Essays on Global Conceptualism

Terry Smith

One and Three Ideas: Conceptualism Before, During, and After Conceptual Art

Tactically, conceptualism is no doubt the strongest position of the three; for the tired nominalist can lapse into conceptualism and still allay his puritanic conscience with the reflection that he has not quite taken to eating lotus with the Platonists.

—Willard van Orman Quine1

Philosophers often add “-ism” to a term in order to highlight a distinct approach to a fundamental question, that is, to name a philosophical doctrine. For example, when it comes to universals, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy tells us that “Conceptualism is a doctrine in philosophy intermediate between nominalism and realism that says universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.”2 There are other definitions, but the point about the use of “-ism” to name a philosophical doctrine is clear. For art critics, curators, and historians, however, “-isms” have somewhat different purposes: they name movements in art, broadly shared approaches that have become styles or threaten to do so. During the heroic years of the modern movement, when critics, artists, or art historians first added “-ism” to a word, they usually meant what the suffix usually means in ordinary language: that x is like y, even excessively so. Often with ridicule as their aim, they highlighted a quality twice removed from the source of that particular art, from its authenticity. Thus “Impressionism” and “Cubism,” neither of which names what is really going on in the art to which it refers: each takes up a banal misdescription and then exaggerates it into a ludicrous delusion on the part of the artists. The success of the early twentieth-century avant-gardes led to a plethora of “-isms” that gradually lost these negative connotations and become almost normal descriptors. By mid-century, anyone could generate an “-ism,” and too many artists did so in their efforts to link their unique, often quite individual ways of making art to what they, or their promoters, hoped would be market success and art historical inevitability. When Willem de Kooning, at a meeting of artists in New York in 1951, said: “It is disastrous to name ourselves,” his was a lone voice, quickly silenced by the tide that named all present Abstract Expressionists.

By the 1960s this kind of naming had become so commonplace, so obvious a move, and such a sure pathway to premature institutionalization and incorporation, that many artists rejected it, to avoid being comfortably slotted into what they regarded as an ossified history of modernist avant-gardism. In the 1970s, for example, artists driven primarily by political concerns consciously blocked efforts to designate their work as belonging to a “political art” movement. Yet for some artists, long excluded from any kind of historical recognition, this was a risk worth taking: feminist artists emphasized their feminism, for instance, precisely because it connected their practice to the broader social movement to vindicate the rights of women.

As the artists most acutely aware of the powers and the pitfalls of exactly these processes, conceptual artists refused to embrace the term “conceptualism” during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. They were, however, happy to use terms such as “conceptual” for their work, because questioning the concept of art was precisely the main point of their practice. As we shall see, they foresaw that the tag “Conceptual Art” would inevitably be associated with their work, and thus tie it too closely to art that had already resolved its problems. Their goal was to keep their art (practice) problematic to themselves by keeping it at a (critical) distance from Art (as an institution). They therefore sought to prevent the precipitous labeling of their art by adopting one or both of two strategies: insist that the term “conceptual” be applied so broadly (describing any art no longer governed by a traditional medium) as to be meaningless, or so narrowly (indicating only language-based art that dealt with Art per se) as to be offensive to almost everyone.

Art and Language, Art and Language Australia, 1975.

It is a nice paradox that the term “conceptualism” came into art world existence after the advent of Conceptual art in major centers such as New York and London—most prominently and programmatically in the exhibition “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s” at the Queens Museum of Art in New York in 1999—mainly in order to highlight the fact that innovative, experimental art practices occurred in the Soviet Union, Japan, South America, and elsewhere prior to, at the same time as, and after the European and US initiatives that had come to seem paradigmatic, and to claim that these practices were more socially and politically engaged—and thus more relevant to their present, better models for today’s art, and, in these senses, better art—than the well-known Euro-American exemplars. I explored a variant of this idea—that conceptualism was an outcome of some artists’ increased global mobility—in my selections for the “Global Conceptualism” exhibition, and in my catalogue essay, “Peripheries in Motion: Conceptualism and Conceptual Art in Australia and New Zealand.”3 Retrospection of this kind has also shone spotlights on what were once regarded as minor movements in Euro-American art (Fluxus, for example).

The question posed by the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980,” presented at the University of Toronto Art Galleries in 2010, is whether a similar valuing structure might be applied to certain strands in art made in Canada from the 1960s to the present. Even though Canadian artists were conspicuously absent from “Global Conceptualism,” certain artists have since been valued as contributors to the international tendency. Thus the exhibition asks us to look in more detail at work of the time made throughout the regions of Canada and consider whether perhaps this valuing can be extended to them. There is no suggestion that this art was nationalistic—on the contrary, it was everywhere based on skepticism about official national culture-construction. The implication is that regional conceptualisms existed—that is, that conceptualist developments (in the broadest sense) occurred differently in each of the distinct regions of Canada. Again, the implication is skeptical: in every case it is about regionality in transition, not a self-satisfied parochialism.

Triggered by remarks made by some of the key artists back in the day, I wish to revisit the terms “Conceptual art” and “conceptualism” as indications of what was at stake in the unraveling of late modern art during the 1960s and in art’s embrace of contemporaneity since. I will do so by asking what conceptualism was before, during, and after Conceptual art, and I will show that there were at least one, usually two, and sometimes three conceptions of conceptualism in play at each moment—and that these were in play, differently although connectedly, in various places, at each of these times.

Josef Kosuth, Art as Idea as Idea (Meaning), 1967. Photostat on paper mounted on wood.

Pop or Conceptual? Or both and neither?

Let me begin with the question as seen from within orthodox art historical narratives, as a matter of the meaning of style, a concern of art historians. I start from before Conceptual art was named as a style, before the term “conceptualism” had any currency, to see what might count as Conceptual art in that circumstance.

Ian Burn, in conversation in late 1972, said of Joseph Kosuth’s Art as Idea works: “If they were made in 1965 like he claims, they are Pop Art. If they were made in 1967–8, when they were exhibited, then they are among the first conceptual works, strictly speaking.” In his 1970 essay “Conceptual Art as Art,” Burn gave these works this latter dating and characterized them as key examples of the “strict form of Conceptual Art” because they were analytic of the nature of art, their (minimal) appearance being of the most minimal relevance.4 Why did an artist with such a critical attitude toward orthodox art history’s puerile dependence on style terms apply such crude criteria to the work of a close colleague?5

Kosuth’s response was outrage at applying such anti-conceptual criteria to such work: he was an art student who had the ideas but not the resources to realize them; by the time he did have these resources a few years later, everyone (including Burn) was dating their work to the moment of conception—immediacy was the new currency.6

Josef Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

In one sense Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) is Pop-like in that its statement about what constitutes a sign is all there, all at once, and obvious, as in your face as Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, but without the fascinated irony that informs the British artist’s perspective. To an observer outside the US sphere of cultural influence—or, more accurately, at its waxing and waning borders—One and Three Chairs might seem to offer viewers an open choice as to which item seems the most attractive constituent of “chairness,” thereby reducing spectatorship to supermarketlike art consumption, and artmaking to the provision of competitive goods.7 To the extent that this is true, Conceptual art that turns on overt demonstration or the instantiation of an idea (as does much of the better known and easily illustrated work—think Baldessari, Acconci, or Huebler) shares something with what might be called ordinary language Pop art, that which recycles the visual codes of consumer culture.

But the matter does not end there. In my view, the invitation to look in One and Three Chairs is at least as subtle as it is in key works on this subject by Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol in its conceptual questioning of what it is to see, what an image might be, what an idea looks like. These artists regularly juxtaposed photographs and objects such as actual chairs (in Rauschenberg’s Pilgrim, for example), or evoked black-and-white photography and overtly displayed the tools that made them (Johns’s Periscope (Hart Crane), 1963, for example). Warhol’s Dance Diagram (“The Lindy Tuck-In Turn-Man”), 1963, is an appropriation of an illustration, but it is also a demonstration of what constitutes a visual sign, especially when displayed, as he preferred, on the floor. Indeed, Warhol now seems the most nakedly conceptual of artists (in this pre-Conceptual art moment), precisely in his instinct for setting out one visual idea at a time, in showing an image as an idea, in making artworks that plainly demonstrated how visual ideas achieved appearance in the culture, in the visual culture, in popular imagination, in unArt, in America. The idea-image, for him, was in David Antin’s brilliant perception, a “deteriorated image.”8

There were of course many others striving to picture the many dichotomies afforded by the idea-image interplay that was taking shape at the time: a random list must include Guy Debord, with his films such as Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952) and his collaborations with Asger Jorn; concrete poets of all kinds; Jim Dine; Kaprow, with his early happenings; Ed Ruscha; and many others, all of whom converge with Pop in certain ways, although they, like the artists mentioned above, were on a track much more interesting than that which can be encompassed by that term. In Canada, Greg Curnoe’s work throughout the 1960s offers a fascinating instance of a figurative painter, alert to the stylistics of Pop and flat color abstraction, yet, like Kurt Schwitters, drawn irresistibly to the potency of words and texts as they occur in the flow and stuff of everyday life. Add to this a Wittgensteinian consciousness that we are all products of our language-worlds, and an interesting outcome is assured. Thus, in Westing House Workers (1962), the names of a group of laborers are stamped out on a sheet that seems taken from a factory cafeteria notice board, while Row of Words on My Mind #1 (1962) stamps out a set of names of people, things, promises, and so forth, that seem as random as anyone’s everyday ruminations. By 1967, however, Curnoe had evidently seen tautology-based conceptualism (either through reproductions or via the agency of Greg Ferguson): Front Center Windows (1967) is a blue vertical rectangle stamped with black letters that describe a façade in the language of a builder’s report, while Non-Figurative Picture (1968) is a vertical column stamped with the letters of the alphabet.

These examples tell us that the question “Is it Pop or Conceptual art?” is at best a provocation (as it was for Burn), and at worst a badly formulated misunderstanding of the deeper stakes of both kinds of work. Rather, we can see that various kinds of conceptualization inspired the most inventive artists of the late modern era, and that the conceptual qualities of their work were among its most important. This is the first, the most rooted, sense in which the three ideas of what it is for art to be conceptual could count as one idea: the term “conceptual” as an adjective is most fitting to this sense. Quite properly, this basic usage precedes any real usage of the terms “conceptualism” and “Conceptual art” in art discourse, as these are derivative from it. It permits us this proposition, the first part of a proposal that I advance—with full awareness of how paradoxical a gesture it is—as “a theory of conceptualism”:

1. At its various beginnings, conceptualism was a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible).9

Dan Graham, March 31, 1966.

A work of art becomes consequential when it counts as art

It is lazy-mindedness to say that all art that evidently reflects on its own medium, that does so in ways unusual enough to raise the question “Is this art?,” qualifies as conceptual. There is a widespread sense, in today’s sloppy art babble, that any art that has resulted from the artist having any kind of idea is “conceptual.” Not so. You have to show that particular works, or groups of works, or a set of protocols, or a practice did these things consciously as opposed to by instinct, intelligently as distinct from intuitively, and did so effectively, with impact, with consequence.

On a number of occasions in conversation, Joseph Kosuth has pooh-poohed as pure pedantry my referencing Henry Flynt’s use of the term “Concept Art” in 1961, despite the fact that it is the first documented usage in an art context.10 “Who was this Flynt? A nobody. Who heard him, who knew of him, who cared what he said? So what if some thirteenth-century Chinese painter threw ink around in ways that look Pollock-like, or that Max Ernst did?” To Kosuth, what counts is not who said what when as a matter of plain record, or what was done in some isolated, adventitious circumstance, but whether the utterance, the work, the proposition counted in the dominant art discourse of the time. This alerts us to the internal struggle, among artists, critics, and theorists—that is, within art discourse itself—as to what was at stake in Conceptual art and conceptualism as practices of art.

Thus Kosuth’s famous statement, in “Art After Philosophy,” that “All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually” is not to be taken to mean that all art influenced by Duchampian strategies is conceptual, and that other art is some other kind of art. It means that only Duchampian art is truly art, and that other art is not art precisely because it does not take on the challenge of framing new propositions about art and as art.11

From this perspective, Robert Morris has a much stronger claim to consequence in works such as Card File (1962): these overtly pit the complexity of his actual life and self against the limited information contained in official descriptions of a person. Two Untitled works of 1962 (recently added to MoMA’s collection) are nothing more, but no less, than grey gouache painted over sheets of newspaper to the point of nearly obliterating the images and text. But did Morris go on with this particular line of inquiry? A short answer would be that it became one of the many lines that he has since pursued, but a longer answer is needed to do justice to such a profound oeuvre.12

Robert Morris, Card File, 1962.

In Poland, Roman Opałka began his “infinity” paintings in 1965, sizing them to his studio doorway, beside which he has had himself photographed as each one is completed. On Kawara began traveling the world and sending daily postcards in 1959, then started making a date painting every day in 1966, and two years later embarked on the production of hisOne-Hundred Year Calendar that lists everyone he meets each day. Examples of such total commitment to applying a routine to a life, knowing that the two are fundamentally incompatible, abound. They may be found all over the world during this period, and are constantly being taken up nowadays by young artists (Emese Benczúr, for example). I think that we are getting close to the core of conceptualism worthy of the name, and to the basis of its appeal to serious young artists today: it is something to do with rigor, without cause, and with implacable commitment in the face of meaninglessness. So, in retrospect, it is no surprise that such a spirit should emerge from within the conflicted confusions of the mid- and later 1960s.

Sol LeWitt’s statement, in his 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” is famous:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.13

This seems clear to the point of being classical (indeed, the last sentence is one of the epigrams to “Art After Philosophy”). But we need to ask: what did LeWitt mean by “the idea or concept”? If one examines closely the nature of these paragraphs, as an artist’s statement—that is, if you put them back into the context of his own practice and see them as first and foremost a statement of the principles governing that practice (not all possible practice, not the practice most desired of all artists from now on)—then it becomes obvious that what LeWitt meant by an idea was a geometrical figure, and what he meant by a concept was a procedure for carrying out the realization of this idea, for example, as a singularity or as a specified sequence.

If, however, you read closely the 1969 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” [copies of the handwritten and corrected versions of 1968 have recently come to light], you are immediately thrown into the paradox just mentioned:

1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgments repeat rational judgments.
3. Irrational judgments lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.14

The contrast between rationality and mysticism is weak, and soon disappears. More important is that here we can see awareness of the reach but also the limits of ideas and concepts narrowly defined. It is their potential to create chaos, disorder, and revolution that comes to be valued, thus the peculiar poignancy of the proposals from visiting artists—to be realized by students, and, occasionally, the artists themselves—in David Askevold’s Projects Class at NSCAD from 1969 forward. The postcards of the instructions, shown in the “Traffic” exhibition, are exquisite mementoes of each artist’s unique, distinctive mode of thought. More generally, objectivity was not the point: rather, rationality had to be shown to be crazy by being enacted literally; the Organization Man was nuts, viz. General Idea, Pilot (1977).

Let us return to One and Three Chairs and see whether it meets these deeper criteria—Kosuth’s own—of what counts as conceptual. In the most immediate sense, it looks like a simple demonstration. Signified + signifier = sign. All there, all at once. A rose is a rose is a rose. But there are two signifiers, after all, which open up a space of ambiguity (which may be closed again when we read the work as an illustration of Plato’s three stages of knowledge). The project becomes more interesting when we realize that other chairs could be used under the same title, and other objects—for example, a shovel, à la Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm, an authorized replica of which is owned by Kosuth. The point is that One and Three Chairs is not a one-off, singular visual statement: it is an instantiation of a proposition that may be realized using any matching set of elements. Like many other works conceived at the time, it is an exemplification of an act of thought. Kosuth’s “Art as Idea” series seems to be a set of tautological objects: actually, they are visual propositions about themselves as signifying instances, presented as Art (or Art as Idea as Idea)—on the post–Ad Reinhardt grounds that that is all that art, in conscience, at this time, can be.15

A step forward was to take stated propositions as thesaural, which opens out their closure, their two-way tautology, as Kosuth did when he placed thesaural categories in newspapers in his Second Investigation (1968–9). In a parallel way Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting, made in 1967 in London en route to New York, becomes a comment on the limits of painting as a practice. Such questioning could be consequential: it released artists elsewhere in the world to begin an interrogative practice. For example, Robert MacPherson in the 1970s in Brisbane deployed this strategy to appropriate ordinary language use—in his case, roadside signs. So did Greg Curnoe, in his banner paintings of the 1980s.

Propositionality—its apparently categorical force, but also its materiality and its provisionality­­—is what language-based conceptualism recurs to: it is its core, from which it opens out again. First this is understood spatially (sculpture is residual here),  as in Dan Graham’s March 31, 1966, a description that evokes a spatial zooming beyond spatiality. (His Schema for Aspen magazine, and for the first issue of Art-Language, is his masterwork). Then it is understood as a phenomenon of perception (painting is residual here), as in Ian Burn’s No Object Implies the Existence of Any Other (1967). This is, in fact, a thought that is impossible to have in a literal sense: you cannot think the idea of an object not implying another object without thinking about at least two objects, one and an other; in front of an object made to be seen by an other (us), consisting of a statement on a mirror that cannot but show you yourself and other objects. (That is, it demonstrates the rest of Hobbes’s statement, “…that is, if we consider these objects in themselves and never look beyond the ideas that inform them.”) Yoko Ono was closer to Hobbes in her 1961 “proposal”: Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through. Burn’s Xerox Book (1968) is more resolute: it embodies the idea of a tautological process.

Yoko Ono, Painting to Let the Evening Light Go Through, 1966.

LeWitt’s 35th and last sentence read: “These sentences comment on art, but are not art.” The editorial to the first issue of Art-Language, in which these sentences appeared in 1969, asked itself the question, “What would follow [for the art community of language users] if this editorial itself came up for the count as a work of art?”

It is these innovations that allow us to recognize the second proposition in my theory of conceptualism:

2. That, as well as being a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world (that is, it was an inquiry into the minimal situations in which art might be possible), conceptualism was also a further integrated set of practices for interrogating the conditions under which the first interrogation becomes possible and necessary (that is, an inquiry into the maximal conditions for art to be thought).

Martha Wilson, Chauvinistic Pieces, 1971.

Conceptual Art Arrives

Conceptual Art arrives as a paradoxical supplement, and art-institutional instantiation, of the interaction between these two approaches. By 1970 we were well inside an art movement, as evidenced by the number of books, exhibitions, articles, and so forth, with Idea Art, Konzept Kunst, and so on, in their titles. This includes Lucy Lippard’s exhibitions and the Six Years book, as well as exhibitions such as “45°30′N-73°36′W + Inventory,” presented in Montreal in 1971 by Gary Coward with Arthur Bardo and Bill Vazan.

Common consensus now is that the full-glare moment of art-world and public recognition was the 1970 exhibition “Conceptual Art, Conceptual Aspects,” curated by Donald Karshan at the New York Cultural Center (with Kosuth and Burn as “ghost curators”). Note that the double has already appeared: yes, there is core Conceptual art, but there is also art that has some conceptual qualities (“aspects”), that is, there is also conceptualist art.

But there was, by 1971, a big shift under way within the movement itself, leading to the third element of my theory:

3. The conditions—social, languaged, cultural, and political—of practices (1) and (2) were problematized, as was communicative exchange as such (that is, inquiry became an active engagement in the pragmatic conditions that might generate a defeasible sociality).

Put more simply, if Art & Language’s self-critique was at the core of conceptualism at this time (as in the indexing projects such as Index 01, 1972, at documenta 5), other artists were taking up these analytical procedures and applying them to real-life situations. Obviously, this occurred differently in different places, and differently again for artists in transit between them. Well-known examples are Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et. al (1971) and Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–9). Less known are Martha Wilson’s Chauvinistic Pieces, 1971: these are an extraordinary application of nominative generalities to life situations so as to bring out the absurd gap between the two, and the power structures built into them. For instance, Unknown Piece has this instruction: “A woman is prevented from knowing the identity of her partner (sleeping pill, blindfold, total darkness) with certainty. On the evidence the child’s features give her, she guesses who she slept with.” Determined Piece: “A woman selects a couple for the genetic features she admires (good teeth, curly hair, green eyes, etc.) and raises their baby.” Chauvinistic Piece: “A man is injected with the hormones that produce symptoms of motherhood.” It is as if the 1960s, far from being the moment of free love and so forth, was already organized along the lines of Plato’sRepublic.16

Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé, It’s Still Privileged Art, 1976. Comic book.

Transformations occurred within Art & Language, such that its work joined the third sense I have identified. We realized that our extreme adoption of avant-garde strategies was belated, was infused with a sense that we were being avant-gardists after the death of the form. When Allan Kaprow invited me to lecture at CalArts in 1974, he introduced me as “a living dinosaur, an actual avant-gardist.” Thus we moved to embed our practice in the world, starting with ourselves as actors in the art world.17Blurting in A&L (1973) enables readers to enter a conversation and shape it according to their own preferences; Draft for an Anti-Textbook was a 1974 issue of Art-Language that, among other things, took on provincialism in theory; the exhibitions recorded in Art & Language Australia (1975) did so in practice. The three issues of The Fox (1975–6) constitute the group’s most direct assault on the modernist art world. Ian Burn, Nigel Lendon, and I continued this kind of work in Australia when we returned in the mid-1970s, creating an Art & Working Life movement that persists, in a dispersed fashion, to this day.18 Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé’s comic book It’s Still Privileged Art (1976) was based on Maoist practices of constant self-criticism; the Cultural Revolution comes to the New York art world (we saw a lot of these publications in Chinatown).19 I cannot overstress how important critical conceptualism was for the success of work with trade unions and dissident groups in Australia, Toronto, and elsewhere, and how important this particular commitment to consequence remains for subsequent artists of major caliber (such as Jeff Wall and Allan Sekula), as well as for the hundreds of artist collectives that operate all over the world today with this kind of work as part of their inspirational armory.

Conceptualism Already Redux

Now we arrive at the moment after conceptual art, when “conceptualism” appeared as a term in art discourse. Let us examine it from the point of view of the “theory” I have advanced. The key question will be: are we looking at delayed, or belated, or simply particular, peculiar, and other instances of (1) and (2), a local instance of (3), or is this a fourth sense/term/proposition that must be added to the three so far advanced? My answer will be: yes, no, and yes. One and three ideas, non-contemporaneously and contemporaneously, again. I will explore two cases among the many that arose during these years all over the world.

When Boris Groys coined the term “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism” in 1979, he created a verbal artifact that, I believe, attempted to stand at the same kind of critical (ironic yet implicated) distance from international art discourse, and to its own circumstances of production, as he understood the art itself to be. Writing for readers in Russia (knowing that the circulation of his essay there would be clandestine), and for readers in France, who would presumably read it in English, he wanted to draw attention to how deeply embedded this kind of work was in the specific conditions of what it was to make “apartment art” in Moscow, to the awkward, embattled, ironic inwardness of the work (the artists wished to be anywhere but Moscow, but could not be). Similarly, in a society that ignored or repressed them, and was condemned to the skeptical resignation that filled “the Russian soul” like a lead balloon, the artists could only dream of being regarded as paragons of heightened subjectivism like the German and English Romantics. But dream they did—and why not; dreams are cheap. Finally, their art stood at a deliberate distance from the concerns and character of US and European Conceptual art as we have discussed it. Thus, by “Conceptualism” Groys meant that this art was like such art in its self-reflective character, but in reverse, precisely in its deliberate effort to be intuitive, allusive, affective—that is, nonconceptual. In other words, each term within Groys’s label had its opposite built into it—thus its acuity, as an art critical artifact.

In the 1979 issue of A-YA, the English translation of Groys’s essay had some oddities. It offers two definitions, the first of which states that “The word ‘conceptualism’ may be understood in the narrower sense as designating a specific artistic movement clearly limited to place, time and origin.”20 The revised translation in History Becomes Form adds the phrase “and limited to a specific number of practitioners” to this sentence.21 The reference here is to US and European Conceptual art. The second definition is this:

Or, it may be interpreted more broadly, by referring to any attempt to withdraw from considering art works as material objects intended for contemplation and aesthetic evaluation. Instead, it could encourage solicitation and formation of the conditions that determine the viewer’s perception of the work of art, the process of its inception by the artist, its relation to factors in the environment, and its temporal status.22

The recent translation changes the last two ideas to “its positioning in a certain context, and its historical status.” This ties the description more closely to the Moscow group, and to art concerned with art, but it remains rather general.

“Romantic” got dropped from the term in the years after 1989, when this art (as distinct from the modernist, informal, protest art) began to be read as a prefiguration of the collapse of the Soviet system, and as the basis for all subsequent art in Russia of any seriousness. Groys’s pragmatism enables us to see other artists carrying on the spirit of the Moscow Romantic Conceptualists, albeit in equally unorthodox ways. His key exemplars are Andrei Monastyrsky and the Collective Actions group, which dedicated itself to actions that heightened the specificity of everyday life while remaining, at the same time, scarcely distinguishable from it. The Medical Hermeneutics group made “work” from speculation about whether such actions were art or life.

To me, the real parallels in work such as Ilya Kabakov’s Answers of the Experimental Group(1971)—the originary moment of “Moscow Conceptualism,” according to Matthew Jesse Jackson—are with the interrogatory nature of the late 1950s / early 1960s work of Johns, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, which I have suggested is conceptual in the broad sense of the term.23 More precisely, it accords with my first proposition above, that conceptualism was, at its various beginnings, a set of practices for interrogating what it was for perceiving subjects and perceived objects to be in the world, and the minimal situations in which art might be possible. Moscow Conceptualism is not consonant with my second proposition, exemplified by the Adornoesque negative criticality of Kosuth et al., yet it is in quite specific ways an instance of the third. The fact that it was produced after the institutionalization of Conceptual art means that one element in its makeup was a refusal of such art, a sense that adopting its modes would be irrelevant to local concerns and to local audiences. I do not see any artist working in the Soviet sphere as producing classical Conceptual art—indeed, there is no reason to expect that any one would wish to do so. On the other hand, groups such as Collective Actions and Medical Hermeneutics and a number of individual artists were, in the 1970s and 1980s, making art in a context where they were aware of conceptual art before and during Conceptual art, and were contemporaries with conceptualist art after it, so they made their choices accordingly. Again, the work emerges out of the concerns expressed in my third proposition. If parallels have to be found, it is closest to Fluxus in Europe.

In his otherwise excellent survey, Jackson never questions the term “Moscow Conceptualism.” There are, however, extensive discussions of it, along with a range of other terms that were in use at the time and that have been developed since, in the new book edited by Alla Rosenfeld, Moscow Conceptualism in Context.24 The most detailed account is “The Banner Without a Slogan: Definitions and Sources of Moscow Conceptualism” by Marek Bartelik, who concludes a useful survey by warning us against the danger of those who would manage the politics of memory:

It is crucial, therefore, to assure that the history of the movement not be reduced to a few textbook names of artists at the expense of others who for some reason or another fell out of the picture. In other words, our history of Moscow Conceptualism should be inclusive rather than exclusive of as many artists as possible. After all, it was Moscow Conceptualism’s ethereal, dispersed, and fragmentary nature—as opposed to the official, solid, and permanent nature of Socialist Realism and its correlates—that helped its development and survival for more than twenty years, and that constitutes its unique value for today’s audiences in both Russia and the West.25

This is well meant, but it does not tackle the point about consequence. A similar politics of hope drove the curatorial project that has been most influential in defining the term “conceptualism” in art discourse in recent decades. In their foreword to Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss distinguish two periods, “two relatively distinct waves of activity”: the late 1950s to around 1973, during which time worldwide political changes led artists to call into question the underlying ideas of art and its institutional systems, and the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s, when artists mostly outside Euro-America abandoned formalist or traditional art practices for conceptualist art.26 As they write:

It is important to delineate a clear distinction between conceptual art as a term used to denote an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of minimalism, and conceptualism, which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art upon physical form and its visual appreciation. Conceptualism was a broader attitudinal expression that summarized a wide array of works and practices which, in radically reducing the role of the art object, reimagined the possibilities of art vis-à-vis the social, political and economic realities within which it was being made. Its informality and affinity for collectivity made conceptualism attractive to those artists who yearned for a more direct engagement with the public during those intense, transformative periods. For them, the de-emphasis—or the dematerialization—of the object allowed the artistic energies to move from the object to the conduct of art.27

Luis Camnitzer, Uruguayan Torture Series, 1983–4.

The implication is that Euro-American style Conceptual art—even as it came to dominate understandings of what counted as conceptual art—amounted to little more than an essentially formalist critique of minimalism. It was an internal art world style change, whereas conceptualist tendencies elsewhere were always broader, more social and political, and became more so as time went on, eventually eclipsing Euro-American tendencies. Works by Camnitzer, such as his Uruguayan Torture Series (1983–4), give some substance to this view.28 While in general I support this openness, especially as we come closer to the present, we must also be watchful that it does not lapse into a kind of reverse reductivism, one that downplays the internal complexities of Euro-American conceptualism and fails to see its progressive transformations, as suggested by my propositions.

The “Global Conceptualism” curators did espouse a critical geopolitics, noting that the changes within conceptualism occurred most significantly on local levels: “the reading of ‘globalism’ that informs this project is a highly differentiated one, in which localities are linked in crucial ways but not subsumed into a homogenized set of circumstances and responses to them. We mean to denote a multicentered map with various points of origin in which local events are crucial determinants.”29 A number of interesting alternative terms appear in the essays, including “Non-object art,” applied to Hélio Oiticica’s parangolés by Brazilian critic Ferreira Gullar in 1959, and “Post-Object Art,” used by aesthetician and sculptor Donald Brook in Sydney in 1968–9. Curators from all over the world were invited to mount mini-exhibitions of art that would meet this understanding of conceptualism. Margarita Tupitsyn argued that in Russia two tendencies—Kabakovian “stylelessness” and Sots Art (Soviet kitsch into high art)—combined to generate a word-image interplay that was uniquely inflected by its peculiarly Soviet context.30

In some of these situations, it may be that “conceptualism” works as a substitute for what I believe the artists involved were—and remain—primarily concerned about: as Reiko Tomii demonstrates in the case of Japan, they sought recognition of their contemporaneity with the Euro-American artists, and even of their precedence in some cases.31 Given that Conceptual art was the most radical, avant-garde, innovative, and consequential-seeming art of the time and has retained much of that aura since, they wanted to expand its definition to include themselves. On the most obvious level of simple fairness, they want to be seen to have been contemporary. This, I suggest, is actually more important to many of those involved than whether or not their art was, or may now be seen to be, conceptual.

From the perspective of the broad historical account that I am developing in my work at the moment, I see these artists as wishing to be acknowledged as equally important innovators within the worldwide shift from late modern to contemporary art.32 In this sense, they are right to seek such acknowledgment. However, like all claims for consequence, it comes with responsibilities.


Mel Ramsden described Conceptual art as “like Modernism’s nervous breakdown.”33 A more parochial way of putting it was “Clement Greenberg’s nightmare” (although that had already happened, when Frank Stella showed his black paintings in 1959, and MoMA exhibited them soon after). Michael Fried’s nightmare, then. From my perspective, these intense disputations are all indicative of the moment in which late modern art became contemporary, that is, it was obliged to change fundamentally as part of the general transformation of modernity into our current condition, in which the contemporaneity of difference, not our declining modernity or passé postmodernity, is definitive of experience.

Clearly, there is a spirit of openhandedness in post-conceptual art uses of the term “Conceptualism.” We can now endow it with a capital letter because it has grown in scale from its initial designation of an avant-garde grouping, or various groups in various places, and has evolved in two further phases. It became something like a movement, on par with and evolving at the same time as Minimalism. Thus the sense it has in a book such as Tony Godfrey’s Conceptual Art.34 Beyond that, it has in recent years spread to become a tendency, a resonance within art practice that is nearly ubiquitous. Thus the widespread use of terms such as “postconceptual” as a prefix to painting such as that of Gerhard Richter and photography such as that of Andreas Gursky. And the appeal for inclusiveness cited earlier, as well as the nearly universal use of “conceptual” for any art based on any kind of idea (as distinct from it issuing from instinct, taste, or the materials).

Joseph Kosuth, Clock (One and Five), 1965. Clock, photograph and printed texts.

But inclusiveness, however desirable, does not mean that everyone was, and is, making the same kind of art, nor that they did so, or are doing so now, with the same degree of consequence. If we want to address critically the contemporary ubiquity of the idea that “After Conceptual art, all art is conceptual” (of course echoing Kosuth on Duchamp in 1969, but in a bland, generalizing fashion), we could do worse than contrast a piece by Kosuth,One and Five (Clock) (1965) (in the Tate collection, London), with a celebrated work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987–90). We can see in retrospect that Kosuth is searching for his “Art as Idea” format; he had not quite settled on the absolute tautology that drives it in the classic three-part presentations with which we are familiar. Instead, he lines up a photograph, an object, and a set of definitions that display the conceptual architecture of clock-time, arraying it across its pictorial, mechanical, and linguistic aspects. One thing after another, Judd-like, in a row, minimally. Five ways of shaping time are displayed. The printed definition of “time” is front and center, and is flanked on one side by an actual clock ticking time along and away, and by a photograph that will forever freeze the time shown on the clock it recorded but which will, being printed on paper, itself fade. On the other side are printed definitions of “mechanization” and of “object,” concepts that elaborate the contexts of both the clock and the camera. The idea world of clock-time is being probed, its relevant concepts being assembled almost spatially. This is conceptualism just before it becomes Conceptual art, the quest before the rigor sets in.

If, in regard to Pop art and Euro-American conceptualism, we are, as Boris Groys has remarked, looking at art that presumes a society built on freedom of choice (however apparent, spectacularized, and ultimately consumerist it may be), for the Moscow Romantic Conceptualists the very idea of having a choice was but a dream (yet impossibility is precisely what occasions dreams). This, too, but very differently, is the point of “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers). The only “choice” for lovers in a time of AIDS was about the manner in which they died—including whether they died together, as comrades of a dying time.

Consequence counts differently at different times, in different places. This, above all, is what we need to keep in mind when we puzzle over what was at stake in art when it was made, and what we need to look for in art that is being made now.


These remarks combine elements from three recent lectures. The first was delivered on November 27, 2010, at the conference organized by Barbara Fischer, director of the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, University of Toronto, in association with the exhibition “Traffic: Conceptualism in Canada,” shown at the University of Toronto Galleries during the preceding months. The second, dedicated to the memory of Charles Harrison, was delivered at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, on March 8, 2011, as part of a series on Global Conceptualism organized by Sarah Wilson and Boris Groys. The third was presented on April 14, 2011, as part of a conference titled “Revisiting Conceptual Art: The Russian Case in an International Context,” convened by Boris Groys and organized by the Stella Art Foundation, Moscow. I would like to thank all those concerned.

© 2011 e-flux and the author



Boris Groys

Introduction—Global Conceptualism Revisited

By way of an introduction to this issue of e-flux journal, I would like to discuss the changes in our understanding and perception of art engendered by conceptual art practices of the 1960s and 1970s, focusing not on the history of conceptual art or individual works, but rather on the ways in which the legacy of these practices remains relevant for us today.

I would argue that from today’s perspective, the biggest change that conceptualism brought about is this: after conceptualism we can no longer see art primarily as the production and exhibition of individual things—even readymades. However, this does not mean that conceptual or post-conceptual art became somehow “immaterial.” Conceptual artists shifted the emphasis of artmaking away from static, individual objects toward the presentation of new relationships in space and time. These relationships could be purely spatial, but also logical and political. They could be relationships among things, texts, and photo-documents, but could also involve performances, happenings, films, and videos—all of which were shown inside the same installation space. In other words, conceptual art can be characterized as installation art—as a shift from the exhibition space presenting individual, disconnected objects to a holistic exhibition space in which the relations between objects are the basis of the artwork.

One can say that objects and events are organized by an installation space like individual words and verbs are organized by a sentence. We all know the substantial role that the  “linguistic turn” played in the emergence and development of conceptual art. Among other currents, the influence of Wittgenstein and French Structuralism on conceptual art practice was decisive. This influence of philosophy and later of so-called theory on conceptual art cannot be reduced to the substitution of textual material for visual content—nor to the legitimations of particular artworks by theoretical discourses. Rather that the installation space itself was reconceived by conceptual artists as a sentence conveying a certain meaning—in ways analogous to the use of sentences in language. Following a certain period of the dominance of a formalist understanding of art, with the appearance of conceptual art, artistic practice became meaningful and communicative again. Art began to make theoretical statements again, to communicate empirical experiences, to formulate ethical and political attitudes and to tell stories. Thus, rather than art beginning to use language, it began to be used as language—with a communicative and even educative purpose.

But this new orientation toward meaning and communication does not mean that art became somehow immaterial, that its materiality lost its relevance, or that its medium dissolved into message. The contrary is the case. Every art is material—and can be only material. The possibility of using concepts, projects, ideas and political messages in art was opened by the philosophers of the “linguistic turn” precisely because they asserted the material character of thinking itself. Thinking was understood by these philosophers as the operation and manipulation of language. And language was understood by them as thoroughly material—a combination of sounds and visual signs. Now the real, epoch-making achievement of conceptual art becomes clear: it demonstrated the equivalence, or at least a parallelism, between language and image, between the order of words and the order of things, the grammar of language and the grammar of visual space.

Jean-François de Troy, Lecture dans un salon, ca. 1728.

Of course, art was always communicative: it communicated images of the external world, the attitudes and emotions of artists, the specific cultural dispositions of its time, its own materiality and mediality and so forth. However, the communicative function of art was traditionally subjugated to its aesthetic function. Past art was judged primarily according to the criteria of beauty, sensual pleasure and aesthetic satisfaction—or calculated displeasure and aesthetic shock. Conceptual art established its practices beyond the dichotomy of aesthetics and anti-aesthetics—beyond sensual pleasure and sensual shock. This does not mean that conceptual art ignored the notion of form and concentrated itself exclusively upon content and meaning. But a reflection on form does not necessarily mean the subjugation let alone the obliteration of the content. We can speak about the elegant formulation of an idea—but by doing so we mean precisely that this formulation helps the idea to find an adequate and persuasive linguistic or visual presentation. On the contrary, a formulation that is so brilliant that it obliterates the idea is experienced by us not as beautiful but as clumsy. That is why conceptual art prefers clear, sober, minimalist forms—such forms better serve the communication of ideas. Conceptual art is interested in the problem of form not from the traditional perspective of aesthetics but from the perspective of poetics and rhetoric.

It makes sense to reflect for a moment upon this shift from aesthetics to poetics and rhetoric. The aesthetic attitude is basically that of the spectator. Aesthetics as a philosophical tradition and a university discipline relates to art and reflects upon art from the perspective of the art spectator—or one could also say from the perspective of the art consumer. Spectators mostly expect an aesthetic experience from art. Since the time of Kant, we know that this experience can be one of beauty or of the sublime. It can be an experience of sensual pleasure. But it can also be an anti-aesthetic experience of displeasure, or of frustration provoked by an artwork that lacks all the qualities which an affirmative aesthetics expects it to possess. It can be the experience of a utopian vision that could lead away from present conditions to a new society in which beauty reigns. Or, to formulate this differently, it could be a redistribution of the sensible, one that refigures the spectator’s terms of vision by showing certain things and giving access to certain voices that were previously concealed or obscured. But, because the commercialization of art already undermines any possible utopian perspective, it can also be a demonstration of the impossibility of positive aesthetic experience within a society based on oppression and exploitation. As we know, these seemingly contradictory aesthetic experiences can be equally enjoyable. However, to experience aesthetic enjoyment of any kind, a spectator has to be aesthetically educated. This education necessarily reflects the social and cultural milieus into which the spectator was born and in which he or she lives. In other words, an aesthetic attitude presupposes the subordination of art production to art consumption—and likewise, the subordination of artistic theory and practice to a sociological perspective.

Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, Bauhaus Building Block Set, circa 1923.

Indeed, from the aesthetic point of view, the artist is a supplier of aesthetic experiences, including those produced with the goal to frustrate or modify the viewer’s aesthetic sensibility. The subject of the aesthetic attitude is the master—the artist is the servant. Of course, the servant can and does manipulate the master, as Hegel convincingly demonstrated in his Phenomenology of the Spirit, but nevertheless, the servant remains the servant. This situation did not change much when the artist became a servant to the public at large, instead of being a servant under the patronage regimes of the Church or traditional autocratic powers. In previous periods, the artist was obliged to present “contents,” for example subjects, motives, narratives and so forth, that were dictated by religious faith or the interests of political power. Today, the artist is required to treat topics of public interest. Just as the Church and autocratic powers of yesteryear wanted their beliefs and interests to be represented by the artist, so today’s democratic public wants to find in art representations of the issues, topics, political controversies and social aspirations by which it is moved in everyday life. The politicization of art is often seen as an antidote to the purely aesthetic attitude that allegedly requires art to be merely beautiful. But in fact, the politicization of art can be easily combined with its aesthetic function—as far as both are seen from the perspective of the spectator, of the consumer. Clement Greenberg remarked long ago that an artist is best able to demonstrate his or her mastery and taste when the content of the artwork is prescribed by an external authority. Being liberated from the question “What should I do?” the artist can concentrate on the purely formal side of art—on the question “How should I do it?” This means: “How should I do it in such a way that certain contents become attractive and appealing (or maybe non-attractive, repulsive) to the aesthetic sensibilities of the public?” If the politicization of art is interpreted as “making certain political attitudes attractive (or maybe unattractive) for the public”—as is usually the case—then the politicization of art becomes completely subjected to aesthetic attitude. At the end, the goal becomes the packaging of certain political contents in an aesthetically attractive form. But aesthetic form loses its relevance in any act of real political engagement—and is discarded in the name of direct political practice. Then art functions as a political advertisement that becomes superfluous once it has achieved its goal.

In fact, this is only one of many examples that demonstrate why an aesthetic attitude becomes problematic if applied to the arts. Actually the aesthetic attitude does not need art—and functions much better without it. It is an old truism that all the wonders of art pale in comparison with the wonders of nature. In terms of aesthetic experience, no work of art can bear comparison with an even average sunset. And of course, the sublime aspects of nature and politics can only be fully experienced by witnessing a natural catastrophe, revolution or war—not by reading a novel or looking at a picture. This was the opinion shared by Kant and the Romantics who launched modern aesthetic discourse. The real world, they claimed, is the legitimate object of an aesthetic attitude (as well as of scientific and ethical attitudes)—not art. According to Kant, an artwork can become a legitimate object of aesthetic contemplation only as a work of genius, e.g. only as a manifestation of natural force operating unconsciously in and through man. Fine art can serve only as a preliminary means of education in taste and aesthetic judgment. After this education is completed, art, like Wittgenstein’s ladder, can be thrown away—to confront the subject with the aesthetic experience of life itself. Seen from an aesthetic perspective, art reveals itself as something that can and should be overcome. All things can be seen from an aesthetic perspective; all things can serve as sources of aesthetic experience and become objects of aesthetic judgment. From the perspective of aesthetics, art has no privileged position. Rather, art is something that posits itself between the subject of the aesthetic attitude and the world. However, the mature subject does not need any aesthetic tutelage via art—being able to rely on personal sensibility and taste. Aesthetic discourse, if used to legitimize art, de factoundermines it.

How, then, should one explain the fact that the discourse of aesthetics acquired such a dominant position during the period of modernity? The main reason for this is a statistical one. Artists were a social minority during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the founding period of aesthetic discourse—and spectators were in the majority. The question of why one might make art seemed irrelevant—artists made art to earn their living. This seemed an adequate explanation for the existence of the arts. The problem was why other people should look at art. The answer was: to form their taste and develop their aesthetic sensibility. Art was a school for the gaze and other senses. The social division between artists and spectators seemed to be firmly established: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude—artworks produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century, this simple dichotomy began to collapse.

The picture phone.

Today, contemporary networks of communication like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter offer global populations the possibility of presenting their photos, videos and texts juxtaposed in ways that cannot be distinguished from those of many post-conceptualist artworks. The visual grammar of a website is not too different from the grammar of an installation space. Through the internet, conceptual art today has become a mass cultural practice. Walter Benjamin famously remarked that the masses easily accepted montage in film—even if they had difficulties accepting collage in Cubist paintings. The new medium of film made artistic devices acceptable that remained problematic in the old medium of painting. The same can be said for conceptual art: even people having difficulties accepting conceptual and post-conceptual installation art, have no difficulties in using the internet.

But is it legitimate to characterize self-presentation on the internet, involving hundreds of millions of people all around the world, as an artistic practice?

Cyberia, Britain’s first internet cafe. Photo: Andy Hall/Observer.

Conceptual art can be also characterized as an art that repeatedly asked the question “what is art?” Art and Language, Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys and many others that we tend to situate today inside the frame of an expanded conceptualism asked and answered this question in very different ways. One can also ask this question from an aesthetic perspective. What now would we be ready to identify as art, and under which conditions; what kinds of objects do we recognize as artworks and what kinds of spaces are recognized by us as art spaces? But we could abandon this passive, contemplative attitude and ask a different question: what does it mean to become actively involved in art? Or in other words, what does it mean to become an artist?

Speaking in Hegelian terms, the traditional aesthetic attitude remains situated on the level of consciousness—on the level of our ability to see and appreciate the world aesthetically. But this attitude does not reach the level of self-consciousness. In his Phenomenology of the Spirit, Hegel points out that self-consciousness does not emerge as an effect of passive self-observation. We become aware of our own existence, our own subjectivity, when we are endangered by another subjectivity—through struggle, in conflict, in the situation of existential risk taking that could lead to death. Now, analogously, we can speak of an “aesthetic self-consciousness” that emerges, not when we look at a world populated by others, but when we begin to reflect upon our own exposure to the gaze of others. Artistic, poetic, rhetorical practice is none other than self-presentation to the gaze of the other, presupposing danger, conflict and risk of failure.

The feeling of almost permanent exposure to the gaze of the other is a very modern one, famously described by Michel Foucault as an effect of being under the panoptical observation of an external power. Throughout the twentieth century, an ever growing number of humans became objects of surveillance to a degree that was unthinkable at any earlier period of history. And practices of omnipresent, panoptical surveillance are increasing in our time at an even greater pace—the internet becoming the central medium of this surveillance. At the same time, the emergence and rapid development of global networks of visual media are creating a new global agora for self-presentation, political discussions and actions.

Political discussions in the ancient Greek agora presupposed the immediate living presence and visibility of its participants. Today everyone has to establish their own image, their own visible persona in the context of global visual media. We’re not just talking about the game “Second Life:” now everyone has to create a virtual avatar, an artificial double to begin to communicate and to act. The “First Life” of contemporary media function in the same way. Everyone who wants to go public, to begin to act in today’s international political agora has to create an individualized public persona. This requirement is relevant not only for the political and cultural elites. Today, more people are getting involved in active image production than in passive image contemplation.

This  autopoietic practice can be easily be interpreted as a kind of commercial image making, brand development or trend-setting. There is no doubt that any public persona is also a commodity—and every gesture of going public serves the interests of numerous profiteers and potential shareholders. Following this line of argument, it’s easy to perceive any autopoietic gesture as a gesture of self-commodification—and, accordingly, to start a critique of autopoietic practice as a cover operation that is designed to conceal the social ambitions and economic interests of its protagonist. However the emergence of an aesthetic self-consciousness and autopoietic self-presentation is originally a reaction—a necessarily polemical and political reaction against the image that others, society, power have always already made of us. Every public persona is created primarily within a political battle and for this battle—for attack and protection, as sword and shield at the same time. Obviously, artists were always already professionals of self-exposure. But today the general population is also becoming more and more aesthetically self-conscious and getting more and more involved in this autopoietic practice.

General Idea, Light On, 1972.

Our contemporaneity is often characterized by the vague notion of an “aestheticization of life.” The commonplace usage of this notion is problematic in many ways. It suggests an attitude of aesthetic passivivity  toward our society of the spectacle. But who is the subject of this attitude? Who is the spectator of the society of spectacle? It is not an artist—because the artist practices polemical self-presentation. It is not the masses because they are also involved—consciously or unconsciously—in autopoietic practices and have no time for pure contemplation. Such a subject could be only God—or a theoretician who took a divine position of pure contemplation after God was proclaimed dead. The notion of aesthetic self-consciousness and poetic, artistic practice must now be be secularized, purified of any theological overtones. Every act of aestheticization has its author. We always can and should ask the question: who aestheticizes—and to what purpose? The aesthetic field is not a space of peaceful contemplation—but a battlefield on which gazes clash and fight. The notion of the “aestheticization of life” suggests the subjugation of life under a certain form. But as I’ve already suggested, conceptual art taught us to see form as a poetic instrument of communication rather than an object of contemplation.

Ilya Kabakov, Noma, 1993. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.

So what is constituted and communicated in and through the artwork? It is not any objective, impersonal knowledge as constituted and communicated by science. In art  subjectivity comes to self-awareness through self-exposure and communicates itself. That is why the figure of the artist manifests the inner contradictions of modern subjectivation in a paradigmatic way. Indeed, the transition from the divine gaze to surveillance by secular powers has produced a set of contradictory desires and aspirations within the heart of modern subjects. Modern societies are haunted by visions of total control and exposure—anti-utopian visions of an Orwellian type. Accordingly, modern subjects try to protect their bodies from total exposure and defend their privacy against the danger of this totalitarian surveillance. Subjects operating in socio-political space struggle permanently for their right of privacy—the right to keep their bodies hidden. On the other hand, even the most panoptical and total exposure to secular power is still less total than the exposure to the divine gaze. In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra the proclamation of the “death of God” is followed by a long lamentation about the loss of this spectator of our souls. If modern exposure seems excessive,  it also seems insufficient. Of course, our culture makes great efforts to compensate for the loss of the divine spectator. But this compensation remains only partial. Every system of surveillance is too selective, it overlooks most of the things that it is supposed to see. Beyond that, the images that accumulate in such a system are mostly not really seen, analyzed or interpreted. The bureaucratic forms that register our identities are too primitive to produce interesting subjectivities. Accordingly, we remain only partially subjectified.

This condition of partial subjectivation engenders within us two contradictory aspirations: we are interested in retaining privacy, the reduction of surveillance, and the right to obscurity for our bodies and desires, but at the same time we aspire to a radicalized exposure that transgresses the limits of social control. I would argue that it is this radicalized subjectivation through acute self-exposure that is practiced by contemporary art. In this way exposure and subjectivation cease to be means of social control. Instead, self-exposure presupposes some degree of sovereignty over one’s own process of subjectivation. The arts of modernity have shown us different techniques of self-exposure, ones that exceed the usual practices of surveillance. They contain more self-discipline than  is socially necessary (Malevich, Mondrian, American minimalism); more confessions of the hidden, ugly, or the obscure than are sought by the public. But contemporary art confronts us with even more numerous and nuanced strategies of self-subjectivation, which of internal necessity situate the artist in a contemporary political field. These strategies include not only different forms of political engagement but also all the possible manifestations of private hesitation, uncertainty and even despair that usually remain hidden beneath the public personae of standard political protagonists. A belief in the social role of the artist is combined here with a deep skepticism concerning the effectiveness of that role. This erasure of the line dividing public commitment from personal vicissitudes has become an important element of contemporary art practice. Here again the private becomes public—without any external pressure and/or enhanced surveillance.

Among other things, this means that art should not be theorized in sociological terms. Reference to the naturally given, hidden, invisible subjectivity of the artist should not be substituted by reference to his or her socially constructed identity—even if artistic practice is understood as the deconstruction of this identity. The subjectivity and identity of the artist do not precede artistic practice: they are the results and the products of this practice. Of course, self-subjectivation is a not a fully autonomous process. Rather, it depends on many factors, one of them being the expectations of the public. The public also knows that the social exposure of human bodies can be only partial, and therefore unreliable and untrustworthy. That is why the public expects the artist to produce radicalized visibility and self-exposure. Thus, the artistic strategy of self-exposure never begins at a zero point. The artist has to take into consideration from the outset his or her already existing exposure to the public. However, the same human body can be submitted to very different processes of socially determined subjectivation, depending on the particular cultural contexts in which this body may become visualized. Every contemporary cultural migrant—and the international art scene is full of migrating artists, curators, art writers—has innumerable chances to experience how his or her body is situated and subjectified in and though different cultural, ethnic and political contexts.

Dmitri Prigov in his installation Russian Snow, 1990. Photo: Natalia Nikitin.

But if so many people all around the world are involved in autopoietic activities why should we still speak about art as a specific practice? As I’ve already said, the emergence of the internet as the dominant medium of self-presentation seems to lead us to the conclusion that we don’t need any more institutional art spaces to produce art. And over the last two decades, institutional and private art spaces have been subject to a massive critique. This critique is completely legitimate. But one should not forget that the internet is also a space controlled primarily by corporate interests—not a celebrated space of anonymous and individual freedom as was often claimed in its early days. The standard internet user is, as a rule, concentrated on the computer screen and overlooks the corporate hardware of the internet—all those monitors, terminals and cables that inscribe it into contemporary industrial civilization. That is why the internet has conjured for some the dreamlike notions of immaterial work and the general intellect within a post-Fordist condition. But these are software notions. The reality of the internet is its hardware.

A traditional installation space offers a particularly appropriate arena to show the connectivity to hardware that is regularly overlooked during standard internet use.

As a computer user, one is immersed in solitary communication with the medium; one falls into a state of self-oblivion, potentially unaware of one’s own body. The purpose served by an installation that offers visitors an opportunity to make public use of computers and the internet now becomes apparent. One no longer concentrates upon a solitary screen but wanders from one screen to the next, from one computer installation to another. The itinerary performed by the viewer within the exhibition space undermines the traditional isolation of the internet user. At the same time, an exhibition utilizing the web and other digital media renders visible the material, physical side of these media—their hardware, the stuff from which they are made. All of the machinery that enters the visitor’s field of vision thus destroys the illusion that everything of any importance in the digital realm only takes place onscreen. More importantly, however, other visitors will stray into the viewer’s visual field. In this way the visitor becomes aware that he or she is also being observed by the others.

Thus one can say that neither the internet, nor institutional art spaces can be seen as privileged spaces of autopoietic self-presentation. But at the same time these spaces—among many others—can be used by an artist for his and her goals. Indeed, contemporary artists increasingly want to operate not so much inside specific art milieus and spaces but rather on the global political and social stage—proclaiming and pursuing certain political and social goals. At the same time they remain artists. What does this problematic title mean, within the extended, globalized, social-political context? One can perceive the title “artist” as a stigma that makes any political claim suspicious and any political activity inefficient—because inescapably co-opted by the art system. However, failures, uncertainties and frustrations are not the sole privilege of artists. Professional politicians and activists experience them to the same, if not to a greater degree. The only difference is this: professional politicians and activists conceal their frustrations and uncertainties behind their public personae. And accordingly, the failed political action remains final and unredeemed within political reality itself. But a failed political action can be a good work of art because it reveals the subjectivities operating behind this action even better than its possible success. By assuming the title “artist,” the subject of this action signals from the beginning that he or she aims at self-exposure rather than the self-concealment that is usual and even necessary in professional politics. Such self-exposure is bad politics but good art—herein lies the ultimate difference between artistic and non-artistic types of practice.




Issue 48 September-October 1999 RSS

Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s


‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ included work by well over 100 artists and artists’ collectives, many of them not widely familiar but deserving of interest. They were grouped regionally and by period: 1950s to circa 1973 included Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand; c. 1973 until the late 80s, the Soviet Union, Africa, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The breadth of material was intended to be seen in critical relation to the more conve-ntional account of Conceptual art as a North American and Western European export of the 60s. The exhibition might be seen as something of a riposte to Los Angeles MOCA’s ‘Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965-1975’, a more cohesive but less challenging Conceptual art show.

The inclusiveness of ‘Global Conceptualism’ rested in part on a distinction emphasised by the project directors, Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss in the highly informative catalogue: a distinction between Conceptual art as ‘an essentially formalist practice developed in the wake of Minimalism’ (though this may come as a surprise to some of its practitioners) and Conceptualism, ‘which broke decisively from the historical dependence of art on physical form and its visual apperception’ and was characterised by the de-emphasis of the object in favour of the ‘idea’ (a largely unexamined term in the discourse on Conceptual/ist art) and the conduct of art. This is perhaps too fine a distinction, which tends to separate good (political) from bad (formal) Conceptual artists.

The desire to valourise conceptualism as woven into moments of political and social upheaval yields plausible results, especially in Latin American contexts: Brazilian artist Cildo Mereiles stamped questions about political assassination onto money in circulation in her piece Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Banknote Project (Who Killed Herzog?) (1973) and the most radical example, the Argentinian mass-media art/guerrilla collective action, Tucam·n Arde (1968). But what are we to make of the relations between art, politics and history in the Hungarian Miklos ErdÈly’s metaphysical puzzle, a vacuum flask containing Snow of Last Year (1970)? (Let alone, say, the work of Joseph Kosuth.) If, as the exhibition demonstrates, many politically active artists have taken approaches that look a lot like Conceptual strategies – de-materialisation, engagement with institutional contexts, emphasis on relations between language and perception – those artists have also, clearly, been concerned with the form of their acts. (We might consider, for example, the Australian artist Ian Burn, an integral participant in North American/Western European Conceptual art and a committed leftist.)

The show opened with Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, which was performed at Carnegie Hall in 1965. This seemed auspicious, particularly in terms of centre/periphery arguments: Ono is a transcultural figure, and the first gallery, with works from Japan on one side and from Western Europe on the other, was the most successful illustration of one of the exhibition’s premises: a globalism which acknowledges global links, but which insists on the difference between conceptualist movements ‘spurred by urgent local conditions and histories’. There were a number of striking relationships, though not necessarily structured by relations to political events, but by relations to everyday experiences of Capitalism. Documentation of Akasegawa Genpei’s Model 1,000-Yen Note Incident (1965-7), in which Akasegawa was tried and convicted of currency fraud for making one-sided copies (‘models’) of bank notes, sat opposite Yves Klein’s Sale of a Zone of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility: Sale to M. Blankfort (1962), in which the artist (who studied Judo in Tokyo in the 50s) ‘sold’ a zone in exchange for a quantity of gold supplied by the collector, which the artist then threw into the Seine.

Works which were confined to regionally-organised galleries made connections and parallels between ideas less clear. Upstairs – particularly, where Africa, the Soviet Union, South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were located and where the focus shifted to work made in the 70s and 80s – multicentered globalism seemed to fall prey to a kind of uneven development argument, as though Conceptualism were the inevitable corollary to political and social oppression or upheaval. Here, unfortunately, no matter how interesting – and in many instances valid – the attempt had been, conceptualism became too baggy, temporally distended and leaky a category to make productive sense of the relations between works made not only under different, local conditions, but long after the global emergence of Conceptual/ist strategies. By the end, Conceptualism didn’t seem like a strong enough context in which to consider, for instance, the astringent irony of Komar and Melamid’s abstraction of the bureaucratic means of Soviet surveillance in the form of a red square (Documents: Ideal Document, 1975) or the reflection on meaning and freedom that underlies the Chinese artist Wenda Gu’s series of works using ‘pseudo characters’, fake Chinese characters (begun in 1985). But if ‘Global Conceptualism’ overreached itself, it was nonetheless compelling.

Frazer Ward


Ethnographic Conceptualism: An Introduction

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov is the issue’s guest editor. He is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Address for correspondence: Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RF, UK.

Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art. This article introduces this concept and contextualizes it in art and anthropology by focusing on the following questions: What is gained by anthropology by explicitly bringing conceptualism into it? And, the other way around, what is gained by conceptualism when it is qualified as “ethnographic”? What is “ethnographic” about this kind of conceptualism? What is “conceptualist” about this kind of ethnography?

In two essays of the mid-1970s, leading conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth identified his method as “anthropologized art.” This is a kind of art that, like anthropology, makes “social reality conceivable.” It comes out of artists’ deep immersion in cultures that are subjects of their reflection. Its aim is a “‘depiction’ of art’s (and thereby culture’s) operational infrastructure.” And, above all, anthropologized art is a “socially mediating activity.” It “‘depicts’ while it alters society” (Kosuth [1975] 1991:117–124, emphasis in the original; [1974] 1991).[1]

Figure 1
Figure 1. Telephone set in the form of the globe with receiver as a hammer and sickle. A gift to I. V. Stalin for his seventieth birthday from the workers of the aircraft workshop No. 1, Lodz, Polish Republic, 1949. Metal, enamel, plastic and wood; courtesy of State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia.

Ethnographic conceptualism invokes these formulations of “artist as anthropologist.” But its goal is to make this link with art wholly symmetrical. Ethnographic conceptualism refers to anthropology as a method of conceptual art but also, conversely, to the use of conceptual art as an anthropological research tool. Ethnographic conceptualism is ethnography conducted as conceptual art.

I thought of the term “ethnographic conceptualism” when Olga Sosnina and I curated the exhibition Gifts to Soviet Leaders (Dary vozhdiam) (Kremlin Museum, Moscow, 2006). This was an exhibition of public gifts that Soviet leaders received from Soviet citizens and international leaders and movements. It was about a gift economy that was comparable in global scale and size to the one that the British monarchs, US presidents, or the Vatican has attracted but which was articulated through a distinct idiom of devotion to communist ideas, the inner working of Soviet leaders’ “personality cult,” and Cold War diplomacy (e.g., Figure 1). But as the exhibition of these gifts became an instant hit, it also revealed a political and cultural anxiety over post-Soviet identity as well as the ways in which museum projects articulate it. The term ethnographic conceptualism became for me a way to situate this project in anthropology and art and also between this exhibition as an end as well as a means: a presentation of research results on Soviet history but also a means of doing this research, a post-Soviet artifact and a tool in ethnography of post-Soviet Moscow.

A key example that conveys the concept of ethnographic conceptualism is a comment in this exhibition’s visitors’ book: “Thank you for the exhibition—we found the visitors’ book of comments particularly interesting and educating.” The book became a site of heated polemic about Soviet history. But this comment highlights a paradox of this polemic itself becoming an exhibition artifact on par with the exhibited gifts to Soviet leaders. It collapsed the distinction between commentary and the objects of commentary, between the visitors and the exhibits—and, for me, between an ethnographic notebook and a conceptualist means to produce an ethnographic situation.

But this comment also dramatizes the relationship between this exhibition project and its audience that extends beyond the exhibition site. It is visible, for instance, in the decision of the Kremlin Museum to gift the exhibition catalog to President Vladimir Putin for his fifty-fifth birthday in 2007. This unexpected reaction to the exhibition came from a peculiar kind of audience that included its host, the Kremlin Museum, and the host of this host, the Kremlin. This act interlinked the gift relations that this project charted and the gift relations in which it was immersed—including complex power relations that formed both the subject matter and the context of this study. It drew attention to the performative links between museums, academia, social memory, and politics—to how the Soviet past was debated in the early 2000s and how it was used politically and aesthetically. As a study in ethnographic conceptualism, Gifts to Soviet Leaders both performs and describes post-Soviet society from the vantage point of gift/knowledge relations (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue). Ethnographic conceptualism is in this case an ethnographic research and a conceptualist depiction of this exhibition’s operational infrastructure—an “exhibition experiment” in the double sense of curatorial innovation and a laboratory that creates new knowledge (Macdonald and Basu 2007).

Anthropological Theory as Art

In the spirit of the title of this journal, this special issue is a Laboratorium manifesto of ethnographic conceptualism. The goal of this introduction is to situate it in conceptual art and anthropology as well as to situate individual contributions to this issue.

Conceptual art experiments with the reduction of art objects to concepts—with the so-called dematerialization of art—and with the reduction of artwork to the question of what is the concept of art in a given work and among a given audience. A work of art, from this point of view, equals questioning what art is, a depiction of how whatever is taken as art is framed and situated. It makes art out of its audiences and their reactions. In a narrow historical sense, it refers to a movement that took place roughly between 1966 and 1972. But its critical mood captures much of the twentieth-century artistic landscape, from Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) to relational or situational aesthetics. Thus, an historical reading that traces conceptualism to Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) or some earlier formulations, such as that of “Concept-Art” by Henry Flynt in 1961 (cf. Buchloh 1990:107), can be contrasted with a broader philosophical perspective in which this chronology is not as important (Alberro and Stimson 1999; Beke et al. 1999; Goldie and Schellekens 2007). The replication of concept of art within art is also linked with an even longer durée in modern thinking and aesthetics, in particular, with the baroque technique of “theater within theater,” in which artwork contains a miniature replica of itself or its author, as in Velazquez’s Las Meninas (cf. Corsín Jiménez 2013).

But conceptual art is a declaration of the end of art as a distinct activity. Does ethnographic conceptualism similarly mean the end of the distinct activity of ethnography? How is it then related to a familiar narrative of the end of ethnography, as was implied by its literary turn and the postmodernism of the 1980s? Ethnographic conceptualism (EC thereafter) means not an end of ethnography as a method but its reconfiguration. It is an ethnography that does things—and not just by saying them, to use J. L. Austin’s (1962a) formulation of the performativity of language. It explicitly manufactures the social reality that it studies and in doing so goes well beyond a mere acknowledgement that we modify what we depict by the very means of this depiction.

EC uses art to generate ethnographic situations. But it is very far from a claim that ethnography is “in fact” art in that it works through “poetics” and persuasion, through aesthetics rather than analytics. What is meant by art in such claims looks too much like the “Western art” of textbook anthropology, that is, art as a distinct practice that has an affect because it is aesthetically compelling—about things that are “simply beautiful” (cf. Jarillo de la Torre, this issue). This kind of art is no longer there in Western art itself. The link with conceptual art that ethnographic conceptualism proposes is precisely to highlight the extent to which contemporary art is itself analytics rather than aesthetics.

But EC’s link with conceptual art is also useful for reformulating the theoretical debates from the 1980s onward from a new angle. The 1980s is an arbitrary date. It is not so much a ground zero for critical and reflexive anthropology, which it is not, but this is roughly when the anthropological critique of scientism begins. I agree with Kosuth’s acknowledgement that at the time of his thinking about “the artist as anthropologist” anthropology was quite different from the cultural critique that was at the heart of conceptual art. With the exception of the Marxist anthropological tradition and its notion of praxis, he admitted, anthropology had no interest in altering society by means of depicting it. It was “outside the culture” that it sought to describe and therefore akin to what he called the “modernism” and “scientism” of art criticism and art history (Kosuth [1975] 1991:117–124). However, what follows below is not a story of how anthropology “finally” caught up with Kosuth of 1974 and 1975. Nor it is a review of projects between anthropology and art, which has been abundantly done elsewhere (Enwezor et al. 2012; Marcus and Myers 1995; Foster 1995; Marcus 2010; Schneider and Wright 2006, 2010). What I am interested in is what links with art are made within anthropological theory and what in these links can be further illuminated by parallels withconceptual art.

First, I read anthropology’s turn to artistic and literary tools in the 1980s as “not ‘Ethnography’ in itself but a means of creating it”—to paraphrase a conceptualist artwork title “This is not ‘Art’ in itself but a means of creating it.”[2] In other words, I approach the “writing culture” school as an intriguing attempt at substituting anthropology with a depiction of anthropology’s “operational infrastructure” (Kosuth [1974] 1991:121). There is an interesting question as to whether this depiction is indeed a departure form objectivism, as it was claimed at that time (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue). But, second, what I would like to stress in this section is not whether this departure is from “science” to “art,” but what analogy with art was made in the depiction of anthropology as science.

Consider George Marcus and Fred Myers’s remark that the anthropology of the 1980s evinced a “critical ambivalence” of the desire for objectivity, which required distance as evidence that the subjects of study were “independently constituted,” and an awareness of the opposite: of existing relationships of power and histories of encounter, “which make anthropology itself already a part of such subjects of study” (Marcus and Myers 1995:2). It is this ambivalence that parallels developments in art. Anthropology’s objectivism, predicated on the autonomy of the observed cultural phenomena from the culture of the observer, shares Kantian foundations with the notion of the autonomy of aesthetics related to art’s “occupation of a separate cultural domain” (6, emphasis in the original) during modern European history. But the other side of anthropology’s objectivism is its holism, which implies that no dimension of cultural life can be considered in isolation. Thus anthropology is both enabled by and critiques these foundational distinctions, as does contemporary art. Anthropology’s critical reflection on its own objectivism can be viewed as an “ethnographic avant-garde” (20).

This analogy with avant-garde highlights that instead of “whole” cultures of extreme difference, anthropology deals with fragments of and crisscrossing lines, borders and cultural flows. But in suggesting a link with conceptual art, my goal is to illuminate not only what this anthropology looks at but how.

Anthropology’s reflexive turn has been associated with strategies of writing and the notion of culture as text. This was in contrast with the anthropology of the earlier part of the twentieth century that privileged vision—the camera-like presence of an ethnographic observer (Clifford 1983:118; 1988; Clifford and Marcus 1986; Marcus and Fischer 1986). The critique of vision is central to conceptualism too. As LeWitt put it, “[c]onceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions” (1967:84). It aims at a substitution of seeing with thinking and a material object with a concept. It “dematerializes art” to the point that material artwork becomes “wholly obsolete” (Lippard and Chandler 1968:46).[3] But textualization is the flip side of this dematerialization. Conceptual artwork often includes the commentary—such as in Keith Arnatt’s “I’m a Real Artist” (1972) that includes famous discussion of the ambiguity of the notion of the “real” from J. L. Austin’s (1962b) Sense and Sensibilia. I submit that the textualization of anthropology, the expansion of prefacing as commentary that sets the stage for ethnography, parallels conceptual art.

Now consider an example of this “linguistic turn”: Olga Sosnina’s exhibition The Dictionary of the Caucasus (Sosnina, this issue). This exhibition, held at the Tsaritsyno Museum (Moscow, 2012), arranges material objects, photography, and art from and about the Caucasus neither regionally nor historically but by “keywords.” Sosnina’s experiment alludes to the conceptualist function such as the The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić but also to Stéphane Mallarme’s Livre, an idea of the novel with interchangeable pages that can be read in any order (see discussion of open artwork below). Among her entries are the ones on the Caucasian War, the “bandit” (abrek), the “elder,” and the “feast”—but also on “archaeologist,” “ethnographer,” and “tourist” as a composite section for the outside scholar/visitor. If her point is that material objects are vehicles of translation and Orientalist imaginary of this region, this section focuses on the figure of the collector, interpreter, producer as well as consumer of this imaginary.

A “linguistic turn” in this kind of art refers not merely to the central role of language as a conceptualist tool or simply words appearing on the exhibited objects. If commentary was traditionally the domain of art criticism, conceptualism “annexes the function of the critic, and makes a middleman unnecessary” (Kosuth 1991:38). Art making became art criticism (Goldie and Schellekens 2007:xi), and, furthermore, the commentary could easily and deliberately substitute the artwork that is the subject of commentary. If thinking itself approaches art as a form, then, as Terry Atkinson asks in his famous inaugural editorial of Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art (1969), “Can this editorial … [as] an attempt to evince some outlines as to what ‘conceptual art’ is … count as a work of conceptual art?” (quoted in Alberro and Stimpson 1999:xix).

These relations of substitution between the artwork and commentary become a subject of conceptualist art practice (see Carroll, this issue). Conceptualism treats the wall as a book page (Rorimer 1999); journal issues become forms of conceptual art—and not just in Eastern Europe where nonconformist exhibitions were impossible (Degot’ 2004); the term “artwriting” is coined (Carrier 1987). But “A Media Art (Manifesto)” by Eduardo Costa, Raul Escari, and Roberto Jacoby ([1966] 1999) goes further. It is an account of how these artists created “the written and photographic report of a happening that has not occurred” that included “the names of the participants, an indication of the time and location in which it took place and a description of the spectacle that is supposed to have happened” (Costa, Escari, and Jacoby [1966] 1999:2–3). Ilya Kabakov incorporates the history of art, as something that explains and situates a given artistic project, into the work of art. He created the work of three fictional artists to illustrate the historical stages of Soviet art in the transition from avant-garde to socialist realism and from the latter to conceptualism.[4]

But this raises a question of the status of this very piece of writing in relationship to conceptual art. This is, on the one hand, an academic argument about conceptual art and ethnographic conceptualism in a social science journal. But, on the other, if conceptualism substitutes objects with concepts, if an editorial that outlines an artistic view as to what conceptual art was could itself be seen as a work of conceptual art, and if conceptual art annexes the role of its critic and historian, can this textualization be extended to a theoretical argument? I suggest pushing the dematerialization of art (Lippard and Chandler 1968) to the point of including anthropological theory. Art as theory rather than theory as art.[5]

The Gaze at the Gaze

But if the gaze can be associated with an anthropology as “science” that reflects, and textuality with an interpretive hermeneutics of anthropology as “art” that manufactures, it is worth keeping in mind that, both in anthropology and art, textuality did not so much eliminate the gaze as redirect it. In conceptual art, the “linguistic turn” constituted new kinds of material objects (texts) that are open to view. They were often meant to achieve their performative effect when a momentary glance was cast at them. In this condensation of reading and viewing in conceptual art, there was a corresponding condensation of a work of art and the definition of art. But even the most nominalist statements of anthropology’s reflexive turn (cf. Rabinow 1996) stop short of declaring “I’m a real anthropologist.” The “writing culture” perspective invites us to view commentary on anthropology. It resituates the knowable social world from the reality under this scholar’s gaze to the relationships between this reality and the scholar. It is the ethnography of ethnographic framing and ethnography as the history of the ethnographic gaze (Asad 1991; Clifford 1983, 1988; Fabian 1983; Stocking 1968, 1993).

The artistic analogy to this second gaze—what I would call conceptualist realism—is the depiction of the viewer. Julia Secher’s 1988 project Security by Julia placed surveillance apparatus in exhibition venues, with the aim to depict the human flow of visitors, its regulation and self-regulation, and to view the impulse of the public to be seen and to see its own visibility. Hans Haacke’s Gallery Visitor’s Profile (1969–1973) accumulates and displays information about the statistical breakdown of museum visitors according to age, gender, religious belief, ethnicity, class, occupation, and so on. Privileged social groups constitute the art audience and frame the discourse of art. This project acts as a mirror that returns this frame to the viewer. But in this mirror reflection the frame becomes realistic in its depiction of this ideology of art and its audience.

But this realism itself could be performative. One of the methods of Michał Murawski’s (this issue) exploration of the meanings of Warsaw’s Stalinist skyscraper, the Palace of Culture and Science that still dominates Warsaw’s cityscape, is distributing a questionnaire and assembling a statistical breakdown and collective portrait of his respondents. But this is not simply a social science study of the attitudes of his audience but a performative deployment of the image of research and researcher. Indeed, a mirror that reflects an audience implies a corresponding reflection of this figure of the artist. For the purposes of this study, he designs “The Department of Issuing Anecdotes of the Palaceological Department of the Dramatic Theater” and at some point comes out to an audience of his interlocutors dressed as this office’s bureaucrat.

My second contribution to this special issue is also an exercise in conceptualist realism—the second gaze on the gaze and the depiction of its audience. I root it in anthropology’s “new empiricism” which is not an unreflected objectivism, but is the one that is mediated by the performativity theory—a description of how knowledge is situated and what are its performative affects in such fields as studies of science, gender, and economics. But I use ethnographic conceptualism to push performativity theory further and to consider how performative is the very distinction of the performative and the descriptive. “The performative” in this sense does not refer to one of the poles of the distinction between the performative and the descriptive but to the drawing of this distinction itself (see Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay, this issue).

The Anthropology of the Contemporary and Open Artwork

Gustav Metzger’s First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art in 1960 included a transparent garbage bag filled with newspapers and cardboard. When this installation was recreated at the Tate Britain in 2004, a cleaner accidentally binned it. The gallery subsequently retrieved the damaged bag, and the new one made by Metzger was covered over at night for the remaining time of the exhibition. In this section, I consider some of the artistic and anthropological uses of the unexpected.

This accident should have been invented if it had not actually happened. An unanticipated destruction, almost accomplished, illustrates the point of this kind of artwork perhaps as well as the artwork itself. This point is to highlight, first, temporality as art but also, second, something that is the opposite of literal destruction: a creative process that Helio Oiticica called “anti-art” in the sense of the artist being not the sole author of the work but “an instigator of creation—‘creation’ as such.” This process, he argued, “completes itself through the dynamic participation of the ‘spectator,’ now considered as ‘participator.’” The artist “activates” the creative activity which exists in society, albeit latently—it is as such a “social manifestation, incorporating an ethical (as well as political) position” (Oiticica [1966] 1999:9, emphases in the original).

James Oliver and Marnie Badham put it in their contribution (this issue, 157), “there is no object but the practice; the practice is the object(ive).” Their case in point is an art project/participatory ethnography aimed at development of a sense of home that they conducted among inhabitants of an underprivileged, stigmatized, and highly divided area of Melbourne. Their artwork is an ethnography—an “articulation of actually existing, or ‘lived (social) space,’ where people go to work or school and are potentially deskilled, made sick, deprived of benefits, are not permitted to withdraw their laboring bodies or not to participate” (Oliver and Badham, this issue, 156). But it is about making difference in this space. This articulation of space links ethnographic conceptualism with the “situationalism”[6] of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre, aimed at disruption of “the bourgeois life” by staging street events to jolt passersby from their “normal” ways of thinking. The movement’s key concept was dérive, a disruption of the expected.

But Internationale Situationniste is no avant-garde “International” that in the early twentieth century called for a total revolution in society and artistic signification. This and other art after the 1960s seeks difference but is suspicious of a radically different outside. It protests against inequality, elitism, consumerism. According to Kosuth, conceptualism was “art of the Vietnam war era” (quoted in Alberro and Stimson 1999:345); Metzger’s “auto-destructive art” was part of his antinuclear politics. But like Jacque Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s “tactics,” or the Gramscian “war of attrition” (hegemony), in this art “Social Utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias and imitative strategies,” writes the theorist of relational aesthetics Bourriaud (2002:13). He calls plainly “futile” any more radically critical stance as based on the impossible, if not “regressive,” illusion of artists’ marginality (13).

A disruption of the expected was also one of the key points of the “reflexive turn” in anthropology. Opening up to view conventions of ethnographic description sets in motion the reality that is being described—by showing how it is contested, negotiated, and subject to change. Opening up aesthetics or the society under study inserts a break and is an important point of intervention. But in the “writing culture” perspective, radical difference is part of the modern macronarratives of progress that this school critiques. The anthropology of the contemporary posits “a type of remediation” as its goal, not “reform or revolution” (Rabinow 2008:3). Both stress the open-endedness of the processes under investigation; neither are radical calls for alterity.

The anthropology of the contemporary is built not merely on the explicit contrast with anthropology as a window to the past but also on the analogy with “contemporary art”. It replaces modernism (cf. Foster 2009; Smith 2009) in addition to being about what is “here and now” as opposed to “far-away” and “timeless” (Marcus 2003). “The contemporary” is open-ended, incomplete, and ultimately unknown. The emerging is a different state of being than what has emerged, however recently, and can be compared precisely with the old. The emergent may include novelty or may not, may hold a degree of repetition, and its contingency does not necessarily equal difference: the “problem for an anthropology of the contemporary is to inquire into what is taking place without deducing it beforehand” (Rabinow 2008:3).

This directly parallels the notion of the audience’s reaction in conceptual art, which works best when unexpected. But the status of repetition here is interesting. One of Rabinow’s most vivid examples of “the contemporary” as a method is the series of performances of Richard Wagner’s Rings, conducted in 1976–1980 in Bayreuth by Pierre Boulez. He sums this up with a quote from Foucault’s review of these performances:

Boulez took seriously the Wagnerian idea of [operatic] drama in which music and text do not repeat each other, [that is, which] are not saying each in its own way the same thing; but rather one in which the orchestra, the song and the play of the actor, the tempos of the music, the movement of the scene, the decors must be composed as partial elements so as to constitute, during the time of the performance, a unique form, a singular event. (in Rabinow 2011:201)

This unique form and singular event to some extent repeats the musical score or dramatic plot, but this repetition entails difference. It is a reworking of the original script by the means of performance. Rabinow calls this “remediation,” a creative transfer between different media that constitutes the key methodological device of the anthropology of the contemporary (2008:3). Boulez’s performance illustrates the notion of remediation for Rabinow. He uses this to remediate art for anthropological purposes. Boulez’s performance is “a contemporary solution” for Wagner (Rabinow 2011:201, emphasis in the original) which works as “a contemporary solution” for the anthropology of the contemporary—“the accompaniment of time” at a time when “no single sensibility—modernist or otherwise—dominates, overarches, or underlies current affairs” (Rabinow 2008:78; Rabinow et al. 2008).

I would like now to compare this with the uncertainty principle in physics. In this comparison, however, my point is not to root this conceptualization in the authority of science but, on the contrary, to extend the theoretical connection with art. Umberto Eco makes this link with physics in his discussion of “open work” ([1962] 1989), an artistic movement in which Boulez was one of the key practitioners and which goes back to Mallarme’s Livre that can be read in any order. Open work is not so much a “composition as a field of possibilities.” For example, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstiick XI presents the performer with a single sheet of music paper with a series of note groupings. The performer is to choose where to start and in which order to play. The performer is not merely free to interpret the composer—this happens, Eco says, in any performance of any music—but to decide on the sequence of the piece. The “instrumentalist’s freedom is a function of the ‘narrative’ structure of the piece.” These “mobile compositions” or “open artworks” generate “theoretical aesthetics” that are shared across cultural production but also make developments in art, from Eco’s point of view, akin to the general breakdown in the concept of causation in contemporary physics, with its principles of uncertainty and complementarity ([1962] 1989:13). The transition from compositional aesthetics to open artwork is akin for him to the move from Newton’s mechanics to particle physics. It is a move in scale from physical bodies to particles but also from mechanical determinism to indeterminacy and multiplicity of causations.

Via Boulez, let me link Rabinow’s remediation and Eco’s open work with the way artistic performance can be approached ethnographically. Sergio Jarillo de la Torre (this issue) explores two examples of contemporary art. One is the photography of Thomas Struth, who snaps how visitors of the Prado, the Hermitage, or the Louvre contemplate iconic artworks. These viewers and their unposed body language create relational possibilities between the artwork and the art world in the age of mass tourism—from appreciation and curiosity to boredom and fatigue, from art as fetish to a box to be ticked. This exemplifies an ethnographic archive of such performances of meanings of art. But second, Christoph Büchel’s installation Simply Botiful, in a large warehouse in East London, is an environment which is not marked explicitly as art. It is for the audience to explore and make—make into art or possibly not into art.

The uncertainty principle pervades these projects, much as Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll’s art and ethnography is an exercise in “performing viewers.” She created artwork out of public commentary on the former Yugoslavian monuments, “subtracted the physical monument from the acts of public writing on them” (Carroll, this issue, 101), made this into installation for the 52nd Venice Biennale and Škuc Gallery in Ljubljana in 2007, and presents here an ethnography of this commentary—an autoethnography of her project and a contextualization of socialist and nationalist monumental politics in the Balkans. Yet her study also warns of a flip side to the uncertainty principle that Eco celebrated. If observation influences what is observed and performance is not merely a repetition, the opposite is always a possibility too. Influencing and performing may entail repetition of more that we intend. With regard to Yugoslavian politics, Carroll sums this up with the saying “fight the dragon long, the dragon you become.” But there are also dragons in the shadows of Stalinism and empire that other cases in this special issue discuss (see Murawski; Sosnina; Ssorin-Chaikov, review essay; all in this issue).

Making the Unknown: The Laboratory of Ethnographic Conceptualism

Like conceptual art and the anthropology of the contemporary, EC reveals social and aesthetic potentialities. It elicits new responses and reactions, explicates unexpected links, points out unforeseen aesthetic figurations. But if it is no avant-garde as it does not posit a “new world” that it aims to achieve by artistic or research means, and if what it does then is add complexity and multiplicity to the existing world, what does it add to anthropology and art that deal with complexity and multiplicity? What difference does ethnographic conceptualism make/describe with regard to what was called in the 1980s the postmodern and now the emergent and open-ended?

Hirokazu Miyazaki and Annelise Riles observed that the focus on emergence, complexity, and assemblage “implicitly resigns to the fact that little can be known about the world except for the fact of complexity, indeterminacy and open-endedness.” In these “aesthetics of emergence” there is “a retreat from knowing.” Furthermore, this retreat avoids, from their point of view, the recognition of failure of our own knowledge, as the anthropology of the contemporary locates indeterminacy and complexity “out there” in the world (Miyazaki and Riles 2005:327), rather than within our own episteme. As a solution, they suggest that we observe this failure of knowledge in parallel between the ethnographic knowledge situation and the contexts that we explore. For instance, in the financial markets that Miyazaki and Riles study, they observe an analogous retreat from knowing and a replacement of knowledge with hope.

“The method of hope” is a valuable resource for ethnographic conceptualism that Felix Ringel (this issue) deploys by means of his conceptualist interventions in Hoyerswerda, a town which used to be a model of socialist modernity in the GDR but has undergone a steep decline following German reunification. But there his own “method of hope” is not merely analogous to his informants’ but mutually constitutive. The social reality that he depicts is partly a reaction to himself writing anthropological commentary in a local newspaper, engaging Hoyerswerda youth in ethnographic projects, and initiating an art project in what was once a model part of the “model city” that was soon to be demolished. Just before this block’s final deconstruction, it was painted all over, inside and outside, and filled with various artifacts—such as countless little purple figures, two inches tall and cut out of cardboard, that were installed throughout the staircases and flats, said to be “running around” and asking the tourist’s question, “Excuse me, what is the way to the city center?” (Ringel, this issue, 50).

But let me consider a different, but equally methodological, implication of the aesthetics of emergence. For me, the problem with acknowledging complexity and open-endedness is not only an implicit retreat from knowing (Miyazaki and Riles 2005) but also the opposite of this retreat. It is actually the repetition of what is already known. If we already know that things are complex, we do not really need ethnography, conceptualist or not, just to affirm that. Complexity is a good question but a bad answer.

But it is more interesting to approach complexity and open-endedness not as results but tools of highlighting what is unknown. It is in this quality that ethnographic conceptualism is useful in its performative stance. If it constructs the reality that it studies (“thesis four” above), this means that it actually fabricates the unknown. I suggest treating this complexity and open-endedness not as “fact” but anti-fact. Anti-facts identify areas of the unknown, although they are not, or at least not yet, “new results”; and they contain precisely the kind of unexpected that is central to contemporary art. The notion of anti-fact complements Helio Oiticica’s “anti-art.”

Anti-fact is different both from a fact and from the exposition of a fact as artifact. Facts already describe what is established (what “we know for a fact”). The anthropological critique of objectivism describes what procedures and arrangements and what taken for granted assumptions constitute the conditions of possibility for this knowing (Callon 1986; Latour 1999). But the vector of this description runs parallel to the vector of scientific discovery, although it renders discovery as manufacture. Artifacts are facts of sorts. They appear when the aura of complexity of science—and, as Kosuth puts it in his “Notes on the Anthropologized Art,” the “opacity” of the traditional language of art—began losing their “believability.” With that “began, through the sixties, an increased shift of locus from the ‘unbelievable’ object to what was believable and real: the context” (Kosuth [1974] 1991:99). Emergent as the context may be, in a way it is no surprise. To make it a surprise again, the anti-fact of ethnographic conceptualism is a move in the opposite direction. It defamiliarizes the context, and it is in this sense the opposite of the conceptual as in conceptual art and also in the anthropological theory as artwork that I suggested above. It is an “auto-destruction” (in Gustav Metzger sense) of concepts in the unknown.


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  1. From avant-garde and surrealism onwards, anthropology has been a continuous source of inspiration for contemporary art. Kosuth’s perspective is distinct as it does not draw on the anthropological trope of otherness for artistic imagination. Kosuth in fact critiques this trope as it existed in the 1970s: “what may be interesting about the artist-as-anthropologist is that the artist’s activity is not outside, but a mapping of an internalizing cultural activity in his own society. The artist-as-anthropologist may be able to accomplish what the anthropologist has always failed at” ([1975] 1991:121). This is not “artist as ethnographer” who is “locating truth in terms of alterity” (Foster 1995:204).
  2. A man carried two full-length sandwich boards with “This is not ‘Art’ in itself but a means of creating it,” printed on them (graduation exhibition, School of Art and Design, Nottingham Trent University, UK, 2004 [Lamarque 2010:220]).
  3. An example of this questioning of object is Air Show/Air Conditioning, a proposal for a column of air as artwork by Michael Baldwin and Terry Atkinson (Baldwin 1967).
  4. The Alternative History of Art, Garazh, Moscow, 2008.
  5. See also Art as Idea as Idea by Joseph Kosuth, 1966 (
  6. This was a radical political and cultural movement, which centered around journals Internationale Situationniste (1957–1969) and Spur (1960–1961).


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Last updated: December 13, 2008 1:38 am

Indian art defies global conceptualism

Two London exhibitions, the Serpentine Gallery’s Indian Highway and Aicon’sSigns Taken for Wonders, are the UK’s most ambitious attempts yet to distil coherence into the chaotic rush of art emerging from the Indian subcontinent.The marriage between the conceptually minded Serpentine and Indian art – whose overriding characteristics are narrative drive, flamboyant figuration and sensuous colour – is interesting because it is so unlikely. Recent memorable Indian installations have been sprawling, direct and often rooted in the animal motifs of folklore: Bharti Kher’s “The Skin Speaks a Language Not Its Own”, a collapsed fibreglass elephant adorned with bindis (female forehead decorations) at Frank Cohen’s Passage to India, or Sudarshan Shetty’s bell-tolling aluminium cast of a pair of cows, now at the Royal Academy’s GSK Contemporary. Nothing like that is in Indian Highway; with conceptual aplomb, the Serpentine turns the accessibility and energy of Indian art into a taut cerebral game.



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The highway of the title refers both to the literal road of migration and movement, and to the information superhighway, which together are propelling India to modernity. Dayanita Singh’s wallpaper-photographs of Mumbai’s central arteries illuminated at night introduce the theme in the first gallery, and a crowd of sober documentary films worthily continue it – but a pair of installations catch the symbolism best. One is Bose Krishnamachari’s celebrated “Ghost/Transmemoir”, a collection of a hundred tiffin boxes – widely used to convey home-cooked lunches to workers across cities – each inset with LCD monitors, DVD players and headphones, through which everyday Mumbaikars regale audiences with their stories, accompanied by soundtracks evoking the high-pitched jangle and screech of Mumbai street life.

The other, towering upwards to the North Gallery’s dome like a beating black heart at the core of the show, is Sheela Gowda’s “Darkroom”, consisting of metal tar-drums stacked or flattened into wrap-around sheets, evoking at once the grandeur of classical colonnades and the ad hoc shacks built by India’s road workers. Inside, the darkness is broken by tiny dots of light through holes punctured in the ceiling like a constellation of stars; yellow-gold paint enhances the lyric undertow in this harsh readymade.

Opposite is N S Harsha’s “Reversed Gaze”, a mural depicting a crowd behind a makeshift barricade who tilt out towards us – making us the spectacles at the exhibition. All Indian life is here in this comic whimsy: farmer, businessman, fundamentalist Hindu, anarchist with firebomb, pamphleteer, aristocrat in Nehruvian dress, south Indian in baggy trousers and vest, tourist clutching a miniature Taj Mahal, and an art collector holding a painting signed R Mutt – linking the entire parade to the urinal, signed R Mutt, with which Marcel Duchamp invented conceptual art in 1917.

Essential to the meaning of “Reversed Gaze” is that it will be erased when the exhibition closes – a slap in the face for the predatory art market. So will the pink and purple bindi wall painting “The Nemesis of Nations” by Bharti Kher, who recently joined expensive international gallery Hauser and Wirth. And a canvas of drawings greeting visitors as they enter is all that is left of Nikhil Chopra’s performance piece “Yog Raj Chitrakar”, in which the artist this week spent three days assuming the persona of his grandfather, an immaculately dressed gentleman of the Raj, and lived and slept in a tent in Kensington Gardens, entering the gallery only to daub the canvas that stands as an art of aftermath – a memory drawing.

Painting here is a vanishing act. Maqbool Fida Husain (aged 93) has made 13 bright poster-style works – red elephants, a tea ceremony after a tiger shooting, a satirical Last Supper with dapper businessman, umbrella, briefcase, body parts – to surround the exterior of the Serpentine. MF Husain is India’s most respected artist; with these billboards, executed in his standard style of forceful black contours, angular lines and bright palette, he returns to his career origins as a painter of cinema advertisements.

In the catalogue, curator Ranjit Hoskote argues that “transcultural experience is the only certain basis of contemporary practice” and that “the chimera of auto-Orientalism, with its valorisation of a spurious authenticity to be secured as the guarantee of an embattled local against an overwhelming global, has been swept away”.

But Husain, godfather to generations of Indian artists, and indeed every piece inIndian Highway – from feminist painter Nalini Malani’s looping fantasy figures intricately inked on bamboo paper in “Tales of Good and Evil” to Jitish Kallat’s photographic series “Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer)”, chronicling the demolition of slum dwellings – proves the opposite: however hard a western gallery tries to make Indian art talk a global conceptual language, its local strengths speak louder. Indian art, on this showing, is visually arresting and thoughtful, but nothing here is formally or conceptually innovative, or aesthetically provocative. We thus respond to its distinctive idiom and themes as cultural tourists.

This is the context in which Aicon, London’s leading commercial gallery of Indian art, opened last year. Signs Taken as Wonders is a Christmas selling show but is also intelligently structured around the perennial subject of India’s shifting identities, with misrecognition the trope: out-of-focus photographs of buildings and anonymous steel workers in RAQS Collective’s “Misregistration”; deconstruction of stereotypes in Vivek Vilasini’s “Vernacular Chants” prints; the contrast between questioning pose and expression and monumentality in Riyas Komu’s cropped, close-up “Borivali Boy II”.

This show complements the Serpentine’s by emphasising the painterly, such as the fragmented textures and touches of surrealism in Husain’s veiled “Women of Yemen”. In particular, the swirling abstract patterns and slabs of twisting colour in Krishnamachari’s “Stretched Bodies” – portraits of disintegration and change that deny the possibility of single truths, and the delicate ink-on-silk drawings of his “Mumbiya” depiction of a typical citizen, which seems to fade into elusiveness as you draw near – add layers to the vision of chaotic, vibrant Mumbai in the artist’s “Ghost” installation at the Serpentine. Krishnamachari describes the average Mumbaikar as “an ocean of anxieties that have arisen from the everyday question of acceptance”. Flitting between these shows, you feel most of all that uneasiness, both in the creation of Indian art and in our uncertain response to it.

‘Indian Highway’, Serpentine Gallery, London to February 22 . ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’, Aicon Gallery, London, to January 24





SHOWINGOctober 24, 2000 – December 31, 2000


Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, featuring more than 200 works by over 130 international artists, offers snapshots of the diverse iterations of conceptual, or idea-based, art over the course of several generations.

The exhibition examines the contemporaneous burgeoning of art that draws its meaning primarily from its content rather than from its form, or appearance, across the world beginning in the 1950s. Grouped into regional sections the exhibition is organized in two chronological sections: the 1950s through around 1973 (Japan, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Australia and New Zealand); and 1973 through the end of the 1980s (the Soviet Union [Russia], Africa, South Korea, and Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). These periods correspond to two waves of conceptualist activities that took place in various parts of the world as post-war social and political upheaval prompted among artists a re-examination of traditional forms of representation and a renewal of questions regarding art’s social utility. Much of the art in the exhibition, which takes the form of photographs, documentation, films, videos, postcards, posters, drawings, as well as paintings, mixed media objects, and installations, was made to provoke the viewer by disturbing previously accepted ideas about social, political, and cultural systems.

Global Conceptualism; Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s was organized by the Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, New York, by a curatorial team consisting of former QMA director of exhibitions Jane Farver, now director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center; artist, critic, and curator Luis Camnitzer; and Rachel Weiss, an independent curator and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The three primary organizers were joined by a corps of eleven international curators who provided intelligence on each of the regions examined. They include: László Beke (Eastern Europe), Chiba Shigeo and Reiko Tomii (Japan), Okwui Enwezor (Africa), Gao Minglu (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), Claude Gintz (Western Europe), Mari Carmen Ramírez (Latin America), Terry Smith (Australia and New Zealand), Sung Wan-Kyung (South Korea), Margarita Tupitsyn (Russia), and Peter Wollen (North America).


How Do We Know What Latin American Conceptualism Looks Like?

Miguel A. López

Tags: Gerardo Mosquera, Luis Camnitzer

‘Tucumán Arde', 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale

‘Tucumán Arde’, 1968, third phase of the campaign: poster calling for the 1st Bienal de Arte de Vanguardia. Image courtesy Archivo Graciela Carnevale

A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first Conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. – Eduardo Costa1


On 28 April 1999 the exhibition ‘Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s’ opened at New York’s Queens Museum of Art. Organised by Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss, consisting of eleven geographically defined sections and curated by a large, international group of art historians and researchers, the exhibition formulated one of the riskiest and most controversial interpretations of so-called Conceptual art at an international level. The show was ambitious. Its structure created a geographical spill-over that called into question the lesser or secondary place to which certain critical productions had been consigned. The framework of analysis was the global set of social and political transformations that have taken place since 1950, and the emergence of new forms of political action that formed the backdrop to a renewed repertoire of visual language. Such a scope allowed the curators to gather aesthetic proposals not defined in the exhibition by a Conceptualist ‘aesthetics of immateriality’, but instead by their capacity for intervention.2This approach, without doubt, shifted the very rules according to which the history of Conceptual art had been written. Those radical changes of the modes of producing andgiving value to art exposed by ‘Global Conceptualism’ reveal complex processes in which political subjectivities oppose the consensual organisation of power and its distribution of places and roles, mobilising singular and collective resistances and dissenting energies.

Ten years on, the shockwaves can still be felt, perhaps even more intensely than at the time. In different ways, ‘Global Conceptualism’ updated some of the debates that had been attempting to raise the issue of subjectivity in social practices from a post-colonial perspective, disputing the geographical and temporal orders of a modern or colonial Occidentalism.3 Hence, it was no surprise that the show became one of the most quoted (and most questioned) referents of the revival of 1960s and 70s critical production that has taken place over the past decade in exhibitions, seminars and publications around the world.

While much has been said about the decentralising virtues of ‘Global Conceptualism’, in retrospect its most significant legacy appears not only to be the broadening of the Conceptual art map (a move that had a bearing on several subsequent curatorial projects), but the way in which the exhibition questioned the identity of a Conceptual art with universal aspirations. The curatorial operation of ‘Global Conceptualism’ started from a categorical distinction between ‘Conceptual art’ – understood as a North American and Western European aesthetic development associated with a formalist reduction inherited from abstraction and Minimalism – and ‘Conceptualism’, a term denoting a critical return to an ‘ordering of priorities’ that made visible certain aesthetic processes on a transnational level, allowing for diverse historical, cultural and political narratives to be set in place.4 Conceptualism was presented as a phenomenon that took place in a ‘federation of provinces’, with the ‘traditional hegemonic centre [being] one among many’, drawing a multiplicity of points of origin and questioning the privileged position claimed by Western modernity and its politics of representation.5 The exhibition seemed to work as a performative apparatus determined to re-politicise, reconfigure and rewrite the memory of those decades. As a result Conceptual art, which from the perspective of the United States and Western Europe had until then been an unavoidable prism for reading other critical productions, appeared fractured.

The shrewdness of the ‘Global Conceptualism’ gesture no doubt managed to effectively dominate the critical framework from which one would contemplate and validate those antagonistic practices. But more importantly, and perhaps without intending to, it allowed for the reconsideration of Conceptualism as the effect of a discourse (or multiplicity of discourses) that had itself caused breaks and a major questioning of the fabric of certain local memories – albeit in some cases at the expense of reinforcing lineages and typologies. These are complex manoeuvres, and their political implications must be addressed. What do we achieve today by reflecting on Conceptual art’s radical dimension from the perspective of the ways in which it has been historicised? How should we assess the political impact of such histories, and their effect on possible forms of recognition? Furthermore, how might we assess this effect on the production of certain forms of subjectivisation and sociability?6


The struggle of Latin American historiography to place local episodes within global narratives, in an attempt to counter the dominant geographies of art, has been successful. For some time now, artists such as Hélio Oiticica, León Ferrari, Lygia Clark, Alberto Greco, Luis Camnitzer, Cildo Meireles, Oscar Bony and Artur Barrio, or collective experiences such as ‘Tucumán Arde’ (‘Tucumán Burns’, 1968) and ‘Arte de los medios’ (‘Art of Media’, 1966), have become unavoidable references in virtually all recent accounts that trace the so-called inaugural landmarks of Conceptualism on a transcontinental scale. Today, however, this apparent expansion of discourse seems to demand renewed reflection, as it is no longer a matter of tirelessly continuing to accommodate events in the endless container we believe history to be, but of questioning the ways in which they reappear and the roles they play within it. Such reflection will enable us to examine the anachronisms and discontinuities of historical discourse – its fragments, snippets, shreds – and activate their ability to disrupt once again the logic of the ‘verified facts’.

In the recent essay ‘Cartografías Queer’ (2008),7 the theorist Beatriz Preciado discusses the formation of historiographic models of the so-called sexual difference from the perspective of a queer epistemological critique that could be very useful for us in this task. Considering the political scope of the historical exercise, Preciado avoids the taxonomy of places, situations or individuals and instead proposes, in direct dialogue with Félix Guattari’s ‘schizoanalytic cartographies’, a map that gives an account of the technologies of representation and modes of production of subjectivities.8 This map makes explicit how certain dominant diagrams of representation of sexual minorities come dangerously close to becoming mechanisms of social control and discipline. Can we envision a way of reading and representing that does not result in an illustrative exercise of description, but that instead allows for the perception of variations and displacements that appear as forms of subjectivisation, or even as machines of political transformation that disrupt previously established arrangements?

Preciado brings into play two antagonistic historiographic figures: the conventional model of ‘identity cartography’ (or ‘cartography of the lion’, as she terms it), concerned with seeking, defining and classifying the identities of bodies; and a ‘critical cartography’ (‘queer cartography’ or ‘cartography of the bitch’), which sidesteps writing as a topography of established representations in order instead to ‘sketch out a map of the modes of production of subjectivity’, observing the ‘technologies of representation, information and communication’ as genuine performative machines.9 These two models are divergent not only in their modes of producing visibility, but also in their ways of battling the technologies that mediate the political construction of knowledge. These issues are pervaded by the relationship between power and knowledge, and even to a greater extent by biopolitical modes of production linked to the codes of representation and the allocation of places in social space.10 Such crucial issues must be considered at a time when ‘dematerialised’ logic has begun to strike up an effective dialogue with the dynamics of global capitalism on immaterial goods.11

Following (or perhaps perverting) Preciado’s reflections, it may not be difficult to acknowledge that until recently most historiographies of modern and contemporary art have been ‘cartographies of identities’. Among these, ‘Conceptual art’ surfaced as a sanctionable identity, and the historiographic task resembled that of a detective tracking down the still unfound remains of Conceptualism in order to introduce them into the topography of the visible. It strives to offer a genealogy and geography of that which is totally representable – bringing those experiences into historical account, dispelling the mists that surrounded them, and clarifying a place apparently recovered.12

But let’s try the opposite exercise too. Let’s imagine a cartography not interested in seeking out the fragments of Conceptual art, one that even doubts the existence of such pieces. Let’s imagine a map that instead aims to explore the label itself, observing its uses and noting how it produces identities in different contexts; a map that, before attempting to function as a technique of representation, tries to expose power relations, ‘the architecture, displacement and spatialisation of power as a technology for the production of subjectivity’.13 Here it would no longer be a question of establishing formal resemblances between works, or of dating those that can effectively guide us in recognising the ‘Conceptual’ or ‘Conceptualist’ category (and its regional derivatives such as ‘Argentinean’, ‘Brazilian’ or ‘Latin American’) but, rather, of finding out how those narratives have determined the materiality and forms of visibility of what they hoped to describe, how they have negotiated their place within and without the institution and distributed it after having transformed these critical art forms into received knowledge.

Taking that tension between the cartographic models in their identitarian and queer versions as a starting point, I would like to pose a series of questions concerning some of the recent cartographical representations of Conceptual art: first, by revisiting one of the most influential accounts of so-called Latin American Conceptualism and the re-inscription of the ‘ideological’ as a category from which to consider aesthetic trends in the region; and second, by analysing a recent, almost unnoticed Argentinean exhibition that proposed a strategy for reflecting politically on how it is possible to reassess the ruptures triggered by 1960s avant-garde movements and the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. The show, notably, put forward an approach to the archive that refuses to treat this event as a chapter in the history of art and instead reactivates the anachronistic heterogeneity of meanings borne by the documentary remnants.


It was not until the early 1990s that one of the first programmatic essays of Latin American Conceptualism was published, and its ideological reverberations have accompanied many of the considerations on the subject since. Art historian Mari Carmen Ramírez wrote the essay ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ (1993) for the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century’, curated by Waldo Rasmussen and organised by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1992.14The exhibition, which was first opened to the public in Seville and produced in the context of the celebrations commemorating the fifth centenary of the ‘discovery of America’ – a controversial exhibition on account of its perceived condescending and stereotyping discourse15 – was one of the culminating stages of the boom of Latin American art that began in the mid-1980s and fostered a depoliticised representation of Latin American culture and history, which was strongly associated with private promotional and funding interests both in the US and Latin America. The political landscape at that time included the re-establishment of democratic governments throughout the subcontinent, the internal crisis of the Left and the introduction of neo-liberal policies following the Washington Consensus.16 For several of the intellectuals who were symbolically mediating the cultural production between North and South America at the time, such as the Cuban art historian and curator Gerardo Mosquera, the Chilean feminist cultural critic Nelly Richard or Ramírez herself, it was clear that what was at stake were the mechanisms of representation of the American continent at the end of the Cold War, and therefore a totally renewed political economy of signs catalysed by a sequence of exhibitions of Latin American art outside of Latin America – exhibitions that effectively were beginning to draw a new exotic, formalist and neo-colonial framework of interpretation.17

The very title of the text – ‘Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’ – announced Ramírez’s focus on disruptive aesthetic forms and their socio-cultural conditions, something that was not in Rasmussen’s exhibition. The essay attempted to provide a unitary legibility to radical experiences that had until then been in large part unrelated (some of which not only had remained indifferent to the nomenclature but even rejected it),18 and by doing so it gave the label ‘Latin American Conceptualism’ one of its first major concrete manifestations. Ramírez’s intention was to challenge the then common assumption that Latin American Conceptual art was a poor, late imitation of Conceptual art ‘from the centre’, and hoped to politicise its readings by means of an argument that assigned positive value to an apparent Latin American difference. In opposition to the limited North American and British ‘analytical’ or ‘tautological’ model, the Latin American model was presented as ‘ideological Conceptualism’. Ramírez traced this binary distinction back to 1974, when it was discussed by the Spanish critic Simón Marchán Fiz, but did not go as far as to question it.19

Ramírez believed the dichotomy revealed the prominence of the ideas of a sadly self-referential Kosuth, heir apparent to the positivist legacy of Modernism. ‘In Kosuth’s model the artwork as conceptual proposition is reduced to a tautological or self-reflexive statement. He insisted that art consists of nothing other than the artist’s idea of it, and that art can claim no meaning outside itself,’20Ramírez says, echoing – voluntarily or not – some of the criticism that art historian Benjamin Buchloh had put forward fiercely just four years before,21 and indirectly playing down the political dimension implicit in the linguistic turn and its break with late-modern formalism. She thereby created an interpretative formula repeated almost to the letter in several of her subsequent essays, opposing, in general terms, a ‘depoliticised’ North American canon with a ‘political’ Latin American Conceptualism that subverts the structure of the former and actively intervenes in social space. The assertion, though somewhat provocative, traces a particularly narrow and dichotomous path of analysis, indebted to essentialist nuances that fail to establish a genuine antagonism.22

However, our intention here is not to denounce an ‘incorrect’ reading of Conceptualism, to dispute labels or to reduce Ramírez’s discourse to the use of such categories (conversely, her work puts forward noteworthy observations on the political use of communication and the ‘recovery’ of the mass-produced object in these processes). Rather, it instead is to note how that ‘difference’ shaped a specific visibility and morphology, making the distinction part of many of the debates surrounding the interpretations of the situation and, surprisingly or not, part of the ‘central’, dominant narratives, where it functions as a mystifying cliché in a process of categorisation and normalisation. Returning to some of Ramírez’s ideas, the philosopher and art theorist Peter Osborne observes:

‘Ideological content’ is the key term of Latin American Conceptual art. In distinction from the more formal ideational concerns of most US and European Conceptual art (the act/event, mathematical series, linguistic propositions or the structures of cultural forms), this was an art for which ‘ideology itself became the fundamental “material identity” of the conceptual proposition.’23

Along similar lines, though without circumscribing the ‘analytical-linguistic’ to North American Conceptualism, Alexander Alberro repeats the argument:

[T]he most extreme alternatives to models of analytic Conceptualism in the late 1960s and early 70s are those that developed in the deteriorating political and economic climate of a number of Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile.24

And in a more recent book, formulated as a Conceptualist ‘census’ of Spain with categories such as ‘poetic’, ‘political’ and ‘peripheral’, the historian Pilar Parcerisas revisits Ramírez’s thesis,25 scorning ‘the premises of the analytical orthodoxy of Conceptual art in English-speaking countries’ by attempting to elaborate on the political character of the ‘periphery’. From a range of perspectives in Latin America, that difference has been repeatedly recovered, with variations, in several recent accounts of the 1960s and 70s.26

Rather than objecting to the use of the term or any of its related epithets, what I am attempting to do is underline the need to deploy it as a diagram of power, to assess which meanings and distinctions, and which processes of normalisation and resistance are concealed in such consensual representations. This reconsideration demands a different articulation to the other concepts used by critics and artists when considering their own positions: minor expressions (to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari),27 the gradual erosion of which has contributed to the standardisation of radical experiences in order that they may establish an ‘appropriate’ exchange with centralist discourses.

For example, it would be provocative to consider the term ‘dematerialisation’ in the context of Argentina’s experimental art scene in the 1960s as the Argentinean theoretician Oscar Masotta proposed in 1967 – independently from Lucy Lippard – as deriving from El Lissitsky and his plan to integrate artists into the publishing industry of revolutionary Russia of the 1920s.28It also would be challenging to rethink a term such as ‘no-objetualismo‘ (non-object-based art), coined in Mexico by Peruvian critic Juan Acha around 1973, as part of a Marxist approach to counter-cultural protest and collective artistic experiences of the Mexican ‘grupos’ (Proceso Pentagono, Grupo Suma and No-Grupo, among others), but most significantly to indigenous aesthetic processes, such as popular art and design, that question Western art history.29 Or to re-examine concepts that artists employ to reflect on their own practice: Argentinean Ricardo Carreira uses the term ‘deshabituación‘ (‘dishabituation’) to refer to an aesthetic theory based on the political transformation of the environment through estrangement.30 In the early 1960s Alejandro Jodorowsky spoke of ‘efímeros‘ (‘ephemerals’) in reference to his series of improvised and provocative actions confronting conventional theatre, halfway between psychotropic mysticism and fantastic esotericism,31 while Edgardo Antonio Vigo’s ‘revulsive’ aesthetic agenda pledged to destabilise the roles of the artist – on other occasions Vigo defined himself as an ‘un-maker of objects’.32 These are but a few of the entries in the critical repertoire still in the shadow of the hegemonic rhetoric. Such subterranean theoretical constructs pose a latent conflict, a multitude of not-yetarticulated and potential genealogies. Beyond mere naming, these words appear as proof of the fact that there is something irreducible – a discordant crossing of stories that point to divergent ways of living and constructing the contemporary – its capacity to unfold other times.


Forty years after ‘Tucumán Arde’, the exhibition ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, organised in 2008 in the Argentinean city of Rosario, offered one of the sharpest readings among the host of curatorial approaches that have explored the episodes of radicalism and rupture in Argentina in 1968.33 That year, several groups of artists, film-makers, journalists and intellectuals organised a series of experiences that connected cultural and artistic production with dissenting forms of political intervention – often with revolutionary claims – in collaboration with militant sectors of the workers’ movement. These collaborations dramatically modified artistic and cultural practices, resulting in progressively radicalised experiences in several contexts. In this context, a group of artists – invited to the exhibition ‘Experiencias ’68’ that was organised by the pre-eminent Instituto Di Tella – broke with the institution, exhibiting in ‘Experiencias’ politically critical artworks. When the police banned one of these – an installation of a public toilet, in which the public wrote slogans critical of the military dictatorship – the artists protested, destroying their works in the streets and distributing a text denouncing the increasing repression in the country. This incident became the trigger for a major rethinking of their commitment to the artistic avant-garde, formulating a new programme of action that comprises the ‘Tucumán Arde’ episode. Once outside of the institution, the artists began a process of documentation and social intervention aimed at generating counter-information about the causes and consequences of the crisis that was affecting the Tucumán province after the closure of several sugar mills, and then mounting two public displays in the labour unions in Rosario and in Buenos Aires, which was closed by the police. The project connected artists with sociologists, journalists, theorists, unions, the workers’ movement and others in a process of dispute and intervention in which aesthetic and political strategies were interchanged.34

The ‘Inventario’ exhibition tried to re-assess the celebrated entry of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into the canonical historiography of international art,35 as well as its recognition as a foundational episode of Latin American, even global, ‘ideological Conceptualism’ (or ‘the mother of all political works’, as artist and sociologist Roberto Jacoby has ironically called it).36 The project introduced itself as a questioning of the process of legitimisation and institutionalisation of ‘political art’ that in recent years had focused on the 1968 events, in particular on ‘Tucumán Arde’, and resulted in a global tour that took it, among other places, to documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007.37 What is won and what is lost in the process of ‘Tucumán Arde’ becoming a legend? How should we approach the complex and heterogeneous weft of political subjectivities inscribed in the rupture of the Argentinean avant-garde of the 1960s? Is ‘Tucumán Arde’, as a landmark, a watershed moment, capable of giving an account of the most intense and radical moments of that process?

The exhibition took the transformation of ‘Tucumán Arde’ into an artwork as its starting point, approached through a selection of photographs and documents from the Carnevale archive in an attempt to visually compose a chronological micro-narrative that would describe the events of 1968. The adoption of this origin not only implied returning to the several narratives in which the Argentinean event had been inscribed over the past decade, but also exploring the documentary framework, the material background from which those reconstructions seemed to appear and disappear. The archive was put forward as capable of disrupting all narrative certainty. The exhibition had four sections, and its focus was on the display of the Carnevale archive, the most comprehensive archive of Argentinean art in the 1960s. The installation made the archive freely available (providing desks and the possibility of consulting and copying documents), enabling the circulation of conflicting accounts coming from other people involved at the time. If the fetishising logic had managed to fix the image of ‘Tucumán Arde’, reducing its complexities to mere forms with seemingly immediate meaning, this exhibition attempted to suggest a totally different cartography based on the analysis of the processes of institutional legibility, their discursive production, exhibition formats, economic transformations and publishing products, uncovering their interrelations and tensions.

‘Inventario’ opened with a long, empty corridor in which beams of light were aimed at the walls and floor. At the end of the tunnel a large number of archival images (many of them photographs taken by the group of artists from Buenos Aires and Rosario in 1968) were projected, accompanied by audio fragments of interviews held in the 1990s with trade unionists, artists and student leaders, protagonists and witnesses of several of the actions.38The entrance thereby presented an empty architecture that both revealed its own modes of display and suggested the impossibility of establishing a single story, disrupting, implicitly, the idea of the singular official version.

A second corridor presented a substantial part of Carnevale’s archive on walls and tables: photographs, posters, catalogues, writings and manifestos of the various Argentinean avant-garde events, alongside graphic work, pictures and other documents of experiences that connected art and politics in other contexts (from silkscreen prints by Taller 4 Rojo in Colombia to posters of the Brigadas Ramona Parra made before or during Salvador Allende’s socialist government in Chile, and others of the Encuentros de Plástica Latinoamericana in Havana). A panel in a third corridor traced the numerous events and exhibitions in which ‘Tucumán Arde’ had been recovered, quoted, exhibited or referenced, including information about the political and economic protocols in place in each institution, and photographs of how it was installed on each occasion. Materials related to the exhibition venue of ‘Inventario’ and the catalogue of the project (a detailed inventory of all the material in Carnevale’s archive) were displayed on several of the tables, where each publication, catalogue and edition referenced in the gallery was made available. Finally, a space presented the contributions of two recent archives generated by Argentinean activist-artists more recently involved in local experiences, posing questions about the different ways of granting visibility to those practices in an exhibition space.

The show was constructed as a series of interludes that paradoxically reformulated the collisions that had initially configured the history of the archive. The passage between one space and another acted as a distancing effect that rejected any possible teleology of facts. While the first gallery had seemed to point out the impossibility of a narrative through the random polyphony of voices and images, the third gave an account of an ‘excess of narratives’ on ‘Tucumán Arde’ and on its own construction (historiographic, curatorial, institutional, economic and social) through its recognisable trajectories and the multiple ways in which it was activated.39 Conversely, in the second gallery, the archive appeared as a potential story, an exhibited archive in use that offered its own migratory movements, its excesses and absences, its revolutions to come.

Put to use, the archive not only attempted to misplace ‘Tucumán Arde’, but to question its simple narration, re-enacting its original misidentification (its initial refusal to describe its practice as art but also its dissolution as an event driven by urgency), opening and exposing the layers of sedimentation it had accumulated. Unlike some recent interpretations that have tried to make it legible as a work of art either by taking a small number of documents and images accompanied by comments, a system of marks and footnotes for illustration purposes, or else by a total lack of comments or stories (dangerously verging on aestheticisation, as in documenta 12), this mise en scène brought fragments together according to their differences, including everything that was usually excluded from the consensual art-historical configurations that repeated its name. The installation of this exhibition rejected from the start all ‘reasonable’ understanding, showing, as Georges Didi-Huberman would say, not only the direction of its movement but the locus of its agitations.40

By presenting the actual archive, ‘Inventario’ also fell into contradictions: in spite of an attempt to present a multiplicity of times and events, as reflected by the heterogeneous archival material presented in the second tunnel, the inclusion of images of some of the most recognisable actions within ‘Tucumán Arde’ contributed to a repetition of the excessive prominence that ‘Tucumán Arde’ had already been given in written accounts of the late 1960s experiences. The photographs displayed throughout the gallery space, which had been enlarged for previous exhibitions in which they had been shown, provided an imposing presence themselves, at times even offering an unwitting chronology, especially if compared to the assemblage of documents that pointed to the complexity and impossibility of offering full descriptions. And yet, is it possible to escape from this already constructed significance?


In his most recent book, Luis Camnitzer establishes two key events for the reading of Latin American Conceptualism: the Tupamaro guerrilla group of the late 1960s in Uruguay, and the experience of rupture that led to ‘Tucumán Arde’ in 1968.41 What is important for me here is the invocation of the Argentinean experience in relation to politics from the point of view of militants, or even armed conflict. Despite the possible good intentions behind its attempt to politicise historiographic accounts, we should ask ourselves whether the twosome Tupamaros/’Tucumán Arde’ and the idealised image of ‘resistance’ in which it places the Latin American Conceptual art history implies a pre-established consensus that reaffirms a certain stereotype of subversive art. If that is the case, does this point to a dead end for the politicisation of Conceptualism, and for its criticism? To what extent has an experience such as ‘Inventario’ managed to suggest an alternative representation of the usual story, to fracture narrative certainties or to dispute its stereotyped places? Is it possible to establish a topography of that which cannot yet be named, an index that refuses nomenclatures and stands alone, only to become disorder and pure unpredictability?

I have followed two clues in what I consider the cartographic or diagrammatic forms of critical reading that operate in tension with recent processes of historicisation of ‘Latin American Conceptualism’. The first is an open question that speculates on the interpretative categories stabilised and legitimised in a specific order of discourse, and other secondary notions subsumed in that particular configuration of the ‘Latin American’ which presents itself as a uniform fabric – decentred concepts that would otherwise distort the usual flows of meaning and expose us to dissenting testimonies. The second is the gap between the conventional exhibition formats of ‘Tucumán Arde’, between the individuation of a set of documents that present the chronology of what is considered the artistic ‘episode’, and the presentation of the archive that disrupts and dismantles the order of this appearance. Besides its obvious limitations, the return to the archive is also a misidentification of an event countless times named – classified, arranged, defined – and whose name and materiality are repeatedly questioned in an attempt to bring difference to the surface. On display are merely temporary installations that enable us to return to those operations as a potential space from which to redefine relations between spaces, words and bodies.42

Forty years ago the Argentinean artist Eduardo Costa made a piece in which he proposed a counter-history of Latin American Conceptualism, one based on mixing up the dates: A piece that is essentially the same as a piece made by any of the first conceptual artists, dated two years earlier than the original and signed by somebody else. In this short text, written for the exhibition ‘Art in the Mind’, Costa suggested stealing history as a political activation of Conceptual practice, challenging ‘reasonable’ consolidations by historical narrative – a historiographic practice deliberately formulated around error.43 His work seemed to insist on the possibility of thinking that rationalist history has been permanently mistaken – that there is no possible story, but merely a circumstantial sum of paradoxes, trades and sleights of hand, and that an erratic alteration in its diagram of successions simply adds to its most joyous (in)coherence, celebrating its impossibility.

Costa’s work reminds us that history is never neutral, and if there should be any pending task it is precisely to be unfaithful to it, to betray it. This does not mean giving up on historical reflection, but rather corrupting whatever degree of Christian fidelity and Calvinist obedience history still inspires, unravelling its destiny and ultimate causes. Looking back at those events consigned to oblivion should allow us to recover their salutary force, their emancipatory thrill and at the same time to activate a nostalgia for the future. We do not recover the past in order to make it exist as a bundle of skeletons, but to disturb the orders and assurances of the present. The task of reintegrating the subversive component of whatever we happen to be historicising can’t be resolved by communicating as truth what we apparently know. It is neither a question of producing exhibitions or books on a certain theme, nor of drawing up lists, directories or summaries. It is a question of making the event spill over and break down established modes of thinking about the past and the future, and generating ways of allowing for whatever is excluded to eventually challenge the consensus and bring back the parts of an unresolved conflict.

  1. Eduardo Costa, quoted in Athena T. Spear (ed.), Art in the Mind (exh. cat.), Oberlin, OH: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1970, n.p.
  2. The term ‘dematerialisation’, introduced by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in 1968, for a long time was used as the key term to identify Conceptual art in North America and Western Europe. See Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’,Art International, vol.12, no.2, February 1968, pp.31-36 and Lucy R. Lippard (ed.), Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York: Praeger, 1973.
  3. In Latin America those discussions happened around the Bienal de La Habana, which, since its creation in 1984, has become an important forum of discussion disengaged from the international art market. Another significant moment at an international scale is the coinciding in 1997 of documenta X, curated by Catherine David, and the second Johannesburg Biennial, curated by Okwui Enwezor.
  4. Luis Camnitzer points out that ‘while “conceptual art” is an anecdotal little label in the history of universal art, “conceptualism” as a strategy created a rupture in the appreciation of all art and in the behaviour of artists, regardless of their location’. Fernando Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer: “Global Conceptualism fue algo intestinal e incontrolable, al mismo tiempo que presuntuoso y utópico”‘, Ramona, no.86, November 2008, p.29. See also Rachel Weiss, ‘Re-writing Conceptual Art’, Papers d’Art, no.93, 2007, pp.198-202. Translation the author’s.
  5. F. Davis, ‘Entrevista a Luis Camnitzer’, op. cit., p.26.
  6. This last question was put forward by theoretician José Luis Brea in his considerations of the political effects of visuality. See J.L. Brea, ‘Los estudios visuales: por una epistemología política de la visualidad’, in J.L. Brea (ed.), Los estudios visuales: La epistemología de la visualidad en la era de la globalización, Madrid: Akal, 2005, pp.5-14.
  7. Beatriz Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer: El flâneur perverso, la lesbiana topofóbica y la puta multicartográfica, o cómo hacer una cartografía “zorra” con Annie Sprinkle’, in José Miguel Cortés (ed.), Cartografías disidentes, Madrid: SEACEX, 2008, n.p.
  8. See Félix Guattari, Cartographies schizoanalytiques, Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1989.
  9. B. Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer‘, op. cit.
  10. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt remind us, these biopolitical modes of production do not only involve the production of tangible goods in a purely economic sense, but ‘affect all spheres of social, economic, cultural and political life, at the same time as they produce them’. A. Negri and M. Hardt, ‘Preface’, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2001, p.xi.
  11. Boris Groys has clearly expressed some of the effects of this paradox in art: ‘If life is no longer understood as a natural event, as fate, as Fortuna, but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, then life is automatically politicised, since the technical and artistic decisions with respect to the shaping of the lifespan are always political decisions as well. The art that is made under these new conditions of biopolitics – under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan – cannot help but take this artificiality as its explicit theme. Now, however, time, duration and thus life too cannot be shown directly but only documented. The dominant medium of modern biopolitics is thus bureaucratic and technological documentation, which includes planning, decrees, fact-finding reports, statistical inquiries and project plans. It is no coincidence that art also uses the same medium of documentation when it wants to refer to itself as life.’ Boris Groys, ‘Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation’, Documenta 11_ Platform 5: Exhibition (exh. cat.), 2002, p.109.
  12. The issue also involves the critical modes of working around the concepts that sustain these historiographic exercises. It is possible to say, for instance, that to a certain extent ‘Global Conceptualism’ adopted the task of the ethnologist, raking up experiences in different geographies and marking its affinities and Conceptualist identities, and yet, paradoxically, its strategy facilitated the mise-en-critique of identity itself. An acritical example of the identity discourse is provided by Álvaro Barrios’s book Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1999), which offers a narrative made up of interviews in which several leading figures of the 1960s and 70s guide the story’s main character (Barrios himself), who appears increasingly convinced of his ability to truly recover the unrecognised Conceptualist element. Álvaro Barrios, Orígenes del arte conceptual en Colombia (1968-1978), Bogotá: Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá, 1999.
  13. B. Preciado, ‘Cartografías Queer‘, op. cit.
  14. Mari Carmen Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits: Conceptual Art and Politics in Latin America’, in Waldo Rasmussen, Fatima Bercht and Elizabeth Ferrer (ed.), Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century (exh. cat.), New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1993, pp.156-67.
  15. The exhibition presented Latin American art production as a tame continuation of modern Western aesthetic movements, avoiding any type of political reflection on the colonial history of the subcontinent. Most critics agreed in characterising it as a blatant attempt to ‘maintain a total control of the ideological and aesthetic premises […] and of their interpretation’ from categories projected from the outside. Shifra M. Goldman, ‘Artistas latinoamericanos del siglo XX, MoMA’ (trans. Magdalena Holguín), ArtNexus, no.10, September-December 1993, pp.84-89.
  16. Drawn up in 1989 and promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Treasury Department, the Washington Consensus is a list of measures for economic reform that presented itself as the ‘best’ programme to face the crisis and ‘underdevelopment’ of Latin America, among which were liberalisation of trade and investment, deregulation and a general withdrawal of the state from economic matters.
  17. Some of these debates, from a Latin American cultural perspective opposed to European and North American dominance, can be found in Gerardo Mosquera (ed.), Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, London: The Institute of International Visual Arts, 1995.
  18. Juan Pablo Renzi, a driving force in ‘Tucumán Arde’, was emphatic about this. In a work titled Panfleto no.3. La nueva moda (Pamphlet no.3. The New Fashion, 1971), which he contributed to the ‘Arte de Sistemas’ exhibition organised by the Museo de Arte Moderno/Centro de Arte y Comunicación in Buenos Aires in 1971, he stated: ‘What is in fashion now is Conceptual art […] and it turns out that (at least for some critics like Lucy Lippard and Jorge Glusberg) I am one of those responsible for the onset of this phenomenon (together with my colleagues from the ex-groups of revolutionary artists in Rosario and Buenos Aires from ’67 to ’68). This assertion is mistaken. Just as any intention of linking us to that aesthetic speculation is mistaken.’ And he concludes: ‘REGARDING OUR MESSAGES: 1. We are not interested in them being considered aesthetic. 2. We structure them according to their contents. 3. They are always political and are not always transmitted by official channels like this one. 4. We are not interested in them as works but as a means of denouncing exploitation.’
  19. The same reference to Marchán Fiz’s ‘ideological Conceptualism’ had already been made one year earlier by the North American critic Jacqueline Barnitz in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Encounters/ Displacements. Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles’, curated by Ramírez and Beverly Adams. However, Ramírez’s voice was the one that consolidated and furthered the argument most effectively, making it an indispensable reference for many subsequent interpretations. A decisive factor in this consolidation was the repetition of the line of argument in the catalogue of ‘Global Conceptualism’ and later on in two large-scale international surveys of Latin American art she was also in charge of: ‘Heterotopías. Medio siglo sin lugar 1918-1968’ at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid in 2000; and ‘Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America’ at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2004. Marchán Fiz doesn’t quite completely confine the ‘ideologisation’ to Conceptual art from Latin American nor self-referentiality to European/North American work. See J. Barnitz, ‘Conceptual Art in Latin America: A Natural Alliance’, in M.C. Ramírez and B. Adams (ed.), Encounters/Displacements: Luis Camnitzer, Alfredo Jaar, Cildo Meireles (exh. cat.), Austin: Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery, University of Texas, 1992, pp.35-47; M.C. Ramírez, ‘Tactics for Thriving on Adversity: Conceptualism in Latin America, 1960-1980’, in L. Camnitzer, J. Farver and R. Weiss (ed.), Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s (exh. cat.), op. cit., pp.53-71; Simón Marchán Fiz, Del arte objetual al arte de concepto, Madrid: Alberto Corazón Editor, 1974 [1972].
  20. M.C. Ramírez, ‘Blueprint Circuits’, op. cit., p.156.
  21. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art, 1962-1969)’, in l’art conceptuel, une perspective (exh. cat.), Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989, pp.41-53.
  22. Historian Jaime Vindel has also noted the contradictions in responding to the centre/periphery relationship through an equally binary opposition: ‘By basing their position on an antagonist with no real voice, these discourses run the risk of making their publicity dependent on the centre/periphery logic against which they declare they stand and to which they are still yielding.’ J. Vindel, ‘A propósito [de la memoria] del arte político: Consideraciones en torno a “Tucumán Arde” como emblema del conceptualismo latinoamericano’, lecture given at the 5th International Conference of Theory and History of the Arts – 13th CAIA Symposium, Buenos Aires, October 2009.
  23. Peter Osborne, Conceptual Art, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2002, p.37.
  24. Alexander Alberro, ‘Reconsidering Conceptual Art, 1966-1977, in A. Alberro and Blake Stimson (ed.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999, pp.xxv-xxvi.
  25. Pilar Parcerisas, Conceptualismo(s) Poéticos, Políticos, Periféricos: En torno al arte conceptual en España. 1964-1980, Madrid: Akal, 2007, p.27.
  26. In a 1997 text Camnitzer celebrated Ramírez’s argument, which he found enlightening for its understanding of the regional differences of Conceptualism, which emphasised the relationship between Duchamp and the modern tradition of Mexican muralism, starting from its foray into the social sphere with communicative goals. Broadly speaking, however, Camnitzer shares Ramírez’s view of North American Conceptual art, which he brands ‘a quasi-mystical search for the imponderable’. L. Camnitzer, ‘Una genealogía del arte conceptual latino-americano’, Continente Sul Sur, no.6, November 1997, p.187. Other historians who have used the expression ‘ideological Conceptualism’ more or less critically over the past few years include Andrea Giunta, Ana Longoni, María José Herrera, Ivonne Pini, Miguel González, Cristina Freire and Alberto Giudici. Due to problems of space, this text will not compare the conflicting meanings and the implications inscribed in their uses.
  27. ‘A minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language. […] The second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political. Minor literature is completely different; its cramped space forces each individual intrigue to connect immediately to politics. […] We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.’ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (trans. Dana B. Polan), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pp.16-18.
  28. See Oscar Masotta, ‘Después del pop, nosotros desmaterializamos’ (1967), in O. Masotta,Revolución en el arte: Pop-art, happenings y arte de los medios en la década del sesenta, Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2004, pp.335-76. For Lucy Lippard’s use of the term, see L.R. Lippard, Six Years, op. cit.
  29. As yet, there is no study dealing with Juan Acha’s critical thinking of the 1960s and 70s, and the political process that led to the emergence of ‘no-objetualismo‘. For a first, partial attempt, see Miguel A. López and Emilio Tarazona, ‘Juan Acha y la Revolución Cultural. La transformación de la vanguardia artística en el Perú a fines de los Sesenta’, in Juan Acha, Nuevas referencias sociológicas de las artes visuales: Mass-media, lenguajes, represiones y grupos [1969], Lima: IIMA – Universidad Ricardo Palma, 2008, pp.1-17.
  30. Ana Longoni, ‘El Deshabituador: Ricardo Carreira in the Beginnings of Conceptualism’, in Viviana Usubiaga and A. Longoni, Arte y literatura en la Argentina del siglo XX, Buenos Aires: Fundación Telefónica, Fundación Espigas and FIAAR, 2006, pp.159-203.
  31. See Cuauhtémoc Medina, ‘Recovering Panic’, in Olivier Debroise (ed.), The Age of Discrepancies: Art and Visual Culture in Mexico, 1968-1997, Mexico DF: UNAM, 2007, pp.97-103.
  32. In October 1968, in a newspaper and on local radio Vigo made the surprising call for his first ‘señalamiento‘ (‘appointment’) titled Manojo de Semáforos (A Handful of Traffic Lights). The proposal called for people to look at an ordinary object for its aesthetic potential to cause ‘revulsion’. See F. Davis, ‘Prácticas “revulsivas”: Edgardo Antonio Vigo en los márgenes del conceptualismo’, in C. Freire and A. Longoni (ed.), Conceitualismos do Sul/Sur, São Paulo: Annablume, USP-MAC and AECID, 2009, pp.283-98.
  33. ‘Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale’, Centro Cultural Parque de España, Rosario (3 October-9 November 2008). The team working on the show was made up of the artist Graciela Carnevale, historians Ana Longoni and Fernando Davis, and Ana Wandzik, an artist from Rosario. This project constituted the first curatorial experiment in political activation by the Red Conceptualismos del Sur group.
  34. For further discussion of the experiences of 1968 in Argentina, see G. Carnevale et al. (ed.), Tucumán Arde. Eine Erfahrung: Aus dem Archiv von Graciela Carnevale, Berlin: b_books, 2004.
  35. While its earliest mentions date back to the late 1960s, its incorporation within the canon since the late 1990s, through a series of essays, exhibitions and publications, quickly multiplied its visibility. International exhibitions include I Bienal de Artes Visuais do Mercosul in Porto Alegre, Brasil in 1997; ‘Global Conceptualism’ in 1999 and ‘Heterotopías’ in 2000; ‘Ambulantes. Cultura Portátil’ curated by Rosa Pera at CAAC, Seville; ‘Inverted Utopias’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2004; and ‘Be what you want but stay where you are’, curated by Ruth Noack and Roger M. Buergel at Witte de With, Rotterdam, 2005.
  36. Roberto Jacoby, ‘Tucucu mama nana arara dede dada’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.86-91.
  37. Even though the most prevalent reading of ‘Tucumán Arde’ places it within the ‘Conceptual’ genealogy, others have tried to relate it to a history of political intervention, collective production or militant research. Examples of this are the dossier ‘Les fils de Marx et Mondrian: Dossier argentine’, published in Robho magazine (nos.5-6, 1971, pp.16-22) or anthropologist Néstor García Canclini’s discussion of ‘Tucumán Arde’ in the context of the process of integration of artistic avant-gardes with popular organisations. See N. García Canclini, ‘Vanguardias artísticas y cultura popular’, Transformaciones, no.90, 1973, pp.273-75. More recently, Brian Holmes has noted the impact this experience had on several activist groups operating in Europe in the late 1990s. See A. Longoni, Daniela Lucena et al., ‘”Un sentido como el de Tucumán Arde lo encontramos hoy en el zapatismo”: Entrevista colectiva a Brian Holmes’, Ramona, no.55, October 2005, pp.7-22. Similar readings are proposed by exhibitions such as ‘Antagonismes. Casos d’estudi’, curated by Manuel Borja-Villel and José Lebrero at MACBA, Barcelona, 2001; ‘Collective Creativity: Common Ideas for Life and Politics’, curated by What, How and for Whom at Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel in 2005 and the project ExArgentina, organised by Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmman.
  38. The interviews were conducted by Mariano Mestman and A. Longoni; some of them were eventually published in their book Del Di Tella a ‘Tucumán Arde’. Vanguardia artística y política en el ’68 argentino, Buenos Aires: El cielo por asalto, 2000.
  39. See F. Davis and A. Longoni, ‘Apuntes para un balance difícil: Historia mínima de “Inventario 1965-1975. Archivo Graciela Carnevale”‘, unpublished text presented at the 2nd Red Conceptualismos del Sur Reunion, Rosario, October 2008.
  40. ‘Politics are only displayed by exposing the conflicts, the paradoxes, the reciprocal clashes that weave history,’ says Didi-Huberman in his considerations of the Brechtian notion of montage. ‘[M]ontage appears as the procedure par excellence in this exposition: its objects are not revealed when taking position but once they have been taken apart, as is said in French to describe the violence of a “unbridled” storm, wave against wave, or as is said of a watch “dismantled”, i.e. analysed, explored and therefore spread by the passion of knowing applied by a philosopher or a Baudelairian child.’ G. Didi-Huberman, Cuando las imágenes toman posición, Madrid: A. Machado Libros, 2008, p.153. Editors’ translation.
  41. See L. Camnitzer, Conceptualism in Latin American Art: Didactics of Liberation, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, pp.44-72. Camnitzer, however, points at alternative coordinates, such as the writings of nineteenth-century Venezuelan writer and educator Simón Rodríguez, who taught Simón Bolívar. For Camnitzer, the Tupamaros’s use of ‘aestheticised military operations’ and Rodríguez’s ‘ideological aphorisms’ contribute to what he calls a ‘didactics of liberation’: communication process aimed at generating actual changes in society.
  42. ‘Politics is a specific rupture in the logic of arche. It does not simply presuppose the rupture of the “normal” distribution of positions between the one who exercises power and the one subject to it. It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions “proper” to such classifications.’ Jacques Rancière, ‘Dix thèses sur la politique’, Aux Bords du Politique, Paris: Gallimard, p.229.
  43. A.T. Spear, Art in the Mind, op. cit. Translated by Josephine Watson.

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