Work in Progress: Idols of the Market

Several posts on this pseudo-blog are labelled "Idolatry"; the texts in question pertain to a book that will be published early in 2009 by Sternberg Press. Idols of the Market: Modern Iconoclasm and the Fundamentalist Spectacle reexamines the legacies of modern theoretical and artistic iconoclasm in the context of the current religious-political image wars.

In a letter written shortly after Adorno’s death, in which he attempted to explain why his friend had not been buried according to Jewish rites, Max Horkheimer claimed that critical theory was based on the Second Commandment – the ban on representations of God or, in more fundamentalist interpretations, of representations of all living beings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the monotheistic concept of idolatry had been gradually replaced by modern conceptions of myth and mythology; later it was integrated in critical conceptions of commodity fetishism, ideology, the spectacle, or Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry. This secularization of the concept of idolatry is now increasingly being revoked; the critique of the spectacle is seemingly "resacralized" by various religious factions.

The fundamentalists’ apparent fetishization of their religion’s aboriginal essence is rather questionable; their fight of the idolatrous spectacle takes place within this spectacle and fortifies it—all the while reducing the space for critique and dissent. This book examines both the afterlife of religious elements in modern culture and possible responses to the current religious reappropriation of this critique of modern capitalist culture by both Christian fundamentalists and radical Islamists. Rather than dismissing monotheistic idolatry critique, the aim is to once more set free its (self-)critical potential, in opposition to those “Enlightenment fundamentalists” who save the status quo by creating a manicheist opposition between the secular West and the pure otherness of Islam.

Image: Hans Haacke's Poster Project, 2002.

Krijn de Koning

After spending more than two years in development hell, the monograph Krijn de Koning has finally seen the light of day, courtesy of Veenman Publishers. Designed by Simon Davies and Lauran Schijvens, the book contains an extensive image sequence documenting Krijn de Koning's installations and sculpture in combination with his photographs of a variety of sites and structures—including miniature golf courses. The book also contains my essay Krijn de Koning: Ruining Representation, which was written at an early stage of the book's planning, and which therefore is not quite the text I would write today. It analyses De Koning's practice in the context of art institutions as spaces of representation and abstraction. Some samples:

"Krijn de Koning’s 2001 installation at Begane Grond in Utrecht was one of his most complex works. After the show, which included interventions in De Koning’s structure by other artists, this exhibition space closed in order to be completely renovated; it later reopened under the name BAK. Cutting away some of the raised floors of the main space and adding floors of his own making, De Koning made the space rather more difficult to navigate and to understand, with awkward differences in height and strange passageways. Such works by De Koning give an irrational, Piranesian twist to the work of post-Minimalist installations artists such as Daniel Buren and Michael Asher, who in the late 1960s and 1970s came to use the gallery space not merely as a medium in which to present works executed in other media, but as the primary artistic medium. Far from merely using this medium of representation, they reflected on it; the installation became a mise-en-abîme of the gallery space itself as the medium of representation. While obviously taking up aspects of such practices, De Koning seems less interested in analyzing sites than in ruining them. De Koning’s work is reverse archaeology: it does not peel away layers to lay bare buried ruins, it adds one or more layers in order to turn what is there into a ruin."

"Even though the white cube has become the primary artistic medium in the age of installation art, the art context is no mere constellation of gallery spaces; it is a discursive context, and as such it can be exported to non-art spaces. Artistic interventions transform these sites; the artworks function as de facto white cubes, abstracting and derealizing the site, transforming it into its own representation. As Bas Heijne has pointed out, the work in Hilversum is a reversal of the traditional ruin dear to the Romantics; rather than a human structure (such as a castle) being invaded by nature, nature itself is being invaded and ‘ruined’ by a human structure. However, De Koning’s works function in a similar manner in an architectural context, particularly in art spaces. The effect is that of one culture ruining another one: De Koning’s interventions literally turn sites into ruins, rather than constituting romantic and, in the end, comforting meditations on ruins.

"In 2001 De Koning created an installation for an abandoned hôtel in Metz, formerly a music school, which awaited its restoration as a FRAC (regional art centre). The building was already in ruins, but De Koning’s structure exacerbated this status by making it look like the relic of a long defunct culture with forgotten conventions. De Koning inserted a central yellow volume in the courtyard, with an open roof and windows looking out onto rather uninteresting walls; from this central body, red tunnels led into parts of the building, penetrating through doors and windows, and offering views of the dusty and empty interiors. In a typical De Koning gesture, a washbasin ended up under the temporary floor, the boiler and tap now suspended over an abstract red plane. His floors and walls seem to take no heed of the existing fixtures and ornaments; they cut them in two or make them disappear, as if human use and occupation of the space are irrelevant.

"De Koning’s approach to this not-yet art space highlighted its impending transformation into a medium of representation by turning parts of the ruined hotel into framed images. The piece emphasized the ruined condition of the site by creating a structure that responded to it in subtle and intriguing ways while maintaining a certain bluntness and strangeness. If the building in Metz was still awaiting its transformation, the Fort bij Vijfhuizen had just been renovated and transformed into an art centre when De Koning’s Beeld voor Vijfhuizen (2005) was installed on top of this early- twentieth- century army barracks, part of a defensive ring around Amsterdam. On top of the concrete edifice, De Koning erected an equally grey temporary pavilion, a grid structure whose large openings turned it into a quasi-panopticon offering a variety of views of the surrounding landscape. While the spaces beneath—though stripped down and renovated—still betray their former function, De Koning’s structure took this process of abstraction, which is part of any transformation of non-art spaces into exhibition spaces, much further."

Meanwhile, Veenman Publishers has ceased its activities (that's the third time this sort of thing has happened to its director, or that its director has made this sort of thing happen), but the book is still available on Amazon:

Images: Installations at Begane Grond (2001) and Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen (2005).

Texte zur Kunst no. 68

Texte zur Kunst no. 68 (December 2007) contains my review of the exhibition Forms of Resistance at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (pp. 216-220.).

"Earlier this year, in a presentation that was part of its Living Archive series, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven exhibited a letter by Hans Haacke dated July 27, 1980, addressed to the museum’s director at the time, Rudi Fuchs. In it Haacke, who had exhibited at the Van Abbe in the previous year, criticized Fuchs’ increasing embrace of Baselitz, Kiefer, and Lüpertz, whose painting—so Haacke argued—combined derivative and regressive aesthetic strategies with loaded iconographic elements to a highly dubious effect. Haacke’s letter was duly archived by the museum, and Fuchs went on to make Documenta 7, in which the “new painting” triumphed. As a sobering reminder of the shaky position of any politicized practice in an art world ruled by the cyclical time of fashion, Haacke’s letter might have provided a much-needed element of reflection in the Van Abbemuseums’s show Forms of Resistance, which takes place at a moment when there are signs that the institutional possibilities for critical practices in the art world are dwindling fast.

"As its subtitle Artists and the Desire for Social Change from 1871 to the Present suggests, the curatorial team—current director Charles Esche with Will Bradley and Phillip van den Bossche—opted for a retrospective structure, selecting four crucial historical moments as markers: the Paris Commune (1871), the Russian revolution (1917), the Prague Spring (1968) and the Fall of the Berlin Wall (1989). However, no real effort is made to articulate this chronology and go from a mass of data to something that could actually be called history; the relations of repetition and difference between these moments are hardly explored. [...]

"With its neo-bourgeois aesthetic, this year’s Documenta 12 was a clear indication of a changing climate, personified by the curator as latter-day dandy browsing through the world of forms, de- and recontextualizing them solely on the basis of his rarified taste and the alleged universality of various motifs. In a different way, Forms of Resistance is equally non-committal. The question of the form(s) of resistance is never really addressed; the Bauhaus is swell, but so are the Post-colonial and revolutionary African and South American figurative murals in one of the exhibition’s largest spaces. Anything goes. Rather than question various existing political and artistic strategies and explore their potentials, contradictions and failures, “Forms of Resistance” nostalgically presents even intellectual stagnation and political delusions as resistance."

One small addendum to this review: in the closing paragraph I praise the juxtaposition, on the walls of the central space with its reconstruction of Rodchenko's Workers' Club, of printed matter by Hans Haacke and activist posters, all pertaining to the Shah regime in Persia. In my righteous anger at this trainwreck of an exhibition, it somehow escaped my mind that another space, a far from successful assembly of 1970s and 1980s pieces including Hans Haacke's large Philips tritych, includes a similar montage on one of its walls.

Tekst & Context: Jacques Rancière

Valiz has published the first installment in the tekst & context series, edited by Solange de Boer. Each part of tekst & context will consist of one book with a Dutch translation of a text (or a selection of texts) by a major contemporary art theorist, accompanied by a volume with writings on said author's work. The first thinker to get the tekst & context treatment is Jacques Rancière.

The tekst volume, titled Het esthetische denken, is a translation of Rancière's Le partage du sensible and L'Inconscient esthétique; the context book, Grensganger tussen disciplines, contains essays by Marie-Aude Baronian, Pablo Lafuente, Mireille Rosello, and my own essay De Theorie en de sfinx (pp. 33-56), a modified Dutch translation of Theory and the Sphinx (

For more information see:

Gert Jan Kocken: Defacing

From September 16 to November 11, Gert Jan Kocken's photographs of the traces of Reformation iconoclasm are on view at Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. Kocken's life-size and hyper-detailed pictures show "defaced" Medieval art from Holland, England, Germany and Switzerland as as the sum of markings and erasures, of construction and de(con)struction—at times suggesting anachronistic connections between Reformation iconoclasm and that of modern art. Indicative of the show's status as part of Kocken's wider project on historical turning-points, it also includes a picture of a microfilm showing the New York Times front-page of September 11, 2001. For some time Gert Jan Kocken and I had been discussing the possibility of me writing a text about these works of his, and when Jelle Bouhuis agreed to show the photographs at SMBA, their newsletter offered itself as the logical medium for this essay, which is also part of the preparations for my upcoming book on contemporary art and the resurgence of monotheistic attacks on "idolatrous" images.

The newsletter can be downloaded here:

Artforum, September 2007

The September 2007 issue of Artforum contains my review of a Thomas Demand exhinbition in Venice (pp. 403), as well as Event Horizon, a short essay / review of Gerard Raunig's book Art and Revolution (pp. 83-87). I titled the piece Retro Revolution, but evidently Artforum considered that title to be inferior. The opening paragraphs:

"Revolutions are short-lived, ephemeral events that shatter the continuity of history yet persist in acts of remembrance—official or alternative, pro or contra, systemic or incidental. However, the recent surge in 'revolutionary' pop-cultural iconography, from the ubiquitous Che to the imagery and slogans of May ’68 and the Red Army Faction, seems designed to sabotage, rather than perpetuate, remembrance. In contrast to the nostalgia culture of the ’70s and ’80s, as analyzed by Fredric Jameson, which focused on pilfering the popular culture of earlier decades, today’s nostalgia industry also embraces more political material, but with a similar end result: amnesia masquerading as anamnesis. Fragments of history return as decontextualized signifiers that suggest little more than fashionability—until, that is, they end up in a situation in which they regain something resembling actual meaning, as when Cameron Diaz explored new dimensions of obliviousness by sporting a bag with a red star and the Maoist slogan SERVE THE PEOPLE (in Chinese) during a visit to Peru, a country still scarred by the Maoist insurgency of the Shining Path.

"In the context of this nostalgia culture, which locks possible futures safely in an unretrievable past, the always-slippery relationship between 'art' and 'revolution' feels more vexed than ever, and in need, once again, of reconceptualization-particularly since two once-dominant narratives of this relationship are now thoroughly discredited. First there was the notion of formal revolution, the transposition of Hegelian-Marxist principles to art, as evinced in the criticism of lapsed Trotskyist Clement Greenberg and his pupil Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried claimed that the 'dialectic of modernism' amounted to 'nothing less than the establishment of a perpetual revolution-perpetual because bent on unceasing radical criticism of itself. It is no wonder such an ideal has not been realized in the realm of politics, but it seems to me that the development of modernist painting over the past century has led to a situation that may be described in these terms.' This formalist formulation was challenged by another: the neo-avant-garde dream of a fusion of art and life, which necessarily presupposed the imbrication of art production and political action and, in its seemingly most radical version, proposed the abandonment of artmaking in favor of revolutionary activity. With its naive conviction that the revolution is just around the corner, and with its willingness to throw out the baby of art with the bathwater of capitalism, the latter variant now seems at least as unconvincing as the modernist narrative. And yet, no coherent new theorization has appeared to take its place. Austrian philosopher Gerald Raunig's Art and Revolution, published in German in 2005 and now available in English, represents to date the most sustained and substantial—although substantially flawed—attempt to fill this vacuum. "

The Lost Moment

The Lost Moment, a book published by Bik Van der Pol and Fatos Üstek (as part of a more encompassing project also titled The Lost Moment; contains my text Morning of the Magicians (pp. 88-93). Since the book may be difficult to get hold of and the essay is relatively short, I put it up here in its entirety, in a somewhat edited version:

Morning of the Magicians

In a typically non-linear way, Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film The Prestige recounts the interlocked lives and careers of two Victorian magicians, Christian Bale’s Alfred Borden and his nemesis Robert Angier, a.k.a. the Great Danton, played by Hugh Jackman. Hardly rounded characters, these two magicians are little more than personified lust for revenge, always attempting to outsmart and hurt the other. Throughout the film their old mentor, played by Michael Caine, offers world-wise insights into the workings of stage magic. As he tells the young daughter of Christian Bale’s character, Alfred Borden: 'You’re not really looking. You don’t want to know. You want to be fooled.' The audience, in other words, does not really want to know the trick, which is usually disappointing, but it assumes that there is a trick. As Caine’s character acknowledges in The Prestige, the greatest disappointment would be if there were no trick, if what you saw was real. This is what happens when Robert Angier has a machine built than can actually perform a miracle, a miracle of modern science.

Consumed by jealousy for a trick in which Borden disappears into one cabinet and immediately reappears from another, Angier travels to Colorado Springs to seek out inventor Nikola Tesla, famous for pioneering alternating current (AC) electricity, and for building a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls. In a somewhat haphazard way, Tesla––who, performed by David Bowie, explains his lack of progress with the assertion that 'exact science is not an exact science'––constructs a machine that both makes a perfect three-dimensional copy of anything placed within it, and teleports this copy over some distance. For a hundred nights, Angier uses his Tesla machine to apparently transport himself magically to the back of the theatre; however the 'Great Danton' that shows up triumphant from the back of the theatre is a new copy, whereas the Danto who went into the machine has fallen through a trap door and drowned in a water tank. The next night, the 'New' Danton will go the same way, sacrificing himself to his obsession, yet living on in an identical copy. As Caine says: 'This was not built by a magician. This was built by a wizard.' [1]

This catchy expression presupposes that the term 'magician' denotes entertainers, stage performers—disenchanted wizards who cannot do any actual magic. Of course, the appeal of such magicians largely lies in the uncanny suggestion that they do posses magical powers, that they are true enchanters who just happen to profane their skills on stage. Yet this is clearly make-believe, offered to a complicit audience which is unlikely to regard the performer as a powerful wizard or dangerous sorcerer. While the enjoyment of tricks that are perceived as such is no historical novelty, the widespread acceptance of trick-magic and the creation of a mass audience for it are distinctly modern phenomena that emerged during the latter part of the eighteenth and the first part of the nineteenth century. One contributing factor was the Enlightenment’s attacks on superstition, which led some—like the Göttingen professor Johann Beckmann—to applaud magicians for showing the common folk that magic is just a matter of trickery.[2] More generally speaking, the Enlightenment and its debunking of myths and long-held beliefs created a need for a new kind of disenchanted magic, for a fictitious Nachleben of sorcery that satisfy old mental habits, without actually regressing to discredited beliefs.

Living up to the hopes Beckmann set in them, magicians such as Harry Houdini – who named himself after Robert-Houdin, the man who pretty much defined what modern magic would look like in his triumphs of the 1840s and 1850s—saw it as their task to unmask spiritualist mediums and other alleged miracle workers as frauds.[3] The modern spiritualist, occultist and esoteric tendencies amply demonstrate that as-if magic did not satisfy everyone. Many hoped for a 'morning of the magicians'—to quote the title of the 1960s bestseller by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, in which 'magician' does not refer to stage performers but to supposedly genuine magi. Recently, the title has been appropriated by Joachim Koester as the title for a group of works about the Sicilian 'abbey' of Aleister Crowley and his followers. If Koester investigates a historical attempt at reenchanting the world, modern art itself has often been presented as a form of enchantment, and the modern artist as a magus.[4] Pauwels and Bergier presented their own magical-mythic take on history as the next step after Surrealism, and the catalogue of a late Surrealist exhibition from the same year as the original French edition of their book, Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain, contained a chart which places Surrealism in a genealogy of both 'historical' and fictitious enchanters—apparently a parody of Alfred Barr’s famous chart of Cubism and abstract art.[5]

Elsewhere in the catalogue, Simon Magus—a wizard who in apocryphal stories is said to have challenged Saint Peter by flying, only to crash to death after a prayer by the saint—is represented by a statue of the zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz at Stanford University after the 1906 earthquake, crashed with its head into the ground. Perhaps there is more to this illustration than the obvious visual pun; one can speculate that Breton and Duchamp, who masterminded the catalogue, were far from displeased with the suggestion that modern science is an inferior form of Ersatz magic that is headed for a dramatic fall. In The Prestige, by contrast, science is presented as being capable of real miracles. Before his transportation act, Angier tells the audience that “What you are about to witness is not magic. It is purely science,” but this is of course part of the game: the audience believes it is witnessing trick, whereas it is in effect being presented with Tesla’s technological wizardry. Interestingly, the historical Tesla in fact performed a kind of science-magic act on stage. Attacked by Thomas Alva Edison–who was himself dubbed 'the wizard of Menlo Park' by the press—over the alleged dangerousness of his alternating current, Tesla appeared on stage with a large light bulb in his hand, which started to glow without being attacked to a wire. Tesla’s own body conducted the electricity, thus proving the safety of the AC current even while mythifying Tesla as a magus who controls the elements.[6] However, more typical than this use of stagecraft by a scientist was the use of advanced technology, mechanical as well as optical, by magicians.

Modern magic is a form of special effects: it is not for nothing that Georges Méliès, the pioneer of special-effects film, was a magician and the proprietor of the Théatre Robert-Houdin. Méliès eventually fell by the wayside for refusing to adopt a less stagy and more 'filmic' approach, which he considered to be too manipulative; his use of trick editing as early as L’impressionniste fin-de-siècle (1899), which shows a stage illusionist who makes himself and a woman disappear and reappear, is distinguished from many later film effects by being a joyful celebration of trickery rather than an act of rhetorical manipulation.[7] The latter form of effects is dominant—and it is not less common in modern and contemporary magic than in effect-ridden blockbuster films, both programming our emotions with temporal tricks and traps. Is our joyful submission to such manipulation of our attention not all too similar to our consumption of politics in the post-democratic USA or EU? Norman M. Klein has characterized a special effect as a “technological marvel [which] controls an illusionistic environment. It has been set up to deliver elaborate shocks. Within these shocks, an allegory emerges. Staged as an epic journey, this script immerses the viewer in a reassuring adventure. This adventure is often about a “marvellous” power larger than life, larger than humans alone can ever hope to be.”[8]

Klein is concerned with the ways in which special effects are complicit with a 'neo-feudal' social and political climate, in which the election of an American president can be forced by an elite which claims that “the people” do not have the patience for a recount, first raising the suspense throughout the evening and then producing a surprising a outcome which seems as magical as the last act of a magic trick—an act called 'the prestige' in Nolan’s film.[9] If the world is enjoyed as special effect, surprising twists and turns need not be questioned, and there is no need to investigate the moment when the trick was planned and executed—what matters is the effect, the willing suspension of disbelief, the complicity with the trick and the trickster.

In his televised shows of the 1980s and 1990s, David Copperfield used television technology to his advantage, showing the apparent disappearance of a plane or even of the Statue of Liberty to large audiences. (Of course, such feats are dependant on the camera angles, the Statue of Liberty trick, which was performed at night, probably involving the imperceptible change in orientation of the platform Copperfield had erected in front of it.) Remarkably, these tricks have led to Copperfield’s inclusion in the weirder products of the self-styled 9/11 truth movement. Conspiracy theorists claim that the 9/11 attacks were feats of sinister illusionism; the theory goes that we are indeed being controlled by effects-masters, by political magicians whose machinations are as imperceptible as that of the magician who makes a bird disappear. Disillusionment with a society in which political events seem completely beyond democratic influence, in which non-elected presidents can wage war on a country with no discernible link to 9/11 to search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, results in unwillingness to accept at least the physical events of 9/11 at face value. 9/11 becomes a special effect in a magic show.

While it is obvious that 9/11 and its instrumentalization by the Bush administration raise many questions, George Monbiot has rightly attacked 'conspiracy idiots' who destroy the credibility of those who oppose the Bush regime and the war in Iraq: 'To qualify as a true opponent of the Bush regime, you must also now believe that it is capable of magic. It could blast the Pentagon with a cruise missile wile persuading hundreds of onlookers that they saw a plane. It could wire every floor of the twin towers with explosives without attracting attention and prime the charges (though planes had ploughed through the middle of the sequence) to drop each tower in a perfectly timed collapse. It could make Flight 93 disappear into thin air, and somehow ensure that the relatives of the passengers collaborated with the deception. It could recruit tens of thousands of conspirators to participate in these great crimes and induce them all to have kept their mouths shut, for ever.' [10]

If Monbiot polemically accuses the conspiracists of believing in actual wizardry, some conspiracy theorists actually believe that stage magic—as-if magic—may in fact have played a role: 'Advocates of the "blue screen" or "hologram" theory hold that the planes that hit the World Trade Center, or at least Flight 175, were ghost aircraft and that sophisticated image projection technology was used to fake the illusion of them entering the towers', in other words that 'some form of high-tech-hologram technology was utilized as part of a David Copperfield style sound and lights magic show.' [11] Trying to explain why so many people reported that the towers imploded after being hit by planes, whereas this is (according to the conspiracist) 'physically impossible', one author surmises that such delusions 'would be the result of some kind of trickery that remains hidden from researchers. The range of possibilities runs from an airplane fly-by of some kind coordinated with timed explosions inside the tower to David Copperfield on the scene.'[12] Elsewhere, a self-described 'conspiracy nutter' sees Dick Cheney as the evil mastermind behind 9/11, and 'begrudgingly applaud[s] him for his ability to David Copperfield this incident so well.' [13]

Although such explicitly “magic” versions of conspiracy theory are extreme, and absent from popular fare such as Loose Change, they are symptomatic for the failure of the '9/11 truth movement' to arrive at a valid and productive approach to history and politics. It is precisely to those who grandly uncover the conspiracy, those who refuse to be taken in, that Michael Caine’s words seem to apply the most: 'You’re not really looking. You don’t want to know. You want to be fooled.' Is there a surer way to breed political apathy than to create a woldview in which affairs are masterminded by magicians who are modern magicians only at first glance—whose powers are so absolute that their would, in fact, have to be old-fashioned wizards? But in the world of conspiracism, the real tricks pass unnoticed. Nobody is more thoroughly enchanted and complicit than the conspiracy theorist.

Sven Lütticken

[1] On internet forums, some fans fanatically argue that the machine is in fact not supposed to work, and that creating the suggestion that it does is Angier’s (and Nolan’s) ultimate trick. As with 9/11 conspiracy theories, this interpretation is upheld against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the ‘revelation’ of the truth behind the illusion becoming delusional.
[2] Milbourne and Maurice Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic, New York, Carroll and Graf, 2006,p. 7.
[3] Christopher, pp. 358-363.
[4] Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s Le Matin des magiciens, Paris, Gallimard, 1960; after a previous English edition under a different title, the 1971 American version was called The Morning of the Magicians; Koester’s 2006 works are called Morning of the Magicians, without the definite article.
[5] Exhib. cat. Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain, New York, D’Arcy Galleries, 1960.
[6] F. David Peat, In Search of Nikola Tesla, London/Bath, Ashgrove, 1993, p. 81.
[7] Birgitte Felderer and Ernst Strouhal use this fact to make exaggerated claims about the alleged incompatibility magic and filmic spectacle; David Copperfield would probably disagree. See their introduction to Rare Künste. Zur Kultur- und Mediengeschichte der Zauberkunst, Vienna/New York, Springer, 2007, p. 14.
[8] Norman M. Klein, The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects, New York/London, New Press, 2004, p. 13.
[9] Klein, p. 387. For a different take on the manipulation of time by today’s politics and terrorists, see Sven Lütticken, “Suspense and…Surprise”, in: New Left Review no. 40, July/August 2006 pp. 95-101
[10] George Monbiot, “9/11 fantasists pose a mortal danger to popular oppositional campaigns”, in: The Guardian, February 20, 2007,,,2017005,00.html
[11] Paul Joseph Watson, “Fringe Theories Harming 9/11 Truth Movement”, September 5, 2006,
[12] Morgan Reynolds, “How They Did the Plane Trick at WTC2”, August 27, 2006,

Images from top to bottom: Still from Chrisopher Nolan, The Prestige (2006), cover of Randall Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park (2007), illustration from Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters' Domain (1960), and compelling proof of foul play on a conspiracist web site.

New Left Review no. 45: Unnatural History

Issue no. 45 (May/June 2007) of New Left Review is a special issue on “Globalization and Biopolitics”, guest-edited by Malcolm Bull. It contains my essay “Unnatural History”, which is part of my book project "History in Motion". It analyses current anxieties about climate change and genetic engineering—moving from Al Gore and Jared Diamond to Robert Smithson and Mark Dion via Hegel, Adorno, King Kong and J.G. Ballard. An extract:

“To some extent, current discourse follows Adorno’s deconstruction of the identification of nature with dumb, mythical being: mythical nature is itself already historical. But whereas Adorno also argued that human history results in another nature, in a return of myth, current conceptualizations of the new unnatural natural history often avoid probing the dynamic deadlock of contemporary cultural production in the process of absorbing the shockwaves of new nature—a process that sabotages possibilities for radical change even while signaling imminent collapse. The musings of liberal authors such as Jared Diamond are typical in this respect: comparing ‘ecocides’ in various historical and contemporary societies, Diamond tries to draw lessons that can be applied to the approaching global ecological disaster, but his comparative approach and focus on social, biological and psychological invariants robs the current situation of much of its specificity, and in the end we are only left with consoling ‘examples of courageous leaders and courageous people’ who did the right thing. For today’s liberals, the collapse of the existing order can only be imagined in biological and ecological terms; any social and political changes can only be minor adjustments. Even an author as concerned and informed as Diamond is unable to think beyond this limit.

"In public discourse, ‘the free market’ or ‘liberal democracy’ appear as a second nature whose collapse would be more dramatic than that of the physical environment; the latter may yet allow for some form of ‘business as usual’—especially for the financial and (therefore) genetic upper class. Contemporary culture is often branded ahistorical, as being marked by repetitious vogues and industrial nostalgia; this state would appear to be shattered now that history reasserts itself as natural history in a period of revolutionary turmoil. But even if the consensus now is that current global warming cannot be explained in terms of normal fluctuations in the earth’s temperature, the human and therefore social and political component of this development is minimized; man-made nature is naturalized, the new (un)natural history presented as fate. The truly terrifying notion is not that it is irreversible, but that it actually might be reversible—at the cost of radically changing the economical and social order.”

Image: Still from The Lost World (1925)

Texte zur Kunst 66: Kurzführer / Short Guide

In an attempt to reconsider terms that are used more or less habitually in current art criticism and theory, issue no. 66 of Texte zur Kunst (June 2007) consist of a critical glossary of terms ranging from “autonomy” to “dinner” and from “multitude” to weird”. I contributed the text for “event” (pp. 65-70). An accompanying volume contains exhibition reviews, including my review of Karen Kilimnik’s exhibition at the Serpentine gallery (pp. 54-58). Here is the shortish event text in full:


It is a truth universally acknowledged that we live in an event culture. The large installations in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and the media attention lavished on them; the “museum nights” staged regularly in Germany and other countries; the grown importance of art fairs and of “art fair art”: all of these phenomena contribute to making the term “event” ubiquitous. The events devised in the early 1960s by George Brecht and other artists associated with Fluxus seem far removed from such contemporary cultural events. Nonetheless, such events prefigured and indeed helped to inaugurate “event culture”, signalling the increasing importance of immaterial commodities in capitalism since the 1960s – the partial transition from commodity-objects to services and beyond, to services-become-events. But if the term “event” now triumphs as omnipresent label for this apparently dematerialized capitalism, in the 1960s it was the notion of the “happening” that proliferated. “Hippie groups, discotheques, PTA meetings, Rotary Club outings, a popular rock-and-roll band, a hit record by the Supremes, a party game kit, and at least to regular-run movies – all are called Happenings”, Allan Kaprow noted with wry amusement in 1967. (1) While the hippie-ish connotations of “happening” limited its life span, “event” had no such drawbacks. Once everything was a happening, now everything is event.

Notwithstanding the understated nature of many Fluxus event scores and some of their realizations, Fluxus concerts could garner significant controversy and media attention, while Dutch Fluxus artist Wim T. Schippers even had a TV crew record his “Event on the Beach at Petten”, which consisted of Schippers emptying of a bottle of Green Spot lemonade into the North Sea. This event was broadcast in a 1963 TV programme on new art masterminded by Willem de Ridder and Schippers himself; in making a deliberately understated and uninteresting act the subject of media attention, he suggested a fundamental complicity between artistic events and what Daniel J. Boorstin characterized as mediated pseudo-events. In 1961, Boorstin attacked the rise of news created especially for the press by politicians, corporations and their spin-doctors; such news he called pseudo-events. Defining a pseudo-event as “a happening” that is not spontaneous, but planned and planted “for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced”. (2) However, the events of Schippers and other Fluxus artists call the very possibility of drawing clear distinctions between authentic events and pseudo-events – a given for Boorstin – into question: by focusing attention on far from extraordinary acts and objects, they found Cagean truth in planned and scored events.

Fluxus events substituted the supposedly timeless, instantaneous perception demanded by Clement Greenberg with a work that unfolds in time; paradoxically, this temporalization of the work of art was also a de-historicization, and thus another form of “chronophobia”, as the historical succession in which Greenberg situated his “timeless” works was abandoned. (3) If Greenberg’s quasi-logical historical narrative was eventless, George Brecht in particular kept history at bay by focusing on ephemeral occurrences that might as well not occur, and need not be recognized or experienced by another person. By contrast, since the 1980s Alain Badiou has sought to move beyond impoverished notions of historical necessity – which characterized the thinking of some of the protagonists of the political movements of the late Sixties just as much as that of Greenberg, the former Trotzkyist – by focusing on “historical” events. Badiou mentions his “incorporation” into the event of May 68 as a decisive factor in propelling to elaborate his theory of the truth-event that shatters a situation, a status quo ruled by a certain order of knowledge. (4) Such events cannot be predicted or brought about intentionally; one may find oneself in an event, or more likely after the event, but in both cases one has to decide that the event is taking place or has taken place. As an event that upset the symbolic order of the time, May 68 continues to demand loyalty – fidelity to the events – from those who choose to accept it as event, and in this way constitute themselves as subjects.

However, May 68 seems to question one of the central tenets of Badiou's overtly Platonic philosophy, namely that truth-events are only enabled within one of four “generic procedures”: politics, science, art and love. While one may well argue that, from the French Commune to May 68, revolutions have tended to marginalize artistic production sensu strictu, one of the aims of the event(s) of “1968” was precisely the total reconstruction of politics, love, and art – as well as science, which had to be politicized and socialized. While the problematic nature of such a project is now clearly apparent, it is nonetheless telling that “May 68” continues to haunt at least the domains of art and politics – the former in films such as “Les Amants réguliers” and exhibitions and publications concerning the Situationist International, the latter in endless debates about the alleged damage done to society by the “generation of 1968”.

As nostalgic as some of these discussions, films, exhibitions and books may be, they still retain some memory of attempts to transcend Badiou’s cherished divisions. The same can be said of art-world events like Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall installations and nocturnal openings of museums: even in the compromised and instrumentalized forms of sociability thus generated, the improbable possibility of a more than purely artistic event is commemorated. The distinction between art events and other events may be as treacherous as that between genuine events and pseudo-events.


1 Allan Kaprow, “Pinpointing Happenings” (1967), in: Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (ed. Jeff Kelley), Berkeley / Los Angeles / London 1993, p. 84.
2 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), New York 1992, p. 11.
3 See also Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, Cambridge, Mass./Boston 2004.
4 Alain Badiou in conversation with Lauren Sedofsky, “Matters of Appearance”, in: Artforum XLV, no. 3 (November 2006), p. 253. See also Badiou, L’Être et l’événement (1988) and Logique des mondes (2006). Žižek has emphasized that there are also “historical pseudo-events”, such as the rise of Nazism, which preserve the extant power relations even while appearing revolutionary; see Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, London/New York 1999, p. 131.

Image: Wim T. Schippers, Event on the Beach at Petten (Manifestatie op het strand te Petten), 1963.

Essay in critical reader "Citizens and Subjects"

Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for example (co-edited by Rosi Braidotti, Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova) is the reader accompanying the Dutch pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. “The critical reader Citizens and Subjects: The Netherlands, for example is a site where issues of fear, anxiety and (illegal) immigration - but also cultural resistance and emancipation - are discussed through the example of the Netherlands, which stands here as neither a particular nor universal case for discussing the so-called western condition. It asks how art and artists can react to these issues and what possibilities they can create to see things differently. The reader is co-edited by philosopher Rosi Braidotti, curator and writer Charles Esche and Maria Hlavajova." My contribution, “Art and the New Image Wars” (pp. 159-173), investigates the renewed religious contestation of images, of the spectacle. Modern art and theory secularized and thus radically transformed the monotheistic rejection of idolatry; monotheistic “idolatry critique” was pried from its dogmatic context, used reflexively and frequently turned against monotheism itself. How do (or can) art and theory react to the increasing resacralization of the critique of images, which marks contemporary culture? The article discusses works by a number of artists, including De Rijke/De Rooij, Fransje Killaars, Krijn de Koning and Gert Jan Kocken and Lidwien van de Ven.

A slightly different version of this text, which is part of a more extensive project that will result in a book, was published under the title “Idolatry and Its Discontents” in New Left Review no. 44 (March-April 2007), pp. 107-119: Someone has put the entire text online here:

Image: Fransje Killaars, Figures no. 4 (2006).

Texte zur Kunst no. 65: Romanticism

Issue no. 65 of Texte zur Kunst (March 2007) focusses on recent forms of neo-Romanticism in art and culture. From the preface: “[…] debates in art and art criticism, as well as in a wide range of fields associated with art, increasingly fall back on Romantic motifs. This diagnosis, for us, is reason enough to raise questions as to the way the concomitant issues are related to each other. Our main interest lies in the subject-theoretical and aesthetic implications emerging in these contexts of debate: We want to look at the return of Romantic melancholy and the way it is theoretically reflected upon in socio-psychological analyses; the oftentimes mythically-charged image of the artist as the epitome of modern individuality; the status of emotions in art and art experience, departing from way they are discussed in the context of so-called "Romantic Conceptualism"; and, finally, at what is borrowed from Romanticism and used in the intersections of the avant-garde and subcultures.” The issue contains my essay “The Rebel as Consumer: Myths of the artist, Romantic and/or contemporary” (PP. 134-141), and the German version of this text, “Der Rebell als Konsument” (pp. 66-79). The text includes discussions of works by Bas Jan Ader and Philip K. Dick.

A short extract: “The rise of self-performers from Beuys to Ader and, more recently, Koons and Tracey Emin reflects the increased dominance of forms of stardom and celebrity developed in film and popular music for the public sphere as a whole – even if such artists are still integrated in the deviant economy of the art world, and their performative presence has to result in exclusive commodities of some sort. Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz have noted that the 'practitioner of the vocation to some extent submits to his typical fate or destiny', leading to an unconsciously 'enacted biography'; with the performative turn of the 1960s and 1970s, this enactment became a far more strategic and dynamic exercise. As the artist’s enactment of his 'fate or destiny' became a choice among various possible lifestyles and public personas, the importance of the narrative component of the artists’ myths analysed by Kris and Kurz receded, a set of conventions perhaps less enacted than consumed by artists shopping for an image.”

Image: Still from Richard Linklater's film version of Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly (2006).

Artforum, March 2007

In addition to three reviews, the Rancière-studded March 2007 issue of Artforum contains my text "Black Block, White Penguin: Reconsidering Representation Critique" (pp. 298-303, 341, 344). Moving from Bernadette Corporation and Pierre Hughe back to Mallarmé and Malevich via Debord, Rancière, Baudrillard and Halley, the text seeks to investigate the relevancy of modern representation critique in the context of contemporary fundamentalisms.

A few extracts: "Far from constituting some narrowly neo-modernist or formalist project, Bernadette Corporation’s references to Mallarmé and Malevich are reminders of the complexity and contradictions of the modern critique of representation in the face of the all too simplistic anti-representationalism of many performative practices. "
"Huyghe brings out the opaqueness of signs, opposing the suggestions of transparency implied both by mass-media images and by many pictures of social art pieces, transforming the nineteenth-century imperialist cliché of the expedition to uncharted lands into a self-reflexive journey to the limits of representations."
"Some images of black bloc members in [Bernadette Corporation's video] Get Rid of Yourself recall another kind of mask – the niqabs and burqas increasingly worn by Muslim women in European cities. The Taliban, who banned TV and film, also mandated the burqa for Afghan women: outlawing media and occluding women’s bodies and faces were both part of the Islamist critique of Western spectacle as the pinnacle of idolatry. [...] The critique of the spectacle’s representations, then, is hardly the monopoly of artists or critical theorists: increasingly, this critique has been reappropriated by various religious factions, and thus in a sense returned to its origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition’s ban on graven images."


Image: still from Bernadette Corporation's Get Rid of Yourself (2003).