Author Archive

Deregulate life

June 9, 2020 Comments off

After being under lockdown for over two months (depending on labor conditions and state jurisdiction), the country filled the streets en masse. The protests, triggered by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, brought the sheltered-in-place out to the public space. The contrast between isolation and demonstration is striking as it completely transformed the concept of solidarity from that of distance (self-isolation as the protection of the other) to togetherness. If living together was contingent of a momentary lapse of togetherness, suddenly it was defined by collective body’s occupation of the urban space. This form of adaptability and capacity for contradiction, defines the politics of care for those whose lives are entangled through an intersection of unheard, and constantly reiterated indignations. While the current covid plague disproportionately killed black and brown communities, police have been historically and systematically targeting black lives. The lockdown prevented the rituals of grieving the dead and consigned them to bureaucracies of the necropolitical administration. The public slaughter of George Floyd by the police and its digital dispersion reached the screens of the non-essential sequestered and the essential workers who kept them alive, enraging both groups alike. The demonstrations staged a collective mourning of a “significant loss of human life” – biological and social.

In a tweet trump called the protesters “lowlife and losers.” In another tweet, all those exercising their First Amendment rights, he called out as “thugs, Radical Left, and all others [sic] forms of Lowlife & Scum.” While the protesters gather under the umbrella of Black Lives Matter, it is revealing how the president labeled their lives low, that is of lesser importance (as opposed to “high”?)— which of course is consistent with the bigoted racial ideology of this country. This clarifies why the very crux of the movement emphasizes the biopolitical warfare that distributes life disproportionally among the populace (considering some lives lower than others). The tweet shows that for the ruling establishment certain lives don’t matter, as they are worthy only of abasement, a lowering that includes impoverishment and death. Racism as Foucault shows is a biopolitical practice that links the death of the other to the better, “healthier and purer” life of some. Racism wants to eradicate what it designates as “low” life, to nurture “high” life. It creates and maintains hierarchies of life and perpetuates the notion of race by the daily rituals and the practice of racism as Barbara and Karen Fields show. Further, those who are designated essential workers are primarily from communities of color whose lives do not matter under the current biopolitical maldistribution of life. Although one would hope it could go without saying, it now cannot: Those whose labor is essential must have their lives recognized as essential, too. That is, they are the essence of our collective existence. Black Lives Matter insists that there is not and should not be a hierarchy of lives.

The pandemic that necessitated the living wear masks so that they could live (when supplies of those masks could be found), simultaneously dressed the protesters with anti-surveillance cover that disrupted the facial recognition algorithms of the biopolitical establishment. It protects against the virus and adversarial identification. The mask defaced, disidentified and deindividualized the multitude that rose up for black lives and disinfected the streets from racial capitalist necropolitics. New York and many other cities’ centers of retail and luxury are now occupied, not by consumers and tourists, but by the lives that are barred from the high streets. The lockdown that cleared the streets from commerce was greeted with demonstrations that flooded it with life, in its most fundamental, lowest – ground level, basic form. Not life as its regulated by commodity and administered by consumption. The protesters showed who the streets belong to.

In one of the recurring slogans the police are asked to give the protesters head, instead of killing and brutalizing people. The present circumstances encourage us to consider what kind of a world we would build if the police gave the residents [solicited] pleasure, instead of unsolicited pain? In this world, protecting and serving people would be measured by the amount of pleasure that the government and, by extension, the law enforcement provide to their constituents. We should therefore regulate industry and deregulate life – in its multitude, divergent, uncontainable manifestations.

Black Lives Matter. “I yield my time.”

Affective Alienation

May 25, 2020 Comments off

Responding to restrictions in movement and assembly, two modalities seem to be emerging. There is a subversive anti-authoritarianism that follows the poetics of desire, resisting regulation of bodies and senses, opposing the normalizing impositions that isolates and pathologizes the other. It speed-rides the ambulance of death drive and zips through the traffic lights of a full scale biopolitical warfare that renders each crisis into an opportunity to expand the standardization of life and the extermination of the non-abiding life forms.  The other is a rugged individualism that follows the illogic of infinite exploitation of life in service of maximizing yields. This boundless liberalism discounts the life of others and counts them as impediments to a canned ideology of sameness; the nuclear family, the nation state, the consumer.

One ignores death. The other ignores life. One desires the other in all of its possible incomprehensible forms and accepts the self as an impermanent jumble of multiplicities, inconsistencies and contradictions. The other eradicates any form of life that differs and is differentiating and finds the self as a cohesive, immutable and stable entity.

While dialectically opposed theoretically and ideologically, they at times appear to align politically. If the current practices of isolation that are life-affirming as they protect the life of others limit the various manifestations of the spaceship of desires, these practices equally impede exploitation and ultimate eradication of the other.

For many of us exiled, migrant and displaced, social distancing is pre-pandemic. We have been communicating with loved ones from far away. Sometimes we stopped communicating all together because of the pain of separation. But we did not stop loving. Even when the emails, phone calls and letters became infrequent. We were isolated, poor, depressed, traumatized, excluded, injured and abused. The pandemic not only universalized [a form of] death but also estrangement. There is a planetary sense of loss of life, biological and social. The border is no longer imposed only on the colonized, the global south, the paperless. It is commonly and somewhat equally distributed among everyone, from anywhere. We are all together in exile.

The necropoliticical regime that counts life dispensable in the service of a discriminatory and inequitable economic system aims to deviate the poetics of desire to facilitate the extermination of the other –  the colored, the sick the differently abled, the destitute, cancerous, sterile, lame, leprous, anxious, depressed, neurotic, psychotic. The subversive death drive is recuperated to deny life to those who cannot self-exile. In turn, the life affirming bodies decode, reconfigure and rewire the desiring channels for an affective alienation that sustains the sequestered imaginary through words, images and (in)action. This might feel contradictory, but like Anzaldua’s mestiza, we find comfort in contradiction.

(for shahr.n)


Realities TV

May 23, 2020 Comments off

(During the exhibition the gallery is closed, no. 4 Imperfect Listsicles, May 20, 2020)

We don’t see our faces when talking to others. We hear our voices; we feel our lips moving. At times we can see our hands waving. Mainly we see the faces of our interlocutors. We see the lives of others played out in movies and on television and at times decide to craft ourselves after some of them. But unless we are cast as the stars of reality television we don’t watch ourselves living. Recent technologies gradually have been training us to watch our own lives elapse. Photography documented passing moments of lives, and so did Super 8. There was Kodachrome, the camcorder, Polaroid, and so on. Then self-representation and preservation were digitally accelerated. There came YouTube, then came the iPhone, and then there was Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, whatnot. We became .jpegs and .movs as we scrolled through our photo applications, watching our recent pasts flicker on the screens of our smartphones. While we have shared our lives excessively on social networks, and have become the spectators of others’ lives, until recently we had yet to livestream life in its totality.

It took a pandemic for us to start starring in our own lives. Cruising through video conferencing platforms, from Zoom to Houseparty, Google Hangouts, to Whereby, Instagram Live to FaceTime, we are now seeing ourselves as the protagonists of our lives as never before. In the fiction of our lives, we have often played characters in the wings, understanding life as it is lived by others, through others. We have interiority, but we do not watch ourselves externalized in the world — even though we believe we are there. In memories we see others, and also in our dreams.

Suddenly, we have watched ourselves enter the stage we know we share with others, but this time we see our own representations among them. We see ourselves against the background of our everyday environs, our living quarters turning into the mises-en-scène of the theater of life – and labor. We are going through a planetary mirror stage. Covid, co-vid, together in video.

We are videoing together, on the couch, at the kitchen table, in bed. Walking around the house, making coffee, drinking, eating. We meet strangers on video, we become friends. We lose friends. The fiction of “I” that according to psychoanalysis casts us as the protagonists of our autobiographies after first recognizing ourselves in the mirror, now is finally interspersed as an active participant, an other among others. Stacked in grids, we are watching images of ourselves, floating through screens, sliding against others’ boxed-in “realities.”

But the image that the screen projects of us is not the Ideal-I of the mirror that we have aspired to our whole lives. It’s a pixelated, grotesque, odd, ludicrous, barely recognizable image that we hopelessly try to approximate to the one we see in the mirror. It is the Inferior-I. One that is captured by the shoddy wide-angle camera of a phone or computer and stretched out into a grid. For many of us who were comfortably sitting in the wings of our lives, this new talent show is excruciating. Now the “I” that struggles to self-actualize in the mirror tries to do the same with a poor image of itself – hence the constant twitching, fixing the hair, fishing the lips, changing the angle. We constantly try to adjust our image, to make it look better among all the other subpar-looking talking heads, and we all fail. But this distraction comes at the expense of listening. We used to listen to others talk, now we examine our looks. Just like the supposed “leaders” who are so over-obsessed with their streaming self-image that they no longer listen.

If the movie star dominated the apparatus to create an ideal image for the masses, we obviously are losing it to the video chat. We are all Zoombies (B.H.™) piled up in grids. Over the last many decades, feminist and queer performance/video art have gone after the industry-produced archetype of the star image of the dominant subject. It deconstructed its fable, corroded and spoiled it, perverted it, injected it with multitudes of desires and detourned it into an image that includes many other forms of existence. When our enforced isolation beams out less-than-ideal images of us in our less-than-ideal lives, we can whirl, twist, and gyre in front of our screens. Follow Birnbaum’s Wonder Woman into the hall of mirrors, explode, “come from under,” and resurrect the Zoombies starring in Realities TV.

Today I’m just like
A person with a device
My mind jumps from place
To place, I’m doing karaoke
I make the screen go up
To another thought, oops
I don’t like this one oh
My! Let’s scroll down to
A more Hallmark moment I
Have an app for waterfalls
No I’ll go to my sex app

Bernadette Mayer

Art without people

May 23, 2020 Comments off

(During the exhibition the gallery is closed, no. 2 When You Believe , April 21, 2020)

There are thousands of artworks currently on view in museums that no one goes to. Paintings and photographs on walls, sculptures on plinths and floors, installations immersive and not, videos, films, sounds, etc. These works are joined by millions of others left in climate controlled on- and offshore storage, soft or hard packed, in crates, on shelves, and in drawers. Considering the all-too-familiar Duchampian maxim that the viewer completes the work of art, we have too many works that, in the absence of viewers, are left incomplete. This incomplete art is art without value.

If we consider Duchamp’s equation, we realize that the value of a work of art is created by people, by those who pay to fill the galleries of museums, and lend their eyeballs to objects and images, and who, by doing so, evaluate what they encounter. Value is created by the labor of viewership. It is the presence of bodies in a space, in front of and around works of art, that sustains a field that more often than not extracts meaning from interiority and imagines a network of professionals and connoisseurs as appraisers. This is not unlike other spheres of contemporary culture and, more broadly, human activity. The application of the human body, its feelings, and its thoughts to an object, image, or commodity is often what grants it its value. Diedrich Diederichsen applied the labor theory of value to art production by claiming that the total time an artist spends in the art world (from academy to bars to openings, etc.), making art or not, is artistic labor and generates value. To this we might add that once the work is made, it requires bodies. These bodies could congregate around it at the same time, or over a decade or millennia. The value of the work – financial, symbolic, or otherwise – could spike and plateau, or decrease, or it could gradually increase over time as more bodies gather around it and more minds carry its memory, talk about it in public or private, replicate it, etc. Questions of expertise, populism, and management of scarcity aside, any kind of cultural product requires the user, viewer, or consumer to complete the cycle of value production.

In a work of art, the artistic work and that of the viewer/audiences converge. If the artist’s work includes all, or almost all areas of their life, their relationship with the totality of the everyday differs from the regulated time of labor. Similarly, the work of art reaches its constituents in their time out of labor. An artwork generates a relationship with time that contrasts the calendar time that serves accumulation. A work of art expands clock time, deregulates it and desynchronizes the temporality of human experience from that of labor time. If the artist’s primary material is bare time, uncalendared time, that is manifested in the time of the work, in the encounter with a work of art the divergent, disrupting, perverted, deviating, expanded temporalities of the work and its viewer are synchronized. Art therefore works against the clock of globally incorporated machine time. As opposed to the artwork, the culture industry aims to regulate time out of labor as designated leisure time and to synchronize it with the clock.

Now, in times when fully installed exhibitions in public and private art spaces remain closed, it is solely the eyeballs, instead of bodies, that institutions are vying for. Public relations are inundating distanced social platforms, strategizing on how to make their clients visible to the sequestered, cabin fevered audiences and to fill their time. Clickbaiting is institutionally mandated and hypervisibility is prescribed for organizational relevance and fear of digital obscurity. If the jpeg was the mp3 for visual art, quarantine is its Napster moment. But unlike recorded music, contemporary art does not maintain its intrinsic qualities through digital transfiguration, at least not immediately. The crisis of quarantine creates another crisis for the field: the crisis of value. While PR and marketing agencies can equate the value of their work with stats, institutions lose the value of space, time, and labor and risk being replaced by applications and platforms. Hypervisibility equals invisibility in the endless scroll. If we follow the example of music, it is not only institutions that will lose relevance. The primary burden falls on artists as their works become just an instance in the eternal digital flow. This is not to make a case for digital naivete, as contemporary art has used and metabolized the internet as an integral part of its ecology. From e-flux to Contemporary Art Daily, vdrome and other platforms, the art world is alive and well on the web. However, even the most digitally native works of art still often rely on bodies in a space for their completion. The current situation might change that, as more artworks and attempts to replicate the experience of art migrate online. VR could replicate the exhibition experience in the living room. While the current cloud transition prioritizes the retinal experience above all, it also provides extra-institutional access to works of art. But to migrate artworks that were made to be experienced in situ to online viewing rooms overnight is only in the service of an economy of visibility that serves the algorithmic patterns of platforms that mine human intelligence and labor to generate IPO value. All of a sudden, it appears that the work of artists, institutions, and viewers are now all in the service of speculative evaluation of web-based platforms, facilitated via marketing schemes that harvest optical engagement with content into quantifiable metrics of labor time, time of maximizing corporate yields.

Perhaps in anticipation of this wholesale transfer of institutional content to the data industry, artist Bahar Nourizadeh in collaboration with Mahan Moalemi created CAD Conspiracy (2019). The work fed 60,000 installation shots collected from into the machine learning framework of a generative adversarial network (GAN). While “learning” from these images over the course of the exhibition, the software generated its own “new” installation shots. The work shows how a wholesale migration into modes of online display could conflate the operations of the contemporary art institution with those of processing software that generate “autonomous” content and opt for a technocratic machine time over the divergent temporality of art.

As Mark Fisher said, all that is solid melts into PR, and art becomes a decoy for startup cognitive data collection. Art is long and public attention is often short, wrote Gary Indiana in his first column for the Village Voice. Marketing and public relations regulate and yield attention and render the work of viewership into unpaid labor of instant cultural consumption. But the shelf life of art does not follow the immediate response of the media: it is prescient and reflective, oneiric and haunting, subsequent antecedent; it creates its own constituents, and they in response culminate it. To render art into swiped online content is to unmake it into information that machines process for other machines that take our time and fill it up with theirs. Art creates time, it does not take it away.

There is no art left without people.

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Bare Time

May 23, 2020 Comments off

(SculptureCenter, During the exhibition the gallery is closed, no.1 Exhausted in Place , April 3, 2020)

For the first time in contemporary history, everyone – or almost everyone – on the planet is faced with the conditions of being an artist. That is, waking up in the morning and having to invent our lives and make them livable. Or, to put it in other words, we are faced with the daily challenge of making our lives into works of art. Each day we are faced with the questions: how have I been living and how can I live differently, make changes, incrementally, consistently? The hyper-accelerated conditions of life that we were used to, the incessant pressure to perform, produce, post, repost, like, had filled life with content and were abruptly paused to a standstill. Suddenly we are faced with empty time, unscheduled time, deregulated time, time out of content, time without labor, bare time.

Of course, this is a romantic conception of an artist or an artist’s life (as Amy said, an artist’s life might have looked like the quarantine, but life is not always a f**king disaster—at least not for the most part, or for everybody at all times). But we are, for better or for worse, faced with this bare time instead of time scheduled, calendared time. Romantic or not, now we are faced with the imperative to create a livable life, maintain a life and try to make it less dull and wasted, or more fulfilling. Art makes something out of nothing, and we have a lot of the latter at our disposal at the moment. Artists, first and foremost, are people who own their time and claim it for their own, fill it up or empty it out. As pleasurable as it sounds, this is not an easy feat. No one asked them to do it or is going to fill their time for them, no one expects them to succeed or mourns their failure, and yet day after day, they would wake up and propel themselves to engage with an irrational yet logical activity of making and unmaking art.

Klein created The Void (1958), Arman The Full Up (1960); Lozano “dropped out” and Sturtevant “re”-made, and these two approaches could at least metaphorically be instrumentalized to think about what to do with the day and the night. With risk of hyperbolic exaggeration, there are two kinds of artistic approaches in making work. Those who take content out until they are faced with the least possible amount of it, no longer possible to get rid of, and those who accumulate content over content until they reach a point of saturation before everything starts spilling over and out. This is not a matter of minimal and maximal. One can be a reductive maximalist and an aggrandizing minimalist. We are faced with the question of how to fill our days, or how to empty them out.

Like it or not, right now, in a moment of global catastrophe, with death looming behind every touch, everybody (as it has been proclaimed before for other or similar reasons) is an artist—“and everyone hates it.” Artists are best equipped to deal with solitude, a sequestered life, unscheduled time. But this is art without contemporary art, there is no institutional mandate that propels the quotidian, no critical validation of the everyday, there are no deadlines in place to dust off the trivial. There is no contemporary art in quarantine yet there are decisions to be made towards an aesthetics of a tolerable life and to make it better, different, and less intolerable.

We are faced with the question, what kind of life is worth living? (Foucault) We are tasked with the dilemma of how to live a beautiful life. To make a life out of nothing. Out of incompetent governance, dreadful ambivalence, sluggish hourglass, banality of groceries, lethargic anxiety of the threat of furloughs and declined sustenance, out of the fear of not making rent and why to pay it. We are all pondering about the reason and value of what we have been doing, and why have we been doing it the way we did, can we do it differently, can we do it better, should we give it up altogether, jump ship, do something else? Is it satisfying, is it draining, does it give us joy, are we just wasting our lives away doing something we don’t want to do? These are all aesthetic questions. These are all questions that artists face when they get to their studio, or post-studio, when they stare at a blank page or canvas, or open whatever application they design their work in. These questions are fundamental, or existential questions, but we usually don’t bother asking them, because we have to be at the office or at the bar, on the train or the canteen, in a meeting room here or elsewhere.

There are people who are out there making our sequestered living possible by sacrificing theirs. We are nevertheless left with a romantic proposition, perhaps even an obsolete romanticism that could propel a semblance of meaning in the face of a significant loss of human life. What we can or cannot do is a question that we cannot turn away from as we pace around a shrinking life in a shrinking city, in a vanishing neighborhood and a room that is filled with our being and we cannot quite fill it up.

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The work of art in the age of codes and regulations

May 22, 2020 Comments off

For Rafael Domenech’s exhibition at SculptureCenter


The planetary project of a unified metrics of life is almost complete. The movement of goods in standardized units traded in stock markets and shipped in containers across the world flows more or less seamlessly. The market regimes of maximizing profit disrupt vernacular forms of exchange, dimensions of products, routes of transport, and any other obstacle to the streamlined travel of commodities. All aspects of life, from the navigation of cities to finding love, are algorithmically propagated and transported via 5G networks. Everyone is surveilled, traced, and followed as long as they carry their mobile devices, and lost, suspended, without them. Insurance companies financialize the future by issuing catastrophe bonds that investors leverage against other assets.

These procedures are governed and administered via universalized codes and regulations, a semantic architecture that is devised and imposed by legally binding contracts and treaties. This linguistic infrastructure guarantees the protocols of sameness, universalizing metrics of relatability that define the dimensions of planetary daily life. Governmental and financial institutions are the editorial staff of the semantics of globalization that maintains, monitors, and regulates these parameters, metrics, and dimensions (within which life happens).

The work of art exists and functions within institutions that are plugged into the same infrastructure. Given these conditions, the notion of the authenticity of the work of art, which has already been questioned on account of its reproducibility and monetary value, is replaced by the specificity of the work. A contemporary artwork, a genre of art that operates within the institutional context, performs and practices its presumed autonomy through its specificity. Since the advent of post-studio practices, this specificity responds to a broader network of operations and connections within which the art institution functions. In other words, the integration of the artwork in the institutional context (historical, architectural, semantic, procedural, or otherwise) finds expression in contemporary art. The work of art, once freed from its “parasitic subservience to ritual,” is now conditioned by the rituals of institutional codes and regulations defined by the free market and the semantics of globality. Art’s response and interaction with such conditions marks the horizon of contemporary art.

The specificity of the work emerges from its engagement with the various institutional metrics. These include not only the physical architecture, the neighborhood, the historical conditions, and the exhibitory protocols, but also the legal parameters that are decided by governing organizations––compliance with the ADA Act, insurance and liability policies, fire codes, security requirements. These ubiquitous metrics are not restricted to art institutions; they constitute the regulatory apparatus of all aspect of everyday life in offices, factories, live/work spaces, cafes and restaurants, airports,  subway stations, and so on. These are the spaces where city dwellers, to quote Benjamin, “relinquish their humanity in the face of the apparatus.” The work of contemporary art, to repurpose his analysis of film, asserts this humanity against the apparatus.

The work starts as a file generated on one of several platforms, whether Sketchup or Adobe. What is the status of the file? Is it the artwork or is it what the set is to a film? Benjamin notes that in film the work of art is produced only by means of montage. The components of the montage (script, set, acting, makeup, wardrobe, soundtrack, and so forth) are not the work of art in itself. Similarly, the file is not the work; nor is the email, the spreadsheet, the concept draft, or the press release. It is rather the installation and the production on site that creates the work of art. This procedure is not unique to contemporary art, as architecture is also realized from multiple supportive components that eventually congeal into a building.

The work of contemporary art is specific, temporary, and adaptable. Its specificity is discussed above. Made for display, the work is assembled and produced in situ, yet with the closing of the exhibition the work in its totality, or in large part, is disassembled, relegated to storage, or consigned to the recycle bin. The work is essentially temporary, since it will not exist post-exhibition as a whole, or at all. Therefore, the question of what is a work of contemporary art is rephrased as when is it a work of contemporary art. This also responds to how a work is considered at a future date when certain parameters integral to its creation are no longer in place. Furthermore, given obsolescence, the technological equipment intrinsic to the work doubles as an archive of material culture. The neon tubes, projectors, 8-track, magnetic tape, cathode-ray tubes, no longer commercially produced and rarely operational, contribute to the work’s temporary status as contemporary art. Yet they also show how the work overcomes the apparatus by ingesting and preserving it.

The contemporary artwork, built from a file and made with supplies off global hardware-store shelves, can appear in different sites either simultaneously or at different times. However, does the work remain the same when it is adjusted to each site, potentially given new measurements and materials? The work is adaptable and subject to change and modification. This additional temporality of the contemporary art work further distinguishes it from the eternal, universal artwork as we know it. Unlike a painting, for instance, which when it’s done is done, the contemporary work of art, in the age of codes and regulations, might either be dismantled forever or adjust itself to a fluctuating set of conditions.

Benjamin compares the painter to a magician and the filmmaker to a surgeon. The former maintains and works from a “natural distance,” from reality, while the latter “penetrates into its tissues.” The contemporary artist is like the surgeon, but unlike the filmmaker; instead of showing the workers’ class potentialities by providing an image of a communal possibility, the artists use the metrics and semantics of planetary unification toward other ends. The museumgoer responds to the everyday metrics psychologically, as these are compatible with the standards that regulate ordinary life. Yet the work can upend those standards––infect, infiltrate, de-administer, deregulate, un-prescribe them. It can further democratize the tools and strategies that it develops so that its constituents could, potentially, carry them into daily life. This takes the form of programs that transfer knowledge through tactical distribution of the work’s position vis-à-vis the infrastructure by engaging and creating its constituents. The constituents are a public formed and engaged through the infrastructural and semantic rather than the relational and immediate, or, in other words, through the abstract. Risking redundancy, the work reroutes the metrics of standardization, not only those represented by big-box hardware store impositions and architectural limitations, but also those of the legal, financial, and procedural infrastructure that administer the panoramic excavation of life.

If with photography images have been untied from specific locations, with standardization most contemporary living environments can be replicated in multiple places. The generic architecture of Shanghai, Long Island City, Vancouver, or Dubai follows this logic of homogeneity. The sameness of the image is translated into similarity in all aspects of urban and, increasingly, rural life (whatever is left of it). These generic conditions include the contemporary art space with its ubiquitous prescribed parameters, conventions, and protocols. The contemporary urban environment that implements the planetary metrics of capital becomes increasingly hostile to flâneries, the unstructured exploration of a city. Getting lost or going unseen is no longer an option. The contemporary work of art that uses these metrics to create other forms of navigation of the semantics of the standardized everyday fleetingly disrupts the regulatory forces. In the age of total algorithmic distraction that hollows all instantaneous human desires instantly in service of data exchange bonds, art articulates a different form of distraction, prompting “new tasks of apperception.” Benjamin identifies this “reception in distraction” in film with its potential of mass mobilization. In contemporary art as defined above, this reception takes place through the dislocating of the habitual metrics toward unfamiliar ends.

Benjamin notes how fascism organizes the masses by preserving property relations, while granting people expression instead of rights. Contemporary algorithmic hyper-expressionism similarly maintains existing relations, as does the work of art that articulates itself by following distractory protocols that are streamlined through regulatory platforms of anti-social media and corporate news. But the work of art that considers the infrastructure of planetary semantics finds articulation in abstraction as its mode of distractive reception and an analytical generator of new vocabularies and images. This is the politicization of aesthetics. It does not mean making political art, far from it. Rather, it insists on aesthetics as the sphere of operation that rejects the creation of beauty somewhere at the expense of ugliness in another.


* Suggested by Rafael Domenech in direct reference to Walter Benjamin, the title of this essay captures the main concerns and suggestions of the work. The essay is an attempt to elaborate on some of these concerns in light of Benjamin’s formulations. All quotations by Benjamin are from his The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008).

** The last sentence of the essay paraphrases Yuriko Saito’s formulation in his “Aesthetics of the Everyday,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy




Searching the Sky for Rain

May 22, 2020 Comments off

For the exhibition Searching the Sky for Rain at SculptureCenter



Because I, a mestiza,

continually walk out of one culture

and into another,

because I am in all cultures at the same time.

–Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / La Frontera

No slice of reality can have univocal meaning.

–María Lugones, Pilgrimages / Peregrinajes


[The politics of transfiguration’s] basic desire is to conjure up and enact new modes of friendship, happiness, and solidarity that are consequent on the overcoming of the racial oppression on which modernity and its antimony of rational, western progress as excessive barbarity relied.

–Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic


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Searching the Sky for Rain came out of a series of conversations over the past decade with artists, thinkers, and colleagues on questions around representation and abstraction, identity and identification, inclusion and exclusion, visibility and non-visibility. The language used to discuss the exhibition deliberately rejected the terminology usually used by institutions to address social positions and particularities. The exhibition brings together works by artists who disregard the ways in which the art industry regulates, classifies, compartmentalizes, and essentializes difference into sanctioned categories. This multicultural “appropriation/misappropriation” is, according to Gloria Anzaldúa, “an attempt to control difference by allocating it to bordered-off sections in the curriculum.”[1] The artists in Searching the Sky for Rain defy the fracking of particularities into niche-marketed, T-shirt formulations of “identities” for institutional meaning and value production. These exploitative processes administer domination, forcing heterogeneity into operational packages for the stylizing of a lukewarm cosmopolitanism.

In her essay “Two Kinds of Discrimination,” Adrian Piper suggests how works of art might be able to challenge “political discrimination” by cultivating “cognitive discrimination.”[2] Piper offers a highly technical Kantian analysis of xenophobia before differentiating “first-order” from “higher-order” political discrimination. The former we would find from a full-blown racist or sexist who believes that people of a certain skin color, gender, or sexual orientation are inferior beings and therefore unworthy of the rights that the discriminator and their kind are entitled to only because of variations of race, nationality, gender, sexual preference, or class––“primary valued or disvalued” properties––notions that are irrelevant to their personhood. This form of discrimination, she concludes, represents the “fallacy of equating a partial and conditional series of empirical appearances of persons with the absolute and unconditioned idea of personhood that conceptually unifies them.” Piper formulates higher-order discrimination as the “attitude within which a primary disvalued or valued property in turn confers disvalue or value respectively on further properties of the disvaluee or valuee respectively.” This practice occurs when a person’s manner of talking, diction, style, and pedigree are viewed negatively by the higher-order discriminator, even though such qualities would be seen as either neutral or even valuable had the person been of the same race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or religious or ethnic affiliation as the discriminator. Piper acknowledges that “we can expect that first-order political discrimination and higher-order political discrimination in general are to be found together.” The higher-order political discriminator, through some tortuous psychological disjunction and what she calls “pseudorational” tactics, does not consider the so-called “primary disvalued property”––race, sex, class, or whatever––as the reason for discrimination.

When it comes to art, Piper writes, while it cannot “cure” higher-order political discrimination, it nevertheless can heighten a viewer’s self-awareness, and can “highlight pseudorational failures of cognitive discrimination as themselves objects of aesthetic examination.” To this one might add yet a third form of discrimination in the field of art (or the cultural sphere at large) and that is the epistemic violence of the dominant paradigm that grants the particular positions a limited sphere of representation and “identity.” The marginal, it asserts, can address itself only as it is perceived from the centered position. While the artist in the proclaimed dominant position enjoys a hotline to abstract and structural thinking, others are often accorded only bare biographical facts or storytime “feels” in the critical consideration and institutional presentation of their work. The question raised by Searching the Sky for Rain is: Who has the right to abstraction?

There is a category of artwork that attempts to address the indignation of particular or marginal positions. In challenging viewers’ misunderstanding of such positions, these artworks show how they are projecting erroneous attributions onto a minority or are mistakenly overlooking others. The work, through mimesis, might confirm certain qualities and question viewers’ prejudices, showing how the traditionally objectionable qualities are perfectly human and that displaying them is aligned with the recognized rights of all humans. The work sheds a positive light on otherwise shunned, rejected, or ridiculed characteristics, and it helps the audience understand, and even appreciate, these supposed anomalies, confronting the viewers’ pseudorational preconceptions. At other times, the work confirms what the informed audience knows: members of the minority are the victims of unjust discrimination, undeservingly ostracized and excluded, deprived of rights that should be common to all. Or, as a third alternative, by naming the dehumanizing and discriminatory meaning of terms, practices, and policies, the work presents the destructive effects on the subject discriminated against.[3]

This work for the most part calls for two audiences: those who are aware of, or subject to, the discrimination and the inequalities that the work pertains to, and those who are not. For the former, while the work creates a partial community around shared grievances, it nevertheless falls short of the civic demand for equality and the recognition of this demand by the judicial and political regime. For the latter, the work always remains and operates within the indeterminacy of the art space, which is established––and for the most part accepted––as a place where truth and reality are suspended, conventions and traditions are contested, and there are no limits but those of human imagination and creativity. Piper also acknowledges this condition, calling contemporary art a “paradigmatic experience of cognitive anomaly,” affirming its “conceptual fluidity and inclusiveness” and its post-medium condition, in which there are no expectations or preconceptions that the audience can legitimately bring to the viewing experience. Therefore, the politico-critical content––the indignation––however rooted in the real world, remains within and subjected to the heterogeneous, indefinable realm of contemporary art. In this context, the sites of indignation are metabolized and exchanged through the system of value production, and therefore are equalized with other matters of artistic concern.

There is a third category of audience for this kind of art, represented by the position of white liberals who understand the represented injustices and indignations and by virtue of doing so claims a moral high ground from which they attempt to own and (mis)appropriate the discourse of the marginalia.[4] Not unlike the questions around colonial epistemology, through the exotification and extraction of a particular geographic or cultural position the dominant position owns and leverages the critique that is leveled against itself and therefore maintains its central authority. This condition is similar to what Santiago Castro-Gómez identifies as “hubris of the zero point.”[5] In this formulation, the mainstream cultural authorities claim for themselves the hard-fought civic achievements of minority positions. To rephrase the question regarding the right to abstraction, we can ask who owns and defines the object of critique. Abstraction becomes an attempt to liberate the critical discourse that is constantly defined according to a worn-out center and marginalia dialectics that determine the movement of thought. This is in line with what Walter D. Mignolo calls “epistemic disobedience,” which dismantles the formal apparatus of enunciation and refuses to conform to the totalizing colonial forms of “purposive knowledge-making.”[6]

María Lugones calls the liberal conversation that “thrives on transparency” monologized. She proposes instead “complex communication” that requires an “awareness of one’s own multiplicity and a recognition of the other’s opacity that does not attempt to assimilate it into one’s own familiar meanings.”[7] Rather, “it is enacted through a change in one’s own vocabulary, one’s sense of self, one’s way of living, in the extension of one’s collective memory, through developing forms of communication that signal disruption of the reduction attempted by the oppressor.” Abstraction, therefore, is used here not as the antonym of figuration but rather as a means of addressing or analyzing issues of a time and place by creating new images and vocabularies. These images and words are situated, and artists use the raw materiality of existing conditions (including their own), but that is just the beginning. As Mignolo writes, “Sure, all knowledge is situated, and every knowledge is constructed. . . . The question is: who, when, why is constructing knowledges?”[8] The force of Piper’s practice is how the work upends colonial chronopolitics and interrupts pseudorational binaries that are excavated by cultural institutions and define the forms and limits of enunciation.

The admissible space of art operates on the omnivorous promise of authenticity and autonomy, in which validation and value accrue through the production of difference. As such, difference––identified and identifiable––operates within a “culture that values innovation for its own sake” and generates meaning and value through its indeterminable horizon.[9] In this space, strategic essentialism provides an opportunity to market difference: it is strategic, in the sense that it creates a pathway for inclusion in a highly exclusive, hierarchical, and non-transparent field where nepotism, pedigree, provenance, and social relations provide for a unbalanced economy of access in which minorities and the underprivileged need to generate their own expanded discursive platforms to level the playing field. At the same time, this strategy on the one hand runs the risk of difference for its own sake, which more often than not creates the institutional tokenism of the higher-order political discrimination that Piper warns of, while on the other it dovetails with Post-Fordism and neoliberalism’s aspirational lifestyle consumerism, in which, identities compete for recognition in an increasingly competitive market. This fits perfectly with contemporary art’s territorial expansion and curatorial/institutional novelties.[10]

The institutional relations of art that operate through the essentialization of the producer remains always affirmative, as this is where its means and ends converge; by default it cannot establish a negative relation to the institutional structure where it becomes visible. The affirmation therefore remains contrary to speaking truth to power. The question of art that articulates difference through the apparent authentic identity of the figure of the artist or the minority s/he “represents” is that the singularity of art is subservient to the authenticity of the artist.[11]

When particular identities become reified, in a highly competitive field where authenticity is the primary source of value production, then multiple and convergent positionalities will be vying for limited resources and possibilities for admission and recognition. While in the civic sphere, various threatened and marginalized positions and identities attempt to make their grievances common––demanding their shared unalienable rights[12]––in the field of art, where scarcity equals value, intersectional demands are transformed into competing positions that call for exclusivity. Thus what needs to expand and become common in the public sphere instead contracts and shrinks in the field of art in the service of value production and exchange in the marketplace of ideas. Here lies a contradiction that is essentially based on individual interest: while the exclusionary practice in the field of art generates recognition and monetary and/or symbolic capital, commonizing in the public sphere generates access for a larger group of people. The exclusionary demands follow the hierarchical principles of the dominant order that are sustained only through limitation, managing scarcity, and monopolization of access. In other words, the civic sphere becomes politicized by making rights common while contemporary art becomes (de)politicized by taking rights away or decommunizing in order to serve the exclusivity of an authentic particular articulation.[13]

There is an inherent dilemma with regard to contemporary art as a site for articulating the inequality and injustice facing a minority: while we hold these wrongs to be “self-evident,” they are nonetheless presented in a venue that is governed by indeterminacy, where everything is up for scrutiny and debate, and thus, and to the contrary, are anything but self-evident. The particularities of real-world grievances and discrimination are generalized in the heterogeneity of the art space. Facing the contemporary “deficit of politics proper,” Jacques Rancière remains skeptical of assigning a “substitutive political function to the mini-demonstrations of artists . . . their provocations in situ or elsewhere.”[14] The question is how artworks can deploy a strategic indeterminacy that cracks open and empties out the hegemony that seeks to maintain its discursive sovereignty over the contemporary art discourse.

Charles Gaines’s practice has consistently shown how representation is constructed, is anything but self-evident, testifying that the “line separating representation and the real is quite blurred.”[15] By rerouting tools of objective analysis, Gaines demonstrates that the claims to truth made via the photographic index and logical systems of image and meaning production are malleable and can be used toward different ends. He has also shown how the most impactful forms of cultural enunciation are situated and addressed through particular articulations. His series Faces: Identity Politics, which portrays figures from his philosophical canon from Aristotle to bell hooks, shows how each tectonic shift in discourse is informed by the history of thought while also responding to the thinkers’ particular positioning. The particularities include the postcolonial grievances of the dislocated Edward Said, the post-structural redefinition of historical discourse of Michel Foucault, and the radical pedagogy of bell hooks among others.

By using systems, Gaines further demonstrates that artworks are not merely expressions of the artist’s imagination that “privilege the creative unconscious.” Returning to Adrian Piper, who follows Kant in cautioning against the assumption of privileged access to the self––remarking on “the contingency and epistemic unreliability of the empirical self as a source of information about the transcendental subject to whom the empirical self appears”––she shows how Kant “rules out direct and unmediated knowledge of oneself as an active and spontaneous intellect.”[16] One can only ascertain one’s existence through empirical means, and therefore as an appearance, and can only “represent” oneself as an active intelligence.[17]

This notion of a univocal sense of self is further questioned in the works of Latina/x feminist phenomenologists such as Mariana Ortega, who suggests rather a “multiplicitious selfhood.” Providing a forceful reading of Anzaldúa, Lugones, and others, Ortega discusses the horizon of identification in a project of coalition-building that acknowledges selves that are plural, ambiguous, and contradictory. Her formulation expands on Anzaldúa’s new mestiza, who copes “by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. . . . She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode––nothing is thrust out, the good the bad and the ugly, nothing is rejected, nothing abandoned. Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else.”[18]

Lugones, following Inderpal Grewal, describes a sense of “self” as “not an individual, not ‘unitary and centered and created out of the binaries of Self-Other, Subject-Object.’”[19] For her, the “importance of the impulse to reject dichotomies lies in the resistance to have one’s plurality and the interrelations/paths among the multiple worlds of sense we inhabit reduced or erased.”[20] This conception of the multiplicitous self further questions the idealization of the figure as a fixed container, given that its position is liminal. As Gaines notes, idealization, lending itself to immediate classification and representation of inclusion and diversity (of a collection/exhibition) and production of value, “can be either positive and negative, any particular theory of marginality can function as well to liberate as to enslave.”[21] The pitfalls of figurative expressionism is that it posits a subject that, particularly in a moment of media fragmentation and multiplication, calcifies positions in a discourse of visibility that proclaims the image as the end product of artistic work.[22] Further, contemporary art as a field of activity is proclaimed free of critical criteria, historical determination, media limitations, and conceptual definitions, and its objects are “potential threats to the conceptual unity of a rigidly or provincially structured self.”[23] Therefore, it is imperative to utilize its indeterminacy strategically and as a location that empties out the all-knowing, colonial, and univocal self claimed by the point zero position. It is a place to reclaim the object of critique and thereby change the terms of the conversation. It also calls for discarding the institutional demands that define the margins of enunciation, and implements imperatives of authentic self-representation in art. This latter imperative has prompted today’s hyper-expressionism, which in the absence of reflexivity poses the “self” as a coordinate with direct access to “truth.” Expression remains affirmative toward the predetermined condition of enunciation and operates within its system of value production and classification.

Against this backdrop, the works in Searching the Sky for Rain advance the subject’s inherent non-sovereignty and unlocatability. As a character in Becket MWN’s audio work Paranoid House puts it, “Anytime individuality is institutionally mandated it becomes a performance.” Lugones notes how this plural understanding of the self enables us to “remake the connections among crisscrossing oppositional subaltern worlds of sense, oppositional to the very logic of subjection.”[24] Tishan Hsu, who since mid-1980s has claimed that “the Self is lost . . . one less thing to worry about,” shows how technology is becoming an extension of the body, expanding the horizons of identification while also producing and conditioning new subjectivities and forms of social control and choreography.[25] The undoing of interpellation does not imply the exploitation of the produced subjectivities of the margin, which are the byproduct of the normalizing order, as this strategy corroborates, validates, and recuperates the generative process of control. Therefore it is through, and only through, a multiplicity of positions that the dominant omnivorous structure is plundered; but the relationship is negative––the multiple takes away from it, empties it out, expropriates (Craig Owens writes of Sherrie Levine that she “expropriates the appropriators”[26]) until it is nothing but a shell of what it used to be, before it all collapses and crumbles.

As Édouard Glissant writes, the colonized are “forced into a long and painful quest after an identity whose first task will be the opposition to the denaturing process introduced by the conqueror.”[27] It is therefore an identity that is built in response to the “process of identification or annihilation triggered by [the] invaders . . . that is, a limitation from the beginning.”[28] To go beyond this limitation, following Fred Moten, the undoing takes place in “not desiring what was not to be desired in the first place.”[29] Not to desire, to rechannel and retool the liberating forces of desire and their jamming and jammed designated frequencies of enunciation. This is the power that, in Foucault’s words, undoes images and “infuses them with an inner transparency that illuminates them little by little until they burst and scatter in the lightness of the unimaginable.”[30] Elaine Sturtevant’s response, à la Bruce Hainley, is to fold  “the situations of self, its various losses, its others and fictions, to test before and after, then and now, oeuvre and désoeuvrement, so that they become, visibly, non-orientable.”[31]

In Tony Cokes’s video Evil.27.Selma, we read how the civil rights movement pre-television prompted a “social collectivity heavily dependent on the imagination,” which created an abundance of “fantasy what-if” scenarios. What is visible in the artwork operates vis-à-vis an absence, and the extant work has an inverse and negative relationship to what the artist has worked against, discorporated, taken apart, and reconstituted. The image stands for what is not shown. As Tristan Garcia writes, “To represent is to absent.”[32] He goes on to note that “artistic representation is that which objectively inscribes absence in matter, or in the real.”

In Searching the Sky for Rain, the project of desubjugation or epistemic disobedience is articulated through works that resist following readily available image templates, relinquishing the pop-up politics of instant visibility: ektor garcia’s hijacking of the social and cultural history of craft, including ceramics and crocheting, which he repositions within the exhibition space; Johanna Unzueta’s inhabitation of the language of abstraction with extracurricular patterns and textile motifs; Carmen Argote’s use of avocado as pigment, inscribing trade routes and agreements, labor and agricultural histories into formal abstraction in paintings confined and defined by the reach of the artist’s body; Mandy El-Sayegh’s feeding of personal, recent, and cultural histories into a metabolizing studio process; Riet Wijnen’s Sculpture Sixteen Conversations on Abstraction diagramming of the artist’s extensive research into positions that have been excluded from the canon of Western abstraction. Eric Wesley creates conceptual strategies, reworking Americana and its cultural myths through (idiosyncratic) logical systems that derail notions of infinity, conceptual purity, and like Gaines’s, emphasize the constructed nature of representations. Shahryar Nashat pictures a sleeping boy, tangentially Middle Eastern, who wakes up to browse Cy Twombly’s catalogue raisonné. Rafael Domenech looks at standardization as a form of oppression and makes it a portal for the dissemination of works. He redefines the building as a machine to make pieces that challenge the apparent functions of materials and structures of containment and concealment. Similarly, Michael Queenland uses the basic units of a transparent and black trash bag to create paintings akin to windows that could be folded, packaged, transported, and rehung; his work with remainder store bargains rephrases the debris of consumer culture of banal obsolescence in a process of material rearticulation. Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon’s sound blanket tent and audio piece cancels out the sonic reflections of the exhibition space to get closer to an audial void and at the same time emphasizes the impossibility of the articulation of the degree zero position. These projects undermine the modern visual epistemology, contributing to what Paul Gilroy calls the “politics of transfiguration.”[33]

Rindon Johnson asks: “What should we call this form of existence: a constant vista where from one view one can see the cage of one binding state and from another view, another binding state? Come here and have a taste (play to be played).”[34] In the exhibition space, Johnson presents three pieces of rawhide that were exposed to the elements for over a year in a Brooklyn backyard and now split SculptureCenter vertically. The skins are commodities that once formed part of a living being. One hangs from a fluorescent green bungee cord, one over the catwalk, and one in a nook in the basement, all haunting the space with histories of violence that render some lives dispensable. Jala Wahid shows an enlarged jesmonite cow liver simulating displays in butcher shops in Kurdistan: other lives presumed expendable.

Search the Sky for Rain follows the premise that art desubjugates and that the insistence on assigning the work of decentered, liminal positions to prescribed channels of articulation is an institutional discrimination that is the byproduct of the first-order discrimination that Piper writes about. Similar to higher-order discrimination, this partitioning of positions presupposes that the discriminated-against do not possess the knowledge, skills, or capacity for structural, analytical creation that is beyond the scope of their trajectory. That they can address only issues related to the dominant discourse’s presumption of their identity and the ways to express it authentically. That they cannot define, contribute to, or change the terms of the discourse. Partha Chatterjee tracks this to the legacy of the Enlightenment and the construction of “intricately differentiated structure of authorities which specifies who has the right to say what on which subjects.”[35] The institutional labor that needs to be done, to use Anzaldúa’s words, is “punching holes in their categories, labels and theories,” which means “punching holes in their walls.”[36] The frames are not to be simply questioned, they are to be discarded, as they are placed and maintained to regulate and control the direction of the discourse and the avenues of enunciation. Institutions are tasked with implementing and upholding the project of framing the scaffolding to uphold the mandates of subject positioning, surveying, placing, assigning singularity to multiplicity. This exhibition hopes to contribute to the critical project of unframing.


We’ll never know if it’s going to rain until it rains, Rin.




The final line of this text is taken from the title of a work by Rindon Johnson on view in the exhibition.


[1] Gloria Anzaldúa, The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, ed. AnaLouise Keating (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 205.

[2] This and the following quotations are from Adrian Piper, “Two Kinds Of Discrimination,” Yale Journal of Criticism 6, no. 1 (1993): 25–75.

[3] I am borrowing the terminology for the three strategies from Piper’s essay.

[4] “Diversity is then treated as a superficial overlay that does not disrupt any comfort zones.” Anzaldúa, The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, 205. For a possible fourth category whose awareness is heightened by the work that addresses the cognitive discrimination of the dominant order, the question remains, why should the minority’s practice be burdened by the cognitive failures of a self-anointed dominant position?

[5] Santiago Castro-Gómez, quoted in Walter D. Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom,” Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 7–8 (2009): 2.

[6] Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom,” 18.

[7] María Lugones, “On Complex Communication,” Hypatia 21, no. 3 (2006): 84.

[8] Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought And Decolonial Freedom,” 2.

[9] Piper, Two Kinds of Discrimination, 63.

[10] It is also noteworthy how these strategies, in their prevalence and marketability, disproportionally limit the possibilities for any minority artist to make work that is not solely concerned with their particularity and make aesthetic concerns and any form of self-reflexivity the privilege of the so-called dominant culture.

[11] The cultural advantage of this predicament is the production of new archetypes, which symbolically challenge the dominant cultural icons in a globalized world. Yet more often than not, the new archetypes merely replace the previous ones, while the plot and the values remain untouched.

[12] Call it Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness, or liberté, égalité, fraternité.

[13] Some might argue that the exclusionary politicizing of art might create traction in a field where anything goes. However, the issue would be, first, that the right to exclusion would have to be equably expanded to all positions, which would require literally establishing mechanisms of control and policing that decide where to draw the line, and second, it is an act of violation of hard-won liberties, which Suhail Malik calls the “civic virtue” of contemporary art.

[14] Jacques Rancière, Problems and transformations in critical art, 2004

[15] Charles Gaines, in “Interviews: Charles Gaines, Artforum online, posted December 19, 2017,

[16] Adrian M. S. Piper, “Xenophobia and Kantian Rationalism” (1991), Philosophical Forum 24, no.  1–3 (Fall–Spring 1992–93), pdf available on the artist’s website, 21,

[17]  Piper, “Xenophobia and Kantian Rationalism,” 21.

[18] Anzaldúa, Borderlands, 101.

[19] Mariana Ortega, In-Between: Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Multiplicity, and the Self (Albany: State University of New York, 2016), 181.

[20] María Lugones, Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield), 197.

[21] Charles Gaines and Catherine Lord, The Theater of Refusal (Irvine: Fine Arts Gallery, University of California, Irvine, 1993), n.p.

[22] About the racialization of the figure in art, Gaines notes: “This has a lot to do with the

expectations of representation, expectations of the necessity of the identification of race in works of art, and plays against all those practices that are legitimate, that use the body or use other references of culture, because it minimizes or marginalizes those references around the same politics. So I think it disempowers a whole lot of art that shouldn’t be disempowered.” Charles Gaines, in Nate Young, “Charles Gaines,” Third Rail, no. 13. Third Rail online,

[23] Piper, “Two Kinds of Discrimination,” 65.

[24] Ortega, In-Between, 181.

[25] Tishan Hsu, artist statement, September 1983.

[26] Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 73.

[27] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 17.

[28] Glissant, Poetics of Relation.

[29] I paraphrase from Fred Moten, lecture, ArtCenter, Pasadena, December 6, 2016.

[30] Michel Foucault and Maurice Blanchot, The Thought from Outside (New York: Zone Books, 1987), 23.

[31] Bruce Hainley, Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-face (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 2013), 300.

[32] This and the following quotation are from Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey, and Suhail Malik, Realism Materialism Art (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014), 251.

[33] Paul Gilroy, “It Ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re At . . . ,” Third Text 5, no. 13 (1991): 11.

[34] This quotation is taken from the title of a work by Rindon Johnson, which was screened in conjunction with the exhibition: Among other things (nearby occasions or 8 acts for Jeremy): What should we call this form of existence: a constant vista where from one view one can see the cage of one binding state and from another view, another binding state? Come here and have a taste (play to be played). Hadi writes: All night I dreamed of these lines and couldn’t help it other than believing that dreaming these lines mean I should send them to you; it is coming from an old poem that made sense to me when I saw the cage inside the cage / Birds are free of cages, and cages are free of birds / Where have you came from that causes you to be so free / Although every birds voice is a kind of crying for end of the day / You must sing more since your cry more sounds like the beginning of the day. / I think birds are standing for people, but I’m not sure what the cage stands for. You must know. (I don’t.) Maybe there are things that we should become accustomed to not seeing or knowing (I entered the tunnel of my own will.) I play the song over and over; without beginning and without end.

[35] Mignolo, “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom,” 12.

[36] Anzaldúa, The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, 205.



May 22, 2020 Comments off

Thomas Keenan and Sohrab Mohebbi

For Banu Cennetoğlu’s exhibition catalog, SculptureCenter

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The List traces information related to the death of more than 35,597 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who have lost their lives within or on the borders of Europe since 1993. It is compiled and updated every year by the Amsterdam-based organization UNITED for Intercultural Action. Since 2006, in collaboration with curators, art workers, and institutions, Banu Cennetoğlu has facilitated up-to-date and translated versions of The List in several countries using public display structures such as ad-boards and newspaper supplements.[1]

What is it to “list”? Etymologically, the word points in three apparently unrelated directions. Ships and other vessels list: they tilt or sway to one side or another, when passengers or cargo shift abruptly and when winds and waves overtake them. And when they list, they run the risk of capsizing. An announcement of listing, then, is an alarm or warning. Beware! To list also means, in an older English, to hear or hearken, to listen. List! I am calling for your attention, asking you to notice and respond, to acknowledge what is being said. Finally, to list is to bring things together in a column or row. This meaning of  the word is derived from the Middle English liste, meaning “border, edging, stripe,” and from Old French and Old Italian words meaning “strip of paper.” Listing brings things together in a line or a strip, treats separate items as related to one another, assembles them into a territory of their own.[2]

Boats list and sink, and their passengers and crew drown, all the time. The forces of nature are often to blame. The phenomenon charted by The List is anything but natural. It results from the deliberate choice of European governments and electorates to restrict legal entry into the EU by those seeking refuge, asylum, or a better life. Fleeing people are forced to undertake dangerous journeys across inhospitable deserts, seas, beaches, and cities, often ending in detention centers and refugee camps. The engine that drives The List is the weaponization of the sea, land, and weather in the name of what is cynically called “deterrence.” And the events it documents are not limited to Europe: The List could certainly be expanded to include North America as well, where more or less the same thing happens at and on the way to the southern border of the United States.

The List features the names of the dead when they are known and placeholders when they are not. Many names are yet to be learned and entered. The entries are counted and enumerated, so the names become numbers as well. The qualitative and the quantitative meet––The List says two things at the same time, joining them in a dynamic rhythm. All the dead deserve to be known and recorded individually, to have their identities preserved as the markers of the lives they alone lived. The entries speak of singularity. But the names are gathered together in this list because the individuals died, in effect, together. The enumeration brings them into relation, it equalizes and generalizes them. And it reminds us of how many lives have been lost to policies of cruelty and indifference. The ever-growing number is another sort of marker, an index of the scale and scope of the catastrophe that has taken place, and still is taking place, within Europe and at its borders.

Banu Cennetoğlu calls herself the caretaker of a graveyard. There is no proper resting place for many of the lost on The List––some bodies are never found, others are found but not identified before being buried in unmarked graves across Europe. What kind of cemetery is a list, and how does one take care of it? The name, gender, and age of each victim is added to a spreadsheet, along with the date, location, and cause of their death. Note is made of where they came from, if known, and the source of the information about their death. The logic of the entries’ organization must be consistent, so the caretaker edits the document, checking the spelling, grammar, and syntax. Because the data is recorded in different languages, the task often involves translation. It’s an administrative process. The presentation is bureaucratically austere, neutral, factual, banal: six columns are filled in along the new rows added each time the document is updated.

The List has been growing for more than a decade. When Cennetoğlu first presented it publicly in March 2007 in Amsterdam, it contained 7,128 confirmed entries. When she facilitated its publication in The Guardian as a special supplement in June 2018, the headline read: “It’s 34,361 and rising: how The List tallies Europe’s migrant bodycount.”[3] Its most recent presentation in Barcelona in September 2018 showed 35,597 dead. The creation and maintenance of The List is a private, voluntary, civic effort initiated by the Dutch NGO UNITED for Intercultural Action. Cennetoğlu’s projects aim to publicize it: “It needs to be visible. Governments don’t keep these records for the public; they don’t want the public to see these records because it exposes their policies. So you have NGOs trying to put the data together, and that data is incomplete and fragile, but there again someone has to do it.”[4]

The List is a public document that aspires to readability and visibility. The names it bears should be known, seen, heard, beyond the realm of those who have already noticed. They appear in print and on walls and billboards, not just spoken to a friend or whispered to a neighbor. Because, as Cennetoğlu notes, “a surprise encounter is important,” we are confronted by The List when we look out the windshield or open the newspaper at the breakfast table or a café.[5] Far from the border, or the sea or the desert, the names of the dead confront the living. The List demands attention, it insists on being heard. Cennetoğlu says: “People should be able to see it despite themselves, and despite that they are caught up in their daily lives; the fact they have to go to work, come back from work, get on the subway, walk on the street, etc. I wanted to put it out there without any announcement, without any direct negotiation with the audience but somehow in a negotiated space.”[6]

Monuments are often erected in the name of nation, race, faith, or clan to remind those who survive of those who did not. Like any memorial, The List seeks to restore the dead, as Thomas Laqueur writes, “into a remade world of the living.”[7] It alerts us––regardless of whether or not we want to know––that we are both living without the deceased and existing alongside them, creating a new community of the living and the dead. In this way The List challenges the monopoly that organized powers have sought to exercise over the memories and disposition of the dead. Beyond or despite the borders customarily erected around institutions and their memories, The List aspires to what another activist has called the “more egalitarian citizenry of the dead.”[8]

The List is ephemeral and unfixed. It keeps changing, when people die, when the formerly nameless are identified, and when factual errors are corrected. The List’s size and shape shift, as do the sites of its public presentation. It is a sort of counter-monument in constant formation.

A nation is similarly composed of a list of people, one that is restricted to those whom the state recognizes and counts as its own. The List challenges the distinction with its stark rewriting of the borders of contemporary Europe and the nation-state form it has bequeathed to the globe. Any list creates a border, as it distinguishes those who are on it from those who are not. The List negatively defines Europe as the place of those who are not on it––those who walk by the document in Liverpool, London, Basel, Athens, or Budapest. In a sense, Los Angeles and Istanbul are also part of this place. The List does not belong to any single nation-state, and it is presented not in the place where the deceased originated but rather where they ended up––“within, or on the borders of Europe.” As such, it designates a new geographic concept: the frontiers of the European continent, its reach, are defined by people who are now dead. The border is no longer an arbitrary political marker, but the track of lives lost along the way. The people who are named no longer belonged to any place at the time that they died; they will not be returned to a homeland and are seldom ceremonially buried or memorialized. The List is their distinctive itinerant resting place.

Cennetoğlu observes: “This document carries the weight of all these people who cannot really speak for themselves. And while we’re talking about all of this, people are dying.” There is urgency in recording the names and making them public, yet this objective, technical, administrative undertaking carries ethical risks. It is unilateral: no one can ask the dead for their consent, or even their opinion. “The attempt to talk on behalf of someone else comes with a burden. In general, one will never know if you are doing something good, or if you are taking advantage, or if you are really talking about yourself when you are talking about them. These are blurry borders. How to not fully occupy the agency or space of someone who is silenced?”[9]

The List distributes this burden among all of us who were previously unburdened. There is no way to stay clear of these “blurry borders,” between speaking and silence, generosity and exploitation, knowledge and ignorance. But to take a moment to listen and to mourn at the site of this migratory mass grave can contribute, in the words of Allan Sekula, to “laying the groundwork for a collective memory of suffering.”[10] How to grieve for the dead of others, the dead to whom one is not related, the dead who come from elsewhere? How to mourn those who wanted to live among us? In the words of Laqueur, The List asks the question, “How do we come to feel that we should care?”[11] And, if we do, how do we become caretakers?

Cennetoğlu insists that The List is not a work of art. This is not only an effort to foreclose an aesthetic judgment––does the list look good or bad, is it beautiful or sublime?  It is also an attempt to deprive us of the recourse to some alleged indeterminacy of artistic interpretation. The List makes a claim on us, an ethical one, yes, but also a fact-based one. The names are facts. The List lists “refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants who have lost their lives.” What we do with this fact is up to us.



[1] The List website,
[2] Oxford English Dictionary online, December 2018, s.v. “list,”
[3] The Guardian (London) website, June 20, 2018,
[4] In Charlotte Higgins, “Banu Cennetoglu: ‘As long as I have the resources, I will make The List more visible,’” interview, The Guardian (London), June 20, 2018.
[5] Ellen Grieg, “Interview with Banu Cennetoğlu,” “Banu Cennetoğlu at Chisendale: 29 June–26 August 2018,” exhibition handout, n.d., unpaginated,
[6] In Higgins, “Banu Cennetoğlu.”
[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).
[8] Madeleine Fullard, “Missing Persons Task Team (South Africa),” cited in Cassidy Parker, “The Missing Persons Task Team: Fleshing Out the Bones of the Apartheid Era,” news article posted on the Cradle of Humankind website, June 20, 2016,
[9] In Higgins, “Banu Cennetoğlu.”
[10] Allan Sekula, “Photography and the Limits of National Identity,” Grey Room, no. 55 (Spring 2014): 31.
[11] Laqueur, The Work of the Dead, 45.


It is what it is: the failure of culture in the face of imminent rise of fascism

July 28, 2016 Comments off

This text is a response to: Liam Gillick: Unleash the Butterflies: The Failure of Culture in the Face of Brexit


In a short text that perhaps had an air of deliberate pretention of “didn’t I tell you? Now see what happened” Liam Gillick argued how “[T]he cultural elite in Britain failed to address the real stresses of Europe and counter them with good arguments.” The text in its self-righteousness demanded a response. It was written in a tone that encouraged a reaction from the reader, that asked for a counter argument, a debate; the author, essentially asked to be attacked. Perhaps it was asking all of those cultural elite who before the Brexit vote came out with proclamations such as ““We [heart] EU”, “What is lost is lost forever”, or “We are the European family,” my personal favorite was “Baby its cold out there,” to engage in a dialogue, to come up with something more than cliché humanistic aphorisms that are only as good as the many likes they receive on social media. Perhaps we should attack Gillick and to start a debate on how we have failed and continue to fail.

It seems like the ideological inconsequentiality of the art space politics, is now defining the direction of our political and social life. While the art space is compensating for the representational politics in its designated space, without offering it any challenges whatsoever, all to the benefit of the right wing ideology through vacating the political-sphere from the burden of accountability – be it economical, racial and sexual inequalities – the right wing ideologues further attack art’s inconsequentiality in terms of quantifiable outcomes and limit its access to national and subsidized financial resources.

While the first decade of 21st century was marked by a self-reflexive turn in the arts that acknowledged the complicity of contemporary art post-globalization in the expansion of the forces of capital and global inequality which confronted the audience with their privileged neutrality by using the parameters of the art space, now we are in an era that the reflexivity has become the basin where artists and institutions merely wash their hands clean and walk to the vernissage dinner self-content. The issue nowadays is not a lack of reflexivity – there is an over abundance of it– rather what to do with it. The catchphrase of our post-reflexivity moment is “it is what it is.”

In the morning after Brexit, most progressive friends on social media were quick to point to leave voters xenophobia and fascism, bemoaning the impending disintegration of the
European Union, talking about Frexit and Oexit exit, Nexit and Italian exit, as if directly echoing and stirring the right wing media demagogues. Aggressively self-othering and insisting on their identity differences rather than on shared anxieties, fears and alliances. Calling the leavers xenophobic and racist so they could go on feeling good about their progressive cosmopolitanism. Fascism harvests and reaps the nascent racisms it to its own benefit and to further social polarization only contributes to its ascend.

As Gillick points out they did not and do not respond to the left wing critique of the EU, that “[it] is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organized crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece.” As for the art institutions, it appeared that the most significant aspect of Union was the multinational granting possibilities, that in return turns them into touring corporations that contribute to the art world star system. My limited exposure to this was how in at least two occasions we were almost bullied into collaboration with European institutions so that they could qualify for EU grants by giving us the chump change in return. Even though there were absolutely no connection between our context and project with what they had in mind for the artists.

It is hard not to see the similarities between the current moment and 2012 when the passionate seculars and educated intellectuals were quick to scream hardline Islamist, after Western media and governments’ reluctant and rather dismissive acknowledgement of the –however hastily and arguably fraud – elected government, and neutrally supported, if not rallied behind the ‘secular’ military takeover of hard won democracy. We are quick to point the finger: Islamists! Fascists!

How can we respond to the disenfranchisement of the blue-collar worker? to the outsourcing of jobs to multinational sweatshops of the monopoly corporations? to the taxdodging financial elite and the rising tax burden of the middle and lower middle class?
How can we respond to the rising Islamophobia when we are quick to shout Islamist at the elected government? The right demagogues can successfully channel the indignations of the disenfranchised Caucasians, how can the left leaning cultural elite respond to their anxieties without name-calling?

In Los Angeles two new downtown art spaces – a museum and an Institute for Contemporary Art (former Santa Monica Museum) – have announced construction plans. Ironically, while both funded by the most ferocious developers who are directly responsible for the displacement of the low-income residents of downtown LA, their preliminary programing is a line up the most progressive social practice artists. Thus underlining how the supposedly ideologically progressive wing of the art world contributes to the rampant neoliberalization of art and culture. If we are not ready to join the Verizon picket line, the least we can do is to say no to brazen gentrification, which is far more effective than making drawings of the placard holding picketers and make superficial associations between the labor of the artist’s hand the workers’ labor?

Art should fight against theory and unravel it to play out its outcomes negatively. It is not merely a space for the artist, the curator and the audience to congratulate themselves on their theoretical weightlifting, intelligence and progressive ideas. Rather it is a place for negative criticality, where theory is used not affirmatively, but as a measuring stone, where it is tested out if it can survive the blows of art. Critical art practice is a critique of critical theory. The permissive safety of art space is no longer the battleground for the avant-garde, but rather as Walter Benjamin wrote “forces which in the political sphere lead to fascism could be expected to have a beneficial function in the domain of art.” Art’s challenge is how to play out these forces and examine their functions. In other words, democracy cannot exist without art. This relationship however, is not dialectical.

The Right to One’s Self-Image

July 8, 2016 Comments off

First published in:  Documentary Across Disciplines, Edited by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg



As you remember, nitrocellulose can be used to make either bombs, like the anarchists, or roll film, like the Viennese police. Between these two barrages, the anarchistic and the photographic, the human as collective individual explodes.

Friedrich Kittler[1]


This essay is a proposition. It is located between the two concepts of privacy and publicity rights – every individual’s right to their own image and their protection against its commercial use. Its main focus is on the image economy of photojournalism and the position of the photographed subject therein. Does the subject have any rights over his or her image? How do these rights affect the production, exchange, and circulation of a person’s image? In response to the photograph’s universal claim to show the plight and joy of humans to humans, is it possible to imagine an economy administered and regulated by a universal legal structure? How can such a “law of images” contribute to creating a more just visual culture vis-à-vis the common image of humanity?




Every image has a material foundation, and so every image is matter. Aesthetics discusses the surplus of the image, that which makes it beautiful or sublime, or which makes it cute, interesting, poignant, affecting, chilling, or any other kind of adjective used to describe how an image generates an emotional or intellectual response in the viewer. But an image is also a point in a series of material relations and is a part of an economy – what we can call an image economy. This includes an interconnected and diverse network of producers and consumers, distributors and mediators. From paintings and drawings to etchings, photographs, and digital images, all rely on a material infrastructure that is propelled by an industry, economically sustained and managed. In the case of painting, we can think of a chain of materials including the canvas, the pigments, the finish, the paintbrush, the stretcher, the frame, etc.; all those who manufacture, distribute, and sell these products; and also the painting itself as an object that is produced and traded in a marketplace with its own infrastructure and material foundation. This notion of the material foundation of the image goes back to the birth of art history and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Writing in 77 A.D., Pliny, as Georges Didi-Huberman explains, proposes a juridical and material conception of the image. Painting was no more than a “material process to be used in finishing the wax molds of the faces of the ‘ancestors.’” This process was to achieve extreme likeness. The image also, in advance of any art historical notion, was understood as a “molding of resemblance destined to legitimize the position of the individual in the genealogical institution of the Roman gens.[2] The materiality of painting as a process to create likeness was paired with a ritual of private law that maintained the legitimacy of the halls of ancestors.

Photography also has an expansive material and industrial foundation, one that ranges from the producers of silver emulsion and celluloid to all the minerals extracted from mines; from the chemicals used to develop and fix the image to all the devices and machines used in the lab; from the paper to all that is required to produce and make it available; and, of course, the camera itself. Photography was enabled by the industrial mode of production and came of age as the economic condition of industrialism became the dominant mode for the production and distribution of goods. Photography is, then, perhaps both a symptom of and metonym for the commodity form. Théodore Maurisset’s lithograph La daguerreotypomanie (Daguerrotypomania, 1839), created only two years after the invention of the technology, shows how a whole economy and way of life was set in motion by the heliocentric image industry of photography. Every human activity is subsumed under the photographic image: every store becomes an image store, every spectacle becomes a photographic subject. All performers, from the tightrope walker to the juggler, become images of themselves. As historian of photography Roberta McGrath suggests, Maurisset “depicts photography as a commercial product and a microcosm of industrialisation itself.”[3] With photography, mechanical production expanded beyond the walls of factories and became available to consumers en masse. In the center of the image stands the Susse Frères’ commercial showroom. Cutting the image in half, it suggests that the photographic studio has become a site of production, situated at the Human actions, the lithograph suggests, are seemingly performed for the photographic image. William Henry Fox Talbot’s photograph Carpenter and Apprentice (1844), which shows two men sawing, paused mid-action, serves as a great example of how the world posed for photography and, as image production accelerated, started to spin to its pace. The camera on top of the studio in Maurisset’s lithograph is also a clock, perhaps commenting on the synchronization of time, life, and labor that occurred with the introduction of the camera.

The image is a site of convergence for all these vectors. It is what becomes visible to the eye – an opening, a window to the world, but one that is built out of its own material architecture. It is said that an image covers or conceals what it is made of, but no more than any other commodity, no more than a table conceals a tree. It is clear that there is a vast network of economic and social relations that inhere in the production of an image. The photographer is only one of the many parties involved in this economy, all of whom possess various degrees of investment and profit. The photographer is a consumer and a producer at the same time, similar to the workers in the silver factory or the owners of the photo lab. All parties consume images, as well as other commodities that contribute to the production and delivery of photography. Thus regardless of the aesthetic discourse, which analyzes the perception of the image by the senses and the mind, every image is a metonym of economic and social networks of production.

As Talbot’s Carpenter and Apprentice and Maurisset’s La daguerrotypomanie suggest, from the outset one of photography’s main concerns was the depiction of everyday life. While the technology at first required the staging of human life for the camera due to extensive processing time, with the arrival of the Kodak box camera in 1888, life’s fleeting moments were captured instantly. The camera penetrated all aspects of life from the living room to the battlefield, from farmlands to mortuaries. It was the camera that placed death back into the stream of life, at a time when modern institutions were sweeping it away from the everyday.

Photography’s ability to capture moments of danger gave rise to the discipline of photojournalism, which captures and distributes images of people in the face of natural and manmade disasters. Included are those photographed knowingly or unknowingly, whose lives are threatened by outside forces, who are about to vanish, or who are stripped of the material, cultural, social, and political layers that protect the lives of human beings. They are exposed to the gaze of strangers. These images use the photographic claim to objectivity to communicate to viewers something that they would otherwise not know about – that is, the pain and suffering of other human beings in another place and another context. Yet, in addition to the dire living conditions depicted, many such photographs represent economic deprivation, a condition outside or on the margins of the economy. Starving children or encamped asylum seekers are not only deprived of many basic human needs such as food, clean water, and shelter; they are further deprived of the possibility to decide how they are to be represented. These people are, in the etymological sense of the word, “exposed”: they are left without shelter or defense, while also being exposed to the camera. The moral and ethical conditions of photojournalism have been discussed at length by scholars and academics: what are the respective roles of the photographer and the viewer in this scenario? What are their moral obligations and what are their responsibilities? What are the rights to one’s image and how can these rights be established, protected, and, if necessary, defended?

Legally, the protection of one’s image or likeness falls under the categories of privacy and publicity law. As Susanne Bergmann explains, the latter is a concept originally rooted in the right to privacy and developed to protect the commercial interests of celebrities. The right to privacy safeguards against “injuries to a person’s dignity and state of mind, measured by mental distress damages,” while the right to publicity aims to protect the potential commercial exploitation of a person’s identity, image, and likeness and thus can be compared to property rights.[4] In the United States, the first to discuss the notion of a right to privacy were Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis, in their seminal 1890 Harvard Law Review article “The Right To Privacy.” Chronicling various laws put in place to protect the individual – from the right to life and property to the regulation of nuisance and libel – they discuss “the right to be left alone,” particularly in the face of rapid technological developments. They write, “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life[…]. For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons.”[5] Similar discussions take place around the same time in different parts of the world. Friedrich Kittler, for instance, talks about a 1902 German Reich law granting citizens rights to their own image that “protects them against the misuse of photography.”[6]

Yet cases concerning the right to self-representation are mainly considered through publicity rights. In the United States and elsewhere, such cases focus mainly on the financial interests of the photographer or publisher and whether the subject has any rights to profits incurred by virtue of being depicted in the image. The subject’s property – his or her image, likeness, or personality – is not by default protected by a governing legal body that has established a distribution model for such profits gained; rather, it is only upon filing suit that the court will decide if any violation has occurred and, if so, what kind of remuneration will be awarded.

The first publicity rights case that was brought to the United States Supreme Court involved the 1972 television broadcast of a performance by Hugo Zacchini, a “human cannonball,” at the Geauga County Fair in Burton, Ohio. Zacchini’s fifteen-second act aired in its entirety on WEWS-TV in Cleveland, a subsidiary of Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Company[1]. Zacchini sued Scripps-Howard, alleging that the local reporter “showed and commercialized the film of his act without his consent,” and that such conduct was an “unlawful appropriation of plaintiff’s professional property.”[7] He argued that airing the performance in its entirety would reduce attendance and result in a loss of revenue. In 1977, the Court reversed the Ohio State Court’s initial decision in favor of the broadcasting company, referring to the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, and citing that, “Amendments do not immunize the news media when they broadcast a performer’s entire act without his consent.”[8] Yet, in most cases, the two mentioned amendments generally grant immunity to the defendants in suits concerning privacy and publicity rights. The protection of freedom of speech and thus of artistic expression makes it difficult for plaintiffs to claim any rights to their images. Therefore, the right to privacy stands in conflict with the right to expression and is generally considered a less defensible kind of freedom unless it involves a large enough commercial violation for it to be considered by the higher courts. For example, in the case brought by Erno Nussenzweig, a retired diamond seller, against photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia after appearing without consent in one of the latter’s images, the New York Supreme Court held that the photographer could display, publish, and sell street photography without the consent of his subjects. Nussenzweig claimed that the photographer had violated his right to privacy – as his lawyer put it, his client “ha[d] lost control over his own image” – but the court sided with the defense’s argument that freedom of artistic expression is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.[9] Thus, as Warren and Brandeis noted more than a century ago, unless there is a legal injury, unlike Roman law our system does not account for mental and emotional injuries: “However painful the mental effects upon another of an act, though purely wanton or even malicious, yet if the act itself is otherwise lawful, the suffering inflicted is dannum absque injuria [loss without injury].[10]

While Nussenzweig’s “dignity” was invaded, Florence Owens Thompson felt ashamed by the photograph of her that was taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression.[11] Hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Lange travelled across derelict American landscapes to document the plight of the poor and displaced. In March 1936, Thompson and her family set up a temporary camp in the Imperial Valley in southeastern California after their car broke down near a pea-pickers’ camp. Lange visited the camp and took a number of photographs, one of which became the Migrant Mother (1936), an iconic image of the Great Depression. Yet, years later, in a story reported by the Associated Press in 1978, Thompson expressed how she was exploited by Lange’s portrait: “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture[…]. I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”[12] In a CNN interview, her daughter Katherine McIntosh said of the photo, “We were ashamed of it. We didn’t want no one to know who we were.”[13] This is yet another example of unaccounted for commercial and emotional injuries suffered by a photographed subject with no rights over her image’s circulation and exchange.

Departing from Warren and Brandeis, in 1964’s “Privacy as an Aspect of Human Dignity,” Edward J. Bloustein proposes that the issue of privacy should be regarded as a dignity tort. He argues that,


the harm caused [by the violation of privacy] is not one which may be repaired and the loss suffered is not one which may be made good by an award of damages. The injury is to our individuality, to our dignity as individuals, and the legal remedy represents a social vindication of the human spirit thus threatened rather than a recompense for the loss suffered.[14]


Bloustein argues that if the Fourth Amendment protects the privacy and thus the emotional and mental tranquility of the individual against government intrusion, the United States does have the legal tradition to protect such rights in civil cases involving similar issues.

Yet every day, the industry of photojournalism produces numerous images documenting human life and distributes them across the globe in newspapers, websites, and other news media outlets. Most of these images are produced without the consent of their subjects by professional photographers and, with the rise of citizen journalism, an increasing number of amateurs. The claims that these photographs make are similar to those made by The Family of Man, the 1955 exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curated by Edward Steichen, the exhibition featured “subjects pertinent to all cultures, such as love, children, and death.” It “focused on the commonalties that bind people and cultures around the world” and served “as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II.”[15] In the words of Dorothea Lange’s open letter to photographers of the world, this exhibition attempted to “show Man to Man across the world[…] to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil. If photography can bring these things to life, this exhibition will be created in a spirit of passionate and devoted faith in Man. Nothing short of that will do.”[16] The same appeal to human dignity is used both in defense of and against photography’s depiction of the individual in the face of life and, ultimately, death. For instance, in “One Image Right Can Sweep Away Another,” Jacques Rancière notes that genocide and other kinds of human atrocity deny a “primary ‘right to the image,’ prior to any individual’s ownership of his/her image” which he calls “the right to be included in the image of common humanity.”[17] Referring to two proposed bills in France – one prohibiting the publication of images of crime suspects wearing handcuffs and the second prohibiting the publication of image of individuals in “situations that undermine their dignity” – Rancière laments the commercialization of the human image via the proposed publicity laws.[18] He argues that this direction of the law will eventually restrict the representation of the underprivileged who are already lacking representation in the political sphere and as such will also become less visible in the visual sphere. But the question still remains as to whether or not the representation of those in “undignified” conditions improves the “image of common humanity.”[19] This image, which represents all humans regardless of their race, ethnicity, class and geographical location, is an abstract and impersonal construction, independent of any particular representation of a human being under inhumane conditions. It appears that the suffering and the most vulnerable are also the most immediate candidates to represent humanity as an abstraction, while the better off have more power over their representation. In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag questions the construction of this common image on the back of the underprivileged and interrogates how all but a privileged few are subsumed under this image as representatives of their occupations, ethnicities, and plights.[20] The image of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy washed ashore at the threshold of the fortress of Europe in September 2015, is not a mere contribution to the common image of humanity. Kurdi’s image, like thousands of similar photographs, needs to be measured against this common image, as it represents what needs to be prevented at all costs.

Everyday, as Maurisset anticipated, millions of images are produced, circulated, and exchanged. Recent technological advancements have shortened the gap between the production and reception of the image, rendering it nearly immediate, in what seems to be the livestreaming of life. New media, with its accelerated rate of transmission and its real-time immediacy, has created a new visual landscape in which image-making carries some of the attributes of speech, as the subject and its photographic representation can occupy the same physical and temporal space. We have arguably entered an age of photographic literacy, as virtually everyone – from a boatful of refugees to tourists in world financial capitals – carries a device that is able to document every fleeting moment.[21] Yet, we still lack a legal infrastructure – beyond copyright – that defines and distributes the rights of the various agents involved in producing and distributing journalistic images. How can one define one’s own conditions of representation in the image economy of a visually saturated post-digital world?

Bloustein notes that we have the legal tools to resolve the notion of the individual’s privacy rights, including the right to one’s image. The question then becomes: what kind of framework, internationally and locally, needs to be developed to implement such a legislative body?[22] Tracking down and identifying every person photographed seems draconian and perhaps impossible. Yet if such rights were chartered and defined, photographic subjects would have the possibility to refer to the legal system and make claims. These claims could be evaluated in a court of law, via clearly defined channels and according to regulations that are agreed upon in international legal systems. What is the subject’s share in the image economy of photojournalism, and how can his or her image be legally circulated? How can the subject (or their legal guardians or heirs) as the owner of their image be legally remunerated proportionate to the commercial value of the photograph? How can one imagine a “law of images” as a “juridical space on the boundary of public and private law?”[23] This is Pliny’s concept of the image, explained by Didi-Huberman as “evaluat[ing] images as just or unjust, legal or illegal.”[24] This concept of the image is one prior to the separation of ethics and aesthetics, unlike the modern discourse on images that insists on such boundaries. A law of images and the subsequent judicial space can provide a legal framework for the representation of every individual, even if it is defined and operates within capitalist social conditions. These laws will regulate the production and circulation of images and provide a pathway for the photographic subject to pursue rights to their own image and its conditions of representation. The sphere of representation is one that operates within the totalizing apparatus of the spectacle. In this sphere, to divert Pliny’s discourse, the concept of the image is one of material and juridical foundation. Therefore, the struggle for representation is guided by and relies on this foundation to be operative. The negation of this sphere as a whole due to its total recuperation under the current dominant social and economic condition does not dismantle it, but rather contributes to the elimination of the underrepresented.

But the image, following Giorgio Agamben’s formulation in the essay “On Potentiality,” becomes visible against its absence; it puts itself forth through darkness into visibility. We can imagine representation and spectatorship as potentiality. “If potentiality were, for example, only the potentiality for vision and if it existed only as such in the actuality of light, we could never experience darkness”; but since we experience darkness, we therefore have the “potential not to see, the possibility of privation.[25] The image economy of photojournalism belongs to the potentiality for vision; it is in the scope of the visible and representable. It falls and functions under the spectacle and is governed by the latter’s rules of production, exchange, and circulation. The common image of humanity is an invisible, negative image, but one that is measured against the visible, against images of the pained and the suffering. Yet, this does not imply that the rights of the latter need to remain unrecognized and unaccounted for. It does not mean that we can abandon the conditions of representation within the current legal and economic apparatus. The subject needs to be redeemed from representation, yet occupy its position within it. It needs to surpass being reduced to an example or mere evidence of human suffering, while at the same time interrogating the conditions that create such states of agony and pain. The image violates that which it represents, existing as a battleground through which the subject becomes visible and simultaneously turns into an abstraction.

Perhaps one can think of privacy rights as the negative double of publicity rights in the totalizing movement of the spectacle: if one can imagine publicity rights as every individual’s rights to their image within the contemporary image economy, the right to privacy is the right not to be represented as such, the right to belong to oneself, to be left alone, set apart, to not belong to the state or the market. It is, to borrow from Agamben, a right to privation. This right to privation is what makes up that abstract common image of humanity and belongs to the aspect of the image that Pliny calls dignitas. This common image needs to be uncompromisingly and constantly constructed, reviewed, and re-imagined – against its totalizing other.


[1] I first learned about this case from artist Kobe Matthys

[1] Friedrich A. Kittler, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, trans. Anthony Enns, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010, p. 145.

[2] Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Molding Image: Genealogy and the Truth of Resembelance in Pliny’s Natural History, Book 35, I-7,” Costas Douzinas and Lynda Nead, eds., Law and the Image: The Authority of Art and the Aesthetics of Law. transl. Peter Goodrich. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p 78.


[3] Roberta McGrath, Seeing Her Sex: Medical Archives and the Female Body. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002, p. 148.

[4] Susanne Bergmann, Publicity Rights in the United States and Germany: A Comparative Analysis. 19 Loy. L.A. Ent. L. Rev. 479 (1999).

[5] Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy [The Implicit Made Explicit],” Ferdinand D. Schoeman, ed., Philosophical Dimensions of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 76.

[6] Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media, p. 144.

[7] Zacchini v. Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Company, 433 U.S. 562 (1977).

[8] The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom of assembly, and right to petition. The Fourteenth Amendment addresses citizenship rights and equal protection of the laws, and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War.

[9] Philip Gefter. “Street Photography: A Right or Invasion?” New York Times, March 17, 2006.

[10] Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis, “The Right to Privacy,” p. 78.

[11] Philip Gefter, “Street Photography: A Right or Invasion?”

[12]It is important to note that in 1983 Thompson’s cancer fund (the Migrant Mother Fund) was filled with donations from across the country due to the photograph. Further, the wide circulation of the image at the time of its publication did result in delivering food and care to the camp, albeit after Thompson family’s departure. Geoffrey Dunn, “Photographic License,” New Times, accessed November 16, 2015.

[13] Thelma Gutierrez and Wayne Drash, “Girl from Iconic Great Depression Photo: ‘We Were Ashamed,’” CNN, accessed November 14, 2015.

[14] Edward J. Bloustein, “Privacy as an Aspect of Human Dignity,” Ferdinand D. Schoeman, ed., Philosophical Dimensions of Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007 p. 188.

[15] Museum of Modern Art, “Edward Steichen at The Family of Man, 1955,”

[16] Dorothea Lange’s letter written January 16, 1953 is quoted in John Szarkowski, “The Family of Man,” The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century at Home and Abroad. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 24.

[17] Jacques Rancière, Chronicles of Consensual Times, transl. Steven Corcoran, London: Continuum, 2010, p. 51.

[18] Ibid., 49.

[19] Ibid., 50.

[20] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 200, pp. 78-79.

[21] In his “A Little History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin notes how the illiterates of the future will be those who are ignorant of photography; Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith, eds., Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, 1931-1934, Volume 2, Part 2, transl. Rodney Livingstone and Others, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 527.

[22] Admittedly Bloustein’s argument is rooted in the American legal tradition, and this essay comes far short of a comparative study of the image’s rights internationally. Yet photojournalism, with its global distribution and its multinational media channels, makes universal claims. As such, establishing an international body that protects the rights of photographed subjects seems urgent.

[23] Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Molding Image,” p. 79.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Roazen, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 181.