Spring/Summer 2004

– Spring/Summer 2004

Contextual Essays


Subject Production and Political Art Practice

Marius Babias

Tags: Group Material, Julie Ault

Julie Ault, Power Up: Sister Corita and Donald Moffett, Interlocking, UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2000. Courtesy of the artist.

Julie Ault, Power Up: Sister Corita and Donald Moffett, Interlocking, UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, 2000. Courtesy of the artist.


For some time now, the children of second or third generation migrants in cities like Paris, London, Los Angeles or Berlin have been producing new hybrid cultural forms that lend globalisation the kind of friendly, colourful and peaceful face that it desires. In certain ways, this development was reflected in art biennales during the 1990s. Their dramatic rise in that decade meant that these events were redefined as key disciplinary places where contemporary international art developments could be displayed in parallel to the changes in the world market under globalisation. Before Documenta 11, they classically became situations where the 'other' and the 'exotic' were compelled to 'come out' as a gesture of self-assertion, yet were truly there in order to make themselves compliant and easily consumable in a globalised cultural economy. Documenta 11 (2002) represented the most recent crystallisation of a new political understanding of globalism within the postcolonial concept. It concentrated more generally on the socio-cultural and political aspects of the North-South conflict (while completely ignoring the East) but it still hardly avoided the danger that post-colonial art simply satisfies the needs of the global market by producing more and more refined versions of 'other' or 'exotic' worlds and cultures. While the market laws of cultural globalism are always going to be evident in the way these events are structured, we should be vigilant against simply affirming the processes of economic globalisation by dressing it up as a post-colonialism of multiple identities. It is also important to avoid the preconceived judgement that art is simply produced as a reflex or an imagination of these same market forces.

In order to rescue visual art from political instrumentalisation it has to be looked at within the diorama of neo-liberal market ideology and as a constitutive element of changing processes within society. This perspective allows the stylistic pluralism of the 1990s to appear as some sort of 'generative grammar'. Its constant production of more and more differentiated versions of artistic subject production transforms subjectivity into a commodity and distributes it out into all areas of life. A critical art practice now would focus on areas stigmatised as 'non art' and pushed aside by the art market while avoiding the reduction of critique to a singular viewpoint that constructs art as a Marxist superstructure phenomenon. This latter tendency overlooks the micro-political irregularities that do not necessarily have to initiate questioning or even resistance against reigning circumstances - something that seems obvious after the supposed reduction in political art during the 1990s.

The Pluralist 1990s

Artistic practices that originate from real-life experiences and that strive for a de- or reconstruction of reality played a dominant part in the development of art in the 1990s. They are paradoxically the very reason that reality - burst into aesthetic fragments and transformed into social fabric - was more and more absorbed by art. This caused reality to change its allegorical relationship to the initial text of the artwork and changed art's understanding of reality. In the 1990s the absorption of real-life relationships, circumstances and situations became the principle of the aesthetic production of reality. Perception became tradeable and aesthetic experiences took on the form of commodities.

Beginning with neo-institutional critique and a repoliticised art practice, and continuing with art as social service, the 1990s saw a variety of tendencies informing artistic strategies, most significantly the model of participation - the pop cultural approach that led to crossover and sampling cultures, and finally to the backlash of the image and a new hedonism. This pluralism of style led to a contemporary art that immersed itself and disappeared within its own modes of presentation and became identical with models of reality. Yet, such diverse artistic tendencies are only really diverse at first sight. Within the phenomena of immersion and disappearance lie the current modes of expression in contemporary art and, digging a little deeper towards its sociological and economic roots, they reveal society's means of producing subject identity. This essay will discuss if the free-form style pluralism of the 1990s happened in order to distract us from the reorganisation of society according to the laws of the neo-liberal market. Beginning with the gradual transformation of art into a medium for identity production and the reorganisation of its exhibitions spaces and locations into cultural boutiques, I will attempt to reveal the blurred lines between contemporary art, juvenile deviant behaviour, consumption and micro-politics.

Between Class and Consumerism

Felix Guattari, the 'schizo-analyst' who was so disappointed by the May '68 events in Paris, said in 1976: 'Since the movement of May '68, those in power, supported by leftist pseudo-organisations, have been trying to make us believe that it was all about spoiled young people fighting against consumer society while the real workers knew where their interests lay all along. But it has never been a fight against consumer society. On the contrary, our trick is to claim that there isn't enough consumerism.'1

Guattari's critical remark about capitalism and the dependency between class and consumerism has ironically become reality in the shopping and entertainment quarters of Western cities. While students in the politically restless 1960s and 70s saw themselves as part of the working class because they had nothing to sell to the market but their labour, their subsequent identification as consumers overwhelmed by consumption has not brought the revolution any closer. Instead, the consumer ideology of the 1990s created ever more specific forms of organisation for sales, communication services, aesthetics and lifestyle - the absolute highpoint of which are the fashion stores. Fashion stores today offer a universal image, be it Comme de Garçon in Tokyo and New York, Prada and Armani in Rome's chic Via del Condotti or the small fashion shops, book boutiques, sneaker shops and kickboard stores in Berlin-Mitte. The transformation of art into commodity that took place in and around the white cube has reached the fashion world and comple-ted itself there. The fashion gallery has even overtaken the art gallery and, in order to keep up with the dominant lifestyle discourse that no longer feeds off social or political revolt but only follows trends, art galleries have been trying to perfect their image in the tradition of the modernist white cube with both a sterility of presentation and a strict selection process of 'coolness-compatible' artworks. Capitalism has over-coded the ideology of individualism and therefore perverted the act of buying and wearing clothes into 'soulful qualities', as Herbert Marcuse noted about the affirmative character of the bourgeois culture.2 Fashion galleries and art stores are the places where this exchange takes place.

The Speculative Charge of Crossover-Art

At the moment both everyday life and cultural life seem to be dominated by a production aesthetic of coolness closely interwoven with lifestyle culture. 'Crossover', 'Gesamtkunstwerk Pop' and 'Network' are the slogans of a young generation, growing up away from the social and economic change of post-Fordist society, and for whom the political has the function of an ornament. The so-called retro and crossover art produced by the generation of artists that grew up with Gameboy and Playstation predominantly refers to this lifestyle aspect that has risen sharply in terms of its social status. This, in turn, has meant that subjectivity itself has become a commodity and the art that reflects it largely consists of clever recombinations of signs given a speculative charge. It is therefore difficult to combine this theoretically with the modernist promise of 'authentic experience', something that the avant-garde hoped would emerge in the confrontation between the viewer and the work of art.

This argument has nothing to do with the demarcation lines between elite culture and mass culture. Those distinctions were blurred by Marcel Duchamp and Walter Benjamin, and seemingly eradicated by postmodernism in order to announce the 'Gesamtkunstwerk of Pop'. Instead, current marketing strategies suggest different cultural oppositions, such as underground/overground, because it is easier to sell products charged with subcultural appeal. In this way, a strict regime of signs are almost put back into place, structuring the relationship between high and low on the popular side of things. The code of this new apartheid of signs is the social, because you can still find real outcasts there (homeless people, drug consumers, ghetto-kids). Their misery, properly appropriated through aesthetic devices, successfully makes the demarcation line between high and low visible once again. Today, the line runs between pop and social politics, while the technique used for the reconstruction of the two parts is called 'dissolve'. It is precisely when the homeless and consumer-kids meet for real in the shop windows of mass-consumerism - be it on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or in Frankfurt's Zeil - that the divide between pop and social politics becomes visible. It appears again where the shops sell clothes modelled on the credibility of decay, or when call-centre jobs are moved from the hands of industrial nations to Indian programmers in order to save money, or when white, racist, middle-class kids in Arkansas appropriate the street wear and attitude of rappers.

Leslie A. Fiedler's essay 'Cross the border - Close the Gap' played a significant role in the discussions around postmodernism.3 We could say that it now reveals itself as a 'visionary' text because it pre-empts the postmodern concept of the artist as double agent of both the elite and the popular. This artist, who in reality is a double agent of social circumlocution, fits the social into a synaesthetic concept of pluralism and multi-dimensionality as just another fractal aspect among so many others. The white cubes of today - be they gallery boutiques or fashionable commercial art spaces - don't sell ideas, pose questions or structure analyses like they did at the beginning of conceptual art thirty years ago. Instead they offer universal hybrid artefacts such as art-furniture or painting as wall decoration, oblivious as to whether these were produced by artists or designers. To categorise a piece of furniture by Jorge Pardo as art and therefore different from a fashionable jumper by Dries van Noten is difficult to argue when its acquisition is framed in terms of lifestyle choices. Clothes, furniture, artworks and other libidinous objects in the world are tied together by the dictatorship of 'lifestyle'. An aesthetic programme is replaced by secret knowledge about the newest collections, clubs, acts and even stock-market values.

The New Cultural Production of Identity

The expansive character of 'style-pluralism' has penetrated the sphere of production and remixed the criteria for aesthetic judgement. Group affiliations, status and coolness gain value while analytic criteria lose value. But the more self-fulfilment and happiness are anticipated in the sphere of consumption, the more the isolating structures of particularism and subjectivity are consolidated. Pleasure turns into a chimera. In a society where commodity value is determined by the working time required to produce it, yet where individuals do not use or reproduce their working labour to produce pleasure, then pleasure itself is of no value but instead comprises its own cultural charge. At exactly this instance, the field of art production plays the role of double agent.

The object (a sneaker, for instance) onto which a group of young people project their libido has a price that structures the organisation of the group. This process of the production of social identity has been democratised step by step in the wake of mass consumption because the appropriate, culturally charged commodities such as walkmans, sneakers, mobile phones, notebooks, etc., have become cheaper and cheaper. While this process leads the way to increasing numbers of consumers, the cultural and economic conditions enabling the act of purchase remain untouched by this form of 'democratisation'. The cultural charge given by purchase suggests a heightened individual sensitivity culminating in the consumption of culture. It pretends to hold the false promise of overcoming social conditions. Although collective substitutes for communication, such as certain dress codes, act to stabilise the social status of participants, they do not cancel out the basic economic and social differences within, as well as outside of, the group. After all, such collective substitutes of communication, as stable as they might seem on the inside, are themselves mechanisms of social exclusion in relation to the outside.

A receptivity to sensuality culminating in the consumption of culture stimulates an ornamental appropriation of everyday life and strengthens the function of art and culture as a socio-political mechanism of integration - instead of, as the avant-gardes anticipated, using the pleasurable realisation of sensuality as a means of setting free possibilities of individual emancipation that might overcome consumer society's substitutes of communication. Cultures in general and art in particular (as an interface between youth culture, pop and fashion) have turned into battlegrounds over social, political and economic supremacy. Here, hegemonial struggles between lifestyles and political attitudes are fought out and new career paths opened up. Underprivileged social groups are granted the power of speech in art projects in order to transfer them from the category of 'class' into the lifestyle-construct of new 'subject positions' - as the contemporary jargon goes - under the keyword: 'empowerment'. Here the Zeitgeist industry has an easy job in planning their economic exploitation. This new writing of deviant juvenile behaviour by pop art theory results in the stylisation of consuming happy subjects as 'subversive' artists. For this, the reconstruction of the mainstream/underground opposition is indispensable as subculturally charged consumer hedonists not only promise dissident behaviour but higher sales as well. With this perspective, dissidence becomes the key concept of a proliferating 'left lifestyle'.

Even if this text only roughly sketches out the problem of subject production in the visual arts, one conclusion might be that capitalism releases its dissidents into self-control, defining dissidents as those who try out new exhibition possibilities on the periphery as cheap labour thus contributing to the flexibility of institutions as well as rehearsing new socio-economic forms of life.

Art Activism: A Diorama of the Social Forces of Production

Despite its increasing marginalisation, a form of critical art practice pointing towards new possibilities of cultural resistance did survive and continues to evolve. As a practice, it understands art as a diorama of the social forces of production and can be exemplified by the American artists' collective Group Material. Group Material - as well as General Idea, Gran Fury, the Guerrilla Girls or Paper Tiger TV - embodied the stimulating force of contemporary North American art on European developments. Yet the (self-)disbanding of the group on account of its increasing co-opting by the art world in 1996 was not only a consequence of the changed conditions of art practice, but also cleared a path towards an appropriate critical response to those changes. The story of the group therefore provides a pertinent view of the what and how of critical art practice today.

Group Material was founded in 1979 and originally consisted of 18 people, breaking apart in 1981 with Julie Ault, Mundy McLaughlin and Tim Rollins as the only remaining members. Doug Ashford joined in 1982, Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1987 and Karen Ramspacher in 1989. In June 1990, the project Democracy Poll/Demokratische Erhebung, organised by the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst in Berlin was staged as a reaction to German reunification. At the time Julie Ault, Doug Ashford and Felix Gonzalez-Torres were members. A non-representative survey was carried out concurrently in Berlin and New York that questioned approximately 60 people on topics such as German reunification, freedom, migration, nationalism and neo-conservatism. The responses were published in three different forms: 14 texts were put up on large-scale billboards in five subway stations; 60 texts were fed into the electronic Avnet image-wall on Kurfürstendamm (2x2 statements every five minutes) and a supplement for the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel (circulation 40,000) was designed by the group containing 18 texts and five images.

For the dissemination of the statements, Group Material had deliberately chosen a heterogeneous media strategy in order to reach various social groups and classes, as well as to increase the depth of infiltration into the social field of the addressees for whom reunification was mainly unfolding in the media as a so-called historical phenomenon rather than in the sphere of everyday life. Among the respondents expectations, desires and fears were expressed directly and effectively. Temporarily they were granted the power of speech in the media, usually restricted to 'letters to the editor'. Prominently placed and presented, the statements represented a corrective to the abstract political level of the process of German reunification seemingly evolving apart from actual personal influence. Moreover, they threw into relief the possibility of actually intervening in political developments without setting up a normative frame of action.

Critical Art Practice: The Methods of Cultural Deconstruction

Throughout their career, Group Material realised a series of critical projects characterised by a collective structure of production that accentuated the political perspectives of cultural practice. Since the 1996 break-up, which can be perceived as a strategic consequence emerging from the antagonism between co-optation and resistance, the former members of the group have been working individually.

While Democracy Poll figures as an example of a collective artwork intervening on a political and media level into the processes of German reunification, Julie Ault's individual project Power Up: Sister Corita and Donald Moffett, Interlocking, realised in spring 2000 at UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, draws the logical conclusions from the claim to a totality of critique.4 The artist diversifies her role as an activist and operates as both curator and exhibition designer. While fully aware of the dilemma of political art to both destabilise and legitimise institutions, she provides the display structure for a collective form of production in which artists, activists and visitors can participate equally. Thus she not only eludes her typecast role of providing critique to be consumed within bourgeois concepts of cultural representation, Ault also transgresses the antagonism between artistic intervention and political failure imposed by the concept of political art practice.

For her exhibition project Power Up Ault, in collaboration with Martin Beck, constructed a multi-functional display structure that accommodated works by Sister Corita Kent and Donald Moffett. The piece consisted of silk-screen prints, posters, paper clippings, documentary photographs and videotapes. Sister Corita - a nun, artist and political activist - had been active against the Vietnam War and supported the black civil rights movement since the 1960s. Moffett, founding member of Gran Fury (1987-93) and Marlene McCarty's Bureau partner since 1989, is an AIDS-activist and works as a political illustrator for Village Voice. Consisting of coloured partition walls, billboards and cube-chairs, the display structure constitutes a form of visual editing of historical and artistic material, operating as a kind of methodological toolbox. According to Ault's approach, critical art practice is a method governed by historical reassessment and recombination while aiming to demonstrate the connections between political practice and cultural representation. The curatorial approach to historical material and its presentation in the exhibition space is thus declared as the sphere of action of art practice. But the act of curating is not confined to selection and reordering; from the very beginning it includes all participants and transforms their usually passive role in the art world into an active form of collaboration.

Public Art and Interventionism: Resistance and Conformism

Julie Ault's critique of the self-marginalisation and self-positioning of critical art practice could apply to a lot of public art projects in both the US and Europe. For instance, the 1992-93 Culture in Action projects organised by Mary Jane Jacob in Chicago or, in Europe, the interventions of the Austrian group Wochenklausur, founded in 1993 by Wolfgang Zingl, which carried out numerous interventionist projects with the homeless, refugees appealing against deportation and the unemployed. In 1999, in the Austrian pavilion of the Venice Biennale, Wochenklausur advertised language courses in Bosnia where civil war refugees would be taught a foreign language. This project was based on the assumption that acquisition of the English language would enable refugees to break through their social isolation and make political contact with Europe.

The problematic aspects of art intervention are obvious. Such projects can be charged with communitarianism, being a function of socio-political compensation and moral grandstanding. The often advanced advantage of irregularity, mobility and the value of a political programme, which follows Mao's notion of guerrilla warfare, do stabilise the groups on the inside but can only develop their 'revolutionary' forces to a certain degree - and then mostly as single gestures, marginal political improvements, communicative exchange services, object-fixated symbolics, etc. The more fundamental problem is that capitalism, which produces social antagonisms as well as critical art practices, eludes radical transformations by way of co-optation and assimilation. In addition, the act of intervention is based on a questionable and socially marginal avant-garde model, that does not apply to the social field anymore, as can be seen in the US problem of racism.

The 1992 Rodney King riots in south west Los Angeles took on the scale of an uncontrolled and politically diffuse rebellion. Afro-Americans and Hispanics looted shops owned by Afro-Americans and Asians, 55 people were shot and killed, 2,383 were injured, most of them black. The sociologist Günther Jacob attributes the reason for why the fire did not spread across the whole country triggering a revolutionary blaze to the fact 'that today there are no allies worth mentioning, no greater, radical movement targeting the strategies of racialisation'.5 Without charismatic leaders and left to their own fate imposed by white men, the riots highlighted the destitution and insanity of a society that erects ghettos, yet fails to yield any revolutionary perspective. If even the socially and politically marginalised are incapable of staging a revolution, of what use could art activists be? Instead of bringing to light the state of affairs in a comprehensive political analysis and thus possibly helping to create a revolutionary situation, temporary art interventions take on the form of a socio-romantic service, fictitiously reconciling the real conflicts. This critique might seem polemic. Participatory projects, as problematic as their compensatory function might be, could nevertheless contain elements of a comprehensive analysis of society. The inclusion of homeless people, drug users, ghetto kids, disabled people and other socially marginal groups does not necessarily lead to a social service. Often the basic attitude of critics orchestrates a general renunciation of those projects that claim solidarity with victims of political persecution and the socially disadvantaged.

When Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler realised their Mutter-Kind(er)- haus as a reaction to the Kosovo War for the Austrian pavilion at the 1999 Biennale in Venice - a prototype of a housing module for seven to nine people designed as an alternative to the Portakabins for refugees in collaboration with the architect Martin Feiersinger - many critics disliked the artists taking sides with the Kosovo refugees, especially with the refugee mothers' returning home. That the project had left the symbolic field by actually erecting one house in Kosovo and with a whole village in planning allowed the work to fall prey to the scrutiny of a moral and political inquisition. The fierce critique of Mutter-Kind(er)haus is only partly a product of the fundamental ambivalence inherent in such projects. By actually taking sides while being endowed with the power of speech through art, the artists also reproduce the social mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion that produce the social suffering in the first place. Instead of overcoming them, or such was the main critique, the construction of the conflict within the institutional framework would be profitable for both sides - for the institutions as a legitimation of its flexible access to counter cultures, for the artists as 'anti'-credibility. Those that follow this line of argument do not care whether the specific intervention is actually designed as a social service or whether it is simply attributed as such by reception. Trained by the socio-critical claims of project and public art during the 1990s, the critics track down every ever-so marginal weakness and turn it against critical art practice itself. A partly unjustified culture of critical scrutiny has developed which declares the unmasking of critique as social service as the highest duty of the critic. They claim that political initiative is frozen into the materiality of the artwork, even its intensified activist version of interventionism. However, if such projects are evaluated by the standards of social commitment, participatory art projects that attract a lot of media attention in the cultural field are simply an articulation of the bourgeois public itself.


This text aims to expose the ornamental arrangement and application of models of reality in the historical development of art practices since the 1990s, to demonstrate how art threatens to disappear into its models of presentation and, finally, to show what kinds of problematic relations to plundering it maintains with the sphere of the social.

The process of art becoming identical with context, discourse and reality mediated by lifestyles, millennium euphoria and consumer hedonism does, however, also open up perspectives of a new critical art practice that potentially has to redefine, technologically modify or completely transgress the model of collectivity sustained in times of visible antagonism, as I tried to show in the case of Julie Ault's individual practice. Pierre Bourdieu described this necessary process of transformation and adaptation of political commitment to social reality, of theory to practice, in his concept of the 'collective intellectual', a concept that demands a strategic global orientation of action from artists, authors and academics in the era of neo-liberalism with its new economic structures of subject production. According to Bourdieu, the rapid proliferation of neo-liberal ideology in all realms of the lived world would have to be countered by the fierce determination of critical networks 'in which "specific intellectuals" (in the Foucauldian sense of skilled and competent scholars) coalesce as a truly collective intellectual who is able to direct his thoughts and actions independently, who, in short, maintains his autonomy'.6

In particular, the kind of academia that strictly subscribes to the Anglo-Saxon academic tradition of differentiating between scholarship (academic respectability) and commitment (political dedication) can only help the neo-liberal breakthrough with its research and insights. Now would be the time to give up academic restraint and re-conquer the political and social sovereignty of interpretation. The 'collective intellectual' would first have to take on negative responsibilities, i.e. to radically criticise the hegemony of the economic over the political and cultural, before contributing to political renewal in a positive way. What is necessary is an alliance for action endowed with the authority of a competent and skilled collective embracing academic disciplines and art communities that implements its critique of the neo-liberal order in the form of direct interventions in the sense of a new agitprop. Where academic, artistic and political practices appear in union, an actual perspective of political participation emerges.

Translated by Charles Esche and Daniel Pies

- Marius Babias

  1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Rhizom, Berlin: Merve, 1976, p.58

  2. Herbert Marcuse, 'Über den affirmativen Charakter der Kultur', in Kultur und Gesellschaft I, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1965, pp.71-72

  3. Leslie A. Fiedler, 'Cross the border - Close the gap', in Wolfgang Welsch, Wege aus der Moderne. Schlüsseltexte der Postmoderne-Diskussion, Weinheim: VCH, 1988, p.69

  4. Julie Ault, 'Power Up, Reassembled', in Julie Ault and Martin Beck, Critical Condition - Ausgewählte Texte im Dialog, Essen: Kokerei Zollverein Zeitgenössische Kunst und Kritik, 2003, pp.367-75

  5. Günther Jacob, Agit-Pop - Schwarze Musik und weiße Hörer, Berlin: ID Archiv, 1993, p.31

  6. Pierre Bourdieu, Gegenfeuer 2, Konstanz: UVK, 2001, p.36