suffers from its lack of immanence. Seen in this light, Hirschhorn acts as the outsider who, as a free agent, helps the Dutch cultural bureaucracy to fulfill its fantasy—and who, in realizing the fantasy, goes beyond it."


e-flux journal no. 8: Viewing Copies

Issue no. 8 of the e-flux journal contains my short essay "Viewing Copies: On the Mobility of Moving Images." These are the opening paragraphs:

"An artist once paid a critic back for lunch by handing him a viewing copy of a video work, adding that this should be more than enough—after all, the piece was worth 25,000 Euro. Both were in on the joke, of course; both knew that a DVD viewing copy of an art video is worth even less than an empty new DVD. In a way, viewing copies do not really exist—their spectral status is owed to the art world’s economy of artificial scarcity and the severe limitations it imposes on the movement of images. Aby Warburg once called Flemish tapestries—early reproductive media that disseminated compositions throughout Europe—automobile Bilderfahrzeuge. Later media have proven to be rather more powerful “visual vehicles” capable of being produced on a Fordist assembly line. But rather than have the work travel to the viewer—an increasing tendency throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—in the case of video or film pieces in contemporary art the viewer has to travel to the work, installed in a gallery or museum.

In contemporary art, even pieces produced in media that allow for infinite mass (re)production are executed only in small editions. In the age of YouTube and file-sharing, this economy of the rarified object becomes ever more exceptional, placing ever-greater stress on the viewing copy as a means of granting access to work beyond the “official” limited editions and outside of the exhibition context. The viewing copy is the obverse of the limited edition: as a copy given or loaned to “art world professionals” for documentation or research purposes, it can never be shown in public. The viewing copy thus widens the reach of the work of art, but confidentially and in semi-secrecy. It is precisely this eccentric status of the viewing copy within the economy of art—which itself has an equally exceptional status within contemporary capitalism—that makes it an exemplary object, a theoretical object par excellence."

The complete text is here: http://e-flux.com/journal/view/75

Image: one half of a viewing copy of Omer Fast's four-channel projection The Casting.

Proletarian Acting

From September 15, Argos in Brussels will show the exhibition Actors & Extras: "The concept of the exhibition is based on the contrast between the actor and the extra. The dividing line between both is the difference between cognisance and ignorance, pre-eminence and insignificance. An actor represents a process of embodiment, vocality, and the ability to give direction to an activity. An extra is a voiceless figure in a background crowd: a body without embodiment. If the extra, in contrast, embodies anything at all, it is a conflict of location. The tension area between background action as abstract, modulative, and manipulatable human material on the one hand, and the consciously acting individual on the other, motives the exploration of social relations of power and the place of collectivity. Works that have the figure of the extra as their subject often have to be read as social and/or political allegories."

For the accompanying publication, I wrote an essay titled "Proletarian Acting." The starting point for this text is as follows:

"The focus in some recent art on the extra, who is called “the silent proletarian of the cinema” in Mark Lewis’s video The Pitch, thus has to be seen as one aspect of a wider questioning of film performance and an exploration of liminal states in performance. In the end, the interest in alternative modes of performance is aimed at transcending the dichotomy between the actor—especially the star—and the extra, and thus abandoning the category of the extra itself. Such a project clearly is of more than merely academic interest in an economy in which work is increasingly redefined in performative terms: rather than selling abstract labour-power, the worker is supposed to sell himself by enacting his or her subjectivity. No longer a classic proletarian, and certainly not silent, this self-performer is the actually existing form of avant-garde models of performance."

The text goes on to discuss a number of films and performances, including work by Allan Kaprow, Augusto Boal, Jeff Wall, and Dora Garcia, in the context of a discussion of the post-Fordist focus on play and self-performance.


Image: Dora Garcia, Instant Narrative (2006/2007).

Texte zur Kunst no. 74

Texte zur Kunst no. 74 (June 2009) is largely dedicated to theses on contemporary art by a variety of authors. It also contains my review of the recent exhibition by Mathias Poledna and Christopher Williams at the Bonner Kunstverein (English pp. 121-123, German 162-166). The show, which consisted only of a number of mobile wall elements from various art institutions, was accompanied by an invitation/folder showing a photograph of three parrots peeping from a hole in a tree. Here's an extract from the review:

"The exhibition at the Kunstverein is a study in abstraction; after all, the walls are image vehicles in the service of an economy in which mobility—of walls and exhibition spaces, of artworks, of visitors—is paramount. At the same time, they make abstraction tangible with their disarmingly concrete, damaged surfaces and visible seams. It appears that, at a moment when the market-driven art frenzy of recent years is abating and art magazines lose weight in record time, Poledna and Williams have created a semi-furnished tabula rasa that once more focuses attention on the contradictory conditions of contemporary art. Recent discourse has a penchant for elevating specific tendencies or individual artists to paradigmatic status, thus sweeping the fundamental antinomies of artistic practices—of competing artistic practices—under the table. The absence of Poledna’s and Williams’s “actual” work in Bonn could also be seen as an invitation to think and act beyond the present deadlock.

"With its primary appeal, the parrot photograph seems designed to be the opposite of the exhibition: a colorful, highly saturated image, which is tied to the aniconic installation only by the use of the same 1970s typography. Used on the printed leaflet as well as in an e-flux announcement, it is as site-specific to such PR materials as the mobile walls are to the exhibition space; it is a PR image designed to attract attention. If one were so inclined, one could relate it to Poledna’s recent film Crystal Palace, shot on New Guinea, to Broodthaers’s parrots, or even to those on a Macke-designed pillow at the August Macke Haus down the street from the Kunstverein. If this play of references may seem disjointed and whimsical, perhaps this is precisely a quality of this invitation. In contrast to the way in which “official” texts ram the referential layers of a film such as Poledna’s Crystal Palace down the viewers’ throats, in the process infantilizing them more than any Hollywood product could hope to achieve, the parrot photograph is open to highly diverse readings and appropriations—as witnessed by drawings and collages made on its basis by children in the context of the Kunstverein’s educational program, KunstStück. In this way, this instrumentalized image functions as an anachronistic reminder of the aesthetic promesse de bonheur under the institutionalized conditions of contemporary artistic practice.

"The exhibition proper ultimately functions in a similar way; its mobile white walls delineate a void in which something or everything may be contained as possibility, in a state of potentiality. Such a move always runs the risk of remaining an empty gesture, an abstract potentiality that is all too content with its lack of realization, yet at this particular moment this intervention feels right. After all, this is a moment of indeterminacy, in which an old order crumbling and the contours of a new one are not readily apparent. The Bonn installation suggests that something further could and should follow this demontage—but not quite yet."


Consummatum Est

My book Idols of the Market has finally taken on physical form. An impression of the contents:

An extensive introduction, "Welcome to the Image Wars", sets the stakes for my analysis of the double legacy of the monotheistic discourse on idolatry, in religious fundamentalisms on the one hand and in modern and contemporary art and philosophy on the other; I argue that "secular" critical discourse should not give in to secularist reflexes, but acknowledge ist own monotheistic genealogy, and turn the critique of religion against its fundamentalist appropriation (the latter being itself a thoroughly modern détournement of religious tradition). The first chapter, "Myths of Iconoclasm", continues this analysis with a discussion of various theoretical approaches to (and narratives of) iconoclasm in different contexts.

In chapter two, "From One Spectacle to Another", religious and leftist conceptualizations of the spectacle are scrutinized. The spectacle as a theater of commodities, of capital that has become image, leads to a discussion of the status of the material side of commodities, and of dematerialization, in chapter three - which is called "Atttending to Things (some more material than others)." The modern concept of fetishism, an offspring of the monotheistic notion of idolatry, is central to this part. Chapter four, "Living with Abstraction", argues that the increasingly "dematerialized" spectacle is marked by an increasing concretization of abstraction. Finally, the fifth chapter focuses on that abstract speck in the Western spectacle - the veil, associated with the Other that is Islam, seen by Hegel and many other writers as the religion of abstraction par excellence.

Idols of the Market will be for sale at the Venice Biennale bookstore, and soon elsewhere.

Amazon in Germany already lists it: http://www.amazon.de/Sven-Lutticken-Iconoclasm-Fundamentalist-Spectacle/dp/1933128267/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&s=books-intl-de&qid=1244462648&sr=8-8

A correction: Arriving a bit too late in the last volume of Guy Debord's correspondence (covering the years 1988-1994), I found out only now that the attribution of the phrase "Rome is no longer in Rome" in the English translation of Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle to Racine is incorrect; the phrase is by Corneille. Debord's remarks on the matter seem to have confused the translator, Malcolm Imrie. The phrase is the motto of my second chapter.

Language in the Vicinity of Things

Whereas this is a pseudo-blog that I use to document my publications and the occasional exhibition, I decided to start something that resembles a proper blog, even if the resemblance in question is perhaps of the Cubist variety. It's called Language in the Vicinity of Things, and can be found at http://sventhings.blogspot.com

Edit: after a few weeks, I can already tell that I would have to take self-exploitation to dangerous extremes in order to do this properly. I deleted the "real" blog and will stick with this one.

Deconstructing Liam

In collaboration with the Kunsthalle Zürich, the Kunstverein München, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Witte de With, Rotterdam, MIT Press has published a "critical reader" on Liam Gillick in lieu of a catalog. Expertly edited by Monika Szewczyk and titled Meaning Liam Gillick, the book collects texts by Peio Aguirre, Johanna Burton, Nikolaus Hirsch, John Kelsey, Maurizio Lazzarato, Maria Lind, Benoît Maire, Chantall Mouffe, Barbara Steiner, Marcus Verhagen, and myself. Oddly enough, the curators/directors Stefan Kalmár, Dominic Molon, Beatrix Ruf, and Nicolaus Schafhausen are listed on the book's cover in exactly the same way as the aforementioned authors and the editor, even though they only contributed a joint foreword of less than three pages. Only in the art world...

My essay, "(Stop) Making Sense", analyses the way in which Gillick employs discursive elements and the notion of the discursive itself. It also reflects on its own compromising context:

"In Fredric Jameson’s words, the public sphere constantly demands a traffic in tokens that it terms ideas, but which are really “idea objects,” commodified fragments of theory—a production of ideas along the lines of Fordist car production. Some forms of discourse offer less resistance to this mechanism than others; and are some not in fact tailor-made for this process? Can the three-dimensional textual
fragments exhibited recently by Gillick in the Guggenheim exhibition theanyspacewhatever no be read as accidental illustrations of Jameson’s point? Do they not seem singularly unwilling to function in any other way than as abstract advertising slogans for Gillick’s practice?

"It may seem willfully perverse and deliberately anachronistic to raise such questions—which may or may not be rhetorical—in the context of a publication on Liam Gillick. In contemporary art magazines, and even more in catalogs and related publications (even if they are termed “critical readers”), discourse is likely to be positive and celebratory; criticism tends to become highbrow copywriting. When debates do take place, they are often thinly disguised jockeying for positions and symbolic capital. Boris Groys has suggested that the only effective contemporary form of judgment lies in the decision whether to write or not to write about an artist since any published criticism is likely to be neutralized as proof that the artist’s work is “controversial” and therefore important or relevant—and if it is embedded in a publication sanctioned by the artist, its role is compromised from the outset. However, to join the conspiracy of silence seems the greatest compromise of all. Any text— or object—with discursive qualities is a message in a bottle, a missive to unknown addressees; potential discourse waiting to be actualized in the form of a response, a rebuttal, an appropriation or détournement, a sounding of its use value. Perhaps an art criticism that tries to think with as well as against and beyond its immediate object can still develop an efficacy of its own, sometimes."


Update: Books and Exhibitions

My upcoming book Idols of the Market has been slightly delayed, mainly because the original editor decided to prioritize her son's budding career as a child actor, but it is now entering the final stage of production. The related exhibition The Art of Iconoclasm at BAK in Utrecht closed on March 1, 2009.

The project The Return of Religion and Other Myths, of which The Art of Iconoclasm was one part, will be completed this summer with a "critical reader" that collects lectures delived in the context of The Return of Religion, as well as some new contributions. But while this closes the BAK project, a version or a sequel of The Art of Iconoclasm may be shown early next year in New York - funding permitting.

Interesting reviews of The Art of Iconoclasm have appeared in, among others, Springerin and Texte zur Kunst. Whereas the Springerin review seems to be print only, the The Texte zur Kunst review has only been published on their web site, and can be found here:


Liberating Time

After some delay, the publication collecting the texts of lectures given on the occasion of the exhibition Beyond Cinema: The Art of Projection in at the Hamburger Bahnhof (or to be precise, at the dubious Christian Flick Collection at the Hamburger Bahnhof) is seeing the light of day. According to Hatje Cantz publishers, "Art of Projection investigates the history and current state of the use of projected images in art, moving from the screen to the exhibition space and back again. The volume’s ten essays, written by leading art historians and critics, address precedents for the projection of images in space in nineteenth-century magic lantern shows and world’s fairs as well as the alternative conceptions of duration or the representation of time pioneered by Surrealists and experimental filmmakers in the early and mid-twentieth century. Central to the book is the lacuna between the development of Expanded Cinema in the seventies and the resurrection of many of its techniques in video installations of the nineties: two generations of artists who shared a desire to create experiences of space and time that were an alternative to the conventions adopted and promoted by the culture industry."

Although I did not attend the conference, I contributed a new text to this publication, edited by Stan Douglas and Christopher Eamon. My essay Liberating Time analyses the discourse surrounding film and video art since the 1990s, in particular the claim that such art presents a more liberated and liberating or purer temporality than mainstream film. The essays also goed back in history, to Deleuze and Godard as well as to Dadaist and Surrealist cinema, in order to ask the question how a true liberation of time might be conceptualized and realized. In a break with my habit of putting the openings of my texts on this pseudo-blog, here's the essay's conclusion, which in a sense is the starting point for work I plan on doing in the near future:

"Writing in prison in the early 1980s, Antonio Negri stated that capitalism tends to reduce all labour to a merely quantitative, measured time, to a state in which “Complexity is reduced to articulation, ontological time to discrete and manoeuvrable time.” A truly liberated time, Negri avers, would break with this regimentation in favour of qualitative and collective production. “Liberated time is a productive quality. It is a productive rationality torn away and isolated from the command that analysed this rationality and extorted it from the time of life.” The art world offers no possibilities to sustain such a production of liberated time; at worst, it ideologizes the present conditions of production while appearing to offer alternatives. While this are reasons for wariness, there is no excuse for defeatism; although the art world’s keenness on celebrating boundless and infinite “potentialities” should treated with as much suspicion as the speeches of used-car salesmen, this is not to say that Adornian mourning over foreclosed possibilities is all that remains.

"At best, art can offer models or presentiments of such a liberated time. Galleries, museums, magazines and other publications offer fragile possibilities, open momentary windows of opportunity, however compromised they are, and precisely by acknowledging this compromised position - for instance by forging an impure montage between gallery time and less fortunate and privileged temporalities. One example of such an approach is a 1972 slide piece by Allan Sekula. In Untitled Slide Sequence, Sekula shows a stream of workers leaving a factory, coming towards and past the spectator in black-and-white images that show momentary cuts from the steady stream of movement. The piece updates the legendary “first film” of the Lumière brothers, in which workers come through the gate of the Lumière factory in Lyons, but it swaps the static frame for a more unstable point of view, as the photos are taken from slightly different spots on the top of a flight of stairs climbed by the employees, who are seen walking towards the camera. For Sekula, early cinema is not primarily a promesse de bonheur as it is a moment in the formation of modern industrial production and its regime of “discrete and manoeuvrable time.” However, by transforming the first film with its rather sudden and massive factory exit into a slide sequence that presents men almost floating past a somewhat erratic camera, Sekula transforms industrial clockwork time – without denying its hold on people’s lives.

"A more recent colour slide piece by Sekula, Prayer for the Americans (1999/2004),is a kind of pilgrimage on the tracks of Mark Twain, “America’s original anti-imperialist, conveniently mis-remembered as a ‘humorist’ and chronicler of lost boyhood”, in a landscape which is both historical and a disneyfied travesty. In a stunning sequence within the larger slide sequence, an obese white working-class family is fishing on the banks of the river, in picture after picture. In stretching this sequence to a degree not seen anywhere in Prayer for the Americans, Sekula forges a link between fishing and art viewing, between the time of people who are considered to be among the losers of today’s capitalism and that of those who are often seen as its avant-garde, between White Trash in the American South and the dynamic project-based denizens of the art world, of whom it can indeed be said that “the entire time of life has become the time of production”, with the result that many are lacking the time to adequately experience all those alternative durations. The promesse de bonheur of Sekula’s fishing sequence is acute and unsettling; it lies not in the images as such, but in the montage of two kinds of slowness, rural and post-industrial. Its slices of frozen motion briefly liberate the art of projection from its own ideological blind spots."


Images: Book cover; Allan Sekula, Prayer for the Americans, 1999/2004.