Posts Tagged ‘SculptureCenter’

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





May 22, 2020 Comments off

Thomas Keenan and Sohrab Mohebbi

For Banu Cennetoğlu’s exhibition catalog, SculptureCenter

Screen Shot 2020-05-22 at 5.56.56 PM

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.