Materializing free time
Notes toward a new constructivism
Angelo V. Suarez
When Viktor Shklovsky says, “Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important,” the implication is not only that the articulation of artfulness itself becomes the object, but that such an articulation requires material conditions that allow for its construction.
Much has been said about the need to dissolve the boundary between form & content in art; haphazard discussion has reduced the avant-garde to be no more than a set of artistic practices or, worse, techniques making a tease out of the abolition of this distinction in view of the abolition of the boundary between art & life. What this sidesteps is a fairly simple fact: that all art practice takes place w/in life—& where life is constrained & determined by material considerations, so too must the production of art.
W/ the notion there has never been & can never be any divorce between art & life because the former exists in the latter, there is no point arguing against Joseph Kosuth’s proposal to abandon the term ‘art work’ in favor of ‘art proposition’: while on one hand ‘proposition’ cld be made to appear as a mystification of the reality that it takes work to produce art, the term ‘proposition’ as a replacement for ‘work’ also indicates a willingness—if not a need—to construct the formulation that proposition is the work carried out in the production of art. Kosuth has, in fact, done us a favor: he flags the undeniable status of artmaking in all its manifestations or manners of presentation as labor. The replacement signals an accumulation of signification, not an erasure.
To Lucy Lippard, writing about conceptualism in the ‘70s, has been committed the repeated disservice of dismissing ‘dematerialization’ as no more than a hollow term. Certainly no matter the amount of nuance it cldn’t avoid leading to the grave reduction that ideas possess no materiality. Rather, what Lippard has done is produce a generative error—for the term underscored not the disappearance of the art object but the materiality of the art proposition, a materiality Mel Bochner had consistently insisted on by way of his credo “Language is not transparent” that is the foundation of all his work.
This is as evident in Jeff Koons encasing basketballs in an aquarium as it is in Graciela Carnevale locking up spectators in a gallery to be escaped: without disavowing their status as basketballs in an aquarium or a situation that features spectators trapped in a gallery, what turns them into art is the labor of the proposition that they are art. Not the rule of thirds popularized by the rhetoric of design, not the interactivity valorized by the dummies convinced of participation’s emancipatory potential—but the proposition itself. Robert Barry’s inert gases are no more dematerialized than Marcel Broodthaers’ museum; the proposition that transformed ice, water, & steam into George Brecht’s Three Aqueous Events is equally a product of labor as the proposition that transformed a common urinal into Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.
The proposition is the infrathin Duchamp approximated as the warmth left on a seat that had just been left—a discursive network that inscribes, confers, even withdraws, a particular aesthetic status on an object. When Robert Rauschenberg makes a portrait of Iris Clert, it is the infrathin at work & has been worked on; when Rauschenberg erases Willem De Kooning, it is the infrathin at work & has been worked on. Yet in both cases, it is Rauschenberg himself who is ultimately at work, has been worked on: backed by status & institutional sanction, it is Rauschenberg who labors for the accumulation of social capital that grants his work of artistic proposition visibility—& he works this proposition, whether intentionally or not, for the accumulation of more.
The labor in conceptualism consists of constructing this infrathin while simultaneously accomplishing its index, & often what accomplishes the construction is the indexing (as in much of Brecht’s more interesting work), & sometimes what accomplishes the indexing is the construction (as in much of Roberto Chabet’s more interesting work). What the infrathin, in turn, generates is a split in the object on w/c it is conferred—the split between form & content. The term “object” here is taken in a loose, but ironically precise, sense: the art object may be tangible or intangible, retinal or non-retinal, a painting, a phrase, a performance, a book, an event, an emptiness, a relationship, a press release, a process, a survey. This is why the distinction between form & content cannot be abolished in any art object: it is the very split—produced by the infrathin—between form & content that produces the art object.
Conceptual art is not at all what facile dismissals have made it seem to be: Not the discursive reduction of a work to a proposition that warrants not the proposition’s execution but its verbal articulation—Sol LeWitt himself, one of the progenitors of conceptual art after Henry Flynt’s initial coining of “concept art,” in a retrospective revaluation of his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” admits to the mere concept of drawings on a wall sans execution running counter to the very concept of drawings on a wall for ceasing to be drawings on a wall—but a historically situated practice of reflexivity that acknowledges that what confers art status on an object (whether the object be a shovel or a shark, an archive or a lack, an accumulation or a diminishment, a career or a CV, a book or its distribution, an electoral system or the outcome of a political regime) is the proposition. In conceptual art hence, it is art that is the concept, such that all artworks—deemed so in their proposition—contribute to the elaboration, expansion, & complication of the concept art.
The narrative classical conceptualism is anchored on has sought almost to a dogmatic degree the presentation of the void—the ultimate (non-)referent of the monochrome, from Kazimir Malevich to Ad Reinhardt, from Aleksandr Rodchenko to Chabet—as an emptying gesture that redirects attention from the object to its social env’t. The full impact of the radicality of the readymade, the 1st of w/c had been Duchamp’s Bottle Rack of 1914—Dada’s breach of composing the void toward filling that void w/ a found object—cldn’t have been apprehended till a particular iteration of the void that wld prove to be one of the most enduring, if not the most consummate, had been composed & premiered: John Cage’s 4’33”. More commonly known as a work featuring 4 minutes & 33 seconds of silence, it asks that the object of scrutiny be the sounds rendered audible in the immediate env’t thru the performer’s suppression of sound—accomplished w/in the duration of its 3 movements by not playing the instrument before him/her—such that the void functions as a kind of mirror, reflecting discursively thru the surface of the work its surroundings.
Philippine literary history is not w/o its share of telling silences. Literary historian Resil Mojares writes of the Augustinian botanist Manuel Blanco, a Spanish friar credited w/ having penned Flora de Filipinas, segun el sistema sexual de Linneo (“Flowers of the Philippines, according to the sexual system of Linnaeus”) in 1837, who “was tasked by his order to write a treatise on the character of the Philippine native (indio). The friar secluded himself in a monastery and admonished his confreres that the book he was working on should be opened only after his death. When he died years later, the friars eagerly opened the magnum opus on which their brother had long labored, only to find that the book contained nothing but blank pages.” The book is said to be thick, held together by a cover made of vellum that bore its title, El Indio. Its blankness—reinforced no less by author’s surname, Blanco—cld be read as a testament to either the unknowability of a people or their lack of merit to be even known, or even as either the diligent friar’s refusal to reduce a people into an object of the imperial gaze or the outcome of anthropological incompetence borne of eccentricity. This interpretive indeterminacy, however, veils the possibility of reading the substrate that is the paper itself—such that an equivalency between the indio & the aggregate of sheets is posited, & that conquest is presented not so much as inscription onto the ‘native’ page but the very framing of the sheets as native: the indio is itself an imperial fantasy, a discursive composition.
But most Filipino poets are less familiar w/ Blanco than they are, for example, w/ Jose Garcia Villa. On one hand one may assume any Filipino writer interested in the void as mirror anchors his/her practice on either of Villa’s iconically wordless poems—be it “The Emperor’s New Sonnet”, a text that on the page exists as a blank marked only by this title, or his “Centipede Sonnet”, composed of no more than 14 lines of 34 commas each. On the other hand one may assume the Filipino writer interested in the void as mirror anchors his/her practice on the combo of Villa’s comma poems & his adaptation poems. The former involves a system of rhythmically interrupting his lyrics of humanist defiance featuring an abstracted, fantasmatically denationalized ‘I’ (attempting a universalized ‘unmarked’ poetic persona that lays bare its performativity) w/ a comma between every word, every comma a metrical feature imposes an artifice of rhythm outside of semantic sense or the conventions of speech; the latter involves a system of appropriation by w/c works of prose by another author are excerpted & lineated towards the construction of an autonomous lyric whose speaker is as displaced as Villa writing diasporically in the shadow of Edith Sitwell in the US.
In both cases we find proto-conceptualist strategies that gesture toward the jettisoning of content as no more than a prop for the foregrounding of form & for rendering the prioritization of form perceptible. Either way Villa comes across as a seminal figure, whose experimental temperament wld shape much of subsequent literary production w/ an eye toward formal innovation. While his value as a minoritarian poet moving w/in a modernist coterie remains to be fully appreciated w/in the context of American letters, there is no denying the status accorded him in the context of Philippine literature—particularly the ghetto of Philippine literature in English—as a modernist progenitor, courting controversy as early as age 17 even for his literary juvenilia.
It was, however, by way of the other Filipino modernist patriarch that I came to conceptualism & thru whose work I wld eventually apprehend Villa’s proto-conceptualism: Alejandro G. Abadilla. “Ako ang Daigdig” (“I am the World”), the poem he is best known for, enjoys the privilege of having been published in a milieu that allowed it to be the center of an argument among poets—not only for its content, but more so for its form. First printed in the commercial Tagalog weekly Liwayway (Filipino for “Dawn”), the poem had been dismissed most notably by Clodualdo del Mundo, among other peers, as something that is not a poem, not even a worthwhile attempt at amateur philosophizing. Finding itself caught in the tension between what Boris Groys would refer to as valorized culture and the profane, “Ako ang Daigdig” had been an instantiation of the new, marked as it was w/ the infrathin of Abadilla’s making.
But what was truly fascinating about the poem was not the fact it exceeded the milieu’s limits of what constituted poetry, but the fact of its having exceeded those limits much more dramatically than had been charged. For what the poem accomplishes is the dissolution, or transference, of its poeticity by indexing the speaker—presumed to be the authorial persona—as being himself the poem rather than itself. The 1st of its four numbered sections goes:
The poem goes on in the succeeding sections complicating in a handful of nuanced variations the task of indexing the self as a poem. But because the self appears in the text in no other mode but as a speaker, one arrives at a suspicion that the work is formally more radical than has been made of it—a poem reduced into the non-poem of an index. On one hand, del Mundo may have been obliquely correct about the text’s poetic status, in a manner he may not have foreseen; on the other hand, its reduction into an index requires poemness as a condition of possibility, alluding 6 decades into the future to Vanessa Place’s conceptualist axiom “The poem is the platform.” It directs the reader’s attention toward the author function, framing Abadilla as the discursive node that is the true site of the poeticity of “Ako ang Daigdig”, predating not only Barry’s artistic propositions (his photostat of “Something that needs something else” is serendipitously instructive here, in that the author-poem needs the index-non-poem to exist as such) but even the indexical scores of Brecht & the rest of those affiliated w/ Fluxus.
W/ the poem being the platform on w/c the author is raised (as if from the dead, the author having been declared so) becomes the textual object of scrutiny, Walter Benjamin’s injunction becomes especially pertinent: Rather than “What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time,” ask instead, “What is its position in them?” For the author is one means of gauging the work’s position w/in the material & social coordinates of its production, & his having been reframed into a function—that is, into a text (in that rather than the author constructs the work, it is the work constructs the author who constructs it)—not so much indexes but affirms the existence of an artworld that is a field of social forces reinforcing the concept of the infrathin.
Thus thru the lens of Abadilla does the politics of Villa’s work become visible to me: “The Emperor’s New Sonnet” may appear as a lack of text, but only for this lack to reveal the text of its substrate—the paper on w/c it is printed, the book in w/c this sheet of paper is found as one of several pages, the material conditions of production of this book, the social capital to be gleaned from the book’s material conditions of production, & so on. This opens up Villa’s allusion to the 1837 Hans Christian Andersen classic to a productively counter-intuitive reading: while the tale has been traditionally construed as an indictment of adult pretension bared by youthful innocence—that the emperor in fact had no clothes on—Villa cld here be pertaining to the materiality of the proposition, in that the sonnet is precisely in what one tends to overlook: everything that is the text that is not the text. It is almost as if the words—organized into 14 lines, had they been there to provide legible content, metered & rhymed—wld themselves have been the veneer obfuscating what the sonnet had been the platform for: the institution of poetry as an iteration of the artworld.
Photo of Villa’s “The Emperor’s New Sonnet” from his Selected Poems and New, taken from Bibliotheca Invisibilis – http://libraryofinvisible.blogspot.com/2014/03/jose-garcia-villa.html
Having received the anti-art baton from Dada’s milieu, conceptualism has a history of taking pride in an amorphous collective stance one cld describe as anti-form: In a dismissal by Kosuth, for instance, “[f]ormalist art” is no more than “the vanguard of decoration.” For Robert Morris, in an essay tellingly titled “Anti Form”, “to continue aestheticizing form by dealing with it as a prescribed end” is “part of the work’s refusal.”
This reduction of form into an expanded sense of what Duchamp critiques as the retinal—that is, perceptible, tangible objects that are the outcome of craftsmanship or manual virtuosity—is what may have led to the conflation of conceptual practice, via deskilling, w/ dematerialization, w/c in turn has led to the flagrant accusation against conceptualism that it has been no more than a tool of capitalist subjugation. Even a critic as astute & attuned to contemporary art as the Marxist scholar McKenzie Wark has been quick to declare, in a recent appraisal of Hito Steyerl’s writing, that “dematerialized art works pretty well with conceptual capitalism. The tendency of the latter may well be to insist that even non-existent things must be private property,” so much so that conceptual art may well have ushered in the institutionalization of the freelancer’s self-exploitation as well as the precarization that comes w/ immaterial labor, such that “Uber is now a major transport company yet it owns no vehicles; Amazon is a major retailer that owns no stores. Dematerialization is in my terms the strategy of the vectoral class.”
Certainly it is not unproductive to insist that immaterial labor, as in the sort rendered visible by conceptual art, is what is operational & exploited by the so-called sharing economies of Uber & AirBnB & pushes Wark’s point, led by Steyerl, that the artist has been reduced into “a creative polymath as legitimation for the amateur entrepreneur.” & the matter is especially pressing in the Philippines now, given what the government considers to be a pioneering partnership w/ Uber & similar services in relinquishing responsibility over public transport, among other fields where public services & utilities are getting privatized, privileging profiteering private outfits even while the urban train systems on w/c more laborers rely are quickly bogging down under the weight of public-private partnerships. But to identify conceptual practice with the same immaterial labor that gets exploited in sharing economies sidesteps the impulse that led to efforts at finding alternatives to sensible, tangible objects in the 1st place—the formal investigation into subverting the market—pointing in the direction of subsequent conceptualists constantly & consciously confronting this problem as a formal one: that the fact of complicity is where we begin, not where we have ended up.
Known as much for his own happenings as for the very idea of happenings, Allan Kaprow is an interesting figure at the nexus of this dilemma. “The antiformalist simply replaces the appearance of order with the appearance of chaos. Both order and chaos have a substantial history of images that are still fed into daily life and thought,” he says in an essay that critiques the position inhabited by Morris. “[T]he stars in the sky, dust on the floor, garbage, people in a riot—any apparently random accumulation of whatever—can be grouped, arranged in sets, classified, graphed, and systematized into both physical properties and expressive ones. Hence the antiformalist’s artwork is as much a form as anything we can sense or know[.]” While towards the end of the essay he articulates what may well be a call to abandon form, he accomplishes this as a call to abandon art altogether (elsewhere he does this by privileging what he calls “lifelike life” in counterpoint to “lifelike art” & “artlike life”), such that the preoccupation w/ form becomes inextricable from art. Ironically, the very radicality of Morris’ Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal of 1963, in w/c he performatively withdraws all aesthetic quality from “the metal construction entitled LITANIES”, is predicated on the rigor of Kaprow’s formulation of form, in that Statement expands what form is & can be thru the accommodation of a withdrawal as the form of an artwork. His sharp, even monstrous, attention to form is well-documented; Andre Lepecki, for instance, takes note of how meticulous Kaprow’s notes are for the seminal 1959 work 18 Happenings in 6 Parts for the former’s reproduction of it in 2006, so much so that the “‘the script’ or ‘the score’” alone is “rather a massive textual and visual work, almost autonomous in itself in its prolific poetic ramifications and performative potentialities.”
Photo of Morris’ “Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal,” taken from https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/782/flashcards/4207782/jpg/55_robert_20morris__20statement_20of_20aesthetic_20withdrawal__201963-143034DD6F26D116DA3.jpg
Given the sophisticated dialectic of form he has deployed to critique Morris in 1974, one finds it jarring to find a younger Kaprow at odds w/ Robert Smithson in a 1967 dialogue about the museum. Desiring to detach his practice from the necrological implications of the museum as mausoleum, Kaprow enumerates the alternative environments—“marginal or penumbral zone[s],” he calls them—he wld rather locate his work in: “the edges of cities, […] vast highways with their outcroppings of supermarkets and shopping centers, endless lumberyards, discount houses[.]” Smithson on the other hand prefers to view the framing of the museum as “a null structure” as “one of its major assets, and that this should be realized and accentuated,” & the difference of his viewpoint from Kaprow’s cldn’t be more glaring than when he says, “It seems that your position is one that is concerned with what’s happening. I’m interested for the most part in what’s not happening.”
That Smithson considers nullity as an asset to be realized & accentuated hints not so much at the autonomy of art but its becoming-autonomous, an articulation of desire for autonomy—a not-happening. While Kaprow finds form, as he shld, even in the most random organization for the sheer organization of this randomness as something to have been composed by way of its framing, he cannot seem to find institutionality outside of the gallery & the museum w/c are but its spatial iterations. What he then misses is that—where the aspiration for nullity is enacted in the institution of art as a process of becoming-autonomous—it is form that constructs autonomy, such that institutionality, manifested in the infrathin, is inextricable from form.
One wonders to what extent Gyorgy Lukacs anticipated the formulation of the infrathin as decisive in the institution of art when he posited, “The truly social element in literature is the form.” Likely not at all. Andrea Fraser, in discussing a work by Michael Asher that serves as a defining moment for institutional critique, eloquently describes the inevitability of the institution in all artmaking:
“Asher took Duchamp one step further. Art is not art because it is signed by an artist or shown in a museum or any other ‘institutional’ site. Art is art when it exists for discourses and practices that recognize it as art, value and evaluate it as art, and consume it as art, whether as object, gesture, representation, or only idea. The institution of art is not something external to any work of art but the irreducible condition of its existence as art. No matter how public in placement, immaterial, transitory, relational, everyday, or even invisible, what is announced and perceived as art is always already institutionalized, simply because it exists within the perception of participants in the field of art as art, a perception not necessarily aesthetic but fundamentally social in its determination.”
The formalism of conceptualism consists of engaging, elaborating, complicating, & laying bare this “irreducible condition.” The form of a work is the scope of what its infrathin covers. The extent of its autonomy is the extent of its resistance; that is to say, a work is only as resistant as it is autonomous. Brecht’s Exercise goes: “Determine the limits of an object or event. Determine the limits more precisely. Repeat until further precision is impossible.” Where deskilling represses virtuosity in the construction of tangible objects, virtuosity returns in the precision of the labor of proposition. Conceptualism demands mastery; mastery demands conceptualism.
This is what becomes of constructivist faktura: Where the material is the infrathin, virtuosity manifests in the discursive presentation of institutionality. If, as per Aleksei Gan in his 1922 manifesto for constructivism, it is “the processing of the material as a whole, and not just the treatment of its surface,” faktura then becomes the correspondence between form & the infrathin—that is, the extent of the laying bare of the device that is institutionality, whether thru its direct presentation or its manipulation. Institutions are plastic, as are their representation.
This is what becomes of constructivist tectonics: It is faktura erupts from ostranenie—institutionality defamiliarized. “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception,” says Shklovsky, “because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” Defamiliarization posits the new as an undeniably social construction, for it posits the forms worth pursuing as the forms that remain outside of the familiar of the archive; it prolongs the process of perceiving the institutionality of art.
This is what becomes of constructivist construction: “An insistence,” according to conceptual choreographer Donna Miranda’s formulation of the new in transit, “against the opportunistic claims for contemporaneity.” The modernism of the constructivist consists of his/her resistance to the contemporary—the construction of the new outside of the grammar of the market. It responds to the question, “What is the market yet to coopt into its logic of profit?” To believe in the new is to believe there is a way out of the market, that the market has a beyond; to be constructivist is not so much to be contemporary as it is to be modern.
The work of constructivism is made but never peddled, peddled but never sold, disseminated but never distributed, asks for grants but gets rejected, gets the grant only for it to be withdrawn. It aspires, performs an aspiration, to the status of commodity—but, manifesting its performance of aspiring for commodification, fails. The constructivist endures the failure of the hysteric. Like the superior amusement park fetishist, the constructivist accumulates social capital s/he cannot redeem for profit, preferring the tickets over the toys at the neon-lit redemption booth even while desiring all that plush.
The new constructivism might as well be “[t]he symbolic revolution,” in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, “through which artists free themselves from bourgeois demands and define themselves as the sole masters of their art while refusing to recognize any master other than their art—this is the very meaning of the expression ‘art for art’s sake’[.]” & the conceptualist mode this constructivism assumes is what optimizes “the effect of eliminating the market” thru the presentation & manipulation of institutionality—a hystericization too obscene to be marketable in the formal deployment of institutionality via the infrathin.
In the intro to a self-published work in 2010, I indicated what I found to be an impasse: “The writer’s labor of writing, especially w/in the framework of poetry, is comprised of the attempt itself to divorce writing from labor; that is, the poet’s work is to strip poetry of work; that is, the poet can neither be considered poet nor laborer when decontextualized from a history of poetry that detaches itself from the history of class struggle.” This formulation posits poetry as work that operates paradoxically outside of the instrumentalizing scope of labor—a means of participating in class struggle by creating what refuses to be part of the class struggle. The refusal allows poetry play outside of the demands of material circumstance, & by doing so acknowledges that such play can only take place when material circumstance allows poets to partake of such a privilege.
In this, poetry concedes & gives way to, values the necessity & inevitability of, is in complete solidarity w/, & holds up & valorizes activism as that w/c finds ways for the revolution to be the event that secures the freedom of there being anything beyond the market. In this, the new constructivism conjures Guy Debord who, by putting the revolution at the service of poetry rather than the other way around, posits the communist horizon as that w/c allows art to exist. “It is only in this way that revolution does not betray its own project,” he continues. In this, conceptualism can be said to be post-revolutionary: for until the event that abolishes our collective unfreedom, all art is—in one way or another—for the market’s sake, not art’s. Co-optation is swift, or it takes time. At the heart of construction is the construction of a better world that enables art to be art—that is, autonomous. Momentarily we can carve being-autonomous as a space of resistance w/in capital, w/c finds significance only when sustained by activism. The constructivist does not make art as activism; the constructivist makes art whose self-referentiality indexes the necessity of a revolt for art to be. “We have a durable proletarian-led insurgency,” says E. San Juan, “that seeks to articulate the ‘unfinished revolution’ of 1896 in its demand for genuine national independence and social justice for the majority of citizens, including ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples.” It is in view of this insurgency that the conceptualist as constructivist that s/he insists on autonomy.
In this, the Collective Actions Group led by Andrei Monastyrski remains exemplary, the 1976 action Appearance functioning like a kind of model work. The score goes: “The viewers were sent invitations to the action Appearance. Five minutes after the guests (30 people) had gathered and arranged themselves at the edge of the field, two of the action’s participants appeared from the forest on the opposite edge. They crossed the field, approached the viewers, and presented them with certificates (‘Documentary Evidence’) attesting to their presence at Appearance.” W/ no market for the work to be lost in yet outside of the state’s official art of agitprop, the work concerns itself only w/ the presentation of the infrathin, indexing institutionality in an action or situation that cld only be constructed by material conditions that sustained it, by free time that enabled it.
Theodor Adorno lamented the inanity of the hobby as well as the rise of the (oxy)moronic ‘leisure industry’ as symptoms of the co-optation of free time by work, that we only ever allow ourselves to rest to enable us to work better, harder, & more efficiently the next day for the benefit of whoever controls the forces of production. That poetry keeps getting trapped in the Leisure section of the dailies is indication enough of this collective unfreedom. I take poetry to be the 1 instance we can take back our free time, to make work that refuses to be instrumentalized by the systems we work for & are exploited by, that exhausts us even when what work demands is that we rest. To posit conceptualism in its emancipatory dimension is to be a new constructivist, materializing free time.
Shot of a detail from Chabet’s “Two Untitled Paintings” from http://www.aaa.org.hk/Collection/CollectionOnline/SpecialCollectionItem/4041