PRINT October 2009


This month, Harvard University Press unveils Commonwealth, the latest book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004) have, arguably, been the dominant works of political philosophy of the new century. In its October issue, Artforum presents two extended excerpts from the much-anticipated final volume of the Empire trilogy in advance of its arrival in bookstores. Curator Okwui Enwezor sets the stage, with a discussion of Hardt and Negri’s profound if diffuse impact on artistic practice and on the art world more broadly. Enwezor’s introduction has been reproduced below. For excerpts from Commonwealth, pick up the October issue of Artforum.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Flugplatz Welt/World Airport, 1999, mixed media. Installation view, Renaissance Society, Chicago, 2000.

THE WORLD IS FULL OF ALL SORTS OF DICTATORSHIPS, sovereign entities accountable only to their own rules and united by extreme structures of political and social violence. The most formidable, however, is the one whose dimensions are no longer limited by the old boundaries of the nation-state, but which instead—since they are mainly organized by global capitalism, with globalization serving as their fountainhead—span and exceed such territorial limits in a way unparalleled in history. In 2000, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Empire offered the first thorough analysis of this novel type of deterritorialized rule and sovereign power; the authors’ goal was nothing less than to unmask it and lay bare its prominent features for a new millennium. And yet, appearing at the beginning of the twenty-first century—long after the tumultuous twentieth century had effectively come to an end, with the collapse of the last global empire, the Soviet Union—Empire was nonetheless imbued with a sense and mood of taking stock, of reflecting on the aftermath.

According to Hardt and Negri, Empire—the name they gave to this Leviathan rising above every other economic and political form—was a relatively benign dictatorship that radically revised the idea of sovereignty. The tumbling of the Soviet empire, the authors said, might very well have been the end of old-style European imperialism, whose centralized power and awesome machineries of colonialism had regularly been unleashed against subject lands. And no sooner was this demise proclaimed than a “New World Order,” far-reaching in territorial ambition (and more encompassing), reared up in its place; this New World Order, by virtue of its linkage to globalization, opened a path to a gargantuan sovereignty whose formlessness was exactly in proportion to its capacity for totalization and mastery over vast domains of contemporary life. This sovereignty was a juridical abstraction based on the rule of law, democracy, and free-market capitalism; at its core was the authoritarian machinery of capital, and its features were omnipresent. Indeed, as delineated by Hardt and Negri—seeking as they were to quiet pervasive enthusiasm for globalization—this sovereignty was a grotesque colossus “in which the economic, the political, and the cultural increasingly overlap and invest one another.”¹ In bursts of elegant, manifesto-like prose, the duo described the influence of such capricious systems on shifts in modern subjectivities and social formations:

In contrast to imperialism, Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command.²

The effect of such thinking on contemporary artistic practice is hard to quantify in terms of any direct correlation between the hypothesis Hardt and Negri elaborated and specific works of art. However, it was quite clear, given the sudden proliferation of artistic collectives early in this decade, that vestiges of the authors’ theorizations were being absorbed into numerous counterpractices. In my view, following the endeavors of individuals such as Sam Durant, Thomas Hirschhorn, Alfredo Jaar, Multiplicity, and Raqs Media Collective—artists as different in their critical stances as in their conceptual political dispositions—one would have, in those days, immediately thought them sympathetic to the overarching critique of globalization offered in Empire. For example, Hirschhorn’s projects during and since the late ’90s—such as Flugplatz Welt/World Airport, 1999; Spinoza Monument (Amsterdam), 1999; Deleuze Monument (Avignon, France), 2000; Bataille Monument (Kassel), 2002; and 24H Foucault (Palais de Tokyo, Paris), 2004—have been exemplary of the rigorous critique put forward in Hardt and Negri’s writing. Flugplatz Welt, a massive installation first shown at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and exhibited the following year at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, is classic Hirschhorn in this regard: an atomized field of images, books, and objects held together with packing tape in a deliberately disorganized, deaestheticized fashion, with the artist’s method pointing toward what seems a veritable aesthetic of disaggregation. His monuments, on the other hand, offer a sober counterpoint to Flugplatz Welt by framing the potential for analytic thought to imagine a way out of the morass of unchecked power and its systems of governance. As he has said: “I want my work not to make one think first about art, but rather about something related to other work or life experiences. Laboratory, storage, studio space, yes, I want to use these forms in my work to make spaces for the movement and endlessness of thinking and to provide time for the movement of reflection.”³ That each of his monuments is devoted to the work of a philosopher whose trenchant analysis has informed the work of Hardt and Negri reveals the ambition of historical synthesis articulated by Hirschhorn above—and reveals the clear philosophical affinities between him and the authors of Empire.

Raqs Media Collective (with Atelier Bow-Wow), TAS (Architecture for Temporary Autonomous Sarai), 2003, portable, multi-use structure made with packing crates, computers, projectors, paper, sound, people. Installation view, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Among the other artists, Raqs Media Collective also bears specific discussion, since its work engenders similarly reflective approaches through the figure of the artist-intellectual—whose preoccupations are here geared less toward any aesthetic regime than toward the initiation of a poesis of ethical engagement. The group’s analytic architecture is built up through processes of research, writing, curating, editing, photographing, and documentary filmmaking, all examining the commonplace, its governing, and those devices with which it is invigilated by authority. Art in this way is geared toward the discursive, toward a convening of the commons. For instance, with Sarai, a media research/practice initiative based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in North Delhi, Raqs has organized a series of urgent inquiries into the idea of open source, dealing with questions of free circulation and access, articulating modalities around the notion of a global commons, arguing for a regime of sharing that will circumvent the reduction (through the fences of copyright) of every thought to the status of commodity. (This argument is, in fact, also put forward by Hardt and Negri in their new book.)

In the context of curatorial practice, Empire was also read avidly. If not necessarily for its conclusions, it was surely pored over for its vigorous defense of forms of counter-Empire. A remarkable articulation of such a curatorial position could be observed in the decision by Francesco Bonami, curator of the Fiftieth Venice Biennale in 2003, to convene a diverse group of exhibitions instead of a single grand show. And for my own work, I know, Empire had special resonance: When, on October 25, 1998, I received the improbable but nonetheless exhilarating news of my appointment as the artistic director of Documenta 11, it seemed to me a sign that something in such grand exhibitions—as with the ossified structures of the nation-state—was dying in anticipation of the new. Documenta was then one of the epicenters of the imperial regimes of cultural control; it constituted (along with the old circuitry of the museum institution) a type of cultural sovereignty that brooked little tolerance of the hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges to which Hardt and Negri would gravitate. It belonged to a system that delighted in exclusionary politics and the old claws of aesthetic judgments that had long tortured discrepant canons into dutiful obedience, à la international modernism. And yet the Documenta jury members were here embracing a proposal that revolved around the necessity I perceived for serious curatorial projects to account for the decentered, deterritorialized, diverging logics of contemporary artistic practices (beyond the organized uniformity of monetized production). This Documenta would operate in more than one sphere of cultural activity, reaching beyond its conventional location in order to grapple with the elsewhere, the unfinished, the yet-to-emerge. As conceived later with my colleagues Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash, and Octavio Zaya, this Documenta would not only extend the temporality of the exhibition frame but also exceed its circumscribed spatial and cultural context by featuring symposia in Berlin, Lagos, New Delhi, Saint Lucia, and Vienna, in addition to Kassel. Of course, these ideas were taking shape before Empire was published, but the book’s analysis was immediately resonant. In fact, Hardt and Negri would participate in the project’s first discussion, “Democracy Unrealized,” in Vienna. (Alas, only the former could make it there, since Negri was imprisoned by the Italian state—though he was permitted to take part by satellite linkup.)

Reflecting back now on the idea of a deterritorialized Documenta (which was finally completed in 2002), it becomes even clearer to me just how much the critical acuity of Empire pervaded our thinking. And in this regard it bears remarking that we should consider more closely the context in which that volume appeared. The multicultural battles of the 1980s had already made it evident enough that the old sovereignties would not go unchallenged. Resistance to the unilateral power of the United States (in view of unregulated globalization) was also already simmering in street battles from Seattle to Prague to Genoa; indigenous movements across former colonized territories were staking claims to denied rights as well, while, in art, counterpublics were emerging in the form of deinstitutionalized exhibition models. In offering an attentive, synthetic view of globalization (which had hitherto meant different things in the West, Asia, Africa, and Latin America), the book unsentimentally reckoned with the scars of modernity as they were played out in decolonization movements and in the wars of liberation of the post-world-war world, and it provided a reasoned argument for the insurgencies of this new era.

If the global sphere as imagined by Empire almost a decade ago offered a critical ideal for resistance against a global imperium, since then the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rampant abuse of power, torture, ecological disaster, social inequity, and economic catastrophe have all left their grim imprints on culture—and seem to call for a reassessment of the position of the multitude. The melancholic tone of Commonwealth regarding today’s state of affairs therefore comes as something of a surprise. But in many ways, this tone seems strategic in its pragmatism, much like the politics of the current American president and his administration. Certainly, on the artistic front, there is a sense of malaise, partly born of shock, partly of disrecognition. My sense is that this moment of interregnum, of delayed response, may be harboring a hatchery from which forms of radical doubt in artistic practice may soon emerge.

Okwui Enwezor is a curator and critic based in New York.

1. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), xiii.
2. Ibid., xii.
3. Okwui Enwezor and Thomas Hirschhorn, “Interview,” in James Rondeau and Susanne Ghez, eds., Thomas Hirschhorn, exh. cat. (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2000), 34.