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." (http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/tris_vonna_michell)

The entire Holy Grail issue can be found in the online archive at http://www.htvnews.nl/
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.