Archive for April, 2012

Moscow, Romantic, Conceptualism, and After | e-flux

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Moscow, Romantic, Conceptualism, and After | e-flux.

By Jorg Heiser

“The general tenor of emotional life in Moscow, thus forming a lyrical and romantic blend, still stands opposed to the dryness of officialdom,” wrote Boris Groys in his 1979 essay “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism,” delineating the state of contemporary artistic practice in the Soviet state. In the essay, Groys discusses the work of Lev Rubinstein, Ivan Chuikow, Francisco Infante, and the artist group Collective Actions (Kollektivnye deistviya). Founded in 1976 by Andrei Monastyrski, Georgii Kizevalter, and Nikita Alekseev (later joined by Nikolai Panitkov, Igor Makarevich, Elena Elagina, Sergei Romashko, and Sabine Hänsgen), the group devised actions that took place sometimes with and sometimes without spectators, in the countryside, the city, or private apartments. Organizing conspiratorial “trips out of town,” their initial audience was asked to attend a gathering in the woods or in a field, where they might have, for example, as if by chance, come across a ringing bell under the snow. These actions were documented in photographs and short descriptive texts, among other forms; this translation into factographic elements forms another level of the work, the only one directly accessible to any audience other than those present during the initial realization.

In 2007, I had the pleasure of including a number of these photographs in an exhibition I curated entitled Romantic Conceptualism—a title that begs the question of what “conceptualism” means here, as well as what Romanticism is. That same year, Collective Actions realized a performance—again in a winter landscape outside Moscow—entitled Deutsche Romantiker (German Romantics), which amongst other elements involved period portraits of famous Romantics such as Adelbert von Chamisso, Bettina von Arnim, and Novalis affixed to trees. I couldn’t help but think of this beautiful piece as an ironic twist on my basic premise for the Romantic Conceptualism exhibition, namely that there are some interesting parallels between the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century and artists working in the realm of international conceptualism since the 1960s.

But isn’t Romanticism the antithesis of conceptualism? Yes and no; if conceptualism is understood as dialectical—as much about what it doesn’t say as what it does, as much about “pure” information as the “impure”—then there are very interesting connections.

The first methodological characteristic of conceptual art is that it radically shifts the emphasis from representation to indexicalization (in this alone it doesn’t differ fundamentally from earlier movements of modernist abstraction); rather than reproducing or illustrating the appearance of something, that “something” is evoked through a gesture, or language, or other indexical means (including, literally, signs and measures). While this may imply a devaluation of skill (in order to index, one doesn’t necessarily need to be good at drawing from life, or even at making a photograph) and originality (if there is no virtuosic skill, there will be no detectable “style” securing the distinctive authenticity of the work), these seem to be—initially, at least—side effects rather than main objectives. The main objective is rather to move away from the visual and the phenomenological (or the retinal, as Duchamp famously put it) toward the indexical, toward pointing to things in an idea-driven way (which does not preclude the use of images as long as they are in the service of this objective).

Secondly, conceptual art usually adheres to a fairly strict, reductivist ethos of economy of means (in this alone, it does not fundamentally differ from the trajectory that leads from Malevich to Minimal art). In other words, the idea is that for indexicalization to be most effective, it needs to be realized with as many elements as are necessary but as few as possible. As with an architectural model or philosophical proposition, this is at the service of either strictly securing or “closing” the meaning or, to the contrary, of allowing the work to become a kind of springboard that, like an optional (yet precise) speculation, opens up meaning—for better or worse—to the viewer’s perceptive response and intellectual continuation. A good example of the former strategy is Joseph Kosuth; a good example of the latter is Lawrence Weiner; Sol LeWitt sits somewhere in between.

The third point follows directly from the second: whether the main aim is to achieve a clarity of meaning (Kosuth), a clarity of the artwork-viewer relationship (Weiner), or a clarity of the work’s realization (LeWitt), there is a strong tendency toward dematerialization, which does not mean simply to do away with physical objecthood but to do away with the cohesiveness of the artwork in terms of where it “resides.”1 In other words, even if an object is involved—a chair, a piece of paper, a file cabinet, or whatever—or if the artist’s or anyone else’s body enacts a gesture or act that is documented—the production of physical residues—the work may still be constituted by neither a particular object nor a particular body. A relationship between things in the world is stated without necessitating a physical realization of that relationship to constitute the artwork. Rather, it may simply be constituted by the proposition of the artist (immaterial production); it may reside in the particular way something is situated or conveyed through, for example, its position in a space or publicized through press releases, invitation cards, catalogues, and so forth (distribution or circulation); it may reside in the way the viewers “fulfill” the work through their use of or response to it (“consumption” or reception); or, indeed, it may be a mixture of all three of these parameters of production, distribution, and consumption. The shorthand term for the specificities of this particular mixture is “context.” In other words, dematerialization has the potential not only to be the next logical step of reduction in formalist terms, but almost inevitably leads to questioning the way things are made, disseminated, and perceived—with obvious social and political implications.2

Cover of the first issue of the Art and Language Journal.

The three fundamental methodologies of conceptual art are intricately connected to two ideologically opposed understandings of authorship. The first is an emphatic affirmation of authorship. Freeing artistic practice from strict representation of the complex phenomenological word and the particularities of physical materiality—with the help of indexing, reducing, and dematerializing—turns the practice into a free-floating intellectual endeavor. The artist either becomes a kind of trickster who subverts the authority of the cultural tradition by suspending the parameters by which it is perpetuated (e.g., skill, composition, preciousness of the object, and so forth), or the artist becomes an intellectual master who, much like a philosopher, successively unfolds a system of analysis that enlightens us with respect to the historical obsolescence of these traditions (Kosuth).3 Either way, authorship secures the status of these endeavors as art while making them part of a consistent, or at least organized, trajectory.

The second of the two aims is precisely the opposite: to suspend authorship. By unhinging artistic practice from representation, the phenomenological, and object-based materiality simultaneously, it is freed up (at least that’s the underlying utopian idea) toward a collective process. Weiner’s “Declaration of Intent” (1969) was the model case for this. It handed the completion of the work over to the audience (or the “receiver”), namely in the way that it replaced the common imperative of performative instruction pieces (“Do this, do that …”) with the conditional form (“The piece may be fabricated …”). A conundrum remains: the one who declares the suspension of authorship paradoxically asserts his or her authorship through that very declaration; Weiner’s declaration demonstrates that the two seemingly opposing aims of securing and suspending authorship can sometimes be found in a single artist’s oeuvre, or even in a single work.

Whether trickster or master, self-aggrandizing individualist or self-effacing collectivist, all these approaches and methodologies ultimately serve the aim to enlighten, or (less dramatically) to generate thought and to inform. This may be done through straight address, or through innuendo; it may involve propositions about art or the world; it may lean toward the declarative or the performative (even though declaration, strictly speaking, is always also performative); it may employ language as its main medium, or it may not. In any case, the task is to artistically shape the process of communication (especially if no physical or visual elements are shaped) and to somehow make sure it takes place according to a plan (even if that plan involves varying levels of contingency). However, there remains the paradox of an attempt to open up the communication by closing it down, i.e. by tightly defining its parameters. Who has the authority to define these parameters, especially if we are not talking only about a single artist’s work, but about an artistic movement?

Luis Camnitzer (a German-Jewish immigrant to Uruguay who has lived in New York since the late 1960s) suggests in the context of the exhibition project Global Conceptualism (1999) the adoption of the term “conceptualism” as opposed to “Conceptual Art.” The latter is understood to be reserved for a relatively small group of artists from Europe and North America favoring a purist understanding of the practice; the former then names a varied field of activities from around the world that share a certain reductivist attitude, activities that turn art-making into a means of communication freed from representation and material presence, and not only for formalist, but crucially also for economic and social reasons of avoiding unnecessary material expenses and labor costs.4

It is this broader definition that I followed in Romantic Conceptualism. But what do I mean by Romanticism? In brief, Romanticism is not synonymous with the kitsch of love and desire (in other words, the common use of the word “romantic”), but an abbreviation for the cultural techniques of emotion, as well as for ideas of the fragmentary and the open that can be traced back to the days of early—particularly German, but also English or French—Romanticism that are, I would argue, still present and in fact prevalent today. Historically, Romanticism was—at least sometimes—an explicit, intelligent critique of the kind of thinking which supplied ideological legitimization of the logic of “material constraints” and power struggles that were an essential part of the emergence of industrialization and mass society. It also built on the conclusions that Friedrich Schiller drew from the terror regime that ruled in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, expressed in his very influential series of letters from 1795, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in which he called for an aesthetic revolution premised on allowing individuals to develop their perceptive qualities—a totalization of aesthetic experience, in effect a proposal for the merging of art and life. In this sense, Romanticism is not simply an opponent of Enlightenment, but is its reflective side, an experimental and at times ironic counterpart to a systematic, rationalistic conception of reason.

Friedrich Schlegel was arguably early Romanticism’s most eminent voice. As Walter Benjamin noted in his groundbreaking study “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,” Schlegel is first and foremost concerned with “reflective thinking,” which “won its special systematic importance […] by virtue of that limitless capacity by which it makes every prior reflection into the object of a subsequent reflection.”5 This expresses an important aspect of Romanticism, that it favors the fragmentary and the open over the systematic and the conclusive; it allows the mind to adjust to a contradictory reality instead of doing the opposite, namely making reality fit its own parameters. This is also why, in the words of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, “the fragment is the romantic genre par excellence.”6 “Each fragment,” they argue with respect to the romanticist conception of the literary text, “stands for itself and for that from which it is detached”—from the “totality of the fragment as a plurality and its completion as the incompletion of its infinity.”7 This is also at the heart of Schlegel’s idea of romantic irony, that it is the humble awareness that anything we analyze and conclude is unfinishable vis-à-vis the infinite chaos of possibilities.


Robert Barry, A Volitional State of Mind Transmitted Telepathically, 1969-2009.

What are the implications of all this for conceptual art? Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) includes the following: “It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with Conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry.”8 Two years later, in 1969, LeWitt published his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in the first issue of Art-Language. In a context where Marxism, linguistics, and analytic philosophy were dominant, he turned against a purely rationalistic understanding of Conceptual art. In the first of thirty-five sentences, he proclaims: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists […] they leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.”9 This is a striking parallel to what Benjamin said about the Romantics’ notion of criticism: “To be critical meant to elevate thinking so far beyond all restrictive conditions that the knowledge of truth sprang forth magically, as it were, from insight into the falsehood of these restrictions.”10 Still, in terms of LeWitt’s statement about the necessity of emotional dryness, why should a viewer not be able to find a work “mentally interesting” and be touched by it emotionally? And how should one make sure not to be touched by the mystics’ leaps to conclusions? In an attempt to distinguish the humble, anti-monumentalist stance of Conceptual art from the sublime stance of Abstract Expressionism, LeWitt threw out the baby with the bathwater, i.e. the emotional with the expressional. As I have tried to demonstrate with my exhibition Romantic Conceptualism and its catalogue, the work not only of artists such as Bas Jan Ader and Collective Actions, but also of “core members” of Conceptual art such as Robert Barry, can be understood in terms of addressing the Romanticist complex of affect and idea and of finitude and the infinite, but only as long as one acknowledges the necessity of circumventing the self-aggrandizing tendencies of the artist.11 And, in fact, early Romanticism did not necessarily promote the idea that the solitary artist-genius is the sole source of the artwork’s function and power: Friedrich Schlegel’s text “On Incomprehensibility” (1800), for example, suggests that ironic modes of writing continue to release new meanings for hundreds of years after any given author’s death.12

If we return to the work of Collective Actions, we find that the sublime does not reside in the solitary genius but in the collective, or rather in their actions. In any case, the two pieces I had the privilege to include in the exhibition were The Slogan (1977), which involved a red banner hung between trees on a hill in the countryside outside Moscow; the slogan read: “I do not complain about anything and I almost like it here, although I have never been here before and know nothing about this place” (a quote from Andrei Monastyrski’s book Nothing Happens). The other piece was Balloon (1977): pieces of calico—a type of cotton fabric—sewn together to form a balloon, which was stuffed with inflated toy balloons and a ringing electric bell; the object was then left to drift down the Klyazma river outside Moscow. The ephemeral character of these works brought artists and audience together in situations that hovered midway between imaginativeness and blankness, sincerity and irony.

What I’m trying to aim at is a question about the relationship between the “inwardness” of the artistic, poetic self and “outwardness”—an orientation to something beyond artistic communication—and the way in which that relationship is situated for a respective political paradigm in the public sphere. What kinds of encounters between people are really possible, what is the possibility of intimacy? In one way or another, I think all of the artists I will discuss pose the following question through their work: What is the possibility of intimacy between people?


Collective Actions, The Balloon, Moscow, June 15, 1977.

But what’s the big deal with intimacy? In the age of internet dating, social networking, self-help books, reality TV shows with surveillance cameras, “I-cheated-on-my-husband” chat shows, and Paris Hilton sex tapes, the very idea of intimacy seems like a nostalgic fantasy. Intimacy is simultaneously nonexistent (in the sense of that securing actual privacy is impossible) and flooded with narcissist exaltation and public attention—intimacy turned inside-out. Feelings, affections, desires, “secrets” are on display for everyone to see. This seems to imply that during socialist times, before the advent of digital, capitalist media machineries, something like “true intimacy” existed, but I suspect the answer is not so clear-cut.

It was in 1974, when the Cold War ideological system was still securely in place, that the American sociologist Richard Sennett first published his influential book The Fall of Public Man. Remember, that was the year President Nixon was forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal, after conversations in the White House had been taped; it was also a time of economic stagnation in the USSR, when repression of anti-government activities was enacted by the KGB in order to keep Brezhnev in power.

Sennett’s position, in simplified terms, is that the delicate balance between private and public life that had been briefly maintained in Western societies during the eighteenth century, at the height of the Enlightenment, had collapsed. According to Sennett, during the Enlightenment a set of relatively strict social codes regulating distance and respect made possible truly satisfying public emotional connections, whereas the tendency in the following centuries toward a more self-indulgent, navel-gazing understanding of the individual’s psychological and emotional make-up had to be

a trap rather than a liberation. […] “Intimacy” connotes warmth, trust, and open expression of feeling. But precisely […] because so much social life which does have a meaning cannot yield these psychological rewards, the world outside, the impersonal world, seems to fail us, seems to be stale and empty. […] Western societies are moving from something like an other-directed condition to an inner-directed condition—except that in the midst of self-absorption no one can say what is inside. As a result, confusion has arisen between public and intimate life; people are working out in terms of personal feelings public matters which properly can be dealt with only through codes of impersonal meaning.13


Poster for the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers .

Born in 1943 in Chicago, Sennett grew up in a bohemian-proletarian, radical left milieu, and McCarthyism—the surveillance of everyday life for signs of supposed communist traitors—was a part of his experience even as a schoolboy. Showing at the cinemas were films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956), in which an alien force duplicates people and replaces them with cold, unemotional doppelgangers. This film was read allegorically either as referring to the mindless conformity of the McCarthy era or to the communist infiltration of the United States. In this sense, the McCarthyist America and Stalinist Soviet Union were indeed uncanny siblings. It is therefore not all that surprising that Sennett theorizes a complementary inversion of what he calls the “tyranny of intimacy,” the rule of narcissism and the confession of the self—namely, the “intimacy of tyranny,” the paranoid system of surveillance and denunciation that characterized both McCarthyism in the West and Stalinism in the East, though the latter was much more extreme. In the final chapter of Sennett’s book, it is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, in her ennui, depression, and desperate desire for luxury and riches, that Sennett describes as the tragic emblem of the tyranny of intimacy, whereas the emblem of the intimacy of tyranny is “the Stalinist legend of the good little Communist who turned his parents in to the secret police.”14 Sennett’s point is that tyranny doesn’t need to take the form of brutal force; it can also work by way of seduction, which I guess is the point at which the tyranny of intimacy and the intimacy of tyranny merge. From having followed the developments in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy over the last years, with its strange combination of voyeurism and corruption, I can say that the unity of Sennett’s phrases holds there. I’m sure there are other countries where one could identify similar phenomena.


Filmstills from the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Sennett was a student of Hannah Arendt’s, and his skepticism toward the public display of psychological matters clearly bears her influence. An insight central to all of Hannah Arendt’s philosophical work is that confession of the psychological self presents a fundamental obstacle to the political emancipation of sovereign humans in their ability to develop feelings of social interconnectedness. Hannah Arendt begins with a doubt about the reliability of the psychological self as a source of emancipation. Her deep-seated skepticism of German Romanticism—understood as a movement hailing the importance of the psychological self—is laid out already in her first major work, a biography of Rahel Varnhagen. Varnhagen was a key figure of early Romanticism, a German-Jewish writer who ran a salon in Berlin at the turn of the nineteenth century that became a meeting place for eminent figures such as the Schlegel brothers, Schelling, Schleiermacher, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Ludwig Tieck, to name a few. Written in Germany during the years 1929–33 and completed in exile in France in 1938, it wasn’t until 1958 that the book was published, under the title Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. (Writing during the growth of Fascist anti-Semitism, Arendt studies Varnhagen’s life and letters in relation to the difficult issue of Jewish assimilation.)

In short, Arendt claims that Romanticism offered Varnhagen a deceptive way out of pressures to negate her Jewish identity. Why? Because Romanticism, according to Arendt, severs reflection from fact and love from the object of love, while offering up the intimate as public in the form of indiscrete speculation and gossip. Reason and emotion become free-floating, all-pervasive fantasies—in short, Romanticism is portrayed not only as escapist, but as a seduction to Jewish self-abnegation. Although she makes a point of expressing respect for Varnhagen, Arendt almost sounds, at points, like an older sister ridiculing her younger sibling for being caught up with pubescent fantasies, or “Wunschphantasmagorien” (wishful phantasmagorias).15 One can sympathize with Arendt’s frustration with Varnhagen’s continual repudiation of her Jewish heritage, but the more important question is whether early Romanticism it is to blame. Varnhagen’s salon—and, one could say, Romanticism in its true sense—ends with Napoleon seizing Prussia. In that short interval of 1790–1806, Jewish salons like Varnhagen’s offered to the metropolitan intelligentsia a kind of utopian retreat from strict social orders and conventions. Arendt readily describes it this way, but holds this against the salons, saying they were merely “Lückenbüßer” (stopgaps) between “a perishing and a not yet stabilized form of conviviality.”16 This “stabilized” form would arrive as the Deutsche Tischgesellschaft (German Dinner Party), established in 1811 by Achim von Arnim (the husband of Bettina von Arnim, a friend of Varnhagen’s), among others. The Dinner Party banned women and Jews from membership and, in the wake of the edict of 1812 that granted basic civil rights to Jews in Prussia, was a hotbed of anti-Semitism. But does that mean that the world of the Jewish salons before the catastrophe of 1806 was merely “illusionist,” as Arendt states? To denounce early Romanticism for its role in the historical development toward a resurgence of patriotism and anti-Semitism in Prussia (as well as for Varnhagen’s increasing neglect of her Jewish heritage) seems a simple case of misdirected blame. Wasn’t Varnhagen’s salon an actual, consistent counterexample to the nationalist-chauvinist backlash of the Tischgesellschaft, not only with respect to the emancipation of Jewish intellectuals but also women intellectuals (a point that Arendt conspicuously and consistently ignores)? One can’t help but think that the Romanticism Arendt despises in her imagined Varnhagen is the Romanticism of her own time, the overblown Wagnerian sublime that became a tool of Nazism.

And this is where the notion of Romantic conceptualism comes into play: it has a kind of inbuilt anti-theatricality; it is interested in evoking the sublime but dismisses the self-indulgent puffery that accompanies its evocation. Precisely for the sake of saving the imaginative space that Romanticism opens up, Romantic conceptualists circumvent its tendencies to self-obsession, to locating essence in the artist’s soul. The idea of the open artwork demands this: if meaning is to be established through interaction with the viewer, then the artist must know humility. Maybe this is also why Romantic conceptualism sometimes comes across as the shy sibling of physical comedy. Both undermine magnitude, whether the magnitude of Wagnerian sublimity or Kantian moral superiority.


Jiri Kovanda, Untitled (On an escalator … turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me …), 3 September, 1977.

One artist who now comes to mind, especially in light of Sennett’s terms, is Jiri Kovanda. Despite Kovanda’s insistence that he’s not a political artist, I refuse to believe that it’s purely coincidental that in the mid 1970s he located his actions in Prague’s public realm. This was the period when the counter-culture that had developed in spite of the suppression of the Prague Spring movement of 1968 came under intense state repression, which triggered the human rights initiative of Charter 77, which in turn led to even harsher reactions on the part of the regime. Against this background, it is understandable that Kovanda doesn’t want his artistic project to be confused with or absorbed by protest, a confusion that would be a one-dimensional reading of both his project and of the Charter 77 movement. But that shouldn’t preclude us from reading his work in historical context. We should do so with a view to Sennett’s very fundamental sociological observations, which resonate—albeit in different registers—with conditions on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And, incidentally, the question of the connection between intimacy and control hasn’t gone away under post-socialist conditions, it has simply migrated to a substantial extent to the fields of media and commerce.

Kovanda’s aesthetic project has always been to make these two reciprocal phenomena—tyranny of intimacy, intimacy of tyranny—silently collide. Some of Kovanda’s contemporaries in Eastern Europe may have had similar aims in this respect, artists such as Karel Miler and Petr Stembera—the former in a more restrained manner closer to Kovanda’s, the latter in a more self-mutilating way, displacing the intimacy of tyranny onto his own physical body. Some Western artists did the same, including Chris Burden and Bas Jan Ader.


Jiri Kovanda, Divadlo (Theatre), 1976.

Kovanda negated any theatricality with clear and careful determination. His works are intimate, but reserved and discreet; they confront people’s “public” demeanor of numbed indifference, but in the most modest and unoppressive way. Moments of possible or actual sensuous intimacy between individuals are presented in a non-narrative and factual, rather than a confessional and psychological, manner. And while public apathy is suddenly punctured through a simple, tiny gesture—a gaze, raised arms, and so forth—this occurs precisely in the avoidance of spelling things out. Processes of normalization are made achingly apparent not through violent, symbolic acts, but through slight, gradual shifts. Kovanda’s humility is a means to achieving this, a way to circumvent the posture of the heroic artist that would otherwise get in the way of the work’s efficacy.

This touches directly on the question of the legitimacy of the artist. Kovanda didn’t study art in school, and it was a long time before he made a living from it. Not that he was an “outsider artist”—it was more like he snuck in, gradually, over several years. During 1977–95 he worked in the depository of the Czech National Gallery, but in the terms of his own practice, that job was something like living in the belly of the beast. In any case, his actions were not commissioned; they remained as discreet in status as in gesture.


Jiri Kovanda, Untitled, Wenceslas Square, Prague, November 19, 1976.

Some of the actions Kovanda executed in the open, public environment of Prague are equally ephemeral, for example Theater (November 1976), which took place at Wenceslas Square. For this piece, he followed a previously written script to the letter, in which “gestures and movements have been selected so that passers-by will not suspect that they are watching a ‘performance.’” Judging from the photos, these were predominantly gestures of being at a loss: a hand to the neck, a finger to the nose, gestures that are anything but theatrical. For Untitled (November 19, 1976), which also took place at Wenceslas Square, Kovanda interacted more actively, if still in a reticent manner, with anonymous passersby: standing with outstretched arms, forcing them to give him a wide berth.

It’s obviously no coincidence that these pieces—situated in the public realm yet resistant to revelation—take place at Prague’s Wenceslas Square, the site of many historical events from the Declaration of Independence of 1918, through student Jan Palach’s self-immolation protest against the Soviet invasion of 1968, to the demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. But Kovanda doesn’t claim that his actions are explicit political allegories. For him, the artist is his or her own audience in the first place. But Kovanda also made works that directly involved the participation of small groups of people, which brings to mind the Collective Actions Group. One of Kovanda’s best-known pieces is an action realized on January 23, 1978, which he describes in this way: “I arranged to meet a few friends … we were standing in a small group on the square, talking … suddenly, I started running; I raced across the square and disappeared into Melantrich Street …” The photograph shows a group of seven, gathered in a circle, three of them looking at a book, while the other four are gazing after Kovanda running away from them.

Italian artist Giovanni Anselmo, usually associated with the Arte Povera movement, may seem removed from conceptualism. A large number of his pieces are emphatically concerned with materiality rather than dematerialization, with physical rather than “merely” mental or indexical tensions, with intuitive approaches to handling objects and spaces rather than pronouncedly analytical approaches—all of which are qualities that would “disqualify” you from taking the label “conceptualist.”


Giovanni Anselmo, La mia ombra verso l’infinito dalla cima dello Stromboli durante l’alba del 16 agosto 1965, 1965. Color slides. Photo: Enrico Longo Doria.

Yet some key works of Anselmo’s are not about the physically present, but the absent; they allude to something with a fragmentary gesture or word, rather than a physically charged object. Let’s begin with what has been described as the epiphany at the start of his artistic career. A small color photograph documents the event: the artist stands there, motionless, wearing white trousers and shoes in a steeply slanting, black lava field, while behind him are smoke and a small volcano eruption, the blue sea and the sky. The picture is accompanied by the following statement: “My shadow projected to infinity on the top of Stromboli during sunrise on 16 August 1965.” Anselmo had climbed to the top of the volcanic island that is part of the Eolic islands north of Sicily and realized that, even though the rising sunlight was hitting him at a low angle, because he was standing on a slope against the background of the sea there was no surface on which his shadow could fall.

This event marks the initiation of Anselmo into his artistic practice, the photograph and text in turn framing the moment of epiphany, which could be read to mean that neither the event nor its documentation, strictly speaking, are themselves a part of Anselmo’s oeuvre. Of course, one can see his concern with basic physical qualities and energies in this moment on top of a volcano. But there is also a counter-movement to the famous Romantic motif of Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary figure as seen from behind in nature—that figure in Anselmo’s case being the artist himself, turning towards the viewer (i.e. the viewer beholding the image), while at the same time impersonating the viewer (i.e. the viewer beholding nature). One is also tempted to point out parallels with French-German Romanticist Adelbert von Chamisso’s famous story Peter Schlemiel (1813), about the man who sold his shadow—his soul—to the devil for a sack of gold. Except that Anselmo did the opposite, suspending his shadow for the sake of a “poor” art.

Or take Anselmo’s piece Interferenza nella gravitazione universale (Effect on the gravity of the universe, 1969). The accompanying description states: “20 photos taken at intervals of twenty paces while walking towards the setting sun.” Anselmo’s set of small black-and-white photographs quite clearly set themselves apart from the kitsch residue of this Romantic trope par excellence, i.e. the tourist sunsets of countless postcards and panorama wall papers: the series of photos was taken according to a strict numerical plan (20 photos, 20 paces).

What is revealed here to be at the heart of conceptual practice, whether with Anselmo or Kovanda, is the tension associated with Friedrich Schlegel’s notion of poetry and Romantic irony:

Romantic poetry […] —more than any other form—[can] hover at midpoint between the portrayed and the portrayer, free of all real and ideal self-interest, on the wings of poetic reflection, and can raise that reflection again and again to a higher power, can multiply it in an endless succession of mirrors. […] Romantic poetry is in the arts what wit is in philosophy.17

Schlegel’s notion of Romantic poetry from 1800 resonates surprisingly with conceptual art-making of the 1960s onwards, in that both testify to a realization of a sense of disjunction between inevitably fragmentary attempts to describe the world and the infinite world itself, of a need to resolve that disjunction not by presenting an ideal of epic, synthetic unity, but by way of a scattered practice that reflects on its own character of reflection.

To give one last example from yet another political and geographical context, that of Yugoslavia in the 1960s: Tomislav Gotovac. Gotovac is an outstanding figure of experimental film, conceptualism, and performance both within and outside ex-Yugoslavia. Straight-Line (Stevens-Duke) is a 16mm film he realized in 1964: a camera is positioned in the window of a tram so that we see the long, straight tracks which run along the street in one, long static shot. We see people crossing the tracks, cars rushing by, nothing spectacular, just everyday life—but long before TV stations would adapt these kinds of mesmerizing scenes for their nighttime intermissions. In 1971, Gotovac realized Streaking, where he ran naked through the streets of Belgrade. In the following decades, he continued to make films and performances that use quotidian acts (shaving, cutting hair, begging, cleaning up) as artistic material, taking the public spaces of Titoist Yugoslavia as his conflicted stage. In more recent years, 1995–2005, Gotovac collaborated with Aelksandar Battista Ilic and Ivana Keser on the project Weekend Art: Halleluja the Hill, which, during a time of conflict in the Balkan region, took Sunday walks on the Medvenica mountain near Zagreb as performative material, documented with photographs—simultaneously fiercely ironic and touchingly idyllic.


Tomislav Gotovac, Showing Elle, 1962.

Showing Elle documents a situation the artist set up in 1962 on a winter trip to the mountain of Slijeme outside Zagreb. The six black-and-white images that comprise the series (re-issued in 2005) form a mini-film: we see the artist amidst trees, partly undressed (while he wears dark trousers), with snow in the background, leafing through a French edition of Elle magazine. He holds up an image of a woman in underwear, laughs; some images show him alone, others reveal three people, friends presumably, standing in the background. Signification slips and slides: the distance between nature and consumer society—and the distance between communism and consumer society, for that matter—is bypassed comically, as is the distance between the genders, the bodies, the artist and his audience—all of that packed into a simple, wry gesture, photographically documented.

To come to a conclusion: what seems obvious here is that in many of the works I have discussed, “the public” is tested as a terrain for intimacy, precisely because intimacy is no longer protected by a strict sense of “the private.” What these artists might have in common is that they test the limits of intimacy by communicating those limits, not in confession but through acts of deviance that say: yes, I have feelings, but what precisely they are I will not reveal. I take part in the game of self-exposure, but in that very act I manifest my insistence on an autonomous sphere of thought. What remains is the gesture, the act, the communication, but not the confession of the artistic soul.

© 2011 e-flux and the author

1 The crucial difference between dematerializing
the art object—famously suggested by Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler in
their article “The Dematerialization of Art,” first published in Art
International
12:2 (February 1968): 31–36—and working without
material basis in the first place, i.e., dealing with ideas, has already been pointed
out by Terry Atkinson of Art & Language in his response “Concerning the Article
‘The Dematerialization of Art.’” See Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1999), 46–58.

2 See Luis Camnitzer’s critique of a formalist
understanding of dematerialization, Conceptualism in Latin American Art:
Didactics of Liberation
(Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007), 29.

3 Think, for example, of Robert
Barry’s Telephatic Piece (1969), his
contribution to a group exhibition in Canada that consisted of a written
statement that he would telepathically transmit, as it was not “applicable to language
or image.”

4 Luis Camnitzer, op. cit., 22–24.

5 Walter Benjamin, “The Concept of Criticism in
German Romanticism,” in Selected Writings,
Volume 1: 1913–1926
, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 123.

6 Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The
Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism
(Albany,
NY: SUNY Press, 1988), 40.

7 Ibid., 44.

8 Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5:10 (Summer 1967): 79–84. Also see Alberro, op. cit., 12.

9 Sol Lewitt, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” Art-Language 1:1 (May 1969): 11–13;
reprinted in Conception: Conceptual
Documents 1968–1972
, ed. Catherine Moseley (Norwich, UK: Norwich
Gallery, 2001), 82.

10 Walter Benjamin, op. cit., 142.

11 Romantischer
Konzeptualismus / Romantic Conceptualism
, ed. Ellen Seifermann and Jörg
Heiser (Nürnberg: Kunsthalle Nürnberg and BAWAG foundation Vienna, Kerber Verlag,
2007).

12 Friedrich Schlegel, “On Incomprehensibility,”
in Classic and Romantic German Aesthetics,
ed. J. M. Bernstein (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003): 297-307.

13 Richard Sennett, The Fall of
Public Man
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1977), 5.

14 Ibid., 337.

15 Hannah Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen: Lebensgeschichte einer deutschen Jüdin aus der
Romantik
(München: Piper, 2008),
65 (my translation).

16 Ibid., 71 (my translation).

17 Friedrich Schlegel, “Athenaeum Fragments, no.
116,” in Friedrich Schlegel: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Peter
Firchow (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1991): 31–32.

Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze, co-publisher of frieze d/e, and visiting professor at Kunstuniversität Linz, Austria. He is the author of All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art (Sternberg Press, 2008), and curated the exhibition “Romantic Conceptualism” (Kunsthalle Nuremberg and BAWAG foundation Vienna, 2007). Jörg Heiser lives in Berlin.

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Art & Research : An Interview with Jörg Heiser

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Art & Research : An Interview with Jörg Heiser.

All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art:

An Interview with Jörg Heiser

Jörg Heiser is co-editor of frieze magazine, writes for the national daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, and is a frequent contributor to art catalogues and publications. He curated the exhibitions “Romantic Conceptualism” (2007, Kunsthalle Nürnberg, BAWAG Foundation Vienna) and “Funky Lessons” (2004/2005, BüroFriedrich Berlin, BAWAG Foundation Vienna). He is the author of All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art (Sternberg Press, Berlin and New York, 2008)

Book cover, courtesy of Sternberg Press, Berlin.

In the introduction to your new book, All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art you content that ‘… in contemporary art, the emphasis has shifted from biography and medium to method and situation.’ (Intro, p. 5) – a statement which echoes in part the position of overviews of contemporary art such as Claire Doherty’s Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004) – and that we must approach the analysis of contemporary art, therefore, not through simplifying questions of medium, but through exploring artists’ methodologies (the method of slapstick, for example). Your foregrounding of artists’ methods would seem to speak to contemporary questions surrounding ‘artistic research’. To what extent, in your view, do debates on ‘artistic research’ count among the ‘things that matter’ in contemporary art?

It’s a little tricky. Research as such is not an achievement, and artists impersonating scientists, ethnologists or sociologists have to be careful not to a) underestimate the discourse in these respective fields they are tapping into, and b) keep in mind what they do their research for. Like one could get carried away with self-referential questions of the specificities of a medium – ‘New Media Art’ that becomes techy-nerdy in an unproductive, or even oppressive way; or abstract painting that becomes merely tautological and plainly dull – it is equally problematic to be absorbed by the mere aura, or political gravitas, of the material one encounters in the course of one’s research. You can see the effect of that in press releases that highlight that an artist explored this social context or did research on that obscure 1950s phenomenon, without bothering to argue whether the artist then managed to do anything productive with that artistically. If an artist did great research, say, on a case of corruption, why don’t they – to put it very bluntly – do a good reportage rather than a crappy installation, i.e. chose the appropriate context and method to communicate? A productive methodology would be then to remember what really mattered, which I think (in generalising terms) is to remember what art can bring to that research; a sense of form, of perceptive qualities, and conceptual reflection – which would be precisely its political stake in this.

To give a recent example: Duncan Campbell has made a fantastic film, Bernadette (2008), about Irish dissident Bernadette Devlin. The material he did four years of research on, ploughing through the archives of film stations around the world, is in itself fascinating. Devlin – who was the youngest Member of Parliament at Westminster at the age of 21 – was an amazingly self-confident and charismatic activist. One wonders immediately, however, what the artistic ‘surplus’ is in terms of the way he treated the material, as opposed to just feeding off its aura. In the end, Campbell succeeds because he refrains from the well-trodden ground of the conventional biopic, and – as one would expect of a good, auteur film essay for that matter – instead opts for surprising juxtapositions of uncommented material, amazing footage – like a journalist rehearsing the questions he wants to ask Devlin. It is, again, method and contextualization that make the difference, not just research as such relying on biography and medium.

Duncan Campbell, Bernadette 2008, Digibeta (16mm) filmstills, courtesy Hotel.

In the opening chapter ‘Pathos versus ridiculousness Art with slapstick’ – where you speculate that ‘the simultaneous emergence of modern slapstick à la Chaplin and the modern art object à la Duchamp cannot be purely coincidental’ (p. 18) – you write ‘Slapstick as a sudden jolt in a smooth sequence, an absurd attack of hiccoughs in everyday life and world events, allowing us to catch glimpses of the truth about ourselves and our relations with others. There’s something liberating about this, and something moving.’ (p. 13) and later on you describe the tension in maintaining a truly ‘slapstick method’ as a ‘struggle between doubtful constancy and constant doubt’ (p. 90). Might such a reading of slapstick evoke a way to articulate the creative tension in making (good) art in general? Or would this be to risk universalizing and essentializing an artistic method which is culturally specific and historically grounded?

At the risk of universalizing, I’d say yes, it’s a struggle at the heart of much (good) artmaking in general. But to be more precise, the humouristically-scepticist admittance of doubt and failure reoccurs throughout history, from Diogenes through Cervantes to Alfred Jarry, but ‘reoccurrence’ is not synonymous with ‘universal’. There are continuities, but the advent of new technologies and forms of organization in Modernity, for example, have certainly changed the way the ‘slapstick method’ has materialized artistically. The proverbial ‘Slapstick’ was an instrument of two pieces of wood clapped together by the Harlequin in the Commedia del’Arte, but it wasn’t until silent film that physical comedy could be chopped up and accelerated technologically, and thus reflect on the chopping up and acceleration of Modern life. So to sum up, there is no contradiction really between asserting a trans-historic reoccurrence of productive modes of humoristic doubt, and those reoccurrences being culturally specific and historically grounded.

How did you arrive at the structure of the book? For example, how much does the fragmentary style adopted within the individual chapters reveal an interest in romanticism? Does contemporary art exert a ‘fragmentary exigency’ on the critic?

The structure of the book was driven by the idea that it should be about ideas and methods, not artist’s biographies, and specificities of media. Though the second chapter does concentrate on one medium solely, painting, it does so with a specific argument about the way social behaviour and decisions are reflected in the seemingly solitary decisions and ‘behaviours’ (i.e. painterly methods) of the picture plane. Accordingly, the book is not a A-Z compendium, but rather discusses artists and their work from the angle of a specific question, be it slapstick or the way video and film are sequenced and choreographed in art spaces.

At the same time, the book was about emptying out my pockets from about 15 years of writing or so, asking myself: what have I done? What is this all about? What is really important to me in contemporary art? In as far as Romanticism – in the sense of the kind of essayist writing favoured by German Romantics such as Friedrich Schlegel – is about rejecting the idea of a holistic, ‘objective’ world view, I’d agree, yes, I’m struck by art’s ‘fragmentary exigency’. I dig open fragment rather than closed system (though I can enjoy the cool, cool aura residing in the claim of having created a closed system, whether it’s Donald Judd or, say, Kraftwerk; I would say that the claim, ironically, has a romantic kernel). I’m in favour of allowing the inevitably fragmented viewpoint of a singular person such as me to serve as a kind of yardstick measured against other yardsticks (rather than claiming to have access to some kind of transcendental yardstick of beauty norms etc.). This ‘relativism’ of competing ‘yardsticks’ is not just arbitrary, but guarantees that a) everyone is allowed to enter the discussion, but b) has to make the effort to justify their judgements, allowing them to be in turn judged by others. Scot Hume and Kraut Kant I guess would have agreed that the foundation for the ‘judgment’ or ‘standard of taste’ is the contradiction between subjectivity and universality. Thing is, we have to bring that contradiction to life, keep making the effort to argue in the midst of experiment, arbitrary feelings and perceptions, and doubt.

To what extent is All of a Sudden a book written specifically for artists, as a manifesto addressed to artists?

In that it doesn’t assume the role popular amongst some critics, which is to act as a kind of advocate of a supposedly healthily sceptical, but actually resentment-driven public suspecting artists to be narcissist idiots or cynical charlatans earning to little, or too much money.

And in that it ignores, if only for the length of the book, the attempts of some parts of the art world to create a linear connection between artistic value and monetary value.

Why did you become interested in the idea of Romantic Conceptualism and to what extent does the method of slapstick inform your take in the work included in the exhibition Romantic Conceptualism and how does this exhibition relate to your previous work as a curator, eg. Funky Lessons?

I became interested when I first saw Warhol’s film Kiss (1964) projected in 1999, realising that it blew me away even though I had assumed it was just the cool conceptual execution of a simple idea, which is to ask couple after couple – men and women, men and men – to kiss for the duration of a three minute roll of film, and nothing else. The point is that it’s precisely that simple set-up dictated by the limits of the medium that creates the libidinal ‘surplus’ of the piece. I realised that conceptualist artmaking a) doesn’t have to neglect emotion to make a ‘depersonalized’, i.e. anti-narcissist statement and b) that that is the case because emotions themselves have a ‘conceptual’ side to them: they are cultural techniques of coming to terms with ones environment, whether productively or destructively.

Allen Ruppersberg, YOU AND ME PLUS, 2007, Poster Installation, silkscreen on paper, dimensions variable. Installation shot, Romantic Conceptualism BAWAG Foundation, Vienna, 14 September – 1 December 2007. Reproduced with kind permission of BAWAG Foundation, Vienna.

Romantic Conceptualism questioned the still prevalent assertion that cool depersonalization is the precondition of an art that makes itself checkable, revisable (when the actual aim is to become unassailable, not to expose any tender spots). Funky Lessons questioned another still prevalent assertion: that Conceptualism is too didactic. And so the show brought together work that undermines authority by claiming it, wittily. The title of the exhibition was inspired by Adrian Piper’s pivotal piece Funk Lessons (1982-1984), a video based on a performance by the African-American artist teaching – a mostly white – audience of students basic and advanced dance routines of funk and soul music.

Slapstick is the missing link between those two exhibitions: it creates a connection between the humoristic strategies, and the romantically emphatic strategies, aimed at eroding heroism. Bas Jan Ader’s work is the pinnacle of this, and even when people now start to get weary of seeing his small body of work slightly over-exposed over the last couple of years, it remains so. To quote from my book, in regard to a work that was included in Romantic Conceptualism, if I may do so: ‘Broken Fall (Geometric), Westkapelle, Holland (1972) shows Ader falling sideways onto a saw horse and into the bushes. The bushes line a path that leads to the “Westkapelle” lighthouse—visible in the background—that features in an early series of paintings by Piet Mondrian. The action is reminiscent of the classic comedy gag of leaning sideways, of listing heavily like a drunk or a sailor at sea; but it refers to Mondrian’s Modernist rejection of the diagonal in favor of the rectilinear that caused a quarrel between the artist and his friend Theo van Doesburg. Where Mondrian manically abstracted from physicality, Ader brought it back into play. In this way, he exorcised modern art in general and Conceptualism in particular, driving out their poses of heroic unassailability.’ (p. 82)

Bas Jan Ader seems of key importance to both your and Jan Verwoert’s understanding of romantic conceptualism. In Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous,for example, Verwoert writes: ‘By fore-grounding [the] evocative, suggestive and open-ended quality of the conceptual gesture, Ader shows how deeply indebted conceptual art is to the aesthetics of the sublime.’[1] However, in ‘Emotional Rescue, Romantic Conceptualism’, you write: ‘Farewell to Faraway Friends suggests that the seeming incompatibility of the Conceptual and the romantic goes back to the historical roots of artistic production in Modernity at large.’[2] Is Conceptualism ‘indebted to’ and ‘incompatible’ with Romanticism at the same time?

Yes. Conceptualism is indebted to Romanticism precisely in that the latter movement already embodied, and explored, the incompatibility of trying to create ‘closed systems’ on the one hand and allowing artistic experiment to happen on the other. There was a ‘seed’ of Conceptualism in Romanticism as much as there is a ‘trace’ of the latter in the former, and in both cases the ‘official’ rhetoric often rejected or denied that connection.

In his essay, ‘The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism’ Walter Benjamin states: ‘The category under which the Romantics conceive of art is the idea.’[3] Benjamin’s assertion seems to suggest that a nascent conceptualism is imminent to Romantic aesthetics and thus romanticism and conceptualism and are not as incompatible as we might expect from a reading of Sol LeWitt’s ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’ (1967) where he famously outlawed the ‘emotional kick’ associated with ‘Expressionist’ art. However, you argue that Romantic Conceptualism does not intend simply to redeem Romanticism and the sublime for conceptualism, nor does it intend to present a soft focus revision of conceptualism. Rather, the exhibition claims to refute any easy binary opposition or final resolution between these terms. How is this balancing act sustained in practice?

On the part of the artists? I can only guess – in the way they use contradictions and tensions between pre-existing parameters and one’s own experience of them as a motor, rather than trying to resolve these contradictions and tensions. For example Susan Hiller, for her Dedicated to the Unknown Artist (1972–76) used the pre-existing parameter of postcards of the ‘Wild Sea’ on the UK coastline, and the pre-existing parameter of sociological categorization of popular artefacts such as these postcards, and the pre-existing aesthetic parameter of using a grid for display, to fuel her own enquiry into what it means to be an artist, and what it means to be letting others – in this case the unknown artists who took these photographs, or hand coloured them – speak through one’s work.

The balancing act on the part of me as a curator was to pre-empt easy assumptions about feelgood, ‘soft focus revision’, as you aptly put it, by allowing each work a space of their own while creating tensions between works that set off the respective qualities, bringing out the stern and no-nonsense side in the one work while highlighting the latently delirious in another (say, an Allen Ruppersberg poster wall which is poppy-coloured, yet is just as conceptually driven and earnestly thought through as a black-and-white sentence by Lawrence Weiner). That said, it was also important not to become apologetic about the ‘vulnerability’ of these works, their daring leap into possible embarrassment, for the sake of lining them up with cooler, more guarded conceptual strands.

In Political Romanticism,Carl Schmitt contends that ‘romantics transform every thought into a sociable conversation and every instant into a historical moment… just as the romantic emotion moves between the compressed ego and expansion into the cosmos, so every point is a circle at the same time, and every circle a point. The community is an extended individual, the individual a concentrated community.’[4] What does romantic conceptualism contribute to questions of community (I’m thinking of the series of micro-maintenance works by Didier Courbot, for example), to the question of simultaneously ‘being-together’ and ‘being-apart,’ to borrow Rancière’s terms?

It brings to ideas of community precisely the insistence on being allowed to be a single individual. That is its contribution: not in the sense of hedonism or egoism, but in the sense of allowing the imaginary to continue being a resource for new ideas in the socio-political sphere. ‘Romantic Conceptualism’, as opposed to Romanticism per se, would however be aware of the pitfalls of romanticising – in that sense, rendering sublime – that single individuality, the ‘artist’s soul’, itself. It would, rather, use the single individual as a ‘medium’ through which the community speaks, like the unknown artists who speak through Hiller (and Hiller through them, of course). In that sense, Romantic Conceptualism is Romanticism secularized, stripped of any pretension that the artist’s soul is a medium of the otherworldly or godly (while allowing a sense of tragicomic mourning for that secularization to linger on).

According to Guy Oakes, for Schmitt ‘the favourite occupation of the political romantic is criticism. Discussion or conversation is the vehicle by which the romantic poeticizes politics.’[5] (p. xxvii) This depiction of the sociability of romanticism appears to resemble the conviviality which Nicolas Bourriaud attributes to relational art as a critical and political practice. How does Romantic Conceptualism relate to these terms of ‘critical’, ‘political’ or ‘relational’ art?

I’m sceptical of the conviviality often associated with relational art, in terms of an assumption that it is established against, rather than with, the means of mass media or the means of the ‘spectacle’. Favouring a kind of ‘direct’ exchange between artist and audience (sharing meals, or producing a film together, or whatever) over more ‘anonymous’, indirect ways of critical reception and interaction I think runs the risk of being romantic in the regressive sense (‘true’ physical exchange versus estranged electronic exchange, or none at all). I think anonymity is a very important factor in Romantic Conceptualism: ‘I’m too sad to tell you’, Bas Jan Ader’s statement of the artist weeping for the camera, includes a rejection of exchange, crucially (i.e. he doesn’t give us a reason for his sadness). If relational practice includes the right to remain silent, or to take part without having to confess, I’m all for it. That’s the irony of Romantic Conceptualism: the artists take on all the embarrassment, leaving it open whether we shall embarrass ourselves as well. It counters the imposition of having to merely fulfil one’s role as a dependable member of the community. Maybe all of this connects to the contradiction between communitarianism and individualism that became so central to the protestant movements of the US throughout the centuries, which is maybe also why Conceptualism seems so at home there.

All of that said, I don’t want to generalize too much and say that I can see full on hardcore political art with not the slightest romantic touch being of great value and importance, depending on the situation and context. I think there is a time for this, and a time for that.

Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy write of the ‘romantics’ that ‘Regardless of the form it takes, their literary ambition is always the result of their ambition for an entirely new social function for the writer – that writer who was, for them, a character still to come, and in the concrete form of a profession, as we read in Athenaeum fragment 20 – and consequently for a different society.’[6] Does your practice as a writer, editor, curator, researcher and musician conceal a ‘romantic’ and contradictory call for a different society? Contradictory, insomuch as such a multifaceted practice seems on the one hand to refuse to accept disciplinarity and to embrace Rancière’s concept of ‘indisciplinarity’ and on the other hand to reproduce capitalism’s de-categorization of work which exploits ‘typical characteristics of the artistic condition’ as outlined by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in The New Spirit of Capitalism.[7]

I think what is often ignored in critical discussions of artistic or ‘romantic’ role-models for artists and writers, which in turn get adopted by the larger economic sphere to justify exploitative working conditions, is to insist that what makes the difference is to what end these ways of producing are being established. It does make the deciding difference whether I work long hours for little money to create a great novel or song, or whether I do it to help a company to become richer while feeding off the illusion that I do something creative. The thing is, that sometimes the lines blur between those two states (the song may turn out to be not very creative, while the company who sells it still gets richer). Still the difference has to be asserted. In other words, I’m weary of attempts to discredit artistic ‘flexibility’ and ‘precariousness,’ etc. on the grounds that it is a blueprint for exploitation elsewhere. I’m equally weary of talk of ‘creative industries’ à la Richard Florida which gloss over the difference between genuinely creative work that, simply, put something out into the world that didn’t exist before, and merely ‘interpretative’ work that may have creative aspects in continuing a certain tradition or craft. In the current development of Capitalism, I think it is more crucial than ever to re-establish evaluation of to what ends one works or ‘self-exploits’, rather than just how. Maybe someone is underpaid and exploited, but doesn’t it make a difference whether he or she is so for an NGO fighting against landmines, for example, as opposed to say a company producing such landmines?

As much as I always ask for an emphasis on the ‘how’ of art making (the methods) rather than its ‘what’ (the subject matter), in terms of ‘work’ as such and ‘artistic disciplines’ etc., I’d rather always ask to what effect someone works the way they work.


[1] Jan Verwoert, Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous (London: Afterall, 2006), p. 15.

[2] Jörg Heiser, ‘Emotional Rescue, Romantic Conceptualism’, frieze, Issue 71, November-December 2002.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2004), p. 179.

[4] Carl Schmitt, Political Romanticism, translated by Guy Oakes (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 1986 [1919]), p. 74.

[5] See Guy Oakes’ ‘Translator’s Introduction’ to Carl Schmitt, Political Romanticism, p. xxvii.

[6] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, translated by Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester (NY: Suny, 1998), p. 6.

[7] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2005), p. 422.