Currencies of the Signature in Contemporary Art
Catalogue text for Worthless (Invaluable), Galerija Moderna, Ljubljana, 2000
Even when it appears to have crystallized in an object—let’s say an artwork, or a commodity—value is always a term in a relationship, a term of measurement to overcome the uncertainties of an exchange. Value arises as a disputed measure when something is to be given, or more acutely, when something is to be taken away. It is a discourse, an emotion, a memory, a desire, or all of these at once, when they come into play around an impending division or change in the state of things. The question of value presses upon us with the force of a disquieting, disruptive gaze. Whereas money, in its classical forms, is largely an attempt to neutralize or eliminate the anxiety of value-relations, i.e. the face-to-face relations of society. It claims to achieve absolute equivalence between objects, and above all between people, with no remainder. As Lacan once put it, money is “le signifiant le plus annihilant qui soit,” the most annihilating signifier of them all.1 And yet everywhere, the mathematical fluidity of money is haloed with very personal questions, incessantly debated between the takers, the givers, even the spectators of monetary exchange. Money gives rise to a necessarily incarnate anxiety, seemingly conjured up by the very system designed to conjure it away.
One observes, for example, that the moneys of Europe at the end of the twentieth century are insistently adorned with the ciphers of art. The apples of Cézanne’s doubt, once explored by the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty,2 now dapple the 100 French-franc note whereby the global economy comes to bear on my life. The stylistic “signature” of the painter, inherent to a uniquely configured image, rivals with the more prosaic signatures of the various functionaries who make this currency legitimate. But does the artwork of Cézanne cover up the problems raised by the abstract processes of exchange—or does it exacerbate them? Does its authority (the authority of the “father of abstraction”) guarantee our own signatures when we fill out something like a check—a promise of money to come, as money can be a promise of paintings, of apples, of everything under the sun? Or does the meeting of money and artwork reopen a society’s doubt about the legitimacy of all its currencies?
In a debate, the kind of debate that is essential to art today, it is well to be clear where one stands. I ask these questions with the franc note in my hand, from within the sphere of Europe’s converging moneys. Yet I ask them with respect to a place on the geographic and political fringes of that convergence, the city of Ljubljana; and I ask them in the context of an exhibition where the emotions, desires, and speculative excesses of several generations of artists have been convoked around the issue of value and its signifiers. In such a dialogue of places, and before such a span of generations, it may be best to approach the artworks historically, through the political and economic frames that they constantly seek to shatter, to undermine, or to overflow. Only in this way can one begin to measure the ambition of artists when they come to face the enigmas of value, of the worthless and the invaluable.
Keynes and the Kula Ring
Let us begin with an historical allegory. In the fourth chapter of The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi interrupts his genealogy of nineteenth-century capitalism to consider the very different economic systems revealed by social anthropology. Turning to Malinowski’s studies of the Pacific islanders, he focuses on a few curious details, like the existence of central granaries for storage, or the responsibility of the village headmen in coordinating feast days. His aim in these digressions only becomes clear at the end of the book. Insisting on the function of redistribution in precapitalist economies, with the moment of centricity it implies, he foreshadows one of his major conclusions: the necessary role of the state in any escape from the chaos wrought by 150 years of faith in self-regulating markets. Writing at the close of the Second World War, Polanyi sought to prove not only the inherent destructiveness of the market-driven economy, but also its unnecessary character, its historical exceptionalism, against the theorists of a truck-and-bartering human nature in the tradition of Adam Smith. Yet he proposed nothing so simple as “primitive communism.” The political function of monetary exchange, coordinating all human relations through the abstract mathematics of general equivalency, was not to be replaced by the hierarchical order of a potentially totalitarian society, subsuming individual freedom beneath the dictates of a central plan. The relations of the island peoples were also characterized by practices of reciprocity, a mutual gift-giving regulated by principles of relational symmetry that instituted horizontal, non-hierarchical ties among individuals, both within and between the different clans. Thus Polanyi recounts the extraordinary system of the Kula trade that circulates shell armbands and necklaces around the ring-shaped archipelago of the Trobriand Islands, bringing individuals and generations together in a process of exchange founded on an aesthetics of the unique object and its history. Here was a market outside any consideration of profit; a form of “money,” the shells, which were anything but an abstract equivalent; a pattern of circulation which manifested the cosmopolitan openness that liberal theorists claimed as the cultural value of international commerce, yet without locking its participants into the destructive competition and exploitation of “accumulation for accumulation’s sake”:
An intricate time-space-person system covering hundreds of miles and several decades, linking many hundreds of people in respect to thousands of strictly individual objects, is being handled here without any records or administration, but also without any motive of gain or truck. Not the propensity to barter, but reciprocity in social behavior dominates. Nevertheless, the result is a stupendous organizational achievement in the economic field. Indeed, it would be most interesting to consider whether even the most advanced modern market organization, based on exact accountancy, would be able to cope with such a task, should it care to undertake it. It is to be feared that the unfortunate dealers, faced with innumerable monopolists buying and selling individual objects with extravagant restrictions attached to each transaction, would fail to make a standard profit and might prefer to go out of business.3
The delectation of the style betrays the aesthetic ideal gathering behind these lines, before the final phrase makes it explicit, with the notion that profit-seeking merchants would prefer to close out their books, in favor of an exchange of singularities irreducible to any general equivalent. The Kula traders are portrayed as a society of art-lovers, deeply attached to their singular tastes and histories but at the same time culturally enriched by the relational symmetries of clan identity, which help them to recognize an appropriate trading partner even in a distant land. Their exchanges are taken as the allegorical sign of what could emerge from the war-shattered industrial civilization of 1944: a new balance between a redistributive state apparatus and a civil society elaborating different values, aestheticized, quality-oriented relations which could not and need not fit into the centralized systems of administrative accountancy. Freedom in a complex society would entail the maintenance of a paradoxical balance, founded on mobile, incommensurable measures. The single standard, which nineteenth-century society had sought to naturalize in the purity of gold, would have to give way to a multiplicity of economies, or to the economy and its others. And thus the basis of freedom could no longer be sought only in the fact of possession, expressed in that cornerstone of English law which is habeas corpus, and which ultimately refers to the self-possession of one’s own physical body. The relational form of the contract, struck between self-possessed individuals, must open up to the mingling of bodies, to the larger reproduction of society, and to the changing configurations of a body politic discovering and abandoning its measures in the evolving dimension of historical time. Thus the living metaphor of the Kula ring leads to the heart of a debate over value, at one of those rare moments when such debates are possible on a civilizational scale.
We know that the value-relation which emerged as a norm in the so-called “Western” countries during the postwar period did not take the socialist form that Polanyi and so many others had desired. The Keynesian state with its welfare safety-nets and strategic government spending programs was at once a buffer against the violence of capitalism and an incitement to its expansion. To be sure, the postwar system succeeded in regulating the currency, whose volatility under the former liberal economy had been so destructive. This was done by instituting strictly national moneys whose value was guaranteed not by the displaceability of quantities of gold, as under the English liberal model, but on the contrary, by the solidity of each country’s industrial organization. But the centralized administrations and vertical hierarchies required to achieve this stabilization, and to effect the redistributive programs, were principally “balanced” by the growing strength of the private corporations, which would finally break the national bounds of the Keynesian regulation and spell its demise. The horizontal ties imagined by Polanyi, with the complex symmetries of identity that were supposed to underlie them, could not be formalized in the powerful and enduring ways that would have been needed to check the powers of the centralized administrations, which ultimately foundered under their own weight and were replaced by the stripped-down states of contemporary neoliberalism.
The Great Transformation describes the tumultuous events of the mid-century as a crisis of value, then attempts to conceive an ideal response. How did individual artists respond to the real political-economic forms that emerged from this crisis? And where did they succeed in placing their utopian hopes, as those forms gradually solidified in the postwar period, then shifted dramatically once again in the 1970s? Each visitor to the exhibition will develop their own answers, based on their history, experience, and desires. For my part I will focus initially on a single figure, Marcel Broodthaers, and on the themes of centrality and reciprocity, played out in gestures and fictions where the artist deals with economies of the collectivity and of the self. By concentrating on the work of Broodthaers, I hope to sketch out a problematic field within which artists of an earlier generation could approach the questions of value. The crux of the argument will then involve the transition between that time and our own.
Signature in the Rain
In one of his films, perhaps the funniest of all, Marcel Broodthaers sits down to write in a garden. The year is 1969, but he writes with an old-fashioned fountain pen, dipped in the ink of the nineteenth-century poets (Baudelaire, Mallarmé). And as he writes, a torrential rain pouring down from a watering can dissolves the letters, washes away the words, until finally he abandons the pen and the title of the film appears: La Pluie (Projet pour un texte). The work reveals a dissolution, an impossibility (the inclement weather); and yet at the same time it signals a latency, a space of reserve (the inkwell, the mind of the poet). As he made clear in 1970: “If you still want to come somewhere close to a revolutionary position in art, there is only one position left to take, which is this: from a bourgeois platform, you declare yourself secret and hermetic. In other words you don’t communicate, except to a few, just what you need to survive.”4 Another film displays this economy, this restraint: twenty-four frames in a loop, a single second of art, Une Seconde d’Eternité, 1970. The film recounts the signing of the initials M. B., gradually sketched to completion in twenty-four strokes, only to disappear and reappear once again. “I believe that the fundament of artistic creation rests on a narcissistic ground,” said Broodthaers with respect to this film. “The very signature of the author, whether of an artist or a filmmaker or a poet, little matter, seems to me to be the beginning of the system of lies that all the poets, all the artists, attempt to establish to defend themselves, I don’t quite know against what.”5
Broodthaers’ art took the form of an elaborate system of defense. He was like the monopolists that Polanyi described in his reflections on the Kula trade, attaching the most “extravagant restrictions” to each transaction. The essence of his practice lay in its hermeticism, the difficulty of its communication. He had been a poet and a communist in his youth, during and immediately after the war, and had sought the juncture of art and politics in revolutionary surrealism. The problem of his relation to the public, which had been impossible to establish through poetry, was in no way resolved by his transition to the object: he felt an indomitable mistrust for everything that took the form of the commodity. Yet he knew that was what he produced in a consumer society. “With plastic art, my only possible engagement has been on the side of my adversaries.”6 And so he built up his art as an elaborate set of ruses, even of lies, initially in order to survive and then gradually as a critical stratagem, ironically exposing the contradictions between the vanguard tradition of contemporary art and the economy on which it depended. This critique is one of the keys to his art, constantly informing its wit, its playfulness, even its gestures toward the spatial realization of a poetic ideal.7
Like Marx, he made a distinction between an immeasurable fundament of value and the distorted expression this could take under historical conditions of unequal exchange. Marx identified this fundament of value as labor, the creative capacity to appropriate nature and make it useful for human desires; hence his notion of use values.8 Broodthaers, in accord with his own desire, identified the fundamental value as the self-creative capacity of the poetic word; hence his reference to the essential narcissism of the artist. At this level value cannot be measured, it can only be experienced in its qualities: it is the self-evidence and self-satisfaction of the creative act. Yet no one can be an absolute monopolist. Insofar as we are social beings, the fundamental value must become an object of discourse, of reckoning, so that positions can be established in relations of exchange. Value must then be torn away from its unique attachment to qualities and given some kind of measure, which under capitalism takes the form of a general equivalent, i.e. money. It is at this point that value becomes the object of a dispute, couched in the specific terms established by a given society at a distinct historical moment. For example, the dispute over the wage to be accorded for a working day. Or the dispute over the price of a particular commodity, such as an artwork.
Now, what Marx contested was not the rate of a given wage, but the very terms of the value-relation between proletariat and capitalist: wage-labor itself. Similarly, in his specialized realm (or from what he called his “bourgeois platform”), Broodthaers contested the very frame within which the value of his work as an artist could be measured: the Beaux-Arts tradition and its central institution, the museum. Yet he did not simply criticize this tradition from the outside, as though possessed of a neutral, unassailable, unsaleable position. Rather, he created a critical museum as an artwork, and therefore as a commodity in itself. And he signed this commodity-work with his proper name.
I refer of course to the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, founded directly after the events of May ’68 in an attempt to discover “what in general is the role of that which represents artistic life in a society, i.e. the museum.” Originally this self-reflexive museum was to be “a place for discussion, for exchange of ideas,” devoted to a public or “sociological” exploration of art’s transformative potential; yet predictably, given Broodthaers’ defensive obsessions, this debate did not come to pass. However, he also remarked that “it was initially a matter of establishing a balance sheet of the situation.”9 This he did achieve, brilliantly, with the presentation of the fictive museum’s “Section financière,” unveiled at the Cologne Art Fair in 1971 under the title, “Museum of Modern Art for Sale, Due to Bankruptcy.” He had devised an ironic project to restore the museum’s ailing finances: the proposal to resell, at double its market value on any given day, an ingot of fine gold stamped with his museum’s eagle emblem and accompanied by a hand-written certificate of authenticity from the curator (Broodthaers himself), as well as a formal contract between the buyers, the intermediaries (art galleries) and the seller (the museum). This transaction, imagined by Broodthaers as one of his many small plaquette-type publications, and in fact realized only after his death, exemplifies the structure of the entire museum project and situates it perfectly within its political-economic context.
It would be false to suppose that the proposal is merely a variation on Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond, or other dadaist subversions of the surplus value attached to the artist’s signature; and equally false to imagine that it merely registers a second demise of the gold standard, and a consequent loss of the secure ties that supposedly once bound signifier to referent in an ontology of realism.10 For the economic measures of value had changed vastly since the 1910s-1920s, when the dadaists elaborated their paradoxes. To be sure, the work was proposed shortly after the suspension of the dollar’s automatic convertibility into gold, decred by the Nixon government in August 1971. Thus it takes its place in the period of monetary crisis before the final collapse, in March 1973, of the Bretton-Woods system of fixed exchange rates between the gold-backed dollar and the currencies of the other signatory nations. Under this system, the metallic “substance” of monetary value functioned as a guarantee only because it was held by the United States, whose imperial power “backed” the gold itself. The value of the metal was therefore explicitly dependent on the economic organization and military strength of the country that had imposed the Bretton Woods agreement; this was the framework within which its guarantee function could be unilaterally maintained or abrogated. And it was this imperial power of economic governance, overshadowing the stabilized national economies, that Broodthaers signified with the stamp of the eagle—equally dominant over the values of the artworks in his Museum of Modern Art.
The role of the signature is not exactly subversive in this proposal, it does not introduce a floating signifier into a balanced equation of values. Instead it binds the artist to an institutionalized power structure through the legal form of the signed contract that was to accompany the ingot. In an fictive interview, Broodthaers describes this as a “natural contract,” or again as a “logical contract” (just as his museum is a “logical fiction”). The contract stipulates the precise conditions for “the sale of a kilo of gold according to the particular mode of the Beaux-Arts,” and thereby reveals the imbrication of the fine-arts tradition in a far larger system for the extortion of surplus value, the system of state capitalism, identified at the very moment when its protective national barriers had begun to crumble, unleashing the destructive energies of exploitation and competition that Keynesian economics had sought to contain. Thus the contract, whose legal function is to limit the individual’s engagement, instead makes clear the total failure of the defensive rampart which the artist’s signature could hope to erect against an abusive integration of personal value to an imperial hierarchy. The substantive autonomy of the artwork is an illusion. It is in this sense that Broodthaers could write, at the close of his reworked interview with Irmeline Lebeer: “It remains indeed to be discovered whether art can exist anywhere but on the plane of the negative.” Bourgeois autonomy, which emerged during the period of liberalism, cannot subsist before the all-embracing reign of state-administered capitalism.11 Lucid, self-critical subjectivity—the progressive, enlightened version of capitalistic self-possession—becomes a disjointed, spectral conscience, increasingly unable to come to grips with the actual forms of political economy.
Beneath the shadow of the eagle, the artist’s only escape would be self-dissolution, like letters of a text washing away in the rain. These moments of dissolution, of ungoverned dispersal, are the grace of Broodthaers’ art, the boundless resource of its humor and also of its critique.12 But still his objects were made, circulated, and sold, as elements of a hermetic strategy that had to foreclose any communication. Under these conditions the artist could not face his public, but only profit from a misunderstanding. For any substantive debate over the measures of value had proven impossible, at least from the “bourgeois platform” of the fine arts, as Broodthaers confirmed shortly before his death in a text which is in many ways his testament: “In reality, it is certain that the commentary on Art follows the movement of the economy. We think it uncertain that this commentary can be political.”13 Still the public, the distant other whom he could not reach and to whom he could offer no fundamentally valuable sign, remained present to the very end, in the internalized form of a perverse remorse: “Urged on by an ignoble inspiration, I will not conceal that if the wrongs are on my account, they will give me a kind of pleasure. A guilty pleasure, because it would depend on the victims—those who believed me right.” This failure of the face-to-face relation, and its retreat to a brooding interiority, is the enigma that the signature of an artist’s contract gives us to ponder.
Copyright / Right to Copy
The art of Marcel Broodthaers, in its sovereign reserve as poetry and its negative deployment as commodity, illuminates almost the entire field of the dispute over value which could be entered by the artists of the postwar period. With sufficient attention to detail, one could situate the other members of this generation within approximately the same field. It might not be impossible, for instance, to describe Yves Klein’s signature appropriation of “zones of stabilized pictorial sensibility” as a megalomaniacal equivalent of the operations involved in creating and stabilizing a currency regime.14 Beuys’ unlimited editions and proposals for free art, extending the artist’s creative privilege to everyone, would then appear as redistributive responses, convoking the mass autonomies of a democratic socialism. In contrast to Broodthaers’ work, both gestures assume that the fundamental capacity of human subjectivity to appropriate nature can be expressed positively. Much to the opposite, Oscar Bony’s live performance piece, La Familia Obrera [Worker’s Family], 1968, insists on the alienation that wage labor brings even to the intimate realm where the promise of money is supposed to be realized as direct use value (the family is paid double minimum wage for being reified, that is, made into a thing, a display object in a museum). This kind of action could still have critical force in the seventies. But as the possibility of a socialist alternative receded, the fact of reification simply became a norm, reiterated by the unceasing transfer of every imaginable mass-produced object into the museum. Fortunately the organizers of this exhibition have largely spared us the anti-poetic commodity art of the eighties, where the dispute over value freezes up in a one-sided, opportunistic reading of Duchamp’s ready-mades.
More interesting in terms of their unrealized potential are Öyvind Fahlström’s Monopoly-type board games on various geopolitical themes (World Trade, Indochina, etc.). Conceived in the late sixties and early seventies as “variable paintings,” these works map the farflung strategies of American imperialism, both military and economic, and the resistance to it, principally from the leftist nationalisms of what was then called the Third World. Complex rules based on extensive research into actual conditions govern the possible movements of figurative game pieces, which mythically condense the energies and emotions of the real actors in the world game. As Fahlström wrote: “Without manipulating works of art one can hardly realize the fantastic range of the astronomical freedom of choice and the immense rigidity in the external appearance of the parts—and in the material they are made of: the combination of metal and plastic makes shapes as strong as axes. Then after that fundamental fact comes the fragile rigidity of the other rules—like our conventions and agreements: the border between the Congo and Angola, the numbers in the telephone book, the buttoning of jackets. The tension lies in the fact that it is possible to oppose the rigidity—just as it is in my models.”15 The board games were meant to provoke a confrontation between the political-economic structures of the real world and their subjective transcription within the individual psyche; it is in this sense that “rules oppose and derail subjectivity, loosen the imprinted circuits of the individual.”
Fahlström insisted that his Monopoly games “will only be meaningful when they have been made into mass multiple editions.” They were not, of course; but the confrontations they figured had already been provoked on a mass scale by the brutal facts of the war in Vietnam. If the dispute over value then subsided, after the Vietnam war and the final throes of decolonization, it was also because the rules of the world economic game had become murky, the players ungraspable, their locations unknown. By 1984 the critic Frederic Jameson was already calling for “an aesthetics of cognitive mapping” to resolve “the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects.”16 What had happened in the interim, to make the cartography of the sixties and early seventies obsolete?
World Bank dates from 1971, like the “Section financière” of Broodthaers’ fictive modern art museum. We know that it was in these years, roughly from 1967 to 1973, that the Keynesian or “Fordist” economy entered into a crisis, leading to a temporary weakening of American hegemony and a general reorganization of the capitalist regime of accumulation.17 The most obvious result of this crisis in monetary terms was the liberalization of currency exchanges, such that all moneys would now be expressed as variables of each other’s shifting value, in an erratic dance led by the movements of the three regionally dominant currencies, the dollar, the deutschmark, and the yen. But a more subtle result, initially invisible or inconceivable for the general public, was the creation of new forms of financial investment, as capital fled its nationally bound industrial bases, where it was plagued by so-called “stagflation,” and found unimpeded opportunities for valorization in international loans, in currency markets, in stock markets, and in newly volatilized government bonds (made freely exchangeable by the US Federal Reserve in 1979, and by most other countries thereafter). This development of finance capital (or “fictional capital,” as Marx termed it) may be usefully understood as a multiplication of the forms of credit money, i.e. the variously calculated contractual promises of future reimbursement on an investment, and the further promises which can then be obtained by trading in these promissory notes themselves, swapping one form of credit for the other.18 As the general public has now begun to realize, the ever-increasing swiftness and calculating power of computers and the world-girdling extension of networked communications has opened a seemingly infinite field for the diversification of the new forms of privately controlled credit money, themselves derivatives of the fiduciary currencies of the nation-states.
The conventional explanation for this explosion of financial instruments and opportunities is “deregulation.” But it would be naive to think that the enormous quantity of abstract money transiting through the computer networks accomplishes its trajectories in an utterly chaotic way. The eagle’s gaze has only sharpened, from a new vantage point in the communications satellites of outer space. What we have seen on the ground is a partial re-regulation of the national economies in favor of finance capital, extending the scope of its rule-governed game to increasingly larger surfaces of the planet, and intensifying its penetration into increasingly numerous fields of human interaction—to the point where Dan Graham’s ironic gesture of incorporating himself, putting his own name up for sale on the stock market in 1969, now looks like the anticipation of a trend toward monetary abstraction that would ultimately affect everyone and everything. Indeed, the model of informational exchange has now overtaken production, volatilizing the object as conceptual art did, and transforming the nature of the supports whereby the consumer economy is articulated. Thus, if the notion of the simulacrum has gained such prominence in intellectual debates since the early eighties, it is precisely because of the huge increase in the numbers of people earning a living from the production-consumption of immaterial products, pure informational constructs which can increasingly be beamed about the planet through circuits like those taken by finance capital. Now, the peculiarity of these circuits, consisting essentially of interlinked computers, is to permit both the inexpensive transmission and the essentially costless duplication of the new products. And it is this latter function—made possible by what is called “memory”—that in recent years has begun to reawaken the public consciousness of the contradictions of capitalism. When the group Ideal Copy offers to exchange our leftover foreign coins on the basis of an equivalence in weight, we participate in a questioning of the very significance of money, its value in a transnational realm where it seems capable of infinitely and weightlessly replicating itself.
What are immaterial products like computer programs or photodigital images really worth? The new role of copyright, and of intellectual property laws in general, is to enforce the commodity value of such goods; this is why copyright has become one of the essential rules of the globalized economy. But the flick of a save button or the effortless dial-up of an Internet connection suggests that these immaterial goods are worth nothing, in monetary terms, that is. Indeed, much of the informational “products” available over the Internet result from university research or amateur interest, outside the profit motive. But at the same time, because the new products flow through communications media, there is an increasing recognition of the role that each individual plays in the transformation of the initial information. The assertion of the individual’s specific contribution to a collective product has become possible in a way it never has been before, leading to the free software movement, a new proliferation of theories about the “gift economy,” perhaps even to what Richard Barbrook has dubbed “cybercommunism.”19 And the growing awareness of the preponderance that immaterial calculations and exchanges have taken over everyday material life has led to a perception of what Fahlström might have called the “fragile rigidity” of the new economic rules.
The contractual form of so-called “copyleft” is the free software makers’ attempt to change those rules by legally inscribing the activity of collective invention: the GNU General Public License guarantees that the source code of free software must remain available and open to modification, on the condition that the user indicates each change and “signs” it with his or her name.20 The signature functions here to encourage participation, not to exclude it. Other forms of resistance to copyright have been more radical. The Luther Blissett Project, evolving between London and Bologna, revolves around the ungoverned proliferation and use of a proper name. Anyone can sign “Luther Blissett,” and everyone is encouraged to do so, in order to spark the formation of new urban media myths and to provide cover for the political activities of the core group working under this open signature, or “multiple name.” There is a deliberate strategy here: “Luther Blissett represents the power of communication and collective intelligence—no copyright can fight him back,” reads a sentence from an early text in 1995.21 The phrase was prophetic: when an Italian prosecutor called for the seizure and destruction of a particularly scandalous publication, the text was simply posted on 50 Internet sites. Haphazardly proliferating through the networks, the Blissett signature mirrors the embodied practice of the dérive, resurgent in cities like Bologna and London. And yet far from insisting on any sovereign freedom of the vanguard individual, Luther Blissett seeks an entirely new subjective formation: “Any single body-mind (any -dividuum) is endlessly invested by vortical fluxes of communications which supersede the boundaries of the individual body and create an unsettled, ready-made community of singularities. Con-dividuality… a multiple singularity whose unfolding entails new definitions of ‘responsibility’ and ‘will.’”
The collective antics of the London or Bolognese psychogeographical societies may seem inconsequential, like some improbable Situationist revival. But their ideas recently became harder to ignore when the eco-anarchist group Reclaim the Streets, using a networked invitation to share a strategy and a proper name, was able to spark politically oriented street parties to demonstrate against finance capitalism in over 40 countries on June 18, 1999, with a ten-thousand-strong “Carnival Against Capital” in the City of London, and an equally large “Carnival of the Oppressed” in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.22 Behind these events lay the insurgency of the Zapatistas, with their international “Encuentros” in Mexico in 1996 and Spain in 1997. And the recent protests in Seattle, for the opening of the “millennium round” WTO meetings, revealed to the public the extent to which the world’s political subjects were at last finding their place in what Jameson had called the “global multinational and decentered communicational network” of contemporary capitalism.23 After a long, extremely diverse period of mental mapping, a new dispute over value has finally arisen on the global stage, and within the intimate, subjective realms of experience where art is made.
Who Gets The Credit?
If the finance economy has begun to raise such opposition, it is because capital itself, at the outset of the twentieth-first century, has become a fiction. And this is surely its destiny: in a few astonishing pages of the Grundrisse on the productive power of “general intellect,” Marx observes that with the progress of science and technology, “the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labor time and on the amount of labor employed than on the power of the agencies set into motion… the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process.”24 The tremendous advance in automation over the last half-century has effectively led to the worker’s increasing autonomy from the mechanics of production. In Marx’s vision, the ultimate result would be the creation of entirely new standards of value: “As soon as labor in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labor time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value.” An entirely different distribution of wealth is now possible, on the basis of new measures. But as André Gorz reminds us: “Autonomy in labor matters little in the absence of the cultural, moral, and political autonomy that completes it; and this does not emerge from productive cooperation in itself but from militant activity and from a culture of insubmission, rebellion, fraternity, free debate, and radical questioning (the kind that goes to the root of things), with the dissidence that such questioning produces.”25 An exhibition like Worthless (Invaluable) can be used by its publics in exactly this way, to gain the cultural and imaginary freedoms that technology alone cannot supply. Art can become the locus of a fundamentally political use value, inherent in (and not prior to) the processes of cultural and intellectual exchange.
Everyone will have their own ideas about the profusion of practices, the satires, the symbolic inventions and alternative uses that accompany the apogee of capitalist development in the precarious and dangerous phase called “globalization.” I would simply like to close with three brief examples, two from within the choices of the show and one more from the indistinct world of urban myth and rumor. The first concerns the Banques de questions invented by François Deck. These “question-banks” take the initial form of a checkbook, stamped with the name of the “branch,” devoted to a given group or particular theme, and accompanied by a statement sketching out the contours of a problematic field of inquiry. Each contributor fills in one of the checks, not with an answer, but with a question, signing and dating it as is the custom when dealing with banks, but adding two keywords to confront the contemporary problem of data. As François Deck writes: “There is a certain condensed knowledge in the question that can allow one to navigate rapidly through information. This condensation and speed encourage transitions between different fields, permitting new proximities.”26 The questions are effectively “banked” in computer files, where they can be recombined by links between the keywords; but their real worth emerges most powerfully in the face-to-face sessions where questions are created, validated, and recirculated according to protocols favoring open, egalitarian speech.
What are these questions, if not a search for the kind of relational symmetries that the Kula shell-traders found in their clan identities, which allowed them to recognize the fitting partners for an exchange? In our more complex and open societies, a thousand procedures of reciprocity must still be invented to allow distant individuals to meet, to trade information, to share ideas and enthusiasms. Much of the best contemporary art is about the invention and expansion of exactly such procedures, which help to constitute what is called “civil society.” But by adopting the external form of semi-privatized money (the bank check), Deck’s work also signifies the political stakes of an expansion of free interchange: the possibility to pool forces and research to regain some democratic control over the transnational corporations and investment funds, with their highly sophisticated yet often anti-social mechanisms of exchange. I think it is fitting that this metaphorical significance of the question-banks should have been revealed, to me at least, by one of Deck’s correspondents, Evelyne Massoutre, who in the midst of an extended debate about authorship sent him the apparently simple question: “Who gets the credit?” Perhaps no other single question points more precisely to a possible transformation of today’s speculative economy—on the condition that the position of the author/signatory is itself transformed.
The example of Marcel Broodthaers sufficiently underscored the impasse of a sovereign artistic consciousness, conceiving the artistic work as the projection of a preexistent personal integrity, a centrality of the self. This is undoubtedly an historical limit of the bourgeois culture which grew up in the age of nineteenth-century liberal individualism. Deck’s process, like the work of so many artists today, seeks to be immediately dialogical, engaged in the experience of questioning before producing any positive “expression.” It calls less for commentary than for active participation, which can go so far as to change the very rules of the game. Again it is a matter of discovering “new definitions of responsibility and will,” new intersubjective formations. Perhaps it is through this kind of open engagement, accepting the premise of “condividuality,” that the cultural alternatives of civil society can be developed across national frontiers, to enter the transnational realm where power inheres today—the realm of Europe’s converging currencies, for example, which this exhibition questions from outside the purview of the monetary union’s sovereign institutions, but from within the single world economy that binds us all together.
Still there will always be difficulties, objections. The question-banks, for instance, could easily be conceived as too intellectualist, too close to Habermas’ ideal (and unrealizable) model of the public sphere. And the highly ambiguous model of civil society must itself be constantly reexamined, given the manipulations to which it is prey.27 No doubt the reality is that reciprocities are many, and there is no need to look for a single, all-embracing form. This is where the “museum of the street” project becomes so intriguing. The initial idea was apparently to go into a decaying quarter of Bogotá and document its existence, before the speculators’ bulldozers arrived to start the process of “revalorizing” the potentially expensive urban ground. But how to get in contact with the people, justifiably suspicious of anyone setting foot in their neighborhood? The best answer that the “Cambalache” collective found was to load up an old rag-picker’s cart with whatever odds and ends they could find lying around, and then go out for a little bartering. Sure enough, soon the cart was filled with other things, tokens of broken-down use values from far-off corners of everyday life. Rather than preserving them as pathetic relics, the collective proposes to trade them again, in other similarly decaying quarters of Bogotá or of each new city where the piece is shown. So that instead of an objective fact we have a living allegory of face-to-face exchange. It is a real and symbolic proposal which asks a question in its own way: how to enlarge civil society, not extensively but emotionally, qualitatively? How to carry the critique of abstract exchange across the intangible boundaries of class and culture? How to embody the doubt that art paints on the monetary sign, and make it an active, affective force in the world as it exists, with all its borders, its quarters, its crossings? A text borrowed from Hakim Bey puts the question differently: “Is it possible to create a SECRET THEATER in which both artist & audience have completely disappeared—only to re-appear on another plane, where life & art have become the same thing, the pure giving of gifts?”28
The centerless, costless distribution of informational products, the fictional aspect of credit money, the glaring inequalities of capitalist globalization, the sense of promise and danger unleashed by technological change: all these realities have offered artists a fresh chance to intervene directly on the measures of value, and to confront them with their opposites or others. The interventions can be subtle, relational, symbolic, secret; but they can also be spectacular, with ambitions on the scale of the forces at play. Here is where avant-garde artists might learn something from urban mythology: after writing a book on how to make a number one single (The Manual), then successfully applying the recipe, the British pop group KLF—Kopyright Liberation Front—invested the proceeds of their success in the most satirical action known to capitalist man, the 1994 documentary Watch the K Foundation Burn A Million Quid.29 £1,000,000 worth of ashes in exchange for a few reels of commercially worthless film: the absurd fiction of pop-star wealth in a decaying, top-heavy society became the pretext for screenings all over Britain, to meet the motley public face to face again. And in the debates that followed the projection, the burning question was for the others, not for them: “ALL THEY ASK OF YOU IS TO TELL THEM WHY” read one of the posters for the film….
1 Jacques Lacan, from the conclusion to ”Séminaire sur ‘La lettre volée,’” Écrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966).
2 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ”Le doute de Cézanne,” Sens et non-sens (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).
3 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon, 1957/1944), p. 50; cf. also the last chapter, “Freedom in a Complex Society.”
4 Marcel Broodthaers, “Meusissen ou n’importe qui,” in: MTL Magazine, November 1970, quoted in Jean-Christophe Royoux, “Projet pour un texte: The Cinematographic Model in the Work of Marcel Broodthaers,” in: Marcel Broodthaers: Cinéma, exhib. cat., Fundació Antoní Tàpies, Barcelona, April 17-June 29, 1997, p. 304.
5 Marcel Broodthaers, excerpt from an interview with Freddy De Vree, Düsseldorf, 1971, in: Marcel Broodthaers: Cinéma, op. cit., p. 127.
6 Marcel Broodthaers, “Dix mille francs de récompense” (reworked interview with Irmeline Lebeer), in: Marcel Broodthaers, exhib. cat., Jeu de Paume, Paris, Dec. 17, 1991-March 1, 1992, p. 250.
7For a reading of Broodthaers’ spatialized poetics, see J.-C. Royoux, op. cit. note 4 above.
8 Cf. the discussion of Marx’s value theory in David Harvey, Limits to Capital (London: Verso, 1999/1982), chap. 1.
9 Marcel Broodthaers, interview with Jürgen Harman and Katharina Schmidt in: Marcel Broodthaers, op. cit., p. 222; the following references to “Section financière” are from pp. 212-13.
10 Arguments of this sort could be applied to one of Broodthaers’ earlier and less elaborate gestures, the 100 Belgian franc note marked on one side, “Bon pour 1000 francs / M. Broodthaers,” and on the other, “MARCEL BROODTHAERS / Bon pour 100 moules”; see Marcel Broodthaers, op. cit., pp. 28-29.
11This was the situation faced by the members of the Frankfurt School, after the emergence of the various forms of state capitalism in the 1930s; hence the resemblance between Broodthaers’ practice and the aesthetic theory of Adorno. For early articulations of the problem, see Friedrich Pollock, “State Capitalism” (1941) and Max Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” (1940), in: The Frankfurt School Reader, eds. A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (New York: Continuum, 1988).
12 For a reading of the critical force of dispersal in Broodthaers, and of the relation between art and politics in his work in general, see the concluding pages of Jean-François Chevrier, The Year 1967 (Barcelona: Fundació Tàpies, 1997).
13 Marcel Broodthaers, “Etre bien pensant ou ne pas être. Etre aveugle,” in the catalogue of the exhibition “Le privilège de l’art,” Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, April 26-June 1, 1975. French text in: Marcel Broodthaers, op. cit., p. 268.
14 Klein’s gesture of throwing gold into the Seine after the sale of a zone of sensibility is better understood as a rivalry with the monetary value system than a refusal of it. He conceived pictorial abstraction as the painter’s power of “radiance” into space: thus he believed himself capable of “specializing” all of France, turning the entire nation into one vast blue monochrome. Also see his 1958 letter to an international atomic energy committee proposing to color atomic explosions with IKB monochrome pigment. Quotes and references in Sidra Stich, Yves Klein (Ostfildern: Cantz, 1994), pp. 145-48.
15 15. Öyvind Fahlström, “Games—from ‘Sausages and Tweezers—A Running Commentary,’” in: Öyvind Fahlström, exhib. cat., Valencia, IVAM, June 10-August 23, 1992, p. 143. The following quotes are from “Take Care of the World,” p. 143, and “Monopoly Games,” p. 145.
16 On the crisis of Fordism, see Michel Aglietta, Régulation et crises du capitalisme (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1997/1976); cf. the more accessible but no less interesting account in David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 141-88.
17 Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991/original article 1984), p. 44.
18 For credit money, see Robert Guttmann, “Les mutations du capital financier,” in: La mondialisation financière, ed. François Chesnais (Paris: Syros, 1996). For an introduction to derivatives, cf. Doug Henwood, Wall Street (London: Verso, 1997), pp. 28-41. At the close of his chapter on “Instruments,” Henwood quotes the economist Joseph Schumpeter: “It is one of the most characteristic features of the financial side of capitalist evolution so to ‘mobilize’ all, even the longest, maturities as to make any committment to a promise of future balances amenable to being in turn financed by any sort of funds and especially by funds available for a short time, even overnight, only. This is not mere technique. This is part of the core of the capitalist process.”
19 Richard Barbrook, “Cybercommunism,” 1999, at http://tao.ca/fire/nettime/0140.html. Barbrook’s references to the gift-economy are usefully complemented by Saul Albert, “Open Source Tactics for Collective Art Practices,” 1999, at http://www.nettime.org/nettime.w3archive/199903/msg00137.html.
20 See “GNU General Public License,” Free Software Foundation, at wwwipd.ira.uka.de/~ToolMan/jcvs/License.html.
21 All my references tto the Luther Blisset Project have been culled from “The Ultimate Luther Blissett Website,” http://www.syntac.net/lutherblissett/index.html; the final quotes are translated from the book, Mind Invaders: Come fottere i media. Manuale di guerriglia e sabotaggio culturale (Rome: Castelvecchi, 1995).
22See the Reclaim the Streets archive at http://www.gn.apc.org/rts/archive.htm.
23For a theoretical text on political activism in the wake of Zapatista practice, see Harry Cleaver, “Computer-linked Social Movements and the Global Threat to Capitalism,” at http://www.eco.utexas.edu:80/Homepages/Faculty/Cleaver/hmchtmlpapers.html.
24Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. M. Nicolaus (London: Penguin, 1973/1857-58), pp. 705-6 for this and the following quote.
25André Gorz, Misères du présent, richesses du possible (Paris: Galilée, 1997), p. 72; Gorz critiques the optimism of the group around Toni Negri, who theorize the emancipatory potential of what they call “mass intellectuality,” in reference to Marx’s notion of general intellect.
26“Banques de questions,” checkbook by François Deck, 1995.
27To grasp these ambiguities and potential manipulations, one has only to think of the great defender of “open society” in the former Eastern bloc, George Soros, the speculative financier who reaped enormous profits from the international stock-market meltdown of 1997-98, even while pleading for a regulation of the world economy in his book The Crisis of Global Capitalism (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1998). Cf. my own essay on “Transnational Civil Society,” in ReadMe, Filtered by nettime (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1999).
28 See the Cambalache website at http://www.geocities.com/Soho/Exhibit/7490/secret.html and Hakim Bey, T.A.Z. (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, “anticopyright” 1991), p. 40.
29 The true web-crawler goes straight to: http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Alley/2399/KLFfaq.html#toc to find all the trenchant tales of the million quid, along with the maybe-true story of KLF’s first artwork, Nailed to a Board, as well as savory details on the infamous “Worst Artist of the Year” prize, awarded to Turner Prize-winner Rachel Whiteread in 1993…