Reflective and Transgressive Engaged Practices

Beyond Sterility, Distance and Reproduction


Artist Renzo Martens notes that much of the engaged practices merely produce ‘sterile’ criticism. These practices do not consider their own background, nor do they attempt to really resolve the things that they regard. This article dissects what this so-called ‘sterility’ consists of, what alternatives are cognisable, and concludes with a distinction between ‘reflective’ and ‘transgressive’ engaged practices.

The Clean Hands of Criticism

The critical Dutch artist Renzo Martens, who is often criticised for not being ‘sterile’ enough, argues that many engaged artists produce solely ‘sterile criticism’: ‘works of art that criticise abuses and inequality in the world, but ignore that the art world functions in exactly the same way.’1 According to Martens, this sterile criticism makes use of other people’s misery for artistic gain without any benefit—in an almost economic way—of that practice flowing back to the owner(s) of the misery that is appropriated in the practice. As Martens puts it, art cannot ‘keep its hands clean by hiding behind the exceptional position of “art” and “artist”.’2 Maria Hlavajova polemically adds that we should ‘get our hands really dirty.’3 The sterility Martens speaks about concerns at least two aspects. First, that which the work is about has no use for that thing which it is about, and, secondly, the work is not critical to its own background, its existence, its position in the world and its functionality, so it also becomes reactionary.4 Martens notes that by extension, much of critical art ‘lead[s] to a reconfirmation of a class society.’5 He argues, for example, that much of the art world functions in the same capitalist manner art itself tries to criticise.6 In this ‘negligence,’7 artists fail to take proper care of their subjects, which, according to Moton and Harney, is the major crime.8 Think of the Unilever series at Tate Modern. Unilever has a known history of forced-into-slavery labour, including at the former plantation where Martens’ work often takes place. Many arts institutions even use the artist as ‘a sort of cleaning service driven by a pure ethic that could be called in to infiltrate the back rooms of the museum and expose its hidden ideological conditions,’9 as Jonas Staal notes. Many artists have practical reasons for partaking in such schemes as the Unilever series because many are in precarious situations, which doesn’t allow them space to be critical of the network in which they function because their existence depends on it. But it is also an accident of how art has developed throughout history and so produced the premises that underpin this sterility. Martens argues that many artists disregard this context—for example, ‘political’ artist Ai Weiwei’s Unilever-commissioned Sunflower Seeds, which criticised the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today.10

In this article, I will question the accidents that make up ‘reflective’ or ‘reactive’ art, as Martens puts it, which consists of sterility, simulation of an objective distance, and the reproduction through reflection of a problem. Thereafter, I will introduce ‘transgressive art’ as a mode of artistic production that can transgress this impasse. The goal of this transgressive approach is paraphrased by Hlavajova, who states that ‘in the world at this point in history, imagining things otherwise might not be enough […] In my view, [it is important] to not just produce the imaginaries of a different world, but to act them out, to inhabit and embody them.’11

Sterile Criticism and What It Consists of

Chantal Mouffe notes that ‘critical art is art that foments dissensus that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate.’12 This must be a statement Martens can agree with, although this does not qualify any random kind of criticism. This sterility in the so-called ‘critical art’ Martens speaks of is not just a coincidental accident of the niche of engaged practices; it is at the foundation of the historic artistic practice in general. A first and evident historical relation of art is with capital, which Martens also criticises: it produces it, affirms it, and, in a way, aestheticises it, even on a speculative level, which Hito Steyerl also argues by noting that art makes ‘capitalism look good.’13 Value of art, above all, grows in the same way financial economics does, and for that reason, it is also often a useful financial ‘asset,’ which leads to a ‘depressing atony.’14 Here, it is clear, ownership and power relations also need to be politicised. Nevertheless, in this article, I will not delve too deeply into the relation of art to capital. A second and less evident historic aspect that produces this sterility comes from a romantic idea of aesthetic doctrine, through which the artwork is seen as a ‘mirror’ of the world, or a ‘frame’ on to the world. Both need a necessary distance from that world in order to be able to somewhat ‘indict’ it, which many, including Marcuse, note to be the potential of art.15 However, because it is distanced, it is also a ‘hands-off’ strategy, very much underlining Martens’ annoyance with sterility. More than anything, that which is far away cannot be grasped, and that which is far away cannot grasp itself, and thus appears ‘objective’; it keeps its hands very clean, to contradict Hlavajova’s statement earlier.

What’s more, with respect to a ‘spectator,’ it does not ‘emancipate […] but rather locks […] into an inferior position,’16 which Jacques Rancière calls ‘stultifying.’ It attempts to speak from a moral high ground, although as Martens argues, it denies its own hypocrisies: the high ground is rather a swamp. Add to this distanced practice the conception of the ‘free’ space of arts, and the consequence of that popular conception rendering art ‘useless’ or ‘fake,’ and you have a perfect cocktail for alienated practices. Alienation takes a step beyond sterility caused by distance because it now also does not care what it actually does in the world because it is alienated form it: it is declared ‘outlawed,’ ‘free.’ It does not matter anymore what the contextual background of a practice is, nor whether it relates properly to its subject—whether or not Ai Weiwei cares about the Unilever tinge that blankets his work does not matter. This ‘criticality’ towards the own premises of the institution are even arguably used to ‘whitewash.’ Staal argues through Isabelle Graw that, in a way, the art institution has a ‘sado-masochistic’ attitude vis-à-vis this ‘critical’ artist: ‘Why would a museum or other art institution need an artist to inform it about bad sponsors or investors, when it is responsible for having incorporated them into the museum in the first place?’17 To paraphrase Mouffe, an alienated practice does not in any way ‘undermine the imaginary environment necessary for its [the status quo’s] reproduction’;18 it just neglects it. In the same way, through this alienation, this practice risks being abusive (and often very much is) to that which it engages with, just like many capitalist endeavours that build on the same idea of this outlawed [vogelvrij] ‘freedom’ in order to pursue their profits. This has become morally easier in the arts through the multiplication of distance through globalisation.

The sterile practice generating a distance necessarily implies a position of overlord (i.e., ‘I oversee the issues of the world’). An indictment is not only not enough, as Martens argues; the positions from which it is made build on the configuration of power relations that produced much of those issues in the first place. Regardless of what is criticised from that ‘overlord’ position, it necessarily stems from the idea of a superiority. One could take this argument a step further and note that it is not only not enough indict; through the representation of a problem, these sterile practices also reproduce that problem. As Dominique Himmelsbach de Vries notes: ‘As a maker of images, you are responsible for your images. If your images convey conflict, […] they will resonate (in) conflict […] if you focus on anger, you just accomplish anger.’19 Rancière explains this quite well. Arts, being a distributor of the sensible, ‘define what is visible or not,’20 and thus determine ‘what presents itself to experience.’21

Representing doubles what is represented. If only a problem is made visible, and not a solution, we will live in a world of unsolvable problems without solutions. Rendering solutions sensible alongside the issues, I would say, is thus a greatly important premise. Imagining such a thing is of course a first step; acting them out—as Hlavajova noted earlier—is even better. If we follow Rancière’s argument, we should note that the sensible here not only means ‘visible’ but ‘experienceable.’ Experienceable for the traditional ‘distanced’ artistic practice means that it has a grasp on the cognitive experience of a visitor: it allows us to think something differently. However, the experience Rancière speaks of goes way beyond cognitive appreciation: it influences our experience of life, which does indeed concern hunger, thirst, precarity, pain, and so forth, not merely aesthetic pleasure and cognitive reflection. Both pleasure and cognitive reflection are possible only in absence of those other negative experiences. The idea underpinning reflective and sterile art according to Marcuse ‘is the assertion of a universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable world that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence.’22 Sterile art denies the world of daily struggle for existence and takes that existence for granted.

Critics might argue that these points discredit these kinds of distance-based practices too much. They could say that a problem should be given a face in order for it to be sensible at all, and what’s more, that through the eyes of the beholder, this ‘indictive art’ also raises consciousness of a problem snowballing into actual consequences. I would argue that this is indeed true, although its effects have a dark side-effect if it remains only distanced. Sterility in art negates any kind of responsibility, shoving it on to the spectator, who through that act becomes a spectator, passive and immobile.

First of all, this sounds very much like an afflatus because we can now—both the artist and the institution—argue that we have ‘done’ something without actually having done something other than negating a problem to a less powerful order: that of the spectator. By a less powerful order, I mean that the spectator has the least agency in the production of the artwork that the spectator spectates, although institutions and artists usually speak of what is and is not done with a spectator. Secondly, I believe this is unfair to the spectator: this is the politics of improper indictment without cause, without being critical towards one’s own position. The indictment is badly aimed. It makes use of the same structure often used by suppliers of consumer products, who argue that only the consumer can change the line-up of products by buying things and not buying other things, while almost denying that the selection has been determined for us, preceding us, and afterwards blaming the consumer for what they consume. It negates a self-critical position to the ‘spectator,’ who now also becomes a ‘consumer’ of the reflected issue, with all the associated ‘shaming.’ Thirdly, now that the visitor is shamed about their privilege, the institutions and artist might think, ‘All is fine’ and ‘We have done our jobs.’ Of course, all is not fine because nothing has changed. As Rousseau already warned us in 1760, we tend to think that ‘representation’ also carries in itself ‘meaning and […] effect.’23 Rancière similarly asks us what we expect from a photo exhibition in a gallery: ‘A rebellion against the executioners? Compassion without any consequence for the victims?’24A problem has only been passed on like a bomb ticking, which we hope will not explode in our own hands.

This structure used by artists and institutions is only a cognitive rhetoric structure that dissimulates any true (need for) consequences. The problem, as Rancière affirms, is not the content or the meaning of an artwork itself, but the structure by which it is propagated.25 The issue is in the distribution of the sensible and an affiliated politics, not only in what is distributed (i.e., what we factually see, hear, smell, feel). He notes: ‘We don’t get to see too many suffering bodies on our screen. However, we do get to see too many unnamed bodies, too many bodies that do not answer the gaze that we direct at them, bodies that are the subject of words without their own speaking.’26 And furthermore: ‘The politics associated with these images wants to teach us that not everyone can see and speak.’27

Another noteworthy critique that could be addressed comes from Claire Bishop, who argues that ‘criticism [of engaged practices] is dominated by ethical judgements on working procedures and intentionality.’28 She continues that ‘the aesthetics are degenerated as merely visual, superfluous, academic—less important than concrete outcomes, or the proposition of a “model” or prototype of social relations,’29 but in a way she exactly follows Martens’ argument because ‘ethics of interpersonal interaction comes to prevail over a politics of social justice,’30 which is what people who dislike Martens’ practice tend to criticise. There is, therefore, a discrepancy between ‘system ethics’—how a goal is reached and the moral evaluation of that process—and the goal itself.

Reflections on the Nashville Declaration

An explicit and simple example of the tricky structures of sterility that I spoke of in the last chapter can be found in the recent media spectacle of a Dutch political crisis about the Nashville statement, which had been signed by a handful of conservative, Protestant Dutch politicians, among whom was the party chairman of one of the smaller Dutch political parties. The Nashville statement was a document about marriage, sexuality and the Christian faith. It was drafted in 2017 in Nashville, USA, and signed—controversially—by institutions and politicians all over the world, some Dutch politicians included. It spoke against current emancipatory politics, and discriminated against non-binary sexuality. After the news broke, many institutes in the Netherlands, especially arts institutions, decided they had to write press releases against the Nashville statement, and that they had to raise their rainbow flag in support of LGBTQ+ communities. Although this support is a good endeavour on its own and representation is tremendously important in shaping the fabric of our societies, it is sad that it needs such a negative frame or starting point to exist at all. Besides, this affirmative representational structure does not solve anything but affirming the negative. This example reveals two things. First, that there is a belief that being conscious of a fact necessarily solves it. But though knowledge conveys responsibility, that responsibility has to be acted upon. Second, that a consensus is growing that when you are not explicitly stating you are against the Nashville statement, you are presumed to be in favour of its opinions.

Here, the Rancièrian ‘sensory fabric of reality’ is a priori a negative one. As if you have to loudly scream that you have not signed it in order to wipe the sweat off your forehead fearing reproaches: this is the structure of disclaimers, yet another ‘clean-hands’ strategy. In a way, one could question whether institutes are ‘freeriding’—to use protest jargon—the negative infrastructure they argue they oppose. This, quite understandably, is regarded as a vulgar statement, because one would hope not so. As a result, some museums produce shows to fill up the diversity gaps in their programming, but this is indeed only representational. The question is whether it changes the structure of the museum itself into a more diverse institute, or whether it regresses into token politics, which we recently saw at the CODA Museum in Apeldoorn, where participating artists in the show The Future is Female were not paid.31 The political potential is not only in the representation conducted by the show but also in whether its infrastructure lives up to its own premises, which it clearly did not in this instance. The show reflects diversity in all its output, but it is not itself necessarily diverse or ethical through that act alone. (Being funded by BP or Unilever should pose questions, regardless of the ethical quality of the programming. We can not only judge output, but should also look at the pipelines.)

Thirdly, the reaction to the Nashville statement reveals that all experiential focus is shifted towards the negative, giving a miniscule minority a stage as if it is supported by the masses. So, a problem is shown in a reflective manner, but it consequently also stages and enacts the problem, reproducing and enlarging it. Although representation is the first step in affirmation, and affirmation the first step in dealing with things, Baudrillard could have argued that what is represented spreads out, feeding what it represents simultaneously with ‘reality-energy.’32If we refer back to Rancière, this act produces a world of discrimination because it weaves the aesthetical fabric that makes our experience, and so we only experience discrimination staged as the status quo. It risks normalising it rather than problematising it—although that was indeed the goal of offering it such platform in representational media, such as the news broadcast. Adorno famously and polemically notes that the link between reflection and reproduction is shorter than we often think: ‘When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature [i.e., engaged arts], it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.’33 Although I strongly believe that negative events need as much representation as positive ones as a reminder, I often follow Adorno’s point and wonder what would have happened if the same amount of time and energy had been spent on positive reporting—i.e., the solutions that are already present to a problem that is reflected, hence reproducing and affirming those solutions instead. I think we would indeed live in a different world because this would normalise diversity and inclusion, rather than doing the opposite.

This analysis does not concern a majority complex in which the less visible should bow to the prevailing consensus of what it is to be visible; the opposite is true. Instead, it concerns the aesthetic infrastructure that determines our society: it regards not only what may present itself to experience but also the structure in which some things do and other things do not present themselves to experience. ‘An image never occurs by itself,’ Rancière notes.34 Any image always occurs in a system of visibility, and it is that system which is at issue. It is thus not just about an ‘aesthetic censorship,’35 which Boris Groys speaks about when noting what many emancipatory movements are suppressed by and fight for. It also concerns ‘the double heartedness of the system that asks for such images and rejects them at the same time,’36 translated to the current logic against discrimination: it depends on discrimination to be discriminated against. We should, therefore, follow Rancière’s suggestion if it merely regards visibility, which reads as follows: ‘Show the system, not [only] its victim.’37 He adds: ‘It is about constructing other realities, other forms of common sense, that is, other time-spatial systems, different communities of words and things, forms and meanings,’38 although in this sense it is indeed very true that ‘in reality, the diversity of images circulating in the media is highly limited […] rendering mass media nearly tautological.’39 If you think that an image within a ‘news structure’ is what the news structure report breaks through, then you are wrong; it is the aesthetic ‘frontline’ of what it reports. If you adopt, circulate, and repeat such an image, you also adopt the structure in which it presented; the structure is like the hyperlink that has an image attached to it. You want to break through the sensual fabric, and you do that with anything else, never with something of the similar aesthetic order. The affirmation of valued self-images, say of being an open and progressive institution, can never occur only from a preceding denial of that self-image, otherwise its value can only be affirmed in negation to its denial. What, for example, would happen if we were to see more suffering bodies on our screens,40 as Rancière suggests while noting that most images approach us as if we cannot see or think for ourselves. It is no longer the sheer number of images that postulates the critical argument. Or what would happen if it were actually images of progressive endeavours that filled our screens? Would a fleeting connotation not be reprogrammed?

Reflective Practices

The issue is well, although somewhat ironically, put forward by Rancière: ‘It is assumed that art revolts when it shows us disgusting things, that it mobilises us when it moves outside the studio or museum and that it turns us into opponents of the ruling system if it denies being part of it.’41 He notes these are all remnants of a ‘mimetic structure’42 that is thought to be debunked by much of the artworks of at least the last 100 years—for example, through abstract minimalism. The same ‘reflective’ structures illustrated above are applicable to many engaged practices that attempt to rephrase or ‘show’ a problem that is present in our world. Reflective art—the practice of sterility—works like a mirror: it takes an issue and paraphrases it in the shape of an artwork, showing us what is at stake in a singular and often scaled down body, thus reflecting it back at us. (And this is, indeed, something quite other than ‘imitation.’) It rephrases an embodied problem in a reductive material form, showing what is at stake if ‘we,’ the spectators, do not do anything. This is not a problem in and of itself; it is actually of grave importance on a didactical level, but it does hold a great sense of sterility, as Martens has argued. This is well shown, again, by the news media that repeatedly took the metaphor of the mirror to describe themselves in defence of reproaches by the US Congress for not being neutral enough. Reuven Frank noted that ‘the “mirror” […] is being blamed for the ugly events it reflects.’43 Similarly, Julian Goodman said that ‘the medium is being blamed for the message.’44 Leonard H. Goldenson argued that people ‘are reluctant to accept the images reflected by the mirror we have held up to society.’45 Jack Gould even despised that the US Congress had them testify: ‘One would hope [they] would not conduct an examination of a mirror because of the disquieting images it beholds.’46 That mirrors ‘behold’ is exactly why we should examine them because through their reflection, they double the reality they reflect, enlarging what is reflected. Hlavajova warns us that reflection ‘could lead the dogs in the “right” direction.’47

Baudrillard tries to reminds us that truth ‘is no longer reflexive to the mirror’48—and maybe it never was. In earlier times, ‘mirrors were used for peering into the future’; they were mystic, magic ‘looking glass[es]’49 that singled out and brought close, as if on the other side of a door. In a way, therefore, they produce the truth, just as no mirror just automatically reflects ‘the news is not automatic’50 (just like the broadcasters mentioned above). If what is reflected is the future, then if we only reflect the negative, we produce a negative future.

Of course, we can take this argument a small step further: we must also realise that the reflective surface of the mirror is used to reveal, by the act of reflecting, that its carrier is not contaminated by anything. It implies a sterile environment in which we can safely watch the news or a problem in the case of the engaged artist, thereby simulating an objective or hygienic position—or, more importantly, one of overseer. This disengages that thing which is reflected (a problem) from what reflects it (the engaged artist). So, what is reflected says more about that thing that reflects (the engaged artist) than it does so about what is reflected (a problem), meaning that some reflective engaged practices are significantly more idiosyncratic or even biographic than they propose themselves to be. They so often function, at least in parts, as a disclaimer, where the artist states ‘I am a good person,’ distancing themselves from the problem, rather than trying to solve the problem itself. ‘We are still prone to believe that the reproduction in resin of a commercial idol will make us resist the empire,’51 Rancière notes. Eventually, this type of artwork is a ‘preliminary appearance of its desired effect,’52 a symbolic demonstration we could say. Here, also, the ‘indictive’ part that so far has prevailed in the distanced or reflective engaged practice falls apart, too. The point, in the end, which Martens attempts to make, is to not be sterile; it is to be contaminated because only through contamination something that is not evident might spread. Once again, we should ‘get our hands really dirty.’53 This can only take place by transgressing the three premises that underpin a reflective practice, which were sketched at the beginning of this text: objectivity through distance, sterility, and reproduction through reflection.

Transgressive Practices

In a mirror, we can see ourselves and a problem as if it were deviant, other, away. A transgression basically tries to break this ‘this virtual point which is over there,’54 which is always at a distance, always far away. Or as Staal suggests with the term criticality, ‘appropriating a problem and relating it yourself instead of analysing it from a distance, and thus working on the unstable ground of actual embeddedness, of “playing a role”.’55 But what if we looked a problem directly into its eyes, rather than through the virtual reflection of a mirror (i.e., through the artwork)? And in so doing break that virtual border of distance? Even if that problem rests in ourselves, we do not need a mirror because that proposes ourselves as something else, distancing again. ‘What the artist does is weave a new sensory fabric by tearing’56 that which ‘constitutes the fabric of ordinary experience.’57 So only reflecting the ordinary experience affirms it. The goal is not merely to indict that ordinary experience; it is to tear it. So, what if the artwork intervenes rather than merely ‘shows.’ As Staal states, politics and arts are in a co-authorship in shaping the world as we know it.58 It is thus also important to regard not just the shaping of an artwork, but how shaping the world can function as an artwork. This art, to quote Marcuse, ‘stands under the law of the given, while transgressing this law,’59 which gives it power as a transformative method without distancing itself from the given. It does not merely relate to that which precedes it but also to what succeeds it.

In a way, the reflective art that Martens criticises with his notion of sterility is only a first step in engaging with an issue. This first step is of ‘knowing’ and ‘seeing’ it, and affirmation is always the key to dealing with something because the positive side of affirmation is that we can acknowledge that something is really as it is. The point is, however, that the artistic process often stops here. As Ruyters notes, ‘engagement is more than just another theme, it is not a style or pose, but a conviction.’60 Maybe this has to do with the form artists are comfortable with. This is the form of the ‘traditional’ artwork: that thing we point to and say ‘Art!’ The step I am to propose, however, goes beyond this fossilised-object idea of art. Once a problem has been affirmed by quantifying it, giving it a face, naming it, and distancing it from the given, we should not actually fear engaging with it. I call this second step of the engaged practice the ‘transgressive’ practice, where the artist, after knowing what is at stake (often reflecting it), attempts to engage with what is at stake reflected in reflective art directly, thus breaking the virtual border of art. Here, it is not solely the message where the potential is put, as with reflective messages, but ‘in the arrangement of bodies,’61 the spaces and times in which they are, and so forth.

Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality; and Institute for Human Activities, Lusanga, Congo, 2017: The Repatriation of The White Cube. Photo: Thomas Nolf. © Lusanga International Research Centre for Art and Economic Inequality; and Institute for Human Activities.

To illustrate this transgressive practice, I think Martens himself offers a good example. Martens’ Institute for Human Activities (IHA) uses this structure of art that he criticises to produce an opposite effect, effectively turning the issue it engages with on its head, disarming it, and even making it useful for those who otherwise would suffer from it. As such, this practice attempts to transgress the premises of the given reality, while also showing that reality. The subject here is gentrification, and more specifically, its effects. Gentrification is a subject many artworks have recently been made about, which reflects its destructive powers in our current era. Martens engages with the subject itself through what he calls ‘reversed gentrification,’ basically meaning that the outcome of gentrification that usually flows to the rich needs to flow to the poor whose neighbourhoods have been gentrified. Gentrification is a capitalist process in which precarious people, such as creatives, are temporarily housed in a poorer area often already inhabited by vulnerable minorities to boost the land and housing prices, only to be evicted themselves once the value of the area has risen, so that the land can be sold to/by project developers, who can sell their ‘product’ for exponentially higher prices due to the ‘trendy’ connotation that neighbourhood has got due to its previous residents. Here, art is the speculative method by which surplus value is created. So, Martens bought a piece of a former Unilever cacao plantation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,62 where he erected a white-cube art institution to also create surplus value through the logic of gentrification—not for the benefit of project developers, but in order to ‘repatriate the White Cube.’63 The former plantation workers were invited to develop their artistic skills and started producing artworks, thus becoming artists—the motors of gentrification. These artworks were 3D scanned and moulded in chocolate from the same cacao that was once produced on the plantation they used to work. These chocolate artworks are then sold to the art market in the West through galleries, exhibitions and so on, with the profits flowing directly back to the former plantation workers, who ‘now earn 7,000% more per gram of chocolate and are expressing themselves.’64 I believe this practice can be paraphrased by using Jeremy Deller’s words: ‘From making things, to making things happen.’65

Installation view, Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, SculptureCenter, New York, 2017. Photo: Kyle Knodell

I cannot end this article without naming one of my own hypocrisies. To a great extent, this article consists of a reflection of Marten’s criticism to sterile art. I’ve also fed energy into the Nashville declaration by writing about it, and in doing so, failing to honour my own proposition to feed more energy into transgressive endeavours.

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.





Marian Cousijn and Maite Vermeulen, ‘Interview: Kunstenaar Renzo Martens Wil dat Afrikanen Zelf Verdienen aan Hun Armoede.’ Translated by the author, De Correspondent, May 30, 2015. Accessed on July 12, 2020,

Joost de Bloois and Ernst van den Hemel, ‘Alain Badiou: Het Communisme in de Kunst,’ in Alain Badiou. Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012), P. 39. Translated by the author.

Maria Hlavajova. ‘BAK: Art and Politics’ (pt. 1. seminar on March 11, 2019, Utrecht, 19:30-21:30).

Ann-Sofie Dekeyser, ‘Renzo Martens. Wereldverbeteraar of Zelfverrijker,’ De Standaard Weekblad, Sept. 27, 2015.

Sacha Bronwasser, ‘White cube in de jungle,’ Metropolis M 4 (2017): p. 48.

Ann-Sofie Dekeyser, ‘Renzo Martens. Wereldverbeteraar of Zelfverrijker,’ De Standaard Weekblad, Sept. 27, 2015.

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), p. 38.

Harney and Moten, p. 40.

Jonas Staal, Post-propaganda (Amsterdam: The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, 2010), p. 15.

Ai Weiwei, ‘The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei: Sunflower Seeds,’ Tate Modern. Accessed on July 12, 2020,

Maria Hlavajova and Jonas Staal, ‘World-Making as Commitment,’ Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989, eds. Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh (Cambridge/Utrecht: MIT Press/BAK, 2016), p. 672.

Chantal Mouffe, ‘Artistic Activism and Antagonistic Spaces,’ Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Context and Methods 1, no. 2 (2007): p. 4.

Maria Hlavajova. ‘BAK: Art and Politics’ (pt. 1. seminar on March 11, 2019, Utrecht, 19:30-21:30).

Joost de Bloois and Ernst van den Hemel, ‘Alain Badiou: Het Communisme in de Kunst,’ in Alain Badiou. Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo Publicaties, 2012), p. 12. Translated by the author.

Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. (London: MacMillan Press, 1979), p. XI.

Claudia W. Ruitenberg, ‘Art, Politics, and the Pedagogical Relation,’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 30, no. 2. (2010): p. 217.

Jonas Staal, Post-propaganda. (Amsterdam: The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, 2010), p. 15.

Mouffe 2007, p. 1.

Dominique Himmelsbach de Vries and Luuk Heezen, ‘Kunst is lang (en het leven is kort): 111,’ in Mister Motley Episode 111, November 24, 2019, podcast, 00:30:00-00:33:00, Translated by the author.

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 12-13.

Rancière 2010, pp. 13; 22-23.

Herbert Marcuse, ‘The Affirmative Character of Culture,’ in Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (London: May Fly Books, 2009), p. 70. Emphasis added.

Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer,trans. Joost Beerten and Walter van der Star(Amsterdam: Octave, 2015), p. 57. The translation to English is the author’s own.

Rancière 2015, p. 57.

Rancière 2015, p. 58.

Rancière 2015, p. 99.

Rancière 2015, p. 99.

Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), p. 22.

Bishop 2012, p. 22.

Bishop 2012, p. 25.

Koen Bartijn and Sepp Eckenhausen, ‘CODA aan zet inzake richtlijn kunstenaarshonoraria,’ Platform BK. March 7, 2020,

Jean Baudrillard, Simulations. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman. (USA: Semiotext[e]/MIT Press, 1983). p. 26.

Theodor W. Adorno. ‘Commitment,’ in Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Francis McDonagh (London: Verso, 2007 [1962]), p. 9.

Rancière 2015, p. 102.

Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013), pp. 14-15.

Rancière 2015, p. 102.

Rancière 2015, p. 102.

Rancière 2015, p. 105.

Groys 2013, p. 18.

Rancière 2015, p. 99.

Rancière 2015, p. 55.

Rancière 2015, p. 55.

Edward Jay Epstein, News from Nowhere (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 13.

Epstein 1973, p. 13.

Epstein 1973, p. 13.

Epstein 1973, p. 14.

Maria Hlavajova, ‘BAK: Art and Politics’ (pt. 1. seminar on March 11, 2019, Utrecht, 19:30-21:30).

Baudrillard 1983, p. 52.

Tim P. Vos, ‘A Mirror of the Tmes,’ Journalism Studies 23, no. 5 (2011): p. 576.

Epstein 1973, p. 25.

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 218. See also Rancière 2015, p. 56.

Rancière 2015, pp. 75;77.

Maria Hlavajova. ‘BAK: Art and Politics’ (pt. 1. seminar on March 11, 2019, Utrecht, 19:30-21:30).

Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’ (Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité, trans. Jay Miskowiec 1984), pp. 3-4.

Staal 2010, p. 53.

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 215.

Ruitenberg 2010, p. 215.

Jonas Staal, ‘Post-Propaganda,’ De Groene Amsterdammer. October 30, 2009. Accessed on July 12, 2020. Original quote in Dutch: ‘[…] kunst en de politiek—bewust of niet—een co-auteurschap vervullen in het vormgeven van de wereld zoals wij die kennen.’

Marcuse 1979, p. 11.

Staal 2010, p. 28.

Rancière 2015, p. 58.

Sacha Bronwasser. “White cube in de jungle” Metropolis M. No. 4. 2017. 48.

Sacha Bronwasser. “White cube in de jungle” Metropolis M. No. 4. 2017. 48.

Ann-Sofie Dekeyser. “Renzo Martens: wereldverbetereaar of cynische neokoloniaal” De Standaard. 26-09-2015. Translated by the author.

Maria Hlavajova. “BAK: Art and Politics”. Pt. 1. Seminar on Monday the 11-03-2019, 19:30-21:30 at BAK in Utrecht. Transcribed from lecture.


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