Elements of this text were first presented at “Re-Materialising Feminism” (The Showroom and the ICA, London June 2014), that presentation is documented in an essay for the eponymous publication, “Re-Materialising Feminism” (Arcadia Missa, 2015).
We were posed a question (if obliquely) on how feminism might be rematerialised. I want to try to trace where it is we may have dematerialised feminism in the first place.
As a quick clarification: I’m interested in a constitutive confusion between different locations and meanings of the term ‘material’, so the term will be slipping between sites throughout this presentation; however, just to clarify a little, when I say for example ‘material critique’, what I’m talking about here is a critique or practice in which the material, real, economical and ecological conditions of the production of an object/event or a subject/identity are incorporated into a critique/understanding of its meaning.
So, I guess an easy place to start is with the ‘dematerialisation of the art object’ around the 1960s and 70s with conceptual art; historically, clearly the most important thing happening in the artworld in the 1960s and 70s, as we are repeatedly told, even while Mierle Laderman Ukele washes the stairs of the gallery, Janine Antoni makes paintings with her hair, and Loving Tender Care Abramovic (that is pre-postfeminist, neoliberal Abramovic) cuts herself over and over –
But anyway, so as Lucy Lippard & John Chandler, in their seminal 1968 essay, “The Dematerialisation of Art”, write:
During the 1960s, the anti-intellectual, emotional/intuitive processes of art-making characteristic of the last two decades have begun to give way to an ultra-conceptual art that emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively. As more and more work is designed in the studio but executed elsewhere by professional craftsmen, as the object becomes merely the end product, a number of artists are losing interest in the physical evolution of the work of art. Such a trend appears to be provoking a profound dematerialisation of art, especially of art as object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object’s becoming wholly obsolete. ( ...)1
In a 2012 article in the Guardian Professional section, entitled “Tino Sehgal’s Tate Modern exhibition metaphor for dematerialisation”, Jo Confino writes:
The two greatest mistakes of modern capitalism have been to confuse materialism with happiness, and growth with the need to produce an ever-increasing number of physical goods. These are the core ideas behind the work of artist Tino Sehgal, who is currently exhibiting at the Tate Modern’s turbine hall.
By eschewing traditional forms, he has come to represent the core narrative of the sustainability movement, which is seeking to move beyond consumer fetishism to a more meaningful way of living life, one that respects planetary boundaries.
As part of his project for the Tate, Sehgal trained several hundred participants, many of whom have professional jobs, to interact with visitors. Their training was based around questions such as: “When did you feel a sense of belonging?” and When did you experience a sense of arrival?"
Like Sehgal’s other works, These Associations, will not be photographed and no documentation or reproduction is allowed. It happens in the moment and leaves no physical trace, but an experience gained.
The Anglo-German artist, who rarely gives interviews, agreed to meet me at the Tate’s outdoor cafe. By hosting These Associations, he says the Tate Modern has given official legitimacy to the move away from materialism.
“A place like the Tate is like a powerhouse, not in the sense of it having been a power station, but in the sense that politically whatever gets shown here is recognised as official Western culture,” he says.
Sehgal is certainly no enemy of capitalism, pointing out that while there are fundamental problems with the techno-industrial complex, it has also been responsible for major advances in society such as a massive decline in child death rates.
He is also a fan of the market-based economy, arguing that it has been responsible for giving people the freedom to express themselves.
On a very, very basic level I'm definitely pro market because with the market comes the idea of the individual and the idea of specialisation and I personally like being an individual and choosing my interactions,” he says2.
In Freud’s 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia”, Freud writes, of melancholia:
The object has not perhaps actually died, but has been lost as an object of love (e.g. in the case of a betrothed girl who has been jilted). In [some] cases one feels justified in maintaining the belief that a loss of this kind has occurred, but one cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost, and it is all the more reasonable to suppose that the patient cannot consciously perceive what he has lost either.
If the love for the object—a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up—takes refuge in narcissistic identification, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satisfaction from its suffering. The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies, just like the corresponding phenomenon in obsessional neurosis, a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned round upon the subject’s own self in the ways we have been discussing3.
These Associations is a work by Tino Sehgal. The piece is the final in the Unilever series’ Turbine Hall Commissions. I worked, officially, as was written on my contract, as a ‘Participant’ in the piece from when it started in July to when it ended on 28 October 2012. We got paid ₤8.33/hr (then known as London Living Wage) and worked either four or eight hour shifts.
The work required us to perform a series of sequences, (A – D), in which we were required to play a set of games with rules set out by the artist and by the piece’s producer, Asad Raza.
Each sequence, A through D, works on combinations of basic flocking principles, as well as two chants. The first reads:
Thus we ask now: Even if the old rootedness is being lost in this age, may not a new ground be created out of which humans’ nature and all their works can flourish even in the technological age.
This is a bastardized excerpt from Heidegger’s 1966 Memorial Address.
The second is adapted from a Hannah Arendt text. Around 1924, Hannah Arendt was seduced by her professor. He was 35 and married, she was 18 and single. Most disturbing to some scholars, it is alleged, despite Heidegger’s penchant for Nazism and Arendt’s Judaism, Arendt and Heidegger resumed their friendship after the war.
At any moment during the piece, as well as at specific scheduled moments, any participant may break away from the piece and talk to any of the museum visitors.
Asad Raza, the producer of the piece, refers to this as ‘giving a conceit’, or just ‘conceiting’. This terminology is also used by all of the participants, even when we are outside of the piece.
In literature, a conceit is an extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs a poetic passage or entire poem. By juxtaposing, usurping and manipulating images and ideas in surprising ways, apparently, a conceit should invite the reader into a more sophisticated understanding of an object of comparison.
The term is generally associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets, as an extension of contemporary usage. In the metaphysical conceit, metaphors tend to configure only a tenuous relationship between the things being compared.
The proposals, questions, or themes for the conceits that govern conversations in These Associations are:
A quality in a person that you admire (the quality, not necessarily the person)
And to be overwhelmed
The conceits should be tellings of true stories from the participant’s own life, to be told in the first person. They should elicit empathetic rapport and generate affect. In-depth emotional conversation with visitors is encouraged as long as it remains on theme.
These Associations, I often used to give conceits that began with a reference to a visible mark on my body so as to somehow evidence the legitimacy of my story.
People often ask me about this scar on my chest.
Usually I will respond in one of two ways:
“Well, you know that scene in Indiana Jones where the bad guy rips out that other guy’s heart from his chest? It’s just before he pushes him into the pit to sacrifice him and then holds the heart in his hand still beating…”
This explication is necessarily accompanied by a demonstrative hand movement: Fingers bent at top and middle joint curl up from flattened hand and bend, pause, bend, pause; squeezing invisible meat.
“Well, it was like that.”
“So, I was dead for six hours. And now I’m not. Basically, I’m a zombie.”
Since the zombie seems to have become the dominant metaphor for the object-oriented subject of ‘Late Capitalism’, I tend to favour this explanation, particularly when speaking to Speculative Realist boys.
I find that it excites them suitably, my animated corpse4.
“So, my heart was outside of my chest for six hours, while my blood was pumped around my body by a machine. When they put it back, when I woke up, I felt the most amazing sense of arrival…” .
“I didn’t plan my first tattoo…”
After the first few weeks, I began to scour newspapers to see if any reporters had written about the no doubt life-changing conversations I had had with them.
At this stage I found only one: an article written by Gareth Harris for the Art Newspaper, published on July 26th, two days after opening night. The article was titled “Tragic event overshadows Tate Modern opening”, with the subtitle, ‘Tino Sehgal's storytelling takes centre stage in vast Turbine Hall’. Harris writes:
Snorkelling off the Italian island of Elba; a mother’s tears as her son departs for university; the trauma behind erasing a tattoo: these are some of the tales told by participants in Tino Sehgal’s commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. “These Associations,” (until 28 October), the first “live” work in the vast space, consists solely of encounters between around 70 storytellers and visitors to the gallery.
The opening of These Associations on the evening of 24 July was overshadowed by the death of a man who fell from an external balcony of Tate Modern late that afternoon.
A later edit states:
UPDATE: According to The Times, the man who died after falling 100ft from a balcony at Tate Modern last week has been identified as Michael Foreman, a 48-year-old banking manager for HSBC.
Harris was notably the only journalist to link this suicide with the opening of These Associations. Although the Evening Standard and Daily Mail both featured the story of this death as their cover headline, neither mentioned Sehgal’s piece. The Mail’s lead photograph includes Damien Hirst’s Hymn in the foreground. Their headline reads ‘Horror as man in suit plunges to his death from 100ft-high private members' balcony at Tate Modern during busy summer season.’
As the weeks progressed, I started to shift some of my conceit. I began to talk to visitors about what was happening in my everyday emotional life.
So, when I read this piece, which I call This Association, aloud in its entirety at a ‘workshop session’/conference/painfully, liberally open sharing session in Davos recently, a woman got extremely angry with me for speaking, as she understood it, about this everyday emotional life. While at first I placed her vitriol within a rubric of straightforward generational antagonism – something I’ve been seeing a lot of lately, from Angela McRobbie’s “phallic girl” to RuPaul’s claim to being justified in using transphobic language due to his time on the scene, sitting in yet another feminist conference and listening to the overwhelming damning of those college girls who like being rated on their blowjobs, those girls who shave and wax and weave, those girls who wear pretty pink dresses, those girls on the internet –
So anyway, this woman (who I characterize immediately as ‘some horrible woman’, some witch, some unnamed competitor, because this is what the academy and capitalism produces in us, us workers, us women); this horrible woman kept saying, “This mode of telling is irrelevant”. She said – she actually said – “Look, women can sit in a circle and tell stories about their lives as much as they like and it’s not going to change anything.” She said, “Yeah right the personal is the political but surely we’re over this now,” she said “this overly subjective text is totally meaningless”; she said “these stories, your stories, are insufficient.” And yeah she was right, that story is insufficient, this story is insufficient, this I is insufficient this body is insufficient and so on and so on and so on –
But, this whole ‘overly subjective’ thing, I’ve heard it before; the ‘merely personal narrative’, the ‘hysterical artist’, the ‘failed revolutionary’, the ‘subjective emotional irrelevant critique of the art object event.’
So here I’d want to ask how we can practice a criticality that is against ‘objectivity’ and critical distance, that masculinist rudder of truth, taste and sensibility, and yet for realism: a material, post-critical position that moves towards some kind of ethicality or emancipation, an undoing of alienation where immanent, material critique begins with, or circulates through, the points of the author? Here, methods often referred to as subjectivised, hypersubjective or personal, are shown rather to demonstrate a new objecthood, an unmediated realism and a possibility for meaningful critique as practice. That is, practice as action: where the ‘self’ is considered as material, as immanent ethical aesthetic object; as contestable, but nameable and groundable position; as thing.
Though Jameson may have heralded the collapse of critical distance twenty years ago, and while new forms of criticism, art writing and so on are currently furiously taking hold, breeding maggot-like in the still-warm bodies of criticism; there remains, in institutions and art schools everywhere, the debilitating hangover of Modernity within criticism. How many times am (even) I told that, as a critic, my role is to translate, or to explain, or to tell the reader something of the transcendent quality of an art object/event which they themselves may not see, may not ‘get’, BUT I CAN: something entirely unrelated, of course, to any feeling outside of an immediate relationship with said object. Critical distance, with its elitism, emptiness, its macho genius is still clinging to art and artworlds, reborn as zombie in the indeterminate emptiness of contemporary art.
Such critical distance is predicated first on the preservation of an insurmountable subject-object divide, and secondly on a claim for ‘objectivity’; an objectivity which always reproduces existing hegemonies since it necessitates a ‘neutral subject’, which can only mean one whose power has been made invisible. The ‘objective truth’ or judgment can only originate from an (inevitably white, male) already-privileged hegemonic position.
Many of you will be familiar with Hito Steyerl’s essay “A Thing Like You and Me”; it’s very trendy, but I’m going to quote it anyway:
But as the struggle to become a subject became mired in its own contradictions, a different possibility emerged. How about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing? An object without a subject? A thing among other things?5
So, as Steyerl suggests, instead of trying for subjectivity, which is anyway to be subjected to an other; instead of trying to get back, behind and before the image to some imagined and originary subject, what if we could become objects, be things? What new possibilities might this produce in the exchange of materials, commodities, but also specifically in exchanges with art objects?
At this point it is worth noting that my suggestion that material critique moves away from the model of the subject as sole emancipatory position is in no way situated in ‘post identity’ or ‘anti identity politics’ rhetoric. Rather, the argument is that the subject as it is produced throughout art history, and particularly in contemporary art, is part of a reproduction of capitalist modes of oppression. In the empathetic exchange of objects the specificity of lived experience (informed by an intersection of race, gender and class) forms the basis for the treatment of the ‘I’ and the body as material and immanent objects.
The subject is produced through a relationship to an other (that is usually inferior) as typified in the critic/art object relationship, as well as the artist/art object relationship, with the latter also forming a feedback loop in terms of the construction and expression of an originary ‘identity’ in the artist subject. In this relation the art object/event maintains a particular distance from the subject, cannot threaten the subject and is complicit in the reproduction of the exact subject that capitalism wants.
What happens if we, as women or queers or trans* folk, as black folk, as objectified, traumatised, fungible bodies, what if we as objects are in the perfect position to speak to other objects in a meaningful and rupturing way, to replace the distanced objectivity of critical distance with an empathetic exchange of ethical aesthetic objects? What happens if we treat ourselves – our bodies, our history as well as our ‘I’s , as malleable structural frames, which are grounded on every utterance – as material?
Those who are not recognized as rational hegemonic subjects, those who are already objects may be better positioned and more capable of inhabiting the position of beholder who recognizes the “nonsensuous”, invisible, but nonetheless real properties of an object as it acts in mutual participation in that which it images, in its maker, in abstract ideas, in the beholder (here also positioned as object). S/he recognizes the equivalence of powers residing in the bodies of law, of object and of human beings; the loop of meaning conferred between all representations, all things, like her. S/he participates in the object nonsensuously, non-rationally, via belief and knowledge as emotion, which is a “a force tending toward action, rather than contemplation”6 , an immediate mediation, a participation in the image, offering a new possibility for a reciprocal radical critique.
Knowledge as participation in the object undoes the alienation that is the base principle of capitalism, language and especially of art, culture and assumed cultural understanding; criticism. Criticism and especially art criticism is traditionally the simultaneous distancing, acknowledgement and naming of the immediate expression – the gasp, the cry, the apprehension that precedes judgment.
This empathetic exchange of objects is an attempt to reconsider the object, as opposed to the subject, as a potentially emancipatory position and site of resistance to neoliberal models of subjectivity. In this case in particular, the empathetic exchange of objects, which necessitates our becoming-thing strives for emancipation from the assumed freedom of the artist within the institution. The empathetic exchange of objects moves towards a less alienated, more radical form of being with art objects that might just escape the institutionalization of that institutional critique which exactly reproduces the neoliberal project of the free market and precarious work force, where the appearance of freedom, possibility, autonomy, strictly regulates the actual real possibilities for emancipation from these institutions.
Objectivity, as it is inevitably positioned in opposition to subjectivity, and often to ‘emotional’, ‘immediate’ and ‘personal’ positions, also constitutes the phallic pole of the false masculine/feminine dichotomy. Objectivity necessitates a subject who believes they speak from a neutral or invisible, wholly-formed subject-position – a non-identity – and can only be proffered by members of existing ruling hegemonies.
To speak ‘objectively’ is to objectify the world, to feel capable of speaking of the world (and, often, of others) as object. When someone claims objectivity, and especially when this assertion is reaffirmed by others, there is a claim for describing the nature of the world as it is; from a distance, and without any possibility for including the speaker in this ecology. Like critical distance, this model of objectivity – masculine objectivity – functions only to reproduce the subject/object divide (according to which, traditionally, man is subject and woman object) and to maintain the boundaries which keep knowledge, truth and judgment as privileged and impermeable territories, and which enable the position of the human (male) as central and abusive ruling subject.
Since to speak objectively as subject is to speak in a way that fits with the world, masculine objectivity can only reaffirm the status quo; cannot rupture the capitalist chains of production, is incapable of action, petrified.
Critique, criticality and self-reflection have a particularly difficult task in the realm of contemporary art today. Adorno & Horkheimer claimed that ‘self-reflection’ might still rescue the Enlightenment and Modernist projects, meaning here reflection on the Enlightenment, as opposed to on any individual speaker/writer. However, since reflection and especially criticality is considered the primary use value of contemporary art, whereby institutional critique has long been institutionalized, the positioning of critique as utility produces a muffling bind of its own on any kind of project geared towards a critical or post-critical position (including this one).
It is also in this contemporary climate, though, where the ‘total freedom of the artist designated by the institution’7 is assumed both as given and sufficient, that emancipation seeks new objects; new things, which are not (only) tools.
Thus contemporary art must foreground a rupture of critical distance, which reproduces privilege and authority; which affirms the status quo and furthers the institutionalization of non-rupturing ‘criticality’ as truth and imperative; which before it is reason, judgment, logic, ‘objectivity’ is predicated on a privileged subject (contemplating an) object relationship where The Critic has authority over the
object, and remains safe, in a clear divide between speaking/writing self, and silent, or else hysterical, other.
So, going back to this whole dematerialising thing, we might mark the dematerialisation of the art object as a space in which we lost our material feminism: a site for reclamation, for being/doing materiality, & feminism as well; idealistically, perhaps, as material feminism.
So where else? Well, I guess a good place, always, to look for dematerialisation, is online: disembodied feminism, virtual feminism, twitter feminism ‘Internet Feminism’, those girls on the internet … this reminds me of being at a feminist conference at Goldsmiths when one of the speakers was talking about the ‘Am I Pretty or Am I Ugly’ YouTube phenomenon, in which (mostly white, middle class) teenage and preteen girls post videos featuring themselves talking into the camera, and often a montage of screenshots, asking, “Am I pretty or am I ugly?” to the assembled online public. The conference speaker memorably commented: “Look, people are talking about a crisis of self esteem in young (white middle class) girls, but you don’t post pictures of yourself on the internet if you have low self esteem.”
(Me and Caspar were there, and they were just like “Yeah lol you really don’t understand the internet”)
Anyway, so one of the worst examples of ‘hashtag feminism’ that I saw recently was the hashtag started by prominent liberal UK feminists: ‘#nounexpected penises’. It was going around twitter a few days ago, proclaimed by Trans* Exclusionary Radical Feminists as a way to claim a ‘right’ for cis-gendered women, particularly women survivors of sexual violence, to police the genitalia of those around them. They say “We just want a safe space a space that is for women only” and “We just want a safe space that we will police(?)”. Will ‘we’ be looking at your birth certificate? Will ‘we’ be groping you or worse? “We don’t want trans women here because this is a safe space for women only”. “We don’t want any violence (except for the violence that we are doing to you)” and worse and worse and worse –
This stuff, it makes me think about how Lacan and Freud and all those men would talk about the phallus, when what they were talking about was their cocks, but how somehow trans exclusionary radical feminists get this confused. It’s like not only do they want to instrumentalise victims of sexual violence in their transphobia, they also are intent on rematerialising the phallus, so that biology should remain destiny: fixed.
That the fleshy external thing must be that thing which is feared, that sign which they will reassign with power, male violence, oppression. A silly thing, which in its nagging visibility is, for them, the naming object; the assertion that to be a woman is to not have this thing, and to have a ‘right’ to remain without and outside of this absolute object. Gender, in this schema, is visible, quantifiable, measurable: gender as the pinnacle ofnmasculine objectivity, its sign the unfallible cock.
To be trans*, to be genderqueer is not only to be outside of so much of feminist discourse, as well as mainstream acceptance; it is to constantly need to reinvent language – to refuse to accept the massive division between form and content, to refuse difference and distance, to undo the binaristic categories of man and woman – as if these words themselves produce a tangible reality in which there are only two genders, two primary identities based bizarrely on the absence (the lack) or presence of a cock. The thing is…
Found object; phallus.
I read somewhere recently that trans* identities mark a refusal to accept anything other than a radical non-division of form and content, immanence trouncing phenomena. This non-division, which is more complicated than agreement; this lack of distance, closeness, this negation of alienation feels like an ethical imperative within neoliberal politics, and particularly within the indeterminate reproductions of contemporary art. A literal, material agreement of image and object, in excess to representation; the essence of the image made real (of the real made image): radical participation.
- 1. Lucy Lippard & John Chandler, “The Dematerialisation of Art,” in: Art International 12:2, February 1968, pp. 31–36.
- 2. Jo Confino, “Tino Sehgal’s Tate Modern exhibition metaphor for dematerialisation,” in: Guardian Professional, Friday 5 October 2012, 16.50.
- 3. S. Freud, 1917, Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. Vintage Classics: London. pp. 244 & 250.
- 4. A version of this text first appeared as “People often ask me about this scar on my chest” in: Stupart, L., 2013, “Untitled,” in: Noonan-Ganley. J. (ed.), Oh wicked flesh!
- 5. Hito Steyerl, “A Thing Like You and Me,” in: e-flux journal #15 April 2010. Available http://www.e-flux.com/journal/a-thing-like-you-and-me/ (1/1/2012).
- 6. Ibid., pp. 332.
- 7. Suhail Malik, 2013, “Ape Says No,” in: Red Hook Journal. Available: http://www.bard.edu/ccs/redhook/ape-says-no/ (10.1.2014).