Saturday, May 24, 2008

Stewart Home Interview, Mikkel Bolt


BOLT: It seems to be a recurrent aspect of your work to disappoint the audience, to frustrate them – making it difficult to know exactly what is going on? It is difficult to know whether you are presenting yourself as an artist, an art historian, an anarchist or underground agitator – it is always difficult to know from what position you are addressing the audience, it always seems as if you are changing positions and thereby making it very difficult to pin down the 'meaning' and intention of the particular project. Your book The Assault on Culture is an example of this – on the one hand it comes of as an attempt to present an 'alternative' avant-garde stretching from the Cobra movement to Neoism and Class War, on the other hand you never miss an opportunity to point out that the book was written in order to make space for Neoism within the traditional history of the avant-garde.

HOME: I think what I’m about is an overflowing of all capitalist canalisation. When Marx first laid out historical materialism in The German Ideology, he wrote about communism enabling one to be a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon and a critical critic at night; of course being a vegetarian, I'd rather be an egotist in the morning (shades of Saint Max here, the main target Marx is tilting against in The German Ideology), a porn star in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night. The point, of course, is that its ridiculous to reduce (wo)man to one thing, to one function, and that this is one facet of the alienation we're struggling against. Life shouldn't be about repeating the same gesture endlessly regardless of whether it is as a factory worker or an 'intellectual'. To regain our humanity, we must live out all the aspects of what it is to be human, intellectual, emotional, physical, and live them as one (this is precisely what the old avant-garde slogan 'poetry must be made by all and not by one' meant, poetry must be made by all the senses and all the people collectively, it should be an overflowing beyond poetry). So one tries to act and create in a revolutionary fashion, and since truth is never one-sided this is dialectical too.

I am not trying to present myself as any one thing, but to be all things as far as possible in an alienated and fragmented world. The disappointment comes from elsewhere, since we all reproduce our own alienation in capitalist societies, it is never possible to overflow unrestrainedly in this bourgeois shitheap. All of anarchism can be found in the idea that it is possible to live differently in this world, and I am most definitely not an anarchist. So The Assault on Culture, can be viewed as a presentation of the post-war 'avant-garde', or an attempt to make space for Neoism within an (anti)-'traditional' her-story of the avant-garde, but it is rather better to view it as both. It is a practical demonstration of how the avant-garde (like the capitalist establishment, but for different reasons and in different ways) manipulates history, and since this is a trait of the avant-garde, doing so as a 'former' 'leading' member of the Neoist Network allows me to claim and make space for Neoism within the avant-garde. There is no real beginning or end to Neoism, it goes on and on… Almost forever…

BOLT: The attempt to frustrate the audience has been a constant feature of the avant-garde since dada. In a certain sense it is through this destruction of the audience that the avant-garde's paradoxical understanding of art becomes evident: art contains a special potential but only insofar as art is realised in everyday life, insofar as art is no longer art. This understanding of art was evident in the situationists group who on the one hand tried to activate the audience in, for example, the exhibition Destruction of RSG-6 in 1963 where the audience was supposed to fire rifles at images of politicians like de Gaulle. Kennedy and Krustjov. On the other hand the situationists always insisted that the 'real' situationist audience was never to be found in a gallery the 'real' (read self-critical) audience was already engaged in revolutionary activities out in the streets. You also have a long and complicated relationship between working-class theoreticians and art, where art is often looked upon as a mere illusion that makes it possible for the bourgeois to present himself as equipped with freedom. How did the Neoist group or how did your version of Neoism try to reconfigure this complicated attitude towards on the one hand art and on the other the audience?

HOME: I think you have to accept that Neoism was no more coherent as a 'movement' than dada, these are names that like fluxus or lettrrism have been pushed and shoved in endless directions. From this perspective the recent Dada exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris was particularly hilarious. One is presented with a range of work that is in no way coherent. To take just the political aspect, Julius Evola is presented as the leading representative of dada in Italy without any mention being made of the fact that he was always a reactionary and went on to become the leading European fascist 'theorist' of the post-war period, the so called 'Marcuse of the (far)-Right', the 'intellectual' Godfather of the 'political soliders' of the Third Position; on the other hand there is a single framed copy of the council communist magazine Die Action among a collection of dada publications, this was a revolutionary journal that bought together the communist left with the Berlin dadaists, who being the most revolutionary members of the movement necessarily made the best 'anti-works'. That said, the bourgeois minds who conceived the Pompidou exhibition have done better than one might expect in presenting the movement, but they baulk at attempting to deal with its politics. For these liberals hacks the dominant cultural history is a snow drift in which all their sacred cows are whiter than white.

Moving on, there is a danger in the way you frame this question of ending up perceiving all avant-gardes as seeking the realisation of art in life, which on the one hand is something that emerges from the theorising of critics such as Peter Berger and on the other, is something that just might be found in the movements he is writing about in Theory of the Avant-Garde, viz dada and surrealism. Berger wrote about a desire to integrate art and life, sections of the situationist movement (those grouped around Debord and Paris after 1962) propagandised for the simultaneous realisation and suppression of art. These varied positions are reflected in the attitudes of different sections of the Neoist movement. Some former Neoists would even claim that Neoism wasn’t an avant-garde movement at all, but then that's also a typically avant-garde manipulation. So I think some Neoists could be viewed as attempting to integrate art and life (Pete Horobin, Istvan Kantor) and others to realise and suppress, or at least suppress it, and the stress should very much be on suppressing art (tentatively a convenience). Other Neoists, and in particular Blaster Al Ackerman (who is an absolutely key figure), weren't so much interested in addressing the status of art in capitalist societies, as meeting sex partners who were 'dirty and under thirty'. It is not for nothing that the Berlin Apartment Festival was redubbed The Syphilis Festival by a number of its participants, who - it is perhaps superfluous to add - all caught the clap. Likewise, when the Neoists said dirty, they meant dirty, since a perversion heavily favoured by a number of them was snot sex, which entailed nose blowing with mucus rubbed all over the body prior to penetrative sex. Because of such interests, The Syphilis Festival was considered a major disaster, the antibiotics used to clear up the clap simultaneously relieved a number of Neoists of their almost permanent colds. It was, undoubtedly, the beginning of the end for Neoism since without mucus lubrication many Neoists found it impossible to rub along with each other.

However, to return to the question immediately in hand, my own position is, of course, that capitalism provides the material conditions for art and German idealism supplies it with its theoretical justification. Drawing on the same philosophical sources, Marx concluded that human activity constitutes reality through its praxis, truth is process, the process of self-development. Since it is shackled by commodification, artistic practice is necessarily a deformation of the sensuous unfolding of the self that will be possible once we’ve attained real human community. The goal of communism is to overcome the reification of human activity into separate realms such as work and play, the aesthetic and the political. Communism will rescue the aesthetic from the prison of art and place it at the centre of life. While art as we know it continues to exist, it would be ridiculous to expect those seeking its abolition not to engage in and with it. However, progressive artists must always keep in sight the fact that their role of specialist non-specialists must be abolished. Therefore their cultural strategy in this transitional period must be to automonise the negative within artistic practice. We must live out the death of the avant-garde not just in theory, but also in practice, just as we will live out the death of politics as a separate sphere. What artists and politicos must seek is the abolition of those things that most engage them, so that a great tidal wave of humanity can fuse together and swamp capitalist canalisation in a revolutionary overflowing. This flood tide will necessarily originate both within and utterly outside the gallery. Since capitalist reification exists everywhere, we can fight it everywhere; we all reproduce our own alienation, including and especially artists. There is no 'outside' to the capitalist world, only the necessity of moving beyond it.

For the Neoists, as they endlessly reinvented what they were and represented, the question of audience really wasn't an issue. At Apartment Festivals and elsewhere, the Neoists themselves provided the audience for each other's work. Performances were meticulously (or sometimes sloppily and carelessly) documented, for if there was to be an audience in terms of passive spectators, then such drones did not yet exist and would be called forth from (and in) the future (but only so that they might be simultaneously transformed into actors on the theatre of the world). The assumption being that anyone present at Neoist events was a participant, someone who joined in (as would those who took an interest in its his and her-story). So even now, in retrospect, it is still possible to actively engage in Neoism, by manipulating its history. In my book The House of Nine Squares, you can see Florian Cramer and me doing this in our exchanges with each other. I think this constant rethinking of Neoism is important, and Florian played a major role in it. I've found his insistence on stressing Neoism's immersion in occult discourse particularly useful.

BOLT: How intentional was the attempt to transform the Neoist activities into an avant-garde? Some critics seems to read your attempt as an ironic gesture whereby the logic and self-understanding of the avant-garde is ridiculed, while other critics read the packaging as a more straightforward attempt to reconstruct a post-modern avant-garde.

HOME: After the fact it didn't much matter what was done with Neoism. As far as I am concerned Neoism was finished by the end of 1986, the 64th Neoist Apartment Festival in Berlin being its last hurrah. What interested me after this was its half-life, which I wanted to use to irradiate culture. So by the time I came to write The Assault on Culture in 1987 (it was first published the following year), Neoism wasn't ripe, it was rotten. I felt its putrid corpse was something that might very well stink up the institution of art, so I wanted to make it simultaneously attractive and repulsive to some of those in positions of cultural power. My intentions were simultaneously ironic and deadly serious. I wanted to see if this wreck could be dragged into the academy as a post-modern Trojan Horse. I also wished to have the pleasure of seeing a certain kind of purist ranting about Neoism in a museum, how disgraceful! By stressing the process of historicisation within my manipulation of Neoism, I hoped to make it harder for the institution of art to assimilate this tendency, precisely by ironising what were previously perhaps almost unspoken aspects of avant-garde activity, to ridicule and destroy the logic and self-understanding of the avant-garde; i.e. to make it live out its own death in practice as well as in the less mordant realm of theory. This was and remains, however, a high risk strategy, since capitalist culture has become so debased that those critics who mistake these clincially administered death spasms as an attempt to reconstruct the avant-garde in post-modern garb (i.e. to revive art by making it somehow 'relevant') are now treated as serious contenders in the race for intellectual credibility. Should they succeed in foisting such interpretations upon the academy, they naturally enough run the risk of being exposed as the theoretical-cum-practical necrophiliacs they undoubtedly are. As Breton might have said had he managed some form of rapprochement with Bataille: 'death will be convulsive or it will not be at all.' The old Neoist slogan 'convulsion, subversion, defection' might almost also be taken as having something to do with this. Art no longer has anything to say, if it ever did (i.e. prior to 1914).

All of this is satirised in my novel Slow Death, which addressed in the form of fiction the historicisation of Neoism before it had really occurred, and was quite consciously intended to make such historicisation more difficult for anyone who wanted to carry it through. In the nineties when I wrote Slow Death, and even recently, I have championed the notion of 'Proletarian Post-Modernism', which was a way of broadening matters out, and drawing in among other things trash film (trash that is, if this is a suitable form of description for productions as diverse as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Persona). So we might rephrase your question in the following terms: can the academy recuperate laughter? Or rather, by providing a means by which those operating within the acadaemy but critical of it, might smuggle something radically humorous (or at least human) into overly rarified institutions, am I not providing them with an opportunity to subvert the academy from within? Or to put it another way, Neoism functions best when it is used to generate questions rather than provide answers.

BOLT: In retrospect the 80s comes over as a period characterised by the return to power of different conservative or neo-liberal political projects like Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl, in a Marxist jargon we could call it a counter-revolutionary move after the experiments of the 60s and 70s: May’68, the different student movements, the feminist movement, punk, Autonomia, etc. Much of the art produced in the 80s seemed very ambivalent towards this historical development: on the one hand you had the return to painting (in different version from Art & Language through the Italian painters to Schnabel in the States) and sculpture (Gormley, etc)), in the middle you had the so-called post-modern appropriation art of Sherman, Prince and Levine and on the other hand you had activities like ACT UP, Group Material and different community based projects that focused on specific political problems. Where does Neoism fit into this picture?

HOME: I don’t entirely agree with your respective characterisations of the sixties and eighties. In many ways what Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl etc, represented was a continuation of the dominant strand of libertarianism within the sixties counterculture. A lot of what passed as leftist in the sixties was in fact extremely right-wing. The yippies, for example, were completely gung ho about going and exploiting people from outside the overdeveloped world, and you only have to read what Abbie Hoffman in Steal This Book has to say about stocking up on American consumer goods to resell in Mexico to realise what exploitative scum these people actually were. What much of the sixties counterculture was about was so called 'free trade' (or more accurately neo-imperialism), which was why 'hipsters' were attracted to so called 'guerilla capitalism' in the form of drug dealing, or in the case of a perhaps not surprisingly large number of 'hippie chicks' prostitution. All of anarchism could be found in their conception of living differently in this world, and while many of those from this milieu tried to disguise their real positions with some incoherent Marxist jargon (most usually of a Maoist, or at least a Bolshevik stripe, so even the source for this rhetoric was counterrevolutionary), they were at base anarcho-capitalists. Thatcherism and Reaganism were a continuation of this, and while the largely rhetorical opposition of many eighties conservatives to a free trade in drugs was blatantly hypocritical, they understood that keeping certain substances illegal was the best way to maximise both profits and their at times deleterious effects on the working class. Likewise if one is to take the feminist movment en bloc, and while remembering that there was much that was useful within it, it remains nevertheless highly ambivalent, with large sections of it caught up in bourgeois puritanism over sex and pornography. Punk, it should go without saying, is even more problematic.
The institution of art is, of course, the cultural arm of the bourgeoisie, so while many artists may want to 'appear' 'critical', the majority feel highly ambivalent about dealing seriously with political issues (and this was as true in the sixties as it was in the eighties) since doing so not only potentially jeopardised their careers if art collectors disliked their political posing, they also ran the risk of further exposing themselves as the reactionary poodles they'd always been. Of course, the understanding of the average artist is so deformed that it is unlikely that they were consciously capable of comprehending or articulating this, but most would have grasped the consequences intuitively. That said, many of those who involved themselves with Neoism were as intellectually confused and challenged as the average gallery artist, but the Neoists taken en bloc were 'genuine' cultural fuck-offs with little to no interest in making money from selling art. This is why there is no real Neoist painting to speak of; although obviously there are odd paintings ranging from the deliberately atrocious and self-consciously worthless garbage produced by Istvan Kantor under the rubric of'‘blood paintings' to Pete Horobin's far more competent, albeit very occasional, canvases. If you look at Neoism prior to my involvement, it was totally divorced from ideas of post-modern appropriation (my notion of plagiarism operated slightly differently, more like 'situationist' detournement), and so up to 1984 it tended to be grounded in classically avant-garde and romantic notions of originality and participation. Something the more infantile of the Neoists stressed, most notably Istvan Kantor, was the need for a total revolution (although very few of us could conflate the terms revolution and tantrum as seamlessly as Kantor). In contrast, while one could feel a certain sympathy for some of the work done by the groups campaigning on single issues, precisely because of their acceptance of such canalisation they needed to overflow the boundaries they'd set up for themselves in order to become revolutionary. The naivety of Neoism, particularly early on, was its strength.
Neoism was a continuation through an almost self-conscious degeneration of the more radical currents that flowed out of fluxus in particular, but filtered through mail art and punk. It was this anarchronistic quality, this absurd belief in the revolutionary potentialities of an underground art, that made Neoism cultural dynamite. The Neoists remained ahead of the pack, avant-garde, a damp squib the world wasn't yet ready for, precisely because they were on the one hand completely anarchronistic, but on the other rushing to embrace newer mediums such as video and computers. Mail art, and in particularly Neoism which emerged from mail art but with a sharper focus, was an important precursor to the web. Likewise it is important to remember that it was the French Canadian Neoists who were the first to make and spread computer viruses on a large scale, Precisely because the Neoists reversed so recklessly into the future, they were able to drag in their wake some otherwise forgotten (in the art world at least) subversive potentialities from the past, including a belief in totality and the dematerialisation of the art object, and even in some cases in the death of art. Neoism doesn't fit into your picture of the eighties art world, it belongs to absolute elsewhere, the utopia of learning about life by fucking death in the gall bladder. It has more in common with the cultural anti-productions of the sixties or even the twenties, than with the eighties art world.

BOLT: What was the connection between the Neoist activities and the Art Strike?

HOME: The Art Strike was a means of articulating some of the more radical aspects of Neoist practice, but at the same time self-consciously articulating aspects of a critique that up to that point had largely remained unspoken; thus it was also a means of negating Neoism. Most of those involved with the Art Strike (for example Steve Perkins, Aaron Noble, Scott McLeod, Tony Lowes) had not been involved with Neoism. The obvious exceptions were me - but I’d broken with Neoism, and announced the Art Strike immediately afterwards – and John Berndt (whose involvement in both Neoism and the Art Strike is more ambiguous). The Art Strike was among other things a means of virally infecting Neoism, it speeded up the death of the movement (and I wanted to kill it so that newer, younger, more radically iconoclastic and ironic pseudo-avant-gardes might emerge in and through its wake; i.e. the avant-garde practice of living out one's own death), while simultaneously ensuring that retrospectively Neoism would be (mis)read through the prism of my own activities. I came to Neoism with an interest in fusing situationist legacies (among other things, but also Auto-Destructive Art) with that of fluxus; prior to this there was little interest in the situationists among the Neoists, the lineage up to my involvement clearly came through mail art and fluxus, from were it flowed back into the avant-gardes of the earlier part of the twentieth-century, most obviously futurism and dada, with a dash of surrealism added for good measure.

BOLT: In the foreword to the Polish edition of The Assault on Culture you mention different projects that could be seen as continuations of the projects that you write about. Looking back what projects and activities would you include if you were to write an 'updated' version of the book?

HOME: I think my problem with that book now is the disjunction between the chapters dealing with the situationists and fluxus. Once could tie these things together more tightly by looking more closely at both the 2nd Situationist International, and dealing extensively with Alex Trocchi's Project Sigma. That said, I am well aware that the former all too often ended up degenerating into anarchism, while Trocchi's cultural activities were ultimately eclipsed by his drug scamming. Today I think I would ignore Class War, a movement that continued to degenerate to the point where its decomposition might be likened to the collapse of time and space inside a black hole, and instead concentrate on some of the projects that emerged in the 90s and which very self-consciously fused different (post) avant-garde practices in a deliberately ironic manner; viz Manchester Area Psychogeographic, Workshop for a Non-Linear Architecture, Luther Blissett Project etc.

BOLT: Could you please explain the different splits that occurred in the Neoist Network and also talk a bit about the Neoist Alliance? In retrospect the Neoist Alliance seems more connected to different 90s projects like AAA, London Psychogeographical Association, Decadent Action, etc than to the Neoism of the 80s? The use of occult references seems more massive in the later projects than in the first round of Neoist activities.

HOME: Different people split at different times from the Neoist Network. For example, Peter Below sometime before me, but all that really happened with him was he fell out with Istvan Kantor. Mostly it wasn't even a case of splits, it was more entropic, people simply drifted apart, gave up, moved on to something else (for example Graf Haufen became a successful businessman in Berlin, running the Videodrome stores that rented and sold cult films). Since I was trying to ironise the avant-garde, my own split was overly self-conscious and ridiculous. So in 1985 I broke with Neoism (or at least Istvan Kantor, I remained on good terms with most of the other Neoists, and worked closely with Pete Horobin and to a lesser extent John Berndt). After 1986 the Neoist Network simply became less active, it just came to a natural end. Some people might place the date for this end a bit later, after all there was a so called Millionth Apartment Festival in New York, covered by C. Carr in the Village Voice. But relations between participants in Neoism loosened of their own accord, or else interactions were less frequently carried out under the rubric of Neoism. Naturally, Istvan Kantor carried on using the name, but there was no longer any real network or sense of community, so whatever half-life Neoism retained as an active current consisted principally of nostalgia. Those who took part in the recent resurrections of the Neoist Apartment Festival in Germany and Hungary were self-evidently old men who have yet to move on from the follies of their youth. It is best to leave 'active' Neoism to these buffoons, since they excel at dragging Neoism through the mud, and while they have a dirty and unfulfilling job, someone has to do it in order to repel the semi-sophisticated breed of art historian, and thereby prevent the 'movement' being misrepresented as some sort of monolith.

The Neoist Alliance by way of contrast was a rather more self-conscious joke, a deliberate choice of name that sounded like the old Neoism but had nothing to do with it. This was when a lot of people were putting together 'groups' in London that only really had one member – which was our way of dealing with the question of organisation within the revolutionary communist movement (something that actually still requires proper, as opposed to this merely humorous, resolution). So everyone would have their own group, and we'd each join in whatever activities the other groups were engaged with if we felt in sympathy with them. We were drawing on the legacy of the occult within the avant-garde (most obviously in surrealism), not only to ironise both 'discourses', but simultaneously to make our activities and those of certain precursors unattractive to academic hacks. Many of those who work in universities, and particularly those (and there are many) who are intellectually and practically incompetent, find the occult intolerable, so putting it to use to banish the avant-garde was our way of creating unacceptable theories, discourses and activities. The Neoist Alliance was simply a project of mine active in the mid to late nineties which sowed discord and spread confusion. Beyond the fact that I was a 'former' Neoist, it had no connection to the old Neoist Network of the eighties.

An email interview for a Danish publication that looks like it was done around 2005 (really I should keep better records).

Above copied from:

An Interview with Bern Porter, Mark Bloch

circa 1985

Bernard Harden Porter (1911 - 2004) died Monday, June 7. He was a fascinating man. Before WWII, he worked as a physicist on cathrode ray tube technology that led to the creation of television. When the U.S. entered the war, Bern was drafted for uranium separation work on the Manhattan Project with Albert Einstein, a job he quit after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Next, Bern Porter was the first U.S. publisher of Henry Miller. He published Miller's anti-war tract, "Murder the Murderers" and also actively promoted and published other writers such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Anais Nin under his own imprint Bern Porter Books. He was also an early correspondent with Ray Johnson and urged Ray to collaborate with him on a project for a Russian publisher that was never realized. At the same time he published others, he developed his own art that incorporated found poetry, sound poetry, mail art and performance art among other art forms. Porter remained an advocate of self-publishing throughout his life.

Porter worked again as a physicist on NASA's Saturn V manned space project and while working on the integration of science and art, he formally developed his "Sciart Mainfesto" in 1950. He later founded the Institute for Advanced Thinking in Maine, a headquarters for his network of non-academic scholars in various arts. Among other things, the Institute had a Wilhelm Reich Orgone Accumulator on the premises. He lived in Maine until his death of natural causes June 7, 2004, the day after Ronald Reagan died. He probably would have found this coincidence annoying, or perhaps amusing. I do distinctly remember his opening a New York City lecture and discussion in the mid-eighties by chanting ritualistically, "Hail Nancy Reagan. Hail Nancy Reagan."

It may have been during that visit of his to Manhattan that I had a chance to sit down with Bern in the kitchen of our mutual friend Carlo Pittore for a taped discussion about mail art. His strategies for world peace were quite interesting then and perhaps even moreso now. Either way, he was an amazing person and the world will miss him and his unique point of view a great deal. His official website can be found at

So here is our interview, which I present as a tribute to him. I am not sure when it took place. Some time in 1984 or 85.

Mark Bloch- So tell me, Bern, how's New York?

Bern Porter- I find it almost as repulsive as it's ever been. It's noisy, it's crowded, the streets are lined with garbage, buildings are in need of restoration, the people are ...well, people, I guess you'd say.

MB- Do you like people in general?

Bern- Well its possible I would like to see a miracle in biology and see better, stronger, wholesome, more enlightened, people born. I'm looking for a new person, in other words, to be created, biologically.

MB- I was looking at this interview that you did with Phil Nurenberg. You've certainly known a lot of interesting people over the years. Gertrude Stein, Kenneth Patchen, Einstein, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Werner von Braun, Anais Nin, Henry Miller. What do all these people have in common, if anything?

Bern- They were, are, pioneers in producing. And their work is such that has never been created before. They made breakthroughs and were adventuresome in their explorations. They were not afraid to oppose tradition or society; they were referred to as controversial because they rebelled. Without them we would be stagnant and pretty much behind the eight ball. I came in contact with them because I was in the publishing business, I sought them or vice versa.

MB- In 1983, I sent out an open call for the Last Mail Art Show and I have extended the deadline indefinitely because so many people are giving such interesting answers on the topic of mail art being over with.

Bern- I'm delighted to hear you started in 83 and you haven't finished because this is a continuing phenomenon and there will be no one, in my opinion, who will be in the position to say The Last Mail Art Show. Unless you are a satirist and making fun of the whole thing. It's very unfortunate to get out any suggestion that it has come to the end. The reason is quite clear that even those who practice it don't even know what it is. The quality of the items they submit is not up to their best and the total realization of what this is, is not known to the masses.

We were at 57th Street last night and saw 200 people, if you asked those 200 people, "What is Mail Art?", I would be surprised if there would be more than four who could even tell you anything about it.

So we have a long way to go with a very powerful tool. And it's not possible for you or anyone to sit around and say The Last Mail Art Show, unless you're making fun of the whole thing.

MB- Do you think that public awareness has something to do with our efforts coming to fruition, or is it just for us?

Bern- The first thing you have to realize is that this is an underground movement and its success depends on it being underground. But it's success also requires that a very substantial majority know about it and know where it is and what it's doing. To my knowledge that's not true. We are a very select people throughout the world, not more than 600 in number. Our number should be considerably more than 600. On the other hand, it's very interesting that 600 may just be enough to carry on with what we are doing. So I'm not happy with the following:

Number one, how few people know about what we're doing.

Number two, how few of us who are doing it understand what it is we are doing.

And three, that the quality of our work is not much more improved.

So in effect I'm saying if you feel that it's ending, it's because of the inferiority -that the practitioners are falling down along with our responsibility. And the masses are unaware, continuing to be unaware, of our worth.

MB- And what is our worth?

Bern- Well it happens that on the top layer the media of newspapers, radio, television and books create a screen of fear, doubt and misunderstanding, and all of this has to be broken.

MB- And how can it be broken?

Bern- The only way it can be broken is by people touching one another.

MB- On what level?

Bern-The only way I know of is through the world network of practitioners like ourselves. So, we still have a long way to go.

MB- Do you know what we're doing?

Bern- Not really, and the reason I don't know what we're doing is that, unlike most of you, I am in touch by personal visits ... I have more than personal contact, I have meetings face-to-face in exotic parts of the world, I find it difficult to answer your question because in each part of the world that I go, the people that I encounter are flavored by their own background, their own native tradition, their native myths. The universal aspect of combining these national views which are now regional, into a universal language is still to come. And I must point out that, so far, this is a universal thing. it just hasn't come to its full fruition.

MB- So, are you talking about things that we have in common as a sort of lowest common denominator, or celebrating the differences between people? What do you think it would take to get us all on the same wavelength, or are we already on the same wavelength?

Bern- Well, 600 of us in about 40 countries are already on the same wavelength, I should be elated about this instead of making disparaging remarks, because the 600 of us can in effect save the world. If we could somehow only get over our regionalism.

For example, some mail artists in Sri Lanka are influenced by their incredible background of forty thousand years of civilization. Where as the mail artists in Manhattan are hampered by the fact that they are only 350 years old. The mail artists of Malaysia and those of Manhattan do have a common objective, that is, of touching one another, reaching one another and saying something to one another. This is highly desirable.

The time has come to clarify the atmosphere, to clarify world confusion, doubt, fear, and violence. That's why we are essentially an underground movement and as such are extremely valuable. Maybe if we came to the surfaces then maybe we would fail.

MB-Yes, isn't there that danger of reaching a lot of people, or gaining public acceptance, mass attention?

Bern- There is a danger, but there is also a danger of being totally underground. There's a happy medium however, that I'm in favor of. I insist that the quality of the items we send must be better. If you feel we are coming to a close, it's because the quality of the things we are sending is inferior to our best. When you send out an item, it should be the very best that you can produce.

MB- What if people just don't have the time to produce quality work?

Bern- In that case they should not assume that they are part of the network. You either produce your best or get out.

MB- The obstacle that we're all up against, the reason that we're trying to "save the world" is because there are obviously some problems with it. And a lot of these problems dictate that people just can't spend a lot of their time making personal objects to send to individuals that they've never met. Especially when they are trying to reach out to 600 people or any portion thereof.

Bern- It behooves us to think about it more seriously than we do. My complaint is that while it's true that we're doing a fantastic job, and we have great potential, I think that we're falling down.

Even you. You made the remark that this is the Last Mail Art Show. I think that our future has just begun. There are groups all over the world working on all matters of issues. It's interesting that the mail artist has the advantage over all of them. Some miners, for example, are parading today on the streets of England. Some people in Ireland are shooting at one another. In Central America they are carrying on in numerous directions involving violence and misunderstanding.

On the common denominator level, there stands the mail artist who is free to send an underground message to all groups, "Let's resolve our problems, lets get on." so we're in a very ideal position. We don't march on the street. We don't put ads in the paper; we don't speak on the radio. But in an underground way, we're in a position to send a message worldwide of any theme that we want to mention. And it's interesting that all of these themes, no matter what they are, are speaking about the same thing: Primarily, let's touch one another; let's get together. More than that, let's love one another.

MB- What I'd like to know, is how much ego there should be in mail art, because obviously there has to be some, because without ego, there wouldn't be the personalities to do it, right?

Bern- All of us are a bundle of egos to be sure, but in this journey to be an egotist, one stumbles over a great number of issues and bundles of questions. In the course of this, takes on one which sort of feels right for him, what feels right for him whether he is in Columbus or Sri Lanka, also feels right for someone in Japan or West Germany.

MB- And what is this something that, "feels right?"

Bern- It's a vibration, plasma of energy, a gem on a vast beach, which says, "Hello, I am well, are you well? Do you feel as I do?" This is a very important contact and I know of no other means of establishing it. The next step is to improve the quality of our submissions and secondly, to feel more intensely the message that we are trying to impart, it is very wrong for us to send something to someone and expect a reply. It is better that we merely manifest the energy of an idea and send it out.

And if you don't feel right about what you generate and send out, then perhaps you should get out of the whole thing. Just forget about it. On the other hand, if you're not willing to set it aside, then you should examine why it is that you want to put anything out, I'm wanting everyone involved to make it top quality and in addition I'm hoping everyone involved will feel some personal excitement, some fulfillment in the act of having an idea. Than cementing it to a piece of paper and running to the post office with it. Just that act alone is all that I feel is necessary. That's the key element. That ideas be generated, manifested, then sent out. And this energy will take care of the result.

You seem to be experiencing some doubts and I would like to ask you not to have that. You must discover the single most exciting thing that you personally can do for yourself. If you find this and express this, then send it out, you have fulfilled yourself. It's not necessary to question what the others are doing, or has it come to an end. And if you're not getting any satisfaction in this process, then perhaps you should say, "Well, mail art is not for me," and move on to something else.

One of the features of our culture is that only with great force and discipline can you concentrate on any given thing. There's a staggering number of possibilities, so much that they are overwhelming. So we must fight off what is undesirable, which is not intense and concentrate on this simple little spark of awareness. Which brings me to the point that out of 24 hours in a day, it's a very unusual individual who is using his faculties any more than 5 or 6 minutes out of 24 hours. I'm calling for high intensity, concentrated production; first quality, which gives you pleasure and satisfaction, without questioning it, without doubt. I'm saying that the generating is the feature.

Throughout the world there are people who are doing this and it's interesting that at the end result of what they do is pretty much of a common statement. A metaphor would be the innumerable religions and cults and all of them are talking about the same thing. They just use different symbols and languages. So in this morass of what you think is complex is actually quite simple.

You have to achieve zero position through relaxation. You have to be cool, calm, collected and aware, then you start to glow, radiate and that's what matters.

MB- Do you think that the universe is perfect as it is now, or are there things, events that disturb you?

Bern- Well, its been put together by a perfect designer. Of that you can be sure. It's just that the interpreters can come along and they've fouled it up in such a way that it's hard to be aware of that design. So you have to dismiss what has been done before you and see what you personally can contribute.

It turns out that what you can contribute requires first this state of relaxation. It requires an excitement about something. And to the degree that you have the urge to state it, make a postcard of it, then send it out. You have to review the things you are doing and discard those which are causing you concern and doubt, and cling to those which you are most secure with this is a continuing process, this organization.

MB- Do you think that mail art should organize any more than it is now?

Bern- No. It's success depends on the fact that its not organized. Its very loose, free. If it becomes organized, I think the spontaneity would be lost.

MB- How can it gain more attention without being organized?

Bern- Most people, as I understand it, feel that they must send something back the same day they receive something in the mail. When you receive something, you are the bearer of a torch, which must be passed on. Maybe not to the sender, but to anyone, near or remote. Someone you've never met. So, when you send something back to the sender, you're closing the circuit. When you are sending it to someone you've never met, you are bringing in a new cohort, a new convert. You are spreading the message.

You might get a response from the person asking, "Who the hell are you?" which would be a very healthy response. The only way we can widen this circle is by sending things to unknowns. Just go through the telephone book, pick out an interesting name, put a stamp on it and send it to him or her.

MB- Do you really think that will work?

Bern- I think that achieves the objective of the system, I think we're closing it, tightening it when we send things to one another.

MB- You mean the mail art system?

Bern- I mean the simple act of receiving something from a mail artist and feeling an obligation of sending it to an unknown, when some theme is established for a central collection point such as an exhibit, you of course send to that. Simultaneously you send copies or other items to others unknown to you. I guess most mail artists think of this as a new idea. The thinking is that we're a closed circuit, but we're not. I suggest everyone try this the next time they receive something, don't feel obligated to reply by returning something of yours to that person, send it to someone who you've never met.

MB- But we get things now from new people and we just don't know where these things are coming from, or who's behind it, or how they ever found out about mail art; what their objectives are or who will see the work we send back. Do you feel that matters?

Bern- That's contrary to the whole system. We shouldn't be questioning who started this, "How did they get my name?" You should respond as early as possible and send your best work.

MB- You think we should send our best work to a mystery address?

Bern- That's correct, it's one of the basic principals. You have been contacted and you respond.

MB- Is there any responsibility in any of this?

Bern- Yes, there is, several. You respond immediately, spontaneously and with your best.

MB- What is the responsibility of the person on the other end?

Bern- No need to worry, if he's part of the bona fide system, then he is under obligation to send and exhibit and not to reject.

MB- Is it a mistake then to challenge Dr. Ronnie Cohen, when she....

Bern- No, that (mail artists publicly challenging a curator who erred) was one of the most exciting things to have happened around here in a long time. And if Colby (College) messes up (on their mail art show), then they are to be challenged also. But don't start out with the idea that things are going to be contrary. And don't think that there's no responsibility at the other end. They will take care of that. You have to take care of yourself by responding immediately.

MB- Couldn't a person make a career out of this, similar to a full time job?

Bern- Yes. I personally receive anything from four to eight items a week that need response, so its a personal choice on the participant's part.

MB- My Last Mail Art Show could be considered as a statement, about running out of spontaneity and creative ideas in this particular form. I'm tired of all these shows. And people who don't really know too much about it writing articles and books about it. I'm wondering what's something similar that we can do to take it a step further and let it evolve into something else.

Bern- It has generated quite a few things. For instance, the mail poem. This is a system where instead of sending so-called art, you send poems. They can either be complete, or just two lines. And they, in effect, ask the receiver to either criticize or add his own two lines, and then it gets sent on. Then when someone feels it's complete, it gets sent back to the sender. This serves as a valid outgrowth of mail art. Dick Higgins and I invented mail poems and had specimens published in Germany. Couldn't get it published here, everyone thought we were nuts, but in Germany they're highly appreciative. What else? There's people who play chess by mail.

MB- This year is the 100th Anniversary of Duchamp's chess by correspondence competition. He was the head of the French team. I thought we should commemorate it this year.

Bern- This mail phenomena touches chess, art, poetry, music.

MB- What can it extend to that it already hasn't touched?

Bern- Hopefully the political arena. In that sense we would have mail politics, mail government. This is a very powerful tool. So again, I'm very disturbed that you may want to end it all with this Last Mail Art Show.

MB- I haven't really said that I wanted to end it; I'm merely raising the question, should we end it?

Bern- No.

MB- Why do you say no?

Bern- It's unfortunate that you would even raise the question. What's important is to respond without question. And if it gets too expensive, cut back, but keep your hand in so that you are not completely forgotten. I admit that I've done it, slacked off. And I apologize for it. But in general, out of every ten requests, eight I will respond to.

MB- Do you think that a mediocre response is not as bad as no response at all?

Bern- If you can't make a super response, don't make it.

MB- Thanks Bern.

above copied from:

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Next to Nothing: The Arts of Air, Steven Connor

A talk given at Art Basel, 13 June 2007.

Gertrude Stein wrote in her essay 'Pictures' of 1935 that in a painting there should be 'no air…no feeling of air' (Stein 1998, 227). The importance of air as a differentiating valve between art and life has recently been explicated by Lisa Siraganian (2003). Ruskin disagreed, on the grounds that 'everything that needful, nourishing and delightful about the earth comes from its capacity to take up oxygen - to rust: 'It is not a fault in the iron, but a virtue, to be so fond of getting rusted, for in that condition it fulfils its [161-2] most important functions in the universe, and most kindly duties to mankind. Nay, in a certain sense, and almost a literal one, we may say that iron rusted is Living; but when pure or polished, Dead' (Ruskin 1878, 161-2) Ruskin preferred an art that responded to the qualities or colour and texture imparted by this mingling of earth and air, for this reproduced the rusty variegations of Nature's own primary pigmentations:

All those beautiful violet veinings and variegations of the marbles of Sicily and Spain, the glowing orange and amber colours of those at Siena, the deep russet of the Rosso antico, and the blood-colour of all the precious jaspers that enrich the temples of Italy; and, finally, all the lovely transitions of tint in the pebbles of Scotland and the Rhine, which form, though not the most precious, by far the most interesting portion of our modern jewellers’ work; - all these are painted by Nature with this one material only, variously proportioned and applied – the oxide of iron that stains your Tunbridge springs. (Ruskin 1878, 171)

Air has indeed been more and more in evidence in modern art and architecture. We can perhaps distinguish two forms of air-art, two modes in which the air has been pressed into artistic appearing. Let me call them 'absolute air' and 'object air'.
Be Absolute For Air

Air has a privileged relation to the struggle of art with, or rather its striving to find ways of doing without, objects. More and more, and most conspicuously in art of the conceptual tradition, art must refuse to be reduced to or mistaken for the objects which it has traditionally been called upon to call into being. For over a century art has struggled against the idolatry or enchantment of objects, preferring processes, especially processes of vanishing, decomposition or evaporation to the precipitation of forms. Air has often been the carrier of this immaterialism. Perhaps the inaugurating work in this tradition is Marcel Duchamp's Air de Paris of 1919. This is a glass phial which Duchamp made for his friend Walter Arensberg, buying it from a chemist's shop, and having the chemist pour away the liquid it had originally contained. In this work, both the container and the air it contains is a ready-made. The gesture of emptying out the original contents of the flask substitutes nothingness for the original commodity on sale in the pharmacist's shop, a lesson insisted on in the parody of consumer choice offered by the designation 'Paris Air', as though its place of origin gave it a particular value or distinctiveness, like eau de cologne or a Cornish pasty. So perhaps the air is not so much a ready-made as a ready-to-hand emblem of unmaking. Because what the flask contains is absolutely arbitrary (Duchamp described it as an 'Ampoule contenant 50 cc d'air de Paris' in a postcard of 1937, but the flask holds about twice this volume) the air here brings forward the idea of not being there and, by extension, art's capacity to summon and sustain this condition of the not-all-there, the next-to-nothing.

So no object embodies art's desire to have done with objects more than air. In fact, air has become a kind of allegory of art, or of its allergy to objects. 'Immaterial sensibility is a gas', Nicolas Bourriaud has written (Bourriaud 2000, 43). To work with air is to wish to become it, to evaporate every particle of what would betray art into the condition of an object, while yet remaining exquisitely, infinitesimally intact in that very operation. If air is, as Robert Boyle puts it, 'next Degree to nothing' (Boyle 1692, 201), then art aspires to insinuate itself into that differentiating chink. For the ability, not only to work with air, but also to identify with it, gives warrant to the claim that, if art can even be nothing then it can be anything. Art, like air, consists of nothing in particular, it has, and need have, no consistency with itself or anything else. Of course, this is also the thing that secures the distinctiveness of art. Everything else is stuck with the miserable finitude of having to be something in particular. Nothing, or nothing but art, nothing but the particular kind of nothing that art wants to be able to be, can be just anything.

Air is neither on the side of the subject nor of the object. It has neither objecthood nor essence. It has no objecthood because it has no single form of being, manifesting itself in a multitude, and never less than a multitude, of traces and effects - the hiss of a tyre, the breath of a zephyr, the buffet of a gale, the vortex of leaves on a street-corner. But these appearances are not the secondary expression of an essence any more than they are the properties of an object. The air is impression without presence. If we follow Irigaray (1999), the air is something like indetermination as such.

Not that there could be an as such of air, which, poor perdu, has no such thing as an an sich to call its own. The air has, so to say, no inside - it is all outerness, appearance, expiration, aperture, apartness from itself. That is why the idea of getting on the inside of air seems so comically oxymoronic; the notion sucks in supplementary prepositions, letting us say, more intelligibly, that we go out into or up into it. When you are in the air, you are surrounded by it, as you would be surrounded by a room or a house. But you are not yet, nor ever will be, on the inside of air. In the air, you are only ever out. Hence the strangeness of the mood or rumour that we say is 'in the air', or the conjuror's assistant who vanishes 'into thin air'. This may even help account for the fact that the mixed nature of air took so long to be discovered. Though some had suspected that the air must contain within it some vital principle, some inside or essence that was not identical with the whole of the air as such, the idea that the air could have a secret core seemed to many too strenuously mystical to proceed upon.

Air is not only poor in essence, it is also actively in diffusion. Its being is flight, flight from itself, the rushing out of essence into exteriority. This too is part of the point of Air de Paris. Were it not for the flask that contains it, the air would naturally diffuse, escape and mingle with its exterior. Even the idea of 'Paris air' is only an imaginary container. As art has sought to expand infinitely the range of its applications and operations, it has also sought to assume what might be called the illocative pull of the air away from the particularity of this or that place, its wish to propagate into everything. Much air art can trace its lineage to the 'Dimensionist Manifesto' published in Paris in 1936, in the form of a single-page insert to the magazine Revue N + 1 by the Hungarian poet Károly Sirato and signed by Arp, Delaunay, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Picabia, Kandinsky and others. This manifesto aimed to extend art into all the available dimensions of space, in the interests of 'Cosmic Art Vaporisation of Sculpture'', and the requirement that '[R]igid matter is abolished and replaced by gazefied materials.' The most unpleasant associations of the idea of vaporisation were as yet still in the future in the mid-30s, and the imperial cast of the demand that '[I]nstead of looking at objects of art, the person becomes the center and the subject of creation' was perhaps less irresistibly evident than it may now appear (Caws 2001, 538). Nevertheless, for much of the twentieth century, the apparent relinquishment of being involved in an art of air has also been able to be an exercise in actual or imaginary conquest.

In much recent art, air has become the marker, not of the difference between art and life, but of the aspiration of art to trespass beyond its assigned precincts, to approach and merge into the condition of 'life'. One of the most influential postwar proponents of this idea was Yves Klein, fourth dan judo expert, Knight of the Rosicrucian Order of St. Sebastian, showman and occasional painter. From an early age, Klein had longed to join himself to the universal vacancy imaged in the overarching, cloudless, blue sky, even resenting the flight of birds for vandalising the sky's immaculate emptiness. The governing principle of his mysticism was the yen for expansion and dissolution, in an effort to dissolve all differences and distinctions in an immense cosmic unity. Realising that it was not possible for this condition to be simply or noncontradictorily given in art (or, if he had come to think of it, anywhere else for that matter), Klein saw it as his duty as an artist to find images that could both materialise the immaterial and 'impregnate' the viewer with a sensitivity to what lay beyond the bad dream of differentiated material existence and the constricting deixis of this here and that there, sensitivity being defined by Klein as 'what exists beyond our being and yet always belongs to us' (quoted Restany 1982, 8). Initially, Klein saw single colours, and the particularly pulsating shade of ultramarine blue he dubbed International Klein Blue, or I.K.B., as the best way of activating 'zones of immaterial pictorial sensitivity' (Restany 1982, 54). But he realised within a couple of years (one wonders how it could have taken longer than a couple of minutes) that the transparency of empty air would be an even better aperture on to the Void. 'The Void' was in fact the title of an empty studio Klein put on display in Paris from April 28th to May 5th 1958. Though The Void was universal, it was fortunately not homogenous, since this enabled Klein, like an estate agent of inspired canniness, to exchange zones of immaterial pictorial sensitivity for specified weights of gold leaf.

After his meeting with architect Walter Ruhnau around 1957, Klein entered his 'pneumatic period', which was consolidated over the next two years with a series of projects for and fantasies of a global 'architecture of air' (Klein 1974, 45). In a pair of talks at the Sorbonne in June 1959, jointly entitled 'L'evolution de l'art vers l'immatériel', Klein set out his plans for all existing solid architecture to be dismantled and stored underground and for the climatic conditioning of all regions of the earth, which would allow human beings to live in a state of Edenic, if somewhat breezy repose, reclining on sofas consisting of jets of compressed air. The house itself 'must be built with the new material of "air" blown into walls, dividers, roof, furniture' (Klein 2000b, 91). The most important thing about Klein's architectural programme was the stripping away of the roof. Architects like Ruhnau had been hindered, wrote Klein 'by the last obstacle that even a Mies van der Rohe hadn't been able to overcome: the roof, the screen that separates us from the sky, from the blue sky' (Klein 1974, 45). In Klein's visionary pneumatic architecture, the office of the roof would be performed by a layer of compressed air that would deflect dust and rainfall. Nothing, of course, is said about the source of the energy needed to power this pneumatic Nirvana, or its possible effects on the terrestrial atmosphere (Restany 1982, 74-5. But then, there never seems to be any shortage of the thing that mystical vitalists of Klein's persuasion call 'energy'. Like Irigaray, he seems convinced that '[n]o element is as light, as free, and as much in the "fundamental" mode of a permanent, available "there is" ' (Irigaray 1999, 8). Klein's idea was to create a state of planetary pneumatic bliss, which would conduct human beings to a stage of universal levitation. As he promised in a speech in Düsseldorf, 'we will become aerial men, we will experience the force of attraction upward, toward space, toward nowhere and everywhere at the same time; the force of earthly attraction thus mastered, we will literally levitate in total physical and spiritual freedom' (quoted, Restany 1982, 76).

This is not the last time that architecture as traditionally conceived will be denounced as the antagonist of air. Luce Irigaray condemns the architectural impulse she finds throughout the history of philosophy, which she sees as an antagonism towards the air, which is envisaged as a feminine exteriority hardened and vitrified into space, place and erectness. 'When he began to set himself up, to stand up, he closed himself off to being permeable and porous to all things. He holds himself within bounds' (Irigaray 1999, 55). What Hopkins called 'Wild air, world-mothering air' (Hopkins 1970, 93) is '[C]onstituted as a dwelling with which man wends his way as if within the safeguard of his death' (Irigaray 1999, 61).

The mixture of the languages of command and mystical self-abandonment is Klein's formulations is odd but typical. Klein's appropriation of air to serve as the materialisation of the immaterial is in fact much more than a local or opportunist move. It is a drastic colonisation of the air by fantasy. But Klein's fantasy of the air as absolute openness, like Irigaray's, is not so much an objectification of the air as a refusal to allow the air the status of an object. Where objects give me an exterior by arresting me, putting a stop to me, Klein's air is stopped up in the bottle of his myth of universal diffusion, which means the approach to absolute uniformity. '[C]osmic sensibility', he wrote 'has no nooks and crannies, it is like the humidity in the air' (Klein 2000a, 76). Air is the amplifier and accelerator of his mighty and intransigent passion for the illimitable. 'I was no longer myself; I without "I," become joined with Life itself' (quoted Restany 90). This is the ultimate nightmare of uniformity, of egoity masquerading as vacan

Since Klein, it has increasingly been assumed that working with air is a good way to relinquish the dominative relation to objects that has contaminated art of the past. Robert Barry produced in 1969 a work called Inert Gas Series, which consisted of him releasing into the atmosphere above the Mojave Desert cylinders of xenon, helium and other so-called 'noble' or unreactive gases (as distinct, one must suppose, from the promiscuously hobnobbing oxygen, whose origin and explication were so curiously bound up with the French Revolution ). The point of releasing inert gases was evidently to have as little impact on the environment as possible: 'I try not to manipulate reality', Robert Barry has said, 'not to impose my preconceived grid or preconceived system onto reality. I - to use Heidegger's phrase, let things be. What will happen, will happen. Let things be themselves' (Meyer 1972, 35). Like the gas itself, the action distinguished itself by making no, next to no, difference.

Other artists have given the imagined immateriality of the air a more spectral aspect. Ewa Kuryluk's distinctive paintings on cloth suggested the title Air People for the retrospective of her work in Warsaw in 2002. Andrzej Wirth identifies these 'air people', cloth figures draped over bushes and trees, with the partisans who parachuted nightly into occupied Poland during the war, and takes them as emblems for the drifting, frameless, volatile nature of Kuryluk's work.

SPIRITUS FLAT UBI VULT. Freed from corporality, [sic] Kuryluk's partisan ghosts descend on earth in the most unexpected places… Seen as painting and drawing, ... [Kuryluk's art] goes without frame and without flat surface; seen as sculpture, it goes without solid material and permanent shape; seen as walk-in installation, it lacks any directionality; seen as a performance, it arrests the distracted gaze of passersby and transforms them into performers. Her silhouettes of "people of air"…seem ready at any minute to fly into the unknown. (Kuryluk 2002, 9, 11)

Ann Veronica Jannsens, who has turned in recent years to the creation of sculptures and environments made of mist, has said that 'What interests me is what escapes me, not to try and keep it from escaping but on the contrary to experience the "imperceptible" and offer that experience to others' (Rousseau 2004, 31). The soft, virtual volatility of mist, clinging, but drifting, offers a virtuous 'absence of authoritarian materiality, that effort to get out from under the tyranny of objects.' (Rousseau 2004, 29-31). Janssens emphasises, not the isolating characteristics of the artificial fogs she creates, but rather their capacity to dissolve:

Fog has contradictory effects on our vision. It makes every obstacle, all materiality, all contextual resistance, disappear, and at the same time it seems to bestow materiality and tactility on light…Bathed in light, we find ourselves transformed, blindly, one might say, and yet with no constraints or apparent limits…All our reference points have disappeared; the light no longer shines on anything that could exercise its authority on our ambulation. (Rousseau 2004, 31)

However, before moving away from this dream of the immateriality of air, we should register an important distinction between the letting-be of Robert Barry and that of Ann Veronica Janssens. For, while Barry is interested in the process of becoming imperceptible, he does not make the ocularcentric blunder of eliding the invisible with the inexistent. Invisible objects, like the gases in the Inert Gas series, are still objects: 'I personally do not see a real difference between the new art and the "traditional" art of the object. This may be due to changed emphasis of certain aspects of the new objects that we did not emphasize in the object of the past, like changeability and temporality. Objects may change right before your eyes' (Meyer 1972, 36). Art of this kind may be a letting be, but it is a letting be that takes place: it is a letting-be-attended-to.

I have been saying that the air provides an elective affinity for art, which is both lost to and safely perpetuated in ubiquity. The air can do this primarily because it is taken as the promise of the deterrence and dissipation of objects.

Now, though, I want to say that the outerness of air is what makes it most essentially object. How may this be?
Object Air

Let us recall what we are sure we know about objects. We believe that objects are dead, because fixed, definite and permanent. Objects have no essential relation to each other, and no relation to themselves. They exist, as Sartre puts it, en-soi, in, at or amid themselves but not pour-soi, for themselves, or in relation to themselves. For a subject to become an object is to undergo a lethal curtailing of its freedom to change its nature. Objects are subordinated to us, they are for our use, and we need them to stay the same in order to be of use. We reproach ourselves for having reduced nature to the condition of an object, dreaming that it has not always been so and hoping that we may build an ecological relatonship with nature that will be characterised by the reciprocal acknowledgement of subjects. The movement into the condition of an object is a movement from free to fixed, from living to dead, from time to space, from alterable to invariant, from soft to hard, from multiplicity to singularity, from sovereign to subordinate existence. For this reason we dread, and legislate against the threat of the object. It is true that subjects seem to need objects, but subjectivity must always in the end exceed the condition of the object, must leave its successive objectifications behind as so many cast-off cerements. We know what objects are, without having to think about them, because objects are what we know and what we know we know: for what is to know something but a making over of that thing into an object of knowledge?

All this is mistaken. In part it is a mistake because air is not, as I said it was a moment ago, an outside without an inside. For the last four hundred years, since Torricelli, Galileo, and the rest, we have slowly been establishing and extending the objectification of the air. But, in any case, far from resisting the idea of the object, the air is essentially object. Understanding how this might be will help us to escape the errors we systematically make about objects in general.

Objects are exteriorisations, exposures, excursions, ex-istences, makings-actual. An object is something that has emerged into the world; to become an object is to come about. An Object is not an excrement but an increment. Certainly in this respect it is a limiting, but a limiting into existence, not a limiting of it. Once the nature of air is understood, it can no longer be most of the things that it had previously been thought to be (pure, uniform, the carrier of pneuma, abode of angels and demons, and so on). But it is a limiting to the actual, not of it. The most important feature of an object is not that it is hemmed in its definition, it is that it is made exterior - exterior to a perceiving subject and exterior to itself. An object is a discovering, a developing. An object is something that stands, or is thrown, against.

Objects are in fact doubly exteriorising. As a making-actual of what was not previously apparent, the objected existence makes that prior inapparence appear, as a kind of hiddenness or implication; the object reads out its prior condition through its unfolding, or splitting off. Objects are therefore self-exteriorisations. But they are also exteriorisations for others, may indeed be brought into being by those others, who then have the possibility of extending themselves through those objects. For this reason, though they are finite, objects are not final. Indeed, on the contrary, objects are inaugurative. Objects do not simplify or diminish. We think of objects as possessions, and possessions as objects. So they are: but what we possess in them is possibility, theirs as much as ours.

This is because objects make possible relations. Objects are not, as we think, inert, or immune from relation. Rather, they are the primary form of relation, the engine of mediations. Without objects, there is no mediation of any kind possible between the inert and autistic things that subjects would then be. The autistic subject craves objectification, hugging his carapace of habits and routines and postures, not because he is insufficiently alive as a subject, but because he is deficient in objects, and thus is unable to establish any grounds of relation or, what is almost the same thing, of play. What play, what game is possible without an object - a ball, a shuttlecock, or some other form of go-between? (And how many games depend upon objects that are partly constituted of air?) A relation is a going-out of my self. Only objects can give me the way of going beyond myself, the possibility of differing from myself which makes my self possible at all, precisely because objects give me a limit, put a stop to the me that would otherwise propagate gaseously in all directions. It is for this reason that Michel Serres sees social objects - money, stories, words - as 'quasi-objects', because their passages and transactions pick out and light up subjectivity. 'The quasi-object is not an object, but it is one nevertheless, since it is not a subject, since it is in the world; it is also a quasi-subject, since it marks or designates a subject who, without it, would not be a subject...We know, through it, how and when we are subjects and when and how we are no longer subjects' (Serres 1982, 225, 227). Naturally, it would be easy enough to use this as a way to reinstitute the privative distinction between human beings, who have the privilege of picking out objects, of conferring objecthood, and the vast, mute object-world itself. But a complex world is one in which things exteriorise each other, bring each other into being as objects by disclosing or drawing out different features, in forms of attention that are also extensions, subtractions that are also attractive. The spider extrudes not just its own web, but also the intricate trigonometry of nodes and angles in the natural world on which its web's girderwork depends. The dog and the mosquito remakes the world as a map of aromas. Things form relations among themselves by exteriorising each other, which is to say by acting as objects for them and drawing them out into the conditions of objects. Every being reifies the world, and every objectification is an addition to the republic of things (every res is res publica).

So, if air is 'pure', it is in a special way, for it is purely and specially compound. As Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it in, air is 'fairly mixed/With, riddles, and is rife/In every least thing's life' (Hopkins 1970, 93). It is in the nature of air not only to surround everything, but also to pervade everything, mixing and mingling with other gases, entering into compounds through the copulative appetite of oxygen. There is an elective affinity between the chameleon air (the chameleon being a creature reputed to live on air) and the art which refuses to be restricted to any one mode of being or appearance, and is most itself when it most avidly takes leave of itself. But an art that sees this departure from itself as its special preserve, that tries to stay like itself in its departures into other forms, is merely euphoric rather than aerophoric.

There is another kind of work done on and through the air that, because it is less concerned with prolonging itself in its objectless integrity, allows air and art to compound in the advent of objects. One example of such compounded air-art is the inflatable. In comparison with the etherial poiesis of the art of the open air, the rhetoric of the inflatable associates it with ironic and bathetic corporeality. The inflatable object is frail, delicate, but also ridiculous, always on the point of abject eruption and collapse. The works brought together by Barbara Clausen and Carin Kuoni in the exhibition Thin Skin in 2002 suggested this mixture of qualities (Clausen and Kuoni 2002). Paul McCarthy's huge inflatable sculptures, Blockhead and Daddies Bighead, installed outside Tate Modern in May 2003, were sinister, sleazy, parodic, cartoonish, melancholically deformed. Blockhead looked like a cartoon character on whom a sledgehammer or a saucepan has violently descended; but now the weapon has become the character's head, and it seems to peer through the handle as though through a tank's gun or a dalek's periscopic stalk. One could enter the giant sculpture, and buy sweets; in the interior of the sculpture, there was a loud and cavernous hiss, from the air that was continuously being pumped in to keep the thing wheezily erect. Combined with the bizarre blowhole that formed part of the head, the suggestion seemed to be that the sculpture, made largely of air standing up, was nevertheless struggling asthmatically to catch its breath.

McCarthy is not the only artist to have associated inflatables with the sensibility of the cartoon. Their association seems odd, since cartoons are supposed to be flat, but there does seem to be a strong predisposition to read the rounded figures of animated figures as air-filled volumes rather than flat planes of colour. Indeed, when the makers of Who Killed Roger Rabbit?, a film which mixes live and animated figures, had to decide what sound cartoon characters made when you collided with them, they decided that they would have to sound like boom and squeak like balloons. Delight and menace are to be focussed through the giant inflatable cartoon characters of Momoyo Torimitsu, such as her Somehow I Don't Feel Comfortable (2000), an archway formed by two giant red 5-metre high rabbits. Sean Topham captures the ambiguity represented by the inflatable; there is the promise of the balloon, that 'tightly sealed envelope filled with air that first offered access to the freedom of the sky' mixed with the threat of an enclosed, but proliferating volume of air that can construct and suffocate. (Topham 2002, 152-3).

Grander claims have sometimes been made for inflatable art and architecture, perhaps nowhere more, or more surprisingly, than in the exhibition Structures gonflables, mounted in March 1968 at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris by architects associated with the Utopie group of urban theorists. The exhibition gathered together an array of inflatable objects and structures, offering them as images of pop emancipation and ephemerality. Perhaps it is in part true that, as Marc Dessauce maintains, 'the inflatable ethos possessed a subversive constitution which recommended it to avant-garde practice' (Dessauce 1999, 14), for perhaps inflatable art was indeed an answer to the pervasive flatness of Marcuse's era of one-dimensional man, since 'it is as if the propensity to describe the epoch as lacking in relief had reflected itself in an exactly inverse manner, in an image of perpetual roundness and turgescence' (Dessauce 1999, 13). The events of May 1968 broke out just days after the exhibition closed, though a direct connection seems improbable. The associations of bubblegum and bouncy castle are never far away from inflatable air, and Dessauce is nearer the mark in claiming that pneumatic art and design ought to be seen as a grotesquely parodic exaggeration of the 'pneumatic penetration of everyday life', in automobile transport and air-conditioning:

Thus the formidable equalizing power of air-flow, and our insatiable appetite for its therapeutic and uplifting value, could also be held accountable for a loss of texture, and the deep, aerodynamic stretching of urban fabric to the point of its separation, dispersion and constriction - like the shriveled debris of a popped balloon strewn at the periphery of a defunct center. (Dessauce 1999, 14)

The catalogue of the Structures gonflables exhibition included a text by Claude and Léon Gaignebet, which offered a brief conspectus of some of the associations of the inflated object, which included '[a] fecundity like that evoked by a swollen phallus, a swelling breast, a blossom ready to burst, a swollen udder, a germinating seed' and '[t] adoration of the swollen wineskin by the Ascodrugites', but also '[t]he mind of the insane, symbolized by the bladder' (Dessauce 1999, 30).

Inflatable art seems to forbid the unfettered dream of the immaterial. In inflatable art, air enters into composition, is folded or forced into new kinds of object, rather than invoking the etherial spaces of the un-object. Earlier artistic allegories of the air were bulging with material forms, often those of birds, as for example, Joachim Beuckelaer's The Four Elements: Air, a Poultry Market With the Prodigal Son in the Background (1570). More recently, art has returned to this manner of representing air displaced into objects A number of examples are discussed in the recent collection Going Aerial, edited by Monika Bakke (2006). Not surprisingly, the most interesting hybridisings of air are to be found in its section on breath-works, since breath embodies the transcoding or compounding of air much more readily than the volatilization of things into the (imaginary) condition of air. Whether in the Breath Cultures of Sabrina Raaf, which grew into visible form the oral flora from participants who had breathed over Petri dishes, or her project Translator II: Grower, in which a small robot moved around the walls of a room drawing shafts of 'grass' in response to the fluctuating levels of carbon dioxide in the room, the air seems to mean the necessity for translatability, an existence only in the mediations of objects. Steve Heimbecker's Wind Array Cascade Machine arises out of the artist's experiences of the wind in the Western Canadian prairies where he grew up, watching the progress of storms for hours as they drew near, and his recognition that 'we do not actually hear the wind, but rather hear and see objects as they are affected by the wind, such as the wind in our ears (and our microphones), the wind through the leaves of a tree, a field of mature grain blowing in the wind, or even the swirling detritus around a city building'. The Wind Array Cascade machine is an array of 64 wind-pressure sensors covering an area of 25 metres square, which are designed to mimic the behaviour of a field of grain. The data collected by the 64 sensors can be streamed, or recorded for later processing and transformation. In this work, air is not an empty ultimate condition but a sort of 'white box', a transition from a variable but always determinate input to a variable but always determinate series of outputs. The machinery embodies the indefinite process whereby the air becomes itself by being made exterior to itself.

Air offers art two forms of being and becoming. There is first of all the etherial, but annihilating dream of air as the ultimate refinement, the transcendental promise of matter subtilised to thin infinitude, indifferent spirit. But, after barely three hundred years, the materiality, and therefore the finitude of the air has become unignorable, even as it has taught us that there are many more kinds of object, and ways of being an object, than we might have thought. Air is exchanging its ulteriority for exteriority. Instead of being the embodiment of a world beyond objects and beyond bodies, the air has become the mediate arena of the object. Air is no longer an ideal image for art, but an object for it to work on, and by which to be itself worked out, worked loose even from its self-identity. In its phantasmatic assimilation of itself to the uniform dream of air as pure dematerialisation, of matter terminally rarefied into space, art keeps itself narcissistically but anxiously entire. In propagating the air into objects, art stands a chance of propagating into something beside itself.

Bakke, Monika, ed. (2006). Going Aerial: Air, Art, Architecture. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Academie.

Bourriaud, Nicolas (2000). 'Blue Company: or, Yves Klein Considered as a World-Economy.' In Gilbert Perlein and Bruno Corà, Yves Klein: Long Live the Immaterial! (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 35-44.

Boyle, Robert (1692). The General History of the Air. London: for Awnsham and John Churchill.

Caws, Mary Ann, ed. (2001). Manifesto: A Century of Isms. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Clausen, Barbara and Kuoni, Carin (2002). Thin Skin: The Fickle Nature of Bubbles, Spheres, and Inflatable Structures. New York : Independent Curators International.

Dessauce, Marc, ed. (1999). The Inflatable Moment: Pneumatics and Protest in '68 . New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley (1970). The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. 4th edn. Ed. W.H. Gardner and N.H. Mackenzie. London: Oxford University Press.

Irigaray, Luce (1999). The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger. Trans. Mary Beth Mader. London: Athlone Press.

Klein, Yves (1974). Yves Klein 1928-1962: Selected Writings. London: Tate Gallery.
-------------- (2000a). 'The Monochrome Adventure.' In Gilbert Perlein and Bruno Corà, Yves Klein: Long Live the Immaterial! (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 75-84.
-------------- (2000b) 'Water and Fire.' In Perlein and Corà, Yves Klein, 91.

Kuryluk, Ewa, et. al. (2002). Ludzie z powietrza/Air People: Retrospective 1959-2000. Cracow: Artemis Art Gallery.

Meyer, Ursula, ed. (1972). Conceptual Art. New York: Dutton.

Restany, Pierre (1982). Yves Klein. 2nd edn. Trans. John Shepley. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Rousseau, Pascal (2004). 'Ann Veronica Janssens: Light Games.' Trans. L.-S. Torgoff. Art Press, 299, 26-31.

Ruskin, John (1878). 'The Work of Iron in Nature, Art, and Policy.’ The Two Paths: Being Lectures on Art, and Its Application to Decoration and Manufacture. London: George Allen, 159-213.

Siraganian, Lisa (2003). 'Out of Air: Theorizing the Art Object in Gertrude Stein and Wyndham Lewis.' Modernism/Modernity, 10, 657-76.

Serres, Michel (1982). The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stein, Gertrude (1998). Writings: 1932-1946. New York: Library of America.

Topham, Sean. Blowup: Inflatable Art, Architecture, and Design. Munich, Berlin, London, New York: Prestel.

Above copied from:

The Society of Situationism, Ken Knabb

“Even if a constituted situationist theory had never existed as a possible source of inspiration, the system of commodity consumption implicitly contains its own situationism.”

—Daniel Denevert, Theory of Poverty, Poverty of Theory


The second proletarian assault on class society has entered its second phase.


The first phase — beginning diffusedly in the 1950s and culminating in the open struggles of the late sixties — found its most advanced theoretical expression in the Situationist International. Situationism is the direct or implicit ideologization of situationist theory, within the revolutionary movement and in the society as a whole.


The SI articulated the whole of the global movement at the same time that it participated as part of it in the sector where it found itself, taking up “the violence of the delinquents on the plane of ideas” and giving immediate practical follow-through to its theoretical positions. It thus presented a model to the revolutionary movement not only in the form of its conclusions but also in exemplifying the ongoing negating method; which method was the reason that its conclusions were almost always right.


In generating among many of its partisans the same exigencies that it practiced itself, and in forcing even the most unautonomous to become at least autonomous from it, the SI showed that it knew how to educate revolutionarily. In the space of a few years we have seen a democratization of theoretical activity that was not attained — if it was even sought — in the old movement in a century. Marx and Engels were not able to incite rivals; none of the strands of Marxism maintained Marx’s unitary perspective. Lenin’s observation in 1914 that “none of the Marxists for the past half century have understood Marx” is really a critique of Marx’s theory, not because it was too difficult but because it did not recognize and calculate its own relation with the totality.


The very nature of the situationists’ mistakes — exposed and criticized by them with pitiless thoroughness — is a confirmation of their methods. Their failures as well as their successes serve to focus, elucidate and polarize. No other radical current in history has known such a degree of intentional public theoretical debate. In the old proletarian movement consequential theoretical polarization was always the exception, the explosion that came out contrary to the intentions of the theorists themselves and only as a last resort when the very continuation of a factitious unity was visibly no longer possible. Marx and Engels failed to dissociate themselves publicly from the Gotha Program because “the asinine bourgeois papers took this program quite seriously, read into it what it does not contain and interpreted it communistically; and the workers seem to be doing the same” (Engels to Bebel, 12 October 1875). Thus, in defending by silence a program against its enemies, they defended it equally against its friends. When in the same letter Engels said that “if the bourgeois press possessed a single person of critical mind, he would have taken this program apart phrase by phrase, investigated the real content of each phrase, demonstrated its nonsense with the utmost clarity, revealed its contradictions and economic howlers . . . and made our whole Party look frightfully ridiculous,” he described as a deficiency of the bourgeois press what rather was precisely a deficiency of the revolutionary movement of his time.


The concentrated expression of present historical subversion has itself become decentralized. The monolithic myth of the SI has exploded forever. During the first phase this myth had a certain objective basis: on the level on which it was operating, the SI had no serious rivals. Now we see a public and international confrontation of autonomous situationist theories and ideologies which no tendency comes close to monopolizing. Any situationist orthodoxy has lost its central referent. From this point on, every situationist or would-be situationist must follow his own path.


The first critiques of situationism remained fundamentally ahistorical. They measured the theoretical poverties of the pro-situ up against the theory of the first phase. They saw the subjective poverties and internal inconsistencies of this milieu, but not its position as related to the sum of theoretical and practical vectors at a certain moment; they failed to grasp this “first nondialectical application” as the qualitative weakness of the ensemble, as a necessary “moment of the true.” Even Theses on the SI and Its Time — in so many respects the summation of the first phase at its point of transition into the second — scarcely broaches the properly historical aspect of situationism.


At each stage of the struggle the partial realization of the critique generates its own new equilibrium point with the ruling society. As the theory escapes its formulators, it tends through its autonomous ideological momentum to be run through all possible permutations and combinations, though principally those reflecting the new developments and illusions of the moment. Caught in the transition of the first phase to the second, the pro-situationists in the post-1968 “ebbing of May” period were the embodiments of the inertia of a confirmed theory. This ideological lag — in which the partisans of situationist theory failed to confront the new developments in their own practice, that of the proletariat and that of the society as a whole — measured the weakness of the situationist movement; while the unprecedented quickness with which it engendered its own internal negation — effectively sabotaging itself in order to affirm the explosion that had already escaped it and clear the grounds for the new phase — marks its fundamental vindication.


The pro-situationists saw the issues of the second phase in terms of those of the first. In treating the new, widespread and relatively conscious worker struggles as if they were isolated nihilist acts of an earlier period, which therefore lacked first of all the proverbial “consciousness of what they had already done,” the pro-situs only showed that they lacked the consciousness of what others were already doing and of all that was still lacking. In every single struggle they saw the same simple, total conclusion and identified the progress of the revolution with the appropriation of this conclusion by the proletariat. In thus abstractly concentrating the intelligence of human practice above the complex process of the development of class struggle, the activist pro-situs were the would-be bolsheviks of a fantasized coup of class consciousness, hoping by this shortcut to bring about the councilist program whose implications they overstepped out of incomprehension or impatience.


The SI did not apply its theory to the very activity of the formulation of that theory, although the very nature of that theory implied its eventual democratization and thus put this question on the order of the day. In the aftermath of May neither the SI nor the new generation of insurgents it had inspired had really examined the process of theoretical production, either in its methods or its subjective ramifications, beyond a few vague, empirical rules of thumb. The backlash of the partial realization of situationist theory flung them unprepared from megalomaniac delirium, to incoherence, to chain-reactions of contentless breaks, to impotence and finally to the massive psychological repression of the whole experience, without their ever having asked themselves what was happening to them.


Even if the SI attracted many poorly prepared partisans, the very fact that such a mass of people with no particular experience in or aptitude or taste for revolutionary politics thought to find in situationist activity a terrain where they could engage themselves autonomously and consequentially confirms the radicality of both the theory and the epoch. If the situationist milieu has manifested so many pretensions and illusions, this was merely the natural side-effect of the first victory of a critique that burst so many pretensions of and illusions about the ruling society.


To the extent that the ideologies of the first phase suppressed anything to do with the situationists — including therefore the concepts most explicitly associated with them — the eventual discovery of the situationist critique had the contrary exaggerated effect of giving the situationists an apparent monopoly of radical comprehension of modern society and its opposition. Hence the adherence to the situationist critique had the abrupt, fanatical character of a sudden religious conversion (often with a corresponding ulterior rejection of it in toto). In contrast, the young revolutionary who now adheres to situationist positions tends to be less subject to this fanatical excess precisely because diverse nuances of situationist struggle and of its recuperation are a familiar aspect of his world.


In the second phase, revolution has moved from being an apparently marginal phenomenon to a visibly central one. The underdeveloped countries have lost their apparent monopoly of contestation; but the revolutions there haven’t stopped, they have simply become modern and are resembling more and more the struggles in the advanced countries. The society that proclaimed its well-being is now officially in crisis. The formerly isolated gestures of revolt against apparently only isolated misery now know themselves to be general and proliferate and overwhelm all accounting. 1968 was the moment where the revolutionary movements began to see themselves in international company, and it was this global visibility that definitively shattered the ideologies that saw revolution everywhere but in the proletariat. 1968 was also the last time major revolts could seem to be student revolts.


The proletariat has begun to act by itself but as yet scarcely for itself. Revolts continue to be, as they have been over the last century, largely defensive reactions: the taking over of factories abandoned by their owners or of struggles abandoned by their leaders (particularly in the aftermath of wars). If sectors of the proletariat have begun to speak for themselves, they have yet to elaborate an openly internationalist revolutionary program and effectively express their goals and tendencies internationally. If they serve as examples for proletarians of other countries, it is still through the de facto mediation of radical groups and spectacular reportage.


The ideology of the first phase that stressed the concrete realization of radical change without grasping the negative or the totality has found its realization in the proliferation of so-called alternative institutions. The alternative institution differs from classic reformism in being chiefly an immediate, self-managed reformism, one that does not wait for the State. It recuperates the initiative and energy of the mildly dissatisfied and is a sensitive indicator of defects in the system and of their possible resolutions. Alternative production — whose development on the margins of the economy recapitulates the historical development of commodity production — functions as a free-enterprise corrective to the bureaucratized economy. But the democratization and “autogestionization” of social structures, though productive of illusions, is also a favorable factor for the development of the revolutionary critique. It leaves behind the superficial focuses of struggle while providing a safer and easier terrain from and on which to contest the essentials. The contradictions in participatory production and alternative distribution facilitate the détournement of their goods and facilities, going up to the point of quasi-legal “Strasbourgs of the factories.”


The hip notion trip expresses the fact that as commodities become more abundant, adaptable and disposable, the individual commodity is devalued in favor of the ensemble. The trip offers not a single commodity or idea but an organizing principle for selecting from among all commodities and ideas. In contrast with the block of time where “everything’s included,” which is still sold as a distinct commodity, the commodity character of the indefinitely extended trip (art, craft, pursuit, fad, lifestyle, subcult, social project, religion) — carrying with it a more flexible complex of commodities and stars — is obscured behind the quasi-autonomous activity whereby the subject seems to dominate. The trip is the moment where the spectacle has become so overdeveloped that it becomes participatory. It recovers the subjective activity lacking in the spectacle, but runs into the limits of the world the spectacle has made — limits absent in the spectacle precisely because it is separate from daily life.


The diminution of the exclusive sway of work and the fragmentation of the consequently expanded leisure give rise to the widespread dilettantism of modern society. The spectacle presents the super-agent who can tell to a degree the correct temperature at which saké should be served and initiates the masses into exotic techniques of living and to connoisseur enjoyments previously reserved for the upper classes. But the heralded “new Renaissance Man” is no closer to mastering his own life. When the spectacle becomes overdeveloped and wants to cast off the poverty and unilateralness at its origin, it reveals itself as simply a poor relative of the revolutionary project. It may multiply amusements and make them more participatory, but their commodity basis ineluctably forces them back into the matrix of consumption. Isolated individuals may, in a caricature of Fourier, come together around ever more precise nuances of common spectacular tastes, but these nexuses are all the more separated from each other and from the social totality and the sought-for passionate activity founders on its triviality. The new cosmopolitan remains historically provincial.


The spectacle responds to the increasing dissatisfaction with its tendency toward lowest-common-denominator uniformity by diversifying itself. Struggles are channeled into struggles over the spectacle, leading to the semi-autonomous development of separate spectacles tailor-made for specific social groupings. But the singular power of a spectacle comes from its having been placed for a moment at the center of social life. Thus the increase of spectacular choice at the same time reduces the spectacular power that depends on the very magnitude and undivided enthrallment of the pseudo-community the spectacle draws together. The spectacle must contradictorily be all things to all men individually while continually reasserting itself as their single, exclusive unifying principle.


The spectacle revives the dead, imports the foreign and reinterprets the existing. The time span required for things to acquire the proper quaint banality to become “camp” continually decreases; the original is marketed simultaneously with its spoof, from which it is often scarcely distinguishable; aesthetic discussions increasingly center around the simple question as to whether something is a parody or not. This expresses the increasing contempt felt for the cultural spectacle on the part of its producers and consumers. Society produces a more and more rapid turnover of styles and ideologies, going up to the point of a delirium that escapes no one. As all the permutations and combinations are run through, the individual poverties and contradictions make themselves known and the common form that lies behind the diverse contents begins to be discerned; “to change illusions at an accelerating pace gradually dissolves the illusion of change.” With the global unification exerted by the spectacle, it becomes increasingly difficult to idealize a system because it is in a different part of the world, and the global circulation of commodities and therefore of people brings ever closer the historic encounter of the Eastern and Western proletariats. The recycling of culture sucks dry and breaks up all the old traditions, leaving only the spectacular “tradition of the new.” But the new ceases to be novel and the impatience for novelty generated by the spectacle may transform itself into an impatience to realize and destroy the spectacle, the only idea that continually remains really “new and different.”


Inasmuch as situationist theory is a critique of all aspects of alienated life, the diverse nuances of situationism reflect in concentrated form the general illusions of the society, and the ideological defenses generated by the situationists prefigure the ideological defenses of the system.


Situationist theory has come full circle when its critique of daily life is drawn on to provide the sophisticated vocabulary of a justification of the status quo. Individuals expressing dissatisfaction with self-satisfied pseudo-enjoyments in the situationist milieu, for example, have been characterized as lacking a “capacity for enjoyment,” a “sense of play” or even “radical subjectivity,” and accused of “voluntarism” or “militantism” for having concretely proposed radical projects or more experimental activities.


Vaneigemism is an extreme form of the modern anti-puritanism that has to pretend to enjoy what is supposed to be enjoyable. Like the city dweller who affirms his preference for “living in the country” although for some reason he never goes there or if he does soon gets bored and returns to the city, the Vaneigemist has to feign pleasure because his activity is by definition “passionate,” even when that activity is in fact tedious or nonexistent. In letting everyone know that he “refuses sacrifice” and “demands everything,” he differs from the man in the ads who “insists on the best” only in the degree of his pretension and in the often scarcely more than token ideological avowal of the obstacles that remain in the way of his total realization. Dissatisfaction and boredom are forgotten in their boring, ritual denunciation, and at a time when even the most retrograde ideologies are becoming frankly pessimistic and self-critical in their decomposition, the Vaneigemist presents an effective image of present satisfaction.


Vaneigemist ideological egoism holds up as the radical essence of humanity that most alienated condition of humanity for which the bourgeoisie was reproached, which “left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest”; differing only accidentally from the bourgeois version in envisaging a different means of realization for this collection of isolated egos. This position is contradicted by the actual historical experience of revolutions and often even by the very actions of those who invoke it.


The situationists’ criticality and often appropriate calculated “arrogance” and use of insults — once taken out of the context of active struggle to change things — find a natural place in a world where everyone is presented with a spectacle of inferiority and encouraged to think that he is “different”; where every tourist seeks to avoid “the tourists” and every consumer prides himself on not believing the ads (an illusion of superiority that is often intentionally programmed into ads in order to facilitate the simultaneous penetration of the essential subliminal message). The pseudo-critical individual affirms his static superiority through his contemptuous and consequenceless critiques of others who have cruder or at least different illusions. Situationist humor — product of the contradictions between the latent possibilities of the epoch and its absurd reality — once it ceases to be practical, approaches simply the median popular humor of a society where the good spectator has been largely supplanted by the cynical spectator.


As reinvestors of the cultural riches of the past, the situationists, once the use of those riches is lost, rejoin spectacular society as simple promoters of culture. The process of the modern revolution — communication containing its own critique, continuous domination of the present over the past — meshes with that of a society depending on the continuous turnover of commodities, where each new lie criticizes the previous ones. That a work has something to do with the critique of the spectacle — in manifesting an element of “authentic radicality” or in representing some theoretically articulated moment of the decomposition of the spectacle — is hardly disadvantageous for it from the standpoint of the spectacle. While the situationists are right in pointing out the detournable elements in their forebears, in so doing they simultaneously win for those forebears a place in the spectacle, which, because it is so sorely lacking in the qualitative, welcomes the affirmation that there is some to be found among the cultural goods it markets. The detourned fragment is rediscovered as a fragment; when the use goes, the consumption remains; the detourners are detourned.


Such a vital concept as situationist necessarily knows simultaneously the truest and the most false uses, with a multitude of intermediate confusions.


As with other pivotal theoretical concepts, one cannot suppress the interested confusionism engendered by the concept situationist by suppressing its label. The ambiguities of the term “situationist” reflect the ambiguities of the situationist critique itself, at once separate from and part of the society it combats, at once separate party and its negation. The existence of a distinct “situationist milieu” — at once social concentration of advanced revolutionary consciousness and social embodiment of concentrated situationism — expresses the contradictions of the uneven development of conscious struggle in this period; since while to be explicitly situationist is hardly a guarantee of intelligent practice, not to be so is virtually a guarantee of aims of falsification or of an ignorance increasingly difficult to maintain involuntarily. The “spectacle” will be considered as a specifically situationist concept as long as it is considered as merely one more peripheral element of the society. But in simultaneously repressing its central aspects and the theory that has most radically articulated them and then thinking to kill two birds with one stone by lumping these uncategorizable entities together, the society confirms their real unity; as when for example a bibliography contains a section: “Daily Life, Consumer Society, and Situationist Themes.”


For the SI, the situationist label served to draw a line between the prevalent incoherence and a new exigency. The importance of the term withers away to the extent that the new exigences are widely known and practiced, to the extent that the proletarian movement becomes itself situationist. Such a label also facilitates a spectacular categorization of what it represents. But this very categorization at the same time exposes the society to the very coherence of the diverse situationist positions that makes possible a single label, the power of this exposure depending on the net total of significances carried by the term at a given moment. It is the trenchancy of the term which is at issue in the diverse struggles over whether someone or something is situationist, and it is a notable measure of this trenchancy that the term “pro-situationist” has been rendered universally recognized as pejorative. Although association with the label serves as no defense for acts, the actions of situationists do in a sense defend the word, in contributing toward rendering it as concentrated and dangerous a bomb as possible for the society to play with. The society that with little difficulty presents sectors of itself as “communist,” “Marxist” or “libertarian” finds it as yet impossible or inadvisable to present any aspect of itself as “situationist,” although it certainly would have done so by now if for example a “Nashist” (opportunistic neo-artistic) sense of the term had prevailed.


At its beginnings, as long as no one else is very close, the situationist critique seems so intrinsically anti-ideological that its proponents can scarcely imagine any situationism other than as a mere gross lie or misunderstanding. “There is no such thing as situationism,” such a term is “meaningless,” declares Internationale Situationniste #1 [Definitions]. A simple differentiation suffices to defend the term from misuse: the 5th Conference of the SI decides that all artistic works produced by its members must be explicitly labeled “antisituationist.” But the critique that opposes itself by definition to its ideologization cannot definitively or absolutely separate itself from it. The SI discovers a tendency “far more dangerous than the old artistic conception we have fought so much. It is more modern and therefore less apparent. . . . Our project has taken shape at the same time as the modern tendencies toward integration. There is thus not only a direct opposition but also an air of resemblance since the two sides are really contemporaneous. . . . We are necessarily on the same path as our enemies — more often preceding them” (Internationale Situationniste #9) [Now, the SI].


It is notorious that the modern intelligentsia has often utilized elements of situationist theory, formerly without acknowledgment, more recently — when such a plagiarization has become more difficult and when at the same time spectacular association with the situationists adds more to one’s prestige than knowledge of dependence on them detracts from it — more often with acknowledgment. But even more significant are the numerous theoretical and ideological manifestations that, in spite of no direct influence or even knowledge of the situationists, are ineluctably drawn to the same issues and the same formulations because these are nothing other than the intrinsic pivotal points of modern society and its contradictions.


To the extent that the situationist critique extends and deepens itself, modern society — merely to minimally understand its own functioning and opposition, or to present the spectacle reflecting what is most generally desired — must recuperate more and more elements of that critique, or in repressing it become the victim of its own correspondingly increasing blind spots.


Everything the SI has said about art, the proletariat, urbanism, the spectacle, is broadcast everywhere — minus the essential. While in the anarchy of the ideological market individual ideologies incorporate elements of situationist theory separated from their concrete totality, as an ensemble they effectively reunite the fragments as an abstract totality. All of modernist ideology taken as a block is situationism.


Situationism is the stealing of the initiative from the revolutionary movement, the critique of daily life undertaken by power itself. The spectacle presents itself as the originator or at least the necessary forum of discussion of the ideas of its destruction. Revolutionary theses don’t appear as the ideas of revolutionaries, that is as linked to a precise experience and project, but rather as an unexpected outburst of lucidity on the part of the rulers, stars and vendors of illusions. Revolution becomes a moment of situationism.


The society of situationism does not know that it is; that would be giving it too much credit. Only the proletariat can grasp its totality in the process of destroying it. It is principally the revolutionary camp that generates the diverse illusions and ideological nuances that can shore up the system and justify a restored status quo. The very successes of revolts having arrived at an ambiguous point of equilibrium with the system serve in part to advertise the greatness of a system that could generate and accommodate such radical successes.


By its very nature situationism cannot be immediately or fully realized. It is not supposed to be taken literally, but followed at just a few steps’ distance; if it were not for this albeit tiny distance, the mystification would become apparent.


In producing its situationism, the society shatters the cohesion of other ideologies, sweeps aside the archaic and accidental falsifications and draws the fragments capable of reinvestment to itself. But in thus concentrating the social false consciousness, the society prepares the way for the expropriation of this expropriated consciousness. The sophistication of recuperation forcibly disabuses revolutionaries, its unity pushes the conflict to a higher level, and elements of situationism diffused globally provoke their own supersession in regions where they had not yet developed from an indigenous theoretical base.


The SI was exemplary not only for what it said, but above all for all that it did not say. Diffuseness dilutes critical power. Discussion of things that don’t make any difference obscures the things that do. Entering onto the platform of ruling pseudo-dialogue turns truth into a moment of the lie. Revolutionaries must know how to be silent.

From the journal Bureau of Public Secrets #1 (January 1976). Reproduced in Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.

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