Can Objects Perform?: Agency and Thingliness in Contemporary Sculpture and Installation

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

Listen to a recording of this paper at the Sculpture and Performance conference at the Henry Moore Institute here.

In his 1967 essay, “Art and Objecthood”, Michael Fried bemoaned the theatricality of minimalist sculpture, which replaced the presentness of compositional sculpture with the staging of an experience for the viewer as performer. His argument has since been inverted by artists and art writers invested in the idea of sculptures as props forming part of an artistic experience economy. This discourse has accompanied the rise of relational aesthetics as a dominant paradigm for contemporary art. More recently, however, there has been a turn away from relationality to ‘object-oriented’ art, where objects are seen to stage their own theatrical experiences, performing themselves without requiring the activation of a viewer’s body. In this essay, we trace parallels between the philosophy of Bruno Latour and the and this emerging trend in sculpture. In ascribing agency to objects, Latour proposes a radical shift from philosophy’s traditional investigation of the relationship between the mind and the world. Drawn to the idea that matter can be creative, artists have embraced his thinking. However, we would like to argue that this has lead to a generalized, universalizing humanism that disables political action. Moreover, it undermines the potential for anti-humanist critique latent in object-oriented philosophy.

A plastic bag tied with a string to an electric fan blows in the wind like an extra from American Beauty. A wooden spoon is balanced on a laminated piece of chipboard. Rock filled handbags hang from a bicycle handle bar, counterweighted by a pole bearing a press shot of Mel Gibson slung over some tattered fake sheepskin, the whole thing balanced on some blue bricks. Some wooden poles are trapped in a lycra skin that just holds them from falling. Wood blocks and panels lean on walls and a vinyl-tiled floor; a pornographic image is tacked at eye level onto a corner, at an angle. These and other flimsy yet carefully balanced assemblages, often incorporating appropriated bits and pieces, the detritus of everyday life, in loosely-cobbled arrangements, have cropped up in museum exhibitions, at galleries, in degree shows and biennials around the world over the past few years, defining a sculptural anti-aesthetic that asks us to consider the changing nature of our relationship to objects. This demand coincides with the rise of object-oriented philosophy, and a series of symposia and publications devoted to the question of the role of objects in contemporary art and politics.

In the early days of the current financial crisis, there was some satisfaction to be had from the collapse of the banks and mortgage lenders. It seemed like governments were being punished for their reliance on the virtual operations of the financial sector, with its near mystical ability to conjure up wealth from thin air. There were calls for a return to a real economy of manufacturing and circulating goods at the expense of these incorporeal transactions. In order to go back to financial health and political stability, some maintained that we need to invest in the production of real objects made from real materials. Others were more skeptical of such claims. “The return to the real cannot be a movement leading from bad ‘irrational’ speculation back to healthy production. It is the return to the immediate and reflective life of all those who inhabit this world. It is from that vantage-point that one can observe capitalism without flinching, including the disaster movie that it is currently inflicting upon us. The real is not this movie, but its audience”, wrote Alain Badiou in Le Monde, reminding us that any Capitalist production is always about generating a level of fictitiousness. [1] As traditional manufacturing industries continue to struggle, one thing becomes clear: objects and their relation to shifting economical, ecological, and political environments have returned to haunt the public sphere after decades of physical obliteration by virtual technologies and the requirements of global circulation. Take for example the fate of the record: an object-based commodity considered atrocious by musicians in the 1920s when ‘canned music’ came to replace the live performance. mp3 downloads have effectively killed off the very physical realm of the record shop, once the cornerstone of any subcultural activity. But, strangely, this coincides with a decisive rise in the sale figures of old fashioned vinyl, and particularly 7” records, in the last five years. The object today seems to occupy an uncertain place between the utopian virtual and the nostalgic material.

The proliferation of the scanty art objects described above, situated somewhere between theatrical props waiting to be activated and material phenomena closed to human access, is both a consequence of and a reaction to these developments. In a process well-articulated by Peter Osborne, contemporary (or ‘post-conceptual’) art both rejects matter as radically insufficient, insisting on a conceptual dimension that transcends the object’s physical articulation, and, at the same time, requires a spatio-temporal presentation, albeit an anti-aesthetic one. A multiplicity of incarnations through time and space – from blueprint sketch through live performance to archived documentation – underwrites any particular configuration and ensures a distributive quality commensurate with the globalised non-sites in which this art takes (temporary) place. [2] However provisional, the object is crucial here. Just as an economy of pure branding and no manufacturing has come under suspicion of late, so the dematerialization of art, once seen as an obstacle to its commoditization, drew criticism once it became clear that the absence of a physical object poses no real problem for the forces of the market. More importantly, this dematerialization has been seen to contribute to the precarious labour practices that have become rife within the creative industry. As Jan Verwoert has claimed in The Showroom gallery’s 2007 conference on “Props, Events, Encounter: The Performance of New Sculpture:

[…] sculpture […] becomes a vehicle, through which concepts of ‘relationality’ taken from performance or installation art, can be reformulated. […] Relational aesthetics no doubt was, is and can still be, very provocative as an approach that focuses on exemplary social situations, but, as we see increasingly now, work that sails under the banner of these aesthetics can also simplify further a concept of the social that is both rather literal-minded, unspecific and, in this sense, perfectly aligned with an economy of fast circulating labour, that is the mindless routine of non-stop project-making. [3]

Verwoert spoke of a triumphant return to the theatricality Michael Fried once mocked in minimal sculpture. It is exactly its potential for staging a social situation that makes contemporary artists interested in sculptural installations. At the same time, as a prop, the object does more than delineate an architecturally determined space, a stage. Speaking at the same conference, Andrea Phillips suggested that the partiality of props allows them to function as “capabilities within the art market”:

The ability to jump tracks – from a singular object to part of a multiple, from valued object to function-based prop, from private collection to a museum show, gives prop-objects their value and their super-contemporary location within, and formulation of, newly valent global process. In terms of democracy, these objects, in their globality, constitute a form of accessibility that speaks the language of a newly imagined global demos: we may all gather here, there and everywhere, to pass over and around these props; and, just as they produce novel and transitory form of loci, they also speak the language of global speculation. [4]

The democratic pretense is evident in exhibitions like Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century at the New Museum (2007) and THING: New Sculpture from Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum (2005), which insisted on assemblage as a way of bringing “bits of the world at large” into the museum. [5] As Roberta Smith commented in relation to Unmonumental in the New York Times, this kind of art:

[…] tends to be low-tech, modest in scale, made with found objects and materials and structured in ways that are fragmented if not actually disintegrating. Its ugly-duckling looks, rough edges, disparate parts and weird juxtapositions help stave off easy art-market absorption while also reflecting our fearful, fractured, materially excessive times back at us. [6]

Similarly, Isa Genzken, whose solo show was the inaugural exhibition of the reopened Whitechapel gallery (2009), has stated that sculpture “must have a certain relation to reality […] not airy-fairy, let alone fabricated, so aloof and polite”. [7] The assumption seems to be that arranging readymades in formal relations rather than carving or casting from ‘raw’ materials brings a sociality into work that might otherwise disclose discredited claims to autonomy.

But if Genzken’s dummies and dolls, like those of Cathy Wilkes, can be seen as stand-ins for a human presence on the stage sets she constructs for us to navigate, there is also an ambivalence in much of this work about the role that humans play in determining the meaning and value of things. The re-enactment at the Tate Modern of Robert Morris’s Bodyspacemotionthings, a seminal example of theatrical sculpture from the 1970s, exposed the fundamental difference between such practices and the way artists use objects today. The work, wrote Mark Hudson in the Daily Telegraph, lost its radical edge and “became innocuous family entertainment” while fostering “the impression that creativity is about hanging around in an atmosphere of soft-centred, Sixties-flavoured bohemianism”. [8] The engagement of the human body with movable objects in a museum space has been so wholly subsumed in a touristic experience economy that it can now only be simulated and re-enacted as one moment among many from a catalogue of radical gestures of democratization. In an argument well-rehearsed by theorists such as Paolo Virno, immaterial labour has become the dominant paradigm: in a post-Fordist work market, we are asked to perform all the time, for a living. A new language of objects is therefore called upon to think their presence without relying on the vicissitudes of ours. Thus, Fried’s theatrical objecthood finds itself in the strange company of Heidegger’s thingliness, explored for example in the exhibition Steven Claydon curated at the Camden Art Centre, Strange Things Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring (2007/8), where objects were placed in dramatic relation to one another in an attempt to tease out “the errant core of the ‘thingly’, whatever that may be”. [9] Likewise, Ryan Gander has claimed that his recent show at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham was about “the things we can’t see but we know are there”. And in the same way, at Kettle’s Yard gallery’s Material Intelligence exhibition (2009), we find gathered, hung and displaced objects both carving out a path for us through the space and expressing their own substantial nature, through which they are said to assume a kind of agency independent of us. As Rachel Jones writes of the exhibition in an essay entitled “Making Matters”:

Instead of operating as an external point from which the different elements might be gathered together and unified, the viewer is gathered into the work, which organises its own space […] Thus one stands, and crouches, and stands again, leaning in to see the lips of fleshy pink that line the edge of the black envelopes. […] far from inarticulate and inert stuff waiting to be informed by artistic intention or inspiration, matter is no less an active participant in the making of a sculpture than the throwing of a pot, as it embodies forms and structures relations. [10]

In this context, it is easy to understand the current popularity of the ideas of Bruno Latour, whose writing on technology and the potential for a politics that includes non-humans has been taken up by both artists and curators. MAKING THINGS PUBLIC-Atmospheres of Democracy, the exhibition Latour himself curated with Peter Weibel at ZKM Karslruhe in 2005, presented a setting for debate rather than a hermetic experience, but his ideas, especially in their intersection with those of the Speculative Realism philosophy group, bear a particular relevance to the object strewn environments we have been describing so far. What Latour proposes is a radical shift from philosophy’s traditional investigation of the relationship between the mind and the world or the object and the subject. Latour, as the prime representative of the emerging trend of object-oriented philosophy, is no longer satisfied with the phenomenological dissection of objects into formal qualities that are accessible through the senses (color, smell, texture, etc.), whether the object could be entirely consumed through this engagement or not. According to Latour, this line of investigation has led modern thinkers to the dangerous extraction of objects from their true reality. The classic philosophical question ‘what is?’ opens up a Hegelian loophole in which the object is always inevitably encircled by the inquiring mind, aptly described by Quentin Meillassoux:

Correlationism rests on an argument as simple as it is powerful, which can be formulated as follows: there can be no X without a givenness of X, and no theory about X without a positing of X. If you speak about something, the correlationist will say, you speak about something that is given to you, and posited by you. The argument for this thesis is as simple to formulate as it is difficult to refute: it can be called the “argument from the circle”, and consists in remarking that every objection against correlationism, is an objection produced by your thinking, and so dependent upon it. [11]

For Meillassoux, the way out of this vicious ‘correlationist circle’ can only come from within human thought – we come to recognize that in thinking death, for example, we posit something outside our consciousness from within it. If we can think of dinosaurs preceding us and of the potential for human extinction, then we can conceive of the contingency of the correlation between things out there in the world and inside our minds. But Latour suggests avoiding the circle altogether by replacing the fundamental question of phenomenology with ‘what has?’: what qualities do things, as they are and not in their idealized form in the philosopher’s mind, have? This shift is possible, he suggests, by thinking also of the operation of objects on other objects, outside of human cognition, and not just of the mind on the world (and vice versa). In this Latour is perhaps more radical than Heidegger who, when distinguishing between ‘the object’ and ‘the thing’, relates the “thinking of the thing as a thing” to an ethical, and hence human, position of caring and protecting. Object-oriented philosophy questions this distinction between humans and objects, asserting a kind of realism to counter post-modern relativism. As Graham Harman, whose book on Latour, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, has just been published, explained at a conference at Tate Britain in London last year, we can no longer simply ask the question of how the qualities of an object (say the falling rain) interact with the senses (it feels wet) – we must now ask how objects interact with each other as well (which qualities of the rain are accessible to the wet rock, for example its capacity to erode, but perhaps not other aspects of the rain like the smell it produces when hitting the earth).

The first consequence of the collapse of the dichotomy between humans and non-humans is an agency and creativity ascribed to both. For Latour, the delegation of supposedly human qualities to non-human agents is a doubly efficient weapon in critiquing modernism. The hubris of the moderns was in defining spirituality and creativity as an elevation of the self beyond the world of objects (this is evident in the rejection of figuration by waves of abstract and conceptual artists). Latour counterposes that “non humans have not been emerging for eons just to serve as so many props to show the mastery, intelligence and design capacities of humans or their divine creations. They have their own intelligence, their own cunning, their own design, and plenty of transcendence to go on, that is, to reproduce”. [12] We can therefore critique modernism without deferring to the elegiac, relativist and weak position of post-modernism and without abandoning the universal truth of philosophy. For Latour, as for Harman and the Speculative Realists, things actually exist in the world and are not merely projections of our diverse perspective. Moreover, they shape us at least as much as we influence them.

It is easy to see why a case for the creativity of things might appeal to artists and art writers. Rikke Hansen, writing in Art Monthly, has suggested that “a recent turn to 'things' in art, one that […] has a bearing on the way we perceive and critique the social, can be seen in works that engage directly with the form of sociality that is produced by things; artworks that, momentarily, make objects stand out against the backdrop of everyday life”. [13] However, Hansen concludes by stating that the “power of things is that they refuse to conform completely to our intentions and interpretations, to become the means to an end--even when we have designed them ourselves”. [14] This delegation, to use a Latourian term, of power, agency, creativity and even politics to things, no longer merely objects for our contemplation, begins to sound like the Futurist call for an anti-humanist literature, revived by Tom McCarthy at a recent Tate Conference: “Be careful not to force human feelings onto matter. Instead, divine its different governing impulses, its forces of compression, dilation, cohesion and disaggregation, its crowds of massed molecules and whirling electrons. We are not interested in offering dramas of humanized matter. The solidity of a strip of steel interests us for itself; that is, the incomprehensible and inhuman alliance of its molecules or its electrons…” [15] McCarthy wishes to steer us away form the Futurist fixation on technology and looks at the way Marinetti’s demand might serve to de-psychologise writing through a triumph of the thing. But although he rejects J. G. Ballard’s Crash as the fulfillment of Futurist writing, Ballard’s 1970 exhibition of crashed cars at the Institute for Research in Art & Technology might actually be a far better example of a truly thingly art than much of that described so far. Portraying the inadvertent mark-making of a self-destructive human activity, the exhibition got perhaps as close as we can to suggesting an art after man, produced through the demise of the human and indifferent to the kind of eco-consequences invoked by more common concerns for the footprint we leave on the planet.

The appropriated objects assembled in our more recent examples rely far more directly on a human context, specifically that of the art institution. They casually reveal their own support mechanisms – the fishwire, strings, beams and hooks – yet present a carefully considered composition, neither the random remains of earlier usage, nor the immaculate weightlessness of the plinth-raised sculpture. Many of these artworks (for example those of Ian Kiaer or George Henry Longly) physically lean on gallery walls or otherwise respond to given architectures, seated somewhere between the institutional identification of the painting, aligned to the geometry of existing walls, and the obstructive modifications to a space proposed by minimalist sculpture. More importantly, they would be unrecognizable as such without the framework of art discourse, themselves generating the kind of institutional distinctions that art spaces almost inevitably produce, between those who ‘get’ contemporary art and those who do not.

Writers from Hannah Arendt to Jacque Rancière and Alain Badiou have defined politics as collective action, a coming together of a group over a shared interest. Latour has tried to turn this definition on its head by making the matter at hand the nexus of an object-oriented politics:

It's clear that each object —each issue— generates a different pattern of emotions and disruptions, of disagreements and agreements. There might be no continuity, no coherence in our opinions, but there is a hidden continuity and a hidden coherence in what we are attached to. Each object gathers around itself a different assembly of relevant parties. [16]

But the attempt to locate a constitutive equality around the object is problematic: the hidden coherence pre-empts any politics of collective action. Knowing that we are already equals in our gathering around the object, we cannot truly believe in any demand for equality still lacking. The disputes and disagreements of the gathered parties then become an ironic reiteration of what we do not believe to be true, since it misrecognizes the deeper truth hidden in the world of objects. Even the modernist autonomy of the art object, the fact that it could be torn away from its environment and preserve its meaning, had a kind of idealized equality built into it. The object in Fried’s account, for instance, must retain its composure and “own the situation” at the expense of the beholder; the monument dwarfs all visitors equally, no matter what their particular attributes. [17] Conceptual art demanded a different kind of equality, one through which art could be practiced by all in all places and especially outside art institutions, without specialist training or materials, resulting in human thought or action rather than biased cultural commodities. The vague sociality inscribed in the recognition of the thingly character of objects withdrawn from our consciousness seems insufficient in this context as the basis of the transformative power promised by art throughout modernity. At best it suggests a kind of Romantic failure – of consciousness, and of matter that threatens to collapse, but probably never will given the polished, well-heeled environments into which it is gathered.

1 Badiou, Alain, “Of Which Real is this Crisis the Spectacle?” [Nina Power and ICR – trns.], Le Monde, 17/10/08, available at: http://www.cinestatic.com/infinitethought/2008/10/badiou-on-financial-crisis.asp [accessed 14.07.09]

2 Osborne, Peter, “Where is the Work of Art”, in: Nonsite to Celebration Park: Essays on Art and the Politics of Space [Whittaker, E. and Landrum, A. – eds.], Bath: Bath Spa University Press, 2008.

3 Verwoert, Jan, “Make the Prop Talk – on Putting Performance back into Sculpture”, The Showroom Annual 2006/7, London: The Showroom, 2008, pp. 30-31.

4 Phillips, Andrea, “Prop-Objects”, The Showroom Annual 2006/7, London: The Showroom, 2008, p. 28.

5 Gioni, Massimiliano, Hoptman, Laura and Flood, Richard, Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century, London: Phaidon, 2007.

6 Smith, Roberta, “In Galleries, a Nervy Opening Volley”, The New York Times, 30.11.2007, at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/30/arts/design/30newm.html?_r=1&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Organizations/N/New%20Museum%20of%20Contemporary%20Art [accessed 14.07.09]

7 Genzken, Isa, Tillmans, Wolfgang, “ISA GENZKEN. Ein Gespräch mit / a conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans”, in: Camera Austria, Graz, no. 81, 2003, p. 7-18.

8 Hudson, Mark, “Robert Morris' 'Bodyspacemotionthings' at the Tate Modern”, The Daily Telegraph, 26.5.09, at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/5386206/Robert-Morris-Bodyspacemotionthings-at-the-Tate-Modern-review.html [accessed 14.07.09]

9 Claydon, Steven, “The Coronation of Talu vii, Emperor of Ponukele and King of Drelshkaf”, File Note #26 Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring: Selected by Steven Claydon London: Camden Arts Centre, December 2007—February 2008.

10 Jones, Rachel, “Making Matters”, at: http://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/exhibitions/mi_catalogue/essay_jones.html [accessed 14.07.09].

11 Meillassoux, Quentin, “Time without Becoming”, Lecture at Middlesex University, London, 8.5.2008.

12Latour, Bruno, “Spheres and Networks: Two Ways to Reinterpret Globalization”, lecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2009, at: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/articles/article/115-SPACE-HARVARD-09.pdf/, [accessed 14.07.09].

13 Hansen, Rikke, “Things v objects:Rikke Hansen on the public life of things”, Art Monthly, London, Issue No. 318, July-August 2008.

14 Ibid.

15 F. T. Marinetti cited in: McCarthy, Tom, “These Panels Are Our Only Model for the Composition of Poetry, or, How Marinetti Taught Me How to Write”, paper given at Tate Modern conference Futurism and the Avant Garde, 27.6.09.

15 Latour, Bruno, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik – or How to Make Things Public”, in: Making Things Public– Atmospheres of Democracy [Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel – eds.], MIT Press 2005.

16 Fried, Michael, “Art and Objecthood”, Artforum, June 1967, pp. 12-23..