The sober joy of thieving

I’m happy to have my review of Judith Rodenbeck’s Radical Prototypes: Allan Kaprow and the Invention of Happenings published in the current issue of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts. Rodenbeck’s framework for conceptualizing happenings is central to the discourse surrounding art and the everyday in the 1960s. An excerpt from the review here below:

With her narrative, Rodenbeck deliberately sidesteps the dualism of formalism and the avant-garde that has dominated many of the art historical narratives of the 1960s. If happenings are best characterized as intermediary, open-ended, relational, and interdisciplinary, then their historicization would do well to reflect this, she reasons. Her book calls for and models a scholarly “matrix through which to approach a generation of postwar artistic efforts” (27). Her contribution lies in a series of individual “material, rhetorical, and discursive” histories (18) that enhance ourunderstanding of what happenings were and what they aspired to be. The wealth of material on the sociological climates, the architectural practices, the technological metaphors, the theatrical methodologies, and the photographic conditions that surrounded happenings acts like connective tissue, shaping and securing them within art history.
In this sense, then, the art historical matrix to which Rodenbeck contributes should be thought of as a sort of expanded field for happenings where the artworks of Kaprow and company are no longer contrasted with painting alone but with all other experimental intermedia and the areas of inquiry intermedia shares: the everyday, the aleatory, and the participatory. Measured and formal in tone, preeminently readable at the same time, Rodenbeck’s book is often like an unexpected treasure hunt amidst the presumed familiar.
“Let’s look for traces of civilization!” the trio in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) exclaim delightedly to one another as they wander through a wooded area to the beach. Readers of Rodenbeck’s histories are led to wander, too, finding known documents, theories, and artworks linked freshly and illuminatingly to one another.

Détournement as Optic

I’m very honored to have an article published in the excellent Philosophy of Photography. The advisory board of this UK-based journal features a number of scholars whose work has profoundly influenced my thinking on indexical media: Ariella Azoulay, Stewart Martin and Geoffrey Batchen, among others. My article explores the idea that détournement, a strategy of politicized appropriation, might best be understood in diametrical opposition to the strategy of omniscient depiction at work in the production of aerial views. Here’s a link to the article, entitled “Détournement as optic: Debord, derisory documents and the aerial view,” and an abstract below.

For Situationist, theorist and film-maker Guy Debord, the aerial view reproduced the falsely objective world-view he called ‘the spectacle’. To counter its myth of an infinitely expandable, omniscient perspective, Debord reduced views from above to ‘derisory documents’ of the social and the environmental through détournement, as evidenced in the two films he made while the Situationist International was in existence. The films engage critically with aerial photography as a hegemonic mode of indexical media, with the aerial view’s application as information image and ornament, and with the formal phenomenon of ciné-mapping. This analysis suggests that the détournement Debord performs in and across these films can be best conceptualized as a critical optic that constitutes a practice of seeing, a mode of reception and a call to action in the social space beyond its aesthetic employ. The optic of détournement is the contestational counterpart to the optic of the aerial view. This remains the case today, despite the complexity of photographic views from above and their increased abstraction of social agents and spaces. An alternative to the testimonial function of embodied photographic views, détournement as optic represents an indexical civil contract founded upon representational inadequacy.

Situationists as Vanishing Point

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my article,The Paradigms of Nicolas Bourriaud: Situationists as Vanishing Point” in the current issue of Evental Aesthetics.

It was great to work with the journal’s editorial board–their thoughtful commentary was some of the most dedicated peer-review that I’ve yet encountered.

My article was inspired in part by a show curated by Nicolas Bourriaud at the Palais des Beaux-Arts that I’ve written about here. I grew fascinated by the ever-morphing aesthetic paradigms that Bourriaud has created for his publications and his exhibitions over the past several decades in order to characterize contemporary art.

My article follows the trajectory of Bourriaud’s paradigm production, suggesting that much of it is based on a process of updating and back-dating some of the key concepts that the Situationist International set forward in their eponymous collective journal. I propose that Bourriaud’s formalism-as-theory is far better understood as descriptive of his own creative project than as a framework for contemporary artistic practices.

The abstract of my piece is here, and the PDF here.

An excerpt from the article:

What Bourriaud presents in Relational Aesthetics is considered one of the defining aesthetic debates of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  In Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Bishop writes that Bourriaud’s book helped “render discursive and dialogic projects more amenable to museums and galleries,” and indeed, Bourriaud launched the careers of many artists who have since been the subjects of museum retrospectives and scholarly publications.[5]  Taught in contemporary art seminars worldwide, often juxtaposed with its rejoinders, Relational Aesthetics has contributed to the institutionalization of participatory art in the form of MFA programs and artists’ prizes, and provoked “a more critically informed discussion” of the practice.[6]

Given such canonization of relational aesthetics and relational art, this article argues that it is crucial to examine the origins, composition and implications of these concepts.  Relational aesthetics must be contextualized alongside the paradigms, neologisms and vocabularies that Bourriaud has subsequently developed for the discourse surrounding contemporary artistic creation.  Readers and viewers of Bourriaud’s work should understand that regardless of the artists he situates in these evolving, interrelated, conceptual frameworks, he is his own best and most prototypical aesthetic “service provider.”  He views his paradigms as creative interventions – “theoretical tools” and “kick starts” for art makers, viewers and philosophers.[7]  If what Bourriaud calls his “theory of form” is now serving in an art historical context, it is essential to situate his publications in a historical discursive tradition, and to understand the tradition in which Bourriaud would situate himself.[8]

Full article as PDF here, and as HTML here.

Le décor et son usage

Below: another fascinating anecdote from Günther Anders‘ life, excerpted from Paul van Dijk.

After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, Anders lived in France for a couple of years and then emigrated to the USA in 1936. He stayed in the USA until 1950, sporadically publishing fiction and essays, working odd jobs, adjuncting in the academic system, and putting together his non-fiction magnum opus, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Antiquatedness of Humankind).

For part of his American exile, Anders lived in California, trying (unsuccessfully) to become a Hollywood scriptwriter and making ends meet. Of this period, van Dijk writes:

His job as a cleaner of movie props in the Hollywood Custom Palace thus led him to reflections on the philosophy of history and on the theory of knowledge that are recognizable in his later philosophy on the media. In March 1941, he wrote in his diary:

“Even though I am classified as an enemy alien and as an unskilled worker, I have nonetheless found a job. Although the job is rather odd. For I have become history’s corpse cleaner. Since [sic] one week I belong to the cleaning crew of the Hollywood Custom Palace. The word “custom” has nothing to do here with customs; it refers instead to costumes. The twelve-story colossus, the “palace” where I spend my working days, is a museum of the entire costume past of humanity, an arsenal which rents out everything to the great film companies that our predecessors and our contemporaries, including their slaves, pets and riding animals, ever wore on their bodies and still wear today. From Eve’s fig leaf gadget (in both a see-through and a non-see-through version) to the riding boots of the German attack forces which–oh, such breathtaking optimism–hang next to the footgear of other eras, as if they already are brother and sister to the Greek sandals and the imperial riding boots, past history in other words. If I am instructed to polish these boots, then as an unskilled member of the cleaning crew I can hardly refuse. We flee from the original and then run the risk, a few years later an on the opposite side of the world, to have to clean the duplicates for pay!

Anyhow, we can learn a thing or two from this, even the fundamental truth of the rag philosophy. We human beings do not cover our nakedness to prevent ourselves from freezing to death, but because without cover we would be unable to present ourselves as persons of status, to establish hierarchies, to entice our fellow men or women, or to intimidate others. Surely, there are real needs at the basis of the fantastic discovery that is called clothing, but ultimately those needs are hardly physiological. The pieces that lie around here hardly include any that are strictly meant to keep warm. They are all instruments of dignity or to terrify or flatter, social instruments all. This truth is being whispered into my ear each day as I rub, brush or vacuum these pieces.” (1985, p. 1f)

Van Dijk 10-11

The movie set of Alexandria, constructed in suburban London for Joseph Mankiewicz’s CLEOPATRA (1963) and abandoned six months into shooting. Accessed at

Anders was not alone in finding inspiration in the cinematic industry for his theories on the substitution of illusion for reality. The anecdote above reminds me of the Situationists’ sardonic treatment of a news item about the movie set for Cleopatra (Mankiewicz, 1963) in their 1961 issue of Internationale Situationniste.

The movie nearly bankrupted its Hollywood studio, in part because of the ornate and gigantesque “ancient Alexandria” set which needed to be built twice over the course of the production. The Situationists found this fiasco emblematic of spectacular culture: they believed capital and its images erode history and the present at the same time.