Brian Holmes on Mon, 27 Oct 2003 01:22:31 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Artistic autonomy and the communication society

Following is the text I read in one of those rather disagreeable 
places to which art circles sometimes lead you. This time, the Tate 

The conference, held this Saturday October 25, was called Diffusion: 
Collaborative Practice in Contemporary Art. Also present were Bureau 
d'Etudes, Francois Deck, Eve Chiapello, Jochen Gerz, Stephen Wright, 
John Roberts, Charles Green, and others.

Important to the understanding of the gesture involved in reading 
such a text in a place like Tate Modern is the visual material, 
beginning with the photo of Jack Lang and Fidel, moving through the 
screen captures on the Tate's corporate patronage, with the British 
Petroleum adverts and so forth, and leading to the press clippings of 
the mounting British troop committments in Irak, and the photos of 
"the society of leaders": Blush and Blair, Bush and Chirac, Bush and 
Schroeder, Bush and Berslusconi, Bush and Aznar, Bush and Bush... 
Then you would have further material on the marginal realms of 
protest and "exit," and finally, on the NSK project discussed in 

The aim of these kinds of interventions is to break the 
long-discredited, but still practically imposed taboo on publicly 
discussion of the social relations that lie behind "our" cultural 
institutions, which, in the case of museums like the Tate Modern, 
have clearly almost nothing to do with former conceptions of the 
public sphere, and in no way support "free cooperation." To the 
extent that these institutions ultimately depend on a far wider 
circle of participants than the ones they objectively serve, maybe 
there's still some interest in this kind of straight talking. And 
beyond the aspect of denunciation, there is the question: in addition 
to the diffuse crativity of protest, what is a strong ambition for 
concentrated art today?

best, Brian


Artistic Autonomy
and the communication society

Among my various collaborations with Bureau d'Etudes there is this 
one-off journal or fanzine called "Artistic Autonomy - and the 
communication society". This project was born out of the desire to 
create what seems almost non-existent in the French language: a 
debate about the means, results and ends of artistic practice, 
independent from the categories established by the state and the 

Why talk about autonomy when the major thrust of experimental art in 
the sixties and seventies was to undermine the autonomous work? This 
is the question that always arises when you speak with those for whom 
the institutional discourses still seem to matter. Indeed, the 
university careers that have been made by refuting Greenburg, by 
deconstructing the totality of the white male Kantian subject, and by 
critiquing the closure of the artistic frame are seemingly infinite. 
And the same  holds for the paradoxes that invariably arise when 
mechanically reproduced works or slices of everyday life are 
presented in the singularizing spaces of the museum. Sometimes you 
wonder if the members of the art establishment are not afraid to draw 
the conclusions of their own ideas. Yet if one truly abandons the 
notion that an object, by its distinction from all others, can serve 
as a mirror for an equally singular and independent subject, then the 
issue of autonomy becomes a deep existential problem, just as it was 
in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, when the whole debate arose. Because for 
those without a substitute identity - for those without a passionate 
belief in their blackness, their whiteness, their Jewishness, their 
Muslimness, their Communistness, their Britishness or  whatever - the 
condition of existence in the communication society, that is, the 
awareness that one's own mental processes are intimately traversed or 
even determined by a flood of mediated images and signs, is at first 
deeply anguishing, then ultimately anesthetizing, as the postmodern 
"waning of the affect" sets in. We work always under the pall of this 
postmodern anesthetic.

No doubt there are thousands of exciting ways to make artworks where 
the question of autonomy is not at issue. But there is some doubt as 
to whether any of these ways of art-making can be called political. 
Does politics, in the democratic sense at least, not presuppose that 
one is somehow able to make a free decision? That one is not blindly 
driven by a determining, heteronomous force, whether of pain or 
pleasure? What does it mean to make an artistic decision? And what 
happens when that decision is collective? How can the sensible world 
- that is, the world composed by the senses, the intellect and the 
imagination - be reshaped according to what Fran=E7ois Deck would call 
a "strategy of freedom"?

The stakes of autonomy are revealed by the etymology of the word, as 
has been pointed out by the political philosopher and psycho-analyst 
Cornelius Castoriadis. "Autos" means self and "nomos" means law. 
Autonomy means giving yourself your own law. But men and women are 
social beings; we only exist as "ourselves" through the language of 
the other, through the sensations of the other; and what is more, 
this shared language, these transiting sensations, are bound up in 
the uncertainty of memory and forgetting, the incompleteness of 
perception, the willfulness of imagination. Thus the attempt to give 
oneself one's own law becomes a collective adventure, as well as a 
cultural and artistic one. For it is the very essence of clear 
consciousness to recognize that we human beings are full of 
obscurity, of unresolved personal and even historical passions, of 
half-understood images and enticing forms that we constantly exchange 
with one another, so that the process of giving ourselves our own 
laws becomes something quite complex, something experimental and 
experiential, which can never be resolved once and for all, but only 
cared for and ushered along in manifold ways, among which we find the 
arts - those supreme combinations of sensation, intellect and 
productive imagination. In fact it is exactly at this point that 
freedom appears as an uncertain strategy among the multitude, because 
it cannot be reduced to a univocal decision by the one. And in this 
way, collective autonomy  becomes a question both of individual or 
small-group artistic production, and of large-scale cultural policy.

My belief is that you can only have a real democracy when a societal 
concern with the production of the sensible is maintained at the 
level of a forever unresolved but constantly and intensely debated 
question. This is why I like to work with Fran=E7ois Deck - because he 
has developed a method, a kind of artistic trick, that allows him to 
explicitly bring the sensible world into collective questioning. What 
we really need to do is to spend a lot more time asking each other 
whether our cultural fictions - our architecture and our ideas, our 
hierarchies and ambitions and loves - are really any good for us. And 
to do that, we need to propose new fictions, to shake up the 
instituted imaginary with what Castoriadis calls the "instituting 
imaginary." We need to engage in desymbolization and resymbolization, 
in what Bureau d'Etudes calls "the deconstruction and reconstruction 
of complex machines." This is the way that artistic practices can 
affect reality.

So I'm saying that art can be a chance for society to collectively 
reflect on the imaginary figures which it depends upon for its very 
consistency. But this is exactly where our societies are failing. I 
think we're looking at a disaster. To show you the extent of it, and 
the degree to which it calls for a reinvention of artistic autonomy, 
I want to use two examples. One is a programmatic sentence from the 
former French culture minister, Jack Lang. And the other is the 
concrete reality of a major British museum. These two examples will 
give you, I hope, a fairly precise idea of what I mean by the 
communication society, and of why it is necessary to conceive 
artistic autonomy against the background of the really existing 
institutions of communication.

Jack Lang is one of the great socialist managers of people's minds, 
one the architects of artistic, the people who channel it and control 
it over time. I can't imagine a better photograph of him than this 
one, standing with Fidel Castro in front of the Mona Lisa. In 1983, 
the year that French socialism abandoned its collectivist utopia and 
the long economic crisis began, Lang came out with this slogan: La 
culture, c'est les po=E8tes, plus l'=E9lectricit=E9. "Culture is the poets, 
plus electricity."

"This kind of mesmerism is a constant in his conception of art," 
writes a French critic (Philippe Urfalino). For Lang, "Culture is an 
economic weapon because it can change mentalities, and because the 
crisis is not just economic, but also a crisis of the mind. The power 
of creativity is to elicit agitation, movement, to transform energy 
into labor." A lot of very interesting ideas have been developed 
about the liberating potential of creative work, what is called 
immaterial labor. But Jack Lang, like Chris Smith in Britain, is the 
state's great visionary of immaterial labor. And this means that he 
wants to functionalize it, to manage it, to give it a productive 
discipline. The idea for Smith is literally to map out our sensations 
from above, to establish a "Creative Mapping Document" that will 
productively channel our aspirations into a thousand variations on 
the advertising industry. And the irony is that this central planning 
of the spirit reaches back to another would-be architect of humanity: 
Lenin, at the Congress of Soviets in 1920, who said: "Communism is 
Soviet power, plus the electrification of the entire country." So 
which will prove stronger: poetry or electricity? Which proved 
stronger in the past: the radical democracy of the workers' councils, 
or the industrial discipline of electrification?

The Tate Modern is the living allegory of these histories. It's a 
former electric power plant, a pure product of the meeting between 
the bureaucratic state and capitalist industry. This was a place for 
discipline, for the total control of a workforce. It's a mausoleum, a 
tomb, which the party cadres of New Labour have turned into a tourist 
attraction, a kind of crystal palace of globalization. It can be 
illuminated, electrified in its turn: so the tomb of the working 
class is made into a glittering artwork. Poetry meets electricity. 
And the Tate Modern also has a constructivist, Tatlinesque bridge 
that connects it directly to the heart of the City, as a public 
service for the financial district. It's important to admit what this 
kind of neoliberal institution is built on. Its corporate sponsors 
are the heart, not just of British but of Imperial capitalism: 
Barclay's plc, Europe's largest institutional investor; Lloyds, the 
world's largest insurance company; British Telecom, one of the 
backbones of the communication society, a top advertiser and now the 
great British art patron; and finally British Petroleum, I mean 
"Beyond Petroleum," planting the sunflower seeds of the future in 
your head. For corporations like these, creating belief, manipulating 
desire, and maintaining the anesthesia of the public is the most 
important production. And these companies now actively use the world 
of art, they make museums into private universities, like Bloomberg's 
holding seminars for its executives on Level 7, as a way to stimulate 
their energy, their experimental faculties, their virtuosity in the 
manipulation of abstract figures. Yes, in this sense, and far more 
than in the days of the situationists, art is the ultimate commodity, 
it's the one that sells all the rest. Because it mobilizes you, it 
plugs you into a communications loop, it gets you to adhere, to 
commit, to do your part, to play your role, to burn the midnight oil, 
it makes you part of a dynamic society. It makes you part of a 
society of leaders.

What kind of attitude to take, when you know how tightly an 
institution like the Tate is integrated to what Bureau d'=E9tudes has 
identified as the financial core of transnational state capitalism? 
One thing is sure: the old strategy of forming a collective as a way 
to get into the museum becomes absurd. That much has been proved by 
the submissive posturing of a group like etoy, which endlessly 
reiterates the forms of corporate organization, from head-hunting 
rituals all the way down to the display of self-infantilization. The 
collaborative art of etoy only restates the painfully obvious: that 
the values of transnational state capitalism have permeated the art 
world, not only through the commodity form, but also and even 
primarily, through the artists' adoption of management techniques and 
branded subjectivities. It is in this sense that contemporary 
capitalism has absorbed the artistic critique of the 1960s, 
transforming it into the networked discipline of "neomanagement," as 
Eve Chiapello says in her work, or into the opportunism of what I 
call "the flexible personality."

One response to all of this is - exit. It has been possible to shift 
the work away from objects, and outside of the immediately normative 
network, into marginal realms of protest and opposition whose 
consistency and sustainability over time becomes the key issue. Yet 
in my opinion, this exit into the margins is still intimately and 
paradoxically intertwined with the communication society. We all know 
very well that the Internet, whose hardware has been built by 
industrial corporations close to the financial core, is currently the 
single most integrative system there is. It is what I call an 
Imperial infrastructure. And it acts as an ideological state 
apparatus, in the Althusserian sense, but on the scale of 
transnational capitalism: it hails you, it connects to you and gives 
you an IP number; it interpellates you into Imperial ideology. In 
this way it exterts its deterritorializing effect, it transforms 
populations according to the requirements of capital, configuring the 
global division of labor. But at the same time, by simultaneously 
increasing the levels of both alienation and communicational agency, 
it has made possible new territorializations, new social and 
political formations, which reopen the questions of class composition 
- and therefore, the possibilities of a new kind of class antagonism, 
outside the communist and workerist frameworks that date back before 
the time of Lenin. The last few years have offered a multitude of 
opportunities for artists to work outside the established 
institutions, and off the traditional mental maps, in order to 
experiment, to create and distribute farflung new imaginaries. We 
have seen many new inventions. And it has also been possible, with 
difficulty of course, to raise the level of threat, and to help 
provoke a crisis of legitimacy, through the complex practice of a 
self-dissolving, carnavalesque violence which has been both useful 
and necessary. These practices, as insufficient and rapidly outdated 
as they may be, have had the enormous advantage, for people involved 
in art and activism, of constituting positions from which to speak, 
positions at once distinct from and connected to the larger social 
landscape. They have given real meaning to another one of the 
collaboration projects I'm involved in, which is the attempt to 
define the communicative, collective, reciprocal and mutually 
sustaining individuation of the Multitudes.

The proof of all this can be found in France today. Why have the 
themes we developed in our little fanzine, Artistic Autonomy and the 
communication society, become real issues in France? Not because 
people read our texts! Rather because the owning class, the bosses' 
union, has directly attacked part-time theater and cinema workers, 
restricting their welfare benefits in a bid to discipline and 
functionalize their production. And a wide range of people have begun 
responding collaboratively, by targeting specific functions of the 
communication society, which are suddenly made to appear as 
illegitimate, and which are even branded with their illegitimacy. On 
Saturday, October 18, group of these part-time performers broke into 
the major machinery for the production of the collective imaginary, 
interrupting a prime-time broadcast called "Star Academy" and 
unfurling a banner that read: "Shut off your TVs." Throughout the 
week before that, a networked movement had arisen to deface the 
advertisements that pollute the public space of the metro. These 
actions constitute a live reflection on our collective fictions, on 
the instituted imaginary of the current neoliberal system. And this 
kind of symbolic violence, practiced collectively in the open air and 
raised to a level of engaged reflection on what we want our society 
to become, is a far more interesting collaboration than anything I 
have yet seen in a museum. Mind you, I don't want to make exaggerated 
claims: these actions amount to almost nothing at all, compared to 
the problems arising in the world today. But they show an awareness 
of key issues in the search for collective autonomy. If we want to 
regain any chance to turn collective reflection into positive action, 
then we must make the production of the collective imaginary into an 
open question again. Only in this way can we stop the pollution of 
our minds, by gaining some kind of control over the means of 

Shall we then just abandon the museums? My position is that they can 
be occupied just like any other distribution mechanism within the 
communication society - and they should be occupied, in an 
uncompromising way, so as to generate not just debate, but conflict 
over how they are run and what they stand for. But there's an even 
more important question, which is this: Shall we abandon the 
historical practice of experimental art, as it emerged from its last 
metamorphosis, in the period around 1968? Is this kind of art fatally 
involved with neomanagement, or completely permeated by the 
opportunism of the flexible personality?

I'd like to close with a reference to a group of artists from another 
place and epoch, who were not seeking to exit the museum, nor even 
the communication society, but who created a theatrical and 
conceptual fiction in a bid to reflexively transform the 
authoritarian state - which in their view had appropriated and 
distorted the avant-garde artistic tradition. I'm talking about the 
Slovene art group NSK, or Neue Slowenische Kunst, and particularly 
about their project , "The State in Time."

I will read from their texts:

"In the year 1991 NSK has been re-defined from an Organisation to a 
State. A state in time, a state without territory and national 
borders, a sort of "spiritual, virtual state". It has issued an 
original NSK passport and everybody can become its holder and 
therefore a citizen of the NSK State. The Passport can be used 
creatively, also as an official travel document, naturally with a 
certain hazard to its owner.... The NSK state denies... the 
categories of fixed territory, the principle of national borders, and 
advocates the law of transnationality. Besides NSK members the 
beneficiaries of the right to citizenship are thousands all over the 
world, people of different religions, races, nationalities, sexes and 
beliefs. The right to citizenship is aquired through ownership of the 

Why did NSK create this strange conceptual machine, a State in Time? 
One reason was to assert the subjective consistency and 
sustainability of a group of people who effectively choose their own 
laws, who shape their own society. This attempt to imagine the forms 
of autonomy was decisively important for them, as the old Yugoslav 
state collapsed, and a new, but also unsatisfying state was formed. 
But there is another level to this reflexive act, to this artistic 
transformation of the political imaginary. Because it is not so easy 
to create one's own laws. One only does so in the shadow of far 
larger organizations, which can alienate one's ideas and sensations, 
which can prey parasitically upon one's deepest aspirations. And so 
the social forms of alienation must be exorcized, made to give back 
what they have captured, to release what they have appropriated and 
distorted. In the case of NSK, this alienating force was the 
national, territorial state, which in Yugoslavia bore the double 
heritage of Nazism and Stalinism. As they write:

"Modern art has not yet overcome the conflict brought about by the 
rapid and efficient assimilation of historical avant-garde movements 
in the systems of totalitarian states.... Neue Slowenische Kunst... 
revives the trauma of avant-garde movements by identifying with 
it.... The most important and at the same time traumatic dimension of 
avant-garde movements is that they operate and create within a 
collective.... The question of collectivism, i.e. the question of how 
to organize communication and enable the coexistence of various 
autonomous individuals in a community, can be solved in two different 
ways. Modern states continue to be preoccupied with the question of 
how to collectivize and socialize the individual, whereas avant-garde 
movements tried to solve the question of how to individualize the 
collective. Avant-garde movements tried to develop autonomous social 
organisms in which the characteristics, needs and values of 
individualism, which cannot be comprised in the systems of a formal 
state, could be freely developed and defined. The collectivism of 
avant-garde movements had an experimental value. With the collapse of 
the avant-garde movements, social constructive views in art fell into 
disgrace, which caused the social escapism of orthodox modernism and 
consequently led to a crisis in basic values in the period of 
  (Eda Kufer + Irwin, Ljubljana, 1992,

NSK defines experimental, vanguard art as attempt to individualize 
the collective, to develop the characteristics, needs and values of 
individuals within the framework of autonomous social organizations - 
what they call constructive organizations, or what I might call the 
society of the multitudes. From the viewpoint of exploding Yugoslavia 
in 1991, at a time when it was politically necessary to reflect on 
the form that such an autonomous social organization could take, NSK 
attempted to exorcize the totalitarian state, and to replay the 
traumatic history of vanguards, so as to recover their experimental 

At the present time, and from the viewpoint of the advanced 
capitalist countries, I believe that an ambition for sophisticated 
and concentrated art would be to exorcize the institutional forms of 
transnational state capitalism, which has appropriated and distorted 
the experimental art of the period around 1968. The only viable 
reason that I can see to come into a museum like this, is to use it 
as one of many possible stages on which to dramatize the difference 
between the networked discipline of neoliberalism, and the 
experimentalism of an evolving artistic practice that makes autonomy 
into a theme of constructive reflection between freely developing 

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