December 26, 2009

Oil That Glitters Is Not Gold


Sometime in 1939, on the eve of the opening of the new building of the Museum of Modern Art on New York’s 53rd Street, an impressively intrepid museum employee decided to play a practical joke on her bosses. Her name was Frances Collins. And as the Museum’s director of publications, she and a friend had concocted an invitation, to be sent to seven thousand distinguished persons, to the opening of what was declared their “Museum of Standard Oil.” Their invitation card, printed in fancy script, came from “The Empress of Blandings” (a character in the form of an overly fat pig drawn from English satirist P. G. Wodenhouse’s novels) and would, so it announced, admit “Two persons or one person and two dogs.” Within the invitation packet was a small card that read “Oil That Glitters Is Not Gold” alongside a letterpress engraving of a crown. The overt allusion to then-MoMA president Nelson Rockefeller’s entrenchment in the world of oil – his father John D. Rockefeller, having founded the modern oil industry as we know it – did not roundly amuse everyone. Collins promptly lost her job. The MoMA, as we know, went ahead and opened as planned.

- From the Bidoun article on the project Cultural Diplomacy: The Art We Neglect by artist Alessandro Yazbeck and art historian Media Farzin


December 22, 2009

The Romantic and the Entrepreneur


[This text was originally published in C Magazine #92.]

In David Markson’s 1996 experimental novel Reader’s Block, sparse, isolated sentences about a protagonist referred to only as ‘Reader’ are interspersed among a much larger number of equally sparse, isolated biographical fragments from the lives of well-known painters, writers, philosophers, composers, etc. These fragments are rarely flattering. For example:

“Emily Dickenson became so extravagantly reclusive in the second half of her life that for the last ten years she did not once leave her house.”


“When Rembrandt’s possessions were sold at bankruptcy in 1656, they included paintings by Raphael, Giorgione, and van Eyck. And seventy-five Rembrants.

And did not bring in enough to discharge the bankruptcy.”


“Fighting with his wife, drunk, Paul Verlaine once threw their three-month-old son against a wall.”

In the universe of Reader’s Block, so many artists were anti-semites, so many more suicides. Their struggles with poverty and isolation, and in fact with life itself, more often than not got the better of them.

This vision of the artist as someone destroyed by his or her vocation seems somehow outdated, a relic from the past. Certainly enough contemporary artists are poor and/or drunk. But I suspect a more entrepreneurial model now holds sway over our idea of what an artist might represent in the world. No longer encapsulated by an individual’s solitary engagement with his or her own genius, a more social and relational set of images now comes to mind when we think of artists today.

This change, perhaps a demotion within the realm of symbolic value, is part and parcel of an art context where anything can be art, a context in which, as the critic Sven Lütticken writes “the objects nowadays exhibited as art no longer derive their legitimacy from a tradition or an artistic medium, but from the fact that their artistic status is initially dubious”, a context in which it is often remarkably unclear just exactly what ‘special quality’ the artist actually brings to the work.

However, it is important to remember that this situation is only made possible because the contemporary work of art is in fact set in stark relief against an art-historical backdrop. An empty cardboard box sitting in the middle of a room in a museum would simply not mean anything to us if museums weren’t also places where paintings by Rembrandt once hung (and of course still do.) The radical break obtains meaning and resonance only in relation to a history from which one wishes to escape.

This might seem like an obvious enough point and of course many contemporary works of art are based explicitly on art historical precedents while many catalog essays work overtime to contextualize contemporary work within a historical framework. Nonetheless, the paradoxical complexity of the dynamic between contemporary art and art history is difficult to overstate. While the original movements of the avant-garde derived their power and energy from the incredible strength of will it took to break with the hegemony of convention and tradition, in the contemporary world tradition no longer rules society to anywhere near the degree it once did and to break away from such a weak master is not an especially impressive feat.

I certainly have no desire to argue for a return to tradition. I simply believe further consideration can be given to the degree to which any seemingly radical gesture (most of which we no longer find especially radical) would not be possible without a series of conventions for it to be radical in relation to. While the previous, more romantic, conception of the artist hinged on the artist’s will to push forward and break with tradition; the current more entrepreneurial conception of the artist hinges on our understanding that these traditions have now been demolished and therefore the artist is free to run wild amongst the wreckage: for profit, pleasure or in the name of some multi-faceted ideal that, for lack of a better term, we continue to refer to using the word ‘art.’ While, for the historical romantic artist, a forced break with tradition had the potential to be a brave and meaningful action – or at the very least had the potential to be a metaphor for a brave and meaningful action – for the contemporary artist, continuing to run wild long after all traditional boundaries have disappeared, it is more likely to seem a bit aimless, perhaps even becoming a metaphor for how aimless and powerless we often feel living in the contemporary world.

In a sense, one of the things that is so remarkable about the contemporary artistic project is how often this potential aimlessness continues to accrue meaning in relation to the entire history of art and how often this essential relationship, without which so many contemporary artistic gestures might seem only aimless, is taken for granted. The fact that it is taken for granted, pushed into the background (where it must remain silent in order not to draw undue attention towards itself) in part serves to mask the essential weakness of the dynamic between contemporary practice and art history, serves to create a certain aura of mystery around some of the most basic reasons why contemporary art still continues to be thought of as ‘art’. But it is also possible that many artists working today simply aren’t aware of the degree to which the core values of their practice are derived from a) how fully the romantic ideal of art and of the artist continues to hold sway over our imagination and b) how powerful the modernist ideal of a break with tradition continues to be.

At any rate, to whatever degree any artist may or may not be aware of this reality, there is no question that in certain fundamental ways our current, more entrepreneurial, cliché of the role a contemporary artist fulfils is (perhaps unconsciously) built upon the historical foundation of an older, more romantic, position and would not be possible without the aura of this previous conception. And for artists who are insightfully aware of this slightly paradoxical situation – that for their work to be effectively contemporary it must continuously break with an art-historical tradition that at the same time it’s very status as a work of art also depends upon – one of the more positive side effects is that it allows them an enormous degree of play, both with their own individual persona as an artist and with the seemingly old-fashioned romantic idea of being an artist in the first place. There are far too many examples of this type of playfulness to mention here but as a particularly complex and reified example I will focus on the 1991 work Heavy Burschi (Heavy Guy) by Martin Kippenberger.

As an artist, Kippenberger was particularly aware of his public persona, always perversely engaged in an almost confrontational process of negotiation between the creation of his own persona and the creation of his art. For Heavy Burschi, Kippenberger asked his assistant to make a series of paintings based on images from the entirety of Kippenberger’s previous work. However, upon seeing the finished paintings he was extremely unsatisfied with them. He ordered all fifty-one paintings to be destroyed, but first had each one photographed, reprinted to its original size, and framed, exhibiting the reproductions in a single installation along with the remnants of the original paintings which he now placed in a giant dumpster in the middle of the gallery.

This multilayered, hyper-ironic approach to a certain kind of power dynamic implicit within the romantic idea of the ‘great artist’ is of course, on one level, an extremely cynical ploy, embodying the very abuses of power that it also serves to draw attention to. Thematically, it is also rich and complex. Among many other possible readings, this gesture of destroying fifty-one paintings, paintings filled with motifs from his entire oeuvre, and then displaying the destroyed remnants along with reproductions of the originals, originals that were in fact somehow copies of his own work to begin with, evokes a relationship between Kippenberger’s very entrepreneurial and contemporary artistic persona and a more romantic idea of artistic integrity that we associate with the past.

Great artists of the past, depending on the period we are referring to, often had assistants as well. The names of their assistants have generally disappeared into the ether of history while the names of the artists are continually being renewed and further established. To be a bit pithy about it, history is written by the victors. Kippenberger makes this relationship explicit within his work, at the same time toying with his own persona as a cynical artist, as someone who doesn’t actually have to make the work himself, doesn’t have to suffer in his pursuit of it, and yet in some ironic sense ‘suffers’ anyway when he finds himself unhappy with the results of the work he has commissioned from his assistant. Heavy Burschi is a work by an artist who clearly isn’t trying to make you think he’s a nice guy. To the contrary, it openly explores the out-dated notion of the artist as someone who can get away with behavior that would, in other circumstances, be unacceptable, get away with such behavior in the name of the higher calling of art. Kippenberger updates this notion and brings it into the self-referential present, at the same time undermining the romantic idealism previously associated with it. The ethically problematic behavior at Heavy Burschi’s core resonates with a history of artist biographies that are equally problematic. It also gives one a feeling that Kippenberger is almost the last of a dying breed, that artist’s are no longer really like that, that we now like to believe that things have changed.

Of course, Heavy Burschi was made at the beginning of the nineties when such an emphasis on irony most likely seemed more fresh and relevant. But the manner in which Kippenberger thematizes his role as a contemporary artist, in dialog with a romantic ideal that is both past and yet remains deeply instilled within us, continues to feel consequent. Kippenberger is simultaneously an old fashioned romantic artist and a contemporary parody of that role and in embodying this double condition he tells us quite a lot about what it’s like to be an artist today.

The old fashioned romantic model (which evokes obsession and suffering) may very well contrast with the more contemporary entrepreneurial model (which involves travel and networking) in many ways, but there is never any question that the relationship between them is essentially a symbiotic one. The present needs the past as a tradition that covertly continues to validate its status as actual art. And the past needs the present in order to maintain it’s vaulted position as historically sanctioned great art. While much contemporary art downplays this ever-present dynamic, in doing so it creates a potential misunderstanding about what we are actually looking at when we look at contemporary art.


December 19, 2009

Frances Stark quote


I remember very distinctly at the age of fourteen, a friend, who was verging on adulthood, announced to me that she was suicidal. I simply could not grasp the notion of ceasing to exist. I asked if maybe instead of killing herself she could just drastically change her identity and begin a different life… just say to yourself I’m no longer me, I’ll ‘kill’ me and just start living in some different way. It seemed to me very plausible and logical. Based on my optimistic and / or pragmatic approach to her suicidal urge, I never could have foreseen my own melancholic tendency toward listlessness, but I do have one.

So what do I do when I’m listless? I kind of am now, and what if I said I’m too sad to tell you? OK, that’s a little forced, however, ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I tend to get depressed, and bogged down and sometimes even cry when my work is undone. That is when I start to think about following my old advice and start considering abandoning my identity. That would entail forgetting my past and all my handy anecdotes that reside there. More importantly – to abandon my identity – I would have to quit being an artist, quit doing art.

I’d have to quit my job… and my job is my life.

One hundred years ago, my favorite artist, author Robert Musil, wrote this in a letter to a friend: ‘Art’ for me is only a means of reaching a higher level of the ‘self’.

One day ago, a friend of mine wrote, in a letter to me: ‘I think I am addicted… to my identity as an artist… (which is) probably detrimental to the ideal of art making itself, I think you realize this.’ I wrote back: ‘When I think about eradicating the identity – short of killing myself, incidentally or on purpose – the artist-ego always elbows in, making it all seem like a staged burning of the paintings, only to be followed by an exhibition of their ashes.’ And Zarathustra spoke thus: “I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe: for his virtue’s sake he wants to live on and live no longer.”

- Frances Stark, Collected Writing 1993-2003


December 18, 2009

Perversely Permissive Extroverted Superego


Not to go into this too awfully much, but acquiring permission is a bit weird for me. My shrink says it’s due to a ‘punitive extroverted superego’. Which is to say that there are always more reasons to not do something than to do something. When it drives me too much toward inertia I have to create for myself a counteractive force, a ‘permissive extroverted superego’, if you will. Which doesn’t always do that much good since you could imagine a seagull painter using the same excuse to make yet another dreary, bland seagull painting. So it has to be a ‘perversely permissive extroverted superego’, a kind of combination fuckedupness-barometer / permission-giver who, with one eye winking permission, has the other eye turned critically toward whatever’s goofy enough, fucked-up enough and sincere enough to be worth doing.

- Richard Hawkins


December 13, 2009

Recent Posts


In some ways, Facebook is the story of Narcissus in technological form. In other ways: Narcissus meets Big Brother.

On Facebook, no one can hear you scream.

Facebook is over if you want it.


December 12, 2009

A frenzy of dissatisfaction


A frenzy of dissatisfaction: in which one feels any attempts at improvement will only lead to further disappointment, yet the dissatisfaction is so intense that one must, nonetheless, continuously strive towards new frontiers. The self-aware hungry ghost.


November 29, 2009

A List


Hospitality and Resistance

An Enemy Is Someone Whose Story You Haven’t Heard Yet

Something Might Still Change

Every Song I’ve Ever Written

Love Is Not A Game

A Manifesto For Collective Child Rearing

Experiments In Curating

There Are At Least Seven Bands With The Name Triangle

Freedom Is Always Connected To Disappointment

The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information

How Not To Be Irrelevant


November 26, 2009

The Heroine of this story; the She, Her, by Eline McGeorge


The Heroine of this story; the She, Her,
A text written for the artist book Manual which is an artist’s book by Eline McGeorge:


November 24, 2009



When you know exactly how the magician does every aspect of the trick, but somehow it seems like magic anyways.


November 14, 2009

Movement, directional vectors, ritournelles, rhythms and refrains


It is obvious that we are all suspended over the same abyss, even if we use different means in order not to see it. We are all at the mercy of the same stupor that can take you by the throat and literally suffocate you. We are all like Swann, half crazy after his separation from Odette and fleeing, like the plague, any mention that could evoke, even indirectly, her existence.

That is why we each cling to our own semiotic scaffoldings in order to continue walking down the street, waking up each day, and doing what is expected of us. Otherwise everything would stop, people would bang their heads against the wall. The way to have a lust for life, to maintain commitments, to forget oneself is not simple or obvious. “What for?!” has incredible power. It is much stronger than Louis XV and his “après moi le déluge!” It is worth trying to keep everything up, taking the heritage of generations, keeping the machine running, having kids, doing science, making literature or art? Why not break down, burst and leave it all in the lurch? That’s the question. Giving way to it is always only so far away…

The answer of course is at the same time both personal and collective. In life, one can only hold on to momentum. Subjectivity needs movement, directional vectors, ritournelles, rhythms and refrains that beat time to carry it along. The most singular and personal factors have to do with social and collective dimensions. It is stupid to imagine a psychogenesis independent of contextual dimensions, but that’s what psychologists and psychoanalysts do.

Jean Oury, who got me up on my feet when I was twenty, when I was pretty lost, provides a telling recipe. Many times, and at length, I explained my anxiety crises and attacks to him, without seeming to move him in any way. Until one day, he answered me with this zen-style response, “It comes over you at night in your bed, before you fall asleep? Which side do you sleep on? Okay, so all you have to do is try the other side.”

Analysis is sometimes like that, a little turnaround is necessary. The humility of the earliest days of the church is what’s needed, and to say to oneself, “So what. It doesn’t matter. Inch Allah…” It’s really basic. Of course one can’t just say this in any old way. One must also have the right semiotic lozenges handy; the precise little indexes that can rock significations, giving them an a-signifying bearing, and working with humor or surprise: the dope fiend with a gun in his hand who you ask for a light.

This is how the instant fuses with the world. It’s in this register that the category of poetic performance, the music of John Cage, the ruptures of Zen – it doesn’t matter what you call it – are found. But they’re never acquired. Juggling has to be learned, like playing scales. One acquires a relative mastery in certain situations, not in others, and then this can change with age, etc. One of the stupidest things about the psychoanalytic myth is to think that after you have put in your ten years on the couch, you are necessarily stronger than those who haven’t. Not at all! There is no relation between the two! Analysis should simply give you a boost of virtuosity, like a pianist, for certain difficulties. It should give you more freedom, more humor, more willingness to jump from one scale of reference to another… Therefore, I would say, in order to continue living, one should circulate in supportive orbits. Shakespeare, we know nothing about him, but we know that he had a “supportive” environment. So, go on, it’s now or never, it’s time for your last next act, right away. You’re depressed? Don’t let it get to you, they’re waiting…

- Felix Guattari, Chaosophy


November 7, 2009

In their way, these movements were trying to save what they could.


The number of casualties, the carnage and destruction, the area of irredeemable collapse – these were on an even vaster scale in the First World War than in the second, and that first Materialschlacht, the battle of technology and equipment, was unprecedented. In the surrounding disintegration of hopes and values, art, and especially modern art, emerged as a new value. We are too accustomed to see the modernist movements of the 1920’s – futurism, Dadaism, surrealism – as part of the nihilism and cultural despair engendered by the war. In their way, these movements were trying to save what they could.

- Sidney Monas


November 1, 2009

That was the last hangover


That was the last hangover
that rainy morning when I knew the choices
of the future would be ever more grueling
than choices past
I wanted politics but had careerism
I wanted womanizing but had the constant
fear of hurt feelings
I wanted honesty and had the honest feeling
that everything was only modulations of performance
and also that such modulations were sincere,
honest, complex
placing one word after another along
the thought: no more poems about feelings
the last hangover
or perhaps the first


Found Poem


the crypto-fascism of everyday life

the micro-politics of desire


October 28, 2009

I see now the problem...


I see now the problem is that I am a complete ideologue when it comes to theatre: always fighting for a certain, extremely specific, way of making and thinking about performance. I can be fair and reasonable and believe there is room for everybody but in my heart and blood I know that I am right. And when you are an ideologue you can never really be open and you can never, not for a second, rest. Towards my own ideology I feel only like Bartleby: I would prefer not too. But twenty years of fighting have turned me inside out. I am exhausted. No one particularly cares how or why performances are made. And when I was young, no one advised me to pick my fights more carefully. Is this what being an artist, a certain kind of artist (I suppose), in some sense, finally means? Then again, like Ranciere says, how to open a window and let in some air?

You are here to listen to voices that do not know you are listening. That startle with their clarity and prescience. The voices are you while at the same time they are not you. They are at war with each other and with their own absolute smoothness. You can edit them but you can never gain the upper hand. And when you die they will die along with you. While at the same time they will live on.

And just write anything. Because you left the book you were reading (and enjoying immensely) at home, because you are sitting in the café alone and perhaps want others to think you industrious. You have no thoughts so you write anything, not worrying that it’s pathetic or uninspired, no one will read it anyway. Even if by some miracle it is published hardly anyone will read it. But you sip the last dregs of your coffee and write. This is the perfect, public loneliness. You look around the café and continue to smile.

These moments of lucidity within the dumb, stupid, corrupt, venal, smug, overly-satisfied-with-itself world. And the lucidity that is little more than a stand-in for the overwhelming grayness of ones own inexplicable temperament.

Of course it’s too easy to think this way, as if every question had the same simple answer: that the world is irredeemably damaged. These people have style but that doesn’t guarantee they lack substance. Do more people read a book when it is the only one left in the shop? Do more people commit a crime when the pertinent law seems flimsy, arbitrary or ridiculous? In every matter there is choice but rarely does freedom decide everything. Does a belief in love automatically entail a belief in couples?


October 20, 2009

When I had my time as a poet, I was continuously appalled...


When I had my time as a poet, I was continuously appalled by how marginal and irrelevant poetry was. I couldn’t appreciate the actualized pleasures of the activity – of reading, writing, engaging deeply with language – as valuable ends in themselves. Perhaps because, for the most part, I don’t particularly experience pleasure. (Or at least I have found my experiences of pleasure to be thoroughly ambivalent and anxious.) And I didn’t want the activity to be an end in itself. I wanted the activity to shake things up, shift the very ground of art, in some sense change the world. How could one change the world with something as marginal and irrelevant as poetry? It is only now I realize how dangerous it is for someone who doesn’t experience or understand pleasure to want to change the world.


October 19, 2009

Evolutionary accomplishments that no longer have anything to do with survival


Art is evolutionary, in the sense that it coincides with and harnesses evolutionary accomplishments into avenues of expression that no longer have anything to do with survival. Art hijacks survival impulses and transforms them through vagaries and intensifications posed by sexuality, deranging them into a new order, a new practice. Art is the sexualization of survival or, equally, sexuality is the rendering artistic, the exploration of excessiveness, of nature.

- from Chaos, Territory, Art by Elizabeth Grosz


October 17, 2009

Religion is too important to be left to fundamentalists, indeed, it is too important to be left to believers alone


In one way or another, most recent religious controversies revolve around images – some of them highly dramatic and violent. They range from the attack on the World Trade Center, that abstract double icon of capitalism and American power, to the cartoons published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. Some of these were tailor made for escalation, and it comes as no surprise that they were used by hardliners on both sides to create the impression of an irreconcilable opposition between “the West” (or “modernity”) and Islam. The Danish caricatures not only represented the Prophet, thus breaking a widespread – though by no means universal – Muslin custom, but they caricatured him in ways that sometimes seemed racist and oddly reminiscent of anti-Semitic caricatures of old, while structurally resembling traditional Christian caricatures of Muhammad in hell. (In 2002, an al Qaeda cell in Italy was reported to have planned the bombing of a church in Bologna, the location of a fifteenth-century fresco depicting this scene.) Given that such images are met with outrage, monotheism – Islam, in particular – is often regarded as inherently intolerant, its iconoclastic ire presenting a danger to civilized society. Various atheist websites have posted an image of the Twin Towers with the Lennon-inspired caption: IMAGINE NO RELIGION. But religion is too important to be left to fundamentalists, indeed, it is too important to be left to believers alone.

Many of the recent controversies revolve around images that are seen as both idolatrous and blasphemous – perceived as illicit representations of a deity or prophet who should not be represented, as well as offensive caricatures. One of the Danish caricatures depicts Muhammad as a sinister-looking fellow whose turban hides a bomb; that image of Islam as backward and violent was effectively fortified by the preachers and masses engaged in violent protests against such caricatures. Certain Sudanese Muslin groups also actively embraced Western clichés about Islam in the absurd 2007 affair on an English school teacher, who had allowed her pupils to name the class teddy bear Muhammad, after one of the boys. She was sentenced to fifteen days in prison for insulting the prophet by seemingly representing him in the form of a soft toy. Clearly, one or more political factions were exploiting an imaginary offense by a western foreign national to further their political agenda, yet we should not treat the religious “surface” as a mere passive reflection of the “real” economic and political issues. Like cultural production in general, religion can develop a dynamic of its own, articulating political issues as well and interfering in them.

The interdiction of idolatry, of images that may come to be worshipped as false gods, is the founding act of monotheism. The seemingly secular “West” is seen by many Muslim fundamentalists as idolatrous, worshipping the false gods of material wealth and alluring images. It is, as the mid-twentieth century radical Sayyd Qutb stated, the new jahiliyya – the term jahiliyya standing for the idolatrous “state of ignorance” of pre-Muhammad Arabia. Some scholars emphasize that, in distancing themselves from the jahiliyya, the Qur’an and the hadith did not in fact accord a central place to the question of the image. However, a ban on images is implicit in the condemnation of shirk, or the polytheistic association of other gods with God. Furthermore, the Qur’an contains numerous references to the primal scene of idolatry in the Torah – the episode of the Golden Calf – when the Israelites relapsed into worshipping a material image as a divinity. Such a practice had been explicitly forbidden by the Second Commandment, which states that Israel shall have no other gods that Yahweh, and which condemns graven images “or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This commandment, given in Exodus 30:3-4 and in Deuteronomy 20:3-4, is elaborated upon in Deuteronomy 4:15-19, when the Israelites are reminded that they “saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spoke unto [them] in Horeb out of the midst of the fire,” and that representation of people and animals should be avoided because they might lead to corruption”; to the worship of these images (a similar danger also existed in the case of the sun, moon and stars.)

These passages are anything but unambiguous; some elements clearly suggest a lingering belief in the reality of other gods. This means that originally, monotheism was not based on the ontological belief that there is only one God who is beyond representation, but on a much more personal, social relationship between Israel and a jealous, possessive God. Paradoxically, then, the belief that there is only one God is not as central to monotheism as the refusal to worship other gods, who may very well exist. In time, of course “social” monotheism or monolatry became “ontological” monotheism. Yet ontological monotheism is anything but monolithic or consistent; interpretations of the Second Commandment have varied widely over the centuries in all three “Abrahamic” religions.

- from Idols of the Market by Sven Lütticken


October 12, 2009

Atheism is the continuation of monotheism with other means.


Since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there has been no shortage of events that have been milked by the Islam-bashing authors who have hijacked the European and American public spheres with their insistence that Islam is structurally immune to reform and incompatible with the West, democracy and Enlightenment. These polemicists, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-Dutch authors and politician currently residing in the US; Christopher Hitchens, also in the US; Pascal Bruckner in France; and Necla Kelek in Germany, have been dubbed “Enlightenment Fundamentalists.” They claim the problem is that Islam is intrinsically backward and evil; those who argue that Islam has been seized by fanatic groups that exploit the economic deprivation, political disenfranchisement, and symbolic humiliation experienced by various Muslim populations, are accused of being cowardly appeasers, squandering Western values. Even liberals who are seen as opponents of the Enlightenment fundamentalists, such as Ian Burma, share some of their presuppositions when they reduce Islamic fundamentalism to a pathological, hysterical and prudish Occidentalism. In this climate, right-wing populists such as Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders can garner publicity (and votes) by comparing the Qur’an to Mein Kampf and demanding that it be banned. Meanwhile, the increasing importance of Christian fundamentalism in the United States is downplayed, as are the close historical ties between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

What makes the Enlightenment fundamentalists’ writings deeply problematical is not primarily their manifest content. As the Enlightenment fundamentalists are keen to ask: How could anyone be against them criticizing the lack of democracy in Muslim societies, fundamentalist intolerance and anti-Semitism, the oppression of women, forced marriages, and female circumcision? The problem lies in the latent content of their discourse. By presenting all problems in Muslim societies and communities as an inevitable outcome of “Islam,” they deflect attention from the West’s destructive political, military and economic operations – including support for various charming dictatorships. In the process, they disavow any link between religion and the “western values” they claim to represent. Given the Bush-style “let’s bomb Iraq” stance taken by many Enlightenment fundamentalists while it seemed politically opportune, and given their reluctance to attack Christian-fundamentalist elements in the Republican party, their avowed secularism seems to be blind in one eye. That Hirsi Ali now works for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, which had a very cozy relationship with the Bush Administration, is one symptom of her and others’ instrumental use of Enlightenment rhetoric.

The Enlightenment fundamentalists’ avowed opponent is a type of Islam that attempts to put everything in the service of a transcendental God. There is a great interest in “Salafism” and “Wahhabism” as dangerous fundamentalist movements, which claim to go back to the origins of Islam, but even while those tendencies within Islam are criticized and accused of being at the root of Islamic terrorism, many authors effectively seem to agree with Salafist radicals’ interpretation of Islam: yes, Islam indeed has a timeless essence, a core that is resistant to change and historical development, to critique. As Talal Asad puts it “A magical quality is attributed to Islamic religious texts, for they are said to be both essentially univocal (their meaning cannot be subject to dispute, just as ‘fundamentalists’ insist), and infectious. For Western Enlightenment fundamentalists, this timeless Islam is the perfect Professor Moriarty – an unyielding, tenacious, omnipresent threat. However, contrary to the Enlightenment fundamentalists, Judaism, Christianity and Islam propelled secularization forward by attacking idolatry. As Marc De Kesel puts it, monotheism already revolves around the criticism of religion, even if this criticism in turn takes on the form of a religion. Atheism is the continuation of monotheism with other means.

- from Idols of the Market by Sven Lütticken


October 9, 2009

I DON'T THINK I'M THE FUTURE OF ART: Excerpt from an interview with Tal R


The possibilities of painting?

Painting is a zombie medium. As a painter you are a little bit like a guy showing up in a tiger suit at a techno party. So your dress code is outdated, but you might still have the best moves on the dance floor.

Personally speaking, painting is a language though which I can get a lot of experience both in and out. But to tell you the truth, it is a complicated medium, it is and remains a puzzle to me, It is not a necessary medium anymore, but somehow so many people still keep on painting. Then again, it suits me and I like the flatness of a surface. I desperately need that flatness to tell my stories, because otherwise they are too weird and unfocused.

What kind of stories to you mean?

For me, at least, the things I really like and enjoy are not necessarily things I understand. Thus, my stories are not clear-cut, but quite strange, even if they can be pretty straightforward. One good example is a painting I just finished. It shows a woman sitting in a forest at night. There are birds flying around. It started with the desire to paint birds in the night. In the finished result they look like bats, which, I guess, is both the failure and the thrill of painting.

The role of the artist?

I don’t know. But I can tell you that as a painter who simply had fun making paintings, I did feel bad for a long time. I really did envy artists whop dealt directly with social issues. Then later on when I saw more of these works, I figured that they are actually the real painters. I became disappointed. Quite often these good citizens use social issues as if they were paint and brush, and organize them into big paintings.

But to be serious, I think the role of an artist is to make people’s lives a little more complicated.

Do you think you have succeeded?

No, Anyhow, I don’t think I’m the future of art. I consider myself like somebody who sings ballads, those stupid songs about being in love in the woods.

[From the catalogue for the exhibition Stop for a moment. Painting as Presence. (2002).]


October 8, 2009



My best work is behind me.

In the future, all that awaits is mediocrity and suicide.

I see no particular reason to do anything.

And I don’t feel like doing anything. And I don’t feel like doing nothing.

If someone could help I would let them but clearly there is nothing to be done. I am too stubborn for my own good.

All steps forward lead only towards further regret.

Something is ending. But nothing new will start.


October 3, 2009

Mark Fisher on Capitalist Realism


Getting to this real abstraction entails an analysis of what I call capitalist realism. Capitalist realism – which by no means collapsed with the banks last year; on the contrary, there is no greater testament to its continuing power than the scale of the bank bailouts – is the notion that capitalism is the only viable political-economic system. It maintains that there is an inherent relation between capitalism and reality. Capitalist realism is a kind of anti-mythical myth: in claiming to have deflated all previous myths on which societies were based, whether the divine right of kings or the Marxist concept of historical materialism, it presents its own myth, that of the free individual exercising choice. The distrust of abstractions – summarized by Margaret Thatcher’s famous denial: ‘there is no such thing as society’ – finds expression in a widespread reduction of cultural ideas and activities to psychobiography. We are invited to see the ‘inner life’ of individuals as the most authentic level of reality. Much of the appeal of reality television, for instance, consists in its seductive claim to show participants for what they ‘really are’. The media is a sea of faces that we are encouraged to feel we are on first name terms with. Feature interviews in mainstream papers and magazines are invariably structures around biographical chat and photographs. In Britain, now more than ever, artists and musicians are faced with the choice of representing themselves in this biographical way or not appearing at all. Attempts to appeal to abstract ideas alone – either in the art itself or the forces it is dealing with – are habitually greeted with a mixture of contempt and incomprehension.

- Mark Fisher


September 28, 2009

Excerpt from The Seven Madmen


I’m telling you honestly – I don’t know if our society would be Bolshevik or fascist. Sometimes I think the best thing would be to concoct such an unholy mixture that not even God could untangle it. I’m being completely frank with you now. For the moment, what I’m aiming for is a huge undefined mass which could accommodate every possible human aspiration. My plan is to target young Bolsheviks, students and intelligent proletarians. We will also welcome all those who have some grandiose scheme for reshaping the universe, all those clerks who dream of becoming millionaires, all the failed inventors, all those who have lost their job, whatever it might have been, those who are being taken to court and have no idea where to turn…

The strength of our society won’t depend so much on what its members donate as on the earnings from the brothel each cell will run. And when I talk of a secret society I don’t mean the traditional kind, but a super-modern one, in which each member or associate has a stake and earns a profit – that’s the only way to get them to identify more and more closely with its aims, although these will only really be known to a few. That’s the commercial side of things. The brothels will guarantee enough income to support the growing number of ventures the society undertakes. We’ll set up a revolutionary training camp in the mountains. The new recruits will undergo instruction in anarchist tactics, revolutionary propaganda, military engineering, industrial relations, so that the day the leave the colony they can set up a branch of the society anywhere… D’you follow me? The secret society will have its own academy, the Academy for Revolutionaries.

- from The Seven Madmen (1929) by Roberto Arlt


September 27, 2009



Could there be a term for some very extreme form of passive-aggressive behavior, something like: passive-psychotic.


Art / Therapy


To tell someone that their art is ‘therapy’ is generally seen as an insult, it is a way of saying their work is self-indulgent, that it is too much about them (the artist) and not enough about us (the spectator, reader or viewer). There is of course nothing wrong with therapy but, like masturbation, it is something we mainly feel should be done in private (or among close friends.)

But what if there was another sense in which art might be analogous to therapy, that through the activity of making art the artist works through certain things, feels better, and this ‘feeling better’ is contagious, pushes through to have a positive effect on the viewer.

Those who know me will know that this is not particularly my own experience of making art. It’s only that I often find myself wondering why.


September 24, 2009

Sylvère Lotringer Quote


Nina Power: Do you think art has become indeterminate as well?

Sylvère Lotringer: Absolutely. This has little to do with individual works – whether good or bad – only with the dizzying change of scale, the massive production, circulation and consumption world-wide. The art market has expanded exponentially and has been losing its shape to achieve monstrous proportions. It is occupying all the space, wildly metastasizing in every possible direction. It is so bloated at the core that it doesn’t seem able anymore to digest all the data. It is on its way to surpass its function. The early 1980s orchestrated the return to painting, and gave the art market a chance to fasten its hold. But it didn’t stop there and it didn’t take long before art started outgrowing its own boundaries, opening itself up to the exchangeability of capital. First it absorbed photography, until then considered unworthy; then it move to architecture, fashion and design. Along the way, it has integrated ‘outsider art’, abolishing its own internal limit, and put together ubiquitous ‘installations’ liable to be pitched anywhere and provide a fast pedigree for ‘rogue nations’. Today it is difficult to imagine anything that could be excluded from art. Its field has expanded exponentially to include the entire society. Along the way, it has grabbed anything that could be used for its own purpose, recycling garbage, forging communities, investigating political issues and perfumes, tampering with biology, etc., simultaneously appearing and disappearing with an ambiguous promiscuity. Art has finally fulfilled the program of Dada with a vengeance, embedding art into life. The only thing left for art to do is ‘auto-dissolve.’ Most avant-gardes promised too much and never delivered. Their manifestos of ‘auto-dissolution’, on the contrary, revealed them at their most radical and paroxysmal moment. This moment has come to contemporary art, and it may even spare itself the trouble of publicizing its own exit. Forget art then. Unless it is capable of bringing us up to the next paradigmatic shift, as Andy Warhol once did, forgetting about its own name and past history. Artists themselves maybe have been showing the way by venturing so far astray from home. All it would take is to cut off the umbilical cord that still ties art to the market, or rather turn it into a rich rhizome. Some art groups are already working at it. Autonomists used to say, ‘The margins at the centre’. We haven’t yet given art a chance to grow autonomously.


September 20, 2009

Excerpt from the script of Stalin By Picasso Or Portrait of Woman With Moustache by Lene Berg


Scene 1: Ingredients

Joseph Stalin and Pablo Picasso did not have very much in common – perhaps. Except that they were both communists.

Also, they were both very short men.

In fact, if they had been here, I would have looked down on both of them, even without heels.

But neither of them are here; they are both dead.

What I have is a copy of the drawing; the original is lost, they say.

Maybe it disappeared because of all the troubles it caused – or maybe somebody threw it away by accident, just like that; we may never know…

Scene 2: A Surprise

The drawing [a portrait of Stalin by Picasso] was first published in the French communist weekly Les Lettres françaises on the 12th of March, 1955. It was surrounded by articles honoring the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who had died the week before:

A few days after the publication, in a small town in the south of France, Pablo Picasso found himself surrounded by journalists on his way to work.
They asked him: Had he read the newspaper L’Humanité that morning?
Didn’t he know that the Communist Party had condemned him and Aragon, the editor, for publishing the drawing?
- It’s on the front page, Mr. Picasso!
- What would you say if they expelled you from the Party?
- Did you mean to mock Stalin with your drawing?

Pablo Picasso, who was 72 years old at the time, told them he hadn’t read L’Humanité that morning and added: “I suppose the Party has the right to condemn me, but there must be a misunderstanding, because I meant no harm.”

When Picasso finally reached his studio, he may have taken the time to read L’Humanité, or at least the front page, where the Secretariat of the French Communist Party wrote that they categorically disapproved of the publication of Comrade Picasso’s portrait of the Great Stalin.

“Without doubting the sentiments of the great artist Picasso, whose attachment to the cause of the working class is well known to all, the Secretariat of the French Communist Party regrets that comrade Aragon, who in other areas fights courageously for the development of realist art, permitted the publication.”

What went through Pablo Picasso’s mind as he read this is hard to say, of course, but he was quoted in Le Monde the following day, saying:
“…I don’t understand. Normally one doesn’t criticize people who send their condolences… One doesn’t pick on them for the kind of tears they cry in front of the coffin. It is normal to thank them, even if the funeral wreath is not particularly beautiful, or the flowers are fading.”

Read more about it here:


September 16, 2009

One possible approach to a new art movement


One possible approach to a new art movement:

A pragmatically oriented group without a shared philosophy.


August 18, 2009

Second guess


The more you attempt to second-guess the reactions of the audience or reader, the more it becomes “theatre”, the harder it becomes to escape from your own pre-set assumptions, the more you get distracted from the necessary leap into risk.


August 7, 2009

Twenty-five Titles of Lithuanian Folk Songs


Oh forest, forest
I was feeding my steed
I am lost, dear mother
A birch-tree once stood here
Get up, dear daughter
The dawn is breaking
I asked God
There's a willow-tree on a hill
Those present, dear brothers of the bride
The sister went out
A dark night will fall
I woke up early in the morning
In one little yard
I was making garden beds
Orphan girl
When we were growing up
Stretch away, fields
On the other side of the Nemunas
My Mother sent me away
Promised to be married off so far away
Two brothers were standing
Oh my mother
The song of songs


August 6, 2009

Theatre Reminds Me Of Politics


It makes me sad that there is no convincing term to describe the kinds of theatre I love. Over the years there have been many attempts to coin such a term and make it stick: experimental, radical, theatre of cruelty, the alienation effect, ontological, post-modern, post-mainstream, conceptual, contemporary, devised, post-dramatic, etc. However, none of these terms feel particularly compelling to me.

Theatre reminds me of politics. The fate of the kind of theatre I love reminds me of the fate of the radical left over the course of the past century. One way or another, the conservative block always finds a way to suppress or absorb all more adventurous paths. In theatre, when I hear someone speak of the need for a ‘return to the classics’, it reminds me of fascism. This might be unfair, but it is how I honestly feel.

The radical left certainly has its share of problems, but without an effective left-wing presence everything simply drifts further and further to the right. Without anything concrete to back it up, critique gradually becomes meaningless.

There are many formal, structural and process-based qualities that characterize the kind of theatre I love:

- a rejection of artifice as the basis for theatre
- a foregrounding of the human dimension of the performer and the human dimension of the performance situation
- performance as a vulnerable activity
- treatment of the physical space of performance as a real, shared space
- theoretical and philosophical thematic content and research
- an ongoing, long-term collaborative creation process with the wisdom to avoid stasis
- room for imperfection
- constantly starting from scratch
- attempting to significantly push beyond what one already knows
- etc.

However, none of these qualities particularly define what I actually most love about it.

Sometimes I suspect what I love about it is how improbable it is that something so compelling and alive can potentially, perhaps only momentarily, exist within the structurally conservative world of theatre, a world in which there is always this intense pressure to sell tickets, to please people, always the fear that when you walk on stage the audience will see too much of you, will see things about you that you don’t want them to see. Sometimes it seems to me that the process of rehearsal is simply a process of emotional armoring: we will make everything absolutely perfect so no one will ever see who or what we really are.

Everything about the theatre setting conspires towards something manageable and safe: the fact that on stage one is exposed, the fact that you have to repeat it over and over and over again, the fact that if no one comes the work is considered a failure, the fact that it is ephemeral and does not last, that its history is in a constant state of evaporation, the fact that it is collaborative, the fact that it is funded by the government, the fact that tradition hangs over it like a blood-soaked sword, all the various spoken and unspoken levels of hierarchy, administration and authority.

How can one possibly create something alive and vital within such a deadened and deadening space? How might the radical left re-invent itself in a manner that might, even in a small way, begin to make the world more humane and people more emancipated? I have no idea if such an analogy is fair, but if it is not, that makes it only one of the many unfair things that, day after day, somehow keep me going.

[This text was written for the program of the Perfect Performance Festival in Stockholm which took place from October 23-31, 2009.]


July 23, 2009

Hampton Fancher Story


Have you read Castaneda’s books at all? The first two are really interesting. That guy Don Juan, he’s one of these Mexicans. Uneducated, brilliant. I lived next door to one down there once. He got me so good. This guy, he was an Indian, a completely uneducated man – a peasant, a peon, he doesn’t even have a home. I had this little villa on a lake – in fact she wrote about it, Sybille Bedford, it’s right in Xicotepec, on the west end of Chapala. I had rented this place for a few months. And I would see him once in a while; there was some acreage next to me on the waterfront. He had a little hut made out of grass and sticks, and once in a while I’d see him at the water’s edge, and I wondered how he lived, though I didn’t want to get to know him. Someone in the village told me that he was a witch, and that made me curious. Because he was like a little Indian guy, ancient.

One time I saw him digging a hole in the ground to get some water from the lake so the children there, little ragamuffins, could bathe. I went down to that place with a friend of mine who was visiting. I told my friend, “Here’s my camera, I’m going to talk to him, shoot a picture that you see is interesting.” So I go and I’m talking to him, and he’s very deferential, very humble, soft spoken, not a man of words. And I’m asking him a few questions and Joe, my friend, can’t make the camera work, He’s telling me in English, “I can’t get the camera to work.” I didn’t want to make a big thing about it in front of the old man – Don Jose – so I say, “Let me try it. You talk to him.” I took the camera and it wouldn’t cock. Then the shutter worked – but not when I was pointing it at him. Finally I got it to work, and I said to my friend, “Here, try it.” And Don Jose says to me, “You trying to take a picture of me?”

He was barefoot. “Here, cross this line,” he said. He goes like this, in the sand. So I cross the line, and he says, “Now tell him to take a picture.” Click – it worked.

Then I asked him in Spanish, “Tu eres un brujo, verdad?” You’re a witch, aren’t you?

And he said, “No, I’m not a witch. The witch lives up on the hill, in the jungle. Look what he did to me.” He opened up his shirt, and there was this horrible burn scar across his belly. I don’t believe in witches, but I’m fascinated by this guy. He’s got this warmth, this intelligence on his face. I liked him. So that was that. I would see him once in a while, I’d wave at him, but we don’t talk.

When I got back to civilization, I had the film developed: it was all black. But that’s not the story.

It’s the night I’m leaving, and the whole trip has been a disaster. I was trying to write and it wasn’t working, it didn’t work at all. I had used all the money I had, and it was the last night. I was sitting in front of a Smith-Corona, and I started to cry. I had my face in my hands. I wanted to die; I wanted to kill myself. I’m thinking, I can’t go back to California. I have nothing. I’m in despair. And it’s, like, twelve o’clock at night.

Now, Don Jose goes to bed when the sun goes down, in his little hut. But I look up and through my window I seem him on the other side of the foliage, and it got me – what’s he doing awake? He was turned away, I could only see the back of his head. I went to the window, and he was just standing there. I went outside and I said, “Don Jose!” And he looked at me, and he was stricken. His face looked terrible. I said, “What’s wrong?” and he says, “I’m nothing, I’m shit!”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“What does your father do?” he asked.

I said, “He’s a doctor.”

“He’s a doctor, he went to school. Has he got a car?”

“Oh yeah, he has a car – he has two.”

“Has he got a television?”

“Yeah, he’s got a television.”

“He’s got a home?”


“He’s a doctor. He’s a great man.”

“No, no, no. He’s not a great man.”

He said, “Well, he’s something. I’m nothing!”

I said, “Don Jose, you are wrong! You are one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. My father… my father is a drunk.” He would commit suicide a year later. I said, “My father doesn’t know who he is. He can’t live. You have knowledge, you have wisdom, you understand everything, you understand the earth, you see things, you see through everything, you’re brilliant.” And I kept talking to him, and he goes like this – “Really? Is that true?”

And I said, “Oh, Don Jose, you’re so lucky not to have a television.”

And he said, “Oh, I think I can sleep now – thank you, thank you!” And he went into his little hut. And I was transformed. I felt fine. I felt like a million bucks! I went back into the house and it hit me: he did that. He saw, he knew I was in trouble, and he knew how to get me out of it. He knew that if he could get me to love something outside of myself, to love him, I’d be okay.

- Hampton Fancher


July 11, 2009

Notes on Literature (Unfinished Manifesto)


- Vulnerable Writing, moments of jarring tenderness, that something (but what exactly?) is at risk, that in the writing itself there is a sense of risk, the writer does not take a safe position high above the action but is down in the fucking middle of it all, hands dirty, against (yet still unavoidably complicit with) the strong complexity of the worlds stupidity, cruelty and incompetence. Critical, yet in league with curiosity and joy.

- An open vessel that lets everything in: every kind of research (to be used for both quotation and plagiarism but nothing in between), things read, heard, seen, done, thought, suffered. The narrative does not exclude any kind of material, the narrative is a giant magnet that draws every kind of material towards itself.

- Not particularly autobiographical. Bringing oneself, ones entire self, all of ones observations and understanding of the world, headlong into the task of fiction. But why not autobiography? Because there is this cursed desire to bring in so much more of the world, to bring in things beyond what one can ever individually experience.

- To reject the “stench of literature”, to know that writing can be so much more than “good”.

- No to straining for effect, yes to insights heartrendingly gained and stated simply, or not so simply. No to the carefully placed phrase, yes to words and sentences that follow one another with the unexpected thrill of great conversation. No to precise historical detail, yes to pure invention and the vividness of the present moment. No to the big revelation at the end of the book, yes to the revelation that books and life are inseparable.

- What does it mean for literature to be “about” something? How can we mean this differently?


July 5, 2009

Writing can be more than good. (Ariana Reines quotes, pt 2)


I am speaking clearly because I am going to explain why sometimes THE COW speaks clearly and why sometimes it is a voluptuary, a vat of mushy ideals and disgusting feelings. The reason is that I am often a voluptuary, a vat of mushy ideas and disgusting feelings, and I have resented the cleanliness and elegance of tight and perfect writing. I have felt that writing should be dirtier and more excessive. I still feel this way. Often. Not all the time. A person has the right to feel in many different ways.

Writing can be more than good.

- Ariana Reines

Sometimes it is factually and rigorously impossible to tell it like it is, and that is not because of some relativism or soft-headed deconstruction, that is because some things are many things at once, and this is exhausting and terrifying, and very important. Books must understand this in their very making.

- Ariana Reines

Every time people say something is raw and simple and tells it like it is and gives you the unvarnished truth and everything, people are playing themselves. People want to have an experience of the raw truth, and some things are more intense and greater than others, but nothing is wholly raw, nothing is the plain and pure truth. Style in literature can make itself sound like it is the plain and pure truth and this is because the author wants to clobber you with the authority of the plain and pure truth he or she is emitting. Urgency and sincerity are real. But when people start talking bullshit about “a style stripped of artifice” they are talking bullshit. Style is by definition artificial. Much more importantly, writing’s artificial. Eating and talking and crapping and fucking and dying are natural.

- Ariana Reines



July 3, 2009

Ariana Reines quotes


I want to say something about bad writing. I'm proud of my bad writing. Everyone is so intelligent lately, and stylish. Fucking great. I am proud of Philip Guston's bad painting, I am proud of Baudelaire's mamma's boy goo goo misery. Sometimes the lurid or shitty means having a heart, which's something you have to try to have. Excellence nowadays is too general and available to be worth prizing: I am interested in people who have to find strange and horrible ways to just get from point a to point b.

- Ariana Reines

One of The Cow's most pressing concerns was NOT to have a single style, not to settle upon a correct way of speaking itself, to renounce the possibility of its own completeness, to renounce correctness too.

- Ariana Reines



July 1, 2009



I decided I wanted to spend less time making shows and more time writing books. This decision was something like: performance feels a bit dead to me, let’s change careers and see what happens. And yet practically the moment I made this mental shift, as soon as I began to take this decision a bit more seriously, something changed. It wasn’t precisely that I couldn’t write anymore, though it’s also true that writing itself has become more difficult. It was more like: something within the writing hardened, became more (but I’m not exactly sure if this is right word) rigid. My writing was no longer as loose or free. It was as if I could now feel in the choice of words and syntax that it was no longer something I just did in my spare time for fun. It had become more careful, more crafted, more professional. And yet, in this sense, ‘professionalism’ is everything I hate about writing, about art. The writing that moves me most is always so vulnerable, written ‘for oneself and for strangers’, anarchic, surprising, (surprising both to the reader and to the author), full of loose ends and unanswerable questions. Perhaps I am only in a sad mood, but these days as I write, or think, I can feel these qualities slipping away. I can see them in the distance, yet find it more and more difficult to reach out towards them. Of course, all of this most likely has something to do with aging. But the ways in which one must, to a certain extent, remain amateur in order to stay alive, they have never felt more dear.


June 24, 2009

Recent Travel


Cynical manipulators have feelings too.

Whisky drunk from a series of inappropriate glasses.

When they write the history of the late 20th / early 21st century, it will be written: they were all really tired.


June 1, 2009

Joseph Cohen on Alain Badiou


In this sense truth, for Badiou, is both a commitment and an openness; we might say that truth is something to which we must commit ourselves, but the twist is that commitment needs here to remain radically open, almost non-committing because a new truth may strike at any time.

- Joseph Cohen


May 31, 2009

No Truth Without A Fight


[This text was originally published in C Magazine #86 in 2005.]

This question of the existence of truths (that “there be” truths) points to a co-responsibility of art, which produces truths, and philosophy, which, under the condition that there are truths, is duty-bound to make them manifest (a very difficult task indeed). Basically, to make truths manifest means the following: to distinguish truths from opinion. So that the question today is this and no other: Is there something besides opinion? In other words (one will, or will not, forgive the provocation), is there something besides our “democracies”?
– Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics

The writings of French philosopher Alain Badiou carve out their own distinct path in almost militant opposition to what he sees as philosophies’ current failure to renew itself or provide effective opposition to the ‘repulsive mixture of power and opinion’ that typifies capitalism’s vision of democracy. His works implore us to ‘keep going’, keep pushing against the mere sophistry of an academic overemphasis on the limits of language (he cites Plato: “We philosophers do not take as our point of departure words, but things.”) and towards a manner of thinking that would allow philosophy to regain its primary historical function as a search for ‘truth’. This conviction – that concepts such as truth are essential if we are to continue to effectively think about, and act upon, the world in which we live – is clearly of great relevance to any assessment of contemporary aesthetics.

Concepts such as “truth” might well sound a bit awkward (perhaps even ridiculous) to our post- post modern ears and are certainly a hard-sell when confronted with the widespread certainty that pluralism and tolerance are the most appropriate responses to the complexities of the world in which we live. But if pluralism is no longer doing the trick, if you’re looking for something a little bit more uncompromising, Badiou’s doing what he can to provide it in a manner worthy of the name philosophy, the four dimensions of which he defines as ‘revolt, logic, universality and risk.’

Badiou approaches truth from a provocative and unexpected angle. According to his central work L’Etre et l’Evénement, the only way to become a subject is by encountering an event and then persisting in your fidelity to the truth of that event. At first glance this might seem a bit harsh: if you have never experienced an event (of which there are only four kinds: artistic invention, emancipatory politics, scientific re-foundation and love) and then stood firm in your loyalty to its truth, you simply don’t qualify as a subject. However, no one said truth was going to be easy.

For example, if you were a scientist in the twenties and thirties it would be impossible to practice science in the same way after having experienced the event of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity as you did previous to it. The theory of relativity creates a truth that changes the way you think about and practice physics. It is your fidelity to this truth that defines you as a scientist and it is now possible that the rest of your life might be spent teasing out the many complications and consequences of your encounter.

Badiou goes on to define and re-define his central terms in great detail, a few of which I will attempt to summarize as follows:

A situation is simply the way things are in any given field of experience. It is the status quo, the unquestioned set of assumptions that make up our knowledge of life and thought. If nothing happens the situation remains the same, it can only be changed by an event.

An event is always ‘unpredictable and incalculable’, never something that you can plan, always something that unexpectedly happens and you simply have to deal with. What differentiates an event from other significant occurrences is that the truth it generates cannot be assessed using current criteria. To decide whether or not a given event is significant, whether or not it has generated a ‘truth’, one is forced to change the way one thinks. An event creates something new, something that has the potential to alter the situation once and for all. In doing so, it also reveals the void of the situation, showing that the situation previous to the event was devoid of truth.

Stemming from the rupture of an event, truth forms ‘a hole in knowledge’, breaking open the situation, pushing at the limits of what potentially can be said. In this it contains a paradox since it is both ‘something new and exceptional’ while at the same time encompassing ‘the most stable, the closest, ontologically speaking, to the initial state of things.’ Badiou never sees truth as an unchanging verity. To the contrary, he always views it as an ‘infinite multiplicity.’ Any given truth is not the only one, contains infinite aspects, and therefore should never be rigid. If it goes too far or becomes totalizing, it betrays itself, opening the way to terror and disaster. Significantly, philosophy is not a ‘truth procedure’ and therefore can never create truths. Rather, philosophy’s role is to identify truths that have already been brought into being by one of it’s four conditions – Art, Politics, Science and Love – and to seize them, both in the sense of giving them a name and in the sense of being seized by them, of being astonished.

There is no truth without choice. If in your lifetime you happen to encounter an event, you must choose whether or not what you have experienced is significant enough to have generated a new truth and if so whether this truth should be brought into the fold of your situation (therefore changing everything). If so, this truth will demand of you a fidelity that then leads to an ongoing (possibly lifelong) investigation into its complications and consequences. There is nothing easy about such fidelity, you might change your mind, be killed in the struggle to establish the truth you have encountered, be ostracized from your community, etc. But something new has arisen: precarious, fragile, unable to fend for itself against the tides of convention, corruption, your own exhaustion and the inertia of prevailing wisdom. Without your fidelity to it, the truth you have encountered is unlikely to prevail.

Badiou claims that contemporary philosophy is a kind of ‘generalized, potent sophistry’; the foundational principle of all sophistry, both ancient and modern, being that there is no truth, only social convention, argument, desire, self interest, opinion, etc. It is telling that his response to this situation is not to try and ‘do away’ with the sophists but rather to enter into an ongoing dialogue with them, accepting them as philosophy’s necessary ‘enemy-brother’.

In visual art today we can also recognize something analogous to sophistry: a conception of art that – in its skilful, eccentric rejection of truth – undeniably forfeits certain possibilities for clarity and direction. This loss can then be reintegrated back into the work in the form of institutional or social critique. An institutional critique that unintentionally doubles as an acceptance of art’s socially marginal status by turning in on itself, by attacking the very institutions which, for better or worse, have been set up for art’s benefit and protection. Or a social critique that does in fact acknowledge the role of art within a larger set of social relations but does so under the cloak of a ‘defence mechanism’ irony that is really just the other face of an inability to meaningfully alter our surroundings. Such a strategies are certainly a reflection of the world in which we live, of capitalism’s ability to absorb absolutely anything, and gains further resonance by skirting the thin line between being a reflection of the problematic nature of the world and the spectator’s implicit acceptance of these same problems. However, without principles, without some consideration of questions pertaining to truth as a foundation on which to build, such strategies spin endlessly in circles.

I suppose the main thing I’m arguing for here is that we consider what contemporary art might look like if, much like David Hickey brought ‘beauty’ back into the art discourse of the mid-nineties, Alain Badiou managed to do the same for ‘truth.’ If art today often seems like a series of ‘opinions’, what might an art look like that moves past opinion and tries to encompass truth in Badiou’s sense of the term? At first glance this might appear an unlikely scenario, but fifteen years ago it certainly didn’t seem likely that beauty would become the buzzword of the mid-nineties. And much like beauty, if only as a provocation to current art world thinking, I suspect ‘truth’ has a great deal to offer.

Artists today very much need something like this. Perhaps not precisely what Badiou explores, but definitely something along these lines. For example, what would it mean to see ‘Duchamp’ as a central event (in Badiou’s sense of the term) in the formation of contemporary art? Of course, a great deal of work has been done along these lines already, but for the most part such work has been done while studiously avoiding (or rejecting) words such as ‘truth’. To see Duchamp as an event certainly doesn’t mean that Marcel Duchamp, as an individual artist, should be further lionized. Rather, we would have to search for the truth of what Duchamp and his legacy brought into the situation of art and what it might mean to continue to work in fidelity to this truth. Not just to continue working conceptually because it remains, in one way or another, the dominant paradigm. But rather to intensify one’s relationship with what is essential within the foundation of this paradigm. Of course, it is equally possible that we might realize that the event we are referring to here as ‘Duchamp’ is devoid of truth and therefore the contemporary art situation must simply change.

More to the point, I suspect an engagement with truth (or something like it) is essentially what most artists do anyway, almost as a dirty little secret or unspoken impulse. They feel that within their work there is something true and they bear this truth, remaining loyal to early breakthroughs and realizations, continually teasing out the many complications and consequences of their ongoing endeavour. Dealing with the language of ‘truth-procedures’ more directly has the potential to challenge the unspoken nature of this struggle, asking us to think about what art means on a more fundamental level, intensifying our engagement with our fundamental artistic concerns, allowing the multiplicity of our practice to swarm around a central point, giving us back a clear, yet still hazardous, sense of direction.

In what could also serve as a critique of contemporary art, Badiou condemns the framework of current philosophy as being ‘too strongly committed to the polyvalence of meaning and the plurality of languages’. He feels there is something in it that goes ‘too far in reflecting the physiognomy of the world itself’, that it is ‘too compatible with the status quo to be able to sustain the rupture or distance that philosophy requires.’ In many ways philosophy’s unacknowledged compliance with the status quo is what lies behind Badiou’s preoccupation with truth. If philosophy does not have the tools to sustain ‘revolt, logic, universality and risk’, there is probably something lacking. An ‘end of philosophy’ thinking now dominates which leads towards an unbreakable sense of paralysis.

This sense of cultural paralysis is certainly not an unusual modern sensation. What is unusual, and reveals Badiou’s activist roots, is his ongoing attempt to break it. He characterizes this attempted break as a kind of gamble, a roll of the dice. Perhaps it will succeed, perhaps not. When one is seized by a truth it is imperative to try, to roll the dice, see what might be possible if one chooses not to accept the current situation and instead work towards something that, while seemingly impossible under the current conditions, might suddenly become possible if things were to change.

In the end what Badiou tells us is that there is no truth without a fight, that to be a subject requires a certain degree of militancy (he quotes Mallarmé in saying that we must become ‘militants of restraint’), that ‘respect for the Other’ means nothing without some deeper conception of truth to guide one’s thoughts and actions.

It is only by declaring that we want what conservatism decrees to be impossible, and by affirming truths against the desire for nothingness, that we tear ourselves away from nihilism. The possibility of the impossible, which is exposed by every loving encounter, every scientific re-foundation, every artistic invention and every sequence of emancipatory politics, is the sole principle – against the ethics of living well whose real content is the deciding of death – of an ethic of truths.
– Alain Badiou, Ethics

As artists today, what events can we call upon and generate to destabilize the current situation, to undo unexamined certainties and replace them with something more flexible, more useful, more courageous? Are we willing to leave behind the stifling comfort of relativity in order to once again start thinking about truth? It’s certainly unlikely, but hopefully intriguing to consider. If, without for a moment loosing sight of moderation and critical distance, we allow ourselves to believe that artistic invention has the potential to generate truths – with all the complexity, rigour and multiplicity such a word implies – what might this change? Would anyone care to find out?


May 26, 2009



The novelty act of fact.


May 17, 2009

Gustaw Herling on Bukharin and Nikolaevsky


Bukharin went to Paris in February 1936 at the head of a delegation that was to negotiate the purchase of the Marx and Engels archives, which Nikolaevsky had taken from Berlin at the request of the German social democrats. Negotiations went on for two months and got nowhere despite a handsome offer from Moscow. But the “legal” – nay, “official” – cover offered by the proposed transaction made it possible for Bukharin and Nikolaevsky often to meet privately. It is likely that Nikolaevsky took notes after every meeting.

Bukharin was tired, exhausted; he longed for a rest. It was suggested that be become an émigré and found an opposition paper. “I couldn’t live outside Russia. All of us have become used to the strain of life in Russia,” he answered. One day, half serious and half facetious, he suggested they both go to see Trotsky in Oslo: “We have had our clashes, but I will never cease to admire and respect him.” Bukharin avoided direct comment about the situation in the USSR, either because he did not trust his interlocutor one hundred per cent or because (and this is Nikolaevsky’s hypothesis) he feared the conclusions he would inevitably have been forced to reach by too open an exchange of ideas.

Did he know, or even suspect, what was in store for him? There would seem to be evidence that he did, since he described his relations with Stalin as “exceptionally bad.” There would seem to be evidence that he did not, since he spoke of the new Soviet constitution with unfeigned euphoria: “I wrote the whole thing with this very pen. Yes, the whole thing, only Radek helped out a bit. I came to Paris because I had finished the job. They are printing the text now. From now on there will be more room for the people, they can no longer be ignored.” In any case, euphoric or not, he kept coming back obsessively to two points: the need to found a second party and the extreme urgency of purifying the work of the revolution through “proletarian humanism.”

Without a second party, how can the Soviet regime distinguish itself from Naziism? It does not have to be a party contrary to the new order: suffice that it advocate “change and reform.” It might be drawn from the intelligentsia so as not to disrupt the unity of the working class. As to “proletarian humanism,” Bukharin himself had seen sufficient horrors during forced collectivization – horrors that could not even be compared to the pitiless but ineluctable cruelty of civil war – to look to the future with the utmost concern. The very psyche of the communists had been contaminated and mutilated: instead of going mad, after the experience of collectivization, they became professional bureaucrats, partisans of terror as the natural method of government, slaves of obedience to any order from above, of obedience considered as the supreme virtue. “They are no longer humans, they are gears in a terrible machine.” That is where the most serious danger is hidden, that is why the coming of “proletarian humanism” is so important and imperative to prevent the Soviet Union from turning into “a regime with an iron boot.”

He was so fervent, and constantly repeated the same things with such desperate obstinacy, that Nikolaevsky interrupted him at one point: “Nikolai Ivanovich, what you are suggesting is a return to the Ten Commandments. That’s not new.” Bukharin thought about it: “Do you believe that Moses’ commandments are outdated and anachronistic?” Nikolaevsky: “I am not saying they are outdated and anachronistic. All I am saying is that they have existed for five thousand years. Are we going to discover that the Ten Commandments are a new truth? Is that the point we have reached?” Bukharin made no answer. It was only in a Moscow prison cell that Aichenvald finally heard the answer, between the lines of Bukharin’s confession of the threshold of his last agony.

- Gustaw Herling


May 15, 2009

Gustaw Herling on Andrzej Ciolkosz


Andrzej Ciolkosz once argued at length that the replacement of candles and oil lamps by electricity inflicted a mortal blow on the novel. As usual, this charming and brilliant young man’s reasoning was seemingly facetious, with that contrary grin of his, but actually terribly serious. The light of a candle or an oil lamp cast a different, enigmatic dimension on the way in which a novelist looked at people; it sited the understanding of human destiny on the fragile border between the seen and the unseen, between the graspable and the ungraspable. The incandescent bulb dispelled the dark and created a flat and shallow illusion of clarity.

- Gustaw Herling


May 11, 2009

New Emotions


Have human emotions been the same since the beginning of time or, in different ages, are there new emotions that arise alongside new structures of social organization and technological innovation?


May 6, 2009

Gustaw Herling on Konstanty Jelenski


Not very long ago I was present when a well-known Paris publisher proposed publishing a volume of his essays in French. He shrugged his shoulders and received the offer with a conventional expression of thanks but was not interested in the slightest. Later the two of us went to a café and I tried to persuade him to reconsider the offer. He laughed: “Too much is written and published now, we could drown in a sea of printed paper.” And yet… in the “symposium of polygots” organized by Stempowski in 1961 in Kultura, this is what Kot said: “Why doesn’t the polygot-writer in exile always decide to do his writing in one language? It happens occasionally – and the results are often excellent: Pietrkieiwicz in English and Cioran and Ionesco in French. In my case, that of the ‘critic’ or ‘journalist,’ it is rather a different matter. My greatest satisfaction comes from writing in Polish for Kultura, for the simple reason that my articles evoke some response from a circle of friends, however small... I may have more French or English readers, but for them I am just one of a thousand anonymous hacks.” He had a cult of friendship, he was lavish with it, sometimes even extravagant.

I also remember the day I brought him the author’s copies of his Zbiegowie okolicznosci [Coincidences]. He barely gave them a glance, but when he accompanied me to the bus stop after tea, I watched from the window of the bus and saw him draw out a copy from under his raincoat; he avidly leafed through the pages as he walked, closed the book, opened it again, weighted it in his hands and smoothed it out. If he had looked up for a moment, I am sure I would have seen totally unbridled joy.

If I had to tell what the world is for me
I would take a hamster or a hedgehog or a mole
and place him in a theater seat one evening
and, bringing my ear close to his humid snout
would listen to what he says about the spotlights
sounds of the music, and movements of the dance

These were probably his favorite lines of Milosz. And this is what he had to say about the verse: “No one has expressed more beautifully the sole philosophical revolutions of our times (compared with which neo-Marxism, existentialsim, and structuralism are the equivalent of shorter or longer skirts in women’s fashions) – arising from the conviction that man is neither the ‘lord of all he surveys’ nor the centre of the universe, so that any ‘humanism’ is now impossible."

- Gustaw Herling on Konstanty Jelenski


May 5, 2009

PDF Format manifesto


PDF manifesto

- Just be awesome
- Don't think
- If you think something is awesome, be that, and stop thinking about it.
- fear no villain
- DaMaGe nothing


May 3, 2009




Andy Kaufman is a better artist than Anna De Keersmaeker. Discuss?


Gustaw Herling on Nicola Chiaromonte


Every new conversation, every new essay, every incidental note on politics and drama review showed me a writer who was unusual for Italy, a land of traditional literati, masters of the clever and fatuous scrawl at the service of the latest intellectual fashion. The kind of writing in which a sentence is not just the vehicle of free and lucid thinking but also of ceaseless moral tension, writing in which the words are alive with the whole being of the person who utters them as his long-mediated and suffered truth: that is the kind of writing that has always captivated me. And that was how Nicola wrote. He never let himself be caught in the trammels of “great systems” and “general interpretations,” he mistrusted “dialectical games,” which mutilated life, and “ideological shadows,” which obscured reality. He scorned psychologism and historicism, for what interested him was man in the concrete faced with concrete events, man capable of ethical judgment à la Tolstoy and at the same time aware of something impenetrable beyond him. How could this measured “humanism” have evoked a wide response in a world enchanted with the rhetoric of false “universal” ideologies, in a climate of hypocrisy half-mixed with fanaticism, in a “consumer civilization” of arid hearts and sterile minds? Nicola became even more acutely aware of his isolation. The title he gave his book was Credere e non credere (What should one believe in, and what not?) “Ours is not an age of faith, nor is it an age of disbelief. It is an age of bad faith, of beliefs which are clung to… in the absence of genuine convictions.” What is the cure for bad faith, this terrible ailment of our time? He desperately sought a remedy. And atheist or at least agnostic, he once admitted: “It is just as hard not to believe in God as it is to believe in him.”

- Gustaw Herling on Nicola Chiaromonte


April 27, 2009

Spartacus Chetwynd's Hermito's Children


The best works here take you down a route where radically crazy dreams and hands on pragmatism converge. Spartacus Chetwynd's Hermito's Children (2008) is a case in point: presented on a wall of monitors, it is a bonkers ride into a zone where trash television meets raunchy underground culture; where transgender detectives investigate the case of a girl who died of too many orgasms on a dildo see-saw, to a soundtrack swinging between death metal and lisped monologues about opening a Jewish restaurant (Chetwynd ran an improvised Jewish restaurant during the making of her film, channeling the experience into her recorded scenario.)

- from Frieze review of the Tate Triennial 2009


Books bought in Krakow:


The Celebration – Ivan Ângelo
The Island: Three Tales – Gustaw Herling
Volcano and Miracle – Gustaw Herling
The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa – Jan Potocki
Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things – Gilbert Sorrentino
Selected Poems – Adam Zagajewski

(If you’re ever in Krakow definitely check out Massolit Books.)

(And also: Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka.)


April 19, 2009

What I am proudest of is having a life where work and love are impossible to tell apart.


On Facebook I just learnt that J.G. Ballard died. (A writer who was very important to me when I was young.) Then a few moments later I learned that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick had also died, about a week ago:

(Perhaps Facebook is a good place to think about one's morality after all.) (Or at least as good as any.)

I heard Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick speak once a very long time ago, I think it might be about fifteen years ago now. I remember one thing she said quite clearly about academia. Something like: 'some academics say that The Simpsons is subversive, and then other academics say: no, actually The Simpsons subverts subversivity and therefore is not subversive at all, and you can just keep going on like that forever and get absolutely nowhere.' I don't remember much else about her talk that afternoon but I do remember I found it striking and in many ways something about her approach and attitude has really stayed with me. Afterwards I read her books and, at the time, was very much impressed by them.

At the end of the above link, knowing that she is going to die, she tells her therapist: "What I am proudest of is having a life where work and love are impossible to tell apart."

I wonder very much if, at the end, I'll be able to say the same thing, or anything even vaguely similar. I'm nervous that I won't but nonetheless hope that I will.

(And of course such a sentence makes me think very much of you, who knows very well the enormous joys and difficulties of such an attempt.)


The longest state banquet


The 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great, celebrated at Persepolis in 1971: this is the occasion around which this book and exhibition have been prepared.

Persepolis '71 was a party, held over three days by the last Shah of Iran, for invited monarchy and heads of state. It has been described as the most lavish party of the twentieth century. At five and a half hours, this event holds the endurance record in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest state banquet. It was certainly an extraordinary occasion, and one that retrospectively has had many consequences. To some extent at least, the party survives. Today at Persepolis, the luxurious city built by a French interior design company to accommodate the dignitaries remains standing. The site is now dilapidated, overgrown, and vandalised. The tents themselves exist as ruined, skeletal structures; their tattered cloth coverings have been all but destroyed by the elements.

- from the inside flap of Michael Stevenson's Celebration at Persepolis catalog


April 18, 2009

Pierre Hadot quote


I do not think that the fundamental desires of humans can change. The ruling or rich class seeks wealth, power, and honors, in antiquity just as in our day. All the misfortune of our actual civilization is in effect the exasperation of the desire for profit, in all the classes of society, for that matter, but especially the ruling class. Common mortals can have simpler desires: work, happiness at home, health. The invocations of the gods in antiquity were the same ones that are now made to the Virgin Mary. One asked the same things to soothsayers as we ask of our horoscopes. It is not a question of the epoch. But when Epicurus distinguished natural and necessary desires, natural desires that are not necessary, and desires that are neither natural nor necessary, he did not want to enumerate all legitimate desires and explain how they could be satisfied; he wanted to define a style of life, taking conclusions from his intuition, according to which the pleasure corresponds to the suppression of a suffering caused by the desire. There is an analogy with Buddhism, very much in fashion these days. To be happy one must thus maximally diminish the causes of suffering, that is, the desires. In this manner he wanted to heal the suffering of humans. He thus recommended renouncing desires that are very difficult to satisfy in order to attempt to be content with desires that can more easily be satisfied - that is, finally and simply, the desire to eat, to drink, and to clothe oneself. Under an apparently down-to-earth aspect, there is something extraordinary in Epicureanism: the recognition of the fact that there is only one true pleasure, the pleasure of existing, and that to experience it one merely has to satisfy the desires that are natural and necessary for the existence of the body. The Epicurean experience is extremely instructive; it invites us, like Stoicism, to a total reversal of values.

- Pierre Hadot, from The Present Alone is Our Happiness


April 14, 2009

Something Might Still Change (Rough Early Proposal)


I intend to do so by exploring a fairly specific thesis. This thesis is less like a scientific observation and more like a hunch. It is the idea that we, artists and viewers alike, know that art is in many ways fundamentally reactionary and conservative, yet we still want to believe that art is radical and revolutionary, and within the space of this paradox there is room for a great deal to happen. That in forging an emotional or theoretical connection to a work of art, even though it’s status as art solidifies it as part of the status quo, the fact that it has affected us simultaneously keeps open the possibility that something might still change.

My intention is to develop this idea into a book entitled: Something Might Still Change. In my mind this book would – in a clear, pleasurable style – work to convince the reader that paradox can be an extremely useful lens through which to view the relationship between art and politics (and perhaps also the relationship between art, politics and contemporary life.) I would like the book to focus specifically on five or six works from different fields, moving gradually towards a conclusion in which I contrast various disciplinary approaches to specific questions surrounding the nature of participation in performance.

Some works I am currently thinking of examining:

Gentlemen & Arseholes by Lene Berg
Artificial Respiration by Ricardo Piglia