Texts by Artists and Theorist Hito Steyerl


01 2010


Aesthetics of Resistance?

Artistic Research as Discipline and Conflict

Hito Steyerl

What is artistic research today? At present no one seems to know an answer to this question. Artistic research is treated as one of the multiple practices which are defined by indefinition, constantly in flux, lacking coherence and identity. But what if this view were indeed misleading? What if we actually knew more about it than we thought? In order to discuss this proposition, let’s first have a look at current debates around artistic research. It seems as if one of their most important concerns is the transformation of artistic research into an academic discipline. There are discussions about curriculum, degrees, method, practical application, pedagogy. On the other hand, there is also substantial criticism of this approach. It addresses the institutionalization of artistic research as being complicit with new modes of production within cognitive capitalism: commodified education, creative and affective industries, administrative aesthetics, and so on. Both perspectives agree on one point: artistic research is at present being constituted as a more or less normative, academic discipline.

A discipline is of course disciplinarian; it normalizes, generalizes and regulates; it rehearses a set of responses, and in this case, trains people to function in an environment of symbolic labor, permanent design and streamlined creativity. But then again, what is a discipline apart from all of this? A discipline may be oppressive, but this is also precisely why it points to the issue it keeps under control. It indexes a suppressed, an avoided or potential conflict. A discipline hints at a conflict immobilized. It is a practice to channel and exploit its energies and to incorporate them into the powers that be. Why would one need a discipline if it wasn’t to discipline somebody or something? Any discipline can thus also be seen from the point of view of conflict.

Let me give an example: a project I recently realized, called The Building. It deals with the construction history of a Nazi building on the main square in Linz, Austria; it investigates its background, the stories of the people who actually built it, and also looks at the materials used in the building. The construction was performed by partly foreign forced laborers and some of the former inhabitants of the site were persecuted, dispossessed and murdered. During the research it also actually turned out that some of the building stones were produced in the notorious quarry of concentration camp Mauthausen, where thousands of people were killed.

There are at least two different ways of describing this building. One and the same stone used for the building can be said to have gained its shape according to the paradigm of neoclassicist architecture, which would be the official description given on the building itself. Or it can be described as having probably been shaped by a stone mason in concentration camp Mauthausen, who was likely a former Spanish Republican fighter. The conclusion is obvious: the same stone can be described from the point of view of a discipline, which classifies and names. But it can also be read as a trace of a suppressed conflict.

But why would this very local project be relevant for a reflection about artistic research as such? Because parts of this building also coincidentally house the Linz Art Academy. This building is a location, where artistic research is currently being integrated into academic structures: there is a department for artistic research inside this building. Thus, any investigation of the building might turn out as a sort of institutional metareflection on the contemporary conditions of artistic research as such.

In this sense: where is the conflict, or rather what are the extensive sets of conflicts underlying this new academic discipline? Who is currently building its walls, using which materials, produced by whom? Who are the builders of the discipline and where are their traces?

Discipline and Conflict

So, what are the conflicts, and where are the boundaries then? Seen from the point of view of many current contributions, artistic research seems more or less confined to the contemporary metropolitan art academy. Actual artistic research looks like a set of art practices by predominantly metropolitan artists acting as ethnographers, sociologists, product or social designers. It gives the impression of being an asset of technologically and conceptually advanced First World capitalism, trying to upgrade its population to efficiently function in a knowledge economy, and as a by-product, casually surveying the rest of the world as well. But if we look at artistic research from the perspective of conflict or more precisely of social struggles, a map of practices emerges that spans most of the 20th century and also most of the globe. It becomes obvious that the current debates do not fully acknowledge the legacy of the long, varied and truly international history of artistic research which has been understood in terms of an aesthetics of resistance.

Aesthetics of Resistance is the title of Peter Weiss’ seminal novel, released in the early 1980s, which presents an alternative reading of art history as well as an account of the history of anti-fascist resistance from 1933 to 1945. Throughout the novel Weiss explicitly uses the term “artistic research (künstlerische Forschung)” to refer to practices such as Brecht’s writing factory in exile. He also points to the factographic and partly also productivist practices in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, mentioning the documentary work of Sergei Tretjakov, among many others. Thus he establishes a genealogy of aesthetic research, which is related to the history of emancipatory struggles throughout the 20th century.

Since the 1920s, extremely sophisticated debates about artistic epistemologies were waged on terms like fact, reality, objectivity, inquiry within the circles of Soviet factographers, cinematographers and artists. For factographers, a fact is an outcome of a process of production. Fact comes from facere, to make or to do. So in this sense the fact is made or even made up. This should not come as a surprise to us in the age of poststructuralist, metaphysical skepticism. But the range of aesthetic approaches which were developed as research tools almost 100 years ago is stupefying.

Authors like Vertov, Stepanova, Tretjakov, Popova and Rodchenko invent complex procedures of investigation, such as the cine-eye, the cine-truth, the biography of the object or photomontage. They work on human perception and practice and actively try to integrate scientific attitudes into their work. And scientific creation is flowing as a result of many of these developments. In his autobiography, Roman Jakobson describes in detail how avantgarde art practices inspired him to develop his specific ideas on linguistics.

Of course throughout history many different approaches of this type of research have existed. We could also mention the efforts of the artists employed by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) of creating essayistic photojournalistic inquiries during the Great Depression in the US. In all these cases, the artistic research is ambivalently co-opted into state policies – although to a different extent and with completely different consequences. Around the same time Tretyakov got shot during the Stalinist terror, Walker Evans had a solo show at the MoMa.

Another method of artistic inquiry, which is based on several related sets of conflict and crisis is the essayistic approach. In 1940, Hans Richter coins the term film essay or essay film as capable of visualizing theoretical ideas. He refers to one of his own works already made in 1927 called Inflation, an extremely interesting experimental film about capitalism running amok. Richter argues that a new filmic language has to be developed in order to deal with abstract processes such as the capitalist economy. How does one show these abstractions, how does one visualize the immaterial? These questions are reactualized in contemporary art practices, but they have a long history.

The essay as filmic approach also embraces the perspective of anticolonial resistance. One of the first so-called essay films is the anticolonial film-essay Les statues meurent aussi, by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, about racism in dealing with African art. The film is commissioned by a magazine calledPresence africaine which counts as its editors people like Aimé Césaire or Leopold Senghor, main theoreticians of the so-called negritude movement in the 1930s. Only a few years later Theodor Adorno’s text, The Essay as Form, appears in which he ponders on the resistant characteristics of the essay as subversive method of thought. To Adorno the essay means the reshuffling of the realms of the aesthetic and epistemological, which undermines the dominant division of labor.

And then we enter the whole period of the 1960s with their international struggles, tricontinentalism and so on. Frantz Fanon’s slogan: “…we must discuss, we must invent…” is the motto of the manifesto Towards a Third Cinema, written by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in 1969, in a context of dictatorship in Argentina. The relation of art and science is again explicitly mentioned in Julio Garcia Espinosa’s manifesto For an Imperfect Cinema (1969). Other methods of artistic research include situationist derive and workers inquiries, constructivist montage, cut ups, biomechanics, oral history, deconstructive or surrealist anthropology, the diffusion of counterinformation as well as aesthetic journalism. Some of these methods are more easily absorbed into the art mainstream than others. Especially strongly dematerialized practices with pronounced modernist features are quickly absorbed into information capitalism because they are compressed, quick to absorb and easily transmitted.

It is no coincidence that many of the practices mentioned here have been dealing with classical problems of documentary representation from very different perspectives: its function as power/knowledge, its epistemological problems, its relation to reality and the challenge of creating a new one. Documentary styles and forms have forever grappled with the uneven mix of rationality and creativity, between subjectivity and objectivity, between the power of creation and the power of conservation.

It is no coincidence either that many of the historical methods of artistic research are tied to social or revolutionary movements, or to moments of crisis and reform. In this perspective, the outline of a global network of struggles is revealed, which spans almost the whole 20th century, which is transversal, relational, and (in many, though far from all cases) emancipatory.

It is a coincidence, however, that Peter Weiss´ Aesthetics of Resistance also mentions the main square of Linz: the site of The Building. He describes a scene in which members of the International Brigades in Spain listen to a broadcast of the enthusiastic reception for Hitler and the German troops on Linz’s main square in March 1938. But Weiss’ protagonist notices a very small (and entirely hypothetical) moment in resistance pointed out by the radio journalist: some of the windows on the square remain unlit, and the journalist is quick to point out that the flats of the Jews are located there. Actually during the research it turned out that one of the Jewish families living there had dispersed to three different continents and two members of the family had been murdered. One of the latter was a person called Ernst Samuely who was supposedly a communist. After many ordeals, he joined a Jewish partisan group on the Polish border before disappearing. So, if we look at the Linz building from this point of view, we see that it dissolves into a network of international routes and relations, which relate to oppression but also to resistance: it relates to what Walter Benjamin once called “the tradition of the oppressed.”

The Perspective of Conflict

If we keep applying the global and transversal perspective to the debate around artistic research, the temporal and spatial limitations of contemporary metropolitan debates are revealed. It simply does not make any sense to continue the discussion as if practices of artistic research do not have a long and extensive history well beyond conceptual art practices – which is one of the very few historical examples to be mentioned, although very rarely. From the point of view of social struggles, the discontinuous genealogy of artistic research becomes an almost global one, with a long and frequently interrupted history. The geographical distribution of artistic research practices also dramatically changes in this perspective. Since some locations were particularly affected by the conjunction of power and knowledge, which arose with the formation of capitalism and colonialism, strategies of epistemic disobedience had to be invented.

A power/knowledge/art, which reduced whole populations to objects of knowledge, domination and representation, had to be countered not only by social struggle and revolt, but also by epistemological and aesthetic innovation. Thus reversing the perspective and focusing on discipline as an index of conflict also reverses the direction in which art history has been written as an account of peripheral artists copying and catching up with Western art trends. We could just as well say that many contemporary metropolitan artists are only now catching up with the complexity of debates around reality and representation that Soviet factographers had already developed in the 1920s.

Specific and Singular

In all these methods, two elements collide: a claim to specificity clashes with a claim to singularity. What does this mean? One aspect of the work claims to participate in a general paradigm, within a discourse that can be shared and which is manufactured according to certain criteria. More often than not, scientific, legalistic or journalistic truth procedures underly this method of research. These methodologies are pervaded by power relations as many theorists have demonstrated.

On the other hand, artistic research projects in many cases also lay claim to singularity. They create a certain artistic set up, which claims to be relatively unique and produces its own field of reference and logic. This provides it with a certain autonomy, in some cases an edge of resistance against dominant modes of knowledge production. In other cases, this assumed singularity just sexes up a quantitative survey, or to use a famous expression by Benjamin Buchloh, creates an aesthetic of administration.[1]

While specific methods generate a shared terrain of knowledge – which is consequently pervaded by power structures – singular methods follow their own logic. While this may avoid the replication of existing structures of power/knowledge, it also creates the problem of the proliferation of parallel universes, which each speak their own, untranslatable language. Practices of artistic research usually partake in both registers, the singular as well as the specific; they speak several languages at once.

Thus, one could imagine a semiotic square*, which would roughly map the tensions which become apparent during the transformation of artistic research into an academic and/or economic discipline. Of course, this scheme is misleading, since one would have to draw a new one for every singular point of view which is investigated. But it shows the tensions which both frame and undermine the institutionalization of artistic research.

Artistic Research as Translation

The multilinguality of artistic research implies that artistic research is an act of translation. It takes part in at least two languages and can in some cases create new ones. It speaks the language of quality as well as of quantity, the language of the singular as well as the language of the specific, use value as well as exchange value or spectacle value, discipline as well as conflict; and it translates between all of these. This does not mean that it translates correctly – but it translates, nevertheless.

At this point, one should emphasize that this is also the case with so-called autonomous artworks, which have no pretense whatsoever to partake in any kind of research. This does not mean they cannot be quantified or become part of disciplinary practices, because they are routinely quantified on the art market in the form of pricing and integrated into art histories and other systems of value. Thus, most art practices exist in one or another type of translation, but this type of translation does not jeopardize the division of labor established between art historians and gallerists, between artists and researchers, between the mind and senses. In fact, a lot of the conservative animosity towards artistic research stems from a feeling of threat, because of the dissolution of these boundaries, and this is why artistic research is often dismissed in everyday practice as neither art nor research.

But the quantification processes involved in the evaluation or valorization of artistic research are slightly different than the traditional procedures of quantification. Artistic research as a discipline not only sets and enforces certain standards but also presents an attempt to extract or produce a different type of value in art. Apart from the art market, a secondary market develops for those practices which lack in fetish value. This secondary value is established by quantification and integration into (increasingly) commodified education systems. Additionally, a sort of social surplus embedded into a pedagogical understanding of art comes into play. Both combined create a pull towards the production of applied or applicable knowledge/art, which can be used for entrepreneurial innovation, social cohesion, city marketing, and thousands of other aspects of cultural capitalism. From this perspective, artistic research indeed looks like a new version of the applied arts, a new and largely immaterial craft, which is being instituted as a discipline in many different places.


At the end, let me come back to the beginning: we know more about artistic research than we think. And this concerns the most disquieting findings of the project around The Building in Linz. It is more than likely, that after the war, radiators were taken from the now abandoned concentration camp Mauthausen and reinstalled into the building. If this plan documented in the historical files was executed, then the radiators are still there and have quietly been heating the building ever since. A visit with an expert confirmed that the radiators have never been exchanged in the Eastern part of the building and that, moreover, some of the radiators had already been used, when they had been installed around 1948. The make of those radiators corresponds to the few radiators seen in contemporary photos of concentration camp Mauthausen. Now, of course, radiators were not in use in the prisoners barracks. They were in use in some work rooms, like the laundry room. They were in use in the prisoners office and the prisoners brothel, where female inmates from another concentration camp had to work.

But what do we make of the fact that the Department for Artistic Research (its coordination office is located in The Building, according to the website) could soon find itself being heated by the same radiators, which were mute witnesses of the plight of female inmates in the concentration camp brothel? To quote the website of the Linz art academy, “artistic-scientific research belongs to the core tasks of the Art University Linz, and artistic practice and scientific research are combined under one roof. The confrontation and/or combination of science and art require intense research and artistic development in a methodological perspective, in the areas of knowledge transfers and questions of mediation. Cultural Studies, art history, media theory, several strategies of mediation as well as art and Gender Studies in the context of concrete art production are essential elements of the profile of the university.” What are the conditions of this research? What is the biography of its historical infrastructure and how can reflecting on it help us to break through the infatuation with discipline and institutionalization and to sharpen a historical focus in thinking about artistic research? Obviously not every building will turn out to house such a surprising infrastructure. But the general question remains: what do we do with an ambivalent discipline, which is institutionalized and disciplined under this type of conditions? How can we emphasize the historical and global dimension of artistic research and underline the perspective of conflict? And when is it time to turn off the lights?





SCIENCE /                                              PUBLIC DEBATE /
ART HISTORY                                       COUNTERINFORMATION


DISCIPLINE                                                                                                                    RESISTANCE


ART MARKET /                                      AESTHETIC AUTONOMY






This text appeared first in mahkuzine 8, winter 2010,



[1] Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”, in: October, Vol. 55. (Winter, 1990), pp. 105-143.



Hito Steyerl | Politics of Post-Representation

From the militarization of social media to the corporatization of the art world, Hito Steyerl’s writings represent some of the most influential bodies of work in contemporary cultural criticism today. As a documentary filmmaker, she has created multiple works addressing the widespread proliferation of images in contemporary media, deepening her engagement with the technological conditions of globalization. Steyerl’s work has been exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions including documenta 12, Taipei Biennial 2010, and 7th Shanghai Biennial. She currently teaches New Media Art at Berlin University of the Arts.

Hito Steyerl, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013)

Marvin Jordan I’d like to open our dialogue by acknowledging the central theme for which your work is well known — broadly speaking, the socio-technological conditions of visual culture — and move toward specific concepts that underlie your research (representation, identification, the relationship between art and capital, etc). In your essay titled “Is a Museum a Factory?” you describe a kind of ‘political economy’ of seeing that is structured in contemporary art spaces, and you emphasize that a social imbalance — an exploitation of affective labor — takes place between the projection of cinematic art and its audience. This analysis leads you to coin the term “post-representational” in service of experimenting with new modes of politics and aesthetics. What are the shortcomings of thinking in “representational” terms today, and what can we hope to gain from transitioning to a “post-representational” paradigm of art practices, if we haven’t arrived there already?

Hito Steyerl Let me give you one example. A while ago I met an extremely interesting developer in Holland. He was working on smart phone camera technology. A representational mode of thinking photography is: there is something out there and it will be represented by means of optical technology ideally via indexical link. But the technology for the phone camera is quite different. As the lenses are tiny and basically crap, about half of the data captured by the sensor are noise. The trick is to create the algorithm to clean the picture from the noise, or rather to define the picture from within noise. But how does the camera know this? Very simple. It scans all other pictures stored on the phone or on your social media networks and sifts through your contacts. It looks through the pictures you already made, or those that are networked to you and tries to match faces and shapes. In short: it creates the picture based on earlier pictures, on your/its memory. It does not only know what you saw but also what you might like to see based on your previous choices. In other words, it speculates on your preferences and offers an interpretation of data based on affinities to other data. The link to the thing in front of the lens is still there, but there are also links to past pictures that help create the picture. You don’t really photograph the present, as the past is woven into it.


The result might be a picture that never existed in reality, but that the phone thinks you might like to see. It is a bet, a gamble, some combination between repeating those things you have already seen and coming up with new versions of these, a mixture of conservatism and fabulation. The paradigm of representation stands to the present condition as traditional lens-based photography does to an algorithmic, networked photography that works with probabilities and bets on inertia. Consequently, it makes seeing unforeseen things more difficult. The noise will increase and random interpretation too. We might think that the phone sees what we want, but actually we will see what the phone thinks it knows about us. A complicated relationship — like a very neurotic marriage. I haven’t even mentioned external interference into what your phone is recording. All sorts of applications are able to remotely shut your camera on or off: companies, governments, the military. It could be disabled for whole regions. One could, for example, disable recording functions close to military installations, or conversely, live broadcast whatever you are up to. Similarly, the phone might be programmed to auto-pixellate secret or sexual content. It might be fitted with a so-called dick algorithm to screen out NSFW content or auto-modify pubic hair, stretch or omit bodies, exchange or collage context or insert AR advertisement and pop up windows or live feeds. Now lets apply this shift to the question of representative politics or democracy. The representational paradigm assumes that you vote for someone who will represent you. Thus the interests of the population will be proportionally represented. But current democracies work rather like smartphone photography by algorithmically clearing the noise and boosting some data over other. It is a system in which the unforeseen has a hard time happening because it is not yet in the database. It is about what to define as noise — something Jacques Ranciere has defined as the crucial act in separating political subjects from domestic slaves, women and workers. Now this act is hardwired into technology, but instead of the traditional division of people and rabble, the results are post-representative militias, brands, customer loyalty schemes, open source insurgents and tumblrs.

Additionally, Ranciere’s democratic solution: there is no noise, it is all speech. Everyone has to be seen and heard, and has to be realized online as some sort of meta noise in which everyone is monologuing incessantly, and no one is listening. Aesthetically, one might describe this condition as opacity in broad daylight: you could see anything, but what exactly and why is quite unclear. There are a lot of brightly lit glossy surfaces, yet they don’t reveal anything but themselves as surface. Whatever there is — it’s all there to see but in the form of an incomprehensible, Kafkaesque glossiness, written in extraterrestrial code, perhaps subject to secret legislation. It certainly expresses something: a format, a protocol or executive order, but effectively obfuscates its meaning. This is a far cry from a situation in which something—an image, a person, a notion — stood in for another and presumably acted in its interest. Today it stands in, but its relation to whatever it stands in for is cryptic, shiny, unstable; the link flickers on and off. Art could relish in this shiny instability — it does already. It could also be less baffled and mesmerised and see it as what the gloss mostly is about – the not-so-discreet consumer friendly veneer of new and old oligarchies, and plutotechnocracies.

MJ In your insightful essay, “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, you extend your critique of representation by focusing on an irreducible excess at the core of image spam, a residue of unattainability, or the “dark matter” of which it’s composed. It seems as though an unintelligible horizon circumscribes image spam by image spam itself, a force of un-identifiability, which you detect by saying that it is “an accurate portrayal of what humanity is actually not… a negative image.” Do you think this vacuous core of image spam — a distinctly negative property — serves as an adequate ground for a general theory of representation today? How do you see today’s visual culture affecting people’s behavior toward identification with images?

HS Think of Twitter bots for example. Bots are entities supposed to be mistaken for humans on social media web sites. But they have become formidable political armies too — in brilliant examples of how representative politics have mutated nowadays. Bot armies distort discussion on twitter hashtags by spamming them with advertisement, tourist pictures or whatever. Bot armies have been active in Mexico, Syria, Russia and Turkey, where most political parties, above all the ruling AKP are said to control 18,000 fake twitter accounts using photos of Robbie Williams, Megan Fox and gay porn stars. A recent article revealed that, “in order to appear authentic, the accounts don’t just tweet out AKP hashtags; they also quote philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and movies like PS: I Love You.” It is ever more difficult to identify bots – partly because humans are being paid to enter CAPTCHAs on their behalf (1,000 CAPTCHAs equals 50 USD cents). So what is a bot army? And how and whom does it represent if anyone? Who is an AKP bot that wears the face of a gay porn star and quotes Hobbes’ Leviathan — extolling the need of transforming the rule of militias into statehood in order to escape the war of everyone against everyone else? Bot armies are a contemporary vox pop, the voice of the people, the voice of what the people are today. It can be a Facebook militia, your low cost personalized mob, your digital mercenaries. Imagine your photo is being used for one of these bots. It is the moment when your picture becomes quite autonomous, active, even militant. Bot armies are celebrity militias, wildly jump cutting between glamour, sectarianism, porn, corruption and Post-Baath Party ideology. Think of the meaning of the word “affirmative action” after twitter bots and like farms! What does it represent?

MJ You have provided a compelling account of the depersonalization of the status of the image: a new process of de-identification that favors materialist participation in the circulation of images today.  Within the contemporary technological landscape, you write that “if identification is to go anywhere, it has to be with this material aspect of the image, with the image as thing, not as representation. And then it perhaps ceases to be identification, and instead becomes participation.” How does this shift from personal identification to material circulation — that is, to cybernetic participation — affect your notion of representation? If an image is merely “a thing like you and me,” does this amount to saying that identity is no more, no less than a .jpeg file?

HS Social media makes the shift from representation to participation very clear: people participate in the launch and life span of images, and indeed their life span, spread and potential is defined by participation. Think of the image not as surface but as all the tiny light impulses running through fiber at any one point in time. Some images will look like deep sea swarms, some like cities from space, some are utter darkness. We could see the energy imparted to images by capital or quantified participation very literally, we could probably measure its popular energy in lumen. By partaking in circulation, people participate in this energy and create it.
What this means is a different question though — by now this type of circulation seems a little like the petting zoo of plutotechnocracies. It’s where kids are allowed to make a mess — but just a little one — and if anyone organizes serious dissent, the seemingly anarchic sphere of circulation quickly reveals itself as a pedantic police apparatus aggregating relational metadata. It turns out to be an almost Althusserian ISA (Internet State Apparatus), hardwired behind a surface of ‘kawaii’ apps and online malls. As to identity, Heartbleed and more deliberate governmental hacking exploits certainly showed that identity goes far beyond a relationship with images: it entails a set of private keys, passwords, etc., that can be expropriated and detourned. More generally, identity is the name of the battlefield over your code — be it genetic, informational, pictorial. It is also an option that might provide protection if you fall beyond any sort of modernist infrastructure. It might offer sustenance, food banks, medical service, where common services either fail or don’t exist. If the Hezbollah paradigm is so successful it is because it provides an infrastructure to go with the Twitter handle, and as long as there is no alternative many people need this kind of container for material survival. Huge religious and quasi-religious structures have sprung up in recent decades to take up the tasks abandoned by states, providing protection and survival in a reversal of the move described in Leviathan. Identity happens when the Leviathan falls apart and nothing is left of the commons but a set of policed relational metadata, Emoji and hijacked hashtags. This is the reason why the gay AKP pornstar bots are desperately quoting Hobbes’ book: they are already sick of the war of Robbie Williams (Israel Defense Forces) against Robbie Williams (Electronic Syrian Army) against Robbie Williams (PRI/AAP) and are hoping for just any entity to organize day care and affordable dentistry.


But beyond all the portentous vocabulary relating to identity, I believe that a widespread standard of the contemporary condition is exhaustion. The interesting thing about Heartbleed — to come back to one of the current threats to identity (as privacy) — is that it is produced by exhaustion and not effort. It is a bug introduced by open source developers not being paid for something that is used by software giants worldwide. Nor were there apparently enough resources to audit the code in the big corporations that just copy-pasted it into their applications and passed on the bug, fully relying on free volunteer labour to produce their proprietary products. Heartbleed records exhaustion by trying to stay true to an ethics of commonality and exchange that has long since been exploited and privatized. So, that exhaustion found its way back into systems. For many people and for many reasons — and on many levels — identity is just that: shared exhaustion.

MJ This is an opportune moment to address the labor conditions of social media practice in the context of the art space. You write that “an art space is a factory, which is simultaneously a supermarket — a casino and a place of worship whose reproductive work is performed by cleaning ladies and cellphone-video bloggers alike.” Incidentally, DIS launched a website calledArtSelfie just over a year ago, which encourages social media users to participate quite literally in “cellphone-video blogging” by aggregating their Instagram #artselfies in a separately integrated web archive. Given our uncanny coincidence, how can we grasp the relationship between social media blogging and the possibility of participatory co-curating on equal terms? Is there an irreconcilable antagonism between exploited affective labor and a genuinely networked art practice? Or can we move beyond — to use a phrase of yours — a museum crowd “struggling between passivity and overstimulation?”

HS I wrote this in relation to something my friend Carles Guerra noticed already around early 2009; big museums like the Tate were actively expanding their online marketing tools, encouraging people to basically build the museum experience for them by sharing, etc. It was clear to us that audience participation on this level was a tool of extraction and outsourcing, following a logic that has turned online consumers into involuntary data providers overall. Like in the previous example – Heartbleed – the paradigm of participation and generous contribution towards a commons tilts quickly into an asymmetrical relation, where only a minority of participants benefits from everyone’s input, the digital 1 percent reaping the attention value generated by the 99 percent rest.

Brian Kuan Wood put it very beautifully recently: Love is debt, an economy of love and sharing is what you end up with when left to your own devices. However, an economy based on love ends up being an economy of exhaustion – after all, love is utterly exhausting — of deregulation, extraction and lawlessness. And I don’t even want to mention likes, notes and shares, which are the child-friendly, sanitized versions of affect as currency.
All is fair in love and war. It doesn’t mean that love isn’t true or passionate, but just that love is usually uneven, utterly unfair and asymmetric, just as capital tends to be distributed nowadays. It would be great to have a little bit less love, a little more infrastructure.

MJ Long before Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations reshaped our discussions of mass surveillance, you wrote that “social media and cell-phone cameras have created a zone of mutual mass-surveillance, which adds to the ubiquitous urban networks of control,” underscoring the voluntary, localized, and bottom-up mutuality intrinsic to contemporary systems of control. You go on to say that “hegemony is increasingly internalized, along with the pressure to conform and perform, as is the pressure to represent and be represented.” But now mass government surveillance is common knowledge on a global scale — ‘externalized’, if you will — while social media representation practices remain as revealing as they were before. Do these recent developments, as well as the lack of change in social media behavior, contradict or reinforce your previous statements? In other words, how do you react to the irony that, in the same year as the unprecedented NSA revelations, “selfie” was deemed word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries?

HS Haha — good question!

Essentially I think it makes sense to compare our moment with the end of the twenties in the Soviet Union, when euphoria about electrification, NEP (New Economic Policy), and montage gives way to bureaucracy, secret directives and paranoia. Today this corresponds to the sheer exhilaration of having a World Wide Web being replaced by the drudgery of corporate apps, waterboarding, and “normcore”. I am not trying to say that Stalinism might happen again – this would be plain silly – but trying to acknowledge emerging authoritarian paradigms, some forms of algorithmic consensual governance techniques developed within neoliberal authoritarianism, heavily relying on conformism, “family” values and positive feedback, and backed up by all-out torture and secret legislation if necessary. On the other hand things are also falling apart into uncontrollable love. One also has to remember that people did really love Stalin. People love algorithmic governance too, if it comes with watching unlimited amounts of Game of Thrones. But anyone slightly interested in digital politics and technology is by now acquiring at least basic skills in disappearance and subterfuge.


Hito Steyerl, How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013)


MJ In “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy,” you point out that the contemporary art industry “sustains itself on the time and energy of unpaid interns and self-exploiting actors on pretty much every level and in almost every function,” while maintaining that “we have to face up to the fact that there is no automatically available road to resistance and organization for artistic labor.” Bourdieu theorized qualitatively different dynamics in the composition of cultural capital vs. that of economic capital, arguing that the former is constituted by the struggle for distinction, whose value is irreducible to financial compensation. This basically translates to: everyone wants a piece of the art-historical pie, and is willing to go through economic self-humiliation in the process. If striving for distinction is antithetical to solidarity, do you see a possibility of reconciling it with collective political empowerment on behalf of those economically exploited by the contemporary art industry?

HS In Art and Money, William Goetzmann, Luc Renneboog, and Christophe Spaenjers conclude that income inequality correlates to art prices. The bigger the difference between top income and no income, the higher prices are paid for some art works. This means that the art market will benefit not only if less people have more money but also if more people have no money. This also means that increasing the amount of zero incomes is likely, especially under current circumstances, to raise the price of some art works. The poorer many people are (and the richer a few), the better the art market does; the more unpaid interns, the more expensive the art. But the art market itself may be following a similar pattern of inequality, basically creating a divide between the 0,01 percent if not less of artworks that are able to concentrate the bulk of sales and the 99,99 percent rest. There is no short term solution for this feedback loop, except of course not to accept this situation, individually or preferably collectively on all levels of the industry. This also means from the point of view of employers. There is a long term benefit to this, not only to interns and artists but to everyone. Cultural industries, which are too exclusively profit oriented lose their appeal. If you want exciting things to happen you need a bunch of young and inspiring people creating a dynamics by doing risky, messy and confusing things. If they cannot afford to do this, they will do it somewhere else eventually. There needs to be space and resources for experimentation, even failure, otherwise things go stale. If these people move on to more accommodating sectors the art sector will mentally shut down even more and become somewhat North-Korean in its outlook — just like contemporary blockbuster CGI industries. Let me explain: there is a managerial sleekness and awe inspiring military perfection to every pixel in these productions, like in North Korean pixel parades, where thousands of soldiers wave color posters to form ever new pixel patterns. The result is quite something but this something is definitely not inspiring nor exciting. If the art world keeps going down the way of raising art prices via starvation of it’s workers – and there is no reason to believe it will not continue to do this – it will become the Disney version of Kim Jong Un’s pixel parades. 12K starving interns waving pixels for giant CGI renderings of Marina Abramovic! Imagine the price it will fetch!

kim jon hitokim hito jon

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Politics of Truth

Documentarism in the Art Field

Hito Steyerl


Documentary strategies are among the most important features of contemporary art. Since the early nineties there as been a succession of various waves of an adaptation of documentary techniques in art, which have also been integrated in the mainstream with documenta X and 11. Especially in the context of institution-critical practices, a revival of forms arose in the nineties, which were developed primarily in the seventies and based on practices such as research and journalistic techniques. At the same time, although there has so far been little theoretical treatment of it, a zone emerged of an overlapping of video art, cinema, reportage, photo essay and other forms, in which various existing genres and formats intersect and constantly change their stylistic devices in the form of audiovisual, film, video and installation works. Didactic and realistic works alternate with reflexive documentary productions, with visual machines, which reflect on the organization of documents and organize the subjectivities thus produced. An interest in the formal specific characteristics of the documentary form in the art field has only recently begun, for instance with exhibitions such as “True Stories” [1] at Witte de With in Rotterdam or “It is Hard to Touch the Real” [2] at the Kunstverein Munich – but has hardly taken place yet at the theoretical level.

Truth of Politics or Politics of Truth

Documentary forms in the art field are currently assuming primarily two contrary functions. First, they represent a strategy of authenticity, which is intended to ensure the claim of artistic works to contact with an auratized field of the social or the political. The formal devices employed here are often social-realistic and attempt to remain as transparent as possible. Examples are art documentations, in which performances or interventions are depicted and which illustrate certain effects in the social field. Here the documentary moment is used as proof of social relevance and evidence of an »organic« relationship to the field. In this perspective some forms of art documentation represent one of the currently most widespread strategies of authentication in the art field by cultivating the Rousseauan myth that there is an art actively embedded in local practices and communities, which is absolutely uncorrupted by any art market that first produces it through its demand. In their function of structuring and intervening in the social field, these documentary forms assume biopolitical tasks.

Authenticity becomes a vitalistic ideology here, which is chosen as the desired raw material of difference, particularly also in the context of globalization. It is nourished from the myth of the genuine and different local, which is currently reproduced in post-ethnographic and neo-culturalist exhibitions. [3] The documentary is intended to depict a certain truth of the political here, an authentic and “genuine” core of the social, which is reproduced, according to Marina Grzinic, in “flat documentaries”. [4] Grzinic claims that the “flat documentary style” forms a model (which works according to the logic of cloning), with which given local situations can be fed into the global art field: through an ambivalent procedure that makes authenticity ripe for global serial production. This can be reproduced through reportage-like forms of recording, which transport quasi-sociological knowledge, or conversely through very personal, “intimist” forms. A striking example of the biopolitical aspect of the “flat documentary style” are the works by Santiago Serra, whose hyperrealistic and naturalistic displays of so-called concerned persons [5] represents a drastic form of misery-voyeuristic exhibitionism. The “flat documentary style” arises most of all from the decontextualization and draining of the authenticity-objects to be transferred, as a quasi biotechnical product. Here the myth of the authentic that forms the vistalistic fetish of documentary discourse proves to be a sophisticated, hybrid and artificial product of palatable difference and repetition.

In contrast to this, there is another, more reflected current of the documentary, which perceives its own devices as socially constructed epistemological tools. In these works there is no intention at all of depicting the authentic truth of the political, but rather of changing the “politics of truth” on which its representation is based. The visual and epistemological formations of the documentary themselves are thus defined as functions of the political. The term “politics of truth” [6] is originally from Michel Foucault and designates a social order of truth, which generates the acknowledged techniques and procedures for producing and determining this truth, and which is always linked to specific power relations. Power and knowledge interlock in the organization and production of facts and their interpretations. It is in this indissoluble tension between power and knowledge that the concept of the document also moves. This concept is derived from legal discourse and represents a technology of truth [7], in other words a recognized procedure for the production of truth. Other codified procedures of truth production include witness testimonials, the integration of historical documents, the talking head format, etc.

Thus the question posed to documentary works in the art field can in no way be limited to the appropriateness or accuracy of the respective representation, but must instead be directed to their internal politics of truth. Which politics of truth are articulated in documentary images and sounds? Which strategies of authenticity are applied to support their assertions? Which rhetorics of truth, sincerity, objectiveness or genuineness are articulated politically? How do documentary works refer to reality or truth? Which role do social agreements on the status and production of truth play in this? How is their interconnection with power relations and the production of subjectivities to be understood? Which technologies, practices and rhetorics of truth are developed in the process? What is their connection with institutions, political discourses, and social or biopolitical technologies? What impact do they therefore have on the intersections between power and subjectivity that Foucault called “Gouvernementalité” [8]? The concept of governmentality that Foucault developed defines a specific form of exercising power, which operates through the production of truth. [9] Documentary forms can also assume this function of governmentality through truth. [10] For documentary images are historically connected with technologies of control, surveillance, normalization and other police techniques. [11] Colonial or fascist regimes produced their own “documentalities”, which were closely linked with ethnographic gaze regimes, the production of racist knowledge and military technologies. Photographs of colonial peoples circulating around the world contributed to the spread of colonial “knowledge”, just as fascist “documentalities” endeavored to make Soviet prisoners of war, among others, appear “subhuman”. [12]

This intersection between governmentality and documentary truth production can be termed “documentality”. Documentality describes the permeation of a documentary politics of truth with superordinated political, social and epistemological formations. Documentality is the pivotal point where forms of documentary truth production turn into government – or vice versa. It describes complicity with dominant forms of a politics of truth, just as it can also describe a critical stance towards these forms.

A more recent work that problematizes this multiple political function of (in this case historical) documents is the installation “Searching for my mother’s numbers” by Sanja Ivekovic, which was also shown at Documenta11. Three video projections flank an installation arranged like an archive, which is intended to be used for research on the prisoner’s number of Ivekovic’s mother in the concentration camp Auschwitz. In the video tapes the various functions of documents are investigated along with their different forms of writing and recording. Official documents like endlessly bureaucratic forms, on which a pension for the mother is denied by the responsible Yugoslavian agencies, are contrasted with another document, namely the mother’s handwritten diary laconically recounting her arrest and liberation. The interview with contemporary witnesses that is otherwise conventional in this context is dispensed with entirely in this work. Instead the focus is on the documents in their material reality, which are (partially) read in a voice-over. On the one hand they function as instruments of repression and the non-acknowledgment of historical facts, as in the official correspondence. On the other hand, though, a document such as the mother’s diary can also bear witness to a writing of history that not only “rescues” marginalized facts, but also forms a laconic counterpoint to the depiction of helpless and intimidated concentration camp victims. In this case, the document is not the basis of a historiography permeated by power, but instead becomes a monument to the “tradition of the oppressed”, of which Walter Benjamin speaks in his theses on the concept of history.[13]

Another example of the problematization of the status of historical documents is the short video “Schwarz auf Weiß” (Black on White) by the artist group Klub Zwei. “Schwarz auf Weiß” concentrates on the question of the photographic document – specifically by means of a radical withdrawal of the images of the Shoah that are spoken of in the voice-over. While the supervisor of a photo archive raises questions on memory, image and history, all we see are written plaques on black and white. Despite their principle technical reproducibility, images change, according to the thesis. Grey tones disappear with every generation of the photographic print; what remains in the end are the hard contrasts of black and white. It is particularly by withdrawing the pictures that are spoken of, however, that a reflection is set off about what distinguishes their status as historical documents. It is not exclusively the face of the pictures of obliteration, which are often used purely symbolically, but rather the inconspicuous back with its stamps and remarks, which first gives the pictures their historical context and thus also their significance, as Klub Zwei argues. The use of pictures as icons, on the other hand, frequently leads to their use as mere illustrations of authenticity. In contrast, “Schwarz auf Weiß” insists on perceiving photographs as something we have given up “reading” (Walter Benjamin) [14]. The video is positioned within a debate that attempts to carry out a critical reading of pictures – yet without rejecting every representation altogether as a purely social or media construction containing no truth. Unlike many media-critical approaches of recent years, this reflection therefore does not lead to an endless, circular and narcissist self-reflexivity, but rather to an ethical-political stance.

For the reflexive documentary forms there is also always the danger of generating a kind of idling reflexivity, which cringes before the ethical dimension of the themes treated in favor of the comfort of unresolvable ambivalence and the task of claiming any kind of truth. This tendency is articulated for instance in a meanwhile almost ornamental form of apparatus criticism, as it is evident in the reflexive integration of satellite images, surveillance pictures, flow charts and network surfaces in documentary works. Amateur material that is often realistic and sensationalist is garnished with elements of self-reflexivity here, which have themselves congealed into cliched and affirmative phrases of global mediality. These forms additionally develop interesting affinities with more recent television formats such as “Big Brother” and other Reality-TV shows, in which it is specifically the aspect of the constantly concurrent self-reflexivity of the media that conversely achieves the greatest authenticity effect. [15] The result is an exponential realism that only differs from classic strategies of realistic authenticity by degrees. This form of idling reflexivity is anticipated by the documentary film theorist Bill Nichols: Although it may contain a political position at the content level – it has none for the viewers themselves, who are held in a zone of inescapable ambivalence. [16]

With the import of documentary forms into the art field, new versions of the classical problems of the documentary appeared there too – the linking of documentary forms with political and social power relations and with the major power/knowledge complexes of law, science and journalism. Yet the gaze regimes of the documentary, their connection with forms of control, objectivization and categorization are also imported into the space of art. One of the new aspects of documentary approaches in art space is its spatialization in installation form, which also generates new forms of the “attention economy”, according to Tom Holert, as well as new diagrams of visibility. This goes hand in hand with a change in the arrangements of the gaze from central-perspective perception situations to spatially heterogeneous arrangements working with various media and forms of presentation. This in turn affects the relationship of the duration and space of the documentary ensemble. What is articulated in the classical documentary film as duration and thus as intensity in its perception, is now articulated conceptually in many documentary installations and thus formulated as an idea, for which the documentary picture material in part only supplies the illustration or the proof. Many documentary installations thus function less through the articulation, organization and intensification of duration, but rather through a synecdochic compression of a situation in space, which can be captured to a certain extent in a memorable image (of a plot). In the new documentary conceptualism the documentary image thus functions as a technology of truth and as proof for a proposed hypothesis as well.

In between biopolitical realism and idling reflexivity, between documentary conceptualism and a precise reading of gazes and images and the ethical-political negotiation of their claims to truth, there are the most diverse documentary approaches, which are not only articulated through various documentalities, but also represent various forms of a politics of truth. Thus it is particularly the questions of truth, ethics and reality that have been increasingly banned from theory in the last twenty years, but which are now raised in a new form due to the emergence of documentary works in art space.


Translation: Aileen Derieg


1 True Stories; Jean-Pierre Rehm, True Stories, 24 January to 30 March 2003. Flyer, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 2003
2 Soren Grammel: Es ist schwer das Reale zu berühren. Printed material, Kunstverein München, Spring 2002, p. 44-45
3 See for instance: Boris Buden: Da bumst der Wahnsinnige den Verwirrten, in: springerin 2/2003
4 Marina Grzinic: Global Culture, Biotechnology, Imperialism. Unpublished manuscript 2003
5 For example in “Hiring and Arrangement of 30 Workers in Relation to their Skin Color”: “He positions 30 people of different ethnic origin according to the color of their skin along the front of the completely closed exhibition space. [&] Sierra often employs radical means: by making workers execute certain things in museums and galleries, he turns them into exhibits. Transferring them into the system of art and explicitly presenting them, he utilizes the methods employed in the sphere of economy. This is why he often provokes protests with his projects, as for example when he paid people for agreeing to being tattooed a black line on their backs. He has also highlighted the ambivalent situation of political refugees in Europe who are forbidden to earn any money by paying them to crawl under cardboard boxes and hide there for several hours. Part of the provocation is certainly based on the obvious absurdity of the assignments and their unproductive character.” (Announcement text Kunsthalle Wien, September 2002)
6 Pasquale Pasquino, Allessandro Fontana: Wahrheit und Macht«. Gespräch mit Michel Foucault vom Juni 1976, in: Michel Foucault: Dispositive der Macht. Berlin 1978, p. 51
7 Michel Foucault: Technologien der Wahrheit, in: Jan Engelmann (Ed.): Foucault Botschaften der Macht. Reader Diskurs und Medien. Stuttgart 1999, p. 133-144
8 Media forms as forms of gouvernementalité are also described by Toby Miller: Technologies of Truth. Cultural Citizenship and the Popular Media. Minneapolis 1998, p. 14-18
9 Thomas Lemke: Eine Kritik der politischen Vernunft. Hamburg1997, p. 32.
10 On these terms, see also Lemke 1997, p. 31
11 Martha Rosler: Drinnen, Drumherum und nachträgliche Gedanken (zur Dokumentarfotographie), in: Martha Rosler: Positionen in der Lebenswelt. Wien, Generali Foundation 1999, p. 105. Cf. also James R. Ryan: Picturing Empire. London 1997
12 See for example the exhibition “Beutestücke Kriegsgefangene in der deutschen und sowjetischen Fotografie 1941-1945” at the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, 14 June to 14 September 2003
13 Walter Benjamin: Geschichtsphilosophische Thesen. Zur Kritik der Gewalt und andere Aufsätze. Frankfurt 1978, p. 84
14 Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt/Main 1966, p. 64
15 Cf. also “Das Authentische ist Produkt einer Laborsituation”. Judith Keilbach in Conversation with Wolfgang Beilenhoff and Rainer Vowe, in: nach dem Film, 12/00,http://www.nachdemfilm.de/no2/bei01dts.html
16 Bill Nichols: Representing Reality. Bloomington/Indianapolis 1997


Interview // Hito Steyerl: Zero Probability and the Age of Mass Art Production


Interview by Göksu Kunak in Berlin; Tuesday Nov. 19, 2013

HKW Berlin Former WestHito Steyerl – “I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production” Lecture‐Performance (2013); copyright Marcus Lieberenz / Haus der Kulturen der Welt

In the lecture performance I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production (2013), writer and artist Hito Steyerl introduces us to the new Misérables of our era, while asking the pertinent question: Why are there so many art projects today? The absurdity of funding applications, the condition of the wretched who wait to be chosen or the link between museums and firearms industries – as in Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013) − are some of the contemporary issues that Steyerl excavates. As always, she criticizes the burdens of our world with vigorous humour. In the following interview, Hito Steyerl shared her opinions about her interest in the missing (leading to her many depictions of disappearance), the latest protests, heroes of our time and the plight of interns…

GöKSU KUNAK: In your essays, works, and lecture performances it seems like you are somehow searching for the missing: the hope of visibility, the invisibility of knowledge, finding those missing points and also connecting them from unexpected points of view, the lack of the real, the probability of nonexistence. Seeing traces, but somehow on the verge of being erased. In your works like How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File(2013), Zero Probability (2012) with Rabih Mroué, Lovely Andrea (2007), and November (2004), there is always a search for the missing. Why? What is it that attracts you to the vanished, or missing?

HITO STEYERL: In all these works I am drawing implicitly or explicitly on the same example: my friend Andrea Wolf who disappeared in 1998 as a member of PKK [Parti Karkerani Kurdistan] in the region of Van. The fact that she has not been found and that there are no official efforts to clarify what happened to her or the several thousand others missing proves that the state of zero probability is widespread and a hardly acknowledged condition of our time. In the state of zero probability, whatever is impossible – like people being swallowed from the face of the earth – happens all the time and nobody thinks twice about it. The state of zero probability potentially exists everywhere, on a battlefield, in a museum online store, as point cloud or data crop cycle. It opens up whenever anyone asks: is this really happening?

This condition opens up within and by means of an avalanche of digital images, which multiply and proliferate while real people disappear or are fixed, scanned and over-represented by an overbearing architecture of surveillance. How do people disappear in an age of total over-visibility? Which huge institutional and legal effort has to be made to keep things unspoken and unspeakable even if they are pretty obviously sitting right in front of everyone’s eyes? Are people hidden by too many images? Do they go hide amongst other images? Do they become images?

Hito Steyerl - How Not to Be SeenHito Steyerl – “How Not To Be Seen A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File” (2013) 14 mins; copyright Hito Steyerl, image courtesy of Wilfried Lentz Rotterdam

GK: Do you believe the latest worldwide movements and protests are changing how we live and, as a result, our encounters or the way we perceive images? In this sense, what would be the new way of using the transformed image? Or is it merely another image spam?

HS: The new movements are a consequence of very radical changes by liberals and neo-conservatives, which have taken place over the last 40 years. These changes have transformed the way many people see the world – technologically, ideologically, visually and on many other levels. The proliferation of images is one of these aspects. It has both devastating and paradoxical consequences. An image is more than ever defined by its momentum, drive, or quantity: less by its “content,” scarceness or singularity. It becomes meaningful rather by being shared and participated in than by being contemplated at a distance.

On the other hand, I also recently thought that probably a number of protesters during recent protests were digital images that walked across the screen to join in 3D protest. Images are being filtered, blocked, censored online all the time. There are those which are shared and enhanced, but also those who remain completely unseen. Probably quite a number of them have had enough and walk off the screen to protest.

But much more generally, I think that a vast number of contemporary protesters are not living the old online vs. offline divide anymore. They are fully digital creatures, but also navigate 3D offline space. Or, as protesters in Brazil recently put it: “We are the social network”.

GK: In your essay Art as Occupation: Claims for an Autonomy of Life you mention that life is occupied by art and that leads to gentrification or other problems. The reality is that we are, in your words, in the era of mass art production, in which almost everyone has an art project. What are the consequences of this in the long term? How will this transform?

HS: I have no idea. But it is an interesting development. Franco Berardi (Bifo) claimed that 25% of German youth want to be artists. A real challenge: how to base a viable economy on art production? Does it imply the existence of a 1% regime of super rich oligarchs? Or is it simply a short term effect of a bubble economy, which is so unstable that art paradoxically appears to be a rather safe investment? It could be quite short term. It could also be the emergence of a new paradigm of labour: just as specialists or engineers were an important paradigm of the 20th century, artists might become contemporary specialists for event-based attention economies. But it´s more realistic that prospective artists are being lured through years of debt: their ambitions are commodified and their liabilities packaged as garbled financial product. And once they are completely dispossessed, once they have become the “Wretched of the Canvas”, they might have to reassess their situation.

GK: At one Mauerpark karaoke session, a young guy who was about to sing was asked what he does for a living. The answer was that he is an intern. The person who was in charge of the session advised him to be honest, and to feel ok about doing unpaid labour, by stressing that it is what most people in Berlin do: internships, working for free. How do you foresee the future of interns? Will super interns, heroic interns pop-up? Do you believe that the “heroes” of our times are the interns?

HS: I don’t believe in heroes. In heroines, perhaps. After all interns in form of wives, moms and other unpaid (domestic) labourers have existed for a long time. I think that Hannah Arendt‘s distinction between the public and the private sphere still holds many interesting contradictions. The private – or sphere of the oikos – means internment in the house, or the back of the house as Japanese wives call it. It is the sphere of slaves, foreigners, interns and domestic workers of all kind that do not get paid.

GK: An artist friend of mine recently mentioned that she doesn’t want to apply to anything anymore: the burden of applications makes her sad. You also stressed this problem in your lecture performance I Dreamed a Dream: Politics in the Age of Mass Art Production by describing the contemporary Misérables. Casted, auditioned; the reality that the artist must apply, show, present her/himself to the juries, make the others choose her/him by being the object and the subject at the same time and the burden of submissions… How will the group of, in your words, “educated poor” evolve?

HS: I see this group growing. It is an actor within contemporary protest movements. And it might become a strong social actor because at the end of the day people need sustainable livelihoods. A part of the population is working for free. Perhaps I am optimistic but I don’t think this works in the long term. Or perhaps we are moving full speed into an age of institutionalised serfdom and voluntary slavery in which it will be safer for people to belong to someone who guarantees their most basic needs than to keep fighting it out on the market.

Recently it became clear to me that one of the most successful moves of neoliberalism was to turn debt bondage into a business opportunity. It means people not only have to get into debt to get an education/housing or just to live, but that debt is a profitable market in its own right. The economy moves from providing livelihoods through work to making destitution profitable. Ask Deutsche Bank, who were named by US Congress as one of the main debt pushers to bring about the massive global redistribution from the public to the private sector commonly known as the financial crisis.

Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle in Berlin recently staged a public call for artworks to be exhibited for one day within their premises and hundreds of people lined up for hours on end, carrying canvasses, creating a wonderful PR opportunity. This is what I mean: debt and unemployment create great business opportunities. All these artists queuing up for hours in order to work for free on the faint and improbable hope of being “discovered” within a bizarre Deutsche Bank salon hanging. It´s like singing in an idol contest!

The long lines of artists queuing up reminded me of similar lines of unemployed in the 1930s, lining up around Berlin’s job centres. They were traditional workers though, or employees. Today, they are artists clutching canvasses. And thinking back to what became of those people queuing up back then is kind of sobering. Most probably most became fascists a few years later. We see this kind of development happening in many European countries already, in Hungary where it´s become quite mainstream, but also in Greece. I hope this doesn’t happen, but it is a realistic possibility, if social divides keep increasing.

GK: What do you think about the fact that people, especially in the art scene, are more interested in the videos in white cubes and biennials about human rights violations, suppression or wars than the real thing? For example, they might be interested in an art work about sectarianism in Beirut but not the issue itself.

HS: There are several aspects to this question. First, if this is the case, there is probably a reason. One reason – among many others, including artworld jadedness and cynicism – might also be that generic information about “real” events is usually already ideological, commercial, and framed in a way that perpetuates the framework of the conflict by its conceptual categories.

In contrast, some artworks – especially those of the Beirut school – frame events in an unexpected way, that most importantly include the possibility of not only telling these stories differently, but also that things could be different in the first place. They do so by conjecturing, speculating, fictionalising, over-bureaucratising, and so on. There is a very valid reason for artworks about “real” events to be more interesting than generic news reports. People are interested because they can’t stand vapid and meaningless news jargon any longer.

But another aspect is even more interesting to me: what is the relation of art spaces and battlefields apart from showing works about conflict zones? How are they not only connected by way of potentially showing works about military violence, but by being based on military violence much more structurally? One work of mine called Guards interviewed U.S. army veterans and former police officers who now work as museum officers. Their experiences of combat and law enforcement are now a part of art infrastructure, an underpaid, strongly racialised and mostly disavowed part, which nevertheless is a vital component of museums being included into homeland security infrastructure.

But the military-industrial complex is also involved in financing and sponsoring art spaces to the point at which museums are becoming parts of battlefields in much more direct ways. Is the revenue from the battlefield sponsoring the museum? Or maybe the other way around? If you start looking at this connection, it turns out that this kind of sponsoring exists more or less everywhere.

Is there a statistical coincidence between military invasions, civil war and the explosion of art markets a few years later? How can we think about post-civil war art market booms as indirectly fuelled by the cheap labor of displaced populations? Is the museum a battlefield?


Göksu Kunak is a writer based in Berlin. Besides working in the editorial team of quarterly interview magazine mono.kultur, she is one of the team members of Apartment Project Berlin. Göksu has contributed to several magazines and blogs such as frieze d/e, Ibraaz, Freunde von Freunden, crap=good, e-skop, The Carton, Don’t Panic Berlin and wecelebrate. Concurrently, she is working on her book project abandonedxmastrees


06 2006


The language of things

Hito Steyerl

Hito Steyerl





under translation

Who does the lamp communicate with? The mountain? The fox?
Walter Benjamin

What if things could speak? What would they tell us? Or are they speaking already and
we just don’t hear them? And who is going to translate them?

Ask Walter Benjamin. In fact he started asking those quite bizarre questions already in 1916 in a text called: “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”. Of all weird texts by Benjamin, this is definitely the weirdest. In this text he develops the concept of a language of things. According to Benjamin this language of things is mute, it is magical and its medium is material community. Thus, we have to assume that there is a language of stones, pans and cardboard boxes. Lamps speak as if inhabited by spirits. Mountains and foxes are involved in discourse. High-rise buildings chat with each other. Paintings gossip. There exists even, if you will, besides the language communicated by telephone a language of the telephone itself. And, according to Benjamin’s triumphant conclusion, nobody is responsible for this silent cacophony but G-D himself.

But, you may ask: what is the point of this eccentric plot? Lets pretend that the point is translation. Because obviously, the language of things has to be translated in order to become intelligible for those of us who are dumb for its silent splendour. But the idea of translation, which Benjamin has in mind, is a completely different concept of translation than the one we are used to. Because, from the most ordinary to the most sophisticated translation theories, one thing is usually taken for granted: that translation takes place between different human languages or the cultures, which are supposed to nurture them. Thus, languages are assumed to be an expression of different cultures and nations. This combination is hastily identified as the political aspect of translation and even language as such. And on this level standard translation theory is always already implicated in political practice and governmental strategies.

But Benjamin’s idea of translation – at least in this text – boldly ignores this obvious and perhaps banal feature of translation. And thus, an entirely different concept of a politics of translation emerges. Instead of national languages, which are only mentioned passingly in this text, he focuses on what I would call languages of practice: the language of law, technology, art, the language of music and sculpture. And more importantly: translation doesn’t take place between them, but within them. That is: between the language of things and the language of men, at the base of language itself. Thus, a few very important modifications are introduced with regard to traditional translation theory: firstly language is defined not by common origin, belonging or nation, but by common practice. Secondly, translation primarily takes place within language not between languages. And thirdly, translation addresses the relationship of human language and thing language.

Since Benjamin was perfectly aware of the romantic translation theories, which focussed on concepts like the national spirit, his feigned ignorance has to be seen as more then a bold political statement. It is a blatant declaration of irrelevance of culturalist approaches. Instead of nations and cultures, his perspective on translation takes matter and God as first reference points. And this theologico-material concept of translation radically shifts the definition of a politics of translation. It does not hover around organicist notions of community and culture. But it bluntly locates translation at the core of a much more general practical question: how do humans relate to the world?

Instead of a politics of the original content – like the nation state, the culture, the Volksgeist or national language – Benjamin argues for a politics of form. And the form will decide about the politics of language as such.
Potestas and Potentia

But what exactly are the political processes involved in this type of translation? Lets look at it more closely. Two languages are mediated within this process. The language of things is an inherently productive language – according to Benjamin because it contains the residue of the word of God, which created the world by talking. On the other hand there is the human language, which can either try to receive, amplify and vocalise this language by naming things, or else classify, categorise, fix, and identify its components in what Benjamin calls the language of judgement.

If we were to map this juxtaposition on more recent debates, we could also say that translation can take place within the two different spheres known as power and force – or more pompously potestas and potentia. While the language of things is full with potential, the language of humans can either try to engage in this potential or become a tool of force. And thus translation takes place in the mode of creation as well as of force, and usually both modes are mixed with each other.

And thus, politics are played out in the forms in which the translation between the language of things and the language of men takes place. In the worst case, this relationship can take on the form of an epistemological dictatorship. That humans decided to rule over things and to disregard their message led to the disaster at Babylon. To start listening to them again would be the first step towards a coming common language, which is not rooted in the hypocrite presumption of a unity of humankind, but in a much more general material community. In this case, translation does not silence the language of things but amplifies it potential of change.

It is now clear, that in this perspective translation is highly political, because it directly addresses issues of power within language formation. It concerns the relationship of humans to the world as a whole. It addresses the emergence of practice and the languages, which correspond to it. Thus, Benjamin relates translation directly to power – by looking at the form of the translation, not its content. The respective form of translation will decide, if and how the language of things with its inherent forces and energies and its productive powers is subjected to the power/knowledge schemes of human forms of government or not. It decides, whether human language creates ruling subjects and subordinate objects or whether it engages with the energies of the material world.

While this may still sound completely unpractical for anybody, the contrary is the case. One might even say, that most human practice is constantly engaged in this process of translation. Let me give you now one very obvious example of such a translation from the language of things into the one of humans. And that is the example of the documentary form.
The documentary form as translation

A documentary image obviously translates the language of things into the language of humans. On the one hand it is closely anchored within the realm of material reality. But it also participates in the language of humans, and especially the language of judgement, which objectifies the thing in question, fixes its meaning and constructs stable categories of knowledge to understand it. It is half visual, half vocal, it is at once receptive and productive, inquisitive and explanatory, it participates in the exchange of things but also freezes the relations between them within visual and conceptual still images. Things articulate themselves within the documentary forms, but documentary forms also articulate things.

And it is also obvious, how Benjamin’s politics of translation functions with regard to the documentary image. In documentary articulations, things can either be treated as objects, as evidence for human plots, or they can be subjected to the language of judgement and thus overruled. I have once referred to this condition as documentality, that is the way in which documents govern and are implicated in creating power/knowledge. Or else, the forces, which organise the relationships between them, can be channelled in view of their transformation. The documentary form can also let itself be seduced and even overwhelmed by the magic of the language of things – although we will see, that this is not necessarily a good idea. But basically, this is how the relation between potestas and potentia is articulated within the documentary form. It is the relationship of productivity vs. verification, of the asignifying vs. the signified, of material reality vs. their idealist interpretation.

But let me make one thing very clear: to engage in the language of things in the realm of the documentary form is not equivalent to using realist forms in representing them. It is not about representation at all, but about actualising whatever the things have to say in the present. And to do so is not a matter of realism, but rather of relationalism – it is a matter of presencing and thus transforming the social, historical and also material relations, which determine things. And if we focus on this aspect of presencing instead of representation, we also leave behind the endless debate about representation, which has left documentary theory stuck in a dead end.
The power of things

But why, you may ask, is Benjamin so in love with the language of things in the first place? Why should anything that things have to say be so special? Lets simply disregard the reason, which Benjamin himself gives in his text: that the word of God shines forth through the mute magic of things. While this may sound poetical, it is rather an expression of Benjamin’s pompous perplexity, then a convincing case.

Lets instead remember the role that material objects took on in Benjamin’s thought later on, when he started deciphering modernity mainly by sifting through the wake of trash it left behind. Modest and even abject objects became hieroglyphs in whose dark prism the social relations lay congealed and in fragments. They were understood as nodes, in which the tensions of a historical moment materialised in a flash of awareness or grotesquely twisted into the commodity fetish. In this perspective, a thing is never just something, but a fossil in which a constellation of forces is petrified. According to Benjamin, things are never just inert objects, passive items or lifeless shucks at the disposal of the documentary gaze. But they consist of tensions, forces, hidden powers, which keep being exchanged. While this opinion borders on magical thought, according to which things are invested with supernatural powers, it is also a classical materialist one. Because the commodity, too, is not understood as a simple object, but a condensation of social forces. Thus things can be interpreted as conglomerates of desires, wishes, intensities and power relations. And a thing language, which is thus charged with the energy of matter can also exceed description and become productive. It can move beyond representation and become creative in the sense of a transformation of the relations, which define it. While Benjamin seems to hope for this kind of event, he also foresees a darker possibility of its realisation, which he calls conjuration.1 If there is so to speak a white magic of things, bristling with creativity and power, there is also a black one, charged with the dark powers of the taboo, illusion and the fetish. The power of conjuration tries to tap into the forces of things without proper reflection, or as Benjamin calls it: without interruption by the inexpressive.2 And it is on these unmediated and uninterrupted chaotic powers, that capitalist commodification and general resentment thrives. And to come back to the documentary mode in which those forces of conjuration can be unleashed by as well: propaganda, revisionism and relativism are all examples, of how conjuration – that is creativity without reflexive interruption – functions within the documentary form. They engage with the forces of resentment, hysteria, individual interest and fear, which are all powerful, unmediated urges. But they do so to speak without proper translation, and thus contaminate all modes of communication with their malignant drive.
The non-public public sphere

We have seen several modes of how an internal politics of the translation affects the documentary form. How do humans relate to things? What does creativity mean in this regard? And why is it not necessarily a good idea, when it comes to documentarism? But there is also an external aspect, which is relevant for the discussion of the documentary form as translation. And this aspect addresses the documentary form as an example of a transnational language of practice. Because, although the documentary form is based on translation, in a sense it also seems to have moved beyond translation. Its standard narratives are recognised all over the world and its forms are almost independent of national of cultural difference. Precisely because they operate so closely on material reality, they are intelligible wherever this reality is relevant.

This aspect was recognised as early as the 20es, when Dziga Vertov euphorically praised the qualities of the documentary form. In the preface of his film „The man with the movie camera“ he proclaimed, that documentary forms were able to organise visible facts in a truly international absolute language, which could establish an optical connection between the workers of the world. He imagines a sort of communist visual adamic language, which should not only inform or entertain, but also organise its viewers. It would not only transmit messages, but connect ist audience to an universal circulation of energies which literally shot through their nervous systems. By articulating visible facts, Vertov wanted to shortcircuit his audience with the language of things itself, with a pulsating symphony of matter.

In a sense, his dream has become true, if only under the rule of global information capitalism. A transnational documentary jargon is now connecting people within global media networks. The standardised language of newsreels with its economy of attention based on fear, the racing time of flexible production, and hysteria is as fluid and affective, as immediate and biopolitical as Vertov could have imagined. It creates global public spheres whose participants are linked almost in a physical sense by mutual excitement and anxiety. Thus the documentary form is now more potent then ever, and in a sense precisely because it conjures up the most spectacular aspects of the language of things and amplifies their power. At this point I would like to come back to the cautious remark made earlier: to tap into the language of things is not always a good idea and its potential is not necessarily a potential for emancipation. The asignificant flows of compressed information translate without interruption and reflection. Their forms completely ignore the different languages of things. If they are not culturally specific, they are not specific to different material realities and practices either. They only translate the requirements of corporate and national media machines.

But does this form of documentary translation have any other political potential then the one for propaganda and product placement? Yes, and here we are back to the point of the beginning. The documentary form is no national language and not culturally specific either. Thus it is able to sustain non-national public spheres and therefore also the seeds for a political arena beyond national and cultural formations. But at the moment this sphere is entirely controlled by the dynamics of a general privatisation. It is as Paolo Virno has recently argued: a non-public public sphere.

But this does not necessarily have to be the case. And we see in experimental documentary production, that different relations to things and the social conditions in which we relate to them are possible. The reason is very simple. The rise of importance of global documentary jargons rests on the material base of information capitalism, which is defined by digitalisation and flexibility. And any documentary form, which really articulates the language of those things, also articulates precisely these conditions, that is the conditions of precarious symbolic production. The new documentary forms of production with home computers and unconventional forms of distribution thus can be understood as articulations, which reveal the outline of new forms of social composition. This form of image production is largely based on digital technology and thus tends to merge more and more with other fields of mass symbolic production. They represent so to speak a negative of a coming public sphere, which has to be developed, in order to become functionable. This form of the public has left behind its entanglement with local and national mythologies and is characterised by similar precarious and often transnational forms of work and production. And the political articulation or social composition of these mostly still dispersed and wildly heterogenous points of view and groups is anticipated in the complex montages and constellations of contemporary documentary experimental forms.

But again: their politics are not determined by content but by form. If they just try to mimick the corporate standards of the large capitalist and national affective machines, they will also to a certain extent take over their politics. As Benjamin would put it: their modes of translation are at once to immediate and not immediate enough. Only if documentary forms translate the incongruities, the inegalities, the rapid change of speed, the disarticulation and dizzying rhythms, the dislocation and the arythmic pulsations of time, if they mortify the vital drives of matter and deaden them by inexpressiveness, will they engage with the contemporary community of matter. Only if this form of translation is being achieved, will the documentary articulation reflect and thus amplify the language of those things, which are dragged across the globe on road to commodification at neck breaking speed or again tossed away and discarded as useless junk. And by reflecting on the conditions of production in which this documentary translation is being achieved, new forms of a-national public spheres and postcapitalist production circuits might emerge.

Obviously, whatever I said does not apply only to the documentary form but also to other languages of practice. One might make a similar argument about the practice of curating, which could translate the language of things into aesthetic relationalities. And we have also seen these past decades, how the fetish of the art object has been deconstructed and traced back to social and other relations. But in this field, a cautionary remark applies as well: to simply represent those relations in the art field is not enough. Translating the language of things is not about eliminating objects, nor about inventing collectivities, which are fetishised instead. It is rather about creating unexpected articulations, which do not represent precarious modes of living or the social as such, but rather about presencing precarious, risky, at once bold and preposterous articulations of objects and their relations, which still could become models for future types of connection.

If Benjamin’s concept of translation could tell us one thing, it is that translation is still deeply political, if we literally put it to practice. Only that we need to shift our attention from its content to its form. We need to shift the focus from the languages of belonging to the language of practice. We should stop to expect that it should tell us about essence but instead about transformation. And we need to remember, that the practice of translation only makes sense, if it leeds to much needed alternative forms of connection, communication, and relations – and not of new ways of innovating culture and nation.

1 Walter Benjamin, ” Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” trans. Stanley Corngold, Selected Writings 1913 – 1926, ed. Marcus Bullock & Michael W. Jennings, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press (Bellknap), 1996, pp. 297 – 360.

2 P., 297


01 2006


The Institution of Critique

Hito Steyerl

In speaking about the critique of institution, the problem we ought to consider is the opposite one: the institution of critique. Is there anything like an institution of critique and what does it mean? Isn’t it pretty absurd to argue that something like this exists, at a moment, when critical cultural institutions are undoubtedly being dismantled, underfunded, subjected to the demands of a neoliberal event economy and so on? However, I would like to pose the question on a much more fundamental level. The question is: what is the internal relationship between critique and institution? What sort of relation exists between the institution and its critique or on the other hand – the institutionalisation of critique? And what is the historical and political background for this relationship?

To get a clearer picture of this relationship we must first consider the function of criticism in general. On a very general level, certain political, social or individual subjects are formed through the critique of institution. The bourgeois subjectivity as such was formed through such a process of critique, and encouraged to exit the self-inflicted immaturity, to quote Kants famous aphorism. This critical subjectivity was of course ambivalent, since it entailed the use of reason only in those situations we would consider as apolitical today, namely in the deliberation of abstract problems, but not the criticism of authority. Critique produces a subject which should make use of his reason in public circumstances, but not in private ones. While this sounds emancipatory, the opposite is the case. The criticism of authority is according to Kant futile and private. Freedom consists in accepting that authority should not be questioned. Thus, this form of criticism produces a very ambivalent and governable subject, it is in fact a tool of governance just as much as it is the tool of resistance as which it is often understood. But the bourgeois subjectivity which was thus created was very efficient. And in a certain sense, institutional criticism is integrated into that subjectivity, something which Marx and Engels explicitly refer to in their Communist manifesto, namely as the capacity of the bourgeoisie to abolish and to melt down outdated institutions, everything useless and petrified, as long as the general form of authority itself isn’t threatened. The bourgeois class had formed through a limited, so to speak institutionalised critique and also maintained and reproduced itself through this form of institutional critique. And thus, critique had become an institution in itself, a governmental tool which produces streamlined subjects.

But there is also another form of subjectivity which is produced by criticism and also institutional criticism. For example, most obviously the political subject of French citizens was formed through an institutional critique of the French monarchy. This institution was eventually abolished and even beheaded. In this process, an appeal was already realised that Karl Marx was to launch much later: the weapons of critique should be replaced by the critique of weapons. In this vein one could say that the proletariat as a political subject was produced through the criticism of the bourgeoisie as an institution. This second form produces probably just as ambivalent subjectivites, but there is a crucial difference: it abolishes the institution which it criticises instead of reforming or improving it.

So in this sense institutional critique serves as a tool of subjectivation of certain social groups or political subjects. And which sort of different subjects does it produce? Let’s take a look at different modes of institutional critique within the artfield of the last decades.


To simplify a complex development: the first wave of institutional criticism in the art sphere in the seventies questioned the authoritarian role of the cultural institution. It challenged the authority which had accumulated in cultural institutions within the framework of the nation state. Cultural institutions such as museums had taken on a complex governmental function. This role has been brillantly described by Benedict Anderson in his seminal work Imagined Communities, when he analyzes the role of the museum in the formation of colonial nation states. In his view, the museum, in creating a national past, retroactively also created the origin and foundation of the nation and that was its main function. But this colonial situation, as in many other cases, points at the structure of the cultural institution within the nation state in general. And this situation, the authoritarian legitimation of the nation state by the cultural institution through the construction of a history, a patrimony, a heritage, a canon and so on, was the one that the first waves of institutional critique set out to criticize in the 1970ies.

Their legitimation in doing so was an ultimately political one. Most nation states considered themselves as democracies which were founded on the political mandate of the people or the citizens. In that sense, it was easy to argue that any national cultural institution should reflect this self-definition and that any national cultural institution should thus be founded on similar mechanisms. If the political national sphere was – at least in theory – based on democratic participation, why should the cultural national sphere and it´s construction of histories and canons be any different? Why shouldn’t the cultural institution be at least as representative as parliamentary democracy? Why shouldn’t it include for example women in its canon, if women were at least in theory accepted in parliament? In that sense the claims that the first wave of institutional critique voiced were of course founded in contemporary theories of the public sphere, and based on an interpretation of the cultural institution as a potential public sphere. But implicitly they relied on two fundamental assumptions: First, this public sphere was implicitly a national one because it was modeled after the model of representative parliamentarism. The legitimation of institutional critique was based precisely on this point. Since the political system of the nation state is at least in theory representative of its citizens, why shoudn’t a national cultural institution be? Their legitimation rested on this analogy which was also more often than not rooted in material circumstances, since most cultural institutions were funded by the state. Thus, this form of instutional critique relied on a model based on the structure of political participation within the nation state and a fordist economy, in which taxes could be collected for such purposes.

Institutional critique of this period related to these phenomena in different ways. Either by radically negating institutions alltogether, by trying to build alternative institutions or by trying to be included into mainstream ones. Just as in the political arena, the most effective strategy was a combination of the second and third model, which claimed for example the inclusion into the cultural institution of minorities or disadvantaged majorities such as women. In that sense institutional critique functioned like the related paradigms of multiculturalism, reformist feminism, ecological movements and so on. It was a new social movement within the arts scene.

But during the next wave of institutional criticism which happened in the Nineties, the situation was a bit different. It wasn’t so much different from the point of view of the artists or those who tried to challenge and criticize the institutions which, in their view, were still authoritarian. Rather, the main problem was that they had been overtaken by a right-wing form of bourgeois institutional criticism, precisely the one which Marx and Engels described and which melts down everything which is solid. Thus, the claim that the cultural institution ought to be a public sphere was no longer unchallenged. The bourgoisie had sort of decided that in their view a cultural institution was primarily an economic one and as such had to be subjected to the laws of the market. The belief that cultural institutions ought to provide a representative public sphere broke down with Fordism, and it is not by chance that, in a sense, institutions which still adhere to the ideal to create a public sphere have been in place for a much longer time in places where Fordism is still hanging on. Thus, the second wave of institutional critique was in a sense unilateral since claims were made which at that time had at least partially lost their legitimative power.


The next factor was the relative transformation of the national cultural sphere which mirrored the transformation of the political cultural sphere. First of all, the nation state is no longer the only framework of cultural representation – there are also supranational bodies like the EU. And secondly, their mode of political representation is very complicated and only partly representative. It represents is constituencies rather symbolically than materially. To use a German differentiation of the word representation: Sie stellen sie eher dar, als sie sie vertreten. Thus, why should a cultural institution materially represent its constituency? Isn’t it somehow sufficient to symbolically represent it? And although the production of a national cultural identity and heritage is still important, it is not only important for the interior or social cohesion of the nation, but also very much to provide it with international selling points in an increasingly globalised cultural economy. Thus, in a sense, a process was initiated which is still going on today. That is the process of the cultural or symbolic integration of critique into the institution or rather on the surface of the institution without any material consequences within the institution itself or its organisation. This mirrors a similar process on the political level: the symbolic integration, for example of minorities, while keeping up political and social inequality, the symbolic representation of constituencies into supranational political bodies and so on. In this sense the bond of material representation was broken and replaced with a more symbolic one.

This shift in representational techniques by the cultural institution also mirrored a trend in criticism itself, namely the shift from a critique of institution towards a critique of representation. This trend, which was informed by Cultural Studies, feminist and postcolonial epistemologies, somehow continued in the vein of the previous institutional critique by comprehending the whole sphere of representation as a public sphere, where material representation ought to be implemented, for example in form of the unbiased and proportional display of images of black persons or women. This claim somehow mirrors the confusion about representation on the political plane, since the realm of visual representation is even less representative in the material sense than a supranational political body. It doesn’t represent constituencies or subjectivities but creates them, it articulates bodies, affects and desires. But this is not exactly how it was comprehended, since it was rather taken for a sphere where one has to achieve a hegemony, a so to speak majority on the level of symbolic representation, in order to achieve an improvement of a diffuse area, which hovers between politics and economy, between the state and the market, between the subject as citizen and the subject as consumer, and between representation and representation. Since criticism could no longer establish clear antagonisms in this sphere, it started to fragment and to atomize it and to support a politics of identity which led to the fragmentation of public spheres, markets, to the culturalisation of identity and so on.

This representational critique pointed at another aspect, namely the unmooring of the seemingly stable relation between the cultural institution and the nation state. Unfortunately for institutional critics of that period, a model of purely symbolic representation gained legitimacy in this field as well. Institutions no longer claimed to materially represent the nation state and its constituency, but only claimed to represent it symbolically. And thus, while one could say that the former institutional critics were either integrated into the institution or not, the second wave of institutional criticism was integrated not into the institution but into representation as such. Thus, again, a janusfaced subject was formed. This subject was interested in more diversity in representation, less homogeneous than its predecessor. But in trying to create this diversity, it also created niche markets, specialised consumer profiles, and an overall spectacle of „difference“ – without effectuating much structural change.


But which conditions are prevailing today, during what might tentatively be called an extension of the second wave of institutional critique? Artistic strategies of institutional critique have become increasingly complex. They have fortunately developed far beyond the the ethnographic urge to indiscriminately drag underprivileged or unusual constituencies into museums, even against their will – just for the sake of „representation“. They include detailed investigations, such as for example Allan Sekula’s Fish Story, which connects a phenomenology of new cultural industries, like the Bilbao Guggenheim, with documents of other institutional constraints, such as those imposed by the WTO or other global economic organisations. They have learned to walk the tightrope between the local and the global without becoming either indigenist and ethnographic, or else unspecific and snobbish. Unfortunately this cannot be said of most cultural institutions which would have to react to the same challenge of having to perform both within a national cultural sphere and an increasingly globalising market.

If you look at them from one side, then you will see that they are under pressure from indigenist, nationalist and nativist claims. If you look from the other side, then you will see that they are under pressure from neoliberal institutional critique, that is under the pressure of the market. Now the problem is – and this is indeed a very widespread attitude – that when a cultural institution comes under pressure from the market, it tries to retreat into a position which claims that it is the duty of the nation state to fund it and to keep it alive. The problem with that position is that it is an ultimately protectionist one, that it ultimately reinforces the construction of national public spheres and that under this perspective the cultural institution can only be defended in the framework of a new leftist attitude which tries to retreat into the ruins of a demolished national welfare state and its cultural shells and to defend them against all intruders. That is – it tends to defend itself ultimately from the perspective of its other enemies, namely the nativist and indigenist critics of institution, who want to transform it into a sort of sacralised ethnopark. But there is no going back to the old fordist nation state protectionism with its cultural nationalism, at least not in any emancipatory perspective.

On the other hand, when the cultural institution is attacked from this nativist, indigenist perspective, it also tries to defend itself by appealing to universal values like freedom of speech or the cosmopolitanism of the arts, which are so utterly commodified as either shock effects or the display of enjoyable cultural difference that they hardly exist beyond this form of commodification. Or it might even earnestly try to reconstruct a public sphere within market conditions, for example with the massive temporary spectacles of criticism funded let’s say by the German Bundeskulturstiftung. But under the ruling economic circumstances, the main effect achieved is to integrate the critics into precarity, into flexibilised working structures within temporary project structures and freelancer work within cultural industries. And in the worst cases, those spectacles of criticism are the decoration of large enterprises of economic colonialism such as in the colonisation of Eastern Europe by the same institutions which are producing the conceptual art in these regions.

If the first wave of institutional critique, criticism produced integration into the institution, the second one only achieved integration into representation. But in the third phase the only integration which seems to be easily achieved is the one into precarity. And in this sense we can nowadays answer the question concerning the function of the institution of critique as follows: while critical institutions are being dismantled by neoliberal institutional criticism, this produces an ambivalent subject which develops multiple strategies for dealing with its dislocation. It is on the one side being adapted to the needs of ever more precarious living conditions. On the other, there seems to have hardly ever been more need for institutions which could cater to the new needs and desires that this constituency will create.


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