is always a lament for language, just as all praise is principally
praise of the name.” --Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community,
years after the “nominal” constitution of their movement,
on July 28, 1957(1), the Situationists declared in the pages of
“The SI is a very particular movement, of a different nature
than preceding artistic avant-gardes. On the level of culture,
the SI can for example be compared to a research laboratory, and
also a [political] party. . . . Situationist activity is a definite
trade that we still do not ply. . . . Thus, since we cannot at
all represent a communal style of any kind, the signature
of the movement, the trace of its presence and its contestation
in the cultural reality of today is above all the use of detournement.”(2)
brief excerpt, which is revelatory of the group’s intentions
vis-à-vis language(3) (definition as a game among antagonistic
players), confirms the deliberately “mythical” nature
of the name of this coalition. Following the definition of myth
established by Roland Barthes shortly before the SI’s formation,(4)
the “Situationist International” (1957-1972)--which,
according to the will of its founders, became a veritable legend(5)
--would at the outset be only a “form” containing
a “historical” concept. The historical concept in
question, which was unique and therefore a real tie among its
members, was the idea of a “communal action of free individuals,
tied only by and for this real creative liberty,”(6) and
its formation (or “situating”) was a first application
of its preferred artistic practice. The fulfilment of the SI project(7)
would, as a consequence, coincide with that of its name, the latter
being the representation of the Situationist movement’s
ideas as well as of its style.
Toward a Problematization of Categories
case of the SI is emblematic of the conceptual turning point in
collective artistic identities that marked the 1950s, when these
collective artistic identities were progressively transformed
into nominal identities. The SI case has the merit of highlighting
an often overlooked observation: each generic name designed to
designate a shared creative activity is in itself an attempt to
define the nature of the activity envisaged. A critical rereading
of the various -isms, movements, schools, collectives, labels,
cooperatives, “business enterprises,” and other artistic
configurations that have appeared on the public scene since the
beginning of the twentieth century brings out a highly varied
set of aesthetic and/or ideological intentions. As a result of
this reading, the groupings we find in dictionaries become merely
rough and approximative while narratives of art history are themselves
rendered, to say the least, problematic. It turns out that even
the use of such a leading historical category as the avant-garde
(and its distorted reflection, the neo-avant-garde) becomes increasingly
arbitrary, inasmuch as a thoroughgoing investigation into the
history of its uses has not been performed.(8) Categorization
is an often necessary but ever delicate operation, one that the
historian should, it seems to me, regularly call into question,
the better to grasp the various aesthetic and political (formal
and ideological) stakes of art in each era.
One Name Isn’t as Good as Another
if the act of naming is already highly significant in the case
of artists from the first half of the twentieth century, the postwar
context renders such an undertaking more complex. Let us recall,
by way of examples, the legend surrounding the name Dada
(the fruit of a gesture that braved chance, its “true”
author remaining unidentified and its meaning in perpetual expansion),
André Breton’s “once and for all” definition
of Surrealism as an irrational act (“pure psychic
automatism”), or Isidore Isou’s invention of Lettrism
after World War II as an “aggregative” operation in
the fields of the novel and of history. Starting in the Sixties,
art circles had to deal with the deconstruction of representational
categories, the blurring and exchange of the roles traditionally
attributed to different agents, and the rising power of both art
institutions and the art market. The generation coming after the
Situationists, who were still asserting a romantic form of (hyper-)avant-gardism
and staging a creative subject who would be the potential master
of his art, and after Viennese Actionists and Fluxus increasingly
tended toward a depoliticization (in the Marxist sense) of its
collective expressions, thereby distancing itself from the spirit
of “movement” and from the accompanying commitments.
From the early Sixties onward, such labels as New Realism, Pop
Art, and Arte Povera more and more made reference exclusively
to the enlargement of the field of art and of its materials, to
new ways of “perceiving” the world or reality. While
the generic names involved here continue to take stands and to
be signatures, those names do not, for all that, designate any
explicitly political communities or political subjects. They may
be no more than mere outgrowths of one’s proper name or
else opposed to the very notion of individual or collective identity.
When Movements Become Labels
us take a few examples. A group like Présence Panchounette
(1969-1990)--“the name of an indistinct distinction,”
“of an affectionate form of mockery that describes less
its common objects than the community of subjects who use them”(10)--seems
to embody this paradox of the post-’68 era, where the effort
by the heirs of avant-garde critical commitments to challenge
heroism and faith in the “promise” of the revolution
goes hand in hand with a certain attachment to the spirit of negation/provocation.
P.P. imitates the polemical stances of this avant-garde (the Manifesto,
insulting letters, radicalism) but does so in order to make fun
of this modernist formalism that has become, in its view, purely
decorative. Guerilla warfare is played out on the level of taste:
originality and quality, perceived as signs of social distinction,
are contrasted by P.P. with kitschiness and mediocrity, their
inverted and antielitist reflections. During that same era, another
trio, named General Idea (1969-1990), chose instead culture as
their battleground. The “general idea” conveyed by
this label, which once again denies the romantic legacy while
at the same time reminding one of it(11), is that one must employ
ambiguity, paradox, and irony in order to oppose the unilateral
speech of authoritarian power. Guerilla warfare is played out
on the level of language, but not at all in the Situationist way.
The members of General Idea, who are considered pioneers in conceptual
art, “detourn” signs and significations, and in turn
they decipher, appropriate, and manipulate media messages without,
for all that, using them to propagandize for a new ideology. In
the late 1970s and the early 1980s, such collectives as Group
Material (1979-1996) and the Guerilla Girls (1985) experimented
with new collaborative, oppositional, or critical practices (the
art exhibition as a “visual explosion of significations”),
this time with an eye toward opening up the public space and “democratizing”
art. A very active and engaged alternative New York scene, which
came into existence at that time, was populated by “cultural
activists,” and with that scene came institutional critique
and critical postmodernism (Foster, Buchloh). In Eastern Europe,
the formation of a “movement” like NSK in Ljubljana
(1984)--a still rather special case that has become the object
of highly pertinent analyses (12)--speaks volumes about the “decadent
socialism” of Tito’s Yugoslavia.
On the Political Value of Names
the past two decades, one may count several dozens of labels,
from the most conscientious, like the Americans of Temporary Services
(Chicago, 1998) or the Mexican artist Minerva Cuervas’s
Mejor Vidal Corp. (1998), to various more or less fake entrepreneurs
(Superflex, etoy.CORPORATION, Bernadette Corporation, Société
Réaliste, IBK), which are sometimes presented as more critical
than they really are(13). Once the activist spirit of the 1980s
began to fade, the idea of “commitment” or “engagement”
became increasingly ambiguous, with the “ethical turn”
in art, identified by Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Zizek
as existing especially among the followers of relational/collaborative
practices, sometimes deteriorating, in the name of a so-called
view of contemporary art, into a mere “commercial turn.”
It would be interesting to look carefully into each of these nominal
identities that have taken up “critical” names and
try to see to what extent they defy the symbolic order or the
dominant economic system or else what kind of alternative (social)
relations or orders they stand for, when that is the case. To
what extent does a fiction just imitate the structure, operation,
and communication strategies of “genuine” business
enterprises, their promotional tools and language? Does such a
fiction resist or thwart the laws of the market or of the cultural
institutions it supposedly is criticizing? What do these artist-entrepreneurs
produce, what do they represent, and what concretely, in turn,
are they selling?
pose the question of naming allows one in fact to pose several
questions at once. While a generic name designates a kind of alliance
that is not necessarily political in the traditional sense of
the word, it nonetheless can make propositions through the aesthetics
of alternative forms of communication and action and through the
use of images and language that have an eminently political value.(14)
It is a matter of investigating, though these “ideas-in-form,”(15)
the way in which artists, from the staunch avant-gardists of yesteryear
to the cynical or “impotent” artists of contemporary
art,(16) break open and enlarge such notions as collectivity,
community, subjectivity in order to find out how they represent
those notions and put them into practice. An invented name used
in the place of one or several proper names may be a demand for
anonymity or a claim to a “whatever singularity,”(17)
as against the idea of authentic/heroic subjectivity. It may designate
a shared sensibility, a conviction, or an intention (activism,
radicality, negativity), or, finally, the desire to “join”
a community of ideas or of taste. But it may very well also (since
being artistic isn’t tantamount to being critical) serve
as an advertisement for ideological ambitions or commercial interests.
1. See G.-E. Debord, “Encore
un effort si vous voulez être situationnistes,” Potlatch,
9 (November 5, 1957), reprint edition: Paris: Allia, Paris, 1996,
p.143 (emphasis added); “One More Try If You Want to Be
Situationists,” trans. John Shepley: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/onemore.html
2. See “Le détournement comme négation
et comme prélude,” in Notes éditoriales,
Internationale Situationniste, 3 (December 1959): 10-11 (pp.
78-79 of the reprint edition); “Detournement as Negation
and Prelude,” translated from the French and footnoted by
NOT BORED!: http://www.notbored.org/detournement.html (translation
3. It is emblematic, too, in its opposition to
“separate” work (specialization, alienation). “Situationist
activity” signifies the idea of a “unitary”
world view and praxis, therefore a world view and praxis applicable
in all domains of life.
4. Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,”
in Mythologies (1957), selected and translated from the
French by Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993).
5. Guy Debord, Letter to Asger Jorn, September
1, 1957, in Correspondance, vol. 1 (Paris: Fayard, 1999),
p. 24; translated from the French by NOT BORED!: http://www.notbored.org/debord-1September1957.html.
6. Guy Debord, Letter to Patrick Straram, November
12, 1958, in Correspondance, vol.1, pp. 158-59 (emphasis
added); translated from the French by NOT BORED!: http://www.notbored.org/debord-12November1958.html.
7. The dialectical “overcoming” of
art and politics from a “total” perspective--that
is to say, relative to behaviors and relationships.
8. Despite the rich bibliographical sources that
exist on the topic of avant-garde movements, it seems to us that,
apart from reference works by Peter Burger (Theory of the
Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw [Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1994]) and Hal Foster’s response (The
Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century
[Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1996]) or the highly
useful investigation coordinated by Jean Weisgerber, ed. (Les
avant-gardes littéraires au XXe siècle, vol.
1: Histoire, vol. 2, Théorie [Brussels:
Le Centre d’études des avant-gardes littéraires
de l’Unversité de Bruxelles, 1975]), what is lacking
is a real research work on the history of this notion and its
various strategic usages by the various agents of modern art:
artists, theorists, or performers.
9. On the question of the usage and function
of proper names in contemporary art, I refer to the first issue
of the review Exposé, which was devoted entirely
to this question, and in particular to the fascinating investigation
by Marie-Ange Brayer, from whom I borrow the idea of the generic
name as an “outgrowth of the proper name” (“Du
sujet aux identités nominales: enquête sur le propre
des noms,” Exposé, revue d’esthétique
et d’art contemporain, 1 [Spring-Summer 1994]: 4-35).
10. Joseph Mouton, “Dialectique de la bouffonnerie”
(“Les noms indistincts”), in Présence Panchounette,
L’ordre total, Exhibition catalogue (Rennes: La
11. According to the Saint-Simonians, avant-garde
artists should “take the most lively and decisive action”
and be carried along by a “shared impulse and a general
idea” (in Saint-Simon [Claude Henri de Rouvroy], “L’artiste,
le savant et l’industriel,” Opinions littéraires,
philosophiques et industrielles, written by a number of Saint-Simonians
[Paris: Hachette, 1975]).
12. See, for example, Alexei Monroe, “NSK:
Art of the State,” Interrogation Machine: Laibach and
NSK, foreword by Slavoj Zšizšek (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
13. I am thinking of the work by Yann Toma and
Rose Marie Barrientos (eds.), Les entreprises critiques/Critical
Companies (St. Étienne: Cité du design Editions/CERAP
Éditions, 2008), which brings together a series of labels
or trademarks with so little “critical” content as
etoy.CORPORATION and Soussan Ltd.
14. I am referring to the conclusion made by
Jacques Rancière in his work The Politics of Aesthetics:
The Distribution of the Sensible (2000), trans. with an introduction
by Gabriel Rockhill (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), which
I find rather apt: “The arts only ever lend to projects
of domination or emancipation what they are able to lend to them,
that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them:
bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parceling
out of the visible and the invisible. Furthermore, the autonomy
they can enjoy or the subversion they can claim credit for rest
on the same foundation” (p. 19).
15. The object of mythology is the study of “ideas-in-form,”
according to Roland Barthes in his 1957 book Mythologies,
16. On the topic of cynicism, I am referring
to the statements made by members of etoy.CORPORATION; an acknowledgment
of the “political impotence” of artists in contemporary
democracies often returns in the statements of Claire Fontaine
(see the texts/interviews of artists published on their websites).
17. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community,
trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Agamben, Giorgio. Means
Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and
Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community.
Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies (1957).
Selected and translated from the French by Annette Lavers. London:
Becker, Carol. The Subversive Imagination:
Artists, Society, & Social Responsibility. New York:
Benjamin, Walter. In Aesthetics and Politics.
Theodor Adorno et al. With an Afterword by Fredric Jameson. London
and New York: Verso, 2007.
Bishop, Claire. “Antagonism and Relational
Aesthetics.” October, 110 (2004): 51-79.
_____. “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents.”
Artforum (February 2006): 179-85.
Burger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde.
Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Borja-Villel, Manuel J. “Critical Art and
Social Conflicts.” In Antagonisms: Case Studies, Barcelona
Art Report 2001. Barcelona: MACBA, 2001: 1-2.
Burgess, John, and Gideon Rosen.
A Subject with No Object. Princeton: Princeton University
Chiapello, Eve. Artistes versus managers
- Le management culturel face à la critique artiste.
Paris: Editions Métailié, 1998.
Debord Guy, Correspondance. Vol. 1:
Juin 1957 - août 1960. Paris: A. Fayard, 1999.
Duve, Thierry de. Pictorial Nominalism: On
Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade
(1984). Foreword by John Rajchman. Trans. Dana Polan with the
author. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
Deutsche, Rosalyn. Evictions: Art and Spatial
Politics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
Exposé, revue d’esthétique et d’art
contemporain, 1 (Spring/Summer 1994).
Foster, Hal. “For a Concept of the Political
in Contemporary Art.” Recordings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural
Politics. Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1985.
Holmes, Brian. Escape the Overcode: Activist
Art in the Control Society. Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum and
Zagreb: WHW, 2009.
Internationale Situationniste (complete reprint). Paris:
A. Fayard, 2001.
Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site-Specific
Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,
Laclau, Ernesto. Ed. The Making of Political
Identities. London, Verso: 1994.
Lefort, Claude. Les Formes de l’histoire.
Essais d’anthropologie politique. Paris: Gallimard,
Lippard, Lucy. Get the message? A Decade
of Art for Social Change. New York: E. P. Dutton, NY: 1984.
Marchart, Olivier. “Politics and Aesthetic
Practice: On the Aesthetics of the Public Sphere.” Frankcija:
Performing Arts Magazine, 33-34 (2004-2005).
Menger, Pierre-Michel. Portrait de l’artiste
en travailleur. Métamorphoses du capitalisme. Paris:
Seuil/La République des Idées, 2002.
Monroe, Alexei. “NSK: Art of the State.”
Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK. Foreword by Slavoj
Zšizšek. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.
Mouffe, Chantal. The Democratic Paradox.
London and New York: Verso, 2000.
_____. “Every Form of Art Has a Political Dimension,”
Grey Room, 2 (Winter 2001): 98-125.
Moulin, Raymonde. L’artiste, l’institution
et le marché. Paris: Flammarion 1992.
Penner, Terry. The Ascent from Nominalism.
Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing, 1987.
Potlatch: 1954-1957. Reprint. Paris: Allia: 1996.
Présence Panchounette. L’ordre
total. Exhibition catalogue. Rennes: La Criée, 1989.
Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of
Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (2000). Trans.
with an introduction by Gabriel Rockhill. London and New York:
Rancière, Jacques. Malaise dans l’esthétique.
Paris: Galilée, 2004.
Rancière, Jacques. The Names of History:
On the Poetics of Knowledge (1992). Trans. Hassan Melehy.
Foreword by Harden White. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Saint Simon (Claude Henri de Rouvroy), Léon
Halévy, Olinde Rodrigues, Jean-Baptiste
Marie Duvergier, et al. Opinions littéraires,
philosophiques et industrielles. Reproduction of the Paris
edition of Bossange Père, 1825. Paris: Hachette 1975.
Sans, Jerôme. Hardcore. Vers un nouvel
activisme. Exhibition catalogue. Paris: Palais de Tokyo/Le
Cercle d’Art Paris, 2003.
Searle, John. The Construction of Social
Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995.
Stimson, Blake, and Gregory Sholette.
Eds. Collectivism After Modernism. Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Temporary Services. Group Work. New
York: Printed Matter, 2007.
Toma, Yann, and Rose Marie Barrientos.
Eds. Les entreprises critiques/Critical Companies. St
Étienne: Cité du design Editions/CERAP Éditions,
Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude.
Cambridge, Mass: London: Semiotext(e), 2004.
_____. Opportunisme, Cynisme et Peur. Ambivalence du Désenchantement.
Trans. Michel Valensi. Paris-Combas: Éditions de l’Éclat
Wallis, Brian. Democracy: A Project by Group
Material. Seattle: Bay Press, 1990.
A Few Websites of Artists
16 Beaver Group (New York, NY): www.16beavergroup.org
Claire Fontaine: http://clairefontaine.ws/bio_fr.html
Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army: www.clownarmy.org .org
Les femmeuses: http://perso.wanadoo.fr/aladin/femmeuses
Guerilla Girls: www.guerrillagirls.com
The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination: www.labofii.net/friends
Las Agencias (Madrid, Spain): http://www.sindominio.net/lasagencias
Otolith Group: http://otolithgroup.org
Société Réaliste (Paris, France): www.societerealiste.net
Stalker (Rome, Italy): www.stalkerlab.it
Temporary Services (Chicago, IL): www.temporaryservices.org
The Yes Men: http://theyesmen.org .