Sunday, November 14, 2010

Art and Thingness, Part Three: The Heart of the Thing is the Thing We Don’t Know, Sven Lütticken

→ Continued from “Art and Thingness, Part Two: Thingification” in issue 15.

In Hans Haacke’s pieces Broken R.M… and Baudrichard’s Ecstasy from the late 1980s, Duchamp’s readymades are subjected to transformations that highlight the problematic use of the readymade in the commodity art of the era: in the latter piece, a gilded urinal sits atop an ironing board; water is pumped through it from a bucket in a closed, self-referential loop. After Warhol’s canny exacerbation of the emerging image of the commodity, and the focus on the “picture” in late-1970s Appropriation Art, the commodity art of the 1980s focused on objects once more, but this time on objects devoid of the Duchampian tension between sign and thing, between a utilitarian object and the meanings projected onto it; these objects were programmed from the beginning to signify, to create value through the theological whims of their designed interplay. While Haim Steinbach’s shelves demonstrate this mechanism with considerable elegance, they remain in its thrall. Haacke’s objectified comments on 1980s commodity art are fitting epitaphs for such an art of the instrumentalized readymade, and his body of work as a whole can be seen as a sustained attempt to think through the readymade’s limitations as well as its consequences.

In the 1920s, both Lukács in History and Class Consciousness and, slightly later, Heidegger in Being and Time, critiqued the subject-object dichotomy in modern philosophy.1 Both authors attempted to develop an analysis of the complex situatedness of praxis in the world, but in Heidegger’s case this praxis was a depoliticized and dehistoricized Sorge, a taking-care of being along the lines of the earth-bound farmer taking care of the Scholle (the earth shoal, a favorite term in reactionary and Nazi philosophy during the 1920s and 1930s). Heidegger recalled that the term Ding originally referred to a form of archaic assembly, and in recent years Bruno Latour has latched onto this genealogy to redefine things in terms of “matters of concern” rather than “matters of fact,” as quasi-objects and quasi-subjects that fall between the two poles of the dichotomy.2 As I have argued—contra Latour—this needs to be seen as a critical project within modernity that brings together thinkers and artists (and not only them, obviously) that would be bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble.

Last year, in an exhibition that was part of a series of events on “social design,” curator Claudia Banz combined elements from the publications of Victor Papanek with a selection of multiples by Joseph Beuys.3 Bringing together Papanek’s designs for cheap and low-tech radios and televisions for use in third-world countries with works such as Beuys’ Capri Batterie (1985) and Das Wirtschaftswert-PRINZIP (1981), the exhibition subtly shifted the perception of Beuys’ works in particular. The works were displayed in the usual way, in display cases that tend to turn them into relics; yet the proximity of the radio and TV designs brought out aspects of these things that often remain dormant. Yes, the appropriated East German package of beans with its non-design has become a meta- and mega-fetish like so many other readymades, yet the constellation in which it has been placed opens up new connections, a new network of meaning. The Capri Batterie, like the 1974 Telephon S-E made from tin cans and wires, may be tied up with mystifying anthroposophical conceptions of energy and communication, but this combination emphasizes that it would be a mistake to see such Beuysian things purely as expressions of a private mythology. In a different field and in a different register from Papanek’s work, they too are counter-commodities—and while it would be a mistake to lose sight of their compromised status, it would be an even bigger one to be content with that observation.

Even if we were to disregard Beuys as regressive and unmodern, many of the 1960s and 1970s practices that are most steeped in the tradition of critical theory that Latour seeks to toss into the dustbin of history show that a critique of commodification is something rather different from a “ceaseless, even maniacal purification.” Martha Rosler’s various versions of her Garage Sale piece involve her mimicking this American suburban version of the Surrealists’ flea market; having been advertised in art and non-art media, it is a more or less normal garage sale to some, and a performance to others. However, Rosler noted that the setting transformed even the art crowd into a posse of bargain hunters, who did not pay that much attention to the structure of the space, with odd and personal objects tucked away in the outer corners, or to the slide show and sound elements. For a 1977 version, Rosler assumed the persona of a Southern Californian mother with “roots in the counterculture,” who on an audiotape that played in the place mused on the value and function of things: “What is the value of a thing? What makes me want it? . . . I paid money for these things—is there a chance to recuperate some of my investment by selling them to you? . . . Why not give it all away?” The woman goes on to quote Marx on commodity fetishism and to wonder if “you [will] judge me by the things I’m selling.”4

In such a work, the object is placed in a network that is social and political, not merely one of signs. Semiosis is always a social and political process. There is a diagrammatic dimension to such a piece, as there is, in different ways, to many works of Allan Sekula or Hans Haacke. If the diagram in Rosler’s piece is one that primarily concerns the circulation of objects in suburban family life, a number of Haacke’s works contrast the use of corporations’ logos in the context of art spaces, where they become disembodied signs, with those corporations’ exploitation of labor or involvement in authoritarian or racist regimes; Sekula’s Fish Story and related projects chart the largely unseen trajectories of commodities and workers on and near the oceans. Things and people. These practices, in particular those of Haacke and Rosler, spring from a critical reading of both the Duchampian heritage and the Constructivist project, which was being excavated in the same period by art historians, critics, activists, and artists. In their reading of these two genealogies, these artists recover some of the impetus behind the Constructivist/Productivist attempt to redefine the thing.

A diagrammatic impulse, an attempt to trace the trajectories of people and things, can also be seen in recent work such as Sean Snyder’s Untitled (Archive Iraq) (2003–2005) and related pieces, tracking the circulation of various types of commodity in the contested terrains of Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. When Snyder, in his photo pieces and films, zooms in on Fanta cans or Mars bars, on Casio watches or Sony cameras, the “social relations” between these commodities are not limited to the fetishistic coded differences celebrated by commodity art.

Filmic montage can be one tool for keeping track of things, of comparing different modes of production and distribution. In this respect, Allan Sekula’s films and Harun Farocki’s installation Vergleich über ein Drittes (Comparison via a Third) (2007) are strong demonstrations of the possibilities of filmic means—and in Farocki’s case, of their use in multi-channel video installations. A diagrammatic impulse can also be discerned in such filmic pieces; but here, as in the case of Snyder’s Untitled (Archive Iraq), the aim is not to strive for some suggestion of complete transparency that would reduce objects to geometric points for a sovereign subject to grasp at a glance. Rather, the objects and subjects are placed in a jumbled constellation in which they become problematic, questionable things and people. Of course, the artificial limitations on the availability of film and video pieces in the contemporary art economy make such pieces highly questionable things in their own right, and crucial projects such as Snyder’s Index, which involves the digitization and uploading of the artist’s archive, address the limitations of the dominant form of media objecthood.

The limitations imposed on the circulation of commodities by intellectual property law are also scrutinized in a number of projects by Superflex—commodities that include, in their current project at the Van Abbemuseum, a wall piece by Sol LeWitt. In a less interventionist and (in the military sense of the term) offensive way than Superflex, Agency/Kobe Matthys charts the legal battles waged over the use of objects, images, and programs by collecting, investigating, and exhibiting specific things. A recent installation in Anselm Franke’s “Animism” exhibition at Extra City in Antwerp contained a number of things that have been subject to litigation, as instances in which human authorship is thrown into question because of the role played by the non-human (technological, animal), with items ranging from bingo cards to a video game and a German TV broadcast of a circus act with elephants. Exhibited in a space lined with crates containing many more items, the space seemed to channel Surrealism via Mark Dion. Some of the things on display had an anachronistic quaintness to them, yet Matthys’ classified readymades go beyond the conventional exacerbation of the commodity’s theological (or animist) whims.

There are, of course, other important examples of practices that seek to push the work of art to a point where it reveals itself to be a special category of thing that reflects (on) the state of things. Here one may think of Michael Cataloi and Nils Norman’s “University of Trash” project, with its investigation into various alternative economies and social structures proposed in the 1960s and 1970s, and of Ashley Hunt and Taisha Paggett’s project about the garment industry and its workers, with its charting of the movements of contemporary products across the globe. Some of these projects and practices may be more successful than others, but an important characteristic that they share is that their embrace of the work of art’s “thingified” status is not a capitulation, an assimilation of the work of art to the dreaded world of hat racks and other arbitrary objects. Rather, such projects are interventions into our society’s production of (in)visibility. If anything, they can more properly lay claim to continuing the project of modern aesthetics than those intent on erecting a wall around the work of art; after all, from Schiller and the Jena Romantics onwards, the modern aesthetic project was expansive, aimed at intervening in the “art of living.”5

However, avant-garde attempts to abandon autonomous art in favor of a complete integration of art and life were as misjudged by critics as modernist rappels à l’ordre that limited art to reflecting on the unique properties of its mediums, or later attempts to limit Conceptual Art to a series of proposals about its own status as art and nothing else.6 Even Constructivist forays into production in the early 1920s depended on a specialist sphere of practice and discourse whose confines they sought to escape—a sphere that would soon be destroyed by Stalin. On the other hand, a properly reflexive work of art can never be only about its status as art, about “art itself.” Since art’s apparent autonomy is socially conditioned, the obverse of its heteronomous inscription in a global capitalist economy that penetrates into ever more realms of life and parts of the planet, the work of art’s self-reflection is a sham it if is not potentially about everything, and every thing.

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Art and Thingness, Part Two: Thingification, Sven Lütticken

→ Continued from “Art and Thingness, Part One: Breton’s Ball, Duchamp’s Carrot” in issue 13.

In a text written in response to the upheavals of the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet avant-garde, Carl Einstein claimed that tradition “piles up in the object”; that the object is a “medium for passive thinking,” bound to tradition and bourgeois property relations; and that in order to “assert the human person, objects, which are preserve jars, must be destroyed.” Going so far as to state that “every destruction of objects is justified,” Einstein proclaimed a “dictatorship of the thingless.”1 Einstein’s text seems to reflect simplistic narratives in which modernity is virtually synonymous with a purist, idealist suppression of the thing. Of course, such idealist tendencies did exist, but so did opposition to them. As if responding to Einstein’s quasi-suprematist essay, Adorno once remarked that “someone who looks upon thingness as radical evil, who wants to dynamize all that exists into pure actuality, tends to be hostile to otherness, to the alien—which has lent its name to alienation, and not for nothing.”2

In a Latourian manner, one might present the recent turn to the thing as a break with the project of modernity: after all, isn’t modernity in theory and in praxis the desperate attempt to (re)form the world in accordance with the will of an autonomous, imperious subject that turns things into ordered and emaciated objects? Such an opposition, however, is dubious; as Adorno’s remark may serve to recall, it is not only manifestly “anti-modern” modern philosophers, such as Heidegger, who prefigure the recent thing-turn. Adorno too was far from embracing objects or things as they were, rooted as his thought was in the Marxian analysis of commodity fetishism and the Lukácsian critique of reification or Verdinglichung. After all, isn’t the very term Verdinglichung—literally “thingification,” to which an important section of Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness is dedicated—manifestly idealist?

For all the problems with History and Class Consciousness—of which Lukács was well aware later in his life—it remains worthwhile to trace the main steps of its argument, whose repercussions can scarcely be overestimated. Lukács’ starting point is Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism, in which “a definite social relation between men” assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things,” which Lukács characterizes as “the basic phenomenon of reification.”3 But the fetishist illusion of commodities—as “social things” whose exchange value appears to follow gratuitous whims—is only one half of reification; it is not only that the commodities form a spectacle of quasi-subjects, but the subjects themselves, as workers, are transformed. In consequence of the rationalization of the work process the human qualities and idiosyncrasies of the worker appear increasingly as mere sources of error when contrasted with these abstract special laws functioning according to rational predictions. Neither objectively nor in his relation to his work does man appear as the authentic master of the process; on the contrary, he is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already preexisting and self-sufficient; it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not. As labor is progressively rationalized and mechanized, his lack of will is reinforced by the way in which his activity becomes less and less active and more and more contemplative.4

According to Lukács, modern philosophy reflects reified consciousness. Starting with Kant, philosophy had set itself “the following problem: it refuses to accept the world as something that has arisen (or has been created by God) independently of the knowing subject, and prefers to conceive of it instead as its own product.”5 However, absolute idealism with its exclusive focus on the absolute “I” proved untenable, as idealist philosophy had to take its departure precisely from the split between subject and object, which it sought to overcome, to sublate—to contain within a higher unity from which the philosophers “could ‘create,’ deduce and make comprehensible the duality of subject and object on the empirical plane, i.e. in its objective form.”6 The world was now conceived in terms of a dialectical process that shattered the original, absolute unity, but restored it on a higher level. It is precisely where idealist philosophy finds its limit in the dialectical process—which it conceives in abstract terms as being enacted by subject and object—that Lukács begins to reflect upon an economy in which the subject is alienated from its objective conditions, and in which the products of labor take on quasi-subjective qualities.

Marx shattered the philosophical deadlock of idealism by using the dialectical method to analyze dialectical processes between classes. Lukács himself, however, gave a rather idealist interpretation to this materialist turn; as he later admitted, his explicit presentation of the proletariat as the identical subject-object of history was still highly idealist.7 In his autocritique, he also argued that he had unduly equated reification with alienation, and furthermore that he had tended to identify alienation with objectification; in fact, objectification is unavoidable, as any type of society must to some extent objectify itself in practice, in physical objects as well as in social structures. Alienation, on the other hand, based on commodity fetishism or reification, is not a given; structures that alienate man from his own nature must be abolished.8

If at first sight Carl Einstein’s text appears to merely celebrate an idealist triumph of pure spirit—of the abstracted subject—over objects, on closer inspection it becomes clear that Einstein too wishes to go beyond the dichotomy of subject and object. Stating that “the object no longer dominates vision; rather vision is now directed against the object, ruthlessly, dictatorially,” Einstein proclaims a project of revolutionary Entdinglichung (a reversal of Verdinglichung), resulting in a “dictatorship of vision, ascetics of the object, destruction of facts, and accordingly, renunciation of the self.” It is not so much a matter of the subject triumphing over the object, but of a new vision that creates a new “fluctuant experience of space.”9 In admittedly idealist terms (that also recall some of Raoul Hausmann’s writings from the period), Einstein here sketches a situation in which a form of praxis generates experiences that undermine any stable dichotomy of subject and object.

In this sense, he comes close to the constructivist/productivist theorists of the veshch, the object that would offer an alternative to the “idolized” commodity-object of Western capitalism. Writing from Paris in 1925, Aleksandr Rodchenko wrote that “the light from the East is in the new relation to the person, to woman, to things. Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades, and not these black and mournful slaves, as they are here.”10 Later, Brecht would paraphrase Hegel by stating that “things are occurrences” rather than immovable states.11 We are dealing here with a constellation of Marxian attempts at redefining the role of objecthood and thingness—a constellation that also includes Adorno, in whose development History and Class Consciousness played a crucial role. Adorno’s most developed thoughts on the matter are to be found in Negative Dialectics, where he places great emphasis on the dangers of equating objects with alienation. “In Marx one can already find the difference between the object’s primacy as something to be produced critically and its caricature in things as they are (im Bestehenden), its distortion by the commodity character.”12

Dialectics becomes materialist when the primacy of the object is established; yet, Adorno warns, “the primacy of the object notwithstanding, the thingness of the world is also illusory. It tempts the subjects to ascribe to the things themselves the social conditions of their production. This is elaborated in Marx’s chapter on the fetish …”13 What is crucial for Adorno is to combine “tenacious opposition against that which exists: against its thingness,” with a staunch rejection of attempts to identify thingness as evil.14 “In thingness there is an intermingling of both the object’s unidentical side and the subjection of people under the prevailing forms of production—their own functional relations, which are obscure to them.”15 While, on the one hand, thingness (das Dinghafte) stands for the subjection of people under alienating and mystifying forms of production; on the other, the thing stands for the non-identical, for that which escapes the clutch of instrumental reason. It does so more fully than the object, which is “the positive face of the non-identical”; in other words, “a terminological mask.”16 Objecthood is thingness objectified, subjected to concepts in the same way that a subject is a person become concept, a legal-philosophical abstraction; a thing is to an object as a person is to a subject.

However unlikely this may sound (after all, many think of Adorno only as a late-modernist mandarin), as late echoes of debates that raged in the 1920s and 1930s, these passages can be seen as a belated contribution to the theory of productivism, of an art aiming to construct new types of things that would be true “comrades.” The crucial term veshch can be translated either as “thing” or as “object” (as in the case of Lissitzky and Ehrenburg’s journal Veshch/Gegenstand/Objet), but a dominant motif in productivist theory was the need to go beyond fetishized capitalist object-commodities towards a new type of veshch production and distribution that would no longer hide the things’ histories, the productive conditions that shaped them. The counterpart of the new veshch-thing is of course a notion of self different from the classical-modern subject; noting critically that Paris was marked by a “cult of woman as thing,” Rodchenko attempted to redefine both thing and person in their interrelationships.17

It is above all this aspect of constructivism/productivism that relates to present concerns—as it was to those of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period that saw the rediscovery of constructivism in a different sense than its formalist reduction by the likes of Naum Gabo and George Rickey.18 The recent purchase of a reconstruction of Rodchenko’s 1925 Workers’ Club by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven—which already around 1970 played an important role in the rediscovery of the social and political side of constructivism—is a significant event, provided that the museum avoids presenting Rodchenko’s furniture (which rejects the semiotic reduction of chromed “functionalism” in favor of flexible constructions that demand an active user) as a nostalgic and reified image of the early Soviet Union. For all the doubts we may harbor about aspects of the constructivist project, such as its belief in relentless industrialization, Rodchenko’s attempt to redefine and reform things and their role in human life—of which the Workers’ Club forms one partial realization—can overlap with the present in a momentary Jetztzeit.

Now that everyday life is increasingly marked by convoluted attempts to gain some insight into the tangled thingness in which we are embedded, to trace the origins of the food we buy, to try and quantify the production of pollution resulting from our energy consumption, to do more than merely survive under ever more precarious working conditions, productivism chimes with current concerns. It is reactivated in current practices such as that of Chto Delat, even if the formal means employed in their videos and installations sometimes court the risk of appearing to be exercises in nostalgic retro chic.19 In a less literal way, a similar impulse can be detected in the activities of Temporary Services, for example in the recent “Art Work,” an exhibition in the shape of a newspaper discussing the consequences of the collapse of the economy for artists, and pushing for “new ways of doing things, developing better models.”20 Here one may also think of Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s Solo Show project (2008), which foregrounded the semi-hidden world of companies that produce work for today’s big artists by giving a man used to interpreting artists’ designs a much more active role in determining the show’s content, as well as that of her earlier installation, ...deeply__to the notion that the__world is__to the observer...(commited) (real) (external).21

...deeply__to the notion that the__world is__to the observer...(commited) (real) (external) contains a video in which two women set up a do-it-yourself billboard in the middle of a highway. The billboard itself, which shares the space with the video projection, consists of a series of photo/text montages that address, in a less than linear way, the consequences of multiple events of the early 1970s: the collapse of the gold standard, the rise of conceptual art and immaterial labor, and the transformation of the dollar into a “virtual currency” whose fate is, however, linked to the price of oil. All of its graphic components can be downloaded from the Internet and then printed and pasted onto a self-assembled wooden structure. Rather than a didactic exposition molding these elements into a clear-cut narrative, the board’s montage creates juxtapositions that are, quite literally, questionable. How exactly does the rejection of the object in conceptual art relate to the collapse of the gold standard, and immaterial labor to the continuing importance of oil—the oneiric master-commodity? Having been emphatically told that various wars were definitely not about oil, should we believe such statements any more than the rhetoric of dematerialization employed in the context of conceptual art? In spite of the increasing importance of certificates for determining the rights to a work of art, in the world charted by Haghighian’s Solo Show, the concepts faxed or mailed by managerial artists are still destined for production by specialized companies—a division of labor that Haghighian’s project undermines by instigating a different working relationship, one that leads to the production of mutant things.

Clearly, today a search for “new ways of doing things, developing better models” does not imply the abstract negation of the past propagated by Carl Einstein or, in a different manner, by the productivists. Yesterday’s tabula rasa is now itself part of the historical repertory—at times neutralized through nostalgic quotations, at other times activated in the form(s) of projects that treat the historical material as a potential waiting to be actualized, however partially and fleetingly.22 But if neo-productivist impulses can be found in a number of important practices and projects, the readymade still haunts much of contemporary art; its afterlife is not over yet. As part one of this essay has argued, the readymade principle has been severely compromised by its integration into the logic of the market of the past decades, but it continues to inform constructivist responses to present exigencies.


→ Continued in “ Art and Thingness, Part Three: The Heart of the Thing is the Thing We Don’t Know” in issue 16.

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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Art and Thingness, Part One: Breton’s Ball and Duchamp’s Carrot, Sven Lütticken

In modern art, the increasing resemblance of art objects to everyday objects raised the threat of eroding of any real difference between works of art and other things. Barnett Newman railed against both Duchamp’s readymades and “Bauhaus screwdriver designers” who were elevated to the ranks of artists by the Museum of Modern Art’s doctrine of “Good Design.”1 The danger for art was the same in both cases: the dissolving of the dividing line between works of art and everyday objects. Just as ancient art proper should never be confused with the craft of “women basket weavers,” modern art should never be confused with a screwdriver or urinal.2 In the 1960s, Clement Greenberg would also worry that a blank sheet of paper or a table would become readable as art, that the boundary between artworks and “arbitrary objects” was eroding.3 While not evincing any Modernist anxieties about readymades, Paul Chan’s recent assertion that “a work of art is both more and less than a thing” shows renewed concerns regarding such an assimilation—in a context marked, until quite recently, by an unprecedented market boom in which works of art seemed to be situated in a continuum of luxury goods spanning from Prada bags to luxury yachts.4

But what does it mean to say that an artwork is both more and less than a thing? The notion of the thing is prominent in contemporary theory, and one might say that the thing has emerged as something that is both more and less than an object. In W. J. T. Mitchell’s words:

“Things” are no longer passively waiting for a concept, theory, or sovereign subject to arrange them in ordered ranks of objecthood. “The Thing” rears its head—a rough beast or sci-fi monster, a repressed returnee, an obdurate materiality, a stumbling block, and an object lesson.5

Rather than building a wall between art and thingness, the work of art should be analyzed as just such a sci-fi monster. If objects are named and categorized, part of a system of objects, thingness is resistant to such ordered objecthood. If we grant that a work of art is both more and less than other types of things, this should not be regarded as an incentive to exacerbate and fetishize those differences, but rather as a point of departure for analyzing the complex interrelationships of artworks with these other things—and for examining certain works of art as problematizing and transforming this very relationship.6

A prominent proponent of the thing in recent theory is Bruno Latour, who has taken it upon himself to reveal “the terrible flaws of dualism,” which marked modernity.7 The hubristic project of modernity was based on the dichotomy of society and nature, of subject and object; this enables the modern “work of purification,” the triumph of the subject and the relegation of nature and of non-moderns to the abyss of thought. Underneath this purifying dichotomy, however, there is a disavowed continuity of networks, of hybrids; modern binary, “critical” thinking exists by virtue of the denial of this continuity, this world of “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects”—that which is “between and below the two poles” of object and subject.8 “Moderns do differ from premoderns by this single trait: they refuse to conceptualize quasi-objects as such. In their eyes, hybrids present the horror that must be avoided at all costs by a ceaseless, even maniacal purification.”9

Like all good caricatures, Latour’s portrayal of modernity presents some traits in sharp, even exaggerated clarity. And like many good and bad caricatures, it is one-sided and self-serving. If we look carefully at modern theory and (art) practice, it should be obvious that there have been a number of significant attempts to go beyond a static dichotomy of subject and object. Reexamining such moments can be of extreme interest—not in order to create some kind of oneiric ancestral line leading up to present concerns, but in order to sound out the limitations as well as the unfulfilled potential of various practices. Working though the contradictions of, for instance, the Duchampian readymade can help focus current debates—turning such a historical phenomenon into an anachronistic intervention in the present.

The rejection of the readymade by critics and artists such as Greenberg and Newman was shaped by a fear of the collapse of categories, the fear of identity, of the work of art becoming just another “arbitrary” object. In addition to such critiques, which we may label conservative, the 1960s saw the emergence of a second strand of anti-Duchampian discourse. Its proponents were artists including Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, and Daniel Buren, and an important point that their different criticisms had in common was that Duchamp’s own practice was itself conservative in that it merely seemed to confirm and exploit the existing art-world structures and their power of definition.10 Apparently working on the assumption that Duchamp’s work was fully accounted for by the then-emerging institutional theory of art, these artists felt that Duchamp merely used the institution(s) of art to redefine objects as artworks, thus multiplying their aura, their fetishistic allure, and their value. As Robert Smithson put it, “there is no viable dialectic in Duchamp because he is only trading on the alienated object and bestowing on this object a kind of mystification.”11

Such remarks were no doubt made in view of Duchamp’s own commodification of his readymades in the 1960s, with the Schwartz editions, and of the proliferation of Neo-Dada and Nouveau Réalisme objects, accumulations, and assemblages. This type of art object was tailor-made for the dismal science called the institutional theory of art, which it helped spawn, and which statements by artists such as Buren and Smithson parallel. However, if we look beyond the horizon of the 1960s reception of Duchamp, at the repercussions of the readymade among the surrealists around 1930 in particular, things become rather more complicated and interesting.

Hegel saw modern art as bifurcating into on the one hand a “realist” tendency that would show the surface of objects in minute “objectivity,” and on the other a “spiritual” tendency that would place all the emphasis on the subject.12 For the surrealists, Duchamp’s readymades became crucial at the moment when the question of the relation between subject and object, between spirit and matter, became an overriding concern: when they placed their activities “in the service of the revolution,” entering into a difficult relationship with the party that claimed to represent and enact dialectical materialism, and which eyed the surrealists’ idealist focus on dreams and visions more than a little suspiciously. The surrealists set out to prove that their approach in fact complemented orthodox Marxism, in that surrealism, “within the framework of dialectical materialism, is the only method that accounts for the real links between the world and thought.”13 If dialectical materialism can cause bricks to be laid, then surely this relationship was of primary importance.14

One of the issues of Le Surréalisme au service de la Révolution contained a montage of textual fragments on Hegel and Marx, which contrasted the lackluster number of Hegel’s works available in French with the blockbuster sales of Hegel’s complete works in the Soviet Union, informing us that “the five year plan is founded on dialectics.”15 In the middle of a page is a line drawing of Hegel’s death mask; Spirit has become plaster. If the facts about the prices and sales of Hegel’s works seem to fit into Aragon’s quite linear remarks on spirit influencing things in the world, the death mask complicates things. As an outmoded relic of the nineteenth century, it is a surrealist object par excellence, but it is hardly operative in the contemporary world—unless one instrumentalizes it for the purpose of some Stalinist personality cult.

To some extent, the surrealist art of the object represented an appropriation, a détournement of Duchamp’s project. Surrealist objects were supposed to provide shocks, to give the viewer a jolt, which sets them apart from Duchamp’s more “disinterested” montages of existing objects and new thoughts. What the surrealists saw very clearly, however, is that the Duchampian readymade was, in David Joselit’s words, “a paradoxical object locked in a perpetual oscillation between its status as a thing and its status as a sign.”16 The bottle rack—sometimes called Hedgehog—inscribed with Duchamp’s signature becomes its own double, a visual pun combining Duchamp’s favorite “ism,” eroticism (the phallic protrusions), with references to his arcane geometric and n-dimensional concerns.17 Outwardly, the object remains the same, yet it is dislodged, integrated into the web of signification spun in Duchamp’s notes.

When André Breton’s estate was auctioned off, one of the items for sale was a semiotic object par excellence: a fortune teller’s crystal ball that had been used in 1933 to illustrate Breton’s text “Le Message automatique.”18 In his 1925 “Lettre aux Voyantes,” Breton had addressed the fortune-tellers, or “seers,” who had been marginalized by modern science:

Mesdames, today my mind is wholly on your disgrace. I know that you no longer dare to use your voice, no longer deign to use your all-powerful authority except within the woeful “legal” limits. I can see in my mind’s eye the houses you live in, on the fourth floor, in districts more or less remote from the cities.19

Breton pleads with the “ladies” that it is time for them to give up their passivity and reclaim their proper role. The crystal ball, smaller than one would expect on the basis of cartoons and comic strips, speaks of the same ambiguity between exalted visions and the banality of banlieue fortune-telling. An exemplary visual object or object-sign, the crystal ball was at the same time a materialization of desire and a dematerialization of the object; a proper surrealist thing.

The last major surrealist exhibition, “Surrealist Intrusion in the Enchanters’ Domain,” which took place in New York in 1960, was also the last collaboration between Duchamp and Breton (after almost forty years, it would lead to a mutual estrangement that lasted until Breton’s death). Breton’s decision to structure the exhibition using a list of mythical “enchanters” sits oddly with Duchamp’s nouveau réalisme–style environment, with its toy trains, clock, and real chickens. The catalog features another Duchampian contribution: an embossed reproduction of the electrical sign, a double red cone called a carotte, that identified French tobacconist’s shops.20 As a “virtual” readymade that does not actually exist as a three-dimensional object, this relief, existing in between two and three dimensions, has obvious connections with Duchamp’s n-dimensional speculations. In the context of the early 1960s, it also seems to acknowledge that the readymade has become its own image, that capitalism has turned itself into a forest of signs. The tobacconist’s sign makes the crystal ball look like old hat.

In the postwar decades, the old three-dimensional tobacconist’s cones were being replaced by graphic, two dimensional versions; this transformation suggests that Duchamp here opted for an object that was fast becoming obsolete, but which allowed him to play with dimensions in a more interesting way than the new version. For the most part, of course, Duchamp’s readymades refrain from a surrealist flirt with the obsolete, with outmoded commodities, with the debris of Walter Benjamin’s Second-Empire Paris, with the refuse of modernity’s myths; neither, of course, do the readymades constitute montages in the manner of Dali’s lobster-telephone. Once could see an impetus at work in many surrealist objects that, in a less extreme and overt way than Greenberg or Newman, aims at establishing and emphasizing differences—at distinguishing these objects from “arbitrary objects” by imbuing them with signs of the psyche, of subjectivity. While many surrealist objects emphasize that they “function symbolically,” the readymades do not.

In this, ironically, they foreshadow in their own way the future of the commodity, in an archaic guise: they announce the profusion of goods that are bought for their coded distinctiveness in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In the 1970s this becoming-sign of the object would lead Jean Baudrillard to diagnose fundamental changes in capitalism by supplementing the categories of use value and exchange value with his concept of sign value. Referencing Bauhaus furniture, with its “functionalism” that has become style, become sign, Baudrillard effectively theorized an economy in which the circulation of sign value creates exchange value, in which commodity fetishism stops being an illusion and becomes a reality.21 While Baudrillard noted that exchange value is based on “equivalence” and sign value on “difference,” the latter is at the service of the former: the difference between Brand A and Brand B is expressed in prices that are subject to the law of exchange, hence of equivalence. This triumph of fetishism—of commodity fetishism as an active agent—results in object-signs that suppress most traces of their history, of their trajectories. Their lives seem to be lived in a realm of pure semiosis. Are the readymades and the surrealist objects they helped spawn not just as crucial to this development as Bauhaus furniture—or Bauhaus screwdrivers?22

David Joselit has equated the readymade’s “oscillation between its status as a thing and its status as a sign” with the fundamental tension between material commodities and immaterial networks in the modern economy.23 However, the readymade-as-sign is primarily part of a network of signification created by Duchamp’s other objects and texts; in this sense, the readymade is indeed the model for the branded commodity and for “actually existing fetishism.” The consumption of the pre-existing object by the artist and its use for the production of new value is presented as a purely semiotic operation, and the readymade’s trajectory in different economical networks is obscured. In a roundabout way, we seem to have arrived back at the point of departure—at a rejection of the readymade as mystifying and complicit in an ever-intensifying process of commodification. Were the surrealists then entirely deluded in regarding Duchamp’s readymades as object lessons in “thingifying” desires in ways that radically differed from alienating commodity-objects?

In a letter to Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno described the latter’s notion of the dialectical image in terms that seem to emphasize Benjamin’s indebtedness to Surrealism: Adorno stated that “if the use value of things dies,” these alienated and hollowed-out objects can come to be charged with new subjectivity. While the things become “images” of subjective intentions, this does not erase their thingness: dialectical images remain montages, constellations of alienated things and meaning.24 Adorno neither attempts to eradicate the object nor does he recoil from the horror of the hybrid; the ruined object, charged with new subjective intentions means, becomes precisely a quasi-subject, one that offers a glimpse of a world beyond the false objectivity constituted by the quasi-natural “necessities” ruling industrial production. This point needs to be remembered now that we are surrounded by industrialized versions of such quasi-subjects, in which coded difference creates a kind of generic subjectivity that amounts to a thin layer of paint glossing over the substratum of false objectivity. How can one go beyond the limitations of the readymade and retain the project of making things, quasi-objects, that point beyond the limitations of the contemporary commodity?

To be sure, it can be argued that any readymade object will unavoidably be marked by an infra-thin difference in relation to its allotted place in the codified order of objects. In its obtuse materialism, it is always potentially a thing, which is to say: a ruin. In her photographic series Detitled (2000), Barbara Visser saves modern design icons precisely by showing them in a ruined state (in different ruined states, each with its specificities). And is it not the task of critics and art historians to bring out the work of art’s potential, the ways in which it resists complete assimilation into the order of things? If we answer this in the affirmative, we should also ask ourselves whether such an exercise cannot also, at some point, become an exercise in self-delusion. Even if we try to help the neo-readymade by deconstructing it, bringing its complexities and contradictions to the fore, such operations leave intact the structural limitations of the logic of readymade, as brought out by its decades-long, crushing success.

Like Duchamp’s and the surrealists’ practices, Adorno’s remark is limited by its focus on giving new meaning to existing objects—on producing meaning, and ultimately value, by consuming objects. Of course, such immaterial labor is itself dependent on specific social and economical circumstances and structures, but these remain largely implicit with Duchamp, and even more so with the surrealists. For all the productive and viable elements in the dialectic of object and subject that marks their mutant commodities, it remains rather abstract and idealist. If one wants to go beyond the exploration of the semiotic system and explore the readymade’s place in a socio-economical network, such a project—whether in critical writing or in artistic practice—necessarily explodes the logic of the readymade.

Now that the social and ecological consequences of an economy that mystifies production have come home to haunt us, the limitations of the readymade when it comes to intervening in the system of objects are painfully clear. At the same time, the legacy of Soviet productivism, which has often been obscured for decades by the dominance of the type of “Good Design” discourse exemplified by MoMA, takes on a renewed importance.


→ Continued in “Art and Thingness, Part Two: Thingification” in issue 15.

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dear Ray Johnson, Charles Stuckey

Like many eccentric people of my generation I have a folder of artful, profoundly prankish souvenirs from the late Ray Johnson. Too bad I made no log of his frequent phone calls, when they happened or what was said back and forth. (Imagine the size of Johnson’s telephone bills! If only he had kept his monthly statements listing the numbers he called and the minutes he invested. Was there anyone connected to art who did not hear from him regularly?) While I was aware already as a student in the sixties of Johnson’s existence as a pioneering contemporary artist whose small collages were illustrated in every survey of Pop art, it was not until 1977 while I taught art history at Johns Hopkins that I first received one of the amazing artist’s multitudinous mailings. The cover letter seductively acknowledged my article just published in Art in America about women without heads appearing in works by Marcel Duchamp. Among the assortment of other sheets in the same initial mailing were two folded 17 x 11” photocopies of works from the ongoing series of silhouette portrait collages that Johnson had begun in 1976, both including reproductions of the headless (and so antithetical to portraiture) female featured in Duchamp’s Étant donnés. As I would learn, Johnson characteristically incorporated such favorite images over and again in different collage compositions throughout the course of decades, suggesting in the way of Wagnerian leitmotifs that otherwise varied collages sharing some particular image were partly interrelated in his obsessively creative mind. Betraying his sympathy for the great nineteenth-century Symbolists like Gauguin and Munch who quoted details from their own previous works the same way, Johnson’s capacity for allusion by repetition was greatly abetted by the advent around 1958 of the office photocopy machine that could endlessly replicate any source image small enough to fit folded into an envelope. No less important, I would come to realize that the muted black tones of the photocopies, ubiquitous in his mail art no less than in his more substantial collage works, implied a baseline nocturnal mood. But I never seriously heeded the pervasive obsession in his works with death, so obvious ever since Johnson took his own life in 1995. (For anyone still unfamiliar with John Walter’s 2002 eye-opening documentary, How to Draw a Bunny, put this pamphlet down right away and watch the DVD.)

Back to 1977: of course, I liked the idea that a famous artist kept up with my arcane investigations. In his initial letter Johnson asked whether I was aware of his own works incorporating the headless Étant donnés figure. Or whether I knew about the vandals who decapitated Edvard Erichsen’s 1913 mermaid sculpture installed at the Copenhagen waterfront in honor of Hans Christian Anderson’s story. (Finnish by heritage, Ray was well informed about Scandinavian art.) Taking his bait with pleasure, I hurried to call the telephone number he provided and so received an unforgettable lesson in anything goes art history. Unable to keep up with Johnson’s imaginative leaps and encyclopedic erudition, I missed more in his art than I ever yet saw. Already aware that bunnies were kid’s stuff, my three-year-old son burst into tears (“I am not a bunny head!”) not long before Easter 1994 when the mail brought a Johnson mail “portrait” of him. It never occurred to me to connect Johnson’s bunny mania to the trademark gentleman’s magazine with fold-out revelations, any more than to the hares used as performance art props by Joseph Beuys, or to the famous discussion of double images in E. H. Gombrich’s 1960 classic, Art and Illusion, referring to Wittgenstein’s commentary on a drawing of a rabbit’s head that looks like a duck’s. But in an incredible and ongoing series of publications Johnson’s fanatical friend William Wilson has described many such labyrinthine threads of interconnecting and superimposed meanings. Johnson’s works call for annotations, like those prompted by the writings of James Joyce. (In the late 1950s Johnson famously made a proto-Pop “portrait” collage of the abstruse Irish writer as a cigarette advertisement he-man.) What is most needed now where Johnson studies are concerned, however, are publications with lots of comparative illustrations showing works by other artists so that the promiscuous range of his visual references can be appreciated on the same level as his literary ones.

I finally met the artist in person when I moved back to New York in 1980 and after a few years he arranged for me to sit for one of the silhouette profiles that he used as the basis for many of his mostly black and white collages of the period. When he had the twenty-six Stuckey profile collages “finished” he brought them all to my Chinatown loft and spread them around like units of a mysterious alphabet. Always one for situational ground rules, Johnson had explained in advance that this would be my one and only viewing opportunity, after which he intended to cannibalize bits of these “portraits” as stuff for other collages under development as his imagination insatiably fed upon itself. From start to stop the process for my “portraits” coincided roughly with the retrospective of his art presented at the Nassau County Museum of Art in 1984 when I first had the opportunity to get an overview of Johnson’s art. While his works are now the subject of exhibitions all around the world, during his lifetime Johnson managed to derail many efforts to show his work. But he seemingly adored curator Phyllis Stigliano, who arranged to borrow from a variety of impressive institutional and private lenders, attesting to how widely collected Johnson was as an artist, notwithstanding his own self-effacing outlook. Contrary to the ever more inflated size widespread in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s art, nothing in this show was over thirty inches high. The issue of intimate scale aside, the exhibition made it quite clear that Johnson was unsurpassed as a collage artist throughout this thirty-year period. Lucy Lippard put it especially well in 1999: “made by the most tenderly time-consuming methods,” Johnson’s collages are “overflowing with wit, charm and enigma.” A longstanding Johnson fan, Lippard excused herself in 1973 for leaving Johnson out of her famous account of de-materialized art from 1966-1972. According to Madeline Gins, Johnson was furious. In truth, Johnson was far more than a collage artist, as we learned at the 1984 opening night, on which occasion one of the guests was Frances Beatty, who has subsequently taken charge of the artist’s estate. Johnson’s old friend, Timothy Baum recalled how the artist spent the evening outside the museum rather than inside. For those who noticed (and I did not) it was a performance. Suggesting his discomfort as an artist with the idea of being the center of attention, suggesting even contempt for the concepts of recognition and status, Johnson’s behavior was just one more sign that he was contemplating his own permanent self-removal.

Utilizing scraps displaced from various possibly unrelated printed papers as parts of amalgamated images, strangely multifarious, collage as a mode diagrams and frames the capacity of imagination to experience at once any number of different times and places, people, things and feelings in all sorts of ways as a potluck stream of consciousness. More than any kind of new technology collage is what is essentially modern about twentieth-century art. And yet with its impure intermixture of means, collage continues to be marginalized as an exception in museum collections organized along the lines of old-fashioned mediums or in displays predicated on large (and so, supposedly important) works. With the exception of caricature and comic strip art, collage is the static art form best suited to humor and play, still antithetical to many people’s standards for truly great art. The ambivalent status of collage could only make it more appealing to Johnson who enjoyed every chance to make light of sacred culture cows.

For an artist who would decide to specialize in collage, Johnson came of age at an auspicious moment. After schooling at the ultra-progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina, in 1948 he settled in Manhattan where presumably he attended the first solo exhibition of Black Mountain instructor Willem de Kooning presented that same year at the Egan Gallery. Both as process art and as fluid black and white compositions, many of Johnson’s collages of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s recall de Kooning’s paintings of the late 1940s that so appealed to Johnson’s influential neighbor, John Cage, because they had no center of interest. These nocturnal works show traces of de Kooning’s dynamic studio practice of cutting up his own drawings and then merging the remnants from different ones, so to incorporate (and preserve) previous ideas in constantly evolving hybrid images. In 1949 Johnson likely saw the three extraordinary gallery exhibitions staged by Joseph Cornell, whose orchestrations of humble old-fashioned childhood ephemera were object lessons in how a truly inspired artist gifted with an abundance of imagination could work exclusively in collage and assemblage. Cornell’s symbolist tendency to include similar elements repeatedly in many different works made over the course of years gave license for Johnson to do the same for the rest of his life. I can only assume that Johnson eventually saw some of Cornell’s collage letters. (When Johnson in 1968 moved away from Manhattan to Long Island he gained in physical proximity to de Kooning in Springs and Cornell in Flushing, far more than he lost by distancing himself from the ever more hectic downtown art scene.) Besides the opportunities to study works by de Kooning or Cornell, New York offered the young Johnson the ultimate chance to develop his connoisseurship during the collage rich survey exhibition of classic Dada art organized by Duchamp for the Sidney Janis Gallery in the spring of 1953. No wonder that Johnson, sophisticated with such experiences, destroyed so many early works from dissatisfaction. The dancer Carolyn Brown in her autobiography tells how she received a request from Johnson in 1965 to borrow a small piece of a large 1952 painting that he had already cut up and distributed piecemeal to friends in the mid-1950s. (In 1965 he was evaluating the chances of reuniting the pieces.) Rauschenberg, Twombly and Johns, to choose from artists Johnson knew in the 1950s, were hardly less self-critical with respect to their own early works. Learning that Johnson incinerated substandard works in Twombly’s fireplace, Johnson’s ultra-supportive new friend William Wilson began in 1956 to save every work and every scrap of Johnson-related material that he could, an ongoing devotion.

The collage emphasis aside, no New York event would have more lasting influence on Johnson’s art than the in-depth retrospective presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950 of the works of Norwegian symbolist, Edvard Munch. The mask-like faces in Munch’s urban crowd scenes, the spermatic and embryonic marginalia in his Madonna lithograph, and most of all his hallmark image of moonlight as a phallic shaft reflected on dark waters, have all haunted Johnson’s works ever since. (As if in response to the fact that Richard Lippold was working on an ambitious Sun sculpture when he and Johnson became lovers, the younger artist specialized in moon art.) Among living European artists, it was the works of Jean Dubuffet (resident in New York in the early 1950s) teeming with graffiti faces and jigsaw puzzle piece shapes that exerted the most lasting impact on Johnson. When he adopted a monkish look by shaving his balding head, Johnson began slightly to resemble Dubuffet in appearance (and to resemble van Gogh in the 1888 Self-Portrait famously gifted to Gauguin). Look-alikes are everywhere in Johnson’s art. The famous Carjat photograph of Rimbaud that Johnson used as the basis for the cover illustration to the 1957 New Directions edition of Illuminations looks to me rather like the Pop poet portrayed in Elvis Presley #2, made at the same time. Of course, in relationship to the older Lippold, Johnson in the 1950s himself played Rimbaud to a more established Verlaine. Johnson presumably read the 1961 biography of Rimbaud by Enid Starkie, which stressed the source materials that inspired the young Symbolist. As if making a case for Johnson’s insightful brand of appropriation, Starkie concluded: “genius might be said to be the faculty for clever theft.”

An exhibition earlier this year at Andrew Roth in New York featured the mail sent by Johnson to Carolyn and Earle Brown already in the mid-1950s. The many enclosures were rendered with considerably more refinement than the photocopied mail art that the prolific Johnson sent off widely beginning in the early 1960s. No matter what the contents of his postings, however, Johnson’s concern for mail was evident already in the 1940s in illustrated letters that he carefully preserved. One precociously self-aware mailing to his parents includes a watercolor of a boy with Johnson’s features listening to the buzz of a cross-pollinating bee. Tailored provocatively to his gossipy personal relationships with the recipients, in the 1950s Johnson’s letters prompted him to integrate text and image incessantly and he soon became a virtuoso, rivaling and surpassing his associates Rauschenberg and Twombly, no less addicted to text-image art. Considering the amount of time Johnson devoted to his letters with their references to various art personalities and issues, it hardly comes as a surprise that Johnson included the famously letter-mad Vincent van Gogh and his art dealer brother Theo among the seventeen historic figures he planned to celebrate around 1970 in “Famous People Memorial collage-paintings.” Whereas van Gogh wrote the bulk of his letters to a single confidant, however, Johnson as an only child developed a sprawling brotherhood and sisterhood of correspondents. Parallels between Johnson and van Gogh are striking in hindsight: both artists were compulsively and widely interested in art and literature, both preferred to move away to small towns on the periphery of the art world and, of course, both took their own lives. From today’s perspective it seems incredible that Johnson’s library did not contain any edition of van Gogh’s letters. (But then it is incredible that van Gogh, as if unaware, never mentioned the published correspondence of Delacroix.)

How about a collected edition of Johnson’s countless letters?! Although it would be seemingly impossible to track down all of them, in imagination such a compilation would be no less a literary treasure than a visual feast. In its small way, The Paper Snake, Johnson’s 1965 book based upon his mailings to fellow Fluxus artist, Dick Higgins, gives a good idea of what such a huge undertaking could yield. Johnson’s collected correspondence would probably begin with the letters written home to Detroit from Black Mountain, among them an October 29, 1945, letter in which the 18-year-old confided: “I plan on getting a job as a mail man when I come home for Christmas vacation.” The bulk of the letters would be an antic journalistic record of Johnson’s remarkable art world, spanning at least three generations of cutting edge artists, dancers, musicians, critics, curators, dealers, collectors and art groupies. As for Johnson’s non-mail art, there has long been talk of a catalogue raisonné, with Stigliano volunteering to undertake the task already in the 1980s, when it was still impossible to imagine the scope of his output as a whole. Of necessity such a publication will be one of the strangest oeuvre catalogues ever. Whereas his performances and activities could be described in conventional chronological order, for the most part his collages will need to be described as works in progress over a lifetime. Unlike the works of any previous artist, these collages are often inscribed with three or more different dates, as Johnson made modifications, adding bits of his own earlier works (and so erasing evidence of their existence for future cataloguers). Cross-references will abound of necessity, just as they do in his works with all their starts and stops. Whatever the rules of the game turn out to be, however, this eventual overview should establish Johnson’s achievement s among the richest bodies of art from the second half of the last century.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

To Change Names, Simply, Marcel Duchamp (Interview)

Interview of Marcel Duchamp
on Canadian Radio Television, July 17, 1960
(translated by Sarah Skinner Kilborne)

GUY VIAU. Marcel Duchamp, what power do you attribute to humor?

MARCEL DUCHAMP. A great power; humor was a sort of savior so to speak because, before, art was such a serious thing, so pontifical that I was very happy when I discovered that I could introduce humor into it. And that was truly a period of discovery. The discovery of humor was a liberation. And not humor in the sense "humorist" of humor, but "humor" humoristic of humor. Humor is something much more profound and more serious and more difficult to define. It's not only about laughing. There's a humor that is black humor which doesn't inspire laughter and which doesn't please at all. Which is a thing in itself, which is a new feeling so to speak, which follows from all sorts of things that we can't analyze with words.

G. Is there a large amount of rebellion in this humor?

M. A large amount of rebellion, a large amount of derision toward the serious word, entirely unconfirmed, naturally. And it's only because of humor that you can leave, that you can free yourself.

G. When is humor black?

M. Black, that's a way of speaking, since it was necessary to assign a color. Obviously there wasn't a more explicit color because black is somber, the somber of this humor makes it a thing almost mean instead of friendly and dangerous. It's almost like a sort of dynamite, of the spirit, isn't it? And that's why we call it black. Black doesn't have any meaning but it's a little like the black curtain of anarchy, if you will, things like that. Black generally took this somber side and burial that we were obligated to accept, then that was it.

G. You've said somewhere that possible reality is obtained from a little stretching of the laws of physics and chemistry. What do you want to say about that?

M. About that, it's simply the idea that it's easy to believe that by scraping a match one gets a fire, that is, cause creates effect. But I find the laws of physics such that they are, such that they have taught us, aren't inevitably the truth. We believe in them or the experiences each day, but I believe that it's possible to consider the existence of a universe where these laws would be extended, changed a little bit, precisely limited. And as a result, one immediately obtains some extraordinary and different results which are certainly not far from the truth because, after all, every hundred years a new scientist comes along who changes the laws, right? Since Newton, there have been more and since Einstein there have been even more, haven't there, so we must wait for changes to the laws in question.

G. But all your activity, I think, aims at the possible beyond the immediate.

M. Sure. In every case, without being a scientist myself, one can hope to arrive at obtaining some results parallel to the influence, if you will, in art. And what gives satisfying results in every case… satisfying in the sense of the new of the thing, what appears like a thing which was never seen before. Of the not already seen.

G. This said, Marcel Duchamp, you weren't less of an impressionist at the start of your career than anyone else.

M. Yes, absolutely, like all youth. A young man can't be an old man, it's impossible. One must pass through the network of influence. One is obligated to be influenced and one accepts this influence very naturally. From the start one doesn't realize this. The first thing to know: one doesn't realize one is influenced. One thinks he is already liberated and one is far from it! Therefore one must accept it and wait for the liberation to come itself, if it must ever come, because certain people never obtain it, never see it come.

G. But it's been said that you made these impressionistic experiences a little to prove that you could make them.

M. No, no…

G. … like a tour de force.

M. No, I don't believe that this was so. If you wish, when one paints like an impressionist from the age of seventeen or sixteen, one is already so content to paint, since one loves this, that there isn't analysis, self-analyzation that explains why one makes this rather than that and above all one never knows these things until forty years later.

G. And what was the Section d'Or back then?

M. The Section d'Or dates from 1912. It was a small salon which took place for only a year, where all the cubists of that era got together, except Picasso and Braque, who stayed in their corner. There was, already, a sort of schism between the two groups of cubists. And there we made, thanks to my brother Jacques Villon, and Picabia … quite an exposition of paintings, with Apollinaire, that had a lot of success. Apollinaire, I believe, created a meeting place for presenting young painters who, at that time, were iconoclasts, as well you'd think.

G. And this cubism, did it not contain, if I may say … a little futurism?
Click to enlarge
Figure 1
Marcel Duchamp,
Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912

M. Yes, there was a relationship in everything. The time was made for this. With the futurists there was something a little different, which was the preoccupation of producing a movement, of producing the movement. To try, if one produces the movement, to produce it from an impressionistic manner, which is to say naturalist, to give the illusion of movement, this was the mistake in itself, since one can't produce a thing, one can't produce a movement--in any realistic manner--from a static tableau, you see? It's not possible. Why did it fail, because it was the continuation of the impressionist idea attributed to the movement, given to the movement. Whereas, for example, in my case, where I wanted to make the same thing with Nude Descending the Staircase, (Fig. 1) it was a little different. I realized very well that I couldn't produce the illusion of movement in a static painting. I was therefore content to make a state of thing, a state of movement, if you will, like the cinema does, but without the development of the cinema like a film. To superimpose one upon the other.

G. Each of these phases?

M. Each of these phases … indicated a completely graphic way and not the intention of giving the illusion of movement.

G. And it's this that made Nude Descending the Staircase a sensation at the Armory Show in 1913.

M. That was it.

G. … in New York.

M. And this was a sort of scandalous success which was so much so, that a lot of people knew Nude Descending the Staircase itself and they never knew who had made it. And this absolutely didn't interest them--knowing who was the painter. Because the painting was interesting them in the painting and this was the only thing which was interesting to them, so that I was completely … how should I say …

G. … ignored.

M. … ignored by the public because the public knew my work without knowing who I was or that I existed.

G. Was it from this moment that you renounced more or less the traditional notion of a painting?

M. Yes, it was around 1913, around 1912, and it was 1913 when I even began to doubt my cubism. I began to… I was probably very difficult to satisfy then, I suppose… And when I had already thought that that was the end, that this wasn't going to lead very far, except that it would have been able to make a lot of money perhaps if I had continued. But then, I had already changed ideas in 1913, and I found myself engaged in another form of expression where the painter loses his priority, if you will. The idea for me was, at that time, to bring in gray matter in opposition to the retinal. For me the retinal is a thing that has lasted since Courbet. After Romanticism, with Courbet, every series for a hundred years of painting or plastic art was based on the retinal impression.

G. For you, it has been a hundred years since painting wasn't so uniquely retinal.

M. No, not at all, far from it, on the contrary. Everything which represents religious painting, painting since the Renaissance, through the Italian Renaissance, is entirely gray matter, if I dare to use this term when I mean that that the idea was to glorify a religion, the catholic religion, the catholic God or something else, in the end, but the painting aspect itself, the retinal aspect of the painting was very secondary … more than secondary … it was the idea that mattered then. And this is what happened, this is what happened to me then in 1912 or 1913 with the idea of wanting to change or at least to rid myself of the retinal heritage of the last 100 years.

G. You said at that time, "Paintings have the dust of the past."

M. What made me say things like that was because it was necessary to get rid of and to obtain another opening onto other landscapes, so to speak.

G. Was it then, Marcel Duchamp, that Dada took place?
Click to enlarge
Figure 2

Marcel Duchamp,
The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, 1915-23

M. No, that was still in the distance. That was still later. I spoke of 1912 and in 1912 I had already elaborated upon the idea of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bach…by Her Bachelors, still without a hint of Dadaism. There was obviously a germ of things resembling Dadaism, but it didn't have the organized character of a movement like the Dadaism of 1916, 1917 and 1918. There had already been indications of such a movement, and even in The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even there are some details or developments which are of the Dadaist domain. But all the same, that was something a lot larger in spirit than a tendentious thing like Dadaism was … After all, Dadaism was a tendency to get rid of a violent way of accepted and permitted things. But then it was still a personal thing which alone concerned me, of making a picture or some kind of work with my responsibility alone and not a manifesto of the general order. Later, around 1916, 1917 in fact, Dadaism intervened and I collaborated there because it immediately went along with my views.

G. All right, if you want, we will revisit Dadaism now. I would very much like you to speak to us more about The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. (Fig. 2) What is the key to this painting? I believe I read from André Breton that there was a son of Ariane in the painting?

M. There isn't a son of Ariane. There is the fact that from the start this painting wasn't conceived like a canvas on which you put a picture. The painting is like a morsel of glass. From the start, it was painted on glass, which is in effect painted upon. Some oil paint is painted, but the forms which are there were from the start were seen with the idea of transparence. The idea of canvas disappeared. In order to still satisfy me, to satisfy me with the idea that the painting isn't a painting, which is to say a frame with some canvas on top and some nails around. I wanted to rid myself of that, which is a physical impression. After this, each part of the painting, of the glass, was minutely prepared with ideas and not with the strokes of a pencil. From ideas written on little papers as they came to me. And finally some years after I gathered in a box called the Green Box all these ideas, these little papers… cut up or torn up, rather, which I made torn up in order to make an edition of 300 exemplary copies and which are in the same form as the cut, original papers and on which nearly all the ideas that are in this big glass are written, or indicated in any case.

G. Who were the principal protagonists of Dada then?

M. The first demonstrations of Dada took place in Zurich in 1916, with Tzara and Arp and Huelsenbeck and that was about it. And this lasted two or three years. After that Tzara went to Paris, where he made the acquaintance of Breton, Aragon…several others who became the Dada of Paris. The difference is that, in Zurich, there wasn't really a big public demonstration, which is to say there was a Cabaret Voltaire with some demonstrations but more or less private, in the cabaret. In Paris, it reached a much larger scale and Breton and Aragon made some demonstrations in rooms like la salle Gaveau, where the public really went, en masse, with the idea of very copiously causing an uproar, you might say. And moreover, this is what made all the fuss about Dada. For three years there had been different demonstrations in each of the big rooms of Paris, and this was only terminated around 1920, 1922 or 1923, when truly there was some internal dissentions between the different dadaists, who were no longer content. With each wanting to be the big protagonist, naturally there were some disagreements. They had a falling out and Breton decided to begin another thing called Surrealism. What's more, the name Surrealism had been given by Apollinaire during the war without knowing it, to a piece called les Mamelles de Tirésias, in a small Parisian theater and it was called, I believe, Surrealist Drama. But in any case the word "Surrealism" was…fabricated by Apollinaire and he didn't know that it was going to take on such importance, I am sure of that, when I think about it.
G. And your friendship with Picabia dates back to then?

M. Oh yes! Picabia naturally was one of the big ones, was, so to speak, the go-between, he was different because he was in New York and we had already known Dada in 1916 in New York when he was here and then he left New York in 1917-18, he went to Barcelona. From there he went to Switzerland. He went to Switzerland where he made the acquaintance of Tzara. Tzara and he went back to Paris, made friends with Breton and really the movement began then. Besides, this is what wasn't approved by the German Dadaists, who wanted to make it a completely political thing, a political order only, in the communist sense of the word.

G. You spoke of Dada demonstrations. What were these demonstrations? Were they about manifestos, or what?

M. No. They were theatrical demonstrations. And yet! There was a scene, for example in la salle Gaveau which wasn't a scene, but anyway it was a scene just the same where the orchestra sat to play concerts. There were theatrical pieces created for the occasion by Breton, by Ribemont-Dessaignes, by people like that, which were played with the appropriate décor, which is to say, with cotton caps, funnels, everything was like a fantasy…imaginative.

G. Marcel Duchamp, what is a ready-made?

M. A ready-made [laughs], was from the beginning an invented word that I took to designate a work of art which isn't one. In other words, which isn't a work made by hand. Made by the hand of the artist. It's a work of art which becomes a work of art by the fact that I declare it or that the artist declares it a work of art, without there being any participation from the hand of the artist in question to make it so. In other words, it's an object already made, that one finds, and generally an object of metal…more than a painting in general.

G. Would you want to give an example of a ready-made in its pure state?
Click to enlarge
Figure 3
Marcel Duchamp,
Fountain, 1917
Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz (1917)
Figure 4
Marcel Duchamp,
L.H.O.O.Q., 1919

M. We have…the urinal, that I exhibited at the Indépendants in 1917 in New York and which was a thing that I had simply bought at the M. Mutt Works, and that I signed Richard Mutt. (Fig. 3) And which was moreover refused by the Independents, who weren't supposed to refuse it. But anyway, they refused it, they threw it behind a partition and I was obligated to find it after the exhibition in order not to lose it.

G. But there is what you call an "assisted" ready-made.

M. Okay, with the "assisted ready-made," it's just an object in the same genre to which the artist adds something like a moustache to the Mona Lisa, (Fig. 4) which is a thing added and which gives a special character [laughs] to the Mona Lisa, let's say.

G. Had you thought of adding a title to this work?

M. Oh that, I don't dare give you a translation of it, even in English.


G. And now what is a "reverse ready-made"?

M. A "reverse ready-made"…that was the case of…that wasn't made, but it would have been able to have been made. That would be to take a Rembrandt and to use it like an ironing board, you see, that would be the reverse by the fact that the tableau [or painting] became the ready-made of a true tableau [or table] made by Rembrandt, which becomes a ready-made for ironing shirts, you understand?


G. I think that you have always been…an intransigent spirit, your work was rare, this rare act, but you reunited it in the space of a portable museum…
Click to enlarge
Figure 5
Marcel Duchamp, Boite Series F, 1941

M. Yes, I made a big box, la Boîte en valise, (Fig. 5) which is to say a box which was a carton more or less where all the reproductions of the things I've made, almost all, everything I have been able to find in any case, and besides this only represented 90 or 95…articles and I had reproductions of them made and I had…in color, in black and there are even three small ready-mades which are reduced in dimension from the originals, which are the typewriter, the ampoule of Paris air that I brought to my friend Arensberg as a souvenir. I had filled an ampoule, of Paris air, which is to say I simply opened an ampoule and let the air enter it by itself and closed the ampoule and brought it to New York as a gift of friendship, in any case. And there was also the play on words.

G. I think that that is one of your specialties.

M. Yes, I don't know if you recall them…I don't recall all of them by heart, but anyway I'm going to read you one or two: "Avez-vous déjà mis la moelle de l'épée dans le poil de l'aimée?" ["Have you already put the marrow of the sword into the mane of the adored?"] One must read very slowly, because it's like a play on words, one must…

G. [laughs]

M. "Nous estimons les ecchymoses des esquimaux aux mots exquis.' ["We dodge the bruises of the Eskimos in exquisite words]. And one more: "Inceste ou passion de famille à coups trop tirés." ["Incest or family passion, on very bad terms."]

G. [laughs]

M. And how about: "Moustiques domestiques demi-stock pour la cure d'azote sur la Côte d'Azur." ["Domestic mosquitoes (half-stock) for the nitrogen cure on the Côte d'Azur."]

G. [laughs]

M. There's still another of them: "Le système métrite par un temps blenorrhagieux." [" Inflamed uterine system due to a gonorrheal condition."]

G. [laughs]

M. What's one more? "Parmi nos articles de quincaillerie paresseuse, Rrose Sélavy et moi recommandons le robinet qui s'arrête de couler quand on ne l'écoute pas." ["Among our articles of lazy hardware, Rrose Sélavy and I recommend the faucet which stops dripping when nobody is listening to it."]

G. What kindness! And, tell me, does the name Rrose Sélavy come up often in your works? What does "Rrose Sélavy" mean?

M. In 1920, I decided that it didn't suffice me to be a lone individual with a masculine name, I wanted to change my name in order to change, for the ready-mades above all, to make another personality from myself, you understand, to change names, simply. And this was a…

G. You speak of the negation of Dadaism. What was the surrealist affirmation? What was that…

M. There were a lot of points of affirmation. One of the important points was the importance of dream. The importance of dreamlike poems and the Freudian side also, the self-analytical interpretation side. Although they didn't completely feel like students of Freud or disciples of Freud at all, they used Freud. They used Freud as a component in analyzing their subconscious, in any case.

G. And all these surrealist works of which we speak right now, did they have, then, an importance of prefiguration of…

M. Yes, I believe. All written work is a hint of a little surrealism and all work, even a visual work of paint. One feels that the painter who made it saw the surrealism before, even if he refused it, you understand.

G. One has the impression that surrealism gave us a new orientation entirely…very distinct in the imagination of the contemporary man.

M. Very distinct, and I said…it was an absolute split and as always, given by literature and by painting and by the arts, this split will have repercussions in the political or interplanetary or some other actual world, just about.

G. The fact is that your activity, Marcel Duchamp, took place in the United States…did this used to give this activity a particular urgency, being in contrast or in…

M. No, the contrast was for me personal. Life in the United States was a lot more simple than in France, or than in Europe. Because…there is a respect for the individual here that isn't found in Europe. The individual isn't respected in Europe. One forces the individual to enter into a category, either political or social, or educational or something else. Here you are completely alone if you want to be. And there is a respect for the individual that is remarkable, in my opinion.

G. And you believe that this generous liberty…isn't compromised here, that it is without danger for the moment?

M. A lot less than elsewhere, in any case. Here, a free man is a man almost free, whereas in Europe there isn't a free man.

G. And you believe that he can, that he will be able to remain that for a long time, almost free?

M. Probably. We will go back there, to the free man, because…we wouldn't, we won't become ants for the pleasure of becoming ants.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

NO PLACE TO SIT (a walk around the new context), Federica Bueti

The last hundred years of work indicate that it’s demonstrably impossible to destroy or dematerialize Art, which, like it or not, can only gradually expand, voraciously synthesizing every aspect of life. Meanwhile, we can take up the redemptive circulation of allegory through design, obsolete forms and historical moments, genre and the vernacular, the social memory woven into popular culture: a private, secular, and profane consumption of media. Production, after all, is the excretory phase in a process of appropriation. (From Dispersion by Seth Price)

Today we are constantly faced with the option of being able to transgress spaces, to reconfigure our positions from bygone eras towards the immanent future. We are all nomads in spaces and time. We are travelers from country to country. From one form to the next, we are surfing between contents in an endless negotiation with the Other. Our struggle has become more clear in the here-and-now sense as being part of a configuration of what the future might hold. See you there, in that interstitial space (that we are currently working on). We are trying to define our position in relation to the socio-cultural context. Nomadism, hyper-mobility, hybridization, de-territorialized space and the idea of liquid-modernity are all terms used to define a general tendency within our current cultural climate. Our contemporary reality in which we live and work as artists and critics is in a free-floating state. Here, the site is our starting point, and time is our tool.

There is a fundamental shift that is taking place that transforms spatial necessity with temporal contingency, temporal presence that makes spatial experience possible1. Contemporary practices are engaging in the use of time in an attempt to activate reflections, not only through forms but also in the way that they are producing discourses. These contemporary modes of production are based on nomadic practices, not simply in terms of freely moving around or upon merely physical space, but upon time-based practices, which are allowing individuals to engage in different time based dimensions, floating in a universe of expanded forms and meanings, where past, present and future are unique fragments of the real. Nomadism is a practice of time-displacement, a process of remembering or actualizing, where virtual actualization is a form of creation (Gilles Deleuze). This form of nomadism is not simply a form of post-production, it is a way of rethinking the past by changing the point of view of reflection, opening up minds with the aim of finding alternatives in terms of production, distribution and in general with the fruition of culture. We are no longer in a society of the spectacle nor in a society of total control. We are stepping out, using what society has produced in terms of mechanisms and products, and going beyond. We have become radicant as Nicolas Bourriaud points out, in a measure in which our consciousness of the real, in all of its forms has become the instrument of change. We are settled in being ‘in motion’. The crisis has shifted and has become our potential for rethinking our previous models. The consequence of the crisis is a state of precariousness, where the ephemeral constitutes our contemporary aesthetic. Artists are working within a critical discourse by transgressing media and engaging in political issues using means like writing or intersecting boundaries between different media, using different disciplines as instruments to broaden the trajectories of their discourse. This is an attempt to reflect on the present and the immediate futures, taking into account all of the perspectives offered by the multiple languages of contemporary culture. To be political also means to think of possibilities of the future.

The new generation share a transmedial attitude which brings them to broader and more diverse forms and contexts within their practices. In what we can define as a practice of Nomadism sets in motion the real in all its forms tending to an endless displacement where thoughts and forms are translated and reassembled into new narratives, producing alternative social contexts using existing materials. There is no longer one tendency or specificity, but a broad range of approaches using different practices as tools for subjective narration. In this process of embracing multiplicity, it is difficult to define and distinguish between those who are truly engaged in a critique of the social and cultural system with the aim of inciting real change, and those who are trying to ride the wave according to the roles of that system. But from our point of view, we will always be partial and each possibility will imply the exclusion of another who is different.

Between the good and the bad there are many shades in between and what has to be recognized is a generation of artists, curators and critics who are aware of the present condition, who are working on new definitions and parameters. Those working with or without the banner of history, using fiction or science, comics or sculpture, writing, or any other discourse. We are all using a range of possible materials. Now the problem is not WHY we use them but HOW we use them. Artists are responding to a new globalized perception. They traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs and create new pathway between multiple formats of expression and communication (Nicolas Bourriaud). This is not about chaotic movement as it probably appears, but it is an organized and fully conscious path that opens up to infinite progressions and changes. Nomads don’t move randomly, but plan their journeys by drawing them on a map. These contemporary artists reconfigure cultural practices through the use of existing codes and practices. Culture is a mobile entity, a multiple proliferation of the visual and of narratives bound within. We could also use the term nomadism-in-time, as a way of describing a certain propensity to engage with time as a place of critical thought. Here we are enabled to build a new social aesthetic based not only on the practice of collective movement, but on the unfolding of individual mythologies 2 (collective experience is now based on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture, knitted together by ongoing debate, publicity promotion and discussion- Seth Price). We are no longer in search of a collective doing, but we operate as monads in the flow of the real.

Every monad, as Leibniz explained, is characterized by the power of representation, through which it reflects every other monad so that one can look in every other monad to observe the whole universe reflected there. In the same way, contemporary culture is a proliferation of individual mythologies or subjective narratives that contribute to the definition of a cultural landscape, opening a multitude of points of view. Different from the Postmodern era, that proliferation is not so much a lack of inclusive ideologies and a naive multiplicity of claimed cultural diversity, but it is instead a consciousness of us and of all that surrounds us, it is a critical dimension in which we are able to put into question neo-liberalism in all its dimensions and build on our functional utopias 3. If we consider the current situation, many artists share a sense of engagement that is completely different from its political connotation, which points more to the will of making the world work. They are no longer required to represent anything. They produce discourses, improving their practices with their existences within the cultural field. We often misunderstand the sense of these progressions, which take place slowly and are often imperceptible, but for this reason they are more complex and probably more effective than a quick fall of the Bastille. In this flow between bodies, sounds, images and words there are some artists using time-based practices with the aim to re-access meaning and produce discourse using the short-circuit as a praxis of reenactment. They don't occupy any specific place, but instead move backwards and forth on a kind of timeline, never quite taking a seat. Quite to the contrary, they try to perform a dialectical relationship with the environment that surrounds them. Nomadism-in-time may not be quite the right definition, but it is certainly functional in defining an interest in breaking with the modern and the post-modern and with its conception of time, overstepping any clear definition and trying to produce alternative energies.

In a recent article Dieter Roelstraete4 put into question the tendency of many contemporary artists to use history in their practice, like he defined it as a “historiographic turn in art.”5 Even if I don’t completely agree with his perspective, I’m interested in the difference between the notions of the historical and the historicist. While the historicist suggests a tendency of conforming us to a state of affairs where history is determined by immutable laws, the historical seems a better term to identify the social and cultural phenomena that changes throughout time. The nuances in these two terms seem loaded and open to consideration. Of which, they might be the kinds of approaches that we will use in considering history in the development of our future. Thinking in historical terms is one way that we approach the endless possibilities of a critical thought, of building a future with a consciousness of how things can be transformed and elaborated upon by the passage of time. Re-enactment is a form of reassessing our trajectory, not merely as a cut and paste of anachronistic forms of expression. In the past year the phenomenon of these historical tendencies in art practice has taken place at all levels. However we must ask: do these tendencies represent obstacles towards the consideration of the importance of history, both personal and collective, in the writing of a new future?

Situating nomadism in-time clarifies the concept through specific analysis. It positions events and points of view, re-appropriating ideas and overcoming myths. Today some artists feel the urgency in practices to incite change. Their strategies involve the sharing appropriating from everywhere and everything: the present, the past and the future in the form of images, google maps, wikipedia tools, symposia, workshops, dance floors, critical discourse, informal conversations, sculptures, installations, video, sound, performances and so on in a heterotopia that implies fluctuation in a universe of signs and meanings, inhabiting spaces in between. Never filling a seat, these modes of working occupy different positions in different moments, depending on the contingencies that affect the direction of their efforts. In conclusion, what seems to emerge from this panorama is a progressive change that could be defined in terms of a re-appropriation of time. The various practices of temporally based artists are responding to this new re-appropriation, they are based on the will of creating a condition for the discursive.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pataphysics - A Religion In The Making, Asger Jorn

The history of religion fails into three stages. Materialist, or natural religion, completed the final phase of its development in the Bronze Age. Metaphysical religion emerged with Zoroastrianism and advanced through Judaism, Christianity and Islam, before maturing in the Reformation. Pataphyslcs, the third religious stage - set to galvanise human thought and action in about two hundred years time - emanates from Alfred Jarry's visionary system.

It is only recently that the religious content of Pataphysics has become apparent. Prior to this development, Jarry's invention remained largely unknown beyond the small circle who published the esoteric Cahiers du College de Pataphysique. But all this changed when a special Pataphysical number of the Evergreen Review was published in New York.

Although the Americans have now claimed the honour of presenting Pataphysics to the world, they didn't dare mention the word religion in their journal. Nevertheless, the enormous success Pataphysics enjoyed last year among the New World intelligentsia has inaugurated an epoch in which the essentially religious nature of this phenomena will be carefully analysed. You'd have to have a cold to miss the stink its causing! Natural religion is the spiritual confirmation of material existence. Metaphysical religion represents the establishment of an ever deepening rift between material and spiritual life. The various metaphysical religions indicate the degree to which such a polarisation has already taken place. The process by which this rift advances is complicated, and often retarded, by an attachment to natural rites - which are transformed, with varying degrees of success, into metaphysical ceremonies and myths. The stupidity of maintaining a metaphysical culture in an age already overtaken by a scientific paradigm is illustrated by [the] dictum Kierkegaard chose as confirmation of the Christian system of knowledge - that is, that it is necessary to have faith in the face of absurdity. The question that naturally follows from this is: 'Why?' The answer is immediately apparent: the secularised authorities require a spiritual justification of their power. This materialist argument dates from the period in which the critique of all ancient mythologies was beginning.

Simultaneously to the development of this materialist critique, a mythology capable of answering the new social exigencies was fashioned from spare parts. Surrealism, existentialism and lettrism all disappeared up this metaphysical back alley.

Indeed, the classical lettristes persevered so nobly in their effort to reunite all those elements which had become irreconcilable in the modern world, that - by working backwards - they ended up reviving the ideas of the messiah and the resurrection of the dead; anything and everything that guarantied the unilateral character of faith! Now that politicians possess the means of total destruction, anyone who concerns themself with the end of the world takes on the perspective of the state.

Completely secularised, Metaphysical opposition to the physical world is definitively destroyed. The struggle terminated by total default.

The scientific paradigm is the only victor in any such debate.

A religion cannot be considered objectively true if its truth conflicts with what is known as scientific truth; and a religion which falls to represent the truth is no longer a religion. It will soon be generally recognised that this conflict has been resolved by Pataphysics. Jarry and his followers have placed on the level of the absolute a basic idea of modern science: that is to say, the concept of the constancy of equivalents.

The ground was prepared for the theory of equivalence by the Christian concept of man's equality before God. But it was only with scientific and industrial development that this principle was imposed on all sectors of life; and finally arrived, via scientific socialism, at universal social equality.

The fact that the principle of equality could no longer be limited to the spiritual world led to plans for scientific surrealism - as sketched out in Alfred Jarry's theories. Here, the Kierkegaardian principle of the absurd has been supplemented by the axiom of the equivalence of absurdities (equivalence of gods among themselves; and between gods, men and things). In this way a future religion is founded, one which is indestructible on its own ground: pataphysical religion encompasses equally all the possible and impossible religions of the past, present and future.

If Pataphysics had been taught anonymously, and avoided criticism, it might have slipped unnoticed into the world. Had this had happened, the apparently insoluble problem of Pataphysical authority - the consecration of the inconsecratable - would not have occurred.

But, alas, we are only too aware that Pataphysics appeared in the wake of other religions to fulfil an identical function. And so, Pataphysics can't be materialised into a social authority without recourse to an antiPataphysical praxis; because to become socially recognisable it would have to be invested with a social power. Consequently, Pataphysical religion is an unconscious victim of its own superiority over all prevalent metaphysical systems. It should not be necessary to emphasise that no reconciliation is possible between the principles of superiority and equivalence.

The great merit of pataphysics is to have confirmed that there is no metaphysical justification for forcing everybody to believe in the same absurdity, possibilities for the absurd and in art are legion. The only logical deduction that can be made from this principle is the anarchist thesis: to each his own absurdities. The negation of this principle is expressed in the legal power of the state, which forces all citizens to submit to an identical set of political absurdities.

It must by now be apparent that once a Pataphysical authority is accepted, it becomes a demagogic weapon against the Pataphysical spirit. Thus the Pataphysical programme itself, prevents the existence of any Pataphysical organisation; and from this fact we can deduce that it is impossible to form a Pataphysical church. The impossibility of creating a pataphysical situation in social life also prevents the creation of a social situation in the name of Pataphysics. The reasons for this have already been outlined. Equivalence entails the complete elimination of any concept we might have of situations or events.

Now that Pataphysics finds itself placed in an objective cultural situation, the inevitable consequence of the preceding definition is a split in the body of Pataphysical believers; between pure antisituationists and those who - holding to the pataphysical premise of equivalents - still favour the development of organised absurdities. Such absurdities maybe referred to as games.

The game is the Pataphysical overture to the world. The realisation of such games is the creation of situations. A crisis therefore exists, caused by the crucial problem which each Pataphysical adept must resolve: s/he must either apply the situlogic method and attack the conditions of the reigning society, or else simply refuse to do anything whatsoever about the situation. It is in the latter resolution to this problem that Pataphysics becomes the religion best adapted to life in the society of the spectacle: a religion of passivity and pure absence.

The Situationist International, the organisation of antiorganisers, faces an equally serious choice. Whether or not it should adopt the Pataphysical principle as an antimetaphysical weapon: one that is forever reinvented in the creation of new games. The absurdity of superiority and absurd superiority are the key elements of these games. Authority is their essential goal. If the game is liberation, it is best to begin by applying the principle of equivalents: the situation can then be constructed with an appearance of superiority. On the other hand, if a metaphysical base is used as the starting point, the situlogic will be dragged down to the level of the spectacle: a modernised servitude.

After a long process of fermentation the basic elements for a new game are now emerging from their previously obscure existence.

Time alone will tell whether these elements are compatible or antagonistic.

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