TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 2007

BLACK BLOC, WHITE PENGUIN: RECONSIDERING REPRESENTATION CRITIQUE

IN HELL FROZEN OVER, 2000, a video by the artistic collective Bernadette Corporation, images of fashion shoots replete with languishing, vacant-eyed models alternate with footage of Sylvère Lotringer—theorist and founder of the influential press Semiotext(e)—standing on the banks of a frozen lake and holding forth on Stéphane Mallarmé. Quoting from the poem “Le Vierge, le vivace, et le bel aujourd’hui” (The Virgin, the Vivid, and the Beautiful Today), with its evocation of flight arrested or frozen (“the lost hard lake haunted beneath the snow / by clear ice-flights that never flew away!”), Lotringer speaks of Mallarmé’s poetry as an art of black marks on white nothingness. These marks, says Lotringer, do not signify so much as set in motion “a perpetual game of allusion, without even breaking the ice.” In a phrase such as aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore (loosely translated, “abolished trifle of vapid sound”), Mallarmé negates the meaning of words that themselves seem void and trifling. Representation itself, in other words, is in ruins.

From our vantage point today, this wintry lecture can be seen as a poignant and provocative plea for a reassessment of previously, and perhaps newly, relevant forms of representation critique—understood not primarily as an investigation of specific images, though it can also be that, but of dominant modes of representation and even of representation as such. Indeed, one might view Hell Frozen Over as an allegory of a cultural field casting about for a way forward when the social and relational practices of the past fifteen years or so have often resulted in clichéd stagings of a vague, generic sociability—and this, despite the fact that those very practices initially arose as modes with which to critique representation. Nicolas Bourriaud’s claim that it might be possible to actually produce new social relationships in a field that had been “traditionally earmarked for their ‘representation’” seems naive at best, if not highly dubious, in light of the drastic lessons in social engineering to which we have lately been subjected by neoconservatives and Islamists alike.1 At this moment of impasse, the putative productivism of relational or social art is perhaps best considered as one not terribly productive episode in a longer and ongoing history of representation critique.

THE RELATIONAL ART PRACTICES of the 1990s reacted against forms of art that were themselves critical of mass-media representations: appropriation and commodity art. The fact that these modes eventually resulted in “pictures” and objects, even as they contested the ideology of the materials they appropriated, appeared to many to neutralize their critique. A way out seemed to be offered by Bourriaud’s formulation, according to which social relationships (rather than objects) would be produced (rather than represented). This antirepresentational discourse, however, found its most direct and relevant precedent in the performance-based practices of the 1960s and ’70s—a somewhat ironic circumstance, since although these earlier practices were often presented as the most radical artistic critique of the representation of spectacle, they came to be especially dependent on photography and video, the media of mass culture par excellence. Some ideologues have argued that any—especially any photographic—representation of performance art is reductive and bound to reduce complex and ephemeral interactions to reified visual clichés. But this position has become untenable as the central role of these media in performance art has become ever more apparent; recent reenactments (by the original artists or by others) of performances conceived thirty or forty years ago have a hard time competing with the seductively grainy images from back in the day.

In historical performance art as in recent relational work, however, the more fundamental problem lies not in the secondary media representation, but in the event itself as a kind of enacted representation. To better grasp this problem we might begin by recalling that for Guy Debord and the Situationists, the spectacle, as a transformation of life into representation, was not an effect of media technology per se, but rather of capitalist production. In essence, the spectacle is an alienated representation of social relations in the form of commodities, which the media perpetuates and doubles. A “social” or relational piece need not be televised in order to be representational, or spectacular.

In the heady early days of relational aesthetics, Bourriaud asserted that in this art, “[it is] not a matter of representing angelic worlds, but of producing the conditions thereof.”2 But in the far from angelic world that has been produced since September 11, 2001, relational works that stage, and thus represent, rather noncommittal forms of sociability—people talking, eating, sleeping, in not always very interesting ways—seem to produce little more than PR for the art world itself, which is posited as a harmonious sociopolitical enclave set apart from the big bad world. (Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work is exemplary in this respect.) In the end, we wind up with a simple rearrangement of the old Marxian variables: While not producing commodity-objects that function as alienated representations of social relations, in such works social relations themselves become representations that are subject to commodification—with or without the aid of video or photographic documentation.

This is made particularly clear by the work of Tino Sehgal, an artist who, while not part of the 1990s relational canon, has in recent years radicalized both its rhetoric and its practice. For example, in Sehgal’s This Is Exchange, 2004, performers (or “interpreters”) offer visitors a small payment on the condition that they engage in a discussion of “the market economy.” While its blunt emphasis on the market could be seen as a realistic rejoinder to the blithely carefree atmospheres created or simulated by other relational artists, the work is still problematic as an abstract theater of sociability—meaning that the content of specific conversations is irrelevant to This Is Exchange. What ultimately matters is the generic representation of performativity and social and political engagement. Sehgal’s well-known rejection of documentation does not, of course, preclude his art’s being represented in the form of critical writing and casual conversation. It is in such linguistic modes that the work becomes freely circulating symbolic, and ultimately real, capital. In this respect his practice delineates with particular clarity the dynamic of value-creation that attends the relational practices of artists less rigorous about their own works’ mediation by photography or video.

While relational practices are sometimes put forward as an alternative to sloganeering representations of politics à la Thomas Hirschhorn, all too often they end up as depictions of radicality by other means—that is, as another form of “picture politics,” of which theorist and activist Brian Holmes has been an outspoken critic. As Holmes writes in his essay “Liar’s Poker”: “It is easy for artists to heed the injunction of the museum, the magazines and the market, which say: ‘Picture politics for me.’ Do a picture or a sculpture of politics, carry out the representation of political conflict.”3 For Holmes, the truly political art of the late 1990s and early twenty-first century was to be found in the various attempts by new protest movements to “reclaim the streets.” However, one could argue that such groups have problems that are similar to those of many forms of social art: Just as the one produces bland images of sociality, the other results in all-too-familiar and easily co-opted media images of protests and riots. Indeed, sometime this year the film Battle in Seattle, starring Charlize Theron as an anti-WTO activist, should arrive in a theater near you.

IN ANOTHER BERNADETTE CORPORATION VIDEO, Get Rid of Yourself, 2003—part of the art world’s process of appropriating, or reflecting on, the new activist movements—Stephan Dillemuth’s grotesque alter ego Werner von Delmont criticizes the “young people’s” insufficient visual savvy. Get Rid of Yourself focuses on a group that stands apart from the mainstream of the antiglobalization movement: the anarchist “black bloc,” an ever-shifting ad-hoc collection of militant groups whose members maintain anonymity by appearing at demonstrations clad all in black, with black kerchiefs covering their faces. At one point in the video, Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square, 1915, flashes by on-screen. Get Rid of Yourself suggests that the bloc’s visual politics (or visual poetics), while playing with popular preconceptions of sinister anarchists, introduces a radical element of negation into the spectacle of protest; the bloc’s ominous presence-as-absence is connected directly to the Suprematist degree zero.

Far from indicating some narrowly neomodernist or formalist project, Bernadette Corporation’s references to Mallarmé and Malevich are reminders of the complexity and contradictions of modernist critiques of representation. As such, they resonate suggestively with the ideas of Jacques Rancière, considered in depth elsewhere in this issue, which suggest a way of conceptualizing “the politics of representation” that is much more fundamental than the conventional meaning of the phrase. For Rancière, Romanticism marks the end of the “representative regime,” in which “it is the notion of representation or mimēsis that organizes ways of doing, making, seeing, and judging,” and ushers in the “aesthetic regime,” which questions and undermines what has preceded it (and which is still in effect in the present).4 The aesthetic regime—hence modern art, although Rancière has no use for the term modernity—is the permanent critique of representation.

It’s worth noting here that Sylvère Lotringer, protagonist of Hell Frozen Over, himself had a significant impact on the art world with Semiotext(e)’s translations of a body of French theory whose “synthetic ‘point,’” as later defined by Lotringer and theorist Sande Cohen, was “the permanent suspension of representation. . . . Most often, to represent means to settle, answer, resolve, and control the represented—the experiences of the world put in the ‘right’ place. Instead, representation as conceived by French theory was turned to entirely critical and productive purposes—to make thought experiments.”5

Prominent among these thought experiments was Gilles Deleuze’s crusade against representation, in part inspired by literary moderns including Mallarmé, as well as Herman Melville and Franz Kafka. Deleuze conceived of representation as an ideological prison imposed on becoming, an endless copying of models that forever threatened to nullify difference. But the writings of Jean Baudrillard caused a more immediate frisson, thanks to Semiotext(e)’s fetchingly titled Simulations (1983), in which the philosopher hysterically declared the end of representation and the rise in its place of a completely autonomous, hypercoded regime of simulation that short-circuits “the dialectic of signifier and signified, of a representing and a represented.”6 Modern semiotics attempted to discredit the notion of representation as such by questioning the presumed existence of a signified independent of the signifier. Neither Baudrillard nor Rancière tries to deny the concept’s validity in this way; rather, they historicize it. But although Rancière locates the representative regime in the past, this does not mean that the world is now beyond representation, as Baudrillard alleges. For Rancière, representation and its critique are operations carried out under the sign of the political, embedded in a universe composed not of disembodied simulacra but of people and things. By contrast, Baudrillard decrees that representation is most definitely, per the old Monty Python sketch, an ex-parrot. He thus melodramatically suggests that modernity is not so much a critique as an ever-intensifying and ultimately terminal crisis of representation, making any form of critique or intervention impossible. Representation critique eats itself.

For Deleuze, the “permanent suspension of representation” was an unrealized utopia. For Baudrillard, it was an all-too-real nightmare—the nightmare of a world without referents, a world no longer grounded in anything that could be construed as reality—and it was his vision that resonated most widely. In the work of many ’80s artists, his influence is writ large—most notably in the oeuvre of Peter Halley. Just as Baudrillard used the World Trade Center’s twin towers to allegorically represent a universe constituted by a binary code that no longer represents anything, so Halley took cues from Baudrillard to create paintings whose “cells” and “conduits” used formal elements of modernist abstraction as allegorical representations of social processes.7 The early cells, with their “Foucauldian” prison bars suggesting a universe of discipline and punishment, gave way in the late 1980s to the blank and brightly colored cells and conduits of a Baudrillardian world of cool codedness. By the time Halley’s work came to be seen in terms of the commodity-crazed ’80s, the negative ideological implications of Baudrillard’s philosophy—which seems to make any attempts to change reality superfluous, since reality itself is apparently defunct—had become all too obvious. And yet, just as Halley’s foregrounding of his work’s cartoonishness and its patent conceptual absurdity—as an abstract yet object-based representation of the self-referential world of simulation—is rather more intelligent than much art that followed, Baudrillard’s caricature of French theory’s thought experiments threw the uncertain status of representation in modernity into stark relief.

THIS UNCERTAIN STATUS is continually investigated in the work of Pierre Huyghe—one of the few artists to emerge from the relational scene of the 1990s who have consistently shown an awareness of the need to think and work beyond the narrow parameters of relational doxa. We might even say that Huyghe at times works in a Baudrillardian register—an affinity that was especially apparent in Huyghe’s exhibition in the French Pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale. For his installation Atari Light, 1999/2001, a computer program he had dubbed Hal—a reference, of course, to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—controlled the activation of several works and the transparency of the doors. In a video that was also on view, Les Grands ensembles, 1994/2001, an odd, kinetic light pattern flickers in the windows of two concrete apartment towers (actually miniature models). It is hard to accept that this fugitive illumination comes from a multitude of television screens: It seems too controlled for that, like some kind of code, a code perhaps not even intended for human apprehension. If anything, the two buildings, which recall Baudrillard’s twin towers, seem to communicate with each other. If, as Bertolt Brecht argued, a photograph of a modern factory fails as a representation of the processes going on behind its facade, then Huyghe’s facades hint at a postindustrial, coded world even less transparent to conventional representation.8 But for Huyghe, in crucial opposition to Baudrillard, hypercoded mass-media representations—or simulations—seem to conceal rather than to embody, or even depict, the workings of society, of the economy, of politics, or of science. His work as a whole could be seen as a series of pointed and specific interrogations of this state of affairs and the culture it generates.

Enigmatic, coded communication that does not seem meant for human addressees is a recurring motif in Huyghe’s work: In his video A Journey That Wasn’t, 2005, he and a group of fellow artist-voyagers are seen installing a flashing light on an unidentified island near the South Pole, in hopes of attracting the lone and possibly apocryphal white penguin that it is the expedition’s goal to find. In its blending of images of the actual journey to the South Pole with footage of the trip’s formalized theatrical reenactment at an ice rink in New York’s Central Park, the video constructs an abstract fable. While Huyghe’s emphasis here on representation as event(s) anchors his approach in the contemporary, he introduces deliberately anachronistic elements: The whiteness of the penguin seems an extremely unspectacular take on Melville’s “whiteness of the whale,” while L’Expédition scintillante: A Musical, 2002, the installation that announced the South Pole expedition, included a ship made of ice, slowly melting away in a space in which the weather conditions described in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, were simulated.

Poe’s only novel finds its narrator sailing toward the South Pole, traveling through ever-stranger climes; eventually, his ship’s crew is slaughtered by the inhabitants of another nameless island, who trap them in fissures in the earth—negative earthworks that suggest the letters of an unknown alphabet. These people panic at the sight of the color white, especially in the case of an unknown white animal that the crew had earlier fished out of the sea. Poe’s narrative is indebted to the “Hollow Earth” theories popular at the time, which postulated that one might find apertures leading to the center of the planet at the North and South poles.9 Presumably the mysterious white animal has wandered out of this interior utopia, though Poe does not say so outright; if he did, his narrative would become a Jules Verne yarn rather than a Mallarméan game of “perpetual allusion.” Huyghe brings out the opaqueness of signs, opposing the suggestions of transparency implied both by mass-media images and by many pictures of relational artworks, transforming the nineteenth-century imperialist cliché of the expedition to uncharted lands into a self-reflexive journey to the limits of representation.

EXPLORATIONS LIKE HUYGHE’S, however, should not be seen in isolation, as art’s time-honored and autonomous bailiwick. Some images of black bloc members in Get Rid of Yourself recall another kind of mask—the niqabs and burkas increasingly worn by Muslim women in European cities. The Taliban, who banned TV and film, also mandated the burka for Afghan women: Outlawing media and occluding women’s bodies and faces were both part of the Islamist critique of Western spectacle as the pinnacle of idolatry. Islamist terrorism is the spectacular arm of this critique: It creates a spectacle of iconoclasm (literally so, in the case of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas), an antispectacle that nevertheless turns out to be perfectly compatible with the despised Western media’s hunger for action and drama. (Although, as artist Sean Snyder has noted, the image quality of videos disseminated by Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups seems intentionally crude and degraded, as if to distinguish them from glitzy professional productions.)10 The critique of the spectacle’s representation, then, is hardly the exclusive domain of artists or critical theorists. In recent years, it has become increasingly evident that modern, secular representation critique cannot shake off its sacred doppelgänger. Such critique has been reappropriated by various religious factions, and thus in a sense returned to its origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition’s ban on graven images.

It may seem perverse to speak of monotheistic representation critique, since monotheistic attacks on idolatry would appear to be dogmatism of the worst kind, diametrically opposed to post-Enlightenment “Kritik.” But religious dogmatism contains the seeds of critique (just as critique may still be crucially dependent on some sort of dogma). In a 1969 letter to Otto O. Herz, Max Horkheimer argues that critical theory is based on the second commandment—the ban on representations of God, or, in more fundamentalist interpretations, of any living being.11 Modern critical theory, then, analyzed and opposed fascism and the culture industry as latter-day forms of idolatry. And certainly, from Charles de Brosses to Marx, we find a critique of the fetish as a kind of secular idol, although these fetishes are seen not as transgressions of divine law, but rather as devices by which humanity restricts its own potential. This, perhaps, is the essential difference between Tertullian’s De Spectaculis—the early Christian screed against Roman games, or “spectacles”—and Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. And yet the latter is indebted, however indirectly, to the former.

The renewed vigor of monotheistic (Islamic, but also Christian) idolatry critique poses a serious challenge to artistic and theoretical approaches to representation. A possible response might be the extension of the archaeology of representation critique beyond the history of modern art and theory, into religious realms long thought to have been superseded—excursions, it is to be hoped, with more productive results than Sehgal’s resurrection, in the age of copyright law, of the Mosaic ban on images. What seems equally counterproductive is Bruno Latour’s recent attempt to dismiss and discredit critique as such. Latour, like Horkheimer, relates modern and contemporary critique back to monotheistic iconoclasm, but suggests that it is pointless, in the face of “so many wars,” real and symbolic, to add “iconoclasm to iconoclasm.”12 While Latour has a point in arguing that critique has become inflationary and mannerist, his rhetoric is oddly jubilant considering the circumstances. In the face of representation critique in its most dogmatic forms, the production of critical and self-critical marks—black on white or otherwise—is as fragile as it is necessary.

Sven Lütticken is an art historian and critic based in Amsterdam.

NOTES

1. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods, and Mathieu Copeland (Dijon, France: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), 9.

2. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 83.

3. Brian Holmes, “Liar’s Poker.” May 9, 2004. www.16beavergroup.org/mtarchive/archives/000943.php.

4. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London/New York: Continuum, 2004), 22.

5. Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen, “Introduction,” in Lotringer and Cohen, eds., French Theory in America (New York/London: Routledge, 2001), 4.

6. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 122.

7. For Baudrillard on the World Trade Center, see Simulations, 135–37.

8. Bertolt Brecht, “Der Dreigroschenprozess” (1931) in Dreigroschenbuch: Texte, Materialien, Dokumente (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1960), 93–94.

9. See David Standish, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2006), 99–105.

10. Sean Snyder, “Some Byproducts: Thoughts on the Visual Rhetoric of PSYOP,” in Maria Hlavajova and Jill Winder, eds., Concerning War: A Critical Reader (Utrecht, The Netherlands/Frankfurt: BAK/Revolver, 2006), 185.

11. Max Horkheimer, letter to Otto O. Herz, September 1, 1969, in Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften vol. 18: Briefwechsel 1949–1973, (Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1996), 743.

12. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), no. 2, criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/issues/v30/30n2.Latour.html. See also Bruno Latour, “What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars?,” in exhib. cat. Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art (Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2002), 14–37.