Authentically Unoriginal

Abstract

Certain concepts, including the ‘author’ and ‘original,’ still form the postulates of many artistic practices. In this article, I outline some of the key thinkers that have critiqued these terms during the past century. However, most of these critiques were developed by focusing on certain types of artworks. Therefore, this article will think through these theories in light of the engaged practice.


Constituencies of Practice

We can easily imagine a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author […] No longer the tiresome repetitions:

‘Who is the real author?’
‘Have we proof of his authenticity and originality?’
‘What has he revealed of his most profound self in his language?’

New questions will be heard:
‘What are the modes of existence of this discourse?’
‘Where does it come from; how is it circulated; who controls it?’

‘What placements are determined for possible subjects?’
‘Who can fulfil these diverse functions of the subject?’

Behind all these questions we would hear little more than the murmur of indifference:
‘What matter who’s speaking?’

– Michel Foucault, ‘What Is an Author?’1

In this article, I will wonder why it is worthwhile for engaged practices to negate these ‘tiresome’ questions that Foucault mentions, which artists endlessly receive, and also wonder more generally what kind of culture keeps pondering them. Although many thinkers—some of whom I will discuss in this article—have debunked rampant concepts such as ‘originality’ or the ‘author’ as being the centre of artistic practice, both remain factors that artists still hold highly. Furthermore, both concepts often constitute how practice is formalised and pursued. Artists do not pursue these as the bases of their practices illegitimately, but they do so silently.

In a way, I believe many do so to safeguard and verify their unique position and practice because there is a constant threat that the work is annexed by capital, culture, or the masses, not to mention the arts’ culture of verification. In this doctrine, the work of art attempts to be ‘unique’ (as in a ‘non-commodity’), doing so through the apparatuses of originality and the author. Artists produce culture, but they do not want to be part of ‘the’ culture. This is the psychological paradox present in artistic production, which becomes increasingly problematic, especially in times that have already surpassed reproducibility and are now fully in digital manipulation. Besides, the claim on visibility artists generally make throughout their careers takes place simultaneously with a more general acceptance in ‘the’ culture that these artists attempt to avoid.

This apparent culture that artists try to resist and simultaneously produce is one that often creates aphetic and even alienated subjects who sometimes seem to be not much more than consumers. In theory, this is the product of ‘the spectacle.’ Protecting a ground from being touched by the processes of culture through the apparatus of the author and originality seems to be a shield against those same processes. Above all, the opposite of the unique is the commodified. In a time characterised by the tight grip of value, ownership seems to be the strongest position one can have against the valorisation of the artwork’s capital. It is, however, quite odd to work against the prevalence of the value of ownership through ownership. In that regard, agency risks not meaning much more than having access to the means of value. This is why it is important to once again dwell on concepts like the author and the original.

The rise of phenomenology and semiotics in the twentieth century has consequently and rightfully led to the sharp questioning of concepts like the original throughout the arts. Ironically, this resulted in a strong return to those concepts, manifesting in many artists fearfully being occupied with ‘what’s theirs.’ Starting with thinkers in this field, such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, I want to stress the negation of the urge to ownership; the urge to originality as the pinnacle of practice. Above all, these concepts belong to a code that mainly involves the quantification of capital and the dissimulation of the artwork through the avant-garde, and in that regard work against their own premise. Where else than in this niche of economism would one need to be able to trace back to a single producer and argue for how ‘unique’ this producer’s work is compared to others’?

Hence, the tracing of terminology such as ‘original’ and ‘author’ leads not only, as many authors have argued before, to philosophical problems but also to artistic ones. This is especially true if the respective practice is to produce something other than a commodity; or if that practice is to intervene on the fabric of our existence; or if that practice is to call itself ‘engaged,’ which is indeed about the dissociation from the particular, the particular being a product of classical authorship and originality. In this somewhat practical article, I want to swiftly go through some heritage regarding originality and the author, and rethink the theses of preceding thinkers—not in light of the artistic practices as they might have known them during their times but in regards to the practice of engaged arts as we encounter those today. Because it is indeed here that questions such as ‘who is the author?’ and ‘whose is it?’ still prevail at large and are possibly more relevant to think through than ever before.

When working with a social reality, rather than a particular artwork, the answer to the questions thinkers such as Barthes and Derrida pose become less evident. They become less of a question of evidence, proof and plain causation, like the tiresome questions Foucault quoted in the introduction. Both terms—originality and the author—can be paraphrased as accidents of what we may call the ‘position’ of the artist. Change the accidents, manoeuvre the position, produce a different practice. As I have argued multiple times throughout this series of articles, the predicates on which practice is built produce the practice. The goal is to work towards postulates that more closely adhere to the premises of engaged practices. In doing this evolution, we also encounter some contextual elements that have influenced the evolution of artistic practice throughout time. Followingly, the manner in which this position takes a stance defines the relation the artist and the work of art has to both themselves and the world.

An Illustration of the Issue

The position of the artist is one of the key points of doubt and even of suspicion, particularly in engaged practice (say, while working in a community that is threatened with their community housing being demolished). This is not without proper reason because the artist presents themselves as agents within a social fabric that is already precarious and thus highly sensitive to the wearing and tearing of that fabric. A complicating factor is that this is exactly what the engaged artist does and should do. Centralising the traditional stance of a producer of art within such a practice often takes authority away from the subject the artist works with, which is a sensitive topic. Not being used to a nourishing environment, these hypothetical inhabitants are correctly questioning both the position of this ‘intruder’ and also their alliances, their ties, and, most importantly, their motives.

Because if this producer of art is to do something original with this social reality, they attribute the ‘origin’ from that reality to the producer of art themselves. That reality then becomes its object, in which the artist places originality back by eradicating it from its social reality itself—it becomes a construct, a work of art. In such a sensitive fabric, everything is usually—and I would also argue needs to be—politicised, especially once we start mingling with it. In this manner, the locality of this hypothetical situation can be scaled to any level, be it global or the ‘abstract’ issue of housing in general, but in that scaling up or down, it does not lose the sensitivities that it plays with: it just detaches from particularity, and so it often loses it face. This face is, in the end, the best and only indication of the effects of any intervention in a social reality.

The point is that what these sensitivities reveal is indeed that agency of the artist: their authorship, their originality—in other words, their position. In regards to social issues, the concept of an ‘original’ often makes many weary because one does not at all want an original solution. One wants the antithesis of originality: stability, certainty—in other words, the pale, boring, yet oh-so-exciting and stressful plain certainty and maintenance of life itself in a somewhat acceptable manner. Nevertheless, although we might regard a full tummy or a roof above our heads as the basic standard, the status quo, it is proven by living life itself (not to mention, in the system we live that life in) that this is far too often everything but the status quo: it is exactly what keeps us busy constantly, running around to make ends meet. It is the state of exception that is veiled in a paleness that fits better with the aesthetics of stasis.

Hence, to reach a status quo that is the state of exception in our system, what the artist needs to do in their work is pursue a state of exception—indeed, to do something ‘original.’ This is an attached originality, an embedded originality, where the origin of the original is present in the subject and not exported or ripped from that social reality on to or into an artwork—only so that social reality can become the artwork itself, rather than an artwork being made at the expense of a social reality. This can only happen if the author is not the pinnacle of the artwork, which they too often still are: within that famous triangle of artist-artwork-spectator—so-called ‘transitivity’—the author is positioned at the highest point. Only if the artist is not the pinnacle is the social reality—with its multiplicity of authors—itself to be an artwork. Thus, the postulates on which an artistic practice are formulated produce the artworks to a certain extent. If authorship and originality are centralised, the work will be disembodied and particular, both of which our social realities are increasingly becoming but should never fully become.

The Death of the Author (i.e. Don’t Be Too Arrogant About It)

‘Ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying […] van Gogh is his madness.’2 French philosopher Roland Barthes’ famous essay ‘The Death of the Author,’ ironically, shouldn’t be taken too literally. Although all authors die, his point is not to argue that artists are indeed also humans (which, in the current era, sometimes seems to be an argument that needs to be made). Nor is it his point to argue that things are not made but magically appear as multiple people engage with something. As a literary theorist, Barthes argues that the death of the author is rather the decentralisation of the person who writes something down within the whole existence and construction of meaning of what is written down.

This also counts for artists, theatre makers, dancers and so on. The work is not about the author, even though it is formulated by the author. Barthes argues that ‘it is language which speaks, not the author.’3 In other words, the artist is no longer the pinnacle of the artwork to whom all meaning can be attributed: this person assembles a set of elements from a system called language. Above all, it is not just the simple act of needing to read a text before it is read. The words are, according to Barthes, also semiotic shells that are given significance not just in the mind of the writer (who had put them there) but also mainly in the mind of the reader, who is always already cultured and has a formulated apparatus of interpretation that is coloured by their life experience. Therefore, I am also inclined to say that interpretation is also always creation.

Barthes was intrigued by developments in the field of study of semiotics.4 Philosophers such as Derrida also argued that definition takes place through negation; in other words, the cat is not a dog, a cat is not a rock, a cat is not school, a cat is not mathematics—even though in this manner the cat always contains in itself what it is not. Meaning comes about through endless deferment of meaning, whereby the signifier is essentially empty. There is no—at least not much—pre-given meaning in the words that make up a text except the horizon of expectation that being cultured makes of the syntax of a sentence, of a text. A cat is everything which it is not, and you can imagine that the experience of life in a certain time and the lexicon one consequently acquires produce the text that is read by reading it and, especially, by interpreting it in a certain way.

A cat is something else to someone in the Middle East than to someone in the Arctic, not to mention in different times and circumstances. To some a cat might be pest control, to some a cause of allergies, and to others a life’s companion. Hence, no word has an essential meaning nor definition—that is to say, outside the interpretation within a culture and history. And this has something self-evident, for nothing exists in a vacuum; everything is embedded in a social reality. Barthes’ call for the death of the author, therefore, does not call for an extinction of art production. The opposite is true. He invites the prevalent and somewhat arrogant art production of that time to get used to the idea that readers, visitors, and seers might, in fact, read, experience or see something else than the author ‘intended’ because that ‘intention’ has a lesser position in the work than we might accredit it to have. This is a relaxation in terms of the didactics of a work of art, which thus becomes more of a gesamtkunstwerk, rather than a tyrannically particular object of ownership. The more intention is put into the work, the stricter it becomes, and the less it can be read. Hence, he does not say one writes for a reader, but that the reader writes the text as much as the writer themselves. This democratisation of meaning in the arts allows for a very different hierarchy, in which the triangular from-up-to-down-formula should be questioned. Thus, a didactic motive, at least in literature and art, actually kills the reader by attempting to revive the author. In the eras following these thoughts, we consequently saw a will to democratise arts production, in which practices that make use of infrastructures such as interactivity came to be.

A possible reader in this case is not an abstraction from the artistic practice. They are not an ‘outside’; they are an essential part of it. Even though the idea ‘spectator’ has to be questioned here—because this work always implies an outside; a bystander position—the spectator produces the artwork in as much as the author does. In that regard, any art is community art, and the manner in which a work is organised defines how it relates to this community. So, in visual arts much anti-community community art is made, often just following the grace of its own art history. The issue with Barthes is that the artwork to him is still very much an object seen as apart from social reality. That is why he can somewhat disregard intention or motive from the artwork without consequence. If a social reality is seen as an artwork, however, those who produce it always produce it with a motive. The motive is a key element in the practice of engaged art: motive is the productive force behind the practice pursued.

What Barthes has right, even in the light of engaged practices, is that this motive is not the pinnacle of the artwork. This is why Barthes invites us to understand that ‘a text’s unity lies not in its origins but in its destination,’5 and that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’6 Or paraphrased in terms familiar to engaged practices: it is not about you, even though in the end it will also regard you, but if it starts with you, it cannot be anyone else’s. This is a completely different chronology than saying the artist is the author, and only then does ‘it’ go to a potential spectator.

However, many artists take this as a demotivating argument, but I believe this must be a good motive to engaged practitioners: one does not produce in a vacuum but in an embedded social reality that is at play in any production, and which should be regarded as such. The crux lies in realising and pursuing or plainly negating this fact. We could say that pursuing this means that any authorship essentially is (as in equals to) co-authorship. Allowing, in a sense, a co-authorship within production is what renders Barthes’ argument into a valuable artistic concept: it opens the work up to conscientious interaction. This also means that any particular artist is never withdrawn from the world, as popular doctrine sometimes is tempted to argue. One can try their best—through layers of strict symbolism within the work, brochures about it, and viscous guided tours—to force a certain narrative about the work on to a spectator, but the spectator will, of course, in the end have their own ideas about it. One might argue that the spectator wants this ‘information,’ but one can also counter-argue that in this system, the spectator (unfortunately) is forced to be unable do without it, and we can definitely blame recent art history for this.

Finally, Barthes notes, in regards to text, that ‘to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text […] to close the writing.’7 Through that ‘closing,’ it becomes narrow and inhibits. A text, an artwork, or a piece of theatre become hermetic through imposing an author on to spectators. We could even stress that the more we force on to visitors, the less they will have thoughts about it themselves. This does not sound too democratic, even though this is often the goal of exercises that fall under the denominator of public outreach, such as brochures. Not to mention the annoying factor or danger of not being allowed to have one’s own thoughts (‘only one story is true!’). Some years later, Jacques Ranciére stressed this point again when he noted that we precisely risk pacifying the spectator by attempting to activate the spectator. Above all, what can be activated needs to be passive first. The point of debate both authors challenge is that the spectators were never passive to begin with and were rendered passive, particularly by the attempt to activate. I will continue with these questions after first thinking through that which has apparently died—the author.

What is an Author? (i.e. A Functionary of Discourse)

Barthes, metaphorically speaking, killed the author, but what is an author? Or rather, what is left of the author, as Foucault poses? Because people still do the work of authors, obviously. Hence, Foucault directly responds to Barthes, noting that nowadays, writing ‘is primarily concerned with creating an opening where the writing subject endlessly disappears.’[/footnote 8]Foucault 1977, p. 116.[/footnote] Foucault argues that some (counterintuitive) dangers lurk in completely dissimulating the author: the arts become like politics without politicians, the arts become like society without citizens. Furthermore, Foucault argues, another element is problematised through this: legacy, or, in other words, death. As an example, he notes that the epic was conceived precisely ‘to guarantee the immortality of a hero,’9 which is indeed a ‘strategy for defeating death.’10

As a result, the death of the author somewhat ironically reinstates the author as a transcendent phenomenon—of even bigger significance than before their real death, ‘which has transformed him into a victim of his own writing.’11 The death of the author, more than anything, invites obsessive questions about the persona of the author themselves: this is part of the van Gogh-ean syndrome we often see in the arts. It first of all pathologises artistic production (it is about sickness instead of curing), and secondly, reduces the work of art to the impossibility of asking the artist about it, which makes the artist even more prominent in the artwork. The author inhabits an unquestionable presence in absence, as much as an acquaintance dying and this person appearing regularly in one’s mind, when this person was barely ever thought of before death, which is what happened with van Gogh.

Death pacifies the author while granting the author an untouchable position. The idiocrasy in this is that the author, by their death, has appeared more important than ever before. Hence, Foucault suggests that instead of focusing on the position of the text after the death of the author as Barthes does, ‘we should re-examine the empty space left by the author’s disappearance.’12 Obviously, a name of an author is more than just a reference; it is a whole world of concepts, contexts, lived experiences and personhood within a certain era—in other words, discourse. Foucault calls this quality of the author the ‘proper name,’ which is more than just an empty signification by which, to an extent, he defies the so-called negative semiotics of Barthes (that words and names are devoid of meaning in themselves).

At the level of this proper name, there are always alterations at play: it intermingles with what is authored, culture and so forth. Any author partakes in something other from writing. Therefore, Foucault argues, an occasional letter with a signature does not have an author. ‘In this sense, the function of an author is to characterise the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.’13 So he continues that the author is a function of (our current) discourse, even though they might be dead and decentralised from the production of meaning. Only in death can something be, above all, haunting. This can be paraphrased as such: the author is not only embedded in culture but also makes culture function—they are a functionary of culture. Hence, what is authored, and how, is actually of significance, preceding the interpretation by a reader because it defines what can and cannot be read. In reference to Barthes, this implies that, even though the author is no longer the pinnacle of work, the author does have a function within discourse, even beyond the death of its author.

Above all, the Barthesean death of the author could easily be taken as a motive to not give a fuck (which perhaps many artists do). Foucault argues this is not a reasonable consequence of the death of the author but that the opposite is true: because their persona is no longer the teleology of the work, the teleology becomes the embeddedness of the work within discourse. Consequently, the responsibility of the author—in the broadest sense of the word—transgresses far beyond their own existence and has even become bigger through their own death because they then stop producing discourse, but the presence of the work makes the work function for times to come. Therefore, Foucault notes, the ‘function as an author exceeds the limits of her work.’14 The author makes discourse function. In this sense, it makes a difference how and what work you produce, even if it is not read, or even if the teleology of the author is not reached, because in its internal workings, it makes discourse function. Withdrawal from positionality because an apparent authorship in production has died is, therefore, not a reasonable step. The death of the author cannot be seen as a ‘hands-off’ strategy. If you would do so anyhow, your work will more than anything still function within discourse, whether you like it or not. This discourse—the agglomerate of all works—not only describes but also prescribes what can and what cannot be done. Hence, it is important to engage with this fact: again, in this sense, any art is community art. Discourse inhibit so to say a time from certain concepts and actions, and the artwork can function as a heterotopian space that breaks with prevalent discourse or as a plainly affirmative space.15

Not engaging equals a silent affirmation of discourse. In a way, one could call Foucault’s argument a utopian one because it always draws on the functionality of the artwork; the mechanics of it within discourse. Not engaging with that functionality implies reproduction of discourse; engaging with it implies transgression of discourse. This is also why the term ‘transgression’ is of such importance to Foucault—because it breaks the virtual boundaries of discourse by setting different ones. It is not plainly a denial as opposite of affirmation of what is, but a ‘nonpositive affirmation’16 that, like lightning in the dark of night, for a second shows the distribution of reality. It shows the roles at play and what positions are present. Through transgression, an author creates ‘difference’ with discourse, a dissonance. The act of difference—which returns in the work of Foucault as well as Derrida—is one of the key elements of the author function. The author, or at least the work, always differentiates discourse, and, therefore, life, because discourse sets the bounds of life in certain time. They offer not only understanding to life but also produce life in a certain time, too. We are what we read, see, hear, taste, speak and perform, also because these events form the postulates of our own actions.

Although this is a somewhat philosophical argument, it easily valorises in life itself because all the work of a time—and so time is a work as well—distributes that time. So, doing something as an artist never occurs in a vacuum: it is a product of a time in as much that it produces a certain time to be lived through. This is a bare political quality of any art at all, even (or, perhaps, especially) when it negates its politics. A work of art is thus not only the backdrop of lived experience; it also frames and produces the lived experience because it defines the stage. This is what Rancière calls ‘the distribution of the sensible.’17 We should wonder what this means for the position of the artist within any kind of engaged practice. Realising that the producing ego is not the equinox of the work of art seems acceptable primarily because it is, in fact, true that the goal transcends private artistic gain. In engaged practice particularly, this liquidity of ‘what’s it all for?’ is a question that makes or breaks a practice: in other words, within engaged practices how the work relates to (and therefore distributes and produces) discourse is the work of art.

The Emancipated Spectator (i.e. Don’t Call Something Passive Too Quickly)

The British art historian Claire Bishop writes that much of so-called ‘social art’ differs to other arts in ‘striving to collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception.’18 In a way, these are noble motives, but they also produce problems that might even work against their own premises. This argument is well dissected by Rancière, who, while analysing French philosopher Guy Debord, argues that contemporary theatre has been built on a separation of actor and spectator, of room and stage, which is essential to its own existence but that it now tries to ‘solve’—oddly—by activating a spectator which it had first pacified. Rancière writes, paraphrasing Debord, ‘What one sees in the spectacle [of theatre] is the activity that has been taken from him, it is his own essence that has become alien to him and turns against him, organising a collective world in which this expropriation is the reality.’19

The point of Rancière’s argument is that the assumption that the spectator is passive and the actor active is a false premise.20 This false assumption equates ‘animated’ with active and ‘inanimate’ with passive. So, we are to move, to do, to dance, and preferably to touch—because for many, that is the (psychological) collapse of distance—even though that actually inhibits the active part of engaging with theatre, which takes place in the mind, according to Rancière. Quite often, activating an audience, ironically, pacifies them; it binds them in the swirling vitalism of activity, leaving no time or attention to contemplate whatsoever. And in the end, it is contemplation which gives motive to action. One could conclude from Rancière’s argument that this structure works towards pure activity, a sort of burnout arts culture. One thing he did not take into consideration is that there is also a ‘beyond’ to the theatre, to the museum, to the book—namely, when we walk out of the theatre. Contemplation can also come after action, even if that action didn’t allow for contemplation while it took place. Obviously, it follows that we might remind ourselves that we sometimes need to think before we act, rather than afterwards.

Nevertheless, Rancière would not agree with this argument because in the distribution of the sensible in our societies, theatre is one of the last spaces where we are not forced into constant activity—as opposed to work, for example, which we now even do at home when we browse social media, producing data. Rancière continues that people wrongfully equate the gaze with passiveness.21 By active participation, the spectator is submerged into the piece that the spectator is simultaneously to experience as a spectator. Once that distinction is made, a distance appears, which the actor unfortunately can only reduce ‘on the condition that he creates distance again and again.’22 There is, above all, no gap to fill if there is no gap in the first place; and there is no gap proper according to Ranciére, so it has to be made first. This is an exaggerated and simulated dialectics often present in the arts, where the entrenchment of distance is simultaneously countered and made possible by a charge of approach. Rancière states that ‘distance is not an evil to be fought, but the normal condition for any communication.’23

I believe a psychologism might be present in this construct as well: arts institutions these days mainly revolve around the presence of and approach to public(s), even while this public is also their greatest fear. And I am not only speaking about the signifier of guards that protect the work from the spectator, and possibly the spectator from the work of art, but also of a constant consciousness of ‘public reception,’ in which a heightened sense of nervousness is chronically present. This is also the effect of democratisation in an undemocratic structure, which there is a need for, but it can never be a certainty of mandate. Mandate becomes part of the artistic fabric that artists and the like weave into reality, often resulting in a reality that is self-referential and, by the loss of the its internal conflictedness, remains in a passive state, even though it seems very animated. Some, such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, have argued that by unrolling infrastructures of politics over the arts, the arts risk coinciding with politics, whereby they lose their indictive power thus becoming passive by the attempt to be ‘active.’

Something underlies this false democratisation of the artwork—or, in the example of Rancière, a piece of theatre—and for Rancière that is a master mentality: the producer stands above the spectator, at least on epistemological grounds. Rancière hence invites us to occupy the position of the ‘ignorant master,’24 even though we might have a position of a knower. Above all, as Rancière stresses, ‘ignorance is not inferior knowledge, but the opposite of knowledge; knowledge is not a collection of facts, but a position.’25 Ignorance is thus a necessary position to achieve knowledge. ‘Seeing and doing itself belong to a structure of domination and submission. It only starts when one realises that looking is also an act that confirms or anchors the division of positions.’26 Thus, he argues for intervening on the distribution of the sensible, not coinciding with the prevalent modes of it. The ignorant master keeps ‘his mastery separate from his knowledge.’27

Many engaged practices work on a gap in knowledge, attempting to produce awareness, to give a face to an issue, or to make a pamphlet of their solutions. In this manner, the first power of engaged practices is not just that and what is made sensible but how it is made sensible—through what structures, and how that which is made visible entrenches a division of positions, too. Hence, the attempt to activate a spectator often builds on a division of positions that, in the end, will pacify the spectator. When working with making something visible that otherwise remains invisible, the question of how it is made visible is important, not just that something is made visible. If this manner builds on an epistemological high ground, it will probably not raise awareness but reinforce the lack of it. An argument given by American philosopher Judith Butler illustrates this well. After being asked the question why the protestors of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement did not make any demands at all—which the pamphletic engaged practice always does—she argued that occupying space and the manner in which they did so ‘is a way of making a demand.’28 She calls this performativity.

The End of Art (i.e. Don’t Feel the Urge to Measure by Art History, Which Haunts Us)

‘The End of Art’ by American philosopher Arthur Danto is a very strong manifesto that invites artists to stop relating to an apparent dialectics in the history of art. In other words, the discourse is not (or no longer) driven by a certain goal which it did through certain ‘types’ of practices we all had to relate to. The statement that art has ended, therefore, mainly concerns the sublimation of the historic avant-gardes who worked towards the dissimulation of the work of art, and this was, according to Danto, a historical process of dialectics. Because that play has ended, everything can now potentially be a work of art, which is a very strong artistic motive. All too often, however, artists take this as art being commodified into capital, but this is not a necessary consequence that artists regardless often pursue. Even though Dante signals this end of art history in Andy Warhol, who had indeed made art coincide with capital (or even argued that capital is art), it does not in any way imply that since that moment onwards all other art had to do so as well. Believing such a thing means one is still thinking through the dialectics of art history and conforming to them.

Above all, there is no longer the need to follow those dialectics, and I hope even art historians see this. More than anything, one could say that if that process of dialectical history ended in commodification, the path up until that moment had already led to it. Then we should indeed dare ourselves not to relate art that we do today to art as it has previously been done because that would mean we would throw ourselves (back) into the maelstrom of capital. This sentiment is strengthened through some tendencies of how we relate to art, and the forms we associate with as art (i.e. painting, sculpting, printing, etc.). To give an example from Danto: ‘Historical narratives do not belong to the events they transcribe, even if their writers in fact were part of them.’29 Put in other words, art history is being thought about from back then to now. That chronology simulates an artificial sense of a prevalent historicity in many artists throughout time, which also guides and inhibits their future practices. We should remind ourselves that history is always thrown back from the now at past events, like a fishnet.

This is what Foucault called, paradoxically, ‘historical a priori.’ Although events always jump almost aimlessly, history always sees paths when it looks back: things always came from A and went to B, but obviously you can only argue for this when both A and B have already taken place, and when you put them in a logical framework after the fact. The logic of this apparent causality is the discourse of history. As Foucault puts it, history ‘is the discipline of beginnings and ends, the description of obscure continuities and returns, the reconstitution of developments in the linear form of history.’30 This strings together into a story (with an internal logic) through which artistic practices have passed into history. As a result, these practices risk becoming meaningless in themselves and only meaningful in a historical canon, even though we could also talk of meaning from a social reality outside of this structure, just only in a certain time.

And I mean, art is not just facts because, historically, we can say that it rained in New York on 22 February 1960, but not that Warhol followed logically from rain falling—nor from the cave paintings of Lascaux. It takes quite an odd story to string this together, which art history actually is—a weird story. Through that effect of feeling comes the necessity not only to relate to history but also to pursue the path drawn by that history, which tends to project itself into the future. Above all, two points on a linear graph make it possible to extrapolate a third one. That is not to say we should not relate to history—we very much should—but we should not coincide with it; we should not follow its path blindly. Historicity can function as an inhibitor. But as Danto realised, it must result in nothingness (i.e. Andy Warhol, abstract minimalism, etc.).

Another manner in which the ghost of art history still haunts us is its embodiment in institutions and how they are in synchronisation with certain practices and not others. As I have argued in an earlier article, although many of the formal affairs of art production have changed radically, the manner in which works of art are to perform as ‘artwork’ remains strongly avant-gardist, and the institution of the avant-garde is the museum. This also has to do with the settings in which artworks are conserved and occasionally appear in a certain manner. We could argue that today, the archetypical museum does not even show the work but locks it in burrowing bunkers, away from eyes and tax to be collected. On the contrary, I would say that the relevance of historicity for artists today is not necessarily in the past but in the possible histories of the future. Artists should be that which haunt history itself, not the other way around. History should run away from us. Hence, we could also argue that the urges to perform within a code of artistic production as we are cultured into doing is something we have to confront and sometimes separate from. Nevertheless, this code forms in many regards the postulates by which we still practise today: some things do indeed appear to fall within the lexicon of artistic production and others don’t (this is discourse).

Think of painting versus maintenance work, or sculpting versus construction, collaging versus organising. By grace of historical conditioning, some of these words appear more easily to artistic minds than the others do. Nevertheless, that does not imply that these other words are ‘outside’ the arts. Disciplining (in both the suppressive sense—for example, through art school and subsidisation schemes—and relating to ‘disciplines’) is nothing more than the formalisation of expectancies that are forced on to us from a very much contingent history. As long as we do not also regard these disciplines as contingencies, this history will continue to propose itself as necessary, and by that as inescapable (and thus dialectical). If we do this, art history has not yet ended, even though it ‘has.’ It becomes kind of like a zombie: a self-made fiction that hunts us for the preservation of its own existence, and so we ascribe to it the itinerary it prescribes (i.e. away from the past). Then, indeed, art will actually, really, properly die (as in, go extinct) one day, and I sometimes believe we are well on our journey to that point.

Above all, if art becomes commodified by historical necessity and capital works towards profits through destruction, the purest self-realisation of the history of art is its own complete annihilation. The more this history is formalised into institutions, such as through disciplines, the more prescriptive it becomes. The thing with engaged practices is exactly that they try to rip off from the gravitational force of historical propellation: they attempt to break the status quo of zombified historicity, and in doing so, art escapes the dialectics of the historical narrative. Engaged practices don’t want B to follow from A; they want X. As human beings as well as societal beings, our greatest sensitivities lie in what has passed, as Nietzsche has also argued with his statement that ‘memory binds us,’31 but he adds that ‘it is generally completely impossible to live without forgetting.’32 We cannot forget, but that we nevertheless forget makes us cling to what we forget. This is our burden; we cannot forget (as in, we are incapable of doing so), and are thus always forced to be historical beings. Therefore, ‘every past, however, is worth condemning.’33 That does not mean that every past by grace of its status as past is bad, but it is, however, worth being condemned because we cannot forget it. We are never outside history, but that does not mean we should go with it silently.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (i.e. The Function of Engaged Arts in the Circulation of Images)

Earlier, I hinted that I believe many artists still take the classical reading of the original and the author into high regard in their practices. I argued that they do so to, in a way, safeguard being annexed by capital, culture, or the masses. Both positions work towards the creation of something singular, something particular, or in other words, something unique. This ‘uniqueness’ of an artwork is what Walter Benjamin called the ‘aura.’ It is the unique embodiment of an artwork, in its own right, that is bound to the qualities of its form, which are shaped as such by the creator. It is the authentic force of any piece in itself, which Benjamin argues is ‘the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.’34 It is, for example, different forms, different qualities (marble is hard and difficult to shape; one miss with a mullet and it is gone). Form, therefore, is the technology of the artwork; it is its internal functioning. The singularity, particularity, or uniqueness of that artwork are forces that draw us to trace a singular origin, a linear line, which always brings us to the author. The ‘aura’ of an artwork had been an important element for a long time, particularly until romanticism.

Benjamin notes that ‘the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.’35 Hence, throughout time, the intermediary of that perception—the artwork—changes its perception. When Benjamin wrote his famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ he did so at the height of reproducibility. Thus, his essay is essentially about the technology called art. At this point in time, according to Benjamin, this aura had already been lost. Not only lost, because that would imply the original within reproductions still exists; it was also proven absent from contemporary forms of art. In practices such as printmaking and photography, first and foremost, there had never been an original, only different stages that led not to a reproducible artwork (that is, it is possible to reproduce it) but to reproduction as artwork (that is, the artwork would not exist without it being reproduced). ‘To an ever-greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility […] to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.’36 What this does to the work, Benjamin argues, is ‘pry an object from its shell.’37 It takes away the distance the classical artwork had and so meets the spectator halfway.38 It makes moves towards you, not just you towards it. The artwork thus becomes something to be consumed by the masses, as opposed to the earlier limitations—of, say, a painting—that could never be seen by large amounts of people simultaneously.

Quite some time has passed since Benjamin and most reproducible forms have gained prominence in the arts. At this point, new forms pose new questions—that is to say, some forms completely unlink from the question of reproducibility. Thoughts about the work of art in the age of digital manipulation,39 for example, have risen and raise the possibility of yet another about-turn in this field. The original disintegrates because there is no particular place a work exists in the digital realm; it only exists when it is summoned. As opposed to physical storage devices such as CDs, the cloud atomises any ‘work’ into endless fragments scattered around hard drives, only to be formalised by the structures of algorithms into something that appears to us as an artwork—always available at press of a button. There is no need to buy a magazine, or to tune in to a show. It would be ludicrous to ask how many copies of Warhol’s prints are stored in all the data centres around the world, something you could indeed ask about a negative colour print or any work produced in editions like print. I keep wondering, how would an algorithm experience a piece of art if it only has access to its true current form?

Whereas the production of originals and reproductions always included the traces of that process within the work of art (above all, they are produced by the process leading to them), the digital work of art does not. It has arrived at the age-old ambition of the arts to make invisible the artwork’s process of production: there are no fingerprints, no scratches, or no mistakes on algorithmic artworks. There is not even a notion of reproduction—which is always mediated by the mechanics of doing so—rather of cloning or copying. No loss, no translation is present here. More than anything, the chronology of production has been transformed from a simple linear process—in which every earlier step cannot be undone and thus manifests in the work of art—into a sandbox process, in which every step can be undone fully and wholly, as though the steps haven’t happened, even though some have really taken place.

What’s important to add is that there is no ‘as if’ present here, as in the case of the original and the reproduction, where we can only act as if the artist didn’t accidentally hit the mullet too hard, left the light of the negative printer on too long, or misfiled the cartridges of the printer. Nevertheless, this sandbox approach to practice is something that only works in a simulated environment—the infrastructure should fit those demands. By the grace of this infrastructure, the distance of the artwork, which Benjamin already prognosed, has disappeared fully. Whereas the reproduction still had a shred of an original present (the reproduction always refers to it; there remains a trace, even though the object making it is not present), this has disappeared with the rise of digital manipulation. Hence, the form here allows for the artwork to function in a certain manner. Form is the technology of the artwork.

All this becomes problematic if we were to stop talking in abstract terms about ‘the’ work of art and think about a specific type of it. This thinking as sketched above does not work too well for engaged practices because being bound by space-time rather than time-code there is no going back—and there never was. There is not even a sense of reproducibility, apart from thinking and speaking about it, because the engaged artwork is truly singular. Reproduction here is a valuable expression of the work of art that is not reductive. Benjamin could have argued that the engaged artwork in this sense becomes archaic again. The only aspect that might apply of the precious reasoning is the cloud-state-of-being of some artworks these days of engaged practices. Although they do take place somewhere at a particular time, their status is most closely related to the cloud-state-of-being of digital artworks. There is no place you can point to and say, ‘Ah! Found it, the engaged work of art!’ We might only find vague signifiers, or traces, and perhaps speak of the affect of that work of art, which is the work of art within engaged practices.

Other than more classical forms of art, the engaged artwork is not reduced to its form, to its technology, but to what this form does; in other words, ‘the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity’s entire mode of existence.’40 In this sense, most artworks, even classical ones, and reproductions are always essentially twofold, the thing itself and its affect. The classical doctrine that negates this fact and reduces it solely to form is ‘a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorising by subject matter.’41 Engaged practitioners uproot the traditional hierarchy in which the first artwork—the thing itself—is of higher worth than the second—its affect—and make the first subordinate to the second. The affect is the product, not the product itself, which thus becomes the process of the affect.

Benjamin writes that ‘a man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. […] In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.’42 It is worthwhile noting that reproduction is not, as many believe, just about quantification, the sheer number of images we see. As French philosopher Guy Debord put it, ‘the spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people mediated by images.’43 Hence, it is about the manner in which the form of production and distribution shapes relationships amongst us (all); and thus, how it makes us function in discourse. Debord further states that ‘[…] images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behaviour.’44 Although the effect of the form of the artwork has already been present, its evaluation is all too often reduced to its form (this archaic, negative theology).

As I have argued earlier with Rancière, this hyperfocus on the form of the artwork draws attention away from the fact that the artwork also does something through that form. That is, one can indeed look at the functioning of the artwork and hypothesise how it works. I would, therefore, argue that we should start regarding artworks as verbs. And that which it does affect—not the artwork but the spectator. What an engaged practitioner does does not affect the artwork its does something through but that which it does something with. Looking solely at the artwork is like looking at a machine when it is turned off. Debord’s point is not to argue that everything is simulated or ‘fake,’ but that the simulated becomes reality.

The Trace (i.e. from Tracing Backwards to Tracing Forwards to Itinerary)

Even though Roland Barthes draws on negative semiotics (that words or aesthetic elements do not have an essential meaning in themselves), that does not mean that words or aesthetic elements are not given any meaning, nor that they cannot acquire it. This meaning obviously changes through time and leaves a trace in doing so. Any work of art partakes in a cultural history. Saying that The Thinker by Auguste Rodin remains an empty a shell for aesthetic and cognitive evaluation before and after their destruction 45 would deny their presence in a landscape where they could leave traces, which also leaves traces on them—reality, in other words. The tracing of meaning always means that the meaning itself is not present, which is what Derrida argues. Only the imprints of meaning—the ‘trace’ of—is left to be evaluated. We cannot speak of meaning but only of what something meant. We are tempted to think in the metaphysics of ‘presence,’ which Derrida critiques as an absolute and inherent quality of the artwork that we call meaning.46

However, it is considerably less hard for us to accept the idea that artworks are bound to the time in which they are made, and thus also differ throughout ages. This does not mean that artworks are essentially meaningless in other times, but that their meaning changes throughout time. Although the trace is always bound to everything preceding the present, because in the present there is no trace of the present yet, I would argue that this is a virtual border. By having a trace, artworks produce a trace in the future before it has taken place. Think of Bas Jan Ader,47 whose disappearance in the past produced his significance in the future. Had he not disappeared, he might have ended up as a mediocre seventies performance artist. This overturning of meaning is what is essential to engaged practices: they are not to produce meaning in a historical sense (for which they have to mature in depots and occasionally be subjected to the gaze of the spectator) but instead produce this speculative meaning in a future. A ‘pre-trace’ one could call it—as if we would walk backwards forwardly.

It is not just the artwork moving away by which it leaves a trace; we also move away from the artwork, leaving a trace ourselves. Above all, in any memory, the signifier of that memory is only present once—when it is formed. Afterwards, the power of that event that shaped a memory only becomes larger due to the absence of its signifier. Again, this signifier is neither essential nor absolute, hence visiting the ‘same’ thing twice produces different memories. In this sense, artworks only become more meaningful when time passes: they grow more powerful in our consciousness, but that is as much an aspect of the artwork as of our consciousness moving away from the past event. The further away we are from an event, the more we need to cognitively revisit it.

When we do actually return to that signifier that produced a memory of a past event, we often encounter melancholia because it is not like it is in our memories. Many people who have older family members might notice this. Stories get retold, gaining melancholia, because they can never be relived once more, and thus contain power. So, if we take this argument to the galleries of a museum, we might only see a work once and barely even notice it. Only when we leave and have left that event in which this artwork partook might we think back and evaluate this apparently missed artwork more elaborately. We are walking backwards forward. ‘Distance is not an evil to be fought, but the normal condition for any communication, as Rancière argued.48 Distance from existence creates essence, be it a virtual essence. The essence of the engaged artwork is never in the present, although it is where it inherently belongs. The essence of the engaged artwork lies in a speculative future, whereby that essence becomes virtual and thus a potential. Therefore, the essence of the engaged artwork is to be virtual, not factual. In contrast to the ambitions of other kinds of artworks, these do not strive for presence; they strive for absence—absence from the necessity of their own founding premises. Absence from the situation that gave birth to the engaged artwork.

Distance is the productive force of engaged artworks, which they attempt to create. They are the tongues that leverage present from the future, not to destroy it but to create it once more. The emphasis on presence that Derrida also critiques produces a slow cancellation of the future—to borrow Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s words.49 If the present is the sole object of the engaged practice, it cancels the future by restricting it to the present. The engaged practice’s true power is precisely this speculative, this virtual (which we would indeed say draws away from the real, from the factual, and from the subject it engages with). This also implies that engaged artists must be abstract thinkers because if their practice regards the future, they must be able to detach today from tomorrow and see tomorrow as something different than today.

The Open Work (i.e. Mechanics of Aesthetic Perception After the Death of the Author)

In somewhat the same light as Barthe’s ‘The Death of the Author,’ Umberto Eco wrote his essay ‘The Open Work,’ which ponders the potentialities of the work of art after it has been unburdened from the author, contradicting Foucault, who invites us to think of the empty spot left by the author. In a way, this is not so much an aim of the work of art that artists should merge into the artworks as much as it is a necessary condition of any communication. The openness always precedes, in a sense, a possible closure of the work of art. Eco argues that the artwork is about particular reconfigurations. ‘As the end product of an author’s effect to arrange a sequence of communicative effects in such a way that each individual addressee can refashion the original composition devise by the author.’50 This spreading effect of the work of art, by which it gains in significance, does not dilute it in any way, according to Eco. ‘In fact, the form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood.’51

One could argue that this process causes a popularised or toned-down interpretation of the artwork, but if the artwork accepts its social premise, it is true that ‘every reception of a work of art is both an interpretation and a performance of it, because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself.’52 Eco refers, somewhat short-sightedly, to American sculptor Alexander Calders’ ‘mobiles’ to illustrate what he calls ‘work in movement.’ A work is never a self-contained whole and moves around and is in movement itself, by which Eco realigns himself to a certain extent to Foucault’s discourse. Arguing that there is a proper way for an artwork to function is similar to saying there is just one and only perspective possible. The German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl adds that ‘perception itself includes horizons which encompass other perceptive possibilities, such as a person might experience by changing deliberately the direction of his perception, by turning his eyes one way instead of another, or by taking a step forward or sideways, and so forth.’53

That is not to say that this individualises any perspective at all, which is why Eco refers to ‘structural homologies,’ a term from biology referring to similarities between completely different classes of animals that nevertheless share the same structure that has grown through time to acquire different functions. (Think about the structural similarities between the bones in a bird’s wings and a human’s arm or a whale’s flipper.) In other words, perspectives—although different—are not incommensurable. Hence, we can share and understand each other’s perspectives mediated by the structures of the artwork, but this possibility is founded on a difference, a distance that is essential to communication. As Eco puts it: ‘“Work in movement” (and partly that of the “open” work) sets in motion a new cycle of relations between the artist and his audience, a new mechanics of aesthetic perception, a different status for the artistic product in contemporary society.’54

Eef Veldkamp

Eef Veldkamp (1993) is an artist, researcher and teacher for Fine Art and Design in Education at ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands. At ArtEZ, he researches questions around engaged practices. By intermingling artistic and philosophical research methods, he brings about subversive textual interventions that function as the point of departure for his artistic practice, in which he develops what he calls ‘counter-systems’. These are organisations erected to engage with a specific bottleneck in society, which they do through a multiplicity of forms that he terms ‘art on batteries’. He is currently investigating our mnemonic structures for dealing with societal crises, for which he is developing a new sort of souvenir.

 

 

 

References

Michel Foucault, ‘What Is an Author?’, in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Donald Bouchard, trans. Donald Bouchard and Sherry Simon (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 138.

Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author,’ in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop (London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 42.

Ibid.

Barthes 2006.

Barthes 2006, p. 45.

Ibid.

Barthes 2006, p. 44.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Ibid.

Foucault 1977, p. 121.

Foucault 1977, p. 124.

Foucault 1977, p. 132.

Cf. Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,’ in Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité (1984), trans. Jay Miskowiec.

Michel Foucault, ‘Preface to Transgression,’ in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 35-36.

Jacques Rancière, ‘Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art,’ Art & Research 2, no. 1 (2008): 4, accessed December 3, 2020, http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v2n1/pdfs/ranciere.pdf.

Claire Bishop, ‘Introduction: Viewers as Producers,’ in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop (London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 10.

Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer, trans. Joost Beerten and Walter van der Star(Amsterdam: Octave, 2015), p. 12. The translation to English is the author’s own.

Rancière 2015, p.18.

Rancière 2015, p.17.

Rancière 2015, p.14.

Rancière 2105, p.16.

Rancière 2015, p.19.

Rancière 2015, p.15.

Rancière 2015, p. 18.

Rancière 2015, p. 16.

=Judith Butler, ‘On Public Assembly, Precarity and Trump,’ in E-flux Conversations (2016), https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/judith-butler-on-public-assembly-precarity-and-trump/5145.

Arthur C. Danto, ‘The End of Art: A Philosophical Defense,’ History and Theory 37, no. 4(1998): p. 127.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 135.

Simon(e) van Saarloos, Herdenken Herdacht: Een Essay om te Vergeten (Amsterdam: Prometheus/Nieuw Licht, 2019), p. 25. In reference to Nietzsche.

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980), p. 3.

Nietzsche 1980, p. 21.

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 5.

Ibid.

Benjamin 1969, p. 6.

Benjamin 1969, p. 5.

Benjamin 1969, p. 4.

One of the thinkers in this field, Jos de Mul, names this ‘the work of art in the age of digital recombination.’ See Jos de Mul, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Recombination,’ in Digital Material: Anchoring New Media in Daily Life and Technology (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009). Another essay on the topic comes from Douglas Davies: ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction,’ Leonardo, 28, no. 5 (1995).

Benjamin 1969, p. 5.

Benjamin 1969, p. 6.

Benjamin 1969, p. 18.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Fredy Perlman (Detroit: Black & Red, 1970), ch. 4.

Debord 1970, ch. 18.

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin was stolen from Museum Singer Laren in the Netherlands on January 17, 2007. It was found a few days later because the thieves had lost a map on the grounds of the museum leading to their den. When they found the sculpture, it was badly damaged in an attempt to cut it apart to sell it as scrap bronze.

Cf. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (1967) and Writing and Difference (1967).

Bas Jan Ader was a Dutch artist working in the sixties and early seventies, who mainly worked with performances seeking the limits of the human body. In 1975, he disappeared when he set course to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a small sailboat. Since then nothing has been seen or heard of him, spiking the construction of many myths about his disappearance.

Rancière 2015, p.16.

A term often used by Mark Fisher, which he borrows from Berardi’s After the Future (2011).

Umberto Eco, ‘The Poetics of an Open Work,’ in Participation (London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 22

Ibid.

Eco 2006, p. 24.

Eco 2006, p. 34.

Eco 2006, p. 39.

Bibliography

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