Rikke Hansen on the public life of things
Terms such as ‘participation’ and ‘dialogue’ have come to dominate the discussion that surrounds the so-called socially engaged art practices of the late 1990s and the 2000s. According to such rhetorics, the artist is an engineer of situations, setting up contexts in which passive spectators become active participants and co-creators of the work in question. It is a debate that has, so far, had little to say about the props that make up the stage set for these acts. Instead, objects are seen, at best, as necessary middle-men that work as catalysts for conversation or, at worst, as the last obstacles obstructing otherwise unmediated interactions. I want to focus on the life of ‘things’ in the social world and, more specifically, what happens to things when they get transported into the context of socially engaged art practices.
The problem with an approach that reduces everything to a question of the power of subjects (artists, participants, and so on) is that very little sets one artwork apart from the next. Dissatisfied with the mere appropriation of the existing art terminology, Grant Kester has, in his book Conversation Pieces, attempted to develop a framework for what he calls ‘dialogical aesthetics’, an aesthetic model of communicative interaction, and an axis on which we may place individual artworks according to how successful they are at establishing dialogue. There are, of course, criteria of judgment; he likes the community-oriented work by Jay Koh more than the convivial food-sharing situations set up by Rirkrit Tiravanija because the former is seen to engage more directly with his immediate social surroundings. Miwon Kwon has expressed concern with Kester’s theories that, in her view, seek to essentialise cultural and social identity; it is too easy, she claims, if not directly unavoidable, for the artist to tap into preconceived, hegemonic and apparently coherent ideas of what constitutes the social.
The point here, however, is not whether Kester or Kwon, or most others who have contributed to these debates, are right but that such arguments tend to cut out half of the equation by sidelining the material things that are either part of the stage set to begin with or produced from the encounter itself. The locus of democracy may well, as Claude Lefort argues, be an empty space, but the actors who come to claim a public life are of both human and non-human kinds; it is a space thick with things; we might call it an assemblage. If the theoretical framework that seeks to capture this set of very diverse practices ends up resorting to false coherency, then maybe this is because it relies on an outdated idea of what constitutes an actor or an actant in a social setting.
In her recent book On the Style Site, Ina Blom goes in search of the non-human ‘missing masses’ in recent art practice. It is a welcome contribution to the discussions surrounding contemporary art’s alleged social turn. Style, for Blom, is a site within the social, or rather, it is an access point to the social and, as such, what unites human subjects and inanimate objects. The self, no longer securely anchored deep within the subject, propels itself forward through continuous, reflexive self-forming. Similarly, it is through design, through appearance, that the inanimate object comes to have a public life. Advertising increasingly makes use of terminologies that describe products as if they were living beings. We are told to expect high levels of performance from our cars, our computers, and so on, and we tend to swear at them when they fail to meet these expectations. Performance, as a stylised mode of appearing in the world, is no longer reserved for human subjects.
In some ways there is little which is novel here. Speaking at the anniversary of The People’s Paper in 1856, Karl Marx stated that ‘all our inventions and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life and in stultifying human life into material force’. However, Blom is less concerned with questions of alienation and deskilled workforces (issues that are very much at the heart of the dialogical practices described by Kester) and more interested in uncovering the affective life of things in the public realm. This leads her to include artworks in her argument which may not usually be seen to fall under the headings of ‘socially engaged’, ‘relational’ or ‘conversational’ art practices. It is an approach that, nonetheless, makes sense; if the problem with current debates is that they take their cue from a highly anthropocentric set of beliefs, then any argument that sets out to counter this cannot simply demarcate its field using the same rules of selection. There are a few teething problems here, though, but I will get to those later.
So far I have described things and objects as if the terms were interchangeable. There are, however, important differences: while a thing suggests a series of relations to the world, the term ‘object’ implies the performative amputation of such relationality. In his seminal article ‘Thing Theory’, Bill Brown describes how things get in the way; they either have too much presence or too little. The move from object to thing and back again is never an innocent affair. Things continually get reduced to objects in those powerhouses we call parliaments and courtrooms. To present an object as a matter of fact is to ignore the (at times political) interests, speculations and calculations that have gone into severing its connections to a life-world. By contrast, the etymological root of the word ‘thing’ implies a gathering or an assemblage in the form of a council, and in most Scandinavian languages the word for thing, ting, still has this double meaning.
Bruno Latour has made much of the power of things, not least in Making Things Public, a book and an exhibition that, in 2005, came out of his collaborations with the conceptual artist Peter Weibel. Latour’s actor-network theory seeks not to discriminate between humans and nonhumans, animate and inanimate actors, but centres on the way things do things, on the effects that produce them and the affects they themselves produce, the way in which they become matters of concern rather than matters of fact. His ideas have mainly caught the attention of sociologists and political philosophers but in recent years they have been taken up by the arts. The concern with ‘things’ is, nonetheless, hardly new to art. In 1925 the Soviet constructivist Boris Arvatov famously described the thing as being ‘connected like a co-worker with human practice’. The art-historical legacy of the readymade at first seems to run in the same vein. It is, however, a very different concern, one that has more to do with institutional critique than with ‘thingpower’. At the same time, Claes Oldenburg’s oversized, anthropomorphised objects are visual reminders of the affect of things. Their theatricality inverts a child’s fantasy; in Oldenburg’s world objects do not come to life after everyone else has gone to bed; instead, giant soft light switches finally relax, letting it all ‘hang out’, after a long day’s performance.
A recent turn to ‘things’ in art, one that I think has a bearing on the way we perceive and critique the social, can be seen in works that engage directly with the form of sociality that is produced by things; artworks that, momentarily, make objects stand out against the backdrop of everyday life. In effect, while such works do not necessarily ‘look like’ the kind of works Kester and Kwon bring into their arguments, I would argue that they nonetheless address or embrace issues of sociality.
Copy Right is a work by the artist group Superflex from 2007. It consists of 80 mass-produced chairs, each of which the artists have cut into the shape of an iconic Arne Jakobsen chair. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the work is crudely done; chairs usually invite you to sit, but here the rough edges threaten to ruin your clothes. Scattered on the floor are all the cut-away pieces. While the assemblage resembles the spatial set-up of a seminar room, the work is clearly marked by a white square beneath the chairs, dividing what is art from what is not. You may sit, but just not right here. Where the legacy of the readymade borrowed from the aesthetics of the legal system through the artist’s use of the signature – as a gesture that at once authenticated the work and critiqued the power of such authentication – Copy Right works through a sort of de-patenting, the patent being one of the points where law concerns itself directly with the structure of the commodity. It must be assumed that Jakobsen’s original design is patented to protect it from any rip-offs; yet, patenting a design or an object, freezing it in its objecthood so to speak, inevitably opens up the possibility of producing something which is almost the same but not quite, since a patent in order to work has to be specific, that is, it must be distinguishable from that which it does not include. The chairs in Copy Right may not invite you to sit but they do invite you to ‘make one yourself’. Something, or rather some thing, escapes the process of patenting.
The stylistics of the piece, however, at first make it look slightly atypical of the group’s practice, which has often been described as operating within an actual lifeworld through a direct engagement with the social, a practice concerned more with actual doings than with representation and appearance. But as Blom points out, the activities of Superflex were never devoid of aesthetic environment and attention to style; and in other, ongoing projects, such as Supergas, Supercopy and Supersauna, the artists not only appropriate the aestheticised profiling tactics of large corporations, but intentionally exaggerate such strategies.
The ubiquity of chairs in public life is also the premise for Hans Schabus’s recent installation at The Curve, Barbican Art Gallery, London. In Next Time I’m Here, I’ll Be There, 2008, the artist gathered chairs from different spaces within the Barbican, from theatre seats to office chairs, and strapped them to the wall in a layout corresponding to the interior design of an aeroplane, a context in which under normal circumstances one would have very little choice but to sit down. In the booklet accompanying the exhibition Margit Emesz notes that ‘chairs position us in a fixed frame, circumscribe distances and generate patterns of encounter, bringing people together, creating intimacy within groups, and influencing our actions, sensations and behaviour’. Chairs can work as disciplining instruments as well as props of hospitality. What Copy Right and Next Time I’m Here, I’ll Be There have in common is that both works, even though in the case of the latter only temporarily, bring out the ‘thingness’ of objects by arresting the flow that characterises the distribution-consumption circuit. It could be argued that this kind of stoppage is very far from the processual, performative approaches described by Kester and Kwon; yet, I would claim that what we see in many of these socially engaged practices is a similar kind of slowing down of things, a temporary appearance of things on the stage of dialogical art practices, in which stylistics and comportments are shown to be central rather than derivative. And so, it could be said that the chairs in WochenKlausur’s Intervention to Improve the Conduct of Public Debate, 2000, the image of which adorns Kester’s Conversation Pieces, have for a short term been called upon to ‘act’ within this particular framework.
It is tempting, here, to dig out all the different artworks in which chairs appear, and there are quite a few, but this would be to miss the point. Blom herself plays a dangerous game when she appears to return thing-power to technological determinism. A considerable part of her book is devoted to what the author calls ‘a memorial tour of lamps’ in contemporary art, from Simon Starling’s remakes of Poul Henningsen pendent lamps from discarded metal bowls and wok covers in his Work, Made-Ready, 2001, to Martin Creed’s Turner Prize-winning lights going on and off in Work No. 127, 2001, to Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003, with its artificial sunset. But if style is what dictates substance and not the other way around, then power is not inherent in either subjects or objects; instead, power is and must always be seen as a relational matter. The attention to lamps comes across like a peculiar preoccupation with the taxonomy of a particular type of object and therefore does not sit well within the overall argument. There may well be many lamps in the work of Cerith Wyn Evans, another artist whom Blom mentions, but they seem to function more like mirrors or traps that take hold of viewers. Wyn Evans’s work is characterised by contradictory systems of messaging, often transmitting invisible text via visible Morse code. Untitled (Takashimaya Rose), 2008, refers simultaneously to the logo of the Takashimaya department store in Japan and to numerous roses within art and literature. Here, it is the multilateral powers of things that hold the possibility for multiple coexisting socialities. As such, each layer of meaning is an invitation to enter into a particular form of sociality within the work, to claim an identity for oneself by becoming the addressee.
It would be easy to assert mastery over things by submitting them to a system of signification. But this accounts for little when it comes down to the actual engagement with the work. In much of the work that gets included in the woolly category of relational aesthetics things are often brought in as props to create what Gernot Böhme calls an ‘aesthetic of atmospheres’. An atmosphere arises from a stage design without being locatable within any single object; it needs the presence of a subject but is also never determined by that subject alone and, as such, it combines production and reception aesthetics. Take, for example, Jim Lambie’s sound-wavy, stripy floors that seem to grow from the object to include the viewer. Much of his work has musical references; they are ‘acoustic atmospheres’ which allow the sonic object to come forth by, paradoxically, silencing sound. What we encounter here is a space of moods. To be moved by a certain atmosphere, to attune one’s mood to it, is to some extent to be beside oneself. There is recalcitrance in things; we lose ourselves in them.
A politics of sociality that centres on processuality is always full of things coexisting in complex, affective networks, making both the formation and destabilisation of subjectivity inseparable from our relations to things. The power of things is that they refuse to conform completely to our intentions and interpretations, to become the means to an end – even when we have designed them ourselves.
Rikke Hansen is a researcher based at Tate Britain.
First published in Art Monthly 318: Jul-Aug 2008.