Saturday, January 26, 2008

Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Anna Dezeuze

The Old 'Art and Life' Chestnut
'Art is what makes life more interesting than art.' Such was the apt definition provided by Robert Filliou, a French artist who was affiliated to the Fluxus group in the 1960s.1 The relation between art and life has long been a recurrent trope of aesthetics and artistic practice of various kinds, and the 1960s was a period when artists seemed particularly concerned with this issue. Robert Rauschenberg, for example, famously said: 'Painting relates to both art and life. ... (I try to work in that gap between the two).'2 Allan Kaprow, the inventor of 'happenings,' stated on his part that 'the line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.'3
If it is by now widely acknowledged that the opening of art to life in the 1960s radically changed the definition of art, then these three statements alone point to important differences between the forms that this relation (between art and life) can take. Acting in the gap between art and life like Rauschenberg does not imply the same kind of activity as creating works which, according to Filliou, serve somehow as marginal tools to make life more interesting than art. And surely there is quite a substantial distinction between keeping a line fluid, and blurring boundaries altogether, even if Kaprow tentatively aligns one with another.
My contention is that the reasons why these differences are, more often than not, neglected by art historians and philosophers alike is that discussions tend to forget the other term of the relationship. Instead of asking 'what is art?,' shouldn't we be asking: what is life? This question is obviously much too general to be answered by any one single person, and could indeed be considered as the main question of philosophy and other forms of enquiry. When it is posed in a specific context, however, a more precise focus can be singled out for discussion. In the cases of Rauschenberg, Kaprow and Filliou, for example, it is clear that their concerns lay specifically in the realm of everyday life, and in particular the everyday life that had been excluded so forcefully by the Abstract Expressionist generation of painters and Clement Greenberg's formalist criticism.
In order to explore the relations between art and what has variously been called the everyday, the commonplace, the ordinary, the banal, I will be referring in particular to two texts: Arthur Danto's landmark work, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, and a more recent book by the French curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics. While sketching out the ways in which these two authors responded to the emergence of the everyday in artistic practices ranging from Andy Warhol and Fluxus to 1990s contemporary art, I will also examine their ideas in the light of theories of everyday life, in particular Michel de Certeau's 1980 Practice of Everyday Life. Specific artistic practices will be the guiding thread in this discussion, for it is artists who pose the questions that aesthetics struggle to answer.

The Conditions of Transfiguration
Between art and everyday life, there is no difference ... The difference between a chair by Duchamp and one of my chairs could be that Duchamp's chair is on a pedestal and mine can still be used.
George Brecht4

One of Danto's greatest achievements lies in his analysis of the sudden visibility of the everyday in 1960s art. Danto has often recounted how seeing Warhol's Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in 1964 was the trigger for his reflections on the differences between artworks and everyday objects. The Warhol Boxes, he explains in the introduction to The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 'so totally resemble what by common consent are not art works' that they 'make the question of definition urgent.'5 Analysing key notions of illusionism, mimesis, belief, interpretation, style and expression, Danto develops the argument that one of the differences between a Brillo box and the new 'Brillo-box-as-work-of-art' is the fact that the artwork takes the non-artwork as its subject-matter and simultaneously makes a point about how this subject-matter is presented. The mode of representation thus creates a surplus meaning which does not allow the two objects to be equated one with another.
'Make a salad.' This 1963 Proposition by Alison Knowles is cited by Arthur Danto in a recent essay on Fluxus as one of many examples of the group's engagement with everyday life. In this discussion, Danto also quotes Brecht's statement (cited above) about the difference between his chairs and Duchamp's readymades. Brecht's contribution to the 1961 exhibition Environment, Situations, Spaces (Six Artists), at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York, was the placement of three different chairs in various parts of the gallery. Since viewers had no indication that these chairs were part of an artwork, some visitors sat on them without a second thought, much to Brecht's satisfaction.
In the same essay, Danto extends to Fluxus his earlier discussion of Pop art, revisiting specific ideas from The Transfiguration of the Commonplace which, indeed, seem to fit Fluxus like a glove. In particular, Danto points to the fact that in the 1960s he shared with Fluxus an interest in Zen, and he reproduces a quote by Zen Buddhist Ching Yuan which he had included in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace:
Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains and waters are not waters. But now I have got to the very substance I am at rest. For it is just that I saw mountains again as mountains and waters once again as waters.6
The idea that there is nothing internal to these three experiences which distinguishes them obviously from one another was in tune with Danto's preoccupations with the absence of differences between artworks and mere things. What, indeed, is the difference between performing Knowles' instruction and the act of making a salad that many of us regularly perform? As in the case of Warhol's Brillo Boxes, Danto concludes:
What Fluxus helped us see is that no theory of art could help us pick out which were the artworks, since art can resemble reality to any chosen degree. Fluxus was right that the question is not which are the art works, but how we view anything if we see it as art.7
In their critical study of Danto's aesthetics, Greg Horowitz and Tom Huhn have discussed the conditions required for this 'transfiguration' of the everyday into art.8 The question they ask is the following: does Pop according to Danto allow the everyday to take over art ('a return of the everyday in art') or is it rather a moment in which art seizes the everyday for its purposes ('a return to the everyday by art')? If, as in the former, Pop marks a return of the everyday in art, then it means that there is no possibility of its redemption, since transfiguration can only occur when there is a distance that allows the everyday to be presented as art. Pop, Horowitz and Huhn conclude, therefore needs to be a return to the everyday by art in order to remain art. If Pop artists did embrace the everyday, then, in contrast with Abstract Expressionists before them, they nevertheless kept a critical distance from it by using it for other purposes than presenting the raw everydayness of their material - in order, for example, to comment simultaneously about the state of art, the accelerating production and increasing sophistication of packaging and advertising.9 When Danto claims that Warhol and Fluxus question 'how we view anything if we see it as art,' he is thus implicitly positing this distance from the everyday. As Horowitz and Huhn suggest, the experience which allows the viewer to bind art and the everyday according to Danto can only function if this distance is introduced even before any artistic process takes place: in order to make the everyday available for aesthetic experience, the artist, and the viewer, need to have detached one specific aspect of the commonplace (its novelty, its aesthetic qualities, its strangeness ... ) from its original 'rawness'.
While I agree that this 'pre-aestheticising' process operates in Pop, I would like to argue that Fluxus works such as Brecht's Three Chair Events or Knowles' Proposition shrink the distance presumed by Danto, in order to explore the rawness which aesthetics seeks to exclude for the sake of transfiguration. This aesthetic distance was preserved by Danto, and the Pop artists, by eliminating one particular aspect of the everyday's rawness: use and habit. Brecht has recounted how once he tried to sit down on the chair included in Rauschenberg's 1960 combine, Pilgrim, only to be stopped and told that he could not. Recalling his frustration, Brecht explained: 'After all, if it's a chair why shouldn't you sit in it?'10 Unlike Brecht's, Rauschenberg's chair can no more revert to its initial function than Warhol's painted wood Brillo boxes. By shifting the emphasis from object to performance, Fluxus works emphasise use and habit, and thus establish a radically different relation to the commonplace. Fluxus picked up another aspect of Zen: the full embrace of everyday activities such as eating, drinking and sleeping. For, whether Ching Yuan saw mountains as mountains or whether he saw mountains as not mountains would never have prevented him from climbing one of them when he wanted to go for a walk. In doing so, he may have been performing a Fluxus score by Takehisa Kosugi (Theatre Music, c. 1963) which simply reads: 'Keep walking intently.'

Relational Aesthetics
I started to make things so that people could use them ... [My work] is not meant to be put out with other sculpture or like another relic to be looked at, but you have to use it ...
Rirkrit Tiravanija11

Thirty years after the birth of Fluxus in 1962, artist Rirkrit Tiravanija presented Untitled (Free) at the 303 gallery in New York, a work in which he decided to put all the things he found in the storeroom and office into the gallery itself, using the storeroom to cook Thai curries for the visitors to the gallery and leaving the leftovers, kitchen utensils and used food packets in the gallery when he was not here. This work is typical of what Nicolas Bourriaud called a new 'relational art,' which requires a new kind of 'relational aesthetics' in order to account for its emergence and to describe its characteristics. Relational art, according to Bourriaud, is characterised by the fact that it takes 'as its starting point human relations and their social context, as opposed to autonomous and exclusive art.'12 Hence, relational aesthetics must be 'an aesthetic theory consisting in judging artworks in terms of the inter-human relations which they show, produce, or give rise to.'13
Bourriaud's relational aesthetics could be seen as an alternative to Danto's transfiguration of the commonplace because it seems to focus precisely on the terms which the latter excludes. Bourriaud for example explains that contemporary works such as Tiravanija's should not be considered as spaces to be walked through but instead as durations to be experienced, where the performative aspect of the work is more important than either objects to be viewed in space or the space of the gallery itself. Focusing on the relations between the artist and the gallery visitors, the interactions between the guests, and the atmosphere created by Tiravanija's cooking obviously shifts the emphasis away from the finished object towards the process, the performance, the behaviours which emerge from the artist's everyday intervention. It is much more difficult to define what the form of the work actually consists in. Whereas Danto systematically tried to define the Fluxus and Pop works as ontological entities, Bourriaud is content with describing 'form' as nothing more than a 'coherent plane' on which heterogeneous entities can meet; it must be unstable, open to exchange and dialogue.14
Instead of an opposition between art and the everyday articulated in the transfiguration of the commonplace, Bourriaud describes art as a 'social interstice.' Bourriaud borrows the term 'interstice' from Marx, who used it to describe exchange spaces which can escape from the dominant capitalist economy (barter is one of his examples). For Bourriaud, artworks exist in such a space, a space that is part of the global system but nonetheless suggests the possibility of alternative exchanges. Bourriaud singles out in the global capitalist system one particular aspect of everyday life which art can resist by multiplying new 'social interstices': the commercialisation and spectacularisation of inter-personal relations in everyday life.
By emphasising events, performance, and behaviours; alternative modes of exchange over unusable, commodified objects; by privileging flexible notions of form instead of trying to define art, Bourriaud's relational aesthetics seem to be more able to describe the nature of the everyday in works by Tiravanija and Fluxus alike. Yet, if Danto's aesthetics may be too restricted to encompass the variety of relations between art and everyday life, Bourriaud's ideas, for their part, suffer from not being precise enough. There are many obvious reasons for this: Bourriaud is a critic rather than a philosopher, an advocate rather than an analyst of these artists, and he is clearly implicated in the commercial and institutional art world (he is the co-director of the Palais de Tokyo, which was founded a few years ago as an institutional showcase for contemporary art in Paris). Perhaps there is even a deliberate decision on the part of Bourriaud to elude, for the sake of packaging a new generation of artists, the crucial questions of how exactly inter-personal relations have become commercialised and spectacularised, and how getting together to have a curry with Tiravanija somehow resists this state of things. What I would like to underline here is that, despite his apparent embrace of the everyday, Bourriaud, like Danto, seems to take for granted a universal definition of the commonplace. Only by retrieving the specificity of the everyday can the works discussed by Bourriaud and Danto be extracted from the rhetorical uses to which they have been subjected.

Describing the Everyday
If [Michel de Certeau's] Practice of Everyday Life is seen as attempting to register the poiesis of everyday life through poetics, then it is a poetics that articulates activities rather than expresses identities - a poetics of uses rather than users.
Ben Highmore15

Knowles' proposition to 'make a salad' relates to an act that we perform in our everyday life, and the form it takes evokes very directly an object of everyday life: the recipe. In her study of cooking as a practice of everyday life, Luce Giard explains that:
In every language, recipes comprise a kind of minimal text, defined by its internal economy, its concision and its low degree of ambiguity.16
Knowles' Proposition is certainly presented in a concise and minimal format, but it does not, however, provide any of the information which is considered to be 'indispensable' in a recipe: it states neither the ingredients nor the utensils and techniques to be used, and the name of the prepared dish is generic rather than particular, leaving the whole process as ambiguous as possible (Knowles says 'salad' rather than 'Greek salad,' or 'salade niçoise,' for example). Thus, while we can conclude that Knowles' piece is actually totally useless as a recipe, we can also see how it uses the format of the recipes to explore key characteristics that are relevant both to Fluxus and to cooking. Four of these dimensions can be briefly outlined here. Firstly, authorship for recipes is usually collective, if not anonymous. Similarly, Fluxus as a group explored ways of undermining the highly personalised traditional notions of authorship both through collective production and an increased reliance on reader/spectator participation. Secondly, recipes can be transmitted orally as well as through publications, which is also the case for many Fluxus scores: you do not need Knowles' book to own Proposition. Swedish folklore specialist and Fluxus artist Bengt af Klintberg highlighted the relations between these two aspects of cooking when he explained that Fluxus 'reacted against the pompous image of the artist as a genius with a unique, personal style' by creating 'simple pieces filled with energy and humour, pieces without any personal stylistic features, pieces that could be transmitted orally just like folklore and performed by everyone who wanted to.'17
The third aspect of recipes which Knowles' Proposition brings to the fore is the complex relations which recipes set up between process and result. Any cook knows that sometimes, for practical reasons, you may need to replace one ingredient by another, but of course, if you replace too many ingredients, then it becomes a whole new recipe. In Fluxus pieces, which emerged from the context of experimental music, this relation between the specific and the general is akin to the relation between a musical score and the ways of performing it. How badly does a score by Mozart need to be played before ceasing to be a Mozart piece? This complex question is central to any study of musical performance. The performative dimension of the recipe is closely linked to the fourth, and final, characteristic which I would like to list here. The recipe is one tool among others within a process, and cannot be considered as an isolated object: it is necessarily part of a wider, more complex, network which includes ingredients, implements, spaces, family life, tradition and innovation, to cite only some of the terms analysed by Giard.
Thus, viewed from the perspective of art, Knowles' work questions traditional notions of authorship and the status of the artwork, but if it were to be encountered in a recipe book, for example, it may be read as liberating for the cook. By reducing the instructions to a generic invitation, Knowles frees cooks from the stringent demands of the recipe, which dictate a type of behaviour and emphasise the finished product, to be judged according to absolute criteria of quality. Everyday life becomes a practice to be explored, rather than a boring routine that needs to be transfigured by art.
The term 'practice of everyday life' is a translation of the title of Michel de Certeau's 1980 L'Invention du quotidien (literally the 'invention' of the everyday), and it was in the second volume of this book that Luce Giard's analysis of cooking was included. In Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud actually refers to de Certeau and the 'invention du quotidien' when he writes about relational practices such as Tiravanija's. For example, Bourriaud claims that the practice of everyday life is 'not an object less worthy of attention' than 'the messianic utopias' specific to modern art.18 In this opposition between everyday practices and 'messianic utopias,' Bourriaud follows de Certeau's distinction between tactics and strategy. Strategy, according to de Certeau, is a means of calculation and manipulation in order to gain power over another, in situations where the distinction between one's own space and the other's is clear-cut. In contrast, tactics describe actions which take place solely within the 'other's space' because it is impossible to isolate the two spaces from each other. The 'interstice' occupied by relational art according to Bourriaud seems to be the very space of everyday life in which de Certeau places tactics, those everyday ruses with which some members of society 'tinker' with the dominant social order for it to work in their favour.19 The question of whether relational art is politically radical or not is thus closely related to the general issue of whether, as de Certeau claims, certain tactical practice can effectively subvert the everyday life in which they are embedded.
De Certeau's considerable contribution to the study of everyday life has been not only to highlight the complexity of everyday practices such as cooking, walking or inhabiting living spaces, but also to reflect on the methods for studying these practices. As Ben Highmore has explained, de Certeau sought to create a general poetics of everyday life which aims at achieving the generality of a science without losing sight of the singularity of the actual - an issue that resonates with Fluxus event scores which oscillate between the extreme generality of the instruction and the inevitable specificity of each individual performance of its terms.20 De Certeau's poetics successfully capture the singularity of everyday life, but encounter problems when trying to theorise the political, subversive potential of its practices. This issue, which is one of the central problems of studies of everyday life throughout the twentieth century, plagues Bourriaud's relational aesthetics as well. To analyse Bourriaud's text, it would thus be useful to start by unpacking the models of everyday life to which he is referring. In the process, one would find that he seems to be combining de Certeau's non-oppositional theorisation with references to Situationist thinkers such as Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre, who came from a Marxist tradition obviously bent on a transformation of capitalist society.
The tension between conflicting models of the 'critique of everyday life' is arguably inherent to the very works acclaimed by Bourriaud. Janet Kraynak has aptly criticised discourses such as Bourriaud's which describe Tiravanija's work as generous offerings providing an alternative exchange logic to commodity fetishism.21 Tiravanija's art, Kraynak argues, occupies an ambiguous position which exceeds such simplistic celebrations of a supposed return of everyday life in art. On the one hand, she explains, Tiravanija's work embraces the shift in the new globalised economy from the production and exchange of material objects to that of an equally alienating 'symbolic capital'. On the other hand, however, it simultaneously reveals the increased homogenisation of cultures as they enter the new symbolic order of global capitalism. Where Fluxus could still dream of a de-commodified everyday life based on collaboration, participation and other modes of 'folkloric' exchange, 'relational art' in the 1990s marked an embrace, rather than a rejection, of the museum, as well as a return to traditional modes of authorship - Tiravanija's presence, as Kraynak points out, is by now acknowledged to be a necessary aspect of his work.

Both Danto's Transfiguration of the Commonplace and Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics are significant attempts to grapple with the new relation between art and life explored by successive generations of artists. While Danto's reflections successfully highlight the importance of the everyday in works by Warhol or Fluxus, I have suggested that his ontological enquiry is restricted by the static polarity it sets up between art and a commonplace which remains in essence everything that is not art. Bourriaud's definition of relational aesthetics introduced post-structuralist, Deleuzian notions of flow and dynamic forms that are more amenable to capture the nature of practices by Fluxus or Tiravanija. Nevertheless, as I have shown, the kind of everyday practices which Bourriaud celebrates remains sketchy, as he refuses to address the ways in which they participate in, or resist, a dominant social order. Studies of everyday life such as de Certeau's complement enquiries such as Danto's or Bourriaud's by disrupting reductive descriptions of a universal everyday and looking at the specificities of the practices with which art practices stand in dialogue.
Filliou's quip about art being what makes life more interesting than art may suggest that art should become less interesting - indeed, works such as Knowles' Proposition, Brecht's Three Chair Event or Tiravanija's meals, deliberately ask to be dismissed as unremarkable occurrences which exist in the same time and space as everyday activities, in a way that neither Rauschenberg's 'combines' nor Warhol's Brillo Boxes could ever dream of. At the same time, the important thing about Filliou's definition of art is that it exists as a dynamic, reversible movement, in which the artwork can make life more interesting not because it is as boring as life, but because life is at least as complex as art. It may seem paradoxical to conclude that we may need simple, often literal, forms of art to tell us about the complexity of everyday life. And it may seem rather pathetic that we need to be told that everyday life is complex in the first place. Yet the question of whether, and how, the everyday can be studied is in fact a complex topic in itself - a topic that requires a further discussion, over a salad or a Thai curry, it goes without saying.

1 Robert Filliou (1970) 'Interview', quoted in Robert Filliou: Génie sans talent, (2004) exh. cat. (Villeneuve d'Ascq: Musee d'Art Moderne Lille Métropole), back cover.
2 Robert Rauschenberg (1959) 'Untitled Statement,' in Dorothy C. Miller, ed., Sixteen Americans (New York: Museum of Modern Art), p.58.
3 Allan Kaprow (1966) Assemblages, Environments and Happenings (New York: Harry N. Abrams), p.188.
4 George Brecht (1965) 'A Conversation about Something Else: an Interview with George Brecht by Ben Vautier and Marcel Alocco,' in Identités, nos. 11-12; rep. in Henry Martin, ed. (1978) An Introduction to George Brecht's Book of the Tumbler on Fire (Milan: Multhipla edizioni), p.71.
5 Arthur Danto (1981) The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: a Philosophy of Art (Cambridge, MA, & London: Harvard University Press), p.vii.
6 Ching Yuan, in D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, quoted by Danto (2002) 'The World as Warehouse: Fluxus and Philosophy,' in Jon Hendricks, ed., What's Fluxus? What's Not! Why., exh. cat. (Brasília: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil), p.31. This passage is reproduced in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, p. 133.
7 Danto, 'The World as Warehouse: Fluxus and Philosophy,' op. cit., 31.
8 Greg Horowitz and Tom Huhn (1998) 'The Wake of Art: Criticism, Philosophy and the ends of Taste,' in Greg Horowitz and Tom Huhn, eds., The Wake of Art: Criticism, Philosophy and the ends of Taste (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International), pp.1-56.
9 For such an analysis of these different aspects of Warhol's works, see Benjamin Buchloh (1989) 'Andy Warhol's One-dimensional Art, 1956-1966,' in Kynaston McShine, ed., Andy Warhol: a Retrospective, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art), pp.39-61.
10 George Brecht (1967) 'Interview with Henry Martin,' in Art International, vol. XI, no. 9, rep. in Henry Martin, p.80.
11 Rirkrit Tiravanija, quoted in Janet Kraynak (1998) 'Rirkrit Tiravanija's Liability,' Documents, no. 13, p.36.
12 Nicolas Bourriaud (1998) Esthétique relationnelle (Dijon: Presses du réel), p.117 (my translation). An English translation by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods was published in 2002 (Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Presses du réel).
13 Bourriaud, p.117.
14 Bourriaud, p.115.
15 Ben Highmore (2002) Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction (London and New York: Routledge), p.156.
16 'Dans chaque langue, les recettes de cuisine composent une sorte de texte minimal, défini par son économie interne, sa concision et son faible degré d'équivocité.' Luce Giard (1980) 'Faire-la-cuisine,' in Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, Pierre Mayol, L'Invention du quotidien, vol. 2: Habiter, Cuisiner (Paris: Gallimard), 1990 ed., p.303 (my translation).
17 Jean Sellem (1991) 'The Fluxus Outpost in Sweden: an Interview with Bengt af Klintberg', in Jean Sellem, ed., Fluxus Research, special issue of Lund Art Press, vol. 2, no. 2, p.69.
18 Bourriaud, p.14.
19 Michel de Certeau (1980) L'Invention du quotidien, vol. 1: Arts de faire (Paris: Gallimard), 1990 ed., p.xxxix.
20 Highmore, ch. 8. For more about the general and the specific in Fluxus scores, see Ina Blom (1992) 'The Intermedia Dynamic,' in Ken Friedman, ed., Fluxus Virus, 1962-1992, exh. cat. (Cologne: Galerie Schüppenhauer and Kölnischer Kunstverein), p.216.
21 Kraynak, pp.26-40.

Anna Dezeuze is a Research Fellow at the AHRB Research Centre for the Studies of Surrealism and its Legacies.

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This was published in the 1997 Fluxus Subjectiv catalogue. The formatting here mimics the original version.

Today there is great interest but also great confusion as to the Fluxus movement;

There are those who keep theorizing about Fluxus.
They say that after Dadaism and Duchamp, Fluxus is "the most radical movement";

those who make a fetish of Fluxus. They collect the trouser buttons by Maciunas, the handkerchief by Beuys or the dirty bath water by Ben;

those who speculate with the Fluxus. "If van Gogh's ear is worth 100.000 million dollar and the bottle rack by Duchamp is worth 300.000 dollar, how much will the water glass by George Brecht then be worth on the fair in Basel in two year's time?"

those who say that the Fluxus movement does only consist of spoiled children who make art by stating that they are against art, who expect to win fame by saying "we are against fame", who want to get back into the Louvre by staying in the bistro vis-á-vis;

those who say, okay, Fluxus is something mad, but still it's better than those who produce works of art for the consumer society;

those who say that Fluxus is rather a story of attitude towards life and art than towards products;

those who say Fluxus is individuals and not works of art;

those who say that Fluxus contradicts itself, that it consists of failures who happen to be succesful just now, anti-art stars;

As far as I am concerned, I think that
Fluxus is not a production of objects, of handicraft articles to be used as a decoration in the waiting rooms of dentists and professionals,
Fluxus is not professionalism
Fluxus is not the production of works of art,
Fluxus is not naked women,
Fluxus is not pop art,
Fluxus is not an intellectual avant-garde or light entertainment theatre,
Fluxus is not German expressionism,
Fluxus is not visual poetry for secretaries who are getting bored.


Fluxus is the "event" according to George Brecht:
putting the flower vase on the piano.
Fluxus is the action of life/music: sending for a tango
expert in order to be able to dance on stage.
Fluxus is the creation of a relationship between life and art,
Fluxus is gag, pleasure and shock,
Fluxus is an attitude towards art, towards the non-art of anti-art, towards the negation of one's ego,
Fluxus is the major part of the education as to John Cage, Dadaism and Zen,
Fluxus is light and has a sense of humor.

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Debord and the Postmodern Turn: New Stages of the Spectacle, Steven Best and Douglas Kellner

"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, ... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness," Ludwig Feuerbach.

"There is no doubt for aynone who examines the question coldly that those who really want to shake an established society must formulate a theory which fundamentally explains this society, or which at least quite seems to give a satisfactory explantion," Guy Debord

The afterlife of the ideas of Guy Debord and the Situationist International is quite striking. Economics, politics, and everyday life is still permeated with the sort of spectacle that he described in his classical works, and the concept of "spectacle" has almost become normalized, emerging as part and parcel of both theoretical and popular media discourse. Moreover, Situationist texts are experiencing an interesting afterlife in the proliferation of 'zines and Web sites, some of which embody Situationist practice. The past decade has been marked by a profusion of cultural activism which uses inexpensive new communications technology to proliferate radical social critique and cultural activism. Many of these 'zines pay homage to Debord and the Situationists, as do a profusion of Web sites that contain their texts and diverse commentary. Situationist ideas are thus an important part of contemporary cultural theory and activism, and may continue to inspire cultural and political opposition as the "Society of the Spectacle" enters Cyberspace and new realms of culture and experience.

In this article, we will accordingly update Debord's ideas in forumulating what we see as the emergence of a new stage of the spectacle. We will first delineate Debord's now classic analysis, indicate how it still is relevant for analyzing contemporary society, and then offer Baudrillard's critique that the concept of spectacle has been superseded by a new regime of simulation in the advent of a new postmodern stage of history. We acknowledge the insights and importance of this Baudrillardian analysis, but argue that simulation and spectacle are interconnected in the current forms of society and culture. We then offer an analysis of what we theorize as the new stage of "the interactive spectacle" that provides both new forms of seduction and domination, and new possibilities for resistance and democratization. At stake are formulating categories adequate to representing the transformations of contemporary society and devising a politics adequate to its challenges and novelties.

The Situationists: Commodification, Spectacle, and Capitalism

"The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole," Georg Lukacs (1971: 86).

"The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. The relation to the commodity is not only visible, but one no longer sees anything but it: the world one sees is its world. Modern economic production extends its dictatorship extensively and intensively," Guy Debord (1967: #42).
In the shift from 19th century competitive capitalism, organized around production, to a later form of capitalism organized around consumption, media, information, and technology, new forms of domination and abstraction appear, greatly complicating social reality. Lukacs (1971) was the first neo-Marxist theorist to develop a theory of this later moment in social development (although he wrote before the conjunction of consumer/media/information society). Similarly, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, and others associated with the Frankfurt school traced the gradual bureaucratization, rationalization, and commodification of social life. They described how the "culture industry" defused critical consciousness, providing a key means of distraction and stupefaction, and they developed the first neo-Marxist theories of the media and consumer society (see Kellner 1989a).

We interpret the emergence of Guy Debord and the Situationist International as an attempt to update the Marxian theory in the French post-World War Two conjuncture -- a project that was also deeply influenced by French modernist avant garde movements. Debord and his friends were themselves initially part of a French avant garde artist milieu that was shaped by Dada, surrealism, lettrism, and other attempts to merge art and politics (see Marcus 1989; Plant 1992; and Wollen 1993). Unorthodox Marxists like Henri Lefebvre (himself at one time part of the surrealist movement and creator of a critique of everyday life) influenced Debord, as did groups like "Socialism or Barbarism" and _Arguments_, both of which attempted to create an up-to-date and emancipatory Marxist theory and practice. Rapid modernization in France after the second world war and the introduction of the consumer society in the 1950s provoked much debate and contributed to generating a variety of discourses on modern society in France, inspiring Debord and others to attempt to revitalize the Marxian project in response to new historical conditions and aesthetic and theoretical impulses. [1]

Yet the Situationist revision developed significant differences from the classical project and new motifs and emphases. Whereas traditional Marxism focused on production, the Situationists highlighted the importance of social reproduction and the new modes of the consumer and media society that had developed since the death of Marx. While Marx focused on the factory, the Situationists focused on the city and everyday life, supplementing the Marxian emphasis on class struggle with a project of cultural revolution and the transformation of everyday life. And whereas the Marxian theory focused on time and history, the Situationists emphasized the production of space and constitution of society.

Debord and the Situationists can thus be interpreted as an attempt to renew the Marxian project under historically specific conditions. Their program was to reinvigorate Marxian revolutionary practice and to supplement Marx's critique of capital and the commodity, attempting to trace the further development of the abstraction process inherent in commodity production. Influenced by Sartre and his concept that human existence is always lived within a particular context or situation and that individuals can create their own situations, -- as well as Lefebvre's concept of everyday life and demand to radically transform it -- Debord and his colleagues began devising strategies to construct new "situations" (see the 1957 Debord text in Knabb 1981: 17ff.). [2] This project would merge art and everyday life in the spirit of the radical avant garde movements and would require a revolution of both art and life.

Interestingly, some of the Situationist aesthetic projects anticipated postmodern culture, -- such as the emphasis on pastiche and quotation and the collapsing of boundaries between high and low art, and art and everyday life -- though Situationist practice was always geared toward a revolutionary transformation of the existing society -- both bureaucratic communist and capitalist ones. [3] From a more strictly theoretical perspective, Debord and his colleagues synthesized Marx, Hegel, Lefebvre, and Lukacs (whose _History and Class Consciousness_ had been translated into French in 1960 by the _Arguments_ group) into a critique of contemporary society published in Debord's _Society of the Spectacle_ in 1967. Politically, Debord and the Situationists were deeply influenced by the council communism promoted by the early Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, and a tradition taken up in France by both the Socialism or Barbarism and _Arguments_ groups. [4] This tradition was radically democratic, emphasizing the need for workers and citizens to democratically control every realm of their life from the factory to the community and influenced Debord and the Situationist's positive ideal.

The Society of the Spectacle Revisited

"When the real world changes into simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior. The spectacle as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs; the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present day society," Guy Debord (#18).
Debord's analysis of contemporary capitalism developed Marx's analysis of commodification to its latest stage, which he described as "the becoming-world of the commodity and the becoming-commodity of the world" (#66). For the Situationists, the current stage of social organization is a mutation in capitalist organization, but it is still fully accessible to a Marxist interpretation. Beneath the new forms of domination, there is "an undisturbed development of modern capitalism" (#65). Also influenced by Gramsci (1971), the Situationists saw the current forms of social control as based on consensus rather than force, as a cultural hegemony attained through the metamorphoses of the consumer and media society into the "society of the spectacle." In this society, individuals consume a world fabricated by others rather than producing one of their own.
Paraphrasing Marx's opening to _Capital_, Debord said: "In the modern conditions of production, life announces itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles" (#1). The society of the spectacle is still a commodity society, ultimately rooted in production, but reorganized at a higher and more abstract level. "Spectacle" is a complex term which "unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena" (#10). In one sense, it refers to a media and consumer society, organized around the consumption of images, commodities, and spectacles, but the concept also refers to the vast institutional and technical apparatus of contemporary capitalism, to all the means and methods power employs, outside of direct force, to relegate subjects passive to societal manipulation and to obscure the nature and effects of capitalism's power and deprivations.

Under this broader definition, the education system and the institutions of representative democracy, as well as the endless inventions of consumer gadgets, sports, media culture, and urban and suburban architecture and design are all integral components of the spectacular society. Schooling, for example, involves sports, fraternity and sorority rituals, bands and parades, and various public assemblies that indoctrinate individuals into dominant ideologies. The standard techniques of education which involve rote learning and mechanical memorization of facts presented by droning teachers, to be regurgitated through multiple choice exams, is very effective for killing creativity and choking the spirit and joy of learning. Currently, the use of video technologies in the classroom can reinforce this passivity and creates a spectacularization and commodification of education, with TV "news" punctuated with ads by corporate sponsors, such as the Whittle Corporation's Channel One which is made available in thousands of schools across the U.S. Of course, contemporary politics is also saturated with spectacles, ranging from daily "photo opportunities," to highly orchestrated special events which dramatize state power, to TV ads and image management for predetermined candidates.

For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization; it is a "permanent opium war" (#44) which stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life -- recovering the full range of their human powers through revolutionary change. The concept of the spectacle is integrally connected in Debord's formulation to the concept of separation, for in passively consuming spectacles, one is separated from actively producing one's life. Capitalist society separates workers from the product of their labor, art from life, and spheres of production from consumption, which involve spectators passively observing the products of social life (#25 and #26). The Situationist project in turn involved an overcoming of all forms of separation, in which individuals would directly produce their own life and modes of self-activity and collective practice.

The spectacular society spreads its narcotics mainly through the cultural mechanisms of leisure and consumption, services and entertainment, ruled by the dictates of advertising and a commercialized media culture. This structural shift to a society of the spectacle involves a commodification of previously non-colonized sectors of social life and the extension of bureaucratic control to the realms of leisure, desire, and everyday life. Parallel to the Frankfurt School conception of a "totally administered" or "one dimensional" society (Adorno and Horkheimer 1972; Marcuse 1964), Debord states that "The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life" (#42). Here exploitation is raised to a psychological level; basic physical privation is augmented by "enriched privation" of pseudo-needs; alienation is generalized, made comfortable, and alienated consumption becomes "a duty supplementary to alienated production" (#42).

The shift to a "bureaucratic society of controlled consumption" (Lefebvre 1971 and 1991) organized around the production of spectacles can be seen as the exploitation of use value and needs as a means of advancing profit and gaining ideological control over individuals. Unlike early capitalism, where the structural exigencies lay in the forceful exploitation of labor and nature, and in defining the worker strictly as a producer, the society of the spectacle defines the worker as a consumer and attempts to constitute the worker's desires and needs, first creating then exploiting them. In this sense, Debord claims that use value was resurrected as a referent of production: "In the inverted reality of the spectacle, use value (which was implicitly contained in exchange value) must now be explicitly proclaimed precisely because its factual reality is eroded by the overdeveloped commodity economy and because counterfeit life requires a pseudo-justification" (#48). It is not that exchange value no longer dominates, but that use value is now deployed in an ideological way that exploits the needs of the new consumer self.

The spectacle not only expands the profits and power of the capitalist class, but also helps to resolve a legitimation crisis of capitalism. Rather then vent anger against exploitation and injustice, the working class is distracted and mollified by new cultural productions, social services, and wage increases. In consumer capitalism, the working classes abandon the union hall for the shopping mall and celebrate the system that fuels the desires that it ultimately cannot satisfy. But the advanced abstraction of the spectacle brings in its wake a new stage of deprivation. Marx spoke of the degradation of being into having, where creative praxis is reduced to the mere possession of an object, rather than its imaginative transformation, and where need for the other is reduced to greed of the self. Debord speaks of a further reduction, the transformation of having into appearing, where the material object gives way to its semiotic representation and draws "its immediate prestige and ultimate function" (#17) as image -- in which look, style, and possession function as signs of social prestige. The production of objects simpliciter gives way to "a growing multitude of image-objects" (#15) whose immediate reality is their symbolic function as image. Within this abstract system, it is the appearance of the commodity that is more decisive than its actual "use value" and the symbolic packaging of commodities -- be they cars or presidents -- generates an image industry and new commodity aesthetics (see Haug 1986).

While spectacles like Roman bread and circuses have long distracted the masses and celebrated state power, the society of the spectacle has more immediate origins in 19th century capitalist society organized around commodity spectacles and consumption. As Walter Benjamin argued (1973, discussed in Buck-Morss 1989), the commodity-phantasmagoria of the spectacle began in the Paris Arcades in the 19th century which put on display all the radiant commodities of the day. Department stores soon appeared in Paris and elsewhere which exhibited commodities as a spectacle and soon became coveted temples of consumption. Sears catalogues offered customers entrance to commodity paradise and companies began using images and advertising to market their wares, creating a society where images offered fantasies of happiness, luxury, and transcendence (see Ewen and Ewen 1983).

By the 1920s, advertising had become a major social force and films were celebrating affluence and consumer life-styles, but the depression of the 1930s and World War Two prevented the consumer society from developing. After the war, however, the consumer society took off in the United States as returning soldiers came back with money in pocket to start families and to buy the all the new products offered and promoted on radio and television. Life in the suburbs was centered on consumption and new shopping malls gathered together a diversity of department stores and specialty shops in an environment scientifically designed -- right down to subliminal messages in the Muzak -- to promote consumption. The 1950s was thus era of the rise of the society of consumption in the United States and by the 1960s the U.S. began to appear in France with new "drugstores," shopping malls, and a proliferation of consumer goods and services. It is this era that is thus theorized in Debord's and the Situationist International classic analysis of the society of the spectacle.

Spectacle and Simulation: Baudrillard versus Debord

"Abstraction today is no longer the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory ... it is the map that engenders the territory," Baudrillard (1983a: 2)
Jean Baudrillard was deeply influenced by Debord and the Situationists. Both theorized the abstraction involved in the development of the consumer and media society. For both, the electronic media were a new stage in abstraction where interpersonal relations become technologically mediated. Both saw the media as one-way modes of transmission that reduced audiences to passive spectators; [5] both were concerned with authentic communication and a more vivid and immediate social reality apart from the functional requirements of a rationalized society. For Baudrillard, this entailed a destruction of all media, for their function is precisely to mediate, to prevent genuine communication, which, in a strangely Rousseauian metaphysics of presence, he conceived to be symbolic and direct, non-mediated. Debord's conception of media as "unilateral communication" is similar (see #24; #28), though he attempted to devise media practices that would transform the media and thus unlike Baudrillard championed the development of alternative media and use of media technologies against existing society and culture.

And yet despite his similarities with his predecessors, Baudrillard claims that with the new era of simulation we move to a whole new era of social development: beyond Marx, beyond neo-Marxism, beyond the Situationists, beyond modernity. For Baudrillard, we leave behind the society of the commodity and its stable supports; we transcend the society of the spectacle and its dissembling masks; and we bid farewell to modernity and its regime of production, and enter the postmodern society of the simulacrum, an abstract non-society devoid of cohesive relations, shared meaning, and political struggle.

For Baudrillard, postmodernity marks the horizon where modern dynamics of growth and explosion reach their limits and begin to turn inward, resulting in an implosive process devouring all relational poles, structural differences, conflicts and contradictions, as well as "truth," "reality," and even "power." Yet in his early works, _Le systeme des objects_ (1968), _La societe de consommation_ (1970), and _For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign_ (1981 [1972]), Baudrillard pursued an analysis of commodities and consumer society. Until _The Mirror of Production_ (1975), Baudrillard could be described, like Debord, as a neo-Marxist whose project was to retain the basic theoretical framework of Marxism, organized around class and production, while supplementing it to account for the changes in the nature of domination effected by the shift to a society based on mass media, consumption, and what Baudrillard called a "political economy of the sign."

Debord and Baudrillard were doing sociological studies of the new consumer society and everyday life in France simultaneously in the 1960s; both worked with Henri Lefebvre and were part of a similar political and intellectual milieu at the time. Just as Baudrillard was aware of the work of the Situationists, there is evidence they were aware of his, since in one text they denounced him as a "decrepit modernist-institutionalist" (in Knabb 1981: 211). But it seems the Situationists were more an influence on Baudrillard than vice versa. For Baudrillard, the Situationists were "without doubt the only ones to attempt to extract this new radicality of political economy in their 'society of the spectacle'" (1975: 120). At one time, in fact, Baudrillard considered himself a Situationist: "Pataphysician at twenty -- Situationist at thirty -- utopian at forty -- transversal at fifty -- viral and metaleptic at sixty -- that's my history" (1990: 131). Yet he soon rejected the Situationist analysis as itself bound to an obsolete modernist framework based on notions like history, reality, and interpretation, and he jumped into a postmodern orbit that declared the death of all modern values and referents under conditions of simulation, implosion, and hyperreality.

Baudrillard theorizes a cybernetic, self-reproducing society based on consumption, media, information, and high-technology where exchange occurs at the level of signs, images, and information, thereby dissolving Marx's distinction between "superstructure" and "base," as well as Debord's distinction between appearance and reality. Emphasizing contemporary capitalism as a rupture in the old mode of organization, Baudrillard's work was well-distanced from classical Marxists, but much akin to the Situationists, whom he credited for having grasped consumption as the new form of domination. But the early Baudrillard broke with the Situationists on both theoretical and political grounds. He understood contemporary society not in terms of spectacle, but "sign value," rooting the development of the commodity in the structural logic of the sign, rather than vice versa (1981). Baudrillard sometimes spoke of the "spectacle," but only provisionally. He rejected the term for two reasons: because it implies a subject-object distinction which he feels implodes in a hyperreality, and because the Situationists theorize the spectacle as an extension of the commodity form, rather than an instantiation of a much more radical and abstract order, the political economy of the sign, or as the semiological proliferation of signs and simulation models.

Baudrillard's argument against Debord is that during the phase of political economy theorized by the Situationists in terms of the society of media, consumption, and spectacle, a generalization and complexification of the sign form extended throughout the entire culture and environment leading to a hegemony of sign value in which commodities are produced, distributed, and consumed for their conspicuous social meaning. The object is converted into a mere sign of its use, now abstract and divorced from physical needs. The whole cycle of production, distribution, and consumption, Baudrillard claims, is transformed into a semiotic system of abstract signifiers with no relation to an objective world. In the imaginary world of sign value, one consumes power or prestige through driving a certain type of car or wearing designer clothes. [6] This is a new stage of abstraction, a dematerialization of the world through semiological (re)processing in which images and signs take on a life of their own and provide new principles of social organization.

Simulation for Baudrillard thus describes a process of replacing "real" with "virtual" or simulated events, as when electronic or digitized images, signs, or spectacles replace "real life" and objects in the real world. Simulation models generate simulacra, representations of the real, that are so omnipresent that it is henceforth impossible to distinguish the real from simulacra. The world of similacra for Baudrillard is precisely a postmodern world of signs without depth, origins, or referent. As he put it in his travelogue _America_: "Why is L.A., why are the deserts so fascinating? It is because you are delivered from all depth there -- a brilliant, mobile, superficial neutrality, a challenge to meanings and profundity, a challenge to nature and culture, an outer hyperspace, with no origin, no reference points" (1988: 123-124).

Simulacra are mere signs and images of the real which come to constitute a new realm of experience, the hyperreal. Baudrillard's "hyperreal" is the end-result of a historical simulation process where the natural world and all its referents are gradually replaced with technology and self-referential signs. This is not to say that "representation" has simply become more indirect or oblique, as Debord would have it, but that in a world where the subject/object distance is erased, where language no longer coheres in stable meanings, where originals are endlessly reproduced in copies, and where signs no longer refer beyond themselves to an existing, knowable world, representation has been surpassed. The real, for all intents and purposes, is vanquished when an independent object world is assimilated to and defined by artificial codes and simulation models, as when the events of the social world attain significance through the entertainment codes of mass media or when men and women judge themselves according to conformity to the dominant ideals of masculinity and femininity ideals as largely presented by advertising (the most extreme example being Cindy Jackson, the "Barbie Doll Woman," who had twenty-two different surgical alterations to look just like the figure she worshipped since childhood).

Thus, "hyperreality" signifies a rupture in the notion of the real brought on by techniques of mass reproduction. "Reality" implies something singular, sui generis, a touchstone by which to measure everything else. But in the conditions of reproduction, Baudrillard claims, all this is lost: reality becomes what can be infinitely extended and multiplied in a series, through a reproductive medium. No longer sui generis, it infinitely resembles itself in identical copies. No longer the touchstone of everything, it is confused for its copies or even devalued in light of them. Once, perhaps, sacred, it becomes strictly operational in reproduction, no more unique or definable than any one of the Campbell soup cans or Marilyn Monroe images in Warhol's paintings.

Thus, for Baudrillard, hyperreality is the transmogrification of "reality" within the conditions of simulation and social reproduction. The Greek prefix "hyper" is appropriate, meaning over, above, more than normal, excessive. For many, the world of media fantasies is more real than everyday life; hyperreal video or computer games are more fascinating and alluring than school, work, or politics (often understandably so); porno videos stimulate sex in abstraction from the problems of real relations with others; and hyperreal theme parks like Disney World and simulated environments are more attractive than actual geographical sites. The hyperreal is thus the death of the real, but, a theological death: the real dies only to be reborn, artificially resurrected within a system of signs, "a more ductile material than [representational] meaning in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalence, all binary oppositions and a combinatory algebra" (Baudrillard 1983a: 4).

In the following analysis, we want to argue that rather than seeing the society of the spectacle and the regime of simulation as two distinct stages in which simulation overcomes spectacle, the two are interrelated in the contemporary social order. Likewise, we believe that sign-value and spectacle are integrated in the contemporary order, as are political economy and semiology. In the following section, we will according, against Baudrillard, indicate that the concept of the spectacle continues to be useful in analyzing contemporary societies, that the spectacle has if anything spread through the economic, political, and cultural realms, reaching down to helping constitute individual identity and subjectivity, and that signs, spectacles, and commodities merge in the contemporary capitalist order. Then, we will argue in the concluding section that we have entered a new realm of the spectacle constituted by a synthesis of Debordian and Baudrillardian concepts. Rather than seeing spectacle and simulation as contrary, we therefore see them as interacting in novel ways and providing important tools to analyze contemporary capitalist society and culture.

The Spectacle Continues... and Expands

Reflection on the current globalized capitalist system suggest that contemporary overdeveloped societies continue to be marked by Debordian spectacle in every realm of social life. In the economy, more money is spent each year on advertising and packaging which constitutes in the U.S. 4% of the gross national produce (see Kellner 1997). New malls feature ever more spectacular shopping centers and "the malling of America" and the Global Consumer Village exhibit not only a sparkling array of goods and services but high tech entertainment, postmodern architecture, and, increasingly, simulations of famous sites past and present (Gottdiener 1997). The consumer society is now so highly developed that even alternative grocery stores and book stores are organized around the principle of spectacle, dazzling the customer with their display of wares, as with the new 1995 Whole Foods shop in Austin which provides a mesmerizing array of health and gourmet foods from the entire world. Next door there is a Book People, which contains three resplendent stories of books of all types, focusing on the alternative and countercultural. In the midst of this consumer's paradise, the Buddhism section has a rock garden, meditation space, and giant statue of the Buddha, presented as a commodity icon, a god of mass-marketed spirituality.

Entire environments are ever more permeated with advertising and spectacle. Buses can be wrapped with giant and glowing graphics, thus becoming rolling billboards. [7] Whole urban areas, like Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, are illuminated by lasers that flash promotions upon buildings and environmental administration, where urban sites are lit up by ads on buildings, on high tech billboards, and in the sky, taking the spectacle to new heights (or depths, depending on how you view it). [8]

With cable and satellite television, the spectacle is now so ubiquitous and accessible that one need not even rise from the lounge chair to shop, requiring only a telephone and credit card to purchase a vast array of products from TV home shopping networks. To expand the domain of shopping and profit, advertisers are already creating new malls in cyberspace that will provide virtual shopping environments of the most exotic kind to parade an unbelievable surfeit of products. Indeed, corporations are currently establishing Web sites on the Internet which offer all sorts of visual spectacles in order to entice customers to buy their goods and provide consumer profile information for future advertising and commercial ventures. Like the industrial commodity markets that preceded it, the spectacle has gone global with the proliferation of satellite dishes beaming Western sex and violence to all corners of the globe, and elections from Israel to Russia reduce politics to a battle of image and media spectacle with Hollywood-style media campaigns for candidates intent on selling personalities more than political platforms.

Entertainment is a dominant mode of the society of the spectacle with its codes permeating news and information, politics, education, and everyday life. Newspapers like _USA Today_ fragment news into small stories, illustrated by graphs, charts, and color pictures, while both local and national TV news is saturated by happy talk and human interest stories. Cable TV promises to over 500 channels by the year 2000 and Internet Web sites and new media sites may offer even more infotainment spectacles, as multimedia technologies develop, frightening cybercritic Paul Virilio to imagine an increasingly inertia setting in, as individuals enter virtual worlds through the clicking of a mouse and punching keys (1998).

The info-entertainment society reduces all of its genres from news to religion to sports to the logic of the commodity spectacle. Since the rise of televangelism in the 1980s, religion has been relentlessly commodified with TV evangelists promoting the spectacle of religion to rake in millions of dollars from gullible contributors. Even the Pope himself has become a commodity-machine, a global superstar whose image the Roman Catholic Church recently licensed to sell official Papal souvenirs, ranging from books and posters to watches, sweatshirts, and bottled (holy?) water -- with a Papal Web-page to promote the Vatican's image and to sell their merchandise. Always a major site of the spectacle and a source of capital, religion itself has become packaged as a spectacle commodity with TV religion, religion Web sites, and dramatic increase in religious artifacts ranging from bibles on CD-ROM to Christian rock music videos and CDs.

It appears that professional sports, a paradigm of the spectacle, can no longer be played without the accompaniment of cheer leaders, giant mascots who clown with players and spectators, and raffles, promotions, and contests which hawk the products of various sponsors. Instant replays turn the action into high-tech spectacles and stadiums themselves contain electronic reproduction of the action, as well as giant advertisements for various products which rotate for maximum saturation -- previewing forthcoming environmental advertising in which entire urban sites will become scenes to promote commodity spectacles. Sports stadiums, like the new United Center in Chicago, or America West Arena in Phoenix, are named after corporate sponsors. The Texas Rangers stadium in Arlington, Texas supplements its sports arena with a shopping mall and commercial area, with office buildings, stores, and a restaurant in which for a hefty price one gets a view of the athletic events, as one consumes food and drink.

It probably will not be too long before the uniforms of professional sports players are as littered with advertisements as racing cars. In the globally popular sport of soccer, companies such as Canon, Sharp, and Carlsberg sponsor teams and have their names emblazoned on their shirts, making the players epiphenomena of transnational capital. In auto racing events like the Tour de France or Indianapolis 500, entire teams are sponsored by major corporations whose logos adorn their clothes and cars. And throughout the world, but especially in the United States, the capital of the commodity spectacle, superstars like Michael Jordan commodify themselves from head to foot, selling their various body parts and images to the highest corporate bidders, imploding their sports images into the spectacles of advertising. In this manner, the top athletes augment their salaries, sometimes spectacularly, by endorsing products, thus imploding sports, commerce, and advertising into dazzling spectacles which celebrate the products and values of corporate America.

In fashion, postmodern couture generates ever more spectacular clothing displays:

In the same way that movies are being judged by the size of their grosses, not whether they make any sense, couture shows are now judged by the size of the spectacle.... Keep your eye on the three-story waterfall at Givenchy [fashion show], and wait for the train at Christian Dior... At huge expense, a spice-filled Souk was recreated, and the lost luggage room had trunks tagged with names like Bing Crosby, Cleopatra and Brad Pitt ("In Paris Couture, the Spectacle's the Thing," _New York Times_, July 21, 1998: C24).
Actual fashion displays reviewed in the article cited above include spectacles likes Jean Paul Gaultier's kilt and beaded sweater and colorful beaded floral crocheted jacket; Alexander McQueen's dazzling bias dress and wrap for Givenchy; a tailored zip-front suit with feathers by Versace; a lavish Pocahontas dress, with Navajo patterns, for Dior, and a musketeer boots and gold embroidery at Dior. Thus, in the society of the spectacle, even ones body is supposed to become a spectacle, in which fashion constitutes style as the construction of a spectacular image and conceives of body and identity as projects to be constructed according to the logic of the spectacle.
It appears in the society of the spectacle that a life of luxury and happiness is open to all, that anyone can buy the sparkling objects on display and consume the spectacles of entertainment and information. But in reality only those with sufficient wealth can fully enjoy the benefits of this society, whose opulence is extracted out of the lives and dreams of the exploited. The poor souls who can't afford to live out their commodity fantasies in full are motivated to work harder and harder, until they are trapped in the squirrel cage of working and spending, spending and working -- and increasingly borrowing money at high interest rates. Indeed, consumer credit card debt has sky-rocketed 47% in recent years, as credit cards are easier to get and interest payment rises; the average debt per household is now over $3,000, up from barely over $1,000 per household in 1985 (_New York Times_, December 28, 1995: C1). [9]

Where the image and realm of appearance determine and overtake reality, life is no longer lived directly and actively. The spectacle involves a form of social relations in which individuals passively consume commodity spectacles and services, without active and creative involvement. The popular MTV animated series _Beavis and Butt-Head_ provides contemporary examples of such passivity, as the two characters sit in front of television watching music videos and are usually only incited to action by something they watch on television. Their entire vocabulary and mapping of the world derives from the media and they describe media bites as "cool" or "sucks" according to whether the images do or do not conform to dominant forms of sex and violence (see Kellner 1995).

Media spectacles are financed by advertisers who in turn pass along costs to the consumers, who are doubly exploited in work and consumption. Consumers pay for the spectacles of entertainment, subsidized by advertising, in the form of higher costs for products. Moreover, the entertainment and information offered is a function of what the culture industries think will sell and that on the whole advances its own interests, producing more desires for its goods and way of life.

The correlative to the Spectacle is thus the Spectator, the passive viewer and consumer of a social system predicated on submission and conformity. In contrast to the stupor of consumption, Debord and the Situationists champion active, creative, and imaginative practice, in which individuals create their own "situations," their own passionate existential events, fully participating in the production of everyday life, their own individuality, and, ultimately, a new society. Thus, to the passivity of the spectator they counterpoise the activity of the radical subject which constructs its own everyday life against the demands of the spectacle (to buy, consume, conform, etc.). The concept of the spectacle therefore involves a distinction between passivity and activity and consumption and production, condemning passive consumption of spectacle as an alienation from human potentiality for creativity and imagination.

The concept also involves distinctions between the artificial and the real, and the abstract and the concrete. Unlike real human needs for creativity and community, commodity needs and spectacles are artificial, with capitalism endlessly multiplying needs for the latest gadget or product line, while creating a fantasy world of imagined self-realization and happiness. In place of concrete events and relations with others, the spectacle substitutes abstract images, commodity fantasies, and relations with technology. The spectacle escalates abstraction to the point where one no longer lives in the world per se -- "inhaling and exhaling all the powers of nature" (Marx) -- but in an abstract image of the world. "Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation" (Debord #1), which Debord describes as the "philosophization of reality": "The spectacle does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality" (#19). By this he means, spectacle and image constitute an ersatz reality, an ideal world of meanings and values to be consumed by the commodity self. The realization of philosophy, as conceived by Marx, entailed the abolition of "philosophy" -- i.e. of an abstract ideology constituted above and against the concrete conditions of social existence -- and the synthesis of theory and practice. For Marx, revolutionary struggle seeks to realize the ideals of the Enlightenment, creating equality, freedom, individuality, and democracy as the form of social life, thus actualizing Western culture's highest philosophical ideals.

The philosophization of reality, on the other hand, separates thought from action as it idealizes and hypostatizes the world of the spectacle. It converts direct experience into a specular and glittering universe of images and signs, where instead of constituting their own lives, individuals contemplate the glossy surfaces of the commodity world and adopt the psychology of a commodity self that defines itself through consumption and image, look, and style, as derived from the world of the spectacle. Spectators of the spectacle also project themselves into a phantasmagoric fantasy world of stars, celebrities, and stories, in which individuals compensate for unlived lives by identifying with sports heros and events, movie and television celebrities, and the life-styles and scandals of the rich and infamous.

Individuals in the society of spectacle constitute themselves in terms of celebrity image, look, and style. Media celebrities are the icons and role models, the stuff of dreams who the dreamers of the spectacle emulate and adulate. But these are precisely the ideals of a consumer society whose models promote the accumulation of capital by defining personality in terms of image, forcing one into the clutches and cliches of the fashion, cosmetic, and style industries. Mesmerized by the spectacle, subjects move farther from their immediate emotional reality and desires, and closer to the domination of bureaucratically controlled consumption: "the more [one] contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires ... his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him" (Debord #30). The world of the spectacle thus becomes the "real" world of excitement, pleasure, and meaning, whereas everyday life is devalued and insignificant by contrast. Within the abstract society of the spectacle, the image thus becomes the highest form of commodity reification: "The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image" (#34).

Debord emphasizes the super-reification of image-objects as a massive unreality, an inversion of reality and illusion. The spectacle is "the autonomous movement of the non-living" (#2). The actual class divisions of society, for example, are abolished in the spectacle and replaced with signs of unified consumption which address everyone equally as consumers. But, like Feuerbach and Marx, Debord saw not simply the blurring of illusion and reality, but the authentication of illusion as more real than the real itself. "Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance" (#10). The universalization of the commodity form is to be seen as the reduction of reality to appearance, its subsumption to the commodity form, its subsequent commodification.

Along these lines, there is a remarkable congruence with Baudrillard's key themes, specifically his notions of simulations, implosion, hyperreality, and the proliferation of signs and images in postmodern culture. But Debord was more a good Hegelian-Marxist than a proto-Baudrillardian. Like Marx, as much as Debord emphasized the commodification of reality, he also emphasized the reality of commodification and the ability of individuals to see through its illusions and fantasies. Despite the pronounced emphasis on the artificiality of the spectacle, Debord refused to abandon the attempt to interpret and change social reality. Debord peered into the shadows of a reified unreality, but drew back to report and critique what he had seen; there is an implosion of opposites, but the separate poles retain their contradictory identity; illusion overtakes reality, but reality can be recuperated for Debord through a critical hermeneutics that sees through appearances, illusions, and fantasies to the realities being masked and covered over. In addition, Debord urged radical practice, the construction of situations, to overcome the passivity of the spectator.

New Stage of the Interactive Spectacle

Thus, we believe that Debord's analysis of the spectacle continues to be relevant, even more so than during the period in which he formulated the term. We also find Debord's epistemology and politics superior to Baudrillard's, but believe that their categories can be articulated, and thus are not antithetical. In this section, we will argue that we are in a new stage of spectacle, which we call "the interactive spectacle," that involves an implosion of subject and object, and the creation of new cultural spaces and forms and new subjects. The stage of the spectacle described by Debord, congruent with Sartre's analysis of the fate of subjectivity in the present age, [10] was that of the consumption of spectacles in which individual subjects were positioned to be compliant and pliant spectators and consumers of mass consumer society and media. In this early stage theorized by Debord and later Baudrillard, the subject sat more or less passively in front of a movie or television screen, or was a slightly less passive spectacular of sporting events or commodity spectacles in stores or malls. In this stage, there was domination of the subject by the object, and categories of passivity, serality, separation, and alienation accurately described the contours of this stage (though the subject was always more active than extreme versions of manipulation theory in the Frankfurt School and Situationist International would indicate, but not as active as later advocates of the "active audience" within British cultural studies and elsewhere would maintain in the 1980s (see the critique of the latter in Kellner 1995 and of the Situationist concepts in Best and Kellner 1997, Chapter Three).

In the stage of spectacle theorized and criticized by the Frankfurt School, Sartre, the Situationist International, early Baudrillard, and others, the media and technology were powerful control mechanisms keeping individuals passive and serialized, watching and consuming, rather than acting and doing. The subject of this new stage of spectacle, by contrast, is more active and new technologies like the computer, multimedia, and virtual reality devices are more interactive. Thus, we would argue that the categories of the transformation of the subject, of implosion of the difference between subject and object, of the creation of new technosubjects and culture is more appropriate to describe this contemporary stage of the spectacle (see our analysis in Best and Kellner, forthcoming). Thus, not manipulation or domination but transformation, mutation, and alteration of the human species itself is at stake in the contemporary moment with the outcome unclear and the future open.

We offer, however, a few speculative thoughts on a condition still unfolding before us. The interaction between subject and object, between individuals and technology, celebrated by some cybertheorists like Turkle and others, exaggerates the interactivity and the break with previous forms of culture. Whereas we are ready to concede a more interactive dimension to the current stage of the spectacle and a more active role for the subject, we see something of a collapse of the distinction between subject and object occuring that has disturbing implications. While we would not go as far as Baudrillard in postulating the triumph of the object in contemporary postmodern culture (see the discussion in Kellner 1989b: 153ff), and believe it is still important to theorize and promote agency, it does appear that there is an eclipse of the subject and growing power of the object in the new cyberspectacles of the present.

For one thing, there is a structuring of the protocols of interaction by computer programs, a monitoring and manipulation of communication and interaction in mainstream media shows, like talk radio and television, or websites and television programs that solicit viewer opinions through fax, telephone, or email. We are thinking here of supposedly interactive mainstream media such as cnn call-in programs or discussion programs that solicit viewers to send in email or fax comments for instant dissemination; msnbc television and websites that contains an interactive component; and websites of media corporations that allow interaction, and discussion. While these are interesting developments in the history of the media, they do not necessarily constitute a democratizing, empowering, or genuinely interactive culture and are continuous in some ways with the media spectacles of the previous stage, although they integrate the consumer and audience in more interesting ways into the spectacle.

In an attempt to further control the benighted couch potatoes of consumer capitalism, for instance, the entertainment industry has invented "interactive TV" -- an oxymoron if there ever was one -- which allows the view to be their own director, to call their own shots, to edit their own videos, or even to project their own image onto the screen (especially enticing with porn videos) to "interact" with the programmed dialogue. Thus, we can now go into the TV, becoming a part of it as it has become a part of us. With every passing day, people become more and more like characters in David Cronenberg's film _Videodrome_, or like the "Television Man" satirized by the Talking Heads:

I'm looking and I'm dreaming for the first time

I'm inside and I'm outside at the same time

And everything is real

Do I like the way I feel? ...

Television made me what I am ...

(I'm a) television man.

Further, Internet technology enables ordinary individuals to make their everyday life a spectacle, with live sex on the Internet (usually for a fee) and even a live birth via Internet on June 16, 1998. Moreover, camcorders, or "Webcams," record and sent live over the Internet the daily lives of new webstars like JenniCam who receives over 60,000 hits a day to watch her go through mundane activities. Or AnaCam can been seen "on her couch (she has no bed), looking bored, eating a pizza, having kinky sex with her boyfriend -- sometimes all at the same time" (_Newsweek_, June 1, 1998: 64). All over the world, individuals are up webcam sites, often charging individuals fees for access (_The Toronto Star_, July 23, 1998: G2). Hence, whereas Truman Burbank, in the summer 1998 hit film _The Truman Show_, discovered to his horror that his life was being televised, many individuals in cyberworld choose to make televisual spectacles of their everyday life.

Virtual reality devices promise to take individuals into an even higher and more powerful realm of spectacle interaction in which one thinks that one really is interacting with the environment projected by the device, be it a war game or pornographic fantasy. So far VR devices have been limited to games like "Dactyl Nightmare," where one dons a "head-mounted display" to fight other characters and avoid destruction by virtual large winged creatures in a Darwinian battle for survival, or one enters a high tech virtual "movie ride," often based on film characters like _RoboCop_. Some of these experiences might constitute a new level of multi-sensorium spectacles, something like the "feelies" envisioned by Huxley in _Brave New World_.

Of course, such "virtual" and "interactive" technology merely seduce the viewer into an even deeper tie to the spectacle and there is no media substitute for getting off one's ass, for interactive citizenship and democracy, for actually living one's life in the real world. Indeed, advocates of the superiority of cyberworlds denigrate the body as mere "meat" and "real life" ("R L") as a boring intrusion into the pleasures of the media and computer worlds of cyberspace. We would avoid, however, both demonizing cyberspace as a fallen realm of alienation and dehumanization as many of its technophobic philosophical critics (i.e. Virilio, Borgmann, Simpson, etc.), just as we would avoid celebrating it as a new realm of emancipation, democracy, and creative activity.

We would distinguish therefore between a genuine interactive spectacle and pseudo-interaction. Using Debord's conception of the construction of situations, we would suggest that a creatively interactive spectacle is one that the individual herself has created, whether it be one's website, computer-mediated space such as chat room, or discussion group. In these self or group-constructed environments, individuals themselves create both form and content, using the site and technology to advance their own interests and projects, to express their own views and to interact in the ways that they themselves decide. In pseudo-spectacle, by contrast, one is limited by the structures and power of the usually corporate forces that themselves construct the spectacle in which one is merely a part. Such pseudo-interactive spectacle would include talk radio or television, in which calls are carefully monitored and the institutions can cut off or censor individuals at will; the use of email or fax material in corporate interactive sites which choose which material they publicize, or websites or Internet discussion forums monitored and controlled by corporations or their delegates.

Of course, such distinctions are ideal types, since each individual is constructed in some way or another by the social environment in which one lives and even in the most controlled and structured interaction there is more participation and involvement than in passively consuming television or film images in the solitude of one's own subjectivity. One is never totally free of social influence, all technological-mediated communication is structured to some extent by computer protocols, codes, and programs, and thus both form and content of the construction of all and any situation is socially mediated.

Consequently, this form of interactive spectacle is highly ambiguous. On one hand, it can be a more creative and active invovlement with media and culture than television or film watching. While the form of technological-mediated interaction is always structured, limited, coded, and predtermined, especially in interaction with big media corporations, new computer technology allows for creation of alternative cultural spaces that can attack and subvert the established culture. In this new cultural space, one can express views previously excluded from mainstream media and so the new cultural forums have many more voices and individuals participating than during the era of Big Mainstream Media in which giant corporations controlled both the form and content of what could be spoken and shown. Cyberdemocracy and technopolitics is too recent a phenomenon to adequately appraise its possibilities, limitations, and effects, but it provides the possibilitity of the sort of subversive politics and the use of the tools of the spectacle against the capitalist spectacle that Debord promoted. Hence, in the Age of the Internet and new technologies, the ideas of the Situationist International continue to be of use in comprehending existing society and culture and challenge us into inventing ways to subvert and transform the capitalist spectacle.


1. See the discussions in Poster 1975 on the new forms of Marxian theory in post-War France. Many discussions of Debord and Situationism downplay the Marxian and Hegelian roots of their project; for example, Marcus 1989 and Plant 1992 exaggerate the avant-gardist aesthetic roots of the Situationist project and downplay the Marxian elements.

2. Curiously, although Debord's own notion of the construction of situations seems close to Sartre, the Situationists had a dim view of the illuminary who was the dominant intellectual figure of the time. In "Interview with an Imbecile," which takes to task, deservedly, Sartre's 1964 comments on communism in a _Nouvel Observateur_ interview, the Situationists conclude: "The thinker we have been talking about is Sartre; and anyone who still wants to seriously discuss the value (philosophical or political or literary--one can't separate the aspects of this hodgepordge) of such a nullity, so puffed up by the various authorities that are so satisfied with him, immediately himself loses the right to be accepted as an interlocutor by those who refuse to renounce the potential consciousness of our time" (in Knabb 1981: 181). This, we believe, is sour grapes that smacks of the Stalinism that they denounce in Sartre; instead, we believe the kinship between their conceptions of the construction of situations should be perceived.

3. On postmodern art, see Best and Kellner 1997, Chapter 3.

4. Council communism rooted itself in the tradition of Soviets, or workers councils (German: RŠte) rather than parties. They opposed the bureaucratization of the Soviet Union and all Marxist-Leninist parties which they thought were hopelessly hierarchical and bureaucratic. In opposition to bureaucratic communism, they championed workers self-activity and self-organization; see the texts of Karl Korsch collected in Kellner 1977 and the discussion in Boggs 1984.

5. Debord's criticism that media communication "is essentially unilateral" (#24) was taken over directly by Baudrillard (1981: 169ff.); Baudrillard's stress on image and semiurgy, the proliferation of signs and images, comes from Debord (#18 and #34); and his notions of "map" and "territory" derive from Debord who wrote: "The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map which covers precisely its territory" (#31).

6. _Wired_, the publication of choice for the digerati who write about information/computer culture and those who consume it, has a monthly feature which under the rubric "Fetish" presents the latest products to satisfy its consumers' technolust. According to _Newsweek_ (January 8, 1996: 54-55), the latest lifestyle fetish is designer paint, such as from Stewart, which costs up to $110 a gallon and comes in hundreds of different shades.

7. See Cliff Gromer, "It's a Wrap." _Popular Mechanics_, June 1998: 112-115.

8. "A 190-foot obelisk, from which lasers flash, is the equivalent of the traditional Las Vegas neon sign (Promoters claim that only two man-made objects can be seen from outer space: The Great Wall of China and Luxor's laser light). The entire Luxor setup is animated and computerized. A light show in front of the hotel focuses on a 60-foot screen of weather. As the sun goes down, the shimmering and luminescent face of King Tut appears in the air, projectd against a screen of raindrops from the fountains in front of the sphinx. Through the translucent face of the pharaoh, you can read a distant sign down the strip 'Prime Rib Buffet.'

Even the great beam and its reach skyward, consuming $1 million worth of electricity annually, suggest wider urban applications. Its designer, Zachary Taylor, foresees using this technology for forming 'a new kind of skyline created by lasers'". Phil Patton, "Now Playing in the Virtual World," _Popular Science_, April 1994: 82.

9. For a recent examination of the incredible level of debt in the United States and its impact on people, see Judilet Schor, _The Overspent American_ 1997.

10. See _Critique of Dialectical Reason_ (19xx [1960]) which contains Sartre's discussion of seriality.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Shelley Jackson TALKS WITH Vito Acconci


Vito Acconci’s extraordinary career—poetry, art, architecture: a sort of triathlon of the arts—began in the Bronx, where as an aspiring author of seven years he wrote stories about cowboys and athletes. At his Catholic college, he published sexy stuff about priests and nuns that got the school magazine banned for three issues running. He went on to write fiction in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But when he came back to New York in the early ’60s, something changed, and he began writing poems. Highly conceptual constructions, they did not tell stories, express feelings, or evoke a fictional world. They were not representational. Maybe you could call them presentational: this is a word, this is a sentence, you are reading. (“READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD READ THIS WORD NEXT READ THIS WORD NOW” is how one piece begins.) The page was a space around which the reader navigated. Words were obstacles, lures, street signs, prompts. Instead of describing the actions of a fictional character, they provoked the actions of a real one: the reader.
Before long, a page began to seem too small to contain all this movement. Poetry readings gave Acconci an opportunity to ease words out into three dimensions. On one occasion, he dealt out letters of the alphabet on tables, using them to prompt readings as he meandered through the room. But before long, with Following Piece, he had left the page behind, allowing a series of total strangers to lead him out into the city. Moving in real space meant using his own body, no longer a reader’s, and Acconci directed his attention at that body in a series of fiercely physical performances, biting himself, burning off his body hair, and most notoriously, in Seedbed, masturbating under a wooden ramp installed in the Sonnabend gallery, while fantasizing through a loudspeaker about the people walking above him. Despite the focus on the body, language played an essential role, both disclosing his activity, which would otherwise have remained private, and drawing the audience into complicity with it. Like the body, language is both utterly personal and the basic currency of public relations, and in the spoken-word monologues that accompany his later videos, Acconci plays with this paradox. Open Book, for instance, is a ten-minute, close-up video of Acconci’s wide-open mouth as he tries gamely to issue invitations to the viewer without ever closing his lips. The mouth becomes a book, but one that, precisely because it is open, cannot speak.

Later installations that combined spoken-word recordings with proto-architectural constructions brought words into closer relation to physical space and physical objects. They also brought them into closer relation to an audience. Acconci’s old interest in what readers did, alone, on the page, had become an interest in what they did, together, in a room. By sitting on a swing or a bicycle, for example, they could raise the walls of a tiny house. But that house was still stuck in a gallery, and gradually Acconci’s projects crept out of doors, into truly public space. Finally, in 1988, he formed Acconci Studio with a group of architects; collectively, they design fluid, multipurpose public buildings. Even these are tied to writing, Acconci says: every project starts with words on a page.

From the perspective of, say, his Mur Island—a floating island in Graz, Austria, that is simultaneously bridge, theater, café, and playground—Acconci’s early poems look like odd little landscapes, with corridors and columns, through which the reader can stroll. Mur Island, in turn, looks like a poem. As a writer whose own words have a way of wandering off the page, I often ask myself why writing, of all the arts, is so narrowly defined. What new books might we write, if we could learn to use objects and spaces, buildings and bodies—the way Acconci learned to make architecture from words on a page?

—Shelley Jackson

SHELLEY JACKSON: You began as a writer, moved to performance art, then architecture. I’d like to follow the traces of writing through your career, and see whether your late work could be rethought as a radically materialist practice of writing. What made you want to write?

VITO ACCONCI: I wanted to be involved with the making of some kind of parallel world. I thought, there’s no reason to go to different parts of our world, because you can write them. You can stay home, stay in a little room, and imagine all these worlds. And I wanted to do that. Why did I want to do that, I’m not sure if I can tell.

SJ: Maybe you didn’t like the world the way it was?

VA: I was relatively shy, withdrawn. But I also was a kind of student. I thought if I studied hard, I should reveal the results of this in some way. I always thought of writing as public, I never thought of writing a diary. I had been struck by, jolted by things I had read, and I wanted to do the same to others. I don’t think it ever was the notion of an autobiography; I skipped that phase totally, I think.

SJ: What writers jolted you?

VA: Faulkner, as a teenager. I was obsessed by Mallarmé. I was obsessed by this Raymond Queneau book called Exercises in Style. When I was entering graduate school, Robbe-Grillet was the writer I was most interested in. And I loved John Hawkes. Maybe I wanted to do something more like Robbe-Grillet, but I loved John Hawkes. At one time, when I was in high school and college, I loved the New Yorker and the New Yorker kind of writing, but I knew I could never do that, and I was jealous of it. Writing was always a laborious thing for me. I never wrote fluently, I never wrote fluidly, there was something very awkward in my writing. But it seemed to me purposely awkward. It’s almost as if I made the labor part of writing. This is an exaggerated example, but it would be very hard for me to write, “He went to the store.” I would find some tortured way of saying this: “The person who, the being who might be referred to as ‘he’ went through the act of going, directed toward…” I wanted a sentence to have, as part of its parameters, every possible system of cause and effect, rather than just a summary. I didn’t want a summary, I wanted to go through all the steps.

SJ: You went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a fiction writer. How did you get from wanting to make an alternate world to the kind of writing that—

VA: —was almost the opposite? Well, when I came back to New York from Iowa at the end of ’64, it was probably the first time I had seen in real life, in real space, a Jasper Johns painting. And I thought, I want to do something like that.

SJ: The inspiration crossed over from another genre.

VA: Yeah, it’s not that I wanted to do a painting, I wanted to do writing like that. What jolted me about Jasper Johns was how important it is to start with a convention, how important it is to start with what everybody knows and everybody takes for granted, whether it’s a number, an alphabet letter, a set of alphabet letters, a target… I came from the time of so-called New Criticism—the poem in itself, the writing in itself—but around that time I had come across a critic called Kenneth Burke, who wrote a book called A Rhetoric of Motives, and it seemed to talk about another way, and gradually I realized that other way was that the reader made a difference.

So the notion of a recipient—and maybe that’s related to what I said earlier, that I always thought of my writing being public. If something’s public then it seems like the important thing is the person in that public. And the notion of rhetoric. I went to Jesuit schools that focused on first there’s grammar, then there’s rhetoric, and rhetoric’s usually seen as a kind of degraded method, because you’re trying to persuade. But—I don’t know if I loved the idea of persuasion, but I loved the idea that you’re concentrating on the reader’s perception. So when I saw Johns, it clarified for me that you have to start with something that everybody knows. Then you can have any kind of little abstract expressionist brushstroke you want, because the viewer now has a ground to be on. And I wanted that. I wanted to work with conventions, and play with conventions. But thinking that, I started to think, I’m not sure if this is a means for fiction. It probably is a means for poetry. Maybe I was thinking something so simple as, if Jasper Johns has a painting that you can see in one look, well, most poems are one page, so maybe you could do something like he’s doing in painting on something that’s a page long. Probably can’t do it in something that’s 450 pages.

SJ: Those paintings of Johns’s almost collapse the gap between representation and the thing represented, because a painting of a number is also a number—

VA: Yeah, because a number is something that doesn’t exist until it’s drawn. And now, he’s drawn it.

SJ: —and it seems to me that in a lot of your early work you were trying to do the same thing with language.

VA: Exactly. I wanted it to be matter.

SJ: And that led you away from the idea of a represented world.

VA: It totally did. It was almost like a jolt. Suddenly I couldn’t write fiction anymore.

SJ: So there was this materialization of the word. But also of the page.

VA: Yes. The way Johns had a canvas, the page started to seem really important to me. I came across this [Jean-Luc] Godard statement about how making a movie is the fear of a blank screen, the fear of projection, the fear—and then just listing: the fear of every movie element. And I don’t know if I wanted or felt that about the page—

SJ: The fear of the page?

VA: Yes, the fear of its blankness. At the same time, I kind of loved it. Mallarmé was trying to make the page a blank page. But if you’re going to make the page a blank page, it’s not just the absence of something, it has to become something else. It has to be material, it has to be this thing. I wanted to turn a page into a thing.

SJ: A blank page by itself is hard to present as a work, you have to do something to it…

VA: It’s like you have to fill the page with words, and then painstakingly erase them.

SJ: That’s one way of looking at your piece that samples just the margin of the thesaurus, leaving a line of letters down the side. There’s still a residue of text, but you’re shifting the focus of attention onto the page itself.

VA: On the one hand, I was shifting the focus onto the page, on the other hand, I was starting to feel very desperate. Even though I always claimed that I didn’t want to write about something—once I wasn’t writing fiction, anyway; I think for me the change from fiction to poetry was that in fiction I was writing about something, in poetry I was writing something—I was starting to recognize a corner I was driving myself into: that all writing could do was refer to things that had already been written. I’m making the margin, but the margin of a book that already exists. I was having this exhilaration at, but at the same time horror of this recognition that I’d driven myself into the world of only books. This is a world of the previously written, and maybe I don’t have to add to it, maybe all I can do is measure it.

SJ: However, you began to think that the work included the reader and the reader’s body, and necessarily existed in a world—that you could draw the outlines of your work a little larger to include the whole situation that you were setting in motion by writing in the first place. There’s one piece where you address the reader, saying, “Notice what position you’re sitting in as you read this, notice what clothes you’re wearing. What color are your eyes?” Other pieces acknowledge not just that the readers are sitting there, but that their eyes are engaged in this loomlike movement back and forth across the page, along your lines of type. On a very small scale, it was kind of architectural—you were using words to subdivide the space and create paths that the reader could move on.

VA: It was very definitely architectural. I was using the words on the page as some kind of equivalent of a physical model. But I never thought at that point that I wanted to move toward architecture. I wanted to move toward real space. Sure, that’s probably another way of saying, I want to move toward architecture. But I didn’t define real space in terms of architecture, then.

SJ: The first movement into real space seemed to occur in your readings, which gradually became more like performances.

VA: The beginning was to make words part of the space, or to use words as a way to traverse the space, whereas before it was traversing the page. I remember a poetry reading at a place called the Longview Country Club. The piece I did involved walking from one end of the space to the other, and with each step reading a word. Walking one direction, each word is an adverb. Walking back, each step is a prepositional phrase, as a way of—was I trying to explode words in space, or was I trying to traverse space by means of words? I think there was a back and forth. On the one hand, I obviously sensed I needed to get away from the page, so I would put words into the space, yet at the same time I was probably afraid, and could only traverse the space through means of words.

SJ: Writing for the page is a way of mapping language onto space, too, just a much smaller space, eight and a half by eleven, say. You were creating a system so that you could lay out language—even though it was temporal because you were reading it out loud—in a spatial arrangement.

VA: I was always fascinated by diagramming a sentence. Because that is going into a space, going into a world of language.

SJ: What is that fascination with language turned spatial? I have it too.

VA: Is it turned spatial? That’s too simple. It’s language as a kind of structural system. A diagram of a sentence, now that seems like a kind of architectural model. I don’t know how to explain it, but it would be nice to try. Why, why this fascination?

SJ: Well, one reason I’ve worked in electronic media is that it’s always bothered me that the book has to be in sequence. Even though the individual page has a spatial arrangement, as you go through it, you’re stuck in a linear progression, while online you can create what feels more like a space that you move around in. I think for me the fascination goes back to a childhood desire to create, like you, an alternate world, one that was made out of language, but felt as much like a real place as possible.

VA: Do you think online you can get away from linearity?

SJ: You can’t in a literal sense, because you still can’t read more than one thing at a time, but you can be aware of having multiple options, which feels more like a space than a path, a plot.

VA: I became much more interested in plot when I really didn’t consider myself a writer anymore. When I was in an art context and I started to do installations, that was when writing of mine almost returned to fiction. Earlier I felt like I didn’t have anything to write about, I could only concentrate on the page, I could only concentrate on words. Once I had some kind of physical presence in the space, I could write fictionally again. Maybe because whatever I wrote was going to on the one hand coincide with what was there, but also contradict it in some way. This was the first time I had felt free to write since I was writing short stories. Because when you’re working on the page, it’s something different than writing. You’re occupying the page with words.

SJ: In your early performances, you were still interested in the materiality of language, even though you were getting away from the page. I’m thinking of the event in which someone typed sentences rather than reading them aloud. It was almost like a musical performance.

VA: You could walk around behind the typist and read the text, which was about hearing, and what you heard was the sound of the typewriter. Of course, this was a pre-electric typewriter, a typewriter that made noise.

SJ: So you were doing the same thing you had done on the page, collapsing the gap between the word and what the word is telling you about—the story is about the experience you’re actually having.

VA: At that point I wanted everything to be about itself so much that it probably never occurred to me that you could lead to another space.

SJ: But any piece of writing lures you with the promise of another space, even if ultimately it returns you to this one. So that even though you were refusing narrative, it was still there as a tension or possibility.

VA: Especially once those poetry events began, because, yeah, the stuff was still on the page, but the page was starting to spill into real space, spill into air, once you could hear it, once there was a typewriter, once there was a body of a typist, it was getting rid of the confines of the page.

Following Piece, October 3-25, 1969.
NYC, various locations. Activity. 23 Days, varying times each day.
From “Street Works IV,” Architectural League of NY.
SJ: Gradually you abandoned the page altogether. You’ve said that when you started following people you had the desire to be nobody, to let their will take over. Was that a rebellion against the authorial position?

VA: Any time you do something, you make decisions about time and space. I wanted those decisions to be out of my hands. I could be dragged, carried along by another person, I could be a receiver. I could be the agent of the overall scheme, but I didn’t want to be the agent of the particular action. I could make the ultimate decision that my space is going to change now, but I don’t know where it’s going to go.

SJ: You were erasing yourself. And then suddenly your body became the center of attention. How did that happen?

VA: Sometimes I wonder if that was a misstep, in the sense that, if it hadn’t happened, the stuff might have gotten to architecture quicker. The way I thought of pieces like Following Piece was, there’s a city out there. I attend to this city. How do I key myself into this city. How do I tie myself into this city. I can pick out people in this city to follow. I can be in a show at the Museum of Modern Art, my space in the Museum of Modern Art is my mailbox, my mail is delivered there. Whenever I want mail, I have to go through this city to get my mail… I’m using my own person in pieces, but I’m trying to turn my person into a nonperson in the sense of a person without will, without volition. I’m subjecting myself to a scheme. (Of course it’s a scheme that I imposed!)

And I thought, if I’m going to go on using my own person in pieces, maybe I have to concentrate more on person. Rather than attend to a world considered as if it’s out there, I have to start to attend to me. That led to some things that I never wanted it to lead to, person as a sort of psychological miasma. I started to get wrapped up in self, and then, for the first time, self did become an autobiographical self. I said before that maybe stuff would have gone to architecture quicker if that hadn’t happened, but in retrospect, it made me think of architecture in a way I might not have thought of it before. It made me convinced that architecture was an occasion for people, for these bundles of neuroses and fears.

Trademarks, September 1970.
Photographed activity/Ink Prints.
Photos by Bill Beckley.
SJ: You’d long since left the page by this time, but in your piece Trademark you turn yourself into a printing press. You’re biting yourself, you smear the bites with ink, printer’s ink, specifically, and then you print them on—what?

VA: Anything. I could print them on a piece of paper, I could print them on the wall, I could print them on another person’s body…

SJ: So you were the writer, you were the printing press, you were also the page…

VA: Was I the page? I bit myself, but I didn’t make a bite print on myself. I used the bite to print something else.

SJ: I thought of the bite as itself a print on the page of your body.

VA: It’s a print, but it’s not a distributable print. It’s not a distributable print until the printer’s ink is applied. This was pre-Gutenberg Bible!

SJ: When I first heard about this project I didn’t realize you made prints. I thought you were just biting yourself and making marks that way—and the mouth is the place of speech, or language—so I thought of this project as the most self-referential writing loop, like you had taken your early interest in making writing refer only to itself about as far as it could go. But at the same time—

VA: At the same time there was this urge to publish! It’s like I wanted this ultimate privacy to then publish itself, then be public.

SJ: You said once that the bite mark was like a wound, but a wound that you wanted to infect other people with. That’s a strong metaphor for writing. A complicated one, because there’s this self-inflicted violence, or maybe it’s sexual, you can’t really tell… Maybe it’s hungry!

VA: Or maybe it’s very, very lonely, and there’s nothing else to do… An oral fixation seems to be operating in that piece. It’s not that you want to touch a part of your body, you want to ingest it.

SJ: You’ve said that at the time you thought of these activities as coolly systematic, but that looking back they seem pretty psychologically motivated.

VA: It was an art time in which psychological terms had been kind of abolished, so I don’t think I knew how to think that way. I was thinking I was doing a version of minimal art, except for the fact that I was using my body. But that “except for the fact that you’re using your body” makes a big difference! I remember I did a performance at the end of 1970, and also in the performance was Kathy Dillon, the person I was living with then, and Dennis Oppenheim—we were close friends then. I’m naked from the waist up. Kathy puts on very heavy lipstick and covers the front of my body with like a million kisses. Then I go over to Dennis, who’s standing at the wall, facing the wall, also naked from the waist up, and I rub the front of my body onto his back, so transferring Kathy’s kisses to him. And I remember Dennis afterward saying, “I had no idea the work was going in this direction!” We thought this was about color transfer. Wasn’t about color transfer.

SJ: It was another printing press! But a very sexy one.

VA: Can I say I just didn’t think about it? Or I forced myself not to think about it, because this wasn’t what people were thinking of as art then?

SJ: Well, in your writing you had refused the idea of expressing your feelings, or expressing yourself, so why would you want to do that in art?

VA: Exactly. When I was writing notes about those pieces they were all in the language of systems theory. I was trying to take a body, which is a kind of unbridled thing, and—was I trying to bridle it, into this system?—I’m not quite sure, but the interesting thing was that it couldn’t be bridled. After a while I had to face the fact that a person isn’t just a body, a person is a thinking, feeling, confused, worried, nervous, fearful being.

Seedbed, January 1972.
Sonnabend Gallery, New York. Performance/installation.
9 days, 8 hours a day, during a 3-week exhibition. Wood ramp 2' X 22' x 30.'
SJ: Let’s talk about Seedbed. How did Roget’s Thesaurus get you masturbating?

VA: I had done a number of performances in which when a person enters, I’m there, and I thought, there’s something wrong with that. I don’t want to be the prime point in the space. I wanted to be somewhere where I blended with the space. I could be behind the wall, I could be above the ceiling, I could be under the floor. Above the ceiling seemed wrong, because I would be too far above people. Behind the wall seemed possible, because I could be next to people, but I would only be next to people who were near that wall. What about a person who was in the center of the room, what about a person who was near another wall? Under the floor seemed to be the most fertile, because I could move under the floor, therefore I would be relatively coincident with viewers’ feet. Ideally we would have gone to the gallery downstairs from Sonnabend’s, which was Castelli’s, and I would make a false floor. Couldn’t be done. They were very low ceilings, nine feet or so, so I had to make a kind of ramp, and I would be under the ramp. But it still wasn’t clear to me at all what I would be doing there. I knew what my position should be in relation to viewers, but something has to come from my position, under the floor, to viewers’ position on the top of the floor.

So I’m stuck, and Roget’s Thesaurus sometimes is a kind of guide because it takes you from one word to another word that you might not have even known you were looking for. It’s—I don’t know if I can say it’s an idea-structuring system, but it’s an idea-loosening system. So I look up floor. Floor took me to expected words like structure, land, undercurrent. And then took me to the word, seedbed. Seedbed then clarified it that, OK, under the floor I could be making this seedbed, this bed of seed. How do I make the bed of seed? By masturbating. But it was important that the viewers have to, not necessarily know that I’m masturbating, but they have to hear me. Masturbating under the floor is a private activity. Moving around under the space where people are walking, concentrating on viewers’ footsteps, and using the footsteps as an impetus to a sexual fantasy, that maybe turns the private into public. I depend on you to be walking, so I can fantasize about you.

SJ: Could you find it sexy?

VA: It was more of a performance. It was like, this is my job, this is what I have to do.

SJ: Did you ever think, what kind of weirdo am I, masturbating under this floor?

VA: The first time I did it I thought, I can’t go through with this. But after a while, you have some fantasies, you’re masturbating, you come, and you think, well, I can’t turn back now!

SJ: How often did you do it?

VA: It was for a show that lasted three weeks, three days a week. Three days a week, for three weeks, so nine days, from ten to six, opening time of the gallery to closing time—that was important.

SJ: Ten to six, you were masturbating the entire time?

VA: I tried! I’m not saying every second, but the goal was, if I come, I just start doing it again, no time out. I did try to have a fantasy all the time. I thought maybe this would be difficult, and I remember bringing some pornlike magazines down, but then realizing, I can’t see a thing here, who am I kidding?

SJ: Is it a stretch for me to see the ramp as something like a page—or maybe more like a desk, actually, a slanted school desk—where you’re not present at all as figure, you’re all ground?

VA: You’re right. I obviously didn’t want to be figure, I wanted to be ground. And that was one of the reasons I had to move around. If this was a field, I had to traverse the field.

SJ: Male sexuality is supposed to be this directed and centralized thing and you’ve turned yourself into a fertile field, which is—

VA: —what the female is supposed to be. Yeah, that was important, a lot of that work occurred during the first feminist writings I was aware of. On the one hand I was trying to almost play this ultimate cartoon version of the male, but also to make it explode. I was under, I wasn’t on top.

SJ: It was unclear whether you were sexual predator or vulnerable object.

VA: Which is probably one of the reasons for even earlier stuff, like Following Piece. Of course I as artist am the agent, but can I be a receiver? I wanted that other side.

SJ: So if the Seedbed is the ground, do you think that the audience becomes the figure, or do you think they remain in the viewer position?

VA: It was becoming clearer and clearer to me that I didn’t want a viewer, I wanted a participant, or at least an interactive agent. I wanted there to be some transaction between me and you, particular viewer. But the thing that made the project possible, that I’m under the floor, also made that interactive activity impossible. I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me, they didn’t know exactly where I was, I didn’t know…

SJ: So you started doing public art.

VA: Seedbed was a kind of beginning of architecture. But I didn’t realize it at the time, so for me it was the beginning of installations. The way I thought of installations, they would be places for people. A long table that people could sit around, my voice on audio addressing people, treating a gallery or museum as if it was a town square, as if it was a public space. But by the mid-’70s, I was convinced that the stuff shouldn’t be art anymore. I’m trying to pretend the gallery or museum is a public space. It’s not. I’ve got to find some way to get to public space.

Mur Island, Graz, Austria, 2003.
Steel, glass, rubber, asphalt, water, light 10,310 sq. ft.
Acconci Studio (Vito Acconci, Dario Nunez,
Stephen Roe, Peter Dorsey, Thomas Siegl, Gia Wolff).
Engineers: Zenckner & Handl; Kurt Kratzer Contractors: SFL.
SJ: In moving to architecture you created a much simpler solution to the problem of dissolving yourself as the prime figure. A lot of people might reject this idea, including you, but it’s interesting to me to think of one of your constructions as a piece of writing, one in which the material dimension, which is always there in anything you read, has overwhelmed the textual dimension.

VA: I don’t know if I can reject that. When I have a starting point for a project, it’s words, it’s not a drawing. They might not be very definitive words, but they’re words that act as a kind of impetus. After the starting point, it’s very much back and forth, but everybody else in the studio uses much more graphic means than I do. It’s not that I never make sketches, but my sketches are unreadable without words. I can’t even say, I use words to define my place in this project. I don’t really have a choice.

SJ: But it even seems to me that you think of the completed project as having parts that function like a piece of writing, as having paragraphs, for example.

VA: The difference might be like how maybe writing electronically is different than writing on a page: They might be paragraphs, but they could be simultaneous, or one within the other, rather than this paragraph, then this one, then this one, then this one. They’re hopefully allowing for a variety of different kinds of movements and actions through a space. Are we setting up a space as a kind of very big page? Maybe it’s a page that already has sentences, but now the reader can go from the first sentence way up there, can go on a diagonal down here… I don’t know if I would want to say now that I’m a writer, but I certainly want to admit that I think primarily, for better or worse, in terms of writing. Sometimes it worries me because I think, well, is all this there just to demonstrate or illustrate a piece of writing?

SJ: Demonstrate or illustrate, that sounds too reductive. All your texts perpetually undermine themselves and offer alternate ways of looking at the situation. If your constructions are built on a foundation of writing, it’s a very shifty foundation.

VA: Yeah, writing is a very, very watery thing. It can seem very definite, but it’s very… cloudy.

SJ: A lot of your architectural works do seem to be kind of suspended or floating… flying carpet-like.

VA: But sometimes it seems like, why waste the energy? You can probably suggest more possibilities in writing than you can when something’s physical. Doesn’t this physical presence necessarily imply, this is the way it is, this is a fact, whereas writing is constant potential? You can describe facts, but everybody can read those facts in a very different way. When they see it in real space, well! They’re fixed.

SJ: Yeah, but even in real space people interpret them in their own way. You can’t predict how your constructions will be used. They’re open to reading. To the users’ choice.

VA: I hope it’s choice. One thing I am obsessed by is to give viewers choices. Not to have only one entry, only one kind of path. Spin-offs are important. Spin-offs are like parenthetical phrases. There seems to be this main sentence, but then there are parentheses… I’m sure this idea started for me with writing. That’s why I loved Faulkner. There’s always a parenthesis, there’s always something that stops that sentence from going to its goal that is a period.

SJ: You could even think of that alternate world you wanted to create as a parenthetical world within our normal world.

VA: Exactly. When we do a project, this is this parenthesis. The rest of the sentence of the world still exists, but we make this parenthesis within it. Then maybe sometimes you start the parenthesis, but you forget to end it, and the clause instills itself into the real world.

SJ: So you’re still making alternate worlds.

VA: We are. Definitely. And probably more clearly now than before. We don’t know what a future space is going to be, but we want to at least try to anticipate it. We want to design a space that, ideally—though I don’t think we do this, I hope we just don’t do this yet—couldn’t have been built, couldn’t have been designed, couldn’t even have been imagined before the twenty-first century. No, we haven’t lived up to that, but I think that’s the only real choice for architecture. It should give you a possibility of a future.

Shelley Jackson is the author of Half Life, The Melancholy of Anatomy, hypertexts including the classic Patchwork Girl, two children’s books, and Skin, a story published in tattoos on 2,095 volunteers, one word at a time. She lives in Brooklyn and at

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