You know you like it really (or, the secret allure of objects)

‘Fun’ preamble

Sorry if you were hoping to read further details of my inability to successfully sleep, meditate, overcome anxiety, or whatever. As it happens something far more important is currently going down in my life- my Dissertation!


Apparently. Flirting with mugs…yeap, sounds about right. Hope it’s full of gin.

This means I will be holed up at home (forget the library- have you been to CSM lately? If I have to listen to one more group of fashion students bickering over whose idea it was to use a lampshade as a bum-belt I might have to garrote them with a textile-futures wire creation) with my laptop, cat, and endless cups of tea from now until June, with occasional visits to the outside world if a free drink or man seem to be on the agenda. Only kidding! Not that committed. To the booze and men I mean, obv….very committed to the writing. Though I have only just started so lets see if/ how/ when my resolve crumbles under the right circumstances.

Blog anxieties

However, until then, this blog will possibly morph into my other blog (my ‘serious’/ art-related one) which I have recently abandoned ‘cos of the cretinous formatting (Jaysus a-n sort it out, ‘artists’ blog with microscopic images, 700-word limit, whatdyou think we are, illiterate and iconoclasts… I blame the funding cuts).

Only you can know for sure

Might as well stay there

Anyway, before I go off on a tangent about everything except my research- for example, why bother with two blogs when you struggle to keep even one regularly updated, plus it’s basically unpaid work, otherwise known as a ‘hobby’ (recently the Hackney Citizen described me as an artist and blogger…god help me) or perhaps the difficulty of distinguishing between an art-blog or a non-art-blog when most of what you think or care about is art somehow-related, let’s get busy- with Appropriation art! That was your warning- if you find art/ art theory boring, look away now, the ‘fun preamble’ is over.

How to dress like a knob

Actually quite a good look

 Appropriation for the noughties

While appropriation may seem a like a bit of an 80s throwback, it has in fact persisted as an artistic strategy almost as tenaciously as leopard print has in the sartorial sphere. Or else it has quietly morphed via stylistic tweaks into something similar but bearing a new name- hello, Post-production!- that better reflects our post-millennial condition (and sold back to us as if we wouldn’t notice, like Converse).

Post-production as described by Nicholas Bourriaud could in fact be seen as a slightly happier (and hipper?) ‘net-worked’ version of Appropriation for the noughties; or maybe context-sensitive Appropriation in the age of the internet, reflecting the increasing importance of the local, particular, and specific in the wake of the unmoorings wrought by simulation theory. Which may actually constitute something different altogether, but suffice it to say that Bourriaud’s notion of the artist-as-semionaut, coasting along the corporate/ user-generated info-plane endlessly remixing and post-producing existing signs, has a fair bit in common with the Pictures generation artist.

While their strategies of pastiche and quotation of ahistorical fragments conveyed an end-game melancholy at odds with the more participatory, convivial claims made for  relational and post-production artists, Bourriaud nevertheless imbues their working methods with some Appropriation-era  critical import. For example he argues that by making these signs (including corporate logos, pop music, internet chat rooms, films etc etc) ‘materials from which they compose their works, artists underscore their arbitrary, conventional and ideological dimension’, which is posited as a political project, since via this transformation of apparently solid objects/ signs into trembling, fragile constructions, ‘precariousness is introduced into the system of representations’. (Post-Production, 2009)

Quotation begat remix

‘Remixing’- which again, could be compared to the ‘quotation culture’ Frederic Jameson and others saw as a defining characteristic of postmodernism- is thus cast as a critical strategy. This echoes claims made for the work of artists like Dara Birnbaum, who could be classified as a proto-Appropriation artist, slightly predating the Pictures generation but still active within the discourse and debates surrounding it. In an Artfroum interview with Cory Archangel, she described her method of isolating fragments from popular culture, for example in her video Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (197879), as a way of making visible TV’s hidden agenda, whereby “iconography starts to emerge through a formalist device; repetition allows certain things to surface.” Benjamin Buchloh similarly contends that in her work “the formal procedures of fragmentation and serial repetition…. make the minute and seemingly inextricable interaction of behavior and ideology an observable pattern.” Dot Turner in n.paradoxa uses comparable language, arguing that her work explores ‘the entanglements of identity and ideology through the juxtaposition and recirculation of found images’; by isolating fragments and recontexualising them from a ‘swirl’ of electronic data, her work reflects the ways ‘culture remakes nature and mediation reshapes identity’.

Dara Birnbaum: Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79)

Dara Birnbaum: Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79)

You got the power

Thus the act of quotation in was ‘ascribed a socio-critical power’ as well as an ability to transform the object being appropriated, as Isabelle Graw explains in an analysis of some of the critical myths surrounding appropriation art. (A question here, which I’m not going to answer, is what/ who exactly wields this power: the quoting, the fragmenting, or the re-contextualizing, or a combination of the above?). So in a video like Transformation, appropriating, fragmenting and repeating certain tropes already present within the source material foregrounds the TV agenda that helped maintain the subordinate position of women in society, humorously illustrating the absurdity of popular culture’s depiction of female agency.

 The secret allure of trashy crap

Kim does Wonder Woman (a disservice)

Kim does Wonder Woman (a disservice)

Naturally, an equal but opposite assertion could be that her work celebrates the trashy glamour of lowbrow TV and revels in the kitschy depiction of women which even feminists occasionally succumb to (see Halloween- or annual excuse to dress like a slutty goddess- for evidence). But as I will argue later on, the allure of the objects (film still, media imagery etc) was generally disavowed, since the whole point of being a ‘critical’ artist was to critique, undermine or challenge material they quoted and appropriated.

However, quoting and criticality are not mutually exclusive, as evidenced by online ‘fanboy’ culture, which celebrates the TV shows, comic heros, and punch-lines that they quote, ‘mash-up’, and remix. Indeed the very fact fanboy culture has thrived-  rather than being mauled by corporate lawyers- despite blatant copyright infringement suggests the execs know it’s ‘good for the product’.  Further deflating the critical potential of fragment-quoting/ remixing, Sam Thorne, at a talk at Frieze Art Fair a couple of years ago identified a kind of “intensified collage”- commonly known as ‘supercuts’ on the web- as the dominant methodology of today, used by advertisers and teenagers on YouTube alike.

 Artists, amateurs and supercuts

‘Supercuts’, is a name coined by blogger Andy Baio to describe the hugely popular genre (or meme?) of fast-cut, ‘staggeringly syncretic’ (Tom Cormack) edits that bring together fragments from existing visual material in order to reveal a pattern, usually with humorous intent. Archangel, in the Artforum interview, credits Birnbaum with anticipating the supercut method, whose proliferation online can be attributed to the fact ‘every ten-year-old kid has iMovie’. To which one might add, too much time on their hands, but even more crucially, connection to the ‘mega-archive of the internet’ (Hal Foster) providing an ease of access to the source material unthinkable in the late 70s.

Hip post-appropriationist remixer Cory Arcangel

Hip post-appropriationist remixer Cory Arcangel

And it’s not just every ten year-old but every media artist too, including Christian Marclay, Matthias Muller and Candice Breitz, whose videos, shown in galleries and festivals, have an affinity with the supercuts reigning online. In an informative online essay Tom Cormack traces a lineage connecting 60s found footage films like by Bruce Conner to current manifestations, both by artists and ‘amateurs’ (including the interesting choice of Thomas Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003), while addressing the different intentions behind these acts of appropriation.

He concludes that supercuts’ potential as vehicle for social critique are limited, with even the most successful examples- Marclay’s Clock being an obvious one- mostly translating “a cliché into an experience of duration” that offer “a way of knowing that can only be achieved through time”, rather than challenging the ideological structuring of identity through media imagery.

 Back to the 80s (again)

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans, 1981

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans, 1981

Despite the critical death knell having seemingly been sounded for this approach, the earlier Bourriaud quote attests to the persistence of the idea that some mode of criticality is operating when artists use/ remix/ quote found material. Isabelle Graw dissects this assumption in an insightful essay on subversion in appropriation which reflects on the critical championing of 80s Appropriation artists like Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler and Richard Prince by writers like Crimp, Foster, Owens et al, who valorized its commitment to quotation and by extension to the negation of ‘individual and original production’ and the coherent, singular and autonomous subject of Modernism it implied. Raising the stakes for ‘progressive’ critics and artists was the rude health of neo-expressionist painting, providing a clear contemporary enemy to rally against, along with the usual Greenberg/Fried bogeymen.

Julian Schnabel’s The Patients and the Doctors.

However, Graw argues that by positioning themselves against the neo-expressionists’ championing of artistic autonomy and personal expression (signaled visually by heavy impasto, gestural brushwork etc), the appropriationist cadre ended up unintentionally bolstering the artistic subject, albeit in different form. Instead of equating artistic accomplishment with the vehemence and immediacy of the artists’ passions being transferred to canvas ‘as though the significance of the work depended on the emotional input’, here the strengthening arose from positing the artistic subject of appropriation as coolly detached, retaining a critical distance from and control over the objects they quoted.

Artists employing this approach were assumed to have a purely instrumental relationship towards the appropriated objects, with any personal fascination towards them either willfully over-looked or seen as a dangerous flirtation with hackneyed notions of the expressive subject and a modernist credo of immanence of materials.
Graw argues that the focus on the political import of projects of artists like Sherrie Levine and Louise Lawler- additionally lauded as an attack on the power of the traditional male genius- blinded critics to what could otherwise be read as individualized, idiosyncratic devices such as framing, titling and selective cropping within their practices. When even a readymade in the manner of Duchamp ‘owes a debt to the appropriating gesture of the artist’, she reiterates that despite claims to the contrary, the creative author is still clearly in evidence in appropriation, even if it breaks with the ‘classic expressive ideal that postulates the idea of artists who express themselves in their artistic work’.

Critical detachment vs. obsessive fascination

Louise Lawler, Arranged by Mera and Donald Rubell.

Louise Lawler, Arranged by Mera and Donald Rubell.

Sure enough, the abrupt framing of collectors’ interiors in Lawler’s photographs, and their seemingly casual yet particular perspectives seem, with the benefit of historical distance and a refocusing of critical attention, about as ‘neutral’ as Warhol’s colourful, high contrast, brush-stroked silk-screens must have seemed to critics of the 80s; that is, readily recognizable as markers of an active artistic subjectivity. Moreover, Graw detects in works like Sherrie’ Levine After Egon Schiele (1982), an attentive focus and attraction towards the appropriated source material which ‘indicates a relationship charged with obsessive fascination’ at odds with the ideal of critical detachment.

After Egon Schiele by Sherrie Levine, 1982

After Egon Schiele by Sherrie Levine, 1982

The description of appropriation as a ‘strategy’ further underlines for Graw the assumption that the process of quotation implies ‘goal-oriented behaviour and a confident subject in control’, in which artists ‘take’ the object and declare it their own, without being in any way affected by the source material. Any suggestion that the object could influence, or ‘infect’ the artist (as she terms it), was rejected, due to the uncritical embrace of popular mass culture it would imply. She cites Craig Owens, for example, whose disapproval of Jeff Koons’ work hinges on his approach “not coming out of a critical dissatisfaction and attempt to understand a set of production relations” and displaying instead a problematic fascination with the objects he quotes. The notion that artists may not be maintaining a critical and detached position towards the original material did not sit well with the ‘main critical assumption, not least because criticism implies critical distance’.

Koons in the 80s

Distance…from what?

Whereas 80s champions of Appropriation art asserted the crucial importance of this critical distance from the source materials, Graw suggests both that objects leave traces on the artists who make use of them, and that this state of interdependency can be a fruitful one. More fundamentally perhaps, her argument is that the line separating artist from object cannot be decisively demarcated, particularly in the current situation, wherein lies my next area of interest: the changed fortunes of the very idea of critical distance, which implies being able to stand ‘outside’ of or at least at a detached position.

In a networked capitalism in which we find ourselves confusingly complicit as well as critical (e.g. posting anti-capitalist sentiments/ images on Facebook, or as France Berardi says of himself, arguing against financial capitalism while hoping that it will deliver on his pension in a few years time) how do we know where we stand? How can we extricate ourselves from the media fictions and narratives that create our shared reality, particularly if we use them as the basis our artistic work- let alone from the web of networked capital which we find ourselves implicated in?

End ramble

Crapping hell, I’ve hit 2000, so on the off chance anyone is still reading, I’m going to leave it there for now. The next post will consider how this relates to Judith Butler’s notion of performativity of gender and by extension subjectivity, which she stresses should not be perceived as the voluntary adopting and discarding of identities (very roughly speaking, the Ervin Goffman model). Could this echo Graw’s notion of ‘infection’- in the sense that just as control over the roles we perform cannot be assumed, so we can no longer assume to be in control of the manner in which the objects we ‘work with’ affect us. An analogy could be drawn with the points Andrea Fraser makes in her essay on the ‘Institutionalization of Institutional Critique’, which foregrounds the impossibility of positing oneself as ‘outside’ the system of artistic value and meaning production, and the subsequent challenges this presents for ‘critical’ artists.

Eventually I’m interested in linking this to the affected, (affective?) subject of contemporary networked capitalism, for whom knowing one’s position in relation to power and the production of meaning is almost impossible. Jodi Dean’s idea of the whatever being (adapted from Agamben), who’s very ‘point’ of existence is circulation and communication for the sake of it- while being terminally unsure of who, if anyone, is watching- could also be a good point of reference.


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